|Rob Ennals > Travel > Around Peru in Seven Days|
Day 4 - Living in a Bouncy Castle
Our sleep predictions turned out to be correct. I had got no sleep at all, and Simon had had just enough sleep to get forcibly woken from it, but not quite enough to feel any less tired. The fact that it was 4am and freezing cold wasn't helping much either.
As we stumbled into Puno bus station we were greeted by a friendly local tour operator who offered to arrange for us to go on a tour of the Uros - the crazy floating islands that we were in Puno to see. At first we were apprehensive (our guide books were filled with stories of con men in bus stations), but after a while we concluded that we were unlikely to get anyone else to sell us a tour at 4am, and, even if we were ripped off, the prices was so low that we really didn't care. Having collected our money, the tour agent handed us a worryingly non-official-looking piece of paper as our ticket, and then promised to come back at 6:30am to pick us up.
Two and a half hours later, re-enegized by a healthy dose of coca tea, we were relieved to see our tour operator reappear. After a brief wait in the Plaza des Armas, while the operator sorted out some details, we were bundled into a minibus to be taken to our boat, and then onto the Uros.
The Uros islands were every bit as crazy as we had been led to believe. The people there live on floating islands made entirely of reeds. The Uros people also used reeds as the building material for their houses and their boats, as well as using them as fuel and food. The use of reeds for fuel seemed particularly worrying as there seemed to be only the thinnest of stone separators between the reeds that should burn and the reeds that should not burn.
Our boat moored at one of the Uros docks (next to a far prettier Uros boat - made of reeds of course), permitting us to disembark onto one of the islands. Walking on the island was rather like walking on a bouncy castle. The island pushed down significantly as one walked on it and seemed to gently wobble. For those who wanted a true wobbling experience, one could climb one of the many lookout towers (it wasn't clear what they were looking out for), thus adding the wobbliness of loosely assembled tall thing to the already considerably wobbliness present in the islands.
Living on a floating island allows one to move one's house around according to the current political climate. The guide told us that the island we were standing on had originally been part of the same island as one of the other islands in the archipelago, but the two groups of families had fallen out and cut their island in half.
The island we were visiting was fortunate enough to contain a school. This school was run by the seventh-day adventists, who have been rapidly converting the local population. It seemed strangely appropriate that such a kooky place should have so willfully adopted a fairly kooky religion. The children told us that they studied for an hour a day, and a brief look inside their classroom suggested that much of that was probably religious.
The Uros people originally chose to live on floating islands in order to escape from the Incas, who controlled the mainland at the time. Now it seemed that a key reason for island life was tourism. Although most of the islands were off-limits to tourists, those which were open had a ready supply of tourist stalls, in addition to a restaurant, and even a hotel (made of reeds of course). I went to the restaurant and ordered something that claimed to be a hamburger, but was actually a piece of bad-peru-cheese on a slide of bad-peru-bread.
Seeing these people turned into a tourist attraction like this felt rather twisted. I remarked to Simon that it felt rather like going to a zoo. One wanders round, looks at all the funny animals/people, living in some approximation of their natural habitat, and then goes home to live back in one's normal life. Just like when visiting a zoo, we could feel ourselves wanting to see the people living a life that was as weird as possible, rather than as comfortable as possible, and we wondered whether the people felt such a pressure themselves.
While the Uros people live a life that is largely unchanged over hundreds of years, there are some elements of modern life that they have adopted. While their boats used to be made entirely of reeds, they now have a core made of plastic bottles, giving improved buoyancy. The Uros people have also begun to use Nylon, in place of reed rope, for typing reeds into place. The result of these changes is of course that the Uros boats and buildings are no longer biodegradable. I was a little torn over this. In one sense it was nice to see these people inching towards the modern world, but in another sense it was a shame to see them losing their primitive purity, which was, after all, a large part of their tourist appeal.
As with much of Peru, the Uros people look deceptively old. At one point, our guide introduced us to a couple in their early twenties, and if I had not been told their ages I would have assumed they were in their fourties or fifties. This explained a strange anomaly that we had previously remarked on - that there seemed to be no young adults in Peru, only young children and the middle-aged. The sad answer was that many of those we had labeled as middle-aged were in fact the young adults that we had thought were abscent.
Next up was the island of Taquille. Unlike the Uros, Taquille was a real, rather than a floating, island. It was also much further away from Puno. While the Uros were in a shallow, protected, cove, close to Puno, Taquille was a good two hours journey away by boat.
This journey gave us an opportunity to get a proper look at Lake Titikaka. Lake Titikakak is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, at 3,812m (12,507 ft). Being so high up, and being exposed to wind, it gets quite cold - something I hadn't properly appreciated when packing for Peru. As a result, I found myself wearing nearly all the clothes I had brought for peru, and still feeling a little chilly.
Life in Taquille seemed to largely revolve around knitting - at least for the men. In Taquille, knitting is strictly for men, and women are instead tasked with weaving - using perhaps the most inefficient weaving technique I have ever witnessed. While some of this knitting was to make clothes for themselves, much of it was produced for export, with a number of stalls trying to sell clothes to tourists.
As with elsewhere in Peru, while some of the clothes being sold we pretty, the value of most of them seemed to lie primarily in their "alien culture" connections. The clothes were not particularly well made, or particularly stylish, but, by wearing them, you would have a hook to allow you to start a story about your awesome holiday in Peru, and how you got to know all the interesting indigenous people. It felt rather like being at a baseball game, and buying a t-shirt supporting the team. The clothes weren't so much being sold as clothes, so much as as tokens of association with the location. The people weren't really trading with us as equals, so much as giving away cheapened parts of their identity, as part of the zoo exhibit that they were part of. We didn't buy any clothes there.
The second reason why we didn't buy any clothes on Taquille was because it become apparent that the local clothing contains a number of important social signals. In particular, the colour of a man's hat indicates whether the wearer is married. If the hat is white then the man is single, otherwise he is married. If the man is divorced, then he wears two hats, with his old, married, had attached to his waist. We wondered if the locals might have sneaked some secret messages into the clothes they were selling and were secretly laughing at tourists for wearing them.
We had a couple of spare hours before our bus would leave for Arequipa, and so we decided to use these exploring Puno. One of our first missions was to catch a ride in a Tuk-Tuk, the three-wheeled motorcycle-based taxis that are ever-present in Puno. The Tuk-Tuk we hailed didn't appear to be particularly well. It's tiny motor had to strain to its limit in order to haul our heavy Gringo bodies up the steep streets and the motor made a noise that sounded like it was going to explode all over the road. It did however get us to our destination, and for a price that was considerably cheaper than a taxi.
For reasons we never fully understood, many of the Tuk-Tuks were augmented with Batman logos. Many others were augmented with pictures of Jesus Christ. Some even had both - which we liked to refer to as "Batman Christ". The locals definitely seemed to be very enthusiastic about the religion that had been forced upon them, particularly in the way they decorated their vehicles.
As we wandered round Puno, I was struck by something that I had been gradually noticing throughout our trip: All the pictures of people used in advertising were of white people. A large proportion of adverts contained images of women wearing few clothes, and, almost without exception, these women were white, and usually blonde. Similarly, but to a lesser extent, images of men seemed to be generally white. Having noticed this pattern, I went out of my way to look for pictures of people who might actually be peruvian, and was fascinated to find that, as far as I could tell, there weren't any. I wondered if this was another feature of the feeling of ethnic inferiority that I had observed earlier in the trip - that these people thought so little of themselves that they preferred to look at pictures of people of other races.
Eventually the time came for our bus to Arequipa. Once again, we had been promised "imperial class" with large leather fully-reclining seats. Once again we had been shown photos with an opulent cabin and airline-style first class seats. Once again, our hopes were shattered.
This time, our bus journey was even worse than the previous one. The legroom seemed to somehow be even more restrictive than the previous coach, the seats seemed to go back even less, and, to cap it all, they insisted on playing loud, spanish, disney movies throughout the journey, with sound that kept cutting in and out in a way that seemed to have been carefully designed to prevent sleep. I tried arguing with the stewardess about the noise, pointing out that this had been advertised as a sleeper bus, and that most of the passengers were trying to sleep. At one point I even forcibly turned the AV system off. However the annoying lady was adamant that the movies had to be kept on, and was supported by a group of self-righteous passengers who insisted on their right to watch loud movies at one in the morning.