Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Floating Island of Uros, Lake Titicaca

The amazing floating islands of Uros easily ignite the imagination of travelers, photographers, and anthropologists. How could they not, being built in the same traditional way for the past few hundred years by the descendants of the pre-Incan people?

The Uros islands are located on Lake Titicaca, just five kilometers away from the city of Puno, and are made of totora reeds, which grow in the lake. There are 42 islands, inhabited by several hundred people. The islands differ in size but are all located in close vicinity to each other. The larger islands house about ten families, and some shared facilities (e.g., a school, a local radio station). The smaller islands house only two or three families. Between the islands the locals travel in motorized, not reed boats–crushing the romantic image that many visitors to the islands would love to cherish.

Personally, I do not have a problem with the Uros people using modern technology. I think it is quite admirable that they put so much effort into preserving the cultural heritage of their ancestors, and choose to live on and maintain the islands. In case you do not know, the reeds rot away, and have to be replaced at least every three months, if not more often. This seems like a lot of work to me, and I could not blame anybody who would like to choose an easier lifestyle and move away to the mainland. So if the motor boats, solar panels, TV sets, radios, or gas ovens make the lives of the Uros easier, I’m happy for them. Expecting them to completely stay behind the rest of the world, just to please the tourists and anthropologists, seems very egoistic to me.

On a similar note, I have no problem with the Uros trying to make money off the visitors to the islands. In the end, the islands are their home and they can decide if and when they want to have visitors, and if and how much those visitors should pay for interfering with their lives. Would I like to be an explorer who stumbled upon the undiscovered Uros tribe and got to experience their “real” life instead of watching the show they put on for tourists? Sure, I would. Is it a realistic dream? Definitely not. So instead of complaining about “commercialization” of the Uros islands, I’m going to get the most I can out of this experience and learn as much as I can about their fascinating way of life.

For example, during the visit to the islands I learned that the totora reeds are not only the building material for the islands, but are also part of the Uros’ diet and are used to cure some medical conditions. The bottom of the reed is eaten for its iodine, the white insides are used to fight pain and hunger, as well as to reduce the fatigue and hangovers (in that way they are quite similar to coca leaves), and the flowers are used to make tea. Of course, we did not miss a chance to try the totora reed and I have to say that it was quite tasty–slightly sweet and refreshing. I would not, however, enjoy having to eat it every day.

The Uros Islands:

Santa Maria Island: