Monday, June 19, 2017

Home, Home on the Water

I love being in or on the water, so Lake Titicaca was a nice place to visit. It is the world's highest navigable lake. The lake sits at 12,630 feet in what is known as the Altiplano, the highland region. The only such region in the world that is higher is in Tibet, at some 13,000 feet. Legend holds that the sun god had two children who emerged from the waters of the lake to found Cusco and begin the Inca dynasty. Inca remains have been found at the lake, so perhaps the legend is correct. If you turn the map of the lake upside down, it is supposed to resemble a puma. I'm still waiting to be convinced.

The lake is both fresh and salty. The water tastes fresh, but testing reveals a small percentage of salt. Climate change endangers the lake. Peru has lost 30 percent of its snow cap in the last 50 years, making Lima the second dryest city in the world. If nothing changes, Lake Titicaca will cease to exist in 5,000 years. A river from the lake into neighboring Bolivia dried up six months ago. Although 28 species of fish once lived in the lake, only six remain. The lake's size helps regulate the temperature of the region. The temperature does drop below freezing overnight, but it has only snowed twice in Puno. Hail is common, but not snow.

The lake sits 52 percent in Peru and 48 percent in Bolivia. Its depth is not definitively known. Jacques Cousteau visited the Bolivian side of the lake and used sonar to register a depth of 902 feet. Given the size of the lake, though, it is quite possible there are spots that are deeper. Swimming is permitted in the lake if you can stand the average water temperature of 48 degrees F. And while swimming is permitted, pleasure boating is not. Kayaking is permitted in defined spots. Other than that, tourism boats and boats used by locals are the only craft allowed on the lake.
Our first stop was the Islas de los Uros, floating islands named after the natives who live there. These people have DNA related to the Mongols suggesting their ancestors might have crossed the Bering Strait and moved south. On a more recent note, they are descendants of slaves who worked in the mines. Slavery did not exist until the arrival of the Spanish and the Catholic church. African slaves brought to work there only lasted about three days before dying. Local slaves lasted about ten days. Some of these slaves built reed boats and escaped onto the lake, later building reed islands on which to live.
The reeds used to construct an island are cut in blocks from the bottom of the lake and average anywhere from three to 10 feet in thickness. Sticks are put in each corner and then roped into a platform into which more reeds can be woven. The weight put on each platform helps to stabilize it. 
It takes 15 months to one year to make one island, and islands last an average of 35 years. The inhabitants must take care of the platform. Dry reeds must be added to the top of the platform regularly. Some of the islands are anchored to the lake bottom. Should an island start to sink, there is no way to save it. Thus, when it starts to look as if an island might be dying, the men on that island start constructing a new one.

Life on a floating island is not without some comforts. The solar panels shown below were provided

by the government and some NGOs and provide electricity to the homes.

Power is not used for cooking. That is done over an open fire outside. You would be correct to think that an open fire on an island made of dried plant matter doesn't sound very safe. It's not, which is why there are always two people cooking.

As you might imagine, life on a floating island is not easy. While there are elementary schools on some islands, high school students must commute to the mainland or live in Puno and go home on weekends. Only 18 percent of high school students return to the islands to live; in four or five generations, the islands may be gone. Most women give birth on the island; there is a 5 percent maternal mortality rate in childbirth. The mortality rate for infants in 19 percent. Children often die falling off an island. Despite living on the water, most islanders do not know how to swim.

Every island has a social leader called a president. Presidents are elected annually, and organize the families to maintain the island. Islands vary in terms of the number of inhabitants. The island we visited was on the small side--15 people in three families.

When tourism boats first came to the islands in the 1960s and 70s, the islanders were not at all pleased. That has changed now that 60 percent of the local economy comes from tourism. The other 40 percent is from hunting, fishing, and trading. The principal craft is embroidery.
Tourists can also take a boat ride, though only three people in our group of 19 did so. The one that was not the husband or me came because we touted it as an adventure.
We rode on the boat's upper deck, giving a nice view of the small islands, many of which had a tourist boat visiting. I did not ask whether the arch served any purpose; I wish now that I had.
Propelled by men with paddles, the boat went at a nice, relaxed pace.

We also visited one of the elementary schools for the floating islands. The school platform was actually floating on pontoons rather than reed blocks. The kindergarten classroom we visited was not all that different from classrooms I've seen in the States. The subjects highlighted could be found in kindergarten classrooms almost anywhere. A book center.
An "I think and make" center.
There were others for music, science and the environment, days of the week, and behavior

After visiting the school, we went to Taquile, home of some of the best knitters in the world. Our guide Manuel said that they could knit 192 stitches per centimeter, something I really don't believe. That aside, the knitters on Taquile are all men.
The women are all weavers.
Both the knitting and weaving are quite intricate. Here is some of the detail of the knitted hat I purchased at the market.
As can be seen in the photo above, the men use very fine, double-pointed needles for their knitting. They don't just sit or stand to knit; they keep knitting even as they walk.

Hats serve a social purpose on Taquile. The colors and patterns of a hat denote one's marital status,  position within the community, job, and origin. A hat is also central to the marriage customs of the island. A young man cannot consider marriage until he has finished a special hat to give to the father of the intended bride. The father will fill the hat with water. If the hat holds water without dripping for 10 seconds, then the young man can pursue marriage with the daughter. A couple wishing to marry must live together for two years, during which time the young woman must knit two belts for the young man. The couple usually resides with the young man's family. At the end of the two years, if they wish, they can marry in the month of May, when a Catholic priest visits the island. (If the young woman becomes pregnant during the two years, then the couple must marry.)

Taquile's president is elected annually. Someone who is nominated is not permitted to decline the nomination. The election is held in November. There are 24 men serving on a council. To serve, a man must have two children; parents are viewed as slightly more invested in the  state of the island. Re-election is not allowed on the grounds that it might invite corruption.

So much for our very busy day on the lake. That night, we had a farewell dinner. The next day, we would fly back to Lima. Thirteen people would head home, while six of us would extend our tour with a trip to the Amazonian rainforest.

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