The Uros and the Uru-Sceptics

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The island was made from layers of totora reeds and looked like a giant hay bale. It was one of forty-four floating islands between the reed beds on Lake Titicaca. As I stepped ashore, it sank underfoot, forcing up a puddle of water. It flexed and wobbled like a plywood sheet laid over uneven ground. Yet a few families called it home.

The Uru people have lived life their own way for hundreds of years. They fled to the lake and built the floating islands when the Aymara arrived in Southern Peru; they anchored the islands to the bed of the lake and stood ready, if attacked, to weigh anchor and row them to safety.

The islands rotted from the bottom up but the Uros maintained them by adding more layers of reeds. They used the same reeds to build huts and watchtowers and the white lower part as a foodstuff: they say that it works as a painkiller and hangover cure and inures them to the cold. They fished with tethered cormorants, kept ibis for eggs and hunted birds with flintlock rifles.

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They took bundles of totora reeds to the mainland to barter and sell and, by now, you will have guessed what they made their boats from.

There are solar panels, nowadays, on some of the huts; the Uros have TVs and smartphones, and their own radio station. They have motorboats to get to the mainland, although they still build rowing boats from totora reeds – I was rowed round the islands in one. They earn money, now, by selling textiles and handicrafts to the tourists who visit the islands.

Otherwise, though, their lives seem largely unchanged in the half a millennium or so within which the Aymara where subjugated by the Incas, the Incas crushed by the Spanish, the Spanish driven out by Bolivarian rebels and independent Peru fought wars, in turn, with Colombia, Spain, Chile, Colombia again and Ecuador and went through military juntas, Maoist insurgencies and strong-armed economic reforms.

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Sceptics maintain that it is all a façade. They accuse the Uros of embellishing their history – if not making it up – to entertain the tourists. But wherever there are people living an alternative lifestyle, there are mainstream figures doing their best to discredit them. Society dislikes difference.

With no written records until the Spanish arrived, neither the Uros nor the Uru-sceptics can prove their case; but researchers have at least established that the Uros are genetically different from other indigenous groups.

Their lifestyle, though, has been under threat since the 1980’s, when the government restricted hunting and fishing on Lake Titicaca and started confiscating their eggs and birds. Then climate change caused the surface of the lake to rise dramatically and inundate the islands, and brought droughts which ravaged the tortora reeds.

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The Uros rebuilt their islands closer to the shore of the lake and many drifted off to live a regular life on the mainland; others have followed since. The sceptics – who obviously have too little going on in their own lives – claim that no one really lives on the floating islands anymore and that the Uros return to homes in Puno after the last tourist boat leaves.

It seems unlikely to me that they pack up their children, their birds and their cats every night and leave their televisions, solar panels and radio equipment unattended. But, whether fixed or transitory, the population of the islands has undoubtedly fallen and each generation seems a little less interested than the last in maintaining the traditional lifestyle. Tourism is now a major part of the lives of the Uros who remain on the islands, and may soon be their only reason for staying.

© Richard Senior 2016

A Bus to Puno

The bus station was teeming with Quechua families with suitcases-worth of belongings in rainbow papooses which they squeezed through the doors of the buses. There were a few gringo backpackers, too, with the look of the road about them. Touts shouted destinations, barely pausing to breathe. “Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Aquipa-Aquipa-Aquip-Aquip….” But no one was buying tickets to Arequipa.

I wanted to go to Puno and knew from the guidebook that it would be a full day’s drive.

Will it be a coach?” I asked.

“…Almost,” the guy said.

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I imagined a scrapper with four bald tyres and seats like park benches and filthy windows taped shut; and it was easy to picture, because most of the buses in Lima had been like that. I expected to arrive in the sort of discomfort you feel when you commute on British trains.

It was not so bad, though. The bus cannot have been more than thirty years old – not much more, at any rate – and although it pumped out black smoke and wallowed over bumps, it looked capable of getting to Puno. The buses in Lima never looked as if they would make the next traffic lights.

The single track road stretched for hours ahead on its serpentine way through an endless landscape of plains reaching out to distant mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains, chaperoned by a river and flocks of sheep and herds of llamas which grazed beside and blundered right onto the road, forcing the driver to stop. Sometimes, in the middle of miles of nothing, there was an adobe hut with a collapsing thatched roof which looked like a relic from decades ago, but nearby there was a Quechua herdsman who could surely have lived nowhere else. There were the ruins of an ancient stone village, with a new adobe village abutting it; there were charming little towns, a long way from the Gringo Trail; and then there was Juliaca.

All the gringos stared out the window as we passed through, much as they might at a car smash. It is the scariest city I have ever seen, despite growing up in West Yorkshire. The roads were just mud and boating lake puddles in the bit that I saw: no surface, no pavements at all. Dangerous-looking young men lounged in doorways, scowling from under hoods. My guidebook warned that daytime muggings were common enough, and at night were too frequent to mention.

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But Puno is better, in parts. It has a nice Baroque cathedral, photogenic decay and indigenous markets selling colourful fabrics and sandals made from car tyres. It is worth a day of your time.

I arrived, by chance, the day before the festival of La Virgen de la Candelaria and the party erupted all over town next morning. There were street food vendors on every corner and I bought an anticucho (marinated beef heart skewer) outside my hotel and tried to eat it while I threaded my way through the crowds. Scuse me! Scuse… err… ¡Permesso! There were brass bands and flautists and men with big drums they call wankaras. Aymara dancers trooped down the street whirling batons. I wanted to cross but there was never a gap, so I joined the parade and slipped out further down the road. Wankara, someone said.

A very drunk man leaned against a wall in a lane, with his head lolling a few centimetres from speeding mototaxis. Another happily pissed in the middle of the road and people pretended not to notice.

It was like a Saturday night back home.

© Richard Senior 2015