Christmas week was a whirlwind as we played host to my 15 year old cousin Dustin. Dustin was an incredible traveler, acclimating to our lifestyle and senses of humor seamlessly. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a 15 year old who could be so open-minded and easy going in such a foreign envirornment. He came to Peru wide eyed and willing to absorb everything he could. It was so much fun to share our passion for Latin American culture and language with him and for him to share such a fresh and idealistic view of the world with us.
On Christmas day we left Cusco, visiting ruins on our way to Machu Picchu. Dustin discovered his love for Inka Cola, Peruvian bubble gum flavored neon yellow soda- a local favorite. We hiked the ruins of Ollantaytambo and wandered the narrow cobblestone streets of the town. We took an extremely expensive and touristy train to the town at the base of Machu Picchu where we were a novelty to the locals simply because we were Gringos that actually spoke Spanish.
For the best view of Machu Picchu, many tourists hike to the ruins at dawn in order to be in the first 400 visitors, the maximum allowed daily to summit Wayna Picchu mountain. When our alarm went off at 5 am, however, the rain pounding on the roof was all the motivation we needed to push the sleep button. Ironically, when we arrived at the ruins at 7:45 am, we were only the 65th visitors to sign in at the Wayna Picchu gate (It’s definitely low season around here). We were sure that Pacha Mama (the Quechua word for Mother Earth) was on our side when the clouds enveloping us cleared just as we summited Wayna Picchu. We spent about 4 hours exploring the ruins and managed to catch a bus back to town just as the heat of the day started to crowd Machu Picchu with tour groups.
After the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu we took a horribly long bus ride all the way down to Lake Titicaca and the beautiful (read sarcastically) town of Puno. Our main purpose of traveling all the way to Puno was to spend the night on one of the traditional islands in the lake with a host family. Armed with a bag of gifts for the family (school supplies Dustin brought with him plus a kilo of sugar) we boarded a boat with about 20 other tourists for a two-day, one-night lake tour.
First stop: Uros, the cluster of 50 or so handmade floating islands. Uros is often judged by backpackers as over-the-top touristy and slightly exploitive of the people, but it was part of our tour. Besides, Cameron and I made a conscious effort to set aside some of our judgement of “tourists” (the ones with $2,000 cameras hanging around their necks nearly yelling English words at the waiter in an attempt to make him understand as opposed to taking the time to learning a few Spanish phrases) this week. With Dustin visiting, we realized we needed to face the part of ourselves that really is touring and embrace it for what it is. So, camera in hand, we followed the others onto the reed islands, stepping lightly so as not to leave holes with our hiking boots.
The story of the islands is as follows: Fleeing the conquering Incas, Aymara speaking people escaped on boats made of totora, the reed that grows in the lake. After living on the boats for a while, they began to expand their boats until eventually they had built entire islands out of totora. The first layer is the floating dirt/roots of the totora, about a foot or two thick. By tying blocks of the roots together, they create a base, upon which they layer piles of cut reeds until they have an entire floating island (anchored of course, so they don’t ‘wake up in Bolivia” as they say) on which they built reed houses. The entire thing has to be rebuilt every year or so since the building material is organic. The people traditionally survived by trading fish on the mainland. Now they run a very succesful tourist buisiness, which is backed up by fish farming. Apparently the babies learn to swim before they walk, just in case they fall off the edge of the island. The community is complete with a school and a hospital, and the islands have a rotating system for who receives the tourist boats, each taking turns at bringing us into their houses, dressing us up in traditional clothes, and selling us their weaving. Yes it was touristy, but it was also incredible to see en entire life built on a floating pile of plants.
After Uros we continued out boat trip until we reached Amantani (a regular, non floating island), where we would meet our “host family” and stay the night. Before arriving at Amantani, our guide who spoke English, French, Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara, made sure we all wrote down key phrases in Quechua so we could communicate with our Quechua speaking host family. Our favorites were Yuspayki– Thankyou, Ayigancho– Hey, how’s it going?, and Muna Quiki– how cute/beautiful or I love you, depending on the context. (Kamisaraki is the Aymara word for Hello). Turned out our wonderful host family, and most of the island inhabitants actually spoke Spanish perfectly, but it was fun to learn new words. Rosa was our beautiful and sweet 29 year old host mother. We had a beautiful finished bedroom, much more luxurious to the one room that Rosa, her husband, and their two children shared. The house surrounded a beautiful garden courtyard, complete with an outhouse and buckets of rain water used for washing and drinking. The island doesn’t have any electricity, but a handful of the families have been able to buy solar panels so we were lucky enough to have light at night although we used flashlights for bathroom trips, etc. Once night fell I couldn’t believe how dark it was…one of the darkest places I have ever been.
We took our meals in the kitchen where Rosa cooked over a fire in the corner with 6 month old Roy tied to her back until I insisted that she let me hold him. All smiles and fat rolls, Roy was one of the happiest babies I’ve ever seen. But the one
who won our hearts within minutes was Lucy, Rosa’s 6 year old daughter. Only slighly shy with the boys, Lucy was an incredibly charming and bright 6 year old. The kids all learn Spanish as soon as they start preschool at 4 years old and Lucy’s was perfect. She proudly showed me that she knew all her colors, shapes, and numbers. She was facinated by my nose ring and earrings, and loved to play tricks on everyone. After kids reach the age of 5, they,
just like their mothers, must always wear traditional clothing when leaving the house, even if it’s just a 15 minute trip down the road. The colors embroidered on the blouse and head-covering shawl are specific to the family and tells the community the age, family line, and marital status of the wearer. All the women’s clothing is embroidered by the men, and vice versa. Rosa cooked us delicious meals of potato, quinoa, vegetables, and the most delicious part of all- a local favorite of fried cheese. The meal always ended with a cup of tea. We could either add dried coca leaves or my new favorite- muña, a minty herb that grows on the island and is good for headaches and respiratory problems.
Of course I couldn’t help but ask Rosa about birthing practices on the island. Most women deliver at home with a midwife, although there is a hospital on the other side of the island. We learned from our tour guide that it’s obligatory that every couple live together for 3 full years before they get married. The people of Amantani don’t really believe in divorce, so not only is a 3 year trial needed, but the couple must also have the approval of the community thay indeed they are a good match. Rosa was born and raised in the community where we stayed, although her 2 sisters have moved to other island communities. The fact that she is 29 years old and has only a 6 year old and 6 month old sets her apart from traditional Peruvian child bearing custom, although whether that is specific to her or is an island thing I’m not sure.
After our island adventure, we took an overnight bus back to Cusco where we sent Dustin home to Colorado and napped all day in preparation for New Years. Turns out New Years in Cusco is a day you put your life in the hands of the general public. Rather than have a central fireworks display, it’s up to each individual to buy their own fireworks. When midnight hits, the entire city explodes with bottle rockets, often from the hands of 8 year old boys. We safely watched from our hotel window as sparks came from every direction and the city was slowly enveloped in a cloud of smoke. Today we ran into some friends from a past hostel and he showed us the spot on his neck where we was scorched by stray sparks caught in his shirt coller. I was glad to have stayed a bit removed from the downtown plaza.
Having Dustin visit with stories and treats from home combined with the holidays and our half way point (6 months left!!!) has both of us a bit homesick these last few days. We lucked out with the nicest hotel we’ve had yet. Matching comforters, an actual bedframe, a private bathroom, and best of all, a TV. I know, it sounds silly, but we’ve ended up welcoming the new year with a lot of cuddling in front of the TV watching movies in English and Top Chef. Something comforting about just lazing around and zoning out before we dive head first back in to our trip and cross the border to Bolivia.
I hope you all had a wonderful love-filled New Years. And I also want to thank everybody who reads this- it’s such a wonderful link to home to know that you guys are there. All my love on 1/1/11, Corinna.