On February 11, we followed Walther’s advice and booked a tour of the local Uros islands . For 200 soles we were promised a visit to islands that are not touristy and lechon for lunch. Within minutes of payment we were bumping around in a taxi listening to Journey en route to the llachon peninsula. Our guide was a fisherman with a huge smile, 4 sons and a boat with a motor but no life jackets. He told us how the Canadian trout introduced into the lake had done well but were eating the smaller local fish.
It took about 45 minutes to get to the shallow part of the lake where the reeds grow and the islands are located.
The island was about 2o meters long and 30 meters wide. As we arrived a tour boat with Chinese tourists was wrapping up and boarding their tour boat. So much for being less touristy.
The surface was made of reeds in various stages of decay. It was spongy and the whole island rocked slightly like a floating dock. A young man told us the story of the islands and gave us a demonstration with reeds, live fish and miniature huts. From what I understood, since time immemorial the Uru people built boats with reeds and fished lake Titicaca. When the Spanish came, the Uru hid in their boats in the reeds to avoid being forced to work in the mines. They later built islands by lashing blocks of the spongy root/soil mixture together and then covering it with reeds. As the reeds rot or dry out they lay new ones on top at right angles.
There were three huts on the island, a mother with a kid and a solar panel. The villagers seemed to enjoy having their pictures taken and I had 4 bars of reception on my cell. We saw a fisherman with a net. There was no laundry hanging, no garbage, no food. I asked our guide why he continues to live on the island and he said so that he can show his friends how they live- Eliot asked did he means tourists and he said yes. Our suspicions were later confirmed by a guide in Arequipa who told us that the islands on the Peruvian side were maintained for tourists.
I felt like I had been fooled into seeing a tourist trap. But the Peruvians did not lie to us, they just omitted to tell us that we were visiting a “demonstration island” rather than a real community. I realized that we had visited a Peruvian version of Upper Canada Village. A “pioneer” town in which local kids dress up in 19th century garb, churn butter, spin wool and sell ye olde fudge. However, these people were showing us a part of their history that was very recent and very real.
There are “tourists” and “travellers”. Tourists are happy to see what they are shown even if it sometimes put on. Travellers see themselves as explorers. They wear local clothing and bad experiences as badges of their fearless quest for the authentic. Travellers want to see how locals really live- the more exotic the better in the search for authenticity. They do not want to see people with cell phones electricity and other modern amenities.
The authentic is what is here and now. For the Uros people authentic means earning their livelihood by building and maintaining an island that tells their story. They do not want to continue living on small stinky islands any more than I want to live in a log cabin. Although Eliot and I fancy ourselves as “travellers” we are actually tourists with strong stomachs and a lot of curiosity. As tourists it was enough for us to to walk on a floating island and hear the story of how this people came to live that way.
On the way back our fisherman gave a “lift” to his sons and his brother in law by passing a rope to their boats. I think that having a motor on his boat made him unique. We then went to a small net enclosure to catch some trout which were then fried up for our lunch by his wife. Eliot and I each got a whole trout and the third trout was divided up amongst the guide and his family.