By Micaela Bullard
An ancient Inca legend has it that Andean civilization was born from a lake. Soon after the creation of the world, humanity existed in a state of savage darkness. Without religion, law, or agriculture, the earliest peoples were condemned to nakedness and hunger. But the benevolent Inti, god of the sun, took pity on mankind. He sent his son, Manco Cápac, and his daughter, Mama Ocllo, to establish a great empire. Bearing the gifts of agriculture and textile weaving, the children of the sun walked out of the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca and shone light onto the world.
Visiting the Titicaca, it is easy to understand why the Incas, as well as many Andean cultures before them, thought of the lake as a supernatural basin of creation. Cutting through the border between Peru and Bolivia on the Andean Plateau, the Titicaca covers more than 3000 square miles, and draws water from a catchment area almost seven times as large. With a surface elevation of 12, 500 feet above sea level, it holds the record for the highest navigable lake on the planet. Although the Titicaca seems massive in numbers, it is even mightier in presence. When one sails on it, the light line of the snowcapped horizon can sometimes disappear, giving one the impression of coursing through a quiet sea. On windy days, waves high enough to overturn a mid-sized boat cut through the surface. In the shallower areas, reeds grow in thickets so large that inexperienced fishermen have been known to lose their way and disappear, swallowed forever by the waters.
It is unsurprising that this womb of Inca culture, with its millenary heritage and breathtaking landscapes, attracts a growing number of visitors every year. According to the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Commerce and Tourism, 144,000 tourists visited the lake in 2014. Their presence is kindling contrasting views at one of the lake’s most magnificent attractions: the floating islands of the Uros.
Long before Mánco Capac and Mama Ocllo surged from its depths to forge the Inca civilization, Lake Titicaca had already became the home of the Uru people. Their name, bestowed upon them by the shore-dwelling populations, is an ancient Aymara word meaning “black-blooded,” in recognition of their ability to withstand the cold. The name they chose for themselves, however, was “Lupihaques,” the sons of the sun. Two millennia ago, conflict drove the Uros to abandon the waterfront of Titicaca. They then chose to dwell within the lake, in groups of floating islands that they built themselves. Their descendants, today numbering about 2000 in Peru, live on 42 islands that are perhaps one of the most outstanding examples of ancient human innovation still in existence.
The isles are built entirely out of reeds that the locals call totora. Constructing an island takes at least a year, employing a methodology that has been passed from generation to generation. The base of the island is made out of large blocks of totora roots, which are cut from massive conglomerations of dirt and organic material that float onto the surface of the lake during the dry season. The blocks are hauled to a chosen location, staked, and then tied together to form a single unit, since the gradual rotting of the roots releases gases that make the isle buoyant. Finally, several feet of cut reeds are piled on top in a crisscross pattern. Up to ten families can then build not only their homes but also watchtowers, fish-breeding ponds, decks, kitchens, and even outhouses where human waste is filtered naturally by the reed roots. As long as new layers of totora are added continuously, an island can last up to 30 years before the roots at the base rot completely, sinking slowly down into the water from which they initially rose.
A curious dichotomy has made the islands so popular as a tourist destination. They are ecological and sustainable, absolutely natural, yet completely man-made. Promoters market the floating islands as a unique way to experience life in pre-Inca times, just an hour away from the luxury hotels of Titicaca’s shores. The Uros became an ancient oddity; seemingly the idyllic survivors of the wave of globalization, and human lifestyle was reduced to the simple act of survival amongst the reeds. Yet this contrast is not always positive: it has led the children of the sun to turn their lives into an act.
Engulfed in a wave of newfound popularity, the Uros are treading the delicate line between the comforts of technology and the profitable allure of ancient tradition. Ivan Lujano, president of the island Suma Kurmi, which is Aymara for “beautiful rainbow”, balances the two every day. Like most Uros, Ivan is taller and darker than the average inhabitant of Titicaca’s waterfront. He has wide shoulders and rough hands, testaments to a lifetime of weaving tough stems of totora into vessels large enough to carry 30 people. The craft was taught to him by his grandfather, a man Ivan claims is legendary amongst the Uros for having helped to build the Kon-Tiki, the raft used by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl to cross the Pacific ocean. Ivan recalls how his grandfather’s entire childhood was spent on a floating isle. The first time he set foot on the mainland, at the age of 12, “he was nauseous and confused”, struck by a strange form of reverse seasickness. Yet in spite of Ivan’s pride, the gap between his generation and that of his grandfather continues to grow.
When asked, local tour guides will reluctantly admit that only 30 to 40 percent of the Uros continue to follow in the ways of their ancestors. Deviating from ancient customs is greatly improving the Uros’ quality of life. A government donation of solar panels in 1995 means that every island has access to electricity and even cable TV. The biggest isle contains an FM radio station that broadcasts folkloric music and public service announcements. There is also a floating primary school, though, as children must travel to the mainland to go to high school, most do not get past the fifth grade. The boat-weavers of the Uros have started lacing hundreds of plastic bottles within the interior frames of their vessels, allowing for more stable and long-lasting rafts. The introduction of electric saws to the process of island-building has considerably shortened the time and reduced the labor needed to prepare the floating surface.
Even ecological changes to the wildlife of the lake that have been largely criticized by environmentalists are benefiting the Uros. The Canadian rainbow trout and Argentinian kingfish were introduced to Lake Titicaca in the thirties because they were more economically viable than the native species. These larger, more aggressive fish have led to a massive decline in the populations of endemic species like the carachi, a colorful killfish, and the mauri, a dotted catfish. Nevertheless, the change has allowed the Uros to breed and capture higher quality catch. “The native species,” remarks Ivan, “are smaller, with spikes like needles—very difficult to eat.”
The Uros’ embrace of the Age of Technology has one major drawback: it is not particularly pleasing to the whims of the thousands of tourists who are the islands’ greatest source of income, and who expect to find a mystical show of pre-Incan frugality on the shallows of the Titicaca. So when the Uros present their lifestyle to visitors, they play a delicate game of concealment.
At the island of Suma Kurmi, the job falls on Ivan. He gives his presentations in the middle of a circle surrounded by a low bench of woven totora, where the tourists sit. He wears a long embroidered poncho, making sure it covers the Nike brand of his sweatpants. When he talks about hunting waterfowl, he takes out an antique rifle that probably hasn’t been fired in over a century. “We also use it to hunt tourists,” he jokes, briskly covering his deceit. When he demonstrates how the Uros peel and eat “water banana,” the white ends of the totora reed, he makes sure not to offer any to the visitors; the foul taste, of watered-down cucumber, might make him lose credibility. He calls his large totora raft “the Mercedez-Benz of the Titicaca,” in spite of secretly owning a motorboat himself. Ivan gives much of his presentation in native Aymara, allowing the tour guide to translate for him. In the brief moments when he switches to Spanish, generally to deliver a joke, he speaks in a slow, guttural growl, as if imitating the speech of a caveman. Yet Ivan speaks perfect Spanish. He fakes inarticulacy to simulate isolation from the mainland, to feign the maintenance of ancient patterns. Foreign visitors are generally impressed with his presentation, but to critical Peruvians, it feels fake, like the unnatural movement of animatronics at a theme park.
Ancient Andean philosophy revolves around the concept of duality, named yanatin in Quechua. Yanatin argues that everything is defined by the existence of its opposite, together making a single, harmonious whole. Dark and light, mountain and lake, Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo. Ivan Lujano and the rest of the Uros continue to live within the duality of the ancient and the modern, as they desperately try to conceal the difference between both. Driven by the inability of outsiders to understand the harmony of balance, they seem to have forgotten that the great gift of the children of the sun was not superstition but civilization.
Micaela Bullard ’18 is a tentative Latin American Studies major in Calhoun College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.