Floating islands. It’s hard to conjure up an image of what that means, until you’re on Lake Titicaca in Peru and pull up alongside islands made of reeds where Peruvian women in colorful dress wait waving to the incoming boats.
These are the floating islands of Uros; about 80 in all. They are located 30 minutes by boat from Puno in the shallow waters of Lake Titicaca. Once we disembarked, we sat on rolled up bundles of reed to learn more about this fascinating culture of people and the way they live.
Our guide translated for Antonia, the president of the island we visited. Tour boats rotate which island they visit so that the community can share in the prosperity of island visits. The locals sell their handicrafts there, too, as a means of income. Their textiles are intricately detailed and reflect the values of their culture: everyone must work. No laziness allowed. But I’ll get to that later.
First, the islands themselves. They are created by gathering 2-meter thick blocks of peat moss from the lake. Then the blocks are staked with eucalyptus sticks and secured together with nylon rope. Antonia demonstrated as our guide shared the details. Antonia deftly tied four blocks together and then spread three bundles of reed across the top, crisscrossing the layers to provide more stability.
New reeds are periodically strewn across the island. Remember – no laziness. They need to maintain their islands, which usually last 15-18 years before they need to create new islands altogether because of the erosion.
The islands are anchored with ropes and stones because they could otherwise float away like the reed boats they made to take tourists out on the lake. They have their own, more practical boats, too, that they must row for about 5 minutes to get to the “latrines” set away from their islands.
The huts are made of reeds. Their crafts are largely made of reeds. They eat the root of the reeds… in other words, they’re reliant on reeds. They also collect duck eggs and fish for their food. It’s a very isolated culture. Most islands are the homes to 8-10 families, with a leader/president on each island.
But here’s my favorite part. Remember that I told you that they do not condone laziness? Well, guess what they do with those members of their community that don’t pull their weight of the work? They cut them off! They literally use a saw to cut through the reeds and soil and let the lazy people drift off to live on their own islands. Oh, how I wish it were that easy for us! I can imagine certain family members who’d wake up to find themselves floating alone on the lake. Better yet, I’d probably cut myself off from the group and float around the lake unanchored like a woman set adrift on an ice floe.
It was an incredible experience visiting these islands, meeting these gracious, friendly people who let us try on their shirts and shirts and let us peek inside their reed hut homes. I don’t know if I could actually live on these floating Uros islands, but I definitely loved the concept. Long may they prosper and continue their unique way of life.
What sectors of our population would you like to see set apart to drift on their own?