Lake Titicaca, a name that made all of us giggle as children, is located in South America in between Peru and Bolivia. It is the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest lake in South America by volume. A freshwater lake, or “sweet water” as the locals refer to it, sixty percent of the lake is in Peru and forty percent in Bolivia, and the Peruvians joke that Peru has the Titi part and Bolivia has the Caca part. The name is actually translated as “Rock Puma,” as the native peoples have traditionally interpreted the shape of the lake from the air to be that of a puma hunting a rabbit. My question is, how did they see it from the air centuries ago?
From Peru, the lake can be reached via the city of Puno. At a height of over 12,421 feet [3,860 meters] above sea level, you may find yourself a little light-headed when in Puno, but a few cups of coca tea will calm you down. Puno is a town of approximately 100,000, and like the stereotypical South American town, has a central square with a cathedral, flanked by a main pedestrian street with restaurants and shops. I arrived on a Sunday, so the town was extremely serene. I was happy to find a twenty-four hour coffee shop where I could get a decent latte, only afterwards to discover that it is recommended that one stay away from caffeine when in high altitudes. To me that just sounds inhumane. Bars in Puno are obsessed with 80’s music, as evidenced by the live band struggling with “Working for the Weekend” which sounded a bit more like “Werkeen foh de Weekay.” Still I appreciated the valiant effort.
From Puno one can do a day tour or a multi-day tour to stay overnight in a homestay on one of Lake Titicaca’s most unique attributes – the man-made floating islands. In fact, Lake Titicaca has a total of forty one floating islands, inhabited and maintained by the Uros people, native inhabitants of the area that can trace their history back to a time before the Incan empire.
On the lake for hundreds of years, the Uros people have created these man-made islands from the tough reed-like vegetation known as totora that grows in the lake’s shallow waters. By manipulating blocks of the roots, tying them together and then adding stack upon stack of reeds on top, islands are created. On these islands, houses are built, and each island accommodates approximately eight families of three to four persons each. There are also floating schools, where teachers from Puno arrive every morning to instruct the children. The local population now relies heavily on the tourist industry for income, giving tours of their man-made islands and selling their handicrafts of textile and totora reed.
Further into the largest part of the lake I visited Taquile, which is about 28 miles [45 km] from Puno. Taquile Island was used for many years as a prison during the time when the Spanish were the colonial overlords in the region. Currently the island has a bit more than 2000 inhabitants, known as the Taquileños. The island has no cars, no hotels, and the inhabitants work within their natural surroundings to feed and clothe themselves. Men and women share chores and production of textiles, but knitting is exclusively something that men do, starting at a young age, usually around eight years old. In this shared process, the women make the yarn used in knitting and do the weaving. Taquile handicrafts are considered among the best in the world, so much so that UNESCO declared “Taquile and Its Textile Art” “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” as part of their honoring of global cultural intangibles.
The shared making of handicrafts is just one example of how the Taquileños run their society based on the idea of the collective, and on the Incan moral code ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla, [do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy]. In the Taquileños society, everyone is indeed working for the weekend, and the weekdays too for that matter.
Given the current global issues with financial improprieties and ineffective and corrupt governments, the western so-called “civilized” world should take a closer look at that Inca code and the Taquileños. Perhaps there is room to learn a thing or two.