We were up early again today, about 5:45 am, to catch a train to Puno. We had trouble finding a taxi to the train station and almost missed our train, but caught it in the nick of time. Once on board, we settled into our seats. We again had a table with four seats around it. This time, though, the train was not nearly as full and we had an entire table to ourselves. We ordered breakfast, and before we knew it, we were approaching the highest point of elevation that the train would go. We stopped here – around 14,100 feet – for ten minutes. We’d been taking medicine to help control the side effects of high altitudes, and fortunately hadn’t experienced any headaches or nausea. However, I’d had several bloody noses and my fingers and feet were swollen by the time we got to this height. Tony and Julie also mentioned that they felt short of breath.
The stop at the top of this mountain had nothing but a roadside (or trainside?) stand with souvenirs and a church. The church was up six or seven steps, so I didn’t go in (I didn’t want Tony or Julie to have to strain themselves with the little oxygen available). There was a beautiful snow-capped mountain off in the distance, and other than the half a dozen locals at the market, there wasn’t a soul in sight. It was an eery and refreshing feeling to be so far away from the world of technology and constant communication. I wondered what the furthest point was that the locals living there had ever travelled.
It was a ten and half hour train ride. We passed through several small towns, the buildings made of bricks and mortar, probably hundreds of years old. There were no cars. No electric cables. No name brand signs. Just buildings and people roaming the streets. Streets that were made of dirt. I looked at some of the homes and knew that they were the pride and joy for many of the people living here, probably valued at less than $1,000 per home. Travelling always puts things into perspective for me, and the dozens of mountain villages that we passed through certainly did that for me on this trip…how incredibly divided the worlds wealth and opportunities are and how incredibly different each of our lives are. I wondered who had a fuller life – me, with almost every opportunity at my fingertips, or the Andes people living in the villages with no technology, no locks on their doors, and their food right outside in the garden. I’m guessing Maslov would put us each at different points on his hierarchy, each of us seeking something different from our day-to-day lives. And then there were the Uros people…
It was about 5:30 pm, and the sun had already set, when we arrived in Puno. Puno is one the most dangerous cities in Peru, so we were careful as we exited the train station with our arms full of luggage. The pollution was probably some of the worst I’ve experienced in all my travels, and our scheduled driver was no where to be found. I attempted to get cell service with no luck before we walked a few blocks to chicken restaurant. They didn’t have any WiFi, so we headed to the next place. Tony happened to see someone across the street who appeared to be searching for passengers. “Carlos!” He hollered. And next thing we knew, we were safely in a taxi van driving away from the polluted city.
Carlos and his family, who were our AirBNB hosts, were Uros people. We would be spending the night with them in their guest house. Before we got there, though, Carlos put us in a van and said that the driver was taking us to meet Enrique, who would help us with the last part of our trip. We drove out of the city about 15 minutes and approached a very dark and sketchy harbor. The road turned to mud and we stopped a few feet from the water before the driver turned off the vehicle. As we sat there in the dark, a solo light post dimly lighting the area, and men in the area fidgeting with their boats, I wondered what the heck was going on! We got into a strange vehicle with a stranger who did not ask for money in one of the most dangerous cities in Peru. Thank god Tony was with us; if it had just been Julie and me, I would have been scared for my life.
Finally, Enrique arrived and helped us with our bags. The next challenge was getting me and my wheelchair into the boat. We managed, in the dark, to get four bags, a wheelchair, the three of us, a toddler, and the driver safely seated in the very small, old, wooden boat so we would not tip over.
You see, the Uros people live on Lake Titicaca. It is the highest navigable lake in the world, sitting at around 12,000 feet above sea level. Their homes are on floating islands made of reed. The reed on Lake Titicaca naturally reproduces, and the Uros people create islands with their homes on them. The reed is grown in patches until it’s large enough to start building a home on, and once they have a section large enough, they start putting dead reed on top of the growing reed. The growing reed will continue to flourish as it’s roots will continue to feed off of the water below. By the time a floating island is ready for habitation, it is about five to six feet in depth. The water below the islands is 50 to 60 meters deep. Since the roots don’t actually feed off of dirt (only water), the islands can float. The people have anchors, often 15 or 16, holding their homes in place. If an anchor breaks loose, it is common for the people to wake up in Bolivia, on the opposite side of the lake. In these cases, large boats will pull them back to Peru and they will re-anchor themselves. Each island is about 5,000 square feet, and everything on it is made of reed. The homes. The outhouse. The umbrellas. The floor. Everything. The Uros people have been living like this since pre-Incan times, so you can imagine that they are quite experienced in the process and in their lifestyles. In 1994, the President of Peru granted the Uros people access to solar power, so they now have access to electricity. Before that, they used candles and the frequency of fires was much, much greater (as you can imagine).
So here we are, in a rickety boat speeding through rows and patches of reed, growing about five feet up and over the surface of the water, on a lake in Peru. It was pitch black and I remember looking up at the stars, wondering if I would recognize any of the constellations. The sky was so clear and amazingly beautiful. There was nothing around us but water and reed. I could see the city lights in the distance, moving further and further away from us, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d be able to swim back should the boat, or god forbid, our home decide to sink that night. At the same time I was wondering what the heck I was doing sleeping on an island made of plants, I couldn’t help but think that this might have been the coolest thing I’ve ever done. We got to know a little bit about Enrique Carlos, the boat driver, and his son, Cristofer, on our fifteen minute boat ride.
I was getting a little anxious, and extremely cold, when we finally reached a clear area of water and off in the distance were dozens and dozens of individual floating islands. We approached our island – no fancy dock, just pulled up to the edge of the reed and unload our bags. There were two women wearing colorful clothing standing on the edge who greeted us with big smiles. They helped us with our bags, and Julie pulled me in my wheelchair, going backwards, towards our guest house. The ground was made of dried reed, and we quickly discovered that it was going to be a long 24 hours with a wheelchair on the most inaccessible surface possible. But we were there! On a floating island! I couldn’t wait to see what the inside of our guest house was like and meet the rest of the family!