We put our bags down in our ‘guest house’ for the night. To be quite honest, it was much more luxurious than I was expecting. It was cozy with two double beds. There was just one thing though. I wondered into the bathroom and saw a toilet and a relatively decent shower…considering we were staying on an island made of reed in the middle of Lake Titicaca. There was a urinal also. Then I saw a bucket full of what looked like sawdust. I wondered what the heck this could be. Was it the trash can? But it was odd. There was a small shovel sticking out of it. I opened the toilet lid and that’s when I realized that the bucket was not trash or sawdust. It was, in fact, kitty litter. And the toilet was not a toilet; it was a toilet-shaped bucket. Yes, when we finished our ‘business’ in the bathroom, we were to scoop a few shovel fulls of kitty litter into the toilet. The toilet was lined with a trash bag, which I can only assume our hosts would clean out the next morning. While Julie and I really had no issues with the toilet, Tony was not so comfortable. He obviously survived, and we all forewent our showers the next morning. The water for the shower was collected from rain water in a bucket on the roof of our house. It got down to 28 degrees Fahrenheit, and knowing there was no electric, we opted for dirty instead of clean.
After about 30 minutes or so, we wondered a short ways across the island to what the hosts referred to as the ‘restaurant.’ Here, we found a homemade wooden table seated in the middle of a room. There was a low seating bench, made of reed, along one side of the table. Tony and Julie sat here and I sat across from them in my wheelchair. There were cocoa leaves in a dish in the middle of the table. The wife of Carlos brought in hot water and tea cups and we warmed ourselves up with some cocoa tea. This was followed by a homemade soup, similar to chicken noodle soup, and a homemade bread that was light and flaky, similar to a crepe. It was nice to have something warm in our bellies. We spent some time getting to know Carlos and Enrique, his toddler son. I asked how they made the soup and he advised that they used gas burners. This made me a little nervous. After all, we were staying on the most flammable island in the world. But he assured me that they had lots of practice and I should not worry. So I didn’t. It wouldn’t have done me any good anyway.
We headed for bed shortly thereafter, accompanied by several two-liter bottles of water wrapped in yarn and heated up to the perfect temperature to keep our feet and hands warm. It was estimated to get down to 28 degrees Fahrenheit that night. There was no heat in our guest house so we dressed in layers. I had leggings and a pair of jeans on. A t-shirt, a sweater, and a down jacket kept my core warm. I stuffed some hand and feet warmers into the front of my boots and lined my feet with wool socks. I pulled a hat over my head as I crawled into the sheets next to Tony and a few bottles of warm water. I was convinced that I wouldn’t sleep well in the cold and dressed in so many layers, but about seven hours later I heard birds chirping and the sun was creeping through the Plexiglas windows. I didn’t get cold and I slept so much better than I do at home. I’m not sure if it was the complete quietness of the lake or the simplicity of the Uros lifestyle, but it was refreshing.
We had agreed to breakfast with our hosts the next morning; we quickly washed our faces and brushed our teeth before wandering to the one-table restaurant. We had an amazing breakfast with pancakes (similar to the crepes the night before), fresh fruit, and fresh fish…literally caught that morning. We had asked our hosts if they could take us on a tour of the area in one of their handmade reed boats. I was especially excited about this as I had read that the boats were made completely of reed and only lasted about two weeks. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We made our way to the edge of the island and found the wife of Carlos and her sister holding handfuls of very colorful clothing. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get out of dressing like a Uro person, so I embraced it and put on the whole getup. They braided by hair in pigtails with colorful ribbon and balls. Only non-wed women get colorful ribbons in their hair.
We all boarded the boat made of reed, me going first and hoping to god it didn’t tip over as I literally tumbled onto it like a bowling ball. Tony and Julie followed. There were not seats, but rather a flat surface that rolled to the middle. The boat was long, probably 20 feet or so, so we all had plenty of space. Jessica, Carlos sister-in-law, perched herself on the front and faced us. She had two oars in her hands, and while she made it seem graceful and effortless, I knew she had to be working hard to row us about. We didn’t have a specific destination, so we floated for a while, just letting the wind drift us along. I noticed some plastic peeking out beneath some of the intertwined reed and asked Jessica why there was plastic. She explained to us that in recent years the Uros people started using old two-liter Coke bottles in their boats. It was easier to maintain and much easier to create than a boat made completely of reed.
We floated for a while longer, and I sprawled out on my back, letting the sun take me in. It was one of the most quiet and serene moments in my life. I let it sink in for a while and then asked Tony and Julie if they were feeling the same way. Tony responded, “Yes, it’s an odd moment. We’re literally floating on a Coke bottle over 60 foot deep water 14,000 feet in the air.” So yes, I guess that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.
Jessica eventually brought us to an area where there was a bunch of reed growing. She let us practice cutting some using the tools they have, which is a stick with a knife tied to it. She kept most of what we cut to use on her island. She also cut a few stalks for us to eat. Underneath the first few layers of green, there was a white, crunchy, and flavorless, stalk. It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad, but I’m glad I was able to try it. After another hour or so, we made our way back to their island. Our time with the Uros people was over.
I think often of the Uros people, when I’m having a particularly stressful day, or I’m just feeling blue, and think how different their lives are. It helps me to put mine in perspective and makes my problems seems less trivial. After all, I don’t worry about going to sleep and my entire property floating away to another country, only to be pulled back by a tugboat the next morning.
We transferred from our reed boat to the more modern gas-powered boat with our luggage. Jessica brought us back to the mainland where we were able to get into our pre-arranged van for our ride to Jacilico. We would be flying from here to Lima that night.