Friday, February 18, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Island Life

Olya Gurevich holds a PhD in Linguistics and is an expert on Russian and Georgian morphology.  She works for Microsoft, helping make Bing a better search engine.  She lives in San Francisco with her husband, two cats, and a minus-one-month old who will surely become an intrepid traveler once she realizes that the outside world is a pretty interesting place to be. Today Olya shares her Peru story.

Lake Titicaca sits high in the Andes, at 3,800 meters above sea level. It divides Peru and Bolivia and is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world. Peruvians claim that they have the “titi” side and the Bolivians have the “caca” side. I have not been to Bolivia, but I imagine they would disagree.

Because the lake is so high up, the sunshine is blinding, and a gringo can get sunburned in a matter of minutes. The expansive views, combined with the rarified air, literally take your breath away. To add to the scenery, the islands in the middle of the lake house ancient villages, which have recently become a tourist draw.

 We set off from the rather unattractive port town of Puno, on the south side of the lake.  The two-day boat tour starts by spending a few hours on the floating island of Uros, made entirely of reeds and not attached to any land. The local population speaks Aymara, one of the Native American languages with a robust number of fluent speakers.  Everything on Uros seems to be made out of woven reeds: the ground, the houses, the boats, the overlook tower. It does, however, seem maintained mostly for the tourists, and few people permanently live on the island.  

Our next stop is the island of Amantani, where we will spend the night. About 800 Quechua-speaking families live here, and they take turns hosting tourists for a small fee.  There is no running water or electricity, save for a few solar-powered lights, and of course, no roads or cars. So once the sun sets, it’s eerily quiet and very cold.

Our hostess is a young woman named Amais. She meets us at the boat dock and leads us back to her house along a narrow path barely visible in the arid ground, winding up among terraces planted mostly with varieties of potato – after all, Peru is the spud’s birthplace. Amais speaks to us in Spanish, but it is clearly not her mother tongue. This is to our advantage, since she speaks more clearly and slowly than a native speaker would.

Amais lives in a two-room house with a separate kitchen shed. We get one of the dirt-floored rooms. The household consists of her, her four-year-old daughter, her son who looks to be about 8, and her elderly mother. There is no sign of a husband, and in general, there are very few men of working age on the island – either they’re off on the mainland making money, or gone altogether. Instead, the boy acts as a responsible head of household after he comes home from school, taking care of the household animals and translating between us and his grandmother, who speaks only Quechua.

First things first: Amais spreads out a selection of colorful knit hats, one of which we obligingly buy. In the meantime, the little girl is impatient to get our attention. She drags me off to show me her favorite playing spot up in a tree, then happily poses for the camera holding a baby sheep. She is playful and adorable beyond belief, but eventually the strict grandmother comes along and tells her (I imagine) to stop bothering the guests.

It’s time for the tour of the island. We meet the rest of the people from our boat for a short trek up the two sacred peaks. Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Pachatata (Father Earth) preside atop the island, decorated with ruins of ancient temples that provide surreally beautiful outlooks onto the water below. At this altitude, even a short uphill walk requires frequent stops, and we feel very accomplished when we make it to the top. We linger by a concession stand selling welcome coca leaf tea and manage to miss the rest of our group departing. By the time we get back down, it has gotten dark and we have no idea where to go. The tour guide is still there, but he is not local and doesn’t know the lay of the land, so he gets a passing boy to take us back to Amais’s house for a few coins. The boy obliges, and we follow him in the dark. However, it turns out that there are two women named Amais on the island, and he takes us to the wrong one! Luckily, she’s home and this is a small island, so she takes us the rest of the way to “our” Amais.

In the meantime, the grandmother has made us dinner. It consists of a soup made with at least three varieties of potato (of course) and some rice with homegrown vegetables.  We are relieved that none of the guinea pigs running around the kitchen made it into our meal: although they are a Peruvian delicacy, they seem to be treated more as pets here.

Later on, we head to the center of the village for the nightly dance. Amais dresses us up in native costumes, worn above our regular clothes. This makes me feel like a Russian tea cosy doll, but at least there is no danger of getting cold.

The dance starts out slowly, as an awkward high school disco, and is clearly put on for the tourists. Soon, however, some enthusiastic Amantanians show up and drag everyone into a spinning circle. We run around accompanied by drums and chanting, and it feels good in the cold night air.

In the morning, we are sad to say goodbye to Amais’s little daughter, but we have to go back on the boat and on to the next island. As if to emphasize that this visit is truly magical, our camera is stolen the next day in Puno, so the only image of the girl and her little lamb is left in my mind.


  1. Thanks for blogging with us today, Olya, and giving us such a vivid picture of the local culture in these islands. It's amazing that people can live on a floating island of reeds. Is it a natural or man-made island?

  2. Thank you for sharing your story! I absolutely love the pictures. And what better way to learn the culture than to mingle with the locals.

  3. Thank you so much for your lovely post, Olya. It brought back so many wonderful memories from my travels there. What fabulous stories you'll be able to tell your child!

  4. Another terrific story from one of your many wonderful trips around this blue sphere of ours. Well done! You always pick the most amazing places and are a most intrepid traveler and gifted writer, who makes us feel like we are right there with you. Thanks Olya!
    Looking forward to our T-0 for STS-133 and yours! I know you'll keep us posted.