Tag Archives: Wool

…And Boats (well, Boat)…

19th April 2018

The last Major Tourist Thing on our itinerary was a boat ride on Lake Titicaca, proudly calling itself “the highest navigable lake in the world” on the basis that there is a steam ship in the harbour which took two years to assemble from 2,500 parts which were made in England and shipped to Puno by rail over a period of four years. So we’ll give them that, shall we?

As usual with Major Tourist Things, the bloody alarm went off at 0500 so we could catch a boat on the lake. We knew from the comprehensive itinerary that Sunvil had prepared for us that this Major Thing would have two component bits: a visit to the lake-dwelling Uros tribe; and a visit to another island called Taquile where we could wander round (lunch included). Nothing in the descriptions we’d seen prepared us for the utterly absorbing day we experienced.

The waters of Lake Titicaca (pronounced with very strong K sounds and meaning stone (titi) puma or cat (kaka) due to a fanciful interpretation of its shape) are very shallow in the Puno section (there’s a bottleneck caused by a pair of peninsulae which separate it from the main body of the lake). This shallow section hosts a vast area of reeds, which the Uros tribe (a pre-Inca people) used at first to make boats that they could live on which could easily be moved as a defensive tactic. This graduated into the building of rafts and there are now several dozen such rafts which are the location for an entire way of life.

OK; so far, so good. What we were utterly unprepared for was the scale and sophistication of the area. These pictures show you just one side of a channel, and the other side was of the same order of size.

Uros tribe rafts

Here are a couple of video clips, one of each side of the main channel, which I also hope get across the scale of what’s there.

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We landed on one of the rafts and were treated to a comprehensive education on how the rafts are made.

Some day I shall try to make a video about it, but basically what you see in front of you is some approximately one-metre-square chunks of reeds that have been hacked out of the mass of reeds because they have broken free of the mud and started to float. These days the people use large saws to hack out sections, but they used to use much more primitive tools (something like a large, bladed hoe) to do this. They embed sticks into each section which they then bind together – again, today with nylon cord, but originally with rope made from reeds.

The bound sections are then left for a month so the living reeds can grow cross roots bonding the whole thing together; they can then be hauled into place and added into already-extant rafts, after which they’re covered in a reed flooring (about 1 metre of layers placed alternately at right angles to each other) and so are ready for building reed houses on. The flooring has to be continuously renewed as it rots away from the bottom, and so occasionally they have to lift a house, refresh its reed base and replace it. The whole raft is anchored in place to stop them waking up in Bolivia if the weather turns nasty.

It’s very obviously a major undertaking and it takes a lot of maintenance. But the end result is something that can support a group of people consisting of several families.

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(We were told that if a family in a community annoyed everyone else they were simply cut free.) There is a medical centre, school, churches… a population of around 1,000… the mind boggles.

The original tribes lived on boats and it’s clear that boats are still very much part of their culture – apart from anything else, they need to use them to get necessities from the mainland such as fabric for clothing, fruit and veg (although the reeds are edible) and so forth. Some of the boats they build are large (double-decker, in fact) and capable of carrying several people, and are often decorated with ceremonial animals

People aboard an Uris boat

and they are moved by two Uros rowing at the front (as you can see from the first video clip in this post) – at that altitude, they must be really fit!

The Uros people don’t shun modern technology at all – they have solar panels for electricity, for example, although there’s no internet. Tourism is clearly a major source of income, although I gather that the tourist boats that visit them tend to alternate sides of the channel so that individual communities are not beset every day. The people knit and weave and so have produce that they can sell to visitors, but the retail opportunity is nicely managed and not at all importunate. They managed to separate us from a few dollars for something we didn’t really need, but we gladly paid up, as the experience, particularly that of being rowed about on one of their “Mercedes Benz” boats, was so striking and such a pleasure.

The next stage of the day was a visit to a real, solid, island called Taquile which is out into the major part of the lake. We landed at one pier, and embarked on a short hike around the island, on a prepared path, to another pier where our boat was there to meet us. We had to take things quite slowly, as the path was at times steep, and we were at over 3,800m above sea level.

Taquile Landscape

The island is a pleasant place, with much terracing for people to farm crops.

Taquile Landscape

and it’s divided into six neighbourhoods (based around the six families who originally settled the island in Inca times); each neighbourhood is demarcated by a stone arch.

A traditional stone arch

We stopped for lunch at a place which caters only for visitors. The island doesn’t have hotels and restaurants, although people can visit and stay with families to learn aspects of the local ways of life; and families eat at home. But we and other tourists were served a very agreeable lunch of quinoa soup and trout. Before lunch, our guide, Aidee, explained some details of the culture that the island people are working hard to keep active. A key aspect of this culture is the clothing, and there are many things that people wear to show their status or role in the society. All of these things are knitted (by men) or woven (by women) on the island and it was fascinating to learn about them.

Taquile hats and other knitted and woven garments

Above, moving roughly from right to left:

  • A loom which men use to weave belts made from the hair of their fiancee (collected from childhood onwards).
  • A felt hat which signifies a person of authority – mayor, head of council, police, with, underneath it the multi-coloured wollen headpiece signifying that this was the island’s mayor.
  • Above the hat, a shawl, with pom-poms. The pom-poms come in various sizes and levels of flamboyance, depening on whether the woman wearing it is on the lookout for a husband, or is married, etc.
  • Three woollen hats, knitted by the men of the island signifying (from right) a married man, a boy child and a girl child.
  • Among the hats is a part-knitted sample to show how fine the knitting is. We were told that one test a woman can make of a man’s knitting skill, when deciding whether to marry him or not, is to empty water into one of his woollen hats. If the water stays in the hat, he is a fine knitter; if it drains away, he needs to go and practice more.
  • At top left, a colourful bag which married men use to carry coca leaves (used instead of a handshake as greeting).
  • At bottom left, two belts, the upper one woven by a woman from wool and the lower one by a man from human hair. When a man and a woman get married, two of these belts are joined together as a symbol of the union.

The women really do spin wool in the old traditional way, with a spindle, and the men really do knit.

A man knits

This very well-defined culture was as unexpected of the island visit as the scale of the raft society was earlier in the day, and so we made it back to Puno feeling that we’d had a very rich pair of experiences, and that we got very much more out of our last day in South America than just a token piece of tourist activity.

Tomorrow will be Time For The Journey Home. But now it’s Time For The Bar.

Intermezzo: From Lima to the Sacred Valley

12th April 2018

The journeys we’ve undertaken to get from one segment of our holiday to the next have been largely unremarkable (one was, of course, an actual segment in itself), and so have remained undocumented. The route to our next hotel, the remarkable and lovely Inkaterra Hacienda in Urubamba (number 4 in our really favourite hotels)

was sufficiently unusual and content-rich to be worthy of a small side note about it.The first remarkable thing was that the flight was delayed. So far, we have undertaken 11 flights; one has actually departed early and a couple have been a few minutes late, but our departure from Lima was an hour and a half late. This is a shame, since Lima’s departure lounge is not a rewarding place to spend time. The next remarkable thing, and something that tells the European traveller that he or she is in a far away place with a strange sounding name, is what greets you as you head into the baggage area at Cusco airport.

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To get us gradually acclimatised to altitude, our destination was not Cusco (3400m) but the Sacred Valley (2800m), and this is a 90-minute drive from Cusco. Our guide repeated the helpful advice about ways to combat altitude sickness (including, as an extra, that coca tea is a diuretic, something I realised by the time we got to the hotel) and then made sure that we got some extra value out of the journey with a couple of stops. The first one was in Chinchero, where we stopped at a place which specialised in the traditional, hand-made production of Peruvian fabrics. Outside it was a Peruvian Inca Orchid, the hairless dog found in the region

Peruvian Inca Orchid

and inside it were various animals, like llamas and alpacas

and, of course, dinner.

We were then treated to a demonstration of cleaning and dyeing the wool from these animals

Making the dyes - demonstration

as well as weaving using the dyed threads. It was clearly an attempt to get us to buy some fabric, but it was low-pressure. What they had on offer was gorgeous, but very expensive (as you’d expect for something that takes weeks to make working six hours a day), so we made our excuses and left 20 dollars by way of thanks for their time, because it was genuinely interesting. I have some video footage with which I’ll bore you shortly after I can get to an editor.

A few minutes down the road, our guide once again stopped and led us to a breathtaking viewpoint over the Sacred Valley,

Sacred Valley Vista

(you can just see our hotel, the group of small buildings towards the lower right of picture, in the cleft between hills) and also, kindly, stopped again so we could take another photo of the main town in the Valley, Urubamba.

Sacred Valley Vista
One intriguing thing can be noticed if you look carefully at the hillside (just above centre in the following photo):

you can just make out the letter C with, below it, GOU, sort of carved into the hillside. This is an example of work done by local schools, with the initials representing the school; apparently, on the school’s anniversary, the students set lights up within the letters so they can be seen at night, which must be a spectacle. There are several sets of letters to be seen in the hills in the area.

And shortly thereafter we were at the hotel, which, as I say, is very lovely and has service that is so attentive as to be almost oppressive. Among the welcome gifts is a voucher good for two Pisco Sours in the lounge, which means it must be Time For The Bar.