Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Uros Islands

Wednesday morning was the beginning of a new adventure. I can't even remember how we found these tours - through TripAdvisor or something. It started feeling like a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend sort of thing. It started at TripAdvisor, and I guess that sent us off to some place called Viator, and then we started getting emails from the "Bamba Operations Team" of Bamba Experience. Well, we'd gone through the same channels for our Colca Canyon tour and that had turned out well. 

We'd gotten emails confirming that our tour would pick us up from our hotel at 7:40 am and our tour guide was named Carlos. Susan and I got down to the lobby in plenty of time to eat breakfast, have our suitcases stored (we were just taking backpacks for our overnight trip), and to pay our bill. Well, it turned out the hotel would only take cash and it would take all of our combined cash to pay them. Ack! With 15 minutes till our tour guide showed up, I had to dash several blocks away to find an ATM. 

Dashing - and trying to breathe, as anything beyond a leisurely stroll still took our breath away and caused a lot of heart hammering. I walked a few blocks and finally found an ATM. The screen was off, but I just hoped it was "asleep." I put my card in. Nothing. No!!! I had visions of my card locked away in this ATM and trying to find someone to come help me before bank hours. Ugh.  With a quick mental prayer and fingers-crossed, I pushed the cancel button and the machine spit out my card. Thank goodness! I turned away from that ATM and saw another right across the street. Someone was getting money from that one, so good sign. I hurried over and got enough cash out to pay our bill then pushed myself to get back to the hotel just a few minutes before our designated pick-up. Phew!

Then we just sat there in the lobby. Waiting. And waiting. Sometime after 8:15 I started wondering if we should call this Carlos fellow and make sure they hadn't forgotten us. We planned to have the woman at the front desk call as soon as she was off the phone negotiating with someone about something. Just as she was winding down, a woman came in the door. She said something, I didn't catch it, and the woman at the desk pointed at Susan and I. This must finally be our tour!

We followed her out the door and down the street to a small van. There were two other people in there. We squeezed in the back expecting the rest of the van to fill up.  The van took off, and I don't know where that woman went to. She didn't get in the van with us. Weird. We drove through the crazy Puno streets and finally toward the lake and the docks. There were tons of people down there and a lot of activity.  Oh, that woman materialized again and somehow connected us with someone to lead us to our boat. We all took off down the pier. We went right straight to the end and then were directed to climb down into the boat tied there...and then out of that boat and into the one tied next to it and so on till we reached the fourth boat over.  Someone told us to stop, this was our boat. So we went inside to find a seat. There were already quite a few people on the boat. I guess the tour company must have sent various vans around to pick up all the people on the tour. 

Just after sitting down, the boat took off. There were two very young looking guys driving the boat. They didn't say anything to us, just headed out on the lake. Another boat took off the same time as us. I watched their progress as they headed out to the open lake. Our progress however was taking us straight across the little bay to another part of Puno that wrapped around the bay. What? Where are we going? Did we end up in the wrong tour? I mean, they didn't even ask our names at the hotel, the van, or when we got on the boat! 

The boat pulled up to a dock and there was an older man there who climbed onto the boat. Then the boat backed up and headed out toward the lake proper. The older man took over leadership of the boat right away, welcoming us on the tour and introducing himself as Ruben. What the heck!? Who? What about Carlos!? We really must be on the wrong tour! But Ruben went on and pretty much described the tour we thought we should be on, so we decided to stick it out. =)  But boy that first half hour or so we were both in a lot of doubt and worried about what we'd gotten ourselves into!

The boat putted out towards the Uros Islands first. The Uros Islands are man-made floating reed islands. There are loads of reeds that grow in an area on the lake near Puno - you can see the reeds in the picture below. 

I don't remember how many people live there, but the community seems quite extensive. There are several houses, as below, and a little open area, sometimes a garden and pond, and a little welcome archway....then a mass of reeds, then the next little housing area. This seemed to stretch on and on on both sides with people in various kinds of boats going back and forth between the two sides. 

welcoming party

Ruben, and a leader from the area, gave a presentation about the islands and how they are made. Oh, you'll notice the solar panels. They are everywhere so everyone seems to at least have lights at night.

Fish, of course. One food source for the islands is of course fish. 
Another food source is the reeds themselves. Someone took a whole pile of reeds, peeled them, and passed them around to everyone. Ruben took a big bite of one and seemed to enjoy it. I found the reeds a bit like water chestnuts - bland, watery, tasteless. Not really my thing. 

While the men were talking, a couple of the women demonstrated the sewing they do. 

Here the men are demonstrating how the reed islands are made. They use huge saws to cut out big chunks of the dirt the reeds are growing in. They move all the chunks together and use ropes and pegs to lash everything together and then anchor it. Then they pile reeds on top of the whole thing - a lot of reeds - and let them dry. Then they build their reed houses on top. I'm not sure how thick of a pile of reeds we're talking, but it was easily several feet of reeds above the surface of the water, and a good amount below. These things are pretty big too - walking on the islands the reeds themselves were squishy, but I had no sense of movement like on a boat. They told us the lake was about 55 feet deep where the islands were. 

They make a lot of things with the reeds. 
baby ducks!

Saw this kid trying to set up a sort of shade with a reed mat.
reed house

After the presentation our group was split up and we all went into the different houses to see what they were like on the inside. Very simple. One room, a sleeping area, and piles of clothes in a corner. That was about it. Then the woman from our house took us out and showed us her wares; the idea was that now we were meant to buy some souvenirs!

I wandered over to check out this reed boat that some other people were getting off. Pretty soon most of our group made their way to the boat, climbed on, and our tour guide said we would be rowed to the other side and the tour boat would pick us up there. The cost to be rowed across was 10 Soles. 

One guy on each side with long paddles rowed the boat for us.

There were several kids on the boat; the littlest tried to help with rowing. The two older ones kept up a singing routine for much of the trip, singing things like Row, Row, Row your boat and Frere Jacques. The language of the Uros Islands is Quechua and Spanish. You can tell when someone has memorized words in another language and doesn't really know what they mean. =)  They were cute kids. And when they were done, they took off their hats and passed them around for tips. Wow. They teach them young. 

On the other side there was a restaurant, another little market, and a toilet (1 Sole to use). We hung out there for a little while longer before all piling back in the official tour boat for the next stage of the journey. 

When we originally were looking for places to go in Peru and heard about the Uros Islands they seemed really exciting. I had thought the tour we booked was going to spend more time exploring them, but I feel like we weren't there more than 90 minutes. In the end that felt like a really good thing. 

I got the distinct impression that the folks living there were putting on a show and we didn't get to see what things were really like. The men were wearing these white woven shirts, but I could see t-shirts underneath. They were wearing the fancy knitted hats, but they all had baseball caps underneath. Did they take off the woven shirts and earflap hats as soon as the tourists left? I'm sure they didn't use these reed boats for getting around - we saw quite a few metal rowboats with motors.  I also felt a bit overwhelmed with the women almost pleading with us to buy things, charging us to row across to the other side, the little boys passing the hat, etc. 

But then I wondered about how they made their living.  They probably used to mostly do subsistence farming and maybe trading fish and/or crafts. Now I'm sure they can make a lot off the tourists. According to Wikipedia only 10 of the islands are open to tourists. I'm sure things are different on the non-tourist islands. 

Overall it was really interesting just to see the islands and the amazing crafts they do, and learn how the islands are built; but it was a little disappointing to feel like we'd been dumped into a tourist trap. 

Back to the boat and off for a 3-hour ride across the lake to Amantani Island, where we would be spending the night. And...more shenanigans from our tour guide. 

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