The Inca believed that life sprung forth first from an island on this lake and it seems like a place for beginnings, endings, the navel of the world.
In the shallow waters near the edge of the lake people found safety and independence by building islands of reeds, floating freedoms. Around sixty of these islands still dot the reeds, providing novelty for tourists and homes for the three hundred or so families the still hold onto home here.
A casual chat on a bus changed my plans on my way back up north into Peru and in no time at all I found myself loaded onto a swaying boat, clutching my backpack like ballast as we slipped through the reeds into the deeper silences of the lake.
Most tourists visit the islands for an hour or two as part of a day trip. That sounded a bit too Peruvian disney culture canned for my taste, but I’d heard about a family who would host overnight and provide an introduction into their unique way of life.
The smiles they met me with were certainly something special and with the island’s fibers, soft and springy underfoot, it was impossible not to have a spring in my step. The warmth of the welcome was almost as substantial as the seven blankets I found holding the full weight of the cold off of my bed!
I had a lesson on how the islands are constructed, with more reeds being regularly piled up on top to replace those layers rotting underneath the water.
Afterwards, I went out on a reed boat made in the modern style (reinforced with recycled plastic bottles) for a crash course on fishing and harvesting the most succulent reeds.
As the dusk thickened and fell, the family sat around, talked about their lives, sung songs and asked to hear the melodies that had traveled far from home. I stumbled my way through the welsh national anthem, glad that no one knew my language well enough to hear how badly I bumbled the words. I felt sheepish and more than a little foolish but the moment was too full of heart for me to even think of not taking part.
We were double-distant, talking in Spanish rather than their native language Aymara or something else I could string a solid sentence in. I felt I had to half feel the words rather than only listen, reaching for sense through shadows.
Their smiles felt familiar but their lives were strangers to me, foreigners I wanted to make the effort to know.
They spoke of their fear of hospitals, that they are places to get sicker rather than better. Mindful of the growing fear of drug resistant bacteria in hospitals at home I felt I could hardly disagree.
Their people believe in guinea pig medicine, which involves holding the animal over the body for an spell before a skilled practicioner ‘reads’ the guinea pig like an x ray to diagnose disease. Sometimes operations are carried out using the guinea pig as a proxy and often the patient will recover. Of course, things don’t tend to end so well for the guinea pig…
They told me how a number of families had co-operated to put together the ‘hotel’, the extra reed huts for guests, and that incomes were shared to avoid jealousy. They showed me the solar panels that the income had paid for, the boat with a motor, the gas stove.
My host Christina welled up with tears and explained that although she had never heard of the lonely planet guidebook before, she understood that a short mention in it had helped build a business that meant her children stayed when they reached adulthood. They were no longer all pulled away to the north and the cities like so many others before.
As I watched the tourist boats trawl in, late in the morning, I felt I’d been privileged to see something that was not so performed, not so false, but evolving, involving.
I returned to the shore, to Puno, to the swirl of micro taxi fumes and taxi honks, to the bustle of city life. I got on another bus, moved to another town but that place I will never forget.