Sunday, August 24, 2014

Of Reeds and Ruins

Inca Funerary Tower at Sillistani, near Puno
I had a feeling that after Machu Picchu everything would be a bit of an anticlimax, but people who had been further South talked about the floating islands on Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world, which I also wanted to see. I was also somewhat apprehensive about another long bus ride after the one from Lima, but this was only six and a half hours compared to 24. Another plus was that this one would be taking place in daylight, which meant at least being able to see a bit of the scenery.
I was a bit disappointed by the way the Andes looked here. Because we were already so high up - over  3,000m, they didn't look much more than hills and with their dry grass, dusty villages and a few gum trees, I may as well have been in the outback at home.(Eucalypts are grown all over the Andes, because they provide a quick supply of firewood).
There were some differences of course. Most of the houses were still made of pise and small landholdings were surrounded by pise walls. Newer houses made of brick seen here and there, and especially in Puno all looked unfinished - no paint or render, reo bars sticking out from the top. It made me wonder what great financial disaster had befallen this part of Peru. When I could communicate with someone, they told me that there was a big tax on finished buildings so it was quite common to leave at least part of them incomplete.

Typical Aymara woman tending a llama with her daughter on her back
Unfinished buildings were everywhere
This part of Peru seemed poorer than the places which I had seen before. Women still washed by hand in the rivers and villagers threshed corn by hand. Nor were many vehicles to be seen except for the odd bicycle with a tray at the front and the occasional motorbike taxi. Usually they didn't look as swish as the one below which I photographed in Urubamba, a tourist town on the way to Machu Picchu. It is things like this which interest me. How people live and how they solve the problems of  every day life, especially when they do it a different way. For example, I didn't see a single baby in a pram until  I reached Chile many weeks later.
There was one modern convenience however. Almost every place sported an identical toilet in the back. I wondered if these were part of the UN's Decade of Water and Sanitation in the 1980's which was to bring both to poor people around the world though it failed to keep up with population growth.(More people were without at the end of the decade than before it). It could of course have been some other kind of government initiative, or just something the people did for themselves
Motor cycle taxi in Urubamba near Machu Picchu
Puno with a bit of Lake Titicaca visible in the background
I'm not sure what I expected of Lake Titicaca -maybe a few trees and a bit of  greenery, but it  was just this enormous body of water stretching over the horizon.

Puno - First impressions
Puno itself was a strange mix of half -finished buildings and unmade streets, but just off the main square there was a pedestrian mall with attractive restaurants and craft shops. Here too there was a procession in progress, though this appeared to be a more solemn one - a funeral perhaps, though there was some dancing as well. If you would like to see it and hear the somewhat excruciating music just click on the video below the picture. You will also notice that some women are wearing the bowler hats which are so ubiquitous in Bolivia. This is pretty close to the border. 
Procession in the pedestrian mall, Puno

Almost every restaurant and coffee shop and even the hostel boasted a flat screen TV featuring the World  Cup. It was impossible to avoid and impossible not to become involved. Some of the hostellers had come specifically to see the cup in Brazil and had then travelled around. Knowing how I feel about sport in general and football in particular, my offspring would be amazed at my recently acquired knowledge of the game.

After I happened to run into a young man I had met at the hostel in Cusco, we visited the reed island of Uros  together. This was a big plus as he also spoke Spanish. He was a bit like me in that he insisted that we walk to the harbour and book our own boat, rather than take a tour or a taxi, though I wouldn't have minded one on the way back. With the lake at 3820m. and the wind blowing off the water, I was not only exhausted but freezing.  Alas, the memory card in my camera ran out just as we got there. Although 'Eddie' offered to send me his pictures, we forgot to exchange addresses when we parted company at the end. Where are you Eddie?

[Just imagine Pictures here.....]

The Uros people originally moved onto the lake about seven centuries ago to escape the warlike Collas and Incas. Their houses, their boats, their furniture and even the islands themselves are all made from the totora reeds that grow on the lake.  As the reeds rot below, new reeds are placed on top. The people fish, trap ducks and do handcrafts. Wind - chimes, weaving, pom poms and miniature reed boats were on sale. The ladies demonstrated how you cook in a place made of dry reeds (the fire is made outside in a small ceramic oven) and the men showed us the decoys and traps they used. A young boy played ball with his dog on the rather unstable surface. There was a school and a restaurant on the opposite shore and a variety of handcraft stalls. Further down the lake, there is another large island and several smaller ones. I find it remarkable that such a unique lifestyle has managed to survive so many centuries even though Uros people have since intermarried with Peruvians.

Eventually I took a tour to Sillustani where both Incas and earlier rulers are buried in huge towers. Not as spectacular a setting as Machu Picchu to be sure, but remote and eerie. You can see it better in the photo at the top of this page.The fine stonework is already apparent in the later work and the guide said that it and the techniques used - a ramp is still there, were identical to those used by the Egyptians when building the pyramids. The funeral rites were also similar - mummification, removing the organs, the way the bodies were preserved, their placement in foetal position ready to be reborn and so on. Though archaeologists say that this too is purely co- incidental, you can't help thinking otherwise.The earlier stonework is more primitive and belonged to earlier tribes such as the Colla or the Wari. There is also a sacrificial site which also belonged to the Incas. Those unwilling to follow their leaders into the afterlife were dispatched here. Irrigated agriculture was also practised here as you can see in the background in the picture below.

A place to put your head - altar where unwillling followers were sacrificed
Older towers do not show the same elaborate stonework
The good thing about doing a tour although the guide spoke little English, is that afterwards we were taken into a a typical Aymara home. Although most Peruvians and Bolivians are officially Catholic, older beliefs in Pacha Mama the Earth Mother and Inti the Sun God still flourish underneath. Most houses in this area still have terrocota figures of good luck symbols such bulls or pigs on the roof and the women are responsible for maintaining the rituals. We saw how the animals were kept and how the cooking was done. We even had a chance to taste some typical food - potatoes of course, some toasted corn and a little cheese.

This stone house at Sillistani is having a bet each way. It has both the lucky pigs and a cross
The house we visited was much simpler than this. It was still made of pise and cooking was done outside in the ceramic oven which you can see in the second picture below.


Guinea pigs at the house we vistited. There were llamas too
Aymara meal - potatoes, raosted corn, a dip, some cheese.  You can see the stove too

Here we are being shown how the weaving is done
(Apologies for the picture quality. It was dusk by the time we arrived here)

It may not have been as beautiful as Machu Picchu, but it was probably more indicative of  what life was like in Peru outside the major cities and the way life has been lived here for centuries - modest, self sufficient, with very little impact on the environment. With roads, improved communications, television and people like us, I'm sure it won't stay that way for much longer. See it before it disappears I think, but then again, things may evolve as happily as they seem to have in Cusco where tourism has brought the benefits of modernity like medicine and education, without destroying the way of life. One can only hope.



 

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