PeruRail Titicaca-Cusco: A Magical, Surreal Ride on the Andean Explorer

Last time I wrote about our trip to Peru, I stopped in Lake Titicaca. But there is more! When we went to the lake, we took a day-long bus ride from Cusco. The tourist bus stopped several times along the way, offering mini-excursions. It was interesting, for a bus ride, but unremarkable. After our visit to the Floating Islands and our home stay on Amantani Island, we decided to take the train back instead. We didn’t expect much from the trip on the PeruRail Titicaca-Cusco, also known as The Andean Explorer.

Twenty-something years ago, I’ve ridden several “luxury” trains in China. I expected the train in Peru to be something similar: vinyl benches, crowded cars, a chicken or two roaming about, and a cart with unappetizing food passing along every couple of hours.

From the outside, the train was undistinguished, except that the crowds I was expecting didn’t materialize:

But when I got on, instead of a Chinese sleeper train, I found myself on the Orient Express!

Imagine my surprise and shock when we were lead into a beautiful, bright car, and seated in wide, comfortable armchairs set around white-tablecloth-covered tables! My kids got their own table, while my husband and I had our own. An unexpected mini-date that included a vase with fresh flowers on the table between us! My mood, which was pretty sour following an early wake-up call, improved drastically and instantaneously!

Let me give you a tour of the Orient Express of the Andeas:

The train had three passenger cars: A Dining Car, A Bar Car, and an Observation Car.

The dining car, in the above picture, was where we were originally seated. There were less than thirty five of us (the allowed maximum): tourists from all over the world. Throughout the ride it felt like staff members outnumbered us.

The Bar Car had more armchairs, arranged two by two around little round tables.

In the corner it had a fully-equipped bar:

The Observation Car had long benches in the middle. It was only half covered, with big windows all around allowing a panoramic view. Since it was Christmas, it also featured a tree in one corner.

I don’t usually show you pictures of bathrooms, but even the toilet on this train felt luxurious:

The looks and ambiance of the train greatly lifted my spirits, but it turned out to be only the beginning. Without knowing it, we were about to embark on the train-ride of a lifetime!

On-Board Experiences:

Shortly after the train started moving, the stuff distributed snacks and drinks. Alcohol in the morning does wonders to your mood! Needless to say, the ice between us passengers was broken fairly quickly. Tourists intermingled, chatted and became friends.

A couple of hours into the ride, a live band began playing Peruvian music in the Bar Car. Soon, we got to see some Peruvian dances as well:

This was followed by a fashion show, with a male and a female models showing us some high-end Peruvian alpaca fashion:

In the meantime, while we were greatly enjoying ourselves on the most luxurious train I’ve ever been on, the real Peru passed by outside our windows: arid grasslands sparkled with mud huts:

Small mud-built villages:

Little towns:

And the most remarkable of all: a bustling urban market set along the train tracks! Since there are only two trains a day, with predictable schedules, people had booths and merchandise set on the tracks. They removed everything when the train approached, then put it back up the second it passed:

The three-course lunch felt like a visit to a five-star restaurant:

In the afternoon, the guys at the bar demonstrated how to mix pisco sour, the Peruvian national coctail. All the adults got to taste it, as well as other alcoholic beverages. The band played again. By then everyone was happy enough to rattle along, clap, sing, and even dance!

The band, in fact, was quite amazing! At first they played hours of Peruvian/Latin music. Later, per the audience’s request, they moved on to Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and even Pink Floyd!

It was a truly surreal experience: riding a luxury train, complete with white table cloths, drinks, live music and fun entertainment, while dressed in unwashed hiking clothes and hiking boots. It felt rather odd to pass through a poor countryside full of friendly people, many of whom, both old and young, waved at us, while listening to “The Wall:”

Yes, there was even an afternoon tea service!

I truly hoped the ride would never end! I was actually sad when we arrived at our destination…

Only many weeks later, after I was already home, did I learn that The Society of International Railway voted this train as one of the 25 most luxurious in the world! Ready to go?

My New Peruvian Tapestry Totes

As you might recall, at the beginning of the year I resolved to finish all the many half-started projects that clogged my sewing room. I decided not to allow myself to sew anything new before I reached that goal. At first, I stayed on course, and slowly tackled one pile after the other. But then my family guilted me into cleaning the room up. In the process of doing that, I found some treasures that turned out to be irresistible. Without really wanting to, I got sidetracked…

In one corner of my sewing room, you see, I found a little plastic bag containing five pieces of hand-woven tapestries I bought in Peru. On the other side I stumbled upon a pile of beautiful, vividly-colored velveteens I got at FabMo. The two piles just happened to match perfectly. How could I not do something about that?

When in Peru, I was blown away by the beautiful hand-woven and naturally-dyed tapestries I saw everywhere. I bought a table-runner or two, but was having a hard time finding tapestries to use in my own work. Most of the pieces I saw were quite big, and I wasn’t sure whether I could cut them without completely damaging them. They were also very pricey. Using such costly textiles would have required hiking the prices of my own bags to more than what most people can afford. So I didn’t buy anything to sew with.

Until, that is, I visited the most amazing Christmas market I’ve ever been to. The Christmas market in Cusco had a mind-boggling array of booths, with some incredible handicrafts. Several of these booths sold small tapestries in the size I was looking for. Unfortunately, most were made of commercially-dyed acrylics. Although some were pretty, I decided to pass them over. Then I stumbled upon a booth with some naturally-dyed woolen tapestries that stopped me in my tracks.

The seller showed me a handful of small tapestries, the likes of which I haven’t seen anywhere else (you can see them in the above picture, on the very left, right above the shoes). Of those, I chose five that I found the most appealing (yes, in hindsight I DO regret not buying them all!). I purchased them without knowing what to do with them. When I came home, I put them in my sewing room for future use.

I re-discovered them while tidying up.

When I saw them, I immediately thought of the bright-colored fabrics I got at FabMo, piled on the other side of the room. Together, they were just begging to be turned into totes! So I started playing around.

Since the tapestries were gorgeous works of art all on their own, I wanted them to be the focus of the work. Because they were very colorful, I decided to match them with solid-colored fabrics that would frame and highlight them.

I’ve never worked with wool before (since I’m actually allergic to it!), and have never sewn through tapestries. I wasn’t sure how this would work, or whether my sewing machine will like it. It turned out not to be a problem. The tapestries acted like some of the thickest fabrics I’ve worked with, but were unremarkable in any other way.

I made the five outer pieces, then selected matching solid colors for the lining. For those, I chose rough-ish textures to go with the feel of the outer layer.

After some deliberation, I decided to sew wide black straps. These I made from a fabric that felt like a cotton-raw-silk blend.

I worked on these totes on and off for about two weeks, and am quite happy with how they turned out!

Of course, once I gave myself permission to work on new things, the flood gates opened. Especially with new scraps lying on the floor, suggesting all sorts of new possibilities… My mind has been working overtime! I think going back to working on my UFOs might prove somewhat difficult…

Gypsy Robe: How My Family Became Part of an Evolving Community Canvas

The tradition of passing on a Gypsy Robe in musical theater productions apparently started on Broadway in 1950. It’s now a part of the Broadway production routine, with clear rules that everyone respects.

This tradition is also followed by other theater companies, including the youth theater group that my children participate in. In this company, the Robe is always given to a supporting actor who manifested a positive attitude throughout the rehearsal process, and who contributed to making the overall experience pleasant for everyone. In the previous show, A Christmas Story, which ended last November, my daughter was the proud recipient of the robe!

I’ve heared about the Robe over the years, of course, but I haven’t actually seen it until my daughter brought it home. When I laid eyes on it, I immediately appreciated the idea. A gypsy Robe, you see, is an evolving communal piece of art, onto which different people keep adding their mark over time!

This specific robe has already seen many shows, and had a great vibe of numerous kids’ fabulous experiences:

Patches representing different musicals covered it all over. These displayed different levels of artistic ingenuity, as well as varying degrees of sewing skills. Some were complex and well executed. Others were rather simple, both in idea and execution. But together they told the story of the youth theater, and represented the fun memories of the many kids who participated in those shows:

When the Robe came home, I assumed that the task of adding A Christmas Story patch to it would fall on me. I am, after all, the textile artist in the family! I was pleasantly surprised, however, when my daughter took responsibility for this. My husband enthusiastically came to her aid.

Of course, in a typical way, those two just couldn’t keep things simple!

They decided to make a patch with the show’s memorable leg-lamp. Not a regular patch of an appliqued lamp, but rather a three-dimensional one. They wanted to build a lamp that actually works!

My daughter made a paper prototype and attached it to the robe to see if it fits:

Then my husband did some research on materials that could lighten up. He ended up buying an Electroluminescent (EL) Light Panel:

It came with a wire on the back:

My husband cut it to shape:

The two then asked me to find a trim to go on the lampshade’s bottom. This was a great excuse to visit FabMo (and return with a little more than just a trim…)!

Little trimming

My daughter asked me to sew a leg based on the following model:

I found skin-colored fabric and cut a leg out:

I covered it with fish-net type tights that my daughter picked from a selection of sheers I found for her (she chose the black):

This is what it came out like:

I helped them connect the lampshade to the robe with Velcro, then sewed the leg on:

It came out exactly the way they hoped it would:

Once the lamp was in place, I had to sew a thin sleeve onto the inside of the robe, to hold the wire that went all the way from a battery (placed in the robe’s pocket) to the lampshade:

My daughter printed the name of the show on an iron-on paper. On the first try it came out mirror-image, as she forgot to read the instructions. The second try was successful. I ironed it on for her:

I didn’t realize (until it was too late), that there is a wire underneath, in addition to other bumpy patches. The surface, therefore, was not completely flat. I didn’t press the iron too hard, so as not to melt the wire. In addition, while ironing, the glue on one of the patches on the other side of the sleeve started melting, seeping into the fabric and smearing all over my ironing board! As you can imagine, the transfer didn’t come out so well:

My daughter was not happy AT ALL! She was upset it came out ugly. I was upset it ruined my ironing board.

She concluded it was all my fault, and hardly spoke to me for two days. Eventually, she decided to make a new patch, on which she wrote by hand with sharpies:

She wanted me to sew it on, but I wasn’t about to take on any additional risks. I made her do it herself.

This is how it turned out, glowing in the dark!

It was a collaborative family effort, in the end. Despite the few bumps along the way, I hope that after a few years my daughter will think back of the experience fondly.

Earlier this week my daughter passed the Robe on to the happy recipient of the current production. During the ceremony, she showed the glow-in-the-dark effect to the production team, and was oohed-and-aahed. Soon, the new recipient will put her own mark on the robe, and pass it on to someone else. Traditions, memories  and art will keep intermingling!


Cleaning Up a Sewing Room Has Its Dangers…

After writing last week’s post, I decided it was time to sort through my sewing room. I took advantage of it being a long weekend, and hired my teenage daughter to help with this daunting task. I didn’t expect her to be enthusiastic to the point of waking me up at dawn on a Sunday morning. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. My day thus started on the wrong foot. Luckily, a few cups of coffee miraculously brought it back on track…

We began by moving everything from the sewing room’s floor out into the living room. This truly-tedious work took a few hours. It resulted in a huge mess on the living room’s floor. It also exhausted my daughter. So much so, in fact, that she had to take a long break from which she never recovered. Yes, I’m afraid she abandoned me mid-way, leaving me to deal with the rest of the cleanup all on my own…

Once all my treasured were out, I took some of the furniture out as well, and gave the room a good vacuuming. Gone were all the bits of thread and fabric snippets! The carpet suddenly looked so very bright!

Then I sat down for hours of sorting. It felt a bit like doing laundry: sitting amid piles of textiles, and sorting them by kind and size:

When I was done (a day later), I put everything back where it actually belonged: inside a cabinet, on a shelf, or in a bin. I then put the furniture back in, except I changed its placement a little, clearing up space I didn’t realize I could have. All of a sudden the room looked a lot more spacious, and working in it became significantly more pleasant!

I managed to reduce my UFO piles to two. I put them where I can clearly see them, so that they don’t disappear under future clutter:

Those, by the way, don’t include the almost-complete Renaissance Totes of which I wrote last week (these are waiting patiently on the bed).

Tidying up the space, however, had some dangers. It allowed me to see all the bits and pieces I almost forgot I had, and reminded me of things I wanted to make but didn’t get to. In addition, it also opened some brand new possibilities!

It so happened that in one part of the room I found a bag containing a few pieces of Peruvian Weaving that I bought at a Christmas Market in Cusco on my last trip to Peru:

On the other side of the room I came across a pile of beautiful velveteen fabrics I found at FabMo:

It’s not my fault that the colors happened to match…

I found the vivid colors absolutely irresistible. So yes, I admit I let myself get sidetracked this week. Instead of plowing ahead finishing unfinished projects, I started a new series of Peruvian Weaving Totes. I’ll try to finish those next week, so I can get back to the Renaissance Totes now waiting on the bed 🙂

On Creative Clutter and Productivity

I admit that the clutter in my sewing room is a bit out of control. Getting in and out requires acrobatic maneuvering. Various projects in different stages of completion are piled everywhere, sitting next to piles of fabric and boxes of zippers, hardware and buttons. There are only narrow lanes in between, to give me access to my sewing machine, the cutting table and the ironing board–the three essential stations for any sewing activity. Things are so bad, in fact, that I’m actually ashamed to post a picture of the room for you to see.

That was why I made a New Year’s Resolution to finish all the unfinished items before I start any new ones. It’s been incredibly difficult, but I’ve been working hard to meet that goal. I’ve been fighting a flow of new ideas, and resisting strong urges for new experiments. Instead, I’ve been tackling one pile after the other, even when a pile calls for the less-exciting aspects of creating. So far I’ve been making slow-but-steady progress. And that despite the many distractions that life keeps throwing my way, such as mid-winter gardening, sick kids, or a never-ending array of school vacations.

I already finished most half-started messenger bags. I spent a couple of weeks ironing heavy interfacing onto new market totes, even though I strongly dislike that particular task.

When the market totes were done, I spent another workday or two hand-stitching the corners of the outer shells to the lining (another tedious task), so that everything remains stable.

I was happy with the results, however, especially with this one:

And seeing the finished pile gave me much satisfaction!

Once the market totes were done, I moved on to the pile of unfinished Renaissance Totes. These are my most luxurious items, and the ones I like making most. I keep my most lavish-feeling fabrics for them, and line them with the most beautiful silk-blends and brocades I can find. Collecting the right fabrics for each takes months, sometimes. The last time I sewed those was over a year ago, and in the meantime I collected beautiful textiles to construct several new ones. Over the last week I pieced together a few outer shells, and matched some with lining:

I also started sewing the outer shells of some:

Sewing the pocket-rich linings will take a couple of more weeks, along with the final completion.

So, as you can see, definite progress. However, a funny thing keeps happening as I work on all these: the more piles I tackle, the more new piles emerge. I don’t quite know how this happens. It’s a true mystery. Magic, perhaps; or wicked sorcery…

It is possible that my love of fabrics has something to do with it. Last week, for example, my daughter asked me to go to FabMo to get something for her. She didn’t have to ask twice! I went to get this:

And returned with that:

And since my fabric cabinets have been full for a while … Well, needless to say that most of it ended up in piles…

My kids claim I have a fabric addiction. I say I need a palette to work with… They say my studio is a disaster. I agree with the following:

Often, seeing a couple of fabrics randomly lying next to each other gives me new ideas. Seeing my raw materials out in the open opens up an entirely new array of possibilities… In the clutter I find combinations I haven’t thought of. I get ideas for new designs, or even new products. Thus, although I find the mess distracting, it is also inspiring all at the same time.

Yesterday we had a little family conversation, and I ended up getting an earful from my children. They suggested putting a quota on the new fabrics I’m allowed to bring in (!!). The kids argued I should not buy any new fabrics unless I get rid of old ones. They even brought up the idea of imposing a tariff on fabrics!

So maybe it’s time to be a good parent and lead by example. Perhaps I should take time off sewing and tidy the room up instead… As for limiting new acquisitions … well, that might be a wee bit more difficult…


Lake Titicaca Islands: What to Expect from a Home Stay on Amantani Island

I haven’t had much time for sewing this week. Temperatures in California have been record-breaking high, which meant my fruit trees started coming out of winter dormancy earlier than usual. I therefore had to spend a couple of days in the garden, pruning, spraying, and fertilizing. In addition, I had to care for a sick child. In between, I tried to stick to working on my countless unfinished-projects, and spent hours ironing interfacing. No wonder I find it more interesting to reflect, once again, on my recent trip to Peru!

Today I would like to tell you what to expect if you decide to try a home stay on Amantani Island, a small island in the middle of Lake Titicaca.

Home Stay on Amantani Island

The House

Unlike the man-made Uros Floating Islands, the island of Amantani is a real, solid island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. Seeing it getting near after several hours on the reed islands and more time on the rocky boat was a relief…

When we planned our trip, we decided to try a home stay on the island. We thought it would be interesting not only to see how people in other parts of the world live, but to also experience living like them, even if just for one day. I expected to sleep on a living-room floor in someone’s hut, and eat the foods they normally eat. The reality turned out to be a bit different.

When our boat reached the dock, a group of women was waiting to greet us. They were all dressed in traditional black clothes embroidered with colorful flowers. We later learned that these were their formal frocks, reserved for special occasions, and that husbands traditionally embroider their wive’s clothes. One of these women turned out to be our host. She asked us to follow her uphill to the village.

Luckily for us, the house we stayed at turned out to be not too far from the docks. Once there, we were greeted by the rest of the family, and were introduced to everyone: our hostess Lucrecia, her husband Richard,and their young daughter Diana Isabella.

To our surprise, instead of the modest hut we expected, we found a large, two-storied building, with an entire newly-built guest wing. We weren’t going to sleep on a floor in a living room after all. The entire upper floor was dedicated to tourists, and consisted of three comfortable guest rooms, two for us and one for our guide.

Our host family, it turned out, did not use any of these rooms. They were reserved for tourists, and were comfortable, clean and well maintained:

The beautiful view was a bonus:

The View from our room on Amantani Island

Still, I felt a bit disappointed. This was more AirBnb than a home stay.

The Food

After a short rest we went down to the kitchen, the only common area of the house. There, our hostess, Lucrecia, and her sister Nelly were in the midst of preparing our lunch.

The food was vegetarian, and restaurant-quality:

We later realized that the meals we got during our home stay were tailored to tourist tastes. Our host family didn’t eat with us at the large table at the center of the room. Rather, they sat in another corner of the kitchen, and ate different food.

This work of art decorated the kitchen/dinning room wall. I found it quite special:

The Village

After lunch our tour guide took us on a hike. As we walked through the village, we realized that the entire settlement was in the midst of a building boom. Many of the houses had new wings, just like the one we stayed at.

And, indeed, we saw group after group of tourists climbing up the trail leading from the dock:

The day we were there, the entire population was working on paving the trails crisscrossing the village. They were trying to complete the work before Christmas, as they were all promised a bonus if they managed to meet this deadline. This was exactly what the expression “it takes a village” was coined for.

The Temple

Our guide took us up one of the two mountains on the island, to an open temple dedicated to Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Pachamama is a pre-Inka goddess, and many people in Peru still worship her. The climb was taxing. Lake Titicaca is in high elevation, and the mountain we climbed was even higher.

I was struggling to catch up with my kids. Our guide gave me a few dry coca leaved to chew on, to help with elevation and give me some energy. They tested like grass, and I am not sure whether they actually helped or not.

I did make it to the peak, however!

The view was well worth the effort:

The open-air temple was also interesting. It is usually closed, and only opens a few times a year, when the entire community gathers there for celebrations.

The Dinner

By the time we returned from our hike, the women already changed out of their formal wear and into their everyday clothes. Everyone was wearing hats, since the evenings in Amantani are rather chilly due to the high elevation. The houses on the island don’t have heating.

The food was Western, and as delicious as before. After dinner Richard joined us at the table, and we all got to know each other a bit better, and learn about each other’s lives.

The Departure

The next morning, after a fine breakfast, our host family insisted on dressing us up in local clothes. We then took a few customary tourist pictures:

As we were about to leave, our hostess took out some souvenirs she said she made. Some didn’t look handmade, and the rest looked suspiciously like souvenirs we saw everywhere else. Still, we bought something.

The Effects of Tourism

Traditionally, the inhabitants of the island live off the land. The island is covered with terraces, and to this very day crops are grown on every possible piece of land. We saw some people working the land on our hike up the mountain:

The island’s inhabitants also raise farm animals such as sheep, pigs and donkeys. Nowadays, however, it seems that the local economy heavily relies on tourism, as it does for the Uros people. Tourism is physically changing the island, and is responsible for the wide-spread expansion of houses and the quick paving of local trails. It also changes people’s daily routines, with more and more families spending much of their time catering to tourists. Our hostess’s daughter and her cousin were playing with toys that former tourist-guests gave them. The changing of local diets and other habits is probably just a matter of time.

A New Year in My Studio: Trying to Finish Partially-sewn Projects

I’m not quite done writing about my trip to Peru, but I thought I’ll take a break from that to tell you a little about what I’ve been up to in my sewing room.

Transitions are always hard for me. It usually takes me a while to get back into a routine after going on a trip. Especially a trip as exciting as the one I took this winter. So after coming home from the Andes in early January, I warmed up my sewing muscles by making a few new toiletry bags. Zip pouches are relatively simple to make, and are a quicker sew than my more complicated bags. They were a great project for getting my creative juices flowing!

This time I decided to experiment with using foamed-filled fabrics for some of the bottoms. I love the result, as the foam gives the bags a nice shape in addition to fun textures!

Since valentine’s Day is approaching, I then went on to make new original fabric heart-cards. These are always fun to create. This year I made them in three different colors: red, blue, and my favorite purple!

Here are the red ones:

The fabrics I used for the cards inspired me to make a wall hanging, too:

When this fun part was over, I was ready to tackle some less-pleasant tasks. Over the past couple of years, you see, I accumulated big piles of partly-finished projects. These are now taking up a lot of space in my small, messy sewing room. They make moving around hard, and concentrating even harder.

I began working on these projects at various times, and didn’t finish them either because guests arrived before I got to it (my sewing room is also our guest room), or because we went on vacation, and I never got back to them upon return. I usually have so many ideas for new things I want to make, that unless I finish something right away, I never do…

But a new year just started, and I thought that this was a good reason to try and finish these partially-finished things. In the past, I started the year by cleaning up my sewing room, but this time I can’t do that unless I move the unfinished piles into the finished-work bins…

I started with a couple of messenger bags and a tote. The bag on the upper left is my very own long-awaited-for summer purse:

I still have a few more messenger bags to finish, as well as market totes and my absolute-favorite Renaissance Totes. There is also an eclipse-inspired art quilt that I started last year, and a twin-size bed quilt for my daughter that has been waiting, sandwiched and ready to quilt, for at least four years (!!!).

I guess I have my work cut out for me for the next few months… It’s hard to keep disciplined, because a million-and-one new ideas are calling. But I will do my best to keep on course. Wish me luck!


The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca, Peru

Lake Titicaca is the largest fresh-water lake in Latin America. It is located on the border of Peru and Bolivia, with Peru owning the larger part. The meaning of it’s name is unclear. The locals like to joke that Titi is for Peru, and Caca (or kaka) for Bolivia. The formal explanation is that the name possibly meant “Gray Puma” in an old local language, after the animal that used to roam the region (or maybe after the shape of the lake, which, with lots of imagination, reminds one of a puma).

Like many other tourists, we visited Lake Titicaca on our recent trip to Peru for its unique floating islands.

Why Floating Islands

According to our tour guide, the ancestors of the people now living on the floating islands, members of the Uru (or Uros) ethnicity, were fishermen living on the lake’s shores. These people realized early on that the reeds growing in the shallower parts of the lake (totora) are very buoyant when dry. They harvested them and used them to make boats.

After the Incas conquered the area and started taking men to the army, some families escaped on their boats to the middle of the lake, where the new rulers could not reach them. They began living on these boats, sustaining themselves from whatever they could get from the lake. Here is a model of one such boat:

The community grew with time, but remained in boats even after the Incas fell, to avoid suffering in the hands of the Spanish conquistadors. After several hundred years living on boats, they began building floating islands in the middle of the lake. They moved closer to shore fairly recently, in the 1980’s, with some communities remaining in the more remote parts.

How the Islands are Built

When the reeds die, their root balls detach from the bottom of the lake and float to the top. The Urus collect these root balls, and use them as the base for their islands. They put sticks in the middle of each root ball, and then use a rope to tie the different root balls to each other:

After the men tie many root balls together, they use saws and long-handled knives to cut reeds:

They pile reeds on top of the root balls, then keep piling them in different directions:

Once there are 2-3 feet of reeds covering the root balls, they use more reeds to build bases for huts, and then build reed huts to put on top, as in this model:

And there it is, a finished island:

The men add new layers to the top of the island as needed. This is what the ground looks like:

When you walk on them, the islands feel squashy and wet! In fact, the bases built under each hut are meant to keep the water away from the huts themselves.

Life on the Floating Islands

Generally, the Urus live in communities, with many islands gathered close together, around an open space of lake. There are several such clusters:

People drag and move the Islands as needed. If families in neighboring islands quarrel, for example, one of them can take their island and move it elsewhere.

Each of the islands is the home of a few families. Usually, every nuclear family has its own hut:

As you can tell, they now have solar panels to charge their cell phones (!).

There is a communal kitchen:

Men hunt and fish. The women care for the children, and cook meals, usually together. The meals consist of roots bought from the shore, as well as of fish and fowl caught on the lake:

People also eat the reeds. We were told they keep people’s teeth healthy, strong and white. The locals believe that one particular potato-like root, oca, protects them from skin cancer:

It is common for young men and women to live together before marriage. If either decides they don’t like their partner, they are free to leave and choose another mate. Once children are born, however, they usually get married.

When a young couple decides to establish their own household, the father of the family takes a saw and cuts off a chunk of the island for them to take away. They are then free to drag their new island anywhere they want.

The Uru And Tourism

A minority of Uru people still live in the middle of Lake Titicaca, far from the peering eyes of tourists. The majority, however, moved closer to shore, to make tourist access easier. In fact, it seems as if nowadays most Island People rely on tourism for a living.

As in the case of the weaving communities, what we want to believe and what actually is are not necessarily the same thing. Today, the Uru no longer need to fear Inca recruiters or conquistadors. They no longer have a real reason to stay on floating islands, save for the fact that they do not own lands on shore, and that the world seems to want them to stay there.

An entire economy relies on the existence of the islands: tourists are excited to see this different, exotic lifestyle. Numerous tourist guides, boat operators, tour agencies and so on make a living off of visiting them. Even the Peruvian government benefits from advertising their uniqueness. In fact, it feels as if the entire setting exists for the sake of tourists.

There are many islands, with many families living on them. We were told that there is a limit on the number of boats that are allowed to visit each day. The islands supposedly take turns hosting these boats. This ensures that the income that tourists bring is divided equally and fairly among the different families. We were told that each family hosts tourists once a month or so.

However, that didn’t seem to necessarily be the case. For one, we saw quite a few tourist boats scattered around the islands. This, for example, was ours:

The locals are warm and hospitable. They are also very used to guests. As our boat neared, they were waiting for us on shore, singing and dancing:

The islands are very small. Yet, props for tourist explanations take up a large, central space:

There was also a permanent-looking craft booth:

When we went to see the inside of a hut, it was too-tidy. Items for sale filled it up. Local costumes waited for tourists to try them on. I wondered whether anyone actually lived there:

At some point, our hostess began embroidering:

Within minutes of picking up the needle, her husband showed up with finished works we could buy:

Needless to say, we couldn’t really leave without getting something, another addition to the pile of textiles we will never actually use:

We paid extra to take a ride in a local “Mercedes Benz,” nicknamed that because it’s a money-maker. The “Mercedes Benzes” are reed boats, redesigned for tourists. They consist of two boats put together, often shaped like pumas, with a platform built between them. A motor boat pulls them. The locals, for their own needs, only ride motor boats.

While riding our “Mercedes,” two little boys entertained us by singing songs in foreign languages, obviously without understanding the words. When they finished singing, they walked around asking for money.

I felt as if us tourists replaced the Incas as far as keeping the Uru people on their islands. This didn’t feel good, because life on the floating islands did not seem healthy. The residents, especially the women, did not seem to be getting much exercise. There is hardly any room to walk. Women cook and embroider while mostly sitting. To leave the islands, people have to ride boats. Life is quite sedentary, and many adults are over weight.

The high elevation and glare from the water make avoiding the sun impossible. People get very tanned. The ova might not be enough to protect them from skin cancer. And the reeds didn’t seem to keep everyone’s teeth healthy, either: sadly, it seems that the younger generation doesn’t chew enough of them. The kids that sang for us, for example, had many rotten teeth, perhaps another side effect of too many tourists giving too much candy.