Graffiti Heaven in Florentin Neighborhood, Tel Aviv, Israel

I love seeing art when I travel. Fine art exhibited in museums, of course, but also grass-roots arts, such as the arts seen at craft markets or on city walls. Yep. Graffiti can be viewed by some as vulgar vandalism, but it is also the artistic expression of certain segments of society.

In Tel Aviv, Israel, there is an entire neighborhood that celebrates graffiti: Florentin, in the southern part of the city. There, colorful murals completely cover  several city blocks. On my latest visit to the Holy Land several months ago, I went to check it out. I enjoyed looking at all the different works created by different people. The paintings were a collection of many styles, ideas, and political orientations.

Here is a little taste of what this neighborhood has to offer:

After walking around a bit, I noticed works that seemed similar. The style seemed consistent, as if drawn by the same hand. I started actively looking for works by this artist, an activity that became a kind of a game for me and my kids. It reminded me of our trip to London a couple of years ago, and of how we enjoyed doing the same there.

I later found a signed work by the artist in a different neighborhood. That’s how I learned of Sara Erenthal and her work.

As I was about to leave the neighborhood, I saw a big sign on top of a building. Only then did I realize why the municipality allowed all that graffiti. The entire neighborhood, it turns out, is deemed for demolition. Soon brand-new sky-scrapers will replace the old, paint-covered buildings.

So, if you find yourself in Israel soon, go check Florentin out before it disappears. There are special graffiti tours you can take, and even graffiti workshops!

An Unexpected Discovery In Ma’ale Gamla, Israel

Did you ever make a small discovery that brightened up your day? It doesn’t have to be a gold-filled-chest kind of a discovery. Just a little, surprising encounter that made you happy? If so, then you must know how I felt when I found a yard full of art at a most unexpected place!

On my latest trip to Israel several months ago, my family and I were staying at a Zimmer in Ma’ale Gamla in the Golan Heights (a “zimmer” is how Israelis call cabins for rent). Ma’ale Gamla is a tiny residential town overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Its population consists of about one hundred families, and the only store in existence is a little grocery. Tourists mostly use it as a base for exploring the surroundings.

Early one morning during our short stay in the town, my husband and I decided to go on a little morning walk. My husband, a veteran Pokemon hunter, already explored the place the day before. As we walked, he slowly stirred me towards a side street he thought I might find interesting.

Neat houses and greenery lined the narrow, unassuming street on both sides. It was very quiet in that early hour. Suddenly, I noticed a life-size sculpture at the entrance to a driveway.

Turned out this was a Poke Stop called “Peres in a Bathing Suit,” and that this was how my husband found the statue in the first place.

On the other side of the driveway, still along the main road, I saw yet another life-size sculpture, this one of a dancing girl:

A more careful inspection revealed a small cat-sculpture in the corner:

As we walked on, we realized that the entire front yard was packed-full of art: sculptures big and small made out of plaster, metal mesh, clay and even fabric; reliefs; paintings. We stopped to admire them.

As we were standing there, the front door opened, and a man came out to collect his morning paper.

We felt a bit embarrassed, to be caught gawking like that. But the man turned out to be very friendly. When I told him how impressed I was with all that art, he explained that  the artist was his wife. He then invited us over to see the back yard.

The back, too, was full of life-size sculptures:

It also had some small ones, like those two metal ants I found charming:

And, there was an entire collection of oven-glazed clay figurines:

Even the plant pots had faces!

We learned that this artist occasionally exhibited her works in local galleries. After we left, I realized I never asked for her name. Unfortunately, I was unable to find out more about her afterwards.

Seeing her fun work, however, really made my day. Her creativity shaped the space around her house, dotting it with cheerfulness and joy. Looking at everything she made was truly inspiring!

Next time you stay at a guest house, make sure to take a little walk around the neighborhood. You never know what you might find!

Sure, You Can Probably Do the Inca Trail, But Should You?

I wrote extensively about our December trip to Peru, because … well, there was a lot to write about! I absolutely MUST write this one last Peru post, though, because trekking the Inca Trail was an experience of a lifetime.

Why I’m Sure You Can Do It, Too, Unless You Have a Serious Health Issue:

I first read about the Inca Trail a few decades ago, as I was procrastinating instead of writing my dissertation. It looked thrilling and fun, but seemed like one of those faraway things one can only dream about. Except that last December we did end up going to Peru…

We HAD to sign up for the trek, of course. But to tell you I wasn’t worried would be a lie. For one, I was a lot older than I was when I first read about it. A lot more out of shape, too. AND I was recovering from a second bout of debilitating back pain, the kind that rendered me nearly immobile for several weeks… I was terrified to hurt my back again, two-days into the trail, with no way out but a helicopter airlift… I went back and forth, trying to decide whether I should go or not. Then, at the last minute, I decided to go for it.

Now, my kids are in much better shape than I am. Several hours before leaving for the trek, however, we needed to take two out of the three to a clinic. One had an ear infection. The other–a bad stomach virus that involved sever vomiting and diarrhea. They went on the trek sick, each with their own antibiotics, and a small arsenal of additional medications.

So, folks, if we could do the Inca Trail, you could, too!

What to Expect

The classic Inca Trail is a four-day, 25-kilometer trek. It leaves from km 82 of the railroad, heads north towards the Amazon, and ends in the famous city of Machu Picchu.

The Trail

This is what all the guide books tell you: The first day is an easy warm-up. The second day, which takes you up to an elevation of more then 4,200 meters, is brutal. The third day is all downhill, and the fourth day is easy, with a short hike from the park entrance, up to the Sun Gate and down to Machu Picchu.

The reality: The first day is an “Inca Flat.” “Inca Flat” means lots of ups and downs. It might be easy if you’re in great shape. Otherwise … not so much. During this day you will walk through some pretty wilderness:

But also through many little villages that offer drinks and snacks for sale, as well as bathroom-use for a small fee.

You will also see your first Inca ruins, and realize, to your amazement, that there’s a ruin on almost every hill!

The second day is, indeed, brutal. Because if “Inca Flat” can be steep, just imagine what “Inca Steep” is like… Think an entire day of these:

And how grueling it can be to actually climb them…

My legs got so wobbly, that I needed to use walking sticks (those are life-savers!):

Don’t believe all the smiling Dead Woman’s Pass blog-post pictures you see everywhere. This is what it REALLY feels like to climb up to the highest part of the trail:

And yes, I, too, have a smiling picture from the Pass. But not because I felt great. I was smiling because, against all expectations, I made it there ALIVE!

That night I barely managed to crawl out of my tent to eat dinner…

The third day, I thought, would be super easy. What can be easier than going downhill, right? Uhmm … WRONG! Because this wasn’t down, it was “Inca Down.” That means starting the day with a twenty-minute upward climb. Then going down Inca steps, which  are STEEP. Some are knee-high. It rained. And everything was slippery. Going down those stairs was almost worse than climbing them!

The “leisurely” fourth day started with a 3:00 am wake-up call. We had to pack in the dark. Then we sat for two hours, in the dark and cold, along with five hundred other people, all waiting for the gate to the national park to open.

The minute the gate opened, at 5:30 am, the Great Race began. People were running, overtaking, almost pushing, only to get to the Sun Gate first. My family disappeared with the first rush. I walked as fast as I could, which wasn’t very fast. The view was beautiful, but I had no time to enjoy it.

Then, right before the Sun Gate, another set of stairs, which the guides jokingly call “The Death Stairs.” Some people literally crawl up…

From the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu was actually rather easy, though quite packed with tourists even early in the morning.

The Weather

Because of the high elevation and the fact that the trail goes through several climate zones, weather on the Inca trail can be very unpredictable no matter when you go. We went in December, which is the dry season. It didn’t rain on our first day, but, as you can see from the pictures above, it drizzled, rained, poured and hailed on the second and third days. It got quite windy sometimes, too.

And it was mostly foggy for two entire days. We were told there are breath-taking views beyond the trail, but this is all we could see:

Early mornings, evenings and nights were all cold, requiring coats, warm hats and gloves.

The Ruins

The Inca Tail passes near several small Inca settlement. Seeing those up-close and walking around them was one of the highlights of the experience:

Once, we even saw a black lama, which are quite rare!

Your Fellow Trekkers

The Peruvian government allows only 500 people a day on the trail. That number includes 200 tourists and 300 porters. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but since all these people walk at about the same pace, the trail feels rather crowded most of the time.

People overtake you constantly. Rows of porters go by, carrying ginormous, heavy loads. Each company has a different uniform for its porters, and the guides jokingly call the porter-rows “caterpillars.” During the day you see “Red Caterpillars,” “Green Caterpillars,” “Blue Caterpillars,” “Orange Caterpillars” and so on.

You meet other tourist groups at lunch stops, and several groups share a night camp.

The Food

Every group travels with a chef. Porters carry portable kitchens and all the ingredients. Meals are cooked on the spot. Despite the minimal facilities, the food was incredible! It not only tasted good, but was also presented beautifully, like at a high-end restaurant. I am vegetarian, and got some vegetarian dishes cooked just for me.

There is even a waiter, who serves everything restaurant-style:

On the last day, we actually got a freshly-baked cake!

The Bathrooms

Bathrooms on the Inca Trail are far between and far from perfect. On the first day, there are bathrooms you can use in the villages you pass. You need to pay a small fee. Those are very simple and not super clean. For the rest of the trip, there are few public bathrooms along the tail, and heavily-used-but-rarely-cleaned bathrooms in every night camp. I’ve seen worse in China a few decades ago. My kids were appalled.

When no bathrooms are available, you are allowed to use “Pacha Mama (=Mother Earth) Bathrooms.”  The problem is, that finding a private place is hard. The trail, as I mentioned, is crowded, with people passing you all the time. Even if you find a secluded spot, you never know when someone will appear from around the bend… As usual, things are easier for men than for women.

Some porter companies take portable potties along. I think that making porters carry heavy potties (not to mention cleaning them!) is unnecessary and inhumane. We chose a company that didn’t do that.

Why I’m Not Sure You Should…

I’ve been dreaming of doing the Inca Trail for decades, and although it was hard, I’m really glad I did. The trail was physically challenging, but pushing myself through it felt rewarding. Seeing the different landscapes of Peru up-close was interesting, even in the fog. Walking is the only way to see the many Inca ruins along the way. And Machu Picchu was everything I hoped it would be!

However…

It IS hard!

Even fit people find parts of the trail challenging. If you’re the kind of person who suffers greatly while hiking, this isn’t an experience for you!

There is no helicopter

It turns out that the rumors about a helicopter airlift are a myth. There is no good place for helicopters to land along the trek. If something happens on the first day, while you are close to villages, you can hire a horse or donkey and ride out. After that, you need to walk out, no matter what.

The bathrooms suck

You might be grossed out if you’re not used to it…

You might feel guilty about the porters

I know I did! It’s true that the Inca Trail trek provides many jobs to people who might otherwise not have them. It’s also true that these jobs pay better than some others. However, being a porter is really hard work! Porters carry huge backspaces and heavy loads. Once, there were no regulations and they were made to carry whatever tourists wanted them to. Now, the weight is limited to 20 kg, but it is still a lot.

The porters who pass you are constantly sweating. They chew coca leaves to keep themselves going. The porters have to get to camp before you, and set everything up so it’s ready when you arrive. They have to take everything down once you leave, and then rush to catch up and overpass you, so they can be there to set up the next stop…

Some porter companies don’t provide their workers even with basic equipment. We’ve seen porters wearing flip flops. And some companies make them carry portapotties…

The porters all sleep together in the dining tent once you are done eating. The food they eat is not nearly as sophisticated as what they make for you.

You don’t sleep a lot

On the first day, the guide comes to pick you up from your hotel at 4:00 am. On the second day, since you need to climb up quite a bit, wake-up is at 5:00 am, with a 5:30 departure. The third day isn’t so bad, with a 6:00 am wake-up call. But on the last day you need to get up before 3:00 am. That’s because the porters need to catch a 7:00 am train back to Cusco, and need to be able to pack camp and hike all the way down to make it to the train in time.

And so…

When you finally arrive in Machu Picchu, you’re exhausted!

Machu Pichhu was a city, and it is much larger than all the ruins you see along the way. So although by the end of the trek you think you’ve seen a lot of ruins, you are STILL awed when you get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu! I, personally, felt elated once I actually made it there!

Even early in the morning, Machu Picchu is swarming with tourists. You can immediately tell who hiked there, though. The Inca-Trail veterans have an air of superiority to them. They feel a bit … hardier than everyone else (“The Lazies,” as our guide called them). They also have black circles around their eyes. And they certainly smell more … fragrant. Wearing, hiking and sleeping in the same outfit for several days feels OK on the trail, where you are surrounded by people who do the same. But once you come in contact with civilization again, you become a little self-conscious…

Then there are a few additional hours of touring the place. Our guide had a lot to explain, but I found it hard to listen. I just wanted to sleep. I was wondering if getting there on an early train, after a nice breakfast and a shower, wouldn’t have been just as good…

Taquile Island, Peru: A Place Where Knitting is Men’s Work

For the last few weeks a video has been circulating on Facebook. It keeps showing up in my feed, shared by different people and to different groups. The video depicts a tough-looking guy knitting on the subway. The sight of a man knitting, apparently, is so unusual in our society, that a grainy video about it goes viral.

But who said knitting was a womanly craft? Apparently, for a long stretch of history, men dominated the knitting world. In the Middle Ages, for example, men-only knitting guilds prohibited women from joining. At that time, a teenage boy needed to train for over six years before he could join a guild. Knitted goods were mostly reserved for the upper classes. During WWII, which was not that long ago, boys in the USA and England learned to knit at school, and made woolly goods for the troops on the front. Wounded soldiers, too, were taught knitting, to keep themselves busy.

After my family and I stayed on Amantani Island on Lake Titicaca in Peru, we went to visit a tiny island nearby. On the beautiful Taquile Island, women weave and men knit. That’s just the way things are.

Boys learn knitting when they turn eight. They knit their entire lives, making mostly hats for men. When a young man wants to get married, he is expected to pass a knitting test of sorts: he has to knit the finest hat he can, and present it to his potential father-in-law. He needs to knit the hat so tightly, that water does not seep through it. If the father-in-law approves of his work, the young man can then go ahead and marry his chosen bride.

Men’s hats come in different patterns, which depict a person’s age and status. Baby hats have ruffles:

Single men wear mostly white hats:

Married men wear red hats:

Only community leaders wear the colorful hats (mostly with ear-coverings) that we associate with Peru (the knitter above is a leader):

The knitters are very proud of their work, and aim for small, even stitches:

It often takes a man two months to knit one hat.

When wearing a hat, a man signals his mood by flipping it to one direction. A hat flipped to the left = happy. To the right = sad. This guy, for example, must have had a rough morning:

Nowadays, the Island inhabitants rely on tourism for a living. The hats men knit for tourists don’t follow the traditional rules. Tourists get all kinds of colorful hats, and also gloves. The islanders sell their knitted goods, along with the women’s weaving, at a store on the Island’s main square:

Apparently, the Spanish Conquistadors were the ones who introduced knitting to Peru in the 16th century. The craft spread to different parts of the country, and is still practiced by men even outside the Lake Titicaca region.

There are many articles about the soothing, health-benefiting effects of knitting. The craft is slowly making a comeback, sweeping men as well as women. With time, perhaps, even in Western countries we won’t  have to get excited about seeing a guy knit in a public place…

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?

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.

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.

Peruvian Textiles and Tourism

About a year ago I was casually scrolling through my Facebook feed, when a post from TAFA List made me pause. The post advertised textile tours to Peru, and featured a beautiful picture of amazing textiles in vivid, bright colors. I clicked on it and started drooling.

For a while I considered taking one of the tours, but the dates didn’t work out for me, and I also didn’t want to leave my family for too long. Hence was born the idea of dragging my kids, yet again, to South America.

Luckily for me, everyone enjoyed our Ecuador trip so much, that they were eager to explore the region further. And so, this past December, my family and I found ourselves in the Cusco province of Peru, the Mecca of textiles.

After we arrived, my kids got one day to rest and acclimatize in Cusco city. The very next morning a bus belonging to the tour company Apus Peru came by to take us down to the Sacred Valley and some weaving communities.

Apus Peru is a relatively small tour company specializing in cultural tours. This was the company that operated the textile tours I saw on Facebook. They employ knowledgeable, English-speaking guides, and engage in culturally-responsible tourism. Apus Peru actively give back to the communities they take tourists to, not only through financial support, but also by providing training and education to local groups.

Our original plan was to go to Pizaq Market and ruins, and then up the Andes to the weaving community of Chayhautire. The trip down to the valley took about an hour, however, and involved some windy roads. My daughter started suffering from motion-sickness, and I myself felt the unpleasant effects of elevation. The thought of an hour or more of driving up a narrow, windy dirt road suddenly didn’t seem that appealing, even if it was leading to a remote weaving community…

So we changed plans. We went to the ruins first and the market later (Pizaq Market, supposedly the Otavalo of Peru, turned out to be a little disappointing). Then, instead of up to Chayhautire, we drove on a relatively straight road to Chinchero, another weaving community.

This change of plans turned out to be a lucky stroke, as on the way we came across a local procession in honor of the Conception Virgin. This involved costumes, music and dance, and turned out to be very interesting:

Chinchero is a small town with several weaving centers. Our guide took us to Balcon Del Inka Centro Artesanal, which, he claimed, was the best one.

Being at the top of the hill overlooking the town, it certainly had the best view!

Women form several local families run the Artisan Center. The Center has two areas designed to show tourists how wool is prepared. It also has a small outside market. Women don’t actually weave on the premises. Everything is nicely set, however, and the English explanations are clear.

The Making of a Peruvian Tapestry:

Women gather wool from the desired animal. This could be a sheep, or one of the four camelid animals of Peru: ilama, alpaca, guanaco or vicuñaa. Ilama wool is rather course. Alpaca is softer, and baby alpaca is even softer than that. But the softest wool of them all comes for the undomesticated vicuña. This wool is hard to gather, and is therefore the most expensive on the planet.

When sheered, any wool is rather dirty:

To clean it, the local women grind a jabonera plant root that, with water, froths like soap. Local nickname it “Andean Soap.”

Women then wash and scrub the wool:

Once washed, the wool is clean and ready to work with:

Women spin the wool into thread. During our stay in Peru, we’ve seen women walking and spinning, working and spinning, cooking and spinning, caring for children and spinning. Women, in fact, seem to always multitask…

After it is spinned, the wool is ready for dyeing. Many women in Chichero and the vicinity still use natural dyes, made from local plants. In the picture below, you can see the different colors and the plants that make them. I especially loved the purple wool, dyed with purple corn:

The biggest magic, though, involves the color red. Red is made from a parasite that dines on one of the more common cactus species in the area:

When collected, this parasite appears white, as it is cocooned in a web-like fluffy substance:

But here is where the fun begins, and our hostess delighted in showing us some magic: when squished, you see, a vivid, blood-like red fluid appears:

Mixed with a bit of lime, this fluid gets an orange tint:

Mixed with salt, it becomes more purple:

Playing around with these various shades, the weavers can tweak the colors to whatever shade they like. The number of times a piece of wool is dipped in the dyeing pot, and the length of time it stays there, determine the final color:

The result is beautiful, vividly-colored wool:

Women then pull the wool onto looms. Looms are easily portable, allowing women to weave in their homes or outside in the fields.

Here are some finished pieces, at the market part of the Center:

Of course, we couldn’t leave without buying something. This is our new table runner, with the artist who claimed to make it:

How Tourism Complicates Things

Textiles are historically an integral part of the Peruvian culture. However, after a few days in the country, I realized that the locals don’t actually wear traditional textiles, nor do they use them. In fact, tourists are the only ones walking around with vividly-woven fabrics. The locals wear jeans, t-shirts and the like, like the rest of us.

The few women and kids who roam about the old city of Cusco dressed in traditional clothes, often carry sheep or alpacas, and are there to take photos with tourists for money. Even in the more remote areas, the people wearing traditional clothes are mostly doing so for tourists (and wear synthetics). People told me that in really remote villages people still dress like that for real, but I haven’t been to any of those. The few houses I visited in different parts of the region didn’t have traditional textiles as home decor. If they had any textiles at all, they had the cheaper, industrial/synthetic kind, most likely imported from China.

The beautiful, traditional textiles, it seems, are made for tourists these days. They are also sold at tourist prices. These textiles are not cheap, even in American standards. Tourists have to splurge on them. The locals can’t afford them at all.

In fact, it seems that the art of weaving in Peru, like many traditional arts around the world, began to disappear. Even natural dyeing almost gave way to the easier, industrial kind. That is why several local and international organizations, The Center for Traditional Textile of Cusco and Apus Peru being some of them, intervened in an effort to save the craft.

Weaving is a very time-consuming task. Even when selling their work at tourist prices, weavers still make little per hour. It is not surprising, therefore, that many try to cut corners, by using cheaper, synthetic fibers, for example, or by selling sub-standard products. Many tourists can’t tell the difference anyway. The money that textiles bring, therefore, leads to all kinds of gray areas and dishonesty. Read this post to get an idea about some of those problematic issues.

So, as much as I enjoyed learning about textiles in the Centro Artesanal, I couldn’t but also realize that the entire place was a nicely-set illusion. The ancient craft shown was artificially kept alive. The entire display was a myth that tourist companies and the fashion industry spread, and which tourists, myself included, really want to buy into. The  tourist industry in a way re-invented the old traditions. This includes the descriptions given to explain the different designs, that often have very little connection to the actual historical origin of those designs.

In fact, in order to appeal to tourists, even the traditional patterns have been changing. Many of the fancy boutiques sell items with patterns and colors that appeal to Westerners, as do fashion houses selling Peruvian clothes in the West. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, and the textiles are still beautiful. I just found it interesting how the economy surrounding tourism preserves old traditions while, at the same time, profoundly changes them.