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.