It may have been the Spanish invasion that caused the Uru (reed) people to flee from slavery in the 16th century. Or maybe it was the Inca Empire who bullied them off the mainland to the water. Either way, it is clear that the Uru people of Peru are survivors. Their defence tactics would have left any foe envious.
Today however, the only invasion is that of us tourist. We arrived in droves, armed with camera’s and Peruvian Soles (dollars). I’m embarrassed to be this tourist, but sometimes to learn about a culture you have to experience their way of life. It is said that we give financial opportunities for natives. I don’t entirely believe this, greed is everywhere. To remove my suspicions of corporate greed I handed my money directly to the women on the islands, I’m keen to learn.
The Uru people made islands from the Totora reed which is sourced on the lake. Each island has a watch tower and if needed, the entire island can be shifted to another place. Pigs and cows are fattened up on isolated islands, there is no escape they are surrounded by water. Cormorants, water birds who catch fish, are kept tethered with wool tied to their feet, so that they can catch fish for human consumption. The white ends of the reed is part of their staple diet, also used as medicine or to help with altitude sickness. Life on the island is resourceful.
At first, construction may have been hit and miss but they have definitely perfected the art of island making. Here in the picture above a local man shows us how the reeds are layered to form the structure. The roots from the Totora interweave to create a natural layer called Khili (about 1-2 meters thick). This layer is anchored to the bottom of the lake.
Like any organic matter under water, the reeds will eventually rot away. New reeds are sourced nearby and added on the top of existing reeds every 2 months. As the reeds dry on the top layers, moisture sets in and more are needed. This is an unforgiving process, especially now that tourist are walking all over the top layer. I really felt like we should be cutting some more reeds for them, that seems fair.
Reed islands will last about 30 years before they need to be replaced altogether. During that 30 years they have a perfectly functioning community, with an envious lifestyle.
It was always going to be inevitable that the society would modernise. They are surviors after all.
Most Uru have moved to the mainland but those who remain still need to keep up with the haps.
The handmade crafts are intricate and beautiful. The negotiation skills of the women who make them have been perfected over the years, they drive a hard bargain. I paid 100 Sole (30USD – 45NZD) for a beautiful red art piece made from local dye and materials. I didn’t mind paying that much, its an art that was made on the island. Currently I’m saving to have it framed back in NZ.
The Uros islands are still at high altitue, 3810 meters above sea level and just five kilometers west from Puno port. The tour we went on was to Uros Island and then out to Taquile island. The entire day was 80 Soles (24USD – 36NZD). You can stay overnight with a family for a deeper cultural experience and apparently talking to several people, it is well worth it.
I came away thinking that if an entire popluation can adapt to change, then so can I. Stop buying things we think we need and make use of the resources around you.
- Not all guides are loving, some will take your money and the Uru people will never see it. Take care in who you go with, most have stated on their policies where their money go. But always double check with Trip Advisor or other blogs for recommendations.
- Take at least 200 Soles, there is so much to buy and to know you are supporting local people is awesome.
- Take your passport, they will stamp your passport which would have been cool if I’d taken mine.
- When staying in Puno, pick a backpackers close to Lima Street