Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live your entire life on an island?
Not anything like the Hawaiian Islands or Long Island, but a small floating island made entirely of grass and mud? It sounds surreal and I didn’t even know such a civilization existed until I met Enrique with Mystery Peru tours and he told me about the Quechua people who live on floating grass reed islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca, high in the Andes Mountains.
As if this didn’t already intrigue me, he said that most tourists can only visit these islands for 1 hour on odd days just to preserve their islands from being trampled and destroyed, but that he knew one of the families personally and could hook it up where I could spend a couple of days with them as a home stay! When I travel, I like to really get down local style and experience the culture, so when I heard about this rare opportunity I jumped at the chance!
So a quick plane ride from Lima and a 2-hour car ride through some Incan ruins got me to Puno, the town on the edge of Lake Titicaca where I was to be picked up by boat to be taken to Uros. There are 50 islands that are made of floating reeds in Lake Titicaca and the people that live there live in peace and solitude (other than the boat loads of tourists that come every other morning to buy their artisan crafts). I had no idea what to expect when I got there and it was like a fantasy world where everything was made out of grass and dyed neon colors. Even their boats and homes are made of the reeds from the lake.
The islands are made of a specific reed called Totora that requires constant making and re-making in order to sustain the weight of the families and their homes on the top layer. The Quechua people also use the Totora reed for everything from food to building material for their homes, boats, and relaxation areas on the island.
The Quechua people originally created these islands by hand by bringing local mud that floats and stacking layers of reeds on top of the mud and then attaching the floating mud blocks with wooden stakes, sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. There are two rows of islands with a “river” that goes through the islands. It’s actually all just Lake Titicaca, but the constant water traffic between the islands makes it seem like a river. Usually 4-5 families live on one of these islands at any given time and if someone wants to move to another island, they literally cut it away and float and reattach it to another island! Insane, yet ingenious!
I was warmly greeted by the local Quechua women wearing their vibrant traditional Peruvian clothing made of woven skirts and braided hair with neon dyed pom poms at the edge of their grass island. They were ready to welcome me into their family for a couple of days and excited to get me acclimated to life on the island.
This included dressing me in their thick cotton, colorful dresses and donning me with a knitted cap, signifying that I was single and not married. The married women have straw hats and I thought, how much easier this would make life at home if your relationship status was announced by the hat you wore!
After I changed I was given the grand tour of the island, which shockingly had a full kitchen with solar panels perched on a grass pole, a “lounge” area with a swing set and chairs all made out of grass, a pond where they keep their fish that they catch, separate men’s and women’s bathrooms, and of course the family homes. For how poor and simple these people live, it is amazing that some have satellite TV and solar electricity! It was incredible to experience the old-world style traditions mixed with small hints of modern technology. It was even more surreal to see their family cat wandering around the island and even a pet flamingo that chills at the family pond.
Here they do not speak Spanish, but an indigenous Quechuan language that is based on an ancient Incan language. So my Spanish only got me so far. So sign language and gestures had to communicate the rest for me. It is amazing that you can spend a couple of days with a family and figure out a way to communicate and to even joke with each other. After a while I almost forgot we didn’t speak the same language.
I spent my days watching the Quechua women hanging up their hand-made woven reed mobiles and arts and crafts to sell to tourists and boats passing by. The men were not around, because they are either out cutting grass reeds as their daily chores to prevent their island from sinking or to make things out of or they are knitting! It is such a funny sight, but in their Quechua culture, the men are actually in charge of knitting the clothes and toys for their children.
In the evening, I joined Victor, my Quechua “gondolier” and the patriarch of the island of Khantati where we stayed. He took me on a canoe ride in my local garb to see where they fish and how they cut the reeds for their island. I helped fish and pull up the nets and learned how they cut the grass and make their boats. The boat that I was being rowed in, Victor made by hand. These boats last 1 year and 8 months, he said, until they turn into a soggy mess. Everything eventually turns into a soggy mess, so it is a daily struggle to cut more reeds to maintain their homes and island.
Victor and his family live simply and without many outside influences or conveniences. Their days are filled with cutting grass, making things out of grass, and feeding their families. Their only contact with the outside world is a small floating “convenience store” stocked with candy, junk food, and sodas for purchase that comes to the island daily and the tourists who come to visit every other day.
Their people have lived simply like this for hundreds of years and it made me realize that life is as simple as you want to make it. Our cell phones and texts and emails and mortgage payments...all are self-induced stresses and not necessary in everyone’s lives.
I spent two days floating, fishing, weaving, and just enjoying the simplicity of their lifestyle, something that is very foreign to me...relaxing. At night I slept in a comfortable bed in a grass hut with warm water bottles tucked in my woven blankets. My bed would move with the waves like a dock every time a boat went by and it rocked me to sleep. I was amazed at how comfortable I was here and even more so with how vibrant and creative these people are isolated by themselves with only grass and their families to occupy their time.
Three days stretched on to feel like an eternity and I had completely forgotten that we didn’t speak the same language. I felt at home in this strange remote place high in the Andes Mountains and when I left it felt like it was some bizarre dream due to the altitude or something. Did I really just live with an Indian family on a floating grass island for a few days? Then I found myself blurting out sentences like,
That Time that I lived on a Floating Grass Island…
and I knew I would never be the same.