Lake Titicaca: creation legends

So far my trip in Peru had been a whirl of local fiestas of songs and prayers, of sweet Andean flute, religious pilgrimages, and solitude of the mountains. Of faces burned by strong sun and icy wind. Smiling in their faces and crying in their hearts. I myself felt overwhelmed by the richness of it all, and by the long months of travelling. But at the end of June all my travel plans seemed to stumble either in natural disaster or in social protests. One of my destinations, Arequipa, was shaken by a violent earthquake on the week when I was planning my trip there. Due to severe damages in the region, I had to change my travel plans until roads were fixed and the risk of aftershocks diminished. It was the second time during my travel year that I happened to be in a region when the worst earthquake happened - first in January in India, and that time in Peru. That was not all. Heading towards Bolivia, I found that roads were blocked by protests around La Paz and was currently no way to cross the border. In the highlands of the Peruvian altiplano in Puno, Southern Peru, I started to feel the tiredness of travel, the frustration of weighing the risks and trying to take the best decision. I felt that after eleven months of travel a shadow of confusion was silently sneaking into my soul.

 


At the end of June I felt the touristy atmosphere in Cuzco had become unbearable for me. Cuzco had a cold kind of beauty: the narrow streets paved with Inca stones, and the sounds of Andean flute, so sweet to my ears, had become less appealing in so much it was tourist-directed. New regulations for Macchu Picchu area restricted individual backpackers to hike the Inca Trail, limiting its use to large tourist groups accompanied by certified guide. That, of course, involved large amounts of money to book for a tour. And since throughout the year my own traveling policy totally excluded going on a package tour, I left Cuzco at that time without visiting Macchu Picchu- which was however a site of importance for my project as a ceremonial site. I did visit it later but discovered its symbolism had lost much of its meaning because of the whole tourism industry. For me it defied the whole idea of a pilgrimage, of physical strain as truly the means to experience a place. With these thoughts, I headed towards the Bolivian border, only to find out that Copacabana, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, where I had planned to explore the Island of the Sun and Island of the Moon, was inaccessible because of blocked roads to workersí protest in Bolivia. While the atmosphere in La Paz seemed to be unsafe, I dwelled on the isles on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca longing for peace and calmness.

 

I took the community boat one morning heading to the islands on the lake Titicaca. I preferred this option to the one that seemed to prevail among tourists- that of taking a tourist boat and going on a tour- something like going to see a zoo. The same amount that you paid ($3 for a 4-hour boat ride) benefited directly to the community instead of going to the tourist companies. And in addition you had the whole experience of waiting for about 2 hours until bottles of Inca-Cola, sacs of bread and other supplies were loaded on the deck; being squeezed among 20 locals, and get to ride on top of the boat and immerse your eyes in endless blue. You were even provided life vests!The boatmen opened a box that proved to be the engine, connecting two wires and the boat started moving, with jerks and cracking sounds. So we floated far away from the city onto the quiet waters of the lake, passing the traditional Uros floating islands made entirely of totora reeds.

 

In Andean mythology Lake Titicaca is considered to be the origin of the Incas. In the Andeancosmological model it is one of the 3 centers of the Incaic world along with Cuzco and Vilcashuaman. Water has an important symbolism in Andean cosmology. The sea is associated with the creation of the world. Lakes are a manifestation of the sea, and are considered to be the origin of water and of people. It is said that Viracocha created the mythical couple Mallku Kapac and Mama Ocllo and they were sent in search for a place for the children of the Sun. The ancestors migrated to other places via subterranean canals, and settled in rivers, mountains, turning them into sacred centers. Thus, Lake Titicaca is considered to be the place where the Andean civilization emerged from the waters, and it is also believed to be the place where spirits of the dead return to their origin.

 

The atmosphere on Amantani Island, when I got off the boat that afternoon of June, seemed to preserve this aura of legend. I thought I had stepped out of time. There were no cars, no dogs, no sounds and the air seemed frozen onto the silver blue water of the lake. I followed the little boy through a maze of alleys going to the house of Francisco Quispe, the boatmen, on top of the hill at 4,100m altitude. Lunch was already being cooked - delicious quinoa soup and the best tasting rice and fried eggs. I spent two days in complete contemplation. The three golden rules of the Empire of the Sun: Ama suwa, Ama quella, Ama llulla (do not steal, don't be idle, and do not lie) seemed to be still existent there. You could walk on the alleys under the moon and savor the silence without being perturbed not even by sounds. Sunsets were dramatic- dark clouds spreading over the lake like a ripped-off curtain. Sounds of rain dripping down the roof of the adobe house and over the lake. No electricity. I felt close to happiness. Does simple mean happiness? In those days it did, and in many other regards I still think it does. Coming back now, I forgot that simple joy of eating dinner at candlelight in an adobe room, helping the boy with his English lessons, or chatting with the boatmen about the traditions of the island.

 

One of these traditions, shared over a bottle of beer that we had found in the only one shop on the island, is a festival dedicated to the Earth. There are two hills on the islands, Paccha Mama (Mother Earth) and Paccha Tata (Father Earth), both ceremonial sites. Every year on the 18th of January locals dressed in traditional clothes climb those two hills. The two rivers of people descend each hill and meet at a point where they offer coca leaves, grains and some alcohol to the Earth. This kind of ritual is called a pago a la tierra (offering to the Earth). I hiked one day to the shrines and found two round enclosures with openings directed to the East and West (rising and setting of the sun). In the middle they had a ritual rock where the offerings would be prepared. However, instead of the solitude of the sacred place, I was suddenly awakened from my contemplation by the loud radio of a local girl watching her flock of sheep. Trying to stir me to take a photo of her, she was posing in a beautiful profile draped over the blue waters of the lake. Thatís the local way of trying to make a tip. Another island close to Amantani, is somewhat a mysterious island. Local people say that nobody dares to sail close to it because something bad might happen. They couldnít tell me why.

 

I found myself reflecting upon the lives of those people. I was trying to understand if they were truly happy. That part of the island seemed to have escaped the tourist boom, unlike Taquile, which had about 10 restaurants and phones. Francisco had a collection of photos from France where he had been some years ago, and all his children were proudly leafing through it every night. The tourism of the island operated on a rotating manner, so that everybody got a chance to make some money. As a result, each family hosted only a small number of tourists every year. This was not much, especially for the small amount of money that they charged the guests: 8 dollars for two daysí meals and housing. Night was a splash of music and dance. For the few tourists that were on the island, hosted at local families, the locals prepared a cultural performance. Students came to play traditional music while girls dressed in traditional clothes came to take us on whirling Andean dances until we would lose our breaths (trying to follow the fast rhythm of the Andean music at 14,000ft!).††††

 

On Sunday morning, I joined to family on the trip to the market, on the peninsula at the village of Capachica. People dressed in nice clothes and happily filled three boats that left towards the village. Once on the peninsula, we walked on moon-like brown landscape, empty but dotted with the colorful clothes of the local people. In the market all products coming from Puno and neighboring villages were displayed. From bread, fish and cheese, to snickers and clothes. Itís a social event, and a tradition. I returned to Puno in a packed combi (local minivan) with loud music. On the way, I tried to determine what is the maximum number of people you can clump in a 10-seat combi. This time I counted twenty-six. And thatís what made all the fun of the drive.