Life on Uros

Beez Neez now Chy Whella
Big Bear and Pepe Millard
Tue 21 Sep 2010 21:01

The Straw People
The 31st of July 1994 - Article published
Miami Herald - Section: Tropic

Author – Miranda France a freelance writer

The first thing Rosa Coyla does in the morning is put on her felt bowler hat. Under a sea of blankets, she adjusts her shirt and cardigan and wriggles into a heavy, layered skirt. An old radio sputters snatches of pop music alongside the day's headlines. Rosa crawls over to a leaky gas stove, ignites it, and throws the first flickering light of the day onto the walls of her one-roomed hut. (The types of hats are specific to each Indian grouping anywhere in South America, it seems - very interesting in itself. A community marker).


Rosa's husband, Edgar, and their two small children stir under the blankets. Above them is a lurid picture of Christ with a flaming heart leaping from his chest. Bundles of clothes and bags containing fish, potatoes and bread are scattered around the hut. But the only other decoration is a poster of a plump white baby cavorting among bubbles and toys, entitled "He's the King of our House."

The queen of Rosa and Edgar's household is Melinda, a frail six-month-old baby whose cheeks are caked with dirt and mucus. (It was alarming to me the sun damage to cheeks everywhere, on the kids, especially. The cheeks are darkened and rough from the burning at 13,000 feet with such direct sun rays. We're all warned of severe sun burns when that high up so we used a lot of sun screen).

Rosa gives Melinda a feed, then steps outside the hut and contemplates one of the most spectacular views in the world. All around, the crystalline waters of Lake Titicaca reflect a pure blue sky punctured by the jagged peaks of the Andes. Perched on an island floating on the world's highest lake, Rosa sees her surroundings to their best advantage. "We live between the water and heaven," she says. (Definitely the bluest blues I've ever seen, both sky and water).


The Uros are a group of seventy man-made islands floating in Lake Titicaca, at an altitude of 12,500 feet. The lake, which is three thousand, five hundred square miles, and about eight hundred and fifty feet deep in the center, is shared between Peru and Bolivia, with the Uros islands lying among stands of reeds in shallow water at the western end, close to the rustic Peruvian port of Puno. Their inhabitants are legendary to mainlanders, thanks to a bizarre and precarious lifestyle built entirely around one plant: the totora reed.

The extraordinary sight that greets any visitor approaching the Uros by boat is of huge straw nests adrift on the water's surface. In fact, the islands are made by joining clods of earth-like floating roots and overlaying them with a large quantity of cut reeds, creating a base that is firm enough to support huts made of totora and nimble human beings. Walking on the islands feels like wading through a bedding of straw laid over a waterbed -- you have to keep your wits about you. (Well, some of us travel light when it comes to wits. I fell in. Luckily, only one leg went down (up to the waist) or I wouldn't be here today. See below).

Totora grows in abundance in Lake Titicaca and the islanders use it for everything. As well as making huts and boats from woven reeds, they use totora as cooking fuel and put its flower in infusions to treat minor ailments. The soft heart of fresh totora reeds -- similar to asparagus -- accompanies most of their meals.

So, totora feeds, heals and protects the islanders from the scorching Andean sun above and from the freezing waters below. But it is a dangerous ally. Two to three months after new totora reeds have been put down, they lose their buoyancy and start to rot -- and more than one child has died falling through them into the lake. It is said that an adult can survive only twenty minutes in Titicaca's icy waters. The island is constantly being repaired, but even so, accidents do happen.  

Nobody knows how the Uros islands came into existence, but the first anthropological sightings, last century, describe a race of "naked savages" who claimed to be descended from the sun god, and to have emerged out of the lake. (This is a colorful rendition of Peruvian legend of which, some say, the most colourful portion (human/gods emerging from the lake all decked out in gold) was actually started by the Spaniards in their quest for El Dorado and having to justify further explorations with their government and embroidering the more mundane earlier legends).


Some say the Uros were really hounded away by the Incas as a punishment for laziness, but according to Alejandro Quispe Coyla, one of the oldest islanders who spends his days thatching totora roofs and selling bubble gum, for which the islanders have a passion, his ancestors arrived fleeing the Spaniards. "We've been here since Francisco Pizarro came with the conquistadores in 1532," he says. They stay because this is the life they know, and here, if they need land, they can make it themselves.

Today's islanders are the descendant of marriages with Aymara Indians from the continent, and they share the customs of Aymaras elsewhere in Peru or Bolivia.

Rosa and her sisters Julia and Basilia came to live on Tribuna Island in 1986, after a fierce storm destroyed their home on another island. "We were having supper when the storm blew up and caught us by surprise," says Basilia, 20, with a small smile. "We were swept away by the wind." That night many families converged on Tribuna, which is now the biggest island -- about thirteen thousand square feet, not quite as large as an American football field, with one hundred and fifty inhabitants, or half the Uros islands' total population.

Twenty years ago, a newly married couple would have built themselves an island, naming it after themselves. Now settlements are larger and many of the little islands have been abandoned and left to rot. "I think people appreciate the benefits of community life," says islander Luis Colo. Tribuna's thirty five families live congregated around two open spaces -- one with a tiny church and a health center (the latter usually locked), while the other serves as a perilous soccer field. "It seems crazy to play soccer on water," agrees Luis. "We don't jump on each other after a goal, or we'd probably fall through the field."

Island life carries other hazards. "We have to be alert to changes in the weather," says Edgar. "When the wind gets up we try to anchor the island with eucalyptus trunks." The Uros inhabitants are well acclimated in some ways -- studies suggest they have up to twice as many red blood cells as the average human being, to compensate for the lack of oxygen in Andean air. (I've read that Andes people's lung capacity is twice the norm).

Nevertheless, they are vulnerable to some common ailments. Something, perhaps the constant exposure to the freezing water, gives those frequent respiratory infections and rheumatism, and the sun burns their cheeks. Ironically, in the midst of so much water, their gas stoves cause devastating fires. The Uros have no electricity or plumbing and must "do their necessities," as they put it, wherever they can: off the side of a boat, behind the house if it is dark, or squatting on a wooden platform in a shallow potato field. The lake is large, and their population small, so the human pollution of the water has made no noticeable impact.

Uros families are extended in that married couples set up house near their parents, or in-laws, and continue to eat with them and share many tasks. Husbands are often deferential to their wives.

Uros men used to fish around the islands at night, but depleted stocks have driven them deeper into the lake, and now they go on three-day missions once a week, leaving their wives in charge of the house, and of the family business. Their small two - and three-man boats, also made of reeds, make graceful picturesque arcs in the water and are sometimes fitted with small sails to take advantage of the frequent winds.

The women rise at dawn and draw water from the lake, then spend the day washing clothes and dishes, untangling fishing nets and making woven sheets of totora for new huts. Once or twice a week, they barter the fish for rice, potatoes and sugar, in mainland markets. The islanders' diet is fairly good: they eat fish and birds -- the latter caught by their dogs -- and they cultivate potatoes in shallow soil laid over the earthy roots that support the island.

Communal work is organized through the islands' governing committees and mothers' clubs, usually linked to charities. Rosa's job as president of Tribuna's Mothers' Club is to distribute donations of food, seedlings and sewing materials among the women and oversee their work on totora sheets and tapestries. She is only twenty four, but Rosa has cultivated a suitably presidential air, and her family respectfully refers to her as La Presidenta. "It's a real headache," she says airily of her new responsibility. "There are so many squabbles. I've just found out that the vice president dug up all the potatoes today without my authorization."

Rosa went to school until she was thirteen, then worked at home until she met Edgar at a wedding party two years ago. Such celebrations in the Uros go on for three days, with music and dancing all night and heavy drinking, all at the expense of the groom's family. These are the only occasions in which families from all the islands unite, and an important side-function of the revelry is the forming of new couples -- traditionally Uros must choose a partner from a different island. For three days the host island literally shakes to the pounding of feet, with the occasional dancer falling through the reeds, and having to be plucked from the water.

Rosa doesn't remember at what point during the mayhem Edgar asked her to dance, but she knew he had "a good face" and, like many other young women that night, she was happy to be lured to a dark spot away from the partying. It was probably that night that she got pregnant. A few days later, she and Edgar moved in together. Either because of their isolation or their poverty, the Uros pay less attention to courting and marriage rites than other Aymaras, and most islanders live together for several years before marrying in church. Privacy is not a problem, since couples quickly leave their parents' homes and build a place of their own. Even so, Edgar would like to legitimize his union with Rosa. "People look down their noses on unmarried couples, so we might get married in August," he says. Rosa is in no hurry to tie the knot. "I can't see the point," she says. Most Uros women are confident that the partnership is secure once children have been born.

In the case of Rosa's younger sister, Basilia, that assumption was cruelly abused. She also became pregnant after a party, but her baby's father refused to acknowledge the child as his, and has now married another woman. Single mothers are unusual on the Uros and, although they shoulder some social stigma, their real worry is being a financial burden on the family. Basilia uses the excuse of a trip to "pig island" to describe her predicament out of the family's earshot. She goes every day to feed the pigs that are too big and bothersome to live on Tribuna -- they make holes in the "ground" and knock against the huts. She explains that she needs a godmother for her baby Celia. Godmothers occupy a privileged position in Uros society, but in Basilia's case the role is especially important, because she is alone. "I had to pay the midwife eighty soles (twenty pounds) and I still owe half of that," says Basilia, still with a polite smile. "I've cried and shouted at Celia's father, but he won't give me any money, or let her bear his surname." Celia lies among the reeds, wrapped in a colourful woven shawl. Her future godmother -- if Basilia finds one -- will cut Celia's sacred baby hair for the first time, so becoming a "second mother." Basilia is looking for a wealthy woman, since she cannot rely on a husband's income. "The men here are bad," she sighs. "Maybe if I'm lucky I can get a husband from the mainland -- but who wants a woman with a baby for a wife?"

Marriage between mainland Aymara and the Uros are not rare, since the islanders foster close relations with trading partners. Even so, the Uros are still viewed with suspicion. "My grandfather always said they were good-for-nothings," says Pablo Lopez, a shopkeeper in Puno. "They said that they had black blood, and we thought they must be monsters. Have you noticed how they never get struck by lightening?"  "We were angry about what happened to Basilia, but there's nothing to be done about it now," says Julia of her sister's plight. She is bending over a tub and washing clothes with cheap bleach. The islanders have little money to buy clothes, and their skirts wear threadbare before they tear them up to make diapers and sanitary towels. "You know what men are like, if they want another woman they take one," says Julia, adding "I'm only joking -- my husband wouldn't dare."

Julia, at thirty the eldest of the sisters, has a forceful _expression_, rendered slightly comical at the moment because she has put a potato-leaf on her lip to combat a cold sore. "Some couples shout and get divorced," she says, meaning that one of them moves into another hut. "Some men beat their wives. But in most houses men and women are equal." Most women would like to control their fertility, but birth control remains an enigma, although contraceptives are available in mainland pharmacies. There is a cultural avoidance of knowledge on the subject. If families are not large, it is because many children die, or the women become infertile after a difficult birth. It is also usual to breast-feed for at least two years -- a fairly effective contraceptive, although the women do not realize it. "Some people control their families, but I don't know how," confides Basilia, one evening, in a whisper that suggests magic is involved.

The weekly meeting of the Mothers' Club is a chaos of chattering women, crying babies and rampaging piglets. Rosa, looking more presidential than ever, calls order and embarks on a hesitant version of The Lord's Prayer, which the group doggedly repeats line by line, before starting work. Some of the thirty delegates have come from other islands. The oldest, who speak only Aymara, sit upright in their bowler hats and full skirts, threading the reeds together with huge, calloused hands. Aymaras are proud of their dress, which most of them find more elegant than contemporary European fashions. Their full skirts and shawls are probably inspired by 17th-Century dress of the first women arriving from Spain. But an enduring mystery is how the derby hat, which is like a felt bowler, came to be an essential feature of Aymara women's attire.

It may simply have been a case of clever marketing covering up a commercial gaffe. In the 1920’s, a Bolivian merchant apparently imported far too many derbies and decided to display them as women's hats. It was a remarkably successful ruse, and in the 1930s the Italian firm Borsalino started mass-producing the hats for exportation to the Andes. Uros women usually have two borsalinos, one for special occasions and another for every day, to keep the sun off their faces. At the Mothers' meeting, Rosa, Julia and Basilia sit in a row, each with a chewed piece of bubble gum stored inside the rim of her hat.

It is among the younger women that tradition chafes most noticeably against modernity. Hilda is an 18-year-old mainlander who married into the Uros six months ago and already has a baby clamped to her breast. She has the red cheeks and dirty, bare feet of an islander, although she says she still is not used to the swaying motion of the island at night.

Rosalia, meanwhile, who is the same age as Hilda, wears jeans, a Nike baseball cap and the sulky air of a genuine teenager. She studies at a school in Puno and hopes next year to go to university. Her family actually built a new island to give her more room to study. Most Uros are fiercely ambitious for their children, preferring to send them to the private school, which costs about $150 a year, than the state school, where the teacher rarely shows up. They also share the costs of a small primary school built on Tribuna by the Adventist church. It is partly to this end that the women make tapestries that they sell to tourists for about $20 each.

Mothers' meeting - Tribuna's men have met urgently and decided to put down new reeds, several weeks ahead of schedule. There has been an unusually strong rainfall in the last month and the ground is rotting fast. Water is squelching through some of the thinner patches. In the afternoon the men arrive with boatloads of reeds, harvested from another part of the lake, which the women drag up from the shore and lay around the huts. The new supply of bedding is not just physically, but spiritually uplifting. The women settle down together in nests of totora, sucking on reeds and gossiping. They are very much amused when two government inspectors arrive on the scene, clambering awkwardly over the reeds and blinking in the bright sunlight. The men have come to examine the health center, which they promise will soon be functioning normally. Behind the padlocked door there is a birthing-table, rudimentary equipment, and a poster explaining methods of contraception.

That evening Rosa announces impromptu dancing in her hut. She and Edgar and another couple shuffle rhythmically to melodramatic songs about lovelorn Aymaras. Under them, but now a few vital inches farther away, the waters of Lake Titicaca have their own rhythm. Outside, Julia chews despondently on a piece of totora. "It isn't fair that we have nothing," she says. "I want something better than this for my children." In a few months, she and her husband will trek northward toward Lima, looking for temporary factory or agricultural work. Eventually they might save enough money to get a small plot of land near Puno. Then they will leave Tribuna. Basilia, breathless from dancing, is surprised at the suggestion that she might have dreams or ambitions of her own, but she says, "There is something I think about when I'm in the boat, or washing dishes, or feeding the pigs." What is it? She looks shyly down. "I can't remember now." At ten o'clock the radio cuts out and the dancers return reluctantly to their homes. Back under the blankets, Rosa coyly removes her skirt and hat and wraps herself around her sleeping children. Edgar puts out the candle and joins her. Outside thunder and lightening tear through the sky, and rain pounds down on the new reeds, but the lake is calm. It is only when a frightened dog shoots past the hut that the ground gives slightly, and then the water swells ominously beneath it.