The world was trembling. Not my feet, but the world beneath them! All around us, there was water, and the water was surrounded by the snow-covered peaks of the mighty Andes. Lake Titicaca was far more impressive in real life than it looked in even the best photographs. It is the highest navigable lake in the world and one of the largest mountain lakes of our planet, but we were visiting not just the natural blue wonder of the lake itself, but the man-made wonder of the floating villages on it!
A few hundred years ago, during the Inca era, local inhabitants found the lake to be a useful place of refuge to escape raids by Inca hordes. After local residents discovered that the Incas had limited resources and were not good at making water vessels, they avoided the Incas raiders by using rafts to float away on the lake. Floats on the lake afforded a place of refuge, and hence bloomed the idea of floating islands!
Actually, all floating islands on Lake Titicaca are anchored rafts, made of the aquatic Totoro plant.
I and my Mexican friends Isaiash and Juan were offered the Totoro plant to chew. This is also a food for the local people, but we found that its taste was not very intriguing.
However, when the village headman showed us the architectural technique of building a whole floating village with this plant, we were very impressed! The village has several homes, kitchen, open ground, local deity and a big hole in the centre which is used to keep live fish. As a model, he piled up layer after layer of Totoro until it was thick and strong enough to hold a village. He also told us the most delicate and risky thing in that water world is to ‘Keep the Fire on’ as dry totoros are easy to burn! (He also told us that that the most delicate and risky thing in that water world is to ‘Keep the fire away’ because dry totoros burn very easily!)
Lake Titicaca is on the border of Peru and Bolivia. We started our journey there from a Peruvian high altitude border town named Puno, which overlooks the lake. In Puno, we chewed a lot of Coca leaves because we had a bit of a headache caused by the thin, low oxygen air at this altitude. Both local people and scientists agree that the coca leaves help to absorb more oxygen into your blood stream, which is probably the reason they were taken as tax by Inca kings. The very next morning we took a vessel to a section of the lake to visit a few floating villages, whose inhabitants were once called Red Indians.
Their warm welcome with music and dance made the day brighter. The surreal world on water in which they live seems to be taken directly out of a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, particularly so when the local ladies wearing colourful long skirts danced and sang in their native language. I begin to wonder what an entire life spent in that tiny straw village on a lake would be like.
The inhabitants don’t complain much. They have food, water, shelter and independence in this floating world, though they confess that life is tough, and the weather is the most important factor that affects survival in this environment.
Every village has an open space where native ladies try to sell hand-made artistic colourfully tailored items. It was a floating market in which I got the feeling that these people, the children of Nature, are not in any hurry. They have the time for long afternoon chats which is much needed but greatly lacking in our so called civilized world.
All the villages have a certain amount of bush at some corner. It made me happy to spot several bird species just living and chirping peacefully next to the humans. I got very excited after spotting a Giant Coot, the biggest Coot that I have seen.
But then came the time for me to leave. Twilight over the great lake was serene, a reflection of the peace and tranquillity in this corner of the world.