Friday, August 3, 2012

Material and Dignity: First thoughts on Titicaca,-- Peru

A trail through the vast totora ecosystem on the western part of Lake Titicaca heads directly for Puno,  Peru.
I made it to Lake Titicaca, the 125000 foot high Altiplano lake on the border of Bolivia and Peru. A deep blue infinite is unshakable from the water and sky. The golden sun beams down all day turning the land its own hue. By night locals huddle to bare the high, remote, cold.  I traveled here to the ancient lake because of the reed canoes constructed for epochs of time by the indigenous Uros who inhabit the lake.

 Now assimilated greatly, mostly in language, with Quechua and Aymara peoples of the region, the pre-Inca Uros build islands out of the buoyant totora reed in which they constantly replenish the decomposing reed below, literally creating land beneath them. Inhabiting dozens of islands not to far from Puno, on the far western part of Lake Titicaca, the Uros are literally interwoven with the totora reed. It is a staple food and a construction material for most everything - including the magnificent canoes, which you will certain hear about in greater depth in future posts.

Balsa de totora, oleo sobre lienzo, Enrique Masias, Portugal, 1922. Picture taken in Puno at the Museum  Municipal de Carlos Dreher.

But to stay nothing has changed among  the indigenous Uros would be a painted picture of Lake Titicaca.. Today is a new epoch for the region. Globalization and commercial culture, the stark influences, opportunities, and oft cultural destruction association with tourism, as well as simple economic and political change have transformed much of the Uros Islands. Once self sufficient off of the totora reed ecosystem along with livestock based on birds such as cormorants, the economic structure amidst the Uros has changed to be sustained, though not entirely, by thousands of tourists each year looking for authentic indigenous culture. 

My experience of the first trip to the islands is illuminated by the image above, tradition and modern technology such as modern fishing boats, interacting in a symbiotic and somewhat conflicting manner. The search for authentic has become hollow here. Rather, a culture exists, with its outside influences and internal decisions, changing as all culture inevitably do. The state of the culture and the societal impacts asks a very important question, one I struggle with my self - what relationship is there between material and dignity? For now, all I can say is, the materials here greatly influence the lives of the people here at Titicaca.

                  Two Uros, one sun drying totora for bulsa construction, the other selling crafts to tourists.

In Puno, the Museum Municipal de Carol Dreher, at the Plaza De Armas, Puno's city center, had an exhibition of mummies, discovered at Sillustani. Sillustani was a burial site for the Colla people who inhabited the lake in pre-inca times along with the Uros, before both peoples, along with other Aymara peoples were conquered by the Incas. The Colla were buried with a great deal of gold, also on display. thThe exhibition got me thinking further about material and dignity. So much of the culture revolved around the meaning and importance of gold, which became a catalyst for the demise of the Incas later via the Spanish. The gold tint of the mummies' skin pushed the metaphor further for me.

The totora reeds are like gold. At times, full of meaning, but at times marketed. Regardless, great dignity still exists among the indigenous Uros of the islands and it will surely take a great deal more than tourist interest to entirely deter traditional ways and meanings. Just as a totora canoe lasts only a few months, impermanence is a very much a way of life here at Lake Titicaca. Yet traditions do survive the societal storms.


  1. In the Museum Municipal de Carol Dreher, what piece or pieces of artifact did you find most interesting? Did the Museum also offer similarities in the way the Uros built canoes in the past and how they are built today? Do they remain traditional?

    1. The Museum Municipal de Carlos Dreher has many interesting objects of importance, from very old pottery, to paintings, many done by Carlos Dreher himself, that depict life in the area many years ago. The mummies were extremely striking as were some of the images of traditional canoes before a great deal of change has happened to them in the last 20 years. Traditional is a difficult word, but modern materials and fascination of tourists has greatly changed the boat.

  2. William.

    So sorry we didn't get to talk before you left. I'm so glad that you're getting to do this!

    Much love and look up : )