Inca and Pre-Inca Mysteries-Part II


Inca and Pre-Inca Mysteries-Part II

Traveling Around Lake Titicaca

On about two hours of sleep I boarded the train from Cuzco to Puno on lake Titicaca, so the whole thing is like a dream now. Across from me was an American family: mom, dad and nine year-old Jack, and next to them was an English couple. The Americans insisted on talking most of the time, and that made it nearly impossible for me to sleep. Beyond that the train made endless squeaks and creaks as it swayed down the tracks at a maximum speed of about 25 mph. The journey went South from Cuzco across the high plain (altiplano), over a pass at more than 13,000 ft, and then down to Lake Titicaca at 12,000 ft. The experience lasted 12 hours. Along the way the train stopped at most villages, large or small. Whenever it screeched to a stop the Inca vendors (they hate to be called Indians ... it has to be Inca or Quechuan) at whatever little village approached vehemently en masse with their fruit, knitwear, hats and trinkets for sale. The train squeaked, swayed and bounced enough to worry even seasoned South American travellers and to make the American mom sick to her stomach. She was not pleased either with the bathroom facilities onboard the train. Waste just falls through the comode out onto the tracks below.

At more than 12,500 ft. Titicaca is reputedly the highest navigable lake in the world, a fact that becomes a constant refrain after the hundredth utterance. Sometimes Inca pride knows no bounds. Other little known facts of the lake: at its deepest more than 900 ft.; almost 100 miles long and about 40 miles wide with the narrowest stretch just over half a mile wide; the water temperature varies from 3 degrees celsius to 13 degrees celsius (cold). But none of these facts give much impression of what the place is like.

Puno is Peru's port on Lake Titicaca, and a city of about 100,000. This town comes across as a dump, because it lacks all architectual charm. Cement streets, drab buildings, poor town planning, cramped quarters, lackluster buildings, all contribute to the sense of blah. Add to that questionable water in the streets when there has been no rain, water that smells, and you get an idea. Yet in spite of its physical deficiencies Puno has character. The people have Altiplano pride and vitality, friendliness and openness. The place is famed for its folk culture. Add to that the wonderful open air market and Puno starts seeming worthwhile. Many travellers will happen into Puno anyway, because (like me) they want a look at the lake, and this is the starting point.

Life around the northern shores of Lake Titicaca contains in one form or another the Inca influence. Even Puno doesn't escape the Inca way, as people continue to wear the same Alpaca woolen jackets they always have, even if they also have on levi's. They still bake bread in clay ovens over wood fires. Almost all of them speak Quechua or Aymara as their mother tongue.

In the evening the young people meet at the market and walk from there to the main plaza over a few carless blocks. They stop into one of the popular pizza parlors that turn out surprisingly excellent brick oven pizza and italian food. After a day on the lake or in the mountains, there is nothing quite like sitting by the fire and having some homemake pizza by candlelight while sharing stories with other travellers from around the world or getting to know the locals. Friendly exchange with local people, adds a great deal to an understanding of a place, and the time to linger and observer what they do, why and how. Puno lives because of the lake and its ancient roots. People always have lived there it would seem, especially from a visit to the Sillustani burial grounds.

There, large towers built of stone in the shape of drinking glasses cover the hillside. That's right, the towers are shaped like drinking glasses, wider at the top than at the bottom. A pre-inca culture built them, and inside placed mummies of the deceased. Each tower has a doorway facing East toward the rising sun. The culture said that the setting sun would take the souls of the deceased under the Earth to obscurity, and that the rising sun would bring souls back for rebirth, either in this dimension or another. This culture left the mummies in fetal position for the rebirth with the rising sun through the eastern-facing doorway of the tower. The culture said that if a person learned during life to live completely in the present, then that person would be reborn into another better dimension, while if a person remained shackled to the past during life, then after death that person would be doomed to walk the earth until Pacha Mama (the Earth Mother) offered another opportunity for another life in this dimension.

Sitting on top of the hill at Sillustani, watching the sunset over the mountains behind the lake, a sense of rest and peace easily grows on anyone, and there is no wonder the ancients chose this as their final resting place.

There are two islands near Puno on the Lake Titicaca: Amantani and Tequile. Amantani has the nickname "frog island" because from a distance it looks like a frog halfway in the water. The island and its sister, Tequile (the "lizard island"), are the main Peruvian islands in Titicaca and both have villages where incas live more or less the way they have for ages. The boat there is like a slow boat to China, since the ride lasts more than four hours, but it's worthwhile because it is time to bask in the atmosphere of the Lake and the surrounding countryside.

On the way, the boat stops at the famous floating Uros islands. These "islands" are made of reeds and literally float in a few meters of water, anchored to a little bit of earth. Nowadays they continue to live on because of tourist support. The last Uru indian died in the 1950s, and his descendants, though of Uru blood, are not pure Uru. For most of their history, these islands floated tourist-free. There are two islands, both very small, plus one or two more quasi-islands for livestock and boat building. All are built of totoro reeds and float in a few meters of water. The largest one has about ten huts on it. Originally some Urus retreated to their "islands" to protect their independence from conquest by other tribes, such as the Incas. The fishing was good enough and they were secure enough that they never left. A while back, some European decided to build a wooden school on stiltls, to which one of the islands remains moored. A small piece of earth is the anchor for the other. Without these anchors, the islands would float away. Today the floating islands may seem like museum oddities, but people actually grow up on them, work their lives and pass away there.

The hills surrounding the lake are a beige/green color and slope gently to the water's edge. Cedar trees crop up here and there. Behind them in spots loom the higher Andes, snow-capped and majestic.