When travelling, there are some experiences that you can only do with an agency or tour company. Sometimes, if you want to see something, the only way to do it is on someone elses terms. This often happens when the attraction is a ‘must see‘, and you are forced to become ‘a customer‘ rather than ‘a traveller‘. For Daniel, the ‘Floating Islands’ tour in Puno was certainly one of these times.
During May 2016 one of my good friends came out to visit us in Peru. Ruth took the opportunity to volunteer in Huancavelica while Will and I visited some places she had gone to on a previous South American tour. We arrived in Puno having heard many things about the ‘Floating Islands’ tour, not all of them positive. But we booked to join and to see what our reaction would be. Friends that I had spoken to mentioned that the tour was formulaic, and that they felt uncomfortable merely observing how people in the islands lived.
I said to myself before going that my condition for attending would be to try and talk to our hosts, to try and develop a sense of what it is like to live on these islands and how tourism is affecting their culture.
Easier said than done.
After leaving the shores of Puno, the boat ride took about half an hour. Lake Titicaca is a beautiful place- the largest lake in South America, with clear blue waters that stretch either into the snow-capped Andes or into the hazy horizon. The shallower parts are characterised by reed marshes. As the boat navigated through channels which cut into the large marshes, we started to see solid structures, and the islands that the Uru tribes call home.
The Uros descend from the pre-Incan populations of the areas surrounding Lake Titicaca. Local myths say that these people did not feel the cold, and this was because they were present on Earth before the coming of the sun, when the land was dark and cold. As such, it is claimed that they had black blood.
Originally, the islands were a purely defensive construction, allowing the Uru tribes the option to retreat into the waters if they needed to. But eventually they were forced off the mainland by Inca and Colla invaders, and they learned to live entirely on the materials around them. Coming in to dock, it was clear we were witnessing a truly rare feat of human survival, and a unique method for societal organisation.
However, after landing on the island it felt as we had stepped onto a stage. We would not be offered the opportunity to wander, speak with the islanders and learn from each other. We were, in fact, just in time for a scheduled performance. One which took place several times a day, was well practised and where the roles were clearly defined.
Our tour guide told us that the islanders spoke a a pre-Quecheuan language and often did not speak Spanish – he would be the narrator.
The tour group formed a semi circle around the guide as we were given a brief introducion to the island – we were the audience.
The environment was incredible. All of the houses, boats and the entireity of the island had been built using reeds – this was the set.
After the scene was set, enter the protagonist, the chief of the island. Our narrator translated while the chief welcomed us to his home and told us the story of the islanders and how they lived. By this point we had broken the fourth wall and become active participants in an act of immersive theatre. The group laughed at the verbatim jokes, gazed where directed, gawped at the woman eating the reeds and captured opportune moments on camera.
Then, just before the interval, it turned to promenade theatre, as a contingent of the keenest participants set off in a ceremonial reed boat to do a short round trip. Three of the island women performed a short dance chanting “Vamos a la playa!”, some of the only Spanish in the script. Whether those in the boat chuckled because they were charmed or because they recognised the irony of people who live on an island made of reeds several miles from a beach singing this cliched line is still unknown to those of us who stayed to await the second half.
I do not want to come across as dismissive of the people and their culture. It was an incredible thing to behold, that a community of people could live, grow, develop traditions and reproduce their culture in the middle of a lake.
But this was our experience – an organised tour where people had been exoticised, and their culture commercialised and standardised for the Western gaze. We could physically feel the separation between us, as tourists, and them, as attraction. There was also very little chance of breaking down those barriers. When I tried to speak to people, I was given practised answers and was directed to a mat with trinkets and artesan products for sale at inflated prices.
It seemed slightly perverse that a people who were forced onto the water at the hands of foreign invaders, are now selling tapestries with the designs and symbols of those invaders, the Incas, to other people from foreign lands. Amongst many of our fellow tourists, there seemed to be no ability to recognise the differences between Peru’s diverse culture and their symbols, nor any humility in how they acted. When the chief would start to speak in his native tongue, the lenses would rise and the memory cards would slowly fill to immortalise the spectacle. Either that, or they would walk away; disinterested because they could not understand the language. Most of the eye contact that greeted the chiefs speech was mediated through cameras.
I have come to find that when this kind of ‘experience’ presents itself, there are only two options – don’t do it, or approach with a critical gaze. In many cases the most fascinating insights you can appreciate are those observed from your fellow tourists, as they live up to the worst of expectations. Whether this is because they are simply ‘bad travellers’ or because the structure of these tours make it difficult to engage on a human level, I’m still not sure.
There are many questions that I still have unanswered from the ‘Floating Islands’ tour. How do the individual islands negotiate with the tour companies? Do the chiefs work together to share the business from the boats? Do these people want to stay on the islands, or is it just more economically viable to stay stuck in this tourist trap?
Unfortunately, I will not be able to get these answers. This is not the kind of engagement for which these tours are designed. Then again, maybe we just paid for a cheap tour. There was also the option for an overnight stay.
But I think one morning was enough.