It's always been a dream of mine to visit lake Titicaca in the south of Peru, I'm not sure why but it's always had a mystic pull, maybe it's the slightly obscure name which actually translates to Grey Puma (the Andes lion) Or the Paddington bear stories I read as a child.
After a 23 hour bus ride from Lima, the culinary capital of Peru and arguably Latin America, I arrive in Puno the gateway to the Peruvian side of the lake. 60% of the lake is in Peru and 40% in Bolivia. At nearly 4000m above sea level the first thing you notice after 3 steps is that you’re completely out of breath. Traveling from sea level I've had no time to acclimatize this is going to be rough.
I check into a small hotel and head out to the markets to get a feel for the area and get some food. It's buying bananas by chance I meet someone that will completely change my trip to Lake Titicaca.
There are tourist centers all over the city selling different trips around the lake but I normally find asking a few locals and marrying up the recommendations is the best way. I ask at a banana stall and Eduardo overhears me, he has a small guest house on one of the Uros islands. I explain what TMAC is and he lights up, he knows a local island consisting of a few families where the indigenous women artisans all group together. We make a plan to meet the next day, here we go lake Titicaca!
Picked up from a very small jetty just outside Puno we ride for 20 minutes until I reach Eduardo's small island. Well this couldn't have gone any better it's basically paradise. The reed islands float upon the lake and the views are spectacular. I have traveled all over the world and this really could be the most beautiful place I've ever been to.
The Uros islands consist of 100 islands where 2000 people live. All of the islands are free floating on a bed of roots with reeds cut and then put on top, they have to change the reeds every 15 days. There is so much work involved to keep this paradise alive. The lake sits at 3850m above sea level making it the world’s highest navigable body of water. The indigenous language here is Imara but all of the younger generations speak Spanish.
Dropping my bags off we are back in the boat and heading towards the larger groups of small islands. It really is hard to put into words how spectacular and different the lake and landscape is. The islands are like nothing I have seen before.
Arriving we are greeted by Volariena who has lived on this island her whole life. We talk about TMAC and what we do in Latin America. She immediately shows us the types of materials she uses and the products she makes.
Mainly the women create beautifully intricate embroidery using either Wool (lana) or Alpaca. The designs are drawn out using pencil on the fabric and then embroidered over the top.
The designs are taken from real life, or of stories the women have heard or been told over their lifetimes. Many designs take on romantic stories, children playing, the men working, or the ancient theology and gods of the religions of the area. Volariena is Catholic but still holds a strong affinity for the Inca gods.
Many designs depict the condor, serpent and other mythical animals. The tradition of making these products is all for storytelling and passing these stories of her life and past generations as a book for future generations and a way of retaining indigenous culture.
Volariena has also been learning how to make different products, recently she has started adapting the designs into stunning cushions.
There are two ways of making these products; crochet or embroidery. Crochet is a lot quicker but for the medium-sized tapestries these can still take over a month. Embroidery using Alpaca can take over three months, it's a real process of love and hard work.
She explains that 95% all the women make crochet products and when married they start producing embroidery. Interestingly tradition dictates quite a process before getting married. A couple will be boyfriend and girlfriend for two years, it's after that they can move in together which they will do for five years before being allowed to get married. A complete contradiction to other cultures I've met on the TMAC journey.
Anita teaches me the crochet method, at first giving me a demonstration, she flows from one stitch to the next seamlessly. She is smiling as she hands over the embroidery. After five minutes I manage two mediocre stitches. I quickly learn why it takes two to three months to complete the perfect piece.
Here on the island Tabenciou there are six families and 22 people total. In the main meeting area of this small island, the families gather and tell us stories of life on the islands. There is one kindergarten and two floating schools among the 100 islands. In the centre of this island is a small hole around 30 centimeters wide where the men will fish. We have a go but come back empty-handed. Watching for five minutes he pulls around four small fish much to the amusement of the young children.
We turn the conversation to the problems artisans face. Being an artisan is the only work Volariena knows, she studied in school and married as soon as she was able and now has six children.
The groups here get no help from the government however hard they try with petitions to the government.
She tells us that as the products take three months to make, they can then take a long time to sell; anything up to six months. Sometimes the artisans have to sell products for one or two soles (less than £1) just to buy food for the family.
Her children aspire to go to university and want a different future as such little money comes from the products.
Volariena is very worried that the skills she learned and have been passed from generation to generation will be lost if this continues. Another big problem she faces is they are only allowed to sell to tourists that come to the island and market sellers from the large town of Puno. The market sellers really push the prices down and the artisans eventually have to take what they can get.
Before we leave we are invited for a full tour of the houses something they have never done before. The most intriguing is her mother's house who at 75 years has lived here all of her life. The bed is incredible, layers of reeds one after the other and then one thin sheet. Making actually a very comfortable bed.
From here we move to the kitchen and fish drying area where the fish are laid out in the sun with salt, ensuring they last a week longer than they would otherwise. The final part of the tour takes us to the outdoor cooking area. Here they heat the rocks on the fire and then use the hot rocks to surround the fish for cooking.
The family has been so welcoming and are really touched by what we are doing working with different indigenous groups. She says their group feels so alone but knowing there are others fighting and there is help available gives her great confidence. I really have been touched by the community here, their traditions and ways really are incredible.
It's with sadness I leave but I am already excited by the prospect of returning to this truly magical place. As a final goodbye to Lake Titicaca, I'm treated to probably the best sunset I have ever seen. We will be back #nofilter