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Isla Amantani, Peru
Upon a floating island
As I sit by the fire, surrounded by ten guinea pigs squeaking and scampering, I wonder if I will be eating one later, cooked upon my plate. I cringe as I see Stepanie reach with her bare, thickened hands into the pot of boiling water, stirring the potatoes with her fingers. Twelve thousand five hundred feet above sea-level, in a mud and straw Peruvian kitchen, I am forced to rub my eyes from the stinging smoke that saturates the air. Occasionally, I see a pair of little black eyes peering around my feet, glinting from the flickering glow of the fire. As we approach the second hour of cooking, she indicates that the cuys won’t be cooked tonight – only for special occasions. With no ability to communicate in Quechua, we sit quietly, soaking up the crackling silence and the radiant warmth.
Only two hours earlier, I had arrived on Isla Amantani, a tiny island located hours by boat within Lake Titicaca, Peru. The island is free from electricity, running water, and many of the typical comforts of city life. But life on the island, albeit simple, is a drastic change in pace for the average tourist seeking a homestay experience. The highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca is home to the floating islands of the Uros people, a small native colony who built their homesteads on nothing more than layers upon layers of reeds.
As I disembarked our boat and waited at the dock, a young woman dressed in brightly-coloured garments hobbled down the steep path towards us. Armed with the little Spanish that I had practiced over the last month, I greeted her and asked her a few simple questions. Her quiet smile and nod foretold a couple days of hand-signals and gestures. No Spanish here!
Then we began our hike up along the dirt path, leading through numerous gardens and small homes. The hike was more strenuous than we had anticipated, mostly due to the thin air at this altitude. We climbed over a stone wall and entered an empty yard with a quaint little house at one end. Stephanie showed us to our room, one that required us to stoop down to make it through the doorway.
As we are showed to our room, we glanced around the green-walled room and found two small beds made of reeds, a tiny table with a candle and dozens of layers of thick bedding – apparently the nights are very cold here.
After sitting in the smoky kitchen for an hour, we climbed back up to our room and quickly sprawled ourselves across the crunchy beds. A knock at the door and Stephanie entered with three large bowls of soup. By this time in our trip, we had been getting pretty sick of the same bland soup we had had every day so far in Peru. Minutes later, she again returned, this time with peppermint tea and plates heaping with a colourful mush. After some careful examination, we figured that it must consist of fried eggs, rice and potatoes, all disguised under some yellow goop. This was the last straw for my brother and girlfriend, and they all insisted that they were no longer hungry.
We could hear and see Stephanie feeding her son below, visible through the cracks in the irregular wooden floorboards. She was a caring individual, and regularly welcomed visitors into her tiny home. Her spare room for visitors was far nicer than her own, indicative of her generous nature.
After dinner, she returned with armloads of heavy clothing: striped ponchos, wraps and toques. She then spent twenty minutes trying to dress each of us up. We thought that we looked quite outlandish, but her reassuring nods implied that we would blend in with the local crowd.
Leaving under nightfall, we walked quietly under the sea of stars towards the main hall. As we neared the hall, the distinctive sound of panpipes and stomping feed echoed across the field. We stood sheepishly along the walls of the hall while we watched the crowd dance in a back and forth rotating mass.
My intentions of hiding from the action failed miserably and I saw Stephanie skip over to me, hands outstretched, smiling broadly. Whatever happened to our dance lessons? Following her lead, I swing back and forth in this repetitive dance, trying to keep in time to the music.
Just when it sounded like the torture was drawing to an end, the small band restarted the tune and played it quicker and more fiercely than the last time. There was no escape. Flying arms, ponchos, stomping heels… the wild scene was overwhelming. Finally taking a step outside the hall to get some crisp fresh air, I watch the silhouettes of dancing tunics through the smoky window. Listening to the mesmerizing panpipe songs, I return into the sweaty hall in time to join one last dance.
Into the hall from the outside