Indigenous Calendar September, 2012: An Uros Demonstration of Island and House Building

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Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

Text and Photograph by Teodora C. Hasegan.

In Peru the Uros are an indigenous, pre-Incan people who live on Lake Titicaca among over forty floating islands made of totora reed. At almost four thousand meters above sea-level Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. Covering over 8,000 square kilometers, it is situated between Peru and Bolivia; its name in the local, indigenous Quechua language means 'Grey Puma.' The Uros believe that the sun was born on the lake itself. 'Uros' means 'wild animal' in Quechua, but the indigenous peoples' original name was 'Kappi,' meaning 'fishermen' or 'hunters.' The Uros fled from the mainland to the islands of Lake Titicaca when the Incas expanded onto their land in the thirteenth century. The presence of a watchtower on the largest island bears testimony to the original, defensive purpose of the Uros settlement on these islands.

Today there are about a thousand inhabitants comprising approximately 250 families. The Uros live by fishing and hunting but also by selling souvenirs (mainly reed handicrafts and hand-woven textiles) to tourists. They trade fish for products such as fruits, potatoes and clothes with the Aymara who live on the Peruvian mainland in Puno. Despite their traditional way of life the Uros also have modern amenities. Some use motorboats and solar panels installed on the roofs of their houses. The main island even has a radio station that plays music for several hours each day.

The totora reed is used by the Uros to make their houses, furniture, boats and the islands they live on. I could feel how fragile these islands are when I first walked on one after arriving by boat from Puno. After a warm welcome I was invited to a demonstration by the headman of how the residents construct the islands. First he placed four wooden sticks into the corners of natural layers of plant roots; then he tied the sticks together with ropes; after that, he put totora reeds above the top layer. The islands — which are one to three meters thick — rot from the bottom very quickly, so new reeds must be constantly added to the surface. He then displayed a sense of humor as he added two miniature houses, a miniature pile of stone for open-fire cooking and finally four miniature figurines representing his family. The result was a miniature replica of his world and its inhabitants!

After the demonstration he and some of the other inhabitants of the island invited me into their houses. The houses, like most houses on the other islands on Lake Titicaca, had only one room with a bed and sometimes a TV. There were also colorful woven textiles hung on the walls.

The Uros have succeeded in maintaining their traditional lifestyle while at the same time integrating some of the features of modern life. Only time will tell if they can maintain this balance.

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