I’ve been to quite a few cities built on or around water. There is Venice of course – the Kim Kardashian of floating cities. The place gets so much attention that tourists outnumber the pigeons on St. Mark’s square two to one. Then there is Hoi An in Vietnam. Hoi An is probably what Venice was in its teens, when it had no money but still liked to dress up and was fun to hang out with. There is the famous Mekong delta, where a floating market looks as if remnants of a Spanish Armada humped an oriental vegetable market. Closer to my home there is Udaipur, a city which is a true reflection of our planet – two-thirds water, one third land (Ok I just made that up, but point being: it has lot of lakes).
But more fascinating that all of these were the islands of Uros, a floating city smack in the middle of Lake Titicaca, near the Peruvian town of Puno. Big difference with other ‘floating’ cities – the islands of Uros actually float. Islands. Not boats. Float. On water.
Sounds like something out of Gulliver’s Travels? It did to me to. So one sunny morning I dutifully queued up at the docks at Puno, bought a return ticket for ten soles, and got on a diesel contraption which was ambitiously named ‘Swan of Titicaca’. It looked more like a frog of Titicaca.
Frog or swan, it was full of character. To start the engine one of the crew members opened a hatch on the deck, pulled out a grisly green pipe and nearly gave it a blowjob. This supposedly got the diesel flowing and the engine spluttered to a start. Everyone other than me seemed completely unaffected by this strange display of engine love and kept themselves busy taking selfies at various angles.
Soon we were weaving our way through tall water grass – the same grass which when dried up forms the material for the floating villages of uros. Bunched up together and tied up with – well – more grass, they become as hardy as bricks. Bricks that float. These are then tied together in large flotillas on top of which more grass is piled to make huts and sheds.
After a thirty minutes ride the village rose out of the horizon. Quite literally they rose out of the surface of water, rows and rows of tiny brown huts, floating on the blue surface of the lake. Seemed like something out of a Harry Potter movie. The boat got closer and made its way around the outer islands. Uros is an archipelago where numerous islands float around in a patchwork of floating platforms. Some islands are more important than others. The one we docked on seemed like a fairly less important one. It had a few local people, three huts, and a few goats.
When I stepped off the boat, I wasn’t sure what I expected my feet to feel. I was stepping on what looked like a flattened pile of dry grass (which is exactly what it was) and I half expected my feet to go through and hit the water. So real was my fear that I didn’t let go of the boat until I had both feet firmly on the grass. It was soft without being yielding, and took all our weights perfectly. The whole thing was very stable and there was no way to tell that you were standing on something that was floating on water.
We were made to sit on a pile of the ubiquitous dry grass and given what I assume was a welcome speech by the locals. None of them spoke a word of english so for the next twenty minutes I listened to the sounds of a practiced speech in Spanish explaining – I am guessing – the Uros way of life. I caught the words Mercedes and Supermarket. After a while I figured out the former was a reference to the grass-built gigantic boats that they used to travel between the islands, and the later was a very important island which had the pubs and the restaurants.
After this the whole thing turned very touristy. Our hosts brought out some grass trinkets and wouldn’t budge until someone bought something. Our boat people had conveniently disappeared by this time. I suddenly realised that we were on a tiny grass island in the middle of the Titicaca, completely at the mercy of these locals who spoke no English. Talk about a tourist trap.
Finally someone bought something and they let us go. The supermarket was the next stop, and we were riding the Mercedes. The thing turned out to be very lame though as they used a Motorboat to push it around the lake. The idea was to get us to spend some more money on the Market island, but by this time I had had enough of being tourist-trapped so I defiantly took out a pack of biscuits, sat outside the biggest restaurant I could find and munched away happily.
The other interesting thing in the supermarket was the fish farm. They lived on a lake after all – a fish farm made perfect senses. It was a large-ish hole in the grass where they barricade the fish with a net and breed. The one we saw was so full of fish that it reminded me of Mumbai, the city I come from.
I was wondering how they keep the islands from floating away to – say – Bolivia. The lake after all stretches across multiple countries. I asked someone who spoke little english (This was the supermarket after all). He said that they had a system of tying them up together and anchoring them to the lake bed. The whole system of Islands was so enormous that the thought of a system of anchors to keep them in place was like trying to imagine NSA monitoring the entire world’s phone conversation and I couldn’t get my head around it.
Soon the trip was over. We got back on our motorboats, there was a repeat of the love-making scene with the grisly green pipe, and we were on our way back.
Humans around the world live in crazy ways, and this one sure belonged in the list of the craziest, but on the ride back I couldn’t help feel sad about the way this unique ecosystem has become marred with the footsteps of tourists. The irony, I suddenly realised, was that I was a tourist myself. What saddened me was to see their normal lives interrupted, and then replaced by the demands of tourism. And slowly, from something to see and marvel at, it was turning into something to sell.