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To Coroico by Carl Cleves

Page 5

We travelled by boat from the lakeside Peruvian town of Puno. It took four hours to reach the island. On arrival we climbed a steep stairway carved into the mountainside, a breathless experience at 4000 meters, especially when one is carrying a pack with clothes and food supplies, a guitar and a child. We were greeted by a small committee of Indians who allocated us to a family on the far side of the island. We walked for several kilometres on rocky paths, crossed gurgling brooklets, following our guide. The soil was a deep red amidst patches of grass and shrubs where sheep grazed. The sides of the hills were terraced and cultivated. It never ceased to amaze me how the Indians managed to make use of every bit of arable land around the shores of lake Titicaca. Over the centuries, rock walls had been constructed and irrigation channels built. On the terraces potatoes, peanuts and vegetables were grown and at every market one could see the women seated behind mountains of peanuts or one of the many varieties of potatoes.



I was immediately enchanted by the tranquility and beauty of Taquile. The island is some seven kilometres long. Lake Titicaca, erroneously reputed to be the highest navigable lake in the world, glistened intensely blue under the luminescent sunlight of the Altiplano. On the far side of the lake, over on the Bolivian side, lay the snowcapped Cordillera Real. The air was crystalline. I had forgotten my state of exhaustion when we arrived at the hut of our hosts at nightfall.

The shadows had lengthened and merged with the dusk, the lake was a silent grey and the mountain peaks on the horizon a warm pink. We were welcomed by Faustino, - a fisherman, who was also an early-morning trumpet player, a member of the brass band that led all the islandŐs festivities - his wife and four-year-old son Vincente. Vincente became Tashi's best friend during the next three weeks. It caused much merriment to hear the two boys communicate with each other, Tashi in Spanish, Vincente in Quechua. Tashi's collection of plastic toy cars was a source of wonder to all the kids. Since there were no cars on the island, these toys created much interest, even from the older kids, many of whom had never left the island.



We shared a small hut with this family. It was constructed of rock and clay with a roof of straw. Nearby was another hut that housed two brothers, their wives and three young children. The grandmother slept in either hut, usually in ours. On cold nights we all huddled together in the main hut, in the company of half a dozen sheep, who were lovingly protected from the severe nights at high altitude. There was no heating, little firewood due to the lack of trees. Recently, since the arrival of paying guests, the family had started using kerosene for the cooking. We shared a meal of rice and potatoes. Faustino questioned us in Spanish and translated in Quechua for the others. Whereas most Titicaca Indians speak Aymara the people of Taquile speak Quechua. Tashi and I were quite accustomed to being the object of curiosity and wonder. As in the villages on the Pacific islands, here too the islanders were not used to the idea of a man raising a young child. In Fiji and Polynesia it had been a common occurrence for the women to present their services as would-be mothers or, at times, to offer their daughters in marriage. To them it seemed inconceivable that a man could mind a child without a woman. Anyway, men went fishing, worked on trawlers or in the mines. Faustino's wife assigned us a corner of the hut and from that first night on we slept on sheepskins, lulled by the snoring of the grandmother, scented by the musky odour of the sheep.


The day after our arrival it started raining. Rainstorms, hailstorms, bitter cold weather continued for a week. There were no toilet facilities and bathing had to be done in icy water. I was born on the 15th of April, an Aries. Now I smelt like one. On the morning of my birthday the sun broke through. Birds sang, bees hummed in the blossoms, roosters crowed, sheep bleated, somewhere in the hills the brass band rehearsed and everywhere around us the rainwater gurgled joyfully through cracks, gullies and channels carved out of the rock, on its hurried way into the lake. Tashi and I bathed, soaping each other's backs, emerging with a scream from the freezing water. Everyone was basking in the morning sun. The grandmother deloused a little girl; Faustino and his brothers fashioned masks from cotton and straw for a fiesta that was to take place the following week; the women were weaving and spinning. After having spent a whole week holed up in a small hut with Faustino's family and the sheep I had stopped feeling as if I was an intruder. We all had gotten used to each other. Tashi and I had been accepted into their home. I have travelled with a female companion, I have travelled alone, but travelling with a small child is the easiest way to make contact and be accepted. The lone male traveller meets with suspicion, the couple lives its own private existence, but a man accompanied by and caring for a small child is considered harmless, regarded with some sympathy and irony by the women, sometimes pitied, sometimes envied by the men.

(To be continued)