As you can see, the Urus have always lived in the lake
March 19, 2019 11:25 AM   Subscribe

The Uru or Uros people (Wikipedia) live in what is now Bolivia and Peru. Of the three groups of the Uru, the Uru-Iruito still inhabit the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca and the Desaguadero River, crafting floating islands (Google maps panorama) out of totora, a thick reed that grows abundantly in the high-altitude fresh water. Up to the 1980s, the Uru or Uros kept their islands further from the shore, about 9 miles out in the lake, far enough from shore that few visitors bothered to motor out to them. But in 1986, a huge storm devastated the islands and forced many Uros to rebuild closer to shore, near the comparative security of Puno (Google maps), the largest city on Lake Titicaca, which meant more tourists could also visit (Slate).

The reeds that go into the water rots away quickly, so new khili (the local name for the interleaved layers of totora) needs to be added on the top pretty frequently — about every 3 months (Medium). The Uru-Iruito also use the reeds to make their boats, homes and furniture. The islands are thick enough to also sustain some small gardens and support towers (Google maps panoramas x 3). The islands aren't stable, but you can visit in a wheelchair, as Cindy Otis proved (The Daily Beast). More from Smithsonian Magazine.

Then there are the Uru-Muratos, who live around, formerly on, Lake Poopó (Wikipedia). Their lake was poisoned by near-by mining, as recounted in this video (YouTube, 13 minutes), Los Hombres del Lago (archived view of a page about the production). By December 2015, the lake had completely dried up (The Guardian), leaving only a few marshy areas.
posted by filthy light thief (7 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Now I want to go to the Yavari Bed and Breakfast!
posted by es_de_bah at 12:23 PM on March 19, 2019

As indigenous people go, it seems like a pretty good deal? They seem to be consciously managing their interface with the rest of the world to benefit themselves and their children. Those who want a more distant relationship have the option of picking up sticks and moving farther away, so there's flexibility. And I would guess the fact that they are also bringing benefits to the land-dwellers in Puno might help reduce any conflicts there, in terms of people complaining about them taking up water near the city etc.
posted by tavella at 1:07 PM on March 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Now I want to go to the Yavari Bed and Breakfast!

It's fascinating to see how many of the artificial islands are now lodges, as well as restaurants. Most are strung along in an archipelago, but then there are some farther out, like Isla de los Urus, or this unnamed location (both Google maps panoramas). The latter link doesn't appear to currently be home to a floating island, but because they do float, maybe this more distant island floated elsewhere? It's a strange thing to virtually wander this area in Google maps, looking for panoramas to find where there used to be floating islands.

As indigenous people go, it seems like a pretty good deal?

As someone who is definitely not an expert in this, it seems like a decent way to extend your livelihood. Joshua Foer, in the Slate article, is more critical:
Puno lies smack in the middle of the well-plied backpacker trail from Cuzco to La Paz. For a small fee, tour boats ferry upward of 200,000 visitors a year from the mainland to the islands, dropping them off for 30 minutes at a time to take pictures, talk to the locals, and get a glimpse of this strange "indigenous" way of life. At first, the Uros were reluctant to entertain this influx of visitors, but they soon understood that there was money to be made hawking trinkets to tourists. Before long, other Uros had moved their islands closer to Puno, beginning an epic experiment in what can only be described as the Disneyfication of an entire culture.
I wonder how the Uros are now considered by Peru and Bolivia, particularly the Uru-Iruito. As a significant local attraction, have they gotten more attention from the government? From the short video, it sounds like the Uru-Muratos have had none of that "luck" of being a tourist attraction.

Also, I wonder if Mr. Foer has traveled much in South America, or elsewhere in the world, where "primitive" cultures exist alongside "the modern world," and many people retain at least the appearance of their historic way of life because they're a tourist attraction. Without that, there doesn't seem to be any particular bounty for those who live on the lake. In other words, it seems rather paternalistic to say that adapting to increased tourism is bad, when any local business would do that in a heartbeat. Is it better that they continue to, in his words, "[scrape] a living as fishermen and bird hunters" than find some increased prosperity by selling items and experiential tourism to travelers?

"With more than 80 percent of the population working in tourism, the islands feel a little like Colonial Williamsburg, except the actors don't go home at night." Because this is their home, and I expect they don't make enough money to own a second home on land, which would also take them further from their cultural way of life. People don't live in Colonial Williamsburg because it's a tough way to live.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:21 PM on March 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

I mean... cultures change, the important question is whether it is the culture itself that is controlling the change, and for the most part that seems to be true here. I'm sure not going tell a people that they can't send their kids to college because it's not "authentic". That would be the real disneyfication, compelling a culture to freeze in place despite their wishes.

There's definitely cultures where it's not clear whether the people have sufficient knowledge to manage the interface, especially when there are extreme outside pressures, but that doesn't seem to be true here.
posted by tavella at 2:28 PM on March 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

I went, about 20 years ago. Took the boat from Puno (which is, in my opinion, a hell hole), took a few minutes to get to the island, which was set up in a single line, from the dock to the other end, with market stalls on either side selling identical toy reed boats. The ground was squishy. You walked through, told 50 or so people you didn't want to buy the souvenirs, then got back on the boat which had circled around and took you back to Puno.
Totally not worth it. Much better to skip Puno, head to charming Copacabana on the Bolivian side and use it as a base to go to the Isla del Sol and de la Luna.
posted by signal at 5:23 PM on March 19, 2019

I also went, about 12 years ago, and thought it was cool. Puno does feel like a seedy port city/cross-roads border town. I was able to take a boat that stopped with the Uros, and then dropped me off at Isla Taquile, where I spend the night with a family (the textiles made on Isla Taquile are extraordinary). The night sky over lake Titicaca is one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen.
posted by nikoniko at 3:53 PM on March 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Saw this on a flight a year ago.

Cute documentary on three Uros children rowing and paddling to school in the morning. If the only way for these people to live comfortably is to sell souvenirs to tourists, so be it. They would not be the first people to maintain their identity by finding an economic niche that lets them interact with the world at large. And they won;t be the last.
posted by ocschwar at 8:24 AM on March 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

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