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Victor Englebert

A man sails to Puno on a canoe made entirely of reeds, including the sail.


quatting at a millstone, the Indian flattened dry strands of grass, gently rocking a semicircular stone over them. He would later plait them into a rope. He looked so parched, so wizened with years, that his activity could have passed for old-age trembling. With his eyes open but lifeless, he did not seem to see the lake's clear water reflecting the intensely blue sky; nor the green totora reeds growing all around. Dry yellow totora had been shaped into seven adjacent floating islets, which were home to sixty of his relatives.
        The reeds grew all the way across the Bay of Puno to the land, where, rising tier upon tier, the tin roofs of Puno, a small Peruvian town, glistened in the sun like specks of silver. Emerging from the shallow water, the totora hid as many as fifty more groups of islets with a population in excess of three thousand people. In the opposite direction, immense and abyssal with its 3,200 square-mile area and depths reaching 920 feet, sprawled Lake Titicaca--at 12,500 feet the world's highest navigable lake, and a true sea when wracked by a summer storm.
        A boy of twelve was following me around. Munching the white, watery part of a fresh totora, he looked indifferently at the old man and irreverently said, "He's ready to die. He's my grandfather's grandfather, the last of the Uros."
        The last of the Uros. I had heard those words before. The boatman who had brought my wife, Martha, and me here, an Aymara Indian, had tried to entice us with them, but his last Uro lived an hour farther away, which would allow him to charge us more for the trip. The boy himself was possibly repeating what he had heard his elders tell tourists. But the last pure Uro had died many years before; the man at the stone mill, part of a mixed Uro-Aymara group, was the last person still able to speak the Uro language in this part of the marshes. The Chipayas, who, like the Uros, claim to descend from the people that built Tiahuanaco's civilization, still survive. They live in a single village next to the Salar de Coipasa, a salt lake in the Bolivian altiplano farther south.

From the water

ccording to their legends, the Uros, a pre-Columbian group, existed before the sun, when the earth was still dark and cold. They did not call themselves men but Uros, as if they were not quite the same. Men, after all, came after the sun. The Uros finally vanished when they disobeyed universal order and mixed with humans. As long as they had kept to themselves, their mysterious
A woman poles her canoe to visit friends
origins and adaptation to a wet climate awed the other Indians, who believed that the Uros' blood was black and that they could neither drown nor be struck by lightning. Once they intermarried with the Aymara, they lost their superhuman aura and were viewed with contempt. They scattered, losing their identity, language, and customs. They became the Uro-Aymaras.
        During my stay with the Uros, an elder would often speak of the time of the old man's grandfather, when an exceptional drought lowered the lake. The bay dried, the totora shriveled, the fish died, the birds flew away, and the Uros were left on dry land without resources. The dry people, the Aymara, brought their cows to graze in the bay, and some Uros began to herd for them. Other Uros learned to till the land. When the lake rose back to its former level, and the totora grew again in the bay, some Uros resumed their old way of life. But too many young people had married outside the tribe, and red blood now ran through their children's veins. Their children never learned to speak the language of the wet people.
        If the Uros did not consider themselves human, neither did the other Indians concede them that quality. The Uros were so abjectly poor and dirty that, to emphasize their scorn and force them to delouse themselves, the Incas only exacted from them a tribute of lice. The chroniclers of the Spanish conquest unanimously believed the Uros were dull and dirty. Jehan Vellard wrote that they could not even master their own "ugly, guttural, and vulgar tongue, the most difficult to learn in the whole kingdom." In his 1612 dictionary of the Aymara language, Padre Ludovico Betonio listed uro as a noun designating a rustic, dirty, and stupid person. Because they were poor hunter-gatherers, more prosperous and numerous newcomers to their land were able to force them to live offshore.
        In those days the Uros were dolichocephalitic and much darker than their brachycephalic neighbors. Intermarriage so attenuated those differences that today the groups look much the same. "The only sure way you can recognize them now," a man in Puno told me, "is to watch them walk." As they rarely leave their islets, which offer to the feet the same shifting resistance as water mattresses, they have a funny and characteristic way of negotiating firm ground. They must also have their own way of sitting, for unlike visitors, who progressively sank into the water while lounging on the totora floor, they sat all day without wetting the seat of their pants or skirts. That does not prevent them, however, from catching rheumatism before age thirty.
        Despite their metamorphosis, the people of the reeds still call themselves Uros and perpetuate the Uro reed culture. They depend on reeds for almost everything, though no longer for clothes. They catch pejere, boga, suchi, mauri, and carachi fish, selling or bartering some onshore. They gather eggs and hunt ducks, teals, grebes, moorhens, Patagonia geese, gulls, bitterns, and coots, most of which they eat themselves. They practice no agriculture, although in rare years, when low waters ground their islets, some of them may plant a few potatoes and onions in soil created by decaying reeds. An improved economy allows them to buy barley, rice, protein-rich quinoa grain, potatoes, and chunos (dried frozen potatoes). They sell canoes, totora mats, and reeds for animal forage to the dry people.
        Though the Uros were once well protected against intruders, stronger forces have been at work against their isolation. Protestant missionaries have built floating schools among them, and tourists, who like missionaries leave no people untouched, arrive each year in greater numbers. So many tourists are coming that the Uros have begun to embroider pieces of fabric with multicolored wool to sell to them.

Life on the reeds

he old man got up and, half bent, entered the hut behind him. During the few days that Martha and I would spend on the islet, we would see him come out only rarely, and then only for a few minutes. Intrigued, we often glanced through the door. He was always sitting alone, plaiting rope. Most of the other Uros were much younger and had no social contact with him, so he must have been very lonely. They gave him a little money for his work and fed him but otherwise appeared utterly uninterested in his existence. When he dies, however, they will bring him to their cemetery onshore and stay with his farming relatives there for two weeks, as their custom requires.
        When the grandson of the old man entered another hut, I did not know where to go. Much of the space on the approximately 1,500-square-meter islet was occupied by reed huts and standing bundles of drying totora, which left little room to roam. I opted to rejoin Martha, who as usual was sitting with the women on another island, skillfully extracting information and confidences that always contradicted what the men told me.
Drying fish in the sun to eat and sell.

        Having received Adventist teachings, the men were careful to exhibit only Adventist virtues. They may have feared that I was spying for the missionaries. "We have stopped smoking, chewing coca leaves [a mild narcotic], drinking alcohol, and taking mistresses," one man kept telling me in earnest, after asking me for a cigarette (though I don't smoke, I always carried some for such occasions). They also denied that young Uros indulge in premarital sex. Despite this, the women good-humoredly accused the men of often getting drunk and seeing prostitutes in Puno. When the women explained the Uros' marriage customs, they did not mention virginity.
        Before getting married officially in Puno or any of the lakeside villages (a relatively recent custom), the women told Martha, Uro couples always live together in the hut of either's parents for a trial period going from a week to a year or more. Later, they build their own hut on one of the islets or on a new one they create. To obtain a girl's hand, a young man must ask his father to apply for it. Accompanied by friends to give him weight and self-confidence, the father goes after sunset to visit the girl's parents with presents of coca leaves, bread, sugar, candies, and, above all, alcohol. If he fails, after inebriating the parents, to draw their consent, he must try again another day. Or, to gain effectiveness in the negotiation, though only if the girl agrees, the son may abduct his fianc─e. The only recourse of the girl's parents is to turn to the chief, though their hierarchies did not seem so defined. But if the couple, summoned to a hearing, confirm their wish to get married, nothing can stop them.
        Although Uro parents cannot stop their daughters from marrying, they do sometimes have leverage. The case of Usa, a pretty married girl of twenty, is a good example.
        Blessed--or should we say plagued?--with an adventurous spirit, she traveled three years ago to Arequipa, Peru's third-largest city, to work as a servant. There she was seduced by her employer's brother and, as happens to mountain girls in all Peruvian towns, shamefully exploited. She returned home with a child,
Grinding barley on a metate, a concave millstone common in South America.
a handsome little boy, to hear her father declare that he would not support them. Instead, he wanted her to marry the only man who proposed to her, a paraplegic who could find no other wife. Because of the child, no other man offered to abduct her, and she had to comply to keep the child from starving.
        Now she was complaining to the other women that her husband had been gone for four days. "He's with another woman," she cried with feigned bitterness. She kept repeating gloomily that no woman would wait that long for a man. Possibly tiring of her discourse, the other women nodded approval, and as if she had only waited for that, she got up and went packing. Martha, who had not yet heard her whole story, followed her.
        "Do you love him very much?" she asked.
        "I hate him," sneered Usa. "He's a toad, and I told him so. That's why he left. But now that for four days I have had to buy my fish from other men, I have a good reason to leave him."
        "But do you have a place to go?"
        "I am not an orphan," she replied, looking shocked by the question. "I'll go back to my parents, who live an hour away."
        The next day Usa was back with her little boy and her husband. Her father had sent the three away. Half smiling though deeply unhappy, the couple sat in the sun, eyes shaded by felt hats, on either side of their hut's entrance. The boy was hot with fever, though he would be better soon.
        "Why don't you wash his face?" Martha asked. "Don't you see the flies clinging to his eyes and mouth?"
        Bitter because he had to support a child who was not his, the man remarked, "Why doesn't he just die?"

A chosen lifestyle

here was also love on the islet, and we remember one instance of it vividly. A child needed milk to take with some medicine, and as his mother did not have any, another woman extracted her own milk, and fed him from a jar.
        The women sat around
People roam through the network of artificial islands and growing reeds.
much of the day--sewing, embroidering, grinding barley between two stones, cooking, nursing babies. When they tired of their position they got up, boarded a reed canoe, and poled it ten strokes across the water to an adjacent islet. There they visited women relatives--and sat down again. They rarely went any farther. In contrast, few men were ever present. They usually went on fishing and hunting expeditions. Alone or in pairs, they disappeared for two or three days at a time, spending the long cold nights in their reed canoes, near their fishing nets, pulling their reed sails over themselves when the sky broke into icy showers. In the raw mornings, when birds were still numb, the men drove them through the reeds, along narrow channels, into snares.
        The men who stayed home built reed canoes. Or they temporarily disassembled their huts to throw fresh reeds over the sinking, waterlogged ones beneath. As cut totora rots within six months, the Uros must continually build new canoes and raise the level of their floating islets.
        When the hunter-fishermen returned, their wives and children helped them unload. While they rested, the women eviscerated the birds and the many small fish that would be dried over totora mats for later consumption and sale. The fish the families would eat that day would be broiled whole, with bones and entrails, between two layers of hot stones.
        While we were with the Uros, Peruvian and foreign tourists invaded the islets two or three times. They took snapshots, bought embroidered souvenirs, and--to the Uros' dismay--sank repeatedly through the totora floor. They were back to their motorboat and gone within fifteen minutes, as ignorant and arrogant as ever.
        "You know," an informed Frenchman told me during one of those landings, "there are no more Uros. The Puno chamber of commerce brought these people here to promote tourism." That same group included a Peruvian farmer who asked a Uro if he and his friends would like to harvest rice in a few months. Though he offered insulting wages, the Uro nodded and asked me to jot down the farmer's name and address. When I later handed him the page, he crumpled it and threw it away in disgust. I asked him if he had changed his mind.
        "No," he smiled. "I never meant to work for him. I am happy here, and to get my help that man will have to wait for the next drought."
Victor Englebert is a photojournalist based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a frequent contributor to The World & I.

?Copyright 2001 THE WORLD & I Magazine. All rights reserved.
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