{10.1.15} The Island of the Sun

Today, we got up bright and early to catch a lancha to Isla del Sol, the island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, full of legend and on the border between Peru and Bolivia. Today started off intense, with two hours on the boat to go from Copacabana to Isla del Sol (freeeeezing cold in the wind, so we ended up huddled like penguins by the end, sitting on the roof where the view was spectacular and the spattering rain had free reign). Once on the island, after a quick pit stop and frantic buying of coca leaf tea (for the warmth and the altitude), we were off to a museum rather lacking in any sort of explanation or story line, and then the sacred rock where they still sacrifice a llama to bring in the new year on June 21st. We laid our hands on the rock, after a detailed explanation about how we could see the faces in it, for luck and good energy. A quick stop at the ruins of the temple, whose name means “maze” because it really was possible to get lost inside when it was roofed and impossible to see where you were, and then we made the 3 hour treck to the southern part of the island, arriving just in time to catch our boat back.

Heading off for the Island of the Sun
Heading off for the Island of the Sun

After a well-deserved dinner, one of the friends I´m travelling with convinced the other two of us to rent motorcycles for half an hour and tool up and down the lakefront road. I think it was right up there, in terms of rather risky but highly enjoyable things I´ve done here. There were no helmets, and tons of people with similar complete lack of motorcycle riding experience also weaving their way along the increasingly muddy dirt road. Multiple dogs got way too close for comfort. My motorcycle inexplicably turned off and took alarmingly long to start up again. But it was a nice way to say goodbye to the settting sun, making a hearty contribution to both noise and air polution, running circles around the non-motorcycle-savvy friend who´s (rightfully) on the very cautious side. It was one of those moments when I was like “well, I am currently being one of those super annoying tourists, but honestly, I don´t really care”. I figure it´s ok to have those moments once and a while.

Mixture of terror and exhillaration on the cooshie, automoatic motorbike (needed shoulder massage afterwards for stress, but it was still worth it)
Mixture of terror and exhillaration on the cooshie, automoatic motorbike (needed shoulder massage afterwards for stress, but it was still worth it)

Isla del Sol was actually a really interesting place to be as a tourist. Copacabana, the mainland town that feeds into the islands, is very traditionally touristy. There´s tons of artisan stuff from all over Bolivia, you can exchange money, buy bottled water (tap water isn´t safe to drink) or eat trout for cheap pretty much anywhere. Almost all the people who you see are tourists. Or people from other latin american countries working promoting restaurants to earn money to continue traveling and being tourists. It´s very impersonal. Isla del Sol, however, has set up its tourist industry as a cooperative. You have to pay to enter the northern, central and southern regions of the island, and there are ticket check points upon entry and exit. All the guides live on the island, and I think all the people who sell food and water and artisan things along the way are from there, too. They are very well-organized, and also charge a lot (by bolivian standards) because they can. It´s cool, though, because the island hasn´t resorted to being completely overrun by the tourism industry. Sure, the towns where the pickup and dropoffs with the boats from the mainland happen are all hostals and hotels, and there are a lot of people (especially kids, oftentimes alone and not more than 11 years old) manning the various refreshment stands, but it´s still a primarily agricultural place. There are millions of little plots that cover the island that, with generations, have gotten split smaller and smaller, so that any given family will have a bunch of tiny plots to cultivate, and they will be all over the island, not just in one place. They cultivate for 5 years, and then let the earth rest. There´s corn, potatoes of all colors (red, white, black, purple, you name it). There are sheep and alpaca for wool, and pigs trot around freely, scrounging for scraps. Donkeys are the transport animal of choice. They have maintained traditional religious practices from their pre-Inca ancestors, which makes it the first place I´ve seen that doesn´t have an ornate Catholic church somewhere to oogle at.

the unloading inlet at the north end of the island (note the number of hostals and hotels)
the unloading inlet at the north end of the island
(note the number of hostals and hotels)

I have been struggling a lot here with cultural differences, with tourism, with being a stranger in a land where everything still seems so traditional and, in some ways, relatively untouched by Western civilization. It is hard to appreciate without exoticizing, absorb without coming too fast to conclusions. I feel uncomfortable asking people if I can take their picture, especially women in traditional attire, because I don´t want to see them as objects, I want to see them as people. But I also struggle to start conversations with people, especially those who are so overwhelmed by the constant onslaught of tourists and don´t want to talk, just make the money they need to feed their kids or whatever. When kids come bouncing along on the trail between the north and south of the island asking for spare change, I don´t know whether it´s better to just give it to them, or if I should require something like information about them, a conversation at least. I don´t know how I feel about obviously having a lot of money in comparison to these people. There are so many problems to see, but also so much that is beautiful that we don´t have in the US, that I am left feeling like maybe I am the poor one. These kids have nothing, but to watch them playing on the beach, cavorting, running, poking, laughing, is absolutely delightful. I don´t see a lot of american kids that free, but neither do you see 7-year-olds in the US selling you crackers and bottled water an hour´s walk from civilization. Talking with one of my friends today, I´ve realized that I´ll probably never have a complete answer to these questions, that the process of having questions is really important. I have also come to realize that if taking pictures makes me uncomfortable or is removing me from the situation I´m in because I am interpreting it through a screen instead of my emotional reaction, then it´s time to put the camera away.

I guess I´ll leave you with that. Questions. And I invite your thoughts or own experiences questioning your identity, your culture, your belonging, your right to tell the story of your time in a place far away from home.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Soren Hauge says:

    I appreciate both your awareness of the issues presented by being a tourist and ability to just go ahead and be one, if a better kind than some. I’ve loved visiting new places and meeting people of different cultures, while becoming more uncomfortable over the years about the objectification and performance aspects of the whole thing. However, I’ve never been able to resolve the contradiction in my own mind and don’t know if one can. Getting out of the tour herd and hanging around and talking with people beyond the scripted tour or casual transaction makes some kind of difference in my experience. I’ve traveled relatively more with educational or political/service groups, which feels like it gives even the more scripted interactions a greater purpose. I have less interest these days in traveling to areas where I don’t speak the local language somewhat, because of the way that impedes those unscripted/less money-oriented conversations.

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  2. Kat says:

    I love the post!

    It sounds a LOT more touristy than when I was there. I took a rowboat to Isla del Sol — or was it Isla de la Luna?, and there were no hotels and there was no museum and there were no guides. Our boat rower acted out a bizarre and energetic version of what he thought went on in the ruins — it pretty much looked like a kung fu movie. Islas Amantani and Taquile had a similar cooperative tourism system to what you describe, but on both islands I was either the only tourist when I was there, or one of about a half dozen. (And since there were no bathrooms or running water, that didn’t seem likely to change much. I slept on a reed mat on a mud platform with wool blankets and no sheets, washed with a gallon of water over several days, and used a completely public corner of a potato field for a bathroom. Which I found stressful since I did not have modesty-protecting skirts like the local women. I caused a local sensation by going for a swim in the frigid lake one day.)

    Men were often interested in talking with me; women didn’t generally speak Spanish and/or kept to themselves. Kids were friendly, but communication was limited. I really did try to get to know people before taking pictures of individuals, and that made a big difference for me. I took my share of “objectifying” pictures but always felt guilty when I did, and I did it less and less as my trip wore on. In more touristy areas I sometimes offered to pay people in exchange for a picture — hardly not objectifying, but at least they got something out of it too, as well as the opportunity to say no to the picture.

    I still remember the names of a number of the people in my pictures, and I tried to take pictures of them that in some way involved interactions we had. I have one of a guy named Pedro Juli Quispe explaining how a wooden Inca lock worked. Another of Hermanegildo’s family eating lunch. Another of three men looking at my personal photographs (I had a stack of them to show anyone I got into a more in-depth conversation with.) They were awed by the picture of cousin Christie’s wedding with two whole lambs roasting over a fire. I have another picture of Hermanegildo playing my miniature harmonica — I had an ocarina too and he taught me a traditional Andean song on it (“Ojos Azules”). I think my Authentic Cultural Offering was “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain.”

    It sounds enough more touristy now that trying to have these little personal interactions would be a lot harder — people probably have more walls up. But bringing along something to do — like a frisbee or a small instrument or a hackysack or something — can help break the ice a little and make a more satisfying interaction possible. I also occasionally asked people to take pictures of me — that’s how I got that picture of me in a male dance costume shuffling around a circle at a wedding I was invited to on Taquile. I gave that family my red bandana from Dan & Whit’s General Store in Norwich Vermont as a small gift for getting to be part of this — they draped it over the costume of one of the kids.

    So yeah, the objectifying thing is tough, and my main advice would be to get off the main tourist track so you meet people who are not exhausted by the social dynamics of tourism and who are open to personal interactions with you. Of course traveling alone makes it easier. And plonking yourself down in a sort of public place in a sort of open way — like having a journal open and writing in it, but spending a lot of time looking around smiling at people too — looking distractable. I’ve also sometimes gotten a toehold with kids — if a group of them approached me, pretty soon I’d teach them a game or something, or a song, and we’d have a great time. Them trying to teach me a game or song was usually a hilarious disaster. I’d do Vibora de la Mar now, or Tio Enrique, or Red Rover or something. I used to do London Bridge Is Falling Down in rather crude Spanish, but they liked all the roughhousing that went along with it in my enhanced version.

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    1. Yeah, that´s definitely helpful. I will really miss my travel companions, but I know I need to get off on my own a little more, too. I was never a camp counselor, so my gambit of fun kid games is a bit more limited, but I´ve got a few from the old DeCramers Plus Us days. I feel right now like we´ve just been going places to buy stuff. And also that we haven´t really gotten to know any of the places we´ve visited. I have learned that aimless wandering or plaza sitting is really the way to go. Plus, I enjoy myself a lot more when I can be my own guide a bit and not have to keep with someone else´s timetable. I´ll definitely keep what you said in mind, though. Thanks!

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