Friday, June 5, 2009

Floating Along

Puno is a port town nestled off of the shores of Lake Titicaca, near the Bolivian border to Peru, and served as the next stop on what I'm now referring to as the Great South American Bus Ride. It feels as if my body is more used to traveling at 99kph [but never 100kph] than walking now. I've added up the amount of time I've spent on planes, trains, buses, or boats so far and I'm pretty sure its topped triple digits. Buses love to show dubbed over English shows and if I have to watch the Fresh Prince of Bel Air in Spanish again I'm actually going to believe Will Smith is Chilean.

But worth the travel it was, as Puno offered a great opportunity to explore some of the islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca, one of the highest navigable lakes in the world. I went down to the port in the morning and caught a boat with some local Taquilens [from Isle Taquile] in order to make it out to Los Uros, or "the Floating Islands". The name makes them sound like something out of a paperback fantasy novel, and they actually are similar in some respects, albeit without dragons or wizards. Los Uros are a series of many small bits of inhabitable land created by bonding together the local reeds, called totora, native to the lake. The reeds are not only valued for their medicinal properties, but serve to create a completely renewable construction material. As the reeds on the bottom of the island deteriorate, new material is added to the top to replenish the land, done almost every three months. Harvested locally, the islands are one of the few completely "sustainable" construction techniques I've heard of from a material point of view.

Not satisfied with just walking on and living on the reeds, the inhabitants of Uros also consume their slender building material of choice. The lower part of the totora is white and spongy, and contains iodine that wards off certain diseases. I tried some of it and tastes like what you would assume it to taste like, completely devoid of flavor with the consistency of a soft Brillo pad.

The population of Uros originally attempted to escape from other hostile peoples so they took to the water in order to get away. I've heard the original idea was defensible b/c they could move the islands to a different location in the lake when they heard enemies were present. I highly doubt the validity of this statement, as the top speed of a bunch of moving reeds would probably get close to .5 mph. Though maybe they were meant to just move so as not to give away their position. The transportation of the Uros got jealous and also mandated that it be built out of reed material, so all of their canoe like boats are incredibly well crafted and can go several years before they finally succumb to the elements. They are basically reed bundles tied together in order to get enough buoyancy, and are extremely rigid and tight construction wise. So some of their food comes from one material, their homes, their land, their car, as well as many of the obvious baskets and other oddities. I've never seen a culture so dependent on one main staple, and it brings to mind the Native American culture of re-using every part of the deer for different purposes.

The walls of the homes on the island are woven, keeping out the wind by layer after layer stacked on top of each other and threaded together. Many of the roofs use plastic now as an under layer and have also found out the benefits of meshing high tech and low tech. Since getting electricity out to the island would prove to be a shockingly hard venture [bad pun] many of the simple houses have turned to the sun to gather power in the form of solar collectors. Though it is pretty funny to see the gleaming metal in contrast to the simple woven homes.

Is it possible to gain some of the insight from the ongoing renewal of Los Uros as applied to our current construction practices? Right now almost no materials from a single family house can be re-used when torn down, and certainly not decay into the earth to come back in a different manner. What would happen if we allowed our buildings to "decay" to a greater extent in order to replace them? Or in a different vein, it allows us to look at the reuse of building materials to be used in another future project. Either embracing the degradation that would happen or using construction techniques that encourage longevity. The floating islands touched me in the way they utilized a local building material that can be renewed, as well as actually accomplishing the hard task of living where "we were not destined to be." Floating along, bobbing from the wakes of boats that pass by in the distance.

Thoughts on Traveling #18 : There are two competing types of peanut roasters in Santiago, Chile. There is the "Nuts4Nuts" stand and the "Crazy4Nuts" stand. I always patronize the Crazy4Nuts cart because I feel bad they weren't able to break away and come up with a better name.

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