As I sat at the lunch table in the tiny adobe home of an indigenous family on the Island of Amantaní on Lake Titicaca, I had an internal conversation with myself as to whether I should eat the purple potatoes sitting on the plate in front of me. Digestive issues are common for foreigners in Peru. and these potatoes still seemed to have dirt on them. Although the house where I would spend one night was technically a “certified hostel” for tourists visiting the lake, the thought of possibly digesting parasites or other bacteria that would make me sick was a difficult thought to face. I also took into consideration that this would be the only food I would have for a while and that I did not want to be disrespectful and not eat the food that the family had kindly prepared for me. In the end, I ate my meal and was fortunate enough not to get sick — my friends on the other hand, who were staying with a family up the hill, had a different fate….
Lake Titicaca was honestly one of the most gorgeous landscapes I’ve been lucky enough to experience not only in Peru, but in my life. To get to the lake, I took an 8-hour bus ride to the city of Puno, where I boarded a boat to spend one night and two days exploring the floating islands and the lake itself. The first island where we stopped was the floating island of Uros. There, I learned about the process of making a floating island and about the 5 indigenous families that inhabit the island today. Although extremely poor, the few families on this island seem to survive solely off of the profits they make from tourists. The Aymara heritage of these families dates back to the times of the Incas, if not earlier. The babies and the children on the island run around in stained garments and without shoes. Many also have sunburned cheeks from living so close to the sun at an altitude close to 13,000 feet, which is 2,000 feet above Cuzco.
After Uros, we boarded the boat to head to the Island of Amantaní (this was not a tiny floating island like Uros) where we would spend the night. Once we arrived at the island, my “host mom” for the night came to show us the way to her house. The island was a mountain, and all of the houses were built on the side of the mountain. Carrying our heavy backpacks and water, we followed our host mom up the mountain and then down across streams and up again until finally we arrived at the house. Not only had we hiked the mountain with our backpacks, the high altitude had added another challenge.
At the house, we were pleasantly surprised with our comfortable rooms, but there were still unexpected aspects to our adventure. The house had no running water, but this wasn’t a huge problem for me because I was accustomed to brushing my teeth with bottled water in order to prevent getting ill from the water in Cuzco. However, considering that I’m 5’8½” tall, the greatest challenge for me was remembering to duck my head whenever I passed through a doorway. Generally, Peruvians are much shorter than I am and this fact became especially noticeable. Although I spent less than 24 hours in this house, I probably hit my head (hard!) about 5 times.
Aside from exploring and seeing the lake, one of the most meaningful parts of my experience was talking with the daughter of my host family. When she was preparing our meal, I went into the kitchen to ask if there was anything I could do to help. She appreciated my offer but told me that I could just have a seat. We started talking and I learned that she is 19 years old and has an 18-month-old son. She explained that she has four siblings, but they all went to Lima (the capital of Peru) to work. She had so many questions for me, from “What time is it in the US?” to “What are you studying at your university?” She had been on track to study at a nearby university, but the birth of her son prevented her from pursuing this goal.
My conversation with her provided such a great cultural exchange and opportunity for me to learn about the lives of an indigenous family through direct interaction. Our conversation ended when dinner was ready and she asked me to get my friends from our room for dinner. I sat down at the table thinking about what we had discussed, and again had another internal conversation about whether I should eat my second serving of potatoes for the day.