High on the isles of smiles

BY NICKI SCHUCK
Last updated 10:00 12/05/2009

ISLANDS OF UROS: These floating islands in Lake Titicaca are home to families who never set foot on dry land.

LAKE TITICACA: Peru is home to the highest navigable lake in the world.

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Cute kids are tourism players at Titicaca's unique floating villages in Peru.

I can see her from our boat, bouncing up and down by the water's edge. Her fluorescent clothing can't be missed but that's not what catches my eye. It's her smile.

As we tie up alongside she is chatting away in the local Aymara dialect, showing no signs of nervousness of falling in the water.

But why would she? She's never set foot on land in her four years of life. It's likely she never will, just like generations of family before her.

I'm a 30-minute motor boat ride from Puno, the capital of Peru's harsh highland region.

The city sits at an altitude of more than 3,800 metres and is known as Peru's folklore centre - a place from which over 300 ethnic dances originated. Like much of Peru, poverty is prevalent.

Manuela lives on Islas Flotantes, the artificial floating islands of Uros on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,812 metres above sea level.

RICH HISTORY

The Incas believe their culture emerged from Lake Titicaca and it is this rich history, as well as a fascination for the floating reed islands, that draws tourists to Puno.

Manuela's home is made of layers of totora reeds that grow in the shallows of the lake, which are tied together and crudely anchored.

Maintenance keeps the men busy because the lower layers eventually rot and require constant replenishment from the top. The result is a spongy feeling underfoot.

With limited resources comes versatility, and totora reeds are versatile all right. I'm gobsmacked as Manuela's father strips a reed to reveal a leek-like stem that he then eats raw as a vegetable.

We're told it's also great for his teeth - they gleam white. I wonder, is it something that a toothpaste manufacturer will try to patent?

He offers us a taste, which we decline politely, having been warned that foreign stomachs may not cope with the bacteria that live in the reeds.

These same reeds not only form the base for the island, but the walls and roofs for locals' sleeping quarters, beds, fuel for the fire and fibre for rope.

With hand gestures and lots of smiles Manuela's father encourages my husband and me to have a look inside his home. It's surprisingly cosy and inviting with handicrafts adorning the walls and across the bed.

No sooner do I whisper to my husband that it looks like something out of the Three Little Pigs than Manuela decides to have the last laugh. She encourages us both to dress up in the spare clothing pegged along the walls.

I can't stop giggling as I place make-believe plaits around my neck and put on the traditional bowler hat to complete my outfit. Ed looks like something out of a cartoon.

We pose for the record - clearly they've learnt how to use a digital SLR camera. Manuela tugs at me to take the costume off because it's time to have a look at her parents' hand crafts which, of course, are available for sale.

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INCAPABLE OF DROWNING

We can't resist a detailed wall hanging that tells the harrowing history of the indigenous people of Peru. Centuries ago they were driven to the lake to escape the encroaching Inca tribes - now they're known as the people incapable of drowning.

The starkness of the dried reeds against the turquoise sky lulls me into thinking it could be fun to live here, but the islanders' bland diet, the tanned roughness of Manuela's young skin and the reality of the cold nights at this altitude quickly bring me round.

Now it is time for a ride on a reed boat that resembles a Viking ship. The two four-year-olds leap on to the boat and run up and down collecting loose change in their hats from the passengers.

I can't help but imagine the same scenario back home and the sound of nervous Kiwi mothers telling their children to sit down and to be careful as it is dangerous and that they could fall into the water.

There is no such concern here - the fathers seem oblivious to their daughters' safety as they do their part to supplement the family income.

Uros now has its own school and the children from the 30 floating islands gather to learn Spanish and other skills which will potentially open a new world for their generation.

As our boat ride comes to an end the two girls make a last minute attempt to show how cute they are by singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in seven different languages.

As we motor our way back to Puno, the girls wave and call out, their beaming smiles etching a mark in my heart forever.

FAST FACTS: Peregrine's 13-day Inca Heartland tour includes an overnight island family homestay at Puno and is  priced from NZ$3,230. Airfares from New Zealand are additional. For more information on the Peregrine  tour, and for the best available airfare, contact House of Travel on 0800 838 747.

TIP: Ensure you buy fresh  fruit in Puno to take with you - the variety of food is greatly appreciated by the families.

* The writer toured Peru courtesy of Peregrine.

- The Dominion Post

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