Floating Reed Islands & Virgin of Candelaria

Carnival in Latin America is a not-to-be-missed experience. Last year I was in Barranquilla, Colombia – what they said is the second-largest Carnival celebration in the world (after Rio’s) and much less expensive and commercial. I had a fantastic time, and was naturally wondering where to go this year. Lo and behold, people around here say that the second-largest Carnival in the world after Rio’s is in Oruro, Bolivia. So my plan was to go down there for a week, cross back into Peru to meet mom in Arequipa in late February, then return to Bolivia in early March to continue my trip.

Just a few problems with this scenario. One, Bolivia charges Americans a $135 entrance fee (visa), which I wasn’t excited about paying twice. Two, I hate crossing borders. Gee, maybe it’s my bad history of having things stolen or being personally violated, but border crossings just creep me out. So I’d prefer to minimize the amount of them I have to do. Three, the more I read about Carnival in Oruro, the more it sounds like a real pain in the ass. Fun, to be sure – tons of dancing, parades, celebrating, live music – but also all the negatives that come with an overly-hyped event in a small town: prices skyrocket, hotels book out, thieves multiply. Sandra helped me by calling a number of hotels and what few had rooms left were outrageously priced. One poster on the message boards seriously told me that cardboard boxes on the street were selling for $5/night.

Then I found out that Puno, a town in southern Peru on the shores of Lake Titicaca, has a similar celebration a week before. It’s nearly identical – the same dances, same music, similar parades – but on a smaller scale.. less crazy, less expensive, and less hassle. And I wouldn’t need to leave the country. Done and done. The best part was that Sandra was able to take a long weekend and join me for the excursion! Fantastic.. events like that are so much more fun with a partner in crime.

We take the night bus from Cusco and arrive an hour early (!) at 4am. Wake up the hotel to let us in, settle into our room for a bit of sleep, and get woken up an hour later to marching bands tromping down the street. Uh-oh.. are we going to get any sleep this weekend?? Still, their passion is infectious. What possesses people to carry large heavy tubas down cold dark streets at all hours of the night blowing their lungs out? For three to eight days on end. 10 – 16 hours a day. How do their lips not fall off? Are they deaf by the end of the week? These people are dedicated.

And that’s just the musicians. The dancers are wearing hot, uncomfortable costumes – many in high heels or platform shoes, others in 2-foot thick layers of foam rubber and fake hair, sweating under the hot sun.. dancing for miles along different parade routes every day, from pre-dawn until well into the night. Day after day after day. They all deserve medals.

Actually, the way they reward each other is with alcohol. All along the parade route performers are fed booze to keep them on their feet (?). Musicians, being who they are, bear the largest share of the responsibility. By the end of the week they’re stumbling down the street barely able to walk a straight line, let alone keep their instrument in tune. And that’s at 9 in the morning.

From the amusing The Gringo Trail:

The bands sounded as if they assembled each year without rehearsal, hoping to remember the tune from the year before. They make it easier by playing only one tune all day, which consists of a few bars repeated interminably. Even that is a fair enough achievement, considering how drunk everyone seems.

We had a fantastic four days watching from various vantage points, wandering the streets, taking it all in. Unlike in Rio, Barranquilla, or Oruro, the events here are low-key enough that one is able to walk straight down the parade route – there are no barriers or guards keeping you from the action. And yet it wasn’t small by any means. 60,000 dancers and 20,000 musicians… The video below gives you a good sampling of what we witnessed. We even ran into a friend of Sandra’s who was marching in the parade – she’s the one in blue that I’m standing next to in the photo.

Last year Miss Perú caused a stir when she wore a costume from this celebration for the “traditional” segment of the Miss Universe pageant. Bolivia had a conniption fit, and claimed she was stealing from their culture. They went so far as to press their case with the U.N. and stage protests in front of the Peruvian embassy in Washington. From what I’ve learned, this is complete hogwash. As one local put it:

La Diablada” is a dance from the Altiplano which includes the south of Peru, the west of Bolivia and the northern part of Chile. The Millenarian Aymara culture doesn’t belong to countries; rather, to THE PEOPLE, through our native language and origin. We should aim for brotherhood and not division. It is chauvinistic to say that [the dance and costumes] belong only to one country – which didn’t even exist 200 years ago! Even before the Viceroyalty, Bolivia was part of the ancient Tahuantinsuyu (Incan Empire). We have more similarities than differences. We share the same native languages (Aymara and Quechua), the same natural environment (the Altiplano and Lake Titicaca) and the same people (the Aymaras).

In other words – piss off, Bolivia! Peruvians have just as much right to wear the La Diablada costumes as Bolivians do! Nah! (tongue held straight out). We actually saw Miss Perú from afar one day at the stadium. She was swarmed by press – all you could see was her huge headpiece sticking up above the crowd!

I jot down notes throughout the day on interesting things I witness.. usually it’s easiest to type these into my Palm Treo smartphone.. but no longer, since it got stolen this weekend! I had just used it to take a note down. I put it back into my theft-proof security purse that I’ve raved about, and we pressed on through the crowd. 10 minutes later I went to check – and it was gone! Well.. it turns out that the fancy security purse isn’t so theft-proof if you don’t zip it closed, Josh! I had a bottle of water sticking out preventing the zipper from closing. Still, the flap was folded over and I was hugging it against myself. This thief must have been some kind of a magician to get through that. Lesson learned – forgo the water in favor of protecting the electronics. I wasn’t actually that upset about the phone itself since it was on it’s last legs, but rather about all the data I lost. Let this be a lesson to you – back up early, back up often. I had to spend hours changing all my logins and credentials at dozens of web sites since on the memory card was an unencrypted spreadsheet with all my passwords. Another lesson learned. I’m doing things differently with my new Nexus One – anything of importance gets synced with the cloud, and it’s all encrypted in case it falls into the Wrong Hands.

It’s great getting out of the weather of Cusco for a bit. It’s much warmer here.. blue skies, bright and sunny. And Lake Titicaca is beautiful. It’s one of the highest navigable lakes in the world, at 3810m / 12,500ft. It’s also huge – the largest lake in South America – and like the Great Lakes of North America, you can’t see across to land on the other side. One day we checked out the famous Uros floating reed islands, about a half hour by motor boat from Puno’s shore. The origin of these constructed islands? Hundreds of years ago the Uros were living on the shores of the lake when the Incas came a calling. “Subjugate to us or die!”, the Incas said. Or something like that. “No way, José, see ya later, alligator!” replied the Uros. And they cleverly fled to the middle of the lake, building their own islands as a safe refuge. Not only were they creating a moat between their enemies, their homes could also be moved at will. Simply towed to a new location should danger arise. Today there are 56 islands – all constructed by hand using dried reeds bundled together into layers. It takes one year to build an island about 100m x 50m – enough for a family or two to live on. They anchor the islands to the shallow bottom or to other islands to keep them from floating away into the lake.

The residents also build reed boats. Ingeniously, they’ve incorporated plastic bottles into the construction of these boats – serving the dual purpose of using up some of the endless litter of bottles, and taking advantage of their natural buoyancy. The small boats you see in the photos take 1 month to build and incorporate 2,000 bottles. The large boats use 4,500 bottles and take four months to build. But they only last two years before needing to be rebuilt. The islands are the same – the reeds decompose so rapidly that they’re constantly having to replace and repair them. It’s amazing what these tiny islands can support – some have solar panels generating electricity for televisions, others have a cow or two grazing. The tortora reeds are not only used to build with, they’re also eaten. Each island has a 5m high lookout tower (built out of reeds and bamboo) to facilitate communication with other islands. Wouldn’t cell phones be easier?

It’s pretty surreal walking on a floating reed island. It’s spongy, and occasionally the water pushes up through where you step. It would be strange to live on, stranger to grow up on. Although the kids only live there until they finish primary school, at which point they move to the mainland to continue their education. We found the people to be overwhelmingly friendly and gentle. I thought I heard them speaking Aymara to each other, although historically their native tongue was Uro. It’s a bit hard to tell the difference, don’t you think? The Uros have established a mutually beneficial society whereby resources are shared and everything is done for the communal good. For example, they rotate which island (family) hosts tourists each day.. thereby sharing in the profits (and in the tranquility on days off). The “chief” (patriarch) of the island we visited told us not to give sweets or money to the kids – if we want to help, buy one of the crafts they make. How refreshing. There was no sales push, nor asking for tips. It was all very civilized and organized.

If you do make it to Puno, make sure to take a walk up to the Kuntur Wasi lookout – it’s just a half-hour walk from downtown, and offers stunning views out over the city and lake. But wear sunscreen! I fried the back of my neck in just an hour with no sunscreen.

If you go to the Festival de la Candelaria, I recommend skipping the stadium. That’s the only part that costs money, and it’s not worth it. Even the expensive seats put you too far away to see much. It’s far more interesting being in the streets, mere inches away from the celebrants.. even if that means occasionally being subjected to the odd water balloon or spray foam. Such is the price we pay for authenticity.

Allen suggested that Sandra write a blog post. She has kindly obliged us with her take on the weekend in Puno (remember that English is not her native tongue):

Every February, Puno becomes the capital of the folklore because of the celebration of Virgen de la Candelaria. Fifty thousand dancers honor her with interminable dance groups that make the city happy without end.

The celebration starts on February second, and a night before they burn fire castles, dancers practice, they drink and drink and drink again, and tourists laugh. People will pretend to go bed around 3am but we (Josh & Sandra) are tired. Tomorrow will be another day. We didn’t see anything yet but we console ourselves lying in bed listening to the sound of the trombone and the bass drum.

Sunday, competition day and the confraternity (brotherhood) Morenada Santa Rosa is ready to dance 10 non-stop hours with their colorful and elegant skirts. They are not afraid of the task, they believe la Virgen de la Candelaria will keep their legs moving. It is a superstition.. all the dancers believe that she helps them; they dance for her and she helps them to keep going.

It was a sunny day, it wasn’t raining and in the stadium people sell umbrellas to protect from the sun. There are also firemen making rain when the heat gets unbearable. The competition starts at 7am with the Association Sicuris Intercontinetales Aymaras de Huancané. The rules are always the same: 8 minutes to dance, one second more and they will be disqualified. There is a man, the executioner, using a chronometer and a red flag.

Not even in the time of terrorism [Shining Path] was the celebration canceled. During the war with Ecuador, dancers held the Peruvian flag.

This year there were 73 associations, 50 thousand dancers and 365 bands (official information). In the 1980’s there were only 40 groups. All puneños (Puno residents) are proud of their folklore. Each dance has a specific costume and story: the Morenada, Diablada, Waca Waca, Caporales, Saya, Llamerada, Sicuris… it is better to see it with your own eyes.

Around 5:30 in the afternoon the competition ended, it passed ten hours.

In the streets the “chinas”, the girls that dance saya with short skirts, are common. They are usually young so they can withstand the jumps of the dance and they are coquettish and sexy. The female devil and the angels have a sin being sensual. The masks are another thing, they hypnotize, spark and make you want to know who is behind. The male devils are mysterious, seducers and skillful, they are the devil.

The shaking colorful skirts are unusual, with light color. Dark colors are not allowed, only light fuchsia, turquoise, purple, orange, green lemon. To rent a costume costs around 100 dollars and usually are brand new. To this you have to add hairdresser, make up, fancy jewelry, sprinkle creams….the dancers spend around 1000 soles ($350) to get ready.

Monday, parade day. Five km to go, 3 hours dancing with no stops (for me worse than a marathon). The puneños are in the stands in the sides of the street (it is possible to rent a good seat for 20 soles) offering the dancers glasses of beer to help them continue. All the dancers practice many months before from 7 till 11 pm, this celebration is not a joke, and if they want to be synchronized they must practice. Along the way the dancers salute to the Virgen del Candelaria that is strolling around the city. At the end of the parade route, friends, neighbors and families wait for the dancers with five beer boxes to calm down the thirst.

On the way back to the square, we try, but it is impossible to be free of all the foam that people spray to anybody that is walking. Each can costs 5 soles.

People clapped, they were not tired, they wanted to see more, they wanted to see the group Asociacion Diablada Bellavista with 1200 contestants, 870 dancers and 330 musicians. The parade went for 17 hours with no stops. We went to have lunch and nap but there wasn’t a problem – the parade kept going.


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  • Eddie says:

    To me, your best set of pictures of the trip.
    The reed island is fantastic, and the costumes… incredible!

    Bravo Sandra!– a great description of the sights and stories behind them.

  • christine says:

    Beautiful sky in the pictures of the reed islands. Perhaps it is the altitude? I’m glad to read another post from you here after a long absence.

    • Josh says:

      Glad you liked it! Yes, the altitude creates brilliant clear blue skies.
      Unfortunately it’s going to be a while before I get the blog caught up to date. I’m traveling faster now; partly because of low funds, partly because I have a date to meet Sandra. She’s taking 3 weeks of vacation to travel round Argentina with me. Sweet!

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