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The International Writers Magazine
: Hacktreks in the Isla del Sol

Rowing to the Sun
Anwar Ali

'I was determined to sleep on the island that night. I wouldn’t have it any other way.'

Lake Titicaca

When we realised that we would not make it to the next village before nightfall, Scott, an American backpacker whom I had met on the trail, and I agreed to hire José to take us to the Isla del Sol, the sacred birthplace of the Incan civilisation and the heart of Lake Titicaca. Jose ran a hostel in Sicuani, the last village before Yampupata. He was reluctant to take us until the next morning but I was determined to sleep on the island that night. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Isla del Sol was my source of intrigue. I was drawn to its mystique – to breathe the air where life was once created. And getting there could be just as enlightening. Or, at the very least, adventurous.
Presently, after stepping off the bus in Copacabana and having crossed the Peru-Bolivia border only shortly before, I was buying some snacks and looking for a restaurant to have a quick sandwich. I was eager to begin the hike that would eventually lead me to the island. This time, I was resolute not to be swayed by any of the indistinguishable travel agencies on the main street. They taunted me with boat tours directly to the island. In my experience, clients were invariably pooled together on behalf of the same tour operator. Today would be different.

On a tour the day before on the Peruvian side of the lake, we were uneventfully chartered from Puno to the Floating Islands to La Isla Taquile and back. The former were the islands where the Uros people live. The Uros, nearing a population of 500 habitants, spread themselves on approximately 42 islands constructed from totora reeds growing in the lake. These dense reeds are intertwined and give your feet the sensation of sinking into and springing from hay bails. The islands are about 2.5m deep and are completely replaced every fifteen years or so. According to the Uros people, the lake is a manifestation of the puma, which leads to its name. In Aymara, puma means "titi" and "caca" means discoloured. As the colour of the clouds and the sky shift, the distorted hue is reflected in the water. To the Uros Indians, it appeared as though the puma had lost its color.

We spend most of our lives walking in or on artificial surfaces. Part of the mystique of Lake Titicaca was escaping this, in spite of having to succumb to another over-commercialised group tour.
According to my sources, the walk to Yampupata was four or five hours long. I wanted to reach before sundown. After confirming directions with a few locals to take a road heading north from the main plaza, I gave the backpackers gathered in front of the agencies a final glare, as if to defiantly proclaim that I knew the way.

It wasn’t long before the road turned into dirt and the setting became decidedly rural. Pigs and alpacas, or their thinner cousins, curiously observed me as I passed. Occasionally, children would greet me, as they played with their friends.

A half-hour later, I came across a man standing outside his house. I asked how long the trail was. Undoubtedly, he took notice of my bulging pack as he responded.
"Do you have a lot of energy?"
At that point I still did. His estimate was two-and-a-half hours. I was appreciative that he had cut my hiking time in half, naively hoping it to be true. But I was no Inca Trail porter, scurrying up mountain trails in sandals with loads that made me look as if I had strapped a lunch bag to my back.
As we spoke, a tour bus passed, likely carrying a few people to the same destination to which I was headed but bypassing the hike. I wavered at the thought of flagging it down as I casually watched it pass. No, not today, I repeated to myself.

I sat to take my first break and noticed another backpacker approaching in the distance. Ready to keep walking, I intentionally continued at a slower pace so my trail companion could catch up. When he was within 50 metres, I turned around completely and waited, glad to have a friend on the trail. Coincidentally, it was the American who I had met on the Floating Islands tour. He recognised me as well and we exchanged names for the first time, not having bothered with such formalities a day earlier. Between travellers, a name is not as important as place of origin. We tend to collect this data and refer to it at a later point. "I met this group of Germans and Israelis…" might lead into a possible story.
When I asked his impression of the day before, I realised that his presence on the path was telling enough – an answer became redundant. Already I knew we had something in common.
As we walked together it became evident that I had over-loaded my pack. Scott, his name turned out to be, remarked that he had now met a worse packer than himself. I had to periodically stop and rest my pack on the edges of rocks to take the weight off my back and shoulders. The first two villages we passed offered no console. There were no restaurants or diversions of any sort that would give us an excuse to stop.

By the time we reached Sicuani, we had been walking for three hours. The entire walk from Copacabana to Yampupata, the furthest village, was supposedly only 17 km. It was where we could hire a boat to cross the straight to the Isla del Sol. The hostel was closed but we found the owner, José, nearby. Scott and I were confronted with three choices. The first was to continue walking to Yampupata; however, we would not reach before sunset. José explained that there was no lodging there, so we faced the possibility of being stranded if we could not convince a villager to row us to the island or put us up for the night. The safest option was spending the night at the hostel and hiring Jose to take us first thing in the morning or keep walking to Yampupata after a night of rest. That translated to hours of tedium; I candidly expressed to Jose that there was nothing to do in Sicuani until we slept. By now, the few days I had left for travelling were precious and I wasn’t about to waste one.

We asked José if he would take us right away. He offered a price of 20 pesos. However, he added that he would take us for only 15 if we waited until morning. It seemed that he was reluctant to take us right away, perhaps calculating that he would earn more money if we stayed the night. He explained that his trip back would be a bit unsure. He would be coming back in complete darkness.
Scott and I took a few minutes to discuss what we would do. We decided that we should leave that instant without further delay, as there was still some hiking to do on the island before reaching any hostel but only if it wasn’t a terrible risk for José. He assured us that it was not and seemed to change his position. After all, the difference in earnings was not drastically different to convince us to stay.
Scott and I got into the boat while José fetched an extra set of oars. We carefully loaded our packs. A strange paranoia took hold me for a second, that all my belonging could sink 290m to the bottom of the world’s highest navigable lake. Imagine a lake, at an altitude of 3820m, being almost as high as Mount Robson, the tallest peak in Canadian Rocky Mountains. I wondered how I would continue to travel for three and a half weeks more without my gear. Much lighter, I supposed. And relieved not to be carrying the damn thing anymore.

José eased into a steady rhythm, propelling his arms with remarkable grace. I repeated to Scott how fortunate we were to be on a rowboat as cruise boasts lulled onward in the distance. I imagined that José would have been able to row us blindfolded with a vicuña or two licking him in the face. He said we would reach the island in 30 minutes. What he didn’t tell us when we arrived would make me panic.
I eagerly asked José if we could have a turn churning our way to the island. José graciously conceded, revealing genuine Peruvian humility. I let Scott be first since he was nearest to José. After the first few hiccups in finding a rhythm, Scott steered admirably, although not at the same pace as our guide. He was enjoying it thoroughly as I impatiently waited for my turn.
"Just five minutes more and you can go the rest of the way," Scott said.
I had no problem with that. Meanwhile, I prepared myself for the sun that was falling upon us. My digital video camera was tightly lodged between clothes in my pack and I wasn’t about to disturb its orderly chaos. Luckily, I had at my disposal a small 35mm that took remarkable photos. I always think of one I took of my girlfriend at the time. Driving north of Edmonton, we had stopped on the side of the highway. It was in front of a canola field (although at the time I told her it was a mustard field). It was an intense sea of bright yellow stretching eternally toward the horizon. After developing the photo, it looked as if she was super-imposed over a studio backdrop. No one believes that I didn’t doctor it.

Scott handed me the oars. I remember having rowed somewhere before, but in a kayak. In a kayak, two people are rowing; one generates the power while the other navigates. I usually avoided steering because I was terrible at it. Nothing had changed. I had the raw strength but not the finesse needed to convert it into a consistent motion. Jose’s gracious manner concealed his anxiety. When he asked me to return the oars to him, I obeyed. As it was, we were going to reach the island in pure obscurity.
"I never thought I would be able to see the sun set like this," I thought. I was in a trance.
Beyond our boat the sun melted into the sea. Its cosmic shine spread but quickly faded to a dull yellow, illuminating the silhouette that loomed ahead. Soon it too would blend into the ever-approaching darkness of the sky, the chameleon that it was, masquerading in shades of light blue during the day and now playing with its hues. Darker and darker, until it could prey on the stars.

At the shore of the island was a rocky face that we would have to grope and scale. José was going to leave us here without having arrived at any dock. He pointed to a path above us that lead to one of the villages, insisting we would find it if we climbed the rocks. We pretended that we saw it.

After unloading our packs from the boat, we fumbled over the slippery welcome mat with our flashlights in hand. There were large gaps between boulders where a misstep could drag you into the water. As Jose pulled away he guided us, shouting incoherently that the path was to the right. Or, to the left. We only hoped that a path existed. At that moment there wasn’t anything discernable to go by. We wanted to reach Yumani on the easterly shore, ostensibly where most of the lodging was. Scott and I did the most logical thing once we reached ground where we didn’t have to walk on all fours. We reached the top of a hill and crossed over to follow the shoreline, assuming that we had been dropped off on the southwest tip of the island. That there was a network of paths and a shorter route to the village was not mandatory information at the time.

We walked along flat, rocky dirt above what appeared to be staggered terraces, landscaped for cultivating and typical of curvy, post-Inca Peru. Perhaps we didn’t pay enough attention to the scale of our guide maps but after walking for a half-hour and not seeing anything that resembled a building, Scott and I began to question ourselves. Tents sprouting on the beach were a sign of life, but tumbling down a hill was not how we wanted to reach them. Vulnerable and fatigued from walking, we trudged on.
Then, seeing the shining lights approaching startled me. They made me think of how defenceless we were. We had no where to turn.

Juan was the owner of a posada and had seen us wandering on the path. He came out to bring us to his lodging. We weren’t sure on what part of the island we were. It was possible that we drifted past Yumani and stumbled onto Cha’lla, another village. Not likely, but we were relieved to have a place for the night.
Our off-the-path meandering had paid off. I got my wish of sleeping on the island. But I was just as determined to leave it the next day, forging onward further into Bolivia. A true vagabond is never content in the same place for a long time.
© Anwar Ali- March 1st 2004
Alberta, Canada

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