Where The Men Knit
And The Women Spin

Martha Harnly

© Copyright 2002 by Martha Harnly 

Photo of woman with blanket on Tequile Island.

I feel like I have landed on another planet. Women, barely taller than dwarfs, in round, brown hats lead llamas; their full, knee-length skirts are circles of bright contrast against the stark, barren earth. A snow-capped volcano looms in the background. Men ride bicycles out of factories. I have been told Juliaca, Peru is a black market center for goods as far away as Asia, but I see no evidence of this. I wonder what else I am not seeing.

 I stay in an old, established hotel in Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. At 12,500 feet, it is high and the air is thin. I look out my hotel window and watch the woman on the steps below selling gloves. I tell myself to rest and allow the impact of 36 hours of airplanes, airports, and a bad cold to subside. But, I am drawn outside into the bright sunlight. It is time to be a woman on her own.

 As I walk the narrow streets, wall-to-wall buildings block the sunlight. A few tourists stroll. Street vendors sell snacks on the central square. Children push postcards on me. Some businesses are closed and I realize it is Sunday. I pass travel agencies, a few restaurants, Internet cafes. I go in and email Peter that I miss him. Back in the street, a marching band passes. My heart pounds at every step; my throat aches. By traveling alone I may discover something about myself, but there is no one here to care. All the heated disagreements I had before I left, come back to me. Puno feels dreary. I go back to my hotel and try to focus on learning Spanish from subtitles on the Star Trek reruns.

 I am in the lobby the next morning, early, to meet Juanita, a guide and the filter through which I will view the world for the next two days. In the madness before I left California, when all I had wanted was to get away, traveling to an Island, with no motorized vehicles and no hotels, sounded perfect. Staying in the homes of the Islanders, however, was something that I did not want to tackle with my limited Spanish. Having my own guide, easily arranged by a North American travel company, with Peruvian sub-contracts, is not a huge expense: the average salary in Peru is less than $10 a day. Juanita appears to be my age. We converse in English, although I occasionally resort to Spanish to be sure I'm understood.

 On the way to the boat dock, the car careens through craft markets as merchants set up for the day. As we pass the church, Juanita crosses herself. I try not to wince. I read the story of the Spanish Conquest on the plane. It is a brutal one.

The boat is small. Juanita jokes with the other tourists and guides. None of the others, however, talk to me and I make no effort myself. I have always been bad at initiating contact. My thorough mind uses the three-hour boat ride to ponder this. I know traveling alone has given me precious experiences. I know I am sick and tired. I know my proper U.S. Methodist upbringing taught me never to talk with strangers. Yet, on that boat, surrounded by tourists representing a myriad of other cultures and opportunities to engage, I feel ridiculous I cannot shake the teachings of my culture.

 The first stop, Uros Islands, is described in my pre-trip information material in almost magical terms, "Floating islands, where fishermen and hunters live," and gives the impression that these Islands have existed for centuries. The guidebooks I have read call the Islands, "Floating souvenir stands." Both are right. We stand on a cluster of grass reeds the size of a California home. The reeds are continually gathered and laid down to provide a pliable base. There is a pervasive smell of humus. Women and children live in grass huts the size of office cubicles I think of Peter. He finds the enormity of poverty overwhelming and is not here. I, however, am strangely compelled by it: I want to know who these people are; how they interact; how to help. Staring at the women sitting in the blinding sunlight on blankets and surrounded by their brightly colored wares, obviously brought in from elsewhere, I do not know how to act or what to support. Am I reenacting some portion of the Spanish Conquest? I will, however, when I get back home want to kiss my own dreaded office cubicle.

 Juanita knows the Chief and asks if we can look inside his hut. I glimpse several small children, a wood stove, a TV, which is on. As we leave, the next tour boat arrives, and I watch a tourist hand out pencils and paper to the children. The children flock to him, smiling, with outreached hands.

Leaving the Bay in which the Uros Islands sit, the enormity of Lake Titicaca becomes evident. The snow-capped Bolivian Andes are visible if you look hard across the distance of the blue-green water. We pass Amantami Island, where they speak Aymara. Tequile Island comes into view. Fields are terraced on the sides of the island's hills, a practice that conserves soil and allows cultivation for thousands of years. As the boat moves in, men dressed in black and white with hand-woven cummerbunds and tasseled wool hats appear. The bright specks of their garments beckon me. Juanita explains their attire denotes a leadership position in the community.

 We struggle up the 800-foot climb to the town. Porters carrying huge loads of bottled water and supplies, stride past the tourists. Juanita is up ahead. I overhear another guide describing how elections were held yesterday and that they had to do with people not from the island owning land. At the top, a few tourists sign-up to spend the night with families. Juanita and I move on to a restaurant. Juanita goes into the kitchen and returns with a full meal of fried fish and vegetable soup. Everything in this meal is produced on the Island.

 On our way to homes on the surrounding hillsides that have available rooms, we walk through the town plaza. Women in traditional dress stand next to a llama, spinning with a wooden hand-held tool. The tool seems like some blend of a wooden spinning toy and a yoyo: a wood top apparatus spins around in front of their skirts and is attached to yarn that connects to their hands.

 At the homes we visit, Juanita speaks to women weaving in the courtyards. She selects the house with solar panels so we will have light at night. There is a pit toilet. A man in a cummerbund appears out of nowhere and makes a written recording. In my room, as I slide into the sheets to try for an afternoon nap, I marvel at the puzzle presented by the immaculate bed and the dirt floor.

 That evening we walk, on trails that may be thousands of years old, to the Inca ruins at the summit of the hill. Red flowers and precarious-looking stone arches frame the view of the lake. We pass wells that provide drinking water and Juanita tells me of the periods of drought. Women in full skirts work in the fields with hand tools, barefoot and surrounded by children. Juanita exchanges greetings in her and their native language, Quechua. There are no other tourists; most came on boats as day trips. Men and women pass, carrying heavy loads, mostly firewood, bundled in colored blankets, on their backs. As they walk, the women spin, the wooden tool bouncing in front of them. I look closely at the men: they have tiny needles in their hands. I wonder how they feel, being watched by me. Then, I realize I do not really need to stare: the position of their hands, visible from a distance, reveals they are knitting.

 By the time we reach the summit, the sky is spectacular, having turned multiple shades of pink. Juanita yawns. A small child, no more than four, appears in the corner of the ruins and lays out hand bracelets she wants me to purchase, but I have no coins. I ask Juanita whether children leave the Island to go to the big city, Puno. She thinks not. She describes the strong work ethic on Tequile saying, "All they do is work." Then, she tells me there is a tradition here that before marrying, men and women live with each other for two to three years. If they do not get along, even if there are children, they separate. I am very intrigued.

 The next morning, on our way to the boat dock, we visit the museum in the town plaza where the weaving patterns, and their cultural significance, are detailed. Next door, is the artists' store, where they accept bills. Inside, I am surrounded by woven belts and jackets, knitted white hats, worn by single men, and red hats, worn by married men. I instinctively examine the quality: there is even tension in the textiles throughout the multiple colors and complex patterns.

 When I ask to take a picture of a man in the traditional attire and knitting, the man deftly slips his needles in his front pocket and poses. I realize he wants himself and his community to look good. He cares about how he is defined. And, I then care how I define myself to this community. Much later, when I return home and search the Internet, I will find out that, although there are worries about the negative impacts of having tourists on the Island, well-known Latin American weavers initiated tourism on Tequile Island in the 1970s. Prices are fixed to eliminate competition. Further, you can only purchase most Taquileño items on Tequile. There, in that store, it is simply time to act; supporting the Island is a no-brainer. I buy all that will fit in my pack and say in halting Spanish, "The hats are beautiful."

On the boat ride back, I examine the other travelers from behind my sunglasses: Norwegian backpackers, young Japanese girls, a Latino father playing with his young son, a cheery English couple. I know then that I will take my travels slowly, one interaction at a time. I follow the Norwegians lead: I slather on tons of SPF-40 and lay in the sun on the deck of the boat.

Martha Harnly is an environmental health scientist with multiple articles in scientific journals. She is also from a family of knitters and weavers.

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