Peruvian lessons in survival

Her name is Rosalinda. Cute, chubby-cheeked and most likely 11 years old. She calls me "Warry" . Then "Who-ree" and "How-rie". In a small reed hut, where two babies lie on a mattress like plump snapper on a fish-market counter, Rosalinda and her mother slip me into a bright-red ceremonial vest and beanie. A picture opportunity beckons - almost certainly a candidate for

I'm on one of the famous floating islands on Peru's Lake Titicaca. Population: 15. Three families live on this artificial island of just 300 square metres. And even if you've heard of the Uros in school lessons, it's still a surprise to step onto the spongy surface and meet the locals.

Those lessons, if you slept through them, would have mentioned that the Uros people built their islands from totora, or floating reeds, on the world's highest navigable lake - 3820 metres above sea level. When the Incas and the Collas drove this indigenous community into the lake centuries ago, they lived firstly on reed boats, then used the same material for islands that could be moved if threatened.

More than 2000 people reputedly live on more than 60 islands, each anchored to posts in the 165-kilometre-long, 60-kilometre-wide lake adjoining Bolivia. In the digital era, the Uros islanders remain hunter-gatherers, of a kind. On the ferry trip from the busy city of Puno to the island of Taquile then back to the floating islands, our guide, Roger Yanarico, says the Uros still fish, shoot waterhens with rifles, collect eggs - carefully leaving as many as they take - and eat the white root of the reeds that underpin their lives. "It has lots of iodine," he says. "Good for teeth and avoiding the goitre."

While retaining the basics of their culture, the Uros have adapted to the 21st century, reflecting the changes to indigenous communities in other parts of the world as tourism becomes a vital source of income. I notice the first adaptation approaching the island. As I film with an iPad, the symbols popping up on the screen show these isolated, Aymara-speaking hut dwellers are well equipped when it comes to mobile phones.

Four colourfully dressed women - one with a wicked gap-toothed grin - wave warmly as the ferry pulls in. "Kamisaraki," they chorus.

Yanarico, who grew up on the lake's edge and moved to Puno to study tourism and English, has already explained something of how the islanders span the traditional and modern. While they have a healthy lifestyle based on a fish diet and prefer natural medicines - "plants, animals, some special clay" - the Uros have also built a small health centre. Children row to a primary school on one floating island, though once they reach high school and university it's a five-kilometre boat trip to Puno. Although there's no electricity, some islanders have solar panels for hot water. "They also have black-and-white TVs that run off batteries," Yanarico says. They travel to the mainland to shop, sell embroidery and handicrafts to tourists, visit restaurants and discos, take part in fiestas in Peru's folkloric capital and visit internet cafes. "All the clothes they have they buy in Puno because they don't have llamas and alpacas," Yanarico says.


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