Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be an exchange student for just a short time? Even if you’re well out of school and no longer a student, many of us long to travel and immerse ourselves in another culture for at least a while. Thankfully, there are ways to do that, from volunteerism programs, language immersion schools, couch surfing, homestays, housesitting, long-term apartment rentals, the list goes on and on.
Several years ago when we were traveling to Peru for the first time, I learned of a cultural homestay program, where you could stay with a local family on an island in Lake Titicaca, and get to know how they live. For a small fee, a tour company arranges your stay with a local family on the island of Amantani. Travelers stay overnight with the families and receive meals and lodging. Generally, the communities also arrange a cultural activity or two, such as a welcome dance, a tour of their local school or youth center, and other activities.
Do Your Research
I researched the homestay programs online for weeks, and we discussed how it might fit into our itinerary. Since we're the kind of travelers who like to explore on our own for the most part, we tend to shy away from tour groups. Don’t get me wrong, I think tour groups offer huge benefits for all kinds of travelers from time to time, and for many travelers, it makes for a stress-free travel experience. But I’m sorry to say I have little patience in a foreign country (or my own country for that matter) for tourists whining about what’s lacking, complaining about sub-standard (sub-American) conditions, or entitled attitudes - and there is no escape because you must stay with your group. I prefer the solitude of traveling alone or with close friends or family. But after discussing it further, we felt the homestay experience itself might be self-limiting to some degree for this type of traveler. In other words, the folks who are interested in an authentic cultural experience might be a little more adventurous and eager for new experiences, and be drawn to this type of 'tour'. And we were right. The travelers in the group were interested and engaged, and our small group of 15 enjoyed our time together.
When researching tour companies for any kind of cultural travel program, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Does this program or experience do more harm than good? Tourism is certainly beneficial to economies. The bigger question to ask however, is whose economy is this benefitting? Does the money stay locallly or leave with the outside company who coordinates the program?
2. Is the experience authentic, or is it recreated for our benefit?
3. Does the program allow the real culture of a place to shine through? It may be after the fact, but I always try and talk to the people who ARE the show, asking them direct questions about the program content, and how it relates to their culture.
4. Do the employees and guides who work for the coordinating agency have the host community’s best interest in mind?
5. Lastly, how much of the tour fee does the host family or community receive directly?
So after researching several companies who offer these tours, we settled on All Ways Travel in Puno, the jumping-off point in Peru for travel on Lake Titicaca. Our research showed them to be a long-term business (in business since 1996), with good customer service (our pre-trip email/phone interaction was timely and helpful), and they were enthusiastic to show us this culture. Plus, many of their guides are residents of the host communities.
Uros Islands and Amantani
After catching our ferry in Puno harbor, we set out for the floating islands of Uros. I remember seeing pictures of this culture in National Geographic magazine when I was young, and I was so fascinated that there were people in the world who actually lived on islands that float! Sounds like every kids dream to me. When we arrived, the locals waved to us as our boat pulled in, dressed in brightly colored fabrics, the girls with pretty woven pom poms in their hair, some women wearing bolo hats, and some sporting both. I later found out that the hats were indicative of their marital status - only married women wore hats.
On the islands, our guide from All Ways Travel introduced us to several islanders who gave us a short presentation about the islands themselves and how their culture came to be. The island were created as a defense against invasion from the mainland which allowed the locals to flee from danger by literally floating their homes away on the lake. The islands are made from layers and layers of thick reeds of grass which grow up to 5 or 6 feet long. As the layers underneath begin to decompose from the water, more are added on top, creating compact floating islands approximately 3-4 meters thick.
Several islanders showed us the inside of their homes, which had comfy beds made from tightly bundled bales of grass with thick wool blankets on top, and benches and chairs made from the same grass. Some homes were wired with small appliances and TVs as well. Though many of the islanders live on the islands, some have small motorized panga boats out back which were used for trips into Puno.
Overall I enjoyed the tour. Though it may have been a bit touristy, the experience was certainly unique and interesting, and we gladly tipped them for their presentation and enthusiasm. Many of us also made a small purchase of a hand-crafted item or two.
The boat pulled away and headed toward the island of Amantani, where we were to meet our host family for the next two days. We arrived an hour later, and after an awkward moment reminiscent of the dance partner selection at an 8th grade dance, our host Martina stepped forward with a big, warm smile to claim us as hers. We followed her as she led us down worn foot paths that wound their way around the island. Walking, hiking, uphill, downhill, finally turning off and into her yard revealing a lovely two-story adobe home with an enclosed sheep pen on the side.
We arrived just in time for lunch, and after unloading our packs in our room, Martinamotioned for us to sit on the ground with them and help ourselves to the roasted potatoes and beans that were strewn on top of the burlap sack they were roasted in. All sorts of little purple and white potatoes, and small brown and white beans that tasted delicious, and we reached in with our hands to enjoy our lunch.
Communication was challenging but not awkward, and we managed to sense what to do and when to do it. It was relaxed, and they gave us time to settle in and wander around. The light on Amantani is amazing because of the high elevation, and so the sky seemed bluer and colors more vivid, even when most things on the island were shades of brown, yellow, and green that time of year. Martina and her daughter seemed fascinated with my camera and I loved taking photos of them.
Our room was very comfortable - two single beds on either end of the simple adobe room, with a low ceiling and a table in between the beds holding a single candle for light later on. I couldn’t quite make out what the beds were made of, but I believe it was a dried adobe mound covered with thick layers of hay or grass. On top of that were thick wool blankets making the whole bed slightly hard but nicely cushioned. At night, the blankets felt like x-ray blankets from the weight, but they kept us warm though the cold night, which dipped down to around 35 degrees. We were there in October and weren’t yet used to the cold temps we had.
That afternoon, we hiked to the top of the island with our guide from All Ways Travel and our small group. The hike is made easier by the long paved path that winds its way up the side of the mountain to the very top. The path was funded by a national cultural grant from the government a few years before in hopes of developing a sustainable tourism program for the island, and it appears to be working well. There were several groups hiking up and down, and we finally made it to the top of the mountain and the temple of Pachamama, or Mother Earth. As you pass through a large stone arch at the very top, you’re rewarded with the most spectacular sunset views of the lake and beyond to Bolivia. On our way down, we stopped at the local school where Martina, her daughters, and other host families took us inside to read to the children. Their teacher explained that they were learning English and invited us to read to them.
When we returned ‘home’, Martina started dinner for us. After an hour or so, she called us into the small cucina and showed us where to sit. The table was set with a purple woven tablecloth, and plates I saw her wash just minutes before. I remember thinking that might be all the plates they had. Dinner for the family tonight seemed to be the same as our lunch. But we were served in the kitchen with the nice plates and tablecloth.
First she served us steaming bowls of vegetable soup with a small bowl of muña, a Peruvian herb, on the side. The muña tasted a little like thyme with a pungent herb flavor. The soup was delicious and we tried to thank her as best we could in limited Spanish, even though their native language is Quechua!
Why we expected her to understand, I’m not quite sure, but she seemed to know what we meant.
Next she served us two large boiled potatoes, slices of tomatoes and Andean cheese she fried in a skillet in an earthen hearth next to our table. She sat and cooked, and we ate, and the guinea pigs in the corner on the floor made noises, perhaps thankful that tonight was not a special night and they were not on the menu.
After dinner, we were in our room when Martina knocked on the door. There she stood with her arms full of colorful clothes, ponchos and hats for us to wear. She wasted no time in throwing them over our heads, on top of the layers of hiking clothes we still wore - my husband was handed a huge woven poncho to wear and my outfit was a traditional blouse, black embroidered head scarf, and a bright red skirt, all cinched tightly around my waist with a colorful sash.
“You like to dance?” she asked, and, well, how could we say no?
We gathered everything we needed to go to the dance. Extra memory card - check. Pocket money for soda or food - check. Extra feminine supplies (just in case)…extra supplies, tampons, anything…..I know I brought extra with me, where are they? They were nowhere to be found. Houston, we have a problem. I couldn’t go without reinforcements, a woman just knows these things. I know…let’s ask Martina! She’s a woman, and so is Madre. They might have what I need.
This is where communication gets funny…when you can’t really communicate at all. I just couldn’t seem to get across the notion of what I needed. I explained it to her. No, it was clear she didn’t understand. I tried visuals, and even drew a stick drawing of what I needed on some paper. Still nothing. I asked for a ‘tam-PO-nay’, having learned from a similar situation in Mexico once. Tam-PO-nays? Nothing. She went to get Madre, who tried her best to decipher what I was saying. Finally, a funny look came over her face and she made an inward scooping motion with her hand…down there. And I knew she understood! Then off she ran, out of the yard, over the hill, down the lane, and out of sight. Just like that. Had I scared her away? Women in Peru use pads and tampons, right? And just like that she was back with three tampones in her hand and a huge smile on her face! What a life saver. Her neighbor next door happened to own a little store, or tienda, and he had a few boxes of tampons. That would be 3 soles, please, one for each tam-PO-nay.
So off we went to the dance, and had a wonderful time. Martina loved to dance and often asked my husband to dance with her. The host families seemed to enjoy themselves and the travelers had fun learning the local steps, which weren’t very different from ours. By the end of the evening, we were exhausted It had been a really long day, with several hikes up and down the island, so we headed home.
A word about the altitude
Amantani stands at over 13,000 feet in elevation. And though we’d had over a week to acclimate, it still took our breath away at times. When you’re doing a lot of hiking and walking, especially in this terrain with its winding footpaths and uneven terrain, you get a pretty rigorous workout. We were dressed for the weather with layers of light-medium weight layers, and wore good hiking boots the entire trip. Martina. on the other hand, and everyone on Amantani, wore open, black rubber sandals, made from what looked like old tires. She wore no socks, just hand-woven leg warmers under her skirt, but her sandals were completely open and not what I would call ‘comfort sandals’. They were really just modified flip flops. And as we hiked back down the hillside in the dark toward the house, flashlights lighting the way, we huffed and puffed and stumbled our way along. But Martina, who carried her young daughter on her back the whole way back, never broke a sweat or even breathed loud enough for us to hear. In the cold night, her rubber sandals were all she needed to carry her home.
Sleep came very easy that night.
And at 3:00 in the morning, nature called.
I tried to put it out of my mind and fell back to sleep. But I knew I had to get up and go, had to make that trek out into the cold, to the outhouse down the lane. When I stepped out of the room and saw the night sky, it was the most beautiful sight, like we were inches away from the heavens, with unfamiliar constellations and thousands of stars. Freezing, I hurried down the lane to the outhouse, which was right next to the horse stall. Oh and look, here’s the horse’s back end right next to the outhouse. At least they had a porcelain toilet (there was no seat so it was a bit cold to sit on, but at least it wasn’t a hole in the ground). I finished up, and looked behind me to flush the toilet, but there was no handle. There was a bucket next to the toilet filled with water. So I dumped a little in and went back to bed, giggling all the way at the story I had to tell.
Amantani and Taquile
The next morning, Madre made us breakfast while we packed up our things. There was fresh water in a plastic basin outside our door to freshen up with, and we sat down to a light breakfast, which was similar to dinner the night before - light broth, some boiled potatoes and several slices of fried cheese. We said our goodbyes to Madre and the family and took some photos of us to remind us of the day. Then we followed Martina back to the dock, where the host families gathered with their travelers and the boat was waiting. We said goodbye to Martina and thanked her for making this so special. They were a warm family and very endearing, and even after one day with them it was hard to leave. We both wished we could have spent more time there, and it was a highlight of our amazing trip to Peru.
The boat pulled out of the harbor and headed toward Taquile, an island right next to Amantani, a 20 minute boat ride away. We were dropped off at the small boat launch and headed up the paved walk that climbed along the side of the island to the top. It looked much the same as Amantani, but with more flowers blooming along the walkways. We passed several shepherds with their flocks of sheep heading down the walk, and children from a nearby school watched us curiously.
The people of Taquile have a very distinct style of dress that’s different from Amantani - same bright colors but very different in style, particularly the men. For being so close to Amantani, I found it interesting there weren’t more similarities. After doing a little shopping in the weavers co-op, the group ate a delicious lunch and headed back down the 600 steps to the boat.
This cultural tour was a highlight of our first trip to Peru. Given that neither my husband or I speak Quechua, and have no formal understanding of the customs and culture, the value we received with this tour was immense, and I highly recommend the tour company, All Ways Travel.
TIP: Pick up a Quechua phrasebook for your trip. Lonely Planet publishes a good one, available on Amazon for around $6, which comes in handy for simple phrases and greetings.
Have you ever stayed with a local family when you've traveled?