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Amantani, Peru

Amantani, a tranquil island in Lake Titicaca, was the site of our first overseas homestay.

In Puno, we arranged an overnight stay with an island family. By going through a local organization with no government or private corporation involvement, we ensured a majority of the revenue went to the family. In exchange for a modest payment ($10 per person), families on Amantani take turns having visitors come live with them. They provide a place to sleep with traditional meals and the opportunity to understand daily island life.

Located about 30 miles from Puno, it took about four hours to reach Amantani by community boat. A dozen or so tourists from Germany, France and Spain joined us on board, as well as islanders who had stocked up on groceries and supplies from the mainland.

Leaving Puno early in the morning, we made a quick stop by the Uros floating islands. By the afternoon, we reached the little port of Amantani. A smattering of locals, dressed in traditional garb, patiently waited on the dock. After disembarking, the captain assigned each group of tourists to a host family. We were soon paired up with, Rufina, a little grandmother with warm eyes and a kind smile.

Like most people on Amantani, Rufina spoke no Spanish – only Quechua – an indigenous language of Peru.

She greeted us with a nod, then promptly turned around and began a brisk walk. It was clear we were meant to follow her and so we did. We set out on the winding stone trail, over uneven hills and through narrow passages. We passed grazing sheep and curious village kids who giggled when we met eyes with them. We were amazed by how clean and unspoiled the island was. The air was crisp and fresh.

After walking a mile or so, we arrived at Rufina’s family home and were shown to our room. The humble, cozy dwelling had no electricity, running water or indoor toilet. Despite the lack of modern conveniences, we couldn’t help but notice how neatly and thoughtfully everything was arranged. The walls were painted a bright, cheery turquoise and the bed was tidy with a big heavy blanket on top (complete with chamber pots underneath!)

Rufina took us around the back of the house and pointed to the outhouses, as well as two tubs of water set up on a tree stump. These tubs served as our washing basins, offering a stunning view of Lake Titicaca and their farming fields – right in their backyard.

After our brief tour, she motioned us to follow her once again. We were slowly getting the hang of this gesture-only communication.

Rufina led us to Amantani’s main square where we met up with a few other tourists from our boat. We struck up a conversation with four German students from Munich. They were working as English teachers at an orphanage in Arequipa for one year. At just 19 years old, we admired their courage for leaving home for so long and traveling so far away.

The six of us made the steep hike up to Pachatata (“Father Earth”) and Pachamama (“Mother Earth”). These archeological sites are the highest points on the island. The top rewarded us with 360-degree views of the idyllic town and lake below. As the sun set, we felt the temperature begin to drop and we soon understood the need for the ubiquitous Peruvian hats and blankets.

That night, Rufina cooked us a hearty dinner of bland cheese, rice and potatoes. Not wanting to offend our gracious host, we didn’t dare leave anything on our plates. As such, we had to somewhat choke down the last bites of our starch-intensive meal.

Afterwards, Rufina and her family dressed us in traditional outfits to go out for a “fiesta” with the other tourists.

While Brian simply slipped into a Peruvian poncho, my outfit proved much more complex involving multiple layers. First, I got into a big, puffy embroidered blouse followed by a heavy, voluminous wool skirt. Next, Rufina wrapped a wide cummerbund belt around my waist several times. Finally, she put a thick, black scarf put around my shoulders. Brian took a picture – I looked exactly like Rufina. Not sure if it was the extra clothing and/or the heavy dinner, but I felt like I had put on 15 pounds. At least I was warm!

While the fiesta felt a bit forced (and silly), we did happen to learn a few traditional dances. After a couple of hours, we noticed Rufina sitting in the corner. She could barely keep her eyes open and kept nodding off. Realizing she’d likely need to get up in three hours to start farming, we promptly called it a night.

Off we went into the darkness, following closely behind our newly adopted grandmother – the moon as our only source of light.

On our evening stroll, we thought about Rufina growing up on this island. How she must know every twist and turn, as well as every person who lives there. How it must be such a tight-knit community. And how odd it must be to encounter these foreigners, showing up as strangers from strange lands. We arrived back home and after making a quick stop by the outhouses, retreated to our rooms and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning, Rufina treated us to a breakfast of warm bread and herbal tea. She and her husband posed for a photo – something they don’t seem quite accustomed to, despite the number of tourists who have visited them. Rufina then walked us to the port. We shook hands in appreciation, saying goodbye and exchanging smiles. Once on the boat, we turned and waved goodbye to the woman who had been a complete stranger just 36 hours agao. A Peruvian woman who, despite limited means of communication, had graciously opened her island home – and heart – to us.

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