Travel: Wild echoes through the sound of silence - Jane Taylor listens to the distinctive melodies and voices of the Andes around the dramatic shores of Lake Titicaca

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The Independent Travel
IT WAS just past seven in the evening and, already chilled through, I snuggled into my sleeping bag, pulling my thermals tight around me. Austin was already asleep. Seven o'clock is an absurdly early night, but it seemed like the natural, or rather the only thing to do after sundown on an island without electricity.

We had left our rooms in the mainland Peruvian port of Puno at 7.30am to catch the boat for the three-hour journey to Taquile Island, in the northern part of Lake Titicaca. This vast lake - 180km long and 60km wide - is set high in the Andes, straddling Peru's southern border and Bolivia's north-eastern edge. It is the world's highest navigable waterway and contains about 30 islands, of which probably the most popular with tourists is the sacred Isla de la Sol. Before the Spanish renamed it, this was the original Titicaca ('the resting place of the puma') from which the lake took its name. In ancient legend, it was the birthplace both of the sun and of Viracocha, the bearded white god of the Incas.

For us, still recovering from the long journey from London and the effects of high altitude, more attractive was the promise of tranquillity at Taquile, in the Peruvian north of the lake, which is home to a 200-strong indigenous Indian community.

The guidebooks had warned that the climb from the island's tiny harbour to the village at the top was tough going. We had discovered that at 3,800m (12,500ft) altitude, climbing the dozen stairs in the Puno hotel was tough going, and both of us had suffered a rough 24 hours of acclimatising. As I began plodding up the island's stone steps, a week's worth of rucksack on my back, the terminological inexactitude of the phrase 'tough going' hit me right in the stomach.

Half an hour later (the exact terminology used by the guidebooks was 'twenty minutes') I reached the top, half dead. A reception committee of wizened village elders was waiting, in patient silence, along with Austin. I gasped some excuse about my age, and off we went again on the last short stretch to the little hut the committee had allocated for our stay.

Later in the afternoon we climbed even higher, to a patchwork of Inca stone walls and monuments above the village. From there we could look down the 7km length of the island, its terracing like ragged lines of running-stitch crisscrossing a swathe of dust-brown hessian. We also watched the setting sun paint over the harsh blue of Lake Titicaca until it was a slushy gold and lilac colour.

Now, thawing out nicely in my sleeping bag, I marvelled at the quality of the silence: no vehicles, no dogs, no radios, no wind, just an occasional bleating or patter of footsteps off towards the village. The clarity of that stillness made the sound that broke it even more remarkable. I was jolted back to full consciousness by the breathy sonority of a lone trumpeter. Then, a minute later, a whole brass band struck up, blasting its marching songs through the unresisting night air so that the music bounced hard off every hillside and rock and set off a wild chain of echoes.

So loud was the sound it was as if the band was in the next-door field. Poking my head out of the hut door to see, I gasped aloud. There was no band: it was about half a mile distant down in the village. What I saw was an impossibly black sky pierced by millions of glittering diamond stars.

The band marched on late into the evening as I drifted in and out of sleep. When we awoke at about seven to a breaking dawn, the lone trumpeter was already up and practising the melody we would rapidly come to recognise as 'La Marianera', the signature tune of the high Andes.

During our three weeks in Bolivia we heard that tune played by a hundred more brass bands in villages and towns, on bootleg tapes at market stalls, wafting from a distant fiesta while we waited for a late-night train on a deserted platform, performed on electric guitar during a disco in the valleys . . . Played slowly, it was sad and lyrical. At triple time, it was the perfect street-party dance music for the Aymara women in their wide layered skirts, multicoloured mantas and perfectly balanced bowler hats.

The people of Taquile are not, in fact, Aymara but Quechua. (Between them, these two tribal peoples comprise more than half of Bolivia's population and about half of Peru's) The community is spread throughout the island, and while visitors are welcomed, they are treated with a mixture of deference and diffidence. No concessions have been made to tourism, other than a couple of basic restaurants and a craft shop.

Friends and guidebooks alike refer to the island as 'magical', but its special qualities are not immediately evident. Because there is no way of pumping water to the fields and village, the predominant shade is brown, but gradually you begin to see a variety of subtle tones and occasional flashes of red or orange brilliance from low-lying succulents in flower.

A morning stroll that took us round half the island left the powerful impression that here was a place where one could spend days in splendid isolation, and yet never be lonely, or in fear.

Yet even this cultural capsule is running out of time. While few of the adults on Taquile speak Spanish, the spread of that language is inevitable, as it is the official language of the island's school. This inevitably will adulterate a way of life that has survived since Inca times.

We had a boat to catch, and so, reluctantly, left a fiesta to mark the first day of spring. The celebrations had begun late in the morning with a procession from the school across a valley and up to the church. The band marched ahead, the children wore their brightest clothes, and the fires were stoked high in anticipation of a long evening's entertainment.

If happy thoughts of the island gave me a warm glow as we skidded back to Puno, the memory of that afternoon's boat-ride sends shivers down my spine even now. When the motor failed half an hour out from the island, about a dozen of us were left drifting in a small boat in a heavy swell, with a teenage crew of two who managed to produce a single roughly hewn oar that looked like nothing so much as a gigantic wooden spoon.

With no radio, life-jackets, flares, lights or spare parts, the only thing we had going for us was the remaining two hours of daylight. Forty-five minutes of high-altitude anxiety are as clearly recorded in my mind as the harsh, high-definition colours of the lake in my photographs.

The mood on board changed from indifference through mild annoyance, disbelief, panic and resignation to cautious determination. The biggest hazard was the boat's habit of turning sideways into the waves, making a capsize a frightening possibility.

While about half the passengers took refuge in the front of the boat and pretended they weren't there, a couple of Taquilean women prayed helpfully to the gods and cast calming charms into the water. The rest of us busied ourselves trying to signal to the island with tiny pocket mirrors (useless), rigging a sail from a sheet of blue plastic (probably useless), and shouting frantically at the helmsman to correct the dangerous sideways turn (therapeutic and, amazingly, rather necessary).

The condor smiled on us that day: one of the passengers eventually, almost absent-mindedly, took apart the fuel filter, cleaned it, and the engine sparked back to life. As we headed into the wind we spotted, way over to our east, a motor launch - the only other craft we saw that afternoon.

Puno is a dusty, chaotic, pollo-and- chips town (speciality, the unpleasant sounding 'broasted' chicken). It is a popular meeting point for travellers crossing between Bolivia and Peru, most bound for or coming from the famed Peruvian Inca settlement at Cusco. We had stopped in Puno to see something of life around Titicaca before travelling on to Bolivia proper.

To the campesinos who live on the Andean 'altiplano', or high plains, the national frontier is notional - of less consequence than the two seasons of the year (but how much more adequately expressed by the Spanish 'epocas'), for which ancient local custom dictates the moving of their own time backwards or forwards by an hour. Driving along the lake's shores and hinterland, it took me a long time to accept that the sepia flatness isn't simply an empty expanse on the way to somewhere else. This land is worked. And it yields up, as it has done for thousands of years, both a means of survival (several varieties of potato, grazing land and coarse straw for making brushes) and a space to call home.

The highway only recently bludgeoned its way through, providing the speeding traffic with front-seat views of the routine and ritual of the campesinos: work, play, fiestas, funerals. Until darkness falls there is no escaping the gaze from the road; there is simply nowhere to hide.

For such a tough life, the gods could not have invented a better companion than the llama. Quite apart from its biennially shorn wool, it is a pretty and willing servant, beast of burden, provider of meat and even candle grease. I did come across one Bolivian with a pathological hatred of these animals, believing them all to be aggressive and bad-tempered. But everyone else held them in the same esteem that has earnt them legendary promimence in pottery, carvings and weavings. So integral are they to life on the altiplano that settlements or villages are not to be found more than 20km apart: this, they say, is the farthest a llama can walk without rest.

With the aid of a local woman who befriended us in Juliaca, another of the altiplano towns, we learnt to tell the difference between a llama and alpaca jumper (alpaca is softer), and to 'grade' the mass of woollen goods for sale in Puno (machine vs hand-knitted, finest vs poorer quality wool, natural vs chemical dyes). This was no academic exercise, as every smiling saleswoman would start off by swearing blind that all her goods were 'baby alpaca' of the best quality.

Cold is always just around the corner on the altiplano. At such altitude the sun is alarmingly fierce, even at 7.30 in the morning, yet nothing retains heat, and out of the sun's direct gaze you immediately feel an uncontrollable descent into cold. Darkness is a relief, because at least the temperature stands still long enough for you to adjust, even if it is a degree short of frost. And there is an internal remedy for evening cold: a thick, creamy, hot maize and cinnamon drink called api. Folk gather around street stalls selling vats of it, and cup their hands around steamy pint glasses that show off the beautiful marbled effect you can get by mixing the brown and white versions.

By day, I developed a rather strong attachment to coca tea, which comes either as a tea-bag or a handful of the bayleaf-sized leaves chucked straight into the hot water. It is universally available as a herbal tea, tasting not unlike camomile, and is said to combat the effects of altitude sickness. Unfortunately, it also deadens your appetite. I didn't mind not being able to eat the 'broasted' chicken, or even the half-cooked potatoes served up on our last night in Puno when the town's electricity had unaccountably been switched off - some said to power a fiesta and funfair a couple of kilometres away.

But I missed out on some great trout and another white fish, pecherrey, both delicious and fished in large quantities in Titicaca. Ironically, one of our companions-in-adversity stranded in mid-lake was working on a government project to persuade the islanders to give up the trout and try to fish and breed some of the 30 remaining species indigenous to the lake. Since the introduction in the Thirties by foreign pisciculturalists of the trout and pecherrey (on nutritional grounds), Titicaca has lost four species altogether to the large predatory newcomers and others are also endangered.

Thankfully, not everyone opts for the big fish. We stopped off at one of the lake's extraordinary floating totora-reed islands belonging to the Urus people, where Taquileans traded fruit from the mainland for tiny silver fish that had been dried and cured in these bizarre settlements.

As we watched, an Urus woman squatted by a totora boat (these provided the construction techniques for Thor Heyerdahl's Ra II) and explained the process of preparing the little fish for the benefit of the pisciculturalist's video camera. I felt a surge of optimism for the fish, the Urus, the lake . . . Theirs is as tough a way of life as can be found anywhere in the world, and yet its toughness equips the people with a ferocious instinct for survival. With or without the help of the camcorder, those ways will not easily be forgotten.

Flights and packages: Journey Latin America (081-747 3108) has return fares from London to Peru from pounds 571 travelling via Paris with Air France, or pounds 573 flying via Rome with Alitalia.

Books: The South American Handbook (Trade & Travel Publications, pounds 19.95) has a comprehensive section on Peru; also useful are the Lonely Planet guide to Peru and Simon Calder's South America: A Travellers Survival Kit.

Travel advice: The London-based Journey Latin America advises people to keep away from the colonial city of Ayacucho, the mountaineering area of the Callejon de Huaylas and the Upper Huallaga Valley on the eastern slopes of the Andes, which is overrun with guerrillas, soldiers, civilian militia and drug-traffickers.

(Photograph omitted)

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