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The Women of Amantani
Dale Fehringer

Like the island they live on, in Lake Titicaca, Peru, the women of Amantani are isolated. Their homes are on an island not much larger than a small U.S. city and the nearest town is four hours away by boat. Few ever leave the island. Like most of the world’s women they raise their children, run their households, and cook and care for their families. They also tend the family livestock, work in the fields, and supplement family income by weaving textiles.

Few Conveniences

The women of Amantani have living conditions that are harsh by western standards. There are no cars, or televisions, or even in-door plumbing (wooden outhouses serve as their bathrooms).

Amantani is a beautiful and peaceful small island in Lake Titicaca, which is in southeast Peru. Lake Titicaca is roughly twice the size of Lake Tahoe, and at 13,000 feet, is the highest navigable lake in the world.

Amantani is populated by around 800 families who live in six villages on the basically circular 15-square kilometers island (roughly the size of a small US city). There are two mountain peaks, called Pachatata (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth), and ancient ruins on the top of both peaks. The hillsides that rise up from the lake are terraced, and planted with wheat, potatoes, and vegetables. Most of the small fields are worked by hand. Stone fences separate the small fields and help contain livestock. Cows, sheep and alpacas graze the hillsides.

There are no cars on the island, and no hotels. A few small stores sell basic goods, and there is a health clinic and a school. Electricity is limited to a couple of hours each day. Some families on Amantani offer a meal or overnight stay to tourists, arranged through tour guides. Guests typically take food staples (e.g., cooking oil, rice, sugar) as a gift.

They run their households without washing machines, microwave ovens, or vacuum cleaners -- which wouldn’t be of much use anyway, since electricity is limited to a couple of hours a day. They live in small mud brick houses furnished with a few simple pieces of furniture. Their kitchens are in separate small buildings, and they cook on stone stoves fueled by twigs and sheep dung.

The nearest supermarket is four hours away, and shopping is limited to a few basic necessities at tiny neighborhood stores.

For the most part, the women of Amantani eat what they grow. The lake provides fish, and they raise vegetables, grain, and livestock for meat. A typical meal consists of soup, rice, potatoes and fried cheese.

Their dress is colorful and decidedly different from other women in Peru. They wear long black head shawls, which furnish shade and warmth, and long-sleeve white blouses embroidered with images of birds and flowers. They also wear brightly colored pleated skirts, hand-woven belts, and leggings to protect them from the cold. Their clothing is a bright spot on an otherwise colorless island.

Lives of Dignity and Grace

Despite their many responsibilities and few conveniences, the women of Amantani seem happy. They cope with their isolation by developing close relationships with families and friends, and respond to their hard lives with determination and resolution. Despite their hardships and shortages, they lead lives of dignity and grace.

Dale Fehringer is a freelance writer, editor, and documentary video producer. He spends his free time exploring the world and occasionally writes about his adventures. Dale lives in San Francisco where he shares office space with his wife, Patty, and cat, Molly. He can be reached at 415.602.6116 or by email at dalefehringer@hotmail.com.