A Good Life

Sillustani is a Quechua word meaning ‘peninsula.’ It is also a Pre-Incan burial ground. The site, a handful of kilometers southwest of Lake Titicaca, is surrounded on three sides by the waters of Lake Umayo. Sillustani is one of many such cemeteries perched on the hilltops surrounding the lake. Its principal feature is the chulpa, a 39ft. high tower in which nobles were buried in the fetal position along with their families, their servants and their belongings in preparation for their rebirth.

Señora Malagra
The Colla, one of the warlike tribes that harassed the Aymara into Lake Titicaca, are the principle occupants of these chulpas. They were conquered by the Incas and became the southeastern arm of that empire, living on the shores of Lake Titicaca until their death and internment in these funerary towers that look like giant ice cream cones with the tip at the bottom lopped off.

It is a long walk from the buses to the towers, at least so it seems to me. I am feeling better after two days of severe intestinal distress. I decide to trudge to the top, one step at a time. When I get there, I see off in the distance an island in the middle of Lake Umayo. On the island is a tiny house. I am startled by that touch of civilization in what otherwise seems a very wild and remote place, a table top of an island in the middle of a lake that surrounds a cemetery on three sides. 

Nearby I see a woman seated with a vicuna lying near her, its feet tucked up under it. She is wearing the traditional bowler hat, red jacket and green skirt. She looks like a Christmas ornament.  She is busy spinning wool from a handheld spindle. Every so often someone hands her a sol. She obligingly smiles. The benefactor takes her picture. That is why she is here, of course, to earn a few soles.

"Who lives in the tiny house on the island?" I ask Eliseo, our local guide.

He points to the lady in the red jacket. 

“She is the caretaker of the island and its 60 vicunas. She works for the government,” he says. 

The house is rent-free, he thinks.  She gets paid a small salary. But, of course, it is not enough.  That's why she's here at the foot of a 39ft chulpa and not out on her island tending her flock.

Eliseo tells me he thinks her name is Malagra, something like that. She has a husband and six children. He says she rows from the island here every day to pose for pictures. I move to the edge of the hill. It slopes sharply down to the shore far below. Sure enough there is a tiny rowboat tied to the rocks along the shore.

I look again at her, this time with admiration. She is tiny, doll-like even. And yet she rows that boat from the island to the mainland everyday, climbs up to the top of the mesa where the chulpas are, and then, after a day of weaving and posing, climbs down and rows back to her island, her husband, her six children, and 60 vicunas. 

What kind of life is that? I wonder. 

And yet the island she lives on, the house, the lake, the surrounding mountains in the distance, it is all so lovely.

Maybe it’s a good life.