We took off from Puno with little information, trying to find the cheapest boat from the port across Lake Titicaca to Amantani, the highest island of the highest and largest navigable lake in the world and largest lake in Peru. 1 hour later we wind up at a tortora reed island off of Uros. We´re given a brief history of the island, which the people create in the middle of the water using tortora reed bunches and squares and then peg the island into the bottom of Lake Titicaca using a wooden peg, a rope and a rock weight. All of the people are barefoot in colorful clothing trying to sell us tapestries. Their toilet is a kilometer away reached by motor boat. They have cell phones and solar panels and their kids take a taxi boat to school as the islands are very small, about 30 by 40 ft and made entirely of these reeds. It seems a bit like a joke from a children´s story.
One feature of Peruvian travel that I continue noticing, but haven´t become accustomed to at this point is that there is hardly any communication. We buy a round trip boat ticket to Amantani and end up stopping at two other islands where we´re encouraged to get off (one time the wait on the boat was 3 hours), buy goods and eat. One surprise island even charged an entrance fee and after an hour hike guided tourists into a rotating restaurant scene.
Nevertheless, we made it to Amantani after 3 more hours and a nice upper deck (it was a small boat) chat with a french woman, half in french, some spanish, and half english (wherein we coined the word ´hopeness´), who had come to South America to work on the feet of locals, scraping off years of scratchy foot layers. In fact, as I looked at the sandaled foot of a man from the island of Taquile, I realized his foot looked a bit like an animal´s foot in its vigor and scratchy tough padding. I digress.
Arriving upon the island of Amantani, we were herded off the boat onto the dock to be organized into homestays. Ini and I quickly communicated that we had our tent and wouldn´t need a homestay. Later we realized that there were no restaurants or visible markets on the island, and though we had brought some food with us, were hungering for some cooked potatoes or quinoa at the high altitude (probably an average of 12,500 ft give or take a mountain) and so sought to connect with a family of the island. The first night we set up our tent on a craggy barren cliffside overlooking Lake Titicaca. As I am doing an onion juice cleanse to rid myself of a nagging skin fungus, I had some emotional and physical irritation, not to mention being sunburned from the boat ride and feeling the effects of the high altitude. Read: uncomfortable. We then set off in the winding paved roads of Amantani in search of food and the departure port we´d heard of (at this point I was not a happy camper and wanted the security that we had knowledge of how to leave the island. ) Soon we realized there was no way to get food besides connecting with a local, so we asked a mami near the port if she could make us some soup and potatoes. A couple hours, a few bowls of soup, plate of corn, potatoes and fried cheese, and a smokey dark kitchen experience later we arrive back at our tent to sleep near the crashing waves. I awoke the next morning more irritated and itchy and layed in bed while Ini fetched us water, swam and played the flute.
About midday a young security guard walked over to our tents. We were told we could camp anywhere on the island so we weren´t too concerned. The young man looked sheepish and was a bit shy to come out with his message, which was this:
The night before two humans had transformed into cats – vuelve a gatos- between 10 pm and midnight, hunted down multiple humans and sucked blood (a few vials worth) from right above their hips in order to sell it in Puno.
We are listening incredulous as this shy young man comes out with this story, very seriously, somberly even, relaying the information to us. We say, the humans turned into cats? We are incredulous and trying not to laugh in the face of this, into his face, out of respect and curiosity. So we continue questioning him. Let´s get this straight, last night two humans turned into cats? Si. How big were they? He stretches his hands about 4 ft. What colors? Black and white. Does this happen often? Now and again. And they sell the blood in Puno? Si. Why? They are taken over by devils.
Well, What should we do?! Be careful, he says, and if a cat comes at you, throw a rock at it.
A rock? That is all?…. Maybe we should stay at this homestay after all. Perhaps that´s why he´s telling us this tall tale- to get us to stay at a homestay?
And then, the young man is not finished. Also, he reports, at times there are donkeys that come out from the water near this side of the island. Donkeys with fangs that eat humans. But only occassionally. I let a chortle slip at this point and try to hide my face. We thank him, saying we´re going to move to a different side of the island, and he walks off.
Ini, do you believe him? Of course. It´s possible.
And now I feel I am being inducted into the magical realism of the world. A big fat orange spider with a fat egg sack appears out from a cylindrical web cave in the side of the crag and looks at me. It´s time to write, Wren. Weave, she calls me. Ah, spider medicine. Weaving the language, the myths, the stories which hold up the world. You again. I smile, half shaken from the boy´s message and start to pack the tent, heading for the casa de Cecilia, a woman we met the day before on the road as we were inquiring about potatoes who told us to come to her house the next day and she would cook us a good meal.
Our bags are heavy, but the countryside is beautiful. Amazing living agricultural terraces, the likes of which seen at the ruins Pisaq and Machu Picchu, but these are in use. Colorfully dressed locals digging at the earth in bunches, washing their clothes lakeside. We encounter a man on the road and ask the way to Cecilia´s house. As he graciously takes us, we inquire about the young security guard´s story, asking if there are any stories about cats or donkeys on the island. No, no, he says, and we are relieved for a moment. Then more specifically, we heard a story this morning that last night two people turned into cats – vuelve a gatos – and took blood from people to sell in Puno. Is this story true?
It´s not a story, he replied, not missing a step, Es la verdad. It´s the truth. Not missing a step. But they don´t sell the blood in Puno, they take it to Bolivia. It is called (sp?) Cadasidi.
Does it happen often, we ask. A veces. At times. At times people turn into cats here and take blood from atop the hip to sell in other places. But only on that side of the island, he reassures us. These things don´t happen over here. (A mere 20 min walk from the other side, the land of the werecats and fanged donkeys.)
Oh yeah, and do donkeys with fangs come out from beside the cliffs? No, not any more, but they used to. As we reach an intersection, he points us up the hill to Cecilia´s house. She isn´t home when we arrive, as she is tending the health of her sick daughter lower in the village. We talk with her husband and mention the werecat, Cadasidi, to him. He seems troubled, No, no, these things never happen here. You are safe over there and you are safe here.
His hurried, slightly aggressive response (uncommon for a Peruvian personality) seems odd. We leave our things there and spend the next few hours hiking up a thousand feet or so to the ceremonial grounds of Pachamama and Pachatata. It is beautiful and breathtaking (literally) and feels truly like a circle completing itself in terms of our trip. We hike down feeling blessed and thankful and find that the mamacita of the house is still not home. Her husband starts the soup and tea. Later, of course, she makes it home and shortly the cena is ready. And, of course, over dinner we bring up the story again, and, instead of a quick rebuttle, this time we are greeted with silence and the three adults in the small dimly lit kitchen shake their head as if to say no. But, in fact, they say nothing at all.
We decide to sleep inside their extra room that night, instead of using our tent in one of their fallow terraces.
The next morning we eat a quick breakfast of an amazing wheat fritter, with wheat grown in their backyard and pulverized on a stone which sits beneath a bench in their kitchen. I am happy to get off the island. My hands and feet are swollen, my skin is red and itchy and I am not feeling well. I was hoping for a direct ride back to Puno, but unexpectedly, we are taken to Taquile to walk through the island, grab a bite to eat, and probably buy a few tapestries and then head back for the 3 hour ride to Puno. We make good conversation with two gals from Denmark and one from Texas. I ignore the cocky men from France and share water with a local man from Taquile, the one with the animal feet that the French podiatrist probably could´ve aided. We are still awed by the story and share it with our new friends, and one of them, Rosa, quickly writes it down too, careful to get the name.
We finally make it back in Puno in time to have the last bit of menu at our favorite veg place here, Loving Hut, and find a place to stay for the night. A google search yields nothing on the werecats of Amantani, and I am curious if anthropologists or locals of Puno, if someone else is aware of this story from this strange and beautiful island which touts itself as The Mystic Tourism Capital of the World because of the ceremony spaces of Pachamama and Pachatata. I´m not sure if the locals are ready to come out with this hidden gem of a mystical, magical reality hidden within the people of Amantani… If they are ready to induct thousands of westerners each year into this magical reality…
We did actually find out about the larger perspective on this story. When we got back to the mainland, we went to the Lake Titicaca Museum in Puno and asked the curator if he had ever heard the story. As is common culturally, many people gathered around to help answer the question- all with differing views. The curator immediately started smiling as our story unfolded. Ah, no, he exclaimed, there are no such things, but the people there do believe it. Another man nearby who was a bit chubby himself said that fat people hide from the werecats because they also steal fat from the people. We all chuckled. And then we learned that there is actually a horror film about this story: El Misterio del Kharisiri .
It’s totally a real thing! The curator & friends gave us confirmation that although city-folk like them don’t believe it, the islanders sure do and the tradition of belief stretches back a long time.