THE man with the white beanie sits away from the group.
He is quiet, listening to the conversation but not joining in, and he rarely lifts his eyes from his work while his relatives stop to stand and stretch their legs or just turn their heads to gaze across the blue water of Lake Titicaca, which stretches south to Bolivia from the tip of this isolated Peruvian island.
“He is a widow,” my guide explains in a whisper. “You can tell by his hat, see how the other men all wear lots of bright colours while his is mostly white. His wife died recently and he is still so sad. He comes to weave with his family, he likes their company, but he doesn’t talk much.”
You can tell a lot about a man’s marital status on Taquile Island by his hat, with single men wearing a white tip on what looks like a floppy night cap and those who have found a spouse sporting a far fancier model with tight lines of vivid patterns.
When a young couple is ready to get hitched, the man will knit the traditional cap to impress his girl’s parents, presenting the prospective father-in-law with the hat to prove his worth and show he is able to care for a family.
The potential in-laws test the young man’s skill by filling the head wear with water and if the fluid drips through he fails and must start again — or clear out — but if the threads are tight enough to contain the liquid, he gets the tick of approval.
Taquile women also demonstrate their weaving skills before approaching the altar by making a belt to serve as a contract for marriage featuring pictures of the things she expects from her husband — a summer and winter crop, a house with a strong roof, a cow for milk, a sharp knife, a good bucket to carry water, ample firewood.
Once the couple is married the man wears his waterproof cap to show he has a wife while the woman keeps her belt handy to remind the husband of his matrimonial responsibilities.
Weaving and knitting are important on Taquile Island, a tradition that’s been treasured for centuries and handed down through the generations, and while the members of this extended family gather to make things to sell to the few visitors that venture to this isolated community it’s more about maintaining the ties that bind the family.
They sit in a circle around the edge of a sun-drenched plateau, after exchanging coca leaves as a greeting, and gossip as the men use four needles to knit the island’s iconic chapeaus and the women perch above primitive frames to weave vibrant belts.
While tourists based in busy Puno rarely make it past the overexposed villages in Taquile’s north, travellers staying at Titilaka – the luxury waterfront lodge a 30-minute drive to the south of the lakeside capital – can visit these secluded communities near the island’s steep southern tip with an expert guide.
Visiting Taquile Island with my Titilaka guide I feel like I’m stepping back in time to the days before the Spanish arrived in the Andean peaks and the Inca communities lived a simple life of subsistence farming.
There are no mobile phones or televisions, women cook in battered pots on an open fire, men release the sheep to graze in the morning before herding the animals back into their stone enclosures at night, water is collected from a community well, and a style of dress adopted after the Spanish invaded is still worn.
It takes an hour to travel by boat from Titilaka’s private jetty to the pier in one of Taquile’s quiet coves and we meet our first locals as we step onto land with a village mother and her two children waiting for a ride to Puno.
While she holds hands with her older child she wears a sturdy black shawl around her shoulders, tied securely below her chin, with the robust material holding the baby close to her back and allowing the curious youngster to peer past her ear.
As we hike – and I do mean hike as Lake Titicaca is almost 4000m above sea level and, at this elevation, breathlessness sets in literally after taking just a few steps – from the dock we pass locals doing their morning errands.
A teenage girl, wearing a colourful pom-pom on the corner of her shawl-like hat to announce she is looking for a husband, rushes to meet the young man knitting a beanie while walking along the hillside footpath and another local encouraging a calf up a rocky slope towards a patch of grass.
We pause again to catch our breath while visiting a young family in their modest compound, with huts made from mud bricks surrounding a central courtyard with the arrangement allowing the addition of a new shack when another member of the extended family moves in.
We find dad, just back from the water after gathering the morning’s catch, teaching his young daughter to scale the fish with the sharp knife in her chubby little hand.
I think about my friends with children the same age, knowing they probably wouldn’t even let their little ones wield safety scissors let alone a tool with such a sharp blade, but I’m told children learn young here and I don’t see any slashes or scars on this grinning youngster’s nimble digits.
While Taquile Island’s isolation has helped preserve its traditions, it has made life difficult for young men and women to find a spouse with a fresh supply of DNA needed to keep expanding the community’s shrinking gene pool.
The United Nations studied these secluded settlements, to document life in this unique part of Peru that has resisted modernisation, and help locals strike the balance between new and old that’s needed to attract outsiders to the village and help strangers come to terms with the simple ways of island life.
I hope it works, I hope women and men from mainland communities move to Taquile and embrace the bygone conventions because it’s a rare treat for travellers to see life as it was when all a young man needed to do to impress his girlfriend’s parents was weave a bright waterproof beanie.
Lake Titicaca is in the south of Peru, more than 1000km by road from Lima, with LAN and Avianca airlines both offering daily flights from the capital to the airport in nearby Juliaca, a 30-minute drive from the lakeside hub of Puno. lan.com / avianca.com
Another option for travel is on board the Andean Explorer, a luxury train that makes the day-long journey between Cusco and Puno three or four times a week depending on the season. perurail.com
Titilaka, the boutique lodge, belonging to the esteemed Relais & Chateaux group, has 18 rooms categorised as dawn or dusk depending on direction. It sits on a private peninsula 36km from Puno with a team of staff that includes guides and chefs providing a luxurious all-inclusive experience. titilaka.com
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARS IN ESCAPE ON JULY 11, 2014