I wanted to see the sun rise from the Isla del Sol as the early Incas saw it so long ago, and I made an arrangement with a launch-man in Copacabana to meet me on the foreshore two hours before dawn. When I walked down the steep cobbled street in the silence of the night, a three-quarter moon flooded my room in the cheap hotels in prague with a white radiance, as if all the silver ever mined in Peru had been melted and poured into the lake.
We pushed off in the moonlight. Overhead the sky burned with stars, un winking in the transparent Andean air. I asked the boatman his name and he answered, “Rufino Pizarro. People ask me if I am related to someone called Francisco Pizarro(http://www.biography.com/people/francisco-pizarro-9442295). Would he be the one who was killing Spaniards?”
He did indeed, in the civil strife after the conquest. But to the boatman, an Aymara, the man who conquered the land of his ancestors was merely a transient across the timeless landscape of the Altiplano. As we emerged from the lee of the peninsula and pitched to the chop rolling in from the “big lake,” the moon set, turning to yellow gold as it touched black bars of cloud.
In darkness we landed on the precipitous shore of the Island of the Sun. Stumbling and slipping, we climbed a rubble slope to the first of the ancient terraces that rise like a gigantic flight of stairs to the top of the island.
Near the crest of the slope Pizarro pointed. “The House of the Inca,” he said, indicating a rectangular pile of stone that had fallen into ruin where its back rested against the hillside. One still-standing doorway pierced the front wall. Like all Inca doorways, this was trapezoidal, narrower at top than bottom. The House of the Inca—scarcely two arquebus shots from the shore, as the Spaniards measured the distance—looks southeast across the narrow strait, and through the slot of the doorway we could watch the sun rise.
Titicaca, originally the name of the Island of the Sun, was later given to the whole lake. In Quechua the word means literally “rock of lead.” But in Aymara the word means “rock of the puma.”
The puma figured in early religious cults, but the most startling support for this interpretation of the name Titicaca came from a totally unexpected source—space. I carried in my knapsack a photograph of Titicaca made from one of the Gemini spacecraft, 170 miles above the earth (pages 278-9). When I showed it to Pizarro, he pointed:
“Look! The Puma!”
I stared. The outline of the main lake startlingly resembled a leaping puma, with outstretched claws and open mouth, about to seize a fleeing rabbit, the smaller arm of the lake. The likeness was astonishing. The sky lightened, and then suddenly, between the dark lump of a distant island and the tip of Copacabana Peninsula, the sun burst forth in amber splendor, greeted by the mewing cries of gulls.
I glanced at Pizarro. His dark face was expressionless. Either the sun, still worshiped by some on the lake, had lost its meaning for him, or he kept his feelings well hidden behind the wall of silence Andeans have erected between themselves and intruders. From a flask I poured two small cups of pisco, the white grape brandy of Peru, and handed one to Pizarro. As I raised the cup, I felt his eyes on me. Remembering, I spilled a few drops on the dusty ground. Pizarro almost smiled.
“It is good,” he said, “to remember Pacha Mama, Mother Earth, and to thank her for her bounty.”