Sheep Herder on Amantani Island

Rejecting Inequity for a Comfortable Communal Life

The word socialism has sprung into our political discourse, but with a new hopeful and vibrant meaning. This new socialism has captured the imagination of the young and is beginning to make more sense old fashioned capitalists like me. Beyond being just wrong, I just don’t see where the level of inequity in the US is sustainable. Something or someone is going to explode because the basics of life–healthy food, clean water, healthy housing and meaningful work–are out of reach for so many.

In my younger years, I would never have even considered “socialism” as an option. For someone of my demographic, it connotes repression, poverty and dictatorship.  But Bernie Sanders dared to use the word and so have many after him such as the exciting young politician, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

They use the word in a new way that evokes getting back to basic fairness. As one political scientist put it in a New Yorker article, “socialism, in the practical politics of the young, describes above all a disgust with widening inequality.” It’s with the same disgust that I read how teachers have to work a 2nd or 3rd job just to pay their bills. Something has gone terribly wrong.

Many teachers work a second job to make ends meet

In the US, we have such a winner take all philosophy that it is hard to imagine a society where equity is the defining animus of the people. But this past summer during my vacation in Peru, that’s what I saw when I visited two islands in Lake Titicaca.

Amantani Island seen from Taquile Island

Taquile and Amantani islands lie in the southern most area of Peru, within site of the Bolivian shoreline in Lake Titicaca. While the people living on these islands generally make their living through agriculture, they have taken up tourism, but in their own unique fashion. 

There are no hotel chains or Airbnbs. There are families that have expanded their houses by 2-3 rooms to welcome tourists in their homes. The tour companies work with the people on the island to rotate the tourists between homes to spread the income around so that no family becomes markedly wealthier than another.

House where we stayed on Amantani Island
House where we stayed on Amantani Island
Playing a little soccer on Amantani Island
Playing a little soccer on Amantani Island

Even the entertainment at night is communal. All the families and tourists gather at the community center to hear a local pan pipe band. Each local family dresses their tourists in traditional brightly colored garb for the evening. After an initial awkward period, the local families began peeling the tourists off the side of room and pulling us onto the dance floor.  After a while, no help was needed.

Community dancing on Amantani Island
Community dancing on Amantani Island. Photo by Andrew Calbick
Church Lady and Husband in local garb
Modern-Day Church Lady and Husband in local garb.Photo by Andrew Calbick

After a night under 7 wool blankets on Amantani, we left for Taquile Island. On Taquile, the same communal principle was applied to restaurants which dotted the steep slopes of the island. The exact same menu is served in every restaurant and again tour groups are rotated between different restaurants. 

Quinoa soup
Quinoa soup is ubiquitous
Lake Trout is served everywhere
All meals end with a cup of mint tea
All meals end with a cup of mint tea

They had even built a beautiful stone communal restaurant on the town square. The islands are also an inspiration that an economy can adapt to the changing times,  and do so in a way that preserves as much of their local culture as possible.

It is hard to see how we go from the winner take all ethos of the US to community focus of the islands of Lake Titicaca. Canada has tried with their mincome project which guarantees a minimum income to families. My Aunt in Canada is active in supporting the project. Unfortunately, the project was cancelled by the conservative government, one year into the 3-year pilot.

Maybe for the US it starts with  Medicare for all as many of our new socialist candidates suggest. The upcoming midterm elections will be an interesting barometer of our country’s attitude towards inequity.

But in the meantime, I have the gentle souls of Taquile and Amantani Island to remind me that a more caring, equal approach to our fellow human beings is possible.