The Aymara Boat Builders
Back on the altiplano heading for Lake Titicaca and the Peruvian border. It’s the dry, winter season, cold and brilliantly clear. Scrubby grass, adobe farm-houses with walled enclosures attached for the animals – mainly healthy-looking llamas and less healthy-looking cattle. The eastern horizon dominated, as always, by a string of snow-capped volcanic summits.
So still and unmoving is the air on this tableland that when Lake Titicaca comes in view it is hard to know if it’s an illusion or not. On the map it looks like a bullet hole through the Andes, yet in reality it has a strangely insubstantial appearance. Its waters are a striking, almost absurdly deep blue, the sort of sheer over-emphasized blue that you get in badly-printed holiday brochures. At its shoreline water and land seem to float into one another, and the islands on the lake look as though they’re suspended a few feet above the water.
Once I’ve rubbed my eyes and found it still there, the lake becomes more beautiful and beguiling all the time. Over five and a half thousand square miles in surface area and fifteen hundred feet deep, it is an enormous stretch of water to find three miles above the sea. The Incas believed it to be the fount of creation, the birthplace of the Sun God. The Indians call it El Lago Sagrada, the Sacred Lake.
The reason for its ill-defined shoreline are the wide fuzzy beds of totora, rich yellow-green reeds that fringe the lake and from which fishing boats are still made. In the early 1970s the traditional skills of the local Aymara boat builders attracted the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who had them build two reed boats, Ra I and Ra II in which he successfully sailed across the Atlantic.
Paulino Esteban, one of the Indians who sailed with him, is working with Heyerdahl on a new project to build a boat strong enough to sail the Pacific from Peru to Tahiti. Esteban still lives by the lake and, though there is now a shop and small museum here, he and his family still turn out fishing boats for the locals. It’s difficult to tell his age. He’s a small, energetic, obliging man. His face is leathery and weather-beaten but his eyes are quick and alert, and his hands still fast and dexterous. Everything is made from the totora reeds themselves. The cut stalks are kept stacked in the water to keep them flexible. The twine that binds them is stripped from the outside of the reed. The skill in building the boat is to know the thickness required to make the bundles of reeds waterproof and when and where to tie the twine that gives them their shape.
He can turn out a finished boat in six days. Like the adobe houses, they are made from a renewable local resource and make sense for self-sufficient communities. But the modern world hovers seductively. A big tourist hotel has gone up near Esteban’s shipyard and the whine of newly-acquired outboards shows that, with the money from tourism, fishermen who can afford it are quickly abandoning the traditional boats that the tourists have come all this way to see.
All this is done by hand and eye. And even foot. Once Paulino has assembled a thick enough sheaf of reeds he makes an extra-strong cord by plaiting the twine, using his big toe to secure it. This is surely the only working shipyard in the world where the big toe is an intrinsic part of the construction process.
Titicaca is in fact two lakes connected by a half-mile wide channel crossed in a ferry from the village of San Pablo Tiquina. There is a strange, stunted little statue by the waterfront of one Don Edouardo Avaroa, a hero of the War of the Pacific, who sits awkwardly on the plinth, like an abandoned puppet. Below him is a tableau which shows a Bolivian soldier in sandals sticking a bayonet through the neck of a Chilean in jack-boots. ‘Lo Que Un Dia Fue Nuestro, Nuestro Otra Vez Sera’ reads the motto. ‘What was once ours, will be ours again.’ Remembering the size and scale of the Chilean monuments I somehow doubt it. But it makes me warm to the place.
Across on the other side of the lake, an unmade, stony road runs along a gorgeous stretch of unspoilt coastline that reminds me of the Greek islands. It takes us, and our bus, to the town of Copacabana, a hundred miles north of La Paz, where we are to spend the night. It’s a solidly attractive town with cobbled streets and old stone buildings and a huge white cathedral in the Moorish style, which the Spaniards began building in 1605.
My room is a small, simple white-washed square with a hot shower provided by bare wires leading to a heating filament in the shower head. It looks like an early design for an electric chair, so it’s a cold shower or nothing. Settle for nothing except a quick splash of the offending parts and into bed. Feel very excited to be where I am. Not many people I know have slept beside Lake Titicaca.