Sunday, August 26, 2012

Building a Uro's Reed Boat Part 3: What's Traditional?

Net fishing in a three meter bulsa totora

The reed boat has been a living tradition on Lake Titicaca for more than a thousand years. Of its origins little is know. It's a great idea, thats the extent of our knowledge. Some argue that the reed boats were actually house boats, upon which the Uros lived to escape the brutality of others - thus the genesis of the idea to actually build islands to live on (for more on the island building methods, read the comments on the People of the Reeds post). When the spanish arrived in the 16th Century, the importance of the reed boat and the totora reed, as well as the island build process, was affirmed and documented by numerous members of the Spanish invasion, which pushed them further into the reeds. That tradition lived through until the next wave of outsiders - tourists.

Puno's Museo De Lago Titicaca, with a great deal of wonderful information and images on the reed boat tradition

Tradition is people and place. The ecology of the totora reed boat is what defines its unique tradition. In the traditional manner of building, all of the materials come from the lake ecosystem and surrounding area. The tall fresh totora, the altiplano grasses weaved together to make the cord which binds the boat, the tree root tools. For the Uros, using these materials to craft the reed boat meant a better life. Of the material to be lost to change in culture and environment, the traditional cord has dissapeared the fasters, replaced by a nylon bought in cities such as Puno. To make the cord of grass takes an incredible amount of time, early anthropological accounts saying the majority of the 'free' time of the Uros was spent weaving it. With the altiplano hills being dominated by agriculture, finding suitable grass is also an increasing challenge. See a video below of a brief segment one of the two processes (the other being a three part weave).

The traditional boat was used in life. Smaller boats for fishing and hunting and larger boats with totora sails for cargo and transportation were the most important ownable item for the indigenous of Titicaca. From the traditional design, the sail is the factor which has most rapidly gone exstinct. To date, there are currently no totora sailed vessels riding the waters of Titicaca.

I spent a few days over the past week in the Bolivian town of Huatajata, learning techniques, discussing and building models with the totora reed boat master Maximo Catari, who, along with the Limachi brothers, was hired in the 70's to build reed boats for the famous Thor Hyerdhal, who used such boats, by sailing them thousands of miles, to prove contact could be had in early branches of humanity such as Peru and Polynesia and North Africa and the Carribean. Also an intrepid adventure, Maximo and his son Erik built a reed boat entitled the Titi which they sailed around the entire circumfrence of Lake Titicaca.

Max maintains a small museum, of which he and I spent an entire afternoon laying the rock work for the drive way. Yet he is getting older and the images of reed boats and reed boat masters, such as the picture of he on the front cover of the current tourist bible Lonely Planet Bolivia, are becoming fewer and fewer. "Making the reed boat is very difficult" he says to me in Spanish, and few people are learning the ancient tradition to preserve it as a living art into the future.

Maximo Catari and an entire traditional reed boat he built

That future of the traditional Uros reed boat is wary and uncertain. While tradition is incredibly linked to people and place, practicality is ultimately a powerful force.The practical use of the boat is perhaps no longer. With the advent of modern materials and wooden boats becoming a sign of prestige, it could be said that the Uros reed boat no longer survives in the wild. The purely traditional methods live as information in our accounts, and important knowledge in the minds of the masters such as Victor and Max.

A dilapidated reed boat and a new wooden fishing boat.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Building a Uro's Reed Boat Part 2: What Hasnt Changed

Gregorio removing flowers from reed to be used in the borders
The title is somewhat mis-leading in a few ways. To start, the little I know lacks far too much to be able to say exactly what hasn't changed in this important and old tradition. Secondly, all things change.  In any case, the builders among the Uros community in the Bay of Puno maintain many techniques, traditions, methods, and materials, that have changed little in their essence from the day the ecology of the lake met the ingenuity of the Uros ansestors.

An underlying force that hasn't changed in the tradition is hard work. Simply looking at the worn and muscular hands of Victor, Wilber, and Gregorio can give a glimpse into the relentless ability these builders have to get things done. Harvesting totora, designing the boat, and especially wrapping and tightening the cord are no easy tasks, and these men can go longer than I thought possible.

After an entire day of working since sunrise, Wilber still tightening the cord using traditional tools
The design structure itself has changed little. The five pieces, two big pieces in the body with a corazon in between and the two border pieces is the same great idea. The process of building the corazon and borders has many elements of the traditional methods. It begins with weaving together opposite pieces of totora reeds, where a rope weaves in and out of 6-8 reeds. This is done at a half meter interval or so for as long as the boat needs to be. Once a matt of totora is weaved, bundles of reeds are places on the mat and then wraped, creating a the roll of reeds.

Weaving the outside of the corazon

almost finished with the corazon

Putting cord on the boats and arching the ends involved poles of eucalyptus (an introduced species from Australia) and a great deal of muscle. Poles placed across the boat keep the corazon above the center of the boat as we wrap cord around. The ends are lifted with 2-3 people, two poles standing straight up on either side of the end and tied with a cross pole. After wraping with cord tightly to keep in place, the ends are lifted more and more until the desired curve is attained, using support ropes attached to the other end of the boat.

curving the ends

Wraping the three body pieces with cord

The is measuring system essentially the same, based in the mind of these intelligent builders. Arms and fingers are used to determine the lengths and sizes of things. For example, the spacing between cords on the final wrap of the main body are two finger distances apart.

Wilber measuring rope with his arm

The tools, passed down from generation to generation, uphold much of this material tradition. Only acquired at religious festivals, the two main tools of the totora boat building process are the ccarwhato, a small hooked tree root used to tighten the cord, and the Lakena, an extremely hard rootball used to pound the totora for tightening, which would also have been used to pound and prepared traditional grass for cord making.

This boat building process is sacred. That exists still. Before totora is harvested, before the building process begins, durring the process, and once the boat is launched, something is given to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, in the Aymara tradition. Whether water or a soft drink, the meaning behind the tradition remains the same. The respect is the same It was an spiritual experience building this boat and the experience was a deeply meaningful gift.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Building a Uros Reed Boat Part 1: A Changing Tradition

Victor, Wilber, and I in our just-christened totora reed boat
The totora reed boat is a changing tradition. To the Uros people of  Lake Titicaca, both in Bolivia and Peru, it has been a practical and essential piece of their existence and survival for an unknown number of centuries. Today, it remains a centerpiece of meaning and cultural importance, but rarely does it live as a direct means of physical survival to the people who created it.

Over the past two weeks, I have been living and working with the family of Kristina Sauna and Victor Vilca on Isla Khantati, just outside the Bay of Puno. In that two weeks I built a reed boat with Victor, his brother Wilber, and their soon to be brother-in-law, Gregorio. Modern materials and the rise of the tourist economy are major examples of forces that have changed the role, and design, of this extremely unique boat in global human heritage.

Dragon headed catamaran boats, only appearing in the region over the last few decades, are the majority of reed boats on Titicaca now, as tourism has become the means of survival for the Uros Islands. Yet what is define as traditional by the Uros, what the Uros in this area still build as traditional, is what we set out to build.

A non-traditional reed boat form

So much has happened in the last few weeks, and so much knowledge is deep in the mind of these builders I have the privilege of calling my tios (uncles), that I will break the process down into three posts; A Changing Tradition, What Hasn't Changed, and What's Traditional?. I will also reveal the boat building process in somewhat of an awkward manner, by not showing from start to finish. Instead I will begin in this post with the modern techniques that have replaced traditional techniques. In the next post I will explain those techniques that haven't changed, and finally I will explain what traditional is for the Uros totora boat. I will write in this way in hopes to reveal the complex layers of change and traditions that exists in the survival of the art. Even with that, not every detail will be covered, for what I know is but a grain of sand in the ocean of what there is to know.

Wilber looking over the finished boat, ready to be launched with 30 people or so.
 The basic outline of the totora reed boat has changed little. The were various kinds of ranging shapes and sizes, for different purposes, which I will discuss in later posts. All of the Uros reed boats have five main pieces. Two main pieces in the hull, one piece that goes in the center called the corazon ( heart) and the two pieces which create the decks on either side.

Replacing an only totora hull with tarps and recycled bottles makes the  boat last twice as long.

The first major changes that have taken place in the Uros boat building process can be seen in the building of the hulls themselves. Tarps and recycled bottles are used to fill the hulls, adding lifespan and reducing weight. Almost all of the reed boats built on Lake Titicaca use these methods  today, with the exception of a few remote communities and individuals. A layer of totora is placed between the waterproof tarp and the plastic bottle sewed bags.

Using materials available to them, as always, the Uros replace a totally totora hull with  waterproof tarps and recycled bottles. Lighter, last longer, but a change from tradition.

Nylon cord is now used to replace a traditional grass cord, which is woven using the hands and some water. This traditional grass is found in the surrounding Alti-plano hills, as will be explained in future posts, but is extremely time-consuming to make and isn't as durable as the nylon cord bought in Puno.   I estimated that up to 6000 meters of cord could be used on a boat of this size, wrapping every two finger distances.

Weaving the final layer of totora, covering up the modern look

In the same manner used to build the separate pieces traditionally, a woven mat is wrapped around the hulls of modern materials. Once the two main hulls are constructed, the corazon,. or heart piece, must be constructed and then an intricate system of  lifting a weaving. The corazon is buried in the two hull pieces creating one hull. Look forward to the next post to see how this is done in an essentially traditional manner using eucalyptus poles and shear strength. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

People of the Reeds

A floating reed island of the Uros.

 To the Uros people, the totora reed is everything. Dominating a vast, multi-hundred square kilometer ecosystem outside the Bay of Puno on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the totora reed finds just about every use you could imagine due to the innovation of the Uros of the last many hundred years. The houses, islands, and yes boats are made out of the incredible plant.

For the next few weeks, I am living on Isla Kantati, a five family island in the main huddle of remaining Uros Islands just outside of Puno. Victor, one of the owners of the island, and I, will construct a bulsa totora. We will construct it not in an entirely traditional manner, but rather in the manner that is used by the Uros people today, what modern materials, ways of designing, and uses exists, will all be extremely interesting in terms of what they say about cultural survival and dramatic change.

But one thing hasn't changed. The usefulness, and cultural importance of the totora. So in the last few days, we undertook the first step of the process, harvesting the totora in the vast homelands of the Uros.

Victor looking over a good day's harvest to Totora reeds.

 The process begins with searching. For an entire day we scan the reeds looking for bunches that are green (for flexibility), tall and thick, as well as in abundance of those categories in which ever area we harvest. To test for flexibility, Victor wraps a reed around his hand, and if it doesn't break, then it is good enough. For height, it must be taller then he is, standing in his boat. Modern wooden boats with motors, and poles for pushing along in shallow areas, are used to harvest rather than traditional reed boats.
Victor and his brother moving through the reeds looking for the perfect harvest.

Before we take anything, some of our drinking water is given to the deity of the lake by dropping it directly into the water, for respect and good luck. A long eucalyptus pole from the mountains is used, with a knife attached to the end, traditionally bone and sharpened stick, to cut the reeds out of the water, just above the roots. Within six months, the reeds grow back and are ready for another harvest.

 The traditional hunting, fishing and harvesting lands of the Uros were challenged in the late 70's by the national government, who in the name of conservation, made it illegal to harvest totora reeds in the entire swath of land outside of Puno. In a series of protests and actions, the Uros people were able to maintain their traditional harvesting rights, which in many cases seek to protect and foster healthy growth of the totora reeds. A rigorous system of harvesting rights as well as institutionalized patrolmen among the Uros consider conservation into the traditional processes. Yet with drastic cultural changes, it is unclear what the greater impact harvesting has on the ecosystem.

Drying for 2-3 days to use for their flexibility for the boat's tips.

 As the reeds we harvested dry over the next few days, though not to much so as to maintain their water given elasticity for the very ends of the boat, we will begin designing and constructing the main hull of the boat. What remains of the Uros bulsa totora tradition will be illuminated the next time you hear from me.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Paddling to the Uros Islands

My packaraft approaching a floating island. 
Across the bay of Puno and through the reed trails to the Uros Islands, I journeyed in my tiny packaraft (made by Alpackaraft in Colorado). Avoiding the tourist boats, I was able to go further into the reed village and speak with bulsa totora (reed vessel) builders whom may teach me techniques. As tourist boats passed me, people would take pictures and I would yell "cinco soles para la pictura!", or 5 Peruvian soles for the picture.

Big Fish Island, Uros man preparing roof, similar preparation style for traditional sail, now essentially extinct from the building style of the Uros bulsa totoras. 

I came across one island called Big Fish, where I met a man name Jilders. I spoke with Jilders for a good part of the day about the construction process and the possibilities of working together. We talked about the tools and materials used in constructions. Modern materials, we discussed, such as tarps, to seal the boat on the inside, and nylon string, to replace traditional woven grasses, have become very desirable. We agreed that if I attained some of these materials, I would have a free day of lessons in the techniques in building the traditional way. 

Uros friend having fun in the packaraft. 

This week I will spend some time sleeping on the Uros island Khantati, just across the water from Jilders island, where I will work on learning traditional techniques such as reed harvesting.

Jilders in front of his home.

Very few traditional boats still exist on Titicaca. Many boats crafted by totora reeds are not of the traditional style and are built for the transportation of visitors around the islands. These boats have double hulls and wooden decks, neither of which were used in traditional Uros boat building.

Modern boats have replaced much of the fishing and hunting uses, among others. Below you can see a traditional bulsa totora of approximately 3 meters by .8 meters wide, used typically for transportation and reed harvesting. On the nose of the canoe water birds, many of which are domesticated by the locals, relax and take in the sun. The rope used for the canoe is modern nylon rather than traditional rope, which takes a much longer time to acquire bulk. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Material and Dignity: First thoughts on Titicaca,-- Peru

A trail through the vast totora ecosystem on the western part of Lake Titicaca heads directly for Puno,  Peru.
I made it to Lake Titicaca, the 125000 foot high Altiplano lake on the border of Bolivia and Peru. A deep blue infinite is unshakable from the water and sky. The golden sun beams down all day turning the land its own hue. By night locals huddle to bare the high, remote, cold.  I traveled here to the ancient lake because of the reed canoes constructed for epochs of time by the indigenous Uros who inhabit the lake.

 Now assimilated greatly, mostly in language, with Quechua and Aymara peoples of the region, the pre-Inca Uros build islands out of the buoyant totora reed in which they constantly replenish the decomposing reed below, literally creating land beneath them. Inhabiting dozens of islands not to far from Puno, on the far western part of Lake Titicaca, the Uros are literally interwoven with the totora reed. It is a staple food and a construction material for most everything - including the magnificent canoes, which you will certain hear about in greater depth in future posts.

Balsa de totora, oleo sobre lienzo, Enrique Masias, Portugal, 1922. Picture taken in Puno at the Museum  Municipal de Carlos Dreher.

But to stay nothing has changed among  the indigenous Uros would be a painted picture of Lake Titicaca.. Today is a new epoch for the region. Globalization and commercial culture, the stark influences, opportunities, and oft cultural destruction association with tourism, as well as simple economic and political change have transformed much of the Uros Islands. Once self sufficient off of the totora reed ecosystem along with livestock based on birds such as cormorants, the economic structure amidst the Uros has changed to be sustained, though not entirely, by thousands of tourists each year looking for authentic indigenous culture. 

My experience of the first trip to the islands is illuminated by the image above, tradition and modern technology such as modern fishing boats, interacting in a symbiotic and somewhat conflicting manner. The search for authentic has become hollow here. Rather, a culture exists, with its outside influences and internal decisions, changing as all culture inevitably do. The state of the culture and the societal impacts asks a very important question, one I struggle with my self - what relationship is there between material and dignity? For now, all I can say is, the materials here greatly influence the lives of the people here at Titicaca.

                  Two Uros, one sun drying totora for bulsa construction, the other selling crafts to tourists.

In Puno, the Museum Municipal de Carol Dreher, at the Plaza De Armas, Puno's city center, had an exhibition of mummies, discovered at Sillustani. Sillustani was a burial site for the Colla people who inhabited the lake in pre-inca times along with the Uros, before both peoples, along with other Aymara peoples were conquered by the Incas. The Colla were buried with a great deal of gold, also on display. thThe exhibition got me thinking further about material and dignity. So much of the culture revolved around the meaning and importance of gold, which became a catalyst for the demise of the Incas later via the Spanish. The gold tint of the mummies' skin pushed the metaphor further for me.

The totora reeds are like gold. At times, full of meaning, but at times marketed. Regardless, great dignity still exists among the indigenous Uros of the islands and it will surely take a great deal more than tourist interest to entirely deter traditional ways and meanings. Just as a totora canoe lasts only a few months, impermanence is a very much a way of life here at Lake Titicaca. Yet traditions do survive the societal storms.