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.

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