Thursday, September 13, 2012

Whatever Works: The Many Boats of the Beni River

Rurre´s many boats at the construction beach along the Beni River
 Wildlife conservation, surviving indigenous communities, an adventure hub for global travelers, the quiet Rurrenabaque (¨Rurre¨) has quite its share of social change for a tiny river town at the amazon´s edge. I spent the week building boats - not traditional canoes - on Rurre´s beach, swimming periodically in the Beni River. From barges to inflatable kayaks, the boats I spent time with this week are a far cry from the canoes which first appeared here in Pre-Inca times when natives would carve serpent drawings and maps onto river-side rocks to mark water levels and the like.

Yet the changes in the vessels along the Beni don´t just tell me what boat is popular, or cheap to build, they say what innovations have happened. The changes show a patterns in the societal relationship to material and natural resources, they show a changing pattern of uses and needs. The also show what hasn't changed, such as the need to fish and for transportation. Canoes are a societal indicator species.

Repairing the boat of San Miguel De Bala
My first day of looking for work led me back to the people of San Miguel De Bala, a Tacana community with an eco-tourism operation, whom I wrote about last week. We repaired rot damage after beaching it with the help of a few dozen people. Their boat is of the same design, using the Suliman tree,  as the boat I came down the Beni on. The most common boat on the river now, the advent of tar, good nails, and saws for planking. With a tandem driver system, a look out in front and engine operator in the back, the 15 meter long boat is perfect for navigating the rugged stretches of the Beni with a heavy load.

Stripping a boat down to the base, or dugout hull with Cesar, master boat builder.
Over the next few days I worked with an elderly man named Cesar, just down river. Cesar builds the entire boats in a family operation. One of the most interesting jobs we did was stripping down the plan boat to its dugout base form. The planks and ribbing had rotted, but the base was as good as new. The boat, even with modern extrapolations, must be stripped to its elemental form.

The different bases made from rainforest trees, also in Cesar´s yard.
Then we built a barge. Working with a man named Abel and his son, the massive boat used a giant Suliman tree, split it in half, and put larger wood in the middle. This boat will be used to transport wood up and down the Beni. The dugout structure remains essential, yet with an innovation of wood in the centre versus planking on the outside. The increased load sizes are immense. 

A split hull and ribs, placing the bottom boards with nails and a drill.
Nailing in the ribs
We made a fire on the hot and humid beach using drift wood. A huge chunk of tar was put into a pot on top of the fire, piece by piece which I hacked off with a hammer. Once melted, this is dripped over the boat and replaced every so often..

Putting tar into the holes.
Its good to be on the river. The day before I left Rurre, I went kayaking up the Beni with my friend Pablo. Pablo, a native Bolivian, owns Rurre´s kayak rental shop. If you are ever in Rurre, you gotta go! We paddled up river past ancient sculptures of serpents marking river geography. We came across bat caves and searched for the pantheon of wildlife in the rain forest riverside. We simply enjoyed the river,as has always been done in whatever vessel people could create.

Pablo on the Beni, a hundred or more locals in the background enjoying an afternoon swim. Note: two guys carrying a log to float on - the most elemental of canoes!

Another great friend I made along the river is a man named Ron, a fisherman and assimilated Bolivian, though originally from the United States. Ron, the craftsman of the first catamaran sailboat on the Beni is a designer and inventor of different boat styles. Using materials from dugout hulls and planks to sheet metal he has been building various vessels of his own creation for more than twenty years.

Ron in a canoe he built. The week before he caught a 30 pound dorado in that boat.
 To build a boat is such a simple idea, with so many ways of manifesting. This boat builders this week inspired me for their entreprenuership and their incredible use of resources in the environments and markets around them. Carrying timber, fishing, simple enjoyments - these are the freedoms of floating, the empowerments of the craft. Whatever your vessel, get out and float!

It will be a few weeks until you hear from me next. With more than 60 hours of buses ahead of me, I venture into the Central Peruvian Amazon, from a small town called Puerto Bermudez, to build the traditional canoes of the Ashaninka people.

1 comment:

  1. You've got two of the earliest ways of building a boat bigger than a single tree shown here. The "extended dugout" (adding side strakes on a dugout base) occurs in many cultures and prehistoric mileaux; splitting a dugout and adding a flat central section is known from several Bronze Age examples from Europe.