Monday, October 22, 2012

Building a Caballito

Carlo selecting reed bundles on Huanchaco beach
Building a Caballito begins with selecting four solid bundles of reeds of more than two meters in length. The boat is built in two main hull pieces, each containing a mother piece and a child piece, which goes inside of the mother piece one meter from the stern.

Victor and Carlo begin typing the mother bundle together

One the bundles are prepared, broken pieces and unwanted reeds discarded, the mother pieces are tied together four times around at the base with thinner rope.

Carlo putting foam in the child piece
Once a little foam, obviously a new practice for better floatation, is put inside the child piece, both child ´pieces are wrapped tightly.

Tying the mother and child together
The child pieces is then put inside the mother piece, using a reed as a measuring stick, one meter from the back end. This creates a basket on the back used to put fish in, so they wont flop out in the waves.

pulling tightly on the ropes
Once tied tightly, and tightened twice, the two hull pieces, with both mothers and child pieces, are tied together using larger rope, roughly eight times. An intricate tying system runs the rope laterally on each side to the next full hull encircling of the rope. Over the basket, rope runs on each side for the placement of bamboo for strength later.

Using larger rope to ties the entire thing together, basket in the back for fish can be seen here
Using the knees, the hull is bent upwards, allowing the boat to buck over the waves easily, and giving it its characteristic shape. Once bent, the boat is tied even tighter to maintain its shape.

finishing touches on the tip, curved high to buck over the waves
The ends are tied tightly until they come to a point no larger than a human thumb.

Carlo carrying the boat to the water, note to pieces of bamboo placed in the basket for strength.
When the boat is finished, it can be carried dry over a shoulder. It weights roughly one hundred pounds at this point. When wet it can weight much more. The fisherman sit, as if sitting on a horse, just one large rope pass up from the basket, right in the center of the Caballito. Ridding the Caballito over the waves is a beautiful experience. With feet dipped into the cold water, and full body rocking, it is an quick and natural connection to the water.

Riding over the waves to go fishing

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Caballito, from the beaches of northern Peru

Caballito means little horse. The modern name of a very old totora reed boat tradition, the caballito feel like your literally stradling a mix between a steed and a kayak. In the beaches of Northern Peru´s Huanchaco surf town, I recently had the chance to build and ride a caballito, all in one day, my birthday October 16th!
Roughly three meters in length, the Caballito is a one man fishing vessel used to buck over the rough Pacific waves to haul in fish from nets cast just off shore. Over a four hour period, and the focus of my next blog, I worked with Carlo, and master Caballito builder Victor, to build the caballito before I had the chance to ride it just before sunset.

A ceramic sculpture from the Moche civilization and formative period, roughly 1600 years old, depicting the Caballito and use in fishing and daily life. Museo Larco, Lima.

A silver casted sculpture of the Caballito from the Fusion Period between Chimu and Inca civlizations, roughly 500 years old. This depicts the possible spiritual aspects of the Caballito, with a human sacrifice tied to the back of the craft to be offered to the sea. Museo Larco, Lima

From the two sculptures above, and many more found throughout the dry beaches and river valleys of Northern Peru, it is evident that the Caballito tradition, or Totora is at least a two thousand year old tradition passed down from the Moche, Salinar, and Chimu civilizations that have existed in the region, as a cradle of human civilization in South America.

Still surviving as fishing vessels, with relatively little changes to the styles from what we can tell from these ceramics burried by tide sediments over eons. It was truely a humbling experience to be in the presence of these incredible works at the Museo Larco, in Lima.

The dispersing adobe walls of ChanChan.

People have been settling the river valleys and harvesting fish from the incredibly productive northern coast form at least four thousand years before today. This developed into what was called the Moche civilization, whos ceramics have survived until today burried in sand. The Chimu civilization, of which the capital was at Chan Chan, just a few kilometers from Huanchaco, where they still build the Caballitos, was at least 60,000 people at its peak. With dominations of the Incas in the 15th century, the Chimus were integerated and fused into a larger empire. While all these changes happen and civilizations came and went, the small reed boat tradition, and the importance of taking fish from the sea, survive the tides and stormy weather of human dynamics.

A short post because of technical difficulties, I am excited to tell you more about this pearl of human herritage surviving in beaches of Northern Peru. For now, think about the rarity of a surviving tradition in such a way. The Caballitos, original names lost to the harsh sands and seas, are still stacked along the beach after a hard day of fishing, a beautiful sillouette in the same sunset that illuminated ancestoral eyes.


Monday, October 15, 2012

A Return to the Uros

The finished and aging reed boat, one with the Titicaca waters
After quite the journey over the central Peruvian highlands, from the remote and incredible Ashaninka villages, I returned to the Uros island of Khantati. Thousands of miles from where I grew up, I felt as if I was returning home. Greeting Victor and Wilber with hugs and once again enjoying amazing Uros lake trout, my girlfriend Lauren, who came to visit briefly from D.C. and I feel as if our real place is on a small island made by hardworking hands on cold and clear Andean waters.

The wise glares of Victor (forefront) and Wilber (background)

You dont need a lot of time to become very close. Though the wonderful Vilca family of Khantati came into my life recently, theres no doubt that we will be part of each others lives in the future. Yet returning to the island and seeing new houses built, the island remade, the deterioration of the boat in just a few months makes me respect the immense knowledge of Victor and family. This knowledge will take a long time to understand. I have only just arrived at the surface.

Habraham (Victors son-in-law to be) and I

My last week in Peru will be spent with the totora boat builders of the north coast. In a small beach town named Huanchaco, the boat builders are keeping a 2000 year old tradition alive begun with the ancient Moche culture, to keep day old fish in local bellies.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Building an Ashaninka Dugout Canoe

Cutting the five meter section of trunk in half using a chainsaw. This provides material for two canoes.
The art of the dugout canoe, carving a canoe from a single tree, is nearly as old and diverse as human cultures themselves. A wonderful recent post by Bob Holtzman on Indigenous Boats illuminates just how different these canoes can be, given their environment, cultural considerations, and even artistic choices. A labor intensive process, the dugout canoes around the world are rapidly disappearing with newer and market bought boats replacing them. Yet the efforts of many can keep the tradition alive. For example, the recent inspiring work of birchbark canoe educational organization Voyage of Rediscovery in dugouts.

The Ashaninka tradition is changing rapidly as well. The dugout canoe is still of major importance to the scattered villages throughout the rainforest, connected by various river ways, and the main fishing vessel, the main source of protein. Yet with deforestation it is increasingly difficult to find a tree. With a government sponsored dirt road being placed into the region, for the first time in history it may be possible to access these Ashaninka villages from land and not just water.

Using wedges, freshly cut from the surrounding jungle, to free the log section.
The chainsaw, traditionally stone axes, play the first role in building today´s Ashaninka canoe. Cutting out a desired section, this one roughly 5 meters, and then cutting the section in half allows for two canoes to be build from the same section, with the heart of the tree being the above center of each. Even ten years ago this process would have been done by controlled fires, using various tools to hatch out the softer burnt sections, without which it could take months to slowly whittle away with a hard rock.

Designing the canoe.

Once one half is chosen and moved with the heart wood upwards, a design is made. Using charcoal as a base drawing, large fern branches freshly cut from the surrounding jungle and nails made from a hardwood branch, the carefully made design is ready to be cut.

While the chainsaw makes notches for easier digging out, Lioncio gets started with the axe.
Ready for the next ´workshop´.

Replacing fire, the axe, chainsaw, machete and adze are used to digout the majority of the canoe while it is still in its jungle location besides a stream. This is done both to reduce weight and allow for Lioncio to navigate it down river to a beach along side the village where we can more easily shape the canoe. Before this happens, the ends of the canoe are narrowed using the chainsaw.

Lioncio and grandson floating the rough canoe down to the village, where it will be refined.

 From the new building location, just river side from an the Ashaninka village of San Pablo, we use the axe, adze and machete to carve the hull to Lioncio´s liking. After every stage or wave of hacking with a steel tool, Lioncio slowly walks around the canoe and designs the next steps in his experienced mind. A big smile means success, yet with imperfections he quickly begins hacking again.

Using the Adze to carve the hull.

Using an axe to refine the bow.

Flipping the canoe over, we used the same tools to carve the belly of the canoe. Where the corazon or heart wood cracked we simply used wooden nails, and eventually iron nails, to strengthen it.

The careful eye of Lioncio

 Before we pushed the canoe into the water, though a small one it was amazingly heavy, we rejoiced in our work being done. Using a paddle he showed me how to make just a week before, Lioncio softly paddle the canoe to tests its maneuverability before the both of us went for a long ride. I asked him about the holes in the bottom of the canoe drilled by termites and other insects. With a gentle "no problem", I accepted his answer. After days of paddling the boat on the Pichis, I learned the master was right.

Maiden voyage