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Full Circle

Day 182: La Paz to Copacabana, Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca, Bolivia 
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Paulinho Esteban, reed boat-maker.
Michael Palin - Full CircleThe 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 boatbuilders 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. 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. 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.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 182
  • Country/sea: Bolivia
  • Place: Lake Tititcaca
  • Book page no: 243

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