Last of a breed who make boats out of reeds
On the shores of famed Lake Titicaca, Demetrio Limachi and a handful of others toil to preserve the ancient art of creating crescent-shaped craft out of bundles of dried reeds.
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It is a labor-intensive process, with few tools used other than a “crochete,” a wooden instrument to pull the strings (dried prairie grass or wild straw), and a rock to help form the boat’s crescent shape. Limachi seems surprised when asked if it’s hard work. “It’s easy,” he says. “I’ve done it my whole life.”Skip to next paragraph
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In his early years, Limachi was plying his craft in ordinary obscurity until Thor Heyerdahl, the late Norwegian adventurist, decided to try to prove that human migration between continents began much earlier than people had thought.
Mr. Heyerdahl became famous with his voyage in 1947 from South America to Polynesia, recounted in the book “Kon-Tiki.” But decades later he wanted to prove that descendants of Africans could have found their way to South America. In 1969, he set out on a cross-Atlantic voyage from Morocco, but it failed: Heyerdahl blamed it on faulty boat construction. So he sought out the craftsmen of Lake Titicaca and their ancient art.
Heyerdahl held a contest among 60 locals to build 10-foot reed boats. Mr. Limachi won, along with his two brothers, and a neighbor, Paulino Esteban. In 1970, the four went Morocco to build the Ra II, which Heyerdahl sailed to Barbados in 57 days – boosting his theories and changing Limachi’s life. Later that decade, the four went to Iraq to construct another boat for Heyerdahl.
Limachi had traveled to Denmark, Spain, Iran, and Norway before he learned to read. The one thing he requested from the government on his return from abroad as a famed boat builder was a high school on his native island. “We went to Iraq illiterate,” he says. “I said, ‘I don’t want my children to be illiterate too.’ ”
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Now a slight man in his 60s, Limachi still harbors a passion for building boats out of water grass. Yet his is a vanishing craft.
Modernity has been crowding in on the ancient ways of Lake Titicaca for several decades. Much of it is good: Many towns in the region now have electricity, allowing for more tourism. That means more sales. But it also means less authenticity.
Nearby, Ricardo Inda lives on a recreated floating island, made of the same reeds used to make totora boats. This is how the ancient Uros people lived. The islands helped protect them against invaders. Today only the floating islands on the Peruvian side of the lake are still inhabited.
“Our tradition is dying out: We are trying to recuperate our language and ancient fables,” says Mr. Inda.
The boating culture has changed, too. Residents of Lake Titicaca long ago turned in their totoras for wooden boats. Trips that used to take a day – to buy sugar and oil and beef and sell the day’s catch – suddenly became a two-hour venture in a motorized craft. But Limachi is determined to teach the ancient art to his 12 grandchildren. The boats he now creates are mostly sent off to exhibitions. He also works in a museum recounting the history of the vessel.
Until recently, this seemed as if it might be his legacy – a living history lesson. But the international spotlight has found the Limachi family once again: A German adventurist is setting out to prove that these reed boats also were sturdy enough to sail West to East, against the currents. The Limachis built the Abora III for the first attempt in 2007, but it failed, they say, due to damage done to the boat during shipping to New York.
Now they are set to try again this year. “I hope to be part of the crew,” says Fermin Limachi, the elder Limachi’s nephew. “And give the tradition a boost once again.”