The Reed riders


Looking out at the Pacific Ocean from the beach of the small port town of Huanchaco in northern Peru groups of pelicans approach the breaking waves in warplane like formation. The world around is enveloped in the low level clouds created by the meteorological phenomena called Garua. The edges of things disappear and a sense of being in a prehistoric time takes over. One of the Pelicans makes a navigational mistake and crashes; the wave has him like a ragdoll in a washing machine. From afar as if coming from Polynesia I can see ten perhaps fifteen men paddling moving forward on something as prehistoric looking as a pelican. The men are paddling on their knees on a reed embarkation called Caballito de Totora. Conical in shape and curved at the front it is something between a kayak and a surfboard. A kayak because the fishermen move it forward with a bamboo paddle and a surfboard because they ride waves when going back to shore, compensating for the loss of balance by rising their arms holding the paddle towards the sky. The Caballitos de Totora are made from the same reed, Scirpus californicus, used by the Uros people in the Lake Titicaca region. Archaeological evidence from pottery shards shows that the Caballitos have been around for at least 3000 years. While many local youth work on cruise ships the world over and others are busy in the tourist industry; there are still about 40 active fishermen in Huachaco between the age of 15 and 70 without exception they fish with the Caballito de Totora. Outside of town fishermen cultivate the reed to make the embarkations, each man needs at least three Caballitos de Totora while they use one the two others are drying, after three month they begin to get water clogged and heavy a new one will need to be made. It was the Totora rafts from Lake Titikaka that inspired the famous Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl to construct the Kon Tiki a reed and wood embarkation with which he reached after a 101-day journey that started in Peru, after 8000 km across the Pacific Ocean, the reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands on August 7, 1947. Heyerdahl had a theory that Polynesia was settled from west to east and his journey on a primitive embarkation was made to prove it. The theory remains controversial, as there is genetic and language evidence pointing to an early east to west settlement.

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