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The last builder of "Totora" boats of Lake Titicaca

On Lake Titicaca, at 3,900 meters above sea level, one can still see some Aymara reed rafts known as "totora," thanks to an Aymara family that has worked to preserve the ancient art of building such boats.

Living in Huatajata, on the banks of Titicaca, about 70 km northwest of La Paz, 78-year-old Paulino Esteban is the last builder of totora. He uses the same techniques that his Aymara ancestors used long before him.

The father of three girls and two boys, who gave him 20 grandchildren, he teaches the ancient skill to his offspring everyday.

On a sunny afternoon in December, he was interviewed by Xinhua at his home, where he also maintains a workshop, and talked about his craft and the memory of his ancestors.

"I started to learn (how to build totora) at 12 with my grandfather, because my father had already died in the war between Paraguay and Bolivia," said Esteban.

"I was on the island Soriki, where everyone were making rafts, but now they only make wooden boats. At that time, there was no wood on the island, we had only reeds to make rafts," he said.

People cut down the stems of reeds and let them dry in the sun before making them into rafts using ropes made of reeds too. Now, synthetic ropes are more popular.

The rafts have a lifespan of about two years, because the reeds absorb much water and gradually decay.

When Esteban was young, Lake Titicaca was still an reclusive realm of the Aymara, where fishing boats were built with a capacity for 4 people. Boats built for carrying cargo or passengers usually had a length of 7 meters.

Beginning in 1970, when his craftsmanship began to be known outside Bolivia, Don Paulino traveled to Morocco, Iraq, Easter Island, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Italy, Peru and India.

"Everyone knows my name, my face. I have taught a Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, to build a raft to sea, but I never navigate," he said. "The sea, I do not like, as it has many storms. It's not like here."

The strength of totora was demonstrated in 1970, when six people aboard one called the Ra II sailed crossed the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados.

Also thanks to Esteban, the hypothesis that the ancient Andeans might have crossed the Pacific was confirmed with the voyages of another totora called the Uru.

The vessel left Callao, Peru, in 1988 with seven sailors from Spain, Italy, Norway, Egypt and Mexico and three months later reached the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti.

Those large vessels were built in the ports of departure for the expeditions with reeds produced in Lake Titicaca because similar materials collected from other areas were not as good.

The prestige of Esteban and his family, however, was not recognized in Bolivia until President Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president, took office in 2006.

"Evo called me to the Palace. But I have to give him a totora as gift," he says.

The old craftsman now spends most of his days making small decorative totora to sell to tourists, hoping that the art will survive through his children and grandchildren.

"Young people do not want to learn the crafts -- they want to study to become engineer, agronomist or professor. Nobody wants todo things with their own hands," said Esteban.

 Source : Xinhua  Editor: Dong Wenwen
· The last builder of "Totora" boats of Lake Titicaca
· The last builder of "Totora" boats of Lake Titicaca
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