Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lake Titicaca

The Peruvian altiplano, a dry and dusty region high up in the Andes that borders Bolivia, is a harsh and cold landscape. At 12,500 feet above sea level, the air is thin and the sunlight fierce. Days can be comfortable if there is no cloud cover, but at night temperatures drop nearly to freezing. There the port city of Puno sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, and also the largest lake in South America (by volume). Because of its proximity to Bolivia, Puno is a frequent stop for travelers who are pushing further into the interior of South America. It is also a jumping-off point for trips to Lake Titicaca’s more than 42 islands. (Which include the manmade Floating Islands. During the reign of the Incas, before the Spanish arrived, the Uros Indians constructed elaborate islands made of the buoyant totora reed, which grows in the shallows of the lake. Rather than submit to the Incas, the Uros retreated to their islands, which could be moved if threats from hostile tribes arose.)

North of central Puno, on the lake’s shore where sheep graze while lambs frolic with one another, masses of wild guinea pigs (and regular old pigs, too) swarm in the scrubby vegetation, and blue-billed ducks bob in the wakes of passing boats, the Yavari sits at port. Originally commissioned in 1861 by the Peruvian navy, it was built by the James Watt Co. and the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co. in London. Because of the long and arduous journey to the altiplano, the Yavari was built in over 2,000 pieces, each weighing no more than 400 pounds, so that when it finally rounded Cape Horn and arrived on the coast of Peru mules and men could carry it the remaining distance over the Andes (there was no railroad or highway back then). The journey from ocean to lakeshore took six years, and the Yavari was launched on Christmas Day 1870. While it was intended for use as a naval ship, the Yavari never saw combat, as its intended cannons were instead used on the Pacific Ocean during Peru and Boliva's’s War of the Pacific against Chile from 1879 to 1883. (It's also called the Saltpeter War, because it was fought in part over rich seagull-guano deposits used to produce gunpowder. The war was a disaster for Bolivia, which lost its remaining shoreline to Chile--it's now landlocked.)

The ship was used for commercial duties instead, with a 38-man crew. Its llama-dung-burning engine was replaced in 1914 by a Swedish four-cylinder diesel engine (a Bolinder). It fell into disuse in the late middle century and was beached until the 1990s, when an Englishwoman, Meriel Larken, bought it for 4,000 pounds and started its restoration. It’s in remarkable condition, considering that it’s nearly 150 years old. But because of the altitude, thin air, and the fresh water of the lake, there isn’t much rust on the old boat.

Now it’s a museum, another attraction that draws in visitors to the Puno region. It has two sister ships moored nearby, one of which is used as a restaurant. The other, a massive freighter, is currently being renovated.


They say it's a cold world said...

The world needs more lama-dung burning vessels! I'm assuming this is a stop en route to La Paz and even theorizing that you may already be there! If so, looking very forward to hearing how things are going under the direction of the former coca-growers union head honcho. It's been a while since I heard the merest squeak about the various "autonomy" efforts in the provinces. Good Luck, and wear your long underwear...

mgrace said...

Word! It is cold up here! A beautiful city, though, so different from what I expected. An informal poll of most people I have met here suggest that Evo's popularity remains as high as ever. I've only been speaking to working-class people so far--but that's the vast majority of the people here (along with the poor).
The papers are reporting that the autonomy-seeking department heads are considering a boycott of the Aug. 10 referendum, because it's looking increasingly dire for them (remember: the referendum effects not only Morales but the department heads, who actually have to gain a larger percentage than Morales to stay in power--I'm still a bit confused on this but should be teasing some sense out of it in the next few days).