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Bolivia, All Pigs Are Not Alike

When travelling the globe, one has the great opportunity of meeting people in the most remote places. This was recently the case when I was in a small village on Lake Titicaca, high on the Bolivian plateau.

I had just arrived and was tired and aching from altitude sickness. I had been in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia for six days and the 5,000 metre altitude was taking its toll. A constant headache throbbed at the back of my head and all I wanted to do was lay down.

Instead I decided to go for a walk and enjoy some of the fresh air (what little there was of it). I came upon a giant reed boat sitting near the shore of the lake, beside a small, mud brick home. I walked around it several times and found it intriguing, but was not prepared for what happened next.

A man, in his seventies, came out to greet me. His English was very broken at best and I had difficulty in understanding him. He was explaining something about the boat and asked me to come inside his home. I did and was greeted by his wife, a pleasant woman who was knitting a sweater from alpaca wool. He introduced me to another man, whom he kept calling Demetrio Limachi, who turned out to be his brother.

We chatted, at least they did and I nodded a great deal, until suddenly one of the men produced a National Geographic magazine from 1971. The cover story was about Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian explorer who, on board his craft the Kon-Tiki, set out in 1947 to prove his theory of how people sailed from Africa to South America.

This issue dealt with later voyages of Heyerdahl and his two boats the Ra and Ra II. Both ships were designed to explain how primitive people, using only the materials and technologies available to them at the time, crossed the Atlantic in reed boats carried only by the wind.

I read the article with great interest and learned that the two men, standing in front of me, were two of the three Limachi brothers who (along with a friend) built the famous boats for Thor Heyerdahl. I was amazed and astonished that I was standing in their house and humbled by the greatness they had achieved.

Many people today will not be aware of Heyerdahl’s expeditions but in the 50’s and 6-0’s he was the planet’s most well known explorer. I had the privilege of standing beside the two men who were responsible for building the crafts, which their ancestors had created centuries ago. Heyerdahl took the Limachi brothers to Morocco, where they built the actual boats in the tradition of their ancestors. They then accompanied the explorer across Atlantic for a treacherous 4 month crossing.

The Limachi brothers took 3 to 4 months to build a boat and it would last 8 or 9 months before it became so waterlogged it sank. The boats, known as Totoras, were once the only way residents, who inhabit the area’s desolate islands could navigate Lake Titicaca. The last surviving Limachi brother is now one of the last in the world to create what are essentially floating wicker baskets.

He has passed the craft on to his children in hopes that it will survive, but as with everything else, progress takes its place and the old may soon be forgotten.

The Limachi brothers were friendly and invited my to join them for supper. We still had a great language barrier, but I found it interesting that they took me to their yard to see a small cage with dozens of guinea pig pets. They kept motioning to one and I nodded. An hour later I was dining, enjoying a very expensive Bolivian delicacy: guinea pig.

I stared at my plate and was overcome with nausea. The little hands and feet were stretched out and although the head had been removed, I could not help picture the cute little, furry face staring at me.

I have eaten many strange foods around the world, but this has to be one of the strangest. Not wanting to risk insulting my hosts I began to eat the dinner, smiling nervously with every bite. They say most meats taste like chicken. Let me tell you, that was not the case here. I can’t explain what it was like, but I will never forget the taste and hope I never have to try it again.

The next day I explored the beautiful lake, which is the highest navigatable lake in the world. The scenery was amazing and the people extremely friendly. As spectacular as the area was nothing came close to the thrill of meeting two famous men and of course, tasting their local cuisine.

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