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Forget Fiberglass, This Surfing Champion Rides Reeds

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Thousands of years ago, well before the age of the Inca or the Moche, people on the northern coast of Peru began making reed boats. They are called “caballitos de totora,” or “little reed horses.” And they were used for fishing on the ocean. Though modern day surfing doesn’t trace its origins to Peru, the caballito de totora is one of the earliest-known traditions of wave riding. For well over a hundred generations, people have passed down this ancient maritime craft — and it continues today. Meet Juninho. 21-year-old professional surfer and caballito de totora fisherman. I live in a fishing village north of the city of Lima called Huanchaco. My life is dedicated to the sea thanks to the influence of my father. Juninho started at age seven with a small caballito de totora that was 1.1 meters long. He started to use it like a like a surfboard. And when he was 10, he began fishing with me. Juninho: Even now, what I like most is using the caballito de totora. I do it to find myself, not lose essence, not lose my culture. He might be one of the last generations to use the totora.The reeds used to build these boats are starting to disappear. All of us here in Huanchaco, our parents taught us how to build our caballitos de totora. We depend on ourselves, we have to make our boats to go fishing. No one else can make them for you. Caballito de totora fishermen grow and harvest the reeds they need for their boats. We cut it after nine months, then we dry it in the sun for 15 to 20 days. And then the material is ready to build our caballitos de totora.Construction is fast. Once everything is ready, I can build the boat in an hour. Rapid urbanization is endangering the reeds used to make the boats. The problem is very clear: the breakwater on the port of Salaverry. The retainer is one of the biggest breakwaters in the port of Salaverry. It stops the port from filling with sand and creates deeper water so ships can pass through, but they didn’t realize what would happen. Normally, the reed grows in fresh water, but because of the erosion in the port of Salaverry, salt water is flooding the totora reeds. It’s destroying the reeds that we care for — the raw material we need to make the caballito de totora. Our ancestors have left us a rich tradition and we, as a new generation, must continue to preserve it. Sometimes I hear comments: “Why do you do that? It’s very hard work.” And yes, it is a big sacrifice to sit for hours fishing. But for me, it’s fun, it’s my essence, it’s my culture, and I always carry it with me, no matter where I go. .

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