• The Mochica Diaries: Meeting Huanchaco’s fishermen

    In my second week in Huanchaco I have had the opportunity to meet more of Huanchaco’s Mochica Chimu fishermen community.

    I learnt that the typical day of a fisherman starts very early. The fishermen make their way to Huanchaco beach to start fishing as early as 05.30am and spend about four hours on the water. They then go to the market to sell the fish, sometimes with the help of their wives or other female family members. The afternoons are usually spent fixing nets or going to the totora ponds to harvest the reeds or make a boat. The fishermen usually end their day at around 9pm, in order to get up early for the next day. The fishermen explained to me that it is quite a precarious trade – on some days there are lots of fish to be found and on other days none. Also, sometimes the waves are too rough to go fishing.

    One of the fishermen I met is called Huevito Ucanyan. Huevito’s story as a fisherman began as a child where he would watch his father fishing and making caballitos de totora, and he would play in the water with smaller caballitos (reed boats) that his father would make for him. At the age of seventeen, his father took Huevito out to fish for the first time and Huevito says it did not go well! He says that it requires a lot of practice and time. Now, Huevito has gone fishing so many times and made so many caballitos de totora that both of these are now second nature. Huevito even attended a surfing event in Australia where he spoke to the surfing community there about the caballito de totora tradition. He said the surfers in Australia loved the caballitos and were delighted to have a go at riding the waves with a caballito.

    I also visited the ponds where totora is grown. Unfortunately approximately 150 ponds are damaged, some by pollution and some by the recent floods. If salty sea water gets into the totora ponds, the totora cannot grow properly. Habitat Pro’s project plans to recover these ponds, in order to revive this sustainable reed boat fishing practice. What I noticed when visiting the totora ponds is that there was a lot of rubbish there. When I asked about it, I was told that many households from outside Huanchaco come and dump rubbish in the wetlands, as the drive to the tip is far. I was so shocked and angry that people could do this – damage an area so important to the fishermen without a thought about how their actions are affecting their livelihood and damaging the environment.

    In recent years the fishermen have faced challenges from local governmental authorities who would like to get rid of the totora ponds and instead use the space to build hotels and hostels to cater to Huanchaco’s growing tourism industry. This would be a travesty for the fishermen who would lose their livelihood, and an important cultural tradition that is at the core of their identity. It also seems clear to me that if Huanchaco’s caballitos de totora disappeared, Huanchaco would not be so attractive to tourists. Tourists come to Huanchaco for the surfing waves and for the sunshine, but more than anything to see the fascinating ancient tradition that is the caballitos de totora. Even the Lonely Planet guide book, the section on Huanchaco speaks mainly about the caballitos, suggesting that this is the main reason to visit Huanchaco.

    This week I was also able to visit the Chimu site of Chan Chan, the seat of the Chimu empire before it was conquered by the Incas in the 15th century. Going to Chan Chan made me reflect on the extent of Indigenous knowledge. Despite all of the environmental disasters the North of Peru has faced over the years, Chan Chan remains for the most part intact and well preserved. This is clearly not coincidental but carefully engineered by the designers of Chan Chan, demonstrating the extent and the depth of Indigenous knowledge with relation to the earth and the environment. Someone here told me that many children in Huanchaco haven’t visited Chan Chan. This is a real pity as this would give them the opportunity to learn more about one of the most important sites of their history and connect with their culture.

    Next week is one of the most important dates in the Fishermen’s calendar – the festival of San Pedro, the patron saint of fishing. More details in my next post!

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