CHAPTER V. Titicaca

Arequipa is one of the pleasantest places in the world: mountain air, bright sunshine, warm days, cool nights, and a sparkling atmosphere dear to the hearts of star-gazers. The city lies on a plateau, surrounded by mighty snow-capped volcanoes, Chachani (20,000 ft.), El Misti (19,000 ft.), and Pichu Pichu (18,000 ft.). Arequipa has only one nightmare - earthquakes. About twice in a century the spirits of the sleeping volcanoes stir, roll over, and go to sleep again. But they shake the bed! And Arequipa rests on their bed. The possibility of a "terremoto" is always present in the subconscious mind of the Arequipeno.

One evening I happened to be dining with a friend at the hospitable Arequipa Club. Suddenly the windows rattled violently and we heard a loud explosion; at least that is what it sounded like to me. To the members of the club, however, it meant only one thing - an earthquake. Everybody rushed out; the streets were already crowded with hysterical people, crying, shouting, and running toward the great open plaza in front of the beautiful cathedral. Here some dropped on their knees in gratitude at having escaped from falling walls, others prayed to the god of earthquakes to spare their city. Yet no walls had fallen! In the business district a great column of black smoke was rising. Gradually it became known to the panic-stricken throngs that the noise and the trembling had not been due to an earthquake, but to an explosion in a large warehouse which had contained gasoline, kerosene, dynamite and giant powder!

In this city of 35,000 people, the second largest of Peru, fires are so very rare, not even annual, scarcely biennial, that there were no fire engines. A bucket brigade was formed and tried to quench the roaring furnace by dipping water from one of the azequias, or canals, that run through the streets. The fire continued to belch forth dense masses of smoke and flame. In any American city such a blaze would certainly become a great conflagration.

While the fire was at its height I went into the adjoining building to see whether any help could be rendered. To my utter amazement the surface of the wall next to the fiery furnace was not even warm. Such is the result of building houses with massive walls of stone. Furthermore, the roofs in Arequipa are of tiles; consequently no harm was done by sparks. So, without a fire department, this really terrible fire was limited to one warehouse! The next day the newspapers talked about the "dire necessity" of securing fire engines. It was difficult for me to see what good a fire engine could have done. Nothing could have saved the warehouse itself once the fire got under way; and surely the houses next door would have suffered more had they been deluged with streams of water. The facts are almost incredible to an American. We take it as a matter of course that cities should have fires and explosions. In Arequipa everybody thought it was an earthquake!

A day's run by an excellent railroad takes one to Puno, the chief port of Lake Titicaca, elevation 12,500 feet. Puno boasts a soldier's monument and a new theater, really a "movie palace." There is a good harbor, although dredging is necessary to provide for steamers like the Inca. Repairs to the lake boats are made on a marine - or, rather, a lacustrine - railway. The bay of Puno grows quantities of totoras, giant bulrushes sometimes twelve feet long. Ages ago the lake dwellers learned to dry the totoras, tie them securely in long bundles, fasten the bundles together, turn up the ends, fix smaller bundles along the sides as a free-board, and so construct a fishing-boat, or balsa. Of course the balsas eventually become water-logged and spend a large part of their existence on the shore, drying in the sun. Even so, they are not very buoyant. I can testify that it is difficult to use them without getting one's shoes wet. As a matter of fact one should go barefooted, or wear sandals, as the natives do.

The balsas are clumsy, and difficult to paddle. The favorite method of locomotion is to pole or, when the wind favors, sail. The mast is an A-shaped contraption, twelve feet high, made of two light poles tied together and fastened, one to each side of the craft, slightly forward of amidships. Poles are extremely scarce in this region - lumber has to be brought from Puget Sound, 6000 miles away - so nearly all the masts I saw were made of small pieces of wood spliced two or three times. To the apex of the "A" is attached a forked stick, over which run the halyards. The rectangular "sail" is nothing more nor less than a large mat made of rushes. A short forestay fastened to the sides of the "A" about four feet above the hull prevents the mast from falling when the sail is hoisted. The main halyards take the place of a backstay. The balsas cannot beat to windward, but behave very well in shallow water with a favoring breeze. When the wind is contrary the boatmen must pole. They are extremely careful not to fall overboard, for the water in the lake is cold, 55 deg. F., and none of them know how to swim. Lake Titicaca itself never freezes over, although during the winter ice forms at night on the shallow bays and near the shore.

When the Indians wish to go in the shallowest waters they use a very small balsa not over eight feet long, barely capable of supporting the weight of one man. On the other hand, large balsas constructed for use in crossing the rough waters of the deeper portions of the lake are capable of carrying a dozen people and their luggage. Once I saw a ploughman and his team of oxen being ferried across the lake on a bulrush raft. To give greater security two balsas are sometimes fastened together in the fashion of a double canoe.