Naming a child, especially your first-born, is a sensitive undertaking, fraught with obligations, traditions and hurt feelings. Should you name the child after a grandparent? After the richest or most prominent relative? After a politician or artist? Or pick a name that’s in vogue? It’s not a trivial matter. When properly chosen, a name can be an augury of future success, which is why I named my first child after a cocaine dealer I met while crossing Lake Titicaca.
And therein lies a story, but before delving into how my son got his name, let’s talk about “Titicaca.” Tee-tee-kah-kah. With its child-speak allusions to breasts and bowel movements, I’ve been fascinated by it ever since I first read about it in the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia my parents bought me when I was 10. I’d spend hours reading it and squirreling away, in the recesses of my brain, geographical world records: the largest, the highest, the longest. And yes, Lake Titicaca, with its delightful name, was one of those: at an altitude of 12,500 feet – 3800 meters – it’s the world’s highest navigable body of water. The lake is deep and calm and huge, covering twice as much area as the state of Maryland, where I grew up.
Twenty years after first reading about Titicaca, I was on a small passenger vessel that crossed the lake once a week. The ship left at night from Puno, Peru and was scheduled to arrive the next day at a Bolivian town called, oddly enough, Copacabana.
It was cold that night on the lake, and I went down to the ship’s engine room, telling the crew I was a seaman, like them. I showed them my able seaman document with my photo on it. In the picture I’m fully bearded and obviously stoned, but it was issued by the U.S. Coast Guard, officially stamped and signed, so they nodded gravely and gave me a quick tour.
The ship’s engine was a massive ovoid cylinder rising up from the bilge, spewing steam and radiating heat, and its outer part bore a polished brass plaque that said the engine and ship were built in 1915. 1915? This engine still looked new. Of course, they’d maintained it well, but engines on the ocean-going ships I’d worked on looked worn and ragged after a few years.
“It’s the lake’s fresh water, that’s what keeps the engine looking like this,” the engineer said. “Salt water – ocean water – causes metal to rust. It destroys iron and steel.” He pointed to the engine’s casing. “On this ship we’re always in fresh water, so there is no rust.”
No rust. Imagine that. Is that all we need to maintain a rust-free life—no salt water battering this human hull we call our skin, or seeping into the engine we call our heart?