Interlude on the Orinoco
In the vast Venezuelan delta south of bustling, crowded Trinidad lie the distinct sounds and sights of the jungle.
Brandishing his machete, José, our guide, showed us how the Warao live from the forest. He pointed out the “canoe” trees, explaining that the center is burned out and the top widened in the heat. We sampled a refreshing liquid that we let drip down our throats from a cut branch, as well as heart of palm and local fruit.
He explained how the common moriche palm, also known as the Tree of Life, is used for house building, particularly the thatch; how its fibers are used for weaving hammocks; how its cassava pulp is made into bread; how the knobby nuts provide a jelly that’s high in electrolytes. “The locals’ Gatorade,” the boys told us, grinning as they translated. Baskets were precisely fashioned and hats created from a stretchy bark traditionally used for men’s apparel. Finally José dug out a bulging gray moriche worm, which he declared “a nutritious delicacy!” After cutting off its head and extracting the guts, he slowly munched and swallowed it—but not with an entirely ecstatic look of pleasure, I noted.
Our final stop was at a demonstration village being built by Carlos opposite the lodge. Earlier, he’d shown us the professional plans, explaining that he’d first come to the Delta searching for oil and had immediately become enchanted by the area but was acutely aware of the poverty of its people. Along with the lodge, he built a school and funded its teachers and pupil transportation.
He’s also raised money to build a village in which the Warao can learn how to lead a healthier, more productive life without compromising their culture. Currently, children aren’t named until they’re 3 years old because they aren’t expected to live. Life expectancy is just beyond 40, and many Warao suffer from tuberculosis and kidney ailments from the constant damp. The village will have traditional homes and a shaman as well as a doctor. Health and hygiene will be emphasized, along with skill building and the rewards of productivity. The project is particularly significant because despite the region’s huge oil reserves, legislation has preserved the Delta for its indigenous people.
We were now in fresh water. Mangrove forests had been left behind, and vegetation was lush with jungle fauna and flora. For the next few days, we explored and anchored in smaller caños, and Bagheera was frequently surrounded at dawn by rafts of the blue flowers of water hyacinths, when the forest came alive.
Easy to identify were the howler monkeys, snorting tapirs, croaking frogs, and pairs of parrots. There were abundant gold and blue macaws, toucans with their distinctive red and yellow curved bills, kingfishers, hoatzins, and weavers flying from bell-shaped, dangling nests.
With 190 species of mammals, 674 species of birds, and 80 reptiles in the Delta, there was plenty to look for, and the binoculars were always on deck, especially at dawn and dusk.