VENEZUELA 2002: Tucupita and the Orinoco Delta

Why on Earth should I leave the relative comforts of Santa Fe to head to Tucupita?, I now asked myself. Indeed, another bout with the stomach bug I had been so enjoying just had seen me ejecting something from my rear that was most akin to used crankcase oil. Mr. Jet? Meet Mr. Black! Disgusting, this development, and frankly it was easily as upsetting to the mind as the guts.

Here Nurse Bryony came to the rescue to set things straight. She laughingly assured me that my intestines were merely getting a massive scouring, that's all! A mere cleansing from nature - chemical-free! - to set my interior kitchen sink straight - later I might even hail a thanks and "Cheerio!" to the parasite or whatever it was that was wreaking havoc in there. So I ran with this theory, chalking it all up to a procedural colonic minus the scheduling. And wasn't that very much the rage among the alterna-community back in the U.S., while I was getting it for FREE? Lucky me.

Still - this didn't make things hurt less, nor did I entertain well the idea of another freezing bus ride with the unsettling feeling of a DEFCON 4 tummyache. For THAT, it would turn out, a tiny outfit of an imperialist lapdog called Coca-cola would come to my rescue. My new(-if-temporary) nurse service thus continued with her ministrations, prescribing this new remedy from from heaven with precision: "Drink a can of Coke - you won't feel a thing in minutes. Then, if your stomach still feels bad in four hours or so, do it again. And again four hours later, if necessary." She was completely dialed-in on this, too: Within minutes her advice ran TRUE, providing me with a rare bit of traveler's advice worth remembering.

Now our bus trek of seven hours could officially get underway, me resting comfortably - if a bit chilled to serve. Even little Hattie was game with this new, sun-shiny future, behaving surprisingly pretty well for what was a challengingly long ride for her (although she'd revert soon enough). Instead we'd deal with the usual stops for ingesting semi-appetizing food, each accompanied by more unfriendly Venezuelans to give us hard looks. This latter reality was getting irksome in a hurry, it was, but it had unfortunately been the rule so far in Venezuela. I'd have to buck up and get used to such a cold-feeling Latin America, although later I'd at least learn more why. (The economy, stupid.)

Getting into Tucupita, immediately we were accosted by two tour agencies as we stepped off the bus. After patiently listening to their spiel, however, we soon effectively ditched this batch of insta-best-friends in favor of first finding our recommended hotel. Not that THAT would matter: one of the agency representatives would sniff us out at a nearby restaurant shortly later, anyway, just as another's would hint at us with hand signals from outside as well. When we finally broke down, though, and I eventually volunteered to venture out to hear the other guy's bit, I'd find that he had just left. We unsurprisingly thus decided on our only known option, fortunately with the operators which we had liked far more. They had consistently been more laid back and friendly, if ignoring the fact that they actually had followed us to our dining table. But at about half the expected price they seemed worth a shot.

Thus we found ourselves zipped about town on a few errands the following morning, all to later get picked up and taken to our launch. The plan was to boat about the delta, let nature sweep us into its caiman-and-scarlet-ibis-filled arms, and mix in a couple stays with the indigenous Warao community. It was to be just the four of us who had bused in together - plus Jose (our guide) and the boat driver, naturally. Most fortunate was that this tour of three days would be just the pleasant outing Jose had advertised it to be, even if a bit rough on the ass by the end of it. Or so we'd know LATER.

At the start our foray, however, we comfortably charged down a main canal from town. From there our tour would officially get underway as we next made forays into smaller canals to see wildlife. When we could, that was: A thick blockade of water lilies got the best of us a couple of times early on, causing some attempts at clearing a path or, in some cases, giving up. Otherwise these clogs were spectacularly abounded by these beautiful, clustered flowers. And they would not ultimately deter us from getting a rich feel for the delta environment, either.

Birds were supposed to be the main course for the Orinoco Delta, anyway, even if almost right away we saw a number of red monkeys in the trees instead - plus even a water snake as a bonus. At sunset we'd take in the main course of the trip - thousands of the scarlet (magenta) ibis birds descended on various trees that we sought out. I couldn't think of a more impressive display of lively color to contrast with the green backdrop and a setting sun. As for when the sun DID set, that was when we took to canoes to hunt for the small caimans (small alligators) slithering down from mud banks looking for prey.

Our food, meanwhile, was prepared at various indigenous Warao houses (huts) and camps throughout. This was generally simple if tasty fare, all caught or grown in the area. Both nights would be similarly spent the local way - in hammocks. This was not a restful means to the end of zonking out, it should be noted, but that discomfort - added with Hattie being a royal pain in the ass - would be the only negatives of the trip. But her Mom HAD saved my stomach, hasn't she? So I reminded myself this on a number of occasions just prior to seriously considering her sale to the natives.

At the first encampment I'd try to be a crowd pleaser instead: I broke out the trumpet in force, an immediate hit particularly with the locals. This was so much so that my lip became shot from overplaying, actually. If there was a Latin tune I knew that I didn't spit out at this improvised concert I didn't know it. At least "Besame Mucho" and company had yet to grow old for me... to date.

Far more notable at this first camp would be the most rapid descent - bar none - of mosquitoes at dusk I had ever experienced in my life. Outdoing even the most impressive plagues of locusts imaginable, I simply could not move fast enough to avoid them. I was thus quickly reduced to method-acting a whirling dervish that the entire Turkish nation would only be able to sit back and watch in astonishment. Yet, perhaps on account of this impressive display of mastered motion, somehow I managed to escape the bites that the others did not. This was no doubt probably due to those OTHER hyper dance moves, the ones which saw me covering all exposed skin as fast as I could. With so much sun cream, bug cream and clothes on my skin otherwise, however, this trip would at no times be a particularly comfortable affair.

The next day brought a lot more sun, an onslaught of heat which we soon felt compelled to intersperse with swimming in the river as a response. Heat relief beat caiman danger hands down. When not doing so, though, we stopped several several times at Warao houses. These were essentially open-stilted platforms at the river's edge. We also made a scheduled visit at an elaborate jungle camp designed as a tourist center. In walking about its boardwalks, there I'd see a bounty of wildlife freely wandering its grounds to outnumber what I'd seen in nature. Some of these like visitors were actually tame from human contact, notably the capuchin monkeys and parrots, while others that were less so included a tapir, an anteater (rustling about through the lodge garbage), dolphins, ever more monkeys, and some so-called sea dogs (which I think were river otters).

As interesting as the center was, the highlight reel necessarily and repeatedly found its focus on swimming in such a welcoming river. Similarly, lunchtime naps in tropical shade figured no less. Beyond those figured a fair amount of wolfing down a variety of simple pasta/rice dishes. That'd do the trick of keeping us from starving, as would some junk food - we had quickly determined that the local fare of ever more tubers and fish would not make the cut of fond memories. One item on the plate that WOULD was a bread that the Warao made, a tasty scone-like thing which I'd immediately forget the name of.

As for the Warao people themselves, they lived a pretty simple villager life along the banks of the river. Whatever that technically was (and I'll run with fishing, mostly), it seemed sufficient to keep them appearing quite happy - they were always laughing, smiling, and waving... not to mention paddling about every which way in their hollowed trunk canoes. Those seemed to only just clear the surface level, never more than a centimeter or two away from swamping. On the DOWN side, they also had an insanely high mortality rate. This was not likely helped by the so many very young people starting families (like at 14 or 15, even), or perhaps that was a reaction to such tragedy instead. To this reality the government showily kicked in funds at times, providing various charitable things like water tanks, buildings, water taxis - but that all especially happened around election time. Which explained the ubiquitous baseball hats logo-ed with political parties.

Such shenanigans the Warao took in stride, however, continuing with their simple life of fishing when not otherwise so bothered. Governments have a way of coming and going, after all - and they weren't moving anywhere in the meantime. So they'd continue with building their houses on stilts right on the water's edge, shanty huts made picturesque with their rusticity, each made with floors of loose palm logs and roofs of palm leaves. They'd continue making their crafts, too, particularly some types of baskets that were especially well made and attractive. For THAT it was really too bad that I was only at the beginning of my trip in Venezuela - I would have liked to have picked some up. I'd settle on a small, platelike model.

As for their everyday items, which one could extend to allow for including their animals and homes, all was generally found in a total state of neglect and disrepair. This apparently afforded them an accordingly genius in making do, though, handily turning anything into tools for whatever. For example, tortoise shells saw a second life as bowls and more. Or, more impressively, I saw a handmade shotgun literally carved out of a hunk of wood.

We best got to see the Warao up close when we spent the second night in their main village. There we were quite the hit with the children, not the least bit shy and very eager to check us out. Hattie was of particular interest to them, the rare gringo child (they obviously got a regular dose of Europeans passing through their midst such as us). On balance their simple life was enviable in some ways, as such things always seem to be from without, but ultimately anyone would have to admit that it'd also be quite limiting in terms of any kind of variety. They were trapped in this stunning outpost of nature as much as they were a harmonious part of it.

After ending the trip, we decided to stayed only one more night in Tucupita to run some errands (email, ATM, etc.), relaxing with the luxury of such things as a bed once more. It was also another opportunity to bend Jose's ear as we sat down together for a final meal at a restaurant. He related the ongoing struggle of the Warao people in a modernizing world. But for all this we'd still decide to be off the next day to Ciudad Bolivar as, over the course of our Delta trip, both Lorena and Bryony had decided to check this other city out based on what I had been reading and relating to them. So they'd tag along with me this time around.

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