Gonzo Traveler: Catching Jungle Fever In The Orinoco Delta

by Robin Esrock Nov 13, 2008

A Warao child plays in the government water collection lids.

Paddling into the heart of Venezuela, Robin Esrock discovers beauty, bugs, and a bad case of jungle fever.

The morning was nigh for a week long jungle adventure deep into the heart of Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta.

We’d be leaving at 5am, packing light into dry bags. Accommodation would consist of hammocks, meals of camping basics, or whatever we can catch.

The second largest river drainage system after the Amazon, the Orinoco has an average temperature of 27C degrees, and is 25,000 square kilometres of unspoilt, undeveloped eco-system, protected, owned and inhabited by the indigenous Warao people.

But first, we’d have to get there, and in hot-blooded Latin America, this can become an adventure unto itself.

All is well racing along the highway, until suddenly, the cars in front stop moving, which is never a healthy sign for a highway. Chris pulls the Land Cruiser across into the oncoming lanes and makes his way at a steady pace into oncoming traffic, passing hundreds of stationery cars on the right.

But then, this lane becomes choked too. There is a demonstration up ahead, a village has blocked the road to protest lack of civil services.

Apparently, this is quite normal. Since the car isn’t going anywhere, now’s the perfect time to drive into the world of the continent’s most controversial political leader, the outspoken never-a-dull-moment Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez.

Leftwing Fire

Hugo Chavez on the wall.

You may have heard of Chavez. He’s the guy who waved a Noam Chomsky book in front of the UN and compared George W. Bush to the Devil himself.

He’s best buds of Fidel Castro, a huge critic of the US hegemony, the rare meeting of a left wing radical with pockets so full of oil he can put his money where his mouth is.

All around the country, large billboards of Chavez shadow the streets, graffiti and T-shirts comparing Chavez to Che Guevara, the ultimate symbol of the radical revolutionary.

With one of the richest oil reserves in the world, Chavez is not dependent on the US business to float his empire, and is not afraid to say so.

With Morales from Bolivia and Lula in Brazil, he’s the spark behind the leftwing nationalistic fire that is sweeping Latin America, much to the horror of US business interests, which would prefer everyone just stay at home, watch Friends, and buy a new blender.

Instead, Hugo’s channeling massive oil profits back into the country, which explains why a litre of gas in Venezuela costs a staggering 5c, or 2.5c if you use blackmarket prices. Chris fills up the 50litre Land Cruiser and it costs $3. Go Hugo!

Trouble In Paradise

Except, wait, what’s this, Hugo shuts down the largest and most popular independently run TV station in the country for criticising his policies.

And now he wants to be El Presidente for life. These are not the signs of healthy democratic regime, which might explain why intellectuals and students are peacefully protesting in their thousands, and world media (with a wee bit of help from US business interests) is slowly but surely painting Chavez into a fruit and nut bar past its sell by date.

He’s pissing off the people who are benefiting from the status quo – a populist, a voice for the silent masses, no wonder the small, wealthy elite are threatened.

A populist, a voice for the silent masses, no wonder the small, wealthy elite are threatened, and the Church is convulsing over Chavez’s goal to permanently split the Church and State in this Roman Catholic country.

He’s pissing off the people who are benefiting from the status quo, in which millions live without running water or electricity, and dozens of people get murdered in the slums that border Caracas every weekend.

Chris is on the fence, but has definitely seen improvement from Chavez’s policies on the local villages around him. So very few of the right people step onto the historical political stage at the right time. Mandela, Ghandi, Churchill. Most arrive with good intentions, and leave bloated with fat bank accounts.

Chavez – well, we’re going to have to wait and see what becomes of him.

In the meantime, there seemed little he could do to get us into the jungle, and the local governor wasn’t worth a fart in a frat house since his wife busted him in bed with his male bodyguard. Ah, Latin America.

The Sinking Car

We could try drive the old route, but with the heavy rains of late, it might be a little dicey. We fly along a cracked path until we hit a bridge, washed out in muddy brown water.

Stalled on the highway

Chris shifts the Cruiser in to 4×4, and decides to take a chance. Have you ever heard the sound of a sinking car? Or seen water rise above the windows?

He’s revving it and we’re screaming and God-Help-Us if somehow we don’t find the smallest chunk of road for the tire to grip and the car lurches forward to reach the other side.

Shouts of victory! High fives all round! No other cars dare attempt this sort of madness. The roads will be clear for miles!

When. The car begins to throb, the engine groans, the iPod goes dead, the battery fails, and the Land Cruiser comes to a hopeless halt. The alternator has been flooded by the bridge crossing, we are stuck in the middle of nowhere, the mid-day sun is batting us hard over the head.

We hail down a pick-up, and within minutes they’ve tied a piece of rope to our cruiser and are pulling us along, about two metres separating the two cars.

Well and good, sure, except these guys decide to hit about 120 km/hr, overtaking big trucks on a narrow highway, and then, oh, yes, and then it starts to hail.

Dying On The Highway

Fear is not jumping off a waterfall. Fear is not swimming in shark infested waters.

Fear is being pulled along at 120 km/hr on a dangerous road in a blinding tropical storm

Fear is being pulled along at 120 km/hr on a dangerous road in a blinding tropical storm, without windscreen wipers, when a single brake will result in massive rear-end and almost certain damage to all occupants within.

There was good reason to tighten my sphincter because Jungle Chris, the kind of guy tough guys want to be, had white knuckles on the wheel and crazed animal fear in his eyes. We drove like this for an hour.

All I could think about was that dying on a Venezuelan highway seemed somehow beneath me.

Of course, the clouds parted just as quickly as they stormed, a brilliant sun burst forth, we finally had some vision out the front window, and the guys in front decided to take us right to the bridge where we would meet our boat.

J.P would stay behind to sort the car out, we would load up the kayaks, the motorboat, and finally, this time I mean it, head into the Delta.

Three days later. Red Army Karl must have spiked the drinks, because if I didn’t see the photos, I wouldn’t believe we dived into piranha-infested waters at sunset to swim with the pink dolphins.

Yet there it is on tape – us in the water, and a few metres away, a rare pink dolphin leaps into the air. Memories of that night at the Lodge are blurry.

Jungle Fever

I played with a tucan, a macaw. I see a Palestinian flag, news clippings above the bar mentioning the Hizbollah.

Swimming with the pirhanas

The lodge is owned by two Palestinian guys, and in my head, drunk from sun, from exposure, my liver fighting the toxins from spider bites on my mosquito bites on my sand flea bites, I concoct conspiracies and mad fevers of paranoia.

A puma roars from a nearby enclosure, rescued by the brothers. Wild parrots fly overhead, I remember strong jungle rum, playing classic rock on the stereo, passing out in the cabin, our one night of luxury.

There is a hole in the net above the door handle, someone punched through the door to get in, the bloodsucking mosquitoes are everywhere! I slap my neck and the corpses of a dozen sand fleas are on my hand. A giant black tapir runs down the wooden boardwalk.

I look up in time to see the cow sized creature in a sprint, chasing the girls into their rooms, the sinister cloppity-clop, cloppity clop of its hooves on the wood. I feverishly dream of beasts and heat, sweat and danger.

We are the only guests this night in the Lodge. This is a good thing.

I had jungle fever, and I had it bad. Sleeping in a hammock takes some getting used to, and even Chris’s homemade repellent of baby oil, vitamin B12 and a dash of Deet was no match for the hordes, the armies, the full frontal invasion of jungle bugs.

I counted 136 bites on Julia’s lower leg. Just one leg. The humidity sticks to you like Velcro, and swimming is not too advisable since these waters are home to man-eating piranhas, hungry for human fingers and toes.

Add in the giant snoring of our Director of Photography Sean, lack of sleep, and well, you’ve got the making of one unforgettable, incredible, now-this-is-the-real-gonzo adventure.

Into The Wild

Paddling into the Delta

We had 150km of river to get through, a twin-engined open-roof speed boat, a couple of kayaks, a few days of food, and invaluably, Jesus and Pina, two quiet but good-natured Waraos who knew these labyrinth tributaries the way a bus driver knows his routes.

Also, Chris has been guiding jungle expeditions here for ten years, has enormous experience with the Waraos, the elements, the challenges of life inside the planet’s green lung.

The unspoilt beauty of this wilderness is staggering. By kayak, but speedboat, the water is a mirror to the lush tropical trees that tower above it, the sky as big as Dali’s imagination.

Wild macaws and parrots fly in love pairs above, while in the trees, cappuccino and howler monkeys swing on the vines. Fresh water sting rays gently float like orbs in the universe, the sound of the jungle at night becomes a hum of life, and yet 99% of it is beyond view, behind the curtain of darkness.

And intertwined are the People of the Canoe, the Warao, a tribe who live by the river in open-walled shacks, worshipping their tree of life, the morichi palm, which provides food in the form of giant worms, fruits and elixirs.

Physically resembling Mongolians, they talk in hushed tones, if ever, communicating in what Chris believes is “jungle telepathy.” Children learn to kayak before they can walk, families are nomadic, moving between different parts of the jungle.

It’s a beautiful dream, mixed up in the misguided concept of the noble savage, beyond the grasp of modern life. It’s a beautiful dream that has been woken up.

Old Meets Modern

First came the engines. 500 boat engines given to the Warao in some sort of political manoeuvre for votes, resulting in a swift change in how they move, how they interact.

It’s a beautiful dream, mixed up in the misguided concept of the noble savage, beyond the grasp of modern life.

Then came the villages, small concrete houses and generators, the government gathering the Warao into communities that never before existed (and the social conditions that come with poor, rural communities too).

Then came the satellite dishes and TV sets, the DVD players to napalm an unsuspecting people with messages of the west, without giving them the social tools to understand that advertising is all bullshit and television is television, not the real world.

Then came the movement towards the towns and cities, the breakdown of family units. Then came the German tourists, taking pictures from their speedboats at another exhibit in the human zoo.

Then came the missionaries to tell them that thousands of years of tradition are all wrong and they should all believe in a bearded white god who died on a cross.

Like the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, like the indigenous tribes anywhere, these gentle people don’t stand a chance.

We head into the brackish water, the Black Water, where the salt of the sea meets the fresh water. The channels are becoming narrower, the trees thicker and darker. The boat gently pulls along, barely sending a ripple in the water, as smooth as a polished granite.

A small channel breaks to the right, and there is a half naked boy fishing. It’s the kind of photo you see in National Geographic, a vision of humanity that is both inspiringly and frighteningly different.

I wonder what hope there is for the Warao, wherein lies their future.

A Little Prayer

Catching dinner.

We awake on the final morning in a small wooden camp on the water. Two hours on the boat to a small town where we would be met by the Land Cruiser.

The rain held up, sparing us the torture of the heavy downpour at high speed we experienced a few days back.

Waiting for the car, I walk in the village, houses painted in bright colours, past a Missionary Church. These “urban” Warao kids are wearing crosses, but one guy tells me it’s just for fashion.

A long drive back to Barcelona, a short flight to Caracas, choking traffic to a nearby hotel, early morning flight to Houston. The jungle has disappeared, the bugs, the river, the piranhas, the Warao. I see overweight people for the first time in a week.

“The Department of Homeland Security has declared the current terrorist threat level as: ORANGE. Please be aware of your surroundings and fellow passengers.”

I sit down, close my eyes. Imagine the red beach of Playa Colorado, dolphins and waterfalls, the channels of water in the Orinoco, piranhas and tapirs, the gentle stares of the Warao.

I open them to see an orderly line-up for the plane home, and say a little prayer.

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