There is nothing straightforward about the Orinoco river, tumbling as it does from the Andean heights of Colombia to a complex delta on the north-east coast of Venezuela. Its big brother, the Amazon, is generally better known, but the Orinoco is significant ecologically, and presents comparable excitements to the unwary traveller.
The gateway to the delta is the bustling, hustling town of Tucupita. Not that there was much bustling at the bus station when we arrived at eight in the morning. The café was closed; a bank of red plastic chairs stood empty; the toilet door refused to budge (though its pong escaped). My friend, Alison, reached for her phone and, as if by magic, conjured Richard (his parents very pro-British, he explained), a swarthy man with a broad smile and unruly hair restrained in a bandana.
‘You need breakfast,’ he announced. (How did he know?) He swung both bags onto his shoulders and led us through streets swarming with stalls selling everything from children’s clothes to saucepans to nuts and bolts, finally plonking us at a table and returning with coffee and fried cheese sandwiches. Revived, we followed him to an old truck filled with black sacks, water bottles and several Styrofoam boxes, threw our rucksacks on top and squeezed into the front seat. Everything rattled as we trundled out of town, eventually sliding to a halt on a slipway by the river. We climbed down into a mêlée of yelling traders, running children and boats with chuntering engines. Baskets overflowed with bananas, sweet-smelling stalls were piled with bread. We were surrounded by rambling shacks, old cars — but very few tourists.
Richard negotiated with a uniformed man, an exercise that involved much arm-waving and back-slapping, and then steered us towards a small boat. We were crammed between our rucksacks, provisions for four days and a large black tarpaulin (its function evident when it rained). A dark-skinned Indian climbed in behind us, perched on the luggage, nodded his hellos, then the boat lurched into life. We left the harbour at a sedate pace; once on the open river the engine roared and we were pinioned to our seats.
We had one, brief, stop for lunch at a settlement by the river where we were greeted by sure-footed children who tried not to smirk as we slithered on the wet river-bank. They jumped in and out of the river with the agility of gymnasts, gathering to pose when they spotted us reaching for cameras.
‘You might be more comfortable if you sit on your life-jackets,’ Richard suggested, as we clambered back into the boat. He was right. We travelled 250 kilometres in four hours: the evidence was extensive bruising on our bottoms, made only marginally less painful by the rearrangement of our life-jackets and timely shifts between buttocks.
Given the discomfort of the journey, we were ill-prepared for the beauty of our lodge. Standing on poles driven deep into the water, a collection of huts and gangways stood in a sheltered backwater, providing bedrooms with balconies and hammocks, a central dining space, a kitchen (which always smelled of frying), with bathrooms at the back. We stumbled from the boat, fell into hammocks and absorbed the view. Two blue parrots perched on a branch above the name-board and kissed.
Across the river was San Francisco de Guayo: an affluent village by local standards, and sustaining the only way of life possible in this watery landscape. All the buildings, like ours, perched on poles. I call them ‘buildings’, as if they fitted the familiar floor-wall-roof paradigm. There were wooden platforms, covered with rushes or, occasionally, matting, with struts to hold up rush roofs. With no walls there was no privacy; jumbles of sparsely-clad adults and children milled about on the platforms with no discernable family groups.
The following morning we clambered down into a canoe and our Indian — we never learned his name — took us across to the village. We were grateful for welcoming hands on the rickety steps as we climbed onto the jetty, finding just one small stall selling knick-knacks for tourists. We scrutinised a motley collection of ear-rings and rusty penknives, a cluster of children tittering behind us, and bought a couple of gaudy Christmas decorations to soothe our consciences. We asked Richard how people survive here.
‘They fish, and some grow bananas and mangoes. And the government helps now. Before Chavez they were on their own; now the bigger villages like this have electricity. They have built a small schoolroom here, and a doctor visits regularly.’
We wandered along a narrow gangway, huts lining both sides, the gullies beneath littered with plastic bottles. In spite of the breeze, whiffs slid up from below from time to time. We passed a stinking, roaring generator, its voice too loud for us even to speculate on the challenge of living nearby. There were Indians everywhere, their distinctive wide-faced, narrow-eyed features not betraying an emotion that we might define as curiosity. Yet countless sat motionless on platforms and stalked us with their eyes.
The gangway turned inland, but remained on its poles. Flooding was common. Here we found a few communal buildings with walls, one containing a large freezer.
‘There is a shop on the river — we can go there if you wish,’ Richard explained.‘It's supplied by the market in Tucipita. People are given money by the government so they can buy food, and they keep it in here. It means they have a better diet that simply living on fish and fruit from the jungle.’ A small group of children bounded around us, presumably evidence of improved nutrition in spite of the mantra of ‘sweeties’ which accompanied them.
‘And in here is a television!’ Richard led us into a hall and invited us to peer into the darkness. The floor area was about the size of a small church, the air thick with cigarette smoke and smell of almost-washed bodies, every pew and corner crammed with Indians mesmerised by the flickering screen. They were watching Desperate Housewives.
By now the sun was high in the sky and we returned to the canoe, paddling back to our lodge for lunch. As our stomachs settled, the torpid heat of the afternoon became soporific, the gentle lapping of the water against our poles acting as a lullaby. Movement was an effort and we flopped in hammocks, reading, dozing, and idly speculating on life across the river.
This set the pattern for the next few days. Explorations took place early in the morning or late in the evening. Canoes took us into watery byways, the plash plash of paddles competing only with the chirrup of insects and occasional cry of a bird. Violent-blue butterflies skittered across our path; tiny crabs scuttled awkwardly on the muddy foreshore; the fantails of balsa trees sank into the water alongside the tangled roots of mangoes.
One evening our Indian repeated this journey after dark: this time a large frog croaked our arrival to all waiting wildlife — as effective as a butler at a ball. With just one small torch we negotiated both hanging branches and fallen tree-trunks, and even found a baby alligator that we were invited to hold. Alison investigated its tiny teeth and translated the Indian’s explanation for me: ‘Their eyes reflect as pinpricks of red in the light of the torch. And yes, the mother won’t be far away but alligators are peaceful animals and will not hurt us.’ She clambered out of the boat with assurance when we returned. I confess to being somewhat weak-kneed and reaching for the rum.
‘Tomorrow,’ Richard assured us, ‘we will go to the beach. You will not be frightened there.’
He was right. There was nothing frightening about the beach. In fact there was nothing but our footprints on this beach. A huge sand spit lay across this part of the estuary, making it possible to swim in the Orinoco to the west before strolling across hot sand and falling into the Atlantic to the east. Richard preened: he had taken us to paradise. He had even brought lunch, packed in the Styrofoam boxes. But as the sun climbed higher in the sky heat reflected off sand and water and we began to fry.
‘Is there any shade?’ we asked. The answer was all too obvious in this expanse of sand. Yet, undaunted, Richard and the Indian gathered driftwood and sarongs to construct a makeshift shelter. We turned our back to hide our giggles while they manipulated wood and fabric at unlikely angles. Eventually, disillusioned with his thin-skinned visitors, Richard agreed to take us to a cooler spot for lunch. He tied the boat to the foliage at the base of a large tree, opened his box and produced a steaming spaghetti bolognese. There was an incongruous aroma of tomato and basil and we amazed ourselves by eating every mouthful.
Too soon, we woke to our final morning.
‘There is someone I want you to meet before we leave.’ Richard enticed us back into the canoe and paddled down a different channel, mooring by a more substantial house with wooden walls and grumbling generator. An old man, with a wide smile and no teeth, greeted us at the top of the steps.
‘Richard,’ he exclaimed, ‘what beautiful visitors!’ His wife shuffled behind him, muttered ‘Buenon dias,’ and disappeared. He led us into a small room with open spaces for windows and walls lined with pictures of the Madonna and child. He thanked Richard for bringing visitors to help him practise his English: although born in the delta he had joined the navy, spending some time in America. He had come home to grow mangoes and bananas, which he traded in Tucipita.
‘The government make it too easy,’ he insisted, ‘when they give all this money to the Indians. They take the money then they don’t have to work. Even here in the delta, people don’t have to fish or grow things. The government gives it all to them. Venezuelans are lazy. They must be made to work for their money.’ Alison and I exchanged glances but said nothing. He leaned forward.
‘I’ll tell you a secret.’ He glanced around, and then relaxed as he heard his wife clatter a bowl in a room we assumed to be the kitchen. ‘Rum,’ he said. ‘that is the secret. Every morning. At night, when you are lying down, phlegm gathers in your tubes. That’s why you cough when you get up. A glass of rum every morning, that’s what you need. Clears the passages and then you can work all day. And it stops you getting fat.’ To prove his point he patted his stomach, sucked on his cigarette and nodded to Richard, who reached for a bottle from a high shelf and found some small glasses. We prepared ourselves for a fiery onslaught and were not disappointed. Conversation became oddly disjointed, ranging from the merits of fidelity to surprise that, at the age of 56, I still had all my own teeth.
And then the old man rose suddenly to his feet, tottered into a third room and emerged with a battered keyboard. He seemed unaware of the two missing black notes.
‘A present from some sailors,’ he explained, ample gums exposed by the width of his grin. He pressed notes at random, no discernable melody emerging, his chest swelling with pride. His wife emerged by the kitchen door, smiled, and slowly shook her head. We raised our glasses to her.