Sunday, December 6, 2009

The River

We have been absent from the net as of late because we have been without it completely.  It was simply not available. Can you remember a time when the net was not there and we actually put letters in envelopes and trusted our government to deliver them for us?  Now that we just email I guess there is no reason left to put trust in them.  I digress.  We motored south of Trinidad to the Venezuelan town of Perdinales and presented ourselves to the local Guardia National post to request permission to enter the river and Venezuela.  The trick here is that they don't actually grant you any clearance into Venezuela.  This is a problem when you move on to your next port and you don't have a recent clearance.  It is very suspicious in the mind of a customs or immigration officer in this part of the world.  The local agents are aware of the situation so they grudgingly accept it.  You may have to listen to some long drawn out lecture about proper procedure but simply do as I have learned; smile, nod and thank them for making you aware of the law.  It makes them feel important and that is after all why they do that job.  

Our trip started out as a four boat excursion but we were unable to make the start due to some engine issues which were taken care of the following day.  We wanted to travel in company due to the rumor mongering about Venezuela and pirates and kidnapping etc, this may be the situation in Caracas or elsewhere but in this particular neck of the woods it seems quite safe.  We were a bit apprehensive upon entering the river for a number of reasons.  The obtuse posture the US and Venezuela have taken towards each other was of course one consideration.
We were not sure if the locals would throw eggs at us or be friendly.  Guess what, no eggs.  The river is poorly charted and what charts are available are not accurate.  I quickly learned that it was much easier than the ICW because here we didn't have to constantly dodge aids to navigation.  The river tended to be anywhere from 12 to 120 feet deep.  There were a few shoals but not the sort of thing to lose sleep over.  It's just river mud.  The river was damned in the 70's so the current is almost completely tidal. It is difficult to get to hard aground with a rising tide. 

The Bora was another issue.  It consists of floating water hyacinth which can form enough of a blockage in some of the smaller tributaries to allow animals to walk across it.  It is a mess if you get caught in it with your dinghy and it hangs on the front of the boat sometimes causing the anchor to break under the added weight.  Another concern is that it is home to all kinds of creature, snakes, scorpions, all manner of insects and huge rats.  We bought a machete for the purpose of cutting this stuff away from the boat so as not to get our hands in the stuff.  One boat we traveled with did pull a 4' snake up with the chain and it got caught in the chain wheel of his windlass.  He probably won't have guts enough to do that again. 
The last and most problematic issue we had to deal with was the bugs. 

If the bugs in the delta have one thing in common it would be that they all like to bite and or sting you.  We and by "we" I mean Sunny fashioned drop nets for the windows and made a large enough net for the cockpit we could sit outside at dusk with little bother.  That along with the sunshades she made prior to leaving really added to the comfort of the trip. 

I won't bother you with all the ins and outs of where we went primarily because I don't have a clue what any of it was called.  We used a sketch chart which had some gps positions of a shoal and some tourist lodges.  None of the local names of the small tributaries or "Canos" existed.  I was able to get a few of the names but lost them. 

I like this about the river it really has no official cruising guide.  Doyle would not be interested because there are no chandleries or restaurants to get bad food at an unreasonable price at.  You get the feeling that you are on your own to explore as you wish and that is exactly what cruising should be.  The three boats we were supposed to go with left as soon as they got there to meet a schedule and we spent a week in seclusion until another boat happened along which we immediately became friends with.  It is good to have a buddy boat here in case the worst should happen.  When you travel 10 miles up one of these canos and your motor fails or you get bit by a snake it is comforting to know you have a plan "B" rather than a long walk through the jungle.  We proved this point on our last long expedition which must have gone 14 miles.  We suddenly and for no apparent reason lost thrust and lost the hub of our prop.  Sunny says it's because I drive like a maniac.  Luckily we had a buddy boat to tow us if need be.  We did motor slowly back some 4 miles under a severe downpour and can say we did not need rescued.  Our buddy boat ran out of gas as he approached his boat but he also didn't require a rescue. 

We saw some amazing plant life in the river.  The morichee palms and mango trees lined the river as did all manner of vine and bush which produced orchids, and flowers of all colors.

Cocoa trees also are prevalent and the occasional snack on cocoa pods was always well appreciated.  The river also contained many varieties of birds, 4000 different varieties I was told call the Orinoco Delta home.  The scarlet Ibis was truly a grand sight as were the hundreds of parrots, parakeets, eagles, pelicans, toucans and macaws we encountered.

The highlight for all of us had to be while we were in some little cano miles from anything and coming face to face with a wild Ocelot or leopard.  It's one thing to see sharks, bears or cats in a cage, but to see them while your sitting in their environment is always a bit of a rush.  Another amazing sight and sound is the local monkey population. 

The Red Howler Monkey is is a fairly shy animal but in the evening they make the eeriest noise which would remind you of some sound effect from Doom or Silent Hill.  It is almost soothing to listen ti and now that we are out of their habitat I miss the howling, a much better sound than that of the nasty chicken which overpopulates most “quiet” anchorages. 
The Capucine monkeys were also a treat.  They stand maybe 18 inches high but get all bold and tough when they see you.  They break branches and bounce around letting you know their tough guys, very entertaining to watch.

The Waroa that inhabit the Delta are an indigenous people who are coming to terms with the modern world.  A few years ago they lived peacefully along the rivers paddling their canoes and catching fish.  Now they all have 40 horse Enduros which are too big for canoes so they built bigger boats.  They have satellite TV, washing machines, generators, a taste for soda pop and a new found desire for stuff, all while living in a river hut with a thatch roof and no walls.  The fuel is practically free so they run up and down the river constantly and chase sailboats around to trade baskets for clothes and food.  They are becoming dependent on outsiders which I fear will mean that they will demand exploitation of the delta for oil so they can get jobs to pay for their new appetites.  It is unnerving to see the same exploitation of a people that we in the US were guilty of.  Right down to the handing out of rum to the Indians.  They suffer from many medical conditions as well namely it seems Tuberculosis.  They are hesitant to trust a doctor and even when they get medical treatment they still see the shaman to get the real cure. 

They are a very friendly and curious people.  The kids melt your heart as they paddle out to see you and to just gawk at you.  I can think of no where else in the world where three young girls maybe 5 to 7 years of age would be given a leaky canoe and a paddle or two and sent off into piranha infested water to have fun.  They are extremely skilled with a canoe and it takes only a short time to notice how good they are at it.  If the Olympics had an event in canoeing I would put all my chips on Venezuela to win.

The last thing I would mention are the Venezuelan people we came to know.  While the language was an issue we seemed to work things out. 

  We made a good friend in Maria Taboud who along with her husband manage the Orinoco delta Lodge.  She made us feel welcome and was very enjoyable company.  The river guides Antonio, Alexis and Clement who gave us all great advice.  The prize must go to Luis the manager of the local fuel station who tirelessly took Sunny shopping and was able to get her the biggest chicken I have ever seen for Thanksgiving dinner.  Not quite a turkey but hey we weren’t exactly in Plymouth Harbor.
Don’t believe all the nonsense you hear about Venezuelans.  They are good people who have a tough situation.

 I certainly hope the best for their future and am glad to have had the privilege of seeing a small bit of what must be one of the most incredible places on earth.  Your mileage may vary but we had a great trip.