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Word Travels - At Play in the Fields of the Warao by Robin Esrock
At Play in the Fields of the Warao
by Robin Esrock / Published January 11 2008
An intense week of jungle fever finds me swimming with dolphins in shark infested waters, canyoneering, fishing piranhas, and discovering the mysterious Peple of the Canoe, all the while making sense of Hugo Chavez, the Orinoco Delta, and intrusive missionaries.

The Orinoco DeltaAccording to the overweight missionary with braces, Jesus was coming to save me tonight, deep in the heart of the Orinoco Delta. Not an emissary mind you, but Jesus himself, and he would save me, and save the primitive Warao people, because even though we're quite happy (me the travel writer, them the indigenous people of one of the world's remotest jungles) she knew, she just knew, that he was coming tonight, not in spirit, but in person! I thought about the practicalities of this second coming, and made a fair attempt at some intelligent discourse, but when faith blinds people, it robs them of more than just vision.
"Do you know much about the Warao way of life," I ask, "their respect for nature, the gods that make sense in their lives, as opposed to the god that makes sense in yours?"
"Oh, they practice witchcraft, but in their heart, they love Jesus," she replies, my words bouncing off her head like an over-inflated soccer ball. The Warao, it seems, will find Jesus whether they want to or not. But what is the difference between these blissed out misguided missionaries, followers of a 2000-year old Middle Eastern guy/Son of God named Jesus, and me, a gringo with a camera taking pictures in an exotic world that doesn't want nor need me? We're both using these people, this place. I came to learn and write, they came to convert. And stuck in the middle: fragile, timid, lacking ideological filters and completely vulnerable to religious, cultural or physical attack, are the People of the Canoe - the Warao of northern Venezuela.


I'm going to row the boat back, paddle to the start and a frenetic arrival in Caracas, where graft is thick and with a few dollars one can skip the immigration line-up altogether. It was immediately clear that, although the official currency is the Boliviano, this was not Bolivia. The airport was big and new and when you have the fifth largest oil reserves in the world, money counts for something. Just don't use the banks. They'll give you a 2000 to 1 exchange rate, whereas just about anyone you talk to will gladly give you around 3200 to 1. The black market thrives, 70% on the dollar, despite the best efforts of president Hugo Chavez, of whom I'll return to later. There was no time to join in the fun of Caracas on a Friday night. Into a van, and we're off to the north, a six hour bus ride to a beach town called Playa Colorado, and from here a further five hours (hopefully) to the world's second largest delta, the Orinoco. Caracas showed all the signs of a big South American capital: traffic, pollution, insane drivers, desperately poor and violent barrios, sexy mestizo girls, pounding reggaeton, neon-lit love hotels. After spending time in La Paz, I was desperate to get out the urban jungle and into a real one. The six lane highway slowly turned to four lanes, and finally into two. It was 11pm, I'd been in transit for 16 hours, but the journey into the jungle was only beginning.

Fat chickens roast on a large rotisserie at the roadside buffet, and like the late night air, the meal is hot and sticky. It reminds me of northern Brazil - the coconut trees, the humidity, women wearing their sexuality the way a yuppie wears a tie on Wall Street. After a minor altercation with an SUV (a few dollars change hands, we drive off), we're back on the road, I'm DJ'ing up front with my iPod trying to keep Harold the driver awake. At last, Playa Colorado, a room with a few beds in a strange house, shown around by welcoming young girls with skin the colour of brown sugar. Mosquitoes are in abundance, a warm-up of things to come. I climb into my sleep sheet, reposition the fan, collapse in total transit exhaustion. Awake to the sound of kids playing, a camera in my face, we've overslept, too late to drive to the Delta, but no worries, Chris has got plenty planned to keep us busy. And so, enter to the left of the stage, Chris Patterson, the Scot of the Jungle, real-life cigarette-commercial man, host to this lush new world. After sailing in the Caribbean for ten years, Chris found himself the dream chaser for decadent Russian billionaires, organizing multi-million dollar adventures around the world for oligarchs, from balloons over the Serengeti to castles in Ireland, ice palaces in Iceland, to heliskiing in Whistler. How do the rich have fun? Chris knows the answer, but after a few years riding the perfect wave, he had made enough to build his Jakera Lodge - backpacker heaven, school of life, one block away from Paradise, and just down the road from Dream Street. Wiping away sleep from my eyes, I wander over from the overflow house to Jakera Lodge to find a cage housing a dozen Scandinavian girls in bikinis, swinging in hammocks.
"We have mosquito nets around all the enclosures," explains Chris, "and we call this room, the Bird Cage."
"You realize, nobody will believe a word of this when I write it," I tell him in a low voice.
"Want to play with a baby river python?" he moves on.
"Sure, why not."

Continue reading Robin's full Venezuela Report at his website:

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