The following article appeared in the Island Packet
Newsletter in the Summer of 1999.
A Rainforest Adventure
In company with Mike and Terry on Door Into Summer we decide to leave Trinidad in early March and visit this remote area that is seen by less than a dozen sailboats a year. The first challenge is finding the mouth of the river and getting in over the shallow mud bar. Our ocean charts have the area marked as unsurveyed and as we head for the river we feel like true explorers. In the early days of sea exploration the edges of the charts usually had ominous markings like "thar be dragons here". We don't expect dragons but we are uncertain what we will find. Our hand drawn charts were made by
friends who visited the area a few years previously and they are sparse on details.
Our trip to the river is marked by adverse winds, a 3 knot current against us and the most
uncomfortable anchorage any of us have ever experienced. Now we begin to understand why more boats don't come here. We are racing daylight and the tides to get to the mouth of the river. Finally just at sunset with Ventana in the lead we cross the shallow bar and have the deep water of the river beneath us. We are not in the river 5 minutes when we are greeted by pink dolphins playing near the boat. Moments later we fall silent in awe as a flock of scarlet ibis fly overhead and come to roost in the trees nearby. The ibis are a color so red you can't believe it could exist in nature. We are barely anchored before
Indians in dugout canoes paddle down to us from somewhere up river. Their canoes are made of hollowed out tree trunks and ride only a few inches above the water like a kayak. They speak their own language called Warao which only uses 16 letters but some of the men understand a bit of Spanish so Rob can communicate. They all want to trade or
"cambio". They offer wonderfully made baskets or fresh caught fish or carved wooden items and in exchange want
sewing needles, thread, material, sugar, rice , flour, fishhooks, magazines with pictures or old clothes. We have so much and they have so little we want to give them everything, but we do not want to turn self-
sufficient people into beggars. We try to tread a fine line here. We give candy and cookies to the kids and to the delight of the little ones Rob
blows up balloons for them. No one ever asks for money and we doubt they would have anywhere to spend it so trade is the form of commerce. The next day we move farther upriver and anchor near a village of maybe 18 houses and 90 people. Their houses are built on stilts over the river and consist of a platform about 20' square with a thatched palm frond roof There are no interior walls and with up to 15 family members living on each platform the only privacy is darkness. Their diet is mostly fish as the surrounding mangrove swamps are too wet to grow crops. This village has a nearly completed building of solid plank construction. We learn it is a school and is the first ever school on the river. It opened 2 months previously but is not yet completed construction. After some time getting to know the villagers we ask if we can help with the school. At first they do not know how to take this offer but after awhile they welcome us. In a few days we make windows and hang doors. We make desks and benches for all the kids to sit on replacing the tree stumps they had been using. Our power tools of course come in very handy. When I pull out sandpaper to smooth the tops of the desks this is an unbelievable mystery to the locals. While Rob builds Dee hosts dozens of kids on the boat each afternoon with cookies and popcorn. One villager, Collins is from British Guiana and speaks
English. He soon takes us digging for land crabs. This involves finding the proper hole along the muddy river bank and plunging your arm in mud to the shoulder. When you feel a claw snap down on your
finger you scream and whip your hand out of the hole--- hopefully with the crab still attached. The crabs tasted good but were lots of work. And the mosquitoes dined best of all with us being the main course. Days later Collins and a few Warao Indians take us far into the jungle to where the palm trees grow. The hike is through waist deep stinking mud with our
machetes clearing the trail the entire way. They show us how they chop down a type of plain tree, eat the heart of palm, then chop up all the inside bark and mash it up and turn it into a sort of starchy flour substitute. After lots of difficult work the all day expedition nets 4 pounds of the flour and we are struck anew how difficult are their daily lives. As we proceed upriver the exploring by dinghy gets better and better. We go out often at sunrise and sunset in the small winding
"canos" or side streams which enter the main river. Our only companions are monkeys, green parrots, great blue herons, wild turkeys, fishing cormorants, pink fresh water dolphins and dozens of birds we can't identify. At some villages we hand out crayons and coloring books we have brought and in exchange they offer bananas, limes, fresh caught alligators or iguanas and iguana eggs. Farther upriver the land dries out and we see crops growing and cattle grazing and the people are better off. Returning to the first village on the river we learn more about their customs. When I ask why I see lots of kids under 12 but no teenagers they point out several very young mothers. We learn that when a girt has her first period her parents cut her hair signaling she is of
marriageable age. By 14 most kids are married and have a child. While we bemoan their loss of innocence, perhaps it is appropriate. Their entire world consists of 10 miles of river, learning to fish, paddle a canoe, cook on an open fire and raise children. Maybe in a world so small one knows most of what's necessary by age 14. Prior to the arrival of the school two months ago illiteracy was nearly 100% but now both kids and adults flock to school with a true hunger to learn. With the new school and a health clinic attached to the school their future may be brighter.
Preparing to leave the village is difficult. They have welcomed us into
their lives and we have brought them into ours. The night before we depart
they invite us to a dance ashore. The next day half the villagers will
move into the woods for a few months to harvest the Moriche palms and the dance
is to assure a good harvest. Before we depart we go ashore to say goodbye
and give a few special presents. The children cling to Rob's legs and do
not want us to leave. As we pull up anchor one of our favorite children, 8
year old Samantha with the golden smile paddles her dugout into the swift
current to give Dee a basket she has woven herself. With sad hearts
we turn Ventana toward the waiting ocean and wave goodbye as the entire village
comes out to bid us farewell. In years of cruising we have said many
goodbyes yet none have been as hard as this one.