2000s Archive

Orinoco Flow

Originally Published May 2002
Although this Venezuelan river moves through an immense, mysterious landscape, Maricel E. Presilla finds herself at home with both its food and its people.

El Abuelo ("The Grandfather"), our worn-out wooden boat fitted with two powerful engines, cuts a deep furrow through the brown water of the Orinoco River as we rush downstream. It's as if we were riding a bullet train, the outline of the shore blurring past and dissolving into strips of green. The force of the wind chokes me, and I feel something wet on my forehead that I mistake for raindrops—after all, it is late summer, the rainy season in Venezuela. But I smell gasoline. The drops are coming from the two huge barrels the captain propped near the bow of the boat before we boarded.

It's hard for me to take in the changes in the landscape—the gradual transition from open savanna to dense delta jungle—while trying to avoid being blinded by the gasoline and to keep my shirt and parka from billowing over my head. I also realize that if we hit a rock we will be blown sky-high and reach the delta in a cloud of smoke.

The captain assures me that the chances of hitting a rock are remote during the rainy season, but I'm still concerned—our boat's speed seems unnatural. I have always associated the Orinoco with slow motion. Even when the rains engorge the river, breaking it into muscular whirlpools, it seems to belong to people who bide their time—to the stout, languorous women cooks of Ciudad Bolívar, stirring their pots of fish sancocho, or the skillful Guayanese fishermen, who fight the Goliath current of early August with the force of their paddles and hold their boats miraculously still while they throw their nets into the murky water.

Just as the river belongs to these people, so they belong to it. Their daily lives are tied to the predictable ebb and flow of the tides, the movement of the fish, and the cycles of rain and drought that shape the immense Orinoco and the land around it. Beginning as an insignificant trickle high in the Sierra Parima near the Brazil-Venezuela border, the river flows unimpeded through 1,600 miles of Venezuelan territory. In its journey toward the Atlantic, it is nourished by waters from all over the region: glacial streams from the snowcapped mountains of the Venezuelan and Colombian Andes; muddy tributaries that flow through the endless plains to the west; mysterious black-water rivers born in the Guayana Highlands, among the oldest rock formations on earth. Just before it empties into the ocean, the now enormous Orinoco morphs into one of the world's largest deltas, a maze of cańos, or channels—some as narrow as a mountain creek, others as wide as the Orinoco itself—that cut through mangrove swamps, stands of moriche palms, and alluvial flatlands.

The Orinoco is a cultural as well as geographic divide: It forms the frontier between the tamed land of immigrants and criollos—the hybridized culture that sprang up in the Americas with both old- and new-world parentage—and what is left of the great Venezuelan wilds and their native peoples. In this grand theater, the clash and melding of different cultures is still played out on a daily basis with startling clarity. Not coincidentally, this collision of cultures in a land of extremes has also resulted in some surprising and vigorous new cuisines. And those are what I've come here to find.

This is not my first trip to the Orinoco basin. I find myself returning again and again, drawn to its grassy plains and Indian villages. As a woman who left Cuba during the 1970s, exploring this region allows me to trace the "lost steps" of the Taino Indians of Cuba, an offshoot of the Orinoco Arawak. Every time I see a woman turning yuca, the mother plant of the Orinoco and Amazon basins, into bread, for instance, a layer of my Spanishness is stripped away to reveal a connection to the Indian part of Cuba's background. (Whenever you see the huge flatbread called casabe—Cuba's oldest staple—you know that you are looking at a legacy of the Indians of the Orinoco.) This ancient link gives me an odd sense of belonging—not so much to a place of my own, but to Cuba's ancestral homeland. Nowhere in Latin America do I feel more at ease than I do here.

This time I want to revisit the popular festival that celebrates both the running of the sapoara—a silvery, shadlike fish that spawns upriver near Ciudad Bolívar—and the city's patron saint, the Virgen de las Nieves ("Lady of the Snows"). The festival represents the blending of the primordial and the colonial at its best. I am also bound for Puerto Ordaz, where some of the most exciting contemporary cooking in all of Venezuela is occurring. But my immediate destination is the delta home of the Warao people, one of the oldest indigenous cultures of South America.

I have prevailed upon our boat's captain to put the brakes on our mad rush. As we move now more slowly down the river toward the stilt fishing villages of the Warao, I feel as though I am traveling back in time, sinking into the rhythm of an almost unknown world. On the very edge of the river, I glimpse conucos, patches of cultivated land carved out of the forest. Here, small farmers grow the starchy everyday staples that add body and substance to the sancochos (big soups) of Indians and criollos alike in Venezuela. I see plantain trees weighed down by heavy clusters of ripening fruit; yuca, of course, with its slender stems and splayed leaves; taro, called ocumo chino in Venezuela, with its heart-shaped, glossy edible leaves and swollen tubers; the tendrils of auyama (Caribbean pumpkin) entangled with the delicate vines of name, the true yam.

We soon begin to enjoy being so close to the water, and start to think of our boat as our car, taking it into almost inaccessible channels where vegetation brushes against the boat's sides. I pluck a huge flower from rábano de agua, an aquatic plant with a peppery, radishlike flavor that the Warao use as bait to catch morocoto, a fish that's equipped with molars to eat those flowers and the fruit that falls from the palms in the flooded jungle.

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