You are not alone
By Neil Matthews
When you’re a guest somewhere, you hope for a warm welcome and great hospitality. My wife Helen and I stayed in an eco-lodge on the Orinoco river in Venezuela. The locals stared at us, disrupted our sleep, stole our lunch, scarred my arm, almost fractured my cheekbone and made random inspections. We loved it.
The early signs weren’t promising. The day we arrived, half a dozen other people left on a motorised boat.
‘Their visit is over,’ explained Ales (pronounced Alex), our young Guyanese guide.
So how many guests were left, we asked him?
‘There is one other guest arriving tomorrow.’
This was a large lodge in which to be alone. The big thatched roof covered a bar, an office, coffee tables, chairs and wooden sofas with blue and caramel cushions, a sign saying ‘Life goes on’, dining tables, the kitchen and a lot more. Apart from Ales, there were no staff members in sight.
Then we spotted something in the kitchen. An eagle was sitting in the awnings. Ales told us it was a regular visitor, and was waiting for its chicken meal to defrost.
Ales led us to our cabin (one naked light bulb, shower with occasional water supply). We were staying in number 18, next door to the puma. She was a shadowy presence by day, as she padded around her cage, but we heard her snoring for hours every night, like a foghorn. We would have banged on the wall in complaint, but as it was made of mosquito netting that wouldn’t have done much good.
The puma’s snores were part of the night-time soundtrack. As the power cut out at 11pm, a chorus of frogs and insects serenaded us, followed by two hours of dogs barking and howler monkeys screeching. Around 2am, the cockerels started.
The dogs appeared next morning. The honey-coloured largest member of the pack had a nickname ‘the Doctor’ for his habit of sniffing everyone and everything, to check nothing was amiss. A black-and-white bitser with floppy ears ran in front of canines and humans alike, fixing everybody with penetrating stares. He could have been a police dog: he thought he was in charge.
Not all the local wildlife was eager to introduce itself. Ales and his colleague Chendo took us out on the river for piranha fishing, along with the other guest Marc (an amiable Swiss dead ringer for Johnny Vegas). An occasional parrot flew overhead, red howler monkeys directed baleful stares at us and electric blue butterflies as large as my hand danced either side of the boat. After miles of 20 metre tall trees on either side, we reached an area of low growing reeds and open sky, where we tried our luck.
To fish in the Orinoco, you need a long stick with a piece of twine, a hook and a piece of white meat as bait. You stick the bait in the water and thrash the rod around, making enough noise to attract the fish.
Fifteen minutes passed before Ales caught a piranha, then Helen followed suit. Ales caught his second. Chendo landed a red piranha. Marc got lucky; he lodged his hook in a piranha’s gills.
Then there was a huge pull on my line. I pulled the rod. Whatever it was resisted, hard. I pulled harder and faster…and the rod snapped in two, halfway up. The others almost fell out of the boat from laughing.
‘You caught a large twig,’ said Ales. ‘Or maybe it was the bottom of the boat.’
But the most dangerous inhabitant of the Orinoco wasn’t a piranha or a puma. It was the lodge’s resident blue and gold macaw. Rumba was trouble.
One lunchtime, we were eating catfish in coconut sauce. The table and our chairs were just tall enough to help us fend off the attention of two kittens, one ginger and the other black and white. The ginger kitten was attempting yet another in a series of heroic ascents of the north face of my leg, when a squawk exploded in my ear. Rumba had landed.
She grabbed a piece of fish within moments and hopped onto the back of Helen’s chair with it. Rumba was a messy eater, so parts of her catch fell onto Helen’s jacket. A few bits disappeared: an hour later, Helen caught the police dog with its head in her bag, sniffing them out. At first we thought it was checking for drugs.
Later that afternoon, Rumba sat on the door of the bar with a guilty expression, as if she’d been at the drinks. I made a few encouraging squawk noises. Rumba erupted off the door onto my right shoulder, and grasped my right cheek in her beak.
Saying nothing stronger than ‘Ouch’ a few dozen times, I wondered what Steve Irwin would have done. Perhaps Rumba had been at the drinks, and this was her version of the drunken ‘I rrrreally love you…you’re my…best friend’.
Rumba moved onto my right arm, testing her beak on that until she flew away, for a game of ‘hide the sugar bowl’ with Ales. She left nothing more than a couple of small scars on my arm.
On our last day, I was outside our cabin, taking a final look round. Helen was in the cabin. All was calm, till it started raining fruit.
I looked up and saw a flash of gold. Rumba was enjoying her breakfast and dropping some of it. I ducked back inside the cabin. Rumba flew down to the door and tried to turn the handle to let herself in.
We were sorry to leave the eco-lodge for our posh hotel in Caracas. It might have had room service, power showers, dozens of light switches and 74 types of food for breakfast, but it wasn’t as welcoming. Thanks to snoring pumas, nosy dogs, naughty parrots and all the other locals, you’re never alone on the Orinoco.