Karl, the facially scarred East German barman, had three teeth missing, and a grin full of mischief. Four days into an epic adventure up the tributaries of the Orinoco Delta, I was convinced he was mixing more than just rum into my stiff Cuba Libres.
I had been warned that after a couple nights sleeping in a hammock wrapped inside a mosquito net, this high up in the northern Venezuelan jungle, chancing upon a remote lodge with a well stocked bar could lead to some vicious tropical jungle juju. Defined as: Taking the barman on the boat to view the sunset, and ultimately end up diving into a river widely known to contain hungry piranhas. No sooner had we entered the water, than a rare pink dolphin leaped into the air, its skin glistening with all the colours of the rainbow. According to the indigenous Warao Indians, this was a sign of immense luck.
This might explain why I was able to climb back on board, at a loss for words from the beauty, but all digits in place.
With teeth like razors and skin like barbwire, piranhas have the sunny disposition of a death squad. Sharks may be the grunt soldiers of aquatic terror, but South American piranhas are riverside hit men, shredding their prey with efficient ferocity.
Found within rivers from Argentina to Colombia, they hunt in large packs, sending out scouts to locate the prey before initiating a feeding frenzy characterized by a scene of boiling water.
Kayaking through piranha infested waters along the Orinoco sounded more like an adventure sales plug than a reality, until my Warao guide Pina handed me a stick, some gut wire, and a crudely fashioned hook.
Rather alarmingly, all I needed to do was splash my stick on the water surface to attract the beasties, and within seconds, my bait had vanished. The combination of heat, storms of mosquitoes, and inhuman humidity made me want to dive into the river, but the combination of bloodthirsty carnivorous piranhas made me want to stay on shore more.
Although they only grow to two feet long, nature has equipped piranhas with deadly tools, from interlocked teeth to excellent hearing and unparalleled teamwork. Each fish takes a munch with its strong jaws and instantly moves out of the way for its pal. Theodore Roosevelt, on an expedition to Brazil in 1913, described a horrifying scene of a cow being attacked and stripped to the bone in minutes.
Eat me? Eat you! I was determined to catch a piranha, both as a challenge, and to reaffirm my place in the food chain. With dark clouds of mosquitoes raining down on my neck and a skinny loyal Warao dog at my side, I persisted — constantly replacing the bait that seemed to vanish in seconds once it hit the water. Finally, I tug up at the right time, and a small, sharp and thoroughly not amused piranha is pulled out the water.
A hot makeshift grill, a dash of strong lime, and some trusty Tabasco (I always travel with a bottle) are ready to go —and I have to confess that piranha is a tasty, albeit a bony fish. It's not enough to quench a major hunger, but at least you're on the right side of the fork.
Cut to the following day: For hours, a torrential downpour had dumped on our twin-engine open-roof speedboat, and the prospect of sleeping on a real bed in a shack seemed so much more attractive than another wrapped-up buggy night in a hammock. Large tapirs were running up and down the wooden boardwalks of this remote jungle lodge, banana-beaked toucans and chirpy macaws resting on the tables at the bar. A sunset cruise, a free pouring on-board barman with dubious intentions, and here I was, swimming in the same waters patrolled by the pint sized killer piranha. Of course, the Warao swim, drink and bathe in the river, and in truth have more problems with rabid vampire bats than bloodthirsty piranhas. How big a thrill is a jungle adventure in the Orinoco Delta? As wide as a dodgy East German's smile, and as large as a piranha's appetite.
Vancouver-based travel writer Robin Esrock hosts Word Travels (CityTV/OLN) and is the author of the upcoming book, The Great Canadian Bucket List. You can find him at: www.robinesrock.com