Riverdave’s Journal
November 2003

“WA” is a boat, more specifically a dugout canoe carved from a single large tree, according to the Warao people of the Orinoco Delta region of eastern Venezuela.  Riojosie and I had come here to learn from these people whose entire lives center around the necessity and privilege of boat ownership and use.  We wanted to see if these traditional native people could offer us, as North Americans, useful ideas about about owning and maintaining boats on the edge of a protected river. 

We set up our base in a remote jungle outpost about twenty miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean in a dense mangrove swamp forest abounding with crocodilians, scarlet ibis, jungle cats and giant river otters. Our camp, specifically designed for western visitors, had a gasoline generator that was capable of producing electricity for lights and western media.

Being the only visitors at that time, we insisted that the generator not be used.  One has to be very firm in one’s resolution, as the local staff are convinced that western visitors “need” electricity to be comfortable.  But the cost is high when the generator switch is flicked on - a horrendous mechanical rumble and electric whine that completely shatters the serene ambiance of the delta forest and waterways.

“RAO” is an owner.  So for the Warao people, the primary badge of both  necessity and pride is being a WARAO - a boat owner.  It works as follows.  At puberty, all males are taken away from their families by the tribal shaman to a distant makeshift jungle camp. A two week fast begins - except for one allowed inhalant - tobacco.  This is not the same species of tobacco used in the manufacture of cigarettes in the USA, Nicotiana tobaccum, but a species with a much higher nicotine content known as Nicotiana rustica.

Three foot long cigars are rolled with rustica and the young males are asked to smoke them with deep inhalations as quickly as possible down to a nub.  At that point they are transported in a trance state to a forest tree that appears to them as a young maiden who begs the initiate to cut her down in order to become the raw material for his first canoe. The initiate must be careful not to succumb to the beauty of the young maiden and fail to understand that she is actually a tree spirit with an offer of a different kind.

The bewildered young man has been pre advised by the shaman to carefully note the location of the tree, as he must soon return with friends and axes to fell that specific tree.  And so the vision is fulfilled.  The initiate returns with a brigade of choppers to the site designated by the vision.  The long process begins of felling the tree, hallowing it out with fire and then hauling the finished product to the Orinoco River for its first launch.

This tradition is not equivalent to what we would know of as a family camping trip, a boy scout jamboree or a Sunday School picnic.  For the youth of the Orinoco Delta, this is a serious rite of passage into adulthood,  making one able to live up to the tribal name - WARAO, a boat owner.  It requires serious fasting, sweat and blood work and dedicated community support.

In addition, there are serious negative consequences for arriving at a mature age in the Orinoco Delta without becoming a boat owner.  One cannot fish and feed oneself and one cannot gather palm fronds to build a house.  This means that a young male will not find a bride to start his family.  After all, what parents of young girls would dare give away their daughters to a boatless man. Such a person is known as a WAYANA. literally meaning “without a WA” or “boatless.”

The worse part of such a deficiency in education and mobility is that a wayana must always be borrowing a boat from other adults.  This arrangement is both impractical and very humiliating.  Imagine your peers muttering under their breath “WAYANA” whenever you pass by! This is not an enviable position to be in for an inhabitant of the great waterways of the Orinoco Delta. The closest comparison for us as Americans might be to still not possess a driver’s license in one’s senior year of high school.

So back home on the Eno River, I have often thought about the wonders that I experience as a paddler in my hometown natural area. I did not become a serious boat owner until I purchased an inflatable kayak (WAFT!)  when I was thirty-eight years old. Up till that point, I considered myself to be a true blue native of Durham   But after having resolved my WAYANA status in 1990 and started paddling the Eno and neighboring Piedmont rivers, a whole new world of environmental, recreational and personal awareness began to open up before me.

It doesn’t require a stick platform home in a river delta to understand the significance of owning and maintaining a WA.  Most of us inhabit an area near some kind of water - be it creek, pond, lake, river, bay or sea. But the riverine traditions of the Native American Warao have much to teach us about serious respect for local forests and waterways.  So if you have not already done so, may the reader quickly resolve his or her lowly WAYANA status, and find a boat suitable for local paddling.  May it be that we all became a fully enlightened river community of WARAO ...

Photo by RIverdave: the ladies paddle too! - Warao in their WA on the Orinoco River