Deep in the Venezuelan Rainforest, Eating Live Worm Sandwiches (Part 1)
David Piper introduces us to the Yekwa’ana tribe, and discovers Wild Pig’s Piss doesn’t make for a good gin
Photo: Richard Brandon Cox
We were far, far from home. I felt elated, terrified and often in the dark evenings, with lightning flashing behind the tabletop mountains rather apocalyptic. My companion, Lesley Gracie, just wanted a proper cup of tea, a decent chair, and a cheese toastie. My other companion, Charles Brewer-Carias, a moustachioed septuagenarian explorer and discoverer of countless species, tribes, cave networks (and, he says, El Dorado, the lost city of gold) — was in his element.
Me and my modest group of fellow explorers were on an expedition to Kanaracuni, a small village deep in the Venezuelan rainforest, staying with a tribe of Indians and looking for tastes amidst the rich biodiversity of plant life there that nobody in our civilisation had ever experienced, distilling them on a tiny ten-litre copper still.
It’s immense, dark, and beautiful, terrifying and kind: Nature at her strongest and most raw. It’s even more confusing if you’re a Londoner who probably wouldn’t survive more than a few hours there on his own. The forest provides so much food, medicine, magic and tools. It also threatens to kill you at every turn.
We had met Charles a few years earlier, when he was giving a lecture on his extraordinary life. Charles told us we would find undiscovered and unimaginable flavours in Venezuela. He also promised bats that crawl into your tent to suck your blood, fish that swim up your urethra, and giant man-snatching spirits that walk backwards. How could we resist?
The Yekwa’ana Indians, our hosts and guides, have a deep and ancient relationship with the jungle. They are the most cultured and developed of the tribes of the region. Their knowledge of plant medicine, and the spirits, is immense, and incredibly skilful.
Their blowpipes are four metres long, and are made with 22 different species of plant and tree. The women know of two different flowers that can influence the sex of their children. The over-the-counter pills I took for my stomach troubles did nothing, but the little red bean they gave me had an almost instant effect. I hopped from green-faced and grim to bright and bouncy in 15 minutes.
In intense heat, we trekked through environments rich in bewildering detail, texture, and atmosphere. We saw ten-inch-long crickets and swarms of huge iridescent butterflies. Our photographer barely brushed a caterpillar, and lost all feeling in his hand for a couple of days.
We stopped the canoes at the side of the river where the Indians dug bucketsfull of worms out of the mud, occasionally pausing to drop five or six onto their manihoc bread, added some dried chilli and ate a live worm sandwich. Charles did his best to look like he enjoyed eating it – “a bit like steak tartar,” apparently. I declined. The day before I’d eaten live termites, straight from the nest, biting the head clean off the spiny body: crunch is everything in live food.
They took us to visit another tribe, the Sanema, who have only just, in the last generation or so, started to settle in villages, to progress beyond hunter-gathering. Under the protection and guidance of the Yekwa’ana, they’ve built crude houses, and are learning the rudiments of agriculture. It was like walking back in time 10,000 years to the dawn of civilisation.
Romulo spoke with one of the Sanema while the rest of the village stared at us in silence. There was some sort of disagreement. We were unarmed, only in a small escort, and Charles told us it was probably best to head back to the canoes.
“I don’t understand this language, but I did make out the words bows and arrows. Keep smiling, don’t panic.” After more shouting between Romulo, our chief, and the main Sanema protagonist, our boats could finally pull away. It was only then we noticed the archers on the crest of the slope, bows trained at (I imagined) our throats.
On the savannah, termite mounds looked like brains growing from the grass. The hillsides were covered in a plant the Yekwa’ana called “Mother-In-Law’s Shits”. They showed us a tree they named Wild Pig’s Piss and I hoped we could use this in gin.
As it turned out, they called it that for a good reason. We trekked and tasted and gathered samples of everything we liked. Every evening we brought them back to the village, where Lesley would steep them in neutral spirit overnight, before performing a distillation.
We tried Yekwa’ana booze – ground manihoc fermented with wild yeast. They have two forms of it: Yawaki, which is unfiltered, like a cider porridge to sustain them while working, and Sucuro, filtered and drunk on ceremonial occasions, or when someone has returned from a voyage.
“I ended up with an old man blowing smoke in my ear. He told me it was to make me more intelligent”
Everyone performs a procession in silence – then they drink and tell each other stories. Alcohol to bring people together, loosen the tongues and spark the imagination. Learning that was a reaffirming moment.
I would share cigarettes, or their local tobacco, and smoke with Romulo, conversing in broken Spanish. One night, the full moon was surrounded by a large white aura. This was a bad omen, he said – but not for his village.
The next night, under a fully circular moon bow, I underwent a spiritual working with Lorenzo the shaman: a tobacco ritual. I wanted something stronger, but he didn’t know or trust me well enough, so I ended up with an old man blowing smoke in my ear. This, he told me, would make me more intelligent.
I made them a couple of dry martinis, one of my favourite aspects of our civilisation. (Did I forget to mention I’d picked up a tiny ice machine in Caracas, which we could power for a couple of hours a night with the little generator we mainly used for the photographers’ laptops?)
Ice was pure magic to them – especially the children. The martinis were a bit stronger than what they were used to, and brought out a different reaction in each of them – one happy, one boisterous, one sleepy, one sad, one rather too ‘you’re-my-new-best-friendy’ and one who wouldn’t shut up. Humanity, hey.
Read part two of David's Venezuelan jungle adventure here, where he distills Scorpion’s Tail in the jungle and discovers that butterflies are surprisingly dirty.