The Best Thing I Never Ate

No matter how far we travel, hospitality is a universal language.

I was traveling alone, and my only connection was a family in Caracas who were friends of friends of friends (yes, tenuous). After an evening departure from Dallas, my plane landed on the tarmac of Simón Bolívar International Airport in the wee hours. Following the salida signs to the terminal exit near the baggage claim, I slung my backpack over my shoulders and walked out the glass doors.

My ride was supposed to meet me at this entrance, but he was not there. I didn’t know what my host looked like or, ultimately, if he was even trustworthy. As I stood under the dark Venezuelan sky, my preparations began to seem thin. It was a long, anxious wait. Then a white Chevrolet van pulled up, and a smiling Mario Sinegale hopped out of the driver’s seat, extending his hand in greeting. “So, you must be Winn,” he said with flawless English carried by a rich Argentine accent. “Welcome to Caracas.”

I learned that Mario had brought his family to Venezuela to work with students and indigenous villagers. He never slowed. He talked fast. He drove fast. Muscular with tanned skin and a painter’s brush moustache, my new friend was an adventurer who rarely paused for breath. The Sinegales lived in the city, and every day, Mario whisked me off to some new section of Caracas. I spent most of the drive with my fingernails buried in the seat’s upholstery while he careened around narrow corners. Many of the city’s side avenues have hairpin curves and wild inclines like an asphalt roller coaster. Some of these topsy-turvy streets were barely wide enough to serve as a one-lane road, but Mario gunned the engine as if he were racing Formula One. I saw much of Caracas during those weeks, most of it in a blur.

I believe that hospitality should be gratefully received. Yet, I feared I would be absolutely unable to keep those little apes down.

The most formative portion of my trip, however, was far from the urban center. Mario worked with a small village on the Amazon, at the edge of the Colombian border. When he asked if I wanted to accompany him on a four-day excursion, I instantly said yes. Allow me to pause to make sure you heard—Colombia. In the early 90s, the news was filled with reports of armed conflict between Colombian drug cartels and Venezuelan military.

We caught a flight out of the city, then hopped aboard a 12-seat twin-engine for the second leg of our journey. We landed at a tiny coastal airport, exited onto the single airstrip, gathered our gear and strolled into the sleepy town. Shops painted neon blue and yellow lined the dusty street that cut through the center of the village. We walked toward the river as a rowdy band of kids selling Chiclets swarmed around us. Mario led us to the boat (a 15-foot rough-hewn canoe cut out of what once must have been a massive tree) that would carry us into the jungle. The boat’s owner strapped a 75hp outboard motor to the back of the hollowed-out trunk, and we nosed out toward the river.

We traveled for hours, farther and farther away from modern civilization. As the waterway narrowed, the thick green rainforest closed around us. The boat slowed into an inlet, and we pulled it ashore. A colossal tree towered from the bank, and three bare-chested boys perched midway up where a rope was dangling from one of the tallest limbs. The boys took turns launching from the tree, swinging high and wide (with squeals and shouts), releasing and then plunging into the murky water. Moments later, they shot to the surface, laughing.

The river was thick brown, a cloudy soup. I knelt, dipping my hand into the Amazon. Mario watched me, smiling. “You know what kind of fish we have here?”

“No,” I answered, swirling the water.

“Piranhas.”

I jerked my hand back, clutching my fingers.

The village was quintessential Amazon, the sort of place you would expect to find in a National Geographic feature. Thatched-roof huts. A machete-cleared path through the woods to a primitive privy. Baths in the creek (not the river, thank God). We slept in hammocks while the breeze gently rocked us to sleep.

Unfortunately, on the second day I grew ill. The sickness began with aches and nausea and eventually turned into a raging fever. The greatest dilemma was how all the strange food prodded my queasiness. During one meal, they served me fresh piranha. Back home, I couldn’t even hold down frozen fish sticks, but here I was with killer cousins staring at me, goading my incessant urge to hurl. I nibbled and forced bits down, moving the filet back and forth across my plate. Two other times, Mario made our lunch, and for some reason I cannot comprehend, he thought rice with mayonnaise was a good idea. Yes, rice . . . and mayonnaise. Remember, we had no refrigeration in the jungle. My stomach incited a full mutiny.

Our final day, as my nausea and pain peaked, I took a necessary walk to the privy. My path led me past the cooking hut, where the food awaiting preparation for that evening’s meal sat beside the door. When I rounded the corner, my stomach jolted at the sight of two monkeys, a single arrow stuck through both hearts, slumped next to the hut’s entrance. One of the men beamed. “Monkey stew,” he said with delight. Monkey was a delicacy, their finest dish. And they were preparing it to celebrate my last night.

I believe that hospitality extended should be gratefully received, and I was committed to not offending my new friends’ generosity. Yet, I feared I would be absolutely unable to keep those little apes down. As the day dragged on, all I could think of was those monkeys, the dreaded meal marching closer. I couldn’t imagine any escape. Every hour or so, the man would beam again and repeat, “Monkey stew.” I attempted a smile and a half-hearted nod, gritting my teeth against a fresh wave of nausea.

When we sat down for dinner, I know I was ashen-faced. I gripped the sides of my chair as they carried our food into the hut. When they set my plate in front of me, I caught my breath, fighting to hold myself together. And there, nestled on the platter was warm bread dusted with sugar and cinnamon and a piping mug of dark, sweet liquid crafted from village-grown cocoa beans. Relief. Sweet, sweet relief.

Mario had told the women cooking I was not well and needed gentle food. So these tender women in a remote Amazon village made this American boy donuts and hot chocolate. I encountered kindness and grace at that table. Back when I’d set out for Caracas, I had no idea about the generosity that would welcome me. Even now, two decades later, as I think of the hospitality I hope to give away, my mind returns to this remote village where a few women loved a stranger well. And I wish now that I could return and thank them.

Related Topics:  Kindness

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