The Orinoco is big and wide and just as brown as the Big Muddy. But the Orinoco has no nickname. As we are crossing on the ferry from Cabruta to Caicara, standing on the front landing ramp a foot above the waterline, I ask the little shoeshine boy what he calls the river.
“El río,” he answers quite logically.
“It doesn’t have a familiar name?”
“Qué lástima,” I say. “What a pity.” That such a grand stream should go without a name of endearment, like “Ol’ Man River.” Something anthropomorphic one could embrace. I look out at the broad waters, the green lowlands and the gently rising mountains at the bend in the river where Caicara lies. Our ferry is a flat barge pushed by a slow tug. Just large enough for a few cars and a couple of trucks. It will take the better part of an hour to work our way across and then downstream.
“There is a song,” the truck driver behind me says. “Orinoco, río loco.” I think about it. It’s true that the river will grow even mightier, joined by others as it heads toward the sea, finally fanning itself out into a delta 150 miles wide at the Atlantic.
“That’s just to rhyme,” I say. “This river doesn’t look loco to me.”
“Perhaps in other places,” he says.
“No esta loco.” The boy shakes his head emphatically, picks a stone off the landing ramp and throws it with emphasis into the swirling brown waters.
“Can you swim?” I ask him. He is very near the edge of the ramp and there is no rail.
“Muy poco,” he says. “Very little.”
“Then be very careful.” He’s a scruffy, dusty kid, maybe nine, maybe ninety. Dirty t-shirt, worn-out sneakers, shaggy hair, sitting on a beat-up shoeshine kit. “How many shoes do you shine a day?” I’m looking at my sandals and the sneakers on the truck drivers. It seems an unprofitable place for his line of work.
I rearrange my Spanish and try again. “Cuantos zapatos limpias en un dia?”
He mulls it over.
“Muy poco,” he decides. Perhaps he doesn’t know how to chase a buck and lacks knowledge of those places where men wear white shirts and ties and need their shoes polished daily. Perhaps it’s just better riding the river with little to do but look out at the horizon.