Jan/Feb 2008 Travel

Sancocho by El Zorro

by William Reese Hamilton

Photo by Steve Wing

The sea holds out its constant invitation. Bright sun on swelling waters. I walk under the coconut palms of Playa Grande. A few kids screaming in anticipation as the next big wave approaches. Lifeguards whistling in vain after the machos who always swim out too far. Lovers stretched out against each other on burning sands.

At the far end of the beach, a young woman in a skimpy bikini decides to stake out her territory. She plunges a stick into the sand, casually undoes her top, hangs it there like a flag and wades slowly, sensuously into the surf. Within minutes every male on Playa Grande has been drawn to that spot like bees to honey, waiting for her to emerge once again like Aphrodite from the waves. I'm not quite sure Choroní is ready for topless. Only thirty years ago, they beat such women with sticks.

When it gets too crowded here on weekends, when the buses disgorge their seemingly endless cargo into the cheap bars and hostels of Puerto Colombia and the local drum bands vie with city boom boxes pounding out their salsa rhythms along the malecón, I want to be elsewhere.

We'll catch a fishing boat east to Chuao, perhaps, and take the one-hour walk from the beach up through the cacao plantation, ford the river and climb the hill to the little village, where they dry their cacao on the great plaza in front of the church. Then catch the old bus back and settle in for a few icy Polarcitas with Elvis at his Rincón del Marino, where you can lean your chair against the wall of his veranda and look out at the sea. In a land where no one wears shoes and t-shirts are optional.

Or we'll climb west, past the cemetery and along the arroyo, up among the tall cactus, then down through the scrubby forest of ficus and the last precipitous drop over the rocks to the small cove named El Diario. This lovely place was christened by the fishermen who catch their daily meals here. The sand is soft and spotless, the sea as clean and clear as a swimming pool. Large handsome boulders are strewn at either end, isolating a stretch of sand no more than 50 yards long. Not a tree for shade, not a soul for conversation, just a tall cliff behind and an endless expanse of water in front. Like a desert island. Our own private retreat for an hour or two whenever we wish.

Today Marisol and I are invited by the Piñangos to go by boat to Cepe, where Arnaldo Piñango's family once ran the hacienda. There are no roads to Cepe, only footpaths first marked out by the Indians who preceded the Spanish. Arnaldo and his wife Carmen Luisa are doctors in Caracas and have brought along a few fellow researchers from Spain. All we are asked to bring is our bathing suits and some rum and Coke for Cuba Libres.

All the other arrangements for the day are being taken care of by Arnaldo's half-brother. Piñango never knew anything about this relative until he was married with children and settling into his little weekend house in Choroní. One day a tall fisherman who was both older and darker than he came up to him and informed him that he was Angel Maria from Cepe and the natural son of Arnaldo's father. Once Arnaldo got over the initial shock, he accepted Angel Maria quite generously, helping him buy his fishing boat and sending a number of clients his way. Angel Maria is the man everybody hires for a day in Cepe. But down at the harbor they all know him as El Zorro.

"Donde está El Zorro?" Arnaldo asks around. "Have you seen El Zorro?"

I scan the crowd for a black hat, cape and flashing blade. Instead, a big shy man steps forward, broad shouldered with a slight forward stoop, quietly picks up our ice chest full of beer and carries it down to his boat. His two assistants load us all in and push us down river and into the sea.

A quiet sea today. And a clear sky except for a few of the usual clouds hanging up on the mountains. El Zorro sits proudly at the stern, manning his powerful outboard, his faded gray eyes scanning the sea. The prow cuts smoothly through gentle waters, east past Playa Grande, Valle Seco and Chuao, their beaches separated by great rocky cliffs, deep caves and cactus-covered hillsides. A few pelicans fly by. A few fishing boats dot the horizon. The crossing takes just 45 minutes.

But as we approach the harbor of Cepe, we have to circle around a wide ring of fishing boats spreading their nets across the sea. High up on the rocky precipice above us, men run along a narrow path like some two-legged species of mountain goat, waving a white flag.

"Bonito," El Zorro says. "There are many today. The men on the mountain signal where the fish are running."

We cruise into the beach, and while the two assistants hold the launch steady, we hop out into the surf.

"This is the best beach," Arnaldo announces to the group. "The waters are always quiet here and clean. So you can swim with safety."

We plant our umbrellas in the sand. Marisol is not too happy about the scraggly ranchitos just behind the palms. But the waters are calm, and once I get beyond the first line of small rocks, good for swimming. We laze under coconut palms, sipping our Polarcitas and Cuba Libres. It's certainly pleasant enough, but I decide Arnaldo's great enthusiasm for this place might be at least partially based on family pride.

We stroll up through the thick tropic foliage toward their old hacienda. Two sows lie under a mijao tree, a bare electric light bulb dangling over them from a branch.

"Must be very intelligent pigs to have their own reading lamp."

"The light keeps bats from sucking their blood at night."

"But why is it on during the day?"

"There are very few people in the valley, so electricity is free."

Along the path cacao still grows under the shade trees. When they are ripe, the gourd-like fruit turns a beautiful deep red. But nobody picks it here now, and the fruit has been left to turn black. This plantation was long since abandoned. The only two men we meet along the path are pushing wheelbarrows loaded with platanos. A stream crisscrosses our path, letting us wade through shallow, cool waters. The gray trunks of mijao, mamón, and cedro rise above us.

"Gauguin would have loved this," the lady biologist from Alicante exults, spreading her arms. "Don't you think? So pure. So bright." I'm thinking she's gone a bit too romantic, but then I see what has made her think of the painter. Before us, a flame tree hovers over the surrounding green, scattering its bright red flowers across the path. It might have been lifted from one of his canvases.

"I'm sure," I say.

But the hacienda is a disappointment, sitting big and blue-pillared at the top of the path, looking more like a government building than the charming old colonial I had expected.

The walk has been just the thing to peak our appetites. And while we've been away, El Zorro has been preparing his specialty—a sancocho of bonito. Sancocho is a rich Venezuelan stew of fish or chicken, filled with potatoes and other tasty local root vegetables — yuca, apio, ocumo, and ñame. Add garlic, onions, green platanos, carrots, cilantro (lots of cilantro), aji dulce and pimentón.

"This sancocho must cook very slowly in a clay pot over a slow wood fire," Carmen Luisa explains. "Each root vegetable needs time to add its own special consistency and flavor. El Zorro knows the secret."

El Zorro serves it up in his own bowls, crafted by him from the large gourds of Cepe. Even his spoons are carved from gourd. He dips deep into the thick steaming concoction, making sure each of us gets the proper balance of bonito and vegetables.

We sit on rough wooden benches in his humble ranchito, gorging ourselves on his sancocho, washing it down with beer so cold it has ice crystals floating in it.

"I'm always curious about these names," I say. "La Ballena, El Gallo, El Cura, Car'e Palo."

"Do you know what El Zorro means?" Arnaldo asks.

"The Fox?"

"When I first asked where his name came from, he wouldn't answer. He just smiled. His sister was the one who told me. When he was young Zorro used to steal the chickens for his sancocho."

El Zorro, the good host, still strong at 78, smiles proudly down on his sunburned guests, making sure we are all well satisfied. Then he beckons Arnaldo and me—the men—and we follow him out back, where he pulls a bottle from under his ranchito. The bottle has long since lost any label it might have had. In the clear liquid within, broken pieces of bark are floating.

"De la montaña," Zorro says, gesturing toward the steep forest above Cepe. He uncaps the bottle with his large, gnarled hands and passes it to me.

"Aguardiente," Arnaldo explains. "The bark gives it the special flavor." Like any firewater, this burns and warms going down, but behind that is something quite subtle and pleasant—a fine woody taste.

"Gracias, Zorro," I say, handing the bottle to Arnaldo. "Muchas gracias por todo." For what else can one say for such a gift, made by this man's own hand for friends? Deep, rich sancocho carrying the heavy scent of the sea before us, topped off with strong spirit tasting of the mountain forest above.


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