By Bruno Kelly
RIO DE JANEIRO - Facing hunger and hardship in their villages along Venezuela's Caribbean coast, hundreds of indigenous Warao are now trying their luck on the gritty streets of Manaus, Brazil's Amazonian metropolis.
The Warao, natives of the shore around the Orinoco River Delta, have long used their fishing skills to survive - for nourishment, for barter or by selling the fish for cash.
But with grocery shelves empty and many other crucial supplies lacking amid the economic and political instability roiling the Andean country, their fish no longer yield enough to live on.
Since late last year, then, as many as 355 Warao have made the 1,000 km (620 miles) bus journey from northeastern Venezuela to Manaus, a city of 2 million people where local authorities are now scrambling to help them find shelter, food and medicine.
"Everything is gone in Venezuela," said Abel Calderon, a 32-year-old Warao who is acting as spokesman for the impromptu community now living under tarps, tents and other makeshift lodgings around the city, some of them under a highway overpass.
"We are here looking for a better life," he added, from underneath a white canvas sheltering him and his young son from the equatorial sun.
Under similar cover nearby, other Warao émigrés spoke in their native language as young children ran around the encampment.
Calderon says the Warao chose Manaus because it was the closest city in Brazil where they could look for work or assistance from local authorities.
So far, city officials have complied with food and medicine while also asking Brazil's federal police force to accelerate documentation that can help the Warao land jobs or formally register with social welfare programs.
Some Warao have expressed a willingness to stay in Brazil. Others see their time in Manaus as an opportunity to collect supplies for relatives back home in Venezuela.
"What they really want is to raise the money and obtain clothes so they can provide relief for those suffering from the crisis on the other side of the border," said Elias Emanuel, Manaus' municipal secretary for human rights.
Calderon, for his part, said he is willing to stay, saddened by the hardship and increasingly stark reality in Venezuela, where the economic woes and mounting unrest in recent weeks has led to dozens of deaths in political protests.
"It's sad in Venezuela," he says. "There everything is finished. Here we could work and stay."
(Additional reporting by Edson Ribeiro, writing by Paulo Prada, editing by G Crosse)