Guyana times five

Stretching six hundred miles from north to south, Guyana is “the land of many waters” — but also of many landscapes, from coast to mountain, river to savannah. As the country celebrates its fiftieth anniversary of Independence, we explore its stunning beauty through photos, while Brendan de Caires visits the “afterworld” of the Rupununi and Vidyaratha Kissoon and David Papannah explore the unique atmosphere of Georgetown

A red dirt road runs through the protected forest at Iwokrama, heading for the Rupununi Savannah and the Brazilian border. Photo by Pete OxfordA flock of scarlet ibis take flight over the mudflats of Guyana’s eastern coast. Photo by Pete OxfordThe Essequibo River meanders through the Iwokrama reserve in central Guyana. Photo by Pete OxfordDotted with palm trees and clumps of forest, the Rupununi Savannah sprawls towards the Kanuku Mountains. Photo by Pete OxfordA baby caiman poses on the giant leaf of a Victoria amazonica waterlily. Photo by Pete OxfordFishing the old-fashioned way, with bow and arrow. Photo by Pete OxfordRoraima, Guyana’s highest, is also where the country’s borders meet Brazil and Venezuela, at the so-called Triple Point. Photo by Pete OxfordThe clocktower of Stabroek Market is a Georgetown landmark. Photo by Pete OxfordGeorgetown’s Harbour Bridge crosses the Demerara River on a series of floating pontoons. Photo by Pete OxfordA quiet moment in the Botanical Gardens, near the “kissing bridge”. Photo by Nikhil RamkarranSpeedboats wait to ferry passengers across the Demerara River from the stelling behind Stabroek Market. Photo by Pete OxfordMap of GuyanaGuyana’s interior is a rich refuge for wildlife, like this red howler monkey. Photo by Pete Oxford

Coast

Guyana’s low-lying coastline stretches for hundred of miles. South-east of the Essequibo River, it is home to most of the country’s population, protected from tide and flood by the famous Sea Wall. But to the north-west, the coast remains an unspoiled domain of mudflats, mangroves, and occasional beaches of coarse shell sand, home to tiny villages and wildlife like seabirds and nesting turtles

 

River

The enormous rivers of Guyana — the Essequibo and its tributaries, the Demerara, the Berbice, the Corentyne — are highways more than barriers, connecting the densely populated coast to even the most remote areas of the interior. To visitors from small islands, the sheer scale of these rivers — at its mouth, the Essequibo is twenty miles across — suggests lakes or inland seas

 

Savannah

The Rupununi Savannah of south-western Guyana is a vast rolling landscape broken by rivers and hills, and changing colours with the seasons: red and brown in times of drought, suddenly green when the rains come. Some see it as a land before time, but for Brendan de Caires the savannahs are a spellbinding “afterworld”

 

Although few of us have been there, Guyanese like to talk about the interior knowingly. We were brought up that way. In school, “the hinterland” was made to sound harmlessly provincial, like an administrative zone in a Communist country. Yet I grew up thinking you went there only if you had to: for National Service, to work on a gold dredge, or to live among the Amerindians. The “bush” — which meant everything beyond our narrow coastal strip — might as well have been another continent. Exotic languages, esoteric folklore. Mysteries, minerals. A dreamscape. Fleas must talk about horses in similar ways.

Georgetown, our tiny capital near the mouth of the Demerara, is the real distraction. Once you escape the city, it’s obvious why so many writers and artists place our “heartland” in the interior. The poet Mark McWatt calls it “the central spider in our web of dreams / that weaves the net of El Dorado.” The Rupununi savannah lies in the south-western fragment of this web, a large grassy plain dotted with clumps of forest, bordering Brazil.

When I was six or seven, my family visited Manari, a ranch started in 1927 by the daughter of Henry Melville — one of the legendary figures in Rupununi history. It felt otherworldly. A tame deer walked around the grounds; umbrella-size discs of cassava bread baked on the roofs of benabs. In the evenings, insects chirruped so loudly that the silences settled on you like a blanket. Last year I returned, this time to Karanambu, to visit my cousin Salvador and his wife Andrea. Formerly a working ranch, Karanambu is now a trust and eco-tourist lodge. It is also home to Diane McTurk, one of the region’s last great characters, deservedly famous for rescuing and rehabilitating giant river otters.

In three short days, the Rupununi cast its old spell. Birding for the first time, I watched a dozen reportedly shy species up close. After an hour I knew a handful of distinctive shapes and flight patterns. Our Amerindian guide, who casually identified what, to me, were distant blurs, knew four hundred. We smelled our way to an otter’s den, even though its occupants kept to themselves. As we travelled home in the dark, a hundred pairs of caiman eyes glinted from the river.

On the second evening, we visited an ox-bow lake with giant waterlilies — the pads were often more than a metre in diameter. We sipped rum punch and nibbled cookies as the sun set. “Watch this, carefully!” said Salvador as Nature natured. In the fading light, scores of grapefruit-size lily buds fleshed open, almost imperceptibly, to reveal startling white flowers. The ones near me visibly trembled and buzzed — aswarm with beetles harvesting nectar. Fifteen minutes later, the twilight had festooned the dark water with twitching flowers.

The next morning, as we drove around the savannah, Andrea looked for an anteater. With her usual charm, she talked a local vaqueiro — cowboy — into the search. Ten minutes later, he coaxed a juvenile male towards us by clapping his hands. It galumphed across the empty plain, snorting and groaning like a middle-aged jogger. When it drew close enough to notice us, it simply ran the other way.

“Mankind still feels a certain nostalgia for that primitive cosmic sense of being,” writes the literary scholar Michael Gilkes, a longing for “a time and history that do not deaden or imprison us in a fixed framework of experience.” This is the perfect gloss for Guyana’s heartlands. Our forests heighten the senses. They force you to attend to new colours, movements, sounds. Even at night, slung in a hammock on an overland trip to Kaieteur, I remember the histrionic cries of howler monkeys circling through the canopy. In the forest, you feel like an adventurer, a privileged observer at the centre of unspoiled life.

The savannah feels utterly different, more like the Russian steppes. Where the jungle feels primordial, the savannah resembles the afterworld in an Armageddon movie, somewhere that has survived the clearing away of civilisations — a place where clocks, roads, and human artefacts have lost their meaning.

Outsiders aren’t always charmed. Trekking towards Brazil in 1933, the British writer Evelyn Waugh felt so disoriented by the landscape — “empty plain; sparse, colourless grass; anthills; sandpaper trees, an occasional clump of ragged palm” — that he sought refuge in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Waugh’s diary, which would later be written up as Ninety-Two Days, finds him “sat among ants for an hour,” enduring “great heat and suffering from thirst,” cold and sleepless in his hammock, and with “feet full of jiggers.” Water offered no relief: “one does not do much swimming in these rivers because they are full of dangerous creatures — sting ray, electric eels, and carnivorous fish.” En route to Kurupukari, he endures the company of Mr Bain, a man whose “tiresome solicitude” and garrulity disprove the legend that “men who administer distant territories are ‘strong and silent’”:

“Listen,” said Mr Bain one day, “that is most interesting. It is what we call the ‘six o’clock beetle,’ because he always makes that noise at exactly six o’clock.”

“But it is now a quarter past four.”

“Yes, that is what is so interesting.”

I grew up among more punctual beetles and have swum, happily, with the carnivorous fish. Re-reading his prose, I can’t help wishing that Waugh could be resurrected and handed over to my cousin Salvador for week. He writes, for example, that on the Savannah “there is no twilight; the sun goes down blazing on the horizon, affording five or ten minutes of gold and crimson glory; then darkness. In the forest night opens slowly like a yawn.” Yes, it does, but have you ever watched this yawn unfold among giant waterlilies?

 

Mountain

The ancient, enduring heart of this country is the Guiana Shield: a mass of sandstone, 1.7 billion years old, whose highest elevations form eerie table mountains called tepuis. The Pakaraima Mountains are remote fortresses of pristine nature and awesome myth, home to two of Guyana’s great wonders: Kaieteur Falls and the mysterious mountain called Roraima

 

City

At the mouth of the Demerara River, laced with a hardworking network of canals and kokers (sluice gates), Georgetown is Guyana’s capital, centre of commerce and culture, repository of two centuries of complicated history. Vidyaratha Kissoon and David Papannah offer some hints about what makes Georgetown — once nicknamed “the garden city” — special

 

Georgetown is using your fingers to eat dhal, rice, and coconut choka close to Guyana’s oldest jewellery store, in the Caribbean’s oldest shopping centre. Stabroek Market, with its signature clocktower, opened in 1882. The vendors here offer Guyanese vegetables, fruit, jewellery, fish, groceries, clothes, knife-grinding, mobile phones, and quiet trade in gold and currency.

The city in the daytime is loud in some parts with the sounds of the hustle to make a living. Carts selling music try to drown out the other noises. At night, central Georgetown becomes quiet, but the entertainment districts come alive with karaoke — the best sometimes in places advertised by word of mouth. The music is international pop, Bollywood, and, in at least one place, Brazilian.

Georgetown offers Brazil also in the form of churches, hairdressing salão, churrascarria, and places where the enlight-enment on offer is very different from what you find in church.

Suburban and central Georgetown offer prayer and redemption in the tall wooden St George’s Cathedral, large churches, small churches, mandirs like the Radha Krishna Mandir and the Guyana Sanatana Dharma Maha Sabha Ashram, and mosques like the Queenstown Jama Masjid and the Masjid Darus Salam. These diverse religious buildings reflect the change in architectural style from wood to concrete. Elsewhere the Umana Yana cultural centre, its conical roof built by Wai Wai craftsmen from troolie leaves and wood, reminds us of an even older form of architecture.

One well-preserved old-style wooden building on Camp Street is home to the Moray House Trust, a centre for intellectual activities ranging from “Two Gentlemen Reading Poetry” to discussions on the future of sugar in Guyana. Georgetown is trying to create conversation when none exists. The avenue of trees on Main Street and other open spaces are sites for “groundings” events, where free books are shared in exchange for discussion about serious topics. Other conversations are randomly set up when loud music carts intersect with roadside vendors selling all types of drinks. Vendors also sell good food, and Guyana’s famously sweet pineapple cut up in chunks as a healthy snack.

Georgetown honours those who resisted tyranny. Martin Carter wrote the poem “Bastille Day — Georgetown” after the murder of journalist Father Sidney Darke in July 1979. Artist Philip Moore’s Cuffy statue, memorialising the 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion, and Ivor Thom’s monument to the 1823 Demerara Rebellion are prominent pieces of public art. The Walter Rodney Memorial in Hadfield Street is close to the primary school where the scholar and activist began his education, and also close to where he was killed in 1980. It offers a space for reflection on his work and life.

Reflection — and romance, too — are also possible in the open spaces of the Promenade Gardens and the Botanical Gardens, with their manatee ponds and “kissing bridge.” The National Park is a popular exercise venue. The Sea Wall on Sunday night is a liming spot, where hundreds enjoy the breeze coming off the Atlantic.

The Eucalyptus Garden Theatre is an open space for performance named after the decades-old trees around it. The eucalyptus trees will provide the backdrop for a Caribbean Film Academy Festival in May, a “Poetry of My People” event celebrating the work of Guyanese poets Mahadai Das, Laxmie Kallicharran, and Ivan Forrester in June, and the G-Jazz Festival in December. The Garden Theatre is in the compound of the Theatre Guild Playhouse.

All of these flavours, sounds, sights, and scents create the atmosphere of a city like no other. Georgetown is like Canje rice, a random combination of spices, vegetables, and rice cooked by descendants of South Indian immigrants. A mix of life, noise, music, and silence — and a city liked by some, not liked by others, but always itself.

 

Advertorials

The Guyana Marriott Hotel
The Guyana Marriott Hotel Georgetown marks a new era of hospitality in Guyana, South America. The iconic Marriott emblem, which symbolises excellence, stands like a beacon in Guyana’s capital city, Georgetown. Its modern architecture and interior design embody the splendour of Guyana’s natural beauty. Whether you are staying for business or pleasure, the hotel’s modern luxury will be your best bet for great service and quality.

Guyana Tourism Authority
The Golden Jubilee Festival, one of the signature events being staged from 19 to 22 May, 2016, to celebrate Guyana’s 50th Independence Anniversary, will feature iconic Guyanese talents from all genres of music, sumptuous cuisine, and rich cultural displays. Come visit, come celebrate with the warm and hospitable people of beautiful Guyana.

Pegasus Hotel
Located minutes from the heart of Georgetown, the Pegasus Hotel is ideally situated for business and leisure travellers. The Pegasus offers 130 comfortable rooms and suites, a wide range of conference services, and a variety of restaurants and bars.

L. Seepersaud Maraj & Sons
A local family-owned jewellery establishment, renowned for its quality handcrafted jewellery, personalised service, and trusted prices. Since 1935, this establishment has offered a splendid array of jewellery, from the exquisitely unique to contemporary selections, meticulously crafted from gold and diamonds. This cornerstone of Guyanese jewellery is centrally located in the centennial heritage site of Stabroek Market, under the clock. With its rich history and bold architecture, this is where the true Guyanese spirit dwells amid the colourful bustle of genuine bargains and everyday low prices.

Demerara Distillers
Demerara Distillers Limited has been perfecting the craft of fine rums for over three centuries. Our Anniversary Special Edition is a blend of rums aged in oak casks for up to half a century. Its special release marks Guyana’s 2016 Golden Anniversary, to celebrate and toast 50 years of independent nationhood. Presented in a distinctive crystal decanter bearing an eighteen-carat collectible gold medallion, this special edition offers an unparalleled experience for connoisseurs.

Fibre Tech
Fibre Tech Industrial Plastics welcomes you to Guyana on our Golden Jubilee. While you are here, come visit Guyana’s leading manufacturer of fibreglass products. Our products are manufactured in Guyana to international standards. They are elegantly built to withstand conditions such as rain, sun, fungus, mildew, wood ants, flooding, and are environmentally friendly. We facilitate all wholesalers and distributors, builders, hotels, architects, contractors, and decorators. Superior quality backed by one-year factory warranty. See our ad on page six.

Ramada Georgetown Princess Hotel & Princess Entertainment Centre
Princess Hotel & Casinos International is honoured to officially announce its upgraded new brand, Ramada Georgetown Princess Hotel. It is our pride to share this milestone with the Guyanese people on their 50th Independence Anniversary, also to repeat our commitment to make Guyana a tourist and conference destination of the Caribbean.

Gaico Construction
This year, Gaico Construction Inc. will be celebrating its twenty-fifth year in business. We pride ourselves on high ethical business standards, care for the environment, and respect for our employees and the community. We are committed to working with government to create a better life for all Guyanese. Our multicultural and diverse society is part of our rich heritage. We welcome all to our beautiful country to celebrate our 50th anniversary as an independent nation.

Elaineville
ElaineVille Housing Development is a 150-acre gated community at Providence, East Bank Demerara. This upscale project is family-oriented, and is ten minutes from Georgetown, one minute from the East Bank Highway, police and gas stations. When completed, it will host three hundred homes, a 42-unit townhouse square, club house, tennis court, and many others. Water and electricity are already in place. For more information, call 592 223 1473 or 231 4466.

 

Caribbean Airlines operates daily direct flights to Cheddi Jagan International Airport from Trinidad and New York City, with connections to other destinations