4 October 2011
While visiting my cousin in Guyana, I had the honour of joining him for his first ever trip abroad, at the age of 20. Our aim: Get from Georgetown, Guyana’s coastal capital, to Brazil’s northern border...for free! After checking prices of planes and buses and finding out that none were free, we heard that a charity called Eiripan, (a word meaning ‘sharing’ in Makushi, one of the Guyanese Amerindian languages), was running an expedition through the rainforest to the Brazilian border to give Christmas presents to Amerindian children. After explaining to them how passionate we were about their charity, and how we were graciously willing to help despite the long travelling involved, they took us on.
The next morning, getting as comfortable as we could expect to get while sitting on a pair of hard metal oil barrels on the back of a truck, we set off from Georgetown with the rising sun visible through the palm trees across the Demerara river (whose cane fields are the original source of Demerara sugar, Guyana’s best known export). However, our sense of excited anticipation was quickly diminished by the painful jolts we received every time the truck went over a slight bump. We knew that if we were having this much difficulty on the capital’s tarmac roads, then we would be turned to mincemeat on the winding dirt roads that lead through the rainforest. Furthermore, there is a tradition of navigating these roads at breakneck pace, perhaps in a collective effort to compensate for Guyana’s marked lack of theme parks and roller coasters. Over the next few hours we tried out more and more inventive ways of finding comfortable seating positions, and eventually found ourselves lying on the tarpaulin stretched across the top of the truck, looking serenely upwards at the clear blue sky, and hastily reaching for one of the metal bars behind us whenever the truck turned sharply.
Before we knew it, we had entered the rainforest, which was like entering a different universe. Brightly coloured parrots, toucans and tens of other species of birds flew between the trees above our heads, and monkeys could be seen playing in the branches. Rodents and monkeys on the forest floor would be startled out of the bushes by the sound of our truck thundering past, sprinting across the road like cats. On one occasion a lightning-fast snake appeared to the side of our truck, seeming to match our speed for a few seconds before disappearing back into the undergrowth. My cousin informed me that the Guyanese name for this snake was the ‘bush motorbike’, and I could see why.
As the bus mounted hills, we could occasionally see the forest below us - infinite shades of green extending to the horizon in every direction. As the journey continued through the day, the beauty of lush greenery and nature remained unbroken all around us, except for occasional burnt out shells of crashed trucks. After crossing the Essequibo (Guyana’s biggest river, which contains islands the size of Barbados) with the sun starting to set behind the massive trees, we entered Iwokrama, a large Amerindian-run section of the rainforest very important for Guyanese ecotourism, an example of economic and environmental interests being successfully served by respecting the rights of first nation communities.
Night fell as we left the rainforest and entered the Guyanese savannah, under a spectacular sea of hypnotising bright stars. Here, the road became even bumpier, and we realized that we had to sit up to avoid getting jolted off the truck. We were too exhausted to maintain ourselves upright, and sat with our backs against each other. That moment, sitting back-to-back under the stars, brother-cousins travelling towards the unknown, I would come to see as one of the defining moments of my life.
Soon, a better quality tarmac road is going to be built between Guyana and Brazil, bringing industry and development. But if this development does not respect the interests and voices of Guyana’s first nation communities, it could spell disaster for their way of life, and for Guyana’s incredible biodiversity, which is its most valuable resource.