The Dictator And The Manatee

Guyana’s zoo and botanical gardens is an interesting place. Not as barbaric as many Third World zoos, in which animals are imprisoned in cages barely big enough to enclose one’s shoes, it is nonetheless a study in unfortunates. On the one hand, it is undeniably beautiful and sprawling, with lush vegetation and a staggering density of exotic birds and flowers… so much so that one quickly becomes hardened to the specialness of its biodiversity; over a period of minutes, a hundred species of kites and cranes zipped about me, close enough to snatch with my hands, any one of which (birds, not hands) would have caused an ornithological stir in a bird-barren place like Toronto. On the other hand, enough litter and human wreckage abounds that one fears for the safety of both the animals and their human visitors.

One of the perils of visiting the place is the constant barrage of beggars, each with a unique yet equally implausible hard luck story, and each with a sense of menacing forcing you to take him seriously. My favourite today was a fellow claiming to have “escaped” from an HIV/AIDS ward and needing funds to get his antiretroviral medication. When I explained to him that I was in Guyana to do HIV work, and that ARV meds are in fact free of charge, I was met with a calculating but confused glare. But my mama didn’t raise no fools (except for a certain sibling who shall go unnamed… oh, you know who you are), so I gave him some money nonetheless. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Guyana, peace of mind and security of body are both worth the pennies they cost.

The zoo/garden facility is, for some unexplainable reason, home to the tomb of Forbes Burnham, the deceased dictator of Guyana, a man whose name is spat with contempt by many, including most members of my family. His reign was characterised by corruption, violence, election fraud, treasury theft and such willful incompetence in the management of this country’s resources that he set Guyana back decades in terms of economic and social evolution. Under his reign, the racial divide that infects this country saw its apex, and the mass exodus to Canada, USA and UK reached torrential levels. There is a widespread belief that he was assisted in clinging to power by forces in the US security establishment; and ironically it was another US institution, Jimmy Carter’s group, that brought true democracy to Guyana upon the dictator’s death. Why Burnham has been allowed such a hallowed tomb, complete with a temple-like shelter frescoed with paeans to his achievements, is beyond me. (Photos of Burnham’s tomb, his frescoes and the surrounding bits are below)

The highlight of the facility were the many pools filled with manatees. All one sees are typical muddy black ponds of water, filled with local fish, buzzed by the standard insects, and patrolled by any number of flocks of startlingly vibrant birds who shake the trees and screech across the terribly humid air.

But if you wait long enough on the banks of the pond, gradually a swirling in the muddy water occurs, and the form of a massive creature starts to take shape. Presently, a set of nostrils pokes from the surface, then a long monster-like body undulates and climaxes with the coiling and slapping of a giant tail. Centuries ago, European sailors developed tales of mermaids upon seeing these creatures. When I first read that bit of history, I figured European sailors were fracked in the head, ’cause a manatee resembles a hippopotamus born of a mother on thalidimide, not a hot babe with fishy naughty bits. But I see it now: in sufficiently muddly water, all one can truly make out is an undulating form followed by the slapping of the water’s surface by an undoubtedly mermaid-like tail.

I shudder to think of what unholy things those sailors did to manatees once they finally caught one. Worthy of a Daily Perv Link (TM), I should think.

Well, I managed to film myself petting a manatee as it emerged from the water to gobble a mountful of grass. I will post it online when I get back… and when I figure out how to convert video from my PDA to something universally accessible!

Stumbling back to the main road from the manatee pond, I passed a caiman, which is a type of local crocodile. When I say “passed”, I don’t mean I passed its enclosure or its cage. I passed a CAIMAN. There it was, hanging out in the wet grass, mouth agape, waiting for some fool tourist to try to pet him. Now, I’ve seen enough episodes of the Crocodile Hunter to actually think, for the briefest of seconds, of yanking him about by the tail. Then I remembered that the Crocodile Hunter is dead, so maybe he’s not such a great role model. So I left it well enough alone.