Missives From Guyana

Feb 16 – Bethany, Guyana

It is Feb 16 and I’ve been back in Guyana for almost 4 days. As I write this, I am huddled under a mosquito net, recognizing the keyboard keys by the illumination afforded by my headlamp, and sweltering in heat that feels like 35 degrees or so. It is 9pm in Bethany in region 2, and I am presently visiting a clean, organized medical mission run by 7th Day Adventist missionaries. I expected to be sleeping on an open deck, knife clutched for fear of nocturnal aggressive dogs and other such creatures. Instead, the mission has given me a luxurious private bungalow in which to spend the night.

Luxurious is a relative term, of course. This is still mostly rainforest. My bed is shielded by a mosquito net. But all types of creepy crawlies are being drawn to the glow of the computer screen, and the net is now crawling with life. Oh, and there’s a family of frogs living in my toilet bowl. The missionaries call them “surpprise frogs” for the obvious reason. They may regret their choice of abode tomorrow morning when my bean-heavy meal is fully digested. Then they’ll be the ones who are surprised.

Yes, my line of work really is stressful. To greet us in Bethany, the college arranged for their top massage students to give us each a one our relaxation massage. Beneath starlight, nestled in the jungle’s humid embrace and soothed by the otherworldly tweets and chirps of creatures unseen, we had the knots of our muscles expertly pressed away.

The college, by the way, is a training centre for vegetarian Seventh Day Adventist Bible workers who wish to attach medical skills to their missionary work. I have my hesitancies about mixing religion and medicine, but it’s nothing new in the history of humankind, and there is no doubt that these are intelligent, caring people who –religion or no religion– can provide some much needed health relief for the tens of thousands in Guyana who suffer without regular medical care. And there’s also no denying that the college has created a wondrous, peaceful and comfortable home here in the Essequibo region, literally carved out of pure jungle. With all the holiness about, it’s a wonder my unclean self doesn’t burst into flames.

Their vegetarianism is also a boon. Despite my regular bacon fixations, I am mostly a vegetarian myself (mostly!), and prefer to remain strictly so while traveling. Guyana has proven particularly difficult to maintain such a diet, so it’s a fantastic thing to be housed in a compound that produces very creative and healthy vegetarian fare.

This is my umpteenth trek to Guyana, each time with a different mission and purpose, and each time with a different destination. In the morning we travel to the AmerIndian village of Mashabo, where we will explore potential new development projects. Then it’s back to Georgetown to await our Friday morning flight home. A medical team attached to the NGO I’m representing on this trip is presently in the deep interior, near the Venezuelan border; they are returning to Georgetown Friday evening and I’m sad that I won’t be able to meet up with them before leaving.

Our first stop was the frontier town of Bartica, outpost of boatmen and gold miners straggling in from Brazil, Venezuela and all points within Guyana. Here’s an object lesson for those North Americans among you who have never ventured abroad: one night, at dinner with four senior men of Bartica, they turned the conversation, in all seriousness, to the topic of whether one’s first love can truly end. It’s something I’ve seen throughout my journeys, but never in the “West”: men from all walks of life –builders, miners, politicians, labourers– gathering together to discuss the nature of love.

The bugs are spooking me now. Got to turn off the computer!

Feb 17 – Bethany, Guyana

Just returned from a visit to the AmerIndian village of Mashabo, which is home to 400-500 Awarak and Carib Indians, cared for by one overworked health care worker, the very charming and experienced Esther. Our job here is to scope out the community’s appropriateness for a medical intervention. My personal agenda is to determine whether any smaller, low investment but high income, projects can be initiated here. The answer to both questions is yes.

Mashabo is a gorgeous set of wooden homes nestled above a seemingly pristine lake. Like all waters in Guyana, the lake is brown and muddy, but somehow seems cleaner and almost blue from a distance. Esther informed us that ongoing issues include malaria, maternal health problems, chronic pain management, blood counts and contraception needs, all within the NGO’s mandate. Additionally, our visit to the underresourced primary school leads us to conclude that teaching aids, particularly with respect to language and science teaching, are most needed. This, I think, is a potentially cheap and impactive development initiative.

At one point, I went for a walk down one of the trails cut by a tractor (logging is the major industry here). Exotic plants and insects abounded, as well as the ubiquitous rustle in the foliage that was usually a splendid ground-dwelling bird or one of many species of large lizard. This is the jungle, after all.

I spotted another trail, mostly overgrown, that looked to have been cut by machete days earlier. Did I dare? How brave was I? This is, after all, the land of five very prevalent poisonous snake species, killer jaguars, poisonous spiders and a plethora of unnamed biting things that can cause disease, pain and even death. I’ve been to jungles in Guyana, Guatemala, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Uganda before. I’ve tracked wild mountain gorillas through the Congo jungle, bivouaced in a hammock on the Brazilian border to hear the jaguars patrolling, piloted a bamboo raft across a jungle river from Thailand into Burma, and have stared down forest foxes on the steps of remote Mayan ruins being overtaken by the forest. I contemplated the snake-proof gaiters in my pack, the mosquito mask in my back pocket and the hunting knife in my front pocket.

Yes, I dared.

And as I bravely set foot onto this path of new dangers, furtively congratulating myself on my masculine courage, I suddenly jumped back! I was surprised by six barefoot AmerIndian schoolboys, the eldest no more than 7, running happily from out of the “dangerous” path. Each turned to me and politely said in turn, “Good afternoon, sir!”

Yeah, I’m an idiot.

It’s 7pm now and I’m back at the mission. The blazing stars glare down through crystal clear skies, and the oppressive heat sets in for the night. I must awaken at 5:AM to make the boat back to Georgetown. But I go to sleep now with a strange contentment. We heard tonight the members of the mission singing, broken youth who have come here to mend and to find a new way. Christian songs echoing through the jungle, like something out of a Jeremy Irons movie (you know the one). I am not a Christian, but I understand what they do here, and I appreciate it.

Feb 18, Georgetown, Guyana

I awoke at 4:AM to catch a speedboat to the town of Supenaam, where anotherboat would take us to Parika, followed by a drive to Georgetown. In the wee hours, the jungle is dark and silent, save for the constant buzzing of weird insects and the occasional crash of something unknown against a hard surface. I took the time to examine the stars, so brilliant and skewed than what I’m used to in Canada.

I heard another of those mysterious crashes coming from the thickest part of the snaking treeline, and flipped on my headlamp to have a gander. We are below sea level, in a genuine South American jungle. The air is as thick as soup, coarse with raw oxygen spewed forth by the greenery. In front of my lamp, a line of plankton-like objects swam in the air, reminding me that life is everywhere here, even in the breathable air, fully explaining my endless allergic reactions.

Hours of peaceful boat journey back to the “city” were instructive. Passing children –7 or 8 years old– clean and lovely in their pressed school outfits, actually rowed their own boats to school. Children in Canada at that age whine about their electronic toys. Children here perform daily manual labour to earn the right to go to school.

We stop to pick up a mother and her three schoolage kids. One of them has been up all night with diarrhea, so they are heading to the hospital. There is a diarrhea epidemic across the country right now, as a mini-drought has gripped the nation, leading to improper use of stagnant waters. One child spends the boat time brushing his teeth with clean water in a cup, spitting into the myserious brownness of the river. It is a weirdly peaceful sight.

In Georgetown we checked into the Hotel Tower, my 5th time staying here in the last 10 years. Ironically, my father had been a waiter and busboy here 60 years ago. He wouldn’t recognize the place today, with its contemporary discotheque, free wifi and in-house spa. Don’t get me wrong –it’s still a Third World inn, so it’s no Ramada or Continental. But it certainly has changed since my father’s day.

We met briefly with the people who run Food For The Poor, an international NGO that delivers –you guessed it– food for the poor. Then topped off the day with a bit of tourism: a trip to the zoo.

Now, I’d been to the Georgetown zoo several times before, most recently only four days ago! But there’s not much else to do around here. For the equivalent of US$4,two people enjoyed entrance and an alcoholic beverage each. Trust me, booze helps you accept some of the horrors you see in this place. My least favourite is the adult African lion, kept in a concrete cage no bigger than a king-sized bed. The poor beast looked bored and miserable.

Most fiercesome were the harpy eagles and various species of South American owls, each big enough and with talons broad enough to easily pick a human baby from its mother’s arms. The harpy eyed me with malicious intent, until I distracted it by indicating a nearby child: much easier pickings.

Interestingly, there’s a huge fenced in exhibit featuring…. a cow. Yes, a cow. With the cow was a toucan in a cage. A cow and a toucan. I think there’s a Saturday morning cartoon there somewhere.

Further on is the tapir enclosure. A sign above it indicates that this tapir is on loan from the Philadelphia zoo. Why is this interesting? Because I’ve seen tapirs in Guyana before… wandering about, minding their own business. Tapirs are indigenous to Guyana. Why do they need to get one from Philadelphia, of all places?

Weirdest of all were the monkey enclosures. These are large metal cages holding many spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and other breeds I did not identify. The spider monkeys are huge, elegant and sad, with active prehensile tails and faces of red otherworldly delight. They are so bored that they shake the hand of any passing human, possibly writing on their palms in secret monkey script, “Send help!”

But several of the smaller monkey species have figured out how to get out. They treat the cage like a sort of townhouse, coming and going as they please, occasionally visiting other monkey species in their cages. I was concerned about one of them wandering into the anaconda or jaguar enclosure, so I alerted an employee.

“Oh those aren’t our monkeys,” she said. “They come from the outside.”

Really? If there are so many monkeys just kicking about visiting their monkey friends in prison, why do we bother even having a monkey prison?!!!

Clearly, this is not the most progressive zoo in the world. I think the alcohol might have given it away.

Off to dinner now, then a long night of catching up on overdo work. Then back to the cold winter of Canada.