Birds of the Mahaica

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Guyana enjoys top-tier renown among one important subset of tourists: bird watchers. The country’s undisturbed rain forests, wetlands and other ecosystems support large numbers of unique and unusual bird species.

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Mahaica Tours offer a 5-hour boat tour of the Mahaica River, an offshoot of the Demerara. The tour focuses on spying birds (more than 150 bird species live in the wetlands surrounding the river), but also offers the chance to spot monkeys, manatees, and other mammals. The tour boat drifts down the river with the current for most of the tour, and then speeds back to the starting point. The tour launches from Unity Village, about a 45 minute drive from Georgetown. Expect birding tours to start early, shortly before or right after dawn.

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The dark water of the Mahaica perfectly reflects the sky and trees above.

The beautiful Mahaica River is home to people as well. A few homes and small settlements scatter the banks along the tour; our tour crossed paths with boats carrying locals fishing or traveling to and from their homes on the river. Some of the houses upriver look like perfect slices of rustic paradise.

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A home on the Mahaica

 

The tour company provides high-powered binoculars which are essential if you go to see the birds and not just the beautiful river and environs. I also came armed with a copy of Birds of Northern South America, the bible of birding in these parts. Both the book and the binoculars would have proved close to useless without our guide’s knowledge and sharp eyes.

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Hoatzin bird

The tour can almost guarantee spotting hoatzin, the national bird of Guyana. Truly an odd bird, the species’ distinctive and solitary family line extends back some 64 million years almost to the dinosaurs. We saw dozens flapping clumsily back and forth along a long stretch of the river bank. Also known as the stink bird, the fermentation of their digestion process emits a strong, unpleasant aroma. Adding to the overall effect, the hoatzin’s noisy call sounds almost like a grunting pig. The hoatzin have endured through the ages despite being a large, mostly flightless ground bird probably because they smell like ass.

To note other frequently sighted species along the Mahaica: gray-breasted crakes, Rufous crab-hawks, silvered antbirds, black-capped donacobius, wing-barred seedeater, point-tailed palmcreeper, Moriche oriole, black hawk-eagle, boat-billed heron, pied water-tyrant, tropical kingbird, and green-rumped parrotlet.

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Can you spot the monkeys? Can you spot the hoatzin?

The only creature we saw in greater number than hoatzin were monkeys, mainly the red howler monkey. As our boat drifted down the river, we observed a large group of monkeys sleepily rousing from the night’s sleep clustered together midway up a large tree. Then at the very top we saw one very wakeful monkey apparently on lookout and eyeing us warily.

I can’t overstate how beautiful and peaceful the Mahaica River is with or without the birds, primates and other creatures. One final picture to underscore the point:

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A rainbow reflected in the Mahaica

Footnote on birding in Georgetown: One hardly needs leave the city for amazing bird watching in Guyana. Georgetown is a very green city with large, well-distributed tracts of park lands, including the massive Botanical Gardens, acres of which might as well be in the middle of the jungle. Over 200 species of birds live in Georgetown. Most common in my neighborhood are kiskadees. I’ve learned to identify scarlet ibis which I always see flying over the National Aquatics Center pool when I’m there with Sylvie in the early evening. The nearby Promenade Garden attracts flocks of parrots to roost each evening. A large hawk I’ve photographed and identified per the Birds of Northern South America as a black-collared hawk often hunts snakes out of a field next to our house.

 

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A road trip to Linden, Guyana

I recently became the proud owner of a Toyota Rav4, purchased online from JapaneseVehicles.com and shipped from Japan to Guyana. To celebrate its arrival, Wendy and I drove it to Linden.

I’ve learned a lot about Guyana from Georgetown taxi drivers. Many are friendly with strong political opinions. From them I’ve learned the driving norms of how to cut up to an intersection by using the oncoming lane, how to use sidewalks to avoid speed bumps, even how to greet beautiful women while speeding around them. Georgetown taxi drivers know every shortcut through the worst neighborhoods. A few taxi drivers are even reasonably cautious and might have working seat belts in their taxis. But will I miss them? Only a little.

The very day the Rav4 cleared customs, we steered her headlong into the jungle and went roaring down the longest stretch of paved road leading into the interior of Guyana.

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The road to Linden.

Called the Soesdyke-Linden Highway, the road extends 45 paved miles into the interior running roughly parallel to the Demerara River and leading to the second largest city in Guyana and one of the few population centers away from the coast.

The road hasn’t seen significant repairs since 1999. Dips and buckles warp the pavement along most of its miles. Even though the road saves a boat trip, the highway can feel like riding the waves after all.

About halfway to Linden, we came upon a roadblock; men with big guns questioned us about our business on the road. Days before, several maximum security prison inmates had set fire to a Georgetown prison and escaped. So police may have been trying to prevent their flight into the interior. But I’ve also heard random checkpoints aren’t unusual on the the road to Linden.

I’ve previously noted that Linden (still called Mackenzie at the time) was once home to Henri Charrière, the famous escaped convict and author of Pappillon. He was there during one of the town’s boom periods, when demand for bauxite peaked during World War II. Although his memoir is short on details concerning his time there, we know he later fled British Guiana after his various business ventures – including a strip club in Mackenzie – somehow landed him in legal trouble with the British authorities. (For more on Pappillon’s adventures in British Guiana, see my review of Pappillon here, or wait with keen anticipation for the Pappillon novel I am writing.)

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Crossing the Demerara at Linden.

Linden (so named in 1970 by then prime minister Linden Forbes Burnham) straddles the Demerara and may in some ways feel vaguely familiar to anyone who has visited a washed-up Rust Belt river town – like, say, Cairo, Illinois. Bauxite mining and logging are still important to Linden’s economy. But several looming abandoned industrial works now watch over the town. People from Linden are proud and determined nonetheless. Many seem to take particular pride in Linden’s rough-around-the-edges reputation. No sleepy backwater, Linden’s streets convey a bustling, lively character full of people doing whatever they can to make ends meet.

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Wendy with a coworker in Linden.

We met up with a co-worker of Wendy who lives in Linden. Many like her support themselves here by commuting to jobs on the coast. Fleets of public transport mini-buses ply the Soesdyke-Linden Highway daily carrying workers and professionals to and from Georgetown. The co-worker took us on a tour of the Mackinzie Market, and introduced us to her family who operate a clothing store out of a stall in the market.

We wandered the market and the crumbling, punchy streets of Linden admiring the pluck and industry of the locals. We visited the worthwhile Linden Museum of Industrial and Socio-Cultural Heritage. And we popped in at the Linden Branch of the National Library.

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Having a cold one in Linden.

Later we walked down to a stretch of the river bank where river taxis were taking fares to cross to the other side. The Demerara is narrower here than at Georgetown and the small boats charge around 75 cents for a round trip. We crossed and I had a cold GT in a rum shop on the opposite bank.

The pavement ends in Linden but a dirt road carries on deeper into the jungle: through the Iwokrama Forest, across the Rupununi Savannah, and on to Lethem and the Brazilian border. Someday I’ll see for myself where it leads, perhaps all the way to the city of Manaus in Brazil. But on this day, we enjoyed a few more leisurely hours exploring around Linden before turning the Rav4 around. We made it back to Georgetown in time to meet Sylvie’s school bus.

 

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Guyana’s breathtaking Kaieteur and Orinduik Falls in a day

The premier tourist destination in Guyana is Kaieteur Falls located deep in interior jungle on the Potaro River. Were Kaieteur more accessible, it would undoubtedly be a world famous waterfall. No photo I’ve seen begins to capture its grandeur. Skilled writers stumble over themselves, spouting ecstatic gibberish trying to describe the experience of encountering Kaieteur as it is, where it is, one of the greatest waterfalls in the world surrounded by the jungle-covered Pakaraima Mountains. Simply, there can be no substitute for the experience itself: the thunder and spray, the rush of air, the rainbow flashes, and the mineral-earthy aroma of a mighty river leaping mid-air, then roaring down a dense jungle valley.

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Harry on a recent visit to Kaieteur.

British novelist Evelyn Waugh trekked overland to Kaieteur in 1932 when getting there necessitated a caravan of pack animals and indigenous guides. He described the fall in his travel memoir Ninety Two Days. Travel writer, John Gimlette, visited the fall in 2012 for his book, Wild Coast. Filmmaker, Werner Herzog, filmed much of The White Diamond on site at Kaieteur in 2004. Prince Charles visited in 2000. Prince Harry was there a few months ago.

Aside from these famous visitors, what is Kaieteur’s claim to fame? The highest? The biggest? Ranking the size of waterfalls is a tricky business. Judging the length of drop can be subjective since many of the highest waterfalls descend in a series of drops, or their waters tumble over rocks on descent. Another measure, the volume of water, varies by rainfall amounts and is hard to measure with any precision. These caveats aside, Kaieteur can competitively claim to be the largest single-drop waterfall by volume at peak rainy season. Admittedly then, several waterfalls are higher. Other rival waterfalls have a lot more water. Certainly most waterfalls on this scale have roads leading to and away from them. But none in the world offers quite this water combination of volume and free fall.

For me, the real charm of Kaieteur involves its remoteness, the magic of its isolated location surrounded by miles of undeveloped rain forest. Kaieteur (pronounced kai-tchewer) can be accessed overland by boat and hiking on a 7-day guided expedition, camping in the jungle along the way. Or one can fly from Guyana’s Correia Airport at Ogle directly into Kaieteur National Park and enjoy an easy 15 minute hike from the landing strip to the fall.

But even flying requires patience and persistence since the small planes demand a fully-booked flight to make the trip. Tourism is a steady and growing industry in Guyana, but remains a trickle at times. Selling out nine passenger seats on one of these flights is far from a forgone conclusion on any given day. Our flight was booked through Dagron Tours based in Georgetown. I visited their offices to pay in cash as required, our party’s names were added to a list, and we could only hope enough people happened to have the same idea for the same weekend.

We learned the trip was a go on the day before the flight. Dagron provided return transportation to and from the airport. We boarded a Trans Guyana-owned Britten Norman BN-2 Islander.

Twenty minutes flight inland and the coastal wetlands swept up to the Pakaraima foothills. Soon we were flying around peaks and between bluffs. Kaieteur came into view.

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The plane touched down at a landing strip in the national park less than an hour after takeoff.

We hiked to three different lookouts of the fall, each closer until we were standing near the edge of the fall in a space that felt like the edge of the world.

I won’t attempt my own ecstatic gibberish here. Kaieteur is beautiful, thrilling and an overwhelming experience.

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The plane circled several times around the fall when we took off again. For thrills, the pilot flew the plane so low over the edge of the fall it seemed our landing gear might touch the edge, then dropped altitude down into the misty canyon beneath the fall! While swooping down, I noticed the plane seemed surrounded by, or rather inside of a rainbow.

Our itinerary included an afternoon stop at another set of waterfalls, the Orinduik Falls on the Ireng River which runs along the border between Guyana and Brazil. The same airline offers Kaieteur/Baganara packages. Baganara is a beautiful, relaxing beach resort on an island in the lower Essequibo River. For reasons noted below when discussing Orinduik, Baganara as a second stop-over might be a better option for most travelers.

Flying between Kaieteur and Orinduik, the jungle below thins away, and the mountains smooth. The plane followed the Ireng River’s path through rolling hills of savannah. Nestling between these hills were Amerindian villages and meandering foot paths connecting the villages.

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Flying low along the Ireng River – the border of Guyana and Brazil – on the approach to Orinduik.

Upon landing in a grassy field, we were greeted by several small Patamona children who had waded across from a village on the Brazilian side. The children led us to the falls and joined us in swimming in the Ireng River. Indigenous people of the Patamona tribe occupy area villages on both the Brazilian and Guyanese side of the Ireng and cross freely between the countries. This struck me as a beautiful freedom for them since if the country belongs to anybody, it belongs to them. Despite this being an international boundary, no discernible border security infrastructure – or even so much as a road – exists for miles surrounding Orinduik.

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Patamona children join us for a swim in the Orinduik Falls.

The Orinduik Falls are wide but no higher than around 80 feet. They fall in a series of steps. The water beneath the falls forms shallow pools with easy currents. We splashed in the cool, cascading water and climbed around on the rocks over and behind the falls.

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Swimming at Orinduik Falls.

While there, we were attacked by scores of biting kabouri flies, a common pest in savannah lands. A bite from a kabouri fly stings and can bleed, itches fiercely for weeks, and can take more than a month to heal. Kabouri are extremely aggressive, bite through fabric, and are apparently rather tolerant of deet. Everyone in our party suffered at least dozens of these bites, some were covered.

The flight back to Ogle from Orinduik was close to two hours. We flew through a rain storm. I happened to be in the co-pilots seat for that leg of the trip: the pilot was next to me – cheerful and unperturbed – filling out his flight logs while the plane bounced invisibly along through dense clouds on autopilot all the way back to Ogle.

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An evening on the Georgetown seawall

On any given evening around sundown, many Georgetown residents walk out to the seawall to enjoy the evening breezes and views of the sunset over the ocean.

These photos were taken near the Seawall Grandstand. My daughter had just procured bubbles from a street vendor.

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A thrilling boat ride

Guyana has so few roads, boats are still an essential form of transportation.

I made the journey to Santa Mission, an Amerindian village, and a bit further upriver to the Arrowpoint Nature Resort.

The journey involved crossing over to the Demerara River’s west bank from a landing near Soesdyke, Guyana and then traveling up the Kamuni and Pokerero creeks by speed boat.

The boat’s captain knew the waterways so well, we sped up a narrow, winding creek at seeming breakneck speeds, cutting hairpin bends with precision, the creek banks a few feet away on either side.

Upriver the creek widened slightly and the jungle opened into a wide, pristine savannah. I recorded the short clip above as the boat sped along that section of Pokerero Creek.

In the clip, we passed on the right bank the landing for the defunct and abandoned Timberhead Rainforest Resort. Hear Wendy say and know to be true, “Somebody needs to buy it.”

Even lacking roads, the trip from bustling, modern Georgetown to rustic Santa Mission village can take as little as 90 minutes.

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My Literary Introduction to a Wild Coast

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The author seen reading a book about Guyana at a Royals game last summer.

When I learned my family and I would be picking up and moving to a town called Georgetown, Guyana, my first association of the place was to a book I had read recently. Papillon, the memoir of a French convict sentenced to a South American penal colony, is primarily set in French Guiana, not Guyana. But Guyana wasn’t itself called Guyana at the time. The wider region was known as Guiana and comprised of colonies controlled by the British (then British Guiana now independent Guyana), the Dutch (then Dutch Guiana now independent Suriname), and the French (then and now French Guiana). Also, Papillon did spend some time in and describes Georgetown, now my home, following one of his prison breaks.

I began to read as many books about or set in Guyana as a librarian with Interlibrary Loan powers can access. The project took me down many pleasurable reading paths: I enjoyed a new and impressive first novel by a young Indian author, I perused the works of a Nobel laureate, found still-good advice on where to eat in Georgetown from an 83 year old book, and unearthed a few unjustly unheralded authors whose primary works are long out of print and copies of which had to be summoned via ILL from backwater municipal libraries possibly too understaffed to keep up with culling their collection of unread books.

I’ve been in Guyana for over two months now. This seems a good time to go back and review the literature I absorbed. How well did those books prepare me for the reality I’ve encountered?

11335415Guyana: The Bradt Travel Guide. Kirk Smock. 2011.

I believe this to be the most recently published travel guide dedicated to Guyana. I’ve had a tendency to favor Lonely Planet guides. But, to my knowledge, they have not produced a guide to Guyana (apart from a few pages in a guide for the entire continent). The Bradt guide’s publication date deterred me. But a friend bought it for me. Having it, I dipped in, realized it was well-written and read it cover-to-cover. If any indication of Bradt guides, I’m a convert and will look for them on the shelf first.

If reading a travel guide cover-to-cover sounds like an unpleasant idea, please consider three things. First, you might be willing to do the same if you were getting ready to move to a place like Guyana. Second, the book is long on historical, political and scientific information both in designated areas and throughout in context. And lastly, the level of detail in this book is such that it often veers into the genre of travel memoir with author, Kirk Smock, as its hero. In addition to information about accommodations offered by a lodge, one will learn about the background and eccentricities of characters – the owners or guides – one is likely to encounter while lodging there. The owner of one eco-lodge in the Rupununi asked me how I knew about the existence of his lodge, a fair question given its location and lack of website or other discernable marketing strategy. I mentioned the Bradt Guide. “Ah, Kirk is an old and dear friend,” he said.

The downside of the book’s vivid detail is that the text risks becoming obsolete and misinforming readers even faster than in the already ephemeral shelf-life of a typical travel guide. Already I have called a number and been asked “How did you get this number.” I informed him of its being printed in a travel guide. “Oh, my son runs the business now. Let me give you his number.” On another occasion I visited a restaurant highly recommended by the intrepid and discerning Smock only to find it under new management and comically dysfunctional. To be fair, the book was revised a full six years ago based on an original text that is over nine years old – an antiquity. Quite a run for a travel guide still finding readers. Kirk Smock needs to revisit Guyana for a new edition before Lonely Planet cuts in on Bradt’s monopoly. In case he’s indisposed, perhaps I’ll email Bradt and offer my humble services. I find myself with time on my hands in this hot country.

61Cpu1OrJXL._AC_UL320_SR210,320_A Hot Country. Shiva Naipaul. 1983.

A novel set in a fictional country, but so apparently modeled on Guyana I read it as such. The main character is a citizen of a newly independent country but descended from the old colonial, slave-holding masters. Guilt ridden, he atones for the sins of his family by operating an unprofitable bookshop in the capital city, by marrying a woman descended from indentured servants almost as a project for her intellectual betterment, and – in short – by stubbornly refusing to leave the country even as it descends into despotism with his kind identified as a public enemy.

The novel, steeped in cynicism and hopelessness, is a long rebuke of the damage wrought by colonialism. I would have been receptive to a slightly more cheerful take on the place I was about to call home. For all that, this book was one of my favorite discoveries. The book so well evokes the feeling and flavor of being in Georgetown. Several times while walking around the central district, I’ve half expected to come across a bookshop operated by an old, penitent white guy. Perhaps I will yet.

9792232The Sly Company of People Who Care. Rahul Bhattacharya. 2011.

Written the same year the intrepid and discerning Kirk Smock rang up his contacts in Guyana to see if they still answered their phones, this debut novel is the better sequel to the first edition of his heroic travel guide.

How much do I love this book? Let me post – with interpolations – the publisher’s promotional copy from the cover flap to count the ways.

In flight from the tame familiarity of home in Bombay (read: Harrisonville), a twenty-six-year-old cricket journalist (read: forty-year-old librarian) chucks his job and arrives in Guyana, a forgotten colonial society of raw, mesmerizing beauty. Amid beautiful, decaying wooden houses in Georgetown, on coastal sugarcane plantations, and in the dark rainforest interior scavenged by diamond hunters, he grows absorbed with the fantastic possibilities of this new place where descendants of the enslaved and indentured have made a new world. Ultimately, to fulfill his purpose, he prepares to mount an adventure of his own. His journey takes him beyond Guyanese borders, and his companion will be the feisty, wild-haired Jan (read: Wendy).

In this dazzling novel, propelled by a singularly forceful voice, Rahul Bhattacharya captures the heady adventures of travel, the overheated restlessness of youth (read: middle-age), and the paradoxes of searching for life’s meaning in the escape from home.

5848The Middle Passage: The Caribbean Revisited. V.S. Naipaul. 1962.

V.S. Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul (A Hot Country author above) are brothers. Born in Trinidad, V.S. Naipaul now lives in England and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

Both brothers are skilled and successful writers. But I imagine their parents asking Shiva, “Why can’t you be more like your brother V.S. and win a Nobel Prize in Literature?”

This was the very first book I read about Guyana and laid a lot of groundwork for understanding the political situation in the country. The chapters that deal with Guyana focus on an election taking place at the time of Naipaul’s visit. He attends political speeches, interviews candidates, and talks with the people he meets about their perceptions. He finds a country divided along racial lines with its leaders oscillating between calls for unity and naked exploitation of divisions for personal gain leading to widespread cynicism and partisan tribalism. Nothing about that sounds unfamiliar.

This book also taught me that no one is quite so harsh or despondent in their criticisms of a country than a developing country expatriate on a return visit. Its author occasionally loses sight of his privileges, in my opinion, and derives undeserved pleasure from looking disdainfully down on his former compatriots.

345220Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple. Deborah Layton. 1998.

Obligatory that I read at least one book about the Jonestown Massacre since journalistic accounts and survivor memoirs make up a huge portion of all the books written about Guyana.

This is an enjoyable read if absorbed as a true crime thriller in the voice of a slightly untrustworthy narrator. Otherwise this comes across as a poorly written, self-serving memoir by a former high-level cult leader looking to clear her name. So caught up with the notion of herself as a victim, she never gets around to reflecting on her own responsibility, such as her role in purchasing and shipping contraband – guns, ammunition, and presumably cyanide – to Jonestown, even before she went there herself and supposedly discovered how off the rails Jim Jones had gone in the jungle.

What I find depressing about Jonestown is not that charismatic lunatics like Jim Jones exist, but that ordinary people like Deborah Layton followed him and did his bidding. Anyway, Jonestown has little to do with Guyana, so I’m officially done reading about it.

Because Layton was a trusted member of Jones’ inner circle, and because a large portion of the book deals with her attempt to arrange a flight from Guyana without a passport on hand, a lot of this book is set in Georgetown rather than Jonestown. Many of the places she describes are now my familiar stomping grounds: the U.S Embassy, the airport, the lobby of the Pegasus Hotel, the Cultural Center where the Peoples Temple presented programs to the public, and even their Georgetown headquarters which was a house at 41 Dennis Street in the Lamaha Gardens neighborhood where I now live (The cult member living in the Lamaha Gardens house slit the throats of her three children and herself when commanded by radio from Jonestown to do so). One passage describes the hazards of hiking on foot from Lamaha Gardens to the embassy, a walk I’ve had on a few occasions. Layton also details her interactions with various inept, bumbling US Embassy consular staff members which I found amusing. The US Embassy is where I picked up a copy of this book.

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The Ventriloquist’s Tale. Pauline Melville. 1997.

This is a worthwhile novel by a Guyanese author. Shifting between generations, and between Georgetown and the Rupununi Savannah, the novel focuses on the experiences of an Amerindian family (as the indigenous tribes in Guyana are known). I really enjoyed this book and found it a good introduction to the traditions and modern problems of the true natives of Guyana. So much of what has been written about Guyana focuses on the conflicts that exist between former slaves from Africa and former indentured servants from India. The Amerindians are often neglected in the literature since, having been mostly wiped out early on, they comprise less than 10% of Guyana’s population and live mostly in the interior away from the population centers.

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Ninety Two Days: A Journey in Guiana and Brazil. Evelyn Waugh. 1932.

A Handful of Dust. Evelyn Waugh. 1934.

Mr. Evelyn Waugh appears as a sort of off-screen character in The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville above. Placing the author of Brideshead Revisited in the Rupununi Savannah seemed an odd detail to invent from scratch. I easily found, of course, that Waugh did indeed travel around those parts, circa 1932, and even wrote two books about it.

Several of the details concerning Waugh in Melville’s novel were drawn from his travel memoir, Ninety Two Days. Members of Pauline Melville’s family appear as characters Waugh encounters on his travels. “Almost everyone of importance in the Rupununi has some ties with the Melville family,” he observes. I didn’t know that about Pauline Melville’s background, so it was interesting to learn something about her from Waugh.

In Melville’s book, Waugh is portrayed as an odd, curious man and as usually not comprehending what goes on under the surface of the Amerindian tribal cultures he encounters. Waugh portrays himself in much the same way in his travelogue. But with consistent wit, good humor, and insight. He complains hilariously; the title of his travelogue suggests he was counting the days until he could leave.

Waugh is a racist, and an apologist for colonialism. So be advised that reading this involves some reading between the lines. Even so he creates several sympathetic portraits of individuals of various races, and occasionally seems to be aware of his own blinders.

I was pleased to find that a Georgetown hotel and restaurant which Waugh praised still exists virtually unchanged. Cara Lodge remains a beautiful, breezy place to dine and relax (and smoke a cigar if you happen to have one). A book written 83 years ago gave me excellent advice on where to get dinner in Georgetown.

61odAoSeCuL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Once in Guyana, I ran across a book by Waugh in the American Embassy “library” (read: randomly donated assortment of books on a shelf in a hall). I selected A Handful of Dust not intending to further my Guyana reading project, but just to sample Waugh’s fiction. I anticipated a post-war novel set in England which is exactly what I got the first two-thirds of the way through. Then a principal character suddenly announces he’s off to Demerara (the Brits knew Guiana as the place from whence came their cherished Demerara sugar). And a funny but slightly clichéd novel ridiculing British social conventions suddenly became a roaring jungle-exploring adventure set in and around Guiana. The character’s travels take him through Georgetown, up the Corentyne River, and into the clutches of a Dickens-loving heart of darkness. It will suffice to say, he stays in the jungle longer than he planned (Being stuck in Guyana and trying to escape are major themes throughout the literature…Mmmm). Waugh is hilarious, but, once again, I found it hard to avoid the impression he relishes his racism.

20524The West Indies and the Spanish Main. Anthony Trollope. 1859.

Another work in the category of celebrated English novelist rambling about the colonies. I read only the chapter that recounts his two weeks in British Guiana. I intend to circle back and read the entire book. I would for no other reason than this is some excellent writing, and Trollope’s enjoyable personality and wry style of reporting reminds me of Mark Twain.

But I also think this is an essential piece of writing for understanding the Guyana one encounters today. Written only a few decades after the abolition of slavery in the British empire, Trollope grapples with the labor question facing sugar plantation owners. He is plainly aware that his account as a respected novelist will be considered by policy makers; he even directly addresses the British parliament as a body, and presents his views as counter arguments to the Anti-Slavery Society who were at the time agitating for more labor protections for former slaves in British colonies and against the increased importation of more indentured servants whose presence kept low the cost of labor therefore adding to the woe of former slaves. Trollope’s racism is truly disgusting at times. All the more so because his ideas won the day and helped shape Guyana.

“The Coolies and Chinamen have aptitude in putting money together,” he says by way of contrast with the former slaves. “The love of money is a good and useful love,” he goes on, turning a Christian dictum on its head. “The Negroes as a class have not this aptitude. Consequently, they lie in the sun and eat yams.” Perfectly summing up his broader worldview, he says, “Money, like other loved objects – women for instance – should be sought for with honour, won with a clean conscience, and used with a free hand.” Pages later he says “the Negro” lacks the intellect to properly understand and practice the Christian religion. This very opinion from the guy who thinks the love of money is the root of all…good!

One additional observation that stands out as unusual about Trollope’s account: he loved the place. He truly and deeply adored British Guiana. He intended to retire there. To quote an excerpt:

When I settle out of England and take to the colonies for good and all, British Guiana shall be the land of my adoption. If I call it Demerara perhaps I shall be better understood. At home there are prejudices against it I know. They say it is a low, swampy, muddy strip of alluvial soil, infested with rattlesnakes, gallinippers, and mosquitoes as big as turkey-cocks…(and here he carries on hilariously with a long list of miseries, But)…There was never a land so ill spoken of – and never one that deserved it so little. All the above calumnies I contradict; and as I lived there a fortnight, – would it could have been a month! –  I expect to be believed.

If there were but a snug Secretaryship vacant there – and these things in Demerara are very snug – how I would invoke the goddess of patronage; how I would nibble round the officials of the Colonial Office; how I would stir up my friends’ friends to write little notes to their friends! For Demerara is the Elysium of the Tropics – the one true and actual Utopia of the Caribbean seas – the Transatlantic Eden.

I’m finding it hard to leave off quoting, because he goes on and on, in finer detail, singing the praises of Demerara. But the longer I read the more I realized that what he admired about the place has nothing to do with the people who call it home. He admires how efficiently those same people have been exploited. He enjoys benefiting from the fruits of their uncompensated labor. He scoffs at the do-gooders of the Anti-Slavery Society in England for taking their cheap sugar for granted. And, importantly, he hoped his proposal for importing more indentured servants would preserve a colonial government he admiringly classified “a mild despotism, tempered by sugar.”

This book is long out of print and apparently rather rare, but also in the public domain and freely available as digitally scanned pages online.

1521674Palace of the Peacock. Wilson Harris. 1960.

This is some heavy literature by a Guyanese author. Dense with symbolism, Creole idioms, and poetic descriptions of the places and people of Guyana, one would suppose I ought to love this. I do appreciate it, but to love a book, enjoyment must enter into the reading experience.

This is part of a larger work – The Guyana Quartet – which I own and may or may not get around to reading. For all its acclaim and seeming importance, this was a real slog for me.

Wilson Harris has also written a no less cryptic novel about the Jonestown Massacre which I find conceptually intriguing but I doubt enough so to break my rule about reading more books on the topic.

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Corentyne Thunder. Edgar Mittelholzer. 1941.

Getting my hands on copies of Edgar Mittelholzer’s mostly out-of-print writing took some finesse and patience but was worth the effort. Mittelholzer is my favorite Guyanese author so far.

This particular book focuses on a poor East Indian dairy farmer and his daughters living near New Amsterdam in the part of Guyana that borders Suriname. The characters are beautifully vivid. The writing is graceful and simple but with a unique style that feels rooted in the place and its people. I seem to encounter characters from this novel everywhere I look in Guyana; key elements of the plot are echoed daily by the always sordid and often grisly headlines of Guyana’s newspapers.

I had hoped to find the full catalog of Mittelholzer’s works readily available in the Guyana National Library. They do indeed own several of his titles. Unfortunately, the librarians keep Mittelholzer under lock and key. Along with most of their Caribbean literature collection, his books are for in-library use only.

(The library in Georgetown is a perfectly preserved fossil of a public library and I’m so glad to have it. Housed in a grand old Carnegie building, when one ascends into the library, the first sounds one hears upon entering is of multiple typewriters tapping away. A row of clerks are creating cataloging records on index cards. These are handed over to a line of pages who walk them over and file them appropriately in a beautiful, vintage card catalog cabinet and then return to the typists for the next card – a wonderful, old system. Moreover, the library is so well staffed – as are all the government offices here – one encounters a helpful staff person behind every desk and down every aisle. Despite their traditional methods of organization, they do offer computers to the public which, lacking internet in my house, I’ve had occasion to use.)

20383331Papillon. Henri Charrière. 1969.

Another book about the struggle to escape the miseries of living in this part of the world. As noted above, this is not a book to read for detailed information about Guyana in particular. But, as one of my all-time favorites, it is, I think, a book to read.

On re-reading the passages that actually mention British Guiana, I found it noteworthy that although he didn’t spill a lot of ink over it, Charrière did live in Georgetown for some considerable length of time. His problems stemming from being a French convict were more or less at an end the moment he landed here having set foot on British soil. Going back to Paris was out. So he seems to have considered settling down here. Apparently he lingered long enough in British Guiana to try several business ventures: a restaurant in Georgetown, an apt-for-his-nickname venture collecting and exporting rare butterfly specimens, and, later, a strip club up-river in Mackinzie, a mining town since renamed Linden, now the second largest city in Guyana. Charrière might have given me at least a chapter on all of this, but alas he mentions these tantalizing details in the course of a passing sentence or two, adding that the strip club landed him in legal troubles and led to his daring flight by sea to Venezuela where he finally settled and became a citizen. So after escaping from the French penal system, he became a fugitive from the British empire as well.

Papillon’s little-documented adventures in Georgetown and up the Demerara might provide fun fodder for an independent research project and sequel novel to Papillon should Bradt fail to return my calls.

13118178A Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge. John Gimlette. 2012.

A relatively recently published and serviceable if not amazing travel memoir, once read at a KC Royals game (see above). A Wild Coast includes accounts of the author’s travels in Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. The author goes to some out-of-the-way places including the remote and mostly overgrown Jonestown site in Guyana, an African village of escaped slaves in the Surinamese jungles, and the former penal colony island off the coast of French Guiana once home to Papillon.

Gimlette relied on Kirk Smock’s first edition Bradt guide to direct his travels in Guyana and wrote a friendly forward for Smock’s second edition.

10155The Lost World. Arthur Conan Doyle. 1914.

Guyana’s Mount Roraima, a mountainous, jungle-covered plateau surrounded by sheer cliffs, may have inspired the isolated, dinosaur-infested setting of this book written by the creator of Sherlock Holmes. If that seems a tenuous stretch for inclusion in a Guyana reading project, well, perhaps. But did I mention dinosaurs?

This is a great read, although one more book consistent with the theme of going into the jungle and having difficulty coming back out.

What’s Next?

I do have a few remaining Guyanese authors on my short list. My wife has recommended Of Marriageable Age by Sharon Maas. I will definitely read more of Edgar Mittelholzer, and still need to read E.R. Braithwaite whose acclaimed 1959 novel, To Sir, With Love, was turned into a film starring Sidney Poitier.

However, now that I’m in Guyana, I’m reading less about Guyana. For that I can just go outside. I’m reading less in general and writing more.

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Woodshedin’ with Bird in Eldon, MO

I spent eight years growing up as a home schooled kid in rural Eldon, Missouri. I had free range of the town and knew every corner and outlying area of it.

These days, I love the music of Charlie Parker. I put him in the top five – maybe top three – most important jazz musicians of all time and know not many jazz historians would quibble.

parkerSo I was surprised to learn recently that Charlie “Bird” Parker not only spent a lot of time hanging around Eldon, but that he even credited his time there with helping him craft his distinctive style.

I was reading this book about the history of jazz in Kansas City, Missouri. The editors interviewed a surviving don of the KC jazz era, Jay McShann. Inevitably, McShann was asked about knowing Charlie Parker. In reply (and completely in passing), he mentioned that when he first met the great Bird, Parker talked about how he’d been spending a lot of time in “The El” working on his technique.

I had met Bird one night coming through town. he was at the Bar-de-Luc, sitting in. As we passed by the club one night, we heard this guy blowing and we said, ‘Let’s go in and see who this is blowing in here.’ So we went in and met him and we said, ‘Hey, man, where are you from?’ He says, ‘I’m from Kansas City.’ I said. ‘Where have you been keeping yourself?’ He says, I been down in the Ozarks with George Lee’s band. It’s hard to get musicians to go down there and play because ain’t nothing happening in the daytime. They say it’s just a drag laying around in the day and nothing happening till at night when you get to the gig.’

I said, ‘Well, where?’ He said, ‘We was in the El.’ They was in Eldon, Missouri. He wanted to do some woodshedin’. So that’s why they went down there with George Lee’s band. I said, ‘Woodsheddin’? What do you mean, woodsheddin’? He said, Well, man, I wanted to get down there and try to catch up on my horn because I feel like I was lagging way behind musically and I wanted to try to catch up on my horn as best I could. That’s probably the reason I sound a little bit different.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you do sound different.’ That was our first meeting.”

Miller County Historical Society speculates that Charlie Parker may be on exhibit on this Eldon parade float advertising the Musser Resort.

Miller County Historical Society speculates that Charlie Parker may be among the musicians on this Eldon parade float advertising the Musser Resort.

MussersResort-BanquetHall_smNo mention of Charlie Parker in Eldon’s Wikipedia entry or the city’s website. No mention of Eldon in Charlie Parker’s Wikipedia entry. But someone at the Miller County Historical Society has been on the case. Turns out some jazz-loving character from KC with rumored ties to Tom Pendergast and who “paid no attention to local racial attitudes” opened up a small resort in Eldon and invited jazz bands out to perform for himself and guests. The resort is gone now but parts of the original structures remained as a sort of seedy motel called El Rancho when I was kid (A sad truck stop and car wash now sit on the site; a well house visible in this Google Maps view is all that’s left of the resort). Eldon was so racist when Charlie Parker was there, it was a “sundown town,” or against the law for visiting blacks to be outside at night. So Bird had nothing to do when he wasn’t on stage but  hole up and work on his craft. Ironically, that’s why Bird liked going to Eldon.

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Thanks for the memories, Eldon.

Something in me loves that the single most historically significant fact about Eldon is that a man who wasn’t allowed to walk its streets after dark was once circa 1930s staked out in the town honing the improvisational skills that would make him renowned the world over.

Additional info on the Bird/Eldon connection

  • Charlie Parker mentioned Eldon in a New York interview and again references how his time there was important to developing his technique.
  • The Charlie Parker fan site Bird Lives has a page on Eldon mostly drawing on the work of The Miller County Historical Society and a chapter from a book titled History & Geography of Lake of the Ozarks, Volume One by H. Dwight Weaver, 2005. It includes an account of how Charlie Parker was once injured in a car accident en route to Eldon and may have convalesced in Eldon at the resort for several months.

Bonus hilarity

Charlie Parker had a hard-earned reputation as a jokester:

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