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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.