7 mins

Guyana: cowboys and Indians

From cowboys to conservationists, cricket-mad Indians to shy Amerindians, Guyana is a country of survivors – explore this little corner of Eden

(Philippe Semanaz)

When I arrived in Georgetown I found it in the grip of a good murder trial, and so I went along to watch. In one sense it was like a courtroom drama circa 1790. The accused, Blacksam and Buggins, were old felons who drank in taverns and ate saltfish and souse. Then, one day, they picked a Georgian quarrel with their neighbour and despatched him with a cutlass.

In every other sense, the trial was like a snapshot of modern life in Guyana. Defence counsel was, like every third Guyanese, Indian (and spoke a rich Creole, well-larded with Dickens and Donne). Another third of the populace, the Africans, were represented by the judge and the constables; the remainder, the mixed races, by the jury. In their 12 furrowed faces was the story of Guyana: slaves, Amerindians, ‘Chineymen’, Irish adventurers, Scottish cattlemen, pirates, pioneers and Pathans.

Equally intriguing was the backdrop, which was all so lumpishly British. With its arches, wrought iron and corrugated gables, the Victoria Law Courts were a lingering fantasy of tropical gothic. There was even a statue of Victoria herself. She’d recovered her head, I noticed, after losing it in the squabbles over independence in 1961.

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls...” thundered the Indian, but the jury didn’t hear. The rains had come early and sounded like horses thundering on the tin. But somehow mercy survived and the verdict was manslaughter. Off went the prisoners, grinning through their chains.

“Yeah, man,” said the constable, “they been spared the noose...”

Canal dreams

From the court, a beautiful city, as light as feathers, flutters off down the coast. Perhaps – like its people – Georgetown doesn’t truly believe that it belongs here, and so it hovers over the water.

It’s all built on canals and breezes, a city of stilts and clapboard, brilliant whites, fretwork, spindles and louvres. The streets are as wide as fields, and the cathedral seems to drift endlessly upwards, reputedly the tallest wooden building in the world.

One area of the city is even called Lacytown as if, at any moment, it might simply take off and drift away – home, perhaps. Water is a constant feature of the Townies’ lives. At high tide, the sea looms 2m above the city, held back by a wall. Concrete rots here, and even cars seem to moulder.

By day, the canals are velvety and green, and by night they’re operatic with frogs. “Why? Why?” they sing, which makes the dogs all howl. Nature, it seems, is gradually reclaiming its inheritance. Among this riot of parrots and flamboyants, the Townies can still be fleetingly British. Even now, you can buy a bottle of Nerve Tonic or a sausage roll at Fogarty’s department store.

Other survivors include Hackney carriages, EIIR letterboxes and a pair of Sebastopol cannons.  Once I even saw a large building site called Buckingham Palace, although – sadly – financing had failed before any resemblance took shape.

Despite these trappings, however, the Guyanese are neither British nor truly South American but live in a world of their own. Sometimes it seems that being foreign comes so naturally to them that they don’t even understand themselves. Originally, each race had its own political party.

A world in one city

With a population of only 770,000, this often makes Guyana feel like several dozen countries all stuffed into one. I even felt this as I walked across Georgetown; one moment I’d be passing Chinatown, then a mosque, and then a Mexican circus (‘With real tigers!’) before finally ending up in a festival of extreme chutney.

All this might not be so odd in a big city, yet Georgetown is tiny. There’s only one escalator in the whole town (it still draws a crowd), and the beautiful National Art Gallery receives just 20 visitors a month. Everyone knows everyone, even the men who sell horse dung from their carts. Almost all the old buildings are famous, sometimes for several things at once.

A hotel with a rich history 

My hotel, Cara Lodge – apart from being a masterpiece of Victorian carpentry – was once the home of the colony’s orchestra, the basketball squad and the communist party. During the rule of Forbes Burnham (1964-85), it was even used by the resistance movement as a base for making bombs.

"Go west across the Demerara,” people said, “and you’ll soon see who built this country.” It was not, I realised, the British. The clue was in the names, thickly clustered along the shore: Vreed-en-Hoop, Harlem, Uitvlugt and Tuschen. For well over half Guyana’s colonial history (from the late 16th to early 19th centuries), the Dutch were in command. Here, on the coast, they stripped out the mangroves, drained the mudflats and walled off the sea.

It was a Pharaonic achievement, costing thousands of African lives. Even now, looking inland, the horizon is just a bold green curve of sugar cane; the coastal strip remains the home of almost 90% of Guyanese.

After an hour’s bus ride from Georgetown I came to the main artery of the Dutch colonisers’ operation. The Essequibo is the largest of Guyana’s four great rivers (the Demerara, Berbice and Corentyne run parallel, progressively further east), with a mouth big enough to swallow Barbados. It looks like a vast, rum-coloured sea, lavishly spotted with islands and spills of squeaky clean white sand. As each rocky outcrop blurred past, my boatman would sing out its story. “This was a leper colony...” he’d say, “and this one’s Eddy Grant’s...”  

At the river

At the Dutch islands a few kilometres upstream we stopped and clambered into the jungle. At Fort Kyk-over-al there was nothing but an arch but, on Fort Island, a huge star fort, dated 1739, still loomed up out of the forest.

Next to it was a large brick hall. This had been the seat of government for a wild land, only 4% of which the Dutch had ever seen. Although the Zeelanders called this the Court of Policy, it was really no more than a parliament of ants.

It was easy to see why the Dutch had loved the Essequibo. Everything seemed abundant, and even the birds – tanagers and tyrants – seemed to jangle like fresh-minted money.

I stayed on a luxurious silvery river beach, once a Dutch camp and now a resort called Baganara. At first it seemed I was the only person who’d ever stayed there – except Mick Jagger (who’d left his picture over the bar).

Later, I moved further upstream and stayed in a Benedictine monastery. Every few hours the brothers’ euphonious chanting would lift out of the rubber trees and carry across the water. On the opposite bank was another Dutch institution: probably the most beautiful prison in the world.

On the way back downriver I stopped at an old sugar estate called Wales. It employed 2,000 souls, including rat catchers and lady weeders. Meanwhile, the cane is harvested exactly as it had been three centuries before: charred first, cut by hand and then heaved into barges. It often felt as though the Dutch had never left, especially near their graves. “They’re haunted,” said my guide. “We never urinate here.”

But the Dutch have left more than ghosts. Here, a sluice is still a koker and a wharf a stelling. Even better is their litter that still bubbles up out of the mud. In Meten-Meer-Zorg, back on the coast, I stayed with Gary Serao, who rents out beds in his extraordinary museum.

Among his ephemera I spotted manacles, 17th-century wine jars, cannonballs and heaps of flasks for Zeeland gin. By 1800 the Dutch had become spectacularly debauched. Their planters carried ivory whistles, and every day began with gin and ended with a slave-girl, all painted up like an Amsterdam whore.

Naturally, the early Guyanese had often risen in revolt. Even now their descendants have a healthy suspicion of authority. The slaves’ big moment came further south-east and 160km inland. Today it’s called Dubulay, a pretty ranch overlooking the Berbice River. Back in March 1763 this was Peerboom (Pear Tree), a plantation house besieged by 2,000 machete-wielding slaves. As the Dutch fled for the river, the rebels butchered them. The remains of this struggle are still scattered along the foreshore: broken bricks, tiles, and shards of pottery and glass.

The sea, the sea

I followed the revolt all the way back to the sea. It was a sad and beautiful voyage. My boatman Bob Kertzious, descended from both the slaves and the slavers, knew all the landmarks of this bloody revolt: Juliana, Vigilantie and Dageraad (Daybreak). The region had never recovered. Even after the uprising was crushed, this, one of the richest settlements in the world, had simply reverted to jungle.

We stopped only twice. Once was to visit Bob’s parents, who lived in a hut decorated with rag mats, ships’ paint and an old Dutch bottle. The other stop was Fort Nassau. It looked almost exactly the same as it did the day the rebels sacked it, except now it’s being slowly prised apart by macaws and strangler figs.

Things looked very different on the Berbice coast. The walls of vegetation parted, and India appeared: I could see prayer flags and minarets. In New Amsterdam (which was like a mini Georgetown), I even found a curry shop, although the choice was bush hog, chicken or iguana.

Unsurprisingly, it was the British who were responsible for this eerie infusion of Asia. With slavery abolished, from 1838 they began to import Indian labour. Over the next 80 years some 250,000 Indians arrived, becoming the predominant race.

The introduction of Indians to this, the old wild coast, has created a curious new culture. Eastern Guyana is now a hotbed of cricket (not to mention communists, giant pink elephants and grand sari pageants). But it’s also a place that’s not quite like anywhere else in the world. Here there are Hindus in cowboy hats, halal snackettes (snack shops) and beggars with green parrots. Once I even spotted a petrol station called Vishaul & his Three Adorable Sisters. This was India, alright – but with a South American swagger.

Into the interior

For the rest of my Guyanese encounters I needed a plane. Beyond the coastal strip a vast forest begins, covering 80% of the country. For hundreds of kilometres it sprawls inland before spreading out among some of the oldest mountains in the world. Somewhere in it, or beyond it, live the remaining 10% of the Guyanese people.

I loved flying over this forest. The canopy itself was so dark and dense that it felt like a journey through a long green night. The foliage seems to swallow everything – even waterfalls like Kaieteur, at 228m, loftier than the BT Tower (and undiscovered until 1870).

Until the aeroplane age, Guyana’s interior was accessible only by river. Small wonder that it became the literary refuge of lost worlds (Conan Doyle), lost minds (Evelyn Waugh) and cities made of gold (Raleigh).

I had my first encounter with the people hidden in here at Iwokrama. For the Amerindians, it’s always been a special place. Now it’s a 4,000 sq km forest with a research centre. There are little riverside huts for tourists and a village, Fair View, for the Makushi, an Amerindian tribe whose ancestors have lived in this forest for perhaps 10,000 years.

It seems an idyllic life. By day, we pottered round the forest, identifying cures for everything from ringworm (aromata) to diabetes (wild mango). The Makushi could be alternately shy and uninhibited, and every mealtime was a gathering of clans. It was like taking our own lives and stripping them of clutter: no chairs, no floors, no cash and no concept of time. “We like it here,” one man told me. “We got canes for our arrows, and plenty of monkeys.”

Later, as I moved further south to the edge of the forest, a more complex picture emerged. Although the Makushi village of Surama has its own breezy ecolodge with a view across the unknown, I opted to stay with a family. Paula has a tattooed face; Daniel is a hunter. They live on a beautiful hill in a house made of leaves. There was no water, no electricity, and nine of us slept in the hut. We washed out in the long grass and ate whatever Daniel caught. “Life’s become harder,” he said, “since the jaguars killed all our horses.”

But if the temporal world seemed tough, the spiritual world was tougher. Makushi life is deeply infested with magic. There are supernatural boulders and trees that turn you grey. Later, in Yupukari, I met a man who thought his brother had been drowned by a ghost – this in a village with a new American library and an exquisite boutique hotel for alligator lovers, Caiman House.

Daniel was unsure about the modern world and whether he wanted to join it. On my last day he gave me a 2m bow with five arrows. “Take them back to London,” he said, “and then you’ll remember us whenever you use them.”

Savannah of giants

Beyond Surama the trees gave way to a vast, golden plain about the size of Scotland. The Rupununi savannahs are home to the world’s biggest ants, biggest otters, biggest anteaters and most ferocious fish.

Few Europeans have ever settled here. However, some remained, and now they often take in guests. One was Colin Edwards, who’d built the road through the forest. (“Until then, Guyana leaned towards the Caribbean,” he told me. “I linked it to South America.”) He’d never stopped building, and now runs Rockview, an oasis of orchards and cottages, with a bar that sells bras and machetes.

Another of the great Rupununi hosts is Diane McTurk. Her ranch, Karanambu, is on a riverbank, deep in the thorns. “I was born here in 1932,” she told me: “a wild child.” Although she’d been away (with a stint at London’s Savoy Hotel), Karanambu still feels like a wild childhood.

There are thatched huts, fruit trees, a collection of war clubs, a tiny beach and a pet racoon. Diane has also raised more than 40 orphaned giant otters, two still in residence. Every day a bowman padded off down to the river, to shoot them a bucket of fish.

For the final leg of my journey I drove south for another two days to find wildness of a different kind. Dadanawa is like the Wild West, yet even more remote. At 4,400 sq km it’s the biggest ranch in Guyana, tucked away behind a massive ridge of jungle (the Kanuku Mountains) and a river the width of the Thames (and three times as long). For the last bit of this journey my driver had to put our truck on a raft of oil drums and float it through the torrents.

The ranch was an unforgettable adventure. Pretty soon even the Wild West seemed fluffy in comparison. Of course, there were the same big rivers, mountains and stampedes, but Guyana can also be brutally exotic. Almost every night jaguars attacked the cattle. Meanwhile, watching a round-up was like witnessing an extraordinarily violent sport in which no one – miraculously – gets hurt.

Lives less ordinary

Everyone here lives an extraordinary life. My hosts, the de Freitas family, slept (like me) in a sort of cricket pavilion on stilts overlooking the Kanukus.

They are descended from Portuguese immigrants who fled the great famine of Madeira in 1834. Guyana had suited them well; now they manage 5,000 cattle, 34 staff and two bright-red macaws known as the ‘Terrorists’. Not that there is money. The family lives in a delightful cemetery of Land Rovers, surviving on home-grown vegetables and the BBC World Service. Each of their children they’d delivered by themselves.

The cowboys, on the other hand, are Wapishana Indians and sleep in barracks. They all carried long knives like swords and rode brilliantly, barefoot and often bareback. The youngest, I discovered, was 12, and sang as he rode. One, a saddle-maker called Uncle Cyril, was descended from the long-extinct Atorad tribe.

With their hawkish faces and taut, athletic frames, it’s  hard to believe they were from the same country as the coastlanders. When my favourite, Orvin, was bitten by a snake, he simply tied a tourniquet round his arm and rode off to join his friends.

Perhaps none of this should surprise me. This, after all,is Guyana: a garden built by God, inhabited by survivors and lived to the full.

Related Articles