From Lethem to Brasilia: A glimpse of life on the frontier
By William Walker
September 23, 2000
Lethem stretches out besides the blue Kanuku mountains and sleeps under the morning sun. The thin red road from the airport is deserted save for a boy riding a bicycle from the post office, glancing at an address on a letter. Only when a plane arrives, dropping out of the sky to this semi island on the Brazilian border does the small town come alive. Then rattling pick-ups trail long plumes of red dust on their way to fetch passengers.
The plane load of reporters headed for Brasilia to cover the Heads of South America summit receive no great fanfair upon our arrival. Since leaving Ogle at 6 a.m. we fly in the GDF plane over the dark green forests until the terrain suddenly changes into an infinite light brown savannah, seemingly untouched by man. A closer look from the airplane's window reveals long scratches of trails wandering into valleys and over gentle hills. A square brown patch etched on a greener plain recalls an attempt of some brave soul to settle there. In places the river bank is chipped away by a miner in his search for gold. But it is the absence of man that impresses. Flight has that way of making our feats seem small.
The grand power station
At Lethem's Region Nine guest-house, we look back across the village towards the old dark green mango trees flanking the airstrip. A few cows graze under the frangipani trees in the fields below. We set off to the Moca Moca Hydropower Station at the foothill of the mountains. The half hour journey takes us through lime green grassland with stunted, wind twisted trees and tall grey ant hills; past thatched red brick houses with discs of cassava bread drying on their roofs.
A boy carries a protesting black fowl by its wings. Little children wave from dark doorways. As we come closer to the mountains the foliage becomes dense.
An ancient silk cotton tree rises from a sea of vines that strangle the smaller trees. An old white horse looks up as we pass.
The power station at the foot of the mountains is small and simple. There are two generators. One is idle. A red wheel is spinning from the water flowing underneath, sending the current to some computers and then out to the wires that run back into town. No fuel is required. A smiling Paul Farias the rubber slippered senior supervisor looks after a crew of 15 locals working on three shifts. Farias says the plant works well. Only when a bush truck crashes into a pole thanks to its drunk driver, are there any blackouts. The capacity of the two generators is 5MW but the peak demand is now only 140kw.
At the grandly named Lethem Power Company the girls in the room just next to the post office are reluctant to talk. They giggle nervously and give side ways glances at each other as if sharing a village secret. But eventually they reveal there are 260 residential cutomers paying $1200 per month and about 60 businesses paying $3500. With these rates the company is not a viable operation and it gets a government subsidy. But it works well, the residents say. There are no voltage fluctuations. It is hoped a planned Industrial Park would increase demand, and some Amerindian villages such as St Ignatius are still to be connected. Most of the present customers pay on time, the girls say, and if there are any problems someone will ride out and talk to them. If they really do not have the money the manager would be flexible.
We start talking about the 1969 Rupununi uprising when ranchers blockaded the airstrip. The army had to be called in and six people were killed but the girls are too young to remember. Bob Massiah an old wiry man saunters in and explains that it was all about the ranchers, the Melvilles and the Gorinskeys wanting something more permanent than leases for their lands. Massiah who moved to Lethem in the seventies, works in the Malaria eradication programme. Malaria is not rampant in the area but there are always a few cases. Massiah says he likes it here. "It's the peace." Most people do a little cultivating of tomatoes, peanuts or blackeyes. But it does not really pay commercially.
It is too costly to send it to the coast by air, and by road the vegetables spoil. Items coming from Georgetown on the bush trucks that rumble into town five or six times a week, are expensive. It costs $120,000 to hire them for the 16- hour trip.
There are no Guyanese radio or television stations in Lethem. The only communication coming out of Georgetown are the newspapers that arrive on the daily planes. Instead the residents listen to samba music and watch Brazilian soap operas. One man said his grandson knows the President of Brazil but not Guyana's own President. Many persons have relatives in Bom Fin the equivalent town 10 minutes across the border and there is a large Guyanese community in Boa Vista two hours away, most of whom settled there after the uprising. Brazilians come over often, Massiah says, to buy haberdasheries, Whitestar liniment rub, garlic, curry powder and brown sugar. Relations are very cordial and Guyanese can go all the way to Boa Vista without documents.
People wander into the green office for a glass of water. A young girl brings around a petition for racial harmony which everyone signs although it is not too clear how much difference it will make. Massiah says racism is not a problem.
Over at the Region 9 education office Stephen Demetrio is surrounded by stacks of text and exercise books being prepared for the new school year. A typewriter taps slowly in an adjacent room. Demetrio has been a teacher and headmaster for 17 years and is now helping oversee the 77 nursery, primary and secondary schools in the region. He says a lot of the children when they turn 15 go to Brazil to work on the ranches and plantations or as domestics in Boa Vista. They make around $35,000 a month leaving enough to send home. Demetrio is from the Macushi tribe. On the southern side of the Kanuku mountains are the Wapishanas. He says most Amerindians can tell to which tribe another belongs. The Macushis have higher cheekbones than the Wapishanas and the accent is different, he explains. Demetrio says it is good the government now wants to teach the native language of Nappi in school. He remembers growing up how they would be benched for talking in their dialect. He says Nappi has one word for many things. There is no specific word for "thank you " the closest being "wabilibay" which can also mean "I like you."
It is getting late and we have miles to go before we can sleep. After lunch at the guest-ouse we decide to cross the Takutu river into Brazil. All the suitcases are piled in an 8 foot wooden boat and the crossing takes less than two minutes for only $100 - surely the cheapest way to get into a country anywhere in the world. There are no guards to greet us. A Volkswagen van whose windows do not open carries us into Bom Fin. The scenery is much the same as across the border - monotonous, not very pretty scrublands. Small houses in neat rows are being built. A shirtless boy looking like Leonardo di Caprio with blond hair flopping on his forehead stops his moped at a junction. Bom Fin is an overgrown village, once very popular with Guyanese when supplies from the coast were rare.
The smooth and straight path
The town square has some small cafes with pool tables and shops selling hammocks. The bus to Boa Vista is pulling away and we flag it down, hauling our luggage on board. The conductor accepts our Guyanese $950 without batting an eyelid. The exchange rate is conveniently one Brazilian Reais to 100 Guyanese dollars. We settle down in the comfortable reclining seats and cool off under the airconditioning. The red loam road to Boa Vista is smooth and straight as a surveyors ruler. Miles and miles pass without sign of human habitation - just electricity poles waiting for wires. Only some abandoned houses amongst the flat scrubland speak of the sadness of unfulfilled dreams. Before we cross the Rio Branco into Boa Vista there is a shantytown of huts perched on mudflats. A woman walks from her home lifting the hem of her dress, carrying her shoes. The city waters the flowers in Boa Vista. Silver tankers sprinkle the roadways' median in the late afternoon in this bustling provincial town. We are dropped at the bus stop and realize that we have yet to get our passports stamped. So three of the five illegal aliens take a taxi to the police station across town. It becomes quickly apparent as the speedometer reaches 100kph that the taxi driver believes his present position is just practice for a place in a Formula One team He swerves through traffic, tyres squealing and we grab the edges of the seats. After sincere apologies from the illegal aliens the policeman pulls out the appropriate stamp and we are officially guests of the Brazilian government. We retire to a tidy bar in a quiet suburb full of old mango trees to wait for our 1 a.m. flight to the capital. The bar has a benab under which a few men are drinking the local beer Antartica from large bottles, every so often throwing it into small shot glasses. The owner takes us down to the fishmarket to fetch supper. We eat a delicious meal of stewed tilapia and steamed shark. The heat builds into a suffocating stillness and finally breaks into a relief of thunder, lightning and hot rain.
When the rain stops we make our way to the airport. Flight 206 stops briefly in Manaus but it is 3 a.m. and there is nothing to see save our own tired reflections in the airplane windows. They serve breakfast as the sun climbs over Brasilia. Conceived in the 1930's it took 30 years to officially move the country's capital to the interior from Rio de Janeiro 500 miles away. The city is designed in the shape of a plane, with the residential suburbs in the wings, hotels, shops and banks in the fuselage and the buildings representing the three branches of the executive the presidential palace,the National Assembly and the Supreme Court in the cockpit. There are no street names. Addresses are given in numbers depending on the sectois such as the Commercial sector, Hotel sector or Club sector. The city has inadvertently turned into a mecca for over a thousand cults who believe the airplane shape is really that of an Egyptian ibis. It is a huge impersonal city full of cars although with few lights and wide roads the traffic flows freely. Most of the cars are new small left hand drive Fiats, and Volkswagens made in Brazil. Trying to walk somewhere by foot often involves the tricky navigation of broad, callous highways. To go by taxi is like trying to reach a mirage. You see the building right infront of you but it takes 7 left and 5 right turns to finally reach it.
Expressos and tight jeans
What are Brazilians like? In three days it is hard to tell. The men seem to spend a large amount of time drinking coffee from very small cups "expressos" at the numerous cafes. The women must spend most mornings squeezing themselves into extremely tight jeans - no matter their age, size or pregnant condition. Any country where materially economic clothing is in fashion can not be all that bad! Brazilians seem to be always polite and helpful. A three-storey upscale mall is packed on a Saturday morning with what seems to be a prosperous middle class with disposable income to spend on watches, widescreen tv's and shoes. Men gather round the shop windows watching a football match. On the whole, prices are more expensive than Georgetown. Couples are not afraid to show affection walking arm in arm or hands slipped into each others back pockets. Four days of waiting for and chasing the President pass quickly and we are soon back on the plane homeward bound.
At Boa Vista airport one senses we are coming closer. The rattling luggage carousel stops and starts. The passengers waiting around it have a darker complexion than the Europeans of the capital. One seems to recognize a face one saw in Georgetown just last week. It is two in the morning and we go to a hotel for a few hours rest. The Sunday morning sun is like a round orange, the dawn air is still outside the hotel. A woman waits for a bus which eventually comes leaving an empty bench. A couple ride home on a small motorcycle.
She holds him tightly round his waist her eyes closed against his back.
Claudette is a domestic in Boa Vista taking the bus home to her family in Lethem. She smells of beer and talks of Mount Roraima where she went with a white man. It is in my heart she repeats many times tapping her chest.
Her face still looks young but her small wrinkled hands say more about her years. She is a widow with four children "It was a very hurtful thing." She looks like she might cry. She speaks Portuguese and English.
She has read Tom Sawyer and Oliver Twist. She knows about the hummingbird dance when the girls wear only grass skirts and no top. But she would not do that because she is a Roman Catholic. "They", her tribe the Macushis, believe in the spirits, the Kanaima.
She does not believe in that but she does believe in extraterrestrials. They land on Mount Roraima. She has never been to Georgetown. She hears it is not clean. Claudette wants to build a little shop for her parents. They are getting old.
Cars on the pontoon
We cross the river into Lethem. Back at the guest-house they are surprised to see a visitor. Across the plain the sounds of a hymn waft in on the hot breeze.
A little girl in a puffy white dress and shiny black shoes makes her way to the church. The flight is not till three so Ms Linday who runs the guest-house prepares lunch. She says at Christmas many Brazilians come over in their cars on the pontoon.
They love the shiny ornaments and the cheap colognes.
Most of the shops in Lethem carry local goods from Georgetown.
Coffee and steel wool come from Brazil. Our Nescafe has no taste compared to theirs, she says. There was a craze some months back on Guyanese mountain bikes until the customs limited the number the Brazilians could take home. Mr Rodrigues drives an old pick-up which he starts by rubbing two pieces of wire together.
He is fed up with life here. He is going to Canada. He complains about the road and how the government is always making promises.
He could send a truckload of watermelons to town once a week. But they would get mashed up. At Christmas time even the pigs get sick of the mangoes. The cashew nuts lie on the ground untouched. Such a waste.
There is no market for the produce and the Brazilians will not let you sell over there. But if you need an X ray you can go to Boa Vista and get it free in two hours.
The machine in Lethem is still wrapped up in its crate and there is no one to run it.
The clumsy looking Airbus like a shoe box with wings touches down at Ogle. It is good to travel, to be somewhere you have never been; to quietly watch how other people live. But it is better to be home.
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