Georgetown to Lethem: lawless road
July 21, 2002
The music was blaring, the mood was restless: it was about 10:00 pm in the night, and the cruiser - which should have been on the road three hours ago - stood stationary. The driver would appear for moments, and then disappear back into the Brazilian melee that characterizes that section of Light Street, Georgetown.
I asked, hopefully, if we might be leaving soon. The driver flashed back a broad smile: "Just now man, don't take stress." It meant nothing of course, as he had been saying exactly that for the last three hours. We were waiting for our last passenger, who had conveniently forgotten to arrive. No one else minded; soon, I didn't mind either.
When I first set out investigating the overland routes to Lethem, most people I asked told me I was mad to journey through the bush in rainy weather. However, it is the cheapest way to get to Lethem. The journey itself, through the promised bush, offered the prospect of adventure, and certainly, I can now say - in hindsight - that on the count, it adequately delivered.
Graham Greene's novel, The Lawless Roads, was about a trip through Mexico. It is in fact Naipaul who famously recorded the journey from Georgetown to Lethem, and on to Boa Vista. Even 30 years ago, Naipaul could do the journey by plane, and catalogue his comments on (what was then) British Guiana with other Caribbean journeys, in The Middle Passage. Had he done the journey by road, it is tempting to wonder, would his treatment of Lethem have been any less equanimous?
There were 11 people in all, travelling that day. I was travelling with a friend, and other than us, there were three Brazilian miners, two 'traders,' one schoolteacher, the driver, and two helpers.
Richard (not his real name) was an elderly businessman, with previous jobs in the army and the Church. He was going up to Manaus - which is incidentally where we were headed as well - to buy auto parts. Initially, he was suspicious and reserved. He sat in the front seat, with the driver, and rarely made conversation.
Will (not his real name) was sulking in the back. He was worried about this trip. For one thing, he was going to meet his 'child-mother' in Lethem (with whom, one suspected, relations were not quite perfect). For another, he was going to hop over to Boa Vista and buy a motorcycle, one of the newer models, which looks and sounds like a lot of money. He mentioned how he would have to sell it to "dealers" as no one else would have that kind of money in Guyana.
But Will didn't know a word of Portuguese. Neither had he been to Brazil before. How would he manage, I asked. His worry increased. Richard, the silent one in the front seat, didn't know any Portuguese either, and I wondered how he would possibly communicate in a place as chaotic as Manaus, bustling with 1.2 million people, none of whom would understand English.
The schoolteacher was returning to Kurupukari, which was where he worked. He described his community, a small village of about 120 people, a few miles from Kurupukari proper. It was, he said, a community founded by a couple and their daughters, which grew when they were joined by other Amerindians from the region, primarily women, some of whom had children by the transient Brazilian miner population.
He was the only teacher in the school. He had come to Georgetown to attend a Science Training Programme. He seemed relieved to be returning home. Food, he mentioned, was one of the things in short supply at Kurupukari. Since his village neighboured the Iwokrama field station, he would normally ask his friends there to get him provisions from Lethem, as it was much cheaper than trying to procure them locally. The one thing that was easily available was fish, and to procure it meant simply tossing a line into the Essequibo. The only vegetable they grew was cassava.
The driver's helpers filled up several jerry-cans of petrol to see us through the journey. The truck itself was small, and surprisingly compact - an ordinary Toyota 4x4 - who knew it could take so much luggage, and so many people? The two of them sat at the back, leaning out morosely into the pitch-black night, no doubt enjoying what was to be our last stretch of perfect road.
The miners talked a lot, but mostly to each other, in Portuguese. Occasionally, food and water would be passed around. It had been established, early on, that all items of consumption would be equally shared by the passengers, and the Brazilians inaugurated this process. They were an extremely friendly trio, and my inability to communicate easily with them (notwithstanding a passing knowledge of Spanish) was frustrating.
The more eloquent of the two helpers tapped a bottle of water and held it up for all to see. "Water and food are the most precious things on this journey," he said, rather ominously.
We were soon in Linden, which was - unfortunately for us - dark, wet and mostly closed. The driver, I noted, with some alarm, headed straight for the bar. A short refreshment break later, we were on our way into the big bad bush. Our feisty little cruiser was driven with a renewed vigour.
We reached Mabura early in the morning. The Demerara Woods stood imposingly, touched up by the ghostly glow of early morning light. We trooped off the cruiser to report at the Mabura Hill Police Station. The officer on duty gazed at us sullenly. My friend and I were advised to just say we were Guyanese, and evade the passport check that is mandatory for foreigners. We declined the advice.
It came as no surprise that the Brazilians had problems with their passports. One didn't have a work permit, and the other two were missing entry/exit stamps. The officer made motions with his hand. A rate was worked out: in this case, roughly $5000 per head. The Brazilians coughed it up, and were allowed to go their way.
Our passports were examined with some curiosity. Indian passports in that region are, no doubt, rarer than Brazilian. The driver decided to sleep for a couple of hours at Mabura, so we hung around the cruiser. When dawn broke, my friend, who is a Muslim, decided to pray.
The officer who had examined us, suddenly reappeared with a friend. They called us back, apparently for "questioning." We were subjected to a most interesting interrogation: who we were, what we did for a living, what our religion was, why we were in Guyana, why we were travelling by road. My friend was asked why he was Muslim when he had a Hindu name, rather harshly. I was accused of "pretending to be a journalist."
With a cold, hard admonition (never to travel by road again or never to come to Guyana again?) we were let go. "I'll be looking for you all over Guyana," the second police officer said, "and maybe even in Brazil. Remember we will be watching you."
In ordinary circumstances, it would have been impossible to know the name of the officer who had taken the bribe (he wasn't wearing identification or a uniform). In this case, it turned out that the driver and conductor of the cruiser had been expecting a cut of the proceeds from the police. It wasn't given, and hence, the information was provided.
The moment we left Mabura, it occurred to me exactly why people had looked as horrified as they did in Georgetown, when the idea of this trip was discussed. The road - well, even to call it that requires a healthy dose of imagination - was a mess. For most of the ride to Kurupukari, it simply didn't exist. We were frequently hauled out, and made to push the cruiser through three or four feet of muddy water.
In addition to the water, the real problem of course, was the mud. The road would disintegrate with rain because of the eroding power of flowing water. The mud, however, caused the real traps, by sucking in the wheels of our Toyota, and stubbornly clinging on, refusing to let go. Branches would be hacked off with a cutlass, and jammed under the waterlogged, sand-locked wheels for firmness. At other times, heavy bouts of lifting and pushing would do the trick.
The driver shouted out that he saw a jaguar. None of the other passengers was as lucky, especially those of us sitting at the back. Nevertheless, during the long times I spent trudging through the forest, waist-deep in warm, sticky mud, I nervously imagined jaguar eyes stalking me through the dense, impenetrable forest that surrounded the path.
It sounds like a disaster, and one would be hard pressed to justify how such an experience could be likeable, but that is the strangest thing about this trip - it was. The evening of the next day, the driver, in carefully rehearsed tones, told us it would be impossible to carry on (we were supposed to have reached Lethem that evening at 4:00 pm). The road was too bad. He was too tired. Kurupukari had a place we could rest and sleep in.
And (though he omitted to mention this), he had lined up some evening entertainment already of the local, female kind. We halted at a beautiful spot before the river crossing, at a work-in-progress 'resort.' Hammocks were provided for us to sleep, and tinned food, sardines and beef, for food. A kind old man fished out some cans of Fruta orange juice, which - though expensive - had never tasted more delicious.
Time, indeed, seemed to have stopped still, and the stillness was magnified by the eerie forest calm that surrounded us. The rest stop - a popular place with cruisers - was owned by an Indian gentleman from the coast. His nephew was managing the place when we went, and amiably discussed his life in this interior region. He was from the West Coast, and maintained families there, and in Lethem. It was necessary, he said, for those who lived way out in the bush, to do such things. Otherwise, it was just too lonely.
We bathed in the river. "No worry about caiman," the nephew reassuringly said, "they only be coming at night." Were there piranhas in the river? "Oh yes," he said casually, "and plenty currents. Tha' is why nobody be swimming in de place." It was pristine, beautiful and pure, the kind of place and experience it would be hard to find anywhere on the coast.
We were to have left at 6:00 am, which would have given us plenty of daylight to navigate the remaining stretch of bush road, that being the treacherous part of the journey. The driver, however, woke up late, and turned up at about 10:00 am. We finally left, crossing the river by pontoon, and almost immediately hitting an impossibly long stretch of flooded road on the other side.
The day would pass like that: drive for half an hour, stop for one hour. Drive wedges of wood into the water, lift the cruiser. Push and shove, until it moved on a little. Run behind it to catch up. Half an hour later, repeat performance. At Surama, we passed some Amerindian boys, labouring by the road. They were working for Iwokrama as surveyors.
We were hoping for some kind of refreshment, food or drink, but the driver decided against stopping. Our supplies had been exhausted. Steadily, we had slipped lower and lower in the food hierarchy. The first night, we had peanut shakes, oatmeal biscuits and orange juice. The second day, we were down to some (very old) meat and rice. In the evening, we were further down to bread and water. By the time we passed Surama, we had hit rock bottom: there was actually no food, or drink (including water) left in the cruiser.
I was almost glad, in a way, that we couldn't find packaged food easily en route. Through the journey, start to finish, the occupants of the cruiser (Guyanese and Brazilian) steadily spewed an unending stream of plastic waste into the forest. Finished with the water can? Out it goes. Cigarettes over? Throw the packet away. Old tins? Chuck them. I asked one of the Brazilians, much later, why he did that. "I take care of my forest in Brazil. Everyone throws garbage in Guyana," he said indignantly, in broken English.
It is sad that in the vast, virgin forest that we pass through, even this sporadic traffic - not more than a few trucks and cruisers each day - can cause such massive environmental harm. Soon, they say, a road will be built, and one can just imagine the quantity of plastic waste that will fly out of passing windows then. Luckily, one knows that soon is a word which could cover a span of a decade or so.
Soon after Surama - or specifically, three massive trenches later - we hit the bush mouth, which was spectacular. Now you have forest, now you don't; in an instant, we had gone from deep bush to incredibly flat vastness. The savannah was a relief, for a change in landscape, and because it signified that Lethem was not far.
En route, we stopped at Annai for refreshments. The driver sensitively turned the music (some terrible pop from the mid 1980s) all the way up, rolled down the windows, and drove into the village like a rock concert on wheels.
Outside Annai, some distance into the flat nothingness, we picked up an Amerindian woman, who was on her way to Lethem. She travelled with her small baby, whose name, it turned out, was Rajesh. The driver and his helpers treated her with respect, and charged her a mere $500.
This schizophrenic attitude to women was interesting. On the one hand, everyone was clearly trying hard to make the female traveller we had just picked up feel comfortable. The driver had ensured that her journey was far cheaper than it normally would have been. And yet, in Kurupukari, it was this same driver who had displayed an altogether less savoury attitude to others of her gender.
Some miles on, a man waved us down. He was an odd character, dressed superbly (and incongruously, for the middle of this nowhere savannah) in jeans, cowboy boots, a long-sleeved shirt and a cowboy hat, the kind of person who wouldn't have looked out of place strolling down a fashionable street in Buenos Aires. How much to Lethem, he asked. Four thousand dollars, the driver said. Cowboy hat said that it was too much, and he would rather stay and wait for the next cruiser. One of the helpers loudly abused him, and we drove on. I asked the driver why he had suggested such a high price. "He's Venezuelan," was all I got by way of answer.
We reached Lethem at midnight. There was, clearly, nothing to do but spend the night over. But first, we had a police station to report to. Having dispensed with everyone but the Brazilians, the officer on duty then proceeded to throw the contents of their bags onto the floor, and strip-search them. Later, I was told that the officer had asked for a bribe.
But it was a pointless exercise, whatever it was the police might have been looking for. Just before we got to the police station, we had deposited one of the Brazilians into a little bar by the wayside, from where he would find his own way across the Takutu. The two who stayed on submitted to the police because they had nothing to lose.
Later in Georgetown, Assistant Superintendent of Police David Ramnaraine, clarified to Sunday Stabroek that the police have the right to conduct a strip search if there is adequate suspicion that the person is carrying something illegal on him. However, he stressed, the strip search must be done in a way that preserved the dignity of the individual, and outside the public view.
After a pleasant night at the very pleasant Takutu Hotel, we were on the river, and on our way to Bom Fin. From there, to Boa Vista, and onwards to Manaus. But in fact, we had reached Brazil some time ago. Certainly, we had exited Guyana (of a kind) a long time ago; there were few traces of coastland authority, or identity, left in Lethem.
We could change Guyanese dollars to Brazilian real (both only partially convertible currencies) for 1 real to $100. On our way back, we would discover that at the river crossing, one could get only $85 for the real. Further into Lethem, at the Trans Guyana Airways office, the rate had dropped, to $75 a real. Someone outside said they knew a man who would change at $80. Someone else said he had left for the day.
The cable TV was Brazilian, with English movies subtitled in Portuguese. Across the river, you could either go through Brazilian immigration (if you had a passport and visa) or not; several people we were with strolled past unconcernedly, and weren't stopped. In Lethem, it took about an hour to get an exit stamp organised. The immigration officer was asleep. Prices - for anything - were what someone wanted them to be. A can of Fruta, $110 in Georgetown, could cost anything betweeen $150 and $200.
But there was more to the remoteness of Lethem, Mabura Hill, and the other parts of the interior we had passed through. It was evident from what I witnessed and from conversations with fellow travellers and residents, that there was a nexus between interior police outposts, passing cruisers, and Brazilian miners. And further, that people passing through (and living on) that route had their own ways of subverting the law.
The Brazilian miners, it seems, will rarely allow themselves to report to police stations when they are carrying out gold or diamonds (they can get higher rates for them in Brazil). I learned that the only miners who might allow this, are in fact, carrying nothing of value, even very little money - a deliberate strategy - to avoid paying it out as bribes.
The miner we had dropped off, before reaching the police station in Lethem, promptly reappeared on the other side of the border. To him, at least, it would seem that to negotiate with the law was strictly optional. To be fair, the problem was not entirely his alone; the Brazilian miners who had been humiliated in the police station at Lethem were bitter about the experience.
Naipaul remarked, in The Middle Passage, the beauty - and oddness - of a place like Lethem, was not so much that it was a remote frontier post, cut off entirely from one mother country, and not quite connected completely to another, but that, here, the real intruders seemed to be the coastland Africans and Indians.
Indeed, it drove home that this was a very different Guyana. An Amerindian, South American Guyana, the kind one is so apt to forget up by the coast.
Dorothy would have put it well, if The Wizard of Oz had been set in Guyana. "Toto," she would have said, "I've got a feeling we're not in Georgetown anymore."