Lessons from the rain forest

Lessons from the rain forest

 Guyana was also a place of learning. I was alone. I had a lot of time. I loved reading. I was used to being alone and to reflecting and liked writing down my thoughts. All excellent ways to conceptualize life experience.

I love the bush and I loved hunting. So every alternate weekend Peter Ramsingh and I would go on a long drive into the bush to hunt what we could. Most of this was for the table because in the Kwakwani of those days, if you wanted variety on your table you had to find it yourself. And it was not in the Commissary that you would find it either. Mostly, we hunted the Canje Pheasant found all along the Berbice and its tributary, the Canje Creek. Another common game bird was the Powis (Curassow). It was as big as a turkey and good eating. We would also on occasion get an Agouti (Brazilian Agouti or Red, Orange or Golden Rumped Agouti) or two. And when we were very lucky, a small Savannah deer. Bush pig, the Collared Peccary (called Javelina) was also good game and though we both did not eat it, we had many friends who welcomed our hunts because we were the only people who would shoot a pig and then give it away.

Peter inherited my yellow Land Rover when the sawmill started and I got a small Toyota pickup. Peter and I would take turns driving the Land Rover over the bush trails. It contained in the back, everything that we needed for our camping and in case of an emergency. A chainsaw, thick rope, hammocks, spare petrol, an axe, a spade, the ever present cutlasses and various odds and ends. We would put in a cooler filled with drinks and some pre-cooked bananas or cassava and off we would go. What would have been ideal was a cell phone or radio but the first hadn’t been invented and the second we didn’t have. So we relied on ourselves. What we shot, we would cook in the bush and eat. What we saved, we would bring home. Sometimes in the bush we would come across a deep stream and would have to build a bridge to get across. Sometimes we would get stuck in the sandy soil and would have to tie the rope to a tree nearby and use the winch on the Land Rover to haul it out. In the evening we would find a camping place, tie the hammocks to ever present trees, all conveniently located so that we could tie our hammocks of course. Then we would light a fire and put on the tea pot. Once we had a nice cup of tea, we would put on the cooking pot. Peter, meanwhile, would have cleaned the game of the day. We would get water from the stream nearby, water that was coffee colored but perfectly clean and tasteless. The bush meat would go into the pot with salt and chillies, some onions, and as it cooked we would sit and talk about life.

The big topic of conversation at the time was the posturing of Venezuela, which bordered Guyana and had a border dispute. There was some chance that this would escalate to a military conflict. The Guyana Army was not in a position to face the much bigger and powerful Venezuelan army, but nobody would admit that. There was some discussion about whether Guyana would introduce conscription, so Peter was concerned if he would be called to join the Army. I was a foreigner and so was in no such ‘danger.’ To speak the truth though, I would have welcomed the adventure. However, as it turned out, South Americans are far wiser than their northern cousins and the matter was resolved peacefully.

Another topic was the government of President Burnham. This was a dangerous topic to talk about in a dictatorship where even your thoughts would be monitored if they could be, all in the name of freedom and democracy of course. But we were far away in the bush and Peter was in the company of a trusted friend. I was therefore the confidant of many ordinary people who wanted to vent their frustration with the way the country was being misgoverned. It was amazing to see how a country so rich in natural resources, so fertile, and with such wonderful people could be run into the ground so rapidly.

The bush in South America is different from its counterpart in India or Africa because of the absence of major predators. The only big ones are the Jaguar and the Anaconda, but neither will actually attack a person except in special circumstances. So it is possible to actually sleep very peacefully as long as you are not on the ground.

An hour or so later, once the food was ready, we would take the pot off the fire, pull out the bread that we had brought, and have our dinner. Then after some more discussion of world affairs, we would climb into our hammocks and drift off into peaceful sleep looking at the stars—possible only because we were at the river bank where the canopy did not obstruct the view. Those days seem like a dream today. Almost as if they never happened. And Guyana is so far away from where I am today that it seems as if I will never see my friends again. Be that as it may, the memories are alive in my heart and on these pages; they will live on in the minds of those who read this. We live in the memories that we give others. So it is important to be conscious of the memories we leave behind. This doesn’t mean that we live a life for others. But it does mean that we remember one cardinal fact, ‘Everything we choose to do or choose not to do, reflects brand value and character and is the stuff of memories.’

Remember when you read these pages that if I have written about a stream, it is there and the water is good to drink. These are stories of real life, real people, their hopes and loves and fears. And they will live on until they are remembered.

River Berbice, Guyana, 1980

Peter got another friend Leon Molenuex to build a flat bottomed boat for me. It was 18 feet in length with a flat bottom, low sides and a blunt prow. Its back was flat to fix an outboard motor. It had oar locks and two oars. And it had an ice box in the middle with bench seats, a plank each on either side of the ice box, forward and rear. Peter and I, and sometimes Leon would also come along, would load up the boat every Friday afternoon that we could get away and go up the Berbice River. What did we take with us? Hammocks, cutlasses, one single barreled 16 bore shotgun each. Rope, fishing line, hooks and a fishing net. Some rice, cassava, bananas and salt and pepper. And most importantly some chicken guts in a plastic bag. The last being what we called our ‘emergency ration’. Not that we ate them, but if we caught nothing then if you baited a hook with raw chicken guts and trawled them behind your boat you were sure to get some Piranha. Good eating.

It was a matter of honor for us that we would only eat what we could hunt or catch. Since neither Peter nor I ate pork, it took one of the most common items off our menu – Collared Peccary (Bush Pig) that we would be sure to see. But we never returned hungry. We would trawl as we moved along and usually caught some Lukanani (Peacock cichlid, Cichla ocellaris) or Grey Snapper (Acoupa weakfish, Cynoscion acoupa), two of the delicacies of the Amazonian River system and would roast them for dinner. If we were fortunate then either Peter or I would also be able to bag one of the several species of Curassows that lived in those forests. The most common were the Black Curassow (Crax alector) and the Crestless Curassow (Mitu tomentosum). Or even an Agouti (Cuniculus paca, Dasyprocta aguti) which is from the Paca family and a relative of the rabbit and Capybara but much smaller. Game was in such abundance that there was never a trip on which we had to go hungry but we would also bring back fish and game for Peter’s family and the families of other friends.

Almost every other Friday evening, we would start from Kwakwani going upriver, travelling until it got dark. Then we would find a sandy spot on the river bank and camp for the night. That sounds a bit chancy when you read it but we had our spots and knew them well so we just headed for the first one. A sandy bank was necessary because like all the rivers in this part of the world, the trees of the rain forest trailed their feet in the river all along its banks. That made landing very difficult and camping impossible. So you needed to look for a sandy bank. That happened at the bends in the river where the river deposited its sand and this collected over the years to make for some very attractive sandy crescents on which we camped.

Our routine was always the same. We would draw the boat up on the bank and I would collect wood for a fire. Peter and I would then sling up our hammocks from the trees that bordered the bank, first clearing the undergrowth around their trunks to ensure that we didn’t end up with unwanted sleeping partners. We would trawl as we travelled upriver and so we would have a couple of good size fish in our ice box. Once the fire was lit, Peter would put the kettle on and I would gut the fish and clean them. Then I would rub salt into the fish and prepare it for the bake. Taking two large yam leaves (or any other large leaf), I would wrap the fish securely in it and tie the whole bundle with a thread. Then I would dig in the river bank for clay and cover the fish warp with clay and make a ‘brick’ of clay – one for each fish. Once that was ready, I would remove the kettle from the fire, move the coals aside and dig in the sand and bury the clay bricks in the hot sand. I would then put the coals back on top and light the fire again. By the time our tea was ready so would the fish. We would then dig out the bricks and crack them open, remove the leaf covering and we had the most delicious baked fish you can imagine for dinner. There is nothing to beat fresh fish cooked with a little salt, in its own juices, with a bit of butter melted on top.

When dinner was done, we would climb into our hammocks and chat about whatever was at top of the mind until I would hear a snore in response to whatever I was saying. I would know then that Peter was off on his trip to dreamland. The rainforest is a safe place as long as you didn’t do anything stupid like sleeping on the riverbank. As long as you are off the ground nothing bothers you and I am living proof. There are many animals which are dangerous in these forests but none that will take a human being by choice. So as long as you stay out of their normal pathways you will be safe.

Lying in the hammock waiting for sleep to come, I would listen to the sounds of the forest and try to identify each one. The Amazonian rainforest is a rather silent place in the night, unlike Indian forests. The animals are less vocal and the forest itself muffles sound thanks to its density – you don’t hear much except insects. If you are near the river there are not many mosquitos but you do get vampire bats and so you need to cover up unless you wish to be bitten by one of them. That doesn’t turn you into a vampire or anything so romantic, but the wound can bleed for a long time as there is heparin in the bat’s saliva which prevents blood from clotting. In addition, I am sure vampire bites are not exactly what any doctor would order so it is better to stay off their menu.

Early next morning, we would start out at first light, or sometimes even a bit earlier, going over what looks like boiling hot water because of the ‘steam’ rising from it. That ‘steam’ is the mist that gets created when the warm water vapor laden air meets the cold river surface and gives the whole atmosphere an ethereal quality. Engine buzzing with Peter at the rudder, we would travel in companionable silence, eyes ever watchful for floating logs. These were the only real danger because if you hit one full tilt, it would take the bottom out of the boat. A fate not to be contemplated as the Berbice has Piranha, Cayman, and other interesting forms of life.

The Berbice is a wonderful river that changes its nature all along its course. Downriver from Kwakwani it is deep enough for large vessels to negotiate it. Bauxite ore from Kwakwani would be transported on barges pushed by a tug boat all the way to New Amsterdam on the coast to the smelter. These tugs would normally have a tow of four barges; each sixty feet in length which when fully loaded would sink to their gunnels with the weight. The tug boat captain’s job was a very complex one, negotiating bends in the river a hundred and fifty feet ahead through frequent blindingly heavy rain showers and through the night. Since tug boats and barges are about the clumsiest of watercraft and with the kind of weight the barges carried, this was no mean task. It was a tribute to the training and skills of tug boat captains that there had never been any instance of the barges heading out of the river, cross country across the rain forest.

Going upriver, however, the nature of the Berbice changes. It is no longer the deep river but spreads wide and shallow with frequent sandbars; so shallow in places that one could easily wade across. So much so that on occasion we would have to pull in the outboard motor and drag the boat over the sandbank. In this also there was a twist. In this river sand, there were two kinds of dangers. One that it could be quick sand with so much water under it that if you stepped into it, you could easily sink in over your head and die a horrible death. To guard against that we would get out of the boat only one at a time and hang onto the side of the boat until we were completely sure of our footing. Only then would be let go of the boat and then the other person would also get off and we would drag the boat over into water deep enough to float it.

The second danger was that of Stingrays. These are fresh water rays with a poisonous sting in the tail. Their favorite pastime is to lie buried and invisible in the sand of sandbars, just under the surface and wait for something to come within range and then they would sting by shooting a poisonous spike into it and then wait until it dies to eat it. Their normal prey is small fish but if you were to step on or close to one of them, then they would sting you out of fright. I am sure there are more painful things in life than a stingray sting—I just I don’t know what they are. And if you happen to be allergic to the poison then 50 kilometers up the Berbice River in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest is not where you want to discover this.

Even if you are not allergic, the sting means several days of fever, swollen lymph nodes, swollen foot and almost incapacitating pain. So what we would do is to put on our boots before we stepped into the water. Alternatively, you could use a stick and hold it ahead of you and push it in the sand ahead of you as you walk to ensure that you disturb the Stingray and drive it away before you get too close to it.

As we went upriver, we would sometimes pass single houses on stilts on the bank of the river with a little patch of garden at the back growing cassava, banana, and a couple of jackfruit trees. The house was one large room built on a high platform with a leaf or grass thatch. The walls were of woven mat with holes for windows. There would be a couple of dugout canoes tied to one of the poles with a rickety step going up to the platform. Children playing on the step or in the canoes would yell and scream at us with great excitement and delight. If we had time we would stop by and pass out some sweets or bananas that we would carry for such occasions. Otherwise we would wave to them and they would continue to wave and yell until we rounded the next bend of the river out of sight. I always wondered what would make a person go and live so far up the river in the middle of nowhere, alone without access to electricity, medical aid, and schooling for his children, and without any amenities. These Amerindians would hunt, gather honey and balata (wild rubber latex) and farm a little and would occasionally come to Kwakwani to buy a few things and sell their balata and honey and some wild meat. But they would not work at a regular job for love or money nor would they live closer to town. They preferred to live miles upriver and paddle their canoes several hours to get to Kwakwani and longer to return, paddling against the current on their way up.

It was a wonderful experience, buzzing along up the river hour after hour, listening to the sounds of the forest. Macaw pairs flying high over the canopy, talking to each other. Macaws believe that conversation makes for happy marriages and it seems to work for them as they pair for life and talk all the time. Toucans screaming whatever they scream about. The booming call of the Howler Monkey sentinel, answered by his counterpart in another part of the forest. The sudden crash in the undergrowth as you come around a bend and scare away something that was drinking at the edge of the bank. From the sound of the crashing you can guess whether it was a Collared Peccary or a Tapir. Deer and Agouti move very quietly and you wouldn’t even know that they had been there.

One weekend we decided to go as far as we could and eventually we must have gone more than a hundred kilometers when we came to place where the river widened into a huge pool. We entered the pool from the side that the river flowed out of. On the opposite side where the river flowed into was a series of rapids and short waterfalls. The sides of the pool were sandy and made excellent camping ground. We were delighted with the whole prospect. It was a very beautiful place indeed. Peter and I decided to camp for the night and pulled onto the sand and dragged the boat far up onto the sand. No telling if the river would rise in the night and float the boat away. That is not a prospect to be contemplated, being a hundred kilometers or more in the middle of nowhere without a boat. Trekking through rain forest is not an occupation to be thought of easily.

I got the fire going while Peter hung up our hammocks. Suddenly, I noticed on the far end of the pool near the rapids, a permanent structure on a concrete platform, a room roofed with corrugated iron sheets. It looked like a government structure and I wondered what it could be. Once we’d had our dinner and before it got dark we decided to go across and take a look at what it was. When we tied up to the little jetty there, an Indian Guyanese man came down to the water and greeted us. With him was an American who looked like some kind of technician by the way he was dressed, in overalls. We made our mutual introductions and it turned out that the structure was a weather monitoring station with some equipment from Motorola, which needed repair. The American engineer was from Motorola and had come to repair the equipment onsite. In the course of conversation, he asked me where I was from. I told him that I was from India.

He asked me, ‘Where from in India?’

I replied, ‘Hyderabad.’

He got very excited and told me, ‘I have been to Hyderabad. I have a friend there. His name is J. J. Singh and he works at the Administrative Staff College. Do you know him?’

I rolled my eyes and said, ‘Do I know him? Of course, I know him! But look at this, what is the probability that I would be in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest, hundred kilometers up the Berbice River, where I would meet an American who I had no idea would be there and we would have a mutual friend? If there was someone betting on this we would both be millionaires, man!!’ And we both had a great laugh. Whenever someone tells me, ‘It’s a small world’, I tell them, ‘Yes, but much smaller than you think.’ And I tell them this story. To date, nobody has told me a story more unlikely than this.

Influencing without authority

Influencing without authority

 One of the areas of my responsibility was the Commissary. This was the company owned department store from where you got your weekly supply of food and practically everything else you needed. It had a small frozen foods section, rough wooden shelves with rice, flour, lentils and other groceries stacked on them, farming tools, alcohol and beverages, tea, sugar, condiments and flavors, seeds, and fertilizer for the vegetable gardens that most people had. There was a small display of regular shirts, pants, and Dishikis. Basic needs for everyday life in the mining town. Since this was the only store in town, it did good business. All the stuff came across the Berbice River by the bus or up the river by barge. The object of the Commissary was not to make profit and some things were even subsidized by the company. It was more a social obligation as well as a necessity if you wanted to run a mining town in the middle of the rain forest.

One day, thanks to one of the periodic economic crises that we used to go through, there was no rice in the store for several weeks. Things got pretty bad as rice is a staple of the Guyanese people. Kwakwani being a mining town in the forest had the advantage that most people had vegetable gardens where they grew cassava, bananas and tapioca, so nobody was starving but tempers were high. Their  anger was really against the government of President Forbes Burnham, who was Head of the PNC (People’s National Congress), but in a communist (called socialist, but really communist) dictatorship the first thing you learn is to keep your mouth shut about the Party and the President. But anger must be vented. So, the most convenient target was the Company and its Management; though everyone was fully aware that the Company was as helpless as they were individually both in creating the financial crisis as well as in resolving it. Actually, come to think of it, a shortage of rice in Guyana was like a shortage of coal in New Castle. It was more a matter of distribution than of production. The two major agricultural exports of Guyana were rice and sugar and so not having rice in the country was ridiculous. But that is exactly what happened on this occasion. So, people were very angry.

Then one day, rice came. The store keeper, Griffith, unloaded it and packed it into 2 kilo bags, stacked them on the shelves and was ready to open the store. A crowd had collected in front of the store and like most such situations, a combination of old resentment, misplaced anger, and short tempers, things started to get a little hairy. Griffith phoned the Office and I took his call. He said, “Yawar, things are bad here. Looks like there will be a riot and they will break into the store and loot it. They are calling for Nick. Is he there?” Nick had gone to Linden that day for a meeting and hadn’t returned. So, I said, “Nick is not here, but I will be with you in five minutes.” Griffith sounded very doubtful. He said, “Man!! These guys are sounding nasty. I ain’t know if you can handle it.” Now say that kind of thing to a 24-year-old with red blood in his veins and what do you get?? Off I went to the store. The store was about a kilometer down the hill from the Admin. Office and so I was there in less than the five minutes that I promised Griffith.

The store was built on a concrete plinth platform with steps on either side which you had to climb up to get to the door. I parked my Land Rover to one side and walked up to the crowd. They let me through, and I climbed up the stairs and stood on the platform and what do I see? A huge crowd of men and some women, all shouting and cursing (and boy, could those Kwakwani people curse!!) …. many men with guns slung on their shoulders and cutlasses in their hands. Now these guns and cutlasses really meant no harm in themselves as that was the way the men went to their farms in the jungle. As it was evening, they were all headed there and had stopped by the store. But the mood was ugly, and the guns and cutlasses were there.

I raised my hand and the noise died down. I said, “The rice is here. We are sorry for the shortage, but you know this is not in our hands. But it is here now. Please form a line and come and get it in an orderly manner.” There was a moment’s silence as I said this. Then the shouting started again. “Ya rass coolie man wanna come and tell a’we Guyanese how to live?? Who the rass is you to tell a’we anytin?”  I realized that this was not the normal Kwakwani Guyanese I was listening to. Somebody had started this ‘we versus the foreigner’ thing and it was catching on. This was the beast of the mob, which has a mind of its own. At times like this, I believe that if you face the situation with courage you are taught what to say. Later you can analyze it and wonder why you said what you did. But at that time, it is spontaneous and right. I let them shout for a few seconds and then yelled at them, “You wanna come and loot this store, you gotta kill me first.”

My worry was never about my life but that I would fail in my task. I could not believe that Kwakwani people would harm me; that is the normal Kwakwani person. But this was a mob. It was entirely likely that they would call my bluff and I would die. They would regret it later, but I would be dead. All it needed was for someone to fire from the crowd or throw a cutlass and the deed would be done. Mobs give their members the immunity of invisibility and people can do strange things in such circumstances. The situation was definitely getting out of my control and I was wondering what to do, when suddenly Morris Mitchell (Chinee, the truck driver who I had mentioned earlier) jumped up onto the platform. He was also on the way to his farm, so he was wearing a much-used shirt, jeans, his cap backwards on his head, cutlass in his hand. Chinee was a big man. He was well over six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds, all muscle. His wrists were a foot wide (or at least they looked like they were) and his hands were like shovels. I remember one day he was sitting in my office and lazily squeezed a tack (nail) into a piece of hard green-heart wood that I used to keep as a paper weight. Squeezed it into the wood. Not hammered—squeezed. Get it??

Well, he jumped up onto the platform and in a voice that was used to being heard over the roar of truck and bulldozer engines shouted, “A’yo raas lisen and lisen good. You wanna kill dis baay? You gotta kill me fus. And a’yo raas know, I ain’t gonna die alone. So, who ready??” As in any mob situation, there is a critical incident that changes the mood. This was the one here. Suddenly someone started laughing and said, “Man Chinee. Yawar a’we baay man!! Nobody ain’t gonna do nothn to he! A’we just mad at the company man!! Anyway, the rice dey ere an so leh we go’n get it. Stand in a line folks. We ain’t ga all night!!” And that was that. All that camaraderie apart, the reality is that if Morris Mitchel had not stood by my side, there is no saying what would have happened. Seeing him with a cutlass in his hand had a sobering effect and broke the mood of the mob and people came to their senses. As I say, Guyana is beloved to me because of its people. Amazing people who would cheerfully put their own lives on the line for a friend.

With Nick Adams on the Kwakwani trail, 1997

The incident did not end there for me. When Nick got back, instead of a pat on the back, I got my ear burned off for being a hero. Nick was angry at me for putting my life in danger for no good reason. He wouldn’t believe that the Kwakwani people wouldn’t have harmed me. He said he knew mobs and that they had a life and will of their own. People did things in the mob frenzy which they may well regret later, but the damage would be done. He was angry, but said he respected my courage and standing on principle and that he would personally ‘fry my butt’ if I ever did such a thing again. It was said with so much love and concern for me that I only grew to respect and love the man even more. He said to me, “Your father told me to look after you when he left you here and I gave him my word. If you had died today what would I tell Dr. Baig? Never do this kind of thing again. You hear me?” “Yessah! I hear you.” I heard you that day and I hear you every time I think of you. I hear your words, I hear the tone, I hear the love, the responsibility, and the honor. I hear it and I bless you and thank AllahY that He gave me you as my first boss so that I could learn from you how to be a man. And He is witness that you taught me very well. Nick was a father to me in a strange land where I was alone, and I loved him like my own father.

That is one of the many lessons that I owe to Nick. Another was in hospitality and consideration. The first time it happened I was astonished. Then it became a regular feature. One weekend Nick called me and asked me to go over to his place. When I walked over, I saw that he had a pen full of live chickens (about 10-12 in all) and a knife. He said to me, “Ya-waar, can you please slaughter these in your way? I will put them in the freezer so that we are sure we give you these when you come over to our place to eat.” What do you say to such a man?

To return to our story, these were the days of President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham’s presidency. The PNC (People’s National Congress) was supreme. Race was the underlying thread in any conversation. I was not counted because I was a foreigner. But when I was among strangers, who took me to be Guyanese thanks to my fluency in Creolese, I could sense the tension. There was a lady in Kwakwani Mines Office called Patsy. Patsy was the secretary of the Mines Manager (the Big Boss), George Shultz as well as the District Coordinator of the ‘Party’. So, she was a big noise. Patsy was several years older than I was and didn’t like me one bit and tried initially to make trouble for me by embarrassing me. One day she called out to me in a loud voice, ‘Comrade Baig, do you know the meaning of screw?’ There was an immediate hush and an expectant silence. All the typist girls in the room looked up waiting to laugh their heads off expecting me to beat a hasty embarrassed retreat. But to their surprise and Patsy’s consternation, I turned around and said, ‘Patsy, you want me to tell you or you want me to show you?’ The office collapsed into shrieking laughter. You must see a West Indian African laugh to know the meaning of laughing. The whole body laughs, not just the mouth. And the person literally throws himself around the room, shrieking in delight. It got so loud that George Shultz came out of his office to see what was going on and on being informed, he joined in, much to Patsy’s disgust. But she learned her lesson and that was the last time she tried that trick with me. However, that was not the last of her attempts to make my life difficult.

Patsy would take time off on the pretext of ‘party work’ and disappear, leaving her work with others who resented this, but did not have the courage to tackle her. One day she did her usual disappearing act and then ended up in the Kwakwani Club having a drink during working hours. I was passing by and saw her and suspended her pending investigation. Patsy, as I mentioned, was the PNC District Coordinator and behaved as if she was the country’s President. Since she was in real life a secretary and that too in my office, I tried very hard to convince her that she had to at least pretend to work. But to no avail. So finally, I issued her a warning letter. That was like stepping on the tail of a mamba. Given her political powers, this was a slap in the face that she was not going to take lying down.

 Next morning Nick called me to his office. He had a grave look on his face. He asked me, ‘What happened between you and Patsy?’ I told him about the drinking incident and the following suspension pending investigation, which was according to the rule book. Nick was aware of Patsy’s doings himself but told me that the Minister of Mines had called him and asked him to enquire. I explained what I had done and Nick being a man with moral courage, supported me. He called the Minister and explained what had happened and why. I am amazed today, having seen a great deal of the world, how, given the political situation in Guyana of those days, Nick could have stood up for me. He taught me a lesson of standing up for your subordinates when they are right, and I will remember all my life. This is Nick for you. A man that I admire, respect, and love with all my heart.

The matter did not end with that because the lady in question would not let it rest. She demanded that I withdraw the suspension – I refused. So once again the Minister called Nick and said that he wanted to meet me. Nick said to me, ‘I just had a call from the Minister of Mines, Cd. Hamilton Green. Comrade Green wants to see you.’ I asked, ‘When?’ Nick said, ‘Now. So, get ready and go. Patsy has complained to him about you. I will support you in this so don’t worry but you must satisfy the Minister. Otherwise things can get difficult (he meant that I could summarily be sacked and sent back to India).’ But there was no escape as I was also not willing to back down from my stance, which I was completely convinced, was right. It was also a matter of asserting my authority without which my life would not have been worth living.

I arrived in Georgetown late in the afternoon after a 4-hour drive. I entered the ante-room where Cd. Green’s secretary sat. I introduced myself but it appeared that I was famous. They all knew me. I was not sure if I should be happy or alarmed about this. She told me, ‘Show your face through that window and he will open the door.’ The window was a little sliding shutter. I moved it aside and looked in as instructed. I saw a huge mahogany desk with an African gentleman sitting behind it, manicuring his nails. All the tools for this high precision job were laid out before him. He saw me peering through the glass and reached under the table top and pressed a button which released the lock so that I could go in. The door clicked shut behind me and there I was in the presence of the Honorable Minister of Mines, Cd. Hamilton Green himself. 

I realized that the whole office was furnished and arranged to intimidate and put the other at a disadvantage. Cd. Green’s manicuring was the strangest thing that I had ever seen and to this day I can’t think of why he did it. I remained standing. He looked me up and down and then gestured for me to sit. I took a chair a couple of seats away from him and waited for the crucial interview to begin.

‘So, Mr. Baig, you are from India?’

‘Yes Sir.’

‘What do you think of Mrs. Gandhi?’

‘I think she is a good leader Sir. She is good for our country.’

‘But some people don’t seem to like her, no?’

‘Isn’t that the case with most strong leaders Sir?’

‘Yes, that is true.’

Then he came to the point of the interview. “So, what’s the issue with our friend Comrade Daniels in Kwakwani?”

“Sir”, I said, “to put it politely, her attitude at work is an embarrassment to the Party that she represents. She does not work, plays politics, throws her weight around, and generally behaves as if she owns the place. I believe this is not the impression that the PNC wants to create among the people. I tried every way I could to convince her to be a good example that would be worthy of someone who is the District Coordinator, but she will not listen. So eventually, I had no alternative but to suspend her. I tried to advise her, but she is a strong woman.’

‘Strong woman, eh!’ He laughed. ‘Like Mrs. Gandhi maybe! So how do you like Guyana (Giyaana – is how he and most Guyanese pronounce it)?’

‘I like it very much Sir.’

‘You don’t miss your country?’

‘Everyone misses his country Sir. But Guyana and Guyanese have been so good to me that it feels like home. I have friends here who are like my own family. So, I don’t miss my country too much.’

‘Good of you to come Mr. Baig. It was nice to meet you.’

All the while Mr. Green continued to manicure his nails; filing, pushing back the cuticles and occasionally clipping an uncooperative piece. Strange way of conducting a meeting, I thought to myself. But such are the ways of the high and mighty. To give him his due, however, he was a fair man and gave me a chance to explain myself and then accepted the explanation when it made sense. I’m not sure how many people in his position in other countries would have been equally patient and understanding with a twenty-four year old foreigner who had taken a stance against one of their own Party functionaries.

I thanked him, walked the length of the table, the door buzzed as I came to it and opened, and I walked out. The secretary smiled at me and I left, returning to Kwakwani close to midnight and the matter was closed. The letter stuck and was not withdrawn and the lady in question toed the line. The Minister it seems told her where to get off. In the process, I acquired a huge amount of ‘respect’ because I had managed to make the reprimand stick by convincing none other than the Minister himself and because there were a lot of other poor sufferers who were delighted that the lady got what was coming to her. They did not have the power to do anything about it but were all silently rooting for me. There was an important lesson for me to take away; if you win, you will find that you have a lot of supporters. If I had been reprimanded by the Minister and ordered to withdraw the letter, then I don’t know how many of my supporters would have stood on the same side of the street when they saw me coming. Winners have many fathers and losers none. 

Two other lessons from this incident; the importance of building a good case and the importance of putting it in a way that makes sense to the listener from his perspective. ‘What’s in it for me?’ is a tune that everyone listens to. It’s about speaking the truth but doing it in a way that makes sense to the listener in ways that are important to him. Nick, needless to say, was delighted.

Next morning when I went to see Nick he was smiling and said, ‘Whatever you said to Hamilton Green, Patsy seems to have got an earful from him and I don’t think you are going to have any problems with her again.’ And that is indeed what happened. Mr. Green was a just man and understood what I told him and acted upon it immediately.

Guyana, cross cultural boot camp

Guyana, cross cultural boot camp

Guyana Chronicle interview, 1980

“So, Comrade Baig, you have been living here for two years. What are your impressions about our country?” The interviewer was from Guyana Chronicle, the main English newspaper. I was being interviewed because I was there. Comrade was a gender-neutral term used to address anyone because Guyana was a socialist (communist) country ruled by an iron-man with an iron fist, not always in a velvet glove. My interviewer had come in preparation for a great event, the visit of the President, Hon. Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham who was the leader of Guyana from 1964 until his death, as the first Prime Minister from 1964 to 1980 and as second President from 1980 to 1985. I lived in Guyana from 1979-83 and so in the middle of the reign of the President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. We called him Comrade Burnham; meaning we referred to him as that. When he visited Kwakwani, he arrived by helicopter, which was a grand spectacle in itself and for many Kwakwani people, including myself, it was the first time any of us had seen a helicopter. The helipad on Staff Hill was surrounded by people all waving PNC flags and screaming their welcome above the roar of the rotors. As the helicopter landed, the dust thrown up effectively shut everyone’s mouths. Since he was the guest of our company, Guymine, Berbice Operations and I was the Assistant Administrative Manager, it meant that I got to stand to one side with the senior managers including the CEO who welcomed Cdr. Burnham. There was Haslyn Parris, the CEO of Guyana Mining Enterprise (Guymine), Stephen Ng Qui Sang, the Berbice Operations Coordinator, Walter Melville, Personnel Coordinator, James Nicholas Adams, Berbice Operations Administrative Manager and my boss and George Schultz, Berbice Operations Mines Manager. All of them were in the front-line welcoming the President.

Among the things that were peculiar to the reign of Forbes Burnham, (I use the term because to all intents and purposes he was a ‘Ruler’ more than a leader. Some called him ‘Dictator’) was his no-nonsense style, which translated into no-opposition to his policies. Guyana of those days had a pall of fear over it and if you knew what was good for you, you didn’t talk politics. I knew what was good for me. Burnham was dealing with the aftermath of freedom and he and his party chose the socialist way. Guyana was called the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana and was closely aligned with Cuba and Soviet Russia, though it was officially part of the NAM (non-Aligned Movement). This was not to the liking of either the Americans or the British, Guyana’s erstwhile colonizers but that was reality. Guyana paid a high price in facing political blockages resulting in shortages at home. However, in today’s terms, things were easy. Unlike today, Guyana had not discovered that it had oil and so nobody was particularly interested in what Guyana did or didn’t do. There was bauxite and sugar. There was some gold, but it was not really extracted in any big way. There were and are major rivers but no hydro power. There was no organized or large-scale agriculture or ranching though there was land enough and more for both. Guyana was poor. What was also happening was the reality about payback time after any revolution leading to freedom. People who struggled for the freedom remember the promises made during the struggle and are looking to live happily ever after, forgetting that that is only a last line in fairy tales. To develop we need education and very hard work.

Burnham’s policies drove Guyanese out of Guyana and many migrated to the United States, Canada and the UK. As it used to be said at one time, ‘There are more Guyanese in Brooklyn than there are in Guyana.’ True or false, there were too few in Guyana and those that remained were people who really couldn’t leave or were in government jobs where political affiliation counted for more than any competence. The results on the economy and society were hardly surprising or beneficial. On that day Comrade Burnham ascended the podium that had been constructed and spoke, short and clear. I still remember this line in his speech. He said, “A-we Gainese wan far go-va-men to give us everytin while we sit upon we sit-upons and wait. Lemme tell ayo dat if ayo wan devlopmen, ayo gon hav to wok fo it. But we like to sit upon our sit-upons and talk about what the Go-va-men mos do an vat Mistah Bonham mos do but nevah about wa I mos do. That won’t work. Unless we decide to get up and help ourselves, nothing will change.” To me, that made perfect sense. And if someone didn’t like the man because he spoke plainly, well, that is their choice. Burnham was also known for and liked or hated for some of his policies, among which was the banning of wheat flour and the promotion of rice flour. Guyana grows rice while wheat was imported. Naturally this went against the established food habits of people and they didn’t like it. Burnham did it to reduce the import bill, but economic policy succeeds or fails more for subjective emotional reasons than objective logical ones.

Burnham decreed a policy of self-reliance and many imports including food staples were banned. Among the things that were banned apart from wheat flour were also Irish Potatoes, which was rather ironic seeing that potatoes are actually South American and were imported into Ireland. The result was that one night someone came to my house and rang the bell and looking over his shoulder, presented me with ‘forbidden fruit’, three Irish potatoes, smuggled in from Suriname, no less. For an Indian, getting three potatoes as a gift was strange to say the least, but since I lived in Guyana and was totally acculturated, I knew what a great honor and sign of friendship that gesture represented. Forbes Burnham was feared and respected, loved and hated. All hallmarks of strong leaders.

Kwakwani Park Labor Club was an institution. This was a place which had a large hall which doubled as a cinema with a stage at one end. It had a long veranda along one end on which were placed tables at short intervals where people played dominoes with great passion and noise. Inside was the bar, the place for many a meeting, fight and romance. The level of noise in it can only be experienced, not described. The Club could be heard before it was seen. And its smell was never to be forgotten. Playing dominoes in the Kwakwani Club seemed to consist of smashing the domino on the table with all your might and shouting at the top of your voice. I can vouch for the fact that going by this criterion the people who played dominoes in Kwakwani Club must have been world champions. If the game is more than this, then I must beg forgiveness for my ignorance. The Club was also remarkable for its smell. Imagine a combination of stale sweat, beer, and rum floating on heavy humid air in an invisible cloud that came at you as soon as you were within reach. Then it clung to you and entered every exposed pore and remained with you and your clothes through several baths and washes. But this did not seem to bother anyone to the best of my knowledge.

The people of Kwakwani were mostly of African descent. This, however, is a generalization because in Guyana the racial mixture is so rich that most people seem to be a combination of many different races – Amerindian, Chinese, Indian, African, and European. Demographically, Guyana had at that time about sixty percent people of Indian descent who mostly lived on the coast. They used to work on the sugar plantations, having been brought in by the British as indentured labor from India. Another main occupation of theirs was small time trade. Twenty percent of African descent who were the descendants of African slaves and also worked on the sugar plantations. When the emancipation of slaves happened, they walked off the plantations and settled in the hinterland, engaged in timber extraction and whatever else they could do. The timber and mining industries are dominated by them, as are also the Army and the Police. The last twenty percent consists of the indigenous Amerindian tribes, originally hunter, gatherers who have been exploited mercilessly by everyone else. They still live in the forests, though many now live and work on the fringes of whichever town or village that happens to be nearby. They have the least paying jobs and live mostly by selling wild meat, fish, honey, balata (wild rubber), and sometimes by working as guides for others.

In this final section of the population are also the descendants of the Chinese laborers who were brought by the British to work on the railway, most of which has fallen into disuse and is rotting away. There was and continues to be a free mixing of the races though the Indians seem to keep to themselves and away especially from people of African origin. Indians everywhere seem to be oriented towards fair-skinned people and practice their own brand of ‘apartheid’, wherever they live in appreciable numbers, including in India. The best example of this can be seen if you read the matrimonial advertisement page in the Sunday papers in India. Almost every single ad will ask for a bride who above all else is ‘Fair,’ which has nothing to do with her love for justice, believe me. A very sad practice that harms Indians more than anyone else, but they have yet to learn this lesson.

Guyana had become independent less than 10 years before I got there. So, ideology, in this case communist, was still very strong. As I mentioned earlier, people called each other ‘Comrade,’ which depending on the tone of voice could be given any kind of connotation from the most warmly cordial to the positively hostile. As in many such cases, not everyone was a ‘believer,’ but to appear to believe was required. Since ideological alignment was more important than everything else, efficiency suffered and people who claimed to be loyalists of the ruling party, the PNC, had personal power far in excess of their official position.

On Sundays a film would be screened in the Club. Most of the spectators apparently believed that they could influence the outcome of whatever was happening on the screen if they shouted at the actors. So, they proceeded to do the same with great gusto. But strangely nothing seemed to change. The actors continued to do whatever they had intended to do in the first place. Much like government policy in our so-called democracies, which seems to be independent of the screaming and shouting of their poor enslaved populations who have not realized the fact that the script has been written by someone else and will not change with their screaming. Little did I realize while attempting to watch a film in Kwakwani, I would live to see a real-life version of this behavior, thirty years later.

About a kilometer away from Kwakwani Park, up a small hill was the Officers colony called Staff Hill. In typical British colonial style, the rulers were separated from the ruled. Even ten years after independence, Staff Hill was informally out of bounds for ordinary people. It was meant for Officers, in this case, all black West Indian or East Indian (people of Indian origin) and though we no longer had a fence and guards as used to be there in the past, nobody from Kwakwani Park actually came up the hill except to bring some visiting relative for a short drive to show them how the other half lived. White and black is not about color; it’s about social status and attitude.

In my hammock outside my house facing the orange orchard

Staff Hill had two kinds of houses. Bungalow type houses with 3 bedrooms and a veranda all around them for most of us. And big wooden houses on stilts with parking underneath them for the really big bosses. The houses were arranged around a quadrangle with an orange orchard all around them. There was a swimming pool to cool off. There were tennis courts, a Club House with a bar, guest rooms, dining room (excellent cooks to boot) with proper dinner service, uniformed waiters, table tennis table, and a library.

The rules of this Club were very different. The barman wore a uniform and gloves. You could not play dominos here. And you could not come to the Club in your shorts and nothing else. You could not shout at the top of your voice and you could not curse. And no matter that the British were long gone – as in the case of India, their ways had been adopted by their erstwhile slaves and upheld as a sign of their own ‘superiority’ over their own brethren. I am not saying that there is something intrinsically good about cursing and yelling and unwashed shirts. I am merely pointing at the reasons we do some things and how we use certain norms to demonstrate our own superiority over others.

In Kwakwani Park was the hospital where for a year my father was the resident doctor, Nurse Liverpool the Head Nurse, and MacFarlane the Compounder. All wonderful people who ran a very good hospital indeed. Kwakwani was a lovely small town where you knew everyone, and everyone knew you. There were no strangers in Kwakwani. Everyone knew what was happening in your life and had an interest in it. And you in theirs. People had the time to stop whatever they were doing to chat with you when you came past. Nobody passed anyone on the street without saying, “Aye! Aye! Maan!! Ow ya doo’in!!” Remember to end on a high note as you say that, to know how it sounded.

They may add, “Ow de Ol Maan?” (Could mean your father or your husband, depending on who you were). “Ow de Ol Lady?” (wife or mother). “Ow de Picknee?” (Believe it or not, that means children). And remember that had nothing to do with whether you were married or not, as I learned to my own embarrassment one day when I went to the Income Tax office to file my tax return. The lady at the counter offered to help me fill out the form, which I gladly agreed to have her do. She asked me at the appropriate column, “Married?” I said, “No.” She then asked, “Any children?” I said, “I already told you I am not married.” She looked up at me and said, “Wad de hell dat ga fa do wid anytin Maan!!” To end this line of discussion, I immediately accepted defeat and said, “No children.”

The language of the Guyanese is called Creolese. It is an English Patois and as distinct with its own flavor as French Patois is from French. Creolese has the taste of Cookup, the sound of the Steel Band. and the aroma of the rain forest. It is a language of the people and reflects their culture. I used to speak it so fluently that new locals I met wouldn’t believe that I was not a native.

They would ask me, ‘Weya fraam?’

‘I’m Indian.’

‘Me-no-da bai, A-mean weya from in Giyana?’

‘Me-na from Giyana, me from India.’

‘Ah! (That is said as an exclamation in a high rising tone) – Ya tak jus laka-we’

And that was a great compliment. It is really impossible to render Creolese into text because it is spoken with so much emotion and voice modulation that without those sounds, it’s not done justice. It is a language that comes straight from the heart. Creolese has many proverbs and funny stories with morals that are typical of the language and the people.

For example, there is a famous proverb: Han wash han mak han com clean (When two people help one another, they help themselves).

Another one: He taak caz he ga mouth (He talks nonsense).

As for stories, there are several. And in them, the people of color may appear lazy, but are smart and the White man is the butt of the joke. Here’s one:

One day a black man (Blak-maan) be ga-in about lookin for sometin ta eat when he com upon dis garden in de bush. Dey he saw dis great big bunch of ripe bananas. De man! He very appy! He put he arms around the bunch of bananas an sey, ‘De Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want.’ He hear a voice saying, ‘If you don tak ya hands off dem bananas, I gon lay ya down in green pastures.’

Dey bin the owner of the garden watchin over he garden when dis man go dey.

And knowing the Guyanese, once this happened, I am sure the owner would have given some bananas to the hungry man to eat. I don’t know of any Guyanese who would chase a hungry man away. Guyanese have big hearts.

Another one involves an Amerindian guide and his white employer. They are walking through the rain forest. The Vyte-maan (White man) sees that the Amerindian is walking barefoot, carrying his boots on a string over his shoulder. So he laughs at him and says, ‘You ignorant Amerindians are so stupid. Why are you carrying your boots?’

The Buck-maan (Amerindian), he na say nothn.

Then they come to a stream. The Vyte-maan tak off he shoe and the Bok-maan, he put on he shoe.

The Vyte-maan laugh at he again and seh, ‘This is really stupid. Now that we have to wade through the water you put on your shoes? The shoes will get spoilt.’

The Buck-man, he na say nothn.

As they wade through the stream the Vyte-maan get hit by a stingray. He scream in pain and fall down. The Buck-maan drag he out onto the other bank and seh, ‘Now who stupid? When me eye cyan see, me na need no shoe. But when me eye cyant see, is weh I need de shoe maan. So, who stupid, me ah you?’

Another brilliant one is about this Blak-maan who goes looking for work. In Guyana, the custom is that the employer feeds the worker. If the worker works for the full day then the employer gives him a lunch break and lunch. So, this Blak-maan comes to the mansion of a Vyte-maan. The Vyte-maan says to him, ‘I have a big tree in the back garden that fell last night. You must saw it. But you guys are lazy. You take too long to eat lunch. So, what I’m going to do is to give you food now. You eat first then you work through till the evening without a lunch break.’

The Blak-maan agrees. The Vyte-maan gives him banana and cassava and mutton and tea and the Black-maan, he eat like it is his last meal. When he done, the Vyte-maan tell he, ‘Come over to the back and I will show you the tree you have to saw.’ The Blak-maan goes around the house and there is this huge tree that has fallen. The Vyte-maan say to he, ‘Alright, you see that tree over there, you have to saw it.’

The Blak-maan he look carefully and seh, ‘Me na see no tree.’

The Vyte-maan can’t believe his ears. ‘What do you mean you can’t see the tree? It is that great big tree over there!’

The Blak-maan ben down and look heah and deh and seh again, ‘Me na see no tree.’

Now the Vyte-maan is really angry. So he shouts at him, ‘You stupid man, can’t you see that great big tree over there?’

The Blak-maan seh again, ‘Me na see no tree.’

The Vyte-maan is in a rage and yells, ‘What do you mean you can’t see the tree? I saw you see the tree.’

The Blak-maan seh, ‘You saw me see the tree? But you aint go see me saw it.’

I can still hear the voice of my dear friend and first boss, Nick Adams telling me this joke and both of us laughing our heads off. You have to listen to a Guyanese tell these stories with the sing-song tone of their voice and their actions illustrating what is supposed to be happening in the story. I can’t put that into this narrative here. But if we meet one day, remind me and I will tell you the stories in Creolese as they should be told.

Mail took an average of one month to get to Guyana from India. That it actually arrived is a marvel of the system which in today’s email world we seem to have forgotten. But it did come and in the 5 years that I spent in Guyana, I never had a letter that was lost. As postage depended on weight, I used to write on very thin, semi-transparent tracing paper with a very fine nibbed pen to try to get as much matter into it as possible. And since Mr. Gates had not yet created Windows and laptops were not for machines and notebooks had 100 pages of 15 lines each, you could not cut & paste or delete or drag & drop. So, you needed to write after due thought if you wanted to save yourself the trouble of writing what you wrote all over again. This is how I learnt to express myself in writing. 

Kwakwani, home by the river

I breathed a huge sigh of relief as we loaded the last railway sleeper on the barge.  The beginning of this particular barge story goes back to when I first arrived in Kwakwani and saw the mining operations. Bauxite mining was done by the open cast method, which is one of the most wasteful and destructive methods known to man. But it made economic sense and long-term effects were not on anyone’s mind, so it went on. The sequence of operating an open cast mine is as follows. First the prospecting team identifies where the bauxite ore deposits are. They do this by drilling holes on a grid pattern, and send back soil samples sometimes from several hundred feet underground for analysis. This enables the geologists to create a map of the underground ore deposits. The prospecting team stays deep in the rain forests away from habitation for several weeks at a time. Food and supplies would be trucked in to them by Land Rover. Loneliness was a major issue and alcoholism its outcome. The prospecting teams welcomed visitors and I would often spend a weekend with them. One day when I was with one of the teams in the forest, one of the Amerindian drillers came to me looking very agitated and said, “Man Baigie, I want a week’s leave.” I knew he had no leave to his credit and told him that he could not take leave. He begged and pleaded, “Man!! A bin out ‘ere in the jungle too long man. I miss the ol’lady baad man. You raas na married, wa ya know about all dem ting!” I was not getting into a discussion about the need for female company so I stuck to my guns and told him that he had no leave to his credit and so he could not go. Eventually he became such a pest that I said to him emphatically, “Leon, I told you, you cyan go.” That got to him. He pulled himself up to his full height of 5 foot nothing and said to me, “Man Baigie, you cyan tell me I cyan go! You can tell me I cyan come back. But you cyan tell me I cyan go!!” I was so amused at this obviously logical explanation that I burst out laughing and said to him, “Alright off with you for three days. I will look the other way. Unofficial leave.”

The Amerindians were simple people who lived from day to day without a thought for the future. They worked when they were hungry and relaxed when their belly was full. Alcohol was the bane of their lives, but they were oblivious to that. Once an area had been mapped and it had been decided to start mining, the forest would be cleared in preparation for the mining operations. This was done by simply sending in Caterpillar D9 bulldozers (each the size of a small house) which would push over all the trees into one big pile which would then be burnt. Sometimes these fires would burn for months. Then the dozers would clear the overburden, which was mostly sand, until they reached the hard pan. Then the Dragline Excavator would come in and start digging. The Dragline Excavator is such a huge machine that it has no wheels or tracks but actually ‘walks’ on huge feet. It is an amazing sight to see a Dragline Excavator moving. Eventually a colossal pit would be created with the Dragline Excavator sitting in the middle of it, deep below the level of the surrounding forest, like some pre-historic dinosaur working round the clock digging out the ore. The Dragline Excavator would load the ore into huge Caterpillar trucks with a payload of 50 tons each which would cart it away to the crusher. The crusher would crush the ore into a uniform consistency and load it onto barges that a tug boat would then push down the Berbice River to New Amsterdam where it would be further processed. It would then be loaded onto ships to be taken away to Canada and the US for smelting and extracting aluminum.

Arjun and I (with helmet) with the CAT

I often tried to imagine what the whole operation would look like to someone from another planet flying overhead. They’d see a huge hole at one end, a living creature with a long neck and a wide jaw with massive teeth, which continuously bit large chunks of the earth and spit them into waiting trucks. Once the truck has its payload it drives up out of the hole up the carefully graded road often circling the pit a couple of times as the road climbs out of the depths of the earth. A hairy operation in itself as the road had no safety barriers (not that any barrier would hold a fifty-ton truck) and the pit yawned on one side of it. It is a tribute to the skills of the drivers that in the five years that I lived in Guyana there was not a single major accident. When the truck comes out over the lip, it drives swiftly through the forest and eventually dumps its load at the ore dump near the crusher. Then back to the pit. At the ore dump are the Front-end Loaders; huge machines on wheels with a toothed bucket in the front. This scoops the ore from the pile into its bucket, turns around and trundles along a few meters and dumps it into the hoppers of the crusher. Then it would spin in its track and back to the ore dump for its next load. In the middle of all this would be another machine that resembles a large beetle called a Scraper. That is what it does. It scrapes off the top soil (called overburden) into a hopper that is in its belly and then it takes it and dumps it away from the main pit.

Then there is the Grader that ensures that the road remains clear, level, and smooth so that the trucks can run without interruption. It is amazing how many of these machines resembled insects. This process would go on, day and night, continuously. As I mentioned, open cast mining is perhaps the most destructive operation on earth. In Guyana in those days there was not even an attempt at rehabilitating the land, so when a pit had been mined out, it would simply be abandoned. If you drove around you would come across many such mined out pits filled with the clearest, bluest water you ever saw. This was the result of the minerals in the water, one of the effects of which was that nothing lived in the water. The water was good to swim in and we did that often. The pits were very deep so it was not totally safe to swim in them, but when you are twenty-some years old and there are others swimming with you, you don’t think about safety. Not the wisest thing to do, but I lived to tell the tale.

When I checked, I found that just as I had suspected these forests had good hardwood trees. Good for making furniture and construction material, but nobody had the time to do anything about that and so they simply burnt them to clear the land to get to the ore. What this burning did to the environment is a different story and to tell you the truth, I was as unaware in those days about environmental issues as most other people. What was obviously clear though, was that a lot of otherwise useful timber was being wasted simply because nobody was interested in doing anything about it. The core operation of the company was mining and that was all that any of the managers were interested in. I made a proposal to the company that we setup a sawmill operation, which would be able to utilize this forest resource and be a self-sufficient, profit making business.

The management agreed and this sawmill operation was given to me to run in addition to my regular job as Assistant Administrative Manager. My boss, Mr. James Nicholas Adams (Nick Adams) was a remarkable man who was also my mentor and guide. Although he was technically in charge of the whole operation, he let me run it the way I wanted and that was a tremendous learning opportunity for me. Nick had a unique way of teaching by delegating responsibility and then periodically calling me to do a participative analysis of my own performance. He would then reinforce the strengths and achievements and encourage me to draw lessons from my mistakes. I remember my first ever appraisal in 1980. Nick gave me the form and told me to fill it in myself. I was shocked because I thought appraising was something that the boss did for you. But Nick’s point was, ‘You know what you did better than I did. So, write it up.’ I returned with what I thought were my achievements and then Nick and I had a long chat about them. Thanks to my Indian cultural upbringing, Nick ended up adding several things that I had left out feeling that they didn’t really count. I still have that form with Nick’s signature on it, 33 years later.

One of my major learnings was that responsibility, variety, challenge, and satisfaction in a job were largely in your hands if you used your head and could influence people. I was not the only person who saw the way the forest was treated or who saw that it could become an independent source of income. I was the only one who translated these thoughts into a workable business model. The result was that it was added to my responsibility and I now had an official reason to spend time in the forest. I recruited my good friend Peter Ramsingh to be the head of this operation and Peter and I spent the next five years doing what we loved to do anyway – wander in the rain forest at will. I recruited Amerindian workers, who knew the rain forest of the Berbice River valley like the backs of their hands, for the sawmill operation. These people lived a nomadic life in the forests in semi-permanent camps. They would clear a small area of the forest and grow a few vegetables, and hunt deer, collared peccary, capybara, and agouti that came to feed on this new bounty in the forest. They knew the location of each Greenheart, Wamara, and other hardwood trees in the forest, which they came across in their wanderings. Ideal people to do the scouting operations that we needed to locate the trees we needed for the mill. Once they had located the trees, the extracting team would go and haul in the trees.

Peter is on my left

Peter Ramsingh was a man of enormous energy, enterprise, and initiative. Peter got along well with his people and became the ideal manager of the mill. Peter and I would spend hours in the forests, accompanying the scouts in their explorations, not because they needed our help but because we both loved being in the rain forest. Peter’s wife Chandra would send me things she cooked and would pack us lunch when we took off on our jaunts. Chandra was Nick Adam’s secretary and a wonderful, patient lady with a big smile always on her face. To this day, 30 years later, I can still recall the smell of the vegetation in the dim recesses of the Berbice River forests, so thick in places that the sun did not penetrate to the forest floor. It was with great distress that I learnt in 2009 that Peter Ramsingh had died of congestive heart failure in 2001. One more, dear friend gone forever. Feeling the pain of parting is the price of friendship. Peter was a truly dear friend whose memory I honor and will remember every time I think of Guyana.

Once the sawmill had been set up, we went order hunting and the first big order we received was from the mining railway for sleepers as they were renovating their tracks in two locations. We were very excited as this would make our sawmill profitable and prove the point on which I had projected the whole plan. The only hitch was that the sleepers had to be sawn and shipped out of the ‘backdam’ (Creolese for forest) to the waterfront loading point by a particular date, for the barge which would take them to New Amsterdam. All major material came to Kwakwani by river boat which took back bauxite ore on the return trip downriver. There was much excitement and lots of long hours of work in felling the trees from their different locations, dragging them to the mill and then sawing them into railway sleepers. Once the sleeper had been sawn it had to have two 8-shaped irons hammered into either end to prevent splitting. Since we were extracting individual trees of a particular species from the rain forest, (as distinct from plantation felling) we had to find the particular tree, fell it, and extract it. The machine used was called a Skidder, also made by Caterpillar.

The Skidder was a very versatile machine with a dozer blade on the front end and a large crab-hook at the end with a steel rope and winch. Once the tree had been felled, the Skidder operator would drive up to it, in the process making its own track, hook the tree, loop the steel cable around it and winch it up to the platform on the rear end. Then the machine would drag it to the mill. Very efficient and fast but also very wasteful as the machine left huge swathes of crushed vegetation in its wake.

The difference between mechanical and ‘biological’ extraction became even more starkly clear to me when, several years later in the Anamallais (Tamilnadu, South India), I went to see some timber extraction operations being done by the Indian Forest Service, using trained elephants. The way the animals and their mahawats worked with an almost telepathic bond, was amazing to say the least. And the economy with which individual trees were extracted was simply delightful to see.

To come back to our story, we had all the railway sleepers ready and stockpiled at the waterfront in time when the barge arrived. Now to the tricky part – twenty-four thousand sleepers had to be loaded onto the barge in 24 hours when it was due to leave. Our innovative solution – work straight through. And that is what we did. I mean the ‘we’ literally as I loaded the sleepers, physically, with the loaders. We would take breaks every two hours, eat bread and cheese and drink large mugs of sweet, milky, tea and then get back to work.

West Indians being as they are, someone started a very ribald chant in a catchy tune that others took up and that was the beat we worked to. Hours flew by, night fell and our willing electrician rigged up some make shift lights so we could continue to work. And we worked. Come sunrise, the last sleeper had been loaded. We were all dog tired with aching backs and bruised hands, but not much the worse for wear. I was young and tough in those days. We headed off to our homes for a hot bath and eight hours of sleep straight through.

What was remarkable about this story was that in the highly unionized environment of the Guyanese bauxite industry, there was not a single cry from the union about making people work beyond hours or for overtime wages or anything at all. Later one of the union stewards told me, “Maan Baigie! Your raas make aa-we shut up maan. You was dey with de bais loading sleepers and eating wat dey was eating. Wa cud we say maan?? Your raas smart!!” Which, translated reads: You made us shut up. You were there with the boys loading the sleepers with them and eating what they ate. What could we say? You are smart.”

Now the big secret is that I did not do that because I was applying strategy, but because that is how I work. I never asked anyone to do what I would not do myself and as it happened, it is also good leadership strategy. Leading from the front. Demonstrate the standard, not merely talk about it.

However, this strategy did not always work in Guyana. I remember my friend, Rev. Thurston Riehl. Father Riehl told me this story about the time when leading from the front didn’t work. He was an Anglican priest, Vicar of Christchurch, in Georgetown. The interesting thing was that Father Riehl had a parish that extended into and up the Berbice River for more than a hundred miles. He had a motor boat in which he used to go up and down the river, often alone with only the sound of the outboard motor for company. He was an accomplished naturalist and had a wealth of information about the rain forest and its flora and fauna. When he learned that I was interested in the same things, he and I would spend many hours walking in the rain forest where he pointed out various things to me. He once told me, “When God finished creating Hell, he threw all the leftovers in the Amazonian rain forest.”  This referred to the many charming creatures that live in these parts. From tarantula spiders, to sting rays, electric eels, piranhas, vampire bats, boa constrictors, anacondas, bushmaster, black and green mamba, boomslang and an amazing variety of snakes. 

Of course, the forest has its share of beautiful creatures as well; scarlet and purple macaws, toucans, parakeets and parrots of many types, Sakiwinki monkeys (also called Squirrel monkeys – very small with large eyes), flying squirrels, hummingbirds the size of moths which beat their wings at a thousand rpm, sun birds whose fluorescent plumage shines in the gloom of the rain forest. Forest sounds that I used to look forward to were the booming call of the Howler monkeys echoing in the early morning mist, the raucous calls of macaw pairs who mate for life, flying to unknown destinations, talking to each other in flight. 

I was (and have always been) very fond of animals and had all kinds of unusual pets. In Guyana, I had the opportunity to indulge myself because I lived in the middle of the rain forest and there were no restrictions on what I could and couldn’t own. If I could catch it, feed it and keep from being eaten or bitten, I could keep it. I had a boa constrictor (12 feet half grown), a Toucan, a free flying Scarlet Macaw, a Tapir, and a Sakiwinki (Spider) monkey as pets. I also had a large number of hens, Muscovey ducks, and turkeys, which were pets until they got converted to food. The ducks were not very good to eat, too tough and also hard to catch as they were feral and free flying. But the turkeys and chickens regularly added to the larder. Female turkeys are obsessive incubators of eggs. They will sit on anything spherical. I once found a turkey that was trying to hatch an electric light bulb which to its intense disgust refused to oblige. On another occasion, I was searching for a missing turkey after a rainstorm and eventually found it sitting in a hollow in the ground that had filled up with water and covered the turkey and its eggs. The crazy bird still refused to leave its nest and was sitting on the eggs with just her head above the water. Such were the incidents of my life…small pleasures that added value, conversation, and fun.

Berbice was a very poor region with most people farming in the forest. This consisted mainly of slash and burn agriculture where people would grow cassava, yams, bananas, peppers, and pineapples. It’s called slash and burn because that is exactly what the aspiring farmer does. He slashes a piece of forest, leaves the chopped trees and bushes to dry for a few days and then sets them on fire. This fire burns for a few days and leaves behind rich potash with acts like fertilizer. The farmer then plants his crop in the cleared area and gets a bumper crop from the forest soil rich in humus and ash from the burnt trees. However, that is only for a couple of rounds by when the rain leaches out the nutrients and the soil goes to it original sandy state. Then the farmer moves on to a new patch to repeat his cycle. This is how the rain forest gets inexorably destroyed, patch by patch.

In the Guyana of the 70’s, ideology (communism) ruled everything – including what you could grow, sell, or eat. Potatoes were considered signs of the colonial masters (they were called Irish Potatoes – even though they had been brought to Ireland from South America) and were therefore illegal to grow. Some farmers in the bush would still grow them clandestinely. I remember we would sometimes get a gift of 2-3 potatoes, which someone had either managed to grow or smuggled in from Suriname. The lesson that value is in the eyes of the perceiver was something I learnt early in life.

One of the things Father Riehl wanted to do was to teach his parishioners some skill by which they could make some more money and improve their standard of life. As there was a ready market both for eggs as well as poultry and Guyana is a high rainfall area, he thought that duck farming would be a viable idea. The only issue was the need for some kind of reservoir of water without which the ducks wouldn’t lay eggs. His parishioners lived on the River Berbice but the main river with piranhas and alligators was not the best place to farm ducks. So the potential duck farmer would need a reservoir that was safe for his ducks. When Father Riehl mentioned this idea to his parishioners, they typically said, “O! But father, we cyan do nothin! Whay awe gonna ged da tank?” I can still recall the lovely sing-song tone of voice these people of Berbice spoke in. Father Riehl thought that he would teach them some lessons of self-help by example. He got himself a spade and a pickaxe and marked out a large roughly circular area and started digging.

He said to me, “Every morning I would start digging and people would stand around and watch in friendly silence. They would make appreciative noises and comment to each other, ‘Father Riehl, he wok so hard!’ They would bring me water to drink and would offer me lunch and dinner. Nobody more hospitable than Guyanese and out of them, my favorites, the people of Berbice. I lived among them as one of them and so all Berbice people were family. The whole day would pass and in the evening when the work stopped they would make a lot of appreciative remarks about how hard I had worked and the tremendous progress of the hole in the ground. Then came the day when it was finished and we let water into the pit.  It filled up nicely and all that remained was to get some ducks. But I wanted to be sure that they would take this on and replicate this work, now that they had seen how easy it was. But when I asked them, they said, ‘O! Father, but we cyan do dis.’ I was flabbergasted. In shocked surprise I asked them, ‘But you saw me do this. So you see that it is something that you can also do. So what is the problem?’ They said, ‘O! Father, but you’z differen!!’

Guyana was ‘differen’ in many ways. Amazonian rain forest, exotic wildlife and birds, people who were very friendly, and whose life was as untouched by the rest of the world as is possible to be.

For more please read my book, “It’s my Life”

http://amzn.to/28JpEC2

Guyana, my first love

Timehri Airport, Georgetown, Guyana, South America; a long way from home in Hyderabad, India. My first independent job, my first foreign country. January, 1979

In honor of old friends and good times in a beautiful land

The plane circled to land at Georgetown, Guyana. It was an old Boeing 707, which had seen a lot of service and belonged to the venerable BWIA (British West Indian Airlines also known as ‘But Will It Arrive’). By today’s (2019) standards, it was a very primitive plane. The seats were rather cramped, but when you are with a plane load of people from the Caribbean you forget everything. Not too many places in the world will you find people who have so little and yet are so content. And so willing to share it with others. It seems that generosity of the spirit is inversely proportional to the amount of wealth a person has. The poorer they are, the more generous and willing to share.

As the plane made its final descent, I looked out of the window and saw lots of lush green vegetation and the sea the waves lapping over an absolute flat and featureless black beach. I knew I was looking at the famous mud flats, mud that was reasonably firm when the tide was out but as the tide started to come in, the water would make the mud particles more and more mobile. This made the whole thing extremely treacherous and if anyone was unfortunate enough to be out on the mud flats at this time, they would simply sink in the mud to their death. That is why there was nobody on the ‘beach’ in Georgetown.

Guyana immigration was a long, never-ending line. Once I was through immigration I waited endlessly for my luggage. My two bags contained the sum total of my worldly possessions and it appeared that both had been lost. It was not a very auspicious beginning to arrive in a foreign land with literally nothing more than the shirt on my back. But that was how I arrived in Guyana. 

I was met by a very pleasant gentleman with a huge smile, which I realized is a typically Guyanese trademark. His name was Neville and he was the driver that my father had sent to get me. The first item on the agenda was to get some clothes, so we went to the main street in Georgetown, to the only department store there called Guyana Stores. Even though I came from India, which was a poor country, I noticed that the shelves of Guyana Stores were rather bare. There was not much concern for packaging or display. Fans stirred the still and humid air while a radio belted out some Reggae music. I bought a couple of dishikis (a lovely West Indian shirt in colorful prints) and some toiletries and we were ready for the journey to Linden, where my parents lived and where the headquarters of the Guyana Mining Enterprise (GUYMINE), the state owned, bauxite-mining company, was located.

My father had come to Guyana a few months earlier to work as the doctor in the hospital of GUYMINE, one of the two major employers in the country. GUYMINE (formerly Linmine) was owned by Alcan of Canada and when they owned it, it was named Demba. Demba was nationalized by the PNC Government in 1971 and like in the case of many good socialist governments, people were given managerial positions based more on their political leanings than on their managerial ability. The results were predictable and rapid.

Neville drove his Land Rover like there was no tomorrow and as we raced on a single track road with almost no traffic, I was struck by how much the Guyanese countryside was like South India. Thick lush green vegetation everywhere. Some trees I recognized – Jack fruit, tapioca (cassava), yams, bananas in plenty, some coconut, and lots of lush green grass; the Bread fruit tree was new for me. The soil was very sandy. And the water in several streams and in the Demerara River to which we eventually came, was a dark coffee color.

Neville did a running Guyana-101 with me as he drove. He told me that the water was perfectly clean and good to drink but that the color was due to various dyes that leached into the water from the roots of trees on the river bank. He also told me not to jump into any river to swim because most of them had Piranha and also because some are tidal and have some treacherous currents. When I told him that I was fond of fishing he told me to be careful when wading across streams as in the sandy beds sometimes would lie concealed a kind of fish called a Sting Ray, which has a poisonous sting in the tail. And under the overhanging banks would sometimes be concealed Electric Eels which could give a shock strong enough to stun you unconscious. I realized that there was much to be learnt about South America and tropical rain forests and what lived there.

After a couple of weeks into what was supposed to be a holiday, the routine was getting a bit mundane. I heard about a job opening in a mining town, two-hundred miles inland in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest on the bank of Rio Berbice, called Kwakwani. I applied and to my great delight was immediately selected. Two days later I was in Kwakwani. My delight at having done well in the interview was a bit short lived when I realized a few days later that I had been the only applicant – nobody wanted to go there. Neville and I drove the 60 miles from Linden to the bank of the Berbice River. The road was cut through the rain forest with thick forest on either side such that you could only see a few feet into the forest. The road itself was not paved and its condition would vary between bad and worse depending on how much rain fell and how busy the graders were in the mines. When they had some free time, they would send a grader or two to do the road work and the road would stay fairly smooth for a few weeks. Then it would go back to its roller-coaster state until the next encounter with the graders. I was to get to know that road very well in the five years that I lived in Guyana and actually held the record for the fastest time on it – sixty miles in sixty minutes – in my beat up old Land Rover. The road literally ended on the bank of Rio Berbice such that if you were not alert and were driving too fast, you could actually come racing out of the forest around the last bent (nothing to tell you that it was the last bend and any different from the million other bends just like it) and land straight in the river which was about half a kilometer wide and perhaps 50 feet deep at that point. Not a happy thought at all.

Arriving in Kwakwani

When you reached the river bank, you flashed your lights and hooted your horn until someone at the waterfront diagonally across on the opposite bank where the bauxite crusher and loading platform was located, heard you and sent a barge to get you. There was no bridge on the Berbice River and so you had to drive onto a barge and be floated across to the other side. The water of the Berbice was also coffee colored, but it was good to drink. I got out of the car in which Neville and I had driven here and went to the edge of the river and dipped a few handfuls of water to wash my face and to taste it.

Neville saw me doing this and said, ‘Comrade Baig, not sure if you know what a Piranha is, but all our rivers have them in plenty. They really love your fingers, if you know what I mean.’ I promptly pulled my hand out and counted my fingers.

As I stood on the bank of the river, I was struck by the silence of the forest. Not silence as in lack of sound, for there were many sounds, but silence as in no human sound. I could hear Macaws talking to each other as they headed home. They pair for life and have great conversations exceeded only perhaps by Canadian Geese who also pair for life. Lesson: conversation is essential to a good marriage. Forests breathe and speak and are visibly and audibly alive. Even if you don’t know their language – and it differs from place to place – you can still hear them. Then there are the smells. The smell of the first rain after the dry season. The smell of the markings on trees of territorial creatures which are meant to warn away potential threats. The smell of vegetation, growing or decomposing. When you sit quietly in a forest and let it talk to you, it does. Gently and gradually. Naturally, it takes a little while because first your ears have to stop buzzing with the residue of our own noisy, raucous sounds of so-called civilization. They try to drown out everything that the forest is trying to tell you. But if you are patient and give it some time, then gradually the buzzing fades away and you start to hear the breeze rustling in the leaves. You hear water dropping from the top levels onto the canopy below. You hear the occasional ripe fruit or dry branch fall to the floor, to become either food or manure. You learn to tell the difference between a sound made by a living creature – which may be potentially dangerous or useful – and the sound of something that is not a living creature. All this and more will happen if you give it some time, are observant, and are willing to learn. As I looked at the South American Amazonian rain forest for the first time, there were many sounds in that forest which I did not recognize at the time but knew later to be those of Howler Monkeys, Toucans and Amazonian Parakeets. I was thrilled to be there. There was nowhere else that I would rather be.

Speaking of off road speed records, I was in Linden very late one night. There was a dinner party at a friend’s house that went on till midnight. I had driven to Linden from Kwakwani after work and had arrived by about 7.00 pm. The party was what all such parties are like – full of laughter, noise, and camaraderie. I had a lot of friends there and so couldn’t leave as soon as I would have liked to. Also, they don’t serve dinner until very late to give people a chance to have a spiritual experience first. By the time I could leave, I was very tired and sleepy. Sensibly, I should have stayed overnight at the Guymine Linden Guesthouse or with some friend, but I decided to drive through.

I was driving a Land Rover Defender, which was at least 15 years old – a light blue color with a rear door that would swing open every time I went into a pothole at high speed, a fairly common occurrence on a dirt road. I had developed a technique of simply swinging the steering wheel to the right and bringing it back to the left and the door would slam shut. That way I didn’t have to stop to shut the door.

Once I was out of Linden and entered the Kwakwani Trail as we called it, I floored the accelerator and held the truck to a steady 60 miles per hour. On a dirt road, that is fast. The Kwakwani Trail wound its way through the rain forest without the benefit of a single street light or any form of illumination for its entire length up to the Berbice River. During the day, you would pass perhaps two or three cars on this entire journey. At night and especially at the time that I was on it that night, there was nobody at all. It was as if I was the only human being alive.

The forest all around was dark and silent. The road was illuminated as far as my headlights reached and then it was dark. The Land Rover knew the road and drove itself taking the turns and climbs and slopes from memory. Alright! Land Rovers are not that smart – it was me. And on we went, the engine a steady roar deepening as we started up a hill and singing a high pitched whine as we descended the other side.

Suddenly, there was a huge crash. The Land Rover rose in the air and slammed down off the road on the sand verge and the engine stalled. I hit my head on the steering wheel and got a nasty bump but seemed none the worse for it. The headlights had gone off and there was an eerie silence. All I could hear was the pinging of the cooling engine. I realized then what had happened. I had fallen asleep at the wheel, doing sixty miles an hour. As I say, Allah saves fools from themselves and I am a living proof of that. The truck hit the side of the road, which at that place was a huge sandbank, went over it and came down on the other side in the loose white sand of the savanna. If this accident had happened a mile earlier, I would have driven straight into one of the huge forest giants and wrapped myself and the truck around its trunk. If it had happened a mile later, I would have gone off the side of the road into a ravine which the road went along for quite a few miles from that point on. As it was, I was intact and the car appeared to be so as well.

There was no point in trying to take the truck out of the sand or to try to drive and risk a worse accident. I decided that the wisest thing to do at that point would be to simply go to sleep in the truck and so locking the doors, that is what I did. I fell asleep almost immediately. When I woke up it was just beginning to get light. I started the engine and it started immediately. I put it into four wheel drive and reversed over the road side barrier and then took off for Kwakwani in the rapidly brightening dawn. As the sun rose, I rounded the last bend and took the slope of the Trail going down to the river, thankful for having lived to tell the tale of this rather hairy drive.

For more please read my book, “It’s my Life”

http://amzn.to/28JpEC2