Guyana was 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, a 20-gauge shotgun, 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 had not 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. Strong with plenty of tea leaf, boiled and left to brew. Then a big dollop of condensed milk which made it strong and sweet. Today, having spent ten years in tea plantations in India, I drink tea and coffee without any sugar or sweetener. But in those days, I liked my tea thick and sweet. So did Peter. Once we’d 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 a 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 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. That one must never underestimate a politician’s ability to destroy a country, is a lesson I learnt very early in life and I have never had reason to change my opinion about this. I have seen it being done in country after country in the 40 years since I was a 20-something year old in Kwakwani.
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 attack a person except in special circumstances. So, it is possible to 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 does not mean that we live life only 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.
Peter got another friend Leon Molenuex to build a 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 20-guage 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 was close to sunset. Then we would find a sandy spot on the riverbank 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 trail their feet in the river all along its banks. That makes 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 did not end up with unwanted sleeping partners. We would trawl as we traveled 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 riverbank 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 be 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. We didn’t always have butter, but…….
When dinner was done, we would climb into our hammocks and chat about whatever was 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 rain-forest is a safe place if you didn’t do anything stupid like sleeping on the riverbank. If 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 if 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 rain-forest 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 do not hear much except insects. If you are near the river there are not many mosquitoes but you do get vampire bats and so you need to cover up unless you wish to be bitten by one of them. That does not 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 tugboat 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 tugboat 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 tugboats 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 tugboat 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 quicksand 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 freshwater 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 do not 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 behind the house, growing cassava (Manihot esculenta), banana, and a couple of jackfruit trees. The house was one large room built on a high platform with leaf or grass thatch roof. 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 hunt, collect wild 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. On the opposite side where the river flowed into the pool, 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 the bank and tied it to a tree. 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. During our 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 had been someone taking bets 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. But it is true.