“Land of Many Waters” at Parika Stelling
They say that over 90% of Guyana’s 750,000 people live on a narrow coastal strip that makes up just 5% of her land area. This is no accident on the part of Mother Nature– this tropical “Land of Many Waters” shields her interior not only with tangles of thick jungle, but also with countless miles of murky, humid rivers (the largest of these, the Essequibo, holds islands larger than the Caribbean island of Barbados). As you ride along between Supenaam and Charity, on the Region 2 coastal road, in one of the numerous hire cars or minibuses that constantly ply the route, the coastal phenomenon becomes abundantly apparent. At first glance, many parts of the route look bustling indeed. Shops, schools, churches, bars, houses line both sides of the road. But take a look left between the buildings as they fly by and instead of more roads and more layers of buildings, all you’ll see is the color green. The rice fields begin not 50 yards off the road, and at the end of their expanse, the all but impenetrable “bush.”
Riding shotgun on the Essequibo coastal road
All good things must come to an end, and even on some parts of Guyana’s coast, the machinations of public works and road crews haven’t been able to conquer nature. Charity is the end of the road. Literally. Your car passes houses, a couple hotels and bars, a street marketplace (which is bustling on Monday, Charity’s market day), a lone fast food restaurant with the last french fries this side of Venezuela, and reaches a stelling. I suppose it could keep driving past the stelling, but it would be a quick drop and sudden stop in the deep, pirahna-inhabited waters of the mighty Pomeroon River. This is where travel on four wheels end, and continues in the same manner people have traveled the waters of the Pomeroon for time immemorial (although now with more diesel engines), on a boat.
Not that too much changes when you get on the Pomeroon. Yes, there’s 70 feet of water below you now instead of firm asphalt, but houses still line both sides of the original Guyanese highway. The variety is surprising though. Tiny tin shacks with dugout canoes moored outside sit alongside veritable mansions with yachts. Rich or poor, everyone here depends on the river. As the river winds further north away from Charity, the personal boats moored on the banks give way to the rusted hulls of giant tugboats. Either the relics of past industry on the river, or in the Guyanese spirit of using things until they literally fall apart, the sign of current industry (but I can’t say for sure). Suddenly, rounding a curve, the river stretches wide ahead and you can see the yawning mouth of the Pomeroon spilling into the Atlantic Ocean.
We’re not going that way though. As quickly as the Atlantic appears, the boat takes a sharp turn at full speed directly towards the trees at the riverbank. If you weren’t looking for the tiny gap in the trees you’d easily miss it. The 200 horsepower boat seems to nearly fill the entire width of the tiny creek up which it shoots. In this “Dark Push,” as the locals call it, the mangroves stretch their roots to dip into the dark waters, the cypress sit between them with their sloping bases, and the limbs of all the trees arch over the channel to form what feels like a tunnel to a prehistoric time.
Just as the claustrophobia of the Dark Push sets in, the tunnel opens to an expansive grassland. During the rainy season this savanna becomes one with the creek as the water invades and lifts it like a sheet. As the waves in the wake of the speedboat reach the edges of the creek, they continue under the grass, lifting it into an undulating mass. You soon reach a fork in the creek, and it’s in this watery expanse of creek and grass that my village sits. Whichever direction you take, for miles sandy, forested islands dot the uniform expanse, and on these the 2-3,000 people of my community live.
St. Lucian’s Mission
The first island, right at the fork of the creek, is the Mission island, so named for being where foreign missionaries found fit to settle during the colonial era. The boat docks at the stelling and you step up onto a boardwalk that stretches across the final stretch of grassland and back onto solid ground. The “Health Centre” is directly at the end of the boardwalk, its verbiage and style of construction a vestige of British colonialism that has yet to be swept away. It is one of a series of buildings arranged around a central sandy field: to its left sits a snackette, house, meeting center, and dilapidating “village office.” At the far side of this sandy field sits a larger shop, a couple more houses, the secondary school, and the primary school at which I’ll be teaching. A handful of other houses make up the balance of the island. While small, it serves as an important hub for the village (especially when school is back in session first of September).
Sunset on the Mission
Hope you enjoyed a journey to my home of the next couple years, I’ll be back with more soon on what I’ve been up to here and my work!