Surama Village

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South America » Guyana
January 4th 2014
Published: October 1st 2017
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Geo: 4.16667, -59.0833

The alarm went off at 4:10am. Yuck. We dressed quickly then took the shuttle back to the airport. Upon arrival for check in, we were told that our flight was delayed from 6:40am until at least 10:15am … probably later. The good news, however, is that they were able to get us on the 7:20am flight. We checked in, then went through security (which was a comedy as the guy ahead of us keep pulling more and more stuff out of his bag and his pockets, then still kept setting off the metal detector. Finally, he said, "Maybe it's this," and pulled a giant metal chain with massive medallion from around his neck. Oh, ya think?) to the Business Class lounge. The lounge is very cheerful, with brightly colored chairs. The kids were amused by the infomercials showing on the television.

The flight to Guyana was fine. Paul and I shared First Class with a group of young people from T&T going to a concert by John Legend in Georgetown. They were boisterous but also a bit sleepy. Upon arrival, we were first in line for Foreigners at immigration, but it still took a while to get through. Our bags were waiting when we exited, and we were done with the formalities.

Upon being met, we were driven the hour from the airport to Georgetown proper. The road hugs the river, and we had a few glimpses of that muddy expanse. Most of the road is lined with settlement – cheerfully painted two-story houses with sculpted balconies seem to dominate. Often, the lower story houses some sort of shop, offering service or goods. We saw a number of Chinese restaurants, and our driver told us that the government has been promoting Chinese quasi-immigration. I saw “quasi-“ because, he says, they often stay only for two years before moving on to the US or Canada … but then another relative will show up and take over the restaurant (or laundry). He says there are a lot of tensions, because the Chinese often want to keep their businesses open late, while locals close theirs early. Sometimes, the issues seem to be labour (demanding too many work hours) while other times it seems to be a matter of competition.

We arrived around 10:30am to the Lodge where we will be leaving excess baggage for the next few days. Our tour company had arranged for us to have access to a shower and breakfast, which was wonderful with a capital W. Then, at 11:30am, we drove to the local airport, Ogle. Here, we were weighed with our luggage, then escorted into a VIP waiting room. It was an hour before we were called to the Cessna … the airplane had been delayed on another flight because of weather.

The flight to Surama was fine – beautiful view of the river and the forest canopy. I sat in the co-pilot seat, with Paul and Keegan behind me and Kyla in the seat near the luggage. We slalomed between clouds. On the ground, we could see several mining operations. One town seemed to be carved out of the white minerals it sat on, but most of the evidence of mining was a series of pools filled with that strange color of blue water found in pits. I did get a bit nervous when the pilot pulled out a map and then scratched his head, but we arrived safely. The flight was a little over an hour long.

We were met at the airstrip by a truck from the eco-lodge. Over the course of the afternoon, we learned a lot about the village and the lodge. The savannah area had once been dominated by cattle – it was the final stopover during the long cattle drives between Brazil and the coast. But, in the late 1960s, a group of cattlemen decided to defy the government, who had been trying to increase taxes. The cattlemen were aggressive and cut off the region from the rest of Guyana, burned the police station, cut off radio communication, and were otherwise disruptive. The government showed up and drove them out. Many moved to Brazil or Venezuela.

So the land was vacant, and three families decided to settle it. Their descendants still live here and form the population of the village. Originally, the families were farmers, raising a small amount of cattle. Over time, they encountered many of the same problems rural communities face everywhere: young people could not find sufficient employment in the village and so move to the city; people become education and cannot find the right sorts of employment in the village. And people get caught in the cash spiral: they find a bit of cash is useful (to put fences around the gardens to keep the cattle from devouring all of the cassava and dying; to buy medicines for sick family members), but earning cash requires time spent away from the farm, which means less food is raised, which means more food needs to be bought, which requires more time devoted to employment, which means less time for farming. Then, an opportunity presented itself:

In 1996, a professor at a college in Iowa wanted to bring students to the area to do some field research, and he contacted the village about housing his students. The village agreed, because they have a tradition of hospitality. They slung hammocks in an old community building and dug long-fall pit toilets, which they thought were the greatest toilets in the world. After a few weeks of being used by the young Americans, the toilets began to smell, so, while the professor was happy, saying that the young people needed to experience how others live, the villagers were unhappy that they had made the students unhappy. At the end, the professor wanted – probably needed – to pay. The villages did not know what to charge, since they had never done anything like this before. So they told the professor to pay what he thought was fair. He gave them the equivalent of about $2000. As our host said, “the village had never seen so much money before,” and they did not know what to do with it. After long discussions, it was decided to build a nicer guest house, with a flush toilet (which had never been seen in the village before). That way, they could attract more guests and provide some employment for people of the village. And thus, the eco-resort began. It has grown substantially over time, but it is still run by the people of the village, and they all participate in its management. They rotate through the jobs, giving them time for farming, and they use the cash they generate to benefit the village, whether through building a new community center or paying tuition for university students. They are also happy because it gives them an incentive to preserve the rainforest, rather than cutting it down. Most of what they have learned, they have learned over time. They also specialize in various areas of the business: finance, or catering, or marketing. They are the first AmerIndian run and operate tourist site in Guyana, and they are currently setting an example for other communities of how to do this. I was impressed.

But I get ahead of myself. We checked into our huts, which are octagonal, have three beds, a shower, and a (flush) toilet. Lunch was served immediately: rice, beans, beef stew, veggies, tomatoes, and cucumbers. We then had about an hour to rest, which was very welcome, as we have had too very early mornings in a row. I lay down, planning to listen to the birds but hearing only buzzing flies. Then I slept. Around 4:30pm, when we were scheduled to go visit the village, we had a tremendous downpour hit. Rain came in through the window. So we put off the village tour for 30 minutes or so, until the rain stopped.

The tour was interesting. We saw the cassava processing station. The part I found most interesting were these long tubes that looked like very large Chinese finger traps. Our guide said that the idea came from watching the anaconda attack its prey. The trap is pressed down, and then the ground cassava is placed inside. The trap is then pulled down with heavy weights, and it constricts, drawing the juice out of the melon. At the same stop, we also learned that the village is trying to grow crops on the savannah, so they don't have to cut so much forest. But the crops are not doing very well, which is probably why the land grows grass, not trees. They are hoping they can improve what they are doing, though. We also learned that the forest in encroaching on the savannah – maybe because of fertilization from cow droppings, maybe because the cows are not tramping down the trees, maybe for altogether different reasons. But they have all noticed more trees where there were no trees before.

It was now dark, so we returned to the lodge. We rested for a while (I journaled), then we went for dinner. The one other guest is a regular at the lodge, Ian … he leads survival tours of the jungle, islands in Belize, Jordan, and the arctic; one of his clients is Channing Tatum, who we just read about on the cover of the 2014 Travel Guyana magazine. Ian has some funny stories and told us about working with a couple of major television shoots that happened recently near by. One of the shoots was for a show called Gold Rush, which is apparently very popular on the Discovery channel. We'll have to check it out. The footage he showed from a drone was pretty cool … particularly going over the Falls. We then went to look at the stars with binoculars (no light pollution) then to bed.

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