Guyana revisited : Memories of my childhood

Every now and again, I find myself reminiscing about my homeland. Although it’s been 33 years now since I left and became a member of the Guyanese diaspora, I still have fond memories of the place where I grew up and spent the first part of my life. I know a trip back to Guyana is long overdue; in fact, I often feel Guyana calling to me to come back home for a visit. As the years go by, I think about the importance of keeping ties to my native land and experiencing things once again that were at one time so familiar. Once you leave a country to start a new life, it is imperative to detach yourself from the familiar in order to settle quickly into current surroundings and adapt to a new life. Even so, I have always been a very proud Guyanese and still keep my links to Guyana strong. I have found that as I get older, I experience bursts of nostalgia for Home. For me it’s little things like remembering the smell of the rain, the green scent of freshly mown grass and the pungent aroma of freshly ground masala frying in oil. I recall vividly the sensation of a dip in a cool tea colored creek or the clinging intense humidity in the summer. I long for a good simple Chinese cook shop chowmein and a tall glass of ice cold cane juice! Have you ever experienced how a photo, a familiar odor, or a particular sound can jog your memory and cast you back to a time in the past? That’s the feeling I have right now, and it takes me back to the shores of Guyana and brings back a familiarity of a life I once knew, in a time that for me does not seem that long ago.

A group of 4 water colors depicting scenes from Guyana

For those who have never visited Guyana, the country is a relatively small when compared with its South American neighbors. However in stark contrast; Guyana is truly a “land of giants” in comparison with its Caribbean neighbors. It is home to the mighty Mt. Roraima which rises to 9,220 ft. a massive mountain with a large table-top plateau summit with sheer drops in parts of 1300 ft. The Lost World, a fictional novel by Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired by the writings of Robert Schomburgk on Roraima, the highest plateau of the Pakaraima chain of tepui plateaus. The famous book conjures up details of the possibility of a lost primordial world of prehistoric dinosaurs cut off from the evolution, due to Roriama’s very limited access and height.  Yes, it sounds a bit like the Jurassic Park story, and I am sure that there probably was some influence of it when written. This is a part of the interior of Guyana which most never have the privilege of seeing as it is so deep inland. It is on my bucket list to visit sometime or to even catch a glimpse of it from a plane as is almost inaccessible unless you are an experienced climber.

Kaieteur Falls, Guyana

I remember when I first visited Kaieteur falls at about the age of 12, I felt the vastness of the jungle and the power of nature. I was in total wonder at how small and insignificant I was compared with the trees and canopy which towered stories above my petite frame. I remember vividly the thundering roar of the waters as they barreled over the edge of the falls with an unimaginable force. There was a heavy mist permeating the air; which just made everything almost surreal. I envisioned Kaie the brave chief of the Patamona tribe valiantly going over the edge in his dugout canoe. It was he who volunteered to be a human sacrifice to appease the great spirit Makonaima in order to seek peace between his people and the Caribs. Kaieteur falls bear his name and serves a reminder of the duty and courage of the First People of Guyana; the Amerindians. The majestic falls is the world’s largest single drop waterfall and probably Guyana’s most recognizable natural landmark. The spectacular 741ft cascade showcases the awesome power and volume of water plummeting into the gorge below into the potaro river. At the height of the rainy season, the gorge is absolutely spectacular as the mist and foam created from the immense volume of cascading waters. It is awesome and impressionable to witness such natural beauty. I was so proud to take my husband and kids to see Kaieteur for themselves. They too were awestruck.

Visiting Kaieteur Falls on a trip to Guyana some years ago.

The Essequibo river is the longest river in Guyana and it meanders from the south to the north. Like all river systems, it brings a valuable lifeline of water and nutrients for agriculture, humans and animals. Although the Demerara and Berbice rivers are not as long, they are equally important to those who live and work along their banks. As I lived near to the Demerara River, I saw this body of water everyday on my way into town to school. I will never forget how revolutionary it was when the Demerara Harbor bridge opened in 1978. It was said to be the longest floating bridge at the time. Driving over to the West Coast became so simple. Prior to that it was almost and expedition as we had to take the ferry over to get to Parika or to Seaspray where we sometimes went for long weekends. This was the reality for many who lived on the West Coast and commuted to Georgetown for school and work everyday. The down side to the Harbour Bridge was the increased traffic on the East Bank road. I remember the long lines of cars and trucks parked and awaiting the reopening of the bridge when maritime transport passed through. As we lived past the bridge exit we had to adapt to the added time to our commute.

A serene painting of a typical Coker sluice in Guyana.

As Guyana is below sea level, the koker or sea dike sluice system established by the Dutch in colonial times was all important for irrigation and dealing with the high tides. I grew up seeing these old relics in Guyana standing erect like guardians of the tides near the riverbanks and along the seashore. Kokers are also iconic symbols of Guyana and a bygone era of when we were a Dutch colony. They certainly are not merely a part of our history but are still in service to this day for irrigation and regulating flood waters. I shudder to think what would happen to the coastal towns and the capital if these faithful sluices are not maintained in proper working order.

Painting of a little wooden country house in the countryside

Our daily commute home from school was along the Demerara river and we passed several villages and towns such as La Penitence, Meadowbank, Houston, Agricola and Eccles before arriving at Providence. I always thought it was the perfect name as it means : “the protective care of God”. Greenfield Park was a little gem nestled amid the fields of sugarcane. It was an idyllic setting and I loved the fact that we lived away from the bustle of Georgetown. Our home was the perfect enclave nested securely in a nook of houses tucked away from the main public road and fringed by acres upon acres of green fields.

One of my favorite paintings of water lilies from my private collection

There were canals alongside the fields filled with beautiful pink and white water lilies . It was on these same waters that the punts would be floated down to the estates. It was a well designed system which linked all of the sugar mills at various points. Cows, horses and sheep also grazed along the back dam during the day and their respective owners walked them home in the afternoon. Men and women made their way up the backdam to cast their nets for sweet water shrimp and fish like the armor clad prehistoric looking hassars. They would carry their nets, small poles and baskets to hold the catch. It was quite common for them to knock at our back gate asking, “Mistress yuh wan fuh buy fresh fish?” We loved to look at the catch of the day in the woven baskets and would sometimes buy little fresh water shrimp for curry. My mother would let my brothers go fishing on the little wooden bridge across the trench just beyond our back gate.  Most of the time it was just catch and release, but every now and then there was a sizeable prize that they would happily bring home with glee.

Beautiful water lilies

The backdam was mostly calm but it became quite rowdy at certain periods of the year. In the reaping season the canecutters would trek up and down in droves to plant  the sugar cane crop and then months later for the reaping. This was Demerara gold country and sugar was still the main export of Guyana. Life in this area was centered around the sugar estates at this time. The residential compound closest to us was Diamond Estate. It housed managerial staff and there was a lovely clubhouse for games and activities as well as a big pool with a tri-revel diving platform. We spent many happy times there with friends enjoying the facilities. It was a welcome refuge on steamy, hot days in Guyana.

From my window I could hear the lawless language of the canecutters in the burning season. The din of loud raucous chatter just before the crack of dawn often awoke me. I wondered why they started working before it was even light outside. I guess that the afternoon heat was notorious so the earlier the work day began, the better it was for all. The canecutters labored for days cutting and fetching the cane until all of the fields around our area were cleared. From my bedroom window, I watched them bundle the juicy cane stalks and fill the waiting big black metal punts. The punts were then floated to the Diamond Estate further up from Providence. The reaping season was preceded by a burning session. It meant that our home would be filled with the whispery black cane trash which would blow into the yard and leave a sooty residue on every surface it touched. I suffered from allergies and so did my mother, so we sneezed profusely and our eyes would itch and stream during this period.Thankfully our windows and doors all had mesh frames which prevented the cane trash from entering the openings. Of course it meant that they there was an extra clean up during this period. It was just one of the little negatives of living near the cane fields.

Cane cutters loading a punt Photo credit Robert J. Fernfandes :

After the fields were burned and cleared, the land lay naked and exposed. It was quite a stark contrast to the lush green panorama which we were accustomed to for the greater part of the year.It also meant that all of the wildlife which normally resided in the canals and fields would be forced to seek refuge elsewhere. Our yard and the compound at large would become home to huge crapauds, commoodi snakes, yowries, opossum, agouti, massive tegu lizards, mongoose, salipenters, iguanas, an occasional alligator just to name a few. I remember once a large boa or commodi snake slithered its way into our living room and caused quite a kerfuffle. Lots of screams and shrieks ensued and I ran upstairs terrified. As I peered down through the opening on the staircase, I was most relieved to see the gardener and driver come in and tackle it by grabbing the head and tying its mouth closed before removing it from the house. I am sure that it was at least 7 feet long and had a thick girth. Once, there was also a yowrie that got into the house unknowns to us and was devouring all of the fruit from the fruit bowl at night. The Buxton spice and Julie mangoes which had been left  under a meshed cover in a large bowl were all found sucked dry to the seeds and discarded on the floor! There was havoc made every night when the lights had been switched off and the coast was clear for him to come out and devour any fruit or provision in our kitchen. My parents had to set some traps to catch that sly one.

Little green frog resting on a plant

The bathroom always had a couple of small water frogs as residents. We nicknamed them all Freddy which probably made them seem less threatening. They obviously liked to hide in wet humid places, so the toilet bowl rim, shower and the tub were all fair game. There were a few incidences when someone sat on the seat and shrieked as a little frog came jumping up out of the bowl as he felt the light being blocked out from a form hovering above!  I did not particularly like the frogs, as they were clammy and cold, but I knew that they were more afraid of me than I was of them. It was not out of the ordinary to get into the shower only to find a water frog clinging to the wall staying cool on the tiles. I would whisper, “stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine”. Invariably it didn’t always work this way.

Little brown lizards were ever present in and around the house

The little geckos which walked on our walls and ceiling were such a common sight that we never really worried about them at all. They were bright green, long and slender varieties as well as the brown ones with more pointed noses.They all feasted on mosquitoes and flies, so we never felt that they were a nuisance. The larger species of salipenters or tegu lizards were the ones that look like a cross between an small alligator and a small komodo dragon. These reptiles lived in the canefields or in the canals. They regularly came into our yard in search of the food our dogs ate. They were quite scary in appearance with forked tongues like snakes and long claws. They were sometimes as big as 3 feet in length. I didn’t like them much and quickly went back in doors whenever I saw them slithering into the back yard. Our dogs created quite a scandal whenever they ventured in and sometimes a fight would ensue and we would find a dead tegun in the yard afterwards. The dogs never ate the lizards. They killed them perhaps as examples to others that they had embarked on the wrong territory.

A bat hanging upside down in a tree

One thing we all disliked were bats and there were lots of them in the trees!! There’s just something eerie and chilling about bats that exists in all cultures. Maybe it’s the vampire myth or the Old Higue stories which my grandfather would tell us which made me a tad afraid of them. I just felt uneasy on the odd occasion that a bat would fly into the house through a door which might have been inadvertently left open in the late afternoon. As our windows were all meshed and the back door had a spring latch, if a bat flew in, it would be hell to get it out again. I vividly remember one such evening when one flew into the house, created an uproar and then disappeared somewhere in the house. My  mom called my dad and asked him to get rid of it ASAP. We looked everywhere but could not locate the winged intruder. Later that evening after my mom had gone to sleep, my father spied it. He picked up a tennis racket and chased it trying to an exterior opening. Unfortunately it flew into my parent’s bedroom and dad managed to take a good hard swipe at it. It was game over for the bat but unfortunately it fell on my sleeping mother who had a very rude awakening. I can tell you she was not a happy camper that night!

Another familiar sound in our neighborhood was that of the 6 o’clock bees. I don’t think that the buzzing was punctual at 6pm, nor was it made by bees but it certainly signaled that the sun would soon set. Religiously every afternoon just before sunset, the cicadas that lived in our carambola tree would begin their warm up humming and then crescendo to a full blown and extremely loud shrill buzzing. This lasted for several minutes and then eventually died away. Rain or shine, the six o’clock bees were a signal to us that all was well and normal in our surroundings. This sound was just an afternoon symphony to us who lived in these parts.

Black beetles

One of the most pesky bugs we had to deal with occasionally were the black hard back beetles that came raining down like a scene from the biblical plague. They came in large numbers when the rains came or when it was extremely hot. They had an uncanny ability to enter through every conceivable nook and cranny. It’s still inexplicable to me how they got into the house sometimes. Thankfully the beetles were not dangerous nor did they bite, but they just landed on everything and made you shudder. They were not selective where they landed, they just did!! It could be on your body, in your hair and when they arrived they came in hordes. As we say in Guyanese  creole “ deh wud make yuh skin crawl”. They were attracted to the lights, so it was mayhem in a room in the evening when the lights were on and these beetles invaded our space. If they flipped over on their backs they could not turn over on their feet again and would lie there wiggling for hours. They would be swept away in large numbers the following day in the yard.

I know that growing up in Guyana made me a little more tolerant of many types of creatures. I was never squeamish nor was I too phased by bugs, insects or small reptiles when I moved away. I would always say, “ That’s nothing…they are so much bigger in Guyana” when other ladies screamed at the sight of a cockroach, frog, hornet or little water snake. What would they do if they had seen the scorpions and centipedes or nest of angry marabuntas?

Blue Macaws perched on trees

Guyana is also home to many species of birds. Wild parrots, blue macaws, eagles, owls, and so many other species could be heard flying over or nesting in the trees. They were attracted to the fruit trees especially in the neighborhood and would create quite a ruckus while feasting. The parrots were especially raucous and they loved the area around the ancient estate trees which stood like sentinels at the entrance of the compound. Owls and eagles also made their nests high up in the boughs of the trees as did other types of wildlife high in the perches safe from humans below. They most certainly made their presence known and it was quite interesting to hear all of the various calls and cries they made.

A crapaud sits in the grass contemplating

The compound in Greenfield Park was grand central for crapauds. I have never seen larger more hideous toads in my life than the ones which are common in Guyana. The boys were naughty sometimes and tried to sprinkle salt on their backs. Massive, dark, frogs with leathery skin and large bumps covering their backs. They croaked in a chorale of tones from deep baritone to a vibrato tenor. It was as though this symphony of croaking was an attempt at courting the Rain God to shower the earth. As we ran barefoot around the compound (as it was quite customary in those days), with our friends playing catcha and red light green light, we were always careful not to step on any live crapauds or flattened victims which had been run over by cars the night before. I could not help thinking about the tale of the princess and the frog and wondering how she could have mustered up the courage to kiss the frog; obviously it must have been a different species from our Guyanese frogs!

Amazing nature is bountiful in Guyana. I must admit that growing up I took this immense beauty for granted. Today, the lush green jungles, so thick that they appeared more like forests of gigantic broccoli from a plane never ceased to amaze me today. When I think of the width of our rivers moving swiftly and teaming with life, I am awed. The numerous rivers, waterfalls and creeks, are synonymous with life. Even though we do not boast clear blue waters in Guyana I have the most wonderful memories of picnics and weekends in the Abary, Lama water conservancy, the Essequibo islands, Dora and Dubalay, swimming in the refreshing tannin tainted, coffee colored waters. The alluvial soil of the Amazon region colors the water of our rivers. Volumes of water carry heavy soil deposits to the mouths of the rivers which in turn flow into the Ocean. An aerial view of the coastline of Guyana will be framed by café au lait colored waters, which will blend into the deep blue green Atlantic. It is difficult to navigate shipping vessels into the harbors as the silt buildup is quite enormous. This is due to the massive quantities of waters which traverse the country, continually building up silt deposits. The rivers in Guyana are so large and vast that there are hundreds of islands within them, some larger than a few of the island nations in the Caribbean.

In closing, I conclude that the nature is Guyana is spectacular and fascinating. As I write this, I am reminded of a very happy childhood. I was blessed to have experienced life in a land which was lush, green and teeming with exotic species of wildlife. When I moved to Haiti, there was a stark contrast to the type of landscape I was accustomed to in Guyana. There were also few forms of wildlife compared with the huge variety species I had seen daily in my surroundings. It is certain that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, hues and form and I am today most appreciative of the land of hills and mountains which surround me today and it’s own special and unique beauty. I am so very appreciative of my life in Guyana and hope that I never forget the sounds and sights of this period of my life; though with the passage of time, they do become a little more distant.

I think I need to book a ticket!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Danièle Zamor says:

    Nice to learn about your beautiful Guyana. Must be hard for you now I understand if you are somehow nostalgic since your second country is such bad shape.
    I like the water lilies. Do you grow them in Haiti?
    Big hugs to you and the family

    Danièle

    (P.S. my paternal grandmother was related to the Brun family)

    Like

    1. Thank you Danièle. I have adjusted well here in Haïti, but I do have a yearning to visit my homeland. I do nit grow these water lilies as I only have a small basin and they are quite invasive. They grow in all of the canals in Guyana. Nice to learn about the connection!! It’s a small world ❤️

      Like

  2. Maureen says:

    In front of our home was a canal where the water lilies grew..we were fortunate to see the beautiful water lilies in full bloom. During the burning of the sugar cane , we suffered tremendously from the black dust invading our verandah and as for the black beetles there were droves of them once the lights were turned on. Yes all in all we were fortunate to enjoy the good life in Guyana. Most certainly there are many of us who
    Reminisce of the good old times especially the week end outings to the
    Family farm house behind the Timeheri airport. Thanks Sharon for the good read of your childhood memories. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

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