Visiting an Arawak Community in Guyana, South America
Visiting an Arawak Community in Guyana, South America by Karin-Marijke Vis.
Photos by Coen Wubbels.
The music stops. Silence takes over, only interrupted by the twittering of birds. In her new coat of snow-white paint the recently restored Santa Rosa Church is outlined against a green landscape of coconut trees, palm trees and weeds that are about to reconquer the cemetery around the church.
Wooden crosses, bare wood or painted blue or white, bear the names of the deceased. Their dates of birth and dead are referred to as ‘sunrise’, or ‘dawn’, and ‘sunset’. Across from the church stretches the savannah, the late afternoon sun turning the grass into a mixture of golden-yellow, warm red and soft green. The Moruca River cuts across the savanna, which is interspersed with narrow waterways; families and their kids are quietly paddling in their dugout canoes. It’s a moment of bliss.
It lasts for only a moment. The power is back on and Bob Marley blasts from the loudspeakers again. The sound carries very far over the wetlands.
Boating to Arawak Communities
It feels good to be here. It was one of those moments of staring at a map, feeling attracted to this particular region for no clear reason and following up on that feeling. Rationally there weren’t any arguments: why pay quite a bit of money for a boat ride to First People communities? What are you going to do there, anyway? Yet, sometimes such a feeling can’t be rationally explained. The “I have to go there” is dominant. A voice, I learned, I have to listen to.
So my partner Coen and I packed some clothes, our hammocks, some food, and drove from Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, to Parika. Here we took a ferry and west of the Essequibo River we drove to the village of Charity, the place from where speedboats leave for Moruca on a daily basis. The Arawak Communities in west Guyana are not connected with the rest of the country by road, so in order to get there you depend on boats.
Packed like sardines, including loads of goods like a bicycle, flat screens, and toilet paper we swerved on the Pomeroon River through forests interspersed with houses on stilts. We hit the Atlantic Ocean and sailed back inland where the Moruca River meanders through wetlands. The eighty-minute boat ride was spectacular.
Talking, Walking, and Lazing in Moruca
In Moruca, also called Santa Rosa Mission, we asked around for Uncle Basil and Aunty Delors. We found them and rented one of their rooms. Their wooden house sits surrounded by a vast garden with fruit trees, not far from the Santa Rosa Church. We clicked and spent three days around their kitchen table, listening to fabulous tales about Guyana. As it was raining most of the time, paddling in a canoe was not very enticing anyway, although our talks were interrupted now and then because we like to stretch our legs and go for long walks, chatting with other inhabitants and watching daily life.
Uncle Basil and Aunty Delores were born in Moruca but spent more than forty years in the Rupununi Savanna, in south Guyana where Uncle Basil was a teacher and set up a school. Quite a career for someone who never finished high school himself. He’s one of these characters who quickly become involved in any community he lives in, contributing with wise words, hard work, and constructive ideas. He and Aunty are from Arawak descent, but no longer speak Arawak or Spanish. When the missionaries came, kids were forced to learn only English. Many customs have disappeared but Uncle Basil is hopeful, as little by little indigenous rights are recognized and respected in Guyana.
While the loudspeaker blasts out another Bob Marley song, I watch the sun go down over the savannah and feel blessed to have come here.
Guyana is one of South America’s smallest countries, located on the north coast of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s hemmed in by Venezuela to the west, Suriname to the east and Brazil to the south.
1. Make sure you have enough time if you want to visit Moruca or another Arawak community. First of all, you depend on boats, which may be delayed for any number of reasons. Second, it’s one of these places where time just goes by, where you easily yield to the rhythm of lazing in hammocks, drinking a beer, chatting with people and simply feeling at home. You may want to stay longer than you had anticipated.
2. Bring cash, as in Charity and Moruca there are no ATMs. Withdraw money in Georgetown. Expect to pay 20 U.S. dollars for the speedboat one way; the ferry crossings are cheap. In Moruca there are simple lodgings and places to eat. Activities: hiking, canoeing, lazing.
3. You could combine the trip with sea turtle watching on Shell Beach. Note that you need to do this with a tour, so organize it in advance in Georgetown.
4. Volunteering in Guyana? Yes, it’s possible. There are several projects (check out ramusa.org, stuffyourrucksack.com, rupununilearners.com, the Karanambu Trust) or opportunities with the Iwokrama International Center for Rainforest Conservation and Development.
About the author:
In 2003, Karin-Marijke Vis swapped the rat race for overlanding in Asia and South America with her partner Coen Wubbels. They have been awarded the Overlanders of the Year Award 2013. They work as a freelance duo; their work has been published in 4WD/car monthlies and in travel magazines. Follow them on landcruisingadventure.com, notesonsowtravel.com, instagram/photocoen, facebook.com/landcruising, twitter.com/landcruising.