Timehri Airport, Georgetown, Guyana, South America; a long way from home in Hyderabad, India. My first independent job, my first foreign country. January, 1979
The plane circled to land at Georgetown, Guyana. It was an old Boeing 707, which had seen a lot of service and belonged to the venerable BWIA (British West Indian Airlines also known as ‘But Will It Arrive’). By today’s (2019) standards, it was a very primitive plane. The seats were rather cramped, but when you are with a plane load of people from the Caribbean you forget everything. Not too many places in the world will you find people who have so little and yet are so content. And so willing to share it with others. It seems that generosity of the spirit is inversely proportional to the amount of wealth a person has. The poorer they are, the more generous and willing to share.
As the plane made its final descent, I looked out of the window and saw lots of lush green vegetation and the sea the waves lapping over an absolute flat and featureless black beach. I knew I was looking at the famous mud flats, mud that was reasonably firm when the tide was out but as the tide started to come in, the water would make the mud particles more and more mobile. This made the whole thing extremely treacherous and if anyone was unfortunate enough to be out on the mud flats at this time, they would simply sink in the mud to their death. That is why there was nobody on the ‘beach’ in Georgetown.
Guyana immigration was a long, never-ending line. Once I was through immigration I waited endlessly for my luggage. My two bags contained the sum total of my worldly possessions and it appeared that both had been lost. It was not a very auspicious beginning to arrive in a foreign land with literally nothing more than the shirt on my back. But that was how I arrived in Guyana.
I was met by a very pleasant gentleman with a huge smile, which I realized is a typically Guyanese trademark. His name was Neville and he was the driver that my father had sent to get me. The first item on the agenda was to get some clothes, so we went to the main street in Georgetown, to the only department store there called Guyana Stores. Even though I came from India, which was a poor country, I noticed that the shelves of Guyana Stores were rather bare. There was not much concern for packaging or display. Fans stirred the still and humid air while a radio belted out some Reggae music. I bought a couple of dishikis (a lovely West Indian shirt in colorful prints) and some toiletries and we were ready for the journey to Linden, where my parents lived and where the headquarters of the Guyana Mining Enterprise (GUYMINE), the state owned, bauxite-mining company, was located.
My father had come to Guyana a few months earlier to work as the doctor in the hospital of GUYMINE, one of the two major employers in the country. GUYMINE (formerly Linmine) was owned by Alcan of Canada and when they owned it, it was named Demba. Demba was nationalized by the PNC Government in 1971 and like in the case of many good socialist governments, people were given managerial positions based more on their political leanings than on their managerial ability. The results were predictable and rapid.
Neville drove his Land Rover like there was no tomorrow and as we raced on a single track road with almost no traffic, I was struck by how much the Guyanese countryside was like South India. Thick lush green vegetation everywhere. Some trees I recognized – Jack fruit, tapioca (cassava), yams, bananas in plenty, some coconut, and lots of lush green grass; the Bread fruit tree was new for me. The soil was very sandy. And the water in several streams and in the Demerara River to which we eventually came, was a dark coffee color.
Neville did a running Guyana-101 with me as he drove. He told me that the water was perfectly clean and good to drink but that the color was due to various dyes that leached into the water from the roots of trees on the river bank. He also told me not to jump into any river to swim because most of them had Piranha and also because some are tidal and have some treacherous currents. When I told him that I was fond of fishing he told me to be careful when wading across streams as in the sandy beds sometimes would lie concealed a kind of fish called a Sting Ray, which has a poisonous sting in the tail. And under the overhanging banks would sometimes be concealed Electric Eels which could give a shock strong enough to stun you unconscious. I realized that there was much to be learnt about South America and tropical rain forests and what lived there.
After a couple of weeks into what was supposed to be a holiday, the routine was getting a bit mundane. I heard about a job opening in a mining town, two-hundred miles inland in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest on the bank of Rio Berbice, called Kwakwani. I applied and to my great delight was immediately selected. Two days later I was in Kwakwani. My delight at having done well in the interview was a bit short lived when I realized a few days later that I had been the only applicant – nobody wanted to go there. Neville and I drove the 60 miles from Linden to the bank of the Berbice River. The road was cut through the rain forest with thick forest on either side such that you could only see a few feet into the forest. The road itself was not paved and its condition would vary between bad and worse depending on how much rain fell and how busy the graders were in the mines. When they had some free time, they would send a grader or two to do the road work and the road would stay fairly smooth for a few weeks. Then it would go back to its roller-coaster state until the next encounter with the graders. I was to get to know that road very well in the five years that I lived in Guyana and actually held the record for the fastest time on it – sixty miles in sixty minutes – in my beat up old Land Rover. The road literally ended on the bank of Rio Berbice such that if you were not alert and were driving too fast, you could actually come racing out of the forest around the last bent (nothing to tell you that it was the last bend and any different from the million other bends just like it) and land straight in the river which was about half a kilometer wide and perhaps 50 feet deep at that point. Not a happy thought at all.
When you reached the river bank, you flashed your lights and hooted your horn until someone at the waterfront diagonally across on the opposite bank where the bauxite crusher and loading platform was located, heard you and sent a barge to get you. There was no bridge on the Berbice River and so you had to drive onto a barge and be floated across to the other side. The water of the Berbice was also coffee colored, but it was good to drink. I got out of the car in which Neville and I had driven here and went to the edge of the river and dipped a few handfuls of water to wash my face and to taste it.
Neville saw me doing this and said, ‘Comrade Baig, not sure if you know what a Piranha is, but all our rivers have them in plenty. They really love your fingers, if you know what I mean.’ I promptly pulled my hand out and counted my fingers.
As I stood on the bank of the river, I was struck by the silence of the forest. Not silence as in lack of sound, for there were many sounds, but silence as in no human sound. I could hear Macaws talking to each other as they headed home. They pair for life and have great conversations exceeded only perhaps by Canadian Geese who also pair for life. Lesson: conversation is essential to a good marriage. Forests breathe and speak and are visibly and audibly alive. Even if you don’t know their language – and it differs from place to place – you can still hear them. Then there are the smells. The smell of the first rain after the dry season. The smell of the markings on trees of territorial creatures which are meant to warn away potential threats. The smell of vegetation, growing or decomposing. When you sit quietly in a forest and let it talk to you, it does. Gently and gradually. Naturally, it takes a little while because first your ears have to stop buzzing with the residue of our own noisy, raucous sounds of so-called civilization. They try to drown out everything that the forest is trying to tell you. But if you are patient and give it some time, then gradually the buzzing fades away and you start to hear the breeze rustling in the leaves. You hear water dropping from the top levels onto the canopy below. You hear the occasional ripe fruit or dry branch fall to the floor, to become either food or manure. You learn to tell the difference between a sound made by a living creature – which may be potentially dangerous or useful – and the sound of something that is not a living creature. All this and more will happen if you give it some time, are observant, and are willing to learn. As I looked at the South American Amazonian rain forest for the first time, there were many sounds in that forest which I did not recognize at the time but knew later to be those of Howler Monkeys, Toucans and Amazonian Parakeets. I was thrilled to be there. There was nowhere else that I would rather be.
Speaking of off road speed records, I was in Linden very late one night. There was a dinner party at a friend’s house that went on till midnight. I had driven to Linden from Kwakwani after work and had arrived by about 7.00 pm. The party was what all such parties are like – full of laughter, noise, and camaraderie. I had a lot of friends there and so couldn’t leave as soon as I would have liked to. Also, they don’t serve dinner until very late to give people a chance to have a spiritual experience first. By the time I could leave, I was very tired and sleepy. Sensibly, I should have stayed overnight at the Guymine Linden Guesthouse or with some friend, but I decided to drive through.
I was driving a Land Rover Defender, which was at least 15 years old – a light blue color with a rear door that would swing open every time I went into a pothole at high speed, a fairly common occurrence on a dirt road. I had developed a technique of simply swinging the steering wheel to the right and bringing it back to the left and the door would slam shut. That way I didn’t have to stop to shut the door.
Once I was out of Linden and entered the Kwakwani Trail as we called it, I floored the accelerator and held the truck to a steady 60 miles per hour. On a dirt road, that is fast. The Kwakwani Trail wound its way through the rain forest without the benefit of a single street light or any form of illumination for its entire length up to the Berbice River. During the day, you would pass perhaps two or three cars on this entire journey. At night and especially at the time that I was on it that night, there was nobody at all. It was as if I was the only human being alive.
The forest all around was dark and silent. The road was illuminated as far as my headlights reached and then it was dark. The Land Rover knew the road and drove itself taking the turns and climbs and slopes from memory. Alright! Land Rovers are not that smart – it was me. And on we went, the engine a steady roar deepening as we started up a hill and singing a high pitched whine as we descended the other side.
Suddenly, there was a huge crash. The Land Rover rose in the air and slammed down off the road on the sand verge and the engine stalled. I hit my head on the steering wheel and got a nasty bump but seemed none the worse for it. The headlights had gone off and there was an eerie silence. All I could hear was the pinging of the cooling engine. I realized then what had happened. I had fallen asleep at the wheel, doing sixty miles an hour. As I say, Allah saves fools from themselves and I am a living proof of that. The truck hit the side of the road, which at that place was a huge sandbank, went over it and came down on the other side in the loose white sand of the savanna. If this accident had happened a mile earlier, I would have driven straight into one of the huge forest giants and wrapped myself and the truck around its trunk. If it had happened a mile later, I would have gone off the side of the road into a ravine which the road went along for quite a few miles from that point on. As it was, I was intact and the car appeared to be so as well.
There was no point in trying to take the truck out of the sand or to try to drive and risk a worse accident. I decided that the wisest thing to do at that point would be to simply go to sleep in the truck and so locking the doors, that is what I did. I fell asleep almost immediately. When I woke up it was just beginning to get light. I started the engine and it started immediately. I put it into four wheel drive and reversed over the road side barrier and then took off for Kwakwani in the rapidly brightening dawn. As the sun rose, I rounded the last bend and took the slope of the Trail going down to the river, thankful for having lived to tell the tale of this rather hairy drive.
Mirza Yawar Baig is based in Hyderabad, India and is the founder and President of Yawar Baig & Associates; an international leadership consulting organization. He can be reached at email@example.com