The article titled “Suriname, South America’s Hidden Treasure” which appeared in the travel section of The New York Times, made the country out to be a charming, multicultural diversion. Paramaribo, its whimsically named capital is certainly charming with its distinctive wooden colonial architecture. The place is undeniably multicultural with a strange hodgepodge of Amerindians, Hindoostanen (whose forbears were indentured labourers from India), Javanese, Creoles, Maroons (descendants of escaped slaves), Europeans, Jews and Arabs. I revisited that article several times over the same week. There’s no other country that I have come so close to and yet never actually visited. I still remember being driven up the west coast road to Berbice through that Guyanese flatness of sugar plantations, paddy fields and houses on stilts. Were it not for the quirky Antillean signs, the temples, prayer flags and mosques would trick you into believing that you were in a dinky settlement in Uttar Pradesh. On the scruffy banks of the Corentyne in the non-descript Guyanese town of Corriverton, we’d wave to the Surinamese over in Nieuw Nickerie.
The New York Times article referenced a travelogue by Jim Gimlette whose book on Paraguay – At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig – I mightily enjoyed. Wild Coast has since then been on my wish list. Had Gimlette not written about all three Guianas, Wild Coast could have been the non-fictional twin to Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care. Gimlette’s journey like Bhattacharya’s fictional one, begins in Georgetown, Guyana’s low lying capital. In At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, I admired Gimlette’s ability to weave the past and the present seamlessly and offer them to us, wrapped in his wry observations. His talent is ubiquitous in his latest work as well. Walking around the city he describes as conspiratorial, he spots signs that say “NO IDLERS’ and ‘NO TOUTS’. “It was an impossible injunction. In Georgetown, everyone was either one or the other.” Even when digging through history, he finds the unlikeliest nuggets as if they were just waiting to be used as part of a quip. Forbes Burnham, the dictator who led an Afro-Guyanese police state from 1966 to 1980 was originally brought to power at the behest of Britain and the United States who wanted to do all that they could to keep the Marxist leaning Indian dominated People’s Progressive Party from democratically winning power (was there no limit to their all-pervading hypocrisy?). At the beginning of Forbes’ rule, “everyone agreed that he was charming and articulate.” He even won an endorsement from Naipaul. “Only his sister was suspicious. On the eve of his election she published a pamphlet called Beware of My Brother Forbes.”
On his travels both through history and the countryside, Gimlette’s roving eye never misses potential irony. In Georgetown stands a terribly ugly statue of Cuffy, an eighteenth century black Spartacus who led plantation slaves on a rampage in East Berbice. Gimlette remarks that Cuffy is perhaps the only historical figure in Guyana to have a memorial. “It’s an angry-looking piece cast in England and erected in Georgetown. What Cuffy would have made of this is anyone’s guess: a statue of a man whose appearance is unknown, made by the old enemy and erected in a city that did not exist at the time.”
In Georgetown, I felt that Gimlette was on familiar if eccentric territory. The real adventure, though, begins when he leaves the city. “To most townies, what happened beyond the city limits was beyond the pale – a vast, malarial dystopia of stinking swamps, thorns, bandits, bugs the size of rats and dark carnivorous forest. ‘You gonna find nothing man,’ they’d say, ‘the bush swallow everything. You can’t see you hand in front of you face ...’” In the savannahs of the Rupununi, among the ranchers and Makushi tribesmen and in the border town of Lethem, we see Gimlette’s extraordinary strength as a travel writer. This is an otherworldly realm at the very precipice of our consciousness marked by “slicks of brilliant ooze, grass like green fire, liverish pools and succulent bogs rimmed with pink.”
But when he digs deeper, he discovers that the country is not as tame as its wooden porticoes and whimsical patois (Sranan Tongo) lead you to believe. An idle comment to a bystander about the comeliness of women in a parade gets this retort, “That’s all this country has ... nice girls and cocaine.” Even when he’s deep in the Surinamese interior, among the simultaneously quixotic and sinister Maroons, narrating all the conflicts the land has been witness to (the last one only ended in the late eighties), the savagery of this inhospitable land doesn’t strike you. It’s not until he makes his way to French Guiana that we see a living metaphor for its wantonness. A French physicist who gives him a lift on the road to Cayenne cautions him about hitchhiking. It’s “still pretty wild”, he tells Gimlette. “... I’ve seen billions of francs and euros poured into this land. But does it look any different? Has anything changed? You turn your back, and everything’s covered in rust, and all the bridges have collapsed. We have an army out here, trying to keep out the immigrants and find the cocaine. But does it make any difference? It’s like trying to turn back the tide! This crazy coast will be whatever it wants to be. France has been here almost 400 years, and yet it looks like we just arrived! All around, what do you see? La foret, les bamboos, les étrangleurs ... la terre sauvage!”
I was feeling quite downcast at not having read any good travel writing in a long time and along comes Gimlette to the rescue. He combines three skills that are key to good travel narrative: historical research, flair for writing and the courage to travel. I have to confess though that he has a tendency to exaggerate. “Even as I write, there isn’t a single road that leads from the Guianas into the world beyond” and “As Guyana’s only landlady, Lorlene was hopelessly ...” he tells us. Although there may not be any turnpikes connecting the coast with Caracas or Manaus, there are definitely roads connecting Guyana to at least Brazil if not Venezuela. And it was a bit rich of him to pass off Lorlene (who took him in as a paying guest) as the sole landlady in the entire country. We’ll allow him this bit of hyperbole for bringing us these wonderful new vistas. As he aptly remarks “Other places may feel more magnificent than the Guianas but nowhere feels quite so unconquered.”
You'll find some pictures from the author's trip at his site.