Sunday, January 18, 2015


You can put a blank map of South America in front of me, and I can fill it out – with capital cities – except for the three countries that sit in a row: Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. I can never keep those three straight, but maybe doing this blog will help me figure it all out.

Of those three countries, Guyana is the largest of the three and the one to the left. It’s bordered by Suriname to the east, Brazil to the south and west, Venezuela to the northwest, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north.  Although it’s located in South America, it is actually a full member of CARICOM (the CARIbbean COMmunity). (Suriname is the only other South American member, although there are three other Central/South American observers.) Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, is the secretariat headquarters for CARICOM. If you pull up a Google map of Guyana, you can tell that 80% of the country is forested, allowing for it to have a high biodiversity and haven for many species that are borderline risk for extinction. There aren’t too many towns that pop up here, mostly lying on the coast. Guyana has one of the largest areas of unexplored rainforests in the world. It is also quite mountainous. Mount Roraima (Guyana’s tallest mountain) and its table-top mountains are often considered to be the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. (If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. I read it many years ago and absolutely loved it. I also recommend reading Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.)

Essequibo River

The word “Guyana” is stemmed from an Amerindian word that means “land of many waters.” The Essequibo River (the longest river in Guyana), the Demerara River (yes, the same as the brown sugar), the Cuyuni River, the Berbice River, and the Mazaruni River all wind their way from the coast hundreds of miles inland through rain forests.  The official name for the country is the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, which sounds like a really large farmer’s market. Their motto is, “One People. One Nation. One Destiny.” I was really sure this was a subtitle for some movie or book or something.

Jim Jones
Originally there were nine indigenous groups living in this area.  But then the Dutch came and named it Dutch Guiana. They controlled the area for a while until they divided it up and handed this area over to the British, later renaming it British Guiana (you know, in their grand originality. I wonder how they didn’t confuse this with British Guinea.). This area has long been the subject of land and border disputes (even today), and when Venezuela gained its independence, it certainly tried to take as much land as they thought they were entitled to, which happened to be partly in British Guiana. After several decades, it was ruled it “belonged” to Great Britain. During the time Guyana was under British control, the British brought in many people from India and Africa to help work in the plantations, changing the Guyanese makeup. In 1966 Guyana was finally granted its independence; however, it remained part of the Commonwealth. In 1978, local crackpot Jim Jones (literally for me: he’s from Indiana and got his start in Indianapolis and even worked for the mayor’s Human Rights Commission ironically enough) took his cult-like church to Guyana and set up a settlement named after himself, Jonesville. Congressman Leo Ryan went on a fact-finding mission regarding human rights violations and was killed with others as they were boarding the plane to leave, taking with them a number of people who wanted to escape. Shortly afterward that same day, Jones killed all 918 residents (276 of them children) via cyanide-laced grape Flavor Ade. Until the September 11 attacks, this was the single largest loss of American civilian lives. Jones killed himself with a bullet to the head. (I guess he was too good for grape Flavor Ade.)

Georgetown is the nation’s capital and largest city.  This port city lies on the Atlantic Ocean as well as the mouth of the Demerara River. It’s a city of many names, originally called Longchamps when the French occupied this particular area for a short while; then it became Stabroek after it was handed over to the Dutch; and later renamed Georgetown when the British gained control.  It is the center for government and also boasts theatres, museums, universities, markets, large parks, airports, and many historical buildings.

Demerara sugar
The largest economic drivers are sugar (as in Demerara sugar, a type of brown sugar with courser crystals), rice, gold mining, and shrimp fishing. The Omai Gold Mines are not only the largest gold mins in the country, but one of the largest open-pit mines in South America. Currently, Guyana is looking into oil drilling and has granted permission to explore off-shore drilling. The mining company Rio Tinto (which I don’t trust – they always seem to be mining for minerals and raw materials in places where the people who own the land [as in black and brown people] are most at risk for being exploited and receive nothing in return) has its hand in the Guyanese mining industries as well.

The majority of Guyanese are Christian, mostly Protestant or Roman Catholic. Because of the large number of people from East Indian background, there are also a large number of Hindus here, and a smaller number of Muslims. About 4% of the people don’t follow any religion at all.

Although English is the official language for use in the government and schools (the only English-speaking South American country), most people speak Guyanese Creole at home and to each other casually. This language is based on English with quite of bit of influences from African and East Indian languages. In fact, because of the large number of East Indians brought here, there are actually a small pockets of people who still speak Hindi and Urdu here as well. The indigenous languages of Akawaio, Wai-Wai, Macushi, Arawak, Patamona, Warrau, Carib, Wapishana, and Arekuna are still spoken by a small number of people and are recognized as regional languages along with Portuguese and Spanish. 

Cricket is hugely popular in Guyana, which makes sense considering Guyana is a former British colony. In fact, Guyana hosted the 2007 Cricket World Cup. I don’t know much about cricket except that it seems to have a million player positions, the rules are moderately complicated yet seems like a hybrid between soccer (which is also very popular in Guyana) and baseball, and it only seems to be played in countries that are former British colonies (EXCEPT the US. In the US, a cricket is an annoying bug that keeps you up at night). Guyana is also home to the second largest single-drop waterfall in the world, Kaieteur Falls. It has a drop of 741 feet, compared with Niagara Falls at 167 feet – that makes it almost 4 ½ times longer than Niagara Falls!  But you know what else is incredible? Guyanese food. The diversity of this country has led to diverse culinary traditions as well: it’s a mix of Caribbean, South American, British/Dutch, East Indian, and Amerindian traditions. And it all sounds absolutely amazing (rest assured, my meal will be served sans grape Flavor Ade).

Up next: art and literature

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