Showing posts with label Guyana. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Guyana. Show all posts

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Guyana's Rupununi Savannah; History Lives Here

It is reassuring to know Manari Ranch exists.

Manari Ranch
Our world seems to travel too fast, as we stumble from one crisis to another, each event often caused by the sheer speed to which we have accelerated our lives. We look to media all day, reflect upon it rarely and act upon its’ desires all of the time; we lose control and we head at an ever increasing pace toward something.

And then there is Manari.

A tiny ranch, now with plans to develop only ten square miles down from its former 95 square mile footprint, the property is history. It is not really historical, but it embodies the remarkable hard-scrabble history of this remote and quite fascinating part of the world.

So let me tell you a story.

Henry Prideaux Collie Melville, now there’s a name, was a man of vision, clearly itchy feet, an apparently authoritarian air and determination by the bucket load. Born a Sagittarius in Jamaica in 1864, he was indeed positive and straightforward; he headed to Guyana in the late 19th century and purchased the massive Dadanawa Ranch in 1880 while out prospecting for gold. The ranch grew from the 300 head that he bought to a massive 5,000 head station, and all the time, the family grew. His daughter Margaret, one of ten children, married a Basque, Theodore Orella, a chap whose life had obviously taken a significantly sharp turn as he found himself a cowboy in the South American Savannah. They built Manari in 1927, and had two children, Louis and Margaret who kept the place alive. Now Louis' daughter Lissa carries the family torch, and keeps Manari alive.

Today, the Southern Rupununi is a truly remarkable place, and the descendants of HPC have grown to form the most impenetrable and supportive fabric that can be woven by a family. From generation to generation new ranches evolved as families grew, and today, one of these offshoots is the remarkable delightful Manari Ranch.

Conveniently for visitors, the property lies only seven miles or so from Lethem, but the short distance belies the decades of time that get shorn from one’s being as you step through the door. This is no theme park; this is the real thing.

Managed today by HPC’s remarkable great-granddaughter, Lissa Orella, a bright and quietly competent woman, the ranch draws its future directly from its past.

Lissa is remarkable; attractive and unassuming, one would not suspect the drive that keeps her and
The Manari Swimming Hole
her “project” going. She left Guyana in 1994 to live in Canada, but following the death of her father, Louis, she returned to the family home in 2010. Guided mostly, it seems, by her DNA, and with the experience of eighteen years of working in Home Depot to call on, she sold her house in Toronto and set to work. Cleaning; working to bring order to chaos, and to get the ranch onto its feet.

And what a job she has done; assisted with the vast, skillful and willing extended family, Manari has reappeared as a family centerpiece, and one that they are willing to share with tourists seeking their rather special environment.

It is not a five-star resort; at night, it is a million-star resort, but the facilities are completely in line with what one would expect from this renaissance. It reflects the deep history and the style of the period it emerged, and as such is completely entrancing.

It is, first and foremost, once again a centre for family; I was fortunate to be there during a funeral, and family and friends from miles around came not only to pay their respects to the departed, but also to be with family; this sense of togetherness was palpable, and the effect that the ranch had on the generations that were at the event was immediate. Manari was more than a ranch; it is more than a home; Manari is a centre for the remarkable descendants of HPC and the families that have been woven into this wonderful fabric.

And so for visitors; not everyone will (fortunately) be there to participate in a major family event, but they will feel for themselves the fabric of the property’s past. They will realise that this is no theme park, and indeed it is the antithesis of these plastic atrocities; it is a place of history, of lives lived and a place of the future.

As Lissa develops the property there will be more activities added; horseback riding, mountain biking, perhaps, visiting the nearby Amerindian villages, swimming in the creek and quite simply, relaxing. Evelyn Waugh stayed here in 1933, and the atmosphere in which I found myself deposited had changed little. It is a place of character, and a place of growth.

 Day excursions from Manari

It is a simple property; showers are run from water taken heated by the sun, beds are comfortable but simple, air conditioning is simply not on the agenda; meals are good and often in the evenings taken with whomsoever is there of family, friends and workers. The air is clear, the swimming hole inviting and the whole experience of being at Manari is remarkable.

In the mad-paced world of 2016, it was reassuring and comforting to know that not all of the world has chosen to become dominated by speed.

The internet, however, is sporadically available.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Amerindian Community of St. Ignatius, Guyana: Introducing Peter Joseph

Let me introduce Peter Joseph.

The Benab, or Village Hall
Peter is an Amerindian, and lives in St. Ignatius, a settlement of 2,000 folks living adjacent to the Guyanese community of Lethem. The village, home to both the Makushi and the Wapishana people was officially settled in 1909 by a Jesuit priest, but as is the way of indigenous history, their culture and settlement predated this cartographic moment by thousands of years. Of course the village was not called St. Ignatius before the Jesuits arrived, but had been called Zewari by the local people for ever.

Traditional groups of people have called these lands home for millennia; recent archaeological work tentatively dates settlements in the Amazon as far back as 5,000 years, a formidable timeline. The contemporary Amerindians, as one might imagine, do not really accept the national border system that keeps the rest of us in administrative check, and are free to travel and settle throughout the region.

Peter had spent some time in Brazil, as so many others of this region have done, and upon his return, decided to build a tourism program. He took a tourism management program in Georgetown, and returned to the Rupununi to reclaim land formerly owned by his grandparents, but then left to lie in distress.

The Rupununi Savannah and Kunuku Mountains

By sheer dint of hard work over four years, he built his fledgling attraction at Kumu Falls. Rebuilding a three-mile road through the bush, carrying one or two bags of gravel using only a chainsaw, and using this same at a time by motorcycle; felling trees to make planks and hauling this raw lumber from the forest one at a time to build the structures at the heart of the project, and clearing garbage bag after bag after bag is a very good indicator of the man that Peter Joseph is.

Peter Joseph
And today, he has the start of a fine tourist attraction. His property lies twenty miles from Lethem; driving there one passes through the gorgeous Savannah country and the village of Kunu before reaching the foot of the Kanuku Mountains where, centred around a waterfall, Peter’s resort is taking shape. Now it is a place to spend a day relaxing, hiking the river trails, swimming under the pristine waterfall and enjoying lunch. Some camp overnight, but for now it is more of a day-trip destination. 

His plans are endless; next are some overnight cabins to be built at a height of about seven metres in the trees’ canopy; perhaps a conference room, a new bus to ferry clients to/from the resort is on order, and will be ready in a week or so.

 The core of Kunu Falls
I have worked for years with tourism programs in small communities, and feel that the importance of tourism as a part of the economic and cultural mosaic that is each separate economy is vital. I believe that working with a group’s history, and by rediscovering traditional beliefs, music, art, history and connecting with the community’s past allows a clearer vision of the future. Tourism is but a by-product of this connection, and important one to be sure, but most importantly, it is an opportunity for the past to be integrated into the economic and social evolution of the village. Peter’s project of one of the best that I have ever seen.

I loved the day there; the immersion into the Amerindian culture in this pristine setting was a tonic. Meeting Peter and hearing his stories, both personal and cultural were fascinating, and the drive that this sort of development gives to the culture and economy of the indigenous culture of the region is immeasurable.

Thanks, Peter, for a most interesting and thought-provoking day. You have a fine facility.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Georgetown, Guyana and Tbilisi, Georgia

At first glance, there is little in common between these two wonderful, yet disparate places. Each location offers tourists and visitors a unique and memorable experience; each conjures up quizzical looks when announced as destinations, and each if often confused with a better known, but eponymous location.

The Georgia to which I refer lies in the western end of the Caucuses; a spit of land separating Russia to the north from Turkey and Iran in the south; it is land that has seen its fair share and more of conquest, invasion and occupation, but now revels in its independence, and shift to the mainstream of nations in both and economic and political sense.

It does, however, get terribly confused with the American state of the same name.

Georgetown, for this piece, refers to the capital of Guyana; the most western of the three Guyanas, and a most delightful and interesting city. It is a city of intrigue, wonderful architecture, rather obscure and enchanting museums and a hotbed of social and political activity.

It is neither a suburb of Washington DC, nor the capital of the Malay island of Penang.

I make this rather obtuse point because each country manufactures and exports, and it is perhaps the relative unfamiliarity of each place that places a distinct and rather iniquitous burden upon manufacturers, and makes selling their products in a broader market so difficult.

ALthough this will come as a ssurprise to many, rice is exported from Guyana. Its rice industry is interesting, operates below capacity and offers tremendous growth opportunities; the main commercial variety grown in Guyana is the Rustic, an extra-long grain product that has found much favour in its traditional markets. As tastes change, so do rice fashions, and the newly emerging markets are seeking shorter varieties of rice, and research continues. It is interesting to note that for the newer markets, particularly in Latin America, paddy (unprocessed rice) is exported, thus denying the Georgetown economy the benefits of the value-added conversion of paddy into other rice products.

There is, it must be said, an almost complete lack of awareness of Guyanese rice. Consumers do not demand it and nor does it command high prices, although justified, in the boutique world of Fashion Groceries. It is perhaps this invisibility that prevents the investment required to bring the industry to its next level; consumer-driven demand with the concomitant raising of prices for the industry.

Eerily similarly, Georgia’s wine industry languishes in almost complete obscurity; although producing wine now for 8,000 years, and believe me, during that period they have learned a thing or two, it is remarkably difficult to find Georgian wine outside Georgia, and the former Soviet countries. It is true that they export over 11 million bottles, but as 10 million of them go to the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, it is improbable that you will have run into one.

Some are, of course, exported to the US, Canada and western Europe, but nowhere close to the quantity that its quality deserves.

Which is a great shame; the wine, while its pedigree is long, it is not unbroken, has only recently come to include some marvellous and delicate varieties. The primary varieties are Saperavi (red) and Rkatsiteli (white), each producing some fine wines. Winemakers are both artisanal small-holders and modern wineries, and production is most certainly geared to serving a broader western market.

In concert with Guyana, without public knowledge of and demand for Georgian wines, building the next step to becoming a recognised source of fine wines will remain difficult; and for no other reason than the geographical ineptitude of the market.

Georgia and Georgetown are indeed delightful places for tourists, but more that that; each sits on a product and industry that offers increasing demand; its ever more complex distribution systems offering ever more opportunity should make Georgian vintners and Guyanese rice farmers smile.

The market, however, needs more geography lessons.

Monday, January 28, 2013

French Guyana; my first visit.

Fortunately, I get bored. Not the grinding boredom of a rainy Sunday afternoon of childhood, but the boredom of repetition. And so it was, in August last year, that I found myself daydreaming more frequently than ever about The Guyanas.

Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by the book Papillon, the tale of the French penal colonies of Guyana written by Henri Charriere. It is a fine, rip-roaring book; tales of adventure, escape, cruelty, jungles, lust and eventual redemption. But how were these institutions? Did they still exist?

So I bought a ticket and flew a couple of weeks later to Cayenne, the capital of this remote outpost of France. Still an integral part of the French Republic, Guyane lies on the north-east coast of South America nestled between Suriname and Brazil. It is a country whose economy relies on the largesse of the French population and the space industry in roughly equal parts; tourism is not a big business here; yet.

My original plan was to spend a week moseying along the coast from Cayenne to Georgetown in Guyana (formerly British Guyana), travelling through Suriname (formerly Dutch Guyana) in my Guyanas-a-Plenty tour of the Wild Coast. I thought that a couple of days looking at the island penal colonies would suffice, and otherwise I would spend my time in local taxis (canoes as it turned out) observing and collecting anecdotes. A mile and gentle journey.

Well, it didn’t turn out quite like that.

During the flight from Pointe a Pitre to Cayenne, my seatmate, a French man who had lived in Cayenne for twenty years, offered me a ride to town. I accepted, and despite the peculiar look that his friend shot as he picked us up, and squeezed the three of us into a small Toyota truck designed for two small Japanese, off we went; I beamed, happy to finally be somewhere new and exciting.
There is a major roundabout half way to town at which we should turn left, a cursory glance at a map had shown me, but we turned right, heading away from the city. This is the moment that one instinctively thinks of jumping from the moving vehicle, afraid that these two strangers had marked me to perform some unspeakable acts in the jungle that would inescapably end with fire-breathing ants slowly chewing away at my torso. I had read too much of Papillon’s punishments.

Fortunately I stayed in the car, and once in town, having stopped at Francois’ house to drop his luggage, he pulled up outside an Algerian cous cous restaurant, picked up a meal and drove to his friends’ house where we ate, drank a marvellous bottle (or two) of Bordeaux – for it is France – and whiled away the afternoon.

I realised than just how much more that the region offered besides the lonely echoes of long-empty prison cells. Guyane, and in fact the Guyanas in whole, are what Costa Rica thinks it is and wants to be. It is a region of unimaginable vastness, with deep rain forest and a few fabulous and fascinating eco-lodges. It is a region of three and four-day pirogue journeys staying overnight in Amerindian villages deep in the forest. It is a region of unspeakably cruel colonial administrations, and it is a region of enormous goodwill, friendliness and a most remarkable social cohesion. It is, in short, a region to be explored.

I wondered why nobody had ventured there in any numbers, and particularly few from Canada and the USA; and then I realised that it didn’t matter. I had stumbled on a new and exciting destination, and one that for a few years at least will offer those seeking a true adventure, with a piché of rosé at lunch, for it is France, Guyane was the place.

My journey was marvellous. I rented a car in Cayenne and headed west to Kourou, the centre of the European space program. Set in Guyane for its proximity to the equator and relatively clement weather, the site launches 12 – 15 rockets per year, bringing well-needed revenue and jobs to the region. The space centre is also open to visitors, but I had too little time. I was off to Devil’s Island, and the other two centres of the penal administration comprising the oddly named Iles de Salut. Not much salvation there, I have to say.

But an extraordinary place to be, and to wander; one of the islands is now a small inn, located in the original administrative buildings. Rooms are available, as are spaces to sling a hammock, and visitors spending the night, after the day trippers have returned to the mainland, will have a unique perspective of life on these mildly sinister and evocative islands. The second island, Royale, was the location of the isolation cells, made famous by Steve McQueen in the movie version of Palillon, and now the ruined cells and the fabulous undergrowth reclaiming the island, offer visitors a remarkable glimpse into the atmosphere of these ghastly punishment cells.

I loved the islands! Devil’s Island is impossible to visit as it is deemed too dangerous to land, but sailing around it one can view the small building that was built for Alfred Dreyfuss, a wrongly accused French spy in the 1800s; unsatisfied with building a cell on an isolated island off and isolated coast, the penal authorities built a wall around the house preventing him from seeing out, and forbade the twelve guards assigned to watch him from speaking to him. He suffered here for years before having his conviction overturned, and returned to France.

I spent the day wandering, sweating and taking photographs, and determined to return again, this time with more purpose and time.After spending the night in Kourou, I motored east toward the Surinamese border.