Tuesday, August 16, 2011

To the Ends of the Earth

Guyana, South America

Back in 2005 I had the amazing experience of being able to venture to the jungles of the South American country, Guyana, to do volunteer work. Little did I know, when I boarded that plane out of JFK airport in New York City, that it would prove to be an experience of a lifetime. And not because of any amazing, touristy, daredevil adventures I would go on. No, but rather, for the astonishing earthy sites I would see; and mostly for the distinct, extraordinary people I was going to meet.

You see, the coastal country of Guyana is located on the northeastern cap of South America. It is nestled between the ocean to the north, Venezuela to the west, Suriname to the east, and Brazil to the south. It boasts a population of only about 751,000. Some 76,000 square miles (196,850 square kilometres) compose this little country. The majority of ethnicities are of East Indian, African, and Amerindian descent. And an interesting note is that it is the only official English-speaking country in South America. 

Specifics aside, I always express to people that I left a piece of my heart in Guyana. It is a place where one can just focus on the simple, more important things of life. Also being able to witness the sheer, untouched (relatively) beauty of the jungle. Observing how people live without the fast-paced, so-called 'needs' of  Western society was an ordeal in itself.

Of course, if you were to ask most anyone who was born and raised there, I am certain they would jump at the chance to venture beyond the jungle walls or village borders. I surely cannot blame them, either - for it is also a land poverty, which brings many other different struggles. And, as I have learned, there are without a doubt, pros and cons wherever one dares to roam or rest their head. However, for me, it was an enchanting look at the world through different eyes - a world so far away from the one I had ever known.

And so, in the three months that were to follow, I would be engrossed in helping others, doing my laundry by hand, using an outhouse, taking showers outdoors, preparing meals from scratch, buying just baked bread from the local bakery lady, and purchasing freshly (I mean 'fresh' in the purist sense of the word!) ground coffee.

Yes, those three months would also include traveling further into the jungle interior to a mesmerizing place called Wauna. This would be by way of 'bus' which was really an overcrowded van over extremely rutted, dirt roads. Once we had safely arrived, we then ventured off on foot to visit our acquaintances; our backpacks loaded down with the essentials - water, sunscreen, snacks, and toiletries.

One lady we visited seemed, for me, to live at the end of the world. To reach her, we had bounced over the rugged road in our 'bus', crossed on foot more dirt roads, and then trudged through leafy jungle paths and over little creeks on makeshift bridges. After all of this, there in the midst of the clearing was a whitewashed, clapboard house on stilts. While her husband was away working up the river at a factory - as was common for the men to have travel to other parts of the country to find work - she manned the homestead along with her young children. I remember thinking she must have been the farthest from civilization that I had ever dare go.

However, just recently I was recounting this experience with a friend and they so interestingly pointed out that while her parcel of earth was so distant and extrinsic for me, my home for example, New York City - would be her so-called 'ends of the earth'. And that is the truth - what may be so for some of us, is most certainly not so for others.

How good it is to be able to acknowledge this and embrace mankind's differences. My three month journey to the jungles of Guyana was just the beginning of my cognizance of this actuality. And wherever my travels take me in the world, I will always fondly recollect this woman and her piece of terrain so utterly far away from my reality.


They always say 'the proof is in the pudding'. Therefore, my only regret with writing this piece is that I am not able to share my photographic evidence, for all of my 35mm photos are stored within the confines of my parents' farmhouse back in Pennsylvania.  

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