Saint Cuthberts Mission, Guyana – September 29, 2012
Today’s adventure was a trip to St. Cuthbert’s Mission. About 16 or 17 of us met at the embassy around 08:00. We faced roughly a two-hour drive. We headed south out of Georgetown. Our route paralleled the Demerara River, heading in the general direction of the airport.
When we got to the Linden highway, we turned to the east. We continued east for roughly 30 or 40-minutes. That’s when we saw the sign pointing toward the north for St. Cuthbert’s Mission.
The Linden highway is a two-lane asphalt road. The road to St. Cuthbert’s Mission was dirt, nay sand, road; varying from one-lane to two and one-half lanes. The surface changed from a very hard-packed dirt washboard to sand several inches deep. We did see a few cars on the road. However, it was not unusual for them to get stuck in the sand. Based on the road conditions, I was astounded at the speed with which some drivers navigated. Now and then, some unexpected bumps and hills made one feel like they were participating in a rally.
We had been told to expect a drive time on the dirt road of about 30-minutes. That was a reasonably accurate assessment. At about the 20-minute mark, we were directed off of the “main” dirt road onto a small trail through the brush. Once in the bush, the path was not so simple to follow as just “a trail.” Instead, there were several different routes from which to choose.
All in all, it did not seem to matter which one was selected. The trail paralleled the main road. We came to find out later the detour was there because the primary way was particularly challenging to navigate for that stretch. Ultimately we merged back onto the main road and continued toward the village.
As we arrived at the outskirts of the village, we drove past numerous one-floor homes that were about three or four feet raised above the ground. Next, we drove by the police station and a school before arriving at a checkpoint/entry point. On the left side of the vehicle was a man dressed in civilian clothes. Around his neck was a lanyard with a small card attached. On the card was the word “security.” On the right side of the car was a St. Cuthbert’s Mission police officer talking on his cell phone. We were charged GD$1,000 to drive into the town and park.
The other route we could have taken was by boat on the Mahaica River. However, that still would have taken about two hours. The best population estimate I could find was 1,500. The primary industries in the area are either mining (gold or bauxite) or logging. The town changed its name to St. Cuthbert’s Mission in 1889. The original name was Pakuri.
About 100 meters beyond the checkpoint, we were allowed to park in the yard of a home. This home was more substantial than most, two-stories. It was also elevated like most of the other houses.
While our group was still gathering, many of us took advantage of the small shack in front of the two-story house. The family sold a few items out of there. The main fare this morning was some fish with cassava bread. The fish did not look very appealing to me, so I opted for just the cassava bread.
Cassava is a tuber from the cassava plant. The plant is native to the area. It is one of the primary sources of carbohydrates. The cassava is worked into a granular flour. One interesting (read frightening) aspect of the plant is that it contains a type of cyanide. That is responsible for its sometimes bitter taste.
To make the bread, one places cassava paste in a dry frying pan. The dough is flattened out. When the first side becomes golden brown, it is flipped to the other side to complete the cooking.
The bread I bought was in a clear plastic bag. Each of the two pieces was about the size of my hand. They were about 3/8″ thick. It looked as though I would be able to break off a bit. It was not brittle enough to break; instead, I had to tear it apart. It was somewhat chewy as well as bitter/sour. I must admit, it reminded me of chewing on a Styrofoam cup. I did not finish the bread. Even though it was only about 10:00 in the morning, I was glad they also sold beer. An ice-cold Carib beer helped me wash down my few bites of cassava bread.
Part of why we went to the town was because they were having a festival celebrating their Amerindian heritage. As we walked to the center of town, the first building we saw was the crafts center. Directly across from that was a tall windmill like one might see on a western ranch in the United States. That turned out to be the town’s water supply.
On the opposite side of the crafts center, was a sandy area akin to a town square. Along the edges of this square were several vendor booths. There was also a building that had a stage built in front. We stood in front of the stage because it was apparent a program was about to begin.
These Amerindians were Arawak Indians. An older man in a brown outfit was the emcee. The first order of business for him was to officially welcome and recognize the Minister of Amerindian Affairs, Pauline Sukhai. The next item on his agenda were three Arawak sixth graders. They recited the Lord’s Prayer in Arawak and then in English. Shortly after that, a small pre-school boy recited something, though I am not sure what. The content did not matter; he was entirely too cute.
The next group was the world-renown choir from St. George’s Cathedral, the large wooden cathedral in Georgetown. The choir was made up of the very young to the very old. They sang the Lord’s Prayer.
Once the choir left the stage, the emcee told those assembled that this Amerindian festival has been going since 1985. Then he led the crowd in Guyana’s National Pledge:
I pledge myself to honor always the flag of Guyana
and to be loyal to my country
to be obedient to the laws of Guyana
to love my fellow citizens
and to dedicate my energies towards
the happiness and prosperity of Guyana.
After the pledge, he introduced the town Toshao (captain or mayor). He had quite a lengthy speech, taking advantage of the Minister’s presence. He had several “strong suggestions” for her like providing some road maintenance equipment. When the address finally ended, the stage was given over to an Amerindian singer followed by some teenage dancers.
At this point, our group decided to walk to the river. After walking a couple of hundred meters, Leslie, one other, and I turned around and walked back. We began going from booth to booth.
We ultimately ended up at the crafts center. There were many different types of crafts that had been made by the Amerindians. Leslie and I bought a couple of items woven out of material from palm trees. The first item was a tray. I think it is more of a basket. Regardless, it was a GD$1,500 (US$7.32) item. We also bought a basket with a lid. Inside the basket are six trivets. That basket was GD$3,500 (US$17).
While we were in the crafts center, we saw two young women that were American. Leslie struck up a conversation with them and discovered they were Peace Corps volunteers. During the discussion, they told us we had to try to labba pepperpot. It is a local food being sold by several of the vendors.
Labba is a small rodent, maybe the size of a rabbit. They kind of look like an overgrown gerbil. At the first booth we stopped at, the lady said they did have labba pepperpot. It was in a pot on the counter. She grabbed a Styrofoam container, removed the lid, and picked up a serving spoon. With the cover removed, I could easily see in the pot. I saw lots of meat still on the bone and a dark broth. She did not have a fork, so our “utensil” was our new favorite — cassava bread.
We walked toward a shady area, sat down, and began our taste test. The broth was a little spicy. The meat was dark, sort of like what one sees on a turkey or chicken. I thought it had a good taste. We could not bring ourselves to try the fat or the skin.
As we finished our taste test, we noticed a booth nearby had BBQ chicken. It smelled terrific, so we decided to try some. The labba was GD$800 (US$3.90). The chicken was GD$1,000, about US$5. It was served with rice. It tasted every bit as good as it smelled.
As soon as we finished eating the chicken, we got back in the Range Rover for the trip home. It was opprerssively hot at this time. It must have been near 100 degrees. Once we were back on the dirt road, we were shocked at the traffic. On our way in we did not pass any vehicles going the other way. This time it looked like the autobahn!
One of the things that surprised me was the seating arrangements on the multiple four-wheel-drive vehicles heading into the town. In the bed of the trucks were several coolers and chests, stacked about a foot taller than the roof of the truck; then, on top of those, there were people sitting. Add to that the bumpy road and the speed at which they were traveling it seemed to me to be a recipe for disaster.
We finally made it back to the main highway. That was a relief. I cannot imagine trying to drive to St. Cuthbert’s Mission in the rainy season.
As we wound our way back to town, we came across the “iguana man.” This was near the village of Garden of Eden. We stopped at his stand. He had six live iguanas hanging there for purchase. He priced them at GD$6,000 for two, about US$30. He also had coconuts. I bought one for Leslie so she could try the coconut water. She did not like it because it was warm. We will try one more time in the future when we can get a cold one.
As we continued home, we stopped at Royal Castle Chicken. Some of the others were hungry. On the way in I saw a poster advertising Cow Heel Soup. After the labba I had no more adventurous spirit left, so I did not try the soup.
Once we got back to our car, we drove to the grocery and then home.