By Smuggler’s Boat From Guyana to Venezuela

I am in the town of Charity at the end of a thoroughly bath-tubbed road thanks to a line in the guidebook: boats go from Venezuela to Guyana. So presumably, they also go the other way, and being an obstinate surface traveller, I don’t want to go by air. Also, the air links Guyana has are not with neighbouring countries (with which it has disputes) but further away, so a long journey out and back would have been necessary.

I have arrived from Surinam, and intend to continue to Venezuela, although there is a very rough road to Brazil. Thus I had enquired at the Venezuelan embassy in Georgetown (map), to be told that I needed an ‘Entry Permit’, and how soon did I want it? As soon as possible; this is a dangerous town. There were no further queries, and I was told to return that afternoon.

My escape from Georgetown started easily. I could have waited for the weekly boat to Charity and Morawhanna, but preferred to get out of town. Thus, a walk to the ferry terminal and after a short wait staring at the railings that reminded me of sheep yards in New Zealand, it was a brief trip across the Demerara river to the terminal at Vreed-en Hoop. Outside, minibuses waited to sweep passengers onwards to Parika, ending their run at a wharf on the much larger Essequibo river.

As soon as I’m clear of the van and clearly heading towards the river, a young man approaches me and asks where I am going. “To Charity” I reply, hoping that so brief a response will not lead to conceptual confusion. Indeed not, it is at once clear that I must go by boat to Supenaam, and he knows of just the boat for this. He shows me to some steps descending to the water level, and there I see that some long boats are bobbing on the waves, hiding from the sun’s glare in the gloom under the wharf. Ah. As soon as I’m in the right boat he disappears, and everyone sits around waiting for more passengers to complete their boat’s load.

It is quite pleasant here, but time is passing. Soon it becomes clear that all boats are going to the same destination, and that three boats are half-full but none will depart at anything less than full. Some remarks are made, but we passengers all have baggage, and are disinclined to attempt changing boats as they bump about amongst the piles and cross-beams with sitting-only headroom. Local travellers arrive every few minutes, and their prior experience has them disregarding the touts’ enthusings until they see with their own eyes which boat is truly closest to full.

Soon enough we’re away, the breeze of motion countering the midday heat. And anyway, we’re on the water, low waves gleaming mounds of brown-green water ahead, foaming wake astern. There is just the growl of the outboard engine instead of the frenzied revving of the van, and instead of lurching speedily past traffic and residences, horn blaring, we’re drifting along channels between low islands covered with reeds, long grass, and low trees supporting somnolent birds. Hog Island to the left, Wakenaam Island to the right, Leguan Island astern. Yet there is traffic here too. We overtake a fishing boat that is evidently a family residence, as food is being prepared, laundry is draped about, and the family, large and small, is all over the boat. It reminds me of the scenes in a river delta described in Jack Vance’s book “Trullion: Alastor 2262”.

We arrive too soon at Supenaam, where houses on stilts poke out over the channel. Once back on land I’m offered transport direct to Charity, but the price seems rather high. Eventually it becomes clear that I am being invited to hire the car for just myself and the Green Toad, so I explain that no, I wish to be one of a number of passengers. For this the price is rather less, and it soon develops that the number of passengers is rather high, two in the front seat for starters. Four more are required for the back seat, and slowly, they turn up.

We set out on what seems a reasonable road to begin with, but soon the potholes start becoming numerous and our speed is reduced to barely a run. We dodge the worst, weaving all over the ‘road’ as potholes enlarge to bathtubs, even road-spanning paddling ponds that themselves are uneven and potholed. My piece of the seat involves perching on the frame as much of the padding has collapsed, so every bump announces itself. Happily, the track is dry at the moment.

Alongside the road are stands of sugar cane, but I’m told that the farming business is not so happy these days. Of a dozen estates, only five are operating at any sort of substantial level, and nationally, Guyana can no longer export their quota limit, even though Guyana is importing sugar for local consumption so as to maximise its export tonnage of home-grown sugar. My fellow passengers are curious about New Zealand, but especially want to know if the Maoris are “Curly-headed folk”? They are happy for me that they’re not, as they’ve run out of tolerance for the Negro, whose dominance of Guyanese politics and unending corruption there is seen as the root of the economic problems.

Disgust is mixed with awe at the audacities of the “Burnham time”; the swindles were on no mean scale. For example, to the annoyance of a train traveller, one of his larger coups as Prime Minister was the dismantling of the railways. The track was given to Zambia and as replacement transport, a fleet of buses (now long defunct) bought from India. Yes, the Indian community is not without its sticky fingers also. And in the news is the report of a transportation consultancy from Germany, which recommends the reconstruction of the railways. This carload passes by acclaim the resolution “That the project should proceed at once” as we swerve and bump along slowly.

Charity turns out to be a large village of one main street that ends at the bank of the river Pomeroon. We pass the Xenon nightclub, garish with lights as we enter the village, but I’m advised that it would be a noisy place to stay in. Instead, the Purple Heart is recommended so I alight opposite, at last able to stretch my aching legs. It is a two-storey wooden building with a sort of barn at ground level, but it does have some rooms available at the back. The room is rather stark, there being no wall boards on my side of the frame, and some sort of insect nest over a foot long up by the ceiling in a corner. The wall does not reach the ceiling, there being a gap of a few inches to encourage air movement, and thankfully, my bed has a mosquito net. It will do nicely.

Next door is a restaurant, Amazon Pride, so all is settled. It too is a wooden frame building with just the outside wall cladding, but the food is good, the drinks cold, and the people friendly, if puzzled by my presence. I learn that a year ago a Dutch man was here with his bicycle, also intending to go to Venezuela.

In the morning I amble along to the wharf on the river, known as the “stelling” (the Dutch word for wharf: France, Holland and Britain have played musical colonies for centuries here) and as advised, just sit down and wait. The journey to come being by smuggler’s boat, there is no office, no schedule, no ticket booth, but the procedure is simple. Just tell anyone who asks that I’m interested in going to Venezuela, then wait. And watch: river traffic is in two forms: dug-out canoes, some with small outboard engines, and built up pirogues, thirty feet long with eighty-horsepower outboard engines.

There is even a choice of smuggling service. Cheapest is a covered-deck boat whose passengers huddle in the hold during two or three days (or rather, nights) along backwaters, next are the motorised canoes, and lastly the fast pirogues that dash along for a premium price. Since I have satisfactory papers, this is for me.

After a few hours I retreat from the wharf to look around the town. There is a sawmill, purple heart being the favoured wood, but little else. Just a few buildings almost lost in the exuberant greenery. People are surprised to see me, and almost invariably, launch into stories of swindles in order to emphasise that I must not pay before being delivered, or at least being in the boat about to go. There is no smugglers’ “Better Business Bureau” to take complaints to.


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