sunset over annai
I was staying at the volunteer teachers’ quarters at the secondary school by Annai, an Amerindian village on the main dirt road linking Lethem with the capital city of Georgetown. Dan, a volunteer health worker, just rode in from Surama village. His plan was to go out with Bryan, one of the teachers at Annai, and throw handline for hasa (armored catfish) at one of the ponds out in the savanna. As I said, I had just left my PhD position – no more job – which meant no more money, but it also meant no more job. So I did what any sensible Guyanese would do in the same situation – I went fishing.
Dan cruising his Monark through the savanna
It was late March, 2007. Early yet for the rainy season so the savanna around Annai was dry and the roads good. Perfect condition for a bike trip. With the prohibitive price of vehicles and fuel in the Rupununi, motorized transport is very limited for most locals, any volunteers and certainly for an unemployed grad student. And while motorbikes, jeeps, and Bedford cargo lorries do travel the roads, the most prevalent mode of wheeled transportation in the Rupununi is the Monark: the burly, steel-framed Brazilian-made bicycle complete with single gear, fat spring-loaded seats, welded fenders and cargo rack, and no functional brakes to speak of.
Feral humans. Dan and Bryan enjoy a Rupununi energy drink
Dan and Bryan Williams (no relation) had been in these parts for a couple years, victims both of the Peace Corps. By the time we met, they were well-seasoned Rupununi cyclists. A year earlier they decided to bike to Lethem for the annual rodeo. Rather than pedal the 60 miles along the main road from Annai, they planned to cut north into the Pakaraima hills and then turn west, heading for the Amerindian town of Karasabai before cutting back south to Lethem. For three days and nights they pedaled and dragged their bikes laden with camping gear over mountain passes, snuck through tiny villages by twilight, traded cigarettes for cassava bread, and pushed their way through the Pakaraimas. Finally, rather than take the jeep trail out of Karasabai, they paid an old Amerindian lady to paddle them and their bikes across the Ireng River to better roads in Brazil.
google earth projection showing Lethem, Annai and Karasabai (click it for a larger image)
On the morning of the fourth day Dan woke up in their derelict campsite on a lonely track in the state of Roraima. He looked over at Bryan still sleeping and lit a smoke. As he took his first drag he looked up and nearly shat himself. Coming down the road was a line of shiny white trucks, too many – definitely too shiny – for locals. The Brazilian Federales. Here they were, two white kids, a couple of beat up bicycles, no passports, no portuguese, barely any cash, a bag of ganja stashed somewhere, and the region’s entire federal police force bearing down on their campsite. Holy shit.
typical terrain in the south Pakaraimas
Jaw gaping and cigarette burning to the filter, Dan guessed about 60 vehicles were on the approach and awaited certain disaster. But the first truck passed them by. And the next. One after another – white Chevy Suburbans alternating with white pickups carrying ATVS – the entire entourage kept on going with not a glance in their direction. Apparently the police ha bigger business up north. Bryan slept through the whole thing. Holy shit. So what to do? Breath again. Wake up Bry. Light another cigarette? Hell no – roll a joint and beat the hell on back to Guyana.
the tiny village of Paipong. Dan and Bryan passed through here at 4 am on the way to Karasabai
Dan told me that story over rum and poker in his wooden house in Surama village. He never figured out why there were so many federal police in such a remote part of Brazil and why they wanted nothing to do with a couple feral gringos huddled on the roadside. Funny thing was I knew exactly what they were doing. You see the very research project that had so recently transported me to Guyana was originally planned for Brazil in the same lands where Dan and Bryan spent the night. However, exactly one year before, the President of Brazil officially returned those lands to the Amerindians of Roraima State, giving the squatting ranchers and farmers 365 days to vacate.
singletrack through Karasabai
The ranching and farming families, some having been there a couple generations already, were not happy. A school was burnt down in an Amerindian village. People on both sides organized and protested. While the President remained firm, the Brazilian military exercised its jurisdiction along the international border and sided with the squatters. A research project examining Amerindian hunting practices? No need for meddling foreigners - the military claimed the situation was too dangerous. My ex-PhD advisor spent the better part of the year and many round trip tickets between Hawai‘i and Brazil trying to wrangle research permits.
looking across the Ireng River to Brazil
The last day arrived for the ranchers and farmers to move out. Two gringos crossed the Guyanese border in a dug-out canoe. President Lula foresaw violence. For a long, sickening moment, Dan foresaw Brazilian prison. Thankfully, no one that day was harmed. Dan and Bryan and their bicylces made it for the party at the Lethem Rodeo. The ranchers are still squatting on Amerindian lands. We were never granted permission to work in Brazil. And I met these jokers in Guyana.