Short Story: GUYANA-  Savannah Vacation – By Geoff Burrowes

GUYANA-  Savannah Vacation – By Geoff Burrowes

Here are some of my recollections from my dear land of Guyana

It is 1953, and I was 9 years old when a friend invited me to his father’s ranch in the Rupununi Savannah of Guyana, to spend the holidays.

His name was Peter Gorinsky and he was very different from the other boys in our neighbourhood. He was tall and lived next door only during the school term. The rest of the time he lived on his father’s ranch which was in the Rupununi Savannah, over 300 miles South of my town, Georgetown, the capital city of British Guyana (Now Guyana).

Most of my friends were, like myself, town boys and we took some of Peter’s tales as being tall and self-promoting. However his was a very different life as I was about to discover.

My parents agreed to the invitation and early one morning Richard King’s father pulled into our driveway. Richard was a teenager, a friend of Peter’s older brother Conrad, he was also going to spend the August holiday with the Gorinskys.  

The only thing I can remember about that flight was the two beautiful girls who sat across the aisle from us.

They were going to a ranch called Caranambo and when the plane slowed and dropped into a landing strip across from the mountains rising up from the savannahs I looked for the ranch and couldn’t see anything but savannah and little Kaimbeh bushes.

The kaimbeh is a hardy little bush which grows everywhere in the savannahs and had round hard leaves which could and often did, in an emergency, serve as toilet paper. As far as I know that was its only useful purpose.

A jeep rolled up in a cloud of dust and an elderly man in khaki who looked as tough as the savannah itself made nice with the pilot and took the girls off into the savannah along with the cargo of boxes that had been downloaded during our stop. I found out later that he was Tiny McTurk one of the many colourful characters who made his living in the Rupununi. His wife and later his daughter Diane have become justly famous as world-renowned conservationists.

Lethem was the administrative center for the Rupununi and it was made up of a hotel called the Fazenda at the end of the airstrip, a couple of stores, a hospital and about a dozen homes peeping out between the kaimbeh bushes out on the savannah.  After a while a tractor appeared towing a flat wooden trailer and the vaquero (local cowboy), driving it loaded our suitcases.

They had in the meantime fed us – the food was very different and seemed to consist of a crunchy yellow rice with a different but pleasant flavour, cassava and a highly flavoured beef stew. Although it was different it was tasty and filling and when the Amerindian vaquero said ‘Vaya’ indicating it was time to go both Richard and I were ready.

The girls at the Fazenda who were all Peter’s cousins were shy but laughed behind their hands a lot, which made me, a socially backward boy, uneasy. Richard obviously enjoyed their company.

Travelling behind a tractor on a springless flat trailer gets old pretty quickly especially since the red brick road seemed to have imported potholes from all over BG!

Although there were the mountains on the horizon there was a sameness to the scenery that got to us quickly. After what seemed like a long time we saw a clump of trees, green against the blue sky and in a few minutes we were pulling into  the yard of a pleasant white home surrounded by mango trees and in the distance tall palms. We were told that this was Pirara ranch and we’d be spending the night here.

The Hart family at Pirara were friendly and welcoming, and when they suggested a swim we were delighted. Over the many years that have passed since then I can still remember Pirara Creek running blue between the white sand banks, the water flashing with sunlight in the clear savannah air. We dived from the bridge that ran over the creek into the water and frolicked in the refreshing creek water. It was only after that they told us to be aware of the sting rays that burrowed under the white sand at the bottom of the creek and if you were unlucky enough to step close to one the sting in its tail would whap you with a dose of venom that would make you sick for days. So many beautiful things in Rupununi had a sting in their tails. The year after that an electric eel in the Ireng river zapped a St Stanislaus college boy who lost his senses and drowned.

The rest of the trip was without incident and we got into Good Hope at around 4.30 pm. Good Hope was a pleasant white bungalow behind a barbed wire fence. Peter’s Mum, Nelly Gorinsky was welcoming and gracious pointed across a flat field past a high field of corn and said that Peter was at the corral behind the corn and if I walked across I’d find him. About 20 ft into the  high grass I heard a rattle off to the left. Peter had told me about rattle snakes so I stopped immediately. A couple of seconds later I heard the same sound directly behind me and pretty close so I literally raced for the corral.

When I got there Peter and the vaqueros had a hearty laugh but I was relieved as the rattlesnakes were apparently cicadas living in the high grass! It took me a while to live that down but I never mistook a cicada for a rattlesnake again!

That night I met Pixie, Peter’s sister and her friend Diana White. Pixie and Diana were a few years older than us and never let us forget it. There was at the supper table too an old Dutchman answering of course to the name “Dutch”. He lived at Caranambo and once the dry season started he would trek to the other ranches for a change of scenery. I think Dutch was a prospector but I was never sure.  Caranambo was near the the Rupununi river and he told us he couldn’t swim.  In the early days I often fell for bushmen’s tales and when I asked him how he got across the rivers and creeks his light blue eyes twinkled as he told me he was very good at holding his breath and would walk across on the river bottom. I believed him for many years! Dutch was dentally challenged and his nose and chin actually touched one another. Pixie, who was slim, pretty and short haired and actually looked like a pixie teased me that my big nose and pointed chin would touch like Dutch’s when I got old – well Pixie I’m 74 and it hasn’t happened yet!

She also told me to look out for snakes when I went to the toilet. The toilet was a two-holer and though I never saw a single snake at Good Hope the idea was firmly planted in my mind and I was always on the lookout for them.

The Gorinskys were lords of all they surveyed and lived well in their savannah kingdom. They had a cook and a maid and a Brazilian foreman for the cattle as well as a couple of Amerindian vaqueros.

Although I was terrified at the prospect of venomous snakes and spiders I slept like a log that night.

The next morning my life changed forever! My mother loved reading and had taught me to read at an early age. Whenever I wasn’t playing with my friends I was curled up on the couch into a good book. I had taken the book I was reading with me to the Rupununi. It was a Western written by William McCloud Raine and the villain was called Lige. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next and after breakfast curled up in a comfortable chair in the spacious living room. Peter’s father was a tall man (in those days everyone seemed tall!) He was grey haired and spoke in a growl with a Polish accent and was totally intimidating to a nine year old tenderfoot from Georgetown. He growled “What’s with this reading? Go and play outside!”

From that moment the world of the savannah was mine. The dry stream beds, the brush growing in them and the fascinating creatures that lived in the brush. Large tarantulas and little black widows that Peter taught me to beware of as they were very venomous. Birds of various kinds. Creatures that hid (like the small brown anteaters called tamandua) and the large, long-nosed black and white ant eaters that were tremendously strong and had long curving claws that could reputedly rip a person in half.

Ireng River

The Ireng River which wound around the back of Good Hope. The river flowed sluggishly, dark brown between banks of tabaching, a slippery white and yellow clay. The water was cool and refreshing and the river had a flat landing that you could dive off of into the stream. We had a great time swimming in the river although you could hear loud splashes from upstream or downstream that Peter said were caimans splashing their heavy tails. I never actually saw one but was very aware of these alligators that had black shiny scales and grew as large as twenty feet. There were also piranha, both black and red but we were never troubled by them. One day in this river, 300 miles from the sea, we saw three porpoises majestically jumping many feet in the air as they passed on down to the Rio Blanco and the Amazon!

Savannah Ponds

One morning after breakfast Peter took me for a ramble in the savannah. The rainy season hadn’t completely drained off and there were a number of shallow ponds left in the savannah. Peter told me that fish often swam over the flooded land when the water was high and when the rain stopped falling they were left in the ponds until the next rainy season. He said this made them easy to catch. He then reached into the pond he was standing ankle deep in and started feeling around in the mud at the bottom, gave a triumphant whoop and pulled out a mud-covered fish. It was odd looking, covered in scales and in fact looked dangerous. He washed the mud off it turned out to be a fish called hassar which tasted awfully good when we had it for lunch later that day. 

The fight

I can’t remember what started it but I wasn’t particularly concerned as I knew how to fight. However as we scrapped Peter threw in a couple of painful kicks. I was surprised as I subscribed to the Marquis of Queensbury rules and instead of fighting to a standstill I quit the fight leaving my friend victorious. We normally got along well and in fact that is the only time I can remember coming to blows in our long friendship.

Trip to Georgetown

Ranchers in the Rupununi had an ongoing disagreement with the Amerindians, the indigenous people of Guyana. You have to understand that in the Macushi villages the concept of ownership was not prevalent. If Simon’s house was missing a board and his neighbour Samuel had a saw and nails and a hammer Simon would simply take the tools and effect the repair and then pass them off to the next person who needed them.

Thus when an Amerindian family was hungry if one of the ranchers cows was handy it would be slaughtered and every body was happy, but the rancher.

One day the cattle plane from Georgetown landed at Good Hope.

There was a small party of Amerindians at the strip all in their best clothes as if they were going to a wedding. At the heart of the gathering was a young man also in Sunday best. He was being treated as a celebrity by the other members of the party. He climbed aboard and the plane took off for Lethem.

I found out after that the principal character was named George who was caught red-handed butchering a cow and was on his way to Georgetown to serve his 6 month sentence.

Chico

One day the most villainous looking character presented himself at Good Hope’s front door. He looked like a comic book Blackbeard.

Peter welcomed him in Brazilian Portuguese and soon he and Cesar Gorinsky were sitting at the large dining table over a bottle of scotch, laughing and swapping stories.

Peter told me after that Chico had been a vaquero who worked for Mr Gorinsky at Good Hope.  He was apparently as strong as an ox and could hold up one wheel of a tractor while the tyre was being changed. Chico was in a game of cards, fueled by Alcool the clear Brazilian Spirit which was pure alcohol, what we on the coast called high wines. They were in a floating bar on the Brazilian bank of the Ireng River .  A row erupted and one of the other Brazilian vaqueros whipped out his razor sharp vaquero knife and slashed Chico across his stomach. Chico returned to Good Hope holding his entrails in one  big hand and Cesar Gorinsky stitched him up with a bag needle with scotch as an anaesthetic and put him in his hammock to die. The nearest hospital was 90 miles away in Lethem. Thanks to a very robust constitution Chico survived and he and Mr Gorinsky became fast friends.

Sick as a dog

 Toward the end of my holiday I got sick. I felt weak and ran a fever.

Richard and Diane were going to Pirara and Manari for a few days so I went with them, in a jeep this time.

As soon as I arrived at Pirara I was put to bed and stayed there until we drove to Manari Ranch.

Manari was a very pretty two storied building on strip of flat land by a creek that ran through white sand banks, surrounded by tall Etai palms. Again I was put to bed as soon as I arrived. Aunt Maggie Orella personally nursed me, helped by two Amerindian girls. Dr Talbot from the Hospital in Lethem came by and was very concerned that the fever was not breaking and said that I could not travel back to Georgetown until it did. That was very bad news as Richard and Diane were going on Wednesday’s cattle plane.

Aunt Maggie’s nursing finally paid off and Dr Talbot gave me the all clear to fly back home.

In Georgetown I was diagnosed with Blackwater fever a potentially fatal disease.

As you can see I survived.

That holiday resulted in my falling in love with Rupununi a love that continues until today!

Thank you to the Gorinsky family and the Hart and Orella families for nursing me back to health and to my friend Peter for introducing me in the first place and for his friendship all those years!

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Comments

  • Pixie  On May 5, 2018 at 10:34 am

    Geoff – I am sure you have matured into a very elegant handsome man. Sorry if I was a bit of a bully back then, but you and Peter were such easy victims!!

  • Peter Fraser  On May 5, 2018 at 11:28 am

    On Sat, May 5, 2018 at 12:35 AM, Guyanese Online wrote:

    > guyaneseonline posted: “GUYANA- Savannah Vacation – By Geoff Burrowes > Here are some of my recollections from my dear land of Guyana It is 1953, > and I was 9 years old when a friend invited me to his father’s ranch in the > Rupununi Savannah of Guyana, to spend the holidays. H” >

  • Peter Gorinsky  On May 5, 2018 at 4:57 pm

    Thank you so much Geoff for reviving so vividly those great memories of our August holiday in the Rupununi. Your visit and that of your cousin Archi remain as a highlight among the many recollections I have of our escapades. They were wonderful times and here also I thank you for your friendship, also shown through our youthful times shared in London.

  • Joy Stringer  On May 7, 2018 at 5:01 pm

    Geoff, what a fascinating story. A
    Wonderful gift for your family.

  • Tony  On May 7, 2018 at 9:05 pm

    To This day, I still talk to Peter often by Skype. and have visited very often and fly fished with him in his adopted home in Costa Rica. We chat a lot of the days and time we had growing up in Guyana! Thanks for your story here Geoff!

  • David Fitt  On May 7, 2018 at 9:38 pm

    Wonderful to hear of your Rupununi exploits Geoff. I remember you as one of the l
    “Big boys” from days at the flats on Brickdam, with Peter, Ian, Jim and Christopher.

  • Romesh Singh  On May 8, 2018 at 7:06 am

    Is this the Geoff Burrowes who played rugby (All Blacks/Hornets), and worked for NCR (Geddes Grant) during the 70s?
    I would like to get in contact with him

  • Lucy Kidman  On May 8, 2018 at 9:43 am

    Enjoyed this tremendously Geoff.

  • William King  On May 8, 2018 at 4:06 pm

    Hey Geoffry, Good to hear your story. William King. I remember our Rugby days.

  • Penny  On May 10, 2018 at 2:36 am

    Thanks Geoff – wherever we Guyanese have ended up, the memories of our happy childhood days burn brightly and we know how fortunate we are.

  • Marilyn  On May 12, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    I really enjoyed your letter. My father (Raymond Gomes) was also born in Georgetown and I have been trying to trace his family roots and it has been difficult. His father (Hector) and Mother owned a famous shirt factory. He had two sisters Sheila and Monica. His first cousin was a priest (handsome) man who later left for the USA. I am hoping that maybe someone out there reading this can enlightened me with some history background on any of the above. My grandfather passed away at the age of 54? in the years somewhere 1960 – 1962? I realize it might be difficult if everyone is younger but maybe someone can put me on to someone who knows? Thank you and have a great day!

  • Marilyn  On May 12, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    I really enjoyed your letter. My father (Raymond Gomes) was also born in Georgetown and I have been trying to trace his family roots and it has been difficult. His father (Hector) and Mother owned a famous shirt factory. He had two sisters Sheila and Monica. His first cousin was a priest (handsome) man who later left for the USA. I am hoping that maybe someone out there reading this can enlightened me with some history background on any of the above. My grandfather passed away at the age of 54? in the years somewhere 1960 – 1962? I realize it might be difficult if everyone is younger but maybe someone can put me on to someone who knows? Thank you and have a great day!

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