Thursday, July 14, 2011

*Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge, by John Gimlette

358 pp

Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge is a contemporary travel account mixed with history.  Don't write it off based on that statement -- it is a phenomenal book, some of which reads like good, old-fashioned travel narratives of earlier eras.  Told over the space of nine chapters, the story alternates with the author's travels through Guyana, Surinam (or Suriname), and French Guiana. He's in good company: these regions were visited separately at one time by literary greats V.S. Naipaul (along with his brother Shiva) and Evelyn Waugh, whose sojourn through Guyana played a part in the creation of his most excellent novel Handful of Dust, as well as his own narrative of travel in Guyana and Brazil called 92 Days.

The author's first stop is in Georgetown, Guyana (once known as British Guiana) but his first side trip is to Jonestown, the site of the famous (or infamous) People's Temple led by Jim Jones.  In the town of Port Kaituma he talks to some of the locals about the events of 1978, especially the shooting of Congressman Leo Ryan, three newsmen and a People's Temple defector.  Driven to the airstrip where all of that went down, he finds that people are still somewhat reluctant to discuss what happened because, as his guide at the time told him

People here are still frightened...They don't know what happened, or who anyone is. They hardly ever seen any white men before. The only ones they saw were people from the Temple, who then starts killing them. Are you surprised they're still afraid?

Leaving Jonestown, Gimlette makes his way to the Savannah of Rupununi, which he calls one of the "most magnificent, untrampled corners of our planet." After observing and discussing the landscape, he explains that the area once was thought to be the site of the mythical El Dorado, the city of the Gilded Man, also known as Manoa. The legend was started after an expedition down the Orinoco by Martinez, a Spanish Captain and munitions master whose cargo ignited. As a punishment, he was bound and set adrift in a canoe, where supposedly he was rescued by Indians and taken to this city, where all he did for seven months was to collect gold pebbles. The story was picked up again in the 1580s by another Spaniard who hears of a city of gold -- confirming the tale told by Martinez. As he's planning to make his own expedition to the area, he's captured off of Trinidad by Sir Walter Raleigh, who is also planning to undertake the same search. It is, of course,  fruitless, but undeterred by his lack of discovery, Raleigh sees that there's money to be made here and publishes a book that he hopes will catch the fancy of investors back home.  Laughed at, ridiculed, he sends one more explorer to find the city, and this time, taking a new route, Manoa is found. It's not the city of the Gilded Man, but it does exist. Voltaire will later capture the search for El Dorado and the "general foolishness of mankind" in his work Candide. Gimlette explores the forests of the Essequibo river, as well as the ruins of the old Dutch plantations that existed there.  In an area known as the Berbice, where one man told the author to  "expect giant frogs, marijuana plantations and strange, old people jabbering in Dutch," the author takes a "journey through 1763," the year of a particularly bloody slave revolt -- and tries to imagine the lives of the Dutch plantation owners and families along the way.

Then he's off to Surinam (or Suriname), where he finds in Paramaribo a city that he loves and people who speak a rather odd form of pigeon English called Talkie-talkie -- in which, for example, Olie Bollen, Pom, Bami Kip and Pinda Soep with Tom Tom  become oily bread, yam, chicken noodles and peanut soup with plantain. He follows a trail made by two soldiers sent there by the government to help quell the slave revolts of the 1700s.  The first is  Colonel Fourgeoud, who at sixty was already a veteran of the earlier Berbice revolts, and who the author describes as being a psychopath, "like Robert Duvall's Colonel Kilgore: a thundering, bare-chested killer who will eat nothing, feel nothing and fear nothing."  Second is Scotsman John Gabriel Stedman, wrote and published an account of his adventures in jungle warfare, which the author notes, "reads like a Georgian rendering of Apocalypse Now."  But war isn't only a thing of the 18th century, as the author reveals -- Surinam's hinterlands became the site of some of the most bloodiest and ruthless wars not so long ago.

Leaving Surinam, it's on to French Guiana, the old penal colony captured in readers minds forever with Henri Charrière's book Papillon, which was made into a film in 1973.  Gimlette notes that "as an autobiography, Papillon is highly improbable," but that he describes things that happened to several people -- it seems that he was never in trouble, and spent his time taking care of the latrines.  But the brutality of the penal colony and the various institutions throughout the country is all too real, as are the dangers of French Guiana's interior, as evidenced in an account published in 1953 by the father of Raymond Maufrais, who at 23 decided to make the trip down the Maroni river, into 35,000 square miles of jungle.  Maufrais never made it out; only his diaries were found.  After spending a few days on the Salut Islands, site of Devil's Island, the author took a tour of the Centre Spatial Guyanais, a space station whose proximity to the equator makes for shorter orbit of the satellites launched by various European countries. And finally, the last journey is to the lake area of Oyapok, where in 1629, one of the author's forebears had set foot and "finished up." Gimlette knew very little about that expedition, only having very brief clues left behind in bits of documentation. 

The author's travels are interesting on their own, but his extensive knowledge of the history of the three countries adds another dimension to this novel.  One of his working ideas throughout the novel is that although "slavery seemed to have disappeared completely," it is "everywhere, even in the food and the way people lived".  He notes that "every strand of Guianese life somehow led back to this point". To understand this concept, he takes his readers back in time, place to place, discussing not only slavery, but events leading up to the revolts of 1763 in the Barbice and again in Surinam of 1769, and what happened with the slaves who managed to escape afterwards.  Truly fascinating stuff, but the book also incorporates the effects of colonization, racism, and immigration, as well as the geography, all of which have had a hand in making these areas what they are today.  The history is quite necessary to the book, and there is the added bonus of all of the quirky people he happens to meet along his many journeys. 

I very highly recommend this book -- one of the joys of reading it is that there is no sense that the author is trying to show us how interconnected our cultures are -- quite the opposite. Those types of travel narratives I can live without.  In Wild Coast he shows that there are, inevitably, places in which the modern world has encroached, whether for good or for bad,  but for the most part, there are still some mysteries left in these countries, vast areas of which are still dark and inaccessible.  A truly fascinating read.

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