Endless Road to Preserve the Land

Submitted into Contest #239 in response to: Write a story where your character is travelling a road that has no end.... view prompt

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Indigenous Fantasy Mystery

I am putting myself back in the selfie that I took on the last turbulent day I was at Serenity lodge in Guyanese wilderness. it used to be my refuge in the later months of 2014.

In the selfie, I am lying in a striated hammock with my feet crossed in front of me on the porch of a thatched hut. I can almost hear the chirping of birds all around me, and a rustle in the thatched roof from little lizards chasing each other. An occasional breeze gives me a slight shiver down my spine. A whiff of sauteing onions in the kitchen makes me hungry.

I am the only guest at the Serenity eco-lodge today. Before the death of the beloved Amerindian community leader, Joseph Williams (known simply as Jose), in December 2014, the eco-lodge was in such demand as an exemplary place for conservation that it was nearly impossible to get a vacant room in the compound. Joseph died of a heart attack at the ripe old age of 93, just three months before my third and the final trip to the lodge.

Until that final visit, I had thought of myself as an incorrigible itinerant soul whose road had no end. But I was wrong: mine was not the endless road!

My first encounter with Jose is vivid in my head:

Hues over the horizon of the forest pond resemble a blazing fire. Giant lily pads in the distance are like floating round tabletops in a reddish orange ocean. Patches of remaining blue surface reflect pink cotton-candy clouds. Jacanas and gray herons hop around and forage in the pond, camouflaged by large leaves, buds and wilting pink flowers. Black caimans rest under decaying pads or inch toward the pond’s edge. Far away in the forest, howler monkeys bark their final loud grunts for the evening. Jose and I are waiting for the yellow fire ball to sink over the horizon, so the buds can blossom into big while flowers.

In mid-2014, when I accepted a public health assignment to Guyana I did so mainly to see these giant lily pads—that reach a diameter of 1-2 meters and hold nearly 45 kgs—with my own eyes. I knew only two things about Guyana: the giant water lily (Victoria amazonica) was the national flower of Guyana; They branded Guyana with the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide of Reverend Jim Jones and his 909 cult followers from drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide in their rainforest paradise on earth.

 “Jose, I am small enough to climb on to one of these pads. Please take a picture of me?”

I am only teasing the friendly elderly Eco-guide with the weather-beaten face because I would not dare fall into these caiman-infested waters.

Jose, busy pouring a drink from a thermos flask, gives a hearty laugh that forms his eyes to be mere slits in a sea of wrinkles on his face and shows several missing teeth in his mouth. He follows up with a witty remark in his charming Amerindian accent,

“Anika, I think these caimans would not mind when their prey is easy to swallow, but how about we enjoy a sun-downer and talk about the lilies instead?”

The chilled rum-punch gives a firm and intense bite along with a light taste of passion fruit. It helps replace a cool breeze in the humid rainforest air. 

“You will see in a minute, when these buds bloom fully into flowers, they reach about 40 centimeters in diameter. They bloom in the evening and live only three days. White flowers give off a strong pineapple-like scent and attract beetles to pollinate the flowers. Then they trap them by closing them in. On the second night, when the flowers open again, they no longer emit the sweet scent. The beetles escape, but they are now coated in pollen, and they continue to another white flower with the sweet smell. It goes on and on. So, once the flowers have finished their reproductive task, they turn pink, and the plant eventually submerges beneath the water. Those are the pink flowers and decaying plants you see over there.”

My place of work, however, was hundreds of kilometers away from lily ponds; I was in the crowded capital city, Georgetown, surrounded by neighbors who played very loud reggae, rap, gospel or Hindi tunes at all odd hours of the day and night. I always looked forward to the weekend to escape into the tranquility of the Guyanese wilderness. Of all the rainforests, waterfalls, and laid-back towns I explored in Guyana, one place I felt strongly attached to was a savannah & wetlands ecosystem named Rupununi, close to the Amazon basin of Brazil. The region covered a great diversity of rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, mountains, and savannas, and was known for its richness of flora and fauna. My place of refuge in this vast ecosystem was the eco-lodge called Serenity.

Serenity was associated with many things GIANT: giant water lilies; giant river otters; giant anteaters; giant termite mounds in the savannahs. The eco-lodge became known for its conservation because of this elderly Amerindian community leader, who had dedicated most of his adult life to preserve the wilderness and sustainable development of the Amerindian people. Except for the few years he spent in the town of Lethem to finish high school, he has been in the region fighting back the poachers who took the advantage of its region’s vastness to hunt giant river otters and capture anteaters and rare birds to sell to unscrupulous traders from other countries. Jose had gathered a large group of local traditional Amerindian cowboys to support his efforts. When he heard that several travel agencies in the capital city had discovered the tourism potential in the wilderness areas in Rupunini and were already sending wealthy tourists to the area by chartered small planes, he knew he could not fight this intrusion by himself. So he found a clever way to join them; he presented this issue to his village community and brainstormed a solution to the problem. The result was the Serenity eco-lodge that aimed to lead the visitor to respect the wildness and the Amerindian way of life.  

The eco-lodge was not easily accessed because of its remoteness and lack of established roads. It was an enormous expense, and a discomfort to fly two hours to the city called Lethem near the Brazilian border and then find a four-wheel vehicle to negotiate two to three hours of rough track. However, those who once had a taste of the place always found an excuse, and a way to return.

Serenity lodge was unpretentious and was true to the traditional Amerindian style of clay brick and thatched roof. Four guest cabanas stood dispersed in the compound, separated by ample blossoming bushes to give each guest accommodation sufficient privacy. Another small, elongated building for staff housing stood closer to the kitchen cum dining area. Rooms were airy, had a comfortable bed with a good mosquito net, had all amenities such as running cold water and solar-powered lights until 10 at night. Bats and various insects abound in the area reminded one that animals had more right to be there than guests, but the lodge had provided a wood plank over the bed to protect any living (or dead) creature falling on to the guest’s bed. The many cats that belonged to the lodge also were actively feeding themselves on various creatures they caught.

They served three sumptuous meals of local cuisine in communal dining style, which allowed guests to chat and get to know each other. All ingredients for the meals were home-produced, vegetables from the garden, fish from nearby lakes and fresh meat from the local vaqueros. All staff were young Amerindian men and women from the villages in the region. The ever-smiling staff did their best to help the guest in any way they could and serve as sources of information.

When I had telephoned Jose about my planned trip to his eco-lodge, he had taken time to ask me many questions about my dietary habits and preferred places to visit in Rupunini. Since I was not on a chartered plane like other rich tourists going to exclusive lodges in the area, Jose had organized an acquaintance from Lethem to pick me up at the airport and drive me 2-3 hours to the Serenity lodge. He had planned a busy excursion schedule for me: candle lamps lit the outdoor table at 5.30 a.m. for coffee and tea while crickets still chirped in the bush. Early morning ride into the savanna in an open jeep, facing a chilly breeze, was an opportunity to encounter foxes, various reptiles, giant anteaters with babies on back, brown capuchins, and bearded sakis. I could hear unmistakably loud the morning calls of red howler monkeys.

Jose explained that since I had planned to stay several days, I had a choice of cultural visits; traditional fishing areas, a craft center, local elementary school Jose had started with the help of several churches, a community that made environment-friendly cooking stoves, a village rodeo, and a local festival. But today was just to get to know the flora and fauna in the area. Therefore, I was supposed to have lunch and enjoy the peace in the early afternoon, lying in a hammock and dozing off serenaded by birdsong.

In the evening, we were on a boat to observe giant river otters who dipped and dove with quick barks, explosive snorts, wavering screams or hid behind bushes and burrows near the water's edge, making low growls of fear. And then after visiting the lily ponds at sunset, the plan was to go on a night safari with flashlights seeking the shining eyes of myriads of birds, caiman, and any other creatures in the area. An early morning trek would be available into the bush to watch many species of birds.

Three months forward: I am back in the Serenity lodge for the third time, lying on the same hammock on the porch of the same cabana. But the changes in the atmosphere are palpable; beloved Jose is dead and gone. So are most of the Amerindian staff except for the two women who remain the cooks. The new manager, Jeremy, is of East European descent. David, the tour guide, is from the capital city of Georgetown. Most remarkable is that I am the only guest.

Yesterday I had attempted to go for a quick jog, but both Jeremy and David had said it was not safe to run around alone. Then I had asked them to accompany me to the closest Amerindian village to have a visit with the people, but David muttered something like, ‘Amerindians may feel they were being observed in a human zoo.’ I was annoyed at this comment because when Jose was alive, Amerindians were a big part of this ecolodge, and guests were welcome to roam in the Amerindian communities. I had spent a fortune to get here, and the new management could have been more accommodating knowing I had been in this lodge twice before.

I took matters into my own hands and dared to jog at the first the moment I saw the Land Rover leaving the lodge with Jeremy and David in it.

I started at the vegetable gardens behind the lodge and kept running along the woody trail for at least 3 kilometers when I heard hooves of horses from the left side of the woods. I The two cowboys seemed surprised to see me by myself on a wild trail.

“Miss, where are you going? Is someone with you?”

“No, I am just stretching my legs. It is just daytime. There are no ferocious animals around here, anyway.”

“Giant otters may be” one of them laughed loud displaying his missing teeth and the reddish-brown lump of tobacco he was chewing. The other did not seem amused at all. He gave his buddy a stern look, as if it was a big secret or a joke to have otters running around, adjusted his hat to avoid the direct sun reaching his eyes, and changed the subject.

“Miss, if you are around here next week, come to take part in the festival in the village. This might be the last one before they settled us elsewhere.”

“What do you mean? Where are you all going?”

Now both cowboys were trying to out speak each other, “Don’t they tell the guests?” and the other butting in, “well what guests, hardly anybody comes here now.”

I asked again, “what do you mean, what is going on?”

“Well Miss, the new owners plan to sell an immense piece of land to a Chinese company for commercial development. That is all we know. They will resettle two Indian villages somewhere else. We do not yet know where.”

I was in disbelief, and I may have shown my distress for, they both tried to calm me down. “Miss, things will be all right. Please do not tell managers we talked to you. It is better you just run back the same way you came.”

“Yes, Miss,” the other cowboy added, “just be careful over there in the lodge too. Apparently, they do not tell you everything.”

Dinnertime was usually the social time, but as the only guest last two days, I chatted with the lodge staff. But tonight, I was in no mood to converse. I knew I may blurt out something to the effect that they were being deceptive about the planned changes in the conservation area. It was especially annoying because they knew very well, I was planning an expensive extra excursion on my next visit to Lake Amicu, which was an area between the Amazon and Essequibo River drainages.

I gave Jeremy the excuse that I was in the sun too long and was feeling exhausted, so would like to go to bed early. Jeremy said he could do the billing tomorrow morning before the driver, that they had arranged to take me to the Lethem Airport, arrived.

The thought that I may never again come to Serenity depressed me so much that the only remedy seemed to me at the time was a good sleep. I slept deep but was woken up by a light tap on my door. My watch showed it was 3.15 a.m. That tap could have come from any flying creature hitting against the door. I remained in bed, listening. Then I heard a low bark and an animal running by. I knew there were no dogs in the compound unless the lodge received a late guest last night who owned a dog. Then I heard some more moving outside, closer to the ground. Solar energy was available only until 10 p.m. I got up, opened the door, and turned my flashlight on toward the sound. I saw the back of someone, a few meters away, that resembled a long white robe moving in the river's direction. “Hello, is someone there?” I said loud and directed the light toward the person. The figure turned around, and it took me only a second or two to recognize the wrinkled face of the stooped elderly man. It was Jose with a whimpering small otter in his arms. I was very confused what was happening. Was this a bad dream? Jose has been dead for 3 months. I suddenly realized my whole body was shaking uncontrollably. The dog-like low barks were coming from several otters surrounding him.

My first instinct was to run toward the staff housing area about 200 meters away. It was like in a nightmare where you tried hard to run, but your legs would not move. It felt like I was running 2 kilometers. I tripped on something and fell to the ground, turned around and with the flashlight still on and saw the elderly man had no feet, but he in his long white robe, was floating in my direction, no wait….he seemed to be “walking” on the same spot, almost an imaginary path with no end. He was emitting a sound like shhhh, shhhh!!

By the time I staggered myself to the building, I banged on it so violently that someone opened the door inwards with a jerk, and I fell on my face to the floor. Several more doors opened inside, and flashlights went on from all directions. I vaguely remember someone lifting me up. I was shivering and sweating at the same time and all I could utter was Jose… Jose… pointing toward my cabana. Someone sat me on a chair, and another covered me with a blanket. Someone attended to my bleeding forehead, and another brought me a strong alcoholic drink. I recognized Linda and Nicole, the last remaining Amerindian workers, putting me on a bed in their room. One of them sat by me stroking my hair, and the other wiping my sweat off. From the noises they were making through their nose and throat, it was clear they were crying. They were with me until the morning.

In the morning, I refused breakfast. Jeremy said I owed them nothing for accommodation and he would drive me to the airport instead of the arranged driver. I sat in the back seat pretending to be asleep, although every organ inside my body shook uncomfortably during the rough ride.

Two and half hours later, I was relieved to see Lethem Airport. I gave Jeremy a goodbye hug with no feeling and entered the departure lounge.

“Hey Anika, are you coming from Kumu falls?” It was Matt, a Peace Corps volunteer I knew from Georgetown. I faked a smile and muttered to myself, “No, from Serenity.”

“Wait. What? you were in Serenity? I did not know people went there anymore. I heard the place was haunted by an old man who walked on a road with no end.

February 29, 2024 11:18

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1 comment

Patricia Casey
23:07 Mar 04, 2024

Hi Anika, I commend you for tackling the issue of land preservation in a creative way. Excellent setting details! Patricia


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