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Volunteering in South America
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Guyana through a Volunteer's Eyes

Yupukari school assembly in Guyana
Yupukari school assembly in Guyana.

I have long loved volunteering in vastly different countries. Each of my many overseas experiences has been different, and Guyana is no exception. I have taught English in India and Thailand, passed mud bricks in Tanzania, monitored dolphins in the Mediterranean, and hunted echidnas in Australia. Usually it has been under the auspices of a large international agency such as Global Volunteers, Earthwatch or Cross Cultural Solutions. In each of these many volunteer projects I have worked with natives. In so doing I have gained insights into each culture that no tourist would likely experience.

I forget what first attracted me to Guyana, but the more I learned about the little South American gem, the more I became obsessed with a desire to work there as a short-term volunteer. Finding a project, though, turned out to be a challenge. The very few facilities I found that welcomed volunteers required stays for a full year. Finally, after following up on many contacts and sending out dozens of emails—mostly unanswered—I discovered the Rupununi Learners in Yupukari. After reading interesting reports from previous volunteers, I emailed as instructed. No answer. After some gentle nudging, a gentleman named Mike finally wrote back to say that I would be welcome. The organization did not specify what kind of work I could do for them, but did promise to pick me up at the Karanambu airstrip on a Sunday afternoon for the hour-long drive to Yupukari over rutted tracks through savannah stretching into the distance.

A Short-Term Volunteer Assignment in an Amerindian Hamlet

Two weeks in the Amerindian hamlet of Yupukari was a delightful experience despite my lack of a formal assignment. I went to the 8:30 morning assembly at school every day, where I was sometimes recruited by Miss Eleanor to teach a short lesson to her sixth graders. English is the official language in Guyana, and I was impressed with how well it was spoken in a very remote community of Makushi tribals.

The two librarians, Rosita and Alicia, were busy cataloguing and labeling a new load of donated books; I could help them with that. There were after school activities in the library on a weekly theme. For the second week, I suggested the topic, “Many Lands, Many Peoples.” By sheer luck I had some PowerPoint slides on my laptop computer of the many countries where I had traveled. For kids who in some cases had never been to their capital of Georgetown, 225 miles away, this exposed them to a new view of the world. No TV in Yupukari, thus no Discovery Channel to broaden their horizons even on the flat screen.

As always happens, I received more than I gave. Every so often, always unexpectedly, Mike would seek me out in the library and suggest an excursion that I might enjoy. I met smiling toothless Junita, who grows her own cotton to weave into hammocks. This was a process I hoped to observe. Although I watched her spinning the thread into big balls, she still hadn’t begun to string a hammock before I left. She was too busy taking care of two granddaughters, growing a large garden, and baking delicious bread for the village. We became friends. Her husband, Joel Samuel, joined us one afternoon and demonstrated how the men use bows and arrows for hunting.

Hospitality and Exploration

The Rupununi river in Guyana
The Rupununi river in Guyana.

Rudy, a handsome young TouShoa, gave me a walking tour of the village, showing me the importance of cassava in their diet and how it grows, and explaining his responsibilities as elected village leader. Yupukari has about 85 houses, some of them family compounds. The total population of 650 is so spread out that it seemed to me only about half that size. The school library and playing field form the center of this hamlet. There is no main street or shop to be seen. In the rainy season, only one of the two dirt roads entering the village is passable. The nearest town, Lethem, is an hour or more to the west, on the border with Brazil.

Late one afternoon, smiling Josie—actual name “Jose”—offered to take me down to the Rupununi where he paddled a dugout along the peaceful river, pointing out various birds and explaining about river life. He is one of the best professional guides in the area. Then there was Harold, who wove a fishing creel out of a single stalk of palm with all its fronds, right before my eyes. As a former basket maker, I was fascinated by this aspect of village life, a traditional skill quite possibly dying out. Fishing is the primary occupation of the village men.

Another day Mike gave me a tour of the surrounding countryside, bumping along the dusty trails in a beat-up red pickup. When Sir Francis Drake first explored Guyana, he called it Eldorado, convinced that he would find a lake of gold. We could see low mountain ranges across the savannahs to the south—the Kanuku Mountains, and to the north—the Palaraima Mountains. I found that the Rupununi savannahs of Guyana have termite towers as high as I have seen in northern Australia and Namibia.

Undoubtedly the best experience, though, was on the last morning before I left to see other parts of Guyana. Mike offered me a ride on his motorcycle, a vehicle far more common in Yupukari than a car. We only rode a short distance, just beyond Junita’s house, to what turned out to be a neighborhood drinking party. It was 10:30 on a Friday morning. “Kari” is the local home brew, made from cassava of course, and served up in shallow plastic bowls the size of a large cereal dish. Half a dozen or more mostly young men lounged around in front of a simple home where the kari had been brewed. The host kept bringing out yet more bottles from a seemingly bottomless pot inside, and replenishing everyone’s bowl. You just tilted it up and guzzled it down—somewhat tasteless, somewhat sour to my uneducated palate.

I felt a part of the jovial camaraderie of the group, even though I was the only woman there and was considerably older than anyone else. In fact, there was a handsome white-haired man sitting on the bench outside the house, probably in his 50s. When I tired of leaning against Mike’s cycle, I sat down next to this man, John Roberts, and as we chatted, I realized he was almost flirting with me, much to the amusement of the rest of the group. These impromptu drinking parties are thrown as a way of rewarding friends who have helped you in some way. I felt honored to be included, but then, I was a novelty in the village. They probably enjoyed having me there as much as I was thrilled to be included. What a fitting final peek into Yupukari village life.

For More Info

www.rupununilearners.org

www.exploreguyana.org

Dorothy Conlon is an octogenarian globe-trotter who, often traveling alone, explores destinations that are well of the beaten track. Combining personal travel with volunteer/service learning experiences, she has ventured from the far reaches of the Amazon to Africa, Asia, India and many other locations. She is the author of “At Home in the World: Memoirs of a Traveling Woman.”