South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
Have you ever considered visiting the Guianas, that fabled South American realm of gold and sugar, home to, as the British travel writer John Gimlette reports,“head-crushing jaguars, strangling snakes, rivers of stingrays and electric eels,” not to mention giant otters, “half-puppy, half-torpedo,” that snack on piranhas? The region’s tangled green knot of jungle, rock and savannah — now home to the countries of Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana — crouches between Venezuela and Brazil, veined by thousands of turbulent rivers, mulchily recoiling from 900 miles of Atlantic coastline.
Sir Walter Ralegh set off a wave of European exploration of the territory in 1595 when he wrote in his prospectus “The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana” that “there is no country which yieldeth more pleasure to the inhabitants.” Boasting, Gimlette tells us, of “diamond mountains, dog-headed mermen, weeklong drinking festivals and men with their eyes in their chests,” Ralegh also claimed the place sheltered a city of gold, El Dorado, a fiction that persists to this day.
But in the intervening centuries, the region’s reputation has suffered somewhat. In 1882, a visiting English yachtsman deemed it “a hopeless land of slime and fever, quite unfitted for man.” Evelyn Waugh, who passed through in 1933, denounced its society as “destructive and predatory” and leveled abuse at its “slatternly and ill-favored” women. He even deplored its taxidermy (“the worst stuffed animals I have seen anywhere”). A few decades later, both V. S. and Shiva Naipaul provided their own withering accounts.
Yet to the admirably (or alarmingly) fearless Gimlette, the Guianas remain a terrain of matchless allure, rippling with “mad, gaudy, toxic and exotic” life. In 2008, he spent several months burrowing into its rugged, bedeviled wilderness, digging for myth. Though he encountered neither a golden city nor dog-headed mermen, he saw sights so wondrous that, as he later told a BBC radio host, “if it was to be a novel it would be rejected as being improbable.” Luckily, Gimlette decided not to cast this account of his wanderings as fiction. Instead, he has written a spirited historical, political and personal travelogue guaranteed to arouse the adventurous reader’s wanderlust.
“Wild Coast” provides two valuable services. First, it offers a gorgeously vivid depiction of one of the last untamed places on the planet — “a beautiful world, luminously lush and drenchingly fecund” — and, second, it allows tourists seeking an easy-peasy exotic holiday to strike this destination from their itinerary. More hardened souls may, however, find themselves slavering to repeat Gimlette’s ordeals: to live among the Makushi forest people and sip their cassiri home-brew (made of fermented cassava, purple potatoes and human spit), which tastes of “whisky blended with cabbages and socks”; to visit the ruins of a plantation where slaves revolted against brutal owners in the 18th century and find shards of Delft china and “tufts” of smashed wine bottles still littering the grounds; to push through the “vicious vanguard of the forest,” with its “trees sprouting daggers and poison,” just to test their mettle.
Evidently, Gimlette wasn’t daunted by the challenges of his expedition. He marvels at the gauzy beauty of the colonial capital Georgetown, “built on canals and breezes, a city of stilts and clapboard, brilliant whites, fretwork, spindles and louvers.” He revels in the eccentricity of the local people, whether it’s the Scots-Carib- and Arawak-descended hunter Dango Allicock, who makes him a bow and arrows to take back to London (“Whenever you use them . . . you’ll think of us”) or the unnamed landlord in a lawless town who rents him a room with the assurance, “If I hear anyone, I’ll shoot them.” When Gimlette leaves what passes for civilization, he charges ecstatically into the rough, through the “gateway of a primordial world,” journeying with relish through “slicks of brilliant ooze, grass like green fire, liverish pools and succulent bogs rimmed with pink,” spotting “lilies so purple they looked like the work of an imperial hatter.” “Even the jabiru storks,” he notes, “seemed to belong to a long-lost age. They’d all stand around in their tatty coachman’s livery, stabbing at the frogs and then tossing them back like shots of gin.”
With the help of air travel, flatbed trucks and motorized canoes, today’s explorers have a decent chance of repeating Gimlette’s journey. So which of the region’s three countries would they like to visit first? How about Guyana, (formerly British Guiana), where the cult leader Jim Jones compelled more than 900 followers to drink a cyanide-laced fruit drink? Gimlette went to Jonestown, spoke with some survivors and found a sandal that belonged to one of the victims.
What about French Guiana, “the largest chunk of the European Union detached from the whole,” long home to an archipelago of penal colonies: Devil’s Island, Isle Royale and St. Joseph Island. Until 1946, the French sent thousands of criminals and undesirables there (most notably Alfred Dreyfus) to languish in the smothering heat. When Gimlette paid a visit, he packed a bottle of wine and a hammock and took a boat to Isle Royale, where he watched monkeys, agoutis and giant iguanas frisk amid the coconut palms before slinging his hammock in one of the defunct prison barracks. But he concedes that plenty of Frenchmen still call the place“l’enfer vert,”the “green hell.”
Then there’s Suriname, the former Dutch slave colony, now a popular Netherlandish tourist destination, which welcomes, by Gimlette’s estimation, 60,000 Dutch visitors a year. But my Texan cousin and his wife say, “No, no, no,” to Suriname. They lived there in 1999 and 2000, while serving in the Peace Corps. After leaving the capital, Paramaribo — “the perfect city,” Gimlette sighs, praising its plantations, its canals, its purple fortress “like a hat full of mansions” and even the alligator in the city pond — they jolted along a mud road for six hours, then hopped in a log canoe that bore them to a village of maroons (descendants of slaves who fled their Dutch overseers during bloody rebellions). The Texan cousin and his wife moved into a thatched hut infested with rats and giant spiders. They lasted six months, long after their project director had been medevacked back home with an “obscure jungle disease.” Yet even armed with this foreknowledge, after reading “Wild Coast,” I longed to fly to Paramaribo, charge into the interior (escorted, ideally, by a couple of bodyguards) and try to see what Gimlette saw.
“Other places may feel more magnificent than the Guianas,” he writes, “but nowhere feels quite so unconquered.” If would-be travelers take a cue from this observation and decide they’d like to follow Gimlette’s lead, he can hardly blame them. One of his own forebears, a “lawyer, poet, dilettante and layabout” named Robert Hayman, succumbed to the romance of the region in 1629. Hayman traveled by dugout canoe up the Oyapock River with, as Gimlette puts it, “no map, no medicine and no prospect of rescue.” Hayman died there, one of his friends reported, “in the said canoo of a burning fever and of the fluxe.” Such a fate might deter others from attempting a similar undertaking, but for Gimlette it was an enticement. Roughly four centuries on, he has proved that although this place can “exact a terrible price for its beauty,” sometimes a lucky visitor can depart from it both enriched and unscathed.
Liesl Schillinger is a regular contributor to the Book Review.