Thursday, 11 February 2010

Journeying Mercies

As a child, knee-socked in a sombre Baptist prayer meeting, the oft-repeated weighty phrases bedded in my head. ‘Journeying mercies’ was one of my favourites. The ‘our-er’ assonance gives it a reassuring rightness; of course there should be mercies. What did those sober Ulstermen mean? Usually, I reckon they meant ‘arriving mercies’- the danger was the journey itself, the mercy the safe arrival. But I like the idea of the journey as the bearer of mercies; the travel of consolation.

I’ve never done the journey the whole way from Georgetown on the Caribbean to Aishalton near the Equator in daylight before. The rainforest begins after about two hours and stretches and stretches and stretches beyond the imagination. Hours pass, rutted red road, spattered dull green roadside trees. A kind of mental lumbering results from all that lumber- synapses slow down, minutes last for hours and hours for minutes. The rear oscillates similarly, between numbness and agony. It is not a journey where you can forget your own existence: the aches of holding one unnatural position prevent unselfconsciousness. The footwell is full, as always here. I am acquiring the necessary fatalism about that. For one person in the back to move their foot is everyone’s business.

My favourite rainforest tree on this journey I decide to name the Teenage Boy tree. It is very tall, painfully thin, in drainpipe trouser bark, with that mop floppy haircut that always seems to come back into fashion with some minimally tweaked detail. And to complete the resemblance, it never stands up straight.

We reach the Kurupukari crossing of the upper Essequibo at 1pm. I had not realised that you have to pay in Georgetown, eight hours away: if you reach this point without your docket, you have to go back and fetch it. Can you IMAGINE the uproar if we tried that in Europe?! Eight hours driving could take you across two small countries.

I see evidence of the creatures of the rainforest adapting almost magically to their changing environment (can’t you hear the reverentially hushed Attenboraic tones?). Stopping outside Iwokrama Rainforest office to show our papers, I see a sand lizard darting into the pile of cement powder it has made its home, by a heap of rusting iron. The only creature not hoping for rain.
When we reach the Rupununi, the crossing is almost completely dry. We encounter Mary from Dadanawa Ranch, trotting across the sharp stones in bare feet to greet us, in Wapishana of course. Her warishi is full of wet washing, strap across the forehead supporting the basket on her back. She swings it off her head and I reach to lift it into the jeep. With both hands, I can barely raise it. She is four foot six. Her friend follows on a bicycle, baby held on the crossbar, bucket hanging from the handlebars with three puppies inside.

And there are yet more mercies. I find myself coming home. Like Moley in the Wind in the Willows, the scents and ordinary sights arouse a sense of belonging, of symbiosis. The first crested caracara, the call of the southern lapwing, our trees- my first Wapishana word was ‘iminaru’, the sandpaper tree. The assumption that you wave at everyone, demonstrating that we’ve left Lethem and its delusions of suavity behind. This year I can see that the road is a road, not a sand track across endless savannah, and I recognise all the turnings, and know the villages at the end of them. And at the end of the journey, the soft bed, the candle in a frankfurter tin, the chilli soup and the relaxed undemanding welcome of the sisters, who have cleaned my house but also offer me the freedom of theirs.

I have lived among the Wapishana for a year now. People know at least my public face. I have been welcomed back with typical understated warmth. The journey of real mutual understanding might be on the horizon. I am sure it will be full of unique and startling mercies.


  1. Hurrah! Your new blog! Lovely descriptions of your journey through the rainforest - funny to think this is the first time you have seen it in daylight. I laughed at the payment arrangements for the crossing; you are right, us westerners are such softies! I loved the warmth in the descriptions of your friends in the village. Their gain at having you returned to them is our

  2. YaY! Sarah's back :o)
    I particularly enjoyed the reference to Moley's homecoming, which paints the perfect picture of how you feel to arrive back in Aishalton.
    Looking forward to hearing about the next phase of your journey.