The road to Guyana, part one – endurance test

guyana map
It’s definitely in South America, but considers itself Caribbean

There are two ways to get from Suriname to its neighbor Guyana: by road and by air. If you fly, it’s a 90-minute trip on a garden shed with wings, and it costs US$300 return.

If you take the road option you have to get up country by mid morning to catch the ferry across the river where the borders are, and it’s a three or four hour drive along roads with very few signs, so it’s best to take a taxi. To keep the cost down to an absurdly low $30, the drivers operate minibuses, so you share the trip with up to a dozen others.

Count back three or four hours from mid morning and you get to early morning (we’re working in Caribbean-style approximations because both countries consider themselves part of the Caribbean rather than South America, where they actually are – they just have a coastline lapped by that famous and well-loved sea).

So, the minibus picks you up at anything from 3.30 to 4.30am. If you’re one of the early ones, you then go on a tour of Paramaribo, collecting passengers and sometimes packages. This can take an hour or more, before you find you’re heading out of town. The minibuses I’ve used are not in bad condition, but they are cramped and the roads, even when they’re not potholed, are littered with speed bumps (drempels, the Surinamese call them). So if you’re sitting in the back, you’re getting bounced up and down like on a fairground ride, which isn’t great for those afflicted by motion sickness.

Airconditioning? They use a system called ‘opening the windows’. There are a couple of pitstops for toilet breaks and to grab a snack and a can, but it’s really like being on some kind of competitive rally. These guys overtake anything going at less than the speed of sound and the feeling is not one of being chauffeured, but hijacked.

So eventually you get to the ferry terminal, where you hand over some money and your passport and walk round the corner into the waiting area. Your passport comes back along with the ticket and you’ve just got the hot, sticky wait for the ferry.

Across you go, and into another taxi run by a guy who has an arrangement with your guy in Suriname. Then it’s another two hours or so through hot, dusty Guyana, where horse-drawn carts share the roads with rally/taxi drivers. Over a couple of bridges apparently made from self-assembly kits and down an interminable road and eventually you’re in Georgetown. Again, you do the city tour to drop everyone off.

On this occasion I have a brief piece of business to do. But first a quick stop at a bank to get some local currency. The ATM offers me anything from 1,000 to 10,000 Guyanese dollars. It’s worth nothing, apparently.

guyana coins
You don’t see many coins in Guyana because even a snack and a drink will cost you $400 Guyanese

After the journey I am feeling windblown, sunburnt and generally thrown around. I knock on the big wooden gate and a woman sticks her cornrowed head over the wall to look at me through the bars. They don’t open till two. According to my watch that was 20 minutes ago, but they’re an hour behind here. She directs me to a café around the corner, where a small bottle of water and a sandwich costs $400 Guyanese.

Back at the office, the cornrowed security girl lets me in and escorts me to the appropriate door. While we wait for the clerk to return from lunch, the girl and I make polite conversation and when she smiles she exposes a gold front tooth with some sort of design on it. Maybe a letter – it’s rude to stare and she tries to keep her mouth closed when she smiles, so it’s probably not her favourite feature.


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