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I was thinking of the white sand, and of Wilson Harris.

Difficult, complex Guyana! I thought. Prehistorically-moulded. Metaphysically-inspiring. Nihilistic. Ridicule-making. Anarchic Guyana!....

“This is a kind of ‘country of the mind’,” John said. “It’s a mentally-held landscape of very real people, an outsized Nature, a surrealistic history, overwhelming contemporary events, and an abundance of dreams. A mental Coast, a mental Interior.”

— Andrew Salkey, Georgetown Journal

In February 2005, I went to Guyana for the first time. I stayed there just a few weeks, but returned home puzzled and disturbed by the place, and even a little obsessed. I didn’t know why.

It was a few anxious, indecisive months before I realised I wanted to write about Guyana, and a few more before I began to see how.


In the Land Rover, driving through the forest between 58 Miles and Kurupukari, down the long tunnel of trees, I tried to imagine the course of the road as though the land were laid before me like a map. I imagined the road emerging from the forest near mountains I had yet to see. I imagined it winding round the Pakaraima foothills and plunging into the Takutu River near Lethem. The Land Rover bucked unceasingly, and the passengers had grown accustomed to being thrown from one side of the cabin to the other with the rhythm of a rolling ship. But I managed to slide my notebook out of my bag, and wrote a sentence from Wilson Harris at the top of a fresh page: The map of the savannahs was a dream. In my head I had the image of a hill: black rock and pebbly red earth, crackling tufts of dry grass, a hot blue sky with some milk swirled in, and my face and arms crusted with sweat and dust.


Why Guyana? I seem to have a different answer almost every time someone asks. The most truthful answer is: I don’t know yet, but I hope I will by the time I finish this book.

What kind of book? A long prose narrative. A “travel” book, for want of an equally concise word. Pico Iyer suggests that a travel book is “one that its author would never think of as a travel book; to him, it is history or anthropology, memoir or even camouflage fiction”. Yes, that’s what I’m writing, all of the above.

It starts with my arrival in Georgetown that February afternoon, follows me around the city, then south through the forest to the Rupununi Savannah and the border with Brazil, and beyond. It follows me to the summit of Mt. Roraima, up the Essequibo to Bartica and Kyk-over-Al, and east to the green fields of Berbice.

The book also investigates how previous writers have engaged in defining Guyana’s “mentally-held landscape”. How is physical geography translated into literary geography? What gets lost or added in translation?

I’m particularly interested in a few key travellers’ accounts, written over a period of a century and a half: Charles Waterton’s Wanderings in South America (1825), the mid-nineteenth-century journals and travelogues of Robert and Richard Schomburgk, Evelyn Waugh’s Ninety-two Days (1934), Michael Swan’s The Marches of El Dorado (1958), V.S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage (1962), Andrew Salkey’s Georgetown Journal (1972). Each of these narratives—by three Englishmen, two Germans, a Trinidadian, and a Jamaican, ranging from imperialist adventure story to concerned cultural inquiry—imagines a version of Guyana I have tried to see through and to see past in my own travels.

I’ve explored distinct areas of Guyana’s physical and human landscape using these precursor narratives as “maps”, tracing the routes they describe, comparing their observations with my own, trying to discern their distortions; while remembering that the map of my narrative inevitably records my own distortions.

“Imaginary Roads” surveys four contiguous thematic “landscapes”, which you might think of as chapters:

• the Guyana of forest, mountain, river; wilderness, distance, vastness; Kaieteur and Roraima; the notion of a remote “interior”, pristine, abundant, but also threatening. What place does this sense of scale have in the story of Guyana?

• the Guyana of the Rupununi, a fragment of the Great Savannah that stretches across Venezuela and Brazil; the continental Guyana that tried, in the Rupununi Uprising of 1968, to declare separation from the “coastlanders”. Where in Guyana does the Caribbean end and South America begin?

• Amerindian Guyana: the “ancient”, “timeless” heritage that the modern state lays claim to; that many post-Independence artists and writers have co-opted. What is the real relationship of Guyana’s indigenous people to the contemporary nation?

• the dark, sinister Guyana of political repressions and assassinations, riots and massacres; where postcolonial anxieties rapidly deteriorated into despair; a country depopulated by mass emigration. How has this ongoing, long-term crisis influenced and been portrayed in the literature of Guyana?

And arching over them all is the question of how a “non-fictional” literary narrative contributes to the commonly held story of a place, the cultural narrative accepted as “truth”.


You might say: one travels because one is bored. You might say: one travels because one is interested. Those might be two ways of saying the same thing: that one travels because one is restless, afraid of boredom, of the moral failing of not paying enough attention to the world. Pay attention may be the supreme lesson literature and art try to teach us; but no matter how devotedly we attend to the space and people and climate around us, many of us need a sporadic recalibration of the senses and the sensibilities, or else we are numbed and blunted by the routine of waking, washing, eating, walking, sitting, standing, replying, undressing, sleeping; by tables to be laid and cleared, doors to be opened and closed, books to be piled and shirts to be buttoned. Away from home and belongings and certainties and neighbours, in strange landscapes, under strange weather, among strangers, we may find our curiosity refreshed, we may find some freedom from habits of worry.

One travels to be reminded of the strangeness of the world. One travels to discover that nothing in the world is truly strange, or everything is.

Nothing in Guyana was truly strange, but everything was. Some things were familiar as if from dreams; I felt I knew them, but couldn’t say from where. Familiar like childhood memories that may have come from stories, from books, from daydreams, not from everyday experience.


I still don’t know “why”, but I hope I will.


I’ve posted some fragments from early drafts of “Imaginary Roads” on my blog:

He was not a good traveller....
He was travelling to a place called Guyana....
The city was called Georgetown....
To stay at the Club, one needed the recommendation of a member....
Late one afternoon, he walked up to the Sea Wall....
It was impossible to not be surprised by the physical graciousness of the city....
He was sitting in the lounge of the Georgetown Club with another of the guests....
He waited an hour in the lounge for a cup of coffee....
“It’s ten years or more since I heard this story from B....”
Inevitably, he began to dream of rivers....
Another false start

Some photos: from a trip to Guyana in July and August 2005; from an expedition through Venezuela to Mt. Roraima in March and April 2007.

Also: my A.J. Seymour webpage a review of Prehistoric Guiana, by Denis Williams, from the August 2005 Caribbean Review of Books a short account of a trip to Bartica and Kyk-over-Al, from the March/April Caribbean Beat.