A Trip Up the Demerara

This is probably the longest memoir I’ve written. I hope you will take the time to read as it is one of my favorite memories.

In 1962 Mom & Dad were assigned as Missionaries of the Church of God (Anderson, IN) to the small country of British Guiana (Guyana), South America. A new church had been started in the Back Dam on the Demerara River. The only way to get there was by ferry. We traveled that route several times learning a lot about the country from what could be seen along the shores. Observation from the upper deck of the S.S. Carr (pictured) revealed a tiny reflection of how fortunate I was. Humility captured my thoughts each trip, constructing piece-by-piece exposures of a different kind of life. An open admission of how deprived these people were, could not be hidden. This was a life I would never live, only observe.

East Indian women squatted on the banks with their body between their legs dunking clothing in the water and beating them with a wooden mallet. Ragged clothes hung between two trees and blew in the wind to dry. Children with only a shirt ran naked-bottomed through the yard chasing chickens, or rolling a rusty bicycle wheel with a stick for fun. A small boy, too young to work with his dad in the rice patties, or Bauxite (aluminum ore) mines, cast a net catching fish for a supper meal. Another child used a spear, or bow and arrow to impale fish. Waving to the captain, he returned the gesture with a toot-toot bringing large smiles. A rough growl, a convincing bark, came from an ugly dog running up and down the shore as we passed. Dugouts filled with harvest from large family gardens made its way down-river to market in Georgetown.

This is the kind of town Linden was in the 1960’s, an underprivileged Hindu town with people eager to hear about a man named Jesus. When the church first started it was held in a bottom house (Pictured). The country of British Guiana is under sea level. Homes were built on ten foot high stilts, leaving the under house open. With the exception of a few older church buildings, the start-up churches Dad worked with were held under these.

There was one problem. The Demerara divided Linden. The pastor, Rev. Daniel Watson, needed a boat to travel not only across the river but also deeper into the Back Dam. How else would he be able to minister and invite others to this new beginning? Dad agreed and contacted Anderson Headquarters to see if they would purchase a new boat.

Once approved a second problem arose. How would we get this new boat sixty-five miles up river to Linden? “There is only one way to move it to Linden,” Daniel said. “I will drive it.” Mom & Dad reminded him of how small the motor was, and that he would have an exhausting day driving it from Georgetown. “I know,” he said. “There is no other way to move it.

Dad had a separate conversation with him that we were unaware of until we got home that night. He laid out an amazing adventure. We were going to ride the first twenty-five miles to Atkinson Air Base, the only airport in the country. The base was also home to a handful of American and British soldiers who were stationed there. Past that point there was a road made of burnt earth. There is a procedure of laying seasoned logs in place covered in clay. There are many layers of each. Once set on fire, the logs bake the clay. This process creates a hard- jagged rock that overtime returned to the dirt and the mud it was originally made from. Because the road to Linden was not maintained, ruts and holes made it passible only to those who had a four-wheel drive vehicle, several spare tires, a lot of time, and strong teeth. This trip by boat sounded like a magnificent voyage. We were excited about the trip and stayed awake most of the night before.

We woke with a great eagerness for our day. Dad arrived early so he could sign the paperwork and accept the new boat around noon. “Where is it?” Mom asked. There were dozens of similar boats coming and going. The mission boat blended with others. “There it is,” Dad said. Pointing toward an armada of small boats we saw him. Brother Watson was recognizable by his safari hat and round glasses. No one else wore a hat like his. He saw us wave, smiled, and pulled up to the docks.

I was disappointed. Shouldn’t this be a little larger boat? From above the large shipping dock the boat looked like a dugout until it docked. I believed being a mission boat it would stand out from the others. Except for the canopy, this one was no different than any number of other boats.

Upon docking we viewed a brand-new, four-by-sixteen foot wooden flatboat painted industrial marine gray. The canopy had a slight contrast but I was not complaining. We would need this covering to keep us out of the tropical sun. The three of us boys said our goodbyes and boarded the boat. Mom & Dad waved from the dock and grew smaller in the distance.

The river’s deep brown color is primarily the result of the massive quantities of silt carried from up-river by the currents. So powerful are these currents, that the ocean retains the Demerara’s brown color for a considerable distance out to sea creating a shoreline of muddy beaches. Georgetown sits at the mouth where the river empties into the North Atlantic Ocean. The rivers width and depth allows oceangoing vessels up to 5,000 tons to navigate up to Linden. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demerara_River)

For a long time we traveled south of that gateway about thirty feet from the shore. Watching the water ripple along side the boat, I was enticed to drag my hand in the water. I didn’t dare. I was reminded of the many tropical dangers that could not be seen from above. I was not about to have my hand eaten off by piranha, or shocked by the electricity from a knifefish, or eel. This short distance from the ocean troubled me. There was no telling what might like to eat me for lunch. There were many legends about different river monsters in this, and the other rivers in British Guiana. Thoughts of danger continued to rear their ugly faces. What would happen if a large ship swamped our boat from its wake and we sank like others in the past? This was a shipping lane after all. I shook that thought off in a hurry.

I could not deny, however, that after an hour this adventure was not very much fun. I sat in a small, wooden, and insignificant craft half way to our destination with a native pastor I didn’t know very well. Conversation was minimal. My two brothers were bored. I could not get out and neither could they. We were speeding down the river highway at 13 knots, or 15 MPH. The view grew monotonous, as all I saw was weeds. Once in a while we passed another small boat going to or coming from market. We waved and said hello. Passing a native shack, we watched and waved at people we would never see again. Bamboo-covered banks overtook higher weeds. A fish splashed nearby. I wished I had a fishing pole, or something to occupy my mind and pass the time.

At the rate we were traveling our trip would take approximately two hours. I wasn’t sure if I could take this quest much longer, but I had no choice. Mom had packed a lunch and a few things to eat for the journey. A thermos with cold water had grown warm from the humid sun. Taking a snack, my brothers grabbed theirs and handed one to Brother Watson. I wanted more but knew it was too soon. My brothers learned long ago that if I ate mine early I would sneak, and without them knowing, eat theirs later. We did not need a fight while cooped up on this boat? Besides, What would I do later with all the goodies gone?

 The engine popped and sputtered generating a white smoke to rise from the back of the boat. What was wrong? I watched Brother Watson fiddle with a few levers on the motor. The motor straightened out and kept going for a while. Later the same thing happened. The pastor said a few unintelligible words; the motor sounded like a grinding chain but continued working. I grew worried that we would be stranded in the bamboo where anaconda and poisonous dart frogs lived.

The motor snorted and came to a complete stop. This time it would not cooperate with the pastor. He pulled the starter cord until he was exhausted. He sat down to catch his breath. I asked what was wrong. The answer I feared most was spoken. “I don’t know,” he said. That’s when I discovered we didn’t have any paddles to help us stay close to the shore.

The boat began to drift, not the eastern shore closest to us, but the western shore, on the other side of the Demerara. We were powerless. The shipping lane was in front of us.

Large ships passed on a regular basis. All we could do is pray one would see us in time to correct their course and not hit us. We continued drifting. With regenerated strength Brother Watson began cranking a cantankerous new motor, to no avail. The motor would not start. The tropical wind continued to blow us across the river at its widest point.

A bauxite ship passed at a distance and blew his horn. Was he saying hello, or telling us to get out of the way? We waved. He tooted again. By the time his wake hit the front of our boat it had faded to an inconsequential swell. Thankful hearts were grateful another ship could not be seen in either direction. The mission boat floated like a piece of driftwood captivated by wherever the wind wanted us to go. Drawing closer to an unfamiliar bank we visualized where our boat would hit the shore. We realized it was not a hospitable site. Humans did not populate this part of the Demerara’s west bank. The population here was mostly unseen, sometimes heard, others not. The land was a dense and dark jungle. Any creature you can summon in your mind probably lived there.

Easing into the underbrush and tree limbs hanging over the river we knew for certain this was not going to be an enjoyable situation. Native folklore spoke of an old hag who had a pet snake with a fishhook tail. The snake looked for vulnerable little boys. When found, he cast his hook out to catch the child. Paralyzing venom anesthetized its victim until he could drag him back to the old hag where she ate him for dinner. I knew this story was not true, but at twelve years old, in an unfamiliar country, and stuck in the abysmal undergrowth of a powerful river the tale did cross my mind. I just made sure I was sitting between my two brothers so one of them would go first.

There was nothing to do, but sit, pray, and hope for deliverance. Brother Watson tried the motor. It would not start. Small boats like ours did not travel this side of the river. Commerce was on the other side. What did this mean? No one was coming. The three of us sat in fear of our lives. A two-hour trip had turned into four. Evening was approaching and we were on the remote side of the Demerara with a dead motor, a large river, and shipping lane between home and us. We sat awhile. Brother Watson pulled the starter cord awhile. We sat awhile. Brother Watson pulled the starter awhile. Even us three boys tried pulling the cord a few times.

A short piece of wood floated past our boat. One of us harvested it from the water. I believe God sent this lumber our way. He even painted it white. This was a perfect piece of wood to use for a paddle.

“While you paddle, I’m going to let the motor rest awhile,” Brother Watson said.

Taking turns each of us used what strength we had to move the boat away from shore and toward the east. The boat seemed to be lethargic, as no movement was felt. The only motion was that of the water swirled by the makeshift paddle. The currents took us back toward Georgetown. The headwind was the same that had pushed us across the Demerara. Gauging our progress by watching the shoreline grow in distance, our determination built as we moved one grunt at a time. Needless to say, I was glad I had saved my lunch. While one paddled the others ate.

Another hour had passed. A ship headed toward us. Understanding the need to get out of her way before she reached us, we paddled that board with steadfast courage. She came closer. Our concern grew. Fear of not making it out of her path shook us to the marrow of our bones. She grew larger and wider the closer she came. Standing up, Brother Watson pulled the cord one single time. A chattering started. A wake grew behind us. The forward movement jolted us to our seats. A cool breeze refreshed our senses. The started motor helped us avoid a re-embodiment of driftwood. We were free of uncertainty for the first time since we left the docks that morning. God started that motor just as he had sent the board to move us from the underbrush.

By making it out of the shipping lane in time we were safe. A toot from the ships captain blew in the wind. Waving a final farewell our boat moved toward the eastern shoreline. There was still another hour before we would make it to Atkinson Field. The sun had set and twilight became our guide. There were several inlets covered in bamboo passageways. Finding one that exposed the highway, the mission boat maneuvered through shallow waters until it drug bottom. Tying off the boat to a bamboo. I hopped out and ran for help. The terrain was muddy and slippery but I managed to keep my balance and pulled myself forward one cane at a time. I no longer cared creature might lay in wait for me. I was ready to be free of the confines of that boat.

I climbed up to the road. My brothers were right behind me. A few cars passed along side, followed by a bus carrying more natives than it should. A few more minutes passed when a car pulled over. I was never so happy to see Mom & Dad. They got out of the car and ran to hug each of us. We hugged them just as hard.

Mom & Dad had spent the afternoon, while we were stranded, driving up and down the road in a panic looking for us. They had stopped and asked if there had been any boats capsize or sink during the day. They asked if anyone had seen three white boys and an Indian walking around the area. Each was anxious and worried that we had been hurt, or worse. A two hour exploit had become and all day calamity.

In the end, this day had been an adventure. Though not planned the way it turned out I should at least say it was daring, and a memory I will never forget.

Rev. & Mrs. Ralph Coolidge (took Mom & Dad’s Place in Guyana. Mom, my two brothers and me. Rev. Watson at the motor.

*****

One year later Dad found out that Reverend Watson was using the mission boat to make personal money ferrying people across the river in Linden rather than for mission use. Dad took the boat from him and gave it to an associate pastor who continued the ministry and grew the church. Since that time other churches have started in bottom houses of other small villages throughout the area.

Note: the country of Guyana is now 40% Christian, PTL!

 

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38 thoughts on “A Trip Up the Demerara

  1. Wow! That was quite the adventure! Great pictures, too. So glad God had His hand on you. I laughed about finally not caring if the sea monsters got you, just get me out of this boat. I remember feeling that way as a kid too, four hours of scary and then finally, “just eat me already, I don’t even care.”

  2. Wonderful story, Andy, and so well told! How old were you when this happened? (If I missed that detail, I am sorry.)

  3. Wow, Andy, what an adventure-and great perseverance, I can’t even begin to imagine!
    What a wonderful thing your family did and what a legacy they left-40% Christian! WOW!!!.
    What great memories, thank you for sharing!
    Blessings~

  4. Thank you Andy, not just for sharing this story but for the insight to what being in the mission field is really like.

  5. I saw 40% Christian and did a little “booyah!”

    I’m so glad everything turned out okay! Sounds pretty scary there for a while. I think that would have been a little too much adventure for me! lol

    • Thanks for the booyah! 😃 when I look back on this adventure I wonder if I’d let my kids go on a trip like that. While I’m thankful for the adventure , I don’t think I would. Glad you enjoyed my story. 😀

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