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Biology Professor's First Hand Account of Guyana Adventure

27-28 February 2014
New York, USA - Georgetown, Guyana - Lethem, Guyana

It’s 7 p.m. and we have just left for JFK International Airport for our overnight flight to Guyana. Accompanying me are: Courtney Godbolt, Amanda Foster, Francesca Prendes, Kyleen Sisson, and Amanda Walck. This trip is part of my course, “The Amazon Basin: Natural History, Culture, and Conservation.”

To prepare us for this expedition, we spent the last six weeks discussing the natural history of neotropical rainforests and savannas, the culture of the Makushi Amerindians who we will be spending time with and learning from, and the issues that are affecting both the Makushi and the habitats that they, and the global community, rely on. Equally important, we discussed how to pack for an expedition to these remarkable habitats (pack light - our in-country flight had a 20 lbs limit, wear quick-drying fabrics, don’t forget your cameras and binoculars, and include a sense of adventure).

Now, after much anticipation, we were on our way.

After a somewhat sleepless flight, we land in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, at 7:20 a.m. (6:20 a.m. at home). Guyana is on the Caribbean coast of South America, bordered by Venezuela on the west, Brazil to the south, and Suriname on the east. We go to Guyana because there are still vast areas of rainforest and savanna that show a light footprint of humanity. However, Georgetown is not such a place. It is a large, crowded, and noisy city. But we are here just to get something to eat and to pick up our “puddle-jumper” to Lethem, a border town with Brazil, where we will be taken overland to our camp in the Amazon rainforest. While driving through Georgetown, we experience what’s good about the neotropics - fresh bananas and, for some, the first taste of fresh coconut water straight from coconut - and what’s not so good (a young boy selling live iguanas as food).

We arrive in Lethem after a two hour flight over the Guiana Shield, which was formed almost two billion (yes, that’s billion with a “b”) years ago during the pre-Cambrian era as part of the super continent Pangea, making it one of the oldest geologic formations on earth. The Guiana Shield is made up of spectacular mountains, table-top plateaus called Tepuis, unbroken rainforest canopy, topical savanna as far as we could see and meandering rivers. Not that we saw this - we all fell asleep, exhausted from traveling for 18 hrs, soon after the 15 seater left the ground.

At our arrival in Lethem we met up with Mike and Fernando who were there to take us to the Nappi region of Guyana by pickup and SUV, where we will camp for the next 4 days.

But before we leave for our camp, we, of course, do some shopping. We enter a small (and I mean small) store that sells items made by local artisans. The most popular items for us were balata sculptures. Balata is natural latex - harvested from the latex tree Manilkara bidentata. Amerindians also use balata to make such mundane things as pots to carry water. The sculptures were beautiful, detailed, and accurate depictions of local animals, such as the Harpy Eagle and giant river otter, and of scenes of Makushi life, like a family going to market in a dugout canoe. We were very lucky - the pieces that we bought were made by George Tancredo, from Nappi, who is considered the best balata artist in Guyana.

Then it was time to jump in the trucks for our two hour drive across the savanna to the rainforest, where our adventure really began.