The Town Drunk

On Friday the 27th we made a company move from Georgetown to the interior of Guyana.  Our destination was a makeshift camp at the foot of Mt. Arau, which is as far west as one can go without ending up in Venezuela. It would take a full day of travel, starting with a flight in to Eteringbang “Airport.” Of course there’s no airport to speak of.  The pilot travels with enough fuel for a round trip and must assess whether it’s safe to land in the field below.  If it’s rained at all, he’ll turn around and try again the next day.  I couldn’t decide whether it was reassuring or terrifying that our pilot spent most of the 90 minute flight sipping coffee and reading the newspaper he had open on his lap.  Did that mean he had so much experience that he didn’t even really need to be looking out the window?  That since there was no visibility in the thick rain clouds that there was no point in looking anyway?  Or was he simply resigned to having lived a full and happy life up that point and was turning his fate over to a higher power?  These are the things one contemplates while lurching through the clouds in a tiny twin-engine over one of the most remote places on the planet.

We broke through the clouds and the rainforest was revealed below.  I wish I could think of a better description, but all that came to mind was that it looked like broccoli as far as the eye can see.  Our little blue plane shuddered and dropped and groaned and the runway came into view.  It was just a dirt strip that seemed like it needed about another 50 yards of dirt or we’d run straight into the trees.  The wheels lowered, we rocketed in, and the landing was smoother than any you’d get on your average Southwest Air flight.  We glided right to the edge of the field and stopped.

It’s always weird to emerge from a hissing, clicking, steaming machine into absolute silence, but it’s even stranger when the plane leaves and you are left standing there with your bags and the birds and insects all start up their racket again.  That’s the moment you know you are very far from home.  We dragged our bags to a tiny building on the edge of the meadow.  The Eteringbang Police Station is a rickety old structure with a volleyball net out front, hammocks strung up from the rafters, and bullet holes along its wooden slats.  There is a story of a shootout that happened almost 20 years ago, stemming back to the arrest of a drug lord who was involved in smuggling, and one of the policemen (lounging in the hammock) has scars from being shot 10 times.  But we spent a peaceful day reading the local papers and moving our 40 cases of gear back and forth out of the rain, under the canopy, out of the canopy, down to the boat, out of that wrong boat, into another boat, back to the bank, out of the mud, etc.  On one of these trips, the cameraman walked past a small cross — just two sticks tied together with string.  A grave in the woods next to the airport.  I asked our guide who it was.  ”Oh that was the town drunk,” Timothy said.  ”He died a few months ago when he fell in the river and drowned.”

After we staged the gear in its final resting place, we took a fast boat down the Cuyuni River to the real “town.”  Eteringbang is a row of two-story shanty houses clinging to a muddy cliff.  There’s a dirt path that runs along the river’s edge and the locals walk from house to house, or to the one store that is near the boat landing.  I got to take a closeup look at the homemade barge that would carry the excavator up river in just a few days’ time.  The metal was searing hot and was so thin it buckled under my feet.  The seams looked like they were welded by a drunken monkey.  Was it really going to carry a 20-ton excavator 150 miles against the current?  It didn’t even have its own engine or steering capability.

We took a break for lunch, walking past the internet cafe which doubled as a brothel, or the brothel that doubled as an internet cafe, depending on how you look at things.  Our entire crew piled into the only restaurant and sat down to a huge Brazilian meal of chicken, rice, coleslaw, beans, spaghetti (?) and mango juice.  Of course we would draw a crowd anywhere, as rarely would one see a huge group of tough guys all wearing khaki zip-off pants like they’re in a gang, but in Eteringbang we were the talk of the town.  It wasn’t long before a guy wandered up, barefoot and wearing a filthy striped shirt.  He started yelling something unintelligible at the restaurant.  No-one seemed to notice or care.  It went on for a while. Him yelling, us eating, restaurant staff ignoring him.  Finally, I asked what he was yelling about.  ”Oh, that’s Jack.  He’s the town drunk.  He’s just doing his job.”  Jack took over after the other town drunk drowned.  His job was to drink vodka and Gatorade and yell.  All day and all night.  Everyone just tolerated him and so we did too.  

We said goodbye to half of our crew who would remain with the barge until it picked up the excavator.  The rest of us piled into the boats that would take us further into the interior to camp, where we would make our home for the next six weeks.  Jack leaned over a railing to yell some obscenities at us.  ”Bye, Jack,” I yelled, “see you in six weeks!”

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