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Snakes and sorcery in Guyana’s soggy hinterlands

Dango Allicock once told me that the two most important things in his life were barbed wire and solitude.

John Gimlette's new book

He was never an easy man to understand, but Bradford was right that I’d like him. Dango was huge and shy, barrel-chested, splay-toed, uncomfortable in the open, and happy in the shadows. His hair was still rich and black, and although he only ever wore shorts, he could be surprisingly formal, even stately. But in his polished mahogany features, there were always furrows of concern. In another world, he’d have been a judge or bishop, but this was the Rupununi and so he was a hunter. He told me he prayed for the souls of those he was about to kill, and then disappeared for days. ‘And before I go,’ he said, ‘all I do is burn my mouth with peppers, so that my eyes are bright and sharp.’

And what about all your gear?’ I asked.

‘Just a bow and arrows,’ he said, ‘Some matches, and a little bit of salt.’

It wasn’t hard to appreciate the role of solitude in this. The Makushi were famously lonely, always coveting isolation and the world’s disregard. Resources were scarce, outsiders were dangerous, and every nip of protein had to be wrestled from the land. Everyone was a competitor. That’s why people scattered themselves across the savannah, and why Dango and his wife, Paula, lived so far out in the straw. It was as if even the prospect of a neighbour was too much to bear. Here we were in the heart of old ‘Macoushia’, and the only sound was the rattle of the leaves.

Barbed wire had a more complex role. For a start, it was one of the few imports from the outside world. Everything else was weaved, carved, harvested, slaughtered or cut right here. It seemed like an idyllic life, at least in texture. The Allicocks had three long, stooped houses, made of sticks and mud, and fronds of ité palm. There was no water or electricity, and we washed in a waterhole out in the grass. Every mealtime, a huge family gathered and ate whatever their father had killed. Then, as night fell, Dango would climb into a tree to sleep (he thought beds made him ill), whilst the rest of us – nine in all – would cram together, in a single stilted hut. All night there was whispering and the rustle of feet, and everyone would tell stories until they fell asleep. These felt like ordinary lives except stripped of clutter; no chairs, no doors, no cash, and no concept of time. Paula had made only one other concession to the present: walls plastered with pictures of mythical white women, torn from the pages of Vogue.

But barbed wire was more than just an innovation. It was like a sort of elongated currency, the outward sign of a man’s wealth and his prospects of survival. The more wire he had, the more forest he could clear and enclose, and therefore the more he grew. Without enough wire, either his farm was too small, or the neighbouring cattle ate his crops. Without enough food, the family would die, or move to the towns (which was much the same). So, it was true, life still hung by a single strand of old barbed wire.

‘And what about the tapirs?’ I asked, ‘Will the wire stop them?’

‘No,’ said Dango, ‘their skin’s too thick. But at least we can eat them.’

Each day, I set out with Dango on one of his Herculean strolls. Sometimes, we’d walk half a day into the jungle. We always followed the paths made by big cats, triggering a discordant symphony of screams. One unseen creature announced us wherever we went, with a hoot of high-pitched raspberry (‘The anti-man,’ announced Dango, ‘the curse of the hunter’). But this wasn’t the only invisible musician. Everything in there thrummed and whistled or emitted blasts of cacophonous pain. Even the forest swamps had their own dank, crepuscular song. They’d be happily oozing and whirring, and then there’d be a crack and a muffled splosh, as something slid back into the gloop, dragging a bundle of legs.

‘Dangerous water,’ said Dango, ‘Lots of piranhas and electric eels.’

‘But who comes off worse?’ I asked, ‘You or the piranhas?’

‘Me,’ he said modestly, and showed me his calves and the bits that were missing.

‘It looks like you’ve been attacked by a dog,’ I gasped.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘a dog with teeth like a saw’.

On one of these walks, we stopped at his farm, deep in the forest. It was an astonishing sight. At first, I thought there’d been some great disaster. The entire clearing was still smouldering, and great trunks of smoking ash lay scattered everywhere, like the columns of a plundered city. Perhaps the spirits had called down a meteorite? Or this was the tapir’s revenge? But then I noticed Dango’s pride. In a few days, he’d done the work of a mechanical excavator, reducing this patch of forest to the garden that he needed. It would feed his family for the next two years, until the soil was spent. Within the wire, there’d be yams, cassava, sugar cane and melons. It would even provide him with shafts for his arrows.

As we were leaving, Dango picked a few stems of arrow-wood, and that night he set to work. By dawn, he’d produced a seven-foot bow, and four arrows. Each was perfectly adapted for the killing in hand: barbs for a monkey; a detachable head for fish; a punch for birds; and a dagger for the tapir. After breakfast, Dango presented them to me, to take back to London.

‘And whenever you use them,’ he said, ‘you’ll think of us.’

There was another side to Makushi life, lived around the hearth.

Dango despised the kitchen house, and never went there except to eat or to drink cassiri. This was a brew of fermented cassava, purple potatoes and human spit. According to Sir Walter Raleigh, it was what made the Amerindians ‘the greatest carousers in the world’. I, however, took mine gingerly because it was like whisky blended with cabbages and socks. Dango, on the other hand, would seat himself up in the thatch, and drink it by the tubful. At these moments, he was like an old churchwarden: craggy and dark and only sleepily in charge.

In Dango’s absences – physical and spiritual – his wife came into her own. I adored Paula. She was round and exuberant, had a tattoo on her face, and was dressed in a Guyanese flag. Her variant of motherhood seemed to absorb everyone, and her kitchen was always a hub of scavengers and hopefuls. There was a daughter, Pinky, several sons-in-law, all their babies, an orphaned grandson, six chickens and a large apologetic hunting-dog called Bully. If they waited long enough, there was always something going spare: bakes, okra stew, a local cous-cous called farine, fried plantains, or a slice of barbecued tapir. Evelyn Waugh had hated Makushi cuisine (he thought farine tasted like brown paper) but then he’d never eaten at Paula’s. It was like all the best food in the world, the brilliant joint venture of sunlight and poverty.

But Paula wasn’t just a conjuror of food. She also possessed something that was much rarer amongst the Makushi, the gift of talk. Over forty years she’d gathered up all the stories, the history, the myths, the gossip, the recipes and the cures, and now she was prepared to re-tell it to anyone who’d listen. Never before had I met an Amerindian like her, who talked with such candour about a lifestyle now slowly ebbing away. Perhaps she felt that her boldness would somehow staunch the tide. There was nothing she wouldn’t talk about: it might be magic and sorcery; or the three gods of the Makushi world; or her mother, whose legs had been bound with twine to cut off the blood supply and accentuate the calves; or the old punishment for children (a peppery paste smeared on the anus); or her own forced marriage; or the birth of Pinky, when she was only a child herself. It was, said Paula, a beautiful world.

‘And now,’ she said, ‘all the children want is DVDs and money.’

‘But they still hunt, don’t they?’ I asked.

‘Not many. They can’t even make their own arrows ….’

The beautiful world, she said, was vanishing all around. Now that the cattle trail had gone, even the forest was closing in. With the darkness, came a new plague, or perhaps it was an old one: jaguars. Dango told me they’d eaten all the village horses, and were now killing all the calves. ‘It won’t be long,’ he said, ‘before they start on Man.’

But jaguars weren’t the only monsters in the beautiful world of Macoushia.

Like Paula, everyone had their ghosts. A life that had seemed idyllic was actually infested. One man told me that ghosts had drowned his cousin, breaking his neck with a paddle. Another described building a house on land that was cursed, and watching his plates as they started to bleed. The horror was always like this, richly surreal. During my time on the northern savannahs, I’d come across supernatural rocks, giant worms, mischievous sprites, and trees that turned you grey. There were even libidinous boulders that could make a girl pregnant, and stones that could fly. Evil spirits were everywhere, said Dango, and they entered the body through the eyes and ears, and even up the anus. That’s why the women had symbols carved into their teeth, to ward off these impish intruders.

‘People are afraid,’ he warned, ‘These aren’t just stories.’

Some places, I realised, were worse than others. Graves in particular seemed to emit waves of malevolence, like a radioactive field. You couldn’t eat where the dead had died or walk where they’d been carried, and cemeteries were regarded as so spiritually toxic that only the strongest could visit. But it wasn’t just graveyards. Almost every aspect of Makushi life was haunted, and most people seemed to live their lives in a state of perpetual anxiety. Their worst fear was to have an enemy blowing evil in their face. Once a Makushi believes he’s cursed then – as everyone knew – he’ll simply lie down and die.

Only one person could intercede on a man’s behalf, and that was the magician.

‘Maybe you want to meet him?’ said Dango.

I said I did, and so we set off, an hour’s walk across the savannah.

‘I think we’re too late,’ said Dango as we got to the piaiman’s hut.

In the distance, we could just see the sorcerer, battling through the grass, off on a magical mission. His wife hailed us from her hammock. She must have been over eighty, and was wearing only a pair of shorts. I was surprised how deflated the female form could become. She looked like a suit of human pelts.

‘I’m sorry …’ I began.

But she didn’t understand. Perhaps I ought to have been relieved by this, that there was no call for English in her ghoulish world.

Somewhere, in the great labyrinth of the Makushi mind, there’s always an avenger, known as the kanaima.

‘We had one here once,’ said Dango, ‘about twenty years ago.’

Paula said he was a hired killer, or sometimes a piaiman. But the kanaima wasn’t always a person. To some, it was a murderous will-o’-the-wisp, a roving concept of indefinable dread. The kanaima was the reason children died, and was behind every death that couldn’t be otherwise explained. Here was a constant reminder of man’s vulnerability; a spectre that was soundless, ruthless, invincible and everywhere. I once met a Makushi near Annai, who said that his brother had been hunted down by the kanaima. ‘It could change itself into an animal,’ said Hendrik, ‘and move at a hundred miles an hour.’

‘What had your brother done?’ I asked.

‘He had a girl in the Pakoraima Mountains, and then he left her.’

The kanaima was always assiduous in revenge. Most people thought that he, or it, could be hired, at the cost of an unmarried daughter, to effect some elaborate killing. I’d often heard these hits described, and they were nearly always the same. First, the kanaima smears himself with anaconda fat, which makes him instantly invisible. Then, he takes up a club of purple heart and sets off after the victim, covering his tracks with secret spells. When he finds him, the killer hides amongst the rocks, biding his time with lethal precision. ‘Then’ said Hendrik, ‘he lash you, and black you out.’

After that, the mutilation varies from story to story. Sometimes, the kanaima forces a poisonous snake’s tooth through the victim’s tongue, so that it swells up, and – over several days – chokes the man to death. Other victims are found with their limbs twisted in the sockets, or their heads so thoroughly pulverised that they’ve become all shapeless and soft. But some kanaimas have a more visceral interest. They force a stick up their quarry’s rectum, twist the intestines around it, extract them and knot them, and then ram them back inside. ‘With my brother,’ said Hendrik, ‘the kanaima cut out his anus, and then took off his face with a knife.’

‘And did you tell the police?’ I asked.

Hendrik looked at me strangely. ‘No, we went to the piaiman.’

After that, he didn’t mention his brother again. Perhaps he’d realised that we came from different parts of the spiritual map, separated by thousands of years in the forest.

From Surama, I set off across the savannah with a young archer called Hubert.

He was a very different man from Dango. With his bulldog shoulders and his rolling gait, Hubert was always farting, and was boisterous and eager for the fray. It was like being with bowman from Henry V. Once, he showed me how to kill a beer can at eighty yards. Whilst he could pin it out like a moth, I could barely twang the string. ‘It’s takes practice,’ said Hubert, kindly. As a child, his grandfather had tattooed a scorpion across one of his ample biceps. It was supposed bring him luck in hunting and success with women, and now – in both, it seemed – his aim was true. Although Hubert was barely twenty-five, he already had two families. We passed his latest household as we left Surama. It was a small wooden shack, profusely leaking children.

‘And here come my friends,’ said Hubert.

Along the track came a succession of hunters.

‘Anything?’ we asked

‘Not even a monkey,’ said the first.

‘Nothing,’ said the next, who was riding a bicycle loaded with arrows.

Then came another man, with a tiny capuchin perched on his shoulder.

‘What’s that?’ I whispered, ‘His bait? Or his lunch?’

‘It’s an orphan,’ said Hubert, ‘so now it helps with the hunt.’

After that, we saw no-one, and by early evening, we’d reached the end of the savannah. Ahead lay the Pakaraima Mountains, looming up like great blue shards of broken forest. Hubert said that some of them had never been climbed, and that from now on, there was nothing but the trees. As we stepped into the darkness, I thought of the hunters – and their monkeys – creeping around for game. No wonder they were away for days. The only creatures I ever saw were things that were trying to eat me.

Some of these tormentors were more insistent than others. One of them was the kabouri fly. It was a sort of microscopic mugger, slyly inconspicuous until the very moment it drove its white-hot pin deep beneath the flesh. There was nothing that could be done about it, although it didn’t like the dark. Others were more flexible; nippers, stingers, itchers, and puffs of poisonous mites. We even found a whorl of milky froth, a tell-tale sign of mosquito worm. This ambitious little tunneler likes nothing better than to colonise the scalp. But, as Hubert said, this wasn’t the worst of them. ‘If a screw worm gets inside a dog’s head,’ he told me, ‘it will eat it from the inside out.’

In this exchange of proteins, only one creature offered itself for ingestion. It was the flying ant. Whenever one came into range, Hubert would pluck it from the air, and pop it in his mouth. ‘Delicious,’ he’d say, through the succulent crunch of thorax, ‘Tastes just like a nut.’

Eventually, at dusk, we reached the Burro-Burro River. It was like streak of blackened glass sliding away, off through the trees. There, high on a bluff, we slung our hammocks, and ate some chunks of catfish. It tasted of trout with an extra dollop of pond. Then we opened some rum, settled in our hammocks, and waited for the show to begin.

I had no idea the forest could be so wonderful at night.

As the light failed, the airborne eaters receded, and the tweeters began. At first, it was just a flurry of nightjars, and a gentle lullaby of croaks. Then came the crickets and cicadas, and a ludicrous bug like an aerial lawnmower, trimming through the heat. At the same time, a cloud of fireflies appeared, and flickered around as if they were the cosmos, on a visit to the flowers. Then, all of a sudden, the evening was torn apart by the sound of a sawmill, bursting into life. It was all the work of a single beetle, who’d waited fourteen years for this moment and had twenty-four hours to live.

‘Ah, the six o’clock beetle!’ cried Hubert, as if it were just on time.

But the beetle didn’t just work through cocktail hour. It carried on sawing all night; through bedtime, the witching hour, the small hours and the early morning dew. It was still at peak production, when – at four – I finally drifted off, into a light industrial sleep. I could hardly blame it. When you’ve only got two six o’clocks in your life, you want to make them last.

Dawn was simply the evening thrown into reverse. The glass reappeared, the eaters returned, and the tweeters fell quiet. The last to go was the lawnmower, bumbling off to bed. That left only a distant, constipated roar. It was the howler monkeys with their usual public announcement: Approach at your peril, and we’ll pelt with dung. But even they stopped when the sun broke through. Soon, it had burnt off the cool, clammy vapours of the night, and torpor was restored.

Extract taken from John Gimlette’s new and very excellent book about travels in the Guianas, ‘Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s untamed Edge‘. Buy a signed copy and read more by this author here.

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