Sunday, October 21, 2012

How Not to Drown in the Essequibo River

Last week I started a new segment here on the blog where I share travel tips and regrettable life decisions in the hopes that you, dear readers, will not repeat my mistakes.  Today's lesson is how not to drown in the Essequibo River in Guyana.

Now there are two ways to accomplish this task...the first and perhaps the easiest way is to simply not go to Guyana.  But if you choose to take this route then you'd be missing out on all of the amazing sights that the third-smallest independent state in South America and the second-poorest country in the Western hemisphere has to offer...but more on that later.  Of course, the second option for avoiding drowning in the Essequibo is simply to NOT BE A MORON.

I strongly encourage you to choose the latter...

Now how do you find your way to Guyana in the first place?  I landed there in the summer of 2006 as part of a group from the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University.  We were there to study among other things the impact of a 325 million gallon cyanide spill from a gold mine in 1995 that had devastated the waters of the Essequibo River and also to learn about Guyana's national healthcare system.  During part of our time there we were housed at the Iwokrama Field Station.



The Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development is essentially a series of thatched roofed bungalows that are sort of like the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse on steroids set in the middle of 371,000 hectares (that's just under 1 million acres) of pristine rain forest.   Now this compound sits along the banks of the river and when you are a grad student sweating your way to a slow death there is really only one thing to do...film a parody of a horror movie featuring a river monster in the Essequibo.

Now we had spent many leisurely hours enjoying the waters of the river.  It is known for its "black water" which is a bit of a misnomer because the water is actually a reddish brown shade that looks almost identical to iodine.  As the leaves fall off of the trees and into the river the tannins leech out staining the water.  So if you stay in for a while it gives your hair a gorgeous red henna tint but unfortunately turns you a less than pleasant shade of orange.

Stay in the "black water" a little too long and you get a
little Oompa Loompa-esque tint to your skin tone.
  
It's also a little but disconcerting that you can't see the bottom.

Besides the cosmetic risks of bathing in the Essequibo there are some animal hazards to be aware of.  Guyana boasts the largest fresh water fish in the world, the arapaima, which is a living fossil in that it has managed to survive all major extinction events, and it can grow up to fifteen feet long.  The Essequibo is also home to the black caiman, the largest member of the alligator family, known to grow as large as sixteen feet long and get over 850 lbs in weight.  Oh yeah and there are piranha and candiru as well...you know that fish that swims up your urethra.

The thing has managed to survive the last 65 million years
worth of extinction events...clearly it has earned its place as
a river monster.
I mean need I say more than the word "creepy".
This fellow's snack of choice is the world's largest rodent
the Capybara.

The Candiru...a small parasitic catfish that swims up urethras

Anyway, one hot afternoon we were all sitting along the river bank trying to decide what to do with the hour or so of free time that we had and since my one friend Sarah had a video camera and I was willing to go in the water it just seemed like the logical decision to make a parody of a horror film...a sort of homage to the brilliant filmmaking that gave us such masterpieces as Anaconda (1997) and Lake Placid (1999).  So into the water I went.  I did the backstroke and lolled around.  We would theoretically insert  Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 "Morning Mood" and John Williams' theme music from Jaws (1975) later to set the scene for an impending attack.  Then with dramatic flair I began splashing around and faking a giant unseen river monster assault.

Now this should have been the end of this little endeavor except that at the exact moment that I started thrashing around I a) managed to get my ankle tangled up in an underwater vine and then b) the afternoon rains came and the current in the river went from calm and placid to a three knot flow that started carrying me away from the shore fast enough that the vine around my ankle got pulled taught.  Thankfully though, the vine getting pulled taught was the only thing that kept me from being swept away.

At this point, needless to say, I regretted our decision to make a student film.  Fortunately Sarah (the director) told Ramsey our other friend to jump in the water and help me.  So Ramsey dove in.  Sarah kept filming.  But the current was too strong and we couldn't get back to shore.  Thankfully, our other friends John Dangers (yes that's his real name) who had studied at the United States Air Force Academy and Manny Kiesser who had graduated from Annapolis jumped into a canoe and came to the rescue.  John said to me, "Whitny jump up in the canoe, come on you can do it!"  Yeah...no I couldn't.  I have literally no upper body strength.  Then Manny contemplated jumping out of the canoe and into the water to help me out.  John said, "Hmm...yeah I think it's better we all stay in the canoe."   It was  quickly agreed that with two of us in the water just struggling to get back to shore another body in the water probably wasn't the wisest choice.  Eventually the current relented a bit and the vine loosened on my ankle allowing me to float down a ways and grab onto a branch.  Then Ramsey was able to help me grab another branch and then another and get to a point where we could touch the sandy river bottom with our feet.

It all felt really dramatic and dangerous in the moment but when Sarah played back the video for us I realized that it just looked like a bunch of fools floundering in shallow waters of a river.  But as ridiculous as it looks please heed my words...learn from my mistakes dear readers and DO NOT BE A MORON.  If you are in Guyana just stay out of the river.

Now for your viewing pleasure here is the link to YouTube where the lovely Sarah Marie Simmons uploaded our foolishness.  




Now remember, Guyana is definitely worth seeing.  Don't let my idiocy deter you from seeing this beautiful and amazing land.  Here are just a few of the highlights of this "Land of Many Waters":

Guyana has beautiful giant water lilies...

...beautiful people...

...beautiful sunsets...

...awesome spiny trees...

...enormous ants...

...enormous skies...

...enormous hearts...

...rare golden frogs...
...and the breathtaking 741 ft Kaieteur Falls...

...and finally, where else in the world do you get to stand at
the edge of a pristine untouched 741 ft waterfall and look
at the next view?

This view is worth almost drowning.














5 comments:

Robin Miller said...

Phenomenal memories! I love my attempt to aid in the rescue that was thwarted when my pants got caught on something underwater. Great trip!

Robin Miller said...

Phenomenal memories! I love my attempt to aid in the rescue that was thwarted when my pants got caught on something underwater. Great trip!

Robin Miller said...

Phenomenal memories! I love my attempt to aid in the rescue that was thwarted when my pants got caught on something underwater. Great trip!

Whitny said...

Robin you were an essential part of the rescue!

Nicole Izvernari said...

You're right, the video is a little underwhelming! Awesome story.