Why spend a gap year at home when you could be helping villagers in South America?

When I told friends I was off to Guyana the response was, "Wow, how lovely for you... that's in Africa, right?" I have to confess that, although I graduated recently with a degree in geography, I couldn't place the country on a map either. Guyana is, in fact, in South America and one of the three smallest countries on the continent, along with Suriname and French Guyana. All three run along the northern coast of South America touching the Caribbean Sea.

My trip was organised through The Leap, a gap year company that was keen for me to join three other gap students, or "Leapers", who were halfway through a 10-week programme.

What hits you as you awake in Georgetown, the capital and only city in Guyana, is that this is the Caribbean – not Latin America. The streets are lined with brightly painted wooden houses on stilts and you can hear calypso music playing loudly. Add to this the difficult-to-understand Creole language and the mix of blacks, Indians, Chinese and native Amerindians and you are in a country like no other.

Rundown and littered with crumbling colonial buildings, Georgetown didn't feel particularly safe, but as long as you don't flash your new digital camera about and you find someone to keep you company, you should be fine.

The locals will tell you that, after the country became independent, the new government ripped up the railways and sold them to Africa to make sure there were no memories left of the Brits. The only railways now are dedicated to the transport of ore.

Until a month ago, there wasn't even a guidebook for this tiny country. It seemed I was the only person who had found the brand new Brandt one. As a result, I made friends quickly. Previously Guyana had taken up a few pages in the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guides to South America. A country without its own guidebook? I really had strayed from the backpacker trail.

Guyana is roughly the size of England with a population of well under one million, mostly living along the coast, leaving 95 per cent of the interior uninhabited. It was to the interior that I was headed – into the jungle.

The three girls from The Leap had completed the first phase of their project, which entailed living in the jungle, sleeping in hammocks and working on a canopy walkway. In the next stage of their trip they were hoping desperately for some nightlife, but were to be disappointed. I met them as we boarded a battered coach for a 10-hour journey to an Amerindian village.

On the single unpaved road from the capital south into Brazil we swerved around potholes, heard planks snap as we crossed bridges and stopped every time a passenger needed to pee. It was an overnight journey from hell. Surama, an Amerindian community, was bliss when we reached it – and its 270 residents – on the edge of the jungle.

Evelyn Waugh describes it in his book 92 Days. "About a dozen or 15 huts could be seen at Surana. I believe there were others out of sight. The trail ran straight down the middle of the Savannah, a bare streak. Half a dozen houses were built near it, but at considerable distances from one another. Tiny, meandering footpaths ran between them... some of the women brought me a present of bananas. It was a hospitable place."

Little seems to have changed in Guyana since Waugh traversed the country in the 1930s. Nevertheless, the four of us settled in quickly – and loved every minute of our stay. The community was well-run and efficient. We made friends with the locals, many of whom were our age, and rode their horses after the evening cattle roundup.

The village had everything from health centres and carpentry workshops to a resource centre with internet (and even Skype), a small zoo, an eco-lodge and the old guest house, a cassava project for disadvantaged women, a football pitch and a volleyball court with bleachers.

By chance, the headmistress of the primary school was away, so we were drafted in to help. Teaching was something I had avoided until then. However, within a few hours we were giggling with the children and explaining that we couldn't possibly teach them grammar because we didn't know what adjectival clauses were either. In the afternoons we put together a brochure for the Surama Tourist Association.

I wished I could have stayed longer. If you want somewhere truly off the beaten track, with few roads and no public railways, Guyana is for you. The Leap and the Guyanese tour operator Wilderness Explorers made my trip straightforward and because the country is so small, it is easy to get to know it quickly.

And if you want any more reasons to go there, then, as Waugh wrote, "But why British Guiana? I was at difficulties to find an answer, except that I was going because I knew so little."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux ...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Nursery Manager is required t...

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living