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

Emma Prest
Thursday 20 March 2008 01:00 GMT

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."

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