By Shelagh Plunkett
When I tell people I spent part of my adolescence in Guyana, most look at me with a blank expression.
I imagine them turning their heads a little sideways like a puzzled dog. Guyana? Oh – it must have been fascinating seeing Africa in the 1970s. Things get no clearer when I correct their geography and try to explain that Guyana is a little country in South America … except not … more of the Caribbean than the continent, English-speaking, post-colonial, not Spanish.
But that may change. Guyana, for so long spoken of in the international press only when its magenta stamp went up for auction, has had a little media shine put on its jungle greens and its lofty falls. A few months ago, National Geographic magazine listed the country as one of its “best trips” of 2014. Citing “extravagant natural resources” and green anacondas that “tip the scales at 550 pounds,” the magazine has caught on to Guyana’s vast but mostly untapped potential as an eco-tourism destination.
“Our guests come to watch for toucans and scarlet macaws,” the owner of a Rupununi lodge says. The fact that Guyana is so little known makes it all the tastier to those who seek out the remote corners that still carry a patina of danger.
So it was as well the last time Guyana made it into the international media in a large way. In 1974 the New Yorker sent a journalist to Georgetown and then ran Jane Kramer’s “Letter from Guyana” over 24 pages of the September issue. That’s a lot of print landscape to devote to a tiny country that most people beyond the Caribbean had never heard of. It was all about the looking and the whisper of danger but in the New Yorker’s case there was no mention of mammoth snakes.
In 1974 the point was to offer fearful American readers a peek at a socialist / communist / anti-American / China-supported / potentially troublemaking / itty bitty upstart of a newly post-colonial nation. The New Yorker was answering an existing curiosity. People had heard things and wanted to know what was going on in that far off spot. Well, it was the height of the Cold War, and Guyana was good friends with Cuba. Nuff said.
Whatever interest the New Yorker’s long and snidely toned article – it describes the coastline as looking “like the ends of the earth” – may have garnered the country, it’s debatable that the Guyanese benefitted from the attention. But, of course, that wasn’t the objective.
Things are a little different now. The primary concerns of the Cold War era haven’t left us, but the focus has shifted. The threat of communism has been replaced with the menace of terrorism, and little Caribbean nations with socialistic leaders are now draped with a different sort of outfit when they appear in the media.
The question is whether or not the attention will bring anything brighter to the people occupying the country being gazed at. Will the National Geographic’s touting of Guyana’s exquisite vistas and rare fauna have an impact? Will the Guyanese benefit?
The answer depends on the Guyanese and how they choose to respond to this latest bit of attention. But, one thing for sure – neither National Geographic nor its readers care at all about the Guyanese; if the country’s million-acre rain forest reserves are cut down or its 20-foot black caimans die off, tourist eyes will turn elsewhere and Guyana will, again, slip off the pages of world media.
Shelagh Plunkett is a writer based in Montreal.