Last month, I spoke at a travel conference about diversity in the industry.
The conversation was primarily a round table discussion about the lack of diverse representation among the blogging industry, but it got me thinking about diversity in general.
One of things I love most about living in New York (and why I think I'll never leave) is how diverse the city is.
You can meet people from all over the world, and some neighborhoods are even referred to by the immigrants who settled there (Chinatown, Little Italy, etc). It's not uncommon to hear people on the street speaking in a foreign language.
And my personal favorite?
You can get almost every type of food, at any hour!
After the diversity discussion wrapped, I started thinking if there was anywhere else in the world that had a similar melting pot of people, traditions and foods.
At first I couldn't think of any. Then I remembered our trip to Guyana.
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The Only South American Country…
Guyana is a small country in South America with a surprisingly Caribbean feel. Locals have a Guyanese passport, but within their national identification is a cultural designation.
There are 6 officially recognized ethnic groups: Africans, Europeans, Portugese, Indians, Chinese and Amerindians.
An even greater twist? Guyana is the only English speaking country in South America!
So how did Guyana's unique culture come to be?
- Why Guyana's Culture is So Unique
- Guyana Culture & Traditions
- Amerindians in Guyana
- Supporting Guyanese Culture through Eco Travel
How Guyana's Culture Came to Be
Christopher Columbus spotted Guyana in 1498, on his third journey to the New World.
He noted the warlike Arawaks and Caribs on the coast and kept sailing through to the Americas. It wasn't until a couple years later that Europeans actually set foot in the country. Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda traveled through Guyana, the West Indies and South America on a scouting expedition (in fact, he's famous for having named Venezuela).
The Spaniards clashed with the local Amerindians, the first people to live in Guyana, and ultimately won as the tribes were ravaged by war and disease. Spain claimed the region for her own but when the conquistadors found neither gold nor precious metals, they mostly left Guyana alone.
It wasn't until a century later that more Europeans arrived.
The Dutch Arrive to Guyana
The Dutch arrived in the early 1600's, establishing Guyana's first colonial settlements in a series of trading posts at the mouth of the Essequibo River.
The all powerful Dutch West India Company quickly secured economic and political power over Guyana and gradually moved downriver to the more fertile estuaries and low lying mud flats of the Essequibo.
For two hundred years, the Dutch created sugarcane plantations and imported massive numbers of slaves from West Africa to work the fields. Guyana became yet another lucrative Caribbean colony producing sugar and crops for export.
It probably goes without saying, but slave conditions were bleak and inhumane throughout this period. A scattering of uprisings took place, but it wasn't until the 1763 Berbice Rebellion that the slaves saw a measure of success.
The British Are Coming
In the 18th century, Europe was consumed by the Napoleonic Wars.
Conflicts among the French, Dutch and British would cause Guyana to change hands repeatedly from 1792 to 1815. At one point, the French occupation established a village at the mouth of the Demerara River which they called Longchamps.
The Dutch gained ground and renamed it Stabroek, continuing further development of the town. Eventually the British seized possession and named it Georgetown, today the capital of the country.Read more: How to Spend 2 Days in Georgetown: The Highlights!
Eventually, the 3 powers settled their conflicts and parceled out the South American coast among themselves. As a result, today you'll often hear the region referred to as the ‘3 Guyanas' – (British) Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname (Dutch Guyana).
The Brits purchased the land around the Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo rivers in the mid 1800s, forming British Guyana.
Slavery was abolished and massive quantities of low cost workers were brought in from the East – primarily India, with some Chinese as well. Occasional ethnic strife occurred between the newly freed Africans and indentured Indians.
The Birth of the Republic
By the 1930's, British world dominance was on the decline. Territories all over the world angled for independence and Guyana was no different.
Guyana gained self governance from the United Kingdom in 1966 and officially became a republic on February 23, 1970. Today February 23rd is significant to the Guyanese. Not only was it the start of the Berbice Rebellion, it was also the birth of the Republic.
The date is celebrated annually as Mashramani, a huge cultural festival dedicated to Guyana's independence. Mash, as it's nicknamed, is one of the most colorful festivals in Guyana and unique in that it includes all the various ethnic groups.
Because of the cultural diversity in Guyana, the country celebrates a melting pot of religions, cultural traditions and holidays. Most of the Afro-Guyanese community is Christian, while the Indians practice Hinduism. There is a minority Muslim community as well.
As a result, Guyana has a variety of holidays, including Amerindian Heritage Month, Indian Arrival Day, Emancipation Day, Mashramani, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali and Carnival.
As for the food – it's a tasty blend of Caribbean staples, Indian cuisine and Chinese stir fries. In the interior, the Amerindian diet is primarily locally foraged. We shared a taste of some of Guyana's traditional dishes in this post!
Even the architecture is a mix of different styles. Many of the original buildings in Georgetown were built entirely of local wood, in the Dutch style. Once the British took over, administrative buildings were crafted in a British colonial style.
Depending on where you travel throughout Guyana, you'll experience a slight shift in the local culture. The capital and coast felt quite Caribbean-like to us, similar to the West Indies.
The interior Rupununi was the home of the Amerindians, while we heard that in the Southwest, Brazilian-style cattle ranching has influenced part of Guyana's South Rupununi towns.Read more: Mouthwatering Guyana Foods You Have to Try
Amerindians in Guyana
Amerindian tribes settled in Guyana over 3,000 years ago. During the period of western colonization, the native people gradually retreated farther and farther into the interior. In total, 9 tribes can be found across the country.
Indigenous culture is recognized within Guyana as an important element of the national identity. In Georgetown, you can visit the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology for a historic look at the various Amerindian tribes. Displays include lots of photographs and artifacts.
While we were glad to pop in, the museum is a bit of a historic specimen itself. To truly get a feel for the Amerindian people, we headed to the jungle.
Amerindian Tribes in Guyana
When Christopher Columbus first arrived, he met the Carib people, who had settled in villages near the upper Pomeroon River. The Carib tribes were known for their beautiful ceramics and carvings. But they were also fierce warriors, and aggressively resisted the Spanish.
Ultimately, European diseases and weapons decimated the local tribes and just a few remain along the rivers. The Carib name however, was long lasting. It was used to refer to all the Amerindians scattered across the islands, which today we call the Caribbean.
The Akawaios were another famous warlike and aggressive people, and lived in the forests around the Pomeroon river. They were nomadic traders and news carriers and deadly with a blowpipe. Like the Caribs, the Akawaios succumbed to war and disease from the early Spanish conquistadors.
The Arawaks were a peaceful tribe that were particularly well known for their rock engravings, called Timehri. When the British arrived, they felt the Arawaks were gentle fisherfolk and expert horticulturalists. Most integrated within the Dutch and British colonies.
The Arecuna tribe was located on the Kamarang river banks and were said to be excellent cotton farmers.
The Macushi tribe were known for their traditional way of life and expertise with curare poison. When the Europeans and church missions arrived to Guyana, the Macushi slowly formed larger communities, with villages linking to one another in the Savannah.
The Patamonas are the local tribe around Kaieteur Falls and it was the Patamona nation which gave the waterfall its name in their legends.
Waraus were called the water people and inhabited the low lying coastline around the Pomeroon River. They were said to be excellent fishermen and boat builders. Out of all the tribes, they spoke a distinct language group from the other Amerindians.
The Wapishana are located in the Rupununi and were said to be excellent traders, canoe builders and cotton hammock makers.
Wai Wais are believed to have crossed into Guyana from Brazil. They wore a distinct traditional dress of loincloths and aprons, and were expert bead workers and weavers.
Eco Tourism in Guyana
Guyana's Amerindians have long been overshadowed by the coastal majority. Over 90% of the Amerindians in Guyana live in the remote interior, with simple dirt roads, impenetrably thick forests and caiman-filled rivers.
If you're up for an adventure and love exotic wildlife, there's no better place to visit. Our time in the Amazon river basin staying with local Amerindian communities was the highlight of our visit to Guyana.
Each morning, we awoke to howler monkeys calling each other. In the afternoons, we learned how to make cassava, catch piranha and shoot bows and arrows on wooden tapir targets. The Amerindians excel at living off the land and we attempted to toughen up our survival skills under their tutelage!
Mostly, we failed.
But it was a wonderful experience into their culture, and local traditions. Here are 3 eco lodges in Guyana's interior that are entirely community run.
The local Amerindian community at Surama was the first to give eco tourism a go. Lodging here is simple, but functional, with round circular huts.
During our stay, we got to meet the village locals and even see the Surama kids at school during their recess time. At night, we heard more about their tribe's traditional dances and folklore.
A community of Makushi, Wapashani and Patamona tribes run a lodge overlooking Rewa River. Our stay here was active and so much fun. We did everything from village walks, caiman night drives, hiking and piranha fishing. And it was our Amerindian guides here who really made our stay memorable!
Iwokrama Forest is based in the heart of the Guiana Shield and one of the last, untouched tropical forests in the world. Here, jaguars still roam free and a rainforest canopy walk allows you to walk high above the forest floor.
Iwokrama is run by the local Macushi, who are fully involved in the forest conservation project. Lodging here was probably our favorite of our trip, with comfortable airy rooms, refreshing outdoor showers and vibrant flowers all over the property.
For a first hand look at the Guyana's culture, make sure to visit the Amazon basin interior and support the indigenous-run lodges!
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Quick Guide to Guyana
What to Pack for the Amazon Jungle Clothes + Recommended Gear
2 Weeks in the Guiana Shield: Our Guyana Itinerary
Explore All the Best Things to Do in Guyana
Visiting Georgetown: What to See & Do in Guyana's Capital!
Guyana's Interior: The Amazon Basin
Guyanese Food: What to Expect, Where to Eat & More!
Guyanese Culture & It's Amerindians
Photos of Guyana from our trip!
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