In late January of 2013, I took off in a tiny propeller airplane from the Caribbean-esque capital city of Georgetown, Guyana bound for Kurukabaru, a small village in the country’s isolated interior. I was a Jesuit novice, going to spend three months with Jesuit missionaries living among native Amerindians.
Just months earlier, Guyana was a completely foreign place to me, and I and quickly found that my ignorance was not uncommon.
Most people thought I was headed to Africa when I told them I was headed to Guyana (perhaps confusing it with Ghana?). When I would explain that it is in South America, the inevitable follow-up question was, “How’s your Spanish?” Turns out Guyana is a former British colony, so English is the lingua-franca, which was a good thing, since my Spanish was only así-así.
If anyone had heard of Guyana before, it was typically the story of Jonestown and the mass suicide organized by the American Rev. Jim Jones. The truth is, that’s mostly an American event that took place in a remote part of Guyana, and involved almost no native Guyanese.
The village of Kurukabaru that I was destined for is so remote that air travel is the only efficient way to reach it. Want to make the trip overland? It starts with a two-day bus trip from Georgetown, followed by another 3-7 day journey by ATV or foot from the nearest road. Safe travels!
To make my arrival easier, I caught the twice-a-week plane ride with a small handful of other passengers. As we boarded the plane on a runway stairwell, I found myself sitting in the front passenger seat…directly next to the pilot. There were knobs and handles in front of me, and I shuddered to think of the responsibility I would have if the pilot suffered a sudden heart attack (lots of rosaries were prayed during this flight!).
The two-hour flight was mostly uneventful. Granted, it didn’t include cabin service or wifi access, and the noise of the propeller engine drowned out any possible conversation. When we landed, the local airport in the village consisted of a dirt runway and a small wood hut with a handful of people waiting for the plane’s arrival. Baggage claim? Ha! Just grab your bag from the plane’s undercarriage. At least that was a time-saver. Taxi stand? Don’t count on it. There’s not a car within 50 miles of the village. Paulous, an energetic Jesuit from India, was waiting at the hut. He helped me with my bags and we began the hour-long walk to the Jesuit house.
Catholic missionaries have been living in the interior of Guyana for over 100 years, since the first British Jesuits came over and began traveling through the villages. Missionaries then, as now, encountered Amerindians living in small villages of 200-500 people surviving on subsistence farming of mostly cassava, but also hunting and fishing for protein.
The Jesuits brought with them many things: the Catholic faith, afternoon tea, guitars, the handshake, and the English language among others. But there was a unique surprise that they found missing from the local Amerindians.
Jesuit missionaries have a long history of linguistics, so it was natural that the early Jesuits in Guyana’s interior learned and studied the native languages. The surprise came when they discovered that the native languages had no word for “thank you.” It just didn’t exist. There was no way to actually express the sentiment of gratitude. If something was given to you, for example, you simply accepted it.
Since gratitude and thanksgiving are so essential to the Catholic faith, how could the latter be shared without expressing the former? I mean, the word Eucharist literally translates as “thanksgiving!” We speak all the time about giving thanks to God and growing in gratitude. It’s undoubtedly a principal tenant of Ignatian spirituality: the daily Examen always begins with gratitude.
So what did the Jesuits do? The only sensible thing: they added a word to the native language – “Tengke kuru” – which sounds noticeably close to the English when spoken quickly.
Today, over a hundred years later, the phrase and sentiments of gratitude have become a natural part of the language and spirituality of the Amerindians. A British Jesuit I traveled with added a short litany of things to be thankful for near the end of every Mass as a way to continue to cultivate this relatively new concept.
It was baffling to me to hear that the concept wasn’t a historic part of the people, because I can’t think of a greater grace that I received during my three months with the Amerindians than an increase in gratitude.
My experience in Guyana was marked by so many experiences of gratitude. It was marked by the incredible natural beauty and the loving spirit of the people I encountered, but also a much deeper appreciation for all that I had back home in the United States. What follows is my own litany of thanks.
- I’m thankful for the beauty of nature. Separated from the Atlantic coast by a dense rainforest, the interior of Guyana consists of grassy savannas and the arid Pakaraima Mountains. Traveling through the mountains offered countless vistas for miles around. The grassland savannas seemed to stretch for miles in every direction. Who needs the weather channel when you can see the rain clouds coming? Despite the frequent rain storms, I almost never touched my rain jacket. When the clouds became visible, you knew rain was half an hour away, so you’d just adjust plans and stay inside until it passed. In a community that relies so heavily on the earth, this was never an unwelcome sign. Rain waters the earth and gives life to the crops; it’s so much more than an inconvenience.
- Roads. Talk about something that I don’t even think about in the US! After flying into the village of Kurukabaru, I spent just a few days there before traveling with another Jesuit through a series of remote villages. We planned to make much of the trip on foot, but we were aided in our journey by some local village leaders who helped carry us by ATV. Trust me – this sounds much more glamorous than it is. We had one ATV to carry 3-5 people, along with our bags. I spent most of the time on the back wheel well, where I was holding on for dear life as we bounced and bounded over rocky mountain paths. A sticker on the ATV served as a constant reminder of the dangers of overloading or carrying more than one passenger. Without passable roads (which apparently don’t cover the entire globe??), this was the best way to travel.
- Mosquito nets. (and not so thankful for mosquitos). Guyana, like many tropical countries, is rife with mosquitos and suffers from occasional bouts of malaria. The nets that cover your bed are literally a life-saver: treated nets are one of the biggest global preventers of malaria. I had one unfortunate morning when I woke up under my mosquito net with my knees and calves covered in red bumps. How did that happen? I quickly spotted the culprit: a blood-gorged mosquito inside my net. It was too drunk on my fluids to even react to my swiping hand. A red splash went out across the webbing as I offered my retaliation. Aside from this hiccup, the mosquito nets generally kept the mosquitoes OUT.
- The night sky. Hundreds of miles away from the nearest city and lacking significant access to electricity, life in the interior followed the rhythms of the sun. Since we were near the equator, daylight generally lasted from 6am-6pm, and so the days went. After sunset, the day quickly wound down. But the greatest amazement wasn’t early bedtimes: it was the splendor of the night skies. The blackness overhead was clothed in a shimmering blanket of stars. And when the moon was full and bright, it lit the earth in a bluish glow and cast dark shadows. You could make your way through villages without a flashlight I would sit with ease staring up in wonder and amazement, making a prayer at every falling star.
- Beds. Turns out beds are incredibly comfortable for sleeping. Hammocks, on the other hand? Much better for naps than nights. On our trek through the Pakaraima Mountains, we would sling our hammocks in each village. It’s a very portable and convenient way to carry a sleeping station, don’t get me wrong. But sadly, if you’re not used to it, it’s a challenging way to get some shut-eye (especially if you like to sleep on your side or stomach…there’s not really any turning around involved). After several sleepless nights in a row, my body was too exhausted to protest and I slept through a full night. But believe me, when I reached a bed after ten days, I was relieved.
- Washing machines. I had no idea how much time and effort they save! I thought you just throw some clothes in, press a button, and an hour later, all clean. Apparently the washing machine is working all that time in between. Who knew? Well, in the village of Karasabai the only washing machines were Sisters Divya and Seraphina. They could wash clothes by hand like you cannot believe! As for me? Total amateur hour. An hour of scrubbing would leave me dripping in sweat and covered in mosquito bites (they congregate around the water puddles). It didn’t take long for me to start acting like most college guys and re-wearing shirts again and again. “It doesn’t smell…too much.”
- Refrigerators. This is something I open and close everyday in the US with barely a moment’s pause for this incredible invention of the past century. It serves the obvious purpose of keeping things cold and fresh. I didn’t realize how much I missed this innovation until a group of American high school students came to Karasabai on an alternative Spring Break trip. A local family let us use their refrigerator for the week to store food and drinks. I was caught off-guard the first day of their visit when a couple of old two-liter bottles filled with water were placed on the table, and I took a sip of ice cold water in the tropical heat of the day. SO refreshing! All it took was a glass of cold water on a hot day.
- Fresh food. With the rains came an abundance of fresh food, unlike the processed food in the US, and fresh food that travels hundreds of miles to make it to our grocery stores. Cassava was the staple product and was usually ground into a course, chewy grain called farine. The fruits were much more appealing: coconuts, papayas, bananas. Cashew trees yield both tasty cashew nuts and fruits that can make a tangy drink. The tiny village of Karasabai has its own peanut butter factory, where three ingredients are combined into a delicious spread of fresh peanut butter. Mango trees are especially plentiful in the interior, and I had my fill. Each mango tree gives off so many mangos that the communities cannot possibly consume them all as they become ripe. Despite stuffing my face with mangos
every meal of the day, I would still notice under trees the many trampled mangos that had spoiled.
- The joy of good conversation. When electricity is limited, a lot of our conventional forms of entertainment are eliminated: forget about the TV or the computer! This also makes it take longer for news to travel, as I learned when we were running a workshop in a remote village in the middle of the papal election. The first news we caught was that a new pope was elected (gasp!). The next day, we heard he was from South America (double gasp!). It wasn’t until we returned to the main village that we learned the full scope of Pope Francis’s election. And he’s a Jesuit, no less! (–on the floor in shock–) I was staying with Jesuits from across India, deep in the heart of Guyana. We sat on the rooftop that night and talked and talked about the news. We didn’t have the 24-hour news cycle, but we didn’t need it. In fact, my most entertaining moments were spent sharing stories, laughing, and engaging in deep conversation.
- The people of Guyana. More than anything else, my time was marked by the people I encountered in villages, homes and churches across the interior. In every village I entered, people gathered in welcome. Children would come visit me daily to learn a song or act out a Bible story. I shared countless meals and was treated to boundless measures of generosity: more than I could ever deserve.
The great abundance of mangos was often used as an analogy for the love of God, who lavishes us far beyond our needs. While this tree might be a good analogy for God’s abundant love, even better evidence of that love comes from the hearts of the people. For generations, this land lived without a word for “thank you.” And yet, the people have perfected a spirit of gratitude. It touched my life and touched my heart.
As I rocked and jostled in a cramped van making its way over an unpaved highway to the capital of Georgetown, I gave plenty of thought to the experiences of my three months. We had three flat tires along the way (a bit of a problem when you are only carrying two spares), so I had more than enough time to reflect. The overwhelming grace was that of gratitude. The experience helped me to recognize so much of what I take for granted: roads, beds, washing machines, and refrigerators. More than that, it opened my eyes to the wonders of natural creation, the delights of fresh food, the majesty of the night sky, and the gift of good conversation. Among all these many things to be grateful for, I give thanks most of all for the people of Guyana. “Tengke kuru.” Happy Thanksgiving everyone.