GuyaNEWS – September 2014
Ever since applying to work internationally last year, it was always my intention to stay in touch with everyone back home in the United States. Now that I’ve been living abroad for nearly a month, I figured it was a great time to send out my first e-mail update. I’ve been doing my best to continually update the blog I’ve been keeping about this experience of living in South America, but I know that checking a blog regularly isn’t in the cards for many people that I want to keep in touch with. So, here I am, keeping you updated through e-mail too. For those of you reading my blog, some of these things may be a bit repetitive, but hopefully it isn’t too torturous to reread a thing or two.
I arrived in Guyana on Monday, August 25th at about 11pm after making my way through customs and immigration and after three flights from Syracuse, NY to Philadelphia to Miami to Trinidad and Tobago and, finally, Georgetown Guyana. I met up with my three current housemates in the very crowded, and very confusing, Miami Airport. After a long wait in the Caribbean Airlines line, we made it to our gate with a little bit of time to spare and soon found ourselves on the 5 hour flight to Guyana (with that one stop in Trinidad). Since my total travel time from the first airport to the final airport was over 24 hours, I was pretty tired on the last flight, so before I knew it, we were landing in Guyana. We all got a sense of “what we were in for” as soon as we arrived in Miami and recognized the variety of people among us. By the time we were actually on our plane, it was very obvious that we were not in Kansas anymore –I think we were the only Caucasian people on the plane. It was a great way to prep us for what we would be experiencing when we landed.
Once we were through customs, two of the Sisters of Mercy and their driver picked us up at the airport. Right away we needed to start adjusting to our new lives. The temperature was the first thing that I noticed. Lugging all of our bags across the parking lot gave us a quick understanding of what doing any sort of manual labor was going to be like this year. I felt like such an American as the four of us tried to shove one years worth of belongings into the back of the van we were being driven in. Even just in the parking lot, I took note of some of the differences. There were stray dogs sprinkled among the crumbling parking spots, not to mention the stench that accompanied the dogs. Unfortunately, I realized quickly that the smell wasn’t because of the dogs or the parking lot –that’s just what Guyana smells like. I wish I could describe what this city smells like, but after much deliberation, I’ve concluded there is no other smell in the world I can compare it to. Try to imagine what a months worth of garbage sitting outside of your house in a wet ditch for weeks on end would smell like. It smells a little something like that.
Our hour drive into the city of Georgetown from the airport wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I assumed we’d be on dirt roads, but the roads were paved and relatively smooth. Our only culture shock on the drive was the lack of streetlights (none at all) and the crazy driving that our driver is accustomed to. Note to any future travelers to Guyana: don’t sit in the front seat on your very first drive in this country or you may need a new pair of underwear by the time you arrive at your destination. It takes a lot to get used to driving in the lane for oncoming traffic WHILE there is oncoming traffic coming at you at just as quick of a speed as you’re approaching them. I believe we had a few close calls just on our ride in, but none of the locals in the car with us even flinched, so I figured it was all just part of the experience, the culture.
To help us acclimate to our new lives, we stayed at the convent with three sisters for our first three nights here. I was given my own room, my own bathroom, and someone to cook for me. It was a very helpful, welcoming first three days. By the time Thursday rolled around, my housemates and I jumped in, feet first into our new lives and moved into our new home.
I’ve been working for just over three weeks now at an orphanage for boys about fifteen minutes outside of the city of Georgetown in a small town called Plaisance. There are over fifty boys that live at the orphanage and about half of them attend the K-6 school on the grounds of the orphanage. Once the boys reach grade 7, they go to school at a secondary school in the next town over. I’ve been teaching the fifth grade class since my arrival and it has been…quite an experience. There are just a handful of boys in each grade. The Nursery class has 3 boys while the third and sixth grades each have 5 boys. Every other class has 4 boys, except for fourth grade, that grade doesn’t exist this year because there are no boys that age in the orphanage. So, I spend my mornings and afternoons with three nine year olds and a thirteen year old who is repeating 5th grade for the second (or third?) time. They’re great kids, always keeping me on my toes. As the days have worn on, I’ve realized just how important the role I play in their lives is. Not to sound like a conceited fool, but the information that a fifth grade teacher dishes out to his/her students is essential stuff for life. For example, in the first few days of school, I’ve already taught the boys how to use quotations marks in Grammar class and how to do long division in Math class. When it comes to teaching vital lessons like these, I take the job very seriously. It’s fun to be able to teach something fundamental to little human beings, and it’s exhilarating to see them begin to understand it. On the flipside though, it’s slightly terrifying when you correct their homework and realize that they are still missing some of the basics. Alas, all part of the ups and downs of teaching. I’m learning really fast, I love being able to learn on the job.
My classroom is a simple room with no walls between my room and the other classrooms in the school. All that separates each “classroom” from the next one over is a blackboard. I would have thought that it would take quite some time to get used to this way of teaching and learning, but I quickly grew used to staying focused on my classroom and the kids have been learning like this their whole lives, so they don’t even notice that there are five other lessons going on simultaneously with their lesson. The only time I have any issue with my four boys losing their focus is when the first graders are singing along with a cassette tape to an “Itsy Bitsy Spider” song that they all learned when they were in first grade. No matter how many times I try to coral them back into our lesson, they always feel the need to sing along with their six-year-old friends.
I have no materials to speak of to teach my students with, other than a few pieces of chalk and some outdated, tattered textbooks. Somehow though, it’s enough. Yes, it would be greatly beneficial to have a copier, markers, crayons, etc. but we make due with what we have. It takes a lot more creativity to teach a group of boys with nothing but chalk than it would if I had a “Smart Board” and access to the Internet. I do find it humorous; however, that at the end of each day all four boys and I are always covered in chalk –our clothes, our faces, there’s no escaping it!
Our House and Neighborhood
After our first three nights, we moved out of the convent and into our volunteer house in a different part of town. We live in a relatively safe part of Georgetown; however, we certainly need to keep our wits about us, and we’ve been instructed not to go outside at night or to walk alone. Now that we’ve adjusted to life in our section of Guyana’s capital, we’re getting acquainted with our surroundings, including the people. Unfortunately, the garbage and trash in this section of town is bad. The streets of Georgetown are lined with gutters and ditches, not sidewalks. These gutters and ditches exist because the entire city sits eight feet below sea level, so when the rainy season arrives in December, the ditches will come in handy for moving some of the water away. Although, I hear that the city still floods rather drastically. Anyway, that’s beside the point since the rainy season has yet to arrive. The gutters, for now, are filled with garbage. There are take out food containers, bottles, cans, plastic…you name it, and it’s sitting in the gutters, some of which are directly in front of our house, sitting in a small amount of murky sea green water, letting off that stench that I was telling you about before. It’s been three weeks, we’re still not used to the smell. When will we be used to the smell?
In terms of the people who live in and around our neighborhood, I think they’re mostly respectable people. Every home is armed with a gate or a fence of some kind, but I think that reflects the views of the country more so than the neighborhood itself. Our home has a small gate and is set back off the street more so than most homes, which helps to keep people on the street away from our house. In my opinion, the gate is little more than a decoration since anyone could hop over it, but it doesn’t worry me, our house is equipped with four locks on each door and bars over all of the downstairs windows. If someone wanted to get in without a key, they’d really have to work for it.
Although our house is quite large in terms of square footage, it would definitely qualify as a “fixer upper” in the United States. Not to sound like too much of a spoiled America, but there isn’t much in this house that doesn’t need to be fixed. Everything always seems to be breaking, leaking, cracking, toppling over, or falling apart completely. It would be comical if it were happening to a couple of sitcom characters instead of my housemates and me. Our living room area is rather nice, a couple of chairs and love seats; however, you have to select your seating carefully, for if you sit on the wrong side of one of the love seats, the arm falls off and the entire piece of furniture collapses toward the ground. To counter this problem, Monica, one of my housemates, has taken a spare mattress we have in the house and laid it down in front of the television, just so we don’t have to worry about sitting on a bad piece of furniture. Speaking of the TV, we do have one! It gets four Guyanese channels and has a DVD player that will apparently only work for about a year before the humidity destroys it. Our bathroom and kitchen sinks are perpetually leaking, but not out of any areas that we are able to detect the leaks so we can stop them. Our oven has two broken burners, our pots and pans are well worn and should probably be replaced, our upstairs toilet and shower only work on occasion while the downstairs toilet and shower work regularly but are not without their quirks. Basically, everything takes a little more time and energy than in the United States.
The time to wash my clothes seems to come around far too often. Unfortunately, due to the extreme humidity and high temperatures in this part of the world, clothing suffers an abnormally large amount of exposure to sweat. This means that laundry has to be done more frequently than in the U.S. The process of getting laundry done here is very long and very involved. There are no washing machines or Laundromats in Guyana. Every piece of clothing needs to be washed by hand. The process goes something like this:
Fill three buckets with water. Put detergent in the first bucket and put all of the clothing you’re washing into that bucket (due to the size of the bucket, I can usually get about two pairs of pants and maybe eight shirts done at a time).
Next, fill the other two buckets with water while the clothing soaks in the first bucket for one hour. After one hour has passed, begin pulling the clothing from the bucket one at a time and ringing them out before transferring them to the second bucket. Ringing out each article of clothing helps cut down on the amount of soapy water that transfers into the second bucket, which is the beginning of the “rinse cycle”. When all of the clothes have been transferred over into the second bucket, slosh them around a little to get some more of the soap out of them and then begin the process of moving them to the third bucket where they will be rinsed for a second and final time.
Finally, when all of the clothes have been placed into the third bucket, pull them out one at a time and ring them out again. Then, carry them upstairs and hang them on the clothesline, which dangles off of the balcony. The whole process should take no more than 2 or 3 hours and requires just a 1 ½ or 2 hour commitment by the launderer.
As I mentioned above, the weather in Georgetown is hot. Since we arrived, the majority of the days here have been between 85 and 95 degrees. This may seem tolerable, but factor in the humidity, which is usually 80 or 90%, and everyone is a sweaty, scary looking mess by the time they return home from work. There are very few places here that have air conditioning. Everyone just “sweats it out.” To my horror, when I accepted the position to work at a school here, I wasn’t aware of what the dress code is for teachers –and for most professional people. Men are expected to wear business clothing. Long pants, socks, button down shirts are a daily requirement. This is similar to what I wore to work last year in East Saint Louis, but come on, there were days in ESTL when the temperature was barely above zero. Here, wearing pants and long sleeve shirts seems criminal. I can almost hear my body arguing with me as I get dressed each morning. Alas, I cannot believe I am even typing these words, but I’m sort of getting used to it. On days when the humidity is down a bit, there are clouds in the sky, or it happens to be 85 degrees instead of 90, I can feel the difference and don’t feel nearly as uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the heat will be a major factor in everything I do here for the coming year.
I don’t have too much to say about food thus far. Maybe by the time I send out another update I will have eaten a variety of Guyanese food and will be able to share a few of my favorites. The Guyanese love their rice dishes and believe in eating their largest meal in the middle of the day. From what I’ve experienced, bread and jam is a staple during the evening meal. Being at work during the lunch hour is always interesting to me. All of the women I work with are always eating large quantities of food. They often try to explain to me how important it is to eat my rice in the middle of the day instead of for dinner. I think, if I end up adapting to some of the cultural eating habits, I’ll be eating a much larger amount of rice than I ever have before. I am thankful that rice is a staple though; I suppose it could be something gross, like porridge or corn mush like in Kenya.
Grocery shopping here is quite an ordeal. There are some grocery stores a few blocks away from us, but there is no easy way to transport the groceries back to our house, so all four of us have to shop together. So far, this hasn’t been an issue, but it may get tedious having to grocery shop every weekend. Again, this could be one of those things that come with living in Guyana. You have to be more involved in everything that happens in your life here. Going to get the groceries is the easy part of food shopping, too. When you’re in the grocery store, the most challenging thing is trying to figure out how much each item costs. One American dollar equals about two hundred Guyanese dollars. We’re getting better at understanding which prices are reasonable and which are outrageous. The fact of the matter is, some items are more costly because they’re being shipped from further away than we Americans are typically used to. The prices here are much more reasonable than when I lived in Hawaii and Alaska though.
The difficult part of food shopping is getting fruits and vegetables. The market, which is just a few blocks away from our house, is always busy, always noisy, and has been extremely intimidating the first few times we’ve meandered through it. It’s the kind of place that you see in the movies, hundreds of sellers and thousands of customers lining the streets of the city. One section in particular is a maze-like series of shacks, with fruits and vegetables piled up and overflowing out of each vendor’s station. This maze is so big, I’m certain I wouldn’t be able to find my way out if I didn’t take specific note of where I was at all times. The experience of going to the market is exhilarating. I’m just very aware of the fact that I stick out like a sore thumb and am, therefore, a target. It’s still really fun to be a part of though.
Coming to Guyana, the only English speaking country in South America, was supposed to be easy. Okay, it wasn’t supposed to be easy, but it was suppose to be easier to communicate. It turns out, unless they look directly at me and speak very slowly, I cannot understand the majority of the people around me. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the way that the Guyanese talk, but I can’t help but feel a little frustrated having to ask people to repeat themselves two or three times. Sitting on the buses here, listening to the conversations people have with one another, it sounds like nothing more than a series of grunting and groaning. I’ve picked up on the fact that they shorten their sentences, but I recognize that it will take a long while before I know what random people on the street are saying to one another. It’s frustrating. My saving grace is that children are easier to understand. I’ve had little issue with the students I teach, and if I don’t understand what they say to me, I just ask them to repeat themselves over and over again until I understand what they’re saying.
We have everything in Guyana. Our house is infested with little lizards that crawl around on the walls, ceilings, floors, and counters. These little guys mind their own business for the most part, so we try our best to coexist with them. We’ve heard that they dine on mosquitoes and roaches, too, so we’re okay with keeping them around. Yesterday, we saw a tarantula in our laundry room. None of us knew what to do about that, so we left it alone and it disappeared. We’re hoping we don’t see it again. Although there are a variety of critters that we’ve encountered since moving in (I’ll spare you the details), the mosquitoes are definitely the worst. Homes in Guyana do not have screens, so we’re basically at the mercy of the little vampires that live here. You can only put on so much bug repellent before you decide to just risk getting bitten a few times. It’s a tough situation, and the bug bites never go away, we’re always getting eaten.
Water and Electricity
These two things are something that I won’t take for granted again for quite some time upon my return to the developed world. In Georgetown, the water is “shut off” every night around nine o clock and is not turned back on until the morning. It’s a little annoying, but not the end of the world. The tricky part about the water is that we can’t drink it. It also comes out of the faucet looking a little brown sometimes. I still find it a little gross. All of the water that we consume needs to be treated, which means we have to collect the water from a water point down the street. We have three five-gallon containers that we lug up and down the street about once every two days when we need more drinking and cooking water. Carrying each pound of water that you will consume really makes you appreciate every drop you drink. On the bright side, we’ll all be ripped by the end of the year just from carrying all of our water from the water point to our house multiple times a week!
Electricity is another monster that we have to deal with. Since this is the developing world, blackouts happen frequently. There isn’t much more to say about that, except that, when you least expect it, all of the power vanishes and takes anywhere from a half hour to a few hours to return. We’ve had three blackouts since I’ve been here. No one takes blackouts too seriously since they occur so often, but it’s important to have a flashlight at the ready, just in case.
The three women I live with are my saving grace! We’ve been helping each other through all of the hiccups and quirks of Georgetown and have been friends for quite a while. We met in March at a discernment weekend for the program and have been friends ever since. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time to elaborate on them later on, but for now, I think it’s important to share that this experience is much richer with them in it. They’re going through the same things that I’m going through, so it’s nice to have people to turn to.
I’ve saved sleeping for last because it marks the beginning and end of each of my days here. Crawling into bed at the end of each night is such a victory. Due to the high volume of mosquitoes in our home, each bed has a bug net that dangles from the ceiling and surrounds the bed. Getting under the net, knowing that no bug will be able to bite or crawl on you while you’re sleeping is such a relief. It’s also nice to close out the days knowing that you’re safe, in a comfy bed, and laying in the direct path of your fan, which is turned on high and blowing directly on your overheated body. Yeah, there is nothing like going to bed, breaking out a good book, and grinning ear to ear at the mosquitoes that cannot get inside the net. Every night when I shut my light off, I find myself whispering a prayer of thanks and then breathing a big sigh of relief before rolling over. Sleeping always comes easily here. Each day, I’m physically, mentally and emotionally spent. Sleep fixes all of that though.
In conclusion, I want to thank everyone who has sent his or her support from far away. Whether you’ve gotten in touch via letters or emails, have been reading my blog, or have just been sending pleasant prayers and thoughts my way, I am deeply honored to have each of you in my life. I am also honored that you read this whole message!
If you are interested in following my blog, the address is: mattylife.wordpress.com
If you are not interested in following the blog, fear not, I will send another e-mail update in the near future.
I have also been blessed with a number of people who have kindly offered to send donations of classroom supplies to me. I cannot tell you how thankful I am to have so many supportive people looking to assist me in my teaching endeavor this year; however, shipping anything from the United States to Guyana is very expensive. On top of the shipping fee, the Guyanese Post Office also charges a $25 pickup fee for the recipient. Since I’m living on a volunteer stipend for the year, I would be unable to afford to pick up any packages. But, thank you anyway. If; however, you feel so inclined to assist me in another way, that can be arranged. MVC asks that each of their volunteers fundraise money to help keep the program running. Normally I would find this comical, that a program that I’m donating a year of my life to would want money from me, but it makes sense. This incredible opportunity is made possible for me because this program exists. And, the fact of the matter is, by fundraising money for the MVC International Program, the young boys I work with benefit directly in many ways. If you choose to donate, the money would be used to ensure that a teacher remains at their school in the years to come. So, if you have even just five dollars to spare, I would appreciate the support and assistance. Donations can be made here:
Thank you again for reading about my new life. I’m thinking about you!