This is what the holiday looked like in Guyana for me:
The orphanage where I work empties out once each year for Christmas Day and Boxing Day. For these two days, every staff member is given the time off and the boys all split up and go to different locations to give the orphanage a chance to “air out.” Many of the boys go home to their families for the holidays with relatives who care about them but are unable to support them financially throughout the school year. Some of the boys actually go home with the matrons who care for them everyday, and others still go home with teachers from the Bosco Academy. To assist in the emptying process, my roommates and I agreed to take two boys for Christmas. We wound up having two brothers, an eleven and twelve year old. I went to pick them up in the late afternoon on Christmas Eve and I brought them back to Georgetown with me. The orphanage had already begun the emptying process, but many of the boys were still on the grounds, waiting to see who they would be going home with more the holiday. It seems to me that some of the boys get luckier than others. Some get to go home with teachers or matrons that will keep them for many nights, while others may only get to go somewhere for an evening or two. I’m not sure they notice in the same detail that I did this year, having fresh eyes for the situation; however, it’s something worth noting.
When I picked up my two holiday visitors, they came equipped with a few bags of presents and a backpack which was not filled with clothing and toothbrushes like I thought, but rather, more presents. This caused a bit of an issue once we realized they had no clean clothes to change into, but we figured it out eventually. Leave it to kids to remember bags of gifts but not their toothbrushes. Each boy at the orphanage is given a handful of gifts each year by different organizations from around Georgetown. I was told that normally each boy gets around eight gifts, but this year, to cut down on waste and clutter, each boy was given three gifts and the rest were re-donated. This may sound sad, but as someone who works at the orphanage, I can see why the staff wouldn’t want 400 remote controlled cars buzzing around the compound. The fact of the matter is, everything ends up getting broken. Many times the toys are destroyed on purpose, so it’s best that each boy was only given three gifts.
The two boys I had with me were a little timid around our house on Christmas Eve as they were adjusting to being around the four of us volunteers. It was kind of cute actually, but I still had them help me prepare dinner, cutting onions and mixing ingredients together. I don’t think they get the opportunity to cook ever at the orphanage; they just eat whatever they’re served. To make them feel more at home, we let them watch the new X-Men movie that we happen to have in our collection while dinner was cooking. They didn’t get through much of the movie before it was time to eat. We Americans were doing our best to make the evening special. We set the table, put down a new table cloth, prepared multiple dishes, decorated the house with paper snowflakes, and poured Ginger Beer—which we think is somewhat Guyanese Holiday-esque.
We had baked spaghetti and a carrot dish for dinner. It really wasn’t anything too over the top, but we wanted to make sure it was a meal we put a little thought into. The boys seemed to like the spaghetti but didn’t care for the carrots. I suppose that makes them…completely normal kids. When dinner was finished, we took them to Christmas Eve mass at 9:00. It ended up being a two-hour service, but the two of them are so accustomed to sitting quietly in church that it didn’t matter, it was harder on us adults, trying to stomach listening to a foreign priest blabbing on about some stuff that was irrelevant to the holiday. When we got home after 11pm, we were all pretty tired, but the boys wanted to finish watching X-Men, so we allowed them to stay up a little late. I think this makes us cool, but I’m not sure.
Christmas morning was a little bizarre like the rest of the days. The house was awake and bustling a little after 8:00. I think, despite being in South America, I was still expecting Christmas morning to “go” a certain way. Christmas really is what you make of it. There was no gift exchange (which is something I’ve been striving to experience) except for the boys. They each opened their gifts and then all of the things that I wrapped in newspaper in their stockings. By the end of the morning, they were fully stocked on biscuits and goodies for the coming days. The gifts that they had donated to them were okay, I think. Collectively, they got three remote-controlled cars, two books, some cologne, and a plastic helicopter toy. It wasn’t a Christmas morning I was used to. Of course, the boys don’t have the same traditions that I do considering the cultural differences. They didn’t take their time opening the gifts to savor the moment. They didn’t even sit down to open their gifts. In fact, when I was driving with them from the orphanage to my house, I saw them peaking in the packages to see what they had gotten. It ended up being a nice morning though. They spent some time racing their cars around our living room floor and then we had breakfast. The day before, we had gone to a bakery across town and selected these normally-out-of-price-range pastries to have for breakfast, but the boys weren’t interested in them. They just ate cornflakes. They ate cornflakes for breakfast every morning with us. I don’t think they get to eat cereal very often at the orphanage.
At noon, us volunteers had to go to the local convent to have Christmas dinner with the sisters. This meant that the boys had to be dropped off at someone else’s home while we were away. It was a bit strange to dump them off on someone else, but it was the only opportunity we had to visit with the sisters. Unlike our sad excuse for a house, the convent was decked out for Christmas. There were three tables setup on the veranda, there was a Christmas tree, and there were all these little Guyanese Christmas things sprinkled around the house. Christmas dinner was a blend of American and Guyanese food, the perfect blend to represent the guests. There was turkey, ham, macaroni and cheese (this is actually a Guyanese dish, made with eggs), sparkling cider and wine, rice, olives and pickles. There were no vegetables to speak off, apparently someone was suppose to bring them, but they forgot. There were 17 of us in total. When dinner was finished, the sisters had a number of little traditions that they do. Everyone was given them fortune cookie-like cards to read that were being stored in the hands of the Baby Jesus in the crèche in the living room. The cards had little fortunes on them for the coming year. We then sang a round of “the 12 Days of Christmas”, each table taking different verses. It didn’t make any sense, but why not? It was cute to be part of such a unique celebration with this perfect blend of aging American sisters who have spent their whole lives in Guyana, and Guyanese sisters who know nothing else for Christmas. There was Black Cake for desert—one of the main foods that Guyanese use to symbolize the holiday season. It’s essentially dark looking fruit cake that is placed on the table, has rum poured all over it, and then is lit on fire with a match before eating. The fact that it was on fire a few moments before I was chewing on it gave it an interesting flavor. It wasn’t bad. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t hate it. We, as a household, have actually collected about four black cakes so far this season. There is no way we’re going to eat them all.
We returned home around 3:30 in the afternoon expecting to get the boys back relatively quickly. Unfortunately, they didn’t get back to us until about 5:30. This meant that the four of us were actually worried about them and where they were. One of our neighborhood friends walked by as we were lounging at the gate at the end of our driveway waiting for the boys, he said, “now you know how your parents felt whenever you stayed out late.” It was true, in a matter of hours we had become worried parents.
When the boys finally got back, they were ready to be back in our care. They were warmed up, they had their time away from us, and were happy to be back. We watched the Jim Carrey version of The Grinch before heading to bed. *I made sure to make them brush their teeth with their newly found toothbrushes before falling asleep.
On the 26th, Boxing Day, we held onto the boys, giving the staff of the orphanage the entire day off. We took them to the park and zoo. Neither of them seemed especially giddy about going, but once we were out of the house and on our way, they seemed to enjoy themselves. No twelve year old wants to own the fact that they like going to the zoo, but I think, for the most part, they don’t mind it. On our way out of the zoo, we found the manatees that exist in a very large exhibit within the park. The boys got the chance to feed them grass and even pet them—the sign states that they’re “semi-tame.”
By the time the day was done, we were all more than ready to just flop down on the couches at home and watch a movie.
We were technically only required to keep the boys at our house through the 26th, but there was no reason to bring them back to the orphanage because they were so well behaved, plus, it was nice to have a couple extra personalities around. They really fit in quite well with our household. There were numerous times when we all shared a few belly laughs about something that was said or done. Kids add a fun, extra element to a home. So, instead of returning them to the orphanage, we let them hang around for the day and watch movies. I can’t tell you how many movies they buzzed through throughout the day, but at one point, we had to walk to the store to get a few more. It was kind of fun letting them each pick out two movies that they wanted to watch—according to them, at the orphanage they need to keep the TV channel set on Cartoon Network, and rarely get the chance to watch movies. The whole time, I kept reminding myself that this was their break away from the chaotic home they share with more than 45 other boys. This was their chance to be at peace and just watch movies together.
So, the 27th came and went and we never took the boys back home. On the 28th, we had plans to travel into the interior of Guyana and explore ruins of an old fort from when the Dutch were present in the country hundreds of years ago. We opted to take the boys with us, assuming they wouldn’t have too much opportunity in the years ahead to see something like that. I’ll write a separate blog post about the trip, but they ended up coming with us and we got plenty of photos of the excursion.
At the end of the day on the 28th, four full days after picking them up, I could sense it was time to take them back. I think, if money and space weren’t an issue, we probably could have kept them forever. I could have kept them forever. They were so well behaved, polite, respectful. Dang, how do kids growing up in an environment like the one they are growing up in end up being so cool? It was a sad drive back to the orphanage. It was sad pulling up to the gate, unloading the car, and leaving them with the matrons. There were so few boys around when we got there too, which made me think I was dropping them off too soon, but I got word that many would be returning from their respective caretakers within the hour, so I felt a bit better. Both boys hugged me goodbye. Now the house is back to “normal”, quieter. Christmas has passed. What a strange, memorable one it was.