GuyaNEWS: The Guyanese January Newsletter
It has been a very quiet (okay, silent) month on my blog. It would seem that after posting 31 posts in December I’ve just grown lazy here in the New Year, but these past few weeks have found me being anything but sluggish. Unlike in 2014, things seem to be moving forward in the organization that I’m working for. We, the volunteers, may very well not be as “stuck” as we were feeling just a few weeks ago. I hope.
New House, New Hope
There are no words to describe what living in Guyana is like. In fact, I wrote earlier this year on the official Mercy Volunteer Corps blog about how there is nothing easy about living in Guyana. I would like to officially retract that statement. There was nothing easy about living in the old house that the four of us volunteers endured existing in for the past 18 weeks. There are a few things about living in Guyana that actually are easy. Heck, there are even a few things about living in Guyana that are flat out enjoyable, I just didn’t know it. Holy cow, my judgment of this country was completely shrouded in the confusion and sadness that existed in my mind, heart, and even my freakin’ soul over the place I was suppose to be calling “home.”
It took us a few months to become vocal about how much we disliked our old house because we weren’t sure if we were suppose to be living in difficult conditions. But then we realized that everyone thought our house was atrocious, even locals. So, we took action. We got in the boxing ring of apartment hunting, put our dukes up, and didn’t take them down until we had secured ourselves a new place to live. I don’t think finding new real estate for MVC was in my contract, but I knew if we didn’t take action, we could easily live out the majority of our time in Guyana in that dump that was sucking the life out of us. So, we’re free now.
We’ve said goodbye to the mold and mildew, to the front door that won’t close properly, the ants that are everywhere no matter how clean you keep things, the cockroaches, the mice that pee and poop on our beds and couches, the showers and toilets that don’t work, the landlord that didn’t give a flying crap about us, the roof with twelve leaks, the driveway that floods when it rains, the front gate that won’t lock after it rains, the broken furniture that we had no choice but to use, the screen-less windows that allowed every mosquito in Georgetown to eat us alive, the floors that we couldn’t keep free of dirt no matter how many times we swept, the kitchen with no clean or animal-free storage space, only one working sink, a toilet that leaked on the floor, a refrigerator that leaked on both the inside and outside, a plant from outside growing INTO the house, walls that have likely never been cleaned, a tarantula, a genuine plumbing problem that didn’t allow the smell of urine to dissipate ever, locks on our front door that would break when turning the key in them, a hutch filled with mouse feces and so, so much more. Most importantly; however, we’ve said goodbye to our old attitudes. All of that is gone now. We no longer have to tip toe around our lives, around the filth. It’s time to put the complaining behind us and to focus on all the hope that now surrounds us with this new place.
Depression & Scandal
I found out something about an aspect of my life down here that has been troubling to sort through. I don’t feel comfortable saying much more than that, but on top of a difficult, lonely holiday season, the complicated housing situation, and the general sadness that comes with feeling fully submerged in a culture that is not your own, learning this tricky bit of information was almost too much to bare. Annie, one of my roommates who is a social worker, gave all of us volunteers an assessment to see if any of us were depressed. Our results weren’t pretty. We all fell somewhere on the depression scale. I only scored in the “mildly depressed” zone, which is nothing compared to where some of the other volunteers were at, but I still find it ridiculous that life had beaten me down into that kind of place.
Where am I at now? I’m in the clear. I retook the test after we moved to the new house and now I’m sitting comfortably in the “not depressed” zone. This doesn’t mean that everything is peachy, but I’m out of the danger zone for now. We’ll see what the “month of love” coming up has in store for me.
Ready for it? Here it is, the sentence I never thought I would ever write: sometimes it isn’t unbearably hot down here anymore. Yup, I said it. Of course it’s still absurdly warm a lot of the time, but the blend of the rainy season and the fact that it’s January is working to my advantage. I have a new route to work from our new house. The street I get to meander down toward the bus line is a shaded street with relatively well-kept homes and a few schools. Each morning as I latch the gate to our yard and begin the walk, I remind myself of what the new walk represents. It’s cheery for a reason, it reminds me of a beautiful early fall day in upstate New York every time I take it because of the blessing this new house is. I wouldn’t be taking this great walk every morning if I hadn’t been gifted this new house, which I love. I love it. I love it. I love it. This walk is quite nice on it’s own too. All of the trees provide an adequate amount of shade and a few of them are even shedding a few of their leaves, so it reminds me of what fall feels like. The neighborhood bustles with people getting to school and work. Kids walk to their schools, people ride by on bikes, honk in their cars, weave around the traffic. The two schoolyards I walk past are always filled with kids playing. Each step I take, I take in meditation, just to start the day right. It has yet to be too hot in the morning. I still sweat, but it isn’t uncontrollable right now. We’ll see how long this lasts. I suppose they call this “winter” down here.
It was the mice peeing on our furniture that was the final straw to get us out of the old house. Our coordinator gave us permission to move into a nearby retreat center thirty minutes outside of the city, around the corner from where I work. We all literally got home from work, threw whatever we could manage into our suitcases and called a cab to take us away. I put everything that I couldn’t quickly get into my suitcase on my bed and tucked the bug net around the bed to protect my possessions from being treated like a playground by the mice.
Driving out of Georgetown to the village of Plaisance where the retreat center is was an emotional ride. I caught myself taking shallow breaths as my mind swirled with thoughts about…everything. I think my whole Guyanese experience was flashing before my eyes as we drove. When we reached the RC, we all rolled our suitcases up the ramp toward the rooms we would be staying in. Having my hand wrapped around the handle of my suitcase, hauling it toward a clean, motel-like room, made me feel like such a failure. That was the thought that ran through my head as we all glided toward the comfort—“we’ve failed. We couldn’t hack it.”
The four of us remained at the retreat center for three nights. The girls all had to take mini-buses into the city to commute to work. I, on the other hand, was able to walk to work, which I’ve never been able to do before. It was so nice to be within walking distance of the orphanage. In fact, I was so close to work that I was able to work until school was over, head home to relax for an hour or so, and then have the energy to return to the orphanage to hang out with the boys outside of the classroom setting. Normally I just don’t have the energy to stay much past the end of school, but I learned with my time at the RC that I just need an hour to decompress and then I’m ready to go again.
These three days were so packed with meaning for me that I wanted to continue the pattern. I was also caught in a difficult mental space because of our transitional housing situation. And so, I requested that I be allowed to remain at the retreat center further out on the East Coast for an additional week. My request was approved and I had the most significant, gratifying week since I arrived in Guyana in August.
There are a lot of reasons to move to a foreign country. But I think when it comes down to it, every person who chooses to live abroad has one main reason why they’re choosing to do so. Maybe they’re looking to find themselves, to see a new part of the world, to experience a different culture. I think, for me, I came to Guyana unsure about what my main reason for coming here was. Sure, I had a list of reasons why I wanted to add this chapter to my life, but I think I found my purpose this past week. Being with the boys is the reason I’m in Guyana. That’s it, that’s all. There are many wonderful side effects to living and existing in this country, things that will inevitably help me grow, perhaps significantly, as a person. But, I’m here for the boys. I’m here to experience them and whatever comes with being around them.
Having a stolen week to spend with them was extraordinary. I’m especially appreciative of the time I was able to spend with the older boys. On a normal day, they’ve left the orphanage before I arrive in the morning and I leave before they arrive back home in the afternoon. Being so close to them, I was arriving to work in time to see them for a half hour or so in the morning and then was back at the orphanage in the late afternoon each day, after having rested for an hour, to greet them when they returned home. It was these simple little interactions, as they got ready for school in the morning, as they dropped their backpacks on the floor as they arrived home, that I was so thankful to be a part of. I think maintaining a consistent presence was beneficial. They would see me in the morning and then again in the afternoon. The only day I missed seeing the older boys was Wednesday when I arrived just as they were pulling out of the driveway. Even still, the added time I had due to being around the corner from the orphanage also gave me time to hang out with the younger boys.
I can’t say that I did anything over the top with my time with them. They operate on a very strict schedule: school, bathe, dinner, group meeting, homework; but I was still there. I think that counts for something. An interesting contrast to my being there was that there was a group of 12 volunteers visiting Guyana for a week from the United States. A couple of the days that I was there at the orphanage in the afternoons, they were there too. As they do, many of the boys played with the volunteers and were happy to have their company, but it gave me the chance to observe what these kind of interactions mean to some of the boys who prefer to hang back. Many of the older boys don’t charge toward groups of short-term volunteers due to their brevity, so some of them hung around with me. I got a handful of very meaningful conversations in with the guys while the chaos happened around us.
Being out near the orphanage for a whole week also meant I got to spend the weekend with the boys. Since I obviously don’t have to work on Saturdays and Sundays, I had ample time to hang around with the guys who didn’t have to go to school for Saturday lessons (yes, that’s a thing here!). Around 11:30, I took a group of nine boys into Georgetown to go swimming. Unlike the typical Saturday, the ten of us were the only ones in the pool, and it had just rained, so the water was very cool, very refreshing. After swimming, we rode back out of the city and I spent the afternoon on the orphanage grounds, bouncing around between conversations and ball games going on. I did a couple of little social experiments while I was there, just to see how things have changed since my arrival five months ago. When a conversation would die out or a ball game would break up, I’d meander away from all of the boys and position myself in a part of the grounds that no one was occupying. Each time I did this, it took just a few moments for a cluster of boys to gather around me, both the younger and older ones. I just thought, cool.
I suppose an email doesn’t quite some up the magic of being around these boys, but I assure you, it was the greatest week. I almost wish there was housing at the orphanage for me, or around the corner from it for me. It’s just the greatest place to be. I love it.
Back to Work
The return to work has been exhilarating. I had plenty to do over the time that I had off for the holidays, but I found myself missing the routine of things. I was also just happy to finally move past the “happy times” of the holidays since they were so difficult to digest down here. I had a plan in my head that I’d be able to plan out a boatload of lessons over my time off, but that simply didn’t happen. So, I headed into the new term as prepared as I usually am, but this time I was armed with this new idea that I was really going to revolutionize the way that the boys and I interact. So far, three weeks in, we’re doing it, we’re making a change. I am proud to report that all four of my boys begin every morning by sitting quietly in meditation for ELEVEN MINUTES STRAIGHT. That’s right, I’ve managed to get them hooked on a meditation song that I own and they all shut their eyes, open their palms, and sing along every morning. Sometimes it still gives me chills to see them going within. As my four boys are diving into their souls and talking to God every morning at eight thirty, the rest of the school is warming up for their days too. The contrast of silence and mediation music in my room to the sound of rulers smacking into the flesh of little kids in the rooms surrounding mine is the ultimate clash of energies.
Other than meditation, I’ve begun to change the way the boys and I speak to one another. I like to groove in the space somewhere between teacher and “dude.” I’m not trying to be their friend by any means, but I want them to know that we don’t have to be completely serious all the time; we just need to respect each other. Whenever someone gets off track, all five of us stop what we’re doing, stand up, and take deep, meaningful breaths, using our arms to emphasize the process. It’s like doing very basic yoga. We all do this together to dial back into what we’re doing, and we do it as a group so we all recognize that we’re all in this together. The classroom is small, and so we need each other to be in a good space.
Also, part way through the day, I’m teaching my boys to do simple yoga poses. They love “tree pose.” I’m thankful for this because they always want to do it and it’s one of the easiest positions for me to do while wearing dress pants. They’re all going to be very good at balancing by the time this year is over. Other poses we’ve covered: warrior one, two, and three, and mountain pose.
Perhaps most importantly, we’ve all started a dialogue with each other about how much we like each other. The boys are far too unkind to one another both verbally and physically. I hate this, so we have to fix it. These ten-year-olds are scared of words such as “like”, “kind”, “love” and “nice”, and so I’m making them actively use these words to talk to each other. I may post on my blog more extensively about what the lesson plan I used for curbing this bullying was, but I’ll touch on it now. I had each boy partner up with another boy and then write a paragraph about some of the things they like about each other. They had to start sentences using the other boy’s name and then say things like, “I like this about you…” When the activity was finished and everyone had shared, they shook hands, looked each other in the eye and said the words “ I appreciate you.” Did it work? Not really, but it’s a good step. It’s the first step in moving away from tearing each other down and perpetuating hate.
That’s what is new about this term. I’m still teaching spelling, math, social studies, science, grammar, vocabulary, and dictation, but I’ve also added meditation, yoga, respect and love to the curriculum. Take it or leave it. You either love or hate being in Sir Matthew’s class.
Homophobia & Ignorance
“It’s medieval times down here.”
When it comes to how the Guyanese view gay people, I’m having a hard time processing it. They’re homophobic in a sense, but mostly they’re just ignorant. Working with the boys in my class has shown me directly how the kids around here are taught from an early age to hate people who are different. It’s disheartening, to say the least. For a culture that truly seems to burst from the seems with religion and a love for God, they certainly seem to be forgetting to love thy neighbor. Guyana is the only country in South America that jails people simply for being gay. In fact, the majority of the countries in South America recognize marriage and unions of some kind for gay people, but not Guyana. Guyana is behind the times, very far behind.
I knew what I was signing up for when I chose to come down here, but what I didn’t expect was where the homophobia, ignorance, and cruelty would be coming from. All of the hatred I’ve seen directed toward gay people has come from within, not from without. By this I mean that the general public hasn’t been too vocal about how they don’t like gay people. The only people who I’ve experienced disliking or disapproving of gay people are people who are involved with the program that I work with. This was something that I wasn’t expecting. I’m appalled every time I hear something new about the maltreatment of my fellow human beings.
The worst part about the homophobia down here is that it is taught at such a young age. The four boys I teach five days a week are so homophobic it’s disturbing. They aren’t unique either. All of the boys growing up at the orphanage are being taught that being gay is wrong. This isn’t necessarily something that is happening because they live in the orphanage, this is because they live in Guyana. I never let them off the hook when they say something rude about a gay person in my class, but I know that it’s not making a difference to them. Even at age ten, they’re already so set in their ways and this behavior is being perpetuated everyday by everyone around them. It breaks my heart to know that these boys that I care about so much are being taught and growing up into people who would hate me if they knew who I was. The truth; however, is that I rarely think about myself in this consistent mess. I think about the people on the streets who the boys will look down upon for expressing themselves. I think about the friendships and romances they’ll pass up because of the hate they’ll project, the tolerance they won’t have been taught. I think about the boys at the orphanage who are gay. As ten year olds, of course the boys struggle when I use words such as “like” and “love”, but I just keep trying to explain myself to them. “No, no, no, it’s okay to love him like your brother. You should love everyone. Just because you like him doesn’t mean you like him. Understand?”
Summary: It’s a clash of cultures, for sure.
Well, you’ve done it. You’ve found your way all the way to the end of yet another one of these Guyanese newsletters! Thanks for sticking with me. I hope you found the above information to be informative and real, rather than whiny and sad. I think, with all that I have going on in my life here in Guyana, it’s important to remember to love. I want so much to teach my four fifth graders about what it means to love, to be loved, to know love. That’s a focus of mine. Perhaps you can work with me. Send a little love this way; create a little more love in your life. We’re all connected anyway, so if you can show a little more love to the people around you, your loved ones and strangers alike, perhaps a little of that magic will reach all the way to the shores of the East Coast Demerara in Guyana, South America.
Peace and Love…and Love,