GuyaNEWS: The February Guyanese Newsletter
I’ve been slowly compiling things to write about for this newsletter over the course of the month. Finally, after much anticipation, my roommates and I were able to venture off to Kaiteur, the largest single drop waterfall in the world, which sits cozily in the interior of Guyana. We, as a group, also went on a retreat to the border of Suriname. Although I was unable to cross into either country, I have now at least laid eyes on Suriname and Brazil, thanks to these two trips. There are more details about both adventures in the sections that follow.
While February was certainly an eventful month, it was also a pivotal month for me when it came to assessing my experience in Guyana. As of the end of this month, I have now lived in Guyana for one half of a year. It’s almost impossible to think back to August and recognize how much time has gone by, how much has changed in my life since then. Now that I’m over the hump, I continue to assess where I will be heading next. What will become of me this summer when I jet off of South America?
Here’s all of the Guyana news I’ve got for you from February…
Teaching was extremely difficult at the beginning of this month. Since the school is so, so small, every classroom is impacted by the other classrooms (mainly due to noise). For the most part, I’ve grown accustomed to teaching in the general chaos, but once in a while there are sounds that no one can ignore. I’ve taught the entire year so far listening to the sound of kids getting “licks.” It’s the all too familiar sound of rulers and wooden boards colliding with flesh. It’s a horrific sound. One that I can only hope a little therapy will help erase from my mind upon my return to North America.
My point of saying all of this is to point out what happens when teachers get frustrated with their students and begin to beat them. Since the sounds of each room travel to the others, any sound made is heard all over the school—including the sound of “licks.” What I’ve observed, unfortunately, is that if one teacher begins to yell and the yelling escalates to “lashing”, then other teachers tend to get more frustrated with their boys too, which leads to more lashing. By the time lunch rolls around, every teacher is emotionally exhausted from going to such a dark place collectively. There have been times while I’m teaching, that the yelling gets so loud that I’ll stop teaching and walk up to each of my boys and just sort of gently tap their heads, to remind them that I love them, to spread a little love among the thickness of anger in the air. It’s also my reminder to not let the toxic energy take me down. It’s my way of telling them, at least you’re not getting hit right now for misbehaving.
Conclusion: Guyana once again proves to be behind the times with this whole corporal punishment thing still being legal. Violence really doesn’t do anything for anyone…it doesn’t stop any misbehavior from happening. It just doesn’t. If anything, it makes the kids act out more.
All of this being said, my boys are anything but angels. They love taking advantage of the fact that they know I’m not going to hit them. They try to push every button that I have. For the most part, I can skirt around their immaturity, but some days I leave work very frustrated. This is when I remind myself that I have to let the day go as soon as I walk out of the school. I try to remind myself of this quote by Marianne Williamson: A relationship is reborn whenever we see someone as they are right now and don’t hold them to who they were. After just a moment thinking of this quote, I know that in the coming day, I’m not going to hold the previous day against a small group of ten-year-olds. We begin again each day, (and are working toward beginning again) each moment.
It is still an extremely challenging, patient-testing job, but I’m going to walk out of this year alive and; therefore, better, stronger.
A Day Off
I’m calling February 7, 2015 a “day off” because it was the first time since I landed in Guyana almost half a year ago that I felt like I was escaping the life that I’ve created for myself here. On this random Saturday in the middle of our volunteer year, my fellow volunteers and I boarded an aircraft with 15 seats and flew into the interior of the country to visit two tourist attractions. Both of these attractions happen to be natural pieces of beauty though, so I didn’t mind following the crowd. These were the least populated tourist attractions in the world, too. Kaieteur and Orinduik Falls were our destinations; two pieces of this country that hand me back a little faith in Guyana. Visiting these two pristine locations made me feel like I was actually in South America. Guyana is known for it’s Caribbean culture, and since most of the population lives on the coast, I often don’t feel like I live in South America. I just feel like I live in Georgetown.
Boarding this little plane and taking off for the interior was spectacular. When we landed in Georgetown in August, it was dark, so we didn’t get a sense for where we were about to begin our lives. We had the perfect day today, plenty of sunlight with a couple of clouds to liven up the flight and cool things down once we were back on the ground.
Bubbly hills of green puffs as far as the eye can see with the occasional brown river snaking through the landscape was our scenery. Every so often a bit of yellow dirt would show up, representing a small amount of scarring in the land where mining once took place. Other than that, the rolling, bubbling trees pressed on as far as the eye could see. Then, out of seemingly nowhere, the green continued, but in mountain and plateau form. It was surreal being in a little plane flying over the Amazon jungle, and the fact that it stretched on as far as the eye can see simply added to the awe I was experiencing. I was seated just behind the pilot seat, so I was able to see the mist from Kaieteur rising out of the green below well before we actually approached the falls. When we arrived, the plane circled over the falls twice, once for each side of the airplane. It was a majestic waterfall in the middle of nowhere. It was so random that it made me think about how anyone could have found this waterfall in the first place.
The plane landed on a landing strip a ways away from the falls. Our tour guide quickly ushered us along, reminding us that the faster we moved, the more time we would get to spend at the falls. The hike to the falls was extremely easy, but exhilarating at the same time. Our tour guide wasn’t exactly a wealth of knowledge about the area, but he happily joked around with the group about the poisonous frogs, snakes, and jaguars that live in the area. The trail to the falls weaved in and out of clumps of jungle and open terrain. There were two viewing points to see the falls before we actually reached the edge of the water. We were just a small group of 12, so there was plenty of room to take pictures. The main issue was just trying to get the other people to stay out of the pictures we were trying to take, but it worked out well. The roar of the falls grew louder and louder the closer we got to it, the more of the jungle we crept through.
Orinduik Falls was an added bonus to an already incredible day. Around 2:00 we departed Kaiteur and took a 25-minute plane ride over to the border of Brazil. In that short period of time, the terrain below us changed again, from the lushes green mountains, to the geographical region of Guyana known as the Interior Savannahs—I only know this because of the Grade 5 Guyanese History book I teach out of every week. Getting to see different regions of this country is a treat. It’s a nice reminder that Guyana isn’t just the over-populated, polluted coast that we live on. The Interior Savannahs were beautiful, reminding me about parts of Kenya that I cruised through on a train two ½ years ago. The land was vast and empty, with trees spackled across the landscape. The light brown color of the grass reminded me of what a healthy, dry region should look like. Rain had clearly not fallen recently, but it wasn’t quite desert-like. As we disembarked and the group headed toward the water, I went the opposite direction, running up a small hill to snap a few pictures of the dry landscape in the opposite direction.
Orinduik itself was a river dividing the countries of Brazil and Guyana. It rippled over the otherwise flat land in steps, creating a series of miniature waterfalls that we were able to wade into and through. While the majority of the group entered the water near the top of the falls, one of the pilots gave me instructions as to how to approach the river from further down stream. I ended up wading through the water and hopping across the beds of rocks beside the river. My goal was to find a patch of river that was setup nicely for crossing into Brazil, but I was out of luck. I got close, but I wasn’t able to find a place where the current wouldn’t have pulled me away.
It was still an incredible experience, despite not being able to cross into another country. Since I was so far away from the group, the spot that I found myself was mine to enjoy. I got in the clear, fresh water, cleared my mind, shut my eyes, really took in the majesty of the beautiful speck of the world that I was occupying. And when I opened my eyes, I was staring at an uninhabited, gorgeous part of Brazil. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to get myself back into check after five long months in GT.
This day, it was a break. A break from our lives, the routine, the stress of being in a foreign country. It’s funny, being at Orinduik and Kaieteur were probably the “most Guyanese” places I’ve been, but it felt like I was in another country all together, another world. Guyana’s one city is a completely different experience than any other part of the country. Capital cities are like that, I guess.
At no point during either destination did I have to put on bug spray. The only bugs we encountered were large, strange looking critters that I’ve never encountered before. The bugs were not interested in mingling around us humans anymore than we were interested in being around them.
As we were leaving Orinduik, we were all boarded and buckled in on the plane when a man began running toward the plane, waving his arms. The pilot had him circle around the plane to his “driver-side door”. Someone had dropped their phone and he was bringing it to them. As he departed, the plane circled around to take off on the gravel strip that I suppose some people might call the runway. I snapped a quick photo of the man as he meandered away from the plane, down the lone dirt path toward the river. I thought about what he was going to do with the fading day. Was he going to be out there all night? There was a single structure within sight of the river. He was obviously going to be staying there for the night, but how much time does he spend out there? Does he live there? Work there? I was almost envious of him as the plane turned north and took off. What a life it would be to live out there. I would spend my days fully submersed in nature. I would use the river for everything. I would bathe in the waterfalls, play in the current, pray in the shallows, cross over to Brazil for sport and adventure. And, just as I’d start to feel a little lonely, a plane of tourists would land to keep me company for a few hours, reminding me of the majesty of the place.
I fought the urge to sleep on the hour and 15 minutes flight home. I wanted to enjoy the rare scenery. It turns out, there were a few more clouds on the flight home, but we still saw plenty. The pilots were kind enough to fly low and just over the winding river as we departed, which gave us the opportunity to catch a few more glimpses of Brazil. The Interior Savannahs quickly turned back into the endless jungle that we had become accustomed to, and then, the clouds set in and they didn’t break until the Atlantic Ocean was quickly approaching from the north. I have to say, approaching Georgetown from the south and then circling over it showed me just how small the city really is. Much more than half of the population of the country lives in the city, but it’s just a pimple of the face of Guyana. It’s rows and rows of homes and businesses, but it takes up such a small amount of space. Most of Guyana is just untouched, green, thriving nature. It’s kind of nice to know a place like this still exists in the world. Humans don’t need to be everywhere. We’ve gotta leave a little room for the mystery of the world, too.
I really thought I would have been depressed landing back in Georgetown, but all I felt for the day was awe and gratitude. How privileged I am to live a life where I’m able to afford flying to the border of Brazil and to the middle of the Amazon Rainforest to experience one of the most majestic creations of this world. My gratitude meter is off the charts right now. I just hope I can remember the beauty of Kaeiteur and Orindeuk for a long time to come.
It was a great day off.
There isn’t too much to say at this point about the weather anymore, but I’ve given an update in each issue of “GuyaNEWS” so I figured I’d say keep the tradition going. I think the rainy season that was supposed to arrive in December actually arrived in January. But now that January is over, we’re back to just the occasional rain shower. I haven’t been too bothered by the sun recently. Both in terms of heat and sunburns, I’ve been doing pretty well. Some days still leave me feeling a little out of place, like I’m the only person in the country that realizes that the humidity is uncomfortable, but the impact it has on me is a fraction of what it used to be. I do find comfort in the fact that, once in a while, I’ll catch a Guyanese person saying something like, “this sun is cruel” or “man, it’s hot today.”
Time flies. Even when you’re living in a challenging place, time still seems to rush by. With February quickly coming to a close, my community and I are officially celebrating having lived in Guyana for half of a year! Woah. That being said, this means that my one year commitment is also half over. So, what should I do next? I’m open to suggestions. It’s that time again though, that portion of the year where I need to look ahead and begin to plan what next year will eventually shape into. At this point, I don’t have much set in stone at all. Which continent should I live on?
This past weekend, my three fellow volunteers and I ventured to the sleepy little town of Corriverton, located on the mouth of the Correntine River, where Suriname and the Atlantic Ocean meet Guyana. We went for winter retreat, which was something we organized ourselves. When we were given the option of planning our own retreat or forgoing it altogether, I looked at a map of Guyana, found the coolest looking spot I could decipher from the map. And so we went. For no particular reason other than that the guidebook we have on Guyana from 2003 didn’t say that it would be lame.
Considering how random the trip we scheduled was, I had a really great time. Corriverton was a small dusting of magic, a quaint little time on the border of the former Dutch colony. While the majority of the residents of the tiny town make their livelihood by farming, Corriverton is also known for its fishing industry and its above-average education system. The bus trip to Corriverton took over three hours, which is a long time to be on the road in Guyanese standards, but we were in good hands, being “carried” by a driver that the head mistress of my school suggested we drive with. Being our ride was scheduled ahead of time, we had to wake up around six thirty in the morning—which isn’t exactly a fun way to begin the weekend, but it was nice to be milling about the city and getting situated for our trip well ahead of the heat of the day. The drive, once it commenced, took us clear across the East Coast of Guyana, allowing us to see a large portion of the country that we haven’t yet explored. For the most part, as soon as we were out of the capital, things started looking a lot cleaner—a lot less trash on the sides of the road. Once we were out of the suburbs of GT, the rows of houses lining the road began to thin. For the most part, there was habitation the whole way to Corriverton, but instead of the rows of houses being two or three deep from the road, there were just a few homes peppered along the sole road in Guyana that heads east. Those homes that were along the side of the road were also clearly occupied by farmers, most of them poor.
I think Corriverton is home to about 11,000 people. This is a fairly sizeable town considering that the vast majority of the population lives in and around Georgetown. Despite the seemingly large population, Corriverton is actually one of the larger towns in the country. The main street of Corriverton is lined with businesses and restaurants much like in GT, but on a smaller, nicer scale. There were actually a couple of trashcans on the sides of the street in Corriverton, which made all the difference in my mind when it came to having respect for the city. I snapped a number of photos of the town while I was there, mostly to help myself remember that there is more to this country than Georgetown.
The hotel we stayed in was really, really nice by Guyanese standards. The walls we freshly painted (a bright green color), and the room was clean. We also happened to be the only people staying in the hotel for both Friday and Saturday nights, so we were able to have the bar/café, a sitting area, and the roof all to ourselves whenever we wanted. I took advantage of the third-story rooftop view, which overlooked the entire town, the river, and Suriname in the distance, not to mention the Atlantic Ocean to the west. It was a lucky, random place to have gotten to stay for the weekend. On Saturday night, well after the sun had set, I went up to the roof to look at the stars and listen to the bustle of the little town as Valentine’s Day and Saturday night festivities commenced. Once in a while in Georgetown, I’ll remember to look up to the few dull stars in the sky and remind myself how small I am, but in Corriverton, there were so many stars—and they were so bright—that I was forced to dial back into my humanity more so than when I’m in the city.
We arrived in Corriverton around noon on Friday and left around 1pm on Sunday, so we had just about 48 hours to get to know the little town. We spent our afternoons and morning wandering around the main strip, exploring a broken up wharf that juts out into the river, and perusing the market. Despite Corriverton being a “tourist city” since people switching between countries have to overnight in Corriverton while they wait for the next day’s ferry to help them across the waterway, we were still gawked at harassed a normal amount. I guess they don’t see as many white people as they like to claim. Of course, at this point, none of that fazes us, it’s just something we notice. I do; however, look forward to the next day that I can walk down the street without being noticed because of what my shell looks like. All part of the immersion experience!
In the morning on both Saturday and Sunday, we ventured into the town market. This was quite an experience on Saturday and quite a relief on Sunday. The Stabroek and Bourda Markets in GT are busy everyday of the week, but some days have obviously more traffic than others. In Corriverton, Saturday is market day, and it seems as if every farmer, seller, baker, and patron within a twenty-mile radius is present. It was fun to step into the scene, but also completely intimidating—not to mention (again) not exactly getting a chance to be a fly on the wall considering we stick out like sore thumbs. Despite having to take careful note of our surroundings, it was still really fun to explore this new place. There’s nothing like an outdoor market—they’re just so simple, filled with nutritious food, packed with people trying to make a living and people in search of food for their families.
The Corriverton market began on the main road with a handful of sellers, and then poured down this dirt road, which led to a massive barn-like building. The dirt road was lined with vendors whose stalls were crammed into every inch of earth that lined the road. Most of the items being sold were similar to what I see for sale in the Bourda Market on my walk home from work every afternoon—fruits, vegetables, knick knacks, simple supplies, etc. Near the middle of the market, there were multiple entrances into the huge barn-like structure to the left, which, once inside, was a maze of confusion. The Saturday/Valentine’s Day crowd had every ‘aisle’ packed with people, shouting to vendors and shop owners, trying to find the best deals. The whole scene was electric. We, of course, continued to be a spectacle…a white flash in the market as we quickly weaved through the labyrinth, vanishing as quickly as we showed up. Some people looked at us, confused. Others smirked at us, knowing we just didn’t belong, that we were newbies to the Corriverton Market. It was a great experience, I risked getting it snatched off of me, but I took the gamble and snapped a few photos with my camera while we were part of the scene. It was…very Guyanese, the whole ordeal.
Early on Sunday morning, one of my roommates pulled ourselves from our beds just after sunrise and wandered down the deserted streets of Corriverton to the market once again. There was hardly anything happening. The Guyanese take “the day of rest” rather seriously, plus I think people were still recovering from their Valentine’s Day parties. There were just a handful of sellers sitting out next to their veggies and fruits that they had for sale. The market was a skeleton of what it had been twenty-four hours prior. Each stand was emptied out and just the posts and bare-bone structures remained, waiting to be filled back up. Even the torn tarps had been stripped from the structures, carefully carried home with each seller. The barn was even more abandoned. The maze from the day before was easy to navigate and everything was closed up, shut tight. It was neat to see the juxtaposition.
My community and I went over our retreat materials in between exploring Corriverton. It was nice to have some structured conversation, but for the most part, the part of the retreat I enjoyed was getting to see someplace new. Whether I was exploring the beach, wandering the main strip, or just star gazing and staring at Suriname’s lush greenness from across the brown river, I kept thinking about heaven. Or, I kept thinking I keep thinking I’ve found heaven, and then I go somewhere new. Work, of course, is never far from my mind. Work has worked its way deep into my heart, so I carry it with me wherever I go now. I pandered what the lives of some of the boys would be like if they were to move to Corriverton. They would receive a better education. They would be out of the disaster of the city. They would get a little more culture from the neighboring country. I think Corriverton reminded me a little bit more of home. The small town I grew up in still leaks out of me sometimes. I think with the Guyanese openness and hospitality, plus the small town feel, Corriverton would be an okay place to grow up.
We returned to GT on Sunday afternoon. We stayed in our hotel until the minute we had to check out though. And, once we checked out, we went to lunch, just to avoid leaving a moment before we had to.
February 23rd in Guyana is a national holiday. It’s called Mashramani and it celebrates all of the cultures in Guyana. The motto of this country is: one people, one nation, one destiny. The theme for this years “Mash” was: one people, one culture, one celebration. In Guyana there are six races: Chinese, East Indian, African, Portuguese, Amerindian, and European. There are really very few people of European descent, but they’ve managed to wiggle their way into being counted as “one of the races.” Mashramani celebrates all of the cultures of Guyana. Translated, Mashramani means: celebration after cooperative hard work.
I didn’t know what to expect out of Mashramani. There was a lot of hype surrounding it, but I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I knew I would be around for the celebration this past weekend. The holiday landed on a Monday, so we had a three-day weekend and Monday was the designated party day. Our community house is located on one of the main roads in Georgetown, so we were able to watch much of the action from our veranda—although we left the house and meandered around much more than we just watched from home. Around 8am, people started to show up on the street and set up tents to serve food. By 10am, the festivities were underway, there were hundreds of makeshift tents and stands filled with food and goodies lining the streets, and the parade was underway. Also, most noticeably, the music (which the Guyanese like to play really, REALLY loud) had begun.
When I say that the parade was underway, I mean that it was just getting warmed up. I didn’t keep meticulous track of it, but I’m pretty sure the parade lasted for about six hours…maybe seven. The floats and the lines of people wining (that means dancing in a dirty fashion) kept coming and coming and coming. It was really neat to see all of the floats and costumes that the different groups had put together, but I only got to see a fraction of them due to the sheer volume of parade participants. At some point soon, I’ll add photos of the day to my blog, but for now I’ll just state that Mashramani was an enormous celebration. People lined the streets and packed every nook and cranny of our little corner of GT. Since there are less than 800,000 people in this culture, I’d guess that anywhere between 25 and 50 percent of the country’s population was present at the parade on Monday.
After a full day of walking around and indulging in the festivities, I called it quits around 7:00, which is well after dark, and settled in at home to try and rest up for the resumption of work on Tuesday. The Guyanese people had another idea though. The music continued for a few more hours and the celebrations pressed on. For the entire day, from 10 in the morning until about 10 in the evening, the booms of the bass in each song that played on the street rattled our house and had us shouting to one another across the living just to have a conversation. I’m so thankful Mashramani was just for one day…I’m not sure our house could have withstood another round of ear-popping music.
The photos to follow will carve out a better picture of what the event looked like. Now, a few days since it’s conclusion, the streets are still lined with rubbish. I’m not sure anyone will ever be hired to clean it up. It’s a little sad. And a lot gross.
The New House (One Month In)
Our new home, which I’ve now lived in for about 5 weeks, continues to be a Godsend. On many occasions, I’ve found myself in conversations with my roommates talking about how we’ve blocked out the first four months of our living experience here because it was so…traumatic. Honestly, coming to this house feels like coming home. When I get home, there aren’t mosquitoes eating me as soon as I sit down because there are screens on the windows. I can sit on the couch because no mice have peed on it. It’s basically a five-star hotel. The best part is, it doesn’t stink going to bed. My bed is comfortable, I don’t need a mosquito net, and I don’t dread going to sleep. I used to not want to go to bed because I didn’t want to have to wake up and start another day. This was a common phenomenon in our house. It was so sad. Those days are over now. Now we have a home. It’s odd; I spend more time at work now because I’m not depressed to have to come home. I have more energy, more life in me. Something in me is changed because of this house.
As a community, we’re realizing that this experience is not going to last forever. We’ve taken advantage of some of our recent weekends to do some traveling around this country. I’ve discussed two of the adventures we embarked on earlier this month in this letter. We have other little excursions and trips planned too. It’s nice to live with a group of people that are as eager to see other corners of the world as I am. I’m hoping by the time our plane takes off to carry us home this summer, we will have been to every nook and cranny of this country.
Also in the case of time, I’m making sure to treasure each moment that I’m here. I try to remind myself when I’m on the bus in the morning that what I’m experiencing is out of the ordinary. I should really appreciate the life that I’ve been able to put together for myself down here. Each walk I take on the streets is a miracle, really. Before this experience, I didn’t know a fraction of what I was capable of surviving. At our retreat earlier this month one of my roommates said, “I try to remind myself when I wake up every morning that this is one of my days.” And so, I’m trying to live by that mantra. Indeed, when I wake up, I need to recognize that this is one of my days in Guyana, to live fully, to love deeply, to continue to learn and grow from this adventure that is constantly surrounding me. I can’t afford to let a day go by unnoticed, under appreciated.
This is one of your days, too. Thank you for taking some time out of it to read this newsletter. I love and appreciate each of you for continuing to be a part of this journey with me. We’re in the home stretch!
Talk to you soon,