Thursday, August 21, 2008

Meet the President: 8.16.08

Elizabeth and I met the president, Bharrat Jagdeo, on Saturday evening at Naya Zamana 14: "Dancing Beyond Boundaries." This was a performance by the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha Dance Company that was performed at the National Cultural Centre and featured many styles of Indian dance both traditional and nontraditional and included, folk, classical, village, Bollywood, modern, plus much more. It was a beautiful event and please excuse my sorry excuse for a dress (I blame it on light packing!), as the attendees, predominantly Indian Guyanese, were wearing their best. There were amazingly colorful and beautiful saris and other traditional Indian-style dress on display. In the photo above, of us with the  president, in the background, over my shoulder, is the Prime Minister. He is wearing a garland similar to the president. I was more excited than definitely everyone else at the event. I was also the only paparazzi present. Until, our brilliant Guyanese friend, Priya, mentioned casually that Elizabeth & I should just walk up to the president and ask to be in a photo with him. This would be unheard of in the States. So, we did...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Exotic or not...

I went for a walk yesterday afternoon following my usual neighborhood route, to pick up a roti to scrumptiously supplement my evening meal. As I meandered, attentively, down Albert Street, with the Roti Hut as my ultimate destination, I realized how important it is that I take in all the sights that have perhaps become, over the course of this summer, commonplace to me. I think it was easy in Guyana, or was for me, to forget at times just how unique it is here, as it is much less "different" in a striking sort of way, than other countries I have traveled to- South Africa & India come to mind. In Guyana, at fifth glance, you can start to feel like, in some ways, it is just as westernized as the States, and perhaps then, not that different. I will be politically incorrect, as a prior student of anthropology, and just say it (the forbidden word), it is comparatively less "exotic." Perhaps in recognizing this, I am, as an anthropology-minded individual, just bringing awareness to my own perceptions. 

Guyanese dress in jeans and suits, skirts and slacks. There are no eye-catching, bold patterned ensembles wrapped in unusual ways around the female form. The females for the most part, dress like me, if not remarkably better, given my noticeable lack of wardrobe. The people speak English here, albeit often with a uniquely beautiful Creole style/Caribbean accent. Individuals chat on cell phones as they stroll the streets and many (it seems to me, like everyone) watches such American shows, as the Young & the Restless, with a religious dedication. I think it is easy in some ways to assimilate here, to an extent, as an obstinate U.S. citizen, wanting to do so. And, in doing this, one might begin to forget, as I sometimes have, that despite the similarities, there are many, many unique parts to this ultimately, very foreign place. Many of these I realize now, have eased themselves into my daily life with the facility of a lithe dancer and the stealth of a trained spy. 

My favorite thing to watch or look at here in Guyana, are the canals. The water of Guyana in general, I will miss first & foremost, be it that of the canals, the coca-cola colored rivers and ocean, or the relatively, cooling and always appreciated rain. But the canals. I find myself, in passing one, pausing to gaze down it, as it reaches away from me toward the middle of the horizon, long and straight. There are always palms growing on either side of a canal, and there are often curved wooden bridges or simply straight wooden planks, serving as a crossing. The palms, this is not even the correct nomenclature. The coconut trees, perhaps. There are tall ones and short ones, ones with green coconuts and ones with the gristly looking brown hair. Brown are for milk and green are for the refreshing, clear coconut water. I am perhaps one of the few here, that is not particularly taken by the coconut water, which is a little too rich for my taste, but unmistakably enjoyable with the local rum, on ice. But the canals... the tropical sun of Guyana seems to have a special way of hitting the water that is next to magical. Then there is the ephemeral afternoon light of Guyana, particularly as the hours near dusk, which is worthy of documentation by the world's best photographers. There is a pinkness and alertness to the it, perhaps as the sky recovers from the persistent mid-day heat, that is captivating, if not soothing, and encourages a walk such as the one I took this afternoon.
Umbrellas of varying colors of the rainbow dot the Georgetown horizon, as women walk either alone or in pairs. The women here being savvy to the heat & sun. The ubiquitous minibuses, also of varying shades, and most often multi-colored, with creative names labeled across their sides and windshield, offer rides with honks, shouts, hisses and men hanging out the frequently, open sliding side door. This is Guyana's primary mode of public transport. A half moon of letters on the backside of the minibus declares where it has come from & where it will go. Then there is the honking. The honking is a signature sound of Georgetown. One that mingles with, and at times attempts to compete with, the song of the many, many local birds. The birds themselves, of the country and even city, are worth writing a book about. And, in the evening there is the orchestra of song: toads, frogs, insects, that seeps in through the windows, and seems to me, to be central to night. There are the predominantly, cachectic-looking, but heavy breasted dogs, spotting the town, that seem to be in a constant state and stage of reproduction. Never threatening, the canine of Guyana either wander the streets in a tropical haze or rest lazily in a hint of shade. 

There are unique smells here in Guyana, which will undoubtedly haunt my nostalgia of the future. Many are what I'll call, street smells. One such smell, quite pleasurable, being that of roti and curries cooking. I will always miss, until I learn to make it which I have vowed to do, the dual flakiness and softness of the golden roti as you tear it to eat. Served to you wrapped and folded, so as to maintain the delicious integrity of this satisfying flat bread. I cannot get enough of them or the Guyana "burrito" as I call it, which includes a large dallop of your choice of curry, accompanied by a sensibly smaller dallop of either peppersauce or achar (I routinely get both), and wrapped like a present (or burrito) in a roti. I am invariably laughed at by the locals because I regularly choose the mouthwatering pumpkin curry, which I have been told, is the most mundane. 

Most importantly, I will always miss and remember fondly, the people of Guyana. The varying shades of their skin and the discernible differences in their accents. Some with styles of living that can be very different from the other, due to the strong contrast between the Afro and Indian ways of life. And, I must not fail to mention the Muslim and Rastafarian styles which are most visually distinguishable. There is a kindness here, amid the hardship that is central to so many of the individuals' lives. There is also a general frustration, it seems, with the systems that govern, and a consensus of corruption seems to predominate. There exists a deep-rooted pride in the country and its beauty, and with it a recognition of the lack of awareness of this beauty by outsiders. There is a communal desire to share Guyana and encourage an understanding of what the country has to offer. There is also a disheartening understanding of all that it does not have to offer, in the way of employment, opportunities for upward mobility and financial fulfillment. There are more than enough highly educated and incredibly determined individuals here, with no opportunity for them to be utilized. There is also an all to common desire for future migration from Guyana, presumably because of all these things mentioned previously. A plan often exists, be it preliminary or in the complicated stages of progress, to exit the country when the time is right. Not by all, but by many. As for many, this would likely never be a possibility. There is great work being done in Guyana, and still so much more to be done, like anywhere, but unique in its own struggles: Healthcare, food shortage, the paucity of employment, and poverty. And, then there is HIV. So familiar is it, that there are a myriad of television commercials pertaining to its detection, prevention and acceptance, routinely, if not monotonously, run during the prime hours of the day.  I am hardly exaggerating. 

It is a busy and yet leisurely place. I speak mostly of Georgetown, as it is what I know best. It is Guyana, at once foreign, if not unheard of by many, and yet simultaneously familiar in its differences, to me. The point of anthropology, after an undergraduate degree in the field, has come back to me here as a nurse researcher in Guyana, many (!?) years post collegiate. In being taken away with a new place, and at the same time, less taken away with, than say a place blatantly more exotic, I consider the "other" which is examined in anthropology, to be understood in its own contexts, yet with an awareness of the subjective nature inherent in being an outsider. Perhaps also, at this point in my life, I examine such details with the meticulous, newly ingrained, awareness of a Nurse Practitioner-in-training. Contemporary cultural anthropology reminds the ethnographer to focus not just on the explicit exotic, but to see the exotic, if you will, in the familiar. To understand a culture in the context of itself and as a conglomeration of the symbols and meanings that make it what it is, is critical. Guyana and I have melded in many ways over the course of this experience, and in many ways, both obvious and not, I skirt the sidelines of its culture and, its ways. Many fond memories I will take with me on leaving, that I imagine, will undeniably seem much more exotic from the outside looking back in...

Monday, August 18, 2008


"Ms. Gina, are you crying?" 
This is the question that an employee and, for all intents and purposes, a stranger, whispered to me today as I sat with my shoulders hunched and head hanging over my lap re-writing a letter on a legal pad at the Ministry of Home Affairs. She phrased this more as a statement of awareness, than a question. And she said it in a, you are being silly, it will all be OK, sort of way. Yes, I all but broke down in this government office with my white plastic visitor pass hanging from my lapel. Frustration. 

I think it is OK to cry a bit over frustration. This has been a summer of ups and downs. Most pressing at the moment, I have been here in Guyana illegally. When I arrived in the country, the customs officer only stamped my passport for a one-month stay. He could have stamped me for up to three, and from what I can tell the extent of stay given is pretty much as haphazard as how the customs officer happens to be feeling at the particular moment in time. I said, "But I am here for a two-month stay." He said: " Go to Ministry of Home Affairs in one month." So following orders, I did just that. The week before my month was up I spent a good portion of a day, not conducting my data collection, and dealing with the inner workings and individuals that seemed to be doing not so much, at the Ministry of Home Affairs. It was frustrating the first time I was there, as they kept trying to send me away to do things, when I kept mentioning that I could do those things right then without leaving and coming back. Finally, after much shuffling of my papers, copies, forms, and explanations, they said for me to call back in 10 business day. 

10 business days quickly came and went, and turned into nearly a month of calling and being told to call back. I am now, leaving the country in 6 days and have been, since the first of the month, illegally living in Guyana. I have tried not to let this be an added stressor, until today. After finally having someone talk with me on the phone this morning, I was given an instruction to write a letter of clarification. "Just to drop off," I was told. I followed this instruction immediately, got myself to the Ministry of Home Affairs and waited. The reason for hold-up now, the woman explained, is related to my multiple names, Gina and Regina (Mom, Dad!). They wondered could I get a new letter from the Ministry of Health approving my study, but this time one that includes both my names. "It took me many, many months to get the first letter. I am only here 6 more days." I explained. Perhaps someone could have mentioned that when I was here in June?, I thought to myself. Since there is no time to get a new approval letter from the Ministry of Health, I need to rewrite my letter and explain all this plus what I had previously written. No big deal sure, but for some reason, this was the straw that broke me and the tears began to flow. I am leaving in 6 days and still I can not get this settled. I just need a stamp to say I can be here 2 months instead of one. No visa was needed to come to Guyana, visitors can come to Guyana for up to 3 months... I guess I should be grateful they didn't just stamp me in for a week. Frustration. 

The tears are not just about the fear of not being allowed to leave the country due to my illegal presence since July 1, not just about the frustrating system which seems to not ever know up-front what I need to do or turn in, and instead waits for long periods of time and then tells me one more thing I need to accomplish before I can begin the application for an extended stamp on my passport page. It is not just about the time lost in attempting to complete all these tasks, it is something more. I am feeling tired. Georgetown life and data collection here for my study, has been doable for me for sure, and I have enjoyed it all in all. I have accomplished what I set out to do. I conducted a study here, something I do not think I really could have imagined doing a year ago. I am proud of this, of course. I just think I am feeling ready to be done. It is a tough life here. Beautiful in its madness and ugly when it wants to be. It is very hot here. I miss my home. I am trying to wrap my head around all I have done, seen and experienced while here, and at the moment I feel tangled. I am sure I will unravel things slowly when I get back. So I cried for it all. When are my numbers enough? I have surpassed my participant goal, but I am here, do I keep going and how far? I need help with analysis. I am frustrated and missing my home. Frustration. 

I assume this is part of it all, the whole Down's Fellowship experience. I have been lucky. Things have gone well. I should not be complaining. But, I just cried in front of a stranger sitting in a chair in the middle of a government office. Seriously. That is just plain embarrassing.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Kaieteur Falls: 8.10.08

Tiny, tiny plane that picked us up at Baganara Island (when I say "us," I literally  mean just Taylor &  I, the others where already aboard) and flew us 45 minutes into the interior of Guyana's rain forest to see the famous Kaieteur Falls. The plane was a 10-seater, including the pilot! There was actually a laminated flight safety info sheet in the seat back pocket in front of us, that no one mentioned, and that I felt was pretty much  a joke. If that plane goes down, I imagine you are out of luck...
Landing in Guyana's interior! 
View of the Falls from the plane... If you look down at the area surrounding the base of the falls, the lush green area, you are looking at an area whose flora & fauna is still being explored for the first time. There are species that are literally still being discovered down there... This is how pristine it is...
(Above, continued) It was one of our first views of Kaieteur Falls from the plane. We were all in awe. Kaieteur is 7 x Niagara Falls and 3 x Victoria Falls, per our guide, but with a narrower width of fall.

Water flowing away from the base of the falls... Guyana's interior.So, there are no ropes marking off the area where it is safe to stand and no fences to block off the serious drop overlooking the falls. There is simply a single sign. This is definitely not the U.S. folks. 
Taylor at the top of the falls. Literally that massive waterfall is just over his shoulder there. It looks so calm, very misleading, anyone could be confused...
There she is. The tourguide took us to 3 different spots to see the falls. Note the rainbow. I saw at least 4 rainbows on this day.
Kaieteur Falls: 
Kai was the name of an Amerindian who sacrificed himself by going over the falls during a war, and "teur" means falls.
So to call it Kaietuer Falls, is actually redundant.
 Those in the know: "Kaieteur" enough said.

Baganara Island III

On our boat ride to see the parrots roost! A Guyana sunset by speedboat.
Mangrove forests are all over the waterways of Guyana. These were at and near Parrot Island, on the Essequibo River.

Baganara Island II...

Photo below: First night and sunset on Baganara Island, after Taylor and I took a walk around the coast and grounds. That photographer of mine, was very excited, as you might imagine, new territory to explore. Not only were we greeted earlier this day on arrival to Baganara, with amazing fresh squeezed, ice cold lemonade, the
bartender/host, Orlando, also insisted in the early evening, that we must have a Baganara Special (note drinks in hands). These were complete with peacock ornament and fresh pineapple slices. They were yummy and quite intoxicating. They sure know how to treat you here on Baganara... We told them we were on our second honeymoon.
The meals here were served communal style, unless you requested otherwise, so we met many interesting people from all over the world as well as from Guyana. We contributed to many fascinating conversations about politics, the upcoming U.S. election, Guyana's political system and race relations, international development work in Guyana, and the EU and the Venezuelan government's work in Guyana, to name a few (whew!) of the many topics explored over the course of the weekend with fellow guests, with whom we shared breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We also shared space at Baganara. The first floor of the main house on the island, Baganara House, is an open-air (yes, no walls) area complete with a bar, dining room, kitchen, and play/relax area. There was a ping pong table, a pool table, many games, fabulously lounge-y, lounging couches & chairs, and just outside the area, cricket court. We spent the morning kayaking around Baganara Island, on the Essequibo River, which was amazing, and we kept having to remind ourselves this is South America, we are kayaking on a river in South America, as we looked out for any caiman (local crocodile). After kayaking an lunch on Saturday, Taylor and I took to the cricket field, where we were introduced to the wicket and enjoyed an afternoon of being taught cricket. (Did I rhyme?) We played in the sun (and HEAT) and then later, even more enjoyably, in the rain, with a wonderful, newly engaged Guyanese couple, who coached us with patience and enthusiasm. Taylor and I played game after game of cards, with periodic stints at table tennis, in the evenings and during the Saturday afternoon rain which turned into an afternoon thunderstorm and was quite lovely to watch in the Baganara House, sheltered, but sans walls. [Baganara's only flaw: no chess set. NB: BYO. We got hooked on chess on our prior trip and momentairly considered making our own pieces for the checkerboard.]
The view from the room we stayed in on Baganara Island (in the photo above). Also, note the birds in the distance in the photo. This was around the time when they begin to fly back to where they sleep for the night, to roost. The parrots here, which are called "creatures" by the local Amerindians, were my favorite to see flying overhead. Previously unbeknownst to me, parrots mate for life, so they fly and live together in pairs, as a couple. It is especially sad to see a lone parrot flying overhead, as this means something has happened to its partner. While staying on Baganara island we went on a boat ride one evening with another couple to "Parrot Island," to see the parrots roost. It was an island about 30 minutes away by speed boat, that is uninhabited by humans, but is the site where innumerable parrots return every evening to sleep. Our tour guide/boat driver, said that many of them will fly extremely far away during the day to find food, and then still return here in the evening. All return around the same time each day, to roost. It was awesome to see so many, all flying in toward the island from all different directions, most in pairs. Some were flying in teams of pairs, returning from who knows where. For some reason, I imagined some were returning from a day of food-seeking in Trinidad or Venezuela. I need to research how far a parrot couple can travel in a day. Parrots coming in to roost for the evening: Parrot Island on the Essequibo River.