Monday, May 30, 2016

Chinese in the Caribbean

I was told there was a small Chinese population in Guyana but I didn’t run into any for a long time. There weren’t even very many white people that I saw. Instead, amidst the sea of Afro and Indo-Guyanese faces, I stood out painfully and this fact followed me wherever I went. It didn’t help that I had probably the whitest skin in the country, having just come out of a Canadian winter. Whenever I walked around, men would call out to me “China!” or “Chinese girl!” or sometimes “Hey beautiful!” (no matter what - even when I wore baggy sweatpants and a t-shirt and had an acne breakout).

This public attention to my race made me uncomfortable. As a Canadian, this would be considered street harassment and in Canada, it is incredibly rude to greet someone by pointing out that their race. Not to mention, of course, the fact that I’m not Chinese. But this kind of behaviour persists all over the world, except, oddly enough, in Korea where Koreans assume from my lack of Korean fashion sense that I am Chinese.

But I eventually got used to this treatment, taking it as their way of being friendly. The one comment that threw me off-guard was a mechanic, who called out to me “hey China! Como estas, mi amor?” I was taken aback; I had not seen anyone speaking Spanish here at all. I wasn’t sure if maybe he was Spanish or he thought Chinese people spoke Spanish.

True to my style though, I did eventually find the Asians in Guyana. I came across a regular-looking grocery store and went in to buy some beer and maxipads. While I scanned the liquor shelves, I heard the store clerks chattering behind me, and I thought, wow, I really can’t understand what they’re saying. For some reason, Creole sounds an awful like Chinese. When I turned around, it turned out that the store clerks were Chinese. It appeared that this grocery store was owned by a Chinese family.

I wandered to the second level of the grocery store and discovered an entire floor of Chinese imports. Interestingly, and perhaps stereotypically, I was flooded with immediate relief. Here was the soya sauce and the sesame oil. Fish sauce and oyster sauce. Rice. Now I knew where I could go if I wanted to make some bibimbap. When I lived in Namibia, I had even managed to find a hook-up to order tofu, which seemed to be a more complicated process than even buying drugs. Perhaps I could do it here too. This Georgetown store seemed to have everything, including shampoo and Chinese Colgate toothpaste…because God forbid you have to brush your teeth using toothpaste with English packaging?

Oddly enough, constantly being greeted as “Chinese girl” – and being a little homesick - made me crave Chinese food. As one of the “six nations” that form Guyana, the old and established Chinese population in Guyana means that the country has developed its own regional variety of Chinese cuisine. I asked a few different drivers and hotel staff what restaurant had the best Chinese food (there were a surprisingly number of Chinese restaurants), and they all unanimously suggested New Thriving.

New Thriving Restaurant

It was a big place, with a fast food takeout area on the lower level and a more formal banquet-y sit-down area on the top floor, as well as a little Chinese bakery on the side selling Asian pastries. I thought perhaps here I might blend in a bit more, but the patrons were mostly Indo-Guyanese, with very few Chinese families. The Chinese owner greeted me warmly and I ordered the chili bean curd (or bean “crud” according to the menu), which I thought would be ma po tofu, but turned out to be its own thing. The meal was delicious, and I left feeling better. I thought about the indentured Chinese workers who came here almost two hundred years ago, working long hours for very little pay, and thought about how homesick they must have been, being so far away from home. They figured out how to make it work, and now are a part of Guyanese society. I felt a little less homesick with a belly full of tofu and a bit of historical perspective. Now, I just had to find a tofu dealer.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Caribbean Life: First Impressions of Georgetown

Canals flowing through Georgetown

I was interested in Guyana for its lack of population density, but Georgetown is no small town. Sure, the capital city only has a population of roughly 135,000, and it’s refreshingly free of skyscrapers, but it still has the hustle and bustle feel of a city. The streets are crowded with pedestrians navigating their way around motorbikes and cabs and minibuses whose horns play La Cucuracha for some reason when they honk. There are street vendors everywhere, selling fruits, sneakers and DVDs on the side walk, or pushing a cart down the street.

Okay, so the streets don't look so busy this precise moment, but I'm telling you, it gets hectic

I never really figured out how to get around without being run over. A lot of the streets don’t have sidewalks, so you kind of have to walk down the shoulder of the roads, but sometimes those are used as car lanes too. Some intersections don’t have street lights or stop signs, yet drivers still manage to figure out how to take turns driving through. I haven’t figured out the system. I haven’t even figured out which side of the road I should be walking down – I’m still not used to the fact that cars drive on the left side of the road. Eventually I adopted the strategy of waiting at an intersection until a local person also had to cross the street, and then following closely behind them. One morning, I was almost hit by a horse pulling a cart.

St. George's Anglican Cathedral - the tallest wooden church in the world

With respect to physical geography, Guyana is a world of constants, at least compared to the moody seasonal extremes of Canada, especially in the Arctic where I used to live. The sun rises and sets at roughly the same time every day. It always seems to be around 27 degrees.

Promenade Gardens

I call this the Peacock Tree...or Treecock
Promenade Gardens
The one variation is the rain. I had come at the beginning of the rainy season, so it rained a little bit every morning. Later in the season, sometimes it will get so bad it floods. Generally though, I found I didn’t need to bother checking the weather forecast or the sunset times to figure out when I should head home.

Guyana is also a pastiche of multicultural influences. Bollywood music and dance hall. Chow mein, jerk chicken, and msala curry all on one menu, all with their own Guyanese twist. This flows from the history of the country which has come in contact with many nations. The Amerindians were here first for many centuries, but, like the rest of the Americas, European colonies were eventually set up. The French, the Dutch, and the British all fought for control of the country, with the British eventually remaining until Guyana’s independence in 1966. Over the centuries, slaves were brought in from Africa, and after slavery was eventually abolished, indentured labourers were then brought in from places like India, Portugal, and China. All of these places left their mark on Guyana’s culture, and people sometimes refer to the country as the land of six nations.

The entire city has been busily preparing itself for the 50th anniversary of Guyana’s independence. Construction crews are all over the roads making repairs to their infrastructure. It seemed like all of Guyana’s diaspora will be returning from abroad for the celebration, and the country has been getting ready to welcome their loved ones home. This is a big deal – someone once told me that while less than a million people live in Guyana, over two and a half million Guyanese people live outside of Guyana, mostly in Canada and the United States. That’s a huge diaspora.

Georgetown has a series of canals and streams to help drain water during flooding season (a design that I imagine are an influence of the Dutch). Folks tell me that the infrastructure has vastly improved in the last year alone since the new government came in. The canals are properly draining, houses are being painted, roads are being fixed. I was pleased to be able to see Georgetown on the upswing, but disappointed that I was going to be missing the independence activities festivities.

The hotel clerk even told me that he was participating in a fitness program called Fit for Fifty – getting nice and buff in time for the anniversary, I assume so everyone can see how hot one has gotten since they were away. He kindly invited me to join but my last experience at the local gym told me I probably needed to put in a few more sweaty sessions on my own before other people can witness how out of shape I am.

Trying out the local gym, BodyMaxx

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Sleepless Nights with Barf Man

I didn’t get any sleep on my overnight flight to Guyana. That’s because the man in the seat behind me seemed to be nauseous, and vomited the entire night. It was pretty gross, actually, to the point where it almost became humourous. So. Much. Vomiting. At one point, the other passengers down the plane aisle took up a collection of barf bags to pass back to him, because he very quickly ran out of supplies. I think that really reflects the caring, compassionate spirit of Caribbean Airlines passengers. Everyone was very supportive, including his girlfriend who was right by his side the whole time, cuddling with him between barfs. But still gross. Because for some reason, after he’d vomit, he’d go back to his turkey sandwich. And then vomit again. Then more turkey sandwich. I wanted to tell him, buddy, stop.

I gave up on sleep and silently ate my own turkey sandwich, generously provided by Caribbean Airlines, which had packaging that encouraged me to relax and enjoy life because life is meant to be enjoyed.

I don’t like planes. I like to travel to faraway places so I can lose myself in the wilderness, and planes are the opposite of that, where you are surrounded by lots and lots of people uncomfortably packt like sardines in a crushd tin box. (Literally every time I fly on an airplane, I picture the Radiohead song.) Imagine a non-transit situation where you would be crammed in such a small place with this many people and expected to spend the night sleeping upright in a chair next to a total stranger. A stranger who keeps vomiting.

There was also, as there always is, a crying baby, but it was actually much less disturbing than Barf Man.

The flight didn’t even have any turbulence, so Barf Man should definitely avoid ever flying in Nunavut. I have ridden terrible turbulence, so bad that I held the hand of the crying woman sitting next to me as the pilot shakily explained that we were going to “try to land” once more in the middle of the storm, but just once more, and thought to myself “Well, here is how it’s all going to end, me in this crushd tin box in the arms of a praying woman that I don’t know very well.” Which is kind of weird when I think about it now, because my husband was sitting right next to me in the other seat. But anyway, I held down my lunch, even though we got tossed around like popcorn. But on this particular remarkably smooth flight, Barf Man did not.

So anyway, I didn’t get much sleep on the plane.

I also thought I’d be a lot more excited about my layover in Trinidad, because, hello, Trinidad. It's Trindad! But Trinidad is not as exciting at four-thirty in the morning when most things at the airport are shut down, and the only bathroom in the secured section you’re in is under renovations. This could have been really disastrous for Barf Man, but I'm pretty sure he had nothing left in his stomach and, also, evidently he never seemed very concerned about hiding in a bathroom to barf. But I’ve really got to give credit to the Ministry of Tourism representative that was going around finding out who was in transit and who was a tourist in Trinidad, presumably to give them a warm welcome? At four-thirty in the morning. Now that is dedication.

I made a note to myself to visit Trinidad on a better day.

Once I finally arrived in Guyana (along with Barf Man, who followed and barfed the whole way through), we were greeted with our own warm welcome, palm trees by the entrance, and a musician with dreadlocks played steel drums while we waited in line for immigration. At 7:30 in the morning. They always said that Caribbean folks are friendly, but now I truly believe it. Can you imagine the CBSA hiring a Tragically Hip cover band to play at the Pearson Airport while they sternly interrogate travellers about what goods they have to declare?

I was picked up by my friendly driver, who took one pitying look at my rapidly-forming sweat mustache and promised he would crank up the air conditioning in the car. I tried to hop into the car, only to realize – for the first time - that the driver’s seat was on the other side, and people drive on left side of the road here. Somehow I had missed all that, with all my research. Or maybe I did know that, but in my Barf Man sleep-deprived state, I forgot.

The driver told me all about Guyana as he drove me into Georgetown. Guyana is located in South America, but culturally considered to be Caribbean. It is also, to my disappointment, one of the only Caribbean countries that don’t have any oceanfront beaches. It does have fine white sand but the water is black, not turquoise, from the soil. It may lack stereotypical Caribbean beaches, but it does have one of the largest unspoiled rainforest in South America. Particularly of interest to me, it is in the top 10 or so of the world’s most sparsely populated countries with less than a million people spread out over a land area about the size of Kansas. In case you haven’t been able to tell from the time I’ve spent with this travel blog, in places like Namibia, Nunavut, and, well, Canada generally…lots of land and not a lot of people is kind of my jam.

In fact, a lot of the country is untouched. The guidebook describes Guyana (not to be confused by Ghana, Guinea, or French Guiana) as “South America’s little-known curiosity that lies far off the well-trodden tourist path.” Read between the lines and it means it’s not over-run with trust fund hippies backpacking their way from hostel to hostel, or loud obnoxious tourists demanding to know where the nearest McDonalds is (there isn’t one). It doesn’t have all-inclusive Caribbean resorts (maybe due to the lack of sandy turquoise ocean beaches). It tends to attract nature lovers, hard-core hikers, adventurous thrill-seekers, folks who don’t mind finding their own way. And, um, me, standing uncomfortably close to the equator and realizing that I am still acclimatized to the Arctic.
My hotel was a cute little place whose website had listed hotel amenities like “Windows Open” and “Interior Corridors”, but not, oddly enough, their free WiFi which was the thing I enjoyed the most. That and their absolutely lovely friendly staff – despite the fact that Guyana is not necessarily a major tourist destination, comparatively speaking, the Guyanese truly know how to be hospitable.

Also, my hotel room had air conditioning. I never did figure out how to open the windows, but the air conditioning probably saved my life. I don’t actually like air conditioning that much, but it was better than being hot, as I was still not used to the humid heat. It kept me cool enough to sleep, and the ventilation also kept the mosquitos off my face. It was either that, or putting on a fan…and we all know how Koreans feel about sleeping with a fan.

Once I checked into the hotel, I took a very much needed nap and a shower. Then I met up with some folks living here who took me to the Hibiscus Lounge, where I was introduced to this lovely thing called Bull Dogs – rum margaritas with Corona beers stuck into them upside down, dripping their deliciousness into your drink slowly like an alcoholic IV. I sucked on these contentedly under a tall palm tree on the bar patio, eating yummy Guyanese chicken curry masala. It was the perfect way to start my stay.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

preparing for Guyana

Did I tell you that I'm going to be doing some work in Guyana for part of this year?

I saw a travel doctor as part of my preparations for Guyana. I asked him about the Zika virus that has been all over the news, and also, is the main travel advisory from the Canadian government when you look up Guyana. He told me about two other viruses I should worry about, Dengue fever and Chikungunya. Those are way more painful, he said. I hadn’t even heard of that last one.

But I’m not going to the Amazon rainforest this time, I said, so I should be okay, right?

Actually, the doctor said, those mosquitos like to hang out in the cities.

The travel nurse gave me some super industrial grade DEET mosquito repellant lotion. Like, really, really strong. As in, the label says don’t wear it unless you have to. It actually kind of burns when I rub it on my skin, which I think is a good sign that it should work. I mean, if it does that to me, what will it do to the skeeters? I’m hoping explosions. Big juicy bloody explosions.

Besides testing me for TB (twice), they also gave me diarrhea meds. Like, different kinds.

If you’ve got diarrhea, the doctor said, take this.

My goodness, I hope not, I said. I like to think I have a pretty strong-

And if you have really bad diarrhea, he continued, like really, really bad. Like bad. Blood in your stools. Can’t leave the bathroom. Explosions. Big juicy bloody explosions. Causing pain-

I get it, I said, really bad.

Really, really bad, he went on, then take this. With the first stuff.

And wear sunscreen, they said. The sun is pretty strong near the equator. Not that they need to tell me to. I’m Korean and jealously protective of my awesome skin.

But I accidentally got myself sunscreen that only had 15 SPF. Why do they even make stuff like this? What is that going to protect you against? But maybe somehow it’ll be balanced out with the military grade DEET lotion. I feel like it’s strong enough to repel not just mosquitoes, but maybe also harmful UV rays.

Guyana, here I come.