Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Georgetown at night

One evening, I instead of going to the gym, I decided to take a walk along the Sea Wall, which traces the coast. Parts of Guyana are below sea level at times, but their former Dutch colonialists didn’t let that stop them, building a long dyke along the seashore. I was admiring the view of the ocean and taking pictures when I realized that what I thought had been a pile of rubbish under a palm tree was in fact a small body huddled under a plastic warp, with only a foot sticking out, apparently sleeping.

I’m here during the beginning of the rainy season, so often the rain gushes down from the sky as though someone has turned on a faucet, and after a few minutes stops just as suddenly. One night I was woken from my sleep from those sounds, the skies pouring so heavily they sounded like a constant roar rather than the pitter-patter I was used to.

I thought about that person sleeping under the plastic on the beach, and the other people I had seen sleeping on the dusty roads, who would all be caught in the rain now, and I felt sad. I keep running into this one man wandering about town. He had no shirt or shoes, and all he had to wear was some kind of blanket wrapped around his waist like a makeshift skirt.

North Americans tend to think of the Caribbean as a paradise of turquoise oceans and sandy beaches upon which we can lounge with our umbrella drinks. In reality though, these Caribbean lands are real societies with real people and businesses and governments. The country still has to be run. They also have real problems. My work there had me spending time looking at the other side of Caribbean life, attending courts, businesses, libraries, charities, listening to stories that emerged about crime and violence and resource shortages and infrastructural issues. The poverty that I witnessed just walking down the streets were difficult to ignore. Rundown shacks built out of corrugated tin, young homeless people, bone-thin stray dogs.

Guyana Legal Aid Clinic

public service announcement on TV about a local shelter (the only women's shelter in the country)

Despite the cheery photos of palm trees and poolside drinks that I post on Instagram, the truth is, Georgetown can be a dangerous place. The newspaper seems to report on violent crimes every day. People here have guns. Just yesterday a burglar was shot in the face while breaking into a store. There was a prison riot a little while ago, resulting in a fire that killed over a dozen prisoners. Everyone has a personal story about someone close dealing with domestic abuse. Our hotel is guarded by a security officer at the front, and two of them at night, with a heavy iron gate that bars the entrance. Even some of the stores have iron gates that you have to get past to go shopping. I do not walk around outside after dark, even if the place I want to go to is very close. I don’t post these pictures on Instagram.

Still, at night the streets seemed to be filled with parties. I can hear the sounds from my hotel room, and sometimes I’m not sure if someone is playing shouty music from their car or if there’s a fight going on outside. Perhaps this makes me an old person.

Okay, so, we need to talk about food in Guyana.

Thank goodness Bettencourt restaurant staff have been sneaking things like carrots into my blended fruit juices at breakfast, otherwise I really would not have eaten any veggies on this whole trip. The travel nurse had told me to avoid salads, and I basically used that as an excuse to avoid all vegetables. It’s not that I have anything against Guyana’s vegetables, but really, I’m just *that* into Guyana’s amazingly fresh fruit and yummy chicken dishes.

The guidebook tends to complain about restaurants lacking in ambience. I can’t help but wonder if “ambience” in such contexts mean that these places don’t meet pre-conceived western notions. At any rate, the places I tried weren’t lacking in anything.

Especially if your thing is neon palm trees

Ambience! All over the place! (Pegasus Hotel)

I had a lovely relaxed dinner at the Duke Lodge, watching the sun go down between the palm trees by the swimming pool. It was a bit eerie to be the only patron at the restaurant for the night, but it made for wonderful service, unhurried, polite, attentive. It was a stark contrast to my experience at the Oasis Café, where I was sitting at a table waiting to meet someone, and a horde of young schoolboys descended on the café and filled all the tables, including mine, to watch the football game.
The Oasis Cafe, right before a swarm of schoolchildren descended on me

Duke Lodge

Poolside bar

Curry! More curry!

The only restaurant patron, and therefore the best restaurant patron

On the other end of the dining scale, I had lunch at House of Flavours, a small Rastafarian hole-in-the-wall joint that doubled as a reggae music store. They only served one dish, a delicious ital dish of rice, beans, veggies, seasoned with mango achar, served in a gourd, all for less than two dollars. They also gave me freshly squeezed mango and pineapple juice. They showed war movies on a small TV on top of the fridge while restaurant patrons ate. I could easily eat here every day.

Jerk chicken yessss

Eventually it was time for me to go home, and face the fact that I was going to have to start eating vegetables like kale again. Good-bye American Netflix. I had in my head a list of activities that I wanted to do the next time I came back to Guyana later this year.

On my flight home, nobody vomited, at least as far as I could hear. I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the sound for the in-flight movie, so I watched half of Concussion by making up my own lines for the actors through lip-reading. The flight attendants served us a hot meal of Indian chicken on rice. As we prepared to land, the pilot announced that Toronto was not too bad, about ten degrees Celsius.

“That’s bad,” said the Guyanese ladies next to me, shivering.