Amid the confusion and excitement of another new country and adventure, the first thought to enter my mind as I made my way by taxi from the airport to my new home was, ‘boy, this place is relaxed.’ We passed house after house and each one appeared to share the same three prominent features; a front porch, a hammock strung up in said porch, and reclined in each hammock, a person. For miles and miles this seemed to be the norm. The main road was lined with homes, similar in appearance; all charming wooden structures raised high off the ground to avoid potential flooding I presume. To the rear of the houses on one side of the road sat a wide body of water and behind the homes parallel to this there lay a vast blanket of green which stretched inland as far as the eye could see. In many ways this sums up Guyana. A small splattering of settlements (the majority of which are very small) nestled deep amongst two significant natural features; forest and water (see photo below, taken from the plane on a recent trip to visit some of my volunteers).
On this particular July day it was misty, humid, and damp, and the behaviour of the people I passed seemed to perfectly reflect the mood. Families and friends gathered on porches engaging in an activity I would soon learn to be known as ‘liming’. To lime, as I understand it, is to generally get together and hang out. To gather, to watch the day go by, to take time out, to escape, ignore or share overarching stress or struggles, or to crucially devote a moment of the day or the week to enjoying life. I may well be over-thinking or dramatising this pastime, but this is purely my own personal perception of something I have witnessed people partake in during my time here so far.
I’ve been based in Georgetown, Guyana for a period of almost five months now, but shamefully this is the first opportunity I’ve taken to sit down and attempt to describe this new location in words (ironically I’m doing this whilst sat at home in the UK having just arrived for Christmas). Five months is a decent amount of time, but I have no doubt I’m approaching this update weighed down by the heavy burden of ignorance around my neck. When it comes to the exact dynamics and understandings of this place, I’m still very much a fresh bystander, so please don’t judge Guyana on my observations alone. However, the impression I’ve gained so far is that Guyana in general is a captivating blend of cultures and people, and Georgetown is a perfect microcosm.
Prior to my arrival I clung to the belief that with Guyana’s status as the sole English speaking enclave in the whole continent my successful transition would not be hindered by language barriers. I was wrong to an extent. At any point your ears can be exposed to Portuguese, Spanish, Creole, and even Chinese. If you travel deeper into the interior regions you are also liable to hear any one of nine regional Amerindian dialects. Portuguese stems from the sizeable Brazilian population that has emerged in Guyana. This comes in the form of migrants who have settled here, or from workers travelling through on business, which in the majority of cases is due to a lucrative gold mining industry. In Georgetown you see the Brazilian flag all over, and Brazilian bars swell the already congested nightlife. Neighbouring Venezuela is most likely responsible for the presence of Spanish, and Chinese seems to represent the new business investment transpiring at a noticeable pace, especially in Georgetown.
Officially I live in South America. There is no disputing the geographical fact. To the west you’ll find Venezuela, and to the south lays the giant of Brazil. Yet in Georgetown you can quite effortlessly forget this fact, despite the language variety I just touched upon. The music, the dialect, the food, and the approach to life; in so many instances it screams of the Caribbean. Again I’ve found this to be more the case in Georgetown, which is the hub of activity due to its position as both the main port and capital city.
In many ways Georgetown is an attractive city. Comprised predominantly of wooden structures, the old colonial buildings (built in large part by the Dutch) possess significant charm and character. A network of canals assists in the drainage of excess water. I often pause in appreciation of their splendour. On occasions they send glistening channels of light through the heart of the city, as the setting sun dips and the overhanging trees create an intricate pattern on their surface. Some possess more charm than others however, and the aroma that drifts from one or two of them is questionable!
Georgetown used to be known as the ‘Garden City of the Caribbean’ and it’s easy to see why. There are a number of lush, green areas, attractive gardens, and the tree-lined canals pictured above. However, in recent years it’s apparent they’ve been neglected somewhat. Just recently a taxi driver spent the entire journey bemoaning the state of the city he had known, but now seemed unable to recognise. He reminisced about the pride he once held, which has gradually eroded from bearing witness to a blatant disregard for what made Georgetown great in his eyes. He nodded his head to the left as we passed another area of litter collected in a ditch by the side of the road. Unfortunately this is not uncommon in many towns and cities across the globe. Nevertheless, my reassurances did little to appease his frustrations. One green space though seems to be almost immune from the littering disease that has ravaged some parts of the city. The National Park is a beautiful open space that residents should be extremely proud of. During the day it comes alive as people fill the park and it becomes a real hive of activity, predominantly with runners, soccer players, and a women’s rugby team who I often see training there!
The same taxi driver also touched on another malady, which casts a cloud over his place of birth, and causes a different, but chronic pollutant in Georgetown. Crime and criminal activity have soared in recent times according to his observations. I glance at the newspaper each day and unfortunately it often enforces what this man was telling me. Like any major city the world over, your safety is never guaranteed. Yet I genuinely think this may be the most dangerous place I’ve lived. This may surprise you, as it certainly surprises me. Maybe I’ve become paranoid from reading the newspaper too much, or perhaps the lack of familiarity has caused some personal self doubt. However, the stories I’ve heard certainly don’t leave me short of evidence. People often assume that Rwanda was a treacherous place to live. History suggests this. Yet, it couldn’t be farther from the truth (in my experience). I would say that village life in Rwanda is the safest environment I’ve ever lived in. University life in Nottingham (once the gun capital of England) may run Georgetown close though.
There’s a burgeoning drug trade like many countries in this region, and as a result the associated crime drags close behind. There are the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, and the economic divide is glaring in some cases. You don’t walk the streets at night, and you don’t walk the streets on a Sunday as they’re practically deserted. If you do it’s at your own risk, especially if you’re a foreigner. Yet, as is the case almost everywhere, we carry a brain in our heads, and if we engage this to its full capacity we can certainly avoid most unsavoury situations. That doesn’t of course guarantee you full immunity from peril, as we also need to be in possession of a healthy dose of luck at most points in our lives. I try to be streetsmart and to respect the ways of this city, and keep my fingers crossed that my luck holds up. There’s common sense too, which is vastly underrated and often underused. However, it seems to me that despite generally high crime rates, the majority of violent crime occurs between sources already known to each other. That is the victim and perpetrator are often previously connected, and for the most part you can exist harm-free on the periphery simply reading about the crimes as opposed to being involved.
Through my job I’ve been able to travel to some other places in Guyana, but I’ll touch on these another time. Despite the litter issues and the need for extra vigilance, I’m growing to appreciate my new home. It has been a gradual process as I enjoyed my time in Rwanda and Bangladesh so much. Yet, Guyana and Georgetown are broadening my horizons even further and I try never to underestimate this fact. If you don’t learn and grow from new experiences there’s no point in embarking upon them, and I have no doubt this fresh location and new job is pushing me out of my comfort zone, which is scary yet very rewarding.