A Brief Return to Guyana

April 17, 2014

Greetings from Suddie, Essequibo, Guyana. Yep, I’m back here again. I’m writing this blog post offline and will (hopefully) upload it when I get back to a region with reliable internet service.

I’m a Chinese restaurant at 9:30AM, having fried rice for breakfast. Why? Because I’m a seasoned, middle-aged traveller with a weak stomach. I know what I can handle. My new policy when travelling is to try to avoid taking many photographs. Instead, I will try to blog about my experiences more. So, in absence of many photos, let me describe my setting. The town of Suddie is small, maybe about 400 people. The Chinese restaurant is empty, except for a pretty Indian girl in the far corner, who is mysteriously fishing through her briefcase for something. Probably another development worker.

The proprietors are dark-skinned teen-aged Chinese girls who are dancing about to loud Caribbean music. A small Chinese child sits behind the cage (all employees and cash are behind a cage, for security purposes) and stares at me silently. Can’t blame her.

Girl behind the cage
Girl behind the cage

I’m here on a consulting contract to evaluate a development program that just ended, and that involved several of my former students. Of course, I’ve been here many times before. But each time, I learn a little more about the country of my birth.

Guyana is a development anomaly. A classic struggling “Third World” den, it nonetheless has a rapidly shrinking population, as the death and emigration rates outpace the birth and immigration rates. While I’m hard at work here completing a contract, I’m also exploring two new opportunities.

The first is a partnership between the University of Guyana and the University of Ottawa. We are attempting to create a family medicine specialization for Guyanese medical graduates, in hopes that it will result in greater physician retention and greater continuity of care for patients who will see their new “family doctors” as a single point of entry into the wider health care system.

The second is a softer project seeking to encourage men to be a bigger part of the health-seeking process fo Guyanese families. That’s all the detail I’m able to give at the moment.

My stay thus far has been punctuated with interesting meetings. First, I met with a local “fan” of my books, which is always a beautiful and uncomfortable experience… Uncomfortable because no one deserves fans. The higher someone holds you in esteem, the more painful their eventual disappointment when they realize how ordinary you really are. But it’s beautiful because…. welll, how often in this life do you get to see your work touch a stranger in another country? That’s a precious moment in life.

Signing books for J. in Guyana
Signing books for J. in Guyana

Then, I was supposed to meet with the Minister of Health, Dr Ramsarran. But due to Parliamentary responsibilities, he had to postpone at the last minute. There’s a still a chance I will see him just before I leave the country, but the odds are poor. Missing him is particularly distressing because I did not pack much clothing acceptable for a meeting with a government Minister, and I might have gone through all of my options already.

So I had a massage instead. Hey, don’t hate me. Hate the predicament.

Enjoying a glass of wine poolside after my decadent massage
Enjoying a glass of wine poolside after my decadent massage

I also had lunch with an Australian doctor who’s working in Guyana as a local hire (which means working for pennies). Now that is a fascinating choice. Australia has its own set of remote experiences and health delivery challenges. It’s a bit odd to find one who’s moved all the way to South America for the same experience. (She had family reasons for doing so.)

Then there was the fruitful meeting with a a local NGO that seeks to educate and advocate against domestic violence. I’d dealt with them before, many years ago, during an expedition into the interior. But they’ve grown since, with outreach centres, a central office, and ongoing workshops for both men and women in various parts of the country. One thing my meeting with them reminded me of: the immediate proximate source of all health development woes is indeed poverty. We can build any number of health interventions, infrastructural investments, educational campaigns and so forth. But unless the dire economic condition of the extreme poor is addressed, it is all for naught. As someone said, so-called “economic violence” breeds all other types of violence.

Let me tell you something about my hotel in Georgetown. Long time readers of this blog will know that my father worked as a waiter in the Hotel Tower in Georgetown almost 70 years ago; and I always find particular glee in staying there now. It’s interesting watching colonial history unfold through the story of a single hotel, highlighted by family presence.

But this trip, I stayed in the Princess Hotel, which was built only a few years ago. Externally beautiful and modern, it features a spa, pool, poolside bar, huge rooms, and an attached casino! But the service is crap. It’s actually an effort to spend money, as no one seems to want to take my orders or bring me a bill.

Before you think Im whining too much, this is an observation I’ve been making increasingly with every trip to Guyana. Incrementally but rapidly, there is a declining work ethic and declining skills. This is due in part to the emigration of skilled labour, so that unqualified individuals advance faster into positions of influence and authority. And it may be due to a growing malaise resulting from those dire economic conditions I alluded to. But it makes me worry. When I compare the sense of urgency I see in India and Rwanda to the lack of interest I’ve observed locally, I am quite dismayed. This is not everyone, to be clear, and it does not jibe with the incredible work ethic and sense of sacrifice I’ve observed in so many Guyanese and Caribbean emigrants to the West. (Though certainly not all, as many of my unnamed relatives will demonstrate!)

Now back to that casino. A desperately poor country with a casino. Not good. Interestingly, local Guyanese residents are forbidden from entering the casino. Expatriates and foreigners are more than welcome. I struggle with this. On the one hand, I see how the government wants to prevent locals from developing an addiction to an activity that will exacerbate their already dire situation. But on the other hand, there’s something tragically neocolonial about denying a people access to something ostensibly owned by them, while making it accessible to wealthy outsiders. It has genuine shades of the British Raj, wherein Indians were banned from establishments in their own country, in which they toiled, while the white British were more than welcome.

Know what I would like to see in Guyana? Better imported music. If I hear horrible AM radio hip hop again I’m going to scream.

1pm

So here I am stuck in a taxi. Being driven along a dirt road to a wharf where a speedboat is supposed to take me to the AmerIndian village which is my next stop. But the car is hung up on top of a dirt hill. Two heavy loading trucks have arrived from both front and back. My driver stared at their driver. Then they smiled and both got out, instantly knowing what needed to be done: we needed a tow.

The view from inside the stuck taxi
The view from inside the stuck taxi

That was 15 minutes ago. Six men, three vehicles, and two broken tow lines later, and we are still unmoving. This is actually quite funny. I could actually walk to the wharf from here. But it’s more entertaining to sit in air conditioned comfort as these burly fellows figure it out. Yes, a couple of sweet AmerIndian girls, no more than 6, just walked by and sneered at us.

5:30pm

I am happily settled in the AmerIndian village of Capoey, enjoying the hospitality of a family that has been good friends to my former students during their stay here. I just recorded an audio podcast about the place, mostly about global health observations. So when I post it, you can listen to my live observations, with the roaring lakeside wind providing a degree of background.

capoey

Ironically, I just learned that my hostess here in the village was actually stuck behind my taxi back when it was stuck behind the dirt hill. She thought she’d recognized me, but wasn’t sure. Small place. That’s more true than you think: pretty much everyone here is related to one another.

It’s Easter weekend, which means that much revelry will soon commence. Sounds good, but this is actually a problem. Alcoholism torments these communities, as does wayward youth; the two trends are linked, of course. The drinking for Easter has already begun in earnest. I wonder if I will be able to find a sober boat pilot Saturday when it comes time to leave. More immediately annoying, though, is the penchant for playing very loud music. Very loud BAD music. How much crappy low rent dance music can I withstand? It’s like living in a Sean Paul video, but not in the sexy way.

The bigger question is…. when will the batteries in my devices be drained? This community is not well electrified. Some houses have solar batteries. The village water supply is provided by rain water collectors pumped by solar power. But most houses have no electricity, at least not that I can tell. The computer on which I am writing this has 3 hours left. My Canadian cell phone has about 2 hours left. And my Guyanese cell, which is probably the most important thing, has about 5 hours left. I’m here for another 30 hours or so. Luckily, I carry with me a portable solar charger which has been pre-charged with sufficient AC power to fully re-charge my cell phones. But the computer is not so lucky.

Oh well. Guess I’ll have to settle for enjoying a sweet sounding tropical night.

April 18
6:34AM

One device is dead. I drained my backup power devices to keep my Guyanese cell phone powered. (Before you judge me, recognize that I’m here working and need to stay in contact with my client and stakeholders, so keeping a phone powered is essential.) I thought to spare the power in my laptop by not using it, but forgot that even on standby it drains electricity. So I ate up an hour of battery power doing nothing. Now I’m eating up a few more minutes writing this blog post!

My hosts stayed elsewhere last night, so I was alone in their lovely lakeside home. Despite being under a mosquito net, I got bitten often. (Yes, there are holes in the net.) The sounds of partying went on through the night. But at my distance, they were weirdly soothing. Sporadic rain storms would punctuate a solid sheath of random tropical noises: unseen animals scurrying, unidentified birds and insects chirping, and the always unsettling sounds of fruit (I assume) falling onto the tin roof. I assumed that was the cat prowling about my room, but he was outside the locked door waiting for me in the morning. So who knows.

I’ve been up for 2 hours now and have not seen a single human soul in the village. It’s Easter weekend and everyone is sleeping in and/or hung over. I took the opportunity to bathe in the lake. That may sound idyllic, but these are blackwater lake, with the occasional piece of plastic waste floating by. Who knows what else is in the water with me. But besides that, there is something special being able to take one’s morning bath outdoors as songbirds’ songs and roosters’ crows serenade you, and as very large birds of prey orbit the water looking for fish.

For breakfast, I just had a mango freshly picked from the tree. I offered the peels to the cat who looked at me like I just kicked his mother. And now I’m sitting on the terrace, enjoying the village’s silence, as my towel dries and as I pointlessly try to recharge my solar batteries under a cloud-filled sky.

The house of Ena, my host in Capoey
The house of Ena, my host in Capoey

Today will be a challenge as I try to conduct interviews with villagers as they meander about, possibly drunkenly.

11:40am

My solar/wind charger is crap at charging smartphones. I guess they require too much power. Managed to talk to a couple of villagers about the project I’m doing here. It was rough… mostly because they’re drunk.

My crappy solar and wind charger
My crappy solar and wind charger

When I was preparing to come here, I was informed that there would be no food in the accommodation I’d be receiving. So I packed some protein powder and other bits of emergency food. At the last minute, the village captain arranged for his niece to host me; and she has been cooking very good home-style Guyanese meals for me. I feel spoiled and guilty. And I feel the need to scarf down my emergency food so I don’t have to carry it any further!

My computer has an hour left of power. I have some more interviews to do, but I can’t get hold of the interviewees yet. I should reserve some computer power for those, but I’m so BORED. Yes, I know, I should revel in being in a tropical paradise and do nothing until I have to. But I’m a workaholic, and I find genuine joy in doing what I do.

Okay, okay. Turning off the computer to have a nap by the lakeside until my interviewees show up. Oh, my rough life.

April 19, 2014
6:30AM

It seems I am always the first person awake in this village. Well, it is Easter weekend, so maybe everyone is sleeping in. My hostess and her sons stay with her sick mother across the lake, so I get her whole house to myself. It’s rather glorious, I must admit, though a bit unnerving at night when the weird and violent noises can be offputting. During the rainstorm last night, there were several very loud bangs as wind whipped through the house, and I was bitten mercilessly by all sorts of unnamed bugs.

I do like the house’s cat, though: Rocky. He follows me around and begs for food like a dog. But he’s a prowling bundle of fun. I just wish he’d stay indoors at night and help chase away the scurrying things, instead of being out in the wilderness when the sun is down. Yes, he probably doesn’t get as good health care here as he would in the West, and probably eats less than he would like. But what fun it must be being a cat in an AmerIndian village on the edge of the jungle. There are no cars to run him over, no loud human noises, and all around a natural habitat to explore and conquer. If I lived in a place like this, I would definitely have a cat.

I’ve been awake now for two hours, and the village remains unmoving. I often feel like I’m the only one here. In the gentle rain, I took my morning swim in the blackwater lake. I did wonder for a moment, if I were to get caught in a current and pulled away from shore, would anyone notice? Rockey met me at the door as I came in to get dry.

And now I’m packed for the next leg of my trip. To give you an idea of how Guyanese transportation works, get this. From Capoey, which I must hire a speedboat to get me to the landing on the other side of the lake; it’s a 20 minute ride. From there, I take a taxi through the town of Suddie to the community caled Supenaam (love that name); that’s about an hour. From there, I take another speedboat to the town of Parika, which is one of the central hubs for boat traffic; that’s another hour or 45 minutes. From there, I must take another speedboat for about 2 hours to the frontier town called Bartica, which is my last stop on this trip, before heading back to Georgetown and onward to Canada.

Oh, did I mention I hate boats? Joy.

Time to record another installment of my Guyana podcast. I will return to this log a bit later.

April 22
12:14pm

Hello from Bartica. I’ve been here three days now. These are my last few hours here. I have one more interview to do, then I’m on a boat to Parika to spend the night in an upper end hotel before flying back to Canada tomorrow morning.

It is searing hot here, and I am lugging about my 40 lb duffel bag and my backpack filled with electronics. It’s a good workout. I’ve been unable to find “healthy” food while here. I ended up buying a pack of whole wheat “tennis rolls”, which are a kind of soft bun, and a bottle of peanut butter, and have been living on that. Yes, I know Bartica is chock full of friend chicken places and Brazilian BBQ hangouts. But this was regatta weekend, and the streets were poring with drunken, boisterous and gesticulating men, several carrying machetes; not to mention the drunk drivers. Not my scene. I like to keep a low profile in Guyana, so thought it best to stay in my room working whenever possible.

I just wolfed down some fresh coconut water, so I’m set for the next few hours. As I write this, I’m encamped in the waiting room of the Bartica hospital, killing time until my last scheduled interview. In front of me is a mural drawn by members of the organization I’m representing: a nice touch of irony.

One of my interviews today was a tad disturbing. It was with an elderly women who appeared mostly AmerIndian, but could have been an East Indian mix. She was a senior member of a local NGO and an expert on such things as anti-bullying. She related to me that she had once visited Canada for a conference….. London, Ontario, to be exact.

I winced. I lived in London for 6 years. I hated every moment of it. London to me represents every bad stereotype of white Canada. The racism is rampant, and the shallowness disappointing.

Indeed, the woman told me of how she was waiting for the bus on a London street when a bunch of boys in a car drove by and yelled at her, “Paki!”

Typical. A poor, older AmerIndian woman visits our country, and a bunch of cowardly oafs take it upon themselves to maker her feel as unwelcome as possible.

Later that same day, she gave a talk to a primary school. A child in the audience asked her, “Are you a paki?” Another child was understandably upset by this, and threatened to report the incident to the principal. But the woman understood that children don’t know what they are saying, and prevented that from happening.

Now I hope you’ll understand when I say that we are not living in a post-racial society, not when in polite, tolerant, Canada, virile young men feel justified at shouting racist slurs to old women from the safety of a moving car.

That, my friends, is London, Ontario: armpit of our fair province.

(I just tried to telephone my last interview: no answer. I will give it another hour then head to the wharf. )

Here’s what I’ve learned about Bartica’s immediate development needs:

1. Solid waste management. The garbage is simply out of control. Twenty years ago, this was not a problem, as garbage was regularly burned. But with the advent of plastic and styrofoam packaging, we are now at a crisis moment. The people have yet to realize the connecting between garbage and their personal health.

2. Wayward youth. There is very little to distract or occupy young people here, especially those freshly out of school and lacking jobs. Everyone I’ve spoken to has advocated for the development of organized sports activities as the solution.

3. Jobs skills. It’s been suggested to me that an valuable development intervention would the provision of training on basic computer usage, sewing, cosmetology, and carpentry: hard skills that can be translated into both earning potential and engagement with the wider world.

4. Nutrition. The fast food culture is alive and well here, with fried foods and carbonated sweetened beverages the poisons of choice. There is as yet no awareness of the connection between these things and poor health, particularly diabetes, hypertension and obesity… all of which exist in epidemic levels here.

5. Disease testing. We hear a lot about HIV/AIDS and STDs here. But, as one older man put it, “I’m afraid to be tested for diabetes, because I don’t want to know that I have it.” We can’t address a health problem unless we know it exists.

That’s it. Five things. But five big things, I think. And they’re five things that could easily apply to a hundred other low income countries.

The garbage in Bartica
The garbage in Bartica

 

8:30pm
Georgetown

Back in the Princess Hotel in Georgetown. I made a few observations on the way here that I wanted to write about…. but of course I’ve forgotten them all! Arrrgh. Getting old and forgetful sucks.

I was met with 300 email messages and 67 Facebook messages, after being out of contact for 5 days over Easter weekend. That’s actually a lot less than I expected. I even managed to have a phone conversation with the Minister of Health before retiring for my wine and steak. When I was done, the spa was closed, though, so no massage for me. Yeah, I know you feel my pain.

I’m going to try to upload this post now. Soon after, the podcasts will also be up!  (You can listen to part 1 here.)