Tuesday, 14 August 2007

So what does it feel like to live in Georgetown, Guyana?

The first thing you notice are the different sounds – the birds are interesting and everywhere and, of course, tropical in nature. They say Georgetown has more species of birds than any other capital city on the planet. Our first experience was just before a storm when we heard a terrible screeching in the trees behind the house. On closer examination we saw a green parrot and another and another until we counted nine all squawking away happily munching away at the star apples. Since then we see them everyday just before dusk. They fly from the south and move towards the north. The main bird sound is one that sounds a bit like a chirping daylight owl from a small yellow bird with a dark beak. He sings away for most of the day and the night competing with the frogs in the ditches outside the house.

The closeness of the neighbours conjures up a human intimacy that shows respect for each other’s space though so close. But maybe not for the ears! Music in Georgetown is everywhere and penetrating! Whether you like it or not it emanates from car radios, open windows, bars, shops and, of course, the minibuses, all played at an alarming volume. The Cricket World Cup regaled us with 14 nights of ear splitting music from a quarter of a mile away which was so loud we had to raise our voices to hear each other in our own front room. But generally you get used to it and it becomes part of life. You can even find yourself singing to the catchy tunes.

The street vendors come and go along the street in their turn. The paper lady, the brush lady (“Fine Broom Here” – it took 5 months to work that one out), the music man, the ice cream cart and, of course, “Nuts, Nuts”

Turn left or right along our street and you will firstly notice the open ditches in front of every house where the path is almost like a bridge. These soak up the torrential rain during the rainy season in May / June and again in November to January. It’s only when they overflow that the flooding starts. Global warming has changed these rains into the May, June, July and parts of August rains.

You can’t help but notice that, in the centre of the city, the rich and the poor live alongside each other. Perhaps areas further out are more designated along financial and social lines but, where we are, you have the 3 storey squat, the mansion which a duke or a Lord would be proud to live in, the children’s home, the government residence, the waste ground, the overcrowded building and the 3 storey house for one. Most are made of wood but latest building techniques are producing an array of new property built at neck breaking speed using brise blocks. There are clean ditches, manicured ditches, dirty ditches and dogs, dogs, dogs, (see earlier blog on the “dog bite.”). But generally people take a great pride in their property, sweeping the yard and cutting back the fast growing foliage on a regular basis.

You don’t have to go far to find a shop, usually behind grills for security but, in the more open spaces, there are small supermarkets, all with guards and their “bag bay”. Walk into the shop with a bag and you are marched out by the enthusiastic and bored guard to deposit your bag. Most variety shops sell liquor, essentials and huge 5 gallon bottles of clean water. You return your bottles on beer and liquor and that saves you the deposit next time.

Intermingled with the houses are every kind of business – the Vision Guyana charity, the TV studio in a basement, the internet cafĂ© in someone’s home, juice bars in houses, the barbers where they shave you bald (good for the heat but not for the business), the nail couture shop, the vulcanizer (pumps up tyres) the fruit stall, the night club (the Blue Iguana), the taxi base et al et al. Making a few dollars is essential for life as it is everywhere but it all seems so much closer to home here.

Going back to noise, on our first day walking to the VSO office we had at least 5 cars hoot at us. Along with the children saying “good morning”, we thought “what a friendly place”. It is, on the whole, but we discovered that the use of the car horn in Guyana is a friendly and useful tool for saying “I’m coming and it would be better if you got out of the way.” Horns for cyclists can help to warn you to keep out of the way but, on the whole, it just makes you jump and is more unsafe than useful. Drivers are generally good here. There is a sort of unwritten rule about who will go first and people do give way and sort it out with the biggest usually getting right of way and the humble cyclist weaving in and out with no fear. It’s quite unusual to see just a cyclist alone on a bike. Men carry their wives and girlfriends on the crossbar, parents carry their infants (no one has prams or pushchairs and two or three children simply share. Goods are transported everywhere by bicycle – rolls of lino, boxes of fruit, gas bottles, water bottles, my weekly shopping which once used to fill up the boot of my Nissan Primera!!

You might get the impression that there aren’t many cars. Statistically, there aren’t but, in actuality, in Georgetown, they are everywhere. Mainly Japanese, Mazda or Toyota, they come in all shapes and sizes of large. There are very few small cars but usually family saloons and hundreds of 4 X 4s, large, shiny and petrol gobbling but highly suitable for the 600 km unmade road to Brazil (if they ever go on it) but far too big for Regent Street! Registration plates start with P for private, H for hire, C for cycle, G for goods and DPL for Diplomat (01 is Britain and 05 US etc.) They are followed by two letters (PEE, PHH, PKK etc) and a number. So PKK are the newest cars and HA are the oldest taxis. Most cars are in reasonable condition but there are those taxis which have broken doors, cracked windscreens and boots which jump up. On the whole, minibuses are well maintained and covered in slogans such as “God is Love” or “De Woman Chaser”, “Too Bless to be Stress” and so on. Bicycles are generally a little rusty due to the climate but never seem to fall apart completely. An old bicycle is better because no one will steel it. During the rainy season, I ride my bike with my black umbrella because that’s what the Guyanese do. It’s very practical.

And then there are the traffic lights! When we arrived there were 30 – 40 sets which were not working and ancient dotted around the city. Now we have nearly 50 state-of-the-art new ones operated with solar power and displays which count down the seconds until the next change. The first ones created great snarl-ups but adjustments and people avoiding the area have eased up the congestion. Most are taking notice of the lights (perhaps the first few days with police with rifles had something to do with it.), but bicycles tend to ignore them unless you are a VSO from England wearing a helmet (a fashion statement only made by that particular breed) - well the American, Dutch and Canadian VSOs have integrated better in that respect as most would not be seen dead wearing them.

Georgetown has a good system in its roads – east / west and north / south with very few deviations. It makes navigation easy. A bit like New York. Well, not really but the same principle. The east / west landmarks are Brickdam (named literally after it being a canal at one stage), Regent Street where all the shops are, Lamaha Street which follows the Lamaha Canal next to the long gone railway line (now inhabited by permanent squatters with bridges to their houses with gates in the middle of the bridge). The most northerly road is the coast road along the sea wall (not North Road which is in the south for some reason). These will all get you quickly from one side of the city to the other. The principle north / south streets are Main and High Street (one road). This is where the President and the Prime Minister’s Residences are, opposite the British High Commissioner, proudly flying the Union Flag. There is Camp Street in the middle of the city with its new traffic lights on every corner, Vlissengen and Irving Streets (one road really up and down) which is the main thoroughfare in and out of the city and Sherrif Street where the nightlife is (we’ve never been). These are often wide avenues, tree lined with wide pavements in

the middle and one way traffic on either side. In Georgetown there are lots of one way streets but rarely are you told they are one way; you just have to sense it and everyone seems to know anyway. It works! The whole city is between the East Coast of the River Demerara of sugar fame and over the other side the East Coast which gradually goes south to Berbice through region 4, over the Mahaica River to Region 5 and on to the Berbice River to region 6 and New Amsterdam.

If you go to the Museum you will see that there was a tremendous fire in the centre of town in 1945 which destroyed huge areas of wooden buildings. It must have been like the Fire of London from the size of it. The models they have there show a bygone age. It must have been beautiful. You can tell because many fine-looking buildings still exist around the city but most of them have seen much better times. Soon they will be gone and the Colonial Era will have passed – not a bad thing but much of the beauty will have been lost forever to be replaced by a 21st century way of living. Some needs to be saved for the sake of history.

Well, how about getting about? In fact, I am happier cycling here than I am in London as long as you do it the Guyanese way – brave, bold, eyes everywhere and standing up to the bigger vehicles. But the only ones you don’t argue with are the minibuses. A bit like Mr White Van Driver in England, Mr Minibus Driver in Guyana owns the road! There appears to be little consideration for any other road user. They drive along at great speed weaving in and out of traffic, hooting their horns constantly and stopping every few yards. There are no bus stops. When you get on to this 15-seater ‘Hackney Carriage’. there is the driver whose main job is to operate the CD player as he drives (the volume of the music is something else) and the conductor (usually a boy from 14 – 50 years of age) with a huge wad of notes and hanging out of the window shouting his route “Kitty Campbell, Kitty Campbell, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty” and urging the passers by to get on the bus. Hence, it stops constantly; several buses will overtake each other to get the fastest start when they stop. And, God forbid if the minibus oversteps its mark; it will suddenly reverse at speed with no warning to pick up the customer. Three children got off at a school gate and one (a 4 year old) stayed on the bus and made the driver go an extra 10 yards to get off next to the tuck shop lady. Hugely efficient but horrendously dangerous!

In town it’s not so bad…..but out in the country this can average 120km per hour dodging the cows, donkeys, pigs, horses and chickens in the road. We drive on the left here but as quick turn to the right is not unusual to avoid a pothole as chickens fly off in fright but none ever seem to get hit. Every time the bus stops and it is full and someone from the back wants to get off shouting “Corner” (I can’t do the accent), everyone has to get off from the left hand side of the bus because the fold up seats block the exit. They say the safest place is in the middle because you are cushioned by human flesh on either side if the bus overturns which they have done several times since we were here. If you have the nerve, you can stop the bus, get out and buy your fruit and get back on again. I’ve seen it done and the woman even got the driver to carry the huge watermelon back to the bus for her across a busy road.

A ride anywhere in Georgetown is $50 (13p) so that’s $100 for two. But if it’s a single ticket they are not happy to take coins and the cost will therefore be 3 x $20. There must be as many buses in Georgetown as there are dogs. Taxis are another thing: call them from home and the cost is $260 (70p) or $300 hailed in the street (81p). They’re quick, on time, efficient and all the same price so you are never taken around the houses for a higher fare. But if you drop off or pick someone up on the way, even for 10 seconds on the route, you will be charged a double fare. But, the best thing about taxis is they don’t have the music! There must be 20+ taxi firms competing for business with each other. They will tout for business in the main areas or toot and slow down for you on the road assuming you don’t want to walk anywhere.

Shopping is a whole new experience. There are basically four types – the street vendors already mentioned, the markets which are everywhere all over Georgetown – Bourda, Kitty, Stabroek etc, the variety store which usually sells everything or whatever they can get, and the large department stores― such as Guyana Stores and Fogarty’s (advertised as “your friendly store” – I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about that if you ever visit)). They are well staffed, keen to sell and everyone has their role – the bag bay person, the assistant, the cashier, the delivery desk and the guard. In one shop it took 8 people to sell me two batteries. In the centre of Georgetown a new shopping mall - The City Mall has been opened which proudly offers the only escalators in Guyana. It’s a real treat with its restaurants and chic shops. It seems to have been a great success. If you want to buy food, fresh vegetables and fruit are on sale everywhere in the market and from street vendors. There is a wide array of these when they are in season. Perhaps, the fruit you see the most are pines and melons, and bora beans and pak choi. You can buy fruit to eat and fruit for juice. The best is passion fruit and a few mangos. Passion fruit has a strong taste and the mango thickens it and gives it a better colour. 10 passion fruit and two mangos will make about 3 and a half litres of juice. I make it every week and it lasts the week.

For groceries, the market is the cheapest but the shops are more ordered but vary greatly in price dependant on their targeted customers. You can buy most things and basics are a reasonable price as are the fresh goods if they are locally produced but, try to buy any imported goods (which nearly everything is!) and it will cost you the proverbial “arm and a leg”. The meat market sells most meat and fish but it’s best to buy early as the heat of the day because there is little refrigeration. The fish has lots of ice and is regularly hosed down but the meat hangs (as it should) and is open to the elements and the flies. I haven’t got as far as buying meat in the market yet and I’m sure it’s fine to do so, but I prefer the pre-packaged and sanitary packets produced at Nigel’s or Bounty Farms. Tomatoes are fresh end irregular and very tasty, cucumbers are short and fat with lots of seed, potatoes are the best we have ever tasted and the flour makes the most wonderful bread I have made in 30 years. All in all, we are very lucky to have such an array of food to choose from. I suppose, though, the things I miss the most are white wine (you can buy it here but it is prohibitively expensive), a variety of cheese (although the cheddar is very good) and sausages (they only have hotdogs here) but the only place you can buy a British banger is in Britain or Ireland. Recently we discovered a small Brazilian supermarket hidden away which has great cured pork and dried sausage. You need to barter and will get a reduction of 30% if you are firm. That’s the 30% they added to the price when a foreigner walks through the door.

That brings me to the question of alcohol – local brews are cheap - $600 for a bottle of basic rum (150p) or $850 for the five year old. Vodka is about the $800 and locally produced whiskey or gin, which has a full alcohol content but lacks the flavour of the original, is just short of $1,000. Rum is usually drunk with coke or juice and vodka with juice or tonic. I just drink the whiskey with ice. The beer is great. The local bottled beer produced in Georgetown – Banks – is the standard issue and is very palatable and priced – from $160 in a shop to $350 in the hotel, with $220 being about average for a drink out (58p). Alcohol is served almost everywhere and there are bars which are frequented by people in the neighbourhood and others which are for special occasions such as the Karaoke Bar – The Palm Court or Windies (the Sports Bar, Celina’s overlooks the ocean and offers a wide range of drinks and food and good sunsets if you are lucky. It has lots of atmosphere but most of these places are out of the reach of a VSO unless you use your own resources. We have discovered Caipirinha – a Brazilian drink with No 51 spirit limes, sugar and ice – very potent but refreshing, addictive, delicious and hangover-giving! Our own version with vodka, lime, ice and Splenda (low calorie sugar) is very passable.

To finish, Georgetown is a lovely and interesting city. It’s called the Garden City and, although it doesn’t have many gardens, it has lots of open space with flowering trees and tropical plants, is the National Park which we cycle through every day where there are foals and beautiful water lilies in the dyke. There are the Botanical Gardens about 10 minutes walk from our house. They are right next to the zoo which has some interesting animals even if they are in small cages. Georgetown’s public buildings are well maintained on the whole and nearly all made of wood so they have interesting architecture from another age but still serve their purpose. The imposing St George’s Cathedral is in the centre of the city and was once the largest wooden church in the world. Nearby are the Law Courts with the statue of Victoria outside and the City Hall just around the corner is an imposing building on a corner at the end of Regent St and Avenue of the Republic. Stabroek Market in contrast on the east bank of the Demerara is a Dutch style market with traders everywhere inside and out. The dock area still has some large boats but also has lots of launches which take people to the west bank when they are working out of Georgetown. On the bank is the imposing red and white striped lighthouse which we can see from our work window and right across the road from us is the Umana Yana – an Amerindian structure where all manner of events take place, We are in a very quiet area by the sea wall and we are flanked by the only 4 star hotel – the Meridien Pegasus which is like entering another world. Just down the road are the American and Canadian Embassies which must be amongst the biggest structures in Georgetown.

We are very lucky to be here because it is a different but interesting city. The people are friendly and we feel safe. Thanks to Georgetown for hosting us for these two years. We hope we can help and repay the debt of allowing us to experience another part of our world which is so different from home. Georgetown is our home for the moment and we have no regrets!

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