Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Essequibo Coast

Following up on my previous post, this is a write-up of another excellent experience I had a couple weeks ago. During our fourth week in Guyana, everyone was sent out on what they called a "Volunteer Visit," a chance to see some of the other parts of the country and witness volunteer life in person. They have a set of volunteers who have agreed to take one or two trainees under their wing for a half week, and other than matching genders, they assign volunteers to trainees in a totally random fashion.

My host volunteer was from Guy 14, having arrived one year ahead of me. He lived in a town pretty far away from Georgetown (I'm forbidden to say exactly where, sadly, but I can say it was somewhere between the Essequibo river and the Pomeroon river). In order to get there, I had to travel by bus from Georgetown to Parika, cross the Essequibo, then take a bus all the way to his town. The first leg of the journey took about an hour and cost $300 Guyanese dollars. Fortunately I was traveling with several other people who were headed to volunteers living near mine, so for most of the way we travelled together, and that mitigated some of the terror of having to find our way alone. We jammed into a bus hailed near the Starbroek Market (a danger zone, by the way, and forbidden to us) and rode out across the floating Demerara bridge. The bridge is a long steel structure that is designed to open in two spots to allow boat traffic up the Demerara. It isn't paved; the driving deck of the bridge is covered with steel plates that rest in fittings, so that they clank when one drives across them. The bridge also "flexes" in a most unnerving way, which you can especially see if you are driving behind a large truck.

Across this river, we drove along the coast and the seawall to Parika, a tiny town on the edge of the Essequibo. Here we went to the end of the "stelling," a Dutch term for a covered boat dock, and caught a speedboat. One of the trainees traveling with us balked when she saw the small boat bobbing in the chocolate-colored river water and refused to get on. Granted, it was a little nervous-making stepping into the boat with a huge backpack, feeling it bob and weave under us and threaten to toss us overboard. But she stayed behind (assisted by a PCV from the area who came to help us out) and we pressed on. Crossing the Essequibo was amazing. The speedboat skimmed across the water, following the shoreline of some delta islands. The shore was a primal jungle of palms, trees with dangling vines, and the occasional darkened inlet that burrowed back into the jungle like a grotto. A couple of these islands have volunteers going to them later, although I hear they aren't as thickly forested inland.

The boat let us out at a town with an unpronouncable name (costing us $900 Guyanese dollars) and we found, to our delight, another PCV from the area had come to assist, this time bringing a friend who owned a bus, so we didn't need to hail one ourself. En masse we spent the afternoon playing pool and having lunch at a nice roadside restaurant/nightclub, then we all went to our respective houses. My volunteer lived in the bottom floor of a two-story building behind a family home. The top floor was rented out to some woman whom I never saw, and some of the ground floor was taken up by a "garage" where an SUV was stored under a sheet. What remained was my volunteer host's place. It was bare concrete, on the floor, walls, and ceiling, largely undecorated except for the occasional taped picture and a large gaudy rug depicting a toreador. One trainee come with me to this place, and he slept in a hammock in a back room, enshrouded in a mosquito net. I let him have the hammock -- it didn't seem like the kind of thing I could comfortably sleep in for a whole night. Instead, I took a single bed tucked against a wall. A bit small for me, but I didn't mind.

The first night we bought a few food items and then rented a movie. Yes, rented a movie. See, here in Guyana there is a thriving video sales and rental business, but almost none of the movies are legit. Most of them are pirated copies brought over from China or Taiwan. I plan to write about them sometime in depth, so I won't steal my thunder here, other than to say the blurb on the back of the movie we chose, Clive Cussler's Sahara, was so poorly translated as to be almost meaningless.

So we watched Sahara that night on his computer (the movie wasn't bad, by the way). Then we went to sleep. Long about midnight I tried to tuck the mosquito net a little more firmly into the bed, to eliminate some sags, and the whole thing popped out of the ceiling and collapsed over me. I couldn't figure out how it had been affixed to the ceiling so that night I had to sleep without a net. Considering the aggressive and numerous mosquitos in Guyana, I made out pretty well -- we had a mosquito coil burning and I had a fan directed onto me the whole night, so that helped.

The next day we awoke to some scrambled eggs and toast, out on nice clothes, and went up to visit the school where our PCV host taught. It was a technical school, and people there were studying all kinds of things I could never do, like taking a car apart and putting it back together, cutting chair legs with a band saw, learning higher-order mathematics ("maths" here), etc. So we met some of the school's administrators and key teachers, then sat in a computer classroom and checked our e-mail and played Hearts until it was time to go.

That afternoon was party #2 (the first was at the restaurant the afternoon before). This was to be a weekend of many parties, it would turn out, some in Georgetown. But our party was excellent -- it was held at the house of another PCV, this one extending for his third year. He was a master chef and made eggplant parmesan and garlic bread (my that sounds nice right now) and we drank and "limed" all evening. He had a nice place that overlooked the seawall and the ocean, and was continuously bathed in cool breezes. In fact, I found all of the Essequibo coast to be cooler in temperature to Georgetown, mainly because it is right there on the ocean and subject to cool winds. We ended the party at a roadside rum shop. It was so quiet, compared to where we do our training, that for three hours we didn't see another car go by. At last we hailed the midnight bus and went back for some sleep.

Our sleep was short, though, because in the morning we all got up and went to Charity, a town at the end of the road on the Pomeroon. There we caught another speedboat and shot up the river a few miles to the farm of a local man, a friend to several of the PCVs. This was party #3. We spent the whole day here, liming and playing cards, relaxing in hammocks, or swimming in the Pomeroon. Like all the other rivers, this river is the color of chocolate Yoohoo, but we heard this one has piranhas in it. Sadly, I heard that after our trip there, otherwise I might have gone swimming! You know, so I could say I've been swimming in piranha-infested waters?

In the cool shade and breezes I slept in a hammock and read my book and did some crosswords, and everyone had a great time all around me. At noon we had a huge pot, more like a cauldron, of "cook-up" rice which was mighty delicious (cook-up rice is a type of rice made with coconut). At one point I got into a small rowboat with two other PCVs and paddled down the Pomeroon to a riverside store -- yes, a store that only services the river side -- and paddled back up. We fought the current only one direction -- oddly it was the downriver way, because during high tide in the coast the water actually goes upriver. This is the same for all the rivers here. We've seen mats of vegetation or floating logs going upstream, because the ocean pushes the river back during high tide. This, despite the fact that we were many miles inland.

We took the speedboat back to Parika, the operator's music vibrating the boat boards and echoing across the jungly Pomeroon ("Rich Girl" by Gwen Stefani, oddly). We spent a couple of hours at a Chinese restaurant where, despite deplorable hygiene conditions, I actually had a delicious meal of chow mein, then headed back home for some much-deserved sleep. In the morning it was time to head back to Georgetown and training. Party #4 came that evening, when the last of our PCT group had returned. We convened at a tiny roadside shack, a "rum shop," where we have often limed and commiserated. We had many drinks there and shared stories of adventures from all over Guyana, from New Amsterdam to the Pomeroon (check a map -- that's most of the Guyana coastline).

Then we slept like the dead. It was exhausting, and we would need our strength for parties #5, #6, and #7 -- which I'll write about another time.

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