A couple weeks ago we had our All-Volunteer Conference (AVC). As the name suggests, all currently-serving volunteers in the country are required to attend. Not that we were complaining -- it was held at a resort on the Essequibo coast called Lake Mainstay. It's a long way to travel, nearly all the way across Guyana from where I am, so some of us in the Berbice region travelled over the Berbice river the night before and stayed with another volunteer so we wouldn't have to get up quite as early the next day. Her apartment was very sweet, but there weren't enough beds for everyone; as a result, I slept that night on a hammock on her back porch. Normally I would balk at this, with mosquitos and all, but since I didn't have any choice I made do.
And I'm glad I did. It turned out to be an amazing experience. Where she lives there aren't a lot of street lights, so light pollution was at a minimum. I could see all the stars laid out before me like an astrologer's map. A palm tree off to one side rattled in a cool night wind that was strong enough to keep the mosquitos off me. It was the perfect temperature -- all I needed was a thin sheet, and even that was mostly psychological. I listened to ambient music on my iPod and pondered the nature of the universe until I fell asleep.
The next morning was hell. We caught a minibus to where we met the Peace Corps van, and then we all drove to the Peace Corps office in Georgetown, where we proceeded to sit around for several hours. The Demerara bridge was open to let through ships, so there was no way across the river anyway. I bought a few items in town, had some dinner at the best spot in G-Town for "ital" food (Rastafarian), then we headed out on the long trek to the Essequibo. Once there, we caught the ferry to take us across the river. You might think a ferry ride across a river should be a short affair, but this is a mighty river, and it is very wide at the mouth. Boats going from one side (Parika) to the other (Adventure) have to thread a series of large and small delta islands. Speedboats do it in about 20 minutes. The ferry takes over four hours.
Yes, four hours. We entertained ourselves by chatting and taking photos and listening to music. By the time the ferry docked it was dark. Our bus caravan proceeded on to the resort, which is located on an inland lake about ten or so miles from the coastline. Someone asked me if it was like an island resort... actually, it's like the opposite of an island!
We drove down twisting dirt roads for what seemed like a lifetime, then arrived at a gate. On the other side we could see some buildings built on a gradual slope that led down to a pitch-dark lake, like a void in the night. Our buses stopped and disgorged us, and we went into the main building to register and get our room keys. It was a lot like you might expect a tropical lake resort to look: rattan furniture, potted tropical plants, ceiling fans rotating langorously above. My roommate and I, the same fella I roomed with during Orientation, lugged our backpacks down the brick trails between small, square huts until we found ours. It faced the beach, a white, sugary expanse of grainy beach sand that I felt surely must have been imported. We were pleased to discover that the huts were sealed and air-conditioned -- and, even better, divided into two internal bedrooms for privacy. For the first time since I arrived in Guyana, I slept in a cool room without needed a mosquito net. It was wonderful!
The next morning we roused ourselves out of bed and had a great breakfast of toast and eggs and juice, then converged on the conference room to begin the conference. The schedule was to divide the conference into two distinct days: the first was about PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief). This is a United States initiative to bring AIDS and HIV education to people around the world, and Peace Corps has been roped into it. Everything we do regarding HIV education here now will be associated with PEPFAR. The good news is, and this was the point of the entire day's conference, we can apply for grant money to do AIDS education. I don't know if I'll do any of that -- they want us to, but I simply don't feel qualified.
After the day's session ended, we all went for a dip in the lake. It was black water, just like all the other lakes in Guyana, and though this water was just as tea-colored as the others, it wasn't quite as opaque. It was also the perfect temperature: a soothing lukewarm bath that was not too cool and not too warm.
The layout of the resort was pretty basic. It hugged the shoreline of this lake along one section cleared out from the encroaching tropical forest. In the center was a large U-shaped building which contained the hotel lobby, the kitchen and dining area, and the large air-conditioned conference hall. In the middle of the "U" was a covered patio with a pool table. North of the main building were clusters of huts, identical to mine, which stemmed out from the central area along nice brick-lined walkways. South of the main building was an isolated grouping of rooms in more of a motel-style, all together in a line. Some other buildings were out here as well, mostly for hotel staff. The beach was studded with palm trees and had two or three different thatched buildings to distribute drinks and food during more boisterous times (this resort hosts several HUGE celebrations throughout the year, including a boat regatta and a Guyanese version of Spring Break).
The night brought partying, though I elected not to bother. I knew I'd regret drinking the next morning, and besides, we were only going to be there two days and I knew the partying on the last night would be more intense and more fun.
The second day, more of the same, although this time the subject wasn't PEPFAR grants but the results of the Volunteer Action Committee's survey about the staff and admin. Seems in previous years the results brought out some real passions in people, and this year the VAC went through contortions to make sure that didn't happen. And it didn't -- though some of the results were inflammatory toward certain staff members, and there are obvious animosities underlying it all, we kept it quite civil. This is the part of the conference where Kumar, our unfairly dismissed Country Director, received a STANDING OVATION. Certain other staff members, including the one who worked so hard to get him sacked, received absolutely abysmal scores (2.4 out of 4!)... but I'm not bitter!
Of course the day ended with more partying. We had dinner, then a huge portion of us convened at the waterside bar for dancing, karaoke, and some nighttime swimming (clothing, uh... *optional*). We crowded the dance floor, shaking it to all kinds of great Guyanese and Caribbean tunes, from soca to dancehall to reggae. In the midst of it all, we had a "Tick Tack" competition. "Tick Tack" is a Guyanese song, very popular, referring to the clocklike motion of a certain dance move women do with their hips, moving them back and forth in a tightly controlled way. We competed by region, but finally the admin took it home, courtesy of a new young woman they just hired on staff, who put all us whities to shame.
I finally dragged back to my hut at about 2 am. I hadn't had a proper night's sleep in several nights, and I knew it wasn't going to start tonight. I enjoyed my last night in that bed, then in the morning we all said goodbye and climbed back in the buses, bound for our respective sections of Guyana. All of us in Berbice were fortunate enough to be able to spend the night in Georgetown, since passage through Buxton was slated for the next morning. Ergo, I got yet another night in an air-conditioned hotel bed. This wasn't as nice, but it was still a sight better than my fan-blown creaky bed under the mosquito net back here in New Amsterdam!
Which is where I'm headed right now. Good night.