Friday, June 24, 2005

Want to Read More?

Here are two blogs/web sites being put together by fellow Guy16 volunteers.

Some Pictures of the first couple weeks of Training. (Astute readers will see me in some of those! Hint: I seem to almost always be wearing a hat...)

A blog by Wes, one of my fellow Guy16 volunteers.

More in a few days.
Peace out,

A Blatant Solicitation

Anyone who would like to send me letters or packages may send them to the following address:

Brian Reeves
c/o Peace Corps Guyana
P.O. Box 101192
Georgetown, Guyana, South America

And I would love you forever. :D

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

In Which I Become a Tour Guide, Part Two

Heading back out into the living room, we move farther into the house. A barrier of wooden knick-knack shelves forms a sort of wall between the living room and the dining room. A table is there, although the confines are small enough that realistically only one person may sit at it at a time. Three bell-shaped plastic mesh contraptions rest on the table and serve as a protective bug cover for food sitting out during mealtimes. Just off the dining room is a door leading into the main bathroom, which serves right now as my exclusive bathroom. It is divided into two halves by a concrete wall; to the right is a cement shower stall, with a shower head extending from the top of a PVC pipe that protrudes from the wall. To the left is a toilet stall. Light is allowed into the bathroom by means of two small slat-windows which also, to my delight, permit a cute little frog to come in while I shower. Sometimes he will make his way along the wall, taking comfort from the scorching equatorial sun in the shade of the house and the cool spray of the water.

While one is in the bathroom for "official business," one finally sees the drawback to the open-ceiling design of the local architecture. While it does allow air to flow more pleasantly through the house, it also makes public knowledge anything happening anywhere in the house. And it's not a huge house, what can be heard in one room can be heard in all of them. Sounds coming from the bathroom are enjoyed by all. Knowing this can lead to what we volunteers have affectionately termed "stage fright," a hesitance to perform certain vital functions in the bathroom knowing that other members of the household are nearby. Of course, all delicate American gastro-intestinal systems will eventually break down in a spectacular way, and each of us is also quite familiar by now with the moment in which all stage fright is forgotten in the haste to relieve intestinal distress.

Beyond the dining area and bathroom is the kitchen and, again on the left hand side (a long wall partitions the house into open living, dining and kitchen areas on the right, and closed bedrooms and bathrooms on the left) is a doorway leading into my homestay parents' room. The kitchen sports a refrigerator and gas stove, some countertop space, and little else but spare buckets of washing water and seldom-used electronics. Water is provided by the city only between the hours of 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., so most dish-washing uses the spare water drawn into buckets near the sink. A huge jug of potable water rests on the countertop, provided by the Peace Corps for use by my tender tummy, which isn't capable of handling the local water. The stuff that comes out of the pipe, however, is treated by a plant only a block away, and is clean enough for my host parents to drink. There is something always cooking in this kitchen, it seems -- apparently in Guyana, and most developing countries, cooking the meals of the day is the work of a day, a constant labor. I have yet to take responsibility to my own meals, and that is fine with me because I am not fond of cooking.

The last room, the bedroom and bathroom for my host parents, I have never seen. A cloth curtain blocks the view and I've never taken it upon myself to look in (curiosity notwithstanding). Instead, we end our tour by heading out the back door, through another imposing security gate, onto the back porch. Here much of the house work is done, and there are three plastic chairs upon which one can sit to read, peel fruit, clean things, etc. A step down onto the concrete back area reveals a view toward the east where we can see several more houses among the palms and banana trees. The backyard is grassy, and my host family has a palm and cluster of banana plants themselves, alongside a cherry tree, a passionfruit bush, and some plantains. Two huge black 200-gallon cisterns rest here. Every house in Guyana has at least one of these, sometimes two or three, which are used to hold water for bathing or cooking. When the city supply is available, one of the primary tasks is to refresh or top off this water, which will be used all the rest of the day. A veritable labyrinth of piping leads the cisterns, one of which is on the roof, to the house, to two large spare barrels, and back toward the city line. A small concrete gutter leads spare water away through a hole in the fence to another trench, where the water will drain slowly through town until it hits the chocolate-brown waters of the Demerara river.

The most pleasant place to be during daylight hours is in the back. Breezes blow mainly from the east, and since the sun rests so high overhead it can generate some strong temperatures, enhanced by the super-saturated humidity. It is no different from a Tallahassee summer, although the sun is a little more intense this close to the equator. All of this is noticably mitigated by those cool breezes, which blow across the groves of trees and wooden houses and tropical tin roofs to rustle melodiously through the coconut palm fronds, and slide pleasantly across your moist skin.

This is life in South America.

In Which I Become a Tour Guide, Part One

Let me take you inside a Guyanese home.

Cross the threshold of my homestay parents' gate and enter the yard, and depending on the time of day one might immediately see birds (day) or huge toads (night). The toads, I should point out here, are easily the size of my clenched fist, sometimes closer to two. Locally they are called crapaud (pronounced "cruh-po", an interesting similarity to St. Lucia).

The house proper is set about three feet off the ground level. Every house locally is built so, with space underneath either encased in solid concrete or left open, the house perched on pillars of cement blocks. Other houses take this one step further and raise the entire house one level up, so that the building is effectively two-story, only with a great open space in the area beneath the house in which often are strung clothes lines amid piles of buckets or boxes or barrels. Some of the more wealthy families might park a car under the house in this way. Yet others fill in this area, often renting it out to supplement their income, a house on top of an apartment.

But my house is one-story with a solid foundation. The front porch is semi-circular and covered, swept daily to keep off the dust, and decorated with a scrap of linoleum. Leave your shoes beside the door, obeying Guyanese custom, and step over the transom past the lockable security gate and solid wood front door, and you find yourself in a modestly-sized living room. The first thing you might notice is that the walls of the house do not connect with the ceiling -- a local design to improve air flow in the house, the inner walls, which are constructed of wood slats and painted various colors (green, in this case, and orange in other parts of the house), extend only ten or so feet up. This leaves a gap between the top of the walls and the house's ceiling, where wooden beams and naked corrugated tin roofing are exposed. The walls are very simple (forget sheet rock) and so wires leading to various light switches and electrical outlets are left affixed in plain sight and painted to match the rest of the walls, a modest attempt at camouflage.

The furniture in the living room consists of a matching set with a love seat, couch, and single chair, all facing one another with a distance between of only a single pace. Tucked in the far right corner as you come in is an entertainment center, a largish black number with sliding glass panels which, due to a lack of good storage space in the kitchen, serve double-duty as a china cabinet. A 16-inch television is perched on the center shelf; cable is not available out here, so the antenna on the roof sends down the often snowy signals from about six different local stations, one of which mostly specializes in broadcasting American television feeds from NBC; at night it is possible to catch Fear Factor or Friends reruns. Other stations play almost exclusively Guyanese-produced shows, often very sedate affairs with an Indo-Guyanese or Afro-Guyanese man or woman speaking woodenly about one subject or another. These shows seem hopelessly arcane to me, the subject matter so tightly woven in local politics and interest that I cannot hope to culturally comprehend it, not to mention the sometimes impenetrable accent which is enhanced by poor television reception. (Side note: One local favorite is a program that runs in the evenings called the "Obituary Channel," where slow-scrolling dedications to the dearly departed are set to music. The tunes selected are always surprising, ranging from the grating wails of a Bollywood banshee, to a Patsy-Cline-like version of "The Sweet By-and-By," to the local reggae favorite that seems to play from every available radio all day. The grainy photos of the departed, who might have died yesterday or in 1982, stare blankly as the epitaph, paid for by the departed's friends and family of course, rolls sedately past.)

On the left-hand side of this room is a homemade curtain made from floral-print cloth which serves to demurely hide the door that leads into my room. Adhering to Peace Corps policy, the door may be locked from within or without, although I rarely choose to do so, with a simple tumbler latch and key. My bedroom is painted a sort of creamy green color, the wooden slat floorboards covered here and there with a throw rug or carpet remnant. A wardrobe and bureau have been provided for storage of my things. The bed is a broad twin slid into one corner. Dangling from the wooden beam high above is a wire holding up a mosquito net, which I must tuck around the bed at night forming a sort of canopy to protect me from the squadrons of South American insects that patrol the night. A solitary fan is arranged to point doggedly toward the center of the bed; it provides a cool enough wind that in the dead of night sometimes I find I need a sheet. Problem is, with only one outlet in the room I cannot both use my computer and the fan, so most of the time I must use my computer for short stretches at a time on waning battery power. As I write this, the fan is unplugged so that I may rejuice my laptop.

I Go Well With Bread

We met our homestay family through an odd exercise where every volunteer was given a slip of paper that contained a statement about a type of food, and the host parents were given another slip of paper with the matching dish name. My slip of paper read, "I GO WELL WITH BREAD," and when it finally came my turn I stood up and recited the phrase. My homestay mother had a slip of paper that read, "BUTTER," and so like others who came before me, I crossed the courtyard to sit with her. When the exercise was over, they led us to a group of vans which would deliver us to our homestay house in one of the two villages near Georgetown.

I'd love at this time to be more frank and specific about my homestay mother, but Peace Corps restrictions will not allow me to do so. What I can share is that my homestay "mother" does not work, instead tending the house all day. Her husband, my homestay "father," works at a processing plant in Georgetown. They have grown children whom I have seen only once, since they live elsewhere. Like a microcosm of Guyana, they are an interracial couple, and my "mother" is mixed Indo-Guyanese and Amerindian.

Grove, which is not found on many maps, could be considered something of a bedroom community for Georgetown: a lot of people live here and work there. There's one main road that leads to Georgetown, a road that services much of the East Coast of the Demerara. In fact, that river can be seen just to the west from the main road. Off the road on the other side are several blocks of crowded private homes. Most of the population of this area consist of Indo-Guyanese, though it is certainly mixed. To walk down the road at almost any time of the day or early evening is to expose oneself to a cacophony of several types of music, from soca to reggae to chutney to light rock. Stop in the center of the road and you might simultaneously hear Celine Dion, Mighty Sparrow, Sean Paul, and the wailing falsetto of a Bollywood diva.

The neighborhood spaces out a little as you get out toward where my homestay parents live. Follow a road that has been mightily rutted and pitted by heavy trucks (the area is experiencing a housing boom), and littered with cow and dog dung, and you will pass a series of wooden houses with tin roofs, or tin houses with wooden roofs. Dogs and cows share the road with people on bicycles or walking and with speeding buses. Every couple blocks or so a wooden shack has been erected to sell some type of goods or another -- along the road leading to my homestay one passes a group of men cutting coconuts, a "rum shop" where any number of refreshments besides rum are served, two stands selling fruits and vegetables, a tiny barber shop no larger than a wood shed, and yet another rum shop. This last one is known among volunteers as the "Carib Shop" simply because of the prominent Carib beer signs on its outer walls. The real name of this joint, ideal for "liming" (hanging out) in the evening, is unknown. But its description as a shack is quite accurate -- it is merely a four-walled building with one room inside, a screened window or two for selling bottled drinks, and a covered and fenced-in area containing some plastic chairs and a shopworn pool table. It sounds much worse than it actually is; there's something quaint and rustic about the humble Carib shop, and it is a nice place to spend some social hours with other volunteers. This neighborhood has seen Peace Corps volunteers for years now, so our white faces don't elicit the same kind of attention we might receive elsewhere.

But I was going to mention my homestay house. It's quite average for the area, one-story concrete affair with a tin roof that stretches up about 15 feet. The outer walls are a creamy orange tone, as is the concrete fence that surrounds the yard and fends off wandering cows, dogs, and people. Also very common to this area, the space immediately inside the gate is paved with concrete, taking place of a front yard and making for much less muddy access to the house on rainy days. Most houses in this area are built in a similar fashion, with huge slabs of concrete mounted between rebar-reinforced posts, then topped with a wooden beam structure and shingled with plates of corrugated tin. Many cost-effective fences and outer buildings are made exclusively of corrugated tin. And, yes, inevitably the tin rusts, creating the timeless Caribbean appearance of pastel- or white-painted houses with oxidated roofing.

Houses in this area are spaced apart more so than one would see closer to town, and much more so than Georgetown proper, where need not be endowed with super powers to spring from rooftop to rooftop. Out here, though, the houses generally rest a comfortable 40 feet apart, sometimes a little more, Not far enough that one cannot clearly hear the music playing in the house next door, but far enough that a nice garden-like ambiance is created by the palms and banana plants springing up in each backyard.

Between the blocks, where in a semi-urban American neighborhood one might find a service alley, one often finds a ditch or trench. The water here is usually an amazing color ranging from brown to green, most definitely not potable, the runoff from hundreds of homes and their washing or rain gutters. Bridges to cross these trenches are spaced periodically along the block, some of them for foot traffic only. Sometimes one must maneuver behind other houses to find a pedestrian bridge that leads across the trench, and most often it is a rickety affair of planks or creosote-dripping railroad ties. A fall into this water would not be pleasant, even on the hottest of afternoons. But each trench is a riot of life, with reeds and lilies growing green and thick beneath one's feet, tiny fish skipping across the duckweed, and larger but unseen fish making an occasional ker-sploosh among the reeds. Locals claim sometimes one can see alligators in the trenches. By these I presume they mean caymans, not full-grown, Florida-style alligators, but I guess that remains to be seen.

Up next: Inside my homestay house

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

G-Town Massive

That night, and for the next two or three nights, we stayed at a hotel in town. It was going to be our last experience with air conditioning, so I made sure to enjoy it. I was paired up with a friendly trainee who had been buying me shots in Miami. For the first night, all anyone did was sleep. We had been traveling all day and arrived in the country late at night and we were tired. The next day began our training in earnest, however. We met in a conference room just down the hall from our rooms -- gratefully, this was also air-conditioned -- and we were given several sessions in what to expect during the next few weeks, what shape our training would take, who the various trainers were, etc. We were firmly told not to drink the tap water from the hotel; but honestly I don't think any of us were about to sip from that light brown flow.

At lunchtime we gathered in a large room in the bottom floor and sat around a very large table. The United States Ambassador was there, along with a couple other official attachments to the U.S., and we were given a hearty welcome on the part of our CD. He read from two aspiration statements to give the Ambassador an idea of what we were all about, and one of them was mine, from which he pulled a rather lengthy paragraph regarding my take on positive thinking and approaching another culture by looking not for what is missing, but what it has to offer. Later I was given kudos from the other trainees for my eloquence.

Immediately following lunch, the trainers put us in a couple vans and took us on a whirlwind tour of Georgetown so that we might see some of its more famous landmarks: the 1763 monument, the Indian monument, the Place of the Seven Ponds, the final resting place of Forbes Burnham, among others. Mostly it was amazing to finally see Georgetown in the daylight (we had come in too late to see much of it other than what could be seen alongside the road). It was crowded, active, exciting. We passed markets, street vendors, weaved through intersections choked with buses and cars, saw buildings ranging from tumbledown wooden structures housing rum shops, to very tall concrete office buildings, to the grand and venerable wooden Dutch buildings like City Hall. It was an explosion of color and vibrance and energy, a maelstrom of poverty alongside wealth. Through gaps in the city blocks we could see glimpses of the ocean and the Demarara river, both such a chocolate-brown that it was impossible to see where one ended and the other began.

The tour ended at the Peace Corps office, a four-story building along a less-populated stretch of Georgetown near the sea. It is heavily gated due to an increase in security after 9/11. We rolled up and climbed out of our vans, filing into the foyer of the office and smiling at the cool air. We stretched out on the wicker furniture in the volunteer lounge where we awaited our afternoon's main event: our first round of immunization shots. One by one we were led into the PCMO's office for innoculations. I already had quite a few of them, but nevertheless she had to give me Yellow Fever and Rabies. Getting through everyone's shots took several hours, and so we finally returned to the hotel, moaning about our sore arms, after dark. We sozialized until we couldn't bear to be awake any longer, then called it a night.

Day two ended our tenure at the hotel. This was the day when we were introduced to our homestays. The trainers began the day with some information on what to expect, and some quick culture lessons in "Dos and Don'ts" for the homestay. Some cultural classes followed, and then after lunch we were directed to head to our rooms and pack our things. Fortunately I had done so, with much effort, the evening before, so I simply enjoyed some music until it was time to deliver our enormous mound of baggage to the front of the hotel. Representatives of our homestays began to arrive shortly after, and we all formed a great party in the patio out back to mingle and get acquainted. After a short exercise in propriety and expectations, we met our hosts and everyone was bused from the hotel to one of the two communities where we would be spending the next few weeks.

Up next: the Homestay experience

A Plane Ride and a Bus Ride

The next morning we gathered our things, said goodbye to the Paraguay folks (very sad to say goodbye to one in particular, a very fun woman who bonded with all us Guyana folks the nights before), and drove out to the airport. This was as far as the trainers could take us, so we sent our bags through security, then gathered together to play Uno and eat our last American meals for a couple hours before the BWIA flight arrived. The flight itself went well, and during some of it we could even see various Caribbean nations as we flew over, like Puerto Rico. The highlight for me was looking out the starboard window and seeing St. Lucia stretched out before me. I pointed out to my seat neighbor the very peninsula where Vieux Fort was (see previous entry, "Memories of Dominica"). It was an odd moment -- nostalgic, in a way, but no longer did it hold the same sort of regret as it previously did. Yes, I do miss training there and all my friends, and feel sad that I couldn't have forged on to create more memories with them. But I finally felt that at the very least I was moving on.

We stopped over in Barbados to refuel, but sadly it was after dark and we couldn't leave the plane anyway, so I can only say I've technically been to Barbados. Then we made the short flight to Guyana, coming in so late that we couldn't see any of the country, only strings of lights in the dark. As we disembarked, we stepped out into the humid, buzzing air of Guyana, and my first thought was, "Welcome Home." This is to be our home for two years! Great moths flitted in the tall lamps of the airport (at first we thought they were bats). The air was heavy and moist. It felt to me very much like a Tallahassee summer, so at least I was prepared to some extent -- not so, the people from Colorado or Maine!

We weren't bothered with through customs -- no tedious searching of bags. Instead, we were led out to waiting buses and welcomed by several current PCVs. Nobody I had previously met online were among them, but they were a very friendly and welcoming sort. We loaded ourselves and all our stuff into four buses and were hurled through the dark Guyanese night from the airport toward our destination, a hotel in Georgetown. My first impression was that it looked identical in every way to St. Lucia or Dominica, except for the distinct absence of hills and the equally distinct presence of loose cows wandering the roadside. They would pass in and out of our bus headlamps for just a moment as we raced by, great black bulks them resting in drives or ditches or just out of front rum shops. Nobody seemed to pay them any mind. In America, specifically Texas, loose cattle would be a massive problem, but here evidently they are cut loose to self-graze until their owner needs them, at which time presumably he goes looking for them. Horses seem to be the same story. Dogs wander about, of course, homeless and in a sad state, but that is the same in any Caribbean nation. In all, there seem to be a good number of animals here, moving in and around and about human affairs all day. The Guyanese could be said to live side-by-side with animals: cows, cats, dogs, horses, chickens, you-name-it.

Up next: Orientation, and the first two days in Guyana.

The Magic City

I've been bad at taking notes about this process, but I thought I'd get some things down right now while they are still fresh in my memory. Staging took place in Miami again, but this time at a hotel near to the airport. It was a very nice hotel (and, by coincidence, it was right next door to the hotel I stayed at when I went to Miami solo for New Year's Day this year). But first -- some drama, regarding the flight to Miami.

The night before my flight, I was busybusybusy doing last-minute things for the trip: finalizing packing, getting things squared away in the boxes, that sort of thing. Among the list of things to do was to scan about thirty or so pictures to them transfer to my iPod photo to bring with me, but that alas proved the only thing I didn't end up with time to do. Instead I simply chose a few photos which reflect major parts of my life and I put them into a tiny little travel photo album. Then, having received not one wink of sleep, my mother and I left the ranch in west Texas at around 5:30 for my 7:00 flight from Abilene. It took us over an hour to get there, so naturally we arrived within the 30 minute time frame required nowadays by the jittery airlines. Yes, they said I was too late for that flight. But the desk clerk was eyeballing my baggage and said there was no way I could have made it onto that flight anyway, because they had a weight restriction and she could tell I was sporting too much baggage weight. So she checked to see if they could put me on the next one and -- nope, it was oversold. Oops! and the next one was oversold too. She said she could get me on one tomorrow, though, and I said that was not acceptable. A quick call to SATO Travel later, I had her transfer my ticket to Continental, which changed my flight plan and departure time, but at least would get me to Miami that day.

So the end result was that I arrived at Miami at the end of the first day of Staging. My roommate was an older black man from New York. We bonded pretty well, and have remained good friends since. One thing of note about him: he was in the Peace Corps before as well, in Cameroun... in 1975!

Sadly, I missed all the fun ice-breaking exercises and "Expectations" exercises. It's a good thing I had gone through essentially identical exercises before so I didn't feel I missed too much. We had a joint-Staging with the group heading to Paraguay, since they were leaving the same day.

After Staging the first night, one enterprising volunteer (another good friend of mine now) arranged to have the hotel van drive us out to drinks. The other volunteers had all heard that Coral Gables was a good spot to go; I informed them that, yes, Coral Gables is beautiful, but it is mostly residential and they were unlikely to find anything to do there at night. Where they wanted to go was Coconut Grove, so we headed down there instead (sadly, one cab full of volunteers had already gone looking for a Coral Gables hotspot, so our last-moment change of plans screwed them over. I hope they've forgiven us by now). We had dinner at Coconut Grove at La Tu Tu Tango (or something like that), and knocked back a few drinks. It was a great evening.

The next day of Staging was longer and had to do with dealing with harassment and unsafe situations, and other country-general topics. The highlight of the afternoon was the "Capstone," where we were divided into teams and given an assignment to demonstrate various aspects of volunteer life through creative expression, like skits and songs. Our group ended up doing a version of Win, Lose, or Draw (an old t.v. show like Pictionary) and it went over very well. One trainer, Kerry, said he liked it best.

That night, our last night in-country, we pulled out the big guns. We went out for a night on South Beach, replete with much drinking and dancing. A group of about 8 of us had a really expensive dinner at a sidewalk spot one block south of The Clevelander (the site of my first real South Beach adventures, Spring Break with Dave and Mike, so many years ago -- man, has my life changed since then!), then spent a couple of hours at a pub near 15th and Washington (one block away from the youth hostel where I spent New Years) called "The Lost Weekend." Already buzzing pretty nicely, I went with a group of volunteers down to Mango's on Ocean Drive, where we proceeded to dance Salsa/Merengue and drink very very heavily until about 3:30 am. One of my newfound friends kept sharing shots with me, and by the time we corralled a cab to return back across the MacArthur Causeway and head back to the hotel, I was nice and toasted. Luckily, I didn't wake up with a hangover and I never felt sick.

Up next: The flight to Guyana and our first night in country.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Georgetown and Grove

I cannot spend much time writing because I'm at an internet cafe. I am currently in the town of Grove, which is just south of Georgetown along the Damerera river. When people told me it was like the Caribbean here, they weren't kidding. It looks so much like St. Lucia that it is giving me flashbacks. And, sadly, it's turned me into something of a knw-it-all amongs the other volunteers, as I'm constantly chiming in on facts about the Caribbean lifestyle. There are a few differences, though, for sure - like the cows and horses wandering all over the place, the absence of mountains, and the frequent Muslim and Hindu things. Pictures are forthcoming, although it might be a while. All us PCTs cannot use the Peace Corps computers until we are sworn-in.

Right now I'm staying in the house of a man who works for one of the local sugarcane distributors. He and his wife are very nice. The house has a tin roof, and is open inside so that the walls do not reach the ceiling. It was a little hot last night, so I'm looking forward to getting a fan. That will help immensely. But I sleep under a mosquito net, which is an interesting experience unto itself.

Training in Georgetown had us staying for two nights at a hotel, air-conditioning and all. It wasnt as nice as the one we stayed at in St. Lucia, near Vieux Fort, all those years ago, but nice nonetheless. The water wasnt potable, but I brushed my teeth in it anyway to try and start to adjust to the local water.

Training starts this coming week in earnest. I look forward to many hot and sweaty days taking notes. I'll be sure to fill you all in later.