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.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Culture Day vs. St.Cuthbert's

This entry is about two events I somehow failed to mention when they happened. The first was called "Culture Day," an event that took place on I believe our second Saturday in Guyana. The second took place a couple weeks later, and involved a trip out to a place called St. Cuthbert's. It's a little long, but it should be of interest.

First things first. Culture Day was our first taste of things outside of the urban and semi-urban areas where we train. Early on a Saturday morning the Peace Corps vans came and picked us up and drove us far out of town to the south. Following the Demerara river inland, we finally took another highway away from the river and pulled into an area of forests and vast hilly fields. Here, at the end of a narrow and winding dirt track through the crowding forest we arrived at a retreat center of sorts. Mostly it was a large tin-roofed gathering hall ringed by small wooden shacks which stood in as cabins. The place had the delightful and tongue-tangling name of Kurukururu, and it was a popular spot to host church or business retreats.

We began by being introduced to the game of cricket. I'd seen it in the Eastern Caribbean, but never got very close to it, much less played it. But they divided us into two teams and we squared off on the cricket field.

Now, I don't know if you've ever played cricket, but it goes something like this: The field is roundish with a central stripe of dirt. At either end of the stripe is a wicket, a sort of trio of sticks attached to thin base that is easy to topple. It needs to be easy to topple, because the job of the "bowler" is to toss a ball at it and knock it down. If you're the "batsman," your job is to prevent this from happening by swinging a cricket bat at the ball. Much like one would do in baseball, that is if the pitcher was trying to knock over the home plate. Should the batsman connect with the ball and send it flying, he should then race down the dirt strip to the other wicket. That will score a point. And, like baseball, if you have time you can run back to the original wicket and score another point, and on and on until someone throws that ball back to the bowler. Again like baseball, if you aren't at a base when the ball comes back, you're out. To toss another layer of complexity on it, there are actually two people doing the running, one starting at each wicket (including the person who hits the ball). So, in effect you have baseball with only two bases, and both bases are constantly loaded.

There are other little rules, but that's the gist of it. It's actually pretty simple, really. I didn't want to play at first, but we were all required to, so eventually I had to take to bat. It was blazing hot outside and everyone could feel themselves burning as it happened. Gratefully, a bank of clouds came to temper the heat somewhat, but then all the running and swinging brought out the sweat. So anyway, I swung and connected, and ran as well as a 235-pound, out-of-shape man can run from wicket to wicket. Alas, the next batsman was struck out and by that time our team had cycled through and it was time to switch. So I took outfield and hustled as well as I could to catch the other team's hit balls. Eventually it was my turn to "bowl," or throw the ball, so I took it and underhanded the bad boy, trying to aim for the wicket. I struck the person out. Nice. So the next person took to the bat and I did the same. A fluke? Everyone was giggling at the nice run of luck. Then when I struck out a third person in a row everyone began to laugh hysterically, myself included -- the non-athletic guy, the one who hated sports and didn't want to play, bowled better than anyone else there!

The next thing on the agenda that day was learning to dance. Well, that's what I thought, anyway, but we didn't really get taught any dance moves. Or musical styles, either. They gathered us together and tried to talk a little about reggae and soca and dancehall and whatnot, but most people couldn't follow. Then we all got up and danced as well as we could for one song -- if memory serves, it was the old dancehall classic, "Action," by Terror Fabulous (I told you I know a lot of the music down here).

We ended the day with a swim in the black water. Now, this was our first experience with the stuff -- we've had a few since -- and we were a little alarmed. Walking down to the creek, we were treated to a stagnant pond, black and brackish looking, overhung with trees. We stripped to our swimming suits and slowly got in. The water felt very nice and cool, and surprisingly it didn't stink of rotting vegetation. But it was a deep orange/yellow/red color as we climbed in, roughly the same color as iodine, but so very dark that light only travels a few inches through it. Someone standing up to their knees in the water wouldn't be able to see anything more than their knee caps, and what skin was barely visible would be orange through the water. It sounds unhealthy as hell, but it was actually quite enjoyable. We swam down an adjoining arm of the pond into a jungle-like bayou, floating mats of vegetation bobbing along the edges and palms and great buttress-root trees forming a canopy overhead. I was up to my chin in the water, occasionally brushing against slimy sticks underwater, but otherwise unharmed. Some others came with me, and yet more rowed up to meet us in a colorful blue canoe. Together we explored the farthest stretches of the bayou. It was amazing.

I wanted also to mention St. Cuthbert's. It goes well with the Culture Day discussion, because it also involved swimming in some black water, and it was in the same general direction as Kurukururu. But it differed in one major way, and that was how to get out to St. Cuthbert's. See, St. Cuthbert's is an Amerindian village, and like most Amerindian villages, it is very remote and isolated. In order to get to St. Cuthbert's, we headed out the same highway as Kurukururu, but went farther yet, then pulled over beside the road where we were met by a huge truck. This truck was an old army troop-carrier, and was still painted the same army green and even had a covered cupola in the truck cab where a gunner's nest might be attached. We, however, rode in the bed of the truck, sitting on wooden benches or clinging to the overhead canopy's metal frame as the canvas flapped in the wind. The truck drove off road onto a winding trail of white dirt, and proceeded to follow this bumpy, twisting "road" for about fifteen miles, veering to avoid debris and occasionally plunging into vast, deep puddles left over from the rains. Following us was the rest of the Peace Corps staff in two Land Rovers with snorkels, and sometimes the puddles were so deep that the Land Rovers would be nearly buried under a wall of water as they plunged in. I got some amazing MPEG videos of the event, which one day I'll post here.

I am still in awe of that ride. It was very adventurous, trundling through the savannah like that. Hanging to the metal frame and rocking with the jostles, we were like riders on a subway -- a very rough subway, at least. And the fact that we were lined up in a huge troop truck, being followed by Land Rovers, made me turn to someone at one point and say how much like Indiana Jones this whole thing was -- as though our CD was Indy and we were the Nazis with the Ark.

Most of what we did at St. Cuthbert's was swim. More black water, so I won't belabor that. But it was interesting to see an Amerindian village. The missionaries had really worked hard to get them decent housing -- probably the first good thing I've seen from a missionary -- and so they had matching small wood-frame houses colored these bright and cheerful hues. There were a couple larger buildings, including a health center and the "Captain's" house. They also had a craft center where they sell wonderful works of sculpture and weaving, alas for more than I could afford at the time. They live very isolated lives out there, and it can be very hot, but there were plenty of shade trees. Plenty of fruit trees, too, for that matter -- I saw a starfruit tree (called "Five Finger" down here) that was so laden down with the juicy, ripe-looking fruits that I couldn't begin to count them all. And nobody was bothering to pick them! There was also a huge, colorful macaw clinging to a tree branch and it let us get very close and interact with it. Got a great shot of that.

At one point one of the Program people in charge of placement asked if I wanted to be placed out there (this was weeks ago, before they had finalized the sites). I said no. It was nice, and so were the people, but I really wanted something more urban. Turns out, nobody got placed in St. Cuthbert's. Three were put in Amerindian villages, all of them more remote than St. Cuthbert's.

Stuff I Didn't Get to Say

I was away for a site visit when these came up, but here are a couple of points of interest I noticed:

I've now been in the Peace Corps longer than ever. July 2nd marked the beginning of the second month. I didn't get that far last time.

July 18th was the anniversary of my first Peace Corps attempt, back in 1998. Seven years ago this evening I was in St. Lucia at the home of Ruth St. Claire in Babonneau.

Not that I'm spending much time looking back these days, but these two items just sort of struck me one day, and I thought I'd share.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Site Visit Report

I haven't blogged in a couple weeks because I've been very busy. Even though I have free internet access from where I work, I didn't have either the time or energy to write anything of any significance.

Last week I was in New Amsterdam on a "site visit," where volunteers get to head out to where they'll be spending the next two years and see the place for themselves. I stayed with the person I'll spend the first three months with, a sort of extended homestay. Normally I would dread this, but this particular match is excellent -- he is a guy in his twenties and he shares a three-building compound with two of his good friends. So it turns out I'm hanging with three dudes close to my age. And they're a lot of fun, too; on Saturday we went to a local nightclub called "Lenny's" and had a blast, drinking some rum and dancing to some reggae and dancehall. Two of the three have police department connections, so I feel very safe here. On Sunday night we went to a basketball tournament nearby and they sort of watched over me. They've also been giving me excellent advice; for example, while we were at the nightclub I saw an attractive woman walk by, and noticing my interest in her, one of them advised me, "she's not for you -- H.I.V. positive." It's nice having ex-police who know community members running interference for me since I'm so new to Guyana and to New Amsterdam in particular.

During the site visit I also went to where I'll be working over the next two years. Peace Corps restrictions don't allow me to talk about it with too much specificity, so I'll just try to give some general highlights. It's an organization that teaches members of the community, adults and children alike, but mostly adults. They give classes in a number of different and varied subjects from computers to cooking. Of course, I'm going to be teaching "language" to adults, which means literacy -- many are scared away by the term "literacy" since it has such connotations about their value to say they aren't literate. Anyhow, I might also be teaching a class in how to compose formal communications, like cover letters, thank-you letters, resumes, and any other kind of correspondence. My supervisor indicated that as a need for the community, and I could easily and gladly teach that. Might even be fun.

To top it off, they are going to introduce me to the Dean of the University of Guyana Extension, a branch of the main campus which is in Georgetown. The drive out along the Corentyne coast to the UG Extension is a little long, coming in at about $200 Guyanese dollars one-way, but it would be very nice to also be out there. That would be my secondary project, if I do that.

The town of New Amsterdam itself is quite nice. Someone told me it was half the size of Georgetown, which is not true, but it is nice anyway (It's closer to 1/16th the size of Georgetown). As people foretold me, everything I need is there -- a market, clothing stores, internet access (which I get free from work, by the way), and anything else. It even has a very nice supermarket stocked with a lot of American items, so I can get some nice soy milk and cereal to replace the horrendous mustard and cheese-spread sandwiches people like to eat for breakfast here. New Amsterdam even has night life, as I mentioned in the first paragraph. Nothing like Georgetown, and it's massive four-story dance club Buddies, but at least there's something to do.

One thing New Am doesn't have, though, is a Peace Corps office. As it stands, I have to travel about 2 hours by both ferry and bus to get to Georgetown. That in itself might not be so bad, but there's a wrinkle: just east of G'Town is a town called Buxton, which is the seat of crime in this area. Everything was peaceful until a few years ago, when five criminals escaped the jail and set themselves up in Buxton as crime lords. Even though only one now remains, the others gunned down in various altercations, crime has skyrocketed in Guyana under his tutelage, and things are hottest in Buxton. The problem is that there is no way around Buxton without going so far into the interior as to make it a two-day trip to Georgetown. So the Peace Corps will not permit PCVs to pass through Buxton on a bus; rather, we must be in a Peace Corps van. We tell them we are coming to Georgetown, or leaving it, and they will drive us through Buxton. The rest of the journey is up to us, as we take a bus all the way to Mahaica, a nearby town, calling on Peace Corps for the final leg of the journey. It's a pain in the ass, but more than that, this means the Peace Corps will always know whenever you are coming to Georgetown for anything, whether it be to visit another volunteer, to party at Buddy's, you name it. So no sneaking out for out-of-site visits off the books!

Overall, though, I'm very happy with my placement. I'll be back there in two weeks' time. Until then, it's back to training and the grind. Blah.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Even Old New York Was Once New Amsterdam

I'll be spending the next seven days in New Amsterdam visiting my site-to-be and my counterpart-to-be, so there will probably not be any new posts until after that time. If I have internet access that may turn out not to be true, so we'll see.

Tonight we are going to a function where we will meet and greet the counterparts, and then everyone will be entertained by dancing from various Guyanese populations, like the Indo-Guyanese and Croele traditions, etc. Tomorrow we will spend the first half of the day in a "Counterpart Conference," where we will be more formally hashing out the details of the next week, along with what the counterpart expects from us and what we expect from our assignment over the next two years. Then after noon most of us will scatter across the nation to our various sites to spend the entire week getting to know the neighborhood and the job location. We will most likely be living in short-term homestay situations, though some will be with their counterparts. A small handful of us trainees depart for their Site Visit on Sunday, but most of us leave tomorrow afternoon.

I'm sure that will be a great visit, and that I'll have a lot to write about when I return.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Moment of Truth

Here it is, folks: my site assignment.

We all found out today, after having been interviewed yesterday, and having the staff pore over our qualifications, interests, and other requirements in what must have been a grueling session this morning. The CD, APCD, and some volunteer representatives came to our Training class, where we had spent the day studying HIV/AIDS, to tell us right around 3:00.

It had been a very emotional day already -- for one, a beloved member of GUY16 had decided to ET just yesterday, and as any RPCV or PCV will tell you, when that first person ETs it can affect the whole group. The chain is broken, so to speak. So we were all feeling down about that. But then the HIV/AIDS training today was very tough. In the morning, we did a roleplaying exercise where some of us randomly were determined to have been "exposed" to HIV, and the man running the exercise (our Health APCD) was so good at what he was doing that two people started crying. He was really trying to get us mentally into the frame of mind we might be in if we found out were had possibly acquired HIV, and let me tell you, it worked very well.

After that exhausting exercise, we had lunch and then watched a locally-produced video about Sexually Transmitted Infections. And it was a very graphic video, with long, loving shots of the diseased and pustulous genetalia of a number of men and women. These were no descriptions or illustrations, these were the real thing, and it was very disgusting. Some members of the group had trouble watching (although some I suspect it was more because of the graphic genetalia display than the pus-dripping sores).

So anyway, after that one-two-three emotional punch, we were held in suspense as the staff came out to the training site to tell us about our assignments, to give us the scoop about where we'd be for the next two years. I have to say it was a positive relief for me to finally learn. And so I'll stop keeping you in suspense (I wanted to give a little of what I've been under for the last few weeks :) ) and give you the low-down:

I've been assigned to the city of New Amsterdam, the second largest city in Guyana. Those who have been there, locals and volunteers alike, say it is about half as large as Georgetown, and has all the amenities but far fewer of the problems, like pollution and overcrowding. So I should have power and water, and with power of course possibly comes internet! It's about 1.5 hours east of Georgetown at the mouth of the Berbice river, and one has to take a ferry across the river to get to it. I'll be right across the river from one of the other volunteers I'm closest to, the same 50-something black man I roomed with during Staging.

I'll be working with an organization called the Adult Education Association, presumably teaching remedial reading or something. Exactly whatremains to be seen; starting this weekend and all through next week I'll be out there with my counterpart getting a sense for the place and nailing down just what I'll be doing. So as far as this goes, some specifics will have to wait. Some specifics, like exactly where I live, will have to remain vague for Peace Corps reasons (I think it's okay to say I live in New Amsterdam, since it's such a large place).

The one drawback is that, to get back to Georgetown where the Peace Corps office is, I'll have to pass through Buxton. Buxton is the seat of crime in Guyana. It's a really long story, but a few years ago there was a jail break where 5 hardened crime lords escaped and promptly took up residence in Buxton (a village that is something of a suburb of eastern Georgetown) and began to reestablish their crime legacy. Four have since been gunned down, but the one remaining has done such a bang-up job at setting up a crime network that he is almost single-handedly responsible for Guyana's upswing in murders, kidnappings, robberies, and all manner of unpleasantness. In fact, the reason PC Guyana has to have us on so tight a leash is that, just in the last few years, Guyana has gone from being a very safe place to being one of the most dangerous in the Caribbean. PC volunteers who live east of Buxton must be driven through there by Peace Corps staff members and cannot take a bus. Which really puts a damper on our ability to go to Georgetown any time we want. Good news is, they're reviewing the policy, so maybe I'll luck out.

Overall, I'm very happy about the site placement. I'm going into my site visit, and meeting my counterpart, with an open mind and with a positive attitude.

At least the suspense is over!


History Repeats Itself

Yesterday we had our first person ET.

We were in the middle of our second round of interviews, these being specific ones designed to help the staff determine our sites today (see the next post!) by asking about our interests and whether we'd like to be in an urban or rural setting. Someone asked if he was going to interview next and he said he wouldn't be interviewing because he was going home. That would be his last day with us.

We were stunned. I suppose it was inevitable that someone would go home, but there were others I would have laid my money on before him. He seemed okay.

But here's the interesting part: he was ETing because he left a girlfriend in the states and he wanted to go back to her. We knew about this long before we left Miami, and I remember talking with him one-on-one about the situation and how I had been through the very same thing. In fact, while we were in Miami and again on the plane down here I told him that if he ever wanted to talk to someone who understands his situation and has seen it played out before, to come to me. I didn't really think he'd avail himself of the offer, pride being what it is, but I thought I'd extend the offer anyway. And I was right -- he never came to me to work through his thoughts.

So he packed and left his homestay last night and will spend the next couple nights in a hotel in Georgetown awaiting his flight home. As we talked yesterday and he told us the situation, I sat there looking at myself. Myself, seven years ago. Consider:

- He is in the exact same situation I was in
- He is almost exactly the same age I was (27)
- He is in almost the exact same part of the world
- He made it basically the same distance into training (4 weeks) as I did before Eting.

History repeats itself.

My hope is that things work out for him as they didn't for me. I really, really hope he doesn't come to regret his decision with every fiber of his being. I hope he doesn't curse himself for his decision. Because he doomed himself the very moment he clicked "Submit" on the initial application -- he was setting himself up for failure. Sure, it is theoretically possible for someone to do an entire PC service with a successful long-distance relationship back home, but it is almost impossible. As I found out.

In another odd irony, just as I came to the internet cafe to write this, I sat down to see an e-mail from someone who found this very blog. He had ETed from the Dominican Republic not very long ago for the same reason and was wondering about my take on regret and about the reapplication process. I told him honestly the regret can be a real killer, and the reapplication process worse. I hope my GUY16 compatriot doesn't have to go through either.

We'll miss you, man.


p.s.: We're going to write him a giant goodbye card tomorrow on the same flip-chart paper the trainers have used throughout training. A personalized goodye from the people he'll never be able to forget, for good or bad. I hope he likes it.

Monday, July 04, 2005

It Belongs in a Museum!

On Wednesday, June 8th, we went to the Amerindian Museum in Georgetown. It is in a large white wooden building erected, like so many of the other structures in Georgetown, by the Dutch a long time ago. The Peace Corps vans drove us down there from the PC office and the facilitators took us inside. The museum was two-story, each floor comprising of a large open area with numerous glass cases of displays. Most of the displays on the ground floor consisted of pottery or woven baskets, and gave detailed accounts of how such items were created. They had some amazing hand baskets one slings from a shoulder, little numbers that bordered on purses, really. It was quite impressive.

My favorite, predictably, was the display on weaponry. The Amerindians like to use square clubs in warfare, the heads carved with intricate patterns. They also had a fine collection of bows and arrows. One bow is simply massive; in fact, it is so big the wielder must prop one end in the ground. Arrows for this bow were long and stout enough to practically qualify as spears -- just a little longer, and one might simply mount the bow on a cart and call it a ballista.

Upstairs was a collection of clothing, but I took a special interest in a nice display of Amerindian petroglyphs. They were duplicates of actual rock carvings, the swirling lines and dots filled in with colored paint to make them easier to see. I couldn't help but compare them to Hawaiian petroglyphs; not that they looked the same, but in my opinion there are some universal and unavoidable patterns that appear in carvings around the world. There are only so many ways one may carve a picture of a person into stone. The Amerindians used stick figures which bore some casual resemblance to ones I've seen from Hawai`i -- pinheads with broad shoulders sweeping down into triangular chests, torsos petering out into two splayed legs, crude arms often holding spears. Sometimes dots or circles will appear near the heads. Animals are also represented, usually in a little more detail. The snakes in these carvings were sinuous parallel lines which met in a diamond head. Monkeys were tiny, bent-over stick figures with spiral tails.

The visit to the Amerindian Museum probably would have had more meaning later in our training, but it was an excellent chance to see a little bit of Georgetown. Up until this point, we hadn't been much of anywhere by foot, only cruising past the various sites in a van. When we were finished, we walked the eight or so blocks back to the Peace Corps office, a walk which I found satisfying in a strange way. We were out in the sun, dodging traffic, walking under the great canopies of monkeypod trees (same ones I remember from Hawai`i!) and just physically experiencing Georgetown. A welcome exertion.

Like High School All Over Again

I've compared this Training experience so far as like being back in High School. Consider:

• We have a curfew, usually about 10:00 p.m.
• We have to get permission to go anywhere outside of our village.
• At my homestay, I spend a lot of time in my room with the door closed, playing video games (Icewind Dale, or one of the Nintendo Emulators I have) or listening to music on my headphones.
• I come out of my room when dinner is ready, which has been prepared by my "mom."
• I go hang out with my friends every night until the curfew.
• I need to be asleep by about 11:00 p.m. so I can get up in the morning for school.
• We spend six hours taking various classes all day.
• During lunch at the community center we sit on the bleachers.
• We constantly kvetch about the rules, and talk about how great it will be when we finally move out and have our own place.

It makes me laugh just thinking about it.

I thought I'd write a little about the classes we take. There are actually seven or eight subjects that get repeated, some subjects on different days. Most of the time classes start at about 9:00 a.m. and last until about 4:30 p.m., depending on a number of factors like where we are that day and how much material the presenters have for us. The morning class generally lasts from nine to noon, and then there are two sessions in the afternoon at about one-and-a-half hours each. It's interesting to me that, unlike Training in the Eastern Caribbean, our trainers are all local Guyanese hired either as temporary lecturers or who are actual staff members. We even have a special APCD for Training.

Education classes are taught by an Indo-Guyanese man who has been in education in Guyana for 30 years. He is training us how to be teachers to the limited extent that is possible in eight weeks. So far it's been light on both theory and in practice, leaning instead more toward the structure of Guyanese schools (I'm talking K-12, or "Primary" and "Secondary" as they're called here) or toward good and bad things to do in the classroom. A lot of it is redundant to me, but at least that means I feel confident in the material. The others, almost all of whom are very young and have never taught before, must be very nervous.

We have Cross-Cultural classes, taught by an incredibly blunt and hilarious local Afro-Guyanese woman, and designed to teach us about the local culture. In this class we've studied local customs and attitudes in a number of things, including my favorite class, which was a Q&A session about the Guyanese attitude toward sex (this will most definitely warrant a separate post later, so watch for that). Most recently, she had our class go to Bourda Market here in Georgetown with a long list of fruits and vegetables, which we then took back to the Peace Corps office where she told us about each one and how Guyanese prepare them. These sessions, to me, are the most useful. Too bad they're also the most infrequent.

Safety and Security classes are done by the Peace Corps Safety Officer, an Amerindian man who used to be a police officer. These classes are difficult, not in the delivery but in the content. We cover all kinds of safety matters, from muggings to rapes to burglaries. He is trying to teach us how to stay safe in Georgetown and Guyana in general, but one unfortunate drawback is that it has made us paranoid. One message we get a lot is that women need to be extra alert, and that Guyanese men have a different perception of what "no" means. I'll get to this more later.

We have Medical sessions with our PCMO, an Amerindian woman. Her sessions are generally more interactive, and she's a fan of giving us short group projects tied with miniature presentations. Often she discusses wounds or diseases, but our latest -- and most memorable -- session was about skin problems and parasites. The discussion on intestinal worms was alarming, especially the part about the worms coming out one's mouth, nose, or anus while one sleeps.

We have had a couple sessions on the Amerindians, where an Arawak woman came to give us the history of the local First Nations people and some of their current problems. A fellow from the University came for a lecture about the history of Guyana, remarkably given from contact to present times in only two hours!

Finally, we have alternating cross-cultural sessions designed to teach us about the Muslims and Hindus, which make up a huge portion of the Guyanese population. We've learned a whole lot about these two religions from the guest speakers.

In all, the classes are valuable, but it tends to be difficult staying focused during them, and often the applicability of the material can be unclear. The best sessions are the ones where we come out the other end genuinely enlightened about something. For me, these have been mostly the Cross-Cultural classes and the Medical ones. But all classes have had some nuggets of gold buried in them. We're learning a lot.

The First Month

We came into our homestays on June 4th, just a couple days after arriving in Guyana. I've written a little about my homestay parents in another entry, but it was very little. This is because I'm strictly limited to what I can say about them as individuals in this very public space. They are very nice people, however, and have made the homestay experience as smooth as is possible.

We began training inn earnest on June 6th, a Monday. We were picked up by a facilitator -- four local Guyanese men and women who have been hired to be our escorts and go-to people for information on Guyana. There are two from each of the villages where volunteers are staying. They are young, being in their twenties, and have been incredibly helpful to all us Trainees. In fact, they've worked for a couple years with the Peace Corps, and so these facilitators have helped out several generations of PCTs over the years.

Our facilitator walked our group down to meet with the others, and all of us walked the mile or so to the training site. Again, Peace Corps restrictions keep me from being a little more explicit, but I can say it is a local community center in a neighboring village, a two-story wooden building with a large cricket field out front. The lower level is a library, while the upper level has a large open room designed to house community gatherings and various functions. It even has a small snack-food stand upstairs manned by a local woman and her daughters, which can provide us overheating volunteers with some inexpensive bottles of Coca-Cola, Busta, Soca, or I-Cee (local soda brands). The room itself wooden, like the building, the interior painted turquoise. We sit in a large U-shaped semi-circle on plastic lawn chairs and take notes on a spiral-bound Steno pad given to us on the first day of Training. Mine is about 1/3rd full of information on a host of topics, which I'll share below. We have to wear casual/formal clothes to Training, which is to say, slacks and a collared shirt for the men, dresses or skirts with blouses for the ladies. Sandals, like Tevas or Chacos, are okay. Shorts would be much cooler, but we have to maintain a professional image with the community, so a dress code is necessary. That doesn't comfort much when one's cotton slacks are clinging to one's sweaty legs or one's button-up shirt is soaking in back where the backpack is resting. Three fans blow back and forth across our group during training sessions, cutting down on some of the heat, and often during the day the sky will cloud over and the rain will start coming down in buckets -- the old familiar tropical downpour I remember from both Hawai`i and Florida -- and that helps cool down the air for a little while.

Other days, usually two or three out of the week, we will be shuttled down to Georgetown instead of going to the community center. Here we go to the National Library or the Peace Corps office, alternatively, for more lectures. Why the two other venues are used instead I don't know, but none of us complains about it, since both places are air conditioned. The training sessions at the Peace Corps office (more on this place in a future post) are especially nice, because they have a kitchen with a microwave and I can reheat the lunches my homestay mother packed for me. Plus, sometimes we watch CNN Worldwide on the television, or various movies.

We usually take lunch around noon. I plan to write much more about Guyanese food in a separate post, so I'll be a little short here, but I do enjoy the food. Often I receive chow mein, roti, or cassava with dasheen. Rice and peas is very nice, but my hands-down favorite is the roti, especially with curry potatoes. Ooh, I'm getting hungry just thinking about it!

Sometimes they separate the Education and I.T. volunteers for morning sessions, taking the I.T. folks out to the University of Guyana. I have no idea what they do during those sessions -- one instance I heard about they had to take apart and rebuild a desktop computer! -- but we stay back and do education sessions with a Guyanese educator. He is a great guy, an Indo-Guyanese who has worked in the education system for 30 years. Funny story: he's taking a distance-learning class through a college in the states, working to get his B.A. (he never needed a higher education degree to teach in Guyana). Problem is, he has never written a college-level paper in his life. When he found out I was a college teacher for composition the last few years, he claimed God Himself had sent me. We've been working together on improving a 20-page paper for his class and I've seen real improvement. I'm also hoping he can do help me out when it comes to placement for the assignment -- they'll be asking his opinion on where to place Education volunteers and I reallyreallyreally want to work with the University or a college in Georgetown. We'll see.

So most of this month we've had classes, five days a week. We have also gone on a couple interesting trips, which I'll elaborate upon in my next few posts. The good news is, we're now halfway through Training and the classes will start to slowly be replaced with other things, like a Site Visit, where we'll be spending a whole week with our Counterparts in the site where we'll be placed. That's starting July 10, and I'm a little nervous about that... it's coming up soon!

An Apology of Sorts

So far I've been really bad at posting what's been going on during Training. That's too bad, because one of the things I wanted to do with this blog is capture the ins and outs of Training, both for my own sake and for those who are heading toward Peace Corps service and would like more information. The truth is, I've had little time to write over the last month. Which is not to say I haven't had some free time, which I have -- although not as much as I'll have once I'm at my site, apparently. But what free time I have had usually is occupied with sleeping or listening to music, which is for two reasons:

One, Training can be exhausting. Not because of any physical exertion, other than walking from home to the Training site (about one mile) and back every day in the hot blistering sun -- which, I should add, is astonishingly hot even at 8:00 in the morning, when it is already quite high in the sky -- but because it is mentally exhausting. We spend several hours a day, five days a week, sitting and listening to presentations or lectures or information sessions, and all throughout we take notes and struggle to stay awake. The lectures aren't boring, any more than a college lecture, but combined with the hot room and the difficult time comprehending the accents, it can be easy to phase out and let your mind slip. For this reason, I've had a tendency to take a major nap when I get back home from training, sometimes for as long as four hours. When I finally wake up it is time for dinner, and then I talk with my homestay parents for a while, and often times a group of other trainees staying along my street will meet up at a small local rum shop at the end of the block to "lime" a while. From these get-togethers I generally return at 9:30 or 10:00 p.m., just in time to go to bed so I can get up at 7 a.m. and begin again.

The second reason I haven't been writing as much as I'd like is because of the heat in the bedroom where I'm staying. It can be quite hot in there (I've measured it as 96 degrees Fahrenheit during the day). I have a fan, but only one electrical outlet in the room, and so I have to decide on whether the fan or the laptop will be plugged in at a time. If I have the laptop plugged in and the fan off, I can write or play video games or whatever for as long as I like, but sweat is pouring down my skin unpleasantly the whole time. Not a conducive environment for writing. Sometimes I do what I'm doing as I write this, which is to leave the fan in and operate from the laptop battery. But that only lasts so long -- in the time I've taken writing these three paragraphs, the battery has gone down from 89% to 81%.

So this blog entry is an apology of sorts; not necessarily only to my readers, those of you who would like to know what my experience is like so far, but also to myself for getting so far behind. My last entries covered the first few days of Training. That makes me basically a month behind. I'll make an effort to get caught up as soon as I can and get some of these things down for posterity.