“What are you doing for Memorial Day weekend?”
“I’m heading to Guyana.”
“Wow! You’re going all the way to Africa for the weekend?”
“No. That’s Ghana. I’m going to South America.”
And that’s how it went. Guyana is a tiny country straddling a line between South America — where it sits — and the Caribbean, where it fits. You see, despite its location, the Guyanese consider themselves a Caribbean country (indeed, it’s home to the headquarters of the Caribbean Community, which is a bit like the African Union).
It’s a former British colony, which is a reminder of a time when this part of the world was sought after by all of the European powers. Just look to the west of Guyana where you’ll find Suriname (the Dutch famously traded Manhattan for Suriname) and French Guiana.
Guyana is South America’s only English-speaking country; however they employ rapid-fire speech patterns and deep accents that made it difficult for me to understand, which is not the first time that’s happened.
The country is probably best known for its stunningly beautiful Kaieteur Falls. They are the world’s largest single-drop waterfall as measured by volume. I’ll stop building them up for you because, thanks to poor timing on my part, I didn’t see them. But, the good news was that I did get to (1) cross the world’s longest floating bridge and (2) lay eyes on the largest wooden structure in South America! I consider those two among my greatest achievements!
When I visit a new country, I sometimes organize a transfer from the airport to my hotel in advance of the trip. So, as I walked out of customs, there was a man with a giant smile and a tiny sign with my name on it. Patrick was a great guy who seemed genuinely excited about my first trip to Guyana. I asked if he’d be willing to take me around the area the next day.
Like a lot of Guyanese people, he’s East Indian. It turns out many Indians were brought to this area during the colonial period as Indentured Servants. Patrick’s ancestors were part of that (forced) migration.
On the way into town, Patrick pointed toward St. George’s Cathedral (the largest wooden structure in South America) and said,
“Be honest wi’choo, we’re going to go past this fast. Dis is where the prostitutes are. And dey’re not women.”
It turned out, that Patrick spends a lot of time thinking about prostitution. He despises it, but it seems to play a prominent role in the economy.
I was lucky because the streets were crowded with revelers during my ride in. Not only was it a Saturday night, but it also marked the 51st celebration of Guyana’s independence from Great Britain.
“Dee prostitutes will be making money tonight,” said Patrick.
The next day, Patrick was ready to give me a tour. Something he doesn’t normally do. His more typical work involves ferrying foreign business people around at night. Usually, he told me, getting them girls.
“Some like Dominicans, Spanish, French. But I can get local girls, too.”
He seemed genuinely relieved – surprised, even – that I wasn’t interested in learning more about this service. Instead, I wanted to see the sites and soak up some local history. He’d done his homework and was ready to be my tour guide. He’d planned a day that involved visits to many of the local sites he’d last seen when he was a student (he left school at age 11). He did share several interesting facts,
- Guyana’s main industries are timber, sugar, and rice.
- The oil business might transform Guyana’s economy (unless Venezuela can successfully claim the newly discovered oil in Essequibo actually belongs to them)
- Guyana has cheap dentists
- And even cheaper tattoo artists (he had several tattoos, which he proudly told me would have cost hundreds of dollars in the US).
We went to the local zoo, which was truly one of the saddest places I’ve ever seen. For less than fifty U.S. cents each, we gained entry to a path lined with tiny cages. Some of the cages had birds, others had mammals, and some were empty. Based on the conditions I saw, none of them would be full for very long. There was a dead cockatoo at the bottom of one.
As we walked through the tall grass toward another cage, Patrick said,
“Be honest wi’choo, we have lots of snakes here.”
Thanks, man. Really confidence-inspiring.
“We used to have an elephant in this zoo, but he electrocuted himself.”
Can’t blame him, really.
The only animal who looked like he was having any fun was the otter who – and I’m not making this up – kept throwing a fish head at us. Fortunately, the cage stopped it from hitting us.
For lunch, we did exactly what you’d do in Guyana. We went to Patrick’s favorite Chinese place. So, Patrick, the Guyanese East Indian, and I got to know each other over some sweet and sour chicken. Our conversation was wide-ranging, but kept returning to Patrick’s favorite topic: Girls. For a few minutes, it turned to movies. Only to return to girls.
He wanted to show me the newly built shopping mall. I think because there’d be lots of girls walking around. So, after lunch, we drove over to it. One of the novelties was the escalator. Apparently, it’s one of the first in the country. This became evident when it was time to step onto it. Patrick was tentative and almost taken aback by the confidence I showed stepping on.
“I’m still learning,” he said.
(Quick aside: What do you call a broken escalator? Stairs. Ha! Get it! I love that joke.)
After a bit more driving, Patrick dropped me off at my hotel. He had some customers to pick up that night.
On my second (and final) day in Guyana, I’d booked a walking tour of Georgetown. For a YouTube video of my walking tour, click here! Ordinarily, I’d be happy to explore a city on my own, but based on everything I’d read, Georgetown isn’t exactly a safe place.
To quote the U.S. State Department,
The U.S. Embassy reminds U.S. citizens to remain alert and exercise particular caution in the neighborhoods of Buxton, Stabroek, and Bourda; in and around the National Park; and along the sea wall due to criminal activity. U.S. citizens are advised to avoid walking in Georgetown alone…
So, the kind tour guides showed me a handful of the sights Patrick had introduced me to the day before. At one point, we stopped at a house with a small museum dedicated to one of Guyana’s most popular Presidents, Cheddi Jagan. During the 45 minutes I spent in that museum, I learned nothing about President Jagan, but received a thorough education into what the tour guide thinks of the current US President.
My takeaway? He’s not a fan.
When it came time for my tour to end, the tour guide said, and I quote,
“Thank you for joining our tour! Please review us on Trip Advisor.” Then, pointing south, said, “Your hotel is over there, but don’t walk that way looking like you do.”
To clarify, “looking like you do” was white.
Again, U.S. citizens are advised to avoid walking in Georgetown alone…
So, I took the long way back toward my hotel. Alone. As I looked around, I realized the only white skin I could see was on my hands. I was noticeably different and didn’t belong.
I don’t mind admitting there were a few moments when I was very afraid. At one point, I heard some yelling behind me. I turned and saw a large group of young people running toward me.
I froze, and thought, “U.S. citizens are advised to avoid walking in Georgetown alone…“?
I turned around and kept walking. They kept running. When they reached me, they kept going. Whew! It turns out they’d just been in a hurry. Looking back on it, it doesn’t sound that scary, but I can assure you it was certainly nerve-racking at the time.
I went to bed early because the next day required an early alarm to catch my flight. A 2:30 wake-up call! Ouch!
On the ride to the airport that morning, Patrick and I spoke as friends. Moments like these are the best ones: Driving through a deserted Guyanese street at 3:00 in the morning, connecting on an authentic level with a guy who leads a life completely different from mine.
So, in the end, Guyana was hot, fascinating, and showed me a part of the world vastly different from the reality I call home.