Saturday, 29 August 2009

Love at First Sight

I didn’t expect it to happen. I was just walking down the street, killing time. Minding my own business. It was my favourite time of day here: late afternoon, the sun low in the sky, the heat of the day beginning to subside, people coming home from work, unwinding from the day, gaffing with their neighbours. A great time to have a wander around my new neighbourhood.

There I was, ambling along, quietly taking everything in; keeping an eye out for the dogs, watching the cows and goats nonchalantly holding up the traffic and the kids playing in their yards; listening to the blaring horns and the different flavours of music booming out of every other house. Quietly soaking up the ambience of a lazy afternoon in the village.

And then I saw her, across a crowded forecourt. And I knew I had to have her.

She was everything I wanted. Elegant, refined, curves in all the right places. A natural beauty, with a timeless sense of style and grace. Well put together, you might say. And you could tell straight away that she wasn’t the flighty type that would be in and out of your life before you could catch a breath. She would stick with you through thick and thin.

True, she wasn’t getting any younger. You might even say she had been around the block a few times. And sure, you could point out that she was a bit smaller than ideal (and a little on the heavy side) if you really wanted to pick faults.

But the simple fact is, when you get that feeling deep inside, you just know. And I knew from that very first moment that she was the one for me.

Isn't she a stunner?

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The Brazilian Jacko

Last night I had an experience which shattered my stereotypes about Brazilians. It was on a par with discovering that Germans are disorganized and inefficient, Italian men shy about women and the Irish would rather stay in for a game of scrabble than go down the pub.

The shocking revelation? Millions of Brazilians are fans of really, really bad music.

It started with a chance conversation by the pool in the Pegasus. This is Guyana’s most prestigious (or at least most expensive) of hotels, and many of the volunteers have adopted it as a place to hang out and cool down, as you can get a month’s pass to use the gym and pool fairly cheaply (by our standards). I had my misgivings about getting sucked into some kind of ex-pat world populated by diplomats, servicemen and the very richest locals, but the lure of the pool quickly proved too much after a week of sweating and heat rash.

We were chatting on the sun-loungers about our options for the evening out and a local girl who was there for a swim with her children told us a little bit about some of the bars and nightclubs, and that there was a concert that evening at the National Park (Georgetown’s main bit of parkland) being given by a huge star from Brazil. She couldn’t really describe the music other than that it was ‘brazilian, uptempo, funky’. This was enough for me – when you say ‘Brazilian Music’ I think Bebel Gilberto, Chico Buarke, CSS, Bondo De Role, DJ Marky. Energetic, stylish, smooth, groovy samba vibes are the minimum level of expectation.

We rounded up a group of the volunteers to head down there, aided in our recruitment by an article in the local paper promoting the concert which described the main act, Pepe Moreno, as being ‘Brazil’s Micheal Jackson’ who regularly plays across the world to sold out 60 and 70 thousand seater stadiums. After braving the touts, the official ticket sellers who tried their best to overcharge us, and the weapons search, we got into the arena to find a DJ playing some pretty groovy house music. The crowd appeared to be a mixture of Afro and Amerindian Guyanese and a fair few Brazilians.

‘Desejo’, the support band were also from Brazil. They were made up of one guy with a couple of keyboards, three singers, and two dancing girls with a selection of increasingly astonishing outfits. They played a series of continuous medleys seemingly each structured around one pre-set rhythm on the keyboard with occasional riffs recognizable from American pop or RnB. The singers, two guys and one girl, shared out the lead singing duties between them. We were not entirely sure whether the keyboard player was actually playing anything, or whether he just pressed ‘demo’ at the start of the concert and mimed the rest. This fun but slightly baffling onslaught of music was livened up considerably by the dancers' progress through hula skirts, full on carnival feathers and skimpy rodeo outfits.

Desejo were followed by a disorganized interlude with the two comperes, one Guyanese and one Brazilian, telling us all about the various sponsors and running a dance competition between five girls plucked from the crowd. The one in the shortest skirt won easily.

After a very long ‘five minute’ break to set up, Pepe Moreno entered. The Main Man. The Brazilian Michael Jackson. The biggest artist to hit Guyana for years. To rapturous applause, announced with confetti cannons showering silver ribbons into the crowd, came . . . a slightly sweaty chubby man in a white vest, singing/shouting to a cheesy backdrop, drenched in stadium rock style echo and reverb. The overall effect was less a like Brazilian Michael Jackson, and more of a Brazilian U2 if they had their instruments stolen and replaced with a cheap keyboard stuck on the ‘latin’ preset. I tried to be as open minded as possible, and concentrate on watching the dancing girls to get me through, but the group lasted about 15 minutes before admitting defeat and heading home.

The Dutch volunteer told us this morning about how her mum eats space cakes and listens to the Grateful Dead, and she went to a nude beach when she was little. So Brazilians may like terrible music, but at least there are still some stereotypes we can rely on.

Friday, 21 August 2009

A light shower

Rainy day at the creek

A quick shower yesterday brought a tiny taste of what Georgetown must be like in the rainy season. We were on a day trip up to the creek, where we could break up the intro week workshops with a dip in a beautiful 'black water' creek. The morning was typically warm and muggy, and sinking into the cool cola coloured water was blissful.

The sessions that morning included a great James Bond style introduction to the equipment that VSO provides for us; water filter, torch, mosquito net, medical kit, attack alarm, hidden camera pen that can fire a tranquilising bullet, and wellies.

When the rain came, around midday, it really came down for about an hour or two before brightening up again pretty quickly. The amazing thing about the whole affair was the effect on Georgetown we saw driving back from the creek. Especially just south of the centre, which is one of the poorer areas, there were what we would think of as severe floods - houses and shops knee deep in water and roads almost impassable.

How the city survives the rainy season is hard to imagine. We have heard a few times that the rains can have a profound effect on people's lives and their ability to get into jobs or get children to school or appointments. More worryingly, the flood water will be mixed with the smelly, fetid drain water mentioned in a previous post.

I am very thankful for the wellies.


Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Not so different after all

I have noticed over the past few days an interesting phenomenon. When people tell you how things are here, they imply that only Guyana, or only developing countries, are like this. This is despite the fact that exactly the same things are frequently true of England. And anywhere else you could care to mention.

Here are some of my favourite examples so far:
  • "Teachers working in special needs sometimes don't even have any specific training in special needs."
  • "People will just apply for any job available, whether or not they have ever wanted that career."
  • "Some teachers go into special needs jobs because they can't get a job in a mainstream school, not because they have a particular passion for working in that area."
  • "It's not a good idea to walk alone through the city at night."
  • "Fruit in veg can be twice as expensive in the supermarkets compared to the market."
  • "Sometimes the real decisions get made in the social times before and after work, not in the official meetings."
  • "Some people even have more than one job to make ends meet."
  • "People always start the day gaffing (chatting) and reading the papers."
  • "They often find ten foot long pythons under the market."
OK, the last one not so much...

Along similar lines, one of the current volunteers told me a lovely story about a conversation with a taxi driver - he had a work visa for the UK, so she asked him why he was still in Guyana, when most people would be itching to leave.

He said that he was scared to go there "because of all the diseases".

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Welcome to Jamrock.

The last couple of weeks before flying out have been a whirl of packing, training, buying gadgets, clothes, drugs and batteries, final weekends away and final final goodbyes. And now, all of a sudden, it's real. Somehow actually arriving and getting settled in feels like the easy bit. After a such a rollercoaster few months, settling in to a new country seems pretty straightforward.

I am currently making the most of my first few days in Georgetown by . . . sitting in the guest house lounge with the rest of the impromptu VSO laptop club. Right now, it is mid afternoon on my second day in Guyana. We are here in Georgetown for just over a week's introductory training. This is a little frustrating, as by all accounts the regions are very different to the capital, so I am really itching to see where I will actually be living, and to start getting a feel for my new home. But I'm trying to settle into 'just now' time and take things as they come ('just now' is apparently the universal Guyanese phrase for saying when something will happen, and can mean anything from 'right away, this minute' to 'in a few weeks' to 'never').

Georgetown is a slighlty faded city of wooden buildings of various states of ricketyness separated by wide streets. Wooden buildings always make the world look like a film set to me - there are rickety falling down houses straight out of a horror film and ornate municipal buildings that would fit right into any western.

Running alongside every road are stagnant and fetid open drains. Sometimes these drains are under the pavements, with open manholes waiting to swallow any pedastrians who are not paying attention. The city is very green, with wide tree lined avenues, parks and cricket clubs everywhere. The weather at the moment is hot and sunny, but a fresh sea breeze takes the edge off the temperature, and apparently this is about as hot as it really gets.

This morning's training was a walk around some of the markets and shopping streets of Georgetown. This felt like the first chance to step slightly out of the little VSO bubble that we've been in since arriving, but still we were walking around in a rather conspicuous group of 17 confused looking white and phillipino people meandering through the busy streets and getting in everybody's way. The overall atmosphere of Georgetown is laid back and friendly, with reggae, soca and cheesy pop music blaring out from cars, minibuses and market stalls. However, there are is a darker undercurrent not far from the surface. Three of us have had people trying to undo zips on our backpacks. When it happened to me, somebody spotted the guy and shouted at him and chased him away - apparently people do frequently stick up for you in these situations.

Talking to current VSO volunteers, the message seems to be that Georgetown is the worst side of the country, and that most of the population are either looking for a way out of the country or looking to make some quick money. In the regions, it sounds like it is easier to make friends with locals, safer, and there is a much stronger sense of a local cultural identity.

Apart from petty thieves, highlights of the shopping trip were seeing Guyana's escalators (all two of them) in the mall, buying a mobile phone, seeing the 'Obama Junior' shoe style, complete with a print of Obama's face and the slogan 'yes we can' printed on the side, trying some interesting new fruits from the market, and the music. There are soundsystems everywhere, as well as quite a few amazing little drumming groups. I have already discovered the existence of a new kind of music (but not heard any yet) - 'chutney' is apparently some kind of Indian influenced music with beats, possibly like Bhangra.

It looks like the food will be a real treat here. The choice seems to be generally fish curry or chicken curry, but I saw an advert for cow foot soup in a fast food restaurant so there's some experimenting to be done too. The vegetables and fruit are juicy and tasty as you would expect somewhere this hot. Drinks of choice so far have been bottled water and Banks beer, which is an easy drinking lager that seems to slip down very nicely in the warm evenings. It's not all good though - nachos in the ex-pat bar over the road from our guest house were a huge dissapointment - nine hundred dollars (about £3.00) for a bag of doritos with a pinch of melted cheese.

Everything is in fact surprisingly expensive in Georgetown. The ex-pat hangouts will never be a cheap place to go, but the markets seemed to be quite pricy too. Again, it will be interesting to see how different things are outside the capital. I think fruit and vegetables will be very cheap, but consumer goods are certainly pricy.

I'm heading off now for an evening walk along the sea wall in the baking afternoon sun. Will hopefully get some photos on here soon, but don't really want to flash my camera about Georgetown so please be patient on that front.

Thanks to everyone who has donated to the justgiving page. And to anyone who has read this far - will try and keep future entries short and sweet but there's alot to say at the moment!