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Nine things I discovered at the Guyana Coconut Festival

Popping into the inaugural Guyana Coconut Festival – even just for a few hours – proved an enlightening experience. Here are just nine things I discovered along the way.

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1. Quinches

During a break from the festival talks, delegates were offered a bottle of coconut water and a taste of a quinch. These sweet snacks are made from two circles of cassava bread, filled with shredded coconut and sugar – died purple like the mixture in the more ubiquitous coconut rolls. More please.

2. Discarded husks are a health risk

The husk makes up about 70% of coconut waste, according to Dr Maria Urbana Correa Nunes from Brazilian agricultural research organisation Embrapa. But it breaks down right? Yes, but that takes a long time. Years in fact. In the meantime, the husks have a habit of encouraging infestations – bugs, flies, scorpions, you name it. Dr Urbana showed us a photo of a discarded husk full of mosquito larvae. Suddenly having piles of husks at the side of the road doesn’t seem like such a good idea – in Brazil, apparently, it’s forbidden.

3. Coconut waste is not rubbish

Rather than throwing away used husks, leaves and fibres once you’ve extracted the water or jelly, use them. There are all sorts of things you can make: stuffing for chairs, pointer brooms, bowls and hats (see pic above), carpets, insulation, fertiliser, fuel… One tonne of residue can generate at least 400kg of organic fertiliser according to Embrapa. This was a revelation for me, but in Guyana I think people are already on the case and could show the rest of the world a thing or two about what to do with your coconut materials – without even needing fancy machinery and processing treatments.

4. Mechanisation is coming 

At one booth, visitors were enticed to stop by two shiny, Brazilian-made machines (see above). One had a mounted blade used to cut coconuts – with a funnel for collecting the water inside the nut. Street vendors in Guyana seem to make do perfectly well with a cutlass, strong arm and sharp eye – but who knows, we could start seeing these pop up in the future. With the used shells, vendors could employ the second piece of machinery: a CocoShredder, used for processing coconut shells for use as fuel, fertiliser, packing and soundproofing and landfilling.

5. You can do a coconut tour in Guyana

Dagron Tours, I learned, offers one-day and extended trips to coconut plantations in Pomeroon, Berbice and Linden. According to the blurb ‘the tour is geared to provide the visitor with a first-hand look at the farming technique, processing and extraction of this vital agricultural resource.’ If that sounds a bit technical for your tastes, there’s also the Coco Loco Tour of Sloth Island Nature Resort and the Sunset Coco Cruise along the Demerara – both offering coconut-infused drinks and dishes to sample on your way.

6. India is the largest producer of coconuts in the world

…and they are not just exporting the stuff. A stall of India’s Coconut Development Board was packed with all sorts of slickly packaged coconut treats. Coconut water, coconut milk powder, sweet treats made from Neera (a type of sap extracted from coconut palms), even coconut vinegar.

7. Guyana is getting its own Coconut Development Board

With 1,454 coconut farmers in Guyana (according to the Ministry of Agriculture), there is a need for best practice to be shared and greater cooperation. And so steps are under way to create a Guyana Coconut Development Board in the next three months. Mr Willett (?) spoke of the need to get cross-party approval (presumably so it doesn’t get shut down if the opposition gets in at the next election) and how the body would be funded (initially a MOA stipend but the plan is to become self sufficient within a few years through, for example, the sale of seedlings, a coconut store similar to the one in Jamaica etc)

8. The Dominican Republic imports 80% of the coconuts Guyana exports

Good news. But what happens when the DR starts stepping up its production and no longer needs Guyana’s stocks? It only takes four years for trees to start bearing…

9. Coconut fuel is HOT

Ok, this wasn’t from the festival itself but came out of a subsequent conversation with a friend and taxi driver from “the country”. Coconut as fuel, he said, was great – it doesn’t blacken the pot and cooks fast, with a blue and red flame that would burn you like a blowtorch if it caught you.

It’s clear there’s plenty of local expertise already in Guyana – but also lots of people who want practical, clear advice on how to manage, sustain and develop their coconut crops (whether big or small). Hopefully the next Guyana Coconut Festival and the imminent Guyana Coconut Development Board will take note of that and make good use of the knowledge that exists here, particularly in country areas, and involve both small-scale coconut farmers – as well as international organisations and mass producers.

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Home from home

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“When are you going home?” asked a friend. They meant Guyana not London. I was temporarily back in the UK after six months in South America. Up until I’d left in February – apart from holidays and a few longer stays – I’d lived my whole life in the UK. So how is this now home? But I got what they meant.

Growing up with a parent from overseas, especially when that country is foremost in their mind, a part of you is forever somewhere else.

For some people, that’s somewhere else is concrete and real. They regularly travel there (and not just for funerals). They speak the language (or can at least understand when they’re being bad-mouthed). They know the landscape (or as far as their protective family will allow). They can describe their favourite local dishes (and maybe even make them).

For others, like me, it’s a bit more abstract. I first came to Guyana at the ripe old age of 26. And then it was just for a week or so – part of a wider trip through Suriname and French Guiana to Brazil, then briefly back to GT.

My knowledge of Guyana had been cobbled together from stories my dad and aunts used to tell; rare visits to Queen’s College alumni events; discovering the works of Martin Carter, Edgar Mittleholzer, Grace Nichols et al; the occasional titbit at a Guyanese food stall in Brixton or a ‘cultural’ festival (ginips, sugar cane and watery shave ice, usually).

When someone asked: “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” (i.e. You’re clearly not white. Explain) I would say, “My father is Guyanese and my mother is English”. But beyond explaining where Guyana is (or correcting them when they suddenly started talking about West Africa) there wasn’t much I could add.

So coming to Guyana for an indefinite period was daunting. What was I letting myself in for? Would I just feel out of place? Would I be the weird oddball for choosing a freelance, nomadic existence over being married with children by 30? Would I miss the hectic London pace of life? Would I feel lonely? Would people ask, why are you here?

Yes, at times. But I’ve also been able to discover Guyana on my own terms, in my own way. And having moved so many times in my life, ‘home’ is quite a fluid concept for me. Throw a few pictures on the wall, put on some music, brew a pot of coffee, and it feels like home.

When my sister came to visit, she said: “I couldn’t picture where you were before, now I can… and I understand why you stayed”. Some people assume it’s the sun (and rum) that draws me back. Others (far too many) assume it’s a mystery man. I tell them, ‘It’s true, I’ve fallen in love… with Guyana.” [Cue eye roll from any Guyanese readers who’ve made it this far].

On the plane back to GT, I watched the film Brooklyn, which is about an Irish girl relocating to New York in the 1920s. I picked it purely because I’d read somewhere that Saoirse Ronan, as well as having an amazing name, is fantastic in the lead role. But it turned out to be the perfect choice.

Within about five minutes I had tears running down my cheeks, as Eilis (Ronan) stood on a ship bound for America, waving goodbye to her sister and mum. I couldn’t help but think about the day before: waving goodbye to my parents as their bus left the stop. Giving my nephew one last hug before dropping him at school. Seeing my sisters and friends and brightly saying, “See you next year!” It’s not quite the same as waving goodbye forever, like in Brooklyn, but parting is always bittersweet. Even when you have WhatsApp.

So now I’m back ‘home’. This other home. I don’t know if this ting I’ve got going with Guyana is a fling. Are we dating? Are we in a relationship? Where is this going?

STOP!

Enough with the over analysing. Guyana is not a man – thank goodness. But right now, it’s where I lay my hat. So I guess it must be home.

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Five ways to do Iwokrama on a (kind of) budget

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Located right in the heart of Guyana’s vast rainforest, Iwokrama River Lodge is not a cheap holiday destination. In fact ‘Your prices seem expensive’ even makes the Frequently Asked Questions list on the resort/scientific research centre’s website.

Recently I heard of someone being quoted US$2,000 for a visit, which is far, far more than what I paid on a recent visit with my sister. So how can you do Iwokrama on a budget? Here are a few money-saving tips:

      1. Go by bus. You can get to Iwokrama by plane (then car), private vehicle or bus. Unsurprisingly the latter is the cheapest option. Single minibus trips from Georgetown to Lethem cost in the region of Gy$10,000, but if you shop around you may be able to find cheaper. Try to bargain the price down too on the grounds you’re only going as far as the Iwokrama Ranger Station, just over the Kurupukari Crossing. (Read more in my other blog on taking the bus to Lethem.)

 

  • Don’t stay in a cabin. Unless you read the blurb carefully, you may not realise that Iwokrama’s cute but pricey riverside cabins are not the only accommodation on offer. There’s also the Research Building and Training Rooms. And the prices are considerably less:

 

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So what is the cheaper accommodation like? My sister and I stayed in the Training Rooms, and found them to be basic but comfortable and clean – with mosquito netting on the windows. See my very poor camera pics below for a rough idea:

3. Pick and choose your meals carefully…
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all available at Iwokrama – but as they’re charged for separately you don’t have to have them all. Breakfast is $12, which seems a bit steep for what we had: some slightly chewy toast and egg. What I’d recommend is coming with some fruit, a bag of tennis rolls and a jar of peanut butter, having this for your breakfast (and maybe lunch too, which is $18) and enjoying the much more satisfying $20 dinner.

4. …and your activities
As with your meals, you can ‘order’ whatever tour activities you like, from a boat ride on the rapids to a walk up Turtle Mountain. Note: the prices are based on two people taking part in the activity, so if you’re going on your own you’ll end up paying more (unless you can find another traveller to buddy up with and share the cost).

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Because you can design your own schedule, you can choose the activities that fit within your budget. One thing to consider is the time of year you’re visiting and if the price will be value for money. If it’s rainy season, for example, the river will be high so you may not see the petroglyphs. Or if you’re arriving at Iwokrama on the bus from Lethem at 6am, once you’ve offloaded your stuff and driven the 1.5 hour journey it may be too late to do the Canopy Walkway – dawn or dusk seems to be the optimum time to catch the birds, monkeys and other wildlife. Also be warned: the Canopy Walkway rate in the table above doesn’t include transportation to the site, which is hefty $125.

5. Ask about special offers
Iwokrama’s explanation of its high prices (follow link at top of blog) mentions different offers available to visitors: discounted rates for Guyanese nationals and a “30% off season discount to all guests”. So make sure you ask about these discounts before confirming your booking.

One final (and slightly contradictory) point to make is: if you can afford it, pay it. Don’t be cheap just for the sake of it. Iwokrama is a unique, vital project that is increasing the world’s knowledge of rainforest biodiversity, and seems to be proving that you can manage a rainforest, converse wildlife and support local people in a sustainable way. Your visit (and dough) is keeping that going. How many holidays are that rewarding for everyone concerned? Plus it’s not everyday you get to hang out in the middle of a rainforest, so try to fit in as much as your time and pocket allows while you’re there.

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What to know before you take the bus to Lethem

 

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When you’re planning a trip into the interior of Guyana, the number one question is often: bus or plane? Money plays a big part – but there’s the whole ‘experience’ factor to think about too. And time.

In a bid to show off the jewels of Guyana’s interior to my visiting sister, I took her last week to Lethem and Iwokrama – by bus.

Telling people of our plans, a few asked: what’s the bus journey actually like? So I thought I’d share my experiences and tips. Because, as I found out during the trip: if you don’t ask, no one is going to tell you.

Think about what season you’re going in

When I went to Lethem in March for the Rupununi Rodeo, the journey was long and bumpy but not unbearably so. Travelling last week, in early August, the road was a nightmare – covered in potholes, ditches of water and muddy red clay. The drivers had to skilfully weave their way around these obstacles, so we were swerving and bumping the entire journey (well, from the second we came off the smooth asphalt road in Linden). At one point the driver actually got out and waded through a puddle to see if it was passable.

So, if you have a choice about when to visit the interior, think about whether you want to go in wet or dry season. And not just in terms of the bus journey. For example, during the dry season the waterfalls of Lethem (Moca Moca etc) may well be dried out. While during the wet season many animals and birds may prefer sheltering from the rain than parading round for you to admire and photograph them.

The Easter-time rodeo is definitely worth a visit – either the main Rupununi Rodeo or the lesser-known one in Sand Creek, which apparently is smaller but a bit wilder. September is also a good month to venture into the interior as it’s Amerindian Heritage Month in Guyana, so there should be lots of activities going on and more opportunities to visit Amerindian villages. September is also fruiting month (or something like that) according to one of the staff at Iwokrama, so a popular time for hardcore birders to visit.

Don’t expect to stick to your schedule

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When I went into the interior in March, we left Georgetown around 6.30pm and were in Lethem by about 8am – if memory serves correctly. A journey of about 13.5 hours – including a bit of waiting time at Kurupukari (the pontoon river crossing by Iwokrama River Lodge). But when we went to Lethem last week, it took 18 hours to get to Lethem – this time with two hours before the Kurupukari crossing. This was mostly due to the state of the roads (see video above), made almost impassable by rain, buses, logging lorries and poor maintenance.

There are various other factors that can affect your journey time too: when you leave Georgetown (there might be traffic, late passengers, lots of bags to pack onto the bus); how fast the driver goes (one girl on the bus was complaining about a slow driver who she now avoids going with); how long you stay at the rest stops; and if anything happens to the bus (on the way back we had a puncture and another stop when a tree branch got caught under the bus).

The Kurupukari crossing is also a bit of a scheduling roadblock. Because it doesn’t open till 6am, you have to wait on the other side of the river until the pontoon is in action. The crossing also caught us out on the way back from Lethem. My plan was to leave Lethem on Wednesday late afternoon and arrive at Iwokrama by nightfall. I told this plan to the booking agent at Iwokrama. I repeated it to the bus agents. No one mentioned anything was wrong with it.

Then on the night before we were due to leave, we invited our GT-Lethem bus driver for a drink and he happened to mention that our plan wasn’t going to work. Huh? Turns out, because the bus leaves at 5pm it doesn’t make it to the Kurupukari crossing before the 6pm closure. So everyone has to spend the night at a roadside bus stopping near to Surama, where you can hire a hammock for Gy$500 and hang it up next to some heavily snoring men for a few hours of restless sleep (I think rooms are available too, but we were trying to be cheap).

I don’t know if other bus companies leave before 5pm (we went with P&A on Church Street), but it could be worth checking if you’re planning on going from Lethem to Iwokrama by bus.

Check the cost of travel carefully

A flight from Ogle to Lethem is Gy$25,000 (one way). Going by bus is generally $10,000 – more than half the cost, making it the cheapest option. Although do factor in the cost of all those snack stops, hammock rentals… it can add up. Though not quite to the Gy$15,000 difference between plane and bus, obviously.

I thought P&A’s Gy$10,000 one-way fare was standard, but en route I saw two other companies advertising cheaper return fares. There was Carly’s Bus Service, whose poster boasted ‘Lethem to G/Town cost low as $18,000 return. And BD Express (apologies for the poor photo), which topped that: offering return trips for Gy$17,000 – including ‘free refreshment at Kurupukari’. Lovely.

Another thing to mention here is the cost of going the shorter distance from Lethem to Iwokrama. We were given a bus ticket ‘from Lethem to Georgetown’ and assumed we could jump off the bus at Iwokrama, then resume the journey on another bus a few days later. Not so. This is where the: ‘if you don’t ask, we’re not going to tell you’ bit comes in. So apparently because we didn’t ask, we had to pay Gy$10,000 to go from Lethem to Iwokrama and then the same again to go from Iwokrama to GT. The bus service rep was unapologetic on the phone: the money we’d paid had gone to the first driver, now we had to pay the second driver. And what could we do? We were stuck in the middle of the rainforest. We had no choice but to pay.

Talking to some other drivers on the way back, I figured out that we could have bargained a lower price. One suggested Gy$7,000 from Lethem to Iwokrama – which might have been an overestimate estimate, but was still considerably cheaper. From Iwokrama to Georgetown, you could again try to negotiate a price in advance – or just turn up at the Iwokrama police checkpoint at 6am when the buses arrive, ready to cross on the pontoon, and see if any of the buses have a spare seat.

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Pack wisely

I don’t know if there’s an added cost for extra baggage on the bus, but some people travel with a lot. I saw suitcases, a bicycle, trays of chirping chicks, cardboard boxes… Most belongings can be stored behind the last row of seats at the back of the bus, with the bulkier items going on top of the bus, with the spare gas and tyres. A tarpaulin is put over everything in case it should rain.

In terms of your carry-on bag, you just need the basics:

  1. Passport/ID card: You’ll need it handy for the police checks en route.
  2. Water + snacks: There are stop-offs on the way, but it’s cheaper, easier and more environmentally friendly to bring your own re-useable bottle and pre-made/bought food. It’s also quite nice to bring something like sweets or biscuits to share with your fellow passengers. I’ve found Brazilian travellers in particular like to hand round whatever they have, so you might want to bring something to offer in return.
  3. Sweater/cardigan: The minibuses to Lethem rely on open windows for fresh-air and coolness – though there was a promise of AC on my bus to Lethem in March (in the end it didn’t really work). I found myself feeling a little chilly at one point, so it might be worth keeping a warmer layer handy.
  4. Neck support: On the journey to Lethem, my sister later told me she was in hysterics watching my head jerk and flop around as I attempted to sleep through the minibus road aerobics. Waking up at one point with a start, I thought I’d given myself whiplash for a second. I’ve never actually tried an airplane-style neck support but Ir reckon it’s worth a try. If you try to lean your head on the side of the bus you’ll probably get concussion. And accidentally resting your head on your neighbours shoulder may not always get the polite shove I got from my new Brazilian friend in March.

Choose a good seat

In preparation for this blog, which I started thinking about doing en route, I tried to make a theatre-seating-style assessment of the best seats in the house. I didn’t try all seats so this is a bit unscientific, but just my preference of where to settle your behind for the long ride ahead:

First prize goes to… the front seat. There are lots of reasons why it’s good to ride shotgun. You’re next to the driver, so have plenty of time to gaff – as well as the potential of being able to influence his music choice (I say ‘his’ as I didn’t see one female GT-Lethem driver, but could be wrong…). You’re also in prime position to see the forest as you ride through, and are likely to spot birds, the odd agouti, maybe even an ant-eater or (if you’re really lucky) a jaguar. You’re not squashed by anyone next to you (unless it’s a three-seat row) and have relatively good leg room.

Second prize goes to… The far-left seat, two rows back from the front. Why? Three reasons: You’re not in the middle seat; you have a bit of extra leg room because of the way the floor drops by the door; and you can control how open the window is (unlike with the ‘conductor’ seat in front)

Third prize goes to… The far-right seat, two rows back from the front. For the same reasons above – apart from the extra leg room bit.

In my opinion the middle seat doesn’t give you enough support and leaves you open to the risk of sleeping on your neighbour’s shoulder. Front front-row seats have that weird high and low flooring, which kind of gives you different options to put your feet but can be a bit annoying. I didn’t try the back seats but they look cramped and claustrophobic.

The worst seat in the house goes to… the middle seat in the front row. As well as being a middle seat, there’s a bit annoying lump on the floor, which means you have very little leg room.

So all in all, taking the bus from Georgetown into the interior is something of an endurance feat, and definitely worth doing – if only for the stories. If you can afford to, you might want to take the bus in and fly back, in case you’re too traumatised on the way down. But really, it’s not that bad. And as they say about life, it’s all about the journey – not the destination.

Do you have any tips from your GT-Lethem journey? Or know of any other companies running this bus route? Feel free to add your comments in the box below.

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A view on Britain’s Independence Day (from a former colony)

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On 26 May I joined in Guyana’s Jubilee celebrations, marking 50 years of independence from British colonial rule. A month later, I find that while I’ve been away Britain has gone and had its own independence day. At least that’s what UKIP leader Nigel Farage crowed after the results of the Brexit referendum were announced.

The irony is not lost on many. After centuries of empire building, the nation made rich off the back of slavery, exploitation and mass theft of resources has thrown off the yoke of European autocracy and is free. “Britons never will be slaves”, as flag-waving attendees of The Last Night of the Proms lustily sing every summer. Forgive me if I don’t bring out the Union Jack bunting just yet.

Viewing Brexit from Guyana has been an interesting experience. First of all I have to guiltily admit I didn’t vote – for the first time in my life – due to a combination of bureaucracy, laziness and complacency, which meant I didn’t get my proxy voting application in on time. Perhaps I have no grounds to discuss the referendum, but I’m going to anyway.

Speaking to friends here and back in the UK, Brexit is the talking point. Though I sense that people here in Guyana are asking more out of politeness and vague curiosity than any real fascination in the geopolitical affairs of the country they were once forced to call ‘the motherland’. There is some coverage in the local newspapers though, including editorials on what Britain’s departure will mean in terms of the EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement), trade (Guyana exported €192m to the EU in 2013, and imported about €122m) and EU funding streams for the Caribbean.

“It is most unlikely that the 27 EU countries, which had no historical relationship with, or colonial responsibility for, the English-speaking Caribbean, will want to maintain the level of official aid and investment that now exists,” wrote Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador, in Kaieteur News. Investment, I’m guessing, like the Gy$2.2bn in budget support that Guyana received from the EU on Monday.

But does Guyana really benefit from this assistance? Have things changed in this country because of foreign aid and investment, or because of local entrepreneurship and partnerships not involving the EU at all?

The British High Commissioner to Guyana, Greg Quinn, promised in a recent Facebook video message, “We will stay a close friend of Guyana and we will stay committed to Guyana”. I’m not sure Guyana is that bothered. When people want to emigrate it seems to be for the US and Canada, these days, not the UK. Minibus drivers hang small stars n stripes on their rearview mirrors, not Union Jacks. Just 11% of Guyana’s exports are bound for the UK, compared to 28% for Canada and 17% to the United States.

The days of the British empire are mercifully numbered. And everyone’s starting to adjust to the new world order. And ask, hang on, why does this small island get a bigger say than us? The UK senses this, but can’t quite face up to its waning power. By voting to leave the EU, the ‘Out’ camp has seized on that last, desperate battle tactic: batten up the hatches, raise the drawbridge and try to pretend you’re safe behind those big stone walls. While the Remainers said, I don’t want to live life that. Let’s talk to our neighbours and see what we can work out.

It seems foolish to leave an institution then spend the next however many years trying to build up the same relationship from outside. Like breaking up with someone, screaming ‘I HATE YOU!’ and expecting they’ll still cook you dinner, lend you stuff and have you over anytime you like – but, you know, just as friends. Yeah sure, that’s gonna happen.

In Guyana, there is anger at foreigners coming in to steal resources and wealth from Guyanese hands, but this is mostly reserved for big business from China, America and Europe. Not struggling individuals seeking a better life for themselves and their families, as with EU migrants coming to the UK.

I’m proud of my UK brothers and sisters who fight against racial prejudice, stereotypes and misinformation. And I try to remain tolerant with those who talk about the country being ‘taken over’ – while still challenging them – because (like with every wave of xenophobia the UK has seen) they’ve been told that our problems lie at the feet of migrants, not our own self-serving political and economic elite.

No wonder they seek comfort in the extreme right. They are ignored by Labour, the Conservatives and other mainstream parties who dismiss them as bigots, without listening. As much as I detest the British National Party, would you get David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn talking to people on a level like the BNP man in the video below? No. They’d sneer and mock them. And we ask ourselves why so many folks used the referendum as a protest vote.

But I’m embarrassed too. By the worrying signs of increased racism on the streets. By the people who represent us on the world stage, like Farage and Boris Johnson. I can imagine now what it feels like to be American and have Donald Trump as your presidential candidate. The global impression of the UK right now is a bratty little kid jumping up and down saying ‘Stop telling me what to do. I’m a big boy now. I don’t need you’ – forgetting that he still lives at home and gets his pocket money from his parents.

When you’re a hero to nationalistic, far-right groups with a hazy dream of going ‘back’ to some monocultural paradise that never existed, you know you’re not doing something right.

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Gay times in Guyana

Photo courtesy of Michael A Leonard — at St. George's Cathedral. Guyana. Via SASOD - Guyana.
Photo courtesy of Michael A Leonard — at St. George’s Cathedral. Guyana. (Via SASOD – Guyana)

Since I’ve been in Guyana, I’ve heard one, two… a dozen homophobic comments. I’ve taken them as individual cases, but the shootings in Orlando seem to have brought everything together in one big sticky mess.

I don’t know what to do when I hear homophobic comments. I’ve never really faced it close up before. I live in this bubble where I just assume people are cool with homosexuality – until they say otherwise – because in my experience they mostly are.

I’m used to hearing stories of homophobia in the Caribbean though. That’s part of the Western narrative: sun, beaches, crime and homophobic music. So when I arrived in Guyana and made some friends who were openly gay, I was kind of surprised.

There’s a LGBT film festival? (It’s on right now as a matter of fact). Gay rights groups? A Gay Pride Guyana Facebook page? It sounds so naive now.

Then I started hearing the comments. They were offered casually, by people of all ages. “It’s disgusting”, “It’s wrong”, “Why do they have to push it in your face?” I heard the appalling terminology for a gay male – “an anti-man”.

I’m not gay, but these people didn’t know that. If I had been, how would I have felt? What would I have done? Kept quiet, I guess. Or made some tentative attempt at challenging their views, as I’ve done – cautious about being too critical of someone I’ve just been introduced to.

I’m sure there are many people with similar views in the UK. In London. Amongst my friendship group even. Is it only because we’re never discussed it that this issue hasn’t come up before?

Encountering these views is strange to me. I just can’t see it. I can’t see what’s wrong. It may not be common to see same-sex couples holding hands in the street or kissing, so I can understand people being surprised or even uncomfortable initially… but, as the public ads from gay charity Stonewall say in the UK, get over it.

Homosexuality is not some recent discovery. There have been gay people for thousands of years. It may just seem new because finally LGBT people and those of us who support them are finding a voice and platform. Why does it have to be done so publicly? Because that’s the only way we’ll reach all those who cite religion, nature or whatever other excuse they have for their homophobia. And because there’s strength in numbers. And safety.

I understand that my views may have been the total opposite simply if I was born in a different time or place. But this is comforting in a way, because it just shows this prejudice is learned – and can be unlearned. We just need to have patience and persistence to get the message across and to share some truths.

Like supporting LGBT rights doesn’t mean you are gay. Like being gay doesn’t mean you cannot be homophobic. Like sexuality is not as black and white as some would like. Like being gay is not ‘infectious’.

We all have our own perspective and deeply engrained beliefs, but can we not agree on one thing?  To love and respect the decisions of our fellow man or woman. The slogan and hashtag for the protests and tweets that have poured out since Orlando is #lovewins. It’s the perfect response. Who can argue against love?

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Staging a celebration: Guyana’s Jubilee Theatre Festival

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Cheating husbands, quintuplet births, romance, murder… the Jubilee Theatre Festival, part of Guyana’s 50th independence celebrations, had it all.

The festival began in May, when the Theatre Guild staged Playing Chess With A Blind Man by Rae Wiltshire; Come Back to Melda by John Campbell; Some Other Nights by Nicholas Singh; Obeah Koksen by Professor Kenn Dance; Guilty Pleasures by Nicola Moonsammy; Til Death by Tashandra Inniss; Summer Breeze by Linden Isles and White House on Black Street by Clinton Duncan.

I only got my act together for the June programme. And even then, I was sorry to have missed Sauda, written by Mosa Telford, which I heard was excellent. Also The Colour of Rage by Sonia Yarde and A Green Card Marriage by Harold Bascom. But I managed to catch four productions.

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The first, Till Ah Find A Place by Ronald Hollingsworth, was a cracking comedy of infidelity, deception and unwelcome guests. Directed by Sheron Cadogan-Taylor, the play was classic soap-opera territory – man and woman happily married, woman invites friend to stay, man is furious, wife goes away for work, man and friend fight… and end up in bed, chaos ensues. But the sharp writing and energetic performances brought fresh energy to a familiar story, keeping it lively and funny throughout.

The packed audience were delighted; roaring with laughter, tutting with disapproval at some new sign of duplicity, nodding in recognition at familiar scenes. The two leads were excellent. Leslyn BobbSemple, as the homeless friend Donna, moved seemlessly from pitiful victim to bold seductress to scheming chancer. While Mark Kazim put in a brilliant performance as the frustrated husband, Linden, torn between his jet-set wife and live-in lover. The two had great chemistry and rapport, managing to communicate expressively even when reduced to just wildly gesticulating at each other when Linden’s wife’s back was turned. Donna’s boyfriend (played, I believe, by Sean Thompson) also made a well-received cameo, with his low-slung pants and whiney attitude.

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Benjie Darling had a hard act to follow. But the play, written by Paloma Mohammed and directed by Rae Wiltshire, held its own. Colleen Humphrey and Simone Dowding played the two unmarried sisters: one romantic and yearning for children, the other hard-nosed and seemingly with a heart of ice. The best lines, however, were reserved for the Benjie of the title, played by Clinton Duncan. With his tufted beard, sprightly frame and gardener’s vest, Benji was alternately thoughtful and intelligent, and greedy and opportunistic. Whether he was eavesdropping at the side of the house, swaggering importantly around the house or counselling his wife-to-be, Benji always seemed to steal the scene.

Some of the climactic moments, such as when it’s discovered that the meanspirited sister blocked her sibling’s one chance for marriage when she was younger, somehow didn’t feel as dramatic as they could have. Either because they were drowned by the music, delivery, or script. And it felt like the play could have been edited down, to clarify the dialogue in parts and pick up the pace moving. But I enjoyed it – and think it was a remarkable achievement considering that due to rehearsal space, the cast and crew apparently only had a week to prepare the show. With a bit more time and work, this play could really bring the house down.

13350326_241216516252098_7732083654894605317_oThe next night (no rest for the avid theatre goer) saw the return of Frank Pilgrim’s Miriamy – first performed at the Theatre Guild in 1962. But despite the references to telephone operators and gentlemen’s clubs for white visitors (who knows, maybe these still exist in GT…), the play was as fresh as ever. The story centres around the news that a woman on the fictional island of St Midas is due to give birth to quintuplets – but brilliantly this woman, the Miriamy of the title, is never actually seen. Instead we view everything through those around her – the gossips, the lovers, the family and the press.

Directed by Ron Robinson, the production had a wonderful cast. Lloyda Nicholas-Garrett was excellent as the poised, pert and glory-seeking doctor’s wife, Stella Singer. Nikose Layne neatly captured the inquisitive reporter, never without his notepad and always with a nose for a story. While Leon Cummings was superb as the village clerk Desmond, an overly dramatic, self-aggrandising meddler. His expressive eyes and flamboyant gestures, of a cunning man determined to find fame and fortune by any means possible, were comic gold and I found myself throwing my head back in laughter.

All the cast were great in fact, from the lead roles to the smaller parts. particularly the sullen maid Dulcibelle; the brilliantly long-winded village clerk (played by Henry Rodney); and drunken rum-maker Garcia – a brief but memorable appearance from Mark Kazim, again demonstrating his talent for well-timed, physical comedy.

13323618_241225446251205_9057216485885366123_oThe theatre festival ended yesterday with a production of Francis Quamina Farrier’s Journey to Freedom, directed by Godfrey Naughton. Very admirably, the show was free and I hoped the crowds would flock to the National Cultural Centre to see it. Unfortunately the auditorium was only about a third full. Nevertheless, I was hopeful of a good night, having read some of Mr Farrier’s excellent online work.

Part play, part musical, Journey to Freedom was an ambitious undertaking. The aim seemed to be to celebrate and unite Guyanese of all races and backgrounds. There was a kwe kwe ceremony with live drumming, two operatic performances, blasts of Indian music, acoustic Creole Rock from the very talented Gavin Mendonca, contemporary dance, big all-cast music numbers, a solo singing performance… all interspersed with a series of mini dramas set in one close-knit neighbourhood: the reformed boy turned bad; the bush man and his vaqueiro friend; the love-struck sister and the local lothario… there was so much going on that at times it became too much.

The writer clearly had a great deal to say, but this meant some of the characters began to feel a bit like mere instruments to express a particular moral lesson or idea to improve life after independence: start a housing cooperative, join the national service, believe in Guyana’s potential, don’t look to the colonisers… This is all fine – if this is a musical not a play. But I felt it wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. I could see it as a high-kicking, big energy musical. It would be fantastic – a real celebration of Guyana and showcase of its talents. But for this to happen I think the dialogue needs to be chopped down, the music and dance numbers polished till they shine, and the time reduced from what I think was about three hours to a more manageable two.

Critiquing theatre is always hard, especially when you know or have met some of those involved – and you’re aware that the theatre being produced has most likely been made on a shoestring budget with love, dedication and sacrifice. “Go easy on community theatre productions,” is the rule of thumb. But this isn’t amateurish work. I’ve been astounded by the energy and effort put into the festival by the organisers – and by the quality of some of the writing and performances. I’d love to see plays and musicals staged regularly in GT, resources given to support the creatives who make it happen, and theatre promoted as an inclusive form of entertainment.

Speaking of which, I noticed The National Cultural Centre didn’t enforce its strict dress code last night. (At least, I spotted some sleeveless tops in the crowd). I was glad for this. And also for the affordable pricing of the shows throughout the season – $1,000 and above – although I’m sure that’s still prohibitive for some. From this small introduction to Georgetown’s lively and very homegrown theatre scene, I think it’s going in the right direction – and long may that continue.