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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.

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Highlights of the first Timehri Film Festival

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Still from Poetry is an Island

Guyana’s inaugural Timehri Film Festival ended on Friday, wrapping up three days of screenings showcasing films from around the Caribbean.

This excellent (and free) showcase of short and feature films had some great offerings, pulled together by the festival’s Caribbean-American team – comprising Romola Lucas and Justen Blaize (founders of the Caribbean Film Academy) and Alysia Simone, editor of blog Rewind N Come Again – with sponsorship from SASOD Guyana and Blossoms of Guyana.

My highlight was the beautiful ode to St Lucian poet and Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, ‘Poetry is an Island‘ – a moving, inspiring and visually stunning homage to a man, an island and a people.

At one point in the film, someone (Walcott himself I think) says “The time has come for us to be ourselves”. And the film is definitely ‘we own’. Sure we have the waving palm trees and beautiful beaches of every Caribbean stereotype, but we also have the imposing Pitons (the island’s famous volcanic mountains), the sadly neglected Derek Walcott Theatre, the enterprising Rastafarian decorator turning Walcott’s childhood home into a museum, and the a stunning painting by Dunstan St Omer (see below) that Walcott proudly shows to Irish poet Seamus Heaney and his other literary guests.

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Appropriately the film is the work of a director born in Suriname and of French, Chinese, and Dutch-Creole descent. Ida Does beautifully mixes lingering landscape shots with talking heads, snatches of traditional ceremonies and heartfelt readings. One of the most touching moments of the film is when Walcott reads his own poem for his late mother, and breaks down. “This is wicked”.

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Still from Ti Coq

 

Other feature films at the festival included Sensei Redenshon from Curacao. This taut martial arts drama featured a wonderful understated performance from Raul de Windt as Sandro, the prodigal father and reluctant street fighter. There was also a sneak peek at the upcoming US-Guyana collaboration A Bitter Lime, which I’m reluctant to comment on as we only saw the first 20 minutes or so. But hopefully the final cut is closer to the trailer in terms of pace; with a few more lines for the female lead; and a few less giraffes grazing Georgetown. (Artistic license?) Anyway kudos to the director for coming to Guyana and hopefully it will inspire others to do the same, and bring jobs and new opportunities with them.

There were some excellent Guyanese short films. I particularly enjoyed the loving grandmother in The Seawall, in which Georgetown was vividly brought to life; the colourful and touching Antiman about a young boy feeling his way along the uncertain first steps towards homosexuality; the eye-opening Diaries of an Immigrant about a Guyanese girl struggling to stay afloat in Barbados and earn money for her daughter back home; Painting the Spectrum  was an engaging glimpse behind the scenes of the LGBT film festival organised by Guyanese campaigning organisation SASOD; and also Martinique-based short Ti Coq, another bittersweet portrayal of a grandmother-grandson household (like The Seawall), where the return of the mother is not the longed-for event you might expect.

There were many more films that I missed too – as well as a series of workshops for aspiring or existing film producers and promoters. Of course not everything was perfect. Most people I spoke to seemed unaware the festival was going on, or only found out at the last minute. And I got the impression that Moray House is seen by some as a place where a ‘certain crowd’ goes. But this is only year one, and the team were working from New York.

Next year I hope to see more of the same. Perhaps with some newer, unknown Guyanese films; a variety of venues; and more promotion beforehand. But it’s a fantastic vision and a wonderful platform for Guyanese filmmakers, producers and other creatives. Keep it coming!

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Selma James in Guyana: “We as women have much in common”

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“What happened here tonight was the class struggle.”

The Woodbine Room at Cara Lodge was in some disarray. One person had stormed out, another came close to it. A third of the audience were eating brownies and pastries at the back of the room, immersed in heated discussions. While standing behind a tabletop bouquet of flowers, acclaimed international women’s rights activist Selma James was attempting to wrap up the evening. And decipher what had just happened.

It had all begun so differently. Selma James was in Georgetown to speak about her global campaign for fair wages for women – whether they work in the home or outside. As well as being the founder of the International Wages for Housework Campaign, Ms James co-authored ‘The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community’, wrote ‘Sex, Race, and Class – the Perspective of Winning’ and contributed an introduction to ‘Ujamaa – The hidden story of Tanzania’s socialist village’.

She was joined by her colleague and partner Nina Lopez, founder of Legal Action for Women and joint co-ordinator (with Ms James) of the Global Women’s Strike. In the chair was Jocelyn Dow, with Vanda Radzik supporting on the floor with a roving mic.

The two guest speakers covered a lot of ground in their presentations to the room, which was – Ms Dow noted at the outset – encouragingly full. Ms James immediately put forward her reasons for why “every worker deserves a living wage – including mothers and carers”. She pulled up women who when they “have reached the top … have ceased to pay attention to what women need because they feel, and in fact they’re right, they’ve escaped what women on the whole face. They have often, more or less, equal pay with the men; they usually have servants…”.

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She called on those present – which included members of Guyanese women’s rights group Red Thread (which organised the event), party political representatives, activists, students, academics and journalists – to recognise the need to be part of something wider. To, as the slogan goes, act local and think global. “You cannot really function in the modern world, you cannot really organise struggles; strengthen your network and resolve; and feel confident in what you are doing, if you are not trying to build an international network.”

She even managed to fit in a bit of US politics, showing her support for Bernie Sanders as the Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States:

“Bernie Sanders is exactly from the background that I come from … when I lived in Brooklyn in the 30s and the 40s, everybody around me was a Socialist. I come from that community. From the same kind of community he comes from – and he’s running for President of the United States. Now that is a change! Whatever happens with that election of the presidential candidate, the United States will never be the same. There’s a movement for change, a movement against the military sucking up … taking all the wealth of society and putting [it] into weapons of mass destruction, which kill people. This is not what we want our money to go to. We want it to go first of all to mothers.”

As a former resident of Trinidad (where she lived with her then-husband CLR James, the late cultural historian and renowned social activist), Ms James is obviously familiar with discourses around racial, social and economic inequality in the Caribbean context. While many white, Western feminists are accused of excluding black women from the global feminist movement by not addressing the issues that are pertinent to them, Ms James put them in the spotlight. She cited the work of Bajan-American activist Margaret Precod, who (to quote the The Grio) “founded the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Killers in the mid-1980s after dozens of women were found dead in alleyways, parks and dumpsters in Los Angeles”. She recognised the role of Guyana’s own prominent women’s right campaigner Andaiye in pushing the UN and national governments to agree to measure and value unwaged work. She noted that “The Black Lives Matter movement is only now acknowledging that the women who were murdered are part of the movement, because somehow Black Lives Matter has been fundamentally translated as ‘black men’s lives matter’.”

“So ‘All black women’s lives matter’, ‘All native American lives matter’, ‘All Indian lives matter’, Chinese lives matter, English lives matter, Egyptian lives matter, African lives matter, all lives matter – and they will only matter if we spell it out and make sure that it happens.”

Ms Lopez added more details about the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London. She spoke about custody of children (asking about the situation in Guyana, to which one lawyer in the audience responded: “The court would usually take into consideration the best interests of the child”). She cited the case of Layla Ibrahim, who was jailed after reporting a sexual assault. And she spoke with optimism about Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labour Party in the UK and an advocate of the legalisation of prostitution.

When the time came for audience questions, no hands were raised. Were there really no questions? The awkward silence didn’t last long. One person challenged Ms James on the very idea of ‘costing’ women’s work in the home – as if you can quantify and categorise levels of caring and housework. Some supported the point, others disagreed. Ms James questioned whether any woman would turn down the wage if offered. One of the two men in the sea of women pointed out the difficulties or inappropriateness of trying to affect changes within the same “Babylon” system that Caribbean people are trying to escape from. Two women highlighted the Married Persons Property Act, which women can claim “but they will get a much lower percentage if they have not worked outside of the home … it’s not recognised as equal value.”

An attending parliamentarian made a lengthy speech about everything from the migrant crisis to poverty in Guyana to the way the UN’s goals have become “sanitised”. Other audience members started getting restless and one or two called on her to let others have their say. When she left, the air became increasingly charged. One of the activists present spoke heatedly about female politicians talking about lifting people out of poverty in Guyana while not knowing what was happening at the grassroots level. The remaining parliamentarian took offence at being “embarrassed”, insisted she too had come from “grassroots” and eventually walked out in disgust. The activist made as if to follow but was convinced to stay, with some urging more “decorous” language and others insisting the remarks were not personal and that the politician should listen to views from the grassroots, which they are meant to represent.

Ms James, far from seeming intimidated, scandalised or sidelined by the lively exchanges, took it in her stride. Acknowledging this was a “class struggle”, she aligned herself as a grassroots person and called once again for women at the top to not forget the women at the bottom. Eventually she was given a hearty round of applause and allowed to explore the enticing snack table, before signing some books.

The Battle of Cara Lodge was a small one, but somehow a microcosm of the bigger fight raging outside. Racial tension, class warfare, cultural differences… One night and a 50-something crowd of (mostly) women cannot solve everything. But, Ms James noted, you can’t hope to have success in the wider world until you can achieve it in one room, with women from all levels of society coming together:

“In a lot of countries, the grassroots have got together and faced the government and said: ‘You have been stealing, you have been pimping, you have been enjoying the life that we are denied’. That’s happening in country after country … We as women have much in common. It is we as women who should be the first to overcome that problem or at least to address it. You cannot ignore it.”

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11 Things to Know Before Coming to Guyana for the Golden Jubilee

Image courtesy Government of Guyana
2016 Republic Day celebrations (image courtesy Government of Guyana)

Dear impending visitor to Guyana,

Congratulations!

You have been accepted to be one of the thousands… hundreds… tens… (who knows) of people touching down in Guyana for our Golden Jubilee celebrations. This joyous occasion marks 50 years since we kicked the colonisers out with a flea in their ear (and potfuls of gold and sugar in their pockets. Probably).

But there are a few things you should know before you disembark at Cheddi Jagan International Airport (and not just that bids are open for a restaurant/bar at the terminal. Personally I’m hoping for a gourmet egg ball and pine tart stand, with rum on tap).

1. Not everyone is as excited about the celebrations as you are: You’re thrilled to be in Guyana for its historic 50th anniversary. The bunting! The flag raising! The lengthy speeches! You can’t wait. But remember everyone in Guyana has been hearing all about the ‘Jubilee Celebrations’ for months and months, and while many are looking forward to the party – a lot are sick of the whole damn thing. One journalist is even advocating boycotting the whole thing. Market traders are pissed off at being shunted around at short notice for the big clean up, so it all looks pretty for when you arrive. Budgets have been diverted from other much-needed projects. And, according to one outraged minibus conductor, “chineyman now charging $300 for a flag”. So if you see someone rolling their eyes as you rave about this historic occasion, don’t take it personally.

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Improvement works at Stabroek Market last week

2. Everyone’s banking on a Jubilee bonus – from you: Whether it’s buying a $500,000 bottle of 50-year El Dorado from DDL Diamond Distillers or a Golden Arrowhead hat from a souvenir stand, a lot of business people are hoping you’ll be feeling in a spending mood on this visit. And your contributions matter. So patronise local shops, restaurants and bars; buy locally produced produce and crafts; stock up on gifts for your family back home (Guyana-themed Christmas anyone?), go to shows and other events on the official calendar, and put a few smiles on people’s faces (and dollars in their pockets).

3. Be safe, not sorry: You don’t need to be warned twice about security in Guyana… but you will be. Many, many times. Crime is the number one topic of conversation for Guyanese in the diaspora and here in Guyana. Be sensible and heed the warnings. Book your cab rather than flag one down; don’t wear expensive or flashy jewellery; put your wallet away before leaving the shop or bank; don’t wave your phone or gadgets around in public; don’t walk alone at night; wipe the top of your bottle of beer before downing it… you know the drill. But don’t be so paralysed by fear you don’t do anything. Leave the valuables at home, walk confidently and explore. Otherwise you may as well have stayed at home and watched it on TV.

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4. Know what NOT to wear: If you’re not very familiar with Guyana, you may think: South America + coast + sunshine = flipflops, shorts and vests. That’s fine, but be prepared to be turned away if that’s all you pack. Because Georgetown likes nothing better than a dress code. No short sleeves, no shorts, no short skirts… The first time I visited Guyana I was turned away from the National Library twice – once for inappropriately short sleeves, another time for wearing shorts. I’ve been known to walk with a cardigan and leggings to whip on, just in case… At least those trousers and long-sleeved tops will come in handy of an evening when mosquitoes are in full attack mode.

5. No one has change: You’ve been the the ATM, have a wallet of crisp $5,000 notes, and voila you’re sorted for the rest of your stay. Except you won’t get far. Few people, in my experience, have change for such a sum – from taxi drivers to market traders. So whenever you’re in a supermarket, restaurant or bar, take the opportunity to get some smaller $20, $100, $500 and $1000 bills.

6. Guyana does not end at Georgetown: If you have the time and money, do yourself a favour and bugger off. Guyana is not GT. There are so many other places to discover and things to do: lime on Parika beach, watch the boats on Bartica, spot caiman at Irokrama, encounter real-life cowboys in Lethem, fly over Kaiteur Falls, practise your Portuguese at the Brazil-Guyana border, speed up the Essenquibo… see the beauty of Guyana. Then go home and tell everyone about it.

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On the way to the blue lake in Linden

7. Photography is a privilege not a right: Visitors taking photos is a bit of a thorny issue for some Guyanese attractions – the National Museum, for example – in that they don’t let you snap a thing. Maybe there’s something to be said for visiting a museum of gallery and engaging with the works instead of just snapping them, but sometimes there’s an image or detail you really want to remember – or would love to share with others – but can’t. I’m not sure what the thinking is behind it. There are endless photos of most of the world’s biggest tourist destinations, but you don’t see anyone saying, “Well, I’m not going to the Taj Mahal/London Eye/Louvre because I’ve seen a photo of it.”

8. Sometimes it’s best to listen and nod: In Guyana, one of the main things people like to talk about is race. About their racial heritage. About yours. About the differences between the races in Guyana. “You’ll find Afro-Guyanese are more friendly,” a taxi driver told me on my last visit, the instant we drove away from the airport. “Indians are more likely to save their money.” “Light-skinned is seen as beautiful.” (I’m selecting the milder comments). But don’t be too offended or shocked. Despite this racial consciousness and stereotyping, Guyanese people also seem proud to call themselves the land of six peoples, and look into many people’s family albums here and you’ll probably find a mixture of Indian, African, European and Amerindian ancestors.

9. The sun is hot: No kidding, I hear you say. But I’m serious. This is no average summer’s day in London or New York, the sun will scorch you if you insist in wandering around in a vest top and shorts. And this is not just for the white visitors prone to going red quicker than you can say ‘lobster’. I’ve done it myself: exploring on foot, under the blazing sun. I still do sometimes. But now I bring an umbrella, try to remember to slap on some sunscreen, or just don’t venture out in the high sun. Keep hydrated (you’re never far from a water vendor or a coconut stall). And remember, it’s rainy season now too so that umbrella has a dual purpose.

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10. Zika is more common than you think: “There have been seven confirmed cases of Zika,” I heard a TV news anchor announce the other night. And then the rest, I thought. Guyana doesn’t actually have the facilities to check for Zika, so samples must be sent to Trinidad and Tobago – and I hear there’s a serious backlog. I know a handful of people who’ve probably had Zika – myself included – and just did the recommended thing: rest, drink a lot of water and wait for the symptoms to pass. Maybe this is being far too blasé about it, but when you’re in Zika-territory somehow it seems less of a scary monster (unless you’re pregnant, I can imagine). And I think with Dengue, Chikungunya, Malaria and more all up for grabs, Zika is the least of your worries. So pack your mosquito spray and hope for the best. Sorry.

11. Don’t tell a single story: “You think everything about Guyana is nice!” I’m probably the only person who’s been accused of this. Everyone loves to put Guyana down. Especially Guyanese people themselves, I’ve found. It’s true, there’s a lot to fix. But focusing only on the bad parts isn’t motivating. So for every bad thing you tell your friends back home about Guyana, try to say one positive thing too. “The crime is out of control… but there’s now 4G so we can upload photos of our robbed house so much faster.” Then maybe more people will want to invest in Guyana, trade with Guyana, come live in Guyana and help Guyana. Be the change you want to see, as they say. Donate to a charity doing good works. Raise money to buy equipment for Guyana’s hospitals. Fund a student through university. Send books. Start companies to employ people. Import Guyanese-made products.  Support sustainable projects to protect Guyana’s rainforests. Adopt a jaguar. Whatever. Just do something, so at least you can say: well, I tried.

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Fogging zika

Venturing into Zika territory, you suddenly feel like a teenager enduring the pre-date parental lecture: cover up, take precautions and whatever you do: don’t get pregnant.

Guyana is not exactly a hotbed of Zika panic, from what I’ve seen so far anyway. A piece in the Kaieteur Times two days ago noted three more cases: one woman in Timehri – who also tested positive for Dengue Fever – and two doctors at Diamond Regional Hospital.

Cue a mass fogging exercise in Diamond, which I happened to catch last night with this (rather poor) shot:

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A truck slowly passed through the streets, puffing out clouds of chemicals that will apparently kill adult mosquitoes. There wasn’t any residual smell immediately afterwards and a reduction in itching among residents remains to be seen.

Misc · Travel

Escaping from Devil’s Island

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[Real Travel] Carinya Sharples journeys to French Guiana’s Salvation Islands to explore the empty cells of one of the world’s most notorious ex-prisons…

The most eerie part of Île Royale was the children’s cemetery. It was deathly silent apart from the rustle of monkeys in the trees and the loud chirping of crickets. The epitaphs on the crumbling gravestones were pitifully simple: ‘Jean Girault. Décédé à l’âge de 9 mois. Le 18 Janviers 1915. Regrets’. Suddenly the grim history of this strange, James Bond-esque island – with its shark-filled waters, picturesque ruins and wild nature – became uncomfortably real.

Together, Île Royale, Île du Diable and Île Saint-Joseph form the Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands), also known as the Devil’s Islands because of their treacherous surrounding rocks. This triangular archipelago lies 15km off the coast of French Guiana, or La Guyane to locals – a French overseas département perched on the top of South America. Once a refuge for 18th-century French colonists escaping malaria and mosquitoes on the mainland, the islands later became a notoriously brutal penal colony and the setting for one of the darkest ever periods in French history.

Today, the little-known islands are overgrown with lush, green vegetation and dotted with tall palm trees. On Île Royale, guinea pig-like agoutis scurry between the crumbling ruins, carrying chunks of coconut shells in their teeth, while Île du Diable has its own population of iguanas and even a few wild goats. Instead of prisoners, there are small groups of travellers, peering into abandoned cells and dodging the warning signs of ‘INTERDIT!’ placed liberally along the rocky coastal path.

I’d vowed to visit the Îles du Salut some months earlier when a friend – hearing I was off to French Guiana – mentioned Île du Diable. How could I resist a place called Devil’s Island? As it turned out, exceptionally sharp rocks prevent boats from docking on Île du Diable itself, so I settled for a two-day trip to nearby Île Royale instead. One-day trips are available but it’s worth staying overnight if you can.

LAUNCH PAD

Île Royale is a short 50-minute boat ride from Kourou, a coastal town best known for its Centre Spatial Guyanais. This state-of-the-art international space centre attracts many French professionals to the country, who live, somewhat uneasily, alongside the rest of the population – a fascinating mix of Maroon (the descendants of escaped slaves), Creole, East Indian, Chinese, Amerindian and Laotian, to name but a few.

I stopped off in Kourou for a few days towards the end of January, when the weather alternates between beautiful sunshine and heavy downpours. A savvy French traveller had recommended staying in the Amerindian Village at Chez Taliko, a residential house with a carbet out back. A carbet is essentially a shack where you can sling your hammock (and mosquito net) – a common concept in French Guiana and a popular option for adventurous travellers, plus those, like me, scandalised by the ridiculous Paris-style hotel prices. The carbet at Chez Taliko cost just €8 a night and was a simple structure of wood with flimsy metal sheets as low walls. It was also right on the beach.

I arrived in Kourou just as dusk was settling, with no booking – in fact, no idea where Chez Taliko was. Luckily the minibus driver knew, and when Taliko himself appeared at the door he was unfazed by my unexpected appearance, although a bit surprised I was travelling alone. Not being able to properly suss out my surroundings in the dark, I spent the night on edge. Every crash of the waves, swish of leaves and clank of the metal sheets had me imagining someone was approaching. In the morning – after little, if any, sleep – I woke to find someone had been there after all and was still perched nearby, staring at me intently… Then it squawked, and I realised my intruder was a parrot.

The next few days were spent visiting the space centre on a fascinating tour, walking along the beach and visiting a local market on Avenue de France, which sizzled with the delicious smell of rotisserie chicken and offered up a tantalising array of food, representative of the diverse populace. There was everything from fresh Vietnamese summer rolls and local honey to fresh fruit and accras de morue (a fried snack I remember from Accra in Ghana – hence the name, presumably). Another day, I wandered through Saramaca Village – a newly urbanised area populated by Saramaca (a group of Maroon people) with a strange mix of cabin-style terraced houses and roads with names like ‘Rue Rosa Parks’ – only to be warned later not to go there alone.

THE HARD CELL

On the day of my trip to Île Royale, I left the Amerindian Village at the same time as Taliko and his wife, so they offered to drop me on Avenue Général de Gaulle, a popular street lined with restaurants and bars, at the end of which is the Ponton des Pêcheurs or fisherman’s dock – my point of departure. Public transport in French Guiana is practically non-existent, other than expensive cabs and the odd minibus or taxi collectif, so I was glad for the ride. Later in my trip – when travelling through the wild nature reserves of Kaw and Tresor, the capital city of Cayenne, and Cacao, home to a farming community of Hmong refugees from Laos – I was to discover another money-saving custom of the country: hitchhiking.

I’d already booked my €39 return ticket at the Guyanespace Voyage travel agents in Kourou, opting to travel by Royal Ti’Punch’s sleek catamaran. As the departure time inched closer, its smooth, white seats were filled by a lively mix of soldiers on leave, young couples and older travellers. Everyone was French – bar the friendly crew who were Guianese. British visitors, I soon discovered, were something of a rarity in French Guiana. The ride was choppy and the military troupe, whose members had immediately stripped down to their bikinis and trunks to lie on the trampoline-like net, squealed in delight as the waves splashed over them.

From the Île Royale jetty, it was a steep, sweaty climb to the hotel with my backpack. It wasn’t until the next day, when I was leaving, that I discovered the pick-up truck that carries guests’ luggage. There are three different types of accommodation to choose from on Île Royale: the well-restored prison administration building that now serves as a hotel, where prices start at €166 (including two lunches, dinner and breakfast); the more basic former guards’ block (from €60); and the carbets, costing just €10. I’d opted for the final option, not realising that I’d be staying in one of the original prisoners’ quarters. When I peered through the heavy door, I found row upon row of army-style hammocks identical to my own – except these were actual military hammocks, owned by the 30 or so French soldiers stationed on the island at the time. Bunking down in a room full of French squaddies? Not tonight, Napoleon!

I marched back to the reception desk, explained the situation and was relieved to be given a key to my own ‘cell’. After the near al-fresco carbet in Kourou, this long building with faded pink paint and a fully tiled bathroom felt like the presidential suite. I tied my hammock to the metal hooks embedded in the wall – trying to forget that they had once held prisoners’ chains – and enjoyed a long shower, sidestepping the seed husks or insect wings (I couldn’t figure out which) that littered the bathroom floor. Maybe ‘presidential suite’ was a slight overstatement.

GRIM FINDINGS

Île Royale covers just 21 hectares so you don’t need a guide, although tours are available. One of the boat crew had promised to show me around but then disappeared as soon as we docked (for lunch, I later found out), so I set off alone. Luckily when I’d booked my tickets, I’d picked up a leaflet with a map of the island, which proved indispensable and helped me identify all the different buildings. After happening on the disturbing children’s cemetery, I retraced my steps past my ‘bedroom’ and headed towards the picturesquely ruined former military hospital and the new-looking red brick chapel – part of the restoration project of the French government’s space agency, Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), which took over ownership of the islands in 1965.

Just reading the names of the buildings as I passed them was chilling – ‘le pénitencier’ (the condemned prisoners’ quarters), ‘la maison des fous’ (the mad house) and the ‘asile d’alienes’ (lunatic asylum). In 1923, journalist Albert Londres visited Île Royale and was taken to this asylum by the island’s doctor. In a later report, he would recall encountering an inmate who threw stones into the sea from the same point on the island every day. His plan, Londres explained; to build a bridge from South America to France so he could walk home. The more I read about the prisoners’ inhumane existence on the islands, the more I understood the wild desperation the man must have felt.

The first prison ship docked on 10 May 1852 and by the end of that year there were some 1,000 inmates on the islands. Between 1852 and 1862, an incredible 12,780 convicts (including 329 political prisoners) were sent from France. Soon other penitentiary units took precedence, including ones in New Caledonia, Saint-Jean du Maroni and Saint-Laurent du Maroni, a small town on the Maroni River at the French Guiana/Suriname border.

Then in 1887, the passage from France to the Îles du Salut was revived and new waves of prisoners, condemned for crimes ranging from espionage and treason to desertion and forging currency, flooded in – troublemakers and escapees were sent to Île St Joseph; common-law convicts to the colony’s administrative heart, Île Royale; and the rest to Île du Diable, the smallest but most feared of the three islands. And so it continued until 1947, when the penal colony finally closed.

BASE CAMP

While I was in French Guiana, I visited the sleepy town of Saint-Laurent du Maroni, just three hours from Kourou by minibus. Most of French Guiana’s main attractions lie on or near the 350km coastal strip, so travelling from one town to the next rarely takes longer than a couple of hours.

As the main processing point of the penal colonies, Saint-Laurent du Maroni is best known for its Camp de la Transportation (Transportation Camp). Although you can enter for free, you don’t get access to all areas unless you go on one of the guided tours – and for €5 a pop, it’s worth it.

The camp contains a chapel, clothing store, court and even an anthropological room, where prison doctors once studied inmates to put together a ‘criminal profile’. Some of the former administration buildings have been restored and, somewhat bizarrely, now serve as a public library and theatre.

But it’s the prisoners’ quarters that proved the most fascinating – and disturbing. The long blockhouses, which officially housed around 40 men (although often held double), are lined with long stone ‘benches’, each with iron bars embedded on top. While the individual cells drip with water and decay, the wooden planks that once served as beds still fixed with feet shackles. After years of abandonment, the walls are black with mould, sprouting with moss and missing their doors – though conditions probably weren’t much better when they were in use.

Cell number 47 caused everyone the most excitement, as it is believed to be where Papillon (see boxout) had been detained at one point. Clearly a highlight of the trip – I hadn’t known who Papillon was until about five minutes before – the rest of the group snapped away. Inside, we took turns to see where the name ‘Papillon’ had been scratched into the stone floor. I dutifully photographed it – fully aware that the chances of it being an authentic ‘tag’ of the infamous escapee were pretty low.

At the far end of the complex, our Amerindian guide led us to a stone circle flanked by cells. This was, he told us, where the guillotine once stood – a constant, visible reminder to all the convicts that their lives hung in the balance. The kitchen, he pointed towards a building nearby, was where their final meals would have been prepared. We looked on solemnly. I tried to stop picturing what my final meal would have been.

LIGHTS OUT

Back on Île Royale, I continued down the coastal path – strewn with coconut shells and palms – to a square pool formed by rocks, which turned out to be the prisoners’ swimming pool. The next turning took me to a rocky cove scattered with sunbathing tourists and soldiers with regulation haircuts and tropical tans. I’d already been warned that the rocks were slippery but still managed to lose my footing and end up sitting down rather forcefully with a wet thud. Still sitting, I gradually edged my way forward until just my head bobbed above the powerful waves. After a while, I slid my way back up to dry off in the sunshine and look out for the sea turtles that live off the coast.

Later that evening, as I was sitting in my hammock eating the rations I’d bought in Kourou – baguette and butter, bananas, papaya and biscuits – there was a knock at the door. It was one of the soldiers from the first ‘salle de hamacs’ inviting me to a birthday do they were holding. I’d already planned to visit the hotel restaurant, but watching other people tuck into fresh fish, grilled chicken and mouthwatering desserts while drinking a €2,60 can of peach iced tea turned out not to be much fun, so I headed back towards my room and on the way got sucked into the party.

A barbeque had been set up, the smell of sizzling sausages filled the air and a long table of drinks was being steadily consumed by the chattering troops. I was plied with fruit juice, sausages and breadfruit, before being joined by a welcoming party wanting to find out why I was on the island and keen to list everything they knew about England – which mostly seemed to consist of Mr Bean. Turned out they weren’t soldiers after all, rather the French equivalent of the Royal Marines who had recently finished a tour in Afghanistan. After their questions and my French had been exhausted, I decided to turn in – not entirely reassured by their parting promise to shoot any monkeys that came to my room.

The next day, I continued to explore the island, escaping a sudden burst of rain by taking refuge in the museum located in the former Director’s House, where I discovered a series of fascinating displays (in English and French) about the history of the islands and their most famous prisoners.

I emerged after the rain had subsided to find everything looking even more lush and green than before and headed back to browse the hotel gift shop before joining some of my new military friends for a final lunch of fish soup. On the way down to the shoreline I got chatting to a Chinese-French woman travelling with her boyfriend and another couple, only to discover I’d missed a morning expedition to Île Saint- Joseph. She described it as even more wild and rundown than Île Royale, and I was gutted to have missed out. At 4.30pm, the catamaran pulled away from the jetty and we began the return trip to Kourou, sipping complimentary glasses of red punch and watching the islands until they sank back into a sea of memories. ■

[BOXOUT] Devil’s Island’s famous inmates

PAPILLON

Convicted murderer Henry Charrière’s autobiography chronicling his daring escape from Île du Diable captured the attention of the world. The book, entitled Papillon after his nickname (meaning ‘butterfly’), was later adapted in the 1973 film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Although now thought to have incorporated experiences of other prisoners, Papillon’s adventures continue to fascinate, and a remake of the film is said to be in the pipeline, with Robert Downey Jr. and Philip Seymour Hoffman tipped to play the lead roles.

DREYFUS

In 1895, France was captivated by the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was condemned of treason and sentenced to life on Île du Diable. He was kept in solitary confinement, confined in the day and shackled at night, for four brutal years before finally being found innocent in 1899.

View PDF: Escaping Devil’s Island

London culture

Honduras in London: Central America Women’s Network

CAWN's Laura Ouseley (second from right) at the Million Women Rise march in London on 5 March 2011
CAWN’s Laura Ouseley (second from right) at the Million Women Rise march in London on 5 March 2011

(Visit London, 29 March 2011) We speak to Laura Ouseley from London-based organisation Central America Women’s Network (CAWN), which supports women’s rights groups in Honduras and across Central America – and is celebrating its 20th birthday this Thursday.

What does CAWN do?

We help women’s organisations in Central America with advocacy and campaigning, for example organising speaker tours and building links between women’s groups in the UK and Central America.

Our main areas of work are around gender equality, women’s rights and violence against women. CAWN’s main project at the moment is supporting a women’s organisation in Honduras to set up self-help groups in order to tackle gender-based violence.

How long have you been running?

We’ve been going since 1991. This Thursday is our 20th anniversary.

You have a speaker tour this week in London, what’s that about?

We have two women’s rights activists from Honduras coming here, Evelyn Cuellar and Mercedes Lainez. They’ll be here for two weeks to talk about their work for Centro de Estudios de la Mujer Honduras (CEMH), our partner organisation in Honduras.

What events are planned in London as part of the tour?

Tonight the two speakers will be at a public meeting we’re holding with the London Feminist Network in the House of Commons, talking about femicide and the role of feminists in social transformation.

Then on Thursday we have a smaller meeting at The Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London about violence against women in Honduras. Later than evening it’s our 20th anniversary celebration at the Human Rights Action Centre, which anyone is welcome to attend, whether you have been involved with CAWN over the last 20 years, or would like to know more about our work.

The two speakers are then going to Manchester and Scotland before coming back to London for a panel discussion at The Commonwealth Club on 12 April for the Women Reaching Women Conference 2011.

How can people learn more or help with the work you do?

We often rely on volunteers to help us carry out and promote the work we do. Some CAWN volunteers and activists help with translations, for example, while others organise events, fundraise and promote our work.

The best way to get involved with CAWN is to become a member and receive more information about the work we do, or come along to one of our events and speak to us in person.

Where else can you find out about Honduras in London? Tell us in the comments below.

http://blog.visitlondon.com/2011/03/honduras-in-london-central-america-womens-network/

London culture

Guatemala in London: MAYA The Musical

maya_poster_r1_c1

(Visit London, 31 December 2010) Guatemala is best known for its fascinating Mayan heritage. Sadly London’s Guatemalan Maya Centre has closed its public gallery and craft shop, but you can still learn about this ancient civilisation in MAYA, an unusual new musical set in the final days of the great Mayan empire.

Facing a devastating drought, a desperate Mayan king is torn between seeking personal power and pleasing the Gods. Amid this disaster, two brothers compete to follow their dying father’s instructions and embark on a quest, discovering along the way what’s worth living for – and dying for.

Katy Lipson from new musical theatre initiative A Stage Kindly, the organisation behind the production, says:

“This is a unique and very exciting work, and from the moment we first heard it we knew we were on to a winner. With its contemporary score and strong Mayan theme, MAYA is entirely different from previous productions.”

You can catch the UK premiere of MAYA, written by American Rick Williams, at The Baron’s Court Theatre, an intimate subterranean theatre below The Curtains Up pub.

After discovering Guatemala’s history, explore its present in a powerful retrospective of work by Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo at ROLLO Contemporary Art gallery near Goodge Street.

This exhibition shows that while the Mayan civilisation perished long ago, violence and political power games remain a part of life in Guatemala. Works on show include Galindo’s unsettling video-performance piece No perdemos nada con nacer (We don’t lose anything by being born) 2000, in which the artist was self drugged, put in a clear plastic bag, placed in a bin and left at the local rubbish dump.

MAYA is on at The Barons Court Theatre from 24-30 Jan. Regina José Galindo is on at ROLLO Contemporary Art until 11 Feb.

http://blog.visitlondon.com/2010/12/guatemala-in-london-maya-the-musical/