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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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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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Do you speak foreigner?

Foreigner English ˈfȯr-ə-nər ˈiŋ-glish

n. When an English person mimics the accent or grammatical structure of another language to help them connect with its native speakers (or to hide the fact that they don’t know the language).

Case in point: footballer Joey Barton and manager Steve McLaren (yes, they are both English – not French and Dutch):

Listening to the recording of one of the interviews for my oral-history project, Guyana50.org, I heard myself asking the interviewee: ‘So yuh mudda would sell tings [at the market]?” The lady in question was struggling to understand me, so I subconsciously shifted my way of speaking in an attempt to make myself better understood.

It’s not the first time I’ve done it. After a while dating a guy from Spain, my good friend informed me that I appeared to be speaking “Foreigner English“. At the extreme, saying things like “We go shop?” – or just adding “no?” to the end of sentences. Ironically it was only when I went away to Brazil for a month and was speaking Portuguese most of the time that I regained my fluency in my mother tongue. I forgot all about Foreigner English and reverted to plain old English. When I got back, they were both amazed that I was so chatty. “You’re like a different person!”

Thinking about it now, I’d attribute this rediscovery of my own voice to the fact that in Brazil I was distinguishing between English and Portuguese, two very different languages – whereas at home it was between English and English-as-a-Spanish-language. My Foreigner English has come back in Guyana because once again the languages (Guyanese Creole and Standard English) have many words in common and so are harder to compartmentalise.

There is, I learned in an interesting seminar at the University of Guyana (UG) the other day, a sliding scale between the basiltect (the rural, ‘deep’ version of Guyanese Creolese) and the acrolect (the urban, version of Creolese – more aligned to Standard English).

Some researchers have even mapped this scale. Below is the phrase ‘I gave him one‘ (UK readers, please get your minds out of the gutter) rendered in 18 different variations (from Bell 1976, via Wikipedia). I don’t really understand phonetic spelling but it’s pretty interesting.

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Anyhow, point is, instead of switching between two distinct languages, people move across the scale depending on who they’re talking to and where. So when people in Guyana are talking to me, someone from England, they will move as close as they can to the acrolect. For some people this is no problem at all – perhaps those who grew up in a Standard English-speaking home or who have studied overseas. For others it’s unnatural and something they have to do consciously, even with serious concentration.

The other day, I heard a Guyanese academic recounting the difficulties of making small talk in England. The effort to not speak Creolese made the conversation feel unnatural. Another friend recently spoke apologetically of “mixing up my Creolese” when speaking to me. Even the President, before giving his speech at a press conference the other day, apologised in advance for his pedantic language: “I learned that medium is singular and media is plural, so excuse me when I say ‘The media are’ rather than ‘the media is’.” (I paraphrase, didn’t note his exact words). Was he trying to show off his grasp of the intricacies of Standard English or pre-emptively quash any sense that he’s being a linguistic snob and grammar Nazi?

As far as I know, Guyanese people don’t expect English visitors to speak Creole, because we both speak ‘English’ right? So why does the Guyanese speaker not understand everything the English speaker says, and visa versa? Because they’re not necessarily both speaking Standard English – the Guyanese person may actually be speaking Creolese.

Guyana, we’re told, is an English-speaking country – the only one on the continent. Yet, depending on their social or family background, someone in Guyana may easily have grown up speaking only Creolese at home, with friends and even in the classroom. They may rarely have heard or engaged in speaking Standard English while growing up (beyond films, music etc). Yet they’re expected to suddenly talk Standard English when they meet a speaker of that language, and to the same proficiency? I’ve been speaking Standard English my whole life, but who expects me to suddenly speak Creole on entering the country?

I’d like to be able to. Put me in the middle of a conversation with two people speaking Creolese and I won’t understand everything. Sometimes anything. So I’m missing out on a huge part of the Guyanese experience and conversation. It’s a definite loss, both for me and for the Guyanese people who don’t speak Creolese either (they exist). Because the language seems so expressive and lively.

So for now, until I am more familiar with Creolese, I find myself trying to make myself understood in certain situations by changing my accent slightly, adopting new Guyanese words like ‘gaff’ (a great word meaning to chat, gossip, catch jokes with someone) or ‘high’ (instead of drunk), and sometimes shifting the order of my words. My sisters have also noticed Guyanese noises of assent and agreement creeping in my voice when I speak on the phone. I say ‘morning’ with an exaggerated ‘r’. When I call out a bus stop, I try to change how I speak to sound less conspicuous. “NEXT CORNER!” I shout. I tried it out on some friends. “You sound Jamaican” they chuckled. Goodness knows what the other passengers think. I imagine them collapsing into fits of laughter the minute the minibus drives off. Should I stop trying to meet people halfway? Is it more authentic to speak in your own voice or in a way that people around you understand?

When you hear someone changing their way of speaking to match another’s, I have to admit it comes across as a bit patronising. But I think chameleoning (I’ve just make that up) and switching between languages shows sensitivity. You just have to be careful to distinguish between the different languages you’re using, or you could end up losing or colouring your natural speech or mother tongue.

At the same UG seminar, one participant reflected on hearing a teacher in Jamaica switch between Jamaican Creole and Standard English. “It was beautiful to see,” he said, several times, in awe of the woman’s ability to seemlessly slide between the languages as the occasion or situation demanded.

I think that’s a pretty good goal. Who wants to see Creolese die out and be replaced by Standard English alone? Maybe some Guyanese do. But I don’t think you have to kill one to preserve and elevate the other. No?

[Featured image: Roland Tanglao, via Flickr/Creative Commons]

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The only white person for miles

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At the blue lake in Linden, Guyana

You’ve probably heard it. You may have even said it yourself, breathless with excitement after a trip to an ‘exotic’ travel destination: “I was the only white person for miles!” It’s always niggled for me because I think:

  1. Why is that an achievement?
  2. Do you really mean to say: you were the only foreigner?
  3. If it’s number 2, how do you know? Maybe there was someone from the same town as you back home but they just happen to look like a local.

I thought about this again when travelling to Lethem for the Rupununi Rodeo. A friendly (white, European) couchsurfer invited me to join her and her friends. “Just look for two pickups full of white people!” she joked in her text. I laughed. And it was true – that’s exactly what I found. But once I joined them, what were they then? Two pickups full of white people – and one brown girl? Later one of the group joked about how the “whiteys” should take on the locals in a game of tug-of-war, and I guessed they’d either forgotten I was there, or white was being used interchangeably to mean foreigner.

It’s a curious phenomenon to observe. When a white, European traveller lands into a place where he/she is no longer in the majority, and is suddenly confronted by and super-aware of their colour – something they probably take for granted as the norm most of the time. And it is. In the UK, for instance, 87.2% of the population is White British.

It always makes me think back to the time I went to a club in the UK and my group of friends wanted to leave because they felt out of place, being the only white people is a crowd of black and Asian faces. Never mind that I was one of those non-white faces, or that I frequently found myself in the reverse situation.

Of course being non-white is the norm elsewhere. I once met a poet from Botswana who remembered being stopped at an airport with a friend from the US. This friend was fuming, assuming they’d been pulled over for being black. The poet was amused because she’d assumed it was because they were cute and the security guard was hitting on them. Being black wasn’t her first identifier, because it was the norm in her country.

For me, being of mixed English-Guyanese heritage, identification is often taken out of my hands and is open to interpretation depending on where I am. “Red woman” called a random man in the street in Guyana the other day (I discovered later this means a mix of African and European heritage). “Obruni!” (or ‘white person’) some children used to shout in greeting in Ghana. In Brazil, Spain and countless other places I’ve taken to be a local. Yet in England (even London) I’m assumed to be foreign and constantly asked ‘Where are you from?’

To be honest, I’m over this foreigner/local distinction. The world is not that black-and-white any more. We travel prodigiously, live abroad, eat food from around the globe, watch films in other languages… So I’m always uncomfortable when I run into signs of the old divisions and hierachies. Like when people in Guyana tell me, “You’ll be ok because you’re a foreigner”, “I think so-and-so was trying to show you off as their English friend!” Or when I see young, white travellers decked (non-ironically) in khaki shorts, white shirt and panama hat – looking for all the world like new-age colonialists and all-too quickly slipping into the old dynamic as they unquestioningly lap up the deference and privileges they’re still given in some countries.

And, as much as I protest, I guess I enjoy the benefits too. Probably without even realising it a lot of the time. The other day I walked into a hotel here in Georgetown, asked to use the wifi and was directed to the business centre area where I proceeded to get on with some work in peace. Would I have been welcomed so readily if I didn’t have a British accent? Or was it more to do with what I was wearing? My skin colour? The ‘right’ attitude?

I was discussing these issues recently with friend from the UK who is living elsewhere in the Caribbean. She told me how people there still haven’t quite got their head around the fact that she’s there to stay. “You’re from London? Why would you come here?!” As if, she said, there’s nothing valuable here, nothing that might attract someone with no ties. I can imagine I’d get a similar response from some quarters if I decided to stay on in Guyana: That’s nice, but why?!

The other day I was kindly given a copy of poet Fred d’Aguiar’s 1998 speech ‘Made in Guyana’, and finally got round to reading it today. In it, he highlights the efforts of Guyanese writers such as Edgar Mittleholzer to “answer back” the colonisers and define their world. But in order to do so, says d’Aguiar: “The outside world, the surroundings had to be claimed before there could be the luxury of an inward glance and the self-purging of a centuries-old implanted ideology of inferiority.”

I would expand on this and say that people of coloniser regions, such as myself, must now go on the same journey. Not to claim the world as our own once more, we’ve already had that luxury, but to open that inward eye and gradually self-purge that centuries-old propogated ideology of superiority.

 

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Is wah yuh sayin’?

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“Yu wahn i hot up?” asked the woman behind the till when I returned my cold dhal and roti to the counter at Giftland Mall. I paused for a second, deciphering, then agreed. Yes I wanted it heated up, please.

Guyana’s official language is English. A hangover from its days as a British colony. But sit on the bus, walk down the street, go into a shop and what you’ll hear is something richer, more melodic than anything the Queen could come up with.

“It’s bad English,” Adam Harris, Editor-in-Chief of Kaieteur News, put it when I went to record him for my oral-history project, Guyana 50: Memories of Life in British Guiana.

I wanted to argue back, all fired up as I was from a workshop I went to earlier in the week at the University of Guyana: Writing Creolese the Creolese Way. The session was led by the fiesty and funny Charlene Wilkinson, a lecturer in the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies, who took no time to pull me up on my quiet, mumbling voice. “The British don’t like to open their mouths when they talk!”

The workshop was part lecture, part practical exercise. We took dictation in creolese, read aloud from the transcript of an interview with a Guyanese rice farmer, and shared our reasons for being there. One participant was a poet already using her own version of written creolese. Another was a US aid worker wanting to learn to speak the lingo. There were teachers, lecturers and representatives from the education ministry, one who was somewhat rounded on at the end when she attempted to defend the lack of specific ‘English’ lessons on the curriculum.

It’s a strange situation. A country where the mother tongue of most of the population is not the official language. Where some children learn English for the first time at school. Where teachers (depending on the school) speak to their pupils in creolese, but demand they write their essays and reports in British English. Where a room full of mostly Guyanese people, some of whom grew up speaking only creole, struggle to read a line of written ‘Guyanese’.

Why? Because the creole they know is oral. Some prestigious Guyanese writers, as was noted in the workshop, use the language to good effect – and are complimented for the authenticity and vibrancy this adds. Like Wordsworth McAndrew’s classic poem Ol’ Higue:

Ol’ woman wid de wrinkled skin,

 Leh de ol’ higue wuk begin.

Put on you fiery disguise,

Ol’ woman wid de weary eyes

Shed you swizzly skin.

But should creolese remain a preserve of academia or fiction? In a letter in the Stabroek News earlier this year, Ms Wilkinson put a convincing argument forward for “bilingual and multilingual education” – where speakers of Guyanese are given the right (and respect) to speak their first language, as well as English.

The many responses in the comments box below her letter give some sense of the heatedness of this long-running debate. One that I am only newly aware of. Perhaps Ms Wilkinson should have responded by giving out the questionnaire we were asked to fill in during the workshop, asking us to honestly assess how we would view an English speaker vs a Guyanese speaker: Which do you think is most friendly? Which do you think is most intelligent? Which is more honest? Which is more helpful? Which is better educated? Which has more money? When you start to examine your own prejudices and pre-conceptions, that’s when you realise change is needed.

Or at least a Creole School for Small-Mouthed Brits. Any offers?