Greetings from Guyana! Firstly, the title of this blog is in Creolese, however I am fairly confident everyone can figure it out (same principle with the title of this post. Also, for all those potential visitors to Guyana, ‘jus now’ is a very common phrase heard constantly to describe anything from immediate action to sixth months from now). I arrived here, in a country that is South American in name only, on April 29th with my 33 fellow Guy26 trainees. After a one week orientation which was bizarre in more ways than one, we received our training site placements and host family assignments. I breathed a sigh of relief when I got a coastal site, aka was granted the possibility of internet and phone service.
Let me back up for a moment, for those not familiar with the Peace Corps model. While I am sure the logistics vary greatly by country and region, there is always an initial orientation period with only the country facilitators and the American “trainees” (this is the only title we are afforded until the official swearing-in ceremony. Ours is on July 2nd. Hopefully we all make it in good spirits). Our training was held at Splashmin’s, a very comfortable, if somewhat oddly arranged, resort and hotel with a man-made river beside it (meaning no terrifying water creatures, of which they have many here in Guyana). We trainees all had air conditioning, frequent snack breaks, all the coffee and juice we could drink, and spent the evenings playing volleyball and enjoying the Budweiser-like Banks beer on offer at the bar (you don’t complain when it costs $1.50 US and you have nothing else to spend money on). We did have some long sessions, but based on the past week in our actual training sites, it was a very indulgent way to ease us into the country. We were also given swimming, boating, and bike riding tests, which are all useful skills and probably should be tested everywhere.
After refusing to let on where and with whom we would be living for the next 9 weeks, the Peace Corps finally revealed our general locations to us; either Coastal or Hinterland. Coastal sites are larger, with a busier atmosphere and amenities like shops and wireless. Hinterland is way out there, and unfortunately had been getting a bad rap. All we had been hearing was that there was no electricity, sporadic or non-existent phone service, and no hope of an internet connection. I will admit; in my first PM (Program Management; Peace Corps LOVES their acronyms, so there will be many more to come) interview, I strongly recommended myself to a coastal site. Bear in mind that these training sites are not our final two year homes; they are however an indicator of the type of community in which we will be placed. Switches do happen though, and just because I am now sitting on a king sized bed hooked up to the internet with a fan (truly the greatest of all devices) does not mean at all that I will be enjoying these comforts permanently. After receiving what I honestly believe is a bit too cushy a placement though, I started to doubt my strong feelings toward a coastal site. living disconnected is freeing, and provides a more, for lack of a better term, “authentic” experience perhaps. Both sites, however, have major challenges and upon further reflection I do think my skills are better suited to a somewhat more developed area. So maybe I feel I am cheating a bit at Peace Corps, but hey, I am about to live here for two years and I want it to be manageable, which for me means being able to contact friends and family back home (plus I have some mighty big cockroaches in my bathroom that require hunting and killing, so its not all roses).
Anyway, after much anticipation and sly comments, we were given a scavenger hunt to find our training site area, then brought to the various training locations to meet our host families. This was rather amusing, as no one knew any names. We all milled around asking sneaky questions, using all the information we knew about our families (not much) to find our homes away from home. Eventually PC staff acquiesced to the growing curiosity in the room and had us matched up with the proper family, which was a happy moment for most. It is an overwhelming feeling to depart what seems familiar (aka, other Americans) and go with an unknown family, however it seems to be mostly working out for everyone. I feel like I got very lucky; my Guyana mother, Nicola, is young, 28, has a beauty salon attached to the house (hence the cornrows and the Jenny from the Block look I have going on right now. Or women’s correctional officer. It depends on which PCT you ask.), and is very laid back. Plus she makes some real tasty food. Nicola’s mother is also hosting a volunteer, Chase, and has taken on the role being a mom to me as well. Families here seem very close, and provide most people with their friends and socializing opportunities. Guyanese mothers are also very…attentive. It is not a surprise that Desiree (Nicola’s mother) would choose to adopt me as a host daughter in addition to having Chase; to give some examples of her “attentiveness”, she calls Nicola every morning and evening to see what I am eating that day. She also sends extra food with Chase to training for me, and last night when she came over for a visit, I was informed of her arrival with a loud knock on the door. Of the shower. That I was at the time bathing in. Just to tell me she had “come to see me.” Both her family and mine are clearly comfortable finance-wise, the clearest evidence of which is the shower next to Chase’s room that I can only describe as looking like a space ship. This, plus the frequent trips to Miami and Cosco products in the kitchen have led to the joke that Desiree could be “a real housewife of Guyana.”
But having people who tell you they love you right off the bat and take the time and devote the energy to making you feel that included are to be respected and admired above all else. At training we may joke about the un-american-ness of their attentions and potentially smothering interest, but those skeptical thoughts fade fast in the face of the loving atmosphere they so effortlessly provide. It seems to be the norm here; from what I am hearing from the other volunteers, similar shows of welcome are spread across to all 34 of us. Well, there is one woman with 45 dogs in her yard, some of which are highly aggressive. Definitely an odd choice for a Peace Corps Trainee placement site. By and large though I am feeling, if not at home, then the potential to be in the next couple years, or perhaps even months.
However at home I feel though, there are some adjustments I will simply not make quickly, if ever. Chicken feet are one. I always tell myself I must try everything once, so I took the plunge. The bony, chewy, acrid plunge. not to be repeated. I also was not aware that the Guyanese view Americans as generally a dirty, smelly bunch (we were told this stems from the backpacker model many travelers from the US seem to adopt in South American. Can’t say I blame any Guyanese for the conclusion). Here, they bathe a minimum of twice per day, and take a lot of pride in their appearance. the bathing frequency must be adhered to; we were told by multiple sources this is non-negotiable (and given the sweat levels, no one is really arguing). The dress for women is quite conservative, especially for teachers, something myself and the other female PCTs have been struggling with. In this heat how a headmistress can wear a wool suit is beyond me, but I admire the dedication to presentation. Traditional gender roles are observed here, and the men are…well, they behave like many men. With no filters and a lot of staring. But there are smiles all around, and despite the fact that we are surrounded by Spanish and Portuguese-speaking South America, this is the Caribbean. The accent, the demographic, the school system, and the culture all speak of island nations. The country is a blend of Indo and Afro-Guyanese, Amerindian (native population), and Chinese peoples. It is really an extraordinary mix, and I cannot wait to explore all the sides of it.
So far the training has been rigorous. I do not know who I listened to who told me the training period was the time to get all your reading and random skill-building in, but I have not had time for much of anything individual. I am in class from 8am – 4 or 5pm every day, and returning home means family time. For someone like me who needs her alone space, it is sometimes a challenge pushing that desire to be quiet and free of people to the back of the day’s schedule. It is worth it though, to create genuine connections in the community. The one upside to the training is seeing the other volunteers every day. I am very lucky to have such wonderful other PCTs with me, and I already can see the relationships which will develop from sharing whatever it is we are, and will be, doing here.
I have had my first school visit, seen my first tarantula, made my first roti and eaten my first rose plum, all of which are good stories. I will be writing more soon, about more specific observations and experiences, but right now I just want to say hello to everyone out there and encourage them to explore new things, whatever they may be. I have a lot of expectations for my time here, as well as a lot of daunting tasks. My goal remains to be open and positive, as is necessary when, for example, no one tells you the water shuts off at 9pm and your hands are covered in soap. At the same time as, with the absence of light, your house turns into a Jumanji of bugs on the floor. But its all in good fun because at the end of the day I am so glad to be here. Thanks everyone for reading, more to come soon!