In Closing: This Place Will Eat You Alive

If you are reading this, either you know me or you have come across it looking for information on possibly traveling to Guyana. For those of you in the latter category, I’m going to be as honest as possible so you don’t arrive bewildered. I don’t travel in luxury. I prefer to see how the other half lives and join alongside them. Why? I’m not really sure. Maybe I feel I have so much that I should appreciate it and this is one of the ways to do it. Places I go have natural beauty but are also in very poor countries. You must take the good with the ‘bad’ if you want to look at it that way. Although I find that no matter how poor the people seem to be, they are some of the happiest and grateful for what little they have. They will share what they have with you even if it means they go hungry that night. It’s heartwarming and emotional to say the least. You don’t find that in the U.S. very often.

I have been traveling to Central America for over 20 years. I highly doubt that anyone would start out in Guyana if they have never been anywhere else before. But in case you happen to be one of the few, read this carefully. When I researched this trip, I knew what I was getting into for the most part. I’m sure that the time of the season brought with it some unexpected surprises as well. I knew the wet season was a bad time to go but it was also at the end of it. I like to travel on the edge of seasons to avoid high season and people. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the amount of bugs, the heat and humidity. I’ll break this down into more manageable sections:

The People

I met my fair share of locals and I’d have to say they were all very nice. They liked to laugh, they all seemed to ask personal questions that Americans wouldn’t. Almost every person asked how old I was right off the bat. That followed with am I married, do I have children, why aren’t I married and why don’t I have children. Where was I from, have I ever been here before, etc. nice general banter. I also asked the same of them. Religion rarely came up and political affiliation sometimes did.

I tried to think of what to bring the adults and came up with vegetable seeds. They were warmly welcomed and I was shown gardens they were growing which oddly enough included the same veggies I had brought. Everyone loves tomatoes and I brought different peppers, okra and basil. They were very appreciative and glad I chose that to take down. Please consider doing the same. Bring lots. They are easy to carry, cheap and a source of food for them which they greatly need.

The Amerindian women would always come up behind me or stand next to me as I used the iPad. Some asked what it was and some just watched me write my blog. That was a little weird. So usually I would just flip to the photos and start the sideshow. I was amazed that some of them had never set foot in the jungle before, even though they lived there their whole lives. Children would come up also but seemed more interested in the camera. I would take their picture and show them, which always brought smiles to their faces. Videos were a big hit too.

I had brought things for the kids, knowing full well that they do not have luxuries or toys more than likely. The cute little boy in the ox cart was so sweet and patient. When we got stuck out in the jungle and his father went back to the village, I took out a big fish hook bone necklace I had gotten in Hawaii and put it around his neck. He didn’t seem too interested in it, but I thought it looked cool on him. I showed him how to adjust the length by pulling on the knots. Five days later when they came back to get me, he was still wearing it.

I always bring a bunch of temporary tattoos with animals on them. I was surprised that all kids knew what they were and seemed really excited to get them, oftentimes fighting over the ones they wanted. I brought a bunch of toothbrushes, donated by my dentist. The day the school kids came to do their homework under the benab at Caiman House, I handed out the tattoos. Then I went up to my room and grabbed the toothbrushes and asked if anyone wanted them. A girl stated that she didn’t even own one. Most adults and even some younger men were missing a lot of their teeth. I’m sure nobody has ever been to a dentist. I brought them down some of my flip flops and a new pair of pink and black water shoes which they fought over as well. Everyone in the village seemed to have the same style and color flip flops so these would surely make a fashion statement.

All of my hosts were genuinely kind and apologetic for the bugs or transportation woes. Nobody had an attitude or seemed stressed out. They all tried to make my stay as comfortable as possible…which at times seemed IMpossible. My guides were very educated about the local wildlife and plants, having gained their knowledge from their elders or by simply living there. They were witty, funny, interesting and kind. I really enjoyed being around them.

The Cleanliness

WHAT cleanliness!? You know, I get it…this is a third world country and I would never hold them to the same standards that we in the US have. I get that chemicals in the environment are frowned upon and that cleaning materials might be expensive. However, when you pay between $85-180 a day, you would hope that the shower would at least be cleaned out. The only thing I noticed was usually a toilet bowl cleaner and a brush. The shower floors were filthy and appeared to have never been cleaned. When you have critters like roaches, frogs, insects dropping their waste everywhere on a nightly basis, it gets kind of gross standing in it when you are attempting to get clean. I consider myself a sort of germaphobe, but I had to get over that REAL quick.

Towels were not changed out unless asked and usually smelled badly. At least the sheets were changed daily and my bed was always turned down for me and mozzie net put in place. Pillows were old, flat and also smelled bad. Everything was moist with humidity.

There is no hot water anywhere so dishes were washed in cold water. I did my own laundry except twice and I did it in the shower. I feel filthy. My luggage is going straight outside and a hot water wash will be prepared and clothes thrown in immediately. My inclination is to just burn everything.

Right before landing in Trinidad, the lady came on the speaker and said an aerosol would be sprayed throughout the plane. Department of Agriculture requires it coming back from Guyana. That made me feel great. I wondered if I could borrow some and spray it in my bag and on ME too.

The Food

One of the main staples of the Amerindians is cassava. I only just found out from Dr. Lucy that cassava contains cyanide. These people eat it daily. I’m not sure if there is a connection or if it was the medications I had to take, but around 6pm I was starting to slur my ‘S’s’. And no, I hadn’t been drinking. I could no longer imitate the birds by whistling either. It was like my lips just stopped working. I was getting a little worried actually, thinking I was coming down with some weird disease. I can’t say if it was from the cassava because I did eat it almost daily too. But when Lucy mentioned that, I thought my problem could have stemmed from it.

I felt the food was just fine…not great but not bad either. When you’re starving anything tastes good I think. They were definitely catering to Western taste buds and I know full well they would never eat this kind of “fancy” food, as Guy put it once. Protein, if any comes from fish and maybe pigs, chicken or beef if they can afford it. Most drink river water and have no running water in their homes. Thankfully the government at least provides free solar electricity (but are now charging a couple of dollars a month for it).

One of my memories, which I did not get a picture of, was driving into the village after I arrived in Lethem. Guy pulled up to a house looking for a cold drink. A woman stood outside, stone faced with two huge sides of beef hanging from a tree. Big, bloody, not so meaty sides of beef in hundred degree weather. Mmmmm yum. There were no cold drinks here. I did have beef a few times while I was there and thought back to the processing I had witnessed. I tried not to think about it.

So did I get sick, you may be wondering? I felt a little strange after about four days into the trip at Maipaima. Although it could have been due to the banana I ate in the morning and the two and a half oranges I had on the trail. I decided to take the cipro anyway because I figured I’d rather not be sick on this trip. No time after that have I felt ill. I rarely had to use my Go Berkey to filter anything because either the water was bottled or (and I’m just assuming this), they had used bottled in the lime juice and other juices that were prepared. I did use it at Caiman to filter rain water that came through the tap since they did not provide bottled water to drink.

The meals were varied and the proteins were either fish, chicken or beef. White rice was served regularly and some kind of veggie like tomato, cucumber or lettuce. Sometimes farine was served which was kind of like a coarse cornmeal but it’s made from cassava. They add onion and sometimes small peppers to it and fry it up in a bit of oil. I had beef stew more than once and sometimes chicken prepared either fried (not really breaded though) or stewed. Often I thought it tasted kind of off and chugged down a drink with it. I mentioned before the piping hot soup which was a huge turn off. Ugh…that’s about the last thing I want after a hot night out on the river. At Maipaima, Rosie made soups sometimes which were always good. Veggies like potatoes, carrots, okra and some kind of meat.

Breakfast consisted of eggs, usually scrambled with chorizo slices, juice and “floats”. Those rocked. They were thick fried doughy square pieces of bread. It seemed to be a daily thing, for which I was glad. They were sort of like a moist type of ciabatta bread. I ate it with jam, but peanut butter was always on the table too. Pancakes also made an appearance as did fresh bread, sometimes toasted and pre-buttered. Fresh fruit like banana or papaya were daily occurrences.

At Caiman House, they always served a bowl of fresh fruit after we ate. My first night we had a slice of cake! No frosting, but it was really good. That was the only time I saw that. I always had enough to eat but found myself very hungry right before meals. All of the exercise and heat made me burn a lot of calories. I’m hoping to find that I dropped at least five pounds when I get home, if not more.

The Transportation

Wow, where to begin? First of all, it’s expensive. Gas is around $10 a gallon outside of Georgetown and it will always be more in villages or in the bush. When things like motors break down it is expensive to fix. So I can understand the prices charged but STILL…half of my expenses went to transportation. It cost me $100 from lethem to the village by truck and that took about an hour. The ox cart, which in my opinion, was not paid nearly enough for the first ride in, cost $75. I gave him a $40 tip and was so choked up with emotion I could barely say thank you.

The boat ride from Caiman to Karanambu was $100 and that one made me feel really ripped off. I thought it was an hour away and then I could understand. It took maybe 35 minutes max. We spent more time on the river at night and used more fuel and for that, I was only charged $60. I guess they are banking on the fact that people have no other way of getting there so they take advantage of it. Now don’t get me wrong, these people are not rich. Fernando said that when they only have one guest they lose money and I believe that. Nobody opens a lodge in Guyana to get rich. It’s like the old saying, come with a million bucks and leave with $500,000. I understand it is one of the more expensive places in South America but sheesh…this would have been a four week trip to central America for what it cost me.

Stuff breaks down at the most inconvenient times, so be sure you are not on a set schedule. Leave plenty of time between flights and don’t get stressed when cars or cows break down. It happens. Deal with it.

Safety

I had asked Salvador and Andrea if they see any women traveling alone through here. Salvador said no and Andrea said yes. Andrea explained that yes, single women travel here but in a group or with a tour. Salvador said never by themselves. So that brings me to safety considering that I did travel alone and the name of my blog is ‘Solo Guyana’. He did tell me that I would be searched at the airport since cocaine is a big mover here and a single woman would be targeted.

I will assume you have read about my troubles in Trinidad when I landed over the camouflage. Apparently it is illegal in Guyana also but it’s not enforced. Brazil is the same way since it is associated with the FARC. So word of warning, don’t bring camo to South America whatever you do. I left my pants and gave my backpack away before going back through Trinidad. It wasn’t worth the risk.

Anyway, coming back from Karanambu I had to clear customs at Ogle airport. I opened my luggage without being asked because I figured they’d search it. After a short conversation they didn’t even bother looking. At Timiheri airport, I was one of the last to get on the flight because I was confused as to whether it was actually mine that was leaving. When I asked and found that it was indeed my flight, I was stopped and searched. I was the only one who was. This morning in Trinidad same thing. However one other guy was stopped as well. I was also patted down going through security prior to that. Hey, at least there was no strip search involved. I saw plenty of rooms next to security in Trinidad that had one chair and a padded bed. Yikes.

I walk with confidence, not looking anyone in the eye. I look haggard and worn out and nobody messes with me. In Trinidad I hear people hissing at me trying to get my attention and I pay them no mind. I just keep walking. I was starving yesterday after having only eaten breakfast and some jerky for lunch. After I landed in Trini, Sita said I could get some KFC at the gas station. The drive thru line was long and someone in front of us decided to turn around and go inside instead. She said I should do the same. I notice it’s all younger men in dreads in this small area waiting to order food. Vybz Cartel is playing and I even know the song! I feel a little like a local at that point. I’m like a sore freekin thumb here obviously. But again, I’m looking worn out, hungry and pissed off. I look at nobody. Someone walked in behind me and is standing too close to me for my comfort. I sort of look over my shoulder, acknowledging his presence with a sneer on my face and he backed up. The only other females there are the workers. It takes an eternity to get out of there but for some reason I feel at ease. I think whatever you actually think and feel is what you project and in this case, it worked.

I don’t wear makeup or skimpy clothes. Which reminds me, Diane had come by my room one afternoon to offer me a drink which of course I was thrilled to accept. I had taken off my shirt and had on my sports bra and camo pants to cool off. She looked me up and down and said in her British accent quite tactfully, “Oh my, don’t you think you will drive the young men mad dressing like that?”. I explained that I don’t go out of the room like this, I had just been trying to cool off. It was funny but she was quite serious so be forewarned.

I have never felt threatened in Guyana or in danger at any point. Maybe my first night there in the house where I was basically told to fend for myself made me a little nervous. But I kept it together, knowing it would do no good to stress, so I kept my wits about me…aware but not paranoid. Everything turned out fine. Now don’t get me wrong, shit can go down I’m sure. In hindsight I should have probably had a machete next to my bed that night but I was more afraid of the bugs than people. I did hear voices sometimes and motorcycles roaring by which made me a little uneasy. I feel like I could hold my own with one person or at least put up a hell of a fight. More than one, not so much. In the end, I am fine. If you are a woman wanting to travel anywhere I would say don’t be a textbook chipper American. Don’t be overly friendly. Or as Woody Allen said once, “Friendly but not familiar.” Don’t get drunk and don’t go home with anyone or let them into your room. Don’t be provocative and wear a ton of makeup. The less attractive you are the better. Don’t act ditzy or vulnerable. Don’t take out wads of bills. Only carry what you think you need then stash the rest back in your room or in another pocket. Carry small bills.

Speaking of that, none of my rooms had locks on them. I did have a cheap lock on my backpack which is only a minor deterrent. It could have easily been cut. Nobody was out to steal my stuff and I felt that a few days into the trip. I can’t say that would be the case everywhere, especially in more populated areas.

Being in Belize plenty of times I can understand when the locals speak among themselves for the most part. The Guyanese spoke similarly so I wasn’t always going, “Huh? What?”. I threw in some of their sayings and accents and that helped I think. It just takes time to learn and understand but in the long run helps considerably. This is something you only get by experience and I’m glad to have it. You gain respect and people are more willing to help you out and look after you. Most of the people you interact with will be men. Women do the cooking and cleaning and men do the driving, guiding and physical labor. Most will treat you like their sister or female relative and make sure you get to where you need to go without problems. I was never left to guide myself or in a strange situation. More often than not, two or more men looked after me. It was comforting.

Things That Fly, Crawl, Bite and Sting

Everything I read always mentioned the mosquitos. I would have LOVED mosquitos!! Bring em on! What I wasn’t prepared for were the damn kaboura (?) flies or betrish (?). I couldn’t really tell the difference between sand flea bites and kaboura except I could usually see the kaboura. That is, after they had already struck. Big painful welts that itched incessantly. They were the bane of my existence. Apparently they are even worse in July and August. I arrived at the end of August. They are still alive and well. So different times of year bring out certain bugs.

At Karanambu, the light in my room was left on after they turned down my bed. I came back after a night on the river to find no less than one thousand crawling or flying bugs in my room. That is a conservative estimate. I grabbed a few cane toads after dinner and put them in my room. Sweet little guys, I hoped they filled up that night. Bats flew about and would hit the top of my mozzie net waking me up. I could hear things crawling in the thatched roof at all hours. Big things. Roaches ruled supreme, all different shapes and sizes. They liked the soap in the sink and shower a lot. I never got up in the middle of the night to pee there. Come morning, the floor was covered in roach, bat and god knows what other type of feces and urine. How much was I paying for this again? I was assured by Andrea that none of these nasties carried disease. Time will tell, I suppose.

Bats blending in on a log

I think the bats have the best life there, with no shortage of insects to munch on. The one night we spent spotting on the river at Caiman is unforgettable. We had a full moon nights previous, but this night it was solid darkness. Time for everything to come out!! Since we were spotting, that obviously involves very bright lights and did the insects become drawn to that like bees to honey. Things were hitting me from all angles and on every part of my body. My eyes, mouth, hair, in my shirt, UP my pants. It was horrible, but I said nothing negative. At that point you just have to joke about it. But deep down inside, I couldn’t wait to get back. I’m here for this experience, good or bad. I don’t want to hate myself later just because of a few thousand bugs. They had never been as bad as they were that particular night thankfully. They were still out there but not in that sheer volume.

I saw almost everything I wanted to except an anaconda. I didn’t see a jaguar but really didn’t think I would. Seeing the tracks in the mud and hearing it roar that one time was good enough for me. I spotted four or five caiman the other night and was happy to have seen them up close without having to catch them. I didn’t see as many snakes as I had hoped, but the couple that I did were beautiful. Not being a birder per se, I saw many and appreciated every single one. The jabiru stork was at the top of the list.

cane toads karanambu

All of the lizards were cool, some I had never seen in my life. The frogs were great too. They seemed to be the gentlest of anything. The cane toads put up with me talking to them and petting them on their heads. The tiny frog that appeared in my shower each morning shared space with me by jumping on the curtain, I assume to get a better look. Some frogs would appear in the overflow drain in sinks, peering out with their dark little eyes. A perfect and safe place for them to live, waiting for an unsuspecting insect to come by. The giant gecko at Maipaima was also a highlight. Beautiful, fat and healthy he kept the room clean for me which was greatly appreciated. Chirping his presence only at dusk and dawn.

Even the spiders large and small didn’t bother me. They kept to themselves and I only found them on me when I would walk through their webs. The scorpions were creepy but didn’t seem to walk around much. Night walks in the jungle were fun and I seemed more creeped out by the bugs in my own room.

Basically if insects aren’t your thing, don’t come here. You will run away screaming.

The Weather

The heat never goes away, no matter what time of year it is. Maybe the humidity subsides but I’m not even sure about that. It only cools down at night and even then, it’s not cool. The humidity plays havoc with your comfort level. I really didn’t sleep well during the whole time and that was with sleeping pills. Your bed sheets will be too hot and sticky. Your pillow won’t be comfortable. The bugs will bite you even with a net. But I digress.

Most tourists show up during dry season where wildlife viewing is better, road conditions improve and the bugs aren’t as bad. The weather is unpredictable, at least during the time I was there. You get short warning when a storm rolls in and the lightning can be deadly. Just be sure you get the hell out of that metal boat when lighting starts to crack. Maybe educate yourself on the dangers of lightning before you go and know what to do if you are caught in different situations. Squat close to the ground when it strikes if you’re outside; don’t be in an open field and don’t be like one of my guides who was panning for gold and got struck. Luckily he survived, but he was one of the fortunate ones. And for gods sake, know what to do if it strikes the place you are in while sleeping. I was so angry with myself and felt helpless not knowing what I should do when it happened to me. That was probably the scariest part of my whole trip. I planned for everything but that.

Final Thoughts

I talked to a local who is now living in New York at the airport yesterday. He looked to be about my age and we talked about why we were both here. He had absolutely nothing good to say about Guyana. He used to be a gold miner and had only come back to get money someone owed him. He said the weather was always hot, you could never get a good nights sleep as you constantly scratched your body. The food was horrible and even the jungle wasn’t beautiful. He mentioned that it just wasn’t the kind of green you see on an island somewhere else. He said one time he overheard a woman talking about how great and beautiful Guyana was and he wanted to smack her. He obviously had a beef with the place but he had also lived there for a long time. Maybe now living in NY made him see how much better life can be and he’s now jaded.

Would I go back? Probably not. Would I ever recommend anyone to go there? Maybe not. Am I glad I went? Yes. I won’t forget the people I met or the experiences I had. If nothing more, it sure makes for some amazing stories. I have been to a place that few venture and for that, I am grateful.

Advertisements

Made it to Lethem….barely

Well the 4 am wake up call came quickly. Only to find that the flight got delayed by 3 hours. I landed in Georgetown and grabbed a taxi at 11:30 with my flight to lethem leaving at 1. I told the taxi driver that I needed to pick up a ticket and then go to Ogle airport…FAST!

And did he go fast! They drive on the left here so with that, the traffic, the cows, horses and dogs in the road, it was quite an adventure. My head is currently pounding. We stared at trucks coming at us straight on in either lane, barely scraped by other vehicles in traffic and ignored any rules of the road. I was surprisingly calm. We actually made it to the airstrip with 30 minutes to spare.

The flight over was in a 15 seater and we were jammed in there like sardines. I had my camera and the view to keep me occupied and boy was it amazing! Wall to wall trees for as far as the eye could see. It had to be an hour and a half of that and then we hit (figuratively speaking) some small mountains and it became savannah. It was really breathtaking.

Hands crossed while flying the plane.

Guy was here to meet me and they have dropped me at a hotel to use Internet before taking me to the village for the night. Then we will head to Maipaima tomorrow morning. It took about 30 hours from the time I left home until now. Doesn’t that technically mean I could be in New Zealand by now??