Being here in the South American country Guyana for the first time, marks the 25th country I’ve been in! My first international trip (to Mexico) happened when I was 16. So in the past 15 years, I’ve been to 1.6 new countries per year- not bad. But truth be told, the majority has occurred in the past 3 years where I’ve traveled to a total of 17 or 18.
Anyway, population wise, Guyana is tiny– less than 1 million, if you can believe it. In fact, most Guyanese actually live abroad. Guyana is bordered by Brazil and Venezuela and enjoys a tropical climate with plenty of exotic flowers and absolutely amazing birds. It’s known as a birders paradise. Culturally, Guyana is home to native American populations (Amerindians), African populations, and sub-continent Indians. As a former British colony, Guyana shares more in common with its Caribbean neighbors than its South American ones. The food reflects this cultural diversity and so roti and channa are a staples along with “cook-up” sticky rice with black eyed peas and chicken.
Speaking of food, is it me or do all ex-British colonies suffer bad food? Despite all the fresh fruits and veggies around, none of the restaurants serve them. In the market, I see avacado, papaya, pineapple, cherries, mangos, lettuce, tomato, eggplant. I even saw a goya (a really bizarre looking and bitter vegetable that I’ve only ever seen in Okinawa Japan). It’s as if Guyana is still stuck in a colonial economic pattern whereby all fresh foods are exported and re-imported as processed stuff. Or people eat fresh foods at home and not in restaurants (which is where I have to eat everyday). So, lunches generally consist of huge portions of rice, fried plantains or channa.
Guyana is also a pretty tough place. I am working on a State Department program designed to lower the propensity of young people (mainly) men to get involved in illegal trade (think drug traffic coming from Venezuela and Colombia) and gang violence. If you listen to news about the Guyanese diaspora, you’ll notice that much of it has to do with gangs and illicit trade. I’ve been pretty shielded from this reality since the program I’m working with hasn’t actually started working with such young men- instead we are in the preparation phase.
Last, the work here has been a real eye-opener for me because I’ve been able to compare myself against some of my “competitors” who in this instance were my clients. Without going too much in depth, I learned how fast I work. My client admitted that it was tough to keep up with my pace. Second, I’m good at building trust and rapport. My local counterparts admitted to mistakes and even instances of outright lying! Of course, I am fortunate to have learned these skills from the senior staff at the office.