The Fun That Was Peace Corps Guyana - Mark's Blog

Postings from just north of the equator. Let's see if training in CPR and First Aid prepares me to teach Health Education in a small, remote village in Guyana. I'm thinking... no. Read all about this ill advised decision! In addition, here is the required Peace Corps disclaimer: "The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the US government or the Peace Corps." So, please, don't confuse me with the White House Press Secretary.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Carnival in Trinidad

I just got back a few days ago from a five day trip to Port of Spain, Trinidad for the huge Carnival celebration they have there. Wow, what a good time for so many reasons. This was the perfect thing for me right now. I’ve been in Guyana for close to twelve months now and haven’t left the country or taken any vacations. So this was my first real non-work fun in a year, if you consider Peace Corps work. And what a good time it was!

So the Carnival in Trinidad is probably one of the best in the world, second only to the crazy one in Rio di Janeiro, Brazil. It’s two days of street parties, floats, costumes, soca music, and food. But the partying started during the weekend and continued through Ash Wednesday. People sign up with these bands, get dressed up in great costumes, and dance through the streets for two days. Others of us (like poor Peace Corps volunteers who can’t afford the $250 price for that) enjoy the parades from the street, though there is little difference between the spectators and the participants, except they are wearing a sequined bikini with feathers. And I left mine back home, damnit. So the dancers follow a huge eighteen wheeler stacked high with speakers blasting soca music (a Caribbean dance music that is awesome!) and a smaller truck that is giving them free alcohol (you think you can dance the streets in a flashy thong and feathers for ten hours without a little something to drink?). And there are seemingly hundreds of these trucks. I have no idea. All I know is that the parade route is long, and I didn’t see any bands twice the whole time.

So we partied on the side, dancing, drinking, and generally trying to spread too much mayhem. But that was only Monday and Tuesday. We had gotten there the previous Friday night. So what did we do? What was my reaction to my first outing from Guyana in a year? Well, I’m glad you asked.

It was surreal for me. I literally walked around the Trinidad airport with the biggest, goofiest grin. My friends (who had all been home before) made fun of me. I saw an escalator and started laughing. I took a drink from a water fountain just because I could. I got tears in my eyes when I saw a bank of pay phones. In the taxi, I just stared at the six lane highway, overpasses, stoplights, and non-crazy drivers. Then I started seeing stores I knew. There’s a Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant! There’s a Porsche dealership! That’s a ten-screen cineplex! Though everyone else was really happy to see these things, I was going the most bonkers by far.

We got to our hotel and the fun continued. A/C? check. Hot showers? check. American cable TV, with HBO? check! Ohmygod! We all freaked out at that. We watched Conan O’Brien, The Daily Show with John Stewart, The Colbert Report, etc… It was glorious.

And don’t even get me started about the food. In Guyana, it’s hard to find restaurants with much foreign food. It’s easier to try to make it yourself. So in Trinidad, we went crazy. Like, I ate at places I wouldn’t dream of in America. I’m ashamed to say we ate at T.G.I. Fridays on Saturday night (and it was great! I had a salad!). But it gets worse. We then tried to go back Sunday night… and Monday night. Yikes! But (luckily) it was closed those nights, which in some ways makes it even more pathetic. We tried to go to T.G.I. Fridays three times and only got through once? Sad. But I also ate at Blimpies (I had a real sub sandwich!) and Papa John’s pizza. And we found a gyros shop on Tuesday. So I had a real lamb gyros, which was amazing. Even in the airport coming back it didn’t stop. I had a bagel and cream cheese… and then another one because it tasted so good. And lets not even talk about the brie chesse on crackers with wine I had on the beach… I’m going to start crying as I think about it.

But we also ate Trini food. The big thing was bake and shark, which is basically a sandwich with fried shark in it. It was great. And we ate grilled chicken sandwiches at this same stand two days in a row because we became friends with the ladies running it. It was just a lot of fun.

And finally, we hit up the beach… twice. It was about a 45 minute drive from Port of Spain. But wow, it was beautiful! White sand, clear blue water, palm trees - it had everything. We were giddy when we got there, running into the water and laughing like little girls. You see, though Guyana is on the Caribbean Sea, its water is brown and the “beaches” are rocky, dirty, or non-existent. (By the way, this is probably one of the biggest impediments to its development – no built-in beach tourism.) So we lounged on the beach… I got tan… I body-surfed… it was fantastic.

But it wasn’t all just food and partying and amazing tropical beaches. I also thought a little about Trinidad in relation to Guyana. Ah… actually it was more like we all would say “damnit, I wish Guyana was like this.” But anyways, it actually was interesting because Trinidad is very developed. Someone was saying it will become an official first world country by 2010 or so. But Trinidad got its independence from Britain about the same time as Guyana did. So why the huge discrepancy in development? It seems the major difference is that Trinidad found oil first and then asked for independence. So they had a local resources already found to fund their development, especially when oil prices spiked in the 1970s. This is not to say they didn’t go through some rough patches. It sounds like foreign corporations were exploiting their oil until relatively recently. But now BP takes care of it, and Trinidad is getting a good cut from them. People told us that Trinidad looks a lot more modern even in the past five years or so.

Guyana, in contrast, has not gotten the same level of development. Though Guyana has lots of natural resources, the infrastructure is not there to utilize it. And when it got its independence, it didn’t have a “found” cash-cow. It’s still looking. And it doesn’t have the industry to utilize its own resources, such as bauxite and gold. So it relies on foreign companies who take most of the profits out of the country. Its fate has been sadly different from Trinidad’s.

So though I might feel bad for Guyana and obviously want it to pull itself up (if I didn’t, I wouldn’t still be here), it was pretty exciting to see tall buildings, clean streets, fancy cars, and basically all the those globalizations things I didn’t think I liked when I was in college.

So that was my trip to Carnival in Trinidad. It was great for me! Of course, when I came back I got the post-vacation blues a little. It was good to get away a little, so it was just a little hard to return to Guyana. I love it here, but it can be a hard place to be. I also returned and immediately got pink eye, which sucks. And then, to top it all off, I found out that my host family I live with had to throw away the puma head and claws because it was smelling too bad in the bucket. I completely understand and had told them that if it got too rank to throw it away while I was gone - I would understand. Nonetheless, Deo, my host mom, apparently feels completely awful about it because she knows how excited I was to have it all. I haven't gotten back to the Essequibo Coast yet because Peace Corps wants to keep me in Georgetown until they feel like the pink eye is going to clear up. So, Guyana is kinda treating me not too nicely as I've come back from Trinidad. But that's okay, it will all even out soon enough. I hope everyone is doing well!

Friday, February 16, 2007

WARNING! Puma in Peace Corps

So before you read anymore or look at the pictures below, here is a disclaimer. If you are a PETA-carrying animal lover, you probably don't want to look any farther. I had no part in this puma's last moments on earth and in fact only found about him two hours after he passed away. If you subscribe to the theory that you shouldn't waste something, even if it is a previously wild animal, then we agree. But if you don't believe in "benefiting" from someone else's unfortunate deed, then you probably want to skip this posting. Or if you just don't like the idea of a dead puma.

So.... yesterday I go to work just like normal. I get there and my nurse, Debbie, takes me across the street to see something. And that something is dead puma. As in puma, mountain lion, cougar, or "tiger-cat" if you are Guyanese. It's probably about five feet long, maybe 80 pounds or so. It's a beautiful cat. Sadly, I had gotten shot in the back rice paddies earlier in the morning. A farmer had gone back to tend to his cows and found this puma around them. In the past few weeks, there have been some cows being killed, so he thought this puma had been doing it. He scared it up the only tree around there and then called for help. Eventually, another younger police boy came with a shotgun and shot him out of the tree, hitting him in the chest. They then dragged him out to village, on the main road, where they tied him to the fence. And then people started coming.

So I'm standing there, looking at this big cat. I feel really bad. It's obvious that he wasn't attacking the cows, because his belly is thin. Some people think he may of came out of the jungle to the rice paddies for water. I mean, he wasn't just hanging out there for no reason. Pumas like the thick jungle cover. So he was just unlucky to get caught when he came out. So people are kinda poking at it, checking out his teeth. As word spreads, more people come. The car drivers slow down and stop to take a look. My nurse, after getting confirmation from me that it is in fact a puma, proceeds to correct everyone who says it's a tiger. I ask the father what he is going to do with it.
"Well, we called RCA" - a local television station - "and we're waiting for them."
"And then what are you going to do with it?"
"Well, probably just throw it away. Probably bury it."
"Yeah." (He says this with a look of "well, what else would I do with it?")
So I start thinking. This is a beautiful animal. And how cool would it be to get a little piece of him. I mean, I feel bad that he is dead, especially for no reason. But it seems even worse to just throw him out. So I kinda start saying to Debbie, knowing she'll say something for me, about how I wouldn't mind having a claw or something. And of course - good old Debbie - she starts telling the old man who the Mark the white boy wants a claw. Now that I have an in, I start asking him. He says fine, though with a look of indifference mixed with "what type of crazy white boy is this?"
But as I'm standing there, it's clear no one else wants anything from this puma. So I start thinking bigger. Maybe I want a whole paw? Or two paws? Or maybe.... the head? So I ask the guy. And again, looking at me like I'm the weirdo of everyone here, he says sure. So I say I'll be back in the afternoon to collect it all.
So after a day of being worried that he sold the puma to someone or just forgot about me and threw it away, I get back in the later afternoon.... just in time to see them trying to hacksaw the fangs off. I can't really say much because it's not like I killed him, but I'm watching them spoil my perfect puma head! So I just sit back and hope they don't crack the skull or break the jaw bone too bad. (By the way, it's kinda crazy how quickly I was comfortable with this dead cat. I mean, I easily could have been standing back, hating everyone for being so happy around this dead puma. But instead, I wanted pieces off it, like I'm a big game hunter or something. Crazy.) Eventually, they finish extracting three fangs and breaking a forth. And then it's my turn.
So in front of a group of about fifteen Guyanese men, someone hands me a dull hacksaw. I can't back down now, though I wasn't completely ready to cut off this puma's head. I mean, usually you can find someone else to do your dirty work in Guyana. You want that chicken killed and plucked? The neighbor will do it. But here... I couldn't back away. So, hacksaw in hand, I go for the puma. I'll save you the details, except when my Peace Corps friend Phillip called me as I'm going at it.

"Hey Mark, what's going on?"
"Phillip, guess what I'm doing right now." (Trying to sound nonchalant.)
"Um, how am I supposed to know? I don't know. Eating?"
"Ha. Ah, no...... I'm cutting the head off of a puma."
It was pretty cool. So after a few minutes, I get the head off. The whole time, Guyanese men were watching and giving complimentary "white boy is cutting the puma head" comments. Then I go for the paws. But though I handled the hacksaw well enough, I'm pretty bad at cutlasses, which are pretty much machetes. So I get another guy to chop the paws off with a cutlass. At this point, Phillip shows up, taking pictures and generally freaking out. (Funny side story: I kept telling people how my American friend was coming to see. So when Phillip, who is Asian-American, jumped out of the car, they were all like "He's Chinese! He's not American!" Racial dynamics in Guyana? Hilarious.) Phillip ends up deciding to take the tail and after some more pictures, we take off back to my house.
Luckily, my next door neighbor is a butcher. So we take our stuff over there. He's not home, but his eleven year old son is. So, in the Guyanese tradition of making small children do things you don't want to do, we get him to skin the skull. And wow, he was good. He took off all the skin in one piece. And then he cut off all the meat he could, including the tongue. It's kinda amazing to see how much muscle these cats have around their skull. But it makes sense, considering how strong their jaws are.
Anyways, he skins the skull and pulls out all the claws off the paws. I'm not going to lie - I wasn't too hungry after all this. But we took it all back to my place, to put in a bucket of salt water and bleach. I'm going to let it soak in that for about ten days, then put it on an ants nest for a week or so. After that, there shouldn't be any more flesh of anything on it. It should be a nice, clean skull. And I'm thinking of making a claw necklace a la Crocodile Dundee? We'll see. And Phillip is hopefully going to stuff the tail.
So pretty crazy, huh? I definitely feel bad for this puma. If I had my way, he's still be alive in the backdam. But if he's going to be killed, I might as well get something from him instead of the whole cat being wasted, right?
And now, here are some pictures. I think they are pretty self-explanatory.

Monday, February 05, 2007

My Life Has Meaning! Maybe...

So in my quest to find secondary projects, Patty (another Peace Corps volunteer) and I have been teaching Life Skills at New Opportunity Corps. NOC, as it is known, is basically a juvenile detention center for kids ages 10 to 18. With around 130 kids, it teaches regular classes, but focuses more on vocational training for the older kids, like agriculture, wood-working, metal shop, electrical work, etc. There are a lot of opportunities for these kids, at least in theory. Of course, there are a lot of problems too.

So... a few weeks ago my PC boss came out to see NOC. But he also brought the US Ambassador, a bunch of US Embassy staff, and some USAID people. NOC rolled out the red carpet for them. I'll save you the details (though it was a good visit), but basically Peace Corps wants to put a volunteer there and collaborate with NOC on doing some agriculture projects. And that's where Patty and I step in.

We've met with some USAID people and some Guyanese agriculture organizations. And basically we want to start two projects at NOC. The first is to grow some small beds of new crops in Guyana - broccoli, cauliflower, squash, etc. These would be tests to see how well these would grow in Guyana. NOC could then sell them to supermarkets in Georgetown that cater to the foreign crowd (Guyanese people don't eat these things. I had to explain to some of my students what broccoli is). We also want to start some tilapia fish ponds to feed the kids and make a little money on the side. Both of these projects are strongly supported by PC, the US Embassy, USAID, and some Guyanese organizations. NOC doesn't have to invest much, except land (which they have) and manual labor (which they have). And the monies raised by this could be re-invested into future projects, such as computers or something (we're thinking about that stuff too - I have lots of good ideas for NOC).

So suddenly I feel like I have a real, honest-to-goodness Peace Corps project to work on. We're still at the beginning stages, but I'm feeling confident that this will work. And if its successful, then future projects will also be it the works.

Okay, so all this has been the result of the meeting at NOC. After that meeting, the whole group (about 15 people) came over to my house for lunch. My host mom cooked some awesome food (which is just normal to me now - hehe) that everyone liked. Plus, it was kinda cool to have the US Ambassador (real nice guy) come over and see my home and my family. And one of the Embassy guys offered us Cricket World Cup tickets (awesome!) gave us a standing invitation to come over to his place for his weekly dinner parties. I really like Guyana for this reason. It's a small country, so the Embassy people are real cool and like to be nice to us Peace Corps volunteers. The Ambassador lets us swim at his pool whenever we want. The head of the CDC down here invites us over for Peace Corps-only dinners. It's pretty awesome. They like to hear what life is like outside Georgetown. And we like their food and wine. It's a very symbiotic relationship.

So life is good enough down here. I'm feeling refreshed for the new year. I have some projects on the horizon. I've got traveling to do (Carnival in Trinidad!). And I'm still enjoying the hammocks and books. So life is alright...