Although the similarities with zipcode 90210 are very remote, we have landed in Beverly Drive; not in Beverly Hills, CA but in Lethem, Guyana. In a place the size of a few square miles, they have managed to find a house for us on (39) Beverly Drive….. to ensure that we do not get homesick.
Lethem has about 7,000 inhabitants now and has been growing rapidly over the last couple of years. It’s a border town and after the bridge to Brazil was finished four years ago (total population then 3,000) it has seen rapid, unbridled expansion and development.
|Paddy fields seen from flight Georgetown to Lethem, just out of Georgetown|
The new, outer rings of the village are littered with ‘big-box’ super-stores (Savanah Inn, Chinese Superstore, Mr Chans….) where, in the weekends, Brazilians do their shopping. Brazil, officially, doesn’t sell or import Chinese produced goods so for let’s say, ‘less expensive’ stuff, the neighboring Brazilians cross the border to load up on toilet brushes, garbage cans and other (mainly cheap, plastic) merchandise. There is also a movement towards the other side. In a short 10 days, we have already ventured into the Brazilian border town of Bon Fim twice to buy higher quality goods (mainly food items) such as fresh bread rolls, chicken sausages or a type of sorpressata (lovely cured meat) readily available across the border but hard or impossible to get in Lethem on the Guyanese
|The start of the savannah|
Most basics are available here in Lethem, be it not always of the highest quality; like in Khorog, Tajikistan it pays to walk around with a lot of cash to jump on items, when they suddenly become available. Our co-volunteer, John, advises us to keep the gas tank of our motor bike always full since, sometimes, there is a lack of petrol. We haven’t experienced shortages yet but are prepared. Water and power, up till now, haven’t let us down (there have been some power outages, be it minor); internet is spotty but works most of the time (we have data plans on our I-phones) so we can function reasonably well. Of course, it’s all relative!!
|Cashew nuts and fruit in various growth stages|
So here we are, in Lethem Guyana. We have a small, functional, two bed/bathroom home. When we first arrived, contractors were still finalizing details and tiling the insides but, after a couple of days, we were able to move into a freshly painted home.The house is meshed, (we think) an absolute necessity here and we have a small ‘garden’ (now very dry and dusty, with not a blade of green) where, we hope, we can plant some vegetables and flowers during the rainy season which will start around May and will run through August. With the rains and the rising water in the rivers, come the dreaded mosquitoes and kaboura flies; but yet so far, we are definitely winning the battle of the mozzies. Old timers don’t seem to notice them anymore (they say January-May is the best time) but we fight them with all our might and the best Deet we can find. We sleep under a mosquito net and stay indoors during dawn and dusk. We have bought one of those mosquito zappers popular in India (a tennis racket with electrical current at the press of a button which fries the mosquitoes and flies on impact). We are wondering what the next months will bring on the mosquito front but, so far, so good. Nothing much else sinister to report, save the occasional large cockroach and smallish centipede.
|Darth Vader on local transportation|
The landscape around Lethem reminds us a lot of the interior of Australia; red earth, flat savannah for miles and miles and incredible vistas. During the rainy season, the savannah turns into a swamp/lake, where one might encounter a black caiman that wandered off his or her bank of the river in search of a nice piece of meat; or a thirty foot long anaconda, rolling around in the mud (just kidding!). A wondrous world that’s for sure.
The first weekend we were here, we took a short trip out of the town, to try to do a bit of bird-watching. The ‘road’ was like a wash-board (if you remember what that is) and the landscape very similar to the Aussie outback, with maybe, a few more trees. Apart from a few raptors, we saw little else. We realize we need a decent map that will identify some watering holes, where the local wildlife hangs out. Much exploring to do!
|The airstrip at Lethem airport|
The indigenous Amerindians, with whom we will be working, mostly live in the Amazonian forests and low mountains, which surround the savannah. Our original ‘vision’ of the local communities is very different from the reality. We had a notion that they would be isolated and minimally touched by western civilization. Instead we encounter well-dressed men and women (in jeans and polo-shirts, with the ubiquitous baseball cap sporting designer labels (probably bad Chinese knock-offs). The ones with which we have interacted so far on a business level are highly literate with different levels of business acumen. Many of the youth are opting to swap their indigenous way of life in the forest for paid work in towns and cities. Some even choose to take work in neighbouring Brazil.
It’s very hot, humid and mostly windy here but bearable, as long as you stay inside or out of the sun from 10:00 – 16:00. Shopping and physical activities happen preferably, in the early mornings or late afternoons. Living on the savannah means there is almost always a constant strong breeze. Now that the weather is building up to the rainy season, there are occasional showers, which ensure that the ‘dust-bowl’ effect is manageable. But without these showers, with a bit of wind, one has a veritable dust storm. Everything, but everything is stained red. We discuss between ourselves that our counterpart volunteers who have been here for a year or more have a distinct reddish tinge to their skins and hair!!
We have started working at the Conservation International office (our partner for the next 18 -24 months) and are wrestling our way through (really) dozens of reports and the most incredible acronyms nobody can explain. In a short space of time we have met with a large number of office holders here in Lethem since you can’t even start working here before having been introduced properly to the various authorities. The head of the Chamber of Commerce, the Main Council Man, the Governor, you name it. The first week we were here, we were tied up in business planning sessions; which was fortuitous, as we got to meet the major movers and shakers of the principal lodges in the Rupununi. So, dear friends, we are beginning to map out the itineraries for your visits!!!
|The forest canopy half an hour out of Georgetown|
Many of you are curious about our living conditions. Well, in honesty, we are pleasantly surprised at the functionality of our ‘home’. Granted, we have no hot water on tap; but, HEY, we have water. The bedrooms are small, but the beds are very comfortable, with no other ‘residents’ with whom we are required to share. Basic wardrobe and chest of drawers, nice large clothes horse and that’s it. Each of the bedrooms has an en-suite toilet and shower. No need for an alarm clock. All we do is step blurry-eyed into the bath area and presto, the busy tile combos wake us up in no uncertain terms. Did we mention that both bedrooms are lurid blue? Forget about interior design! Jelte has taken décor a step further and has selected bright orange towels to complement these combos! The living area includes the kitchen is minimally equipped with a small cooker (which operates from a gas cylinder), small fridge, small kitchen sink and storage unit and that’s it. There’s a small dining table with three chairs, and three small ‘sofas’. We have to get some furniture for the outside but that will need to be brought indoors every evening, or else it will all disappear.
So, here’s a snapshot of our daily routine: 5 am the roosters start their chorus, then mama pig with her babies start scrabbling around the outside perimeter of our place. Wake up, go to the bathroom and TRULY wake up. Put on the electric kettle to heat up enough water for a warm bucket bath. Mornings are cool and the water in the tank just a little too cool for a cold shower for these two chickens!! …. Whilst we are on the subject of barnyard animals…. We found out what a stuck pig really sounds like. One of the babies got itself stuck in the fence. Ten minutes of incredible squealing that sounded like the animal was in its death throes and then we got the landlord to ‘unstuck’ it. Mother, by then, had pushed off with the rest of the brood…… Breakfast, made by Jelte’s fair hand – usually fresh fruit: mango papaya, pineapple, passion fruit washed down with wonderful Brazilian brewed coffee. Motorbike ride in to the office. Work, work, work. Home for lunch (prepared in advance) followed by a quick cold shower. Back to the office, where there is the constant sound of the satellite radio. After mid-day, this drone has a decidedly soporific effect. Around 5.30, we make it back home, for a 10 minute zzz and then it’s on to the hard work of keeping cool and bite free. Dinner happens @ 7pm. Cooking is a challenge and we work hard at staying meat free. More on that in a future post. We have chosen not to have TV, so we generally mooch around, reading, chatting, listening to music and catching up with other colleagues. There are very few eateries here of any repute… more on that in a future blog. Bed-time @ 10:30. We sleep so well here! Mosquito net down; solar light in bed with us (we don’t have any bedside lights); water beside the bed; minimal bed covers.
Stay tuned for further updates!!