Sunday, 10 April 2011

Georgetown's Guyana get ya

"Guyana? What the hell's that?"

This is an all-too common question when discussing my travel plans with most people, especially Brits. Even most South Americans would struggle to point it out on a map of their own continent, a continent that only contains 12 countries.

Guyana is the only former British colony in South America and thus the only country on the continent where English is the first language. Well, a form of English anyway: I could barely understand a word. Its capital is Georgetown, a city of of some 240,000 people and arguably the least developed city I'd been too so far. I had read that the Guianas were particularly under-developed, but it was quite a shock to the system how far the Guyanese had to go to reach parity even with somewhere like Bolivia.

So there I was, at Georgetown's Cheddi Jagan Airport, which was essentially a large hut with an runway next to it and a few strategically-placed Guyanese flags to remind people where they were. It turned out that this airport, allegedly serving Georgetown was at least an hour's drive away. The actual distance from the town centre is only 40 km, but Guyanese transport infrastructure manages to make this relatively short journey last a lot longer than it should: there was the equivalent of a British 'B' road in a terrible state of repair serving as the major connecting route between the international airport and the capital.

Georgetown itself is hardly a major tourist destination. Even those few who do come to Guyana for tourist purposes spend most of their time away from the city... and with very good reason.

Georgetown was by far the most unsafe-feeling place I have been to so far, even above 'South America's most dangerous city', Caracas. I don't even think my feelings were unjustified: a quick glance at the local paper was one of the most depressing things I've ever read, and I've seen The Sun. Every report was about a murder or a violent robbery, many in broad daylight with lots of witnesses. Many also involving the use of firearms. This general sense of constantly fearing for one's life was exacerbated by the blatantly obvious fact I was a tourist. This doesn't mean to say that I walked around wearing socks with sandals, a large Nikon camera hanging around my neck and clutching a large guidebook in my hand: I tried to dress as discreetly as I could, but there was one tiny, minute giveaway. I was white. I felt like a white sheep in an enormous flock of potentially dangerous black sheep. To give you some idea as to the extent of my similarity to a sore thumb, the 2002 Guyanese census reported that a mere 0.15% of Georgetown's population was white. In a city of 240,000, this equates to 196 white people. I don't think I saw any of them during my stay. Of course I'm not saying all the inhabitants of Georgetown are dangerous - most of them are perfectly nice people - it's just that the tiny minority of ill-harbouring Georgetownians might see me as someone with an enormous target painted on my back for robbery. The 'language barrier' didn't entirely help either. I struggled to understand what the Guyanese were saying in their thick Caribbean accents and many of them seemed to struggle to understand me. So after a few clumsy exchanges, I decided to adopt a very deliberate, perfectly-annunciated RP accent. I felt like some sort of awful colonialist, but sadly this was the only way I was going to be able to communicate with the Guyanese.

With this in mind, I decided to see what Georgetown had to offer. Not much, it turned out. They've got a wooden cathedral, which was nice, but many of their supposed national landmarks were in rather a state of disrepair.

St George's Cathedral - it's the highest wooden structure in the world don't you know.

It turned out the more time I spent in Georgetown, the more Caribbean the place felt. I have to say I was expecting somewhere with general poverty, and maybe a slightly different feel to the rest of South America, but this was entirely different. This was quite a good thing it turned out: the pace of life is a lot slower and far more relaxed. Restaurant staff would finish their conversation before attending to customers; drivers would frequently let pedestrians cross in front of them, even if it was at a really stupid place and I often found myself frustratedly walking behind a particularly slow-moving woman or group of schoolchildren. Noone was in a hurry here.

Slow-moving people were, however, the least of my worries. The mosquitoes were rampant. I must have lost several pints of blood during the 3 nights I stayed in Georgetown. This is despite sleeping under a mosquito net and covering myself liberally with Colombia's most expensive mosquito repellent each night. My feet were a sight to behold after a few nights... I fear there's only worse to come as I move eastwards across the Guianas.

Where I was staying was right next to the town's Magistrates' Court, with my window actually looking over the prisoner transfer corridor-type-thing. This meant I was treated to a unique alarm clock every morning, which consisted of angry defendants loudly threatening to kill someone different every day as they were dragged to the prison van. The potential victims ranged from the magistrate to the officers charged with guarding them. It did provide some entertainment, but it was annoying when this was happening all day long from early in the morning.

This, combined with an otherwise excellent meal spent with with the second worst person in South America (the worst being the German who robbed me in Lima), made me want to leave Georgetown, at least for a day. Handily I had booked myself onto a tour headed to Guyana's Amazonian interior. I was going to Kaieteur Falls, 'the world's highest single drop waterfall' and was rather looking forward to it.

Our trusty steed to the interior.

Kaieteur Falls is South America's hidden gem. Sure, there may be other waterfalls and yes, they might be more visually appealing, but the fact that there would only be 4 tourists visiting the site in one day created a sense of adventure and of seeing unspoilt, unbetouristed nature. So this involved me and 3 other Brits climbing into a little Cessna (flown by an out-of-work American commercial airline pilot, but that's another story) and flying to a little airstrip next to Kaieteur Falls. The scenery as we flew over the rainforest was samey to say the least: all there was were trees as far as the eye could see. It put into perspective how massive the rainforest actually is. As we neared the falls themselves, our pilot treated us to a few swoops over the drop, creating some spectacular photographic opportunities.

Kaieteur Falls from the air.

The falls themselves were stunning. It's hard to describe the sheer power of nature you could sense when up close to them: thousands of gallons of water pouring over a 226 metre-high drop every second. It was breathtaking.

After speaking to my fellow Brit tourists, I learnt that they were there not for the falls, but to see the wildlife. How bizarre, I thought. Kaieteur National Park is home to some unique species it turns out, including a parrot thing called a Cock-of-the-Rock, as well as a tiny, bright-gold frog called, unimaginatively, the golden frog.

The tiny Golden Frog spends its entire life cycle inside giant plants called Tank Bromeliads.

So having seen the falls from various angles, each more various than the last, we hopped back into the Cessna and headed to another waterfall... as if one wasn't enough.

Our next stop was to be Orinduik Falls, a relatively mundane sight as it turned out. These were a series of smaller waterfalls which cascaded over large slabs of semi-precious stone called Jasper. The main point of coming here though, was that you were able to stand under the falls and generally frolic about in the water. This was rather pleasant as it turned out: the water from Orinduik was warmer than that in the shower of the hostel where I was staying. It was invigorating nevertheless.

The best shower I'd had in days.

After that, we flew home in our trusty plane and back to that hotbed of crime, Georgetown.

So that was Guyana. If you're looking for a laid-back, Caribbean experience, but with great opportunities to explore nature up close and personally, then I can only recommend Guyana. Georgetown can't be that unsafe either if an idiot like me didn't get attacked or robbed.

Until next time. And please, don't have nightmares.

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