IS SO DE PLACE GET NOW BANNA!
– By Maurice Bryan ….. for the Guyanese Online Blog
I arrived in Guyana about a month after the celebrations on May 26, 2016, marking 50 years of independence from direct colonial rule. People seemed to be still basking in the afterglow of the big party.
Traces of the event were still very evident. Everything looked bright and clean and freshly painted. Moreover, just like the lights and Christmas decorations left hanging outside some houses long after the season ends, Guyana flags and buntings and multicolored lengths of fabric were still ‘vestigially’ fluttering and flapping everywhere.
It was as if people realized that removing all the drapery and streamers and logos would force them to return to a normal much less colorful everyday reality–with all of its associated challenges.
But then, change almost always produces challenges—and vice versa. One consequence is that anyone who has not visited Guyana for a couple of decades or more, can expect to experience a mild form of culture shock.
BEZZ TINK AGAIN
As the aircraft makes its final approach for landing, the view out the window is of the usual brown-colored Demerara River and dense uninhabited tropical rainforest; looking much the same as it has for several thousand years.
Upon touchdown, the unpretentious low-slung Cheddie Jagan International Airport also looks hardly different than before; with a tired-looking fire truck well past its prime parked on the apron of the tarmac. It can give a somewhat unsettling impression. For example, of being quite incapable of dealing with anything more serious than a small smouldering pile of rubbish; much less a fire-engulfed aircraft filled with gallons of highly inflammable jet fuel.
Then there are the ‘old school” style aluminum stairs that get wheeled up to the airplane door for passengers to disembark. But appearance can be deceptive. Once inside the terminal building, crisply-uniformed immigration officers are models of efficiency and politeness as they ask you to stare into the face-recognition camera lenses so they can add your mug-shot to the national /international “Big Brother” human-tracking databases.
After you collect your luggage, and wheel past the customs personnel, the few officially sanctioned taxi drivers hanging about in the lobby seem in no particular rush to get your business. They will refer you off handedly to a signboard that lists fixed-price fares to various destinations — including Berbice.
All in all there is still little to dispel the impression you are returning to a quaint easy-going sparsely-populated Anglophone backwater in overwhelmingly Spanish speaking South America. A place that some would argue has always been much more of a mental concept than an actual country.
However once you buckle your seat belt and head out of the immediate airport environs of Timheri—on your US$25 ride to Georgetown—it soon becomes obvious that in Guyana, first impressions really don’t count for much anymore. And significant change is everywhere in process.
All across the land, old familiar landmarks in the towns and villages and settlements have gone, and are continuing to disappear at an accelerating pace. And along with them, older lifestyles.
For example, in a country where for years people largely depended on bicycles to get to work and school and play, and a “bighouz and kyar” was the preserve of a few privileged senior-rank government employees and successful business people, today, vehicle ownership has ceased to be a status symbol.
Many more ‘regular’ people now seem able to acquire a car, and only the brave dare risk life and limb by venturing onto a busy roadway on a pedal bicycle.
The bicycle seems to be well on the way to becoming an occasionally trundled out device; favored by a handful of the truly humble; or racing-cycle enthusiasts decked out self-consciously in the latest gear.
If this trend continues, the once all-important bicycle is destined to become mainly a childhood recreational toy. Something indulgent grandparents give their precociously materialistic grandchildren to ride around in the concreted yard; or up and down a quiet neighbourhood side street.
For the youngsters it represents a tangible outdoor alternative to the relentlessly virtual world of their favourite video games. Or an active pastime while waiting for the adults to arrive home with a promised treat from one of the trans-national fast-food franchises that now have local outlets.
It seems Guyana is well on the way to becoming a ‘middle income’ lifestyle-oriented country, with a thoroughly car-based culture and all the associated stress factors.
Despite the hefty import taxes —that can add as much as 120 percent to the cost of an eight-year-old Internet-sourced used car— personal vehicle ownership has spiked.
So have used-car dealers and auto-parts outlets that are now found all along the coasts.
On the Corentyne Coast some ‘beat the system’ by buying their cars across the river in Suriname, retaining the foreign plates and returning regularly to the neighbouring country to renew the licenses.
Then there are all the Uber-esque mobile-phone-reachable door-to-door taxi companies and independent operators.
With cab driving and transportation in general having become one of the main sources of self-employment, motor vehicles of all makes and sizes–especially cars, SUVs and minibuses—are everywhere. Zipping about: shiny and fast and furious, with passengers cocooned by their favourite ‘sounds’ in air conditioned bliss.
Or alternatively crawling along in self-generated traffic tie-ups.
Unsurprisingly, finding a place to park, especially in the downtown core, is an increasing (and fiercely competitive) challenge. So is road rage.
The main intersections of Georgetown with their colonial-era sized streets—originally intended mainly for pedestrians, animal drawn vehicles and a few automobiles—now seem routinely prone to traffic jams for most of the day.
The daily work and school related rush-hour commute along the major public roads of the Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice coasts are also now practically bumper-to-bumper in the mornings and afternoons; and frequently patience-testing stop-and-go.
If for no other reason, the growing congestion and (better phone communication) is encouraging an unprecedented degree of decentralization of commercial activity.
Although the nation remains essentially Georgetown focused, ever more medium sized business, (including warehouses) now find it possible to set up shop outside of the main city. In the coastal villages and settlements these additions are now providing residents with the kind of goods and services that before were available only in the capital.
Among the main beneficiaries have been building contractors.
NIZE HOUZ FEEVAH
Like vehicle ownership, housing standards are also undergoing a remarkable change.
Wood has all but ceased to be the building material of choice. Architectural styles and sizes are also changing to match. Compared to what is now being built it’s obvious that the so-called ‘bighouz’ of yesteryear only earned that title because everything else around was so much smaller.
The changes are all part of an ongoing low-intensity building (or rebuilding) boom now underway. And it is completely redefining the traditional idea of what constitutes a ‘bighouz.’
Its as if some giant entity had grabbed handfuls of large “executive style” houses from the subdivisions of Scarborough or Pickering or suburban New Jersey, re-rendered them in hollow-block concrete, added second floor external balconies, then scattered the units here and there in the settlements and villages and region centers along the coasts of the country.
There they stand imposingly, in stark contrast to the older white-painted colonial era style wooden dwellings around them. The overall effect is as if large intensely pink, green, yellow and blue-colored sprinkles had been drizzled onto the white icing of an enormous cupcake.
Yet, even in their splendor, these ‘palatial’ structures can seem feeble when compared to the truly grandiose virtual castles of the newly rich. These appear mostly to belong to people who have reworked the old tradition of living above one’s place of business.
However, instead of the dusty, fly-blown, iron-bar-shut grocery and dry goods shops of previous eras, these new businesses are more like medium sized shiny emporiums. Virtual mini-malls that can house anything from super marts to hardware stores to pharmacies, auto parts outlets, medical labs, furniture showrooms and dental clinics.
The commercial ground floors are then crowned by ostentatious three and four storey living areas, sporting colonnades, bay windows and grand balustraded (railed) external balconies.
Informants insist these are neither apartment buildings nor hotels, but actual family dwellings. Judging from their size, they could comfortably house not just the owners but multiple generations of their extended families as well.
Nevertheless, many quaint and distinctively Guyana-style older wooden buildings with their galvanized roofs, external covered stairways, landings and verandahs, still remain as they always have been: perched on their flood-resisting stilts in various states of upkeep (or neglect).
This can range from pristine immaculate dazzlingly white, to dingy grey unpainted weather-worn planking well on the way to decay…some bordering on imminent collapse.
But even these also hint at a kind of ‘newness,’ mainly due to the now universal use of rust-proof easy-care shiny white PVC pipes of divers sizes: for plumbing and guttering. Moreover, a pile of sand in front of any one of the ramshackle structures is a sure sign that they too will soon be subject to a concrete hollow-block makeover and upsizing in a now rapidly globalizing 21st century Guyana.
MONEE DEY BOUT
And what is driving all of this in a country where—apart from a few new wrinkles— the basic underlying economic structure has not really changed since the days of the British Empire? And now in fact may actually be shrinking?
In the opinion of the colonial administrators of the time (1924) aside from coastal area sugar and rice production, some hinterland forestry, and very profitable small and medium scale gold and diamond mining, the country did not really have much going for it. And, despite its apparent huge promise, without major economic changes and a larger population it was probably much more trouble than it was worth.
Almost a century later if you find a talkative taxi driver he might tell you that given current prices rice production is not as lucrative as it once was, and neither is the sugar industry.
Many of most unprofitable sugar industry grinding mills have been closed and are continuing to be decommissioned. It is leaving the communities that once depended on the spin-off economic activity to wither and die; or to try and come up with hard-to-envision alternatives.
Which leaves all the economic heavy lifting to—the new wrinkles. The result is a strongly consumption-driven economy that seems to be the fueled mainly by proceeds from superficially regulated gold and diamond mining as well as by what is euphemistically known locally as ‘The Trade,’ It’s another name for the flow of commodities and cash connected to the billion dollar international trade in ” non-legal soporific pharmaceuticals“: In short, contraband drug running.
Add to all of that, a substantial inflow of cash remittances from overseas residents in the Guyanese Diaspora—including repatriated retirees.
BUT IS WHEN YU COME BACK?
And why not retire ’back home ? A monthly 900 pound sterling (US $1300) overseas pension collected in culturally-familiar sun-drenched Guyana can go a long way. Among other things it can buy endless daily rounds of drinks at the local watering holes. And, no shortage of fair-weather friends.
That is, until the generous benefactor suddenly keels over one day from an excess of riotous living and the sheer boredom of an otherwise meaningless existence.
The retirees essentially belong to the generation that was born in the 1950s They had left home in the 70s to seek their fortunes and become the “relatives abroad” everyone came to depend on. They sent home money and Walmart / Costco-blessed barrels in the 80s and 90s. Some began returning in the second decade of the new century. They found a country in transition. Ironically a transition that their material contributions had helped to hasten.
Upon passing on, they would take with them memories of the sights and sounds of a late 20th century Guyana that is now almost impossible to imagine (or even recall properly) as ever more of its old physical traces continue to vanish; making it easy to doubt that they had ever existed.
A new generation was now running things. They were transforming the physical as well as the psycho-social landscape. Their dreams were bigger than those of previous generations. And they saw no need to preserve any vestiges of the past. Or pay any great homage to the achievements and sacrifices of those who preceded them.
They were a new generation that watched international cable television channels. They could buy DVD copies of the latest movie releases from Hollywood (USA), Bollywood (India) and now Nollywood (Nigeria), for the equivalent of about two US dollars.
They also had the latest model mobile phones and were social-media networked at home and abroad. They could shop online using their laptops and smartphones and have the goods —including vehicles—delivered locally.
In addition, their favourite announcers on local commercial radio now affected strong North American influenced accents and bubbly cadences and kept them up to date with the latest in mindless global celebrity gossip.
Globalized market forces and new technologies were playing an ever greater role in determining the quality of their lives in other spheres as well, including where they stood physically — if not also mentally.
Mobile-phone and soft-drink company-sponsored signs placed along the public roads now clearly indicated the names and location of every village and settlement on the respective coasts; as well as tagged all the streets and neighbourhoods in the cities and region centers.
And, it was not just the big corporations that were changing their daily lives. A range of other commercial establishments also now wanted to know exactly where the new generation stood. But more especially… when they sat down. And, for much less ‘socially responsible’ reasons.
Much to the distress of their visibly uncomfortable staff, growing numbers of local employers now routinely monitor every move of their employees with CCTV workplace surveillance cameras.
Efforts by the State to electronically monitor rule compliance have not lagged either. On the narrow reasonably well maintained two-lane coastal highways, police with radar guns now stand about waiting to ensnare drivers who break the speed limit.
DA KYAN GOWEY
Nonetheless some things remain resistant to total change and/or disappearance. Usually by default.
The lumber-hauling animal-powered dray carts and human powered rubber-tired push carts were still operating. Except all their operators now have mobile phones whose numbers are painted on the sides of the vehicles.
Whoever wanted, could still buy shaved ice snow-cones from an ambulant street vendor except some carts now have carefully rendered artwork and a 12-volt battery driven sound system that would put many an in-car stereo to shame.
People still publicize the passing of loved ones, but these announcements have now migrated onto television.
The mentally unstable with all of their demons and public displays of aberrant anti-social behaviour are still tolerated. And even given the benefit of the doubt. With everyone around being able to recount their case histories and family connections.
So, if there is one key unchanging factor that continues to underpin everything: it is that despite the increasing hustle and bustle, and regardless of the low level social tensions and the rising stress levels—brought about mainly by galloping globalization and economic competition—in essence, this is still an extremely family-centered society.
A place where relatives (and even just acquaintances) can still drop by unannounced. And where older people are still respectfully addressed in public as “father and mother and uncle and auntie” … even by complete strangers.
A place where people depend mainly on their families for mutual support and where the question ” Where are you from?” is really ultimately aimed at finding out the intimate details of one’s family tree.
It is, therefore, still a place where everyone routinely knows everyone else’s business. And, where no one can remain an actual “unfamiliar stranger” for very long before being incorporated into the “The Collective Family.”
Moreover, even the social discord that occasionally surfaces in the country— usually eagerly promoted by cynical self-serving political opportunists for their own shamelessly selfish ends—may also be linked to that essential notion of: The Family.
After nearly 10 generations of living together, and with all of the ongoing intermarriage, some would argue that whatever inter-ethnic tensions appear to exist nationally, are probably much closer to being like a long-running, low-intensity (sous-sous, cuss-out, and mek-back or bittah-end-holdout type) internal family squabble; rather than anything much more serious.
All things considered, therefore, is it any wonder that the many Brazilian, Chinese and other foreign nationals who continue to settle in the country, seem to think it’s a pretty good place to live?
Chances are they may be right.
Maurice Bryan — is a communications consultant with a special interest in examining the impact of history and culture on the process of social and economic development. He has lived and worked in over 40 countries around the planet including in India, Pakistan and most of continental Africa and South America. He was raised in Guyana on the East Coast of Demerara and currently lives in Central America.
PHOTO ESSAY PICTURE CAPTIONS – Click pictures to enlarge