January was an eventful month. I know I claimed that December was turbulent – which it was – but it really was nothing in comparison.
As mentioned in my last post, all of the Guyanese volunteers spent New Year’s in Paramaribo, Suriname. It’s a truly amazing place at this time of year, and it felt amazing to wake up on the first day of 2019 there. I tried to make the most of our final few days in the capital, and although having to constantly organise activities around hospital visits I still had a great time.
While most of what amazed me about Parimaribo stemmed from positive causes, one interesting observation which came when I had to go into the centre on my own on New Year’s Day. What was, just hours before a vibrant, noisy, bustling town had been completely transformed into a lifeless dump. Remains of the fireworks littered the streets, there were smashed bottles everywhere, and there was essentially no one else around, apart from those rather solemnly sweeping up this mess. Fortunately, everything was quickly back normal that evening when the party recommenced for the less popular but still important New Year’s Day, but the intense contrast really fascinated me.
But before we knew it, it was time to say farewell to Suriname and the opulent, air-conditioned lives that we’d been leading. After my apartment made a Michelin Star-worthy vegetable curry and swiss-roll sundae for the others (it was our turn in the Come Dine With Me), we packed up our cases, checked out, and waited for out bus to arrive. It eventually rolled up at around 11, and we drove off into the night.
It was not a pleasant journey. Despite securing the front seat, I still had to endure the same blaring music as the others that continued right up until we arrived. Complain all we wanted, our driver and his trusty sidekick (who I think just came for the ride to be honest) would not allow us to stop their party – the bus being privately hired by us or otherwise. It was light when we arrived at the port in Paramaribo, and before we knew it we’d caught the ferry to Skeldon and got back on to our bus headed for Georgetown. After thanking our driver (persistent tunes or otherwise – he did get us back safely), we sleepwalked into the familiar Georgetown apartment and dumped our stuff and ourselves onto one of the mattresses on the floor.
As the next few days passed, more and more of the volunteers started leaving to head back to their projects, and it wasn’t long before I was at the airport helping the three other region 1 volunteers with the boxes and bags. It was strange saying bye to my partner, knowing that I should’ve been boarding the plane with him, but I thought I’d soon be able to return with him after receiving a diagnosis. Region 1 happened to be the last region to leave, meaning that I came home to an empty apartment. I filled the next few days exactly as I had when waiting for the others to leave: going to the hospital in the morning, waiting around for ages for whatever was on the cards that day, and then updating the UK with the day’s activity by making the five minute walk to the ‘wifi hotel’ as I called it. The hotel was great, not providing free wifi but also home made juice and sweets on offer in its reception – nothing like free stuff.
I must admit though, all this time on my own in Georgetown was quite exciting. Although we had stayed in the city for a fortnight or so in September, we were given very little freedom and so I didn’t get anywhere close to a true understanding of the place. However, being on your own in such a place with an excess of free time forces you to explore everything on offer, and I now really do feel like I’ve gained a much deeper insight into what the incredible city’s really like. Never before in my life have I been exposed to so many different cultures and types of people as I was in Georgetown. We often joke that Guyana’s a bit of a boring country that lacks its own identity – but I genuinely believe that it’s this very lack of identity that makes it so unique. There can’t be many places in the world where you’d find a Pizza Hut next to an American steakhouse, next to an Italian grille, next to a woman on the street selling her £2 roti curry and cook-up.
After a few days of uneventful hospital visits and inconclusive results, the decision was made for my Dad to travel out to Guyana, try and figure out what was going on, and generally evaluate the situation. Although not under the most favourable of circumstances, I really wanted to make the most of his unplanned visit and show off the country that I now called home. It was strange to see him after all this time when I picked him up from the airport.
Anyway, despite his 24-hour commute and very little sleep I decided to throw him in at the deep end. Looking back, I feel this might not have been the best decision, but going to Stabroek Market definitely served as a crash course in Guyanese culture. Stabroek is a pretty overwhelming sensory experience, with traders shouting at you, the only white men in the street, from every direction constantly asking ‘what you shopping white boy, what you shopping?’ and insisting their watches and tops are the best around. Everyone is friendly though, and although rather persistent you don’t feel under any threat.
Most of the goods on offer are what you’d expect, but there’s one section of the country’s main market that I particularly enjoyed. This is only accessible through a small archway, but it extends for quite some distance and once inside, you find yourself in the most amazing, completely improvised supermarket. Two narrow pathways snake their way through the endless number of vendors, all selling the exact same products – shampoo, juice, coffee, towels, clothes, stationary. And if you successfully manage to wade through the bustle, you eventually reach the sea and can watch the fisherman gut and descale the morning’s catch. The smell is almost as overwhelming as the noise.
Dad, now having unquestionably recognised the fact he was no longer in the UK, was ready to have a lie down after our busy morning of exploration, so we walked along the sea wall back to our apartment.
We had a really nice time over the next week or so in Georgetown, eating out at lots of different restaurants, seeing the (admittedly very few) landmarks, going to the cheapest zoo I’ve ever came across, and even taking a boat trip to the nearby town of Bartica with a Couchsurfer we met. The circumstances may not have been ideal, but really enjoyed showing Dad around – I take great pride in Guyana.
Trips to the hospital were certainly more frequent than recreational trips however, and after what felt like a continuous stream of inconclusive results and the recommendation of two doctors, the decision was made by both Project Trust and my parents to bring me home. At the time this seemed completely catastrophic – I’d promised myself and everyone who’d supported me a full year of volunteering in Guyana – but I did understand that temporary repatriation was in my best interest. There was no way I’d be allowed to return to my project at my current weight, so would end up being stuck in Georgetown for even more time trying to gain weight on my own until deemed healthy. Not only would this be pretty boring, I also realised it would be so much easier to put on the weight back home than in Guyana, due to the significantly greater availability and variety of food. In addition to this, the doctor brought to my attention to his skepticism surrounding the validity of test results in Guyana, which contributed to his advice that I returned home.
So it was decided – I was coming home. Flights were booked, and people were informed. Although my repatriation didn’t come out of nowhere, it was pretty hard-hitting to have it all confirmed. I spent a long time thinking over everything that night, not feeling great about the situation. This sadness however acted as a clear confirmation to myself that I really wanted to spend as much time as possible in Guyana, and I promised myself at this moment that I’d do everything I could to get back as soon as possible.
There was one very important thing to do before coming home though, and that was to return to my project and pick up everything I didn’t want to leave. And this was a trip that I was really excited about – I’ve spoken so much about Matthew’s Ridge to my family, and I was so happy that one of them would get the chance to see it for themselves. Flights from Ogle were quickly booked, and before I knew it Dad and I were on the plane, heading for Ridge. I’ll confess, it was quite amusing to see Dad’s reaction to everything throughout the next few days. While I’m sure they were very similar to my own, you definitely begin to not notice things that perhaps actually are a bit unconventional when compared to the UK.
And when thinking about it, the whole flying experience is one of those. Dad loved the lax pre-boarding process, the rather unsafe looking (but not actually unsafe!) tiny plane, and the eventual landing at the dirt airstrip that appears in the jungle – all things that I just don’t notice now. As planned, we were greeted by Esan on the other side, who drove us – small child in hand – to the village.
We arrived at the house, caught up with Mark, and I rustled Dad up some of the cinnamon sago porridge that I’d come to love before lying on my hammock – it was good to be home. My time at Ridge was short, so the next few days were spent making sure everything was all sorted for me leaving. I was really keen to teach though, so I went to school for the two weekdays I was there, explaining to the kids that I was only back for a short while but would hopefully get back soon. I think they were a little bit confused by my rather ephemeral reappearance, but wished me well. It was nice to get back to teaching and the school, even if for a short time – there’s so much I’d missed about it. To give one example, Sir Marcus had received a delivery of around 100 chicks for an agricultural project, and spent that Tuesday morning counting and selling a small number of them to a man who’d came with a large pot to carry them back to his house, all of which was being watched by the excited students. This just wouldn’t happen in Scotland.
I won’t lie, I do feel pretty bad for the school. Even when I was there the secondary department only had 4 out of the 7 teachers it needed, and in my absence this pretty shocking ratio has only worsened. I’ve just accepted that there’s nothing I can do apart from doing all possible to get back, as I previously said.
Two days later, having showed Dad the sights of Matthew’s Ridge, it was time for us to leave. I said farewell to everyone with the promise of a speedy recovery and return, and Dad and I set off towards the airstrip in Esan’s car. He insisted on coming early so he could take us up Hill 9, which is a really scenic spot that lets you to truly take in the expansive rainforest surrounding Matthew’s Ridge. All I’ll say is it really allowed me to appreciate how lucky I was to have been able to live here for the past four months, and how much I wanted to finish off the year.
I might have been sad leaving Matthew’s Ridge on the flight back, however any negative emotions were dispelled by Dad’s excitement at the prospect of pretending to be co-pilot. Somehow, he’d manage to convince the pilot to let him sit at the front of the plane with very easy access to the controls. He thankfully didn’t fiddle with any of the rather important buttons and switches at his disposal, and we landed safely in Georgetown.
I spent my last day in Guyana packing and getting ready for the early start the next day, but managed to squeeze in a trip to the world-famous German’s – where I had what must have been the best bowl of soup of my life – and a public workout hosted by Digicel in preparation for the upcoming Mashramani festival. They even gave me a free t-shirt!
Dad and I flew home on separate flights, meaning I was travelling alone for the day-long journey, which included a 6-hour layover in Trinidad and Tobago. I’d planned to spend most of this in the mall – as Tripadvisor recommended – but as luck would have it, my taxi driver and I got chatting and I ended up at his cousin’s bar. I was given a traditional Trini BBQ at a heavy discount for lunch, and I settled down outside. Not ten minutes passed before I started speaking to two men at the table across from me, who ultimately invited me to sit with them, bought me an 11am beer (classic), and a ‘bullet’ as they called it, of 90% rum. I told them I’d save it for later, which they fortunately seemed fine with. We ended up chatting for over an hour and half, I met one of the men’s son, and we exchanged numbers. It was such a great encounter, and something that I’m sure wouldn’t have happened before this year. If nothing else, my confidence around people completely different to me has increased exponentially.
As nice as the conversation was, I did have to catch my flight and leave the island eventually. It felt like I pretty much didn’t stop for the ensuing hours, but after a brief stop in St. Lucia, a transatlantic trek, baggage issues at Gatwick, an unexpected coach trip to Heathrow, and a final short flight to Glasgow, I left baggage reclaim and met my Mum and brother. Mark and I had previously discussed how it would feel to be reunited with out families after the year, but I’d certainly not expected it to be happening this early.
The drive home was wet, dark, and dreary, which I felt was appropriate for the situation. It was nice to speak to Mum, but at this stage I just wanted to sleep. Things got emotional after I finally reached the house, but was Burns Day, so the haggis, neaps and tatties we were having served as a warm reminder of one of the positives of being home. I went to bed pretty much straight after dinner.
The final few days of January were spent seeing family and friends again, booking appointments with my GP and a dietitian, and just generally trying to settle back into British life. The reverse culture shock was probably worse than the culture shock from going to Guyana back four months ago, but before I knew it I was completely settled in.
This January was completely foreseen – probably the last thing I’d have guessed if asked in September – but unfortunately I can’t change what happened. It’s not been ideal, but I promised myself that I’d make the most of my time back in the UK, and try and put on weight as quickly as possible in order to get back to Guyana and Mattthew’s Ridge in the shortest possible time. If January was the month of poor health, February was going to be the month of recovery.