Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Trip Report: Guyana

One of the beautiful things about mile running is the adventure that awaits when you open yourself up to traveling wherever the sales lead you. Out of the more than 80 countries pinned to my wish list board, Guyana, a small country in northeast South America, has never figured in at all. And yet when Delta dangled an unbelievable sale to the country I didn’t hesitate to book a flight for myself and the dear husband for a September 2012 weekend getaway.

Once the tickets were purchased and I started to complete the preliminary research for the trip I was taken aback. Typhoid risk: palpable. Yellow Fever risk: moderate. Malaria preventatives: required. Ahh well, all in the name of adventure right? So hubby and I endured the shots, ordered the preventatives and steeled ourselves for the unknown.  We also put up with a lot of good natured ribbing from coworkers and friends who questioned our judgment on selecting Guyana as a destination. Sale or no sale, they couldn’t see the appeal.

Making advanced travel arrangements isn’t easy for Guyana. There aren’t a lot of tourists and so a lot of the tour companies on the ground don’t man their phones regularly and even when they do, they are reluctant to pre-arrange sightseeing without confirmation of a large party. It’s pretty much the norm for them to take the wait-and-see approach for excursions- if they have enough interest on a certain day they will make the trip, if not they won’t. I like to have all my loose ends pinned down in advance so that was a bit maddening for me. Because of this, only our first day (Friday) was mapped out. I planned to lead Jonathan around Georgetown (capital city of Guyana), pointing out the rich British history that is still evident today in the architecture. The rest of the weekend was up in the air, to be decided upon arrival.

As soon as our plane touched down in Georgetown and we walked off the plane I questioned my decision to book the trip. It was very hot. It was very sticky. Even Thailand wasn’t as steamy as this place. I really hate sweating. And the malaria risk means you can’t get away with wearing shorts and exposing yourself to mosquitos. We took a taxi to our hotel and found it wasn’t much cooler in our room either, even with the air conditioner cranked up. We were staying at the Herdmanston Lodge and the staff was nice enough to allow us a very early check in which gave us a chance to freshen up and change into not-sweaty clothes before we ventured out for our city tour.

Georgetown was explored by the Spanish and settled by early South American tribesman. It was eventually taken over by the Dutch and served as a lovely little Dutch colony back in the day, circa 1700s. Taken by the British in 1781, taken by the French in 1782, restored to the Dutch in 1784,  taken by the British again in 1796, given back to the Dutch in 1802, and taken by the British once more in 1803 (which controlled the city until Guyana gained independence in 1966), there’s a rich multicultural history to the city and beyond into the countryside.

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Under British control, thousands of Africans were brought in as slaves and then indentured laborers from India were also sailed in to work as a stop-gap measure for the lost productivity once slavery of Africans was abolished. This created two distinct underclasses of ethnic groups in the community and precipitated racial discord that persists to this day. Because many Indians look to their heritage as that of a proud working class people who saved and scrimped to get ahead and buy themselves out from indentured servitude they see themselves as above those whose ancestors were mere property. Reinforcing their prejudice, when the British and other Europeans departed en masse following the 1966 independence, those of Indian ancestry captured most of the governing positions across every community, overseeing those they believe to be beneath them. There wasn’t one person we came across in Guyana who didn’t have a laundry list of complaints about the competing ethnic group they share their community with. Those of African descent accuse the Indians of conspiring to keep them down, of nepotism on a large scale, of corruption, and of hateful prejudice. Indians meanwhile accuse Africans of theft, idleness, envy, and ignorance.

Walking around Georgetown on foot from beautiful English era building to building, we were introduced firsthand to politics in Guyana: trash overflowing from every dumpster, strewn across every public surface, and littering even the beaches. I’ve never seen so much filth in all my life. Why  it is this way: in an effort to extract greater taxes from the residents, the city mayor halted trash pick up, claiming there wasn’t enough money in the treasury to pay for it until the community agreed to a tax increase. The community refused to consent to more taxes and so the trash piled up over many months with both sides at a stand off. We passed people dropping their trash in the street, in the parks, on the sidewalks. When asked why not just clean up their own trash they replied it’s the mayor’s job and they won’t give in and let him win. So they live in their once beautiful city with the trash piling up day by day. As I alluded to, there are a handful of beautiful old historic buildings but I couldn’t bring myself to snap any pictures with the trash desecrating their exteriors. Here’s a shot another visitor took in cleaner times of St. George’s Cathedral, which boasts bragging rights as the tallest wooden structure in the world.

Photo Credit: Dmitri Allicock

After a sticky, steamy, sweaty, rather depressing day walking around Georgetown I hoped that I could find a way to salvage our weekend and squeeze something amazing out of it. As luck would have it, I came across Baganara Island Resort online and they had a vacancy. The price was very very affordable and best of all it meant an escape from Georgetown and it’s trash problem. Most guests at Baganara book the private speedboat or charter plane direct from Georgetown but hubby and I are a special kind of cheap so we opted to piecemeal our way there with public transportation supplemented by the minimum private speedboat trip required to transfer us from the closest public terminal to the island. This meant a long taxi ride from our hotel in Georgetown Saturday morning to a public dock a few towns over, a grueling public speedboat ride (DO NOT SIT IN THE FRONT OF THE BOAT! DO NOT SIT IN THE FRONT OF THE BOAT! Vagina bruising is a real thing, people!) from the public dock in that town to a public dock in another town further up the river, and then finally a quick private speedboat ride from that dock to the island. A couple of hours overall to get there and quite the hassle.

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Fresh picked bananas waiting on the public dock to be transferred via speedboat to a nearby town up the river.

While it would take a few days for my pelvic bruising to subside (DO NOT SIT IN THE FRONT OF THE BOAT!), as soon as we stepped off the boat onto Baganara Island all of our stresses and angst just melted away. And while we were still melting too (so so so hot outside), hubby and I each had a nice glass of fresh made lime crush placed in our hands to cool us down and welcome us to the resort. The resort maintains a staff to cater to dozens of guests and yet we were blessed to discover we were the sole clients that weekend. An entire private island to ourselves! A entire team of people at our beck and call! With the currency exchange rates as they were, our nightly stay ($200/night USD) when priced in Guyana dollars appeared outrageous. Admittedly, it was a bit of a thrill to leave a status update on Facebook noting we were renting a private island with staff in South America for $40,000 a night.

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View from the outdoor terrace at Baganara

The food at Baganara was excellent, the staff provided top notch service, and the grounds were lovely. There was a jungle for hiking, a spacious outdoor terrace for playing games or reading, a small beach on the river for swimming, and a comfy hammock. Give me a hammock and I’m content.

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Hiking Baganara: a spectacular tree

 

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Hammock= Jenni bliss

We spent the next 24 hours relaxing and feeling great about our lives and then it got even better: we opted for the excursion from the island to Kaieteur Falls, which is one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world. At five times the height of Niagara Falls, it’s also quite tall. An adorable little Cessna style plane came to pick us up (the island has a private runway) and away we went on an adventure. One at the top of the falls, there was a meandering scenic hike to the water’s edge and wildlife viewing with our expert guide (tiny tiny tiny poison dart frogs) before we flew back to Baganara for lunch and a bit more relaxing.

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Afternoon ride

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Approaching the waterfall

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Up close and personal

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Don’t step back too far…

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From the top of the falls looking into the distance, following the river with our eyes

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Looking straight down over the very edge of the waterfall

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Final shot of Kaieteur Falls as we traveled away by plane

We opted to take the charter plane from Baganara back to Georgetown and then it was a quick taxi back to the Herdmanston for our final night in Guyana. The next morning we paid our taxi driver a little something extra to swing by an unlicensed liquor store (Guyana produces some fabulous dark rums) en route to the airport for our return flight to the States.

In retrospect, I’m really glad we took a chance on Guyana. I’d recommend it to anyone, with some caveats. Namely, little to no time in Georgetown (unless they clean up the city) and more time in Baganara. Make sure to ask for Kurt Jordan when you call the resort (From the US: 011-592-222-8055); he’s the manager and he will get you set up perfectly. Definitely schedule an excursion to Kaieteur Falls – it’s breathtaking. Oh and I’d recommend splurging and taking the private motorboat or charter plane from Georgetown. The public transportation is not something I’d ever care to replicate.

Happy adventures!

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