Wednesday, May 25, 2011

So very Much to be Thankful For!

Last October for Thanksgiving I hung a large piece of poster paper on the wall and placed a cup of felt pens on the floor during my dinner party and asked the question of my guests “What are you thankful for?. At that time most of my guests had only been in country (as we call it in VSO) for a few weeks to months and the theme of our responses were ones of appreciation for sure, but also of survival in the new jungle home land we found ourselves in. We were thankful for ice, freezers, fans, insect repellent of all kinds, cheap drinks, mosquito nets, flashlights, talcum powder and rat poison. Things that had probably not been previously considered as useful or important to any of us, and collectively items to keep the heat, insects and huge cultural changes at bay.
I liked the poster we created that night with its funny illustrations and commentary so much that I just left it up on the wall after Thanksgiving and well I never did take it down. Over the past nine months when someone has stayed with me or visited they have often added something to the poster and last night at a birthday/going away party it was no exception. While the party was going on (which was such great fun) I noticed that the theme of what we are all thankful for had subtly changed over time from the original survival strategies to genuine appreciation and love for this country we now all call home.
My poster now states we are thankful for (in addition of course to ice, insect repellent, mosquito nets etc)
Blackouts on Starry nights
Hammock Sessions
Endless Summer
Never needing to wear a Sweater
Giant sound systems and all the great chutney, reggae and soca music
Curry and roti
Mangos and fresh fruit
Mash and Holi festivals
Rain storms
Slowing down
Our motor bikes and bicycles
Ocean breezes at night
New friends, old friends, international friends, local friends, vso friends, Canadian friends, friends at home, family at home, boyfriends, Dutch friends, Hook ups, BFF’s...(See a theme here?)
Houses on stilts,
Treks to the jungle, remote islands and giant waterfalls and
Swimming in creeks
Pink toed tarantulas, parrots, iguana and caimen
Local restaurants
"Whinin", karaoke and dancing....and so much more..
Some of the above may not make sense to those who have not lived in the wonderful Caribbean/South American culture that is Guyana. I enjoy the fact that collectively over time we have all grown to appreciate and love not just each other but also our temporarily adopted home land as reflected in our comments...Much indeed to be thankful for and today the day after my big birthday I am personally so very thankful for everyone in my life near and far and for the amazing opportunity to live and work in this unique, quirky and lovable country....Life here is not dull, not by a long shot...but you do need insect repellent baby!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rainy Day Underwear Shopping

The second rainy season of the year (May/June) arrived this week after a few months of very nice weather. During rainy season you get whole days of rain (gasp!) and then perhaps flooding if it keeps up. When it rains hard events are cancelled, there are more mosquitoes than usual, (hard to believe as that may be) the canals fill up and smell a bit better, and the mean humidity increases. The cycling becomes perilous as whole blocks disappear under water and the side splash from cars becomes more like a water slide adventure than mere annoyance. On the first fully rainy Saturday in many months I went out for breakfast with an out of town VSO guest staying with me, then she went off to run errands and I went off to buy underwear in the rain!
After nine months and despite a replenishing in December, my underwear is thrashed, the hand washing is murder on the elastic, the sweat, Holi Phagwah dye, rusty water and small moths have all left their toll. In Guyana it is common to buy underwear on the street where it is hung up and displayed against walls on large sticks. A few of us have joked that when things are tough that next thing you know you will be buying underwear from a stick. So instead I find myself an actual lingerie store thinking that a store would at least have a change room, and not sell directly from sticks.
In any clothing store in GT the second you walk in a clerk or sometimes even two will attach themselves to you like glue. They follow you and are so close and in your face you could kiss them. If you walk away they follow, if you say you don’t need help they smile, but they do not back off. This is customer service and theft protection built into one sweet efficient unit, kind of like shampoo and conditioner in the same bottle.
Inside the lingerie store I had both an older woman and a younger woman and found out that you cannot try on the bras and they have no change rooms. Well ok you can try them on I’m told when I ask...but only overtop of all your clothes and out in the open. I agree but only as this is a step up from buying underwear from a stick on the street and I am in desperate need of a new bra. The sizes make no sense and soon we have a trial and error system enacted. I pick one, then they pick a few and we have quite different tastes it turns out and I quickly understand the protocol is that if they picked it out I have to try it on. I stand there and am fastened and squished into the bras by the expert hands of the two ladies. One commenting on how nice the bra looks regardless of the fit (and over top of my two shirts and existing bra??)...and the other asks if I am from New York (No Canada) Cold dere? (Yes) and while she plays with my hair, stroking it and twisting it and braiding and un-braiding it, she asks if she can touch it (Uh sure..aren’t you already?) and then tells me she thinks I am pretty (Uh thanks). It is very funny, almost uncomfortable, kind of sweet and weirdly intimate to be manhandled, fondled, discussed and questioned by these two women. The commentary is hilarious and constant, “Dat ones nice babes” says the older women as she gives both my breasts a squeeze upwards and into a lacy demi piece that feels like steel wool and is decidedly not “nice”.. “Sexy one babes” for a hideous day glow pink thing three sizes too small and “dat a perky one” for a Madonna style cone contraption of bright green. We finally sort of find a size that seems to work as much as I can tell by trying them on over all my clothes and sadly it comes only in a hideous plaid colour. So I am standing in the store with my arms open and a very ugly plaid bra on top of all my clothes outlining the sisters pretty well, with two women adjusting my breasts when two younger guys come into the store and ask if they are allowed in....”sure babes” answers the older woman without looking up. They don’t seem to be with any wives or girlfriends I notice after a few minutes, they just sit in the two chairs near the front..and well they just watch me get fitted, squeezed and adjusted into a few more bras over top of my clothes. The situation is so ridiculous I start laughing. They bring 15, 20 more bras for me to try..are they charging admission here??....maybe they have nothing else to one else is in the store, except me, my two fondling sales attendants and my audience...OK No more I finally say, they have put on and off at least 50 bras by now and braided my hair about three times. I quickly select 4 bras from the maybe pile as clearly I'm not getting out of here without buying something. I’m not really sure if any of them will fit as how can you tell if the bra over your shirt or the one on under your shirt is the one doing the job???...It’s a lingerie lottery and Im buying four tickets. Everyone is thrilled...the young hair stroking sales girl actually claps! The older woman seems especially pleased that I selected at least one of her suggestions (the ugly but well fitting plaid one)...The men stand up, say “tanks” and leave the store as I go to pay... WTF?...Were they just here to watch the live comedy soft porn bra fitting show or was it some innocent liming in the lingerie store on a Saturday morning? Hmmm...I have no idea what that ws all about, other than it is funny!
I head out into the mini mall and in the 40 minutes I have been buying bras they have set up a mendi henna stand. I am called over and aggressively sold a tube of henna paint. They then offer to paint my hand for free as "I have white skin and the henna will look nicer”...yes he actually says this, “you get a small one for free” he smiles, and “my wife is very fast” he assures me. Sure enough within 3 seconds she has covered my whole hand in an intricate henna design, way bigger than might be appropriate for my job here I worry and am quite glad I wasn’t offered a “big one”. I thank them and now have to wait half an hour for it to dry before going back out into the rain. So I go to the pirated DVD store (Guyana has no copy write laws) This time the clerk is very young and very male, and is standing so close I can smell what he had for lunch (curry and rice) He offers his own hilarious view of each movie I select complete with a plot spoiler each time and tries hard to sell me thrillers...or as he says in beautiful Creolese “tillers”... and he calls chick flicks “girly movie”. For less than $5 I buy 6 movies he approves of and then head off to the Rasta jewellery stand. I buy a few gifts and am then offered a bracelet which was apparently made just for says “one love” in pink thread on a gold and black background. “Jest for you” he says.."ya be such a nice white gayl n’all”. Of course this is a blatant sales tactic, but how can I refuse as he puts the bracelet on me and smiles revealing his glinting gold teeth. I buy the bracelet “made just for me”..Hah!
Henna hand now dry and alarmingly bright purple, if very beautiful I head out in the rain right into the throng of shark like taxi drivers waiting for blood. I select a driver and negotiate a price home as it is pouring now with serious abandon and even if it feels like a huge splurge for me taxi’s are seriously only $1.50. Inside the car he quaintly puts on the heater as at a mere 26 degrees out or so, he’s says he’s cold in the rain. For less than $20 I have purchased four dubious fitting bras, (and not from a stick), a very cool henna pen, six movies (five girly movies and one tiller), three bracelets including a special one made “just for me”, two puris, a bunch of bananas, and one huge ass piece of BBQ chicken breast that will feed two of us for dinner and I of course have my beautiful and complimentary menhdi hand to show for my efforts. A nice way to spend a rainy morning...........I love this country!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Making peace with Rats and Kaboura Flies

Hell, along with karaoke singing realtors, the smell of roofing tar and freshly gutted chickens and the ubiquitous inferno like conditions would certainly also have kabuora flies there to further plague you for your sins. Having just returned from the Rupununi Savannah (home to thousands of these nasties) and despite the repeated plastering of my skin with smelly crab oil and Australian 50% deet spray (Thanks Kane!) and much time spent in and under mosquito nets I still managed to get bit exactly 24 times. This may not seem like a lot, but each bite is a swollen itchy painful rock hard lump the size of a pea and after six days they show no sign of abating any of these symptoms. I even got stung by a wasp and it was better than the fly bites. They also apparently often leave scars as they heal....Nice!!
Otherwise my time in the Hinterlands was fabulous....In Region nine where at least 20 VSO’s and Peace Core converged for the long weekend, we hiked the 1000 steps trail on Easter Sunday, swam in waterfall fed pools, visited Moco Moco Nature Park, trekked to Brazil on foot, ate meat on a stick, went to a old fashioned wild west rodeo, drove around in the back of a pickup truck standing up holding the roll bar, saw the Miss Rodeo and Mr Rodeo pageant and break dance competition outdoors under the most amazing star filled sky I have perhaps ever seen and spent much time walking, talking, eating and shopping. Six of us all bunked with our host Sonja who was such a good sport to have her lovely house completely invaded by such chaos. Sonja has perhaps the best hammock set up I have ever encountered, two aside under a lazy wooden awning with a perfect breeze always blowing, and with a view of iguana filled trees. In five days I managed to read 3 whole books while lounging for hours in a hammock, plus of course I also got to sleep there. I have mastered the art of getting in, out and comfortable in a large South American hammock and there is nothing like the gentle rocking to lull you to sleep, in fact I am now buying one to install wherever I may end up living in the future I am so captivated by their comfort. Life in the Rupununi is slow paced with a little attitude thrown in, a frontier style town if you will, where the dust is red, the insects and sunsets are spectacular, ant hills dot the landscape like modern sculpture, and the epic vistas are haunting and defy postcards, the air smells fresh and is tinged with the foreign languages of Amerindian and Portuguese, the water is clean, the food is meat, the main sport is drinking and the bus rides to get here are gruelling epic journeys of 15 – 34hrs depending...and maybe if I am lucky in life I will be back someday!
In my other trip to Mabarumba in the Region one hinterlands I went one day before my work due to flight schedules and was overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the jungle valleys. This is Jonestown country and you can sort of see why a crazy cult leader might choose this lush area to set up a remote intentional community. By the way the Guyanese have let Jonestown simply return to the jungle and I really respect that they have chosen to not make it a tourist attraction at all, although some crazy tourists do still apparently ask to get taken there, apparently to mostly huge disappointment. I was instead taken by motor bike to see two outlying Amerindian villages and it was surreal, the ride through beautiful long lost junglescapes that faded into a purple haze that at first I thought there were oceans, but were in fact more pristine jungle and upon arrival at the first village it was just like stepping back in time to an era of hunter gathers. The two VSO’s in Region one have done amazing work with these very remote and poor villages. It was quite impressive to see what they have accomplished: a water system, a wash house, a kitchen and community house, a plant nursery, a poultry and kitchen garden per family and an aqua culture facility have all been set up in their tenure. Region one as promised had tarantulas and vampire bats. The VSO’s there live with the bats and spiders inside their HOUSE!! I was encouraged to take pictures of the tarantulas as they looked for the big one for my photgrapic pleasure...hah! I was glad to be staying in my power optional guest house which was great other than they forgot my meals for two days straight which meant I basically lived on the few packs of crackers and instant coffee I had the foresight to bring with me! While working at the hospital I was informed that the week before someone died from a snake bite there, I asked where she was bitten and was told walking on the road in broad daylight right out front of the guesthouse where I was staying. Yikes and more yikes, I hadn’t really been nervous about snakes until then, so this did nothing to instil confidence in me for my long walk back to the guest house. I am getting in touch with the less aesthetic creatures in life it seems as I have encountered bats, rats, toads, lizards, frogs, cockroaches, spiders and been bitten by all kind of insects in the past week. In Guyana you are up close and personal with all fauna!
On my last night in the wilds of Region nine I slept inside as all of the other guests had gone, and was warned I might hear the rats in the night. I was a bit worried about what I might do upon such an encounter and warned Sonja that if I saw one I would probably scream and wake her up. She nicely said that was fine. Sure enough I woke up in the night and went to get a drink of water and right there on the kitchen counter was a fat scurrying rat, maybe I was far enough away, or have just been desensitized enough by my exposure to so many vile creatures on the planet this past few weeks and months that instead of screaming my default reaction was to forget the drink of water and to quickly bolt outside to sleep in the safety of the hammock instead! My first ever non screaming vermin encounter folks! Progress surely.
Proudly I have now been to all 10 Regions of Guyana and survived, with a mere 24 kaboura fly bites as souvenirs!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Into the Hinterlands

In a few days I will head off on two epic journeys to the hinterlands and in the process will then have travelled to all 10 regions of Guyana. The purpose of my travel is of course for work and I will be meeting with the remote regional health centres to gather information and to do some training on data collection. I’m really looking forward to both doing the work and seeing the hinterlands.
First up is a 3 day trip to remote Mabaruma in Region 1 where access is by a 6 hr boat/bus trip, I plan to fly and then walk in instead. The guesthouse I booked had rooms with electricity being optional and at an extra $3000GYD ($15 CAD) per night! I agreed to pay for the decadent thrill of electricity (I want to see those tarantulas this region is notorious for large and frequent insect sightings) to then find out from a friend that electricity is usually only available there for a few hours per day if at all. I have been advised to bring my own food, water, mosquito net, candles, flashlight, batteries and insect repellent! All these supplies within my very scant weight allowance on the tiny plane, where you and your luggage are weighed before travel. Region one borders Venezuela and is apparently beautiful and the jumping off point for chartered trips to the alluring Shell Beach to witness the giant nesting turtles. Parts of the Guyana Venezuela border are in dispute and you can apparently easily cross illegally into each country from this area, but it is of course ill advised. As much as I’d love a quick day trip to Venezuela I won’t be doing it illegally, so my spare day in region one will likely be spent avoiding tarantulas and maximising my electricity options and computer work time.
Then it is off to Region 9 for six days, the wild west of Guyana, the region to the south that borders Brazil and is home to the famous Rupununi savannah. Many VSO’s are stationed in this region mostly working in agriculture and eco tourism development so it will be great to see them in action. The town of Lethem is home to around 2500 citizens and serves as the economic hub of this part of the country. Road access to this area is notoriously brutal with 12 – 20 hour bus trips reported depending on road conditions. Brazil is in fact in negotiation with Guyana to pave this section of road for them as it would give Brazil better access to the port in Georgetown. Once again I am lucky and will be flying down. But I inadvertently planned this trip during the busiest weekend of the year which means there are no accommodations available so I will now be sleeping in a hammock in the back of a VSO’s house for five nights...yes in a hammock strung outside, and I have been warned it is kaboura fly season to boot! The kaboura are a day time miniature black fly with a bite so nasty that it leaves welts and scars. Two VSO’s last week showed me the damage to their legs....and yikes....I seem to have the kind of skin bugs really enjoy snacking on here in Georgetown so have decided to take all the advised precautions...The locally produced Crab oil, which is called Andiroba oil in North America and is known for its healing properties and its particular bad smell is apparently a good deterrent. I have been advised to layer my skin first with the pungent crab oil, then spray as on much toxic deet as possible, then to wear tights tucked into socks and then spray again and also to spray your mosquito net!!! This approach sounds hot and well really really smelly….but better smelly than eaten perhaps? It is also a malarious and yellow fever area and they have snakes, biting scorpions and giant stinging millipedes…so ok maybe I will wear socks after all and will need to remember to take my nasuaa inducing malaria tablets in advance.
The rite of passage of sleeping in hammock will be exciting as it seems almost everyone else I know in Guyana at some point in their travels has been required to string up a hammock. I have had advice on how to best sleep in one, (diagonally and with net tucked in) and to be careful as it can cause an aching back and shoulders if slept in incorrectly. Realistically I will probably like the idea of sleeping in a hammock more than the actual doing of it. A few months ago I bought a beautiful maroon travel hammock and am looking forward to breaking it in, that is if I can get it strung up…I had trouble with this task when I last tried it out in Trinidad.
Region nine will be hosting an old style rodeo and dance, and is home to restaurants, a peanut factory, beautiful nature hikes, waterfalls and savannahs and is right across the border from Brazil so there will be no lack of things to do on the days in between my work. A side trip to Brazil might be fun and is rather tempting, but will depend on my ability to get a VISA in time and if I decide it is worth it to pay the exorbitant fee they are asking for the privilege of day trip. But they do sell coffee and snazzy flip flops there!
So happy Easter to everyone, this will be an unusual one for me as I will likely spend it fending off giant insects and biting flies while trying to sleep comfortably outside in a hammock and will hopefully not incur any nocturnal sightings of jaguars or anacondas in the process. Oh and I might just go to my first ever rodeo, where chances of eating some Easter chocolate is very low but drinking rum is very high! Yehaw y'all.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bubbles and Cigarettes at the Races

The question of fate is one of life’s great mysteries and not something I have an answer to. I’m humbled though at times to witness its impact on our planet and to ponder the fairness of application. Last weekend the stark contrast of the different kind of lives children here in Guyana may have came to light in a most poignant moment.
I accompanied my VSO friend Selina to the races. She had been asked to go by one of her neighbours and basically I was along a chaperone, so that the outing would clearly not be a “date”. We were picked up by the neighbour and his friend in a 4x4 outfitted with a tent, a food cooler, an ice cooler, a beer cooler, plates, a few different machetes, cutlery, chairs, fresh coconuts on the was like jungle camping! A bumpy hour or so later and a 4X4’ drive up a large sand hill we arrived at our destination and prime viewing spot reserved by another guy who had arrived at the crack of dawn to secure we were now front row at the races and the men set up camp central. Very exciting indeed!
The day progressed with very loud and intermittently thrilling car and motorcycle races in the extreme heat and much showing off of us two “white gayls” to the crowd of almost entirely men at the races. We were served hand and foot by our hosts....(humorously this is not what would happen if we were say married to these guys, then we would be doing the serving as is custom here). We decided to enjoy it for what it was and so we were served salad and fried chicken, then later curried chicken with puri, fresh fruit, iced drinks of fresh coconut juice and vodka ...and beer and then more beer...all before noon on a Sunday!!!.......The owner of all the camping gear had also brought along his 10 year old son for a day of manly fun, and as all the vendors walked by he was bought a sun hat, then chips, then another hat, this one with a solar panel operated fan built in (way cool), a pack of bubbles and well basically anything he wanted he was able to purchase from the passing vendors. He was a cool kid, not spoiled, funny, sweet, smart and thrilled to be out at such an event with the guys, he was clearly not taking any of it for granted. We enjoyed spending the day with him. We were also thankful for his presence as he was apparently the reason the driver kept his drinking down. (Whew!)
Shortly after lunch we were sitting in the chairs (brought just for us gayls) with the boy between us playing with his bubbles when two other boys about the same ago walked up to us. These boys were without shoes or hats in the hot sun and were wearing ill fitting and dusty clothes, they looked tired, hot and well kind of desperate...they were vending you see. They both had cigar style boxes around their necks with their scarce wares for sale on display out in front of them. They had so little for sale it was quite sad, an open pack of cigarettes and gum cut out of the packet so you could buy it one piece at a time, some very pathetic looking packets of biscuits, a few sun bleached peeling packs of mini-pringles, and a couple of bags of cheese stix (a Jamaican cheezie that I am actually quite fond of). The other boys father immediately tried to shoe them away, but something made me want to purchase from them, and I tried to but I only had a thousand dollar bill ($5 CAD)...a “BIG” bill here. They had no change of course. As they were being shoed away for the second time I asked them to come back when they passed again. Sure enough about an hour later they were back, dustier than ever and if it was possible even more desperate looking, they really wanted to make the cheezie sale. We had bought something else to get change. They sold me the cheezies and no words needed to be said... a look passed between Selina and I, and later we discussed we had been thinking the same thing.... of the huge and stark contrast of these two children’s lives to the boy here happily playing right beside us with his bubbles and solar hat, as ten years old should.
The vending boys took their money and walked off without shoes in the hot sand to make another round, maybe they would sell another bag of cheezies or a few cigarettes before the day was out. What was their story, did they have a home to go back to? much money could you even earn selling singles of cigarettes and gum?.... why did they have so little for sale?..were they made to work by their family and if so how long do they vend for on a hot day like this? they even have a family?..or maybe optimistically they were simply young entrepreneurs trying to make some money at the races with high hopes of a future expanded vending empire? I will never likely know their story yet the question of their fate sat soundly with me and I have thought of those two boys all week.
I have occasionally heard people in the 1st world talk of the poor and of poverty and a few times have heard some place blame on those that are poor themselves, that they should get a job, and that they can and should be able to change their circumstance, but it’s seldom true, if ever that those who find themselves in such circumstances truly have the power to change things around them. Sometimes maybe you are just a little kid forced into an adult dog eat dog vending world and you can barely acquire enough things to re-sell on a hot day...and if fate was kind - all kid’s would be playing with bubbles at the races instead of selling cigarettes.
The heaviness of my privilege is at times here almost unbearable.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Holi Phagwah!

Holi Phagwah is my new favourite holiday. The Hindu celebration that welcomes spring, and celebrates the triumph of good over evil is also called the Festival of Colours. The smearing of ash, mud and coloured dye on the body, lighting of bonfires and worship at the temple are all intrinsic parts of this festival. The Guyana version apparently includes a little more partying than the Indian version. No Guyana they love to celebrate! This is the fourth holiday so far this calendar year!
Several of us attended the burning of the Holika service at the Hindu Temple, traditionally held the eve before Phagwah. It was very powerful to witness the rituals, the chanting and the lighting and burning of the Holi bonfire. We slipped off our shoes and sat peacefully at the back of the temple lest we disturb and listened to the chanting and hypnotic if somewhat comical music. We got a few odd glances but it was truly amazing how welcoming they were to all of us foreigners and it was very moving to experience the religious aspect of the holiday. We then went out to watch the Holi bonfire be lit and see the grains of rice be tossed on the fire to represent the old being burned away to reveal the new. Just before leaving we were offered huge plates of delicious take away food. We were invited back for further early morning temple service and to rub the ash from the fire on our heads.
The next morning it was Phagwah itself and things get going really early. Children and adults are armed with coloured water in water guns, buckets, dyes and glitter and as soon as you step out onto the street you get lamb-basted. What awesome fun for children, as when else in their short lives do they get to squirt water on anyone they like with impunity! My beloved Station St. where I live has a big Hindu community and lots of rum shops so the revellers were out partying right after morning temple services finished.
Five of us dressed up in the traditional all white attire and headed out into the fun...and wow...if you ever get a chance to attend a Phagwah festival, do it! The tradition is to smear colours on each others face and neck and hair to welcome spring, welcome good over evil, colour over dark....and it is often applied especially by the women as a blessing, and can be very beautiful if quite messy. The other aspect is almost carnival like where you have open season (especially on whiteys) and anything goes -dye in the hair, on the face, down the shirt etc. Kids and adults alike "play Phagwah". We went to all the events, including the huge event at the National stadium, and of course got absolutely completely 100% covered in colour, dye and glitter and had an absolute blast, and even had a taxi refuse to take us as we were too messy. We eventually came back showered and cleaned up best we could. We then headed back out to the evening events and my poor roommate was not even on the street for two seconds in her nice clean clothes and showered body when she got hit right in the face with a huge bucket of purple coloured water....I am still laughing about it days later. The highlight of the festival was that we all got invited onto a party truck to cruise the city at sunset. Man, what a way to have a party! You could never get away with anything even close to this in Canada. Recipe for a party: Rent a open flat bed truck and driver, put on a generator, a tower of speakers, add two coolers of booze, one of ice, blast the tunes, then invite people on as you drive around. We had no idea where we were even going but the organizer promised to drive us back So off we all went and was so fun. We went past the temple, then to a outdoor restaurant where we all de-trucked as the host had ordered the traditional seven curries for everyone. We then all ate the most amazing food, drank top notch booze, danced and danced..and once the food was finished then the "play" aspect of the festival began again in earnest all under a spectacular full moon. Everyone from the kids, the party truck folks, to all of us, to the whole neighbourhood participated in the play, the mess and the grand theatrics and were all soaked, covered in purple, orange and pink dye and gold and blue glitter, and my face hurt from laughing so hard. At one point the host had just poured me a nice drink of top notch 15 year old rum, and I said “I‘d love some ice with this” at which point a ice bucket was tossed in the air across the table and a few cubes splashed into my drink...We laughed and I managed one nice sip of my now perfect drink when a tsunami of water from a bucket washed over me and knocked both of our drinks of the table...Damn!....But that was the point I started to engage in the tossing of a few ice cubes back at my attacker, which was a gleeful woman covered in so much glitter she appeared to have on a blue sparkly wig. When the water, ice, booze and glitter were all finally depleted it was time to get back on the truck and they drove us around the city some more as we dried off in the warm night air, everyone honking and waving "Happy Phagwa" It was now about 9pm and some folks were still shooting water guns at us as we passed...the diehard kids milking the event for every last minute they could to launch a last water assault! We even saw a donkey someone had painted red in the face! Poor beast! Eventually we were dropped back home as promised and went to our fave bar for a drink/nightcap. When we finally came back to my place we looked so hilarious that we did a nude photo shoot of our bodies all covered in the multiple layers of ink, glitter and paint! Three days later my clothes are written off, my hair is a nice blend of pink, purple and some rather unfortunate orange at the back, one breast is still quite magenta and my toes and finger nails are purple - otherwise I have scrubbed most of it off.
What will stay with me though most about this festival besides the fun and great sense of abandon was the amazing kindness of our community here. We are all strangers in this strange land and getting invited to the local’s private party was so great, the opportunity to be able to experience the event first hand with the locals, the sharing of drinks and meals, the endearing and warm inclusion we received at the temple I will never forget. Nor the many happy blessings I received as hundreds of warm hands rubbed beautiful coloured ink onto my face and skin and wished me a “Happy Phagwah”. So welcome to spring and I offer the blessing back to all of us of all colours.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mashmarani Parade! - The ultimate endurance event.

Well MASH has come and gone. In the end it was an endurance event, a kind of a marathon with glitter. VSO along with other volunteer aide organizations put together a float to celebrate the international year of the volunteer. (Hats off to Thea who pulled around the clock shifts to get this happening) We other VSO’s were all lucky enough to get to participate in the biggest annual event in Guyana from the inside out.
Mash week started with rain, then more rain, then serious rain, and finally flooding. The day before the national holiday rumours start flying that MASH was about to be cancelled due to a partially flooded parade route (Really! I could not believe that with less than 24 hrs you could attempt to cancel a national public holiday, one in which folks travel from all over the country to attend, and which every work place will be closed and thousands of people have worked weeks to make costumes, floats etc)...Secret emergency meetings are held...and word leaks out that it’s official.. it’s off and an announcement from the govt. is imminent! its back on...or is it off....on, off, on..? As organizers are pulling their hair out and the text messages and phone calls fly..plans are changing by the minute... and then finally the culture minister announces to the country on radio and TV...that MASH is still ON! YAY! So of course that means that the costumes do need to get finished. Two weeks of fun, frantic, semi disorganized costume making in a cool old decrepit colonial building, (with a washroom that sported toads and bats!) and at 24hrs before show time the sewing machines were still going, the glitter was flying and a wee bit of designer drama was brewing. One last shift of costume making with the added complication of a now flooded entrance to the “mash camp”, as the costume making headquarters was called and a late night pizza and then home to get up bright and early for the big day.
The big day arrives and we needed to be at MASH headquarters to “uplift” our costumes by an early start with my full household of guests as we headed out on what turned out to be bright and beautiful sunny day.....flooding, shmooding! While waiting for the mini bus and witnessing the hundreds of vendors start to claim spaces along the parade route to set up bars, food stalls and their massive towers of speakers, we see our local goat herder come down the road with his dear flock of 100 or so goats and kids and his little red flag that purportedly clears their way through the funny and so Guyana. We arrive at Mash camp and the flood waters have retreated, a good sign. Hundreds of volunteers are all trying to fit into the bright orange shorts, head pieces, are cutting and self painting their shirts and soon the room is a sea of orange and gold is great fun getting dressed and painting each other with glitter and trying to find a pair of shorts that are not too big or too small. We eventually are all dressed in our finery and head off to our place as nearly first in parade ten blocks away....and then we wait, and wait and wait some more...Finally we are marshalled to begin with strict orders from our designer/choreographer to stay in three lines (there are about 200 of this seems like a challenge, but in fact is quite strictly enforced until the gruelling end). We look great...the overall effect of a sea of gold and orange is achieved and we are encouraged to wave, dance, whine and do a side to side step dance (but any movement other than walking made my shorts fall down, so improvisation was required to keep them up). Of course the sun is now very hot, and paper head bands, sweat and glitter make a fiercely sticky and challenging combination. The parade itself is a blast despite it’s epic length and the overall heat, some drop out due to heat exhaustion, others to sun burn and some just plain fainted. I hung in there for EFI (every f-ing inch)despite getting beaned in the head by a flying flagpole. We were kept well hydrated in our march lines with drinks, pine tarts and juice provided for the duration. The audience is awesome, all kinds of familes with tarps and bbqs set up, kids with their hairs respendent with decor and a highly festive mood....we whiteys get a few good laughs...and everyone takes your picture!
at times we had to wait...then wait...then oh let’s wait again...for media, interviews, the judges, for other floats to catch up...and well for just plain waiting it seemed. The waiting was hard, there was no shade and man large vinyl neck and cod pieces are heavy and hot as hell to wear especially over top of a too large cotton tshirt and tight in the thigh but loose in the waist nylon orange short that simultaneously felt like they would fall off or split at any moment. Finally three hours later we make it up to the national park to the stadium where we wait outside like a team of gladiators entering an arena to meet the lions...finally the emperor deems it is time for us and in an Olympic like entry we are announced into the stadium and instructed to run and dance...this after three hours of marching and baking in the sun. Well we had no choice, this was the big judging time...and I’m telling you running, staying in your line and keeping your shorts up all at the same time is hard. They played our theme song...again, then again, and oh hell why not let’s play it again. Nearly four laps later we are still running around the stadium while they talked about volunteers and our representation of Athens and Greece (is that our costumes were supposed to be?) we then head to the exit and at the last minute the beautiful Christina from Canada is pulled from the line and asked to be the queen pulling the cart for the last stretch...and then out of the stadium we went and collapsed on the grass.. Whew we did it...I felt like I had completed a triathlon...The parade incidentally goes to nearly 8pm at night, so we were rather thankful of our ranking at the front of the line..Some revellers then march for 7-10 hours!!! We got off easy with a completion time of 3pm.
7 of us ended up back at my nearby flat to strip out of our now seriously compromised costumes, shower, ice our broiled skin and basically try to de-glitter. My flat will never be the same...2 days and several serious clean ups later there is still glitter on everything and even the varnish on the wooden floor seems to be embedded with the stuff and I won’t even discuss the state of the shower....Eventually we were recovered enough that is was deemed time to head out for the street party!
What a night we the end we did have some collateral damage, a pick pocketing, a mob we got caught in, lost glasses, shoes broken, a stolen bike, a poor choice of a midnight snack that made us all sick and quite a few very bad sunburns, ...and it was still such a good time....dancing, singing, saying happy mash to all you meet, feeling the festive vibe and we finally held our mini-wake and lime for our buddy Kane and his mom at his favourite haunt Seeta’s... It was incredible to participate in my first and likely my last ever MASH...Good thing I like glitter as I still seem to have some in every major orifice.