The Guyana Diaries: A Habitat For Humanity Trip
On occasion, I sit down and examine my life, realizing how lucky I am to have a loving and supportive boyfriend, family and friends, glamorous job, fabulous dog and an apartment that I will fully own in another 28 ½ short years. This inevitably leads to me to think of those less fortunate and I end up on Volunteermatch.org, trawling for some sort of work that would help someone else feel as lucky as I feel. Being an architect, my interests lie in the built environment, so I decided to go on a Global Village Habitat for Humanity trip, rather randomly choosing my destination by checking out which trips only lasted a week and, of those, the place which I could arrive at via the cheapest flight. So, Guyana it was!
I was lucky in that I had randomly chosen the only English speaking country in South America. I did no research prior to the trip beyond finding out that Guyana is currently safe for tourists but one should not drink the Kool-aid. Despite the travel insurance provided by Habitat, I decided to go all the way in medical preparation and got Hepatitis A & B shots, a tetanus shot, malaria medication and a yellow fever shot. To pay for the trip, I had to raise $1280 which I did through online donations from those aforementioned supportive family and friends. I packed the night before my trip, which would not be worth mentioning except for the fact that I would quickly discover I was poorly prepared for the oscillation between 100 degree heat and the pouring rain.
After a full day of travel made to seem even longer because of a six-hour layover in the Barbados airport, I arrived in Georgetown, Guyana. I quickly became aware that I stood out, being one of perhaps six Caucasians. This made it easy for the team leader Jad (an American who grew up in Lebanon, which afforded him the ability to write amusing little ditties in more than one language) to spot me and my fellow teammates as we were herded through customs. We were also met by two of the Guyanese Habitat affiliates, Jason and Delroy, and the bus driver and his twin brother. The team members that arrived on my flight were Bob (an upbeat nurse from Long Island who always had a story and a joke ready), Dolly (a former caterer from New Hampshire with a quick wit), Charlie (an international sales manager for Fender active in his local Habitat organization), and Cassandra (an electrician who had the unique experience of once working at the South Pole).
We all boarded the bus and set off for the hotel, which was an hour away. My first impressions of the country (beyond the airport bathroom which had no electricity and was bathed in blackness) came from that ride - not the sights, as it was late at night, but rather the many smells of Guyana. We were bombarded by one olfactory explosion after another, including, but not limited to: garbage, manure, beer hops and potash. We arrived at the hotel without incident and met more of our teammates. The other team leader, Lacy (who owns and operates a performing arts school in Alabama and was Jad's lady-love) gave us our room assignments as Cindy (who started her career in the army, followed by a stint as a prison guard, guarding the uni-bomber among other illustrious criminals, then onto a career in immigration and now back to school) sat enjoying a Banks beer. Lisa (a native of Canada, working in physical therapy but gearing up to go to medical school) bemoaned her missing luggage which she would not get for another 2 days. Dolly and I headed up to our room, trying not to disturb Michelle (another Canadian and a former corrections officer) any more than the continuously running tub already was. After dumping our bags, we headed back to the bar to dine on cheese sandwiches and watch the news, which focused on the Guyanese Minister of Agriculture who had been assassinated that day.
The following morning, a Sunday, after a breakfast that I will assume was bread, eggs and fruit based on the fact that all the breakfasts were pretty much the same, we boarded the bus to head for the botanical gardens and zoo. I began to get further acquainted with my team, which by then also included John (a Canadian lawyer who had been on a Habitat trip to Guyana the year before) and Steve (a Philadelphian business consultant who was about to begin working towards a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology). I really have nothing remarkable to report from the garden and little that merits comment from the zoo besides its sadly dilapidated state and grotesquely thin greeter (a dog chained to a tree near the entry), which I would soon discover was not an uncommon state for a dog to be in -- obviously nursing and rib-poking-out thin.
We returned to the hotel and met with the Guyanese affiliates to hear about the task ahead. I wish I could report on what was said, but I could only hear perhaps 2% of the conversation since the fan was loud and the woman soft spoken. We wrapped up our day by walking along the sea-wall -- the "cruise" for the Georgetownians. Men, women and children alike all came out to sit on the wall, chat with friends, buy beer from vendors, and hit on each other. I stuck close to my team, as I was pretty sure no one would mistake me for a native, and, with so much beer flowing, I feared an incident that never materialized.
The following morning, our final team member, Chris (a Californian who does visual effects for movies) arrived. Before boarding the bus, Lacy read us a list of a few reasons each of us said motivated us to come on this trip- a reminder that we were helping out those in need and bonding with like-minded people from all over North America in the process. We then headed for the job site, over an hour away. We passed hundreds of houses that to our privileged eyes seemed to be sub-standard. Stray dogs roamed the streets, as did emaciated cows and street gangs of goats. Most houses sat on stilts, though the shanties sat directly on the ground, dangerously close to the open canals. Even the churches were on stilts and the graves in their yards were conspicuously above-ground. Naked children played in the canals and parents sat on their front porches, lethargic due to the onslaught of the heat which would only get worse.
We crossed a huge floating bridge (the 3rd largest in the world, I believe) and finally arrived at the building site. All 13 of us piled out of the van where the CMU foundations of four buildings were erected. As we were by no means skilled, but completely willing, our task would be to fill those four foundations with sand which was deposited at the street. The sand would need to be shoveled into wheelbarrows, wheeled across the ditch on a 10" wide board, ramped up over the block foundation walls and dumped in. After coating ourselves in 45 sun block, we took to the task like cats to water. The immense heat was stifling enough that we all sweated out the gallons of water we were drinking. Despite being advised to wear long pants on the construction site, I quickly discovered that shorts were the way to go, as was space-age sweat-wicking material. We shared lunch with Shaniqua, the dog that soon became the mascot. Games were made to pass the time working. Before Cindy and I would shovel sand into a wheelbarrow, its operator had to name an adjective that described the bridge they had to cross. The first few adjectives were words like "treacherous" and "wonky" but eventually we hit adjectives like "moist". When we tired of that game, we played a bit of "would you rather" before tiring of expending extra energy to make the task fun. We wrapped up the day at around four and headed backs to the hotel, uncomfortable in our own stinky bodies, but determined to return earlier from then on to avoid the heat of the day.
The days that followed were much the same. On most days, work would have to continue in sudden refreshing downpours, but even then, the heat never subsided. Some of the team was disappointed that we didn't get to do tasks other than shoveling; while other teammates felt that we should be satisfied doing whatever was most needed. When we went to the local affiliates, they were unable to provide us with other tasks, but they did hire extra workers to help us finish the sand shoveling a little earlier so we could pour concrete on the last day. It seemed sad to me that had I just donated the money it was taking me to make the trip, I could have paid one worker for 6 months of labor. Had we been able to rent a front loader for part of the cost of 13 people's trip fees, would the local affiliate have been able to come up with other tasks for us? I don't know.
In the evenings, Lacy and Jad scheduled activities like a trip around town and to the market, a tour of the brewery, and card games with push-ups doled out by the winner to the losers.
One evening, we went to Joshua House, the local orphanage. It was moving to see dozens of kids vying for attention, as they posed for picture after picture, racing towards the photographer directly afterwards to see the digital image, pointing excitedly and yelling out, "That me!" Several girls braided my hair, while Chris swung kids around by their arms. Bob taught the kids magic tricks. and Lisa exchanged email addresses with a young girl. A few girls questioned me as to what movies Chris was in (someone had told the children that California is where they make movies, so they drew their own wrong conclusion). One child, an 11-year-old named Althea, held my hand and kissed my cheek, telling me she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. It broke my heart to not be in a position to offer a home to one of the children, though like some teammates, I vowed to myself that I'd send a package to the orphanage when I returned to New York .
The final day at the site was particularly exciting, as we had finished up all the shoveling and were going to pour the concrete slab. Unfortunately, materials are hard to procure in Guyana , so Habitat was lucky to get gravel at all. We had quite a wait during which we all played cards and rested up in the wheelbarrows. When the gravel finally did show up, the work was more difficult since gravel is quite a bit harder to shovel than sand and concrete harder to keep in the wheelbarrows. Our workday wrapped up shortly thereafter, and we climbed back on the bus for the trip home.
That night, we met with the affiliates to discuss what worked and what didn't work on our Habitat experience. I spoke up about the wait for the materials and the fact that if only one task is offered, some people might not be able to work at all, as was the case with Lacy whose shoulder was messed up and ended up functioning solely as team support. Unfortunately, despite everyone's earlier complaints, I was the only one who spoke up, making me feel like a complainer. Certificates of appreciation were handed out, as we wildly applauded in support of each other.
Later that evening, we celebrated both our week together and Steve's 53rd birthday. We went to a fancy hotel and ate a buffet and danced to live music as we hung on to our last moments together. We would have one more day together, but, without our shovels, would we be able to relate to each other?
The following morning, we took a bus to the airport and were weighed to make sure none of us was more dense than we looked. After a short wait, we boarded the tiny plane - so small that John had to sit up front with the pilot. After a somewhat sick-making flight, we began to circle down over Kaieteur Falls , the world's tallest single-drop waterfall at 741 feet. The view was breathtaking! We disembarked and took a hike around the area, studying the indigenous plant life (much of it carnivorous) and viewing the falls from several different vantage points. We got back on the plane and flew to a resort to sit on the beach for 2 hours before flying back to Georgetown .
Dinner that night was the last time I'd see many of my teammates, which made it a bittersweet meal. I really was ready to get back to city life, but if this trip was anything like my trip to Tinos, Greece to study stone sculpture at Dellatolas Studio, I'd keep in touch with one or two people for a few months maybe, then move on. Little did I know then that two weeks later I'd get an email from Dolly suggesting an East Coast reunion in the Fall, and on that same day, I'd begin filling out the paperwork to become a team leader myself, proposing a trip next Spring to Ukraine or possibly Romania.
The final morning, half of us got up at some ungodly hour to catch our flight which would end up being 3 hours late anyway. After about an 11-hour layover in the Barbados airport, I finally arrived in my native land at 3:30 AM, exhausted and fulfilled in a way I had never before experienced. I caught a cab, musing over my past week, as I took the journey into Manhattan . What a welcome sight it was when I spotted our neighborhood homeless transvestite clad in a pink jogging suit yelling at something or someone I couldn't see. Ah, home!
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