Around town in Georgetown, Guyana

IMGP4510Three of my four days in Guyana were spent in the capital city of Georgetown. There were a couple specific touristy things I wanted to do – see the market and the sea wall mainly – but those were not nearly involved enough to really consume my entire stay. Lacking much of any other guidance or any real semblance of a reasonable tourist infrastructure I found myself doing one of the things I do best: wandering around.

I walked several miles, criss-crossing the northwestern part of the city pretty well and getting to explore some of the less commonly seen parts of the town. Hiding out in a cafe while a storm rolled through or grabbing a healthy dose of curry at one of the scores of local shops, I managed to keep myself busy and mostly out of trouble. I shopped with a couple of the local merchants and generally had a blast.

That said, the city did present itself of multiple personalities throughout my visit. There were the moments where the market seemed like any other I’ve visited around the world – just a bunch of merchants going about their day. And there were times it seemed ready to swallow me up and spit me out, a few pounds (or dollars) lighter. There were definitely times I knew I needed to cross the street but the trouble never really followed.

IMGP4499There were moments that the canals which traverse Georgetown seemed serene and beautiful, nearly akin to those in cities famous for their waterways. But then the stark reality would come creeping back in. The canals in Georgetown are not there for transportation nor are the there for beauty. They are there because the city sits several feet below sea level and receives a ton of rain annually. The canals are a lifeline, allowing the city to collect the huge rainfalls and drain them out to sea at low tide. Unfortunately, however, it isn’t just the rainfall that the canals collect. They become refuse points, gathering waste of both the commercial and human varieties. They are bathing facilities as I witnessed more than once. In many cases the water stagnates, becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes (hooray, Malarone!) and for scents that I’m quite happy I don’t commonly experience. Indeed, the canals, like everything else in town, can be both beautiful and disgusting all at once.

IMGP4473Almost none of the roads in Georgetown have sidewalks. Considering just how much of the population walks that is somewhat surprising. But the folks get by. They simply walk in the street, hugging the edge of the paved area and avoiding the mini-buses that come careening through the roads tapping their horns as both a warning and an apparent musical interlude that accompanies the actual music blasting from their radio systems. No traffic signals for the most part (I think I counted eight in the entire city) but that’s okay because if there is oncoming or crossing traffic you’ll hear them coming. I’m not entirely sure how, but it seems to work out just fine.

On the largest roads, however, accommodation is made for the pedestrians. There is a wide center path – bordered by canals on both sides – providing critical drainage and also an often shaded area for folks walking through town to somewhat enjoy a few minutes without risk of collision with a car or bus. Indeed, being a pedestrian in town can be somewhat harrowing or just a walk in the park. It just depends on the road.

IMGP4501Speaking of the mini-buses, that was certainly an experience. The vans are all numbered and have their route endpoints marked on the front. Of course, unless you actually know where you’re going and what the numbers relate to that is not of much help. After a particularly long bit of walking on my first day I decided to try out the mini-bus service for the mile or so ride back to Stabroek market, the hub in town for all the service. The fare was cheap – I paid GYD $60 (~USD$0.30) and I have no idea if that was more than I should have paid but it seemed to be what everyone else was throwing in so I went with the flow. All locals on the bus – I actually never ran across another tourist outside of a hotel property in my three days in Georgetown – and most seemed to be on their regular daily commute. I saw some folks waiting for a bus even as others passed by, apparently looking for their regular driver.

The bus service was a two man affair. There was the driver and the money man. Just like in Ecuador the money man did all the recruiting, advertising the service by shouting as we drove, grabbing passengers and loading them into the van and also collecting the money. And it was a LOT of money. I know that the bills aren’t worth all that much, but these guys were still walking around with wads of cash that were a couple inches thick. Just a couple hundred US dollars equivalent at most, but that can go a long way in Guyana.

IMGP4474I also saw some of the rather broad housing options that folks in Guyana have. This house was a great example of the multiple personalities that life in Georgetown seems to present. It is a bit beat up, a bit run down. There are windows missing and boarded up. The roof doesn’t look particularly solid and a paint job probably would do more damage to the siding then it would do to help it. But then you look closer and see on the lower roof to the right a satellite dish. They may not have windows or a roof, but they do have satellite TV. You cannot see it in the photo but as I walked by there were a few families camped out in the shade watching the television and relaxing away a hot, sweaty afternoon.

Georgetown, Guyana is a mixture of good and bad, beautiful and decrepit (though those two often go together quite well), vibrant and quiet. One moment – in the shade with a nice breeze blowing in off the ocean – the town seems quite pleasant to wander around. Just seconds later – as the wind dies down and you cross into the blazing sun – Georgetown becomes much closer to representing a festering pit, a steam bath of soupy air that is almost hard to breathe or walk through. A city of many faces but certainly one I have no regrets about visiting. The fact that it is a great jumping off point to a spectacularly beautiful rainforest region is just an added bonus.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.