it’s not a goodbye, guyana

I’m sitting in my classroom at the primary school and outside my door are kids running about on the field.

Falling.
Laughing.
Dancing.
Jumping.
Yelling.
Pushing.

We’re celebrating Phagwah (or Holi), a Hindu festival of colors. The teachers have provided seven curry, the kids are ready to throw powder. I’m just happy to be here.

I’ve caught myself tearing up on my drives back and forth to Georgetown lately. Everytime I recognize how beautiful Berbice is with it’s rice fields and coconut tree forests or when one of my favorite soca songs play on the radio and I remember the people I danced with to them.

I like that I had a “normal” life here. Well, as normal as it might get for an American. One where I woke up in my own house, cooked my own breakfast, sipped on tea in while getting ready for work, washed my clothes in buckets, sat on verandas to gaff, said good morning and good night to my neighbors, went out for beers with friends after a long day, endured painful waits for cars and buses and boats and people, did nothing for days at a time, walked to the market every week, attended weddings and birthdays and dinner parties, paid my bills late and had my electricity cut off, participated in holidays and celebrations in my community, invited people into my house and into my life, and did so everyday for two years.

When I applied for Peace Corps, I half expected my experience to reflect the travel documentaries I love so much. But with how my time here unfolded, I can say that the things that made this experience extraordinary weren’t something I could film, record, or take a picture of. They were the kind of moments that while they were happening, you realized they were special. The kind of moments that could not have happened anywhere else. Moments that are strong enough to leave an impression in your memories, that when you think of them, you know those moments are irreplaceable. Moments you just have to keep to yourself. The ones you just had to be there for.

I had many of those moments.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be starting over again. New town, new home, new strangers. New adjustments, new problems, new lessons. I am filled with excitement and anxiety. Many of you are curious about what’s next for me, but I don’t have any big plans to share with you. There’s a lot pressure to figure something out, but I’m just trying to come back to the US–with Mango, of course–and settle in.

I’ve moved around a lot in my life. From California to Texas to Arkansas to Guyana. You’d think I’d be better at saying goodbye by now, but I decided a long time ago that it’s okay to be an emotional wreck in airports. Leaving people you love never gets easier.


Thank you to my host family.

I wouldn’t have survived without you all. You were my safety and my security in Guyana. I owe any and all the success I’ve had here to how you loved me the last two years. You really treated me like family and welcomed me into your lives with wide open arms. You have been the best part of my service.

Thank you to the friends I’ve made in Guyana.

In a time when I was losing my identity to just being a volunteer, you helped me feel like myself again. Your company saved me in so many ways. I’ve never had friendships like this, even in the US, and I’ll continue to keep them close to me.

Thank you to my fellow PCVs.

We’ve had some good times and some really bad, but we made it to the end. I’m thankful to have done my service with and beside you. We’re all off on new adventures in new places and I wish you all the best.

Thank you to Guyana.

You’re beautiful, generous, and an undiscovered treasure in this world. But you are also one tough-ass country and you made me stronger.

Thank you to you.

My friends and family at home who have taken the time to read all my blogs, emails, and messages from Guyana. Your interest and support has been affirming to me that I’ve got a good team of people on my side. You’ve been understanding and compassionate towards my experiences, and I appreciate how much you’ve cared. I don’t take it for granted.

I’ll be back someday, Guyana.

Love always,
Mel

guyana gold

I was told guyana is rich in gold

it’s in the quiet mornings and still nights
when the choir of crickets and mysterious creatures
sing to me hello and whisper to me goodnight

it’s in the kids I teach
miss! miss! miss!
is there health club today?
god, i love their little faces

it’s in the warm bake
the ones that grandma makes
fresh from her over
sweet, soft, and salty

it’s in the forest of coconut trees
the black mirrored rivers
something I’ve never seen

it’s in the days I have to myself
to read and cook
quietly alone in my little home

it’s in practicing peace and contentment
mastering the art of doing nothing
relax you poor american
allow yourself to be ok with boredom

it’s in the calls I get
the letters, emails, and care packages
friendly reminders that I’m loved and remembered

it’s in the friends I’ve made
the fun times we’ve had
dancing and drinking
laying in beds gaffing
sleepovers and game nights
cookouts and cricket

it’s in the stars
I had never seen so many
the galaxy shining so clearly
the universe wrapped around me

it’s in the process of unlearning
letting go of a past self
embracing who I am now
entering a world different than mine
learning to appreciate it
respect it
equally as my own

it’s in what I’ve seen
what I’ve touched
what I’ve felt
what I don’t understand
what I can’t explain

it’s in the reasons I’ve stayed
the reasons I’ve grown
the reasons I’ve changed

I found my guyana gold
and I’ll never be the same.

here

last week, i spent five days hiking through the amazon with eight soulful women up to kaieteur falls.

it started off with a long bus ride on the lethem highway. during the day, you can see how the red road digs its way through the jungle. each dangerous dip and sharp turn was accompanied by a mix of soca, madonna, enrique iglesias, and everyone’s favorite early 2000s r&b/hip hop classics. just another day in a mini bus.

after a quick break, we took another drive through a small town towards the potaro river where we waited in the rain for our boat to take us across to our first camp site. the river is so different in the night. the water is dauntingly still, it was like gliding across liquid glass.

the next day, we took a long boat ride through the potaro river onto amatuk where we would rest before hiking up to kaieteur falls. the sun revealed the living jungle beside us, how it traces along the river. and then there were the mountains that overlook guyana and the mysterious things that inhabit it. i’m far from home.

at the bottom of the mountain, we had a couple warm up hikes where we fell into creeks, bruised our butts on broken branches, unintentionally swung on vines, and constantly slipped on rocks. as we were leaving the first waterfall, i stayed back to take in my surroundings again and was delighted by the company of two blue morpho butterflies dancing together wildly in the wind. i wish i could’ve joined them.

at the guest house, conversations ran deep as we often share our pains and frustrations with service when we get together. but this time with a greater acceptance of the things we’ve seen, experienced, and have survived from. we’ve all lived our own hard life here in guyana but have found strength, resiliency, connection, healing, growth, knowledge, empathy, generosity, understanding of ourselves, understanding of others, and even love because of it. we sense the end is nearing and we feel relieved in a way, but also sad. it’s the final chapter of this book.

finally, we begin our hike to kaieteur falls.

roy, our tour guide, tells us to remain vigilant towards snakes on the ground.

“ok yea, got it. watch out for snakes.”

*side note: everything on the ground resembles a snake.

we step into the breathing green jungle–the layers of giant leaves i’ve only had the pleasure of painting are now brushing against my sweaty skin, the symphony of sounds singing in my ears from the life hidden in the trees, no barriers or beaten path to follow–it was such an unfamiliar world to me.

a few hours later, the canopy of leaves begin to open up and the soil beneath our feet suddenly turns granite. legs are burning, chest is tighting, it was no walk in the park. we’ve reached the top. roy pauses and tells us to close our eyes.

ready? he said.

hand by hand, we’re safely led out to the ledge.

one, two, three.

the excitement overwhelmed us all.
i’m certain none of us had ever been in the presence of anything so beautiful
especially this city slicker

~ the fog and mist kept teasing us
only giving us a glimpse of kaieteur
until it hid him completely
but even the little that we saw was incredible.

we headed back to the cabin to finally put our heavy backpacks down and get out of our sweaty, smelly clothes. we’ll have better luck tomorrow.

though we were sore and sleepy after dinner, we couldn’t wait for the next day and decided to walk to the falls.

i thought it was magnificent before, but the darkness only brought out it’s majesty more.

i remember standing there wondering, how do I make this last?
my first instinct was to take a picture, but my screen only showed black.
it was like the moon only wanted my eyes to see it–how it illuminates kaieteur, brightening the masses of water that jump off the mountain and down into an uncultivated valley.

the moon put it all into perspective.

exist in this moment
breathe in what you see
breathe out what you feel
accept where you are
lean into it
be here.
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love always,
mel

projects and progress

With four months and something days left in my peace corps service, things are coming down to the wire. I’m not sure I used that expression correctly, but either way, I’m in the middle of my project to increase health promotion at the primary school level and time is starting to run out!

Let’s back track for a moment. I don’t work at the hospital anymore, by choice and by circumstance. I won’t go into details as to why but things just weren’t going well there so I turned my attention towards what I could do for the kids I taught at the school.

Alright, back to what I was saying about my current project. I started applying for a grant via PC’s Small Grant Program in May. I spent a few months putting it together trying really hard to involve my counterparts in the process. By the end of August, we had submitted our application and waited for PC Guyana and HQ to give us the green light. It took a couple weeks from that point for us to get approved and funded. After that, we waited patiently-ish for the check to arrive in Guyana (only 2 weeks ago) so we could start the implementation process.

My project consists of 3 parts.

PART 1: Starting a health club

Last school year, I taught HFLE alongside two fabulous teachers. Together, we started the health club at the school and so far it’s been great. Unfortunately but understandably, my partners have not been able to participate in many of the meetings. Nonetheless, over 40 students have attended at least one health club meeting! We’ve so far touched on topics such as self-awareness and self-esteem, body image, and friendships.

My favorite one so far has been our meeting about friendship. The goal was to allow the kids to practice getting to know each other and how to give a gift to someone based on the person’s interests… not theirs. I had the kids partner up and interview each other with questions like “What’s your favorite color? number? animal? food? game?” Afterwards, I had them make friendship bracelets for one another based on what they learned about their friend. Inevitably, beads bounced everywhere… but they loved it so I wasn’t that vexed.

Although the health club has been loads of fun, it’s also been really hectic… With little space and limited supplies, my kids are scrunched up and eager to get their hands on what’s there for them to use before it runs out. But even so, they are enjoying themselves and it makes me super happy when kids run up to in the middle of the week asking “Is there health club today?”

Sadly, I don’t know that this club will continue after I leave.. but at least for now, the kids are getting to experience it.

 

PART 2: Developing the Kid’s Learning Center

The purpose of this room is to connect education to technology. We currently have 4 computers with no practical benefit to the 700+ students at the school. With the new renovations and the addition of a projector, we’re hoping that more students will be able to experience the use of technology in their lessons.

I’ve run into a quite a few bumps in the road getting this room together. Starting off with the construction of the furniture. Alongside the local carpenter I hired for the project, we collected the prices and the materials to build the new furniture. The furniture is meant to maximize the space within the room. He constructed 3 long and thin benches with matching desks and a computer shelf  to fit in the back of the class. With this furniture, we are able to fit a maximum of 20 students comfortably at a time. That’s almost 3x’s more than before. The furniture was built in two days and painted in three, thanks to the local carpenter and my amazingly generous friends.

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We’ve worked almost 2 weeks straight on this part of the project and hopefully by the end of this weekend, it will be completely finished. Initially, two men volunteered to paint the room… but after much thought, I decided to give the task to women.

Even though it is typical for a male to do this kind of labor, I felt like it was an opportunity to show young girls AND young boys that women can do a man’s job. Maybe it will prove that these tasks aren’t limited to a single gender or maybe help break some of the stereotypes that restrict girls from learning specific skills.

At least, that’s the hope. I’m also prepared for the criticism and critique of close-minded individuals who will turn their heads and say they could’ve done better. But I’m also confident that this opens up an opportunity for girls to see themselves not only capable one day, but equal too.

PART 3: Teacher Development

My project is centered around helping the primary school support health promotion and equipping the staff to empower the youth, specifically girls, to take ownership of their health.

This portion of the project has also been challenging. Today, a workshop my colleagues and I have been working hard to put together fell through. That’s just how it goes sometimes–things don’t work out and you have to move on. However, my headmaster and I quickly came up with a solution and I think it will work out for the best. Cross my fingers.

Using the newly developed Kid’s Learning Center, I will hold a workshop series on gender equity. For three days, there will be an hour set aside when school gets out to work with the teachers. I’ve hired a private contractor for the Ministry of Social Cohesion to facilitate a session to help bring awareness to teachers on gender inequity in Guyana. The following two days, my fierce friend and I will continue the conversation on gender stereotypes/norms, how it impacts the health of the student, and how teachers can implement gender equitable practices into their classroom.


 

On paper, this all looks perfect.

But in reality, nothing up to this point has gone smoothly or according to plan. Which, at times, has left me feeling deeply disappointed and hopeless with volunteer guilt. It doesn’t always feel like these projects matter when you look at the greater needs of a developing country or when you’re not sure if your project will be carried on after you leave. That’s just the truth. But I’m taking a shot at it anyway, hoping that my aim towards sustainability is a step forward somewhere for this little corner of Guyana.

Love always,
Mel

happy international girl’s day

Today, I did a fun activity with the girls in the health club centered around what it meant to be a girl. I had a poster with different cut out photos of women I found in the Peace Corps magazines I get. I loved it because there were real women inside. No gimmicks, no sell, no photoshop, no reason for them to be anything else but a total woman. In the middle, I wrote “GIRLS ARE…” and I allowed them to paste words to finish the sentence.

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GIRLS ARE…
Strong
Smart
Willing
Love
Brave
Doctors
Beautiful
Scientists
Dancers
Kind
Mothers
Helpful
Police Officers
Awesome
Librarians
Lawyers
Powerful
Healthy

And my personal favorite…

Anything.

The boys were a little confused to find out our activity was focused on just the girls. I reassured them that next month we will celebrate international boy’s day and most ran off to play during lunch. One boy stayed behind though and participated in the “GIRLS ARE…” activity. I was happy and relieved this young boy didn’t take this opportunity to say something mean, but actually wrote more than a few nice things about what he thought about girls. Gave him a fist bump for being a true gentleman.

It was a fun and frazzled hour trying to make sure the girls had enough art supplies to share and make their posters as beautiful as they are. Their papers created a world that appreciated and adored their intelligence, their bravery, and their abilities. Where they were praised for their brains and their beauty. It was enough to make anyone cry. I felt sad knowing my girls are headed into a war zone for their rights, but hopeful that they’ll become who they want to be and continue to believe they are more than just a pretty face.

I wish everyday could be like International Girl’s Day, where we’re celebrated for being female rather than castrated, shamed, hurt, controlled, manipulated, abused, assaulted, isolated, underpaid, mistreated, and blamed for being the opposite sex. But this is the world we still live in and the fight to change it is far from over.

speaking creolese

I get asked a lot what language people speak in Guyana.
Let me just say that it’s a little difficult to explain.

If you didn’t know, people in Guyana speak Creolese; which to the best of my knowledge, is essentially a spoken language formulated by a mix of others that have influenced the country through out its history (via colonization, immigration, trade etc). There is no single Creolese language. Depending on where you are in the West Indes/Caribbean the mixture changes.

In Guyana, Creolese is British English based with hints of Awarak (indigenous language), Hindi, Dutch, and Afrikaans. It was challenging to understand and speak at first, but I’m comfortable enough now that I don’t have to think about it too hard anymore.

I’ll do my best to give you an understanding of Creolese, but I don’t think that I could do any justice explaining how its grammar or spelling works here. Here are some of the phrases and expressions I hear/use the most to get around Guyana and how I would translate it into American English:


oh shucks // oh shucks, me forget to call she!
kind of like oh shit, but more polite; used when you forgot something, when you learned some new gossip about someone’s auntie, or when you realize the time gone by

jus’ now // yea yea jus’ now my friend.
used when you want to say “hold on” or “wait” or “I’ll get to it eventually”. There’s no telling when though, but just when I’m ready. That could either be in 2 seconds, 2 weeks, months… years

w’em deh (wa-uhm-deh) //  w’em deh gyal? I ain see you for a long time nah.
this means what’s up? what are you up to?

leh we go //  come, leh we go
when you’re getting people together to leave at one time

me nah no // me na no, he gone out since the afternoon.
I don’t know

don trouble wid he/she/it // don trouble wid he, lef him dere.
don’t even bother, you’re wasting ya time

me nah able // me nah able wid dat. 
I can’t dude, I just can’t.

w’happen (wuh-happen) // w’happenin dere?
what happened or what’s up

don tek stress // nah man, don tek stress. it gonna happen!
don’t worry about it, let it go

go long/ go on so // HELLO, GO ON SO!
you’re telling someone to go away or to be somewhere other than here

pickneys // dem pickneys be showin’ off bad.
children

fuh truth // fuh truth, da sun hot bad.

yous problem // mel, yous problem gyal
basically when you’re being ridiculous and making others laugh

please for *insert item* // please for a banks (local beer)
when you’re asking for something

you gettin’ fat // look at he belly,  he gettin’ fat
usually means you look good or healthy… or that you are indeed getting fat–don’t take it personally

catchin’ a ting // ehhh she catch a ting nah!
you’re seeing someone *winks

up the road, over the river // she livin’ up the road or over the river
depending on where you, this is how you give directions. if you’re from east berbice, this means up the main road of new amsterdam or over the berbice bridge to region 5

come // come jeremiah! or come nah man!
get your ass over here or “ugh seriously”

how you do // good night, how you do?
how are you?

alright, alright
usually said as someone is passing by; kind of like you guys are acknowledging that you see one another by don’t want to ask how you do or say good day

pull in da corner
my host mom says this to me when cars are passing by and she doesn’t want me to get hit by one of them

push ya body // why you so slow, push ya body
hurry up, get movin’


 

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I’m sure I’m leaving out some other common phrases/expressions, but these are just the ones off the top of my head that I use pretty often. Try them out! Don’t fret if you don’t understand it or get the accent right away. You get the hang of where the he’s and she’s and me’s and we’s go in your sentences and people will start to say, “You a proper Guyanese now!”

 

Love always,
Mel