On Anonymity

SRPS_children

Some of the 500+ children at my school. Every single one knew my name.

I spent six years living in a city of 8 million people.

In this city, you had everything. Saw all shapes, sizes, and colors of people. Heard any number of languages spoken on the street. Smelled food from all over the world.
In this city, there was little space for privacy, but plenty for anonymity. You could weep on the subway train without shame, knowing chances were you’d never see any of those people again. You could let curses fly at the man who harassed you, secure in the knowledge your language would never get back to your mother. You could impulsively kiss a young man on the dance floor, and the only impact it would have the next day would be in your respective memories.

I spent the past two years living in a village of just a few thousand.

In this village, I was The Other. Because of the color of my skin, a few shades lighter than anyone else’s. Because of my strange accent, so much less musical and expressive than the local Creolese. Because of my American passport. Because I was unmarried and childless at 28, and when I first arrived, the only young woman in the village with short hair. Any of these would have set me apart. In combination, they ensured I would never be completely able to blend in. It was not the first time I’ve been a visible minority, but it was the first time I’d been one for such an extended period (and it gave me newfound respect for people who are “The Other” for their entire lives).

In New York City, I was a small woman with a mostly-shaved head and I was instantly forgettable. I used to go to concerts, dance parties, dinners alone and no one batted an eye. Craving privacy, I used to take refuge in the mixed crowds of humanity, of the constantly changing population of the place.

Even before I landed in Guyana, I suspected that would have to change, but I don’t think I fully anticipated the degree to which it would. I went from anonymous bystander to local celebrity in a matter of days, and it was more than a little strange. To be honest, I hated it. I felt eyes on me all of the time, had to carefully consider every word that dropped from my mouth lest it be heard and reported. I learned that “Miss”, the local shorthand for a female teacher, was a term of respect, but also a subtle warning: you are expected to earn that respect 24/7. I learned that in Guyana, people will frankly comment on your physical appearance as a matter of course, and for me, that was a constant reminder of my paleness, the strangeness of my straight brown hair, my lack of makeup, my choice of dress.

To integrate into my community, I had to hide certain parts of myself, especially at first. The me that would let loose at dance parties never existed in Guyana. Neither did the me that sometimes liked to go out with her hair coiffed into a little mohawk, or the me that liked to drink whiskey neat, or the me that could be a bit brazen. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was always myself, just a different version of myself from before. In my village, I will always be Miss Gabi. Miss Gabi never used to wear anything cut higher than her knees, and the one time she wore shorts reaching to mid-thigh, it was talked about for days. Miss Gabi only drank on Saturdays, and even then it was never more than two beers. Miss Gabi always smiled at you while passing and said “Good morning” or “Good afternoon”. Miss Gabi never flirted with men, and never cursed. Miss Gabi almost never went out after dark, and when she did, it was never alone.

I might be making this sound like playacting, and it was and it wasn’t. We all play roles over the course of our lives. Mine was true to myself and consciously chosen, as I realized that one of the deepest impacts I could potentially make in my community was to be a role model to young people who in some cases needed one desperately. At times it felt exhausting and overwhelming, a weight of watchfulness and potential gossip I shouldered daily.

But over time, I found myself growing to love parts of my newfound celebrity. For one, it meant that I was always protected in my community. I’d often hear sips from strangers on the waterfront, only to hear “Don’ trouble miss!” from another young man from my village. It also meant that I would be greeted by the village children like a famous person every single day, with delighted “Miss GABI!”s and hugs. It gave me power to speak up and speak out, as when a commission visited to assess the state of local education, and the teachers asked me to be their mouthpiece (not only did I not have to worry about losing my job, but by virtue of my Americanness, I was considered an authority on pretty much any intellectual subject). It meant I always had a front-row seat to any local events, and sometimes was asked to serve as a judge (which, if nothing else, makes for a fun story). And I found, too, that acting happy all of the time translated into a lot of actual happiness. I would say hello and smile and most of the time I’d get a beautiful smile in return.

Over the last week, as I said goodbye to my community, I was never more thankful for the speed of village gossip and my lack of anonymity. It meant that every day was a gift; as people heard that I was leaving, they began emerging from the woodwork to thank me and tell me what I had meant to them. A parent of a child at the school stopped me in the road. “Some of the other foreign visitors would go drinking and partying,” he said, “but not you, Miss. It can’t have been easy, but thank you for being such a good role model for our children.” An ancient-looking woman at the post office shook my hand and told me her great-granddaughter was one of the children whose reading improved as a result of my lessons. I was the guest of honor at several assemblies, dinners, and lunches. Bathed in love and appreciation, it was easy to forget the difficulties of otherness.

In a few days I will slip back into anonymity, back to my beloved New York City, where the act of not-noticing is almost an art. Part of me is immensely relieved; a burden feels lifted. But along with it, a loss. Walking down the sidewalks, I will always half-expect a little smiling face to pop out of nowhere and say “Miss Gabi!” But those darling faces will be a world away.
I will be missing them.

Co-blog alert! “10 Reasons Samoa and Guyana are the Same (not really, but kinda)”


My dear friend and fellow Peace Corps Blog It Home winner, Zack, asked me to co-write a blog post about all of the hilariously unexpected similarities between our two distinctive and distant countries of service: Guyana and Samoa. From floor-coverings to time management, dairy products to playground games, bingo to brooms, there’s something to surprise everyone. Go read our creation on his excellent blog, Coconut to the Head.

QUIZ: Are You a Well-Integrated Guyana PCV?

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And now for something a little different…

With less than 30 days left in my service (!!!), I have finally done what I’ve longed to do for a while… create a Buzzfeed-style quiz about the Peace Corps Guyana experience. Integration — understanding and blending into the local community — is essential to a good service. This quiz will let you know how integrated you are on a scale of Clueless American to Full Guyanese.

Head over to “Are You a Well-Integrated Guyana PCV?” at Playbuzz.com… and let me know your results in the comments!

On Loss

My dear friend, post-manicure.


As the end of my Peace Corps service draws closer and closer, I have found myself preparing to mourn. Mourn the loss of the lushly brilliant stars, and the electric blue butterflies that float across my path; the perfumed perfection of fresh mangoes, and the peaceful expanse of palm-dotted savannas. But most of all, preparing to mourn my family here, the people of my village; the loss of our proximity and all it has brought.
“I gon miss yuh so bad when yuh go.”

The daughter of my adopted “Moruca mom” told me this almost daily for the last couple of months. About my age, but developmentally delayed, she heard I was going and with the obsessive fixation of a child, could not let it go. We would be reading a storybook or choosing what stickers to put on her freshly painted nails, and out of nowhere she would say it again. She even named a doll after me, an honor reserved for her closest friends. She told me that when I left, she would just “hug up she dolly.”

So yes, I was preparing to mourn her. But.

Last week she fell ill. She got sick sometimes; she had some digestive issues, and we all figured it was that.

But then, suddenly, she was much worse. And, within a few hours, had slipped into a coma. Rushed in a speedboat to the nearest better-equipped hospital, two hours away, she died just a day later.

She died.

I was not expecting to mourn her this way.

Growing up in the incredible privilege the United States affords has given me great faith in doctors and hospitals. I heard she was going out to a better facility and felt relieved, thought, “They will find the problem and they will make it right. She will be home in a few days.” My Guyanese friends and neighbors knew better. They have grown up with a public health system marked by absent equipment, drug shortages, long waits, and crumbling facilities. They knew this might happen, but they tried to do their best for her anyway.

And after death, yet another nightmare. Here in Guyana, the family is responsible for buying and applying ice to cool the body – once every 3-4 hours. Here in Guyana, a family member is required to witness the autopsy (not just ID the body). Would you be able to face that, as a parent? I know I wouldn’t. They opted out.

In life, without available equipment and expertise, no one ever really knew what was at the root of her disability. And in death, with the postmortem made an unacceptable burden on the family, no one will ever really know what was at the root of her passing.

More than ever before, I have felt helpless anger at the state of things here and my inability to change them. More than ever before, I have felt keenly the unfairness of chance: born in the US, and on average you’ll live to 79. Born in Guyana, and on average you’ll live to 66. In the US, we have group homes. In Guyana, she had her tireless family, especially her mother, who was her nonstop caretaker for over 30 years.

But dwelling on all of that won’t bring her back. She was the type of friend who could instinctively tell when you were hurting, and stopped everything to comfort you. She was always there to lift you up. So in the last few days, in whatever moments we can steal, we who loved her have been sharing our favorite memories, lifting ourselves out of the darkness with her help.

Once we went swimming at a little boat landing. The day was blazing hot, but she didn’t want to get in the water. After much coaxing, she finally waded in – and for the next couple hours, had us all laughing with her sheer delight.

I would go see her sometimes to give her a manicure with some polishes I brought and adorable little nail stickers my friends sent in care packages. She would always spend ages choosing the stickers she wanted, but as for the polish? She chose fire-engine red every time. Good taste.

When my friend Annie wrote me a letter telling me she was pregnant, I went to their house to share the news. She looked at me for a second and said “Annie gettin’ a little baby gyirl.” I started to smile but her mother said, “She really predicts these things y’know. You wait and see.” A few months later, Annie had a little baby girl.

Weeks ago, we went to visit a friend’s farm, about half an hour drive. After spending the afternoon there and heading back in the night, she was exhausted. The two of us were sitting in the back of the village chief’s pickup. Without saying a word, she moved my bag off of my lap and laid her head down there instead. Within a minute or two, she was fast asleep.

After getting some rough news from back home, I came by their house. I didn’t say a word before she jumped out of her chair, strode to the doorway, and threw her arms around me in a long, warm hug. She gave the best hugs in the world.

She loved to see my cat on the rare occasions I would take him out on a leash. She would pet him so gently, as if he might break. Once he wriggled out of the leash in their yard and ran to hide under an old minibus undergoing repairs. She was horrified. “LOOK!” she shouted, pointing under the bus. “HE GET AWAY!”

A few days before she died, I went over for my daily gaff with her mom. We were talking of this and that when we both realized that behind us, something more interesting was happening. She and her little niece were playing school together, the little niece doing a pitch-perfect impression of a Guyanese nursery school teacher. Over the next half-hour, she schooled her aunt in spelling, handwriting, counting (“Wrong! You leff out de FIVE!”), how to pray, and all the words of the national pledge and the national anthem. It was so unbearably sweet and funny – the earnest baby teacher, the striving older pupil – that her mother and I sat shaking with silent laughter for a good while.

The last book I read to her was, of course, Frozen. In the middle of a scene with a prince, she declared, “Gabi, I so glad for you to marry a nice rich man!” At the end, when the sisters’ love for one another saves them, I turned to her and said, “They feel like you do about your sisters.” She said, “Oh yes, I love my sisters.” (She has 3 of them, and 3 brothers.)

The last time I spoke to her was on the phone. She was about to be discharged from her first hospital visit – the second, final one was still not expected by anyone. But she was uncomfortable and wanted to go home right away, so at her mom’s request I spoke to her to calm her down a little.
“You can’t go shouting up around sick people,” I said. “You might frighten them! Please try not to. I know you’re scared, but you’ll be coming home jus now.”
“OK Gabi,” she said. “I’ll be good.”
“Good. I love you,” I said.
“Love you!” she replied.

I never expected to mourn her this way. And yes, I feel anger and yes, I feel a deep sadness. But I also feel so much gratitude. Because to know her, to love her, to be loved by her, was such an incredible gift. It’s something I will cherish for the rest of my life.

“I gon miss yuh so bad when yuh go,” she said. We all prepare to mourn, even angels.

Natural States: Weather in Guyana

An array of local crafts showcases one of Guyana’s call names: The Land of Many Waters. But water isn’t always plentiful.


In Guyana, just as in the U.S., small talk often centers around the weather. 

“Me nah able wi dis sun.”
“Place hot bad, bai.”

“When de rain gon stop?” 

In the U.S., this talk often feels safe – everyone experiences weather, but no one gets too fired up about it. But here in Guyana, the weather influences our day to day lives far more than it ever did back home. Talk of climate change becomes a lot more pertinent when you are so dependent on the rain and sun. 

Farmers, no matter where they are in the world, are attuned to the weather – Guyana is no different. But, with most farming out here meaning small hand-tended local plots, there is no real recourse in cases of flooding or drought. Irrigation and drainage systems are what they were hundreds of years ago: ditches and pails. Big farms in developed countries can afford interventions like importing water, pumping out floods, seeding clouds. Guyana cannot. So when things go bad, the food supply goes bad too. One reason cassava is a staple crop in my village? It happily grows in bad soil, and tolerates changes in weather well. 

Turn on the news during the American winters and no doubt you’ll see evidence of how snowstorms have shut down one place or another – halting vehicles in their tracks, closing airports. In Guyana, rain has the power to shut things down too – whether it’s from too much, or too little. When the water is too low for boats to come into the village, expect shortages of food, goods, gas. When the water is so high that the roads flood and become pits of mud, expect the same, if not worse. 

Georgetown, the capital, was built below sea level – and regular floods mean breakdowns in businesses and government offices. At my village school, our “catchment area” (or zoned district) is rather large. Children travel to school daily by bus, canoe, speedboat, and on foot (sometimes walking several miles each way). When it rains heavily, school attendance drops dramatically – and this is due to both the difficulties of getting to school, and also the uptick in sickness that comes with flooding. (You see, bad things can happen when latrines and sprayed farmland flood and contaminate the larger water supply.) When it’s blazingly hot, children come to school, but with headaches, faintness, and nausea: symptoms of dehydration and heat exhaustion. Teachers, too, struggle to keep focus in stiflingly hot classrooms, with no power for A/C units or fans.

Subsidized solar power has made big changes in Guyana: most everyone I know has some kind of solar unit, and many (including myself) use it as their only source of electricity. Solar runs the water pump at the school, and used to run the hospital. This is all wonderful until the rainy season hits, and we get overcast skies for weeks at a time. Depending on whether we see the sun or not, we have to ration our electricity carefully, because there is no backup – or if there is, it’s a generator that runs on pricey gasoline. Also, endless rain and drizzle leaves you with no way to dry out laundry. The trash piles are too damp to burn. Everything and everyone begins to smell sour.

Here’s what astonished me when I visited the U.S. last year: how absolutely magical running water is. When we need water, we have it pretty much without fail – and it emerges drinkable and hot or cold, depending on our preference. In my village, running water is a rarity, and I am lucky to have it – in two sinks, my toilet, and my bath area. When it comes, it’s not from some kind of reservoir getting pumped through pipes, but from gravity-fed rain tanks. It’s not potable, and it’s always cold (or lukewarm, on sunny days), but at least it’s there. Well, until the dry season hits.

Over the past week I have watched as both sinks slowed to a trickle, and finally stopped flowing. Last night I tried to flush my toilet only to find the back tank empty. I’m down to one working faucet and a system of bowls and buckets to wash dishes, fill my water filter, and clear out the toilet. Once that faucet stops, I’ll try going downstairs to a spigot low enough that gravity still should work. I’ll fill five-gallon buckets and carry them up the stairs. Even with all that, I am more fortunate than most. Many of my friends and neighbors have to support large families on the water supply that I have as a single person – so they run out regularly. Many buy bottles of water for drinking and get the rest, after their rain tanks finish, from backyard ponds or nearby creeks and rivers. Fetching water is a chore most Guyanese children take part in from a young age. Second nature to them, unprecedented to me. 

Living in Guyana has made me think about weather and the environment in a very different way. In most developed countries, we are somewhat isolated from its effects. We have air conditioning and heating: climate controls that help us forget the climate outside. We have infrastructure that can handle baking sun as well as heavy rains. We have electricity sources, and backup electricity sources. We have systems that deliver clean water to our doorsteps and beyond. We take so much for granted. Meanwhile, I have cried tears of joy when it rained because it means I will have enough water.

It has become second nature for me to turn off anything I’m not using, to really think about how I can bathe with less water, use just a few sips to brush my teeth, only flush when necessary, and reuse when I can (laundry rinsewater to mop floors, for example). You may not be living in a place where the realities of our water and power consumption are so apparent, but that doesn’t mean a little awareness can’t go a long way.

Love Letter to My Guyanese Boyfriend (aka my cyat)

The elusive and mysterious Muon (pronounced MEW-on).

Dearest Muon,

My softest companion. My little black panther. My free pest control. My favorite particle. I cannot imagine my time in Guyana without you.

And before you give me that green-eyed stare – you know the one I’m talking about – remember that you were the one that chased me. You were barely old enough to toddle, but bounded speed speed behind me whenever I passed you in the yard. A tiny ball of black fluff that I couldn’t help but take in.

I’ve never known a love like this, Muon, though that might be because you are my first pet. (Please, don’t let that tarnish what we have in any way.) No, I don’t count Fitzwilliam Darcy the goldfish. He couldn’t cuddle.

You, on the other hand, enjoy curling up at my feet on the nights when the breeze blows in cool, off of the marshy savannah. And when it’s still and sweltering, I wake to you purring above me, nestled in my mosquito net like it’s your own personal hammock. You wait for me at the door when I return from school, and no matter what kind of day I’ve had, it improves as you twine around my legs, imploringly slide your face against my shins.

Crawl into my tibisiri hammock anytime, Amerindian cyat, though by now you have perfected your entry into a graceful part-and-hop. I know I quarreled you for gnawing through a plastic bag to sample my cassava bread, but I wasn’t even really mad fuh true. I was more impressed at your deep connection to your heritage. (What does your voice sound like, Muon? Do you speak Creolese?)

You’re always there for me when the creatures come calling, Muon, which you and I both know is all the time. You so gleefully pounce on giant flying roaches, so enthusiastically crunch away at enormous moths, that I forgive you the times you have chased them into my bed while I was asleep. I know you just wanted me to have a piece of the fun, and I love you for it – despite the memories of tiny legs crawling across my cheek.

Feline companion of mine, I thank you for your patience. I have kept you indoors, unlike almost every other cat in Guyana. I have asked you to relieve yourself in a bowl of dry rice, and you oblige. You have listened to the lady-cat outside that yowls at you in her times of, uh, need. You are stoic and unmoving. And when you are moving – out the door, too quickly for me – it is just to leap through the tall grass, to chew at some leaves. I scoop you up and we go back in. You tolerate car rides, boat rides, bus rides with dignity and aplomb. The vet’s injections, not so much, but we all have our limits.

I hope you know this was out of love, Muon – to keep you from the battle-scarred future of strays here. Your mother disappeared and so did her older children, your brothers and sisters. I found one in the back, the center of a circle of carrion crows. One in the ditch, rigorously stiff. Who knows of the others? A speeding vehicle, a hungry dog, a vicious catfight, an unshakeable infestation? Pets here, they punish. Ribs visible, limps evident, ears chewed. Not you, Muon. Never you.

I love you, Amerindian cyat. I love it when you close your mouth too soon and seem not to notice a bit of pink tongue sticking out, for minutes on end. I love it when you gallop around my apartment in the mornings as I sweep the floor, pinballing yourself around the corner walls like a parkour master. I love it when I find you napping in my bed, splayed on your back, limbs in every direction. I love it when you decide my eyebrows need grooming and get to work on them just after I’ve woken up.

Most of all, I love that in you, I have found a more comforting, entertaining, and loving presence than I expected or deserved. On days when all I wanted to do was curl up in bed and have a cry, there you were, meow-chirping at me. On rough boat rides where I felt ready to vomit, you were there in your carrier, reaching out a single paw to place over my hand. When everything seemed hopeless, you came along, running all over the house and jumping a full five feet in the air to catch a giant moth. I couldn’t help but smile.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Muon. This may be our last in Guyana, but it’s the first of many more to come.

Love,
Gabriella

Me Na Able: Creolese 101

My hand-lettered versions of some favorite Creolese. Nuff nuff work, bai!


As you may have gathered from my previous posts, Guyana is an English-speaking country – indeed, the only one in South America. But the English most often heard here isn’t what we, or they, would call “standard.” It’s a linguistic blend, a Creolese, and it delights me daily.

When I first arrived, I could understand maybe 50% of what was said. 21 months later, my comprehension is nearly total – that is, until I travel a few hours away and can’t understand anything from a 3-minute minibus conversation except the words “fry fish”. Just as in the U.S., accents vary regionally!

I don’t try to speak with an accent, but when I’m with locals I find myself imitating the rhythms and pitch patterns, the musicality. Ending sentences with “…right?” (“I comin’ back, right?”). Repeating words for emphasis (“I was sleepy sleepy!”). And of course, utilizing some of my most-loved Creolese words and phrases. For a little taste of what peppers my speech, here are just a few.

1. Me na able.

My number-one-favorite Guyanese phrase. “Me na able” is the “I can’t even” of Creolese. Often followed by “wi dah” (with that). Endlessly useful. Are you excessively hot? Hungry? Annoyed? Over U.S. politics? You nah able!

Ex. “Phone blackout again? Man, me na able wi dah!”

2. Jus’ now.

Ever heard of Caribbean time? It’s a very real phenomenon, and in Guyana, they express it with “jus’ now”. This phrase can mean anything from “in a moment” to “sometime in the next 6 months”. Don’t know when you’ll finish? You’ll finish jus’ now.

Ex. “I comin’ by you jus’ now.”

3. Dah is me own.

In Creolese, pronouns are a bit limited. You don’t hear “his” – you hear “he”; you don’t hear “my” – you hear “me”. “Dah is me own” means “That is my own” aka “That’s mine”. Emphasis on the “me.”

Ex. “Driver, hand back dah bag, dah is me own.” 

4. Watch he deh deh!

Repetition of words for emphasis is classic Creolese. Here the literal translation “Watch him there there” more closely means “Look at him over there!”. I also often say “Watch!” instead of “Look!”

Ex. “Where dah gyal go tuh?” “Watch she deh deh!” 

5. Don’ be shame.

“Shame” is used in place of “shy”. Children I see acting like little acrobats in the schoolyard, parkour-ing up palm trees, hide their faces and refuse to answer questions in class. Classic example of bein’ shame.

Ex. “Who can tell me what a verb is? Don’ be shame!”

6. Gettin’ tru.

Loosely, the Guyanese equivalent of “How’s it going?” – “Getting through?” Especially if you’re looking a little stressed out, an aunty might peer into your raccoon eyes and ask concernedly, “Yuh gettin’ tru, gyal?”

Ex. “I hear America had an election. Yuh gettin’ tru?” 

7. Yuh vex wit she?

“Anger” isn’t quite angry enough, let’s be honest. Sometimes you just get VEXED with people. In Creolese, “vex” is the preferred expression of anger. I was doing a lesson on feelings with my students and they said “happy, sad, vex…”

Ex. “Gyal, I see you pass she in deh road and nah say nothin. Yuh vex wit she or wha?” 

8. Dah bai mad, gyal!

“Boy” and “girl” – nah. Guyanese say “bai” (sounds like “bye”) and “gyal” (rhymes with pal) instead. And if someone’s acting crazy, you say they’re mad. Encounter a wild situation? “Sheer madness, bai!”

Ex. “He gah how many side chick? Dah bai mad, gyal!”

9. Oooooooh-meh!

An exclamation of pure amazement, often used by primary school children. Watching football (aka soccer) and see your friend block a goal? Only one thing to say: “Ooooooooh-meh!”

Ex. “Watch she run speed speed! Ooooooh-meh!” 

10. An’ a nex’ ting…

We don’t say “another”, we say “a next” or “a nex’”. And the “th” sound doesn’t really exist in Creolese; it’s all “t”s. Getting two of something at the shop? Ask for a “nex’ one.” Talking about something different than you were at first? Now you’re talking about “a nex’ ting.”

Ex. “So that was my weekend…Oh! An’ a nex’ ting – you hear ‘bout Aunty Molly?”

Jus’ now you gon’ be talkin’ Creolese like a real Guyanese! So don’ be shame front a no one, gaff wi’ dem nuff nuff and if ya see how ya Creolese improve!

Birthdays, Expected and Unexpected

My birthday feast, complete with a many-candled cake.


I was due close to Valentine’s Day.

So when my mother started to feel contraction pains that morning, sharp and demanding, she didn’t want to believe them. It was December 27th, and she was at her parents’ house for Christmas. “Indigestion,” she said; “Hospital,” said her father, and out I came, four pounds six ounces, seven weeks premature. My mother was about the age I am now, and terrified. I was her first child.

I’d never seen a birth, human or otherwise, except on film — in a biology video they should also show sex ed classes to prevent teenage pregnancy. The film alone was enough for me to feel a deep awe for every woman who has borne a child, let alone multiples; and in my village, the average number per woman is 5-7. (Superheroes, all.)

I never expected to witness one, barring the births of my own potential future children. But on Christmas morning, while visiting a friend who works at the local hospital, I heard a woman in labor had come in, and they needed extra hands – to fetch water, tea, towels; to rub backs and hold agonizing grips. We were ready and willing.

The mother was young, years younger than me, and this was her second child; she’d had her first as a teenager. The delivery room is the only air-conditioned room in the hospital, apart from the pharmacy; beads of sweat built on her forehead as the contractions came and ebbed. No epidurals here, and the pain was obvious, every fibre of her being tensing against it. I couldn’t imagine how it must feel, and how she was keeping so quiet, apart from occasional groans and hard panting breaths. She rose and pushed and rose and pushed. Tears leaked from her eyes but she did not cry out. It seemed to last forever, and no time at all.

The crowning was astonishing; how was it possible for life to emerge this way? The baby pale and slick and trembling, a living miracle. I wondered what this world must seem to him, after the warm dark cocoon of the womb. I wanted to murmur reassurances through his overwhelming first few minutes. In the end, I relayed them to his utterly spent, utterly incredible mother. That we are built to carry young, to deliver them out of our bodies, to nourish them immediately, to do it all over again – it’s simply amazing.

Two days later was the anniversary of my mom’s motherhood all those years ago: my 30th birthday. That day, I would be leaving the village at dawn to travel to the regional airport (by boat, car, boat, bus, boat, and car) and fly to Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, with a dear friend. I was excited, having visited last year and fallen in love with its unexpectedly diverse populace, level of development, and joyous Old Year’s party; but I was a little sad not to celebrate in my village, among my aunties and friends. Birthdays are faithfully celebrated here with new outfits, freshly baked and decoratively iced cakes, enough food for an army, and the familiar singing of songs and blowing out of candles. The one difference I’ve noticed is that it’s traditional for a member of the opposite gender to feed you the first bite of your cake. I first encountered this at a little girl’s party where a priest did the honors; I was uncomfortably reminded of a wedding reception.

The day before my birthday trip, it rained and rained and rained. I slept in and made tea and packed my things. A friend called me and told me she wanted to come by and take me to the landing. I wasn’t sure why we were going, but I told her that’d be fine. We raised our umbrellas against the steady pattering and gaffed as we dodged puddles; she brought me to a little clothing stall where a school friend of hers also did nails, and treated me to a fancy toenail painting session. I was surprised and delighted, admiring the delicate brushstrokes and enjoying our conversation as we waited for the polish to dry and the rain to let up. 

We walked to her house so I could check in on her mom – one of my favorite aunties – and there, greeting me with balloons, a heavily candled cake, and enough food to feed an army, was my aunty, all of her daughters, three fellow PCVs, and my counterpart. They burst out laughing at my face and kept asking me if I was really surprised (I was) and telling me how much they’d had to lie to make it happen (not their style). I felt so very loved in those moments, enveloped in this wide adopted family of mine. “You didn’t have to do this!” I half-heartedly protested, happily devouring cake without the assistance of a man feeding it to me. “Gabi,” said my aunty, “You went out for your last birthday. This is the only one we had a chance for. Of course we had to!”

30 in New York City is quite different from 30 in my Guyanese village. In NYC in my late twenties, it was completely normal to be single, childless, and happy to stay so if I wished. At 30 here, most women have had more than one child, and most are married. (At a school of 20 teachers, I am one of only two without a child.) The reasons for this are many, including considerably shorter life expectancy; societal norms; lack of knowledge of, access to, or use of birth control; and lack of career options. When children here ask my age I am delighted to tell them, as they often guess I’m somewhere between 17-22. I am delighted to tell them because I am here to show them that women like me exist. I am 30, independent, have never had a child. Have never depended on a man for my future nor allowed one to dictate my present. Have earned a bachelor’s degree and plan to go back to earn a master’s. Have paid my own way since I was 18, saving enough to travel everywhere from Mexico to Australia to Italy.

Now, this is not to toot my own horn; I started in a much more privileged place than these kids, in a country with many more opportunities, and I have been blessed with a very happy, healthy, and relatively trauma-free life. Sometimes, when asked, I feel guilty relating these kinds of details, thinking to myself, “But how… how could it be possible here? The odds are so stacked against them.” Then, I am approached by a young mother who asks me how to reliably prevent pregnancy for the next five or so years of her life (I recommend an IUD). By a teenager who wants to know how to apply to foreign universities; she wants to be an engineer. When escorting girls to a camp, I encounter men who catcall us; I confront them and the girls watch as they retreat. I tell them later, in a camp Q&A, that if any boy tells them it’ll be over if they don’t have sex, he’s not worth their time. I hope they listen.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with having children young. There is something wrong with seeing it as the only option. That is one reason I’m so happy to be serving here: I challenge norms simply by existing.

On the evening of my birthday, I sat by the Paramaribo waterfront sipping a glass of red wine. Fireworks, a hint of Old Year’s celebrations to come, colored the distant sky in bursts. I thought about my mother three decades before, imagined her in the place of the young woman writhing and panting in the delivery room, and loved and admired her more than ever. I reflected on my own past few decades, the unexpected turns life can take. Here I was in a country I hadn’t known existed just years before, visiting from another unknown place that had become a second home, and as happy and fulfilled as I could ever remember being. “To 30?” my friend said. I smiled and raised my glass.

Come, Leh We Go: Adventures in Guyanese Transportation

A boatman riding atop a speedboat looks back as we head to my village.

I’ve always been a bit of a homebody.

During school summer vacations, I begged my parents to take me to the library and then holed up in the house reading for hours while they begged me to go play outside. In college, my roommate and I would turn down invitations to frat parties so we could stay home, drink hot cocoa, knit, and watch Masterpiece Theater (we were 21, for the record, not 65). In New York, some of my favorite nights were when my boyfriend cooked and we lounged in the apartment having debates about modern art or making silly Vines.

Here in Guyana, I’m still a homebody, but what you could call a village-body too. I don’t like to leave my village unless I absolutely have to. Now, some of this is my love for my village. Some of it is my aforementioned personality. But a lot of it has to do with transportation.

Let me take you through it, step by step: the journey from my site to the capital city.

Steps 1/2: Wake up at 4:40 AM; get picked up at 5.

Did I mention I’m not a morning person? Where I live, 4:40 AM means utter darkness, the ever-present droning of insects, and the occasional creepy groans of howler monkeys. The hum of the village generator doesn’t kick in until 5, but all of the boats leave by 5:30. I reluctantly force my body into wakefulness and call the boatman to confirm he’ll be picking me up. I sit on the stoop, dawn barely starting, until I see headlights. Then I climb into a car with a mumbled “mahnin” and get taken to the boat landing, less than 5 minutes away.

Step 3: Board the speedboat.

When I was chosen for Peace Corps Guyana, I had to fill out a delightfully bizarre little questionnaire with items like “On a scale of 1-5, how prepared are you to: Only have a latrine? Have limited access to a phone? Only be able to access your site via speedboat?” This last one cracked me up. I envisioned Miami Vice.
Well, guess what? I can only access my site via speedboat, and it’s not like Miami Vice. It’s wooden and covered and holds about 18 people. The boats are often painted: on the outside with the boat company’s information and serene landscapes, and on the inside with meticulously lettered inspirational sayings such as “Haters Make Me Famous.”

Step 4: Embark on a 90-minute speedboat ride.

This boat journey travels up a narrow, still river, out into the open waves of the Atlantic, and back into a wide river bobbing with coconuts. If you get seasick, you will not like this ride. If you are OK with being bounced around, it will be one of the most beautiful trips you’ve ever encountered. It starts with flat, open expanses of marshland punctuated by jungly islands and palms, then moves into a cool, verdant tunnel of mangrove trees. The water is the color of black tea and mirror-still. Then, the ocean rhythmically tosses the boat with a “Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!”, and gazing back to the mangrove coasts is seeing “Heart of Darkness” come to life. Finally, into the wide thoroughfare lined with coconut plantations, spent brown husks piled in hills along the banks and floating in the milky-brown water.
Early on, you might encounter “floating islands” of tightly matted water vegetation that block the boat’s passage. The solution is to ram the engine hard to push them aside, but this is easier than it sounds. On my last trip, everyone in the boat had to move to the front and stand, rocking in unison as we tried to shift a particularly stubborn mat. You will also pass dugout canoes: as a courtesy, the boat drivers turn down their engines and slow until they pass. Dugouts are so close to the water level that the waves of a speedboat’s wake could easily capsize them.

Step 5: Disembark in Charity and find a “next cyar”.

When I first got to Guyana I’d maybe ridden on five boats in my life, so climbing into them and out of them (by casually stepping onto the bow) was far from easy. I looked absurd, basically climbing on all fours out of fear that I would slip and fall into the water.
Now I have mastered the art of entering and leaving the speedboat, but I still have to deal with another issue: the drivers waiting on the other end. This is Guyanese aggression at its finest. They bark the destination over and over and over, try to take your bags to load into their vehicles, grab your arm to lead you to one side. As soon as the boat engine cuts, there they are, a dozen men, peering inside the windows to see who might be traveling with them.
“SUPENAAM SUPENAAM SUPENAAM! Supenaam, Miss? Me need one more.”
A typical lie: the cars are shared, and won’t leave until full, so drivers will lure you with “I just need one more!” only to lead you to a totally empty one.
My reaction, well-known to the drivers now, is “Jus now jus now jus now.” It gets me space and a few moments, avoiding the kind of flustering that once led me to drop my wallet between the warped boards of the stellig (dock) and into the water – it miraculously floated and was recovered by a man who cheerfully and efficiently stripped down to his boxers and dove in to fetch it.

Step 6: Wait for the car to fill, and head out.

Welcome to Guyana. We are very good at waiting.
The cars do a slow loop around Charity, drivers hanging out the window and saying “Supenaam?” or “You goin’ out?” at anyone they suspect might be traveling. When they finally fill, four passengers to a driver, they head out onto the road.
The drive is about an hour, and passes through the Essequibo coast – thick with rice fields and farms. Drivers like to roll down the windows for breeze, drive like bats out of hell, and blast whatever music they like: gospel, Bollywood, soca, what-have-you. I found a guy who only listens to 90s R&B and let me tell you, I am riding with him forever after.

Step 7: Speedboat #2.

Oh you thought we were done with covered wooden speedboats? Think again! This boat crosses a wide, wide river: the widest in all of Guyana, and often one of the bumpiest.
You can’t really win on this leg of the journey. If you get to the boat and it’s mostly empty, you get to ride in the much-less-bumpy back, but you have to wait a long time for it to fill with passengers. If you get to the boat and it’s almost full, you get to leave right away but have to deal with the front’s mini free-fall pretty much every second for the next 30-45 minutes.
Once, on this boat, I had my phone in my pocket and the constant ups and downs jostled it out. I felt it fall but couldn’t do anything until we reached our destination. I found it floating in a puddle of water – safe and functional in its dry-bag case (thanks Mom and Dad). Another time, the side of the boat literally started to crack open and let water in. And once, the water was so rough I had to cling to the bench so my butt wouldn’t leave the seat with every crested wave. Can you tell I’m not a fan of this part?

Step 8: The Minibus.

After braving yet dozens more men shouting at you from the stellig (this time: “Taxi? Taxi? Taxi? Taxi miss? You need to go to town?”), head off of the docks and into the heart of Parika, where men will sip at you and carry anything on a handcart (for a price) emblazoned with winning themes like “Fast ‘N’ Nasty.” Oh, and there’s a Church’s Chicken.
Head towards the squared-off 15-passenger vans called minibuses and ask for the one to Vreed-en-Hoop. Wait for the whole thing to fill up. Fifteen people, right? Wrong. You might think the bus is full, but there’s always room for one more person to sit, according to the bus conductor. Once I sat for 45 minutes on a strange man’s lap, thanking my lucky stars he seemed to be a decent guy and told me about his kids the whole time. Be prepared for deafness due to blaring music, and lots of stops and starts due to people shouting “CAHNAH COMIN’!” and somehow getting heard by the driver over a Phil Collins so loud you wonder if he is even Phil Collins anymore.
Pro tip: sit in the middle of the minibus if you can. Yeah, you won’t have a window view, but there are zero airbags in that bad boy and in the event of an accident, you don’t want to be on an edge. Why am I worried about accidents? These drivers pilot those passenger vans like they’re in the Grand Prix. Me nah able.

Step 9: Third boat’s a charm.

The final leg of the journey crosses over to Georgetown in a…you guessed it, a covered wooden speedboat. This one is considerably larger and the journey markedly smoother and faster. As long as you put on your life jacket and take a seat quickly, you’ll usually be on the other side in about ten minutes.
The fare is only $100 (50 cents US), but one afternoon I was traveling and a very intoxicated, very happy man decided to charter the entire boat for himself and a few close friends, which apparently included myself as he insistently waved me down from the pier. I spent the next ten minutes hearing about how he’d just made a fortune in Guyana’s gold fields. I smiled and nodded while the Good Samaritan sitting next to me kept saying, “Sir, you can’ keep TELLIN’ people dat! They gon’ rob you!” (Legitimate advice.)

Step 10: You finally made it!

Take a deep breath – but not too deep because the market smells like raw sides of beef, rotting fruit, and sweaty people! You have arrived in the capital of Guyana, on the stellig behind the largest and most infamous market in the city – Stabroek. Hold tight to your belongings and walk or taxi to your final destination.

There you go: three boats, two cars, a minibus, and about 5-7 hours later, you’ve reached the capital. Usually this village-body heads straight for some comforting ice cream and asks herself, “Why did I leave again?”

Blog It Home: Or, When You Receive Far More Than You Give

Blog it Home winners Brooklynn, Jenni, Bukhtawer, Olivia, Brittany, Zack, Mark, and myself with Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff to Michelle Obama.

We were sitting in one of the White House offices: hardwood table, classic wallpaper, ornate detailing. We had traveled from distant lands: left smoky yurts, sweltering open classrooms, bustling markets. Now we were in this surreal place, this surreal moment. White House videographer Hope Hall leaned forward and stared into my eyes, a smile in hers.
“You hold the key to the walled city,” she said. “Not many do. How will you take us there?” 

I thought back on the weeks leading up to this Blog it Home trip to DC: my second U.S. visit within three months, but one that my friends and neighbors were especially excited about. “You got another weddin?” they asked. “No, I’m going so that I can tell people there about Guyana,” I explained, and their eyes brightened. “Leh we help you,” I heard, so many times. Because Guyanese know their country isn’t known. When I travel, anywhere in the world, people know the United States. But when Guyanese travel, almost no one knows Guyana.

So I found myself with a suitcase full of the pride of my village: a tiny hammock hand-spun from palm fibers; baskets sewn into neat perfect rounds; bite-sized cakes of cassava bread; mathai with coconut cream to melt in your mouth. A full grass skirt and top, embellished with seeds-made-beads and a single perfect seashell. Handwritten lyrics to a local folk song; a faithfully carved replica of a dugout canoe; amateur recordings of Arawak on my iPhone.

It felt both strange and wonderful to unpack these things in such a different context: the new-familiar meeting the old-familiar. Upon returning, there’s a constant duality. It feels natural to walk on smooth wide sidewalks with loads of strangers, but you have to bite back the “good mahnin” or “aftahnoon” instinctively spilling from your mouth. Subway trains? No problem, but you keep walking on the wrong side of the escalator. Then there’s all the things you used to take for granted but feel newly, if temporarily, luxurious: a hot shower, an air conditioned room, a payment with the swipe of a card (or the insert of a chip: a confusing new development since I left the U.S.).

It felt both strange and wonderful to meet the other seven bloggers: Peace Corps volunteers from Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Peru, and Samoa. Each of them immensely talented, insightful, and a delight to gaff with. Zack and I discovered that the one specific cheese available in Samoa is the same one found in my Guyanese village. I learned from Bukhtawer that little boys in Ethiopia are just as incorrigible and adorable as anywhere else in the world. Jenni told me there are lots of stray dogs in Mongolia, too, but unlike in Guyana, they use them to make fur boots. I traded catcall tales with Brittany, and thanks to Brooklynn found that a seed used to make beads in Guyana grows in Peru, too. Mark’s Krygyz tailor sounded as occasionally baffled by his requests as my Guyanese seamstress. And Olivia’s pictures of Madagascar’s vast desert landscapes oddly reminded me of the endless reaches of Guyana’s waterlogged savannas. From each of them a unique voice, yet a common goal: to share these stories of our new homes as well as we could.

This was what brought us together. Peace Corps’ Third Goal: to share the host-country culture with those back home. Perhaps my favorite of the three goals of service. The first, meeting the country’s need for trained individuals, can feel unrealistic, the work there but the impact debatable. The second, sharing American culture with the host country, feels like overkill in a world where American culture seems to permeate everything. But the third, the magical third… 

“You hold the key to the walled city,” said Hope Hall. “Not many do.”

Every single Peace Corps volunteer is given a key. Our walled cities are our communities, from cities to tiny villages, mapped to unmapped. They are places most have never heard of, and even fewer will ever glimpse. They are chock-full of stories ripe for the telling. What a gift to be able to tell them.

And we told them over the course of that week together. To one another, over dearly missed Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Lattes and York Peppermint Patties. To the staff at Headquarters, incredibly kind and generous and curious to hear how they could support us better. To classrooms of DC-area children, screaming in delight at tarantula photos and mischievously saying, “Me nah able,” to every person they met after their Creolese lesson. To college students debating whether to join Peace Corps after graduation. To Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s Chief of Staff, who teared up as we told her the very real impact of Let Girls Learn.

But I never expected, in giving these stories breath, to receive so much more in return. This was the most astounding part of the week. Peace Corps gave us access to professionals who have made a career out of voicing unique stories. And they had seen our work, and they asked us: “How can we help you get even better? How can we help you get where you want to go?” 

We met Amanda, photographer to Michelle Obama and a documentary filmmaker, who taught us how to capture the moment through a camera lens. Sarada, a female speechwriter on Barack Obama’s overwhelmingly male speechwriting team, who emphasized clear writing and trust in your voice. Hope, White House videographer, who handed us a page of inspirational words and advised us to connect people with purpose, and meet them where they are. Kori, White House social media maven, who emphasized the importance of the medium for the message. Ryan, former Peace Corps Volunteer now working at National Geographic, who inspired us with ideas for creativity in our content. Jodi, career coach at Peace Corps, who assured us networking was far easier than we knew and that we’d all succeed at it. To hear from them all, so genuine and engaged, was beyond a treat – it was humbling and inspiring.  

I initially created this blog as a way for family and friends to trace my journey, but it morphed into something bigger. As I fell in love with Guyana, I felt compelled to share the deeper thoughts life here continually unearths; the challenges along with the delights. But I never expected that sharing my experiences would result in anything like the week I just had. Filled with awe and inspiration, I am holding my key proudly; the walled city lies before us both. I can’t wait to share even more of it with you.

(And to peek behind more walls, visit the other winning blogs:
Bukhtawer, Ethiopia http://www.bukhtawer.com/
Mark, Kyrgyz Republic http://mondaybazaar.wordpress.com/
Olivia, Madagascar http://www.oliviaprentzel.com/
Jennifer, Mongolia http://www.jennifermyung.wordpress.com/
Brooklynn, Peru http://nosleeptillpeace.com/
Brittany, Peru http://siyahenperu.wordpress.com/
Zack, Samoa http://zigzaglifeblog.wordpress.com/ )