In common day slang, especially the industry I work in, the acronym P.O.S has come to mean “Piece Of Sh*t”. It is therefore somewhat ironic that the international code given for the Port-of-Spain airport in Trinidad is POS.
In reality the city operates in a fog of unorganized chaos. The downtown core, port and savannah portions of the city are actually quite attractive; a result of the merging of old French colonial architecture and new oil money. The surrounding areas however suffer from a less auspicious fate. When slaves were freed back in 1838, these suddenly liberated people were also suddenly homeless. Areas on the periphery of the capital city were set aside for this population surge but official land rights were never established. Over a hundred years later, this has resulted in the development of squatters suburbs somewhat similar to Brazil’s favelas or South Africa’s townships. While conditions in Port-of-Spain’s neighbourhoods are not necessarily as dire, issues with poverty, drugs and violence pervade. Laventille, one of the country’s most historical areas known for creation of the steel pan, also has crime rates so high that it contributes to the country having one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world.
In general the city is safe enough, and while littering is omnipresent, enough care is invested to keep the place somewhat attractive. Functionality remains a weakness, as one of the world’s smallest national populations also has one of the biggest traffic problems. With over 300,000 vehicles for an island with really only one main corridor, daily commuters for distances less than 30 km can be upwards of an hour. This is only compounded at Carnival time when crossing the city itself can take nearly two hours.
Where Port-of-Spain has shortcomings due to disparity in capital investment, Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown, by comparison, has always been a ‘have-not’ place. Even flying into the relatively new Cheddi Jagan International Airport, it feels almost as if you are dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Thousands and thousands of acres of untouched rainforest appear closer until you land somewhat rather unexpectedly on the ground. Transfer to the city itself is via an unkept single lane road.
Now, as far as capital cities in third world countries go, not much can be expected. After all, this is why they are considered ‘developing’. However, Nairobi has its pockets of luxury, Phnom Penh its constant modernization, and even Kigali has a nearly tangible sense of pride. Georgetown has charm, and loads of it, but honestly not too much else to boast about. One of the three landmarks in the city that I wanted to see was the Cuffy monument – an ode to slave rebellion in 1763. While the historical component was still valuable, what I found was a fountain full of empty plastic bottles and other debris. The adjoining botanical gardens, while full of local endemic bird species, had been through years of neglect. Ungroomed plants and flooded lawns seemed sloppy, but provided a charming natural feel.
The Brickdam Road that runs west from the gardens is packed with buildings for various national departments. These are often housed in large Dutch style buildings, wooden with thick shutters. However, it does not appear that any renovations or upkeep efforts have been applied since, well whenever it was the Dutch left. Charming? Georgetown is also the largest city I have seen that still relies on horse and buggy. Motor vehicles are prominent here, but trucks are replaced by the more traditional equine system of transportation. Thus, it’s not unexpected to have to yield to a horse when crossing the country’s most major intersections. Charming? At the end of Brickdam Road is the Stabroek Market. A series of covered and uncovered stalls the size of a Canadian walk-in closet, it’s very similar to that of markets in South East Asia. Finally, St. George’s Cathedral, reputed to be the world’s tallest wooden building is a massive Anglican church still very much in use today. With history, architecture and power this structure oozes charm.
Not intending to sound pessimistic, Georgetown may not be the capital of commerce that Port-of-Spain is, but for those on the backpacking circuit, this is certainly rewarding. Off the beaten track and with enough poolside hotel lounges, you can harken back to the original days of travel and exploring.
One of the most rewarding attractions “the big city” offers is the Demerara Distillery tour. This is where they produce El Dorado Rum, routinely voted as the world’s best. And this isn’t like the mom and pop cafe around the corner advertising the ‘World’s Best Coffee’. This is legitimately tested against the finest rums from around the world by a very high brow international society, and more often than not, it comes out on top. The tour includes an introduction to the expected process: sugar molasses, yeast, fermentation, distillation, etc. The distillery is quite proud of its environmental achievements in using their waste streams to produce by-product methane gas as well as carbon dioxide, which is then used in bottling Pepsi products at the facility next door. This “recycling” is likely done more out of savvy business opportunity than environmental motivation. Personally I think that the trench drainage system and external aesthetics need to be cleaned up a bit, but ultimately, any environmental effort in a place like this should be applauded. The tour also includes the secret to El Dorado’s world-class taste. The Demerara Distillery is the only distillery in the world that still uses a wooden still or a wooden vat to process their rum. These Greenheart relics were found at colonial era estates and put into action almost thirty years ago – to great success. The tour ends off in the impressive Demerara Heritage Centre where models of the equipment in the real life factory are complimented with additional facts and figures. Oh, and there is also the rum tasting. 🙂 Samples range from 5 year aged rum to 21 year ages. Contrasts in taste, harshness and even viscosity are explained. No visitor to Guyana should leave the country without a bottle of the 15 year vintage (the variety voted as the world’s best), and the Demerara Distillery tour completes this rum experience.
It is said that the Dutch aren’t very good at building bridges, but are great at building walls. Only recently has a bridge been constructed to cross the Demerara River (actually the world’s longest floating bridge). Instead, the city has relied on the 200+ km long sea wall to keep the city and sea separate. A visit to the sea wall is impressive in that it’s remarkable to imagine the scope of the construction. The area near the ocean however is a particularly depressed region where rats running through the street and homeless people eating washed up fish can be witnessed. Other than that, this was “Mash Week” and preparations were in place to beautify the city. ‘Mashramani’ is an Amerindian word that translates to “a celebration after hard work” and is meant to celebrate the anniversary of the country becoming its own republic. As a result, the entire city had been decorated in green, yellow and red. There were flags, banners and lights to show off how admirably proud and patriotic the Guyanese people are. Cumulatively it made for an attractive sight and a great atmosphere.
In recent years, Mashramani has borrowed a bit from Trinidad and become a miniature version of Carnival. This includes the costumes, the music and the parties that lead up to the big day. One of these parties was a free concert at a parkway in the middle of the city. Performing was Bunji Garlin and Fay Ann Lyons (effectively the Trinidadian version of Jay-Z and Beyoncé). The concert was a complete surprise to me, as researching Mashramani events is absolutely impossible. The surprise was a most exciting one for me as Bunji Garlin is one of the two soca artists I most wanted to see live (naturally, Machel Montano being the other). My dad and I attended with his local Guyanese friend as well as some of his colleagues from Delta Airlines. If someone would have told me that I would spend my last night in Guyana watching a soca concert with two Colombianos and a girl from Venice, I would have laughed it off. But alas, there I was.
The concert was better than expected. Bunji Garlin may be the best freestyler in the world. Fay Ann’s Caribbean version of Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ still gives me goosebumps. The accompanying Asylum Band was lively and note perfect. In the middle of the show, a rain shower came down and drenched the crowd. Yet nobody moved and it only added to the fun. So after some original negative feelings about the city, it provided one of the best parties I’ve ever attended and one I will remember for a long time. So much for ‘Piece Of Sh*t’. I instead left Georgetown with Plenty Of Surprise!