Friday, October 28, 2016

Uncertainty, Ugliness, and the Fear of Death

Think about the following. We go about our daily lives rubbing shoulders or crossing paths with our fellow humans and, for the most part, cannot begin to imagine the unmitigated struggles, the interminable challenges, and the overwhelming burden that is their experience on a daily basis. One such individual is Carol Ann Smith, a dear soul and a wonderful woman, with whom I instantly connected when we were first introduced and whom I would not have met were it not for my current Journey here in Guyana. You see, every single day for the past three years, Carol has been living with the fear of death, feelings of ugliness, and a dark and heavy cloud of uncertainty as to her health.

Since the discovery of a lump on her left side three years ago, Carol's life has been a roller coaster ride of hope and dashed expectations. She told me of how liberated she felt when, following several tests, she was told that she did not have cancer. She said that it was as if she had gotten a new lease on life - a lease that was subsequently shredded when she later found out that the mass scheduled for removal from her left breast was, in fact, cancerous. From joy, happiness, and excitement weeks before, Carol suddenly found herself experiencing a feeling of numbness and emptiness, drained of all feelings of love and care for others, scared of dying, and all of a sudden consumed by anxiety, despair, and loneliness.

Awaking out of unconsciousness to find her left breast no longer there was extremely difficult for Carol to wrap her mind around. The feeling of incompleteness with which she has been left and the sense of imbalance she feels in her body remain as constants, and she has never quite gotten used to them. No silicon implant fills that empty space. No mastectomy bra serves as concealment for the excision of that which nourished her dear son when he was a baby. Instead, the bandages - the bandages that provided the covering post surgery - those provide the filler for that empty space on her chest. She reached under her blouse, gently removed those sacred bandages and showed them to me. Those bandages (which she regularly cleans) provide the palpable reminder of her ordeal, as well as a palpable link to that part of herself that she lost. I looked at those bandages and in that solemn instant Carol's humanity, my humanity, the human-ness (my word) of every individual, was reiterated.

Perhaps the worst part of the experience of the the past three years for Carol was the loss of her long and beautiful dreadlocks. She felt "ugly", so ugly that she has so far spent her life hiding. Carol drives a taxi for a living and finds it the perfect way of hiding herself, though she worries about falling ill while driving and is fearful about the possible results of such an occurrence. Her fear of dying is balanced out with that strong maternal feeling of needing to be "there" for her son. This desire to be there for her son is that  which drives her to confront the thing she is scared of the most - dying. Carol dislikes participating in support groups as these cause her to have to relive her experience. In addition, she hates participating in these groups because she does not know whether she is cancer free or whether the disease continues to reside in her. It is this enervating and burdensome uncertainty that plagues her daily.

Carol, for whom walking from her car to her doorsteps is an almost insurmountable task, became inspired and emboldened as she followed the progress of my 553 kilometer walk from Georgetown to Lethem. In the short period in which I have known her I have found her to be a beautiful and an amazing human being who still finds time to pause, consider, and capture with her camera the beautiful things arounds us that we take for granted. I will be doing whatever small bit I can to help make her acquisition of the expensive follow-up screening she needs possible. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Culinary Creativity in a Backyard

A marabunta hovered nearby, high enough away and minding its own business. Back in the day (as a child) I would have been worried, but now as a veteran backpacker I know better. I don't mess with it; it won't mess with me. I felt something brush against my leg. It was a hen fussing underneath the table about something. To my left a fowl cock (rooster) had just gotten some (the usual quickie) and was celebrating by doing the usual cock-doodle-do and beating its wings while the satisfied hen sauntered off to her business. A  chicken coop (We call it "fowl coop" in Guyana.) stood not too far off, and a banana tree along with some other large plants filled the immediate area around us. Stacy, Chris, Delven, and I were having a late breakfast of fruit (from Delven's mom's garden), coffee (Guyana coffee), scrambled eggs, and homemade bread served with a spread that combined anchovies and butter. That spread on the homemade bread was to die for, and the addition of butter cut down considerably on the saltiness of the anchovies. 

We sat out in the backyard (just the four of us) at a decently and simply decorated table (an ordinary wooden table - nothing fancy). It was the only table in the yard. In the background we could hear insects buzzing, birds whistling, school children playing, and the faint humming of vehicles in the distance. The house itself, a rather nondescript structure, is located in West Riumveldt, not the classiest of neighborhoods in the City of Georgetown, but apparently safe enough. We got lost while driving through the community looking for the house, but the people from whom we sought directions were more than happy to help us. 

Our conversation in that homey (for that was the feeling it evoked) covered a variety of topics - from my backpacking trip, to domestic abuse, to suicide, and also included the usual mindless and mirthful banter. If you were looking on, you would no doubt have agreed that the scene before you presented the picture of a small group of friends gathered together for breakfast at another friend's home. The  call that I heard Chris make to Delven while driving along Lamaha Street initially on our way to another restaurant, appeared simply to be one friend saying to another, "Hey, I'm coming over for breakfast." And the one at the other end of the line responding, "Great! What do you feel like eating?" Except that I had never met Delven, Stacy, or Chris before. Chris, however, when he made the call to Delven, was actually placing an order for breakfast for three at the "Backyard Cafe". 

The Backyard Cafe does indeed make you feel as if you are in the backyard of a typical Guyanese home, and among the many charms of the place is how incredibly friendly and comfortable the owner, Delven, makes you feel. He can make anything you desire, from the typical Guyanese fare to the more North American/European cuisine. A tremendous advantage that Delven has is that he combines the essential elements of those culinary worlds to create a flavor that will blow patrons away. But more than anything, Delven does not merely offer a product, a service, such as might be the case at other eateries, which often seem far removed from the customer as a human, appearing instead rather ingratiating. Delven offers a passion - a passion for culinary creativity, a passion for engagement with others. He seems to derive as much pleasure from these engagements, often happily blurring the lines between owner and patrons. For indeed, as a fly on the wall, if you had seen us dining together, you would have thought that we were all simply good friends hanging out in Delven's backyard and having a great time. And indeed such is the feeling you experience when you are at the Backyard Cafe.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Making Peace, Art, and Wine in the Wilderness

What is one to do when inundated with the travails of daily existence, the oppressiveness of impassive routines, or when as in Jerry's and my case, you are buffeted from above by an overbearing sun or pounded from beneath by a hot and an unyielding asphalt road? You get off the beaten path (the Soesdyke/Linden Highway) and you drive, or better yet walk (like Jerry and I did) for about a quarter of a mile to Pandama. Once we arrived at the place an energetic and warm tail-wagging greeting awaited us. There was no pretense in the welcome given by those three affable canines, nothing fake or contrived. It was all genuine and just what we (tired and beaten by the noonday sun in the hilly, sand, and clay area of Guyana) needed.

Already disarmed by the effusive welcome of those three lovely dogs, we were next swept up by the warm and engaging smiles of hosts Tracy and Warren who themselves in their style and fashion embodied the earthiness and simplicity of the place. I looked around and I observed "things" about the place - an ordered yet random arrangement of craft, tools, hand crafted materials (made from already available materials - for why re-invent the wheel as they say) in an enclosed and at the same time in an open space, a hang-out space, in the outdoors where the ground is a soft white sand and the surrounding vegetation natural, green, and varied. And dotting the forest-like landscape here and there were little cabin houses with brief stairs leading to comfortable beds with bug nets. As I stood in one of those structures during the tour that Tracy gave, I almost had a childlike feeling of being in a treehouse, like being held aloft in the without the dizzying effect - a childlike feeling without losing my sense of adulthood. I could only imagine the thrill children would feel being in one of those cute structures. 

And then there were the art works, the paintings, Tracy's paintings, adorning the doors and windows of those almost treehouses, paintings evoking feelings of hope, peace, joy, contentment, freedom, and highlighting the colors of the surrounding forest. There was nothing nihilistic there in the Pandama art, nothing modernist; one would have to go elsewhere for such art. On that brief stop at Pandama I found peace. In that brief visit I felt at peace with myself, with nature. On that brief visit I felt at peace as I  swung in a hammock, as I soaked my tired feet in the black waters of the nearby creek, as I snacked on the delectable variety of fruits grown on the property, as I strolled leisurely along the forest, and as I sipped a few samples of wine made by Warren himself.

For me, the wines constituted the charm of the place. When you do decide to pay Pandama a visit, do not go their like I did, with the preconceived notion that the best wines are made from only grapes. Lay aside for a while the knowledge of the grape varietals with which you might be familiar - Grenache, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, etc. Get used to the idea of sophisticated wines made from fruit. Yes, fruit. Like guava, sorrel, pineapple, almost any of the fruit grown in Guyana. And lay aside also the idea of vintage, in which the age of wines (of the grape varietals) determines their quality). Forget also your hoity toity and elitist wine-tasting analyses, and all those seemingly artificial customs and constructs of the grape wine culture. At Pandama you will quickly learn that wines are not to be subject to hollow intellectual scrutiny but are simply to be enjoyed.

Since I was merely passing through, I did not have the opportunity to sample the food served at Pandama, but based on the concepts that Tracy and Warren promote, I have no doubt that the food they prepare emphasize simplicity, the use of organic products, variety, and exotic taste. What is certain is that once I am through with my project of backpacking the length and breadth of Guyana, I will definitely be returning to Pandama to enjoy the self pampering, the simple rhythm and flow of the place, the peace nature affords, and some quality time of conversation with two of the most amazing hosts - Tracy and Warren.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

An Oasis in the Beautiful Rupununi Savannah

Before and during the walk from Georgetown to Lethem I had no clear idea as to my plan with regards a place to stay once the journey was completed. Frankly, it was the least of my concerns as I was so focused on the actual walk itself. Now guardian angel Raquel Thomas had mentioned that accommodation was taken care of and had given me the name of the hotel that would be providing this service gratis. However, I merely made a mental note, and had you asked me the details of that arrangement I would not have had a clue; I had simply forgotten the information. Further, not that I would have cared much, for so used had I become to slinging my hammock or setting up my tent in the jungle.

Imagine then my surprise when the van in which we were transported from our terminal point (the Lethem bus station) pulled up to the entrance of the Rupununi Eco Hotel and Resort. It is a massive structure with surrounding grounds immaculately kept, almost with the feeling of a personal touch in its upkeep. Its imposing size was certainly in keeping with the expansiveness of the Rupununi Savannah, and as I found out later its hospitality was just as expansive and magnanimous. Owner Daniel Gajie met us at the door, greeting us enthusiastically and immediately lavishing upon us a wonderful care and concern that I was to find out was inherently typical of the Hotel. 

The lobby was incredibly spacious and airy, leading into an equally spacious dining and bar area and further leading to a patio offering an unforgettable view of the mighty Kanaku Mountains and the experience of the cool winds blowing across the savannah. The sense of space was palpable, offering a sense of freedom. There was no confinement in the beautiful Rupununi Savannah; neither was there any feeling of confinement in the Rupununi Eco Hotel. I was pleasantly surprised to find that spaciousness extended to the room provided and later found out that it was also one of the defining characteristics in every other room in the hotel. 

And the food. What is unique about the Rupununi Eco Hotel is that every meal has character. It feels like it is coming right out of mom's kitchen. From the pepper pot and homemade bread with which we were greeted, to the cook up rice, to the roti and curry, there was the feeling and taste of the careful, personal touch in preparation. The offerings in food is so varied that one is certain not to get the same meal twice in one week. The same can be said of the fruit juices. The Rupununi Eco Hotel prides itself in its offering of fresh, unadulterated fruit juices, ranging from guava, watermelon, sorrel, tamarind, pine-apple, and the myriad of fruits available in the Rupununi.

The undercurrent of the Rupununi Eco Hotel is an unfettered and warm hospitality, and this is conveyed by every member of the team involved in making sure that each guest has an unforgettable experience. The two days and two nights I spent there were truly unforgettable, and I am proud that here in Guyana we are more than adequate to the task of having a hospitality facility of such top notch quality. What I would certainly like to see is more Guyanese taking advantage of the services of the Rupununi Eco Hotel as well as the rich tourist and relaxation experience that the Rupununi Savannah has to offer. Kudos and thanks to Danny and his wonderful team for providing this refreshing oasis in the beautiful Rupununi.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Beginning August 2016 - My Journey of Self-Discovery

When I was eighteen years old I had this dream of walking the length and breath of Guyana to experience the beauty of the land and its people and to share my faith. I began that enterprise somewhat, concentrating my walks along the coast, particularly on the coastal area west of the Demerara River. For me, that was a period of self discovery as I engaged in a pursuit that I never knew I had the courage to pursue. I would do those walks on weekends, resting my head (most of the time in church buildings) wherever night caught me. Other endeavors put a hold on my dream, but I never stopped dreaming. This year, more than ever, I started to feel that stirring again, that yearning to walk the country. It was one of the key reasons for my leaving (in June of this year) the Stevenson school, the place at which I worked for the past twenty-six years and the institution that has had the single most impact on my life. 

So here I am, about to fulfill my dream of walking (backpacking) the length and breadth of Guyana. I have shared my intent with some people, and the response has been from enthusiastic encouragement, to the enterprise being characterized as crazy. Some have (and rightfully so) expressed concern for my safety given the proliferation of crime in Guyana. Of a truth, the Guyana that I intend to walk is not necessarily the same Guyana I began to walk in 1980. However, I refuse to allow fear to prevent the fulfillment of my dream, choosing to focus on and to entrust my life to that which is good about my country rather than to be intimidated by that which might be bad about it. That said, I do intend to be careful and not to be foolhardy. 

I will not lie to you; I am a bit scared, but I have done this before. The technical know-how, the physical conditioning, and the skills are there. I am a seasoned backpacker, having participated in and led adult backpacking trips in various terrain and weather conditions here in the mountains and wilderness of the eastern United States. In addition, my training as a Boy Scout and as a pioneer in the Guyana National Service has prepared me for managing tropical rain forest conditions. The fear is more about the unknown, and I am glad that that little fear is there as it will help me to be careful. 
Moreover, I am placing this endeavor and my well-being in the secure hands of God and in the prayerful thoughts of family, friends, and well-wishers.

This walk along the length and breadth of Guyana is essentially a spiritual enterprise for my own self-development, but I would also like to use it to help sensitize our national consciousness to all levels of violence (homicide, rape, suicide, bigotry, etc) in our country, to promote racial harmony, and to highlight the beauty of Guyana. I am not presumptuous to think that mine would be the only "voice" being raised; I am simply adding mine to those already raising awareness out there. On a personal level, my objective is to reconnect with the heart and soul of Guyana (the land and my people) and to use the journey as a means of recalibrating and clarifying my future pursuits. I depart for Guyana on August 23, and I expect to begin my walk on August 29. I ask for your prayers and your positive thoughts. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Joyous Anticipation of Reunification

Somewhere in Djibouti, that tiny country on the Horn of Africa, a woman is filled with joyous anticipation. She, along with her husband and her three beautiful young children, recently made an eighteen hour boat trip across the Gulf of Aden from war-ravaged Yemen to Djibouti in preparation for a flight to New York City. As I sat in the taxi-cab, Mohamed, the driver, couldn't contain his excitement. He hadn't seen his daughter in twelve years, he told me. I said to him that I could imagine the joy that his wife must be experiencing at this time at the prospect of being reunited with her daughter. He said that she was beside herself with joy. 

I couldn't help but feel the happiness of Mohamed, his wife, and his children and be thrilled that happiness had found a family in this world that has in recent years seem to be out of control. But this joy and happiness that Mohamed and his family is currently experiencing is something that millions of Yemenis do not know - ordinary humans caught and trapped in a war not of their own making, but trapped in a war caused by the political ambitions of a a few in Yemen and of the ambitions of U.S.-supported Saudi Arabia. Somewhere in Brooklyn, a family prepares to celebrate the arrival of a daughter, a sister, a brother-in-law, two grandsons, a granddaughter, two nephews, a niece, three cousins. Somewhere, millions yearn just for a little peace.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

An Inspirational Book Par Excellence

Selwyn Collins's book, "The eartHeart Knows" is essentially a journey, as the author puts it, "a journey of discovery". And while it represents the author's journey, it is or can be every person's journey. As such, the book is an invitation, an invitation to participate on that journey. And what a journey it is indeed. The reader who suspends judgement as he or she participates on this journey cannot be the same by the journey's end. Along the way is the encounter with the Divine, a struggle to understand the Divine, to understand the nature of the individual's relationship with the Divine, and most important of all to understand the self. The book also assumes and is premised on the possibility of happiness while acknowledging the necessary challenges along the way in the pursuit of that happiness. 

The essential message (and a rather powerful one too) of "The eartHeart Knows" is that the individual (I Am) is Love, Peace, Joy, Courage, and that the individual (I Am) is worthy of Love. A careful reading and examination of the book will make this obvious. This is not a book to be read in a cursory manner or to be read in one sitting. It is as rich as pure honey is rich and as such should be taken in small portions, digested, and ruminated upon. It can be read sequentially and can also be opened to any page and read randomly. Reading it in the latter manner will not an any way compromise the essential message to be gleaned therein. In addition, this is a book which pages can be read over and over and over again without the words and message becoming meaningless by virtue of repeated readings. The gems you will find therein will never grow stale. Such is the power of Selwyn Collins's book.

Mr. Collins definitely has a way with words. He is like the eloquent and golden-mouthed John Chrysostom. His words of wisdom are not only such, pregnant with wisdom, they are also richly poetic. There is a beauty and an elegance in the construction of the words and thoughts in the book, placing it not only in the genre of Inspiration but also in the genre of Poetry. As an inspirational book it certainly serves to uplift the human individual and does so in excellent fashion. One cannot walk away from an encounter with this book or with the words in this book and not be moved to seriously pause and consider his or her relationship to self, to others, to the world, or to the Divine. It not only uplifts and inspires, it also challenges the reader. And the choice is always clear, and the way to make that choice given with gentleness, understanding, and with the recognition that despite our inherent weaknesses we are certainly capable of improving ourselves.