“For to understand this country, you have to get into the broccoli,” my cab driver insists, as he waves his hand vaguely southward. I don’t know precisely what he means, or what he is imploring me to do, but since I truly want to understand his country, I take it to heart. Starting now, as of this moment, I’m hell-bent on getting into the broccoli.
During the few weeks leading up to the broccoli exchange, my destination was kept secret from me; all I knew was which vaccinations were recommended for visitors to this mystery destination. They included typhoid, yellow fever, Hep-A, and Hep-B. I had tried to decipher, with the Center for Disease Control’s website as my cheat sheet, just where I was headed. It was a jet-setting, stomach-unsettling version of the board game Clue: Professor Plum, in the kitchen, with the Hepatitis A virus. Colonel Mustard, in French Polynesia, with .5cc of tetanus. Only when I read one further recommendation— chemoprophylaxis for malaria—did I believe I had fingered the culprit: Miss Scarlet, in Africa, with scarlet fever.
The actual destination, which I learned the day before my flight, took me by surprise. I was going to Guyana, on the northeast coast of South America.
As I cleared customs at Cheddi Jagan International Airport, I considered the only other piece of advice I’d been given before leaving New York. A friend who knew that Guyana could be difficult to navigate had suggested a place to stay. The Pegasus Hotel Guyana in Georgetown, according to its website, is “the true flag bearer of Guyanese hospitality,” often “graced by Royalty and Heads of State alike.” That may be because it sits directly, securely, across from the U.S. Embassy. Since robbery on the streets of Guyana’s capital city is not uncommon, and secure accommodations can be, I figured I might as well sleep safely.
My cab driver at the airport, a pleasant man, shook my hand vigorously when we met, and said, “I am Mr. Bacchus,” with a tone implying that everyone has heard of Mr. Bacchus. Now, 30 minutes later, he is driving me to the Pegasus, and I know one thing for certain about Guyana: I should get into the broccoli, whatever that is. He slows down as we pass by a large, new (if not exactly modern) stadium. “That is Providence Stadium. Our national stadium,” he says proudly. “There is a game this Tuesday.”
With Guyana’s British colonial past, I assume he means a cricket game.
“No,” he corrects me. “Not cricket. Football.”
Then he corrects himself. “No, sorry. Not football.”
I think I know where he’s headed, although I’m almost too excited to ask. “Soccer?”
“Yes, right. Soccer,” he confirms. “Guyana against El Salvador. For to qualify in the World Cup.”
He says this casually, effortlessly, not realizing that he has just changed my itinerary. Heck, he has just changed my life. It has been a constant, unfulfilled goal of mine to see an international soccer game overseas. And here I am, overseas. And lo, there is a soccer game in this very stadium.
Mr. Bacchus drives through a security gate and deposits me near a hotel security guard. I check into the Pegasus, and it is a fine hotel—something like a Four Seasons, if the builders had stopped after three seasons. But I’m in Guyana, gateway to the Amazon, and I’m far more interested in creatures than in creature comforts.
So the next morning I meet with Teri O’Brien at Wilderness Explorers, a tour operator on Middle Street, a few blocks away from the Pegasus. She repeats the refrain “Georgetown is not Guyana” and insists she’ll do her best—all the overnight trips are booked, so no promises—to get me on a flight, any flight, into the jungle. For a day, at least. “We gotta get you into the broccoli,” she says.
Aha! The broccoli equals the jungle. Why the broccoli equals the jungle, exactly, I’m not too sure.
Back at the hotel, any concern that I might not get into the broccoli (and thus have boosted my typhoid vaccine in vain) is immediately tempered when I walk into the restaurant to find four tall men wearing crisp FIFA uniforms. I overhear their full identities; they are the referees for tomorrow night’s big game. I strike up a conversation and ask a very specific, life-altering favor. Three hours later, a ticket to the marquee game, Guyana versus El Salvador, is slid under my door.
I decide to spend the rest of the day exploring Georgetown, and I hire a guide, a stout Guyanese man named David. “Politically we are in the Caribbean. Geographically we are in South America,” he explains. As we skirt the Atlantic coast, driven by a quiet man also named Mr. Bacchus (no relation?), I can’t help but agree. This is not the Caribbean. The muddy outflow of the Orinoco River stretches from its mouth all the way to Suriname and keeps the seawater murky and gray. We turn inland a few blocks, and David calls for the driver to stop, then slides open the van door. He quickly jumps out, beckoning me to follow, and we take a speedy stroll past the president’s and prime minister’s residences, stately manses on a promenade covered by large trees. “Those are called lawyers’ trees,” David points out. When I ask why, David grins. “Because they’re crooked and shady,” he says, thrilled that I took the bait.
We stop at the National Museum, where I gawk at a replica of the Guyanese giant sloth, meticulously reconstructed by a German engineering team to be the centerpiece of Guyana’s historic museum. It is hard to convey the mammoth size of the creature, nor does the museum want me to—“No pictures, please.” Suffice it to say that when David insists the replica is “actual size,” I do not believe him. Yet oh, how I want to.
Sloths aside, there is little large about this city; we traverse it a few times in an afternoon. Twice we pass a colorfully attired man holding court in front of his hubcap-bedecked lean-to. (“We call him Sanford and Son,” David says.) That’s the shop with the long line for the choka (spicy coconut balls). There’s the corner where the cow eats the garbage. As we arrive at our final stop, Georgetown’s Guyana Botanical Gardens, David seems apologetic. “A few years ago the horticulturalist died.” So, it would seem, did the gardens.
To their credit, the Guyanese don’t shy from the darker aspects of their colonial past. Their history’s darkest episode is another matter: Despite repeated emails from friends who have learned of my destination (“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid!”), while I am in the country there is not a single mention of Jonestown, where in 1978, infamously, a sitting U.S. Congressman was assassinated and more than 900 followers of Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones died after downing a cyanide-laced fruit drink.
Almost 35 years later, this country has a bright present, lit by the sheer wattage of its citizens. And by citizens I mean soccer fans. Tuesday night, I am in the Presidential Suite at Providence Stadium, cheering on the squad in yellow, the Golden Jaguars. The game is intense, made all the more thrilling by the raucous fans who surround me.
The Jaguars take an unexpected early lead. The crowd goes wild! The Jaguars fall behind. The crowd goes wilder! They tie it up, then fall behind again. With every shift of the scoreboard, the entire stadium heaves. But in the final moments, the Guyanese striker fails to capitalize on a penalty kick. The home team, my team, loses. A country’s worth of Guyanese wail their displeasure.
So do I.
In the parking lot, a riot, albeit a relatively friendly one, seems in the offing. As I slip into a cab, there’s something reassuring about the shorthand I use to get me back to my secure, well-situated hotel: “Take me to the U.S. Embassy.”
The next morning, the clouds part, if only figuratively, and I’m lucky to find myself on a charter flight to the interior of Guyana. The captain of the 13-seat plane tells us what to expect. “It’s about 80 minutes to Kaieteur Falls,” he announces, “and the weather is, uh”. . . pregnant pause . . . “fine.” Except that the weather is, uh, not fine. It is very cloudy and windy, with low visibility, but we take off anyway, and an hour later we land barely a football field away from Kaieteur, one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world. “When God was done digging the oceans,” our guide explains, “he dug in his shovel and flicked this piece out.”
I see what he means. I see what they all mean. This morning I was in Georgetown, with its delicious choka and its dying gardens and its Sanford and Son, but now I am in Guyana. It’s a different country. New York seems a distant planet. Even yesterday’s unforgettable soccer game, a distant memory.
After a few hours and a few thousand pictures taken from vantages no U.S. national park would possibly allow, our group reluctantly boards our return flight. But when we take off, I’m excited and relieved. I’ve had my adventure. The clouds have parted. Just then I look down and see an endless canvas of treetops. An unbroken canopy of emerald. Bumpy green umbrellas.
Of course. I see it now.
© 2016 AFAR Media