In some ports, you have lots of opportunity to see things around the country. In others, you work, and work hard. Guyana was both of those things, in a way.
There was hard work, but I also met some locals and connected with them in unique ways. Two 20-something guys took it upon themselves to introduce my friend, T, and I to Guyanese life. They took us shopping, around town, and when we mentioned not knowing anything about cricket (a national pastime the former British colony), they rustled up a cricket bat and ball, and whisked us over to the nearest park to teach us how to play.
Another friend and I were invited to be on a local tv channel as publicity for the ship. That was a new experience. Of course, no one told me you don’t wear a blue shirt when you’re going to be filmed in front of a blue screen. To avoid looking topless, I had to wear some too-tight, ill-fitting jacket they rustled out of the prop closet. We talked about our work, but we also discussed religious differences, something I don’t think would be terribly common on American public access channels. But it fit the cultural melting pot of the small nation.
I found the blending of cultures in Guyana terribly unique: Indian, African, Caribbean, and Latin American; Hindu, Muslim, Christian and indigenous religions, all shaken up in one small section of South America. I believe it was here where I saw my first completely Muslim woman – she was dressed in head to two black, delicately wiping the sweat from her face with a rag beneath the face covering that fell from beneath her eyes to below her chin. I wanted to speak with her, to hear her story, but that black barrier was so intimidating. Her eyes met mine for a moment as she waited in line, before turning aside to move forward. She must have been so hot in that covering in the Caribbean summer heat.
And then there was the week I spent cleaning a nursing home for people who had no where else to go. We loaded up a ship van (which are lifted by crane onto the dock from their parking spot on the bow of the ship) with cleaning supplies and went to scrub our hearts out. The facility is both elder care as well as a mental health and disabled facility.
You guys, it was not fun. The staff had their hands full with the patients, and I’m sure they were paid next to nothing. They weren’t going to spend extra time scrubbing the bathrooms. They were over worked with few resources caring for people on the government’s very slim dime. The wards were open air, with wooden walls and no concessions for handicap access.
While I was on the cleaning crew, others were repairing the facility. Others built small lockers for the residents to store their few belongings in. Most of them didn’t even have a change of clothes.
We gagged our way through emptying fetid buckets, batting mosquitoes and scrubbing excrement caked on walls. We bleached and polished and wiped and moped. We worked our way around the facility, stopping each afternoon to try to spend time communicating with residents, many of whom spoke no English. While my heart went out to them, many of them dumped by their families because they were too old or two ill, I still cringed as I tried to encourage them through the awkward communication.
The best part was at the end of the week, when we arrived with a truckload of new mattresses and sheets for everyone in the facility. We piled those mattresses up high in the grass and all I could think of was the princess and the pea. Except the new owners of these mattresses were no royalty; they were the forgotten and the unwanted. We pulled on our rubber gloves again, and cast the rotting, urine-soaked old mattresses out, replacing them with fresh, clean sheets, protecting the mattresses with plastic if the staff thought the patient needed it.
I remember making the bed of a resident with whom I had chatted throughout the week, happy to give him a little more comfort. Then, I checked the bathrooms we had so carefully scrubbed just days before. Smelly again. The bucket refilled in its corner, waiting to go rancid. And I understood why the nurses looked at us with resigned eyes as we had scrubbed the dirt and human waste from the walls.
It was a hard week, because of the work, because of the heartache, but also because my grandmother died that week after a battle with cancer. My mom called the ship to tell me. She had been able to be with her at the end, but not I. It felt unreal, yet it was real, and as we broke for lunch that day, and I sat eating my sandwich on the steps of the nursing home, I thought, “I’ll never see my grandma again.”
Then I crumpled the plastic my sandwich had been in, straightened the handkerchief over my hair and filled another bucket of bleach water to go serve the grandmothers and grandfathers of Guyana.