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A riot of cultures in Georgetown, Guyana

Amongst this riot of parrots and flamboyants, the people of Georgetown could still be fleetingly British. They’d talk about things like ‘Spring’ and ‘Autumn’ whilst the weather remained doggedly hot. They could even be a little archaic, with children peeing in ‘posies’ and having ‘tennis rolls’ for tea. In the shops, too a little Britishness had survived; you could still buy Vicks Vapor Rub, a bottle of ‘Nerve Tonic’ or stack of True Confessions. Meanwhile, Fogarty’s department store was like a huge pink slab of Croydon, now quietly decomposing. Downstairs, it had a 1940s café, complete with skinny sausage rolls and dim lighting as if the war – like the café itself – was somehow still going on.

John Gimlette's new book

But nowhere felt quite so left behind as the city museum. Downstairs were all the odds and ends of colonial life, together with Britain’s departing gift: a tiny Austin Rolls-Royce Prince. Upstairs, meanwhile, hadn’t changed at all since 1933, when Evelyn Waugh called by. The same, faint miasma of formaldehyde still lingered over what he’d described as ‘the worst stuffed animals I have seen anywhere’. Not surprisingly I had the place to myself, and so the curator pounced on me and made me take my hat off.

Out on the street, traces of the old empire were harder to find. Of course, almost all the civic buildings were notionally British – although they didn’t always look it. Often, even the queen’s most loyal architects had let heat and fantasy go to their heads. Father Schole’s City Hall looked like a runaway dolls house, and Blomfield’s cathedral had used up so many trees that, even now, it was at risk of vanishing into the mud. It was only in the details that Georgetown’s streets were still lingeringly British; the Hackney carriages, the EIIR letterboxes, the statue of a great sewage engineer, and a pair of Sebastopol cannons. Once, however, I did see a large building site called ‘Buckingham Palace’, although – sadly, perhaps – before any resemblance had taken shape, the financing had failed.

Pic: Wendy Cooper/flickr

Despite these trappings, I soon came to realise that the Guyanese were neither British nor truly South American but lived in a world of their own. Sometimes, it seemed that being foreign came so naturally to them that they didn’t even understand themselves. There were several thriving dialects, and the city would grind to a halt not just for Christmas but also for Diwali, Eid and Phagwah. Depending on who I asked, the national dish was either roti, chow mein, a fiery Amerindian concoction called pepperpot, or chicken-in-the-rough. Originally, each race had had its own political party, but now there were fifty. Amongst a mere 750,000 people, this sometimes made Guyana feel like several dozen countries all stuffed into one.

I often felt this as I walked across Georgetown. One moment I’d be passing Chinatown, then a mosque, ‘The House of Flavours’, a Hindu temple, and the Pandit Council. Then, I’d turn a corner and find myself in the middle of a ‘Full Gospel Miracle Crusade’ or a Mexican Circus (‘With Real Tigers!’). Occasionally, the different cultures seemed to elide, creating tantalising hybrids. Who I wondered, was behind all the Duck Curry Competitions? Or the ‘Festival of Extreme Chutney’? Most of the time, however, everyone kept to themselves. As I passed through each neighbourhood, the music changed – from reggae to Hindi, through soca and hip-hop, and back to calypso.

All this would be odd in a big city, and yet Georgetown was tiny. There was only one escalator in the whole town (and it still drew a crowd), and the rambling National Gallery received just twenty visits a month. Everyone knew everyone, even the men who sold horse-dung from their carts. You couldn’t do anything, it was said, without word spreading outwards through the Spit Press (‘You tell Tara,’ as one taxi-driver put, ‘and Tara tell Tara’). Only I was the odd one out: a bucra, or white man, in a town with everything but.

Extract taken from John Gimlette’s new and very excellent book about travels in the Guianas, ‘Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s untamed Edge‘. Buy a signed copy and read more by this author here.

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