Guyana Through Stories: How Embracing Modernity, Rather than Tradition, Affects Residents and Visitors

Monument outside of Cheddi Jagan International Airport. Timehri, 2022.

“One of the casualties of development and changes in society is the irretrievable loss of traditions and customs…The arrival and departure experiences at Timehri have been reduced to dull and soulless transactions. Witnesses to departures can sit on their cars in the parking lot and peer into the sky for a final glance as the aircraft climbs into the sky. Long gone are the days of the viewing gallery, collateral damage of modern development.”

Stabroek News, 2019
Construction site outside of Cheddi Jagan International Airport. Timehri, 2022.

What Happened to the Airport?

When I learned I was returning to Guyana after 10 years, I was looking forward to the opportunity to see my family waving at me, but all of that was gone. Today, the second floor of Cheddi Jagan International Airport is occupied by a Burger King and a Pizza Hut along with different stations for people to walk onto the jet bridge and eventually board the plane. I thought I understood the desire for a place like Guyana to want to appeal to people coming into the country. When people travel to foreign destinations, they may find it comforting to see restaurants and businesses that they are familiar with at home, so it makes sense that you can find a Burger King and a Pizza Hut at CJIA. But I soon rejected that explanation because in all of my interviews at the airport, people made it clear that there were hardly any foreigners coming into the country; it was mostly Guyanese people who had gone abroad and were returning to visit family. But I also understood that with the new interest in Guyana‘s resources there would be more traffic into the country, and many of these people were diasporans returning from places like the U.S. where you could easily find a Pizza Hut and Burger King. Change at the airport has replaced a family viewing gallery for families with fast food restaurants that many Guyanese people can barely afford. Sure, Guyanese emigrants visiting the country may be able to, but many of those I spoke to in passing at the airport emphasized the fact that they were looking forward to coming home to get foods that they could not get in America. The modernization of the space and the addition of these restaurants works against the goal of fostering a great [unique] tourist experience- for returning residents and visitors. 

Traffic Light on Camp St, Georgetown, GY. 2021
Traffic Light on the corner of Camp and Regent Street in Georgetown, GY. 2022

Traffic Lights in Guyana

In 2012 when I left Guyana, the country had installed a traffic light system at major intersections and smaller roads with heavy pedestrian traffic. When I came back in 2021, most of that was gone. The little that remained barely worked or sat there as props. The traffic lights had been a gift from the Indian government to Guyana back in the mid- 2000s, but when things needed to be repaired the Guyanese government let them fall apart. It did not help that drivers refused to obey the lights once they were installed. Many complained that the countdown was too slow or too fast and instead created their own messy system- for drivers. Pedestrians, however, took advantage of the lights because the green signal gave them an opportunity to cross safely [for the most part]. With many of the traffic lights gone, it was now harder for people to cross the road or make a turn. At certain intersections, I noticed freshly painted crosswalks for pedestrians, but it meant nothing. I stood at one of these crosswalks for what felt like forever. Even when it looked like a driver gave me a chance to cross, the driver in another lane would come driving at full speed (speed, that is another concern in Guyana). My point again is that, if Guyana will likely see an increase in visitors- despite the government’s [lack of an] interest in international tourism- how do they expect people coming into the country (with no connection, unlike myself) to get around safely? 

Christmas Village on Main Street, 2021.
The Georgetown Seawall Bandstand, 2022.
Green Lake, Linden, GY. 2022
Kaieteur National Park, 2021.
Kaieteur Falls, the world’s largest single drop waterfall, 2021.

“This country ain’t ready for foreigners. It gotta get real serious…. Any banna [anybody/person] bother a tourist gotta get a finger chop off. Now everybody gon know that you bother a tourist. Yuh gon get mark forever.” 

Taxi man in conversation, 2022.

Plan vs. Action

In 2021, I was able to sit down with someone at Guyana’s Ministry of Tourism. During that interview, it was made clear to me that the government was not [necessarily] interested in championing international travel rather than domestic travel. However, there seemed to be a disconnect between government plan and government action. Platforms like Visit Guyana and Guyana Tourism Authority have been successfully selling Guyana to the world. Scientists, people traveling for business, and tourists interested in adventure tourism have taken a liking to the country’s flora and fauna and seem to have convinced initiatives like Visit Guyana and GTA that there is potential for a type of tourism in Guyana that does not rely on the white sand blue water stereotype that is often associated with the Caribbean. 

When I last visited the country after I left the airport and got into a taxi, the taxi driver made it clear that Guyana was not serious enough. I asked him what he meant and he said, 

“Look them man [other taxi drivers waiting in the airport parking lot] waiting deh [there] for see who they could bother. This country ain’t ready for foreigners. It gotta get real serious…. Any banna [anybody/person] bother a tourist gotta get a finger chop off. Now everybody gon know that you bother a tourist. Yuh gon get mark [marked] forever.” 

The taxi driver’s views were a result of Guyana’s known history of petty crimes, especially robberies. Prior to telling me what he believed should be a robber’s punishment, he explained that a traveler had been robbed shortly after leaving the airport a few weeks prior and he was worried that people were coming into the country without proper arrangements. He also shared his concern about Guyana possibly being taken advantage of. On one side, there are Guyanese people who are hopeful that an increase in international tourism and traffic into the country in general, whether it be for leisure or business, is a sign that things will change economically for many Guyanese people. On the other side, there is a fear of the visitor coming into your home, staying too long, and eventually taking all of your resources, and in many ways exploiting you. When you look at how, historically, the Caribbean has been dependent on the developed world it is easy to see why some Guyanese people may be against inviting that kind of attention to the country. But the attention is already there. The discovery of oil off the coast of Guyana around 2019, showed that Guyana has some value in the global marketplace. As businesses like Exxonmobil and other private companies continue to travel into Guyana for business, some Guyanese people – especially those interested in selling Guyana‘s wildlife experience as a product- hope that they will be interested in doing some leisure activities during their stay. And while that has already started to happen, as someone who grew up in Guyana, I know that it is not so simple. There is a shared understanding amongst some Guyanese people that the country has been led by incompetent and corrupt leaders, so one can only hope that with all of this potential money and traffic coming into Guyana that people in leadership positions will do right by Guyanese residents. 

“We does propa dress up for go Giftland… the dunce thugs don’t bother we up deh”

S. Brown talking about Giftland Mall, 2021

Giftland: An Escape for Residents

As someone currently residing in the US, a first world country, even I can admit that Giftland Mall is a nice mall. It has a great spread of local traditional food and popular foreign food chains, Visitors have the option of buying imported goods that they would not be able to get at a place like Bourda or Stabroek market, and it is away from the chaos that often comes with being in a more traditional market. I went there with family and as an “outsider looking in” it was wonderful for me to see how happy going to this place made my family members- who had never gotten a chance to leave the country- feel. While doing research and interviews in Guyana, I was concerned about the [possible] loss of tradition, and how the government’s attempt to embrace modernity was already starting to hurt many people living in Guyana presently. I was also forced to grapple with the fact that the foreigners coming to set up shop in Guyana seemed to have no intention of investing in the local community. From conversations with local Guyanese people, there was a shared understanding that these foreigners had the ability to create a job opportunity or donate money to invest in the communities that they hope to profit from, but most foreign businesses were not doing that. Again, this reaffirmed my fear that modernity would ultimately do more harm than good. However, what I failed to realize in doing all of this was how modernity may also be a good thing for Guyanese people who have never gotten a chance to see or experience something else.

It is clear that the government -in collaboration with some businesses- is trying to fix Guyana in an attempt to appeal to foreigners, but if the government invests in the country’s infrastructure it can also benefit local Guyanese residents. Better roads, better malls, more job opportunity, and different experiences gives Guyanese people who don’t have the resources to hop on a plane and go somewhere else the chance to feel nice in their home. And coming to terms with this fact, helped me understand why places like Giftland was so special. From the few trips that I took to that mall with my cousins and from observing local shoppers, I could see how exciting a trip there was. It eventually became exciting for me because I knew what it was like to live in Guyana at a time where malls were slowly starting to come into the country, but was still overshadowed by traditional spots like markets in Georgetown. Usually when I go to a mall in America it is either to buy some thing or to hang out with friends before buying some thing. As a Guyanese person, I can admit that sometimes, especially when you do not have a lot of money, it feels like there is nothing one can do for fun, but hopping in a taxi or getting a friend to drive you up to Giftland to get a ice cream cone or to sit outside and eat a hotdog is all it takes for people to feel better. Again even if these malls were not built with local Guyanese people or poor Guyanese people in mind they seem to be the core audience keeping it afloat. It is easy to take a mall food court ice cream cone for granted when there is a variety, but when you live in a place like Guyana getting dressed up after a long day at work to set at a mall is “exciting.” Sitting outside of a churches restaurant and being able to sit on your phone without worrying that someone will come and snatch it is a necessary escape. Guyanese people deserve nice things too, and It is my hope that as foreigners continue to venture into Guyana that the country takes the necessary step to invest in the local economy and the local infrastructure without shutting Guyanese people out in favor of foreigners with big pockets. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *