GEORGETOWN, Guyana – As Guyana turns 50 as an independent nation in a few days on May 26, preparations to usher in this significant milestone are obvious around this capital city and other parts of the country that I toured during a two-week visit.
Expectations are high for visitors and reports say hotels especially in the city are fully booked. Those involved in the jubilee planning and month-long celebrations are hyped about an influx of foreign currencies and spending on local products and services.
The Golden Arrowhead, the national flag of Guyana, is very visible along the streets, at government buildings, private residences and shopping plazas. Streets and drains in the city are being cleared and the areas surrounding the infamous Stabroek market have been cleared of street vending and garbage.
Street vendors were not happy with the move but the new mayor and city councillors are taking the bull by the horn, streamlining vending by placing them a couple of blocks from the Parliament buildings.
Police outposts have been set up at Stabroek market square as well as in the vicinity of Guyana Stores, a move hailed by citizens as positive and long overdue.
The stadium, being constructed to host the main independence celebrations, behind the statue of Cuffy, the African slave who lead a rebellion against the colonial rulers, still had much work to be done when I left Guyana, the country of my birth, a few days ago.
Many I spoke with were concerned about the completion and the finished stadium. The heavy rainfalls may have an effect on a job otherwise well done.
There has been criticism from some citizens about the millions of dollars spent on the last-minute stadium.
“They know that this anniversary was coming up. Why build this stadium in a rush, when they could have used the money to fix the National Park or use the stadium built for the World Cup cricket?” a taxi driver said.
“Both venues are large; it’s a waste of money,” the cabbie told me. “They want to show that this government did something for the 50th,” he suggested.
Here is a perspective shared by a government media employee. She believes the National Park is a reminder of the end of colonialism as that’s where the Union Jack was lowered and the Golden Arrowhead hoisted for the first time.
“They don’t want to be reminded of that. The World Cup cricket stadium was built by the previous government, so this government wants to make their mark by building this stadium, I guess to prove a point,” she said.
But in a government TV news story, the minister responsible for the stadium said the other venues identified could not adequately accommodate the number of people and vehicles expected and it the new one will also avoid traffic congestion.
Like most countries, crime and criminals exist and Guyana has its fair share. I had planned to visit the Ramada Princess hotel and casino the very night masked men invaded the casino and shot a policeman and staffers before escaping with local and foreign currencies.
As luck would have it, I decided against it but I could have been at the wrong place at the wrong time and become one of the many visitors who faced the trauma.
It was later reported that the robbery was allegedly orchestrated by one of casino’s security personnel, who was later arrested and charged with a few others.
I was not affected in any way but as I related to some of my friends, had I not been in Guyana and just heard the news in Toronto, I would have been scared. Perhaps distance makes isolated disturbing events seem more dangerous.
Nevertheless, I did everything I wanted to do – taking public transit, walking the streets in Georgetown, taking one of the many boat launches from Georgetown across the Demerara River and shopping for fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood in Stabroek market.
I also travelled along the Essequibo River to Hogg Island and Wakenaam and to Berbice to see the bridge. The drive to Berbice was refreshing as the roads were fully paved, surprisingly without potholes. Vendors, few and far apart, offered their fruits, vegetables and fresh-water fish and shrimps.
And, this may be surprising to Guyanese who have not gone back to Guyana in recent years. Home-cooked dog food stalls are popping up along sections of the roadways in Georgetown. They are packaged and ready for those who seemingly have little time to prepare food for their dogs, many of which serve as security guards for their homes.
There are some lasting memories of my trip, despite the fact I could not be there to join in the 50th anniversary celebrations.
But what matters most to me was seeing my father celebrate a milestone birthday – 80 years and counting – and spending quality time with my family and friends.
Even if your dad lives elsewhere, Guyana is definitely worth a visit.