The holiday season creeps up on you in Bartica. In many ways it is like Christmas at home because people decorate their houses and businesses in Christmas spirit, lights, and signs wishing all the best. Toys, food, and other supplies are brought in weeks before Christmas eve and kids are seen running around with newly purchased plastic wonders all sent in from that emerging Oriental giant. Dart guns, remote controlled cars, dolls, bubble guns, tables, house wares, picture frames, and plastic flower arrangements. Oh the things we can do with plastic. How easily and cheaply they are made. How easily they break and how easily they are thrown away and repurchased in their newest version.
Yes, the season creeps up as Guyanese in town extend the operating hours of their businesses, put up plastic trees , and play Christmas tunes on their extraordinarily large speaker systems. Car and foot traffic increase as the days to Christmas sneak up. Yet, everyone seems to prepare well, seems to navigate easily around, and seems to be in control.
If you read the newspapers of the upcoming weeks to Christmas Eve, you’ll see sales, specials, advertising for things you need to buy for your loved ones. You’ll read the everyday news about crime, sports, politics, opinions, celebrity news, and world news. What you may find lacking – or in very short order – are reports of economic stimulus plans, traffic jams, terrorist plots, Miley Cirus’ Twitter, or Roman blinds strangling babies in cold blood. There aren’t even reports of stores gorged with customers arriving at odd hours of the morning to stampede in, where they can claim swathes of merchandise like some flock of Sooners grabbing precious farm land. You may read about a robbery here and there, or a nasty domestic situation involving homicide or suicide, but you probably won’t read about store attendants being trampled to death by hordes of commodity thirsty consumers. You know, the ones that anxiously stuff their bags full, like an army of heroin addicts kicking down a DEA warehouse full of the good stuff made in factories outsourced to the developing world. Nope, you wouldn’t necessarily read the news in any way different than you would if it were New Years, Easter, Independence Day, or Thanksgiving.
Now, I don’t want to come off as some self-righteous do-gooder who thinks he can muse theories of the post modern world because he had some liberal-California upbringing, a University degree in something as useless as Ethnomusicology, and a two year stint in the Peace Corps (arguably the Marine Corps poster child alter ego). What I am trying to do is raise awareness. No, not some stupid candle light vigil and a protest for the third world...uh, I mean developing world. I want to raise awareness at how wonderful it is here during Christmastime. In Guyana, I don’t have to worry about getting run over in a parking lot. Let's be honest, there are no parking lots where I live!
See, Christmas in Guyana is strongly influenced by American culture – as are many other things in this country. You will see the decorations, the toys, the advertising (to a relatively limited extent), and the Christmas spirit in Guyanese form. Yet, the Guyanese Christmas spirit follows the party spirit that Guyanese have for every other celebratory occasion. This includes lots of drinking, lots of food, lots of music, but not lots of raving lunatic Americans. Sorry America, but I’m just better off without you in this department and I think the rest of the world is, too.
For starters, the Christmas music in Guyana is an amalgamation of American holiday tunes mixed with Reggae and Dance Hall versions of all the known carols: Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and much more. I cannot truly explain to you the smile that spreads across my face when I hear Jamaicans chunking away at “Do You Hear What I Hear” as I walk down the arcade in search of eggs and flour. To my despair, Celine Deon (in all her annoying and aurally corrosive splendour) was played on repeat for hours nearly every day. Conversely (and to my appreciation), oldies versions of Christmas songs were sung by the likes of Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, and others. Like every day in this country, the music that accompanied the holiday season was tantalizingly amusing.
The food is much different. Nearly all Guyanese prepare pepper pot for Christmas dinner. Pepper pot is a Guyanese dish that comes from the Amerindian (indigenous peoples) culture. It is made with an assortment of meats including one or all of the following: chicken, chicken foot, chicken gizzard, chicken heart, chicken liver, beef, cow liver, cow stomach, cow hoof, cow face, and pork. The meat is either slow-cooked for days or pressure cooked for hours so as to become tender. A sauce, called casrib, is made with a ground provision called, cassava. Cassava, which is in the potato family, is stringier and tastes starchier than your run-of-the-mill Irish spud. To make casrib, the cook must first boil the cassava and peel the skin off. The chunks of starchy meat are then grated and pressed into a long, slender, hand woven sack called a matapee - which looks like a giant Chinese finger trap. The matapee is used to squeeze out all the moisture in the cassava meat. The moisture is then collected into a pot and boiled down to get rid of cyanide, a chemical by-product of this process. Once the liquid has boiled down, it begins to brown and caramelize into a dark, molasses looking syrup. This is casrib, and it is really tasty. The last task is to take the now dried cassava powder and place it on a round, flat, metal cooking surface which is called a tawa or roti pan (the latter named by Indo-Guyanese). The cassava powder then bakes together into a thin, wafer-like, white sheet which is called cassava bread. This bread is then used to scoop up meat and casrib syrup. This is pepper pot.
New Year’s celebration is accompanied with two different main dishes: Cook up and black cake. Cook up is one of Guyana’s national dishes (along with pepper pot, and a variety of Indian dishes). It is made with rice and a variety of meet, beans, and sometimes vegetables. All the ingredients are cooked separately and then combined into one giant pot with coconut milk and spices. It is as filling as it is savory and flavorful. Prepared correctly, it is an excellent dish. Black cake is made with rum, caramelized cane sugar, and dried fruits. It is a dense and moist cake that resembles an American fruit cake.
Drinking is as usual, although in more quantity as less people are working during this time.
It did not feel like Christmas time for me or many other volunteers, but I think that is a given because we are living in a foreign place with a foreign climate to accompany what is a rather cold season for most Americans. I mean, we don’t usually sweat the twelve days of anticipation (unless someone is trying to find a parking space). Americans don’t have intense, beating-down sunshine while they string up their garland lights and prepare their house with spices, decorations, presents, and feasts. They are usually freezing their asses off getting their cars started. Nope, here feels different. And, although there are many bustling around, many waiting in lines (something unusual for Guyanese to do), many whistling carols while they work, and even a few strolling the streets dressed as Old Saint Nick, Christmas in Guyana seems like a curious paradox of familiar and unfamiliar: familiar in its protocols and formalities, unfamiliar in its location, setting, and climate. Due to my own love-hate relationship with Christmastime, this experience turned out to be what I had hoped for when deciding to volunteer – that is: low stress, no lunatic Americans, no excess of material things, no traffic, and no barrage of overzealous Christmasers looking to inject more spirit into an otherwise bloated body of Americana. Clearly I’m a simpleton when it comes to holidays. Bah humbug!
Nevertheless, there were moments when the presence of Christmas spirit caught me off guard. It wasn’t anything special, just instances where I felt connected to the parts of the holiday season that I identify closely with. To give you some examples: Talking to family online or over the phone, the loud argumentative chatter of friends filling the room at a full table of good food and good drink, the smell of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. For those seconds and minutes I was transported home to the places I always enjoy during this season: family, friends, food, and drink. The most important saying always pops into my mind when the holiday season revs up (and I paraphrase because I cannot remember correctly): “The company you keep is more important than what you do, where you go, or what you have.” Spending Christmas in Bartica with people who know how to party had all those things in perfect balance for me.