“Hey, I got Chinese takeout! Have some!”
–“Thanks! Where’s it from?”
“Just around the corner from here.”
The next day, I walk around the bend. The restaurant’s name? Fortune House, the same name (in English, but not in Chinese) as my dad’s former restaurant. It may have only been day one of my trip, but it made me immediately homesick.
It’s been absolutely mind-boggling to see the constant presence of Chinese people in the three Guianas. We’re members of the same diaspora, but we just ended up on opposite sides of the globe. Our daily language, the ones we live in, are completely different, mutually unintelligible, and yet the immediate knowing glances when I walk into the door of a Chinese business immediately leads to a conversation in the one thing we share.
Kourou and Cayenne, French Guiana
Another day, another aquatic border crossing. Just taking one of those small rickety pirogues to the other side, that’s all — that’s a little step down from the ferry between Guyana and Suriname. Wait, why is everybody speaking French now? Why is my phone welcoming me to… Martinique? And now my phone’s stuck in the wrong time zone, one hour behind the local time.
This town looks a little run down. The road out to Kourou seems quite empty, and huh… hello corrugated steel shacks. Haven’t really seen them that much this trip until now.
Oh look, there’s a freakin’ space rocket.
Jaw Jaw, Suriname
Aside from the languages, there’s one other thing that inspired me to visit Suriname: the connection to West Africa. Suriname has a large Maroon population — that is, escaped slaves who fled further inland into the forest on foot, establishing their own communities with their own customs, using what they remembered of their home traditions. The largest of the Maroon groups is the Saramacca (Saamaka), and I wanted to take the time to visit at least one community. Having spent a memorable month in West Africa a few years ago, seeing everything from the big city to more rural areas, I felt a strong pull to compare the lives of those on both sides of the Atlantic. Same ancestors, different geography, hundreds of years of separation.
Past the end of the road, the Saramacca have established their villages along the shores of the Upper Suriname River (Dutch: Boven Suriname). Some of these villages are visited by group tours passing through and staying at isolated resorts, but I chose to visit Jaw Jaw (pronounced like “yao-yao”, where returned former expat Bele has started a guesthouse in the centre of his village. Eschewing over 20 years of the hectic rat-race life in the UK and the Netherlands for a return to something simpler, he’s grown proud of his roots and was eager to share.
Paramaribo has always been a place I’ve aspired to visit ever since I became interested in languages. It’s the only city and general population centre of sparsely-populated Suriname (pop. 550000), the only official Dutch-speaking independent nation in the Americas, but one that speaks a bunch of everything else.
With a population even more mixed up than Guyana, while all signage is in Dutch, Sranan Tongo (Surinamese) is the general lingua franca of the country, their confounding creole of English, Portuguese, Dutch, and various West African languages. It’s so weird to see Chinese people speaking amongst themselves in Sranan! Speaking of which, other languages I’ve heard commonly are Cantonese, Mandarin, Javanese, Hindi, Portuguese, and of course English, passably spoken by most of the population. Add in the beautiful Caribbean Dutch architecture, and my heart’s already stolen. This place is almost criminally underlooked — the only other tourists I see are all Dutch, and there are few English resources about places to visit in the country!
But speaking of criminal… There’s some sort of nefarious current here. You don’t need to know any of these myriad languages to feel it, but it sure makes it more obvious.
Prior to arriving in Guyana, that’s the most common response I’ve gotten when asked about this trip. The Ecuadorians sitting next to me on one of my flights had never even heard of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, let alone known that they exist on their continent, just a hop and skip away. (“It’s next to Venezuela.” “Colombia?” “Other side.” “Brazil?” “No, east.” “…Brazil?”) My mom thought I was going to Peru. My Couchsurfing host, Gordon, mentions people mistaking Guyana for Ghana. No one at the airports, not even me until I asked my host for once and for all, seems to know how to pronounce it right. Ghee-ana? Gooey-ana? Guay-ana? I heard all three. (It’s guy-ana, the “guy” as in “you guys”. I only heard that for the first time in Guyana.)
To make matters worse, Guyana doesn’t really have a reputation of its own internationally. It certainly has a reputation though, just not of its own making. Take Jonestown, the incident that literally invented the phrase “drinking the Kool-aid”, after an American cult leader brought his followers to establish their own “utopia” in the Guyanese hinterlands, then ordered them to all commit suicide by kool-aid after he went crazy. Or take the mini refugee crisis, or the territorial dispute extending to half of Guyana, or the recent offshore oil dispute, all courtesy of neighbouring Venezuela.
So arriving in Guyana, having no mental picture of what the place looked like, what have I found?
Nunavut is the size of Western Europe or all of Mexico, comprising 20% of Canada’s landmass. A statistic like this would typically suggest millions of people, heavy attention on the world stage, and significant development.
But we’re not talking typical here. There are no roads into Nunavut, nor are there roads between any of the 25 communities that make up its town-like population of 35,000 (<0.1% of Canada). Majority Inuit, proudly part of Canada yet largely disconnected from the national conversation, it feels like a different country. Maybe even a different planet: the landscape looks like Mars. No amount of Canadian flags, Tim Hortons, or TVs playing “southern” content can change that. Up here, people pay attention to what’s going on down south, but I can’t say that many of us down south do the same for the north. I found myself needing constant reminders that I hadn’t left the country, even with the words “us foreigners” once slipping out of my mouth. It’s hard to absorb how drastically different Canada can be from coast to coast to coast.
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
It’s a lonely, loud propeller plane ride from southern Canada up to Yellowknife. The cities disappear, the Rockies, the roads, the farms and plains of Alberta, and then… no signs of civilisation. You see the familiar Canadian Shield out of the window: bedrock, bogs, short trees, and a million lakes. Like a random map generator, it’s endless permutations of taiga (or boreal forest if you prefer). Then all of a sudden, Yellowknife.
Despite being so far west, in terms of travelling east, Yellowknife is basically it. It’s the easternmost territorial city connected by road to the rest of Canada. (Never mind the fact that across Canada’s three territories, only their capitals are cities, and they’re all pretty small! Yellowknife’s just under 20,000 people, containing roughly half of NWT’s population.) Other tiny settlements east are accessible by ice road in the winter, but the summer? Good luck with that.
So let’s stock up and head east! Wait, whaa?
Vancouver, British Columbia
One year on since officially returning to Vancouver, it still feels like I just returned mere weeks ago. While I’ve fondly been looking back at the last two years on the road, I’m quite happy to stay put, and having experienced everything I hoped for and more out of my sabbatical, the transition back to a non-travel life hasn’t been hard at all. It’s nice to feel like a normal person again rather than the visitor in town, and I’m enjoying the simple things — seeing the same people regularly, being able to follow TV shows, cook, try out restaurants around town, check out live music, or even just do nothing at all. It’s even nice to hold a regular job again, though of course I lament the loss of free time and spontaneity. That’s probably the only “hard” part.
I can’t even figure out where I want to go next, or when. But you know… here’s not so bad at all.
Oaxaca de Juárez and Puerto Escondido, Mexico
Music rings from every street corner. The streets and plazas are alive with conversation and activity. Colour adorns every building, whether by paint or by nearby blooming trees or by street art. And in the background, mountains.
This is not what I expected from the state of Oaxaca, a place that’s forever been on my radar as a food destination. We’ll get to that point later, but this was literally the reason I came, and the only thing I knew. But food is only one facet of what Oaxaca really is — a shining showcase of every facet of culture in this state, one which holds on strongly to its traditions yet embraces new ideas.
There’s an immediate difference if you compare Oaxaca de Juárez (the state capital, also called Oaxaca for short) to Mexico City. Gone are all the skyscrapers or any semblance of a modern metropolis: brightly painted colonial-era buildings line streets of brick and vibrant cathedral-centered plazas. It’s a bit of a time warp. Oaxaca’s zócalo is the big hub of activity, packed with crowds under the shade of its many trees, doing everything from chatting to shining shoes to people-watching to idly strumming a guitar to enjoying whatever roaming live entertainment comes their way. Surrounding it all are snack vendors and sidewalk cafes. It’s just a thoroughly pleasant place to kill time, closely followed by the plaza surrounding the Santo Domingo cathedral, just a short walk away past a Semana Santa-special artisan’s market.
Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City, a metro area of over 20 million, is one of the largest in the world. Packed to the max with traffic above ground and like sardines down below in the expansive metro (complete with unique identifying icons for each station!), it unexpectedly brings to mind other disparate megapolises: New York population-wise (and the Bronx and Queens demographically speaking), Tehran in density, and even London based on the sheer number of museums and cultural institutions out there.
Just when I thought I was done (which, you may recall, was first December, then February), I had to squeeze another trip in. Upon signing a new job contract, I impulsively booked a flight leaving the next day, scrambling to figure out how to make the most of my remaining sabbatical. This meant the least amount of preparation and planning I’ve ever done for a trip. Usually it’s not much at all, but this time I’m really flying blind. And everything in the first paragraph was literally stuff I just learned and perceived upon landing. It’s about time I found out what I’ve been missing all these years, as our close neighbour!