The National Geographic recommendation comes with a caveat

Dear Editor,

So the National Geographic Traveler has listed Guyana as one of the top 21 must-see places for 2014. Is this the great breakthrough the tourist industry has been waiting for; the one that will finally set Guyana on the eco-travel map, the one that will finally bring all those adventure- and nature-hungry visitors to our shores?

I’m afraid not. I’m afraid it’s too early for self-congratulations and visions of swarms of foreign visitors arriving here only to be simply blown away by all our beauties and wonders. There’s an elephant in the room, and its name is Georgetown.  And as long as we ignore this blight on our lovely land we cannot expect to be anything else but an outlier on the map of preferred tourist destinations.

I’m a foreign visitor myself. I come here fairly regularly now, but I have never managed to overcome my disgust and revulsion on seeing what my beautiful home city has become: a veritable rubbish dump. I know I need say no more; Georgetowners know of the problem and I’ve read and heard many of the local complainers. I just don’t understand why nothing is being done about it. Not even the most basic things, such as placing a rubbish bin at street corners, so that people have a place to thrown their discarded water-bottles and styrofoam containers. Instead, they see the stuff collecting in the drains so of course, that’s where their own trash goes.

It wasn’t always like this. I remember as a child playing in the gutter outside our Lamaha Street house, catching little fish and tadpoles, keeping them in jam-jars of clear gutter-water. Today, which mother would allow her kids to do the same? And it seems that even children know better than some adults, and are being educated not to litter. The other day, waiting in a taxi in Supenaam, a woman sitting next to me threw an empty water-bottle into the bush outside the car. Immediately, her son, aged about ten, piped up, giving her a lecture about how bad it is to litter. I was most impressed. The woman just sucked her teeth and ignored him. If that is the example adults are giving their children, then all the anti-littering education is useless. In a few years that boy will probably follow his mother’s example. It’s the quick and lazy way to go.

I live in Germany, probably the antithesis of Guyana as far as environmental cleanliness is concerned. I can only imagine the thoughts of a German newcomer here walking along a GT street, and I am filled with shame. Germans love nature and love travelling, and it would be a joy to see them flocking here, but I don’t want it to happen, because of that very shame. I don’t want them going back and telling everyone how dirty and stinking Georgetown is.

Instead, I wish we could learn something from the Germans, a people who have made recycling and rubbish-sorting into an art form. Everyone has several rubbish bins in their kitchen, for plastic and tin, paper, glass, compost and “everything else.” “Everything else” is thus kept to a minimum; my non-recycled garbage results in less than ten-litres – a small bag ‒ every two weeks. I wouldn’t even throw a plastic bottle cap in there; that’s how well I’ve adjusted to the system. It’s really not that hard. In Germany, there’s a deposit on glass and plastic bottles – even the small ones – which you get back when you return the bottles. Why don’t we in Guyana do something similar: pay people to pick up stray bottles and bring them back for 10c a go, thereby killing two birds with one stone?

I’m so well-trained that when I go shopping in Guyana I invariably refuse the free black plastic bag offered at the check-out. In Germany, plastic bags for shopping are not free. If you want one, you pay for it; in time, you learn to take your own bag, box or basket when you shop. The UK is quickly following suit: plastic bags are no longer free in Wales, I believe, and there’s a campaign to do away with them in England as well.

But it’s not just First World countries that are clamping down on the scourge of plastic bags: Rwanda has become the first country in the world to ban them outright; a bold and brave step, and an example to all other countries, First or Third World. Visitors entering Rwanda are warned that they will be fined for any plastic bag found on them. And you know what? They will survive.

I could go on forever, but I won’t. I’m seriously considering moving back ‘home’ when I retire in three years’ time, but the greatest deterrent is just this: the rubbish dump that the Garden City has become.

Even more of a deterrent than crime and dangerous traffic. I can take my chances with the latter two problems, but if I can’t walk through my hometown without holding my nose because of stinking, overflowing drains or stepping over piles of refuse, well, it’s just sad.

Please, please do something. If I, as a native Guyanese tolerant of

laid-back attitudes here and in other developing countries, feel such revulsion, how much more must a foreign tourist accustomed to cleanliness and hygiene feel it? Or are we going to gather them up at the airport and whisk them off to Iwokrama and Karanambu, not allowing them a glimpse of our shame?

That’s not going to work. Tourists always visit capital cities. It’s part of the exposure experience. When I speak of Guyana to Germans and other Europeans, it’s always in glowing terms. I speak of the magnificent waterfalls, the unspoilt nature, flowers, animals and birds. I keep the ugly side as a dirty secret. And it’s just a little bit dishonest. I’d like them to come, but I’d hate for them to see our shameful secret. So the National Geographic recommendation comes not without a caveat. Let it be the motivation and a challenge to clean up our city.

Yours faithfully,  

Sharon Maas

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