Guyana challenges, rewards mission group

A vendor at the Saturday market in Georgetown, Guyana.

GEORGETOWN, GUYANA — Street vendors hawk colorful mosquito netting as a defense against malaria in this capital city, where the pests are considered a serious public health risk.

Traveler precautions include recommended daily use of insect repellent and staying indoors at night. Hepatitis and typhoid vaccinations are advised.

A plethora of biting insects that emerges when the sun sets provides a feast for bats. Sounds of the night in the countryside include barking dogs, whistling frogs and the chant of Hindu music blasting from a neighborhood stereo.

The power goes out regularly in this nation, the poorest in South America. But when that happens, the night sky comes alive with stars, and the jungle twinkles with lightning bugs.

Anacondas and piranhas, footlong lizards and giant bugs live here. Day and night happen quickly with little transition. It is as if a switch is thrown and the sun rises. Nightfall is sudden some 300 miles from the equator. Instead of winter and summer, there are wet and dry seasons.

Travel is an adventure. A five-hour overnight plane trip from New York leads to a bleary-eyed, bumpy, hourlong ride in a small bus. Impatient car drivers race to pass us on a two-lane road shared by bicyclists, pedestrians, cows and horse-drawn wagons. Traffic flows in the British fashion on the “wrong” side of the road.

We are a four-member team en route from St. James Episcopal Church on James Island to an orphanage in the tiny town of Cornelia Ida.

On arrival, a Frontline Missions worker advises of some basic health and safety rules: Don’t drink the tap water. Beware of getting it in your mouth during a cold shower. The same goes for brushing teeth. Giant jugs of bottled water in the open-air dining hall are safe. Drink a lot of it even when you don’t feel thirsty. Dehydration sneaks up on visitors in the intense heat and humidity.

It seems potential dangers are everywhere, including the possibility of street crime best combated by sticking together and avoiding solo excursions into the community.

This is the country where the Jonestown massacre happened. Some 900 Americans were killed or committed suicide one night in 1978 at the behest of cult leader Jim Jones. They drank cyanide-laced grape punch.

Hundreds of men, women and children had followed Jones to Guyana. They built cottages, workshops and dormitories and cultivated crops in the rainforest just 40 miles from the Venezuelan border. U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan of California flew there to investigate allegations that cult members were being abused and held hostage. As he was preparing to return home with 18 temple members, he was ambushed on the airstrip. Ryan, three journalists and a cult defector were killed.

After the slayings, Jones called for mass suicide. Babies were killed by squirting the deadly punch into their mouths with syringes. Most adults were poisoned, some forcibly. Some were shot by cult security guards. Among the more than 900 dead were 11 Guyanese, mostly Amerindian children who lived on the compound. Jones was found with a bullet wound to his head. It was unclear who pulled the trigger, according to The Associated Press.

The Guyanese government discussed the possibility of developing the site for “dark tourism.” So far, nothing much goes on there except a plaque the country’s Tourism Authority erected in memory of the victims.

We live on chicken and fresh eggs from a large coop on the 16-acre grounds of the orphanage. Rescued dogs patrol the premises that are surrounded by a tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Three cows roam around the place. We hear the story of a shaggy canine saved from an anaconda. Afterward, the kids renamed him Lucky.

Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, has about 750,000 residents. It gained independence from Britain in 1966. The nation is bound by Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname and is on the northeast coast.

The people speak in British accents that reflect their colonial past. Sugar cane and rice are grown here. Much of the land was reclaimed from the sea by the Dutch, who preceded the British. Houses often are surrounded by drainage canals.

The Caribbean is an uncharacteristic muddy-brown from silt dumped into the ocean by the rivers. A mile offshore, the sea turns its trademark bright blue. The Demerara Harbor Bridge into Georgetown is a mile-long floating structure described as World War II British surplus. Shortly after our arrival in late July, a part of the bridge sank, crippling highway transportation. A few days later, it was refloated.

Some 35 kids are sheltered at the orphanage, called Save-R-Kids. Many of them were sexually abused. We stay and work there in late July. The government places the children at the home, but it receives no public funds. The effort is the focus of Save-R-Kids International, a registered nonprofit charity based in Atlanta.

The Charleston connection to the orphanage started with Paul Mitchell, a James Island resident whose father, Harry Mitchell, perished in the 1994-95 Around Alone race while attempting to sail solo around Cape Horn, the most southerly point of South America.

Mitchell was in Charleston to settle his father’s affairs when he met Mary Joan Oexmann, a Medical University nutritionist. They married shortly afterward.

He hit on the idea of bikes for the orphanage and gathered donated old two-wheelers here to ship overseas. Although battered, the bikes are a prized possession at Save-R-Kids. During the St. James mission to Guyana, a trip was made back into Georgetown to purchase six new bikes for $400 as well as parts to fix the old bikes that Mitchell shipped over.

The kids range from toddlers to late teens. Despite their pasts, most have a bright spark in their eyes and seem to be flourishing under the care of Guyanese couple Mike and Michelle Campbell and their three adult daughters. The building, which formerly housed a shelter for battered women, is a place of love and healing that offers structure in the kids’ lives.

The children play afternoon games of cricket and want to know more about basketball. The teenage boys like American wrestling and follow it on TV. They talk excitedly about Ray Mysterio, a wrestler known for the mask he never removes. Kentucky Fried Chicken and Popeyes franchises compete for the fast-food dollar.

A TV station offers a Hindu-themed soap opera. The Voice of Guyana radio has a classic American country music program.

Christianity is the dominant religion followed by Hinduism and Islam.

During our visit to a Christian church, a new baptismal pool is unveiled. It is so deep that a 6-foot ladder is needed to enter it. Sunday service lasts four hours. In the middle of an hour-long sermon delivered in the humidity of an open-air, unfinished building, a cow moos and a rooster crows. A woman dances in the aisles while praising God.

After 10 days of working with the kids, our stay is up. It is hard saying goodbye. Our flight from the Georgetown airport is delayed three hours when the computer system there crashes. To pass the time, the city’s three newspapers are available with headline stories of riots at a gold mine in another part of the country. Police shot and killed three miners. Critics call for the government to dispatch a nonlethal water cannon instead to manage the situation, which eventually happens.

We pay a $20 departure tax, check our bags and make our way through customs at Cheddi Jagan International Airport. After a brief wait, we are summoned to walk a tarmac to a waiting jet. Things seem to be moving smoothly but the plane sits on the runway for more than an hour. In response, a movie is played on the motionless plane.

A flight attendant explains that the wait is related to airport computer problems. Eventually, our Delta flight lifts off into the late morning, bound for New York and the land where the tap water is OK for us to drink.