Embassies and Manatees

Aside from the delicious food mentioned in the previous post, two things stood out from our time in Georgetown, Guyana.

1: Embassies

Our first morning in Georgetown, we went with the Canadian couple we’d met the night before to the Surinamese Embassy.  Kevin & Genevieve were being hosted by the same couchsurfing host as we were, and had happened to show up at the house just as we pulled up in our taxi from the airport at 10 PM, which was amazing luck because without them we’d have been stuck wandering the streets of Georgetown after dark–something you do NOT want to do, especially as two females–since it turned out our host didn’t actually live in the house, just let others use it, and they had the key. And even better luck was that we got along well with them, and they too were planning to travel to Suriname.

Toby and I slept poorly (we didn’t have effective mosquito nets with us, and were sleeping on a hammock and small couch, neither of which were very comfortable) and woke before the others, so we walked the 8 blocks in the rain from our host’s house to the embassy, showed our passports to the guard at the gate, were instructed we would need more formal shirts than the tank tops we were wearing (but luckily I’d read that Guyanese dress up for governmental affairs so had brought along two button down shirts for us), got clip on tags with numbers for the queue, and were instructed to wait in the Waiting Room until our numbers were called. There were only 2 others before us and it was 8:30 AM, but we were still waiting when Kev and Gen arrived a little after 9.  Finally, we were called into the tiny room with the grate to speak with the woman in charge of visas. She told us that the US$15 transit visas good for 3 days that we’d been hoping to get were only available for passports from France or Holland, since the French and Dutch fly into and out of French Guiana or Suriname, respectively. However, they’d recently added a new visa–US$45 single entry good for 30 days instead of the regular US$150 multiple entry good for 5 years–and we could get that. (Apparently if you go to a Surinamese consulate in the States before you arrive there is also now a US$15 tourist card good for 90 days, which is also available at the French Guiana/Suriname border, but not at the Guyana/Suriname border nor at the consulate in Georgetown.)

So we went back to the waiting room and filled out the forms she’d given us, waited a little longer, then went back in, handed in our forms, paid the fee (luckily I happend to be wearing my money belt with US$100 cash to pay for both of us, which even posed a little problem when one $20 bill had a tiny rip in it, but Toby had a $20 she swapped in–a word to the wise, bring crisp US dollars!), then had to go get one passport photo each to submit with our forms before noon so that we could get them signed by 3 and could go with Kev and Gen the next day to Suriname.  They had already had to go through all of this the previous day, so took us to a shop on the top floor of the mall on Regent Street where we could get instant passport photos. We also hadn’t yet gotten to a Scotia Bank (the only bank that will allow foreign ATM cards), so they lent us money for the photos (G$1000=US$5 each) and to take a minivan bus back to the embassy (G$60=US$0.20 each!).  However, when we got back to the embassy, she checked our passports and found that Toby’s didn’t have a full page for the visa (they had stamped her last full page with the Guyanese arrival stamp instead of using a page that already had a stamp on it).  She said she would need more pages in her passport, but if we could get it back to her by 2 PM (usually the cutoff is noon, but she was being nice), we could have the visa by 3 PM.

This meant a trip to the American Embassy. Of course, we also didn’t have any money left and had told Kev and Gen we would meet them and our host for lunch at a restaurant downtown at noon, and had no way to contact them. We walked up to Lamaha Street, the closest main thoroughfare in the direction of the bank, hoping to find a taxi. No luck. So we walked back to Vlissigen Street which we’d come on. Still no luck. Finally we found a taxi company and asked if it would be possible to pass by the Scotia Bank, then to the American Embassy. After we’d arrived and paid him G$500 (US$2.50), we showed our passports and stepped into the lobby to go through security. However, they do not allow cameras, pills, Purell, sunscreen and a whole list of items we had with us in our bags, and told us they could not hold those items for us. Since I didn’t actually need to go to the embassy, I opted to take one bag and put all our ‘contraband’ items in it and leave her with the other, and walk to meet Kev & Gen to tell them what had happened while Toby got extra pages added to her passport in order to get the Surinamese visa. After she went in, I realized I’d given her the guidebook so didn’t totally know where the restaurant was, but I picked my way around and asked people and finally found the place, just as Toby pulled up in a taxi. There was no way they could have the pages ready by 2 PM. They had to transmit Toby’s social security number back over to Washington, D.C. to check it out–make sure she was who she said she was and wasn’t giving some deceased person’s information–before they could issue the pages and told her it should be ready either by that afternoon, or by the morning. So we met Kev and Gen at the Coalpot Restaunt, had a nice meal, and told them that we couldn’t go with them to Suriname the next morning. I was actually a little glad since spending just one day in Georgetown, and most of it in embassies, felt too quick. And since the Surinamese visa office is only open Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we wouldn’t be able to get our visas til Friday, so wouldn’t be able to leave until Saturday morning, giving us 3 days.

The next morning we went to the American Embassy to check back in. I waited outside with our bags while Toby went in. The transmission still hadn’t been answered. They said this was unusual, but that they would keep trying and we should come back between 1 and 3 that afternoon. When we went back at 2 PM it still hadn’t transmitted. However, Toby told them that she needed to get the pages that day since we had to get the visa the next morning to leave on Saturday, and a supervisor was able to override it. For US$82, she got 43 colorful new pages for visas. It was actually 2 sets of new pages, but she hadn’t been given an option for anything else, so we’re not sure if they usually give that many, or if they felt sorry for her haveing to come back so much and threw in an extra set at no cost. In any case, we were now ready to go back to the Surinamese Embassy the next morning.

After more button downs, number tags, and waiting in the Waiting Room, we got to drop off our passports again and although it was a different woman, luckily the first one had made a note that we’d already paid on Wednesday so we were all set.  And at 3 PM, with minimal wait time, we were finally able to pick up our passports with shiny new Surinamese visas good for 30 days single entry. Huzzah!

2. Manatees

Our host came by the house each morning and gave us a ride into downtown (Wednesday we’d left the house before he came, but he did so Thursday and Friday). On our way into town Thursday, he pointed out a pond in the National Park as we passed and told us there were manatees there. When we were up in that area later checking out the Sea Wall and had some time to kill, we decided to walk over to the National Park to check them out. We found the pond and were standing on the track nearby trying to peer into the water to look for signs of life when a man who had been jogging stopped and asked us if we were looking for the manatees. He told us we should go up further to where we could get closer to the pond and should throw grass in the water and call for the manatees. We walked up further, threw a small handfull of grass in the water and sheepishly yelled, “Here manatees!” Nothing happened.  We walked back a bit to where we could make out movement far away and took out our cameras to take blurry pictures of the far away creatures.

At this point, the man had made it around the track and asked if we’d gotten to see them up close. We admitted that we hadn’t, so he came over, grabbed big fistfulls of grass from the bank, threw them in the water, and started whistling. He told us to keep whistling and he found a brick to lay on the soft dirt pilled by the water barrier to the pond so that we could step from there to the pond wall. Suddenly, there were bubbles, then nostrils, then heads and finally the giant backs of the manatees surfaced, just by our feet!  They are so much bigger in person than I’d imagined. The man who’d helped us got down and, with an admonition to not stay on the wall too long, left. 



We stayed standing there for a short while, watching them eat and taking pictures, then climbed back off the wall.  A group of school kids came by, saw the manatees, and clambered onto the wall too, yelling to each other about the manatees until the sea cows finished the grass and swam away from the wall. One big one joyfully flipped his tail in the air. I like to think we was saying “Thank you for the grass!” and waving us farewell.

The next day, after picking up our passports from the Surinamese Embassy, we went with another American we’d met to the Botanical Gardens and Zoo. He had been told there were more manatees in the canal there. After some patient waiting and cayman (small fierce alligators) spotting, we saw the tell-tale bubbles and nostrils on the other side of the water. We made our way over, and were rewarded with a full view of a manatee who at first came to the bank and nibbled at the grass there, but then pulled himself up with his front flipper to that he was part way out of the water and could get at the longer grass further up the bank. These manatees did not look like the ones I’d seen in Florida as a kid, but instead looked more like a cross between those manatees and a rhinoceros. Their faces had long snouts, and the front flipper looked like a little leg with tough rhino skin.


When he slipped back into the water, we went and sat by another bank.  Another (or perhaps the same?) manatee swam over to this bank and started eating the grass at the bank there, even though the water was covered with a film of oil and had trash floating in it. We felt bad watching him eat in those conditions, but were also excited to have a manatee close enough that we could have touch it if we’d been brave enough. Instead, we just took many more pictures.


I could tell you about the beautiful Promenade Park, the time spent in internet cafes hiding from drenching rain, going to a street vendor and bargaining for better prices on mosquito nets or watching someone pocket a can of condensed milk from a stand just in front of where we were walking in Stabroek Market, but those are short stories with only small memories attached. What will stand out in my memory from our 3 days in Georgetown are the embassies and manatees.

Categories: From The Road, Guyana, South America | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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