By Marianne Puhalla
Imbedded as a reporter to bring back pictures and stories on the Misericordia University service-learning, mission trip to Guyana, I was far less prepared than the students and my intent was not nearly as selfless.
I was on a news assignment armed with a camera, laptop, Internet passwords, blog directions and instructions on how to upload my pictures to a photo-sharing website. I knew Georgetown, Guyana, was just north of the Equator, and would be hot and buggy in June – and impoverished. I had been to other underdeveloped Caribbean nations and thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong.
Not only did we get used to one-minute showers and flushing the toilet only when absolutely necessary (so to not waste the sole supply of rain water collected in canisters on the roof), we had to deal with a mind-boggling number of mosquitos. Georgetown is a city below sea level and the canals that line the streets are filled with stagnant water and sewage. We clung to anything with DEET, but to no avail.
Without screens on the windows, at any one time, each of us had as many as 50 mosquito bites even while sleeping in mosquito netting.
Lucky for us, the St. Paul’s Retreat Center where we stayed is a beautiful oasis in the middle of the poverty of the Vryheids Lust section of Georgetown. The center was built by the local diocese to house visitors. We had the privilege to stay in a newer section of rooms with white tile floors, large windows, and the mandatory mosquito nets hanging over each bed.
I was the most taken aback by the garbage in the streets. Without a citywide sanitation system, there are mounds of garbage everywhere, and the stench that comes with it. A family of pigs would walk along the street in front of St. Paul’s along with goats, horses and cows feasting every day.
Despite the conditions, it did not take long for me to be enamored by the people of Guyana, especially the children and the workers we met.
No matter where we went, the kids would beg to be held. I put down the camera to hold a little four-year-old girl at St. Ann’s Orphanage. She has gorgeous skin and big brown eyes. I was struck by the fact that there is so little hope of her ever being adopted. Families there give up their children because they cannot afford to feed them. Adoption laws in the country are such that foreigners must live there for two years to take a child out. She will likely be in that orphanage until she is 16. It broke my heart.
Our students were quick to realize that the Sisters of a Mercy who run that orphanage and the St. John Bosco Boys’ Orphanage are providing those lucky children with a better life than they would have if they were at home. They have food, clean clothes and a roof over their heads – and they will be educated at local schools. They also receive an occasional hug from visitors like us who take the time to play and read with them.
It is easy to see how Misericordia volunteers go back year after year. The people of Guyana work their way into your heart and they make you appreciate the job they do in the conditions they have. They also make you appreciate what you have, things as simple as electricity and running water. They teach you to listen to their stories and not judge them for what they have but for who they are. They are hardworking people who just need someone to listen.
Our students did amazing work there. I am proud to tell their story.