It’s hard to learn about a culture before you have been there. Everyone usually is curious; what its like, is it going to be dangerous, what you should do, and what you shouldn’t. Being in awkward situations where people can’t understand you is part of the fun!
Until of course, something dangerous happens to you like getting kidnapped and shot at.
When you arrive in a new country you should pay special attention to everything on your drive from the airport. You can learn almost everything about a country once you start driving into the city. Most people travel via plane, but this can also be done when you travel by bus.
I’m currently traveling through the Guiana’s on the Northern right tip of South America and I could really see this in action since I am traveling between the three countries in a matter of days. The greatest variance so far is between Suriname (Dutch Guyana) and British Guyana.
When I first arrived at the airport in Georgetown the plane landed just in front of the airport. Most small airports don’t use Jetways to get on the airplane, you simply use a ladder to get on the tarmac and walk to the airport. There was air conditioning and it was pretty clean as well.
Customs was friendly, I picked up my bag, I claimed the 3 million snack bars I have packed on my luggage, exchanged a blonde joke with the customs police, and then was on my way.
There was clearly written signs at the airport in Guyana about what the airfare is to the city. This can mean that there is a lot of corruption in the city and at the same time it could mean that they are orderly. Being a former British colony I could immediately tell that they picked up some great customs from the old chaps, unfortunately they didn’t have a British accent.
It wasn’t the typical South American taxi mafia it was more like a mini mafia. Kinda like those 7th graders that think they are tough when they are carrying around superman lunch boxes. I picked the lesser of the evils, the guy with 3 gold teeth. You didn’t know men with gold teeth are trust worthy? They don’t need to rob you they have gold in their teeth!
The second that I left the airport I could see the poverty throughout the streets. There was garbage all over the roads and most importantly kids on the streets during the middle of the day on a Friday. Kids not being in school is one of the most important indicators of things going wrong with a country.
Whether they are trying to make money to feed themselves and their family or whether the government doesn’t enforce it, kids should really be in school.
No education means poverty and high crime. Another major thing that I noticed is the run down houses in the suburbs that sprouted out from the main city. The farther that you went from the city the more likely you were to see houses made out of wood and other run down houses as well.
Garbage on the streets means corruption because there is a disconnect with the government picking up the trash. Guyana gets billions of dollars a year since they are the lungs of the world, they could spare a few thousand dollars to pick up the garbage. Only 10%-15% of the country is developed while the rest is Amazon rainforest. On great thing as well is that I was able to ask the taxi driver questions.
Now airport taxi drivers aren’t known to be the most intelligent men on the planet, nor would you expect them to know a great deal about their country. The man with gold teeth was very well mannered and could answer most questions about history and other things I asked him about. One big thing that I could tell right away was the diversity. Mosques and Hindu temples a block away from each and other and a constant stream of African Americans and people of Indian descent (both Indians native to region, Amerindians, and those from India).
The arrival in Suriname started with the same exact situation landing on the tarmac and walking to the airport. It was a bit weird because it took forever to get to the airport once we landed and the pilot parked the plane what seemed like a mile away from the gate.
I mean I know I have been eating too many Arepas in Colombia but the pilot didn’t know that. I thought for a moment that the people of Suriname had a fear with distances but I think it was just a new pilot. What a difference when I entered the airport in Suriname.
The place was absolutely spotless, I could have eaten of the floor it was so clean. They had a visa office just before you got to customs which is extremely efficient. You are required to get a pre-approval visa to enter Suriname (most European countries, United States, Canada, and Australia all require a visa). I haven’t seen that in many countries that require a visa.
n Guyana I had to ask the taxi driver to turn on the air conditioning but in Suriname the gentlemen (without gold teeth) turned it on automatically.
I got into Suriname at night, a bit different environment but you can still make the same analysis.
First thing I noticed was that everything was clean on the streets. There was zero garbage until I reached the city center, even then there was only a small amount of garbage which is understandable.
Every building on the way to the airport had their lights on and all of the streets were very well lite. Every building didn’t have bars on their windows either.
It was a Saturday night when I arrived in Paramaribo and there was hardly anyone outside just wasting time. You can see the big difference in-between the two countries already.
Another big difference between the two countries were the driving habits of the taxi drivers and the actual quality of the streets. The streets of Guyana were a complete mess as every bridge that we crossed was in construction, the government apparently has a problem paying the contractors on time which causes delays.
In Suriname, there were no bumps, no pot holes, no stray dogs. The driving in Guyana was very chaotic; the taxi buses would stop in the middle of the road, kids and dogs running out on the street, and the common car horn going off every two seconds.
This is used widely in South America as both a warning and a “get the f* out of the way signal”. On the way to the Paramaribo, Suriname from the airport not one horn was heard. If they were passing a driver they would simply flash their lights and continue. I didn’t even hear a car horn in the city during my stay.
As I’m writing this post I am in French Guiana which also posed many differences as well. I won’t go into all the details but you could tell the French still run this place and the chaos that would ensue if they didn’t. Play close attention next time you arrive into a city and you will be surprised all the things that you learn. Before you even arrive at your hostel or hotel you will find out what to expect if you even just pay attention to the details for five or ten minutes. Sometimes it can keep you out a dangerous situation but most importantly if can prepare you for your trip!