Guyana : : A Last Look Around

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Embroidery in Guyana : : Naomi Drakes

Naomi Drakes
It was our penultimate day in Guyana, and I was walking among the stalls inside the public market in Bartica. Glancing to one side, I barely registered a woman sitting in one of the stalls, a large embroidery hoop in her hands. I had gone several metres past when it hit me: she’s embroidering! I turned right around and went back.
Naomi Drakes
Naomi Drakes is 32 years old, a single mom with an 11-year-old son. Her family runs several stalls within the Bartica market; Naomi and her sister run a stall selling haircare products, fashion accessories and, by the looks of it, they do minor alteration work using two sewing machines, as well.
Naomi Drakes
I asked Naomi if she would consent to a short interview and some pictures of herself and her work, and returned the following day with a camera. I tried to shoot a video of the interview, but the gloomy, greenish atmosphere inside the poorly-lit market produced a very poor video, and the ear-splitting roar of the town’s power station, which is next door to the market, drowned out her voice. So I have had to content myself with a few photos and some stills from the video.

I found Naomi to be a confident, articulate, and industrious young woman. On days when business is quiet at the stall, rather than gossip with her neighbours or kill time on her phone, the enterprising lady does her embroidery. Her large pieces (average size of her pieces is about 30 cm. in diameter (a foot) adorn bedroom pillowcases and decorative ‘towels’ (draped over furniture and such, not the kind used to dry things). Her work is popular, and she has quite a lot of orders from locals in Bartica. She leaves her embroidery projects at work, because she knows that if she took them home, she’d want to do nothing else, so clearly she enjoys embroidery.
Naomi Drakes
Her designs come from things she sees in books, or sometimes she might ask a friend who knows how to draw to design something for her. I asked her what her favorite stitch was, but she couldn’t pick one…she knows many, and each one is good for achieving a particular look. She learned embroidery from her mother, but is the only one of her sisters who pursued it seriously. Embroidery floss is expensive in Bartica, so she gets her materials from Georgetown.
Naomi Drakes
How much does she sell her work for? A pair of pillowcases with a matching design, plus all the sewing and ruffles that she adds with her sewing machine, goes for G$ 3,500.00. That’s US$17.50. I was horrified. “And the towels?” I asked… “the towels are G$2,000.00 (US$10.00) each, if I supply all the materials. Apparently, if a customer brings her own fabric for Naomi to embroider, it is cheaper. Each embroidery takes between 5 days and a week to stitch.

I protested that this was much too cheap for the amount of work she puts into each embroidery, but she reasoned that she would be sitting in the market all day, anyway, and a pair of pillow cases brings her an extra, unexpected G$3,500.00 on top of what she earns by running the stall. Fair enough, I suppose.
Naomi Drakes
I bought a pair of her pillow cases. All her other finished work were orders that she couldn’t sell to me, and she had nothing else finished. It being our final day in Guyana (we had already cleared out with immigration, we were departing that evening) I couldn’t wait for her to finish something else. A shame, as I would have loved to conduct subsequent interviews, maybe shoot a video at her home on a Sunday (or at least somewhere with better light, away from the noise of the power station.)  Only one of the pillow cases had been sewn up, the other embroidery was on an unfinished piece of fabric. “That’s fine,” I told her, “there’s no way I will use your embroidery as a mere pillow case, anyway! It’s too nice for that!”
Naomi Drakes
I had noticed her broken wooden embroidery hoop, the day before, and so I left her a parting gift of one of my good plastic hoops…just an 8-inch hoop, not quite as big as the 12″ hoop she had been using, but I thought it might help her to tension her fabric better (if you look at the photos of her work, you’ll notice that her fabric is badly puckered and distorted by the tension of her stitches.)
Naomi Drakes
I asked Naomi to write her postal address down for me, and I look forward to corresponding with her when I get back to Australia, maybe send her some embroidery goodies, books and such, because, despite the very different sort of work that we do, I felt such a kinship with this remarkable young woman who, in a money-and-gold-crazed mining town, and with very limited resources, has managed to nurture a serious love for the craft.

Scarder, Pauline, and me

Mr. Scarder
Scarder is our butcher in Bartica. We came upon him one day, cleaning and cutting up cow’s heads. they’re used in a dish called “souse”. No part of an animal is wasted here…like many non-Western cultures, every bit can be bought, cooked, and eaten. It’s practical, and it would never occur to people here to cover it up, or pretend that what they’re eating is anything but a dead cow.

Miss Pauline
Also paid a visit to my favorite roti and curry shop…Miss Pauline not only agreed to a photo, but asked for one taken with me, so Kris took this shot.
Me and Pauline, Queen of Curry
Before this photo, I had not looked in a mirror for 7 weeks…we don’t have a mirror on the boat, and I was gauging how I looked by other people’s reactions to me…from the cheeky rastafarians amorous proposals, to the way old ladies or small children smiled at me…

I was shocked by the amount of grey at the temples! On the bright side, I have lost more weight, I am down to 74 kgs. now, from 94 kgs. three years ago. Those too-tight dresses I bought a year ago are now a “relaxed fit”. Yay!

Monument of Hope

Hope Monument ParkI came to sit in the park and playground of the Monument to Hope in Bartica, a couple of times. There was never anyone there, it was a good place to be alone and sketch. The monument itself was not very sketchable…a grey granit obelisk, erected in memory of the men and women who died when a boat full of escaped convicts arrived in the town at dark and robbed several of the gold-buying businesses.

The swing set was more interesting, though probably not very exotic. I’ve been having some trouble with this whole “travel sketching” idea, to be honest. Because we have been to some exotic places, I guess I felt that I owe it to my sketchbook to document the unusual, the novel, the never-seen-before. Naturally. When else will I get a chance to see these things? But, sorting through the files on my external drives, I came across this little PDF booklet, Start To Draw Your Life, again, by Michael Nobbs, and felt a twinge of longing for the days when I would draw my running shoes, a coffee cup, a tea strainer…nothing fancy, just getting lost in the drawing…

Because something in me loves the overlooked, ordinary, everyday things about life, and let’s face it, even up a river in a jungle, most days are just ordinary days…when you do the laundry, or sit on deck with a paperback novel, or cook oatmeal for breakfast. And if you did a tally of time spent “having adventures” and time spent doing everyday chores, you’d find that we spend probably 70% of our time just plodding along, doing the countless little things that make up a life. And why not paint that? It is as authentic and legitimate a subject as jungle vines and vernacular architecture.

It’s easier, too, to find a subject and paint it, if it’s around the home. Thing is, I love to do the drawing, I love adding colour. I don’t care what the subject is, in the end, I just love the doing. If I have to wait until I am somewhere unusual, or doing something exciting, before I can pull out my sketchbook, I won’t get to draw and paint as often. And that’s frustrating.

So, I know I’m in Guyana, living in a boat on the river, surrounded by howler monkeys and a dawn chorus of hornbills and parrots, but folks, sometimes my sketchbook posts will feature things from my kitchen, or stuff on my desk. And that’s fine, too.


Guyana April16My elation at finding an internet café in Bartica was short-lived…that the connection worked on the day I blogged was a fluke, and we returned every day for the next five days but could not get even the most basic homepage to load. At least I managed to inform friends, family, and blog readers about our whereabouts, and let them know that we are fine.

Bartica 2 - 11

Things are pretty good here, actually. I know I made Guyana sound like a hostile wilderness, and Bartica like a lawless settlement of primitives and cutthroats, but things here can’t be so crudely stereotyped. The truth is that we feel so much safer in Bartica than we ever did in the Philippines (or even some places in Darwin.)

Bartica 2 - 04

Guyana is actually a pretty trouble-free country. Sure, its capital, Georgetown, is over-dramatically portrayed as a city of constant and widespread crime (although I suspect that if you crunched the numbers you’d find it to be no more violent or crime-infested than any big city in the U.S.) Yes, the apple of the government sector is probably wormy with corrupt, self-serving officials (what country’s government is not?), and yes, there is racial tension between the different groups (especially as some groups are more determined to accumulate wealth than others), but the bottom line is that it’s a really big country, it has plenty of resources—bauxite, gold (15 tonnes per year), diamonds, timber forests, granite quarries, fresh water rivers, agricultural land, shrimp, sugar cane and rice exports—and a really small population (less than a million). There is still quite a lot of the pie to go around, and everyone still manages to get a piece of it.

Baganara Island jungle04

Seventy-five percent of Guyana’s wilderness remains untouched. Seventy-five percent. The amount of uninhabited, virgin jungles, savannahs, swamplands, and river networks, makes it an extremely precious natural jewel on this otherwise sadly blighted, dying planet. It is a paradise of river rapids, giant waterfalls, freshwater fish (450 species, including the monstrously large arapaima and several species of piranha), fabulous birds (the harpy eagle being the largest), wildlife (sloths, jaguars, giant otters and anteaters, to name very few), highland plateaus so remote that only helicopters reach them. As I said before, this is what the Brazilian part of the Amazon used to be, but is no longer. Guyana is one of the last real wildlife sanctuaries in the world. I’m so glad we’re here to see it now (I wonder how long it will hold out against insatiable loggers, miners, investors, the all-consuming, all-destroying greed that is spreading over the world like a wildfire out of control…)

table roots4

Guyanese are aways extremely polite. You never walk into a shop to start talking business right away…you always start with a warm “Good mornin’,” and genuinely asking the other person how they are. They don’t just pass over the pleasantries routinely, but listen to the replies and respond personally. In Bartica, the locals are warm, generous, open-hearted folk who start to treat you like family within 30 minutes of getting to know you. At a little eatery for lunch last Friday, after I praised the lady’s cook-up and chicken curry, Pauline took me into her kitchen to show me how they were made, and before I left she hugged me. That’s a lady I bought lunch from for the first time.

David's House

Folks aren’t wary or uncomfortable with human interaction, yet, and walk right up to me while I am sketching, sit beside me, start talking…conversations start up so easily, and slide into being cheeky within minutes. How often does one enter a shop to buy a mere pack of smokes, and end up slumped over the shop counter, together with the Indian shoplady—both of you roaring with laughter, tears running down your faces?

baganara island 14Twice, now, these quick conversations have culminated in a spontaneous invitation to visit, straightaway, that person’s home, to meet the whole family, scratch the family cat, to eat Creole food, and to sit for an hour with the family matriarch, going through her photo albums of grandkids. It’s just the most incredibly friendly, accepting, sharing culture. For example, after having lunch and spending four hours with David, a chef and sculptor (who pulled over, got out of his car, and came over to where I was sitting in a playground to introduce himself) and his family, his 84-year-old mother took my hand, leaned close to me, and said “Come back whenever you want…I feel like I known you a long time.”

Guyana April06

Is it any wonder that I’ve fallen headlong in love with these people?