Georgetown, Guyana Report of what it's like to live there - 08/29/19

Personal Experiences from Georgetown, Guyana

Georgetown, Guyana 08/29/19


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. I've also had previous expat experiences in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Northeastern United States. It’s surprisingly difficult to get to most of the United States from here. You can only fly direct from Georgetown to Miami or New York (JFK), and flights generally leave very early in the morning or arrive in the U.S. very late at night, making connections a challenge. Unless you’re going to south Florida or the NYC metro area, expect a minimum 12-hour trip to get anywhere in the United States. Aside from the U.S., the only daily major international flights are to Panama City (Copa), Trinidad (Caribbean Airlines), and Barbados (LIAT).

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3. How long have you lived here?

Two years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Embassy assignment.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Embassy homes are scattered among a few (comparatively) high-end neighborhoods. Larger families are sometimes assigned to houses father east of the heart of the city. Housing is generally nice, though many houses have unusual architecture. Houses closer to downtown (e.g., Lamaha Gardens) don’t have big yards, but are close to other families and GIA; whereas the houses along the coastal highway have good-sized yards with grass, but are more isolated from other Embassy families. Georgetown is a VERY small city, however, so commute times to work or school are rarely more than 15-20 minutes regardless of where you live.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Processed foods from the U.S. and U.K. are generally available, although some products (e.g., stick butter) will vanish without warning for weeks at a time, and other products are prohibitively expensive (e.g., nuts, American breakfast cereal). Once you’ve lived here for a few months, you’ll learn the patterns of where and when to find just about everything you need, but, as with any developing country, you’ll get used to stopping at five to six locations to find everything on your shopping list. If you have school-aged kids, Amazon Prime will become like a weird wealthy uncle to them.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Georgetown is a pouch-only post, so plan your consumables shipments accordingly. Cleaning products, paper products, and baby products can be expensive and difficult to find in bulk quantities. Cooking oil and baking products (e.g., flour) can also be expensive or hard to find. And if you drink alcohol regularly… you’ll want to save space for that. On the one hand, Guyana produces the best rum in the world, and it’s reasonably priced for quality; and local beer is reasonably cheap and drinkable. Beyond that, however, alcohol is extremely expensive – e.g., a bottle of wine that would cost $10 in the U.S. will easily run $50 in Guyana.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Food delivery doesn’t really exist. Takeout is limited to local fish & chip shops and roadside grills, or fast food chains. There are now several U.S. chains here (Burger King, KFC, Dairy Queen, Popeye’s, Pizza Hut), although no McDonald’s or Starbucks. Sit-down restaurants are limited, but a few new malls are opening, which will expand options a bit. Ethnic cuisine is largely limited to Chinese and Indian food, although occasionally something new pops up (e.g., a Malaysian café recently opened). The most expensive restaurants are in the larger hotels; these can be surprisingly good, but are also very expensive for what you’re getting.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Yes. Guyana is a developing tropical country with all manner of insects and other animals. Geckos are your friends, because they don’t touch your food, and they eat a lot of the problem bugs. Spiders are massive and frightening, but if you can resist the urge to squash them, they’ll also help with the other bugs. Mosquitoes are a problem from dusk to dawn, particularly if you have a yard or any drainage issues near your house. Roaches and ants are abundant, but if you keep your kitchen and food storage areas immaculate, they don’t usually stick around.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Pouch-only post for U.S. Embassy. Local domestic mail service is non-existent. FedEx and DHL deliver to Guyana, although the fastest service is 2-3 days, and they have strict rules on what they will and won’t ship. If you’re not a diplomat with pouch access, there are also private companies that can arrange for Amazon orders to be delivered to Miami and then shipped her; many Guyanese rely on these types of services for clothing, school supplies, etc.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Housekeepers and child-care workers are available, a full-time worker (40-45 hours a week) will cost about US$350/month, plus benefits. Live-in help is rare, but this isn’t usually an issue given how small the city is. If you have a yard, you will absolutely need a gardener (tropics = plants grow like crazy). It costs about US$40 to have someone come once a week. Private drivers are few and far between, but also aren’t really necessary, particularly if you have a diplomatic vehicle. Quality varies, and even the best workers aren’t immune from unreliability / inconsistency / pilfering. Manage your expectations accordingly.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The Marriott gym is available for non-guests, but very expensive. There are a few private facilities downtown that are cheaper, but often lack air conditioning and modern locker rooms, and (for female members) are hotbeds for catcalling and other harassment. The U.S. Embassy gym permanently closed in 2018, but Embassy personnel still have regular access to the pool and tennis court at the Ambassador’s residence. Running outside, while possible, can be dangerous due to street crime, hazardous road conditions, stray animals, and (particularly for women) aggressive harassment by passers-by.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Guyana is largely a cash economy. Some stores and restaurants take credit cards; however, many local banks aren’t tied into overseas ATM or credit-card networks, so international cards won’t always work. Embassy personnel can cash personal checks at the Embassy cashier.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Depending on your religious persuasion, yes. Hindu and Islamic temples are abundant, but there are no established synagogues. Georgetown also has active LDS and Adventist communities, and at least one good-sized Catholic church. Mainline Protestant churches exist, but are often tiny. There are also many Pentecostal churches of varying size and enthusiasm.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

None. Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America. The local accent can be difficult to understand at first, but you’ll figure it out eventually.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. There are no sidewalks or elevators, no disabled transit, parking is a challenge everywhere, and medical care is substandard. If you have any physical disabilities aside from mild arthritis or seasonal allergies/asthma, think twice about coming here.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Trains don’t exist. Local buses are cheap, but extremely dangerous (and Embassy personnel are banned from using them). Taxis are widely available, although some companies are safer and more reliable than others, and it’s rare for any taxi to have seatbelts in the back seat. Never, ever flag a taxi off the street! Call one of the reputable companies or use an official airport/hotel vehicle.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Guyana is officially right-hand (U.K.) drive. It’s legal to use a left-hand (U.S.) vehicle, but turning and passing are a challenge if you’re driving from the left side of the car. Embassy staff usually import their cars from the U.S. or buy a used car from Japan, although if you arrive in the summer transfer season, there should be a handful of cars available for purchase from departing personnel. Most cars will work fine in Georgetown and along the coastal highway, but 4WD and high clearance is a must if you want to travel anywhere outside the developed areas. Your car will take a beating here, so don’t bring something brand new. Locals generally prefer large Japanese models, although you’ll see plenty of Fords and Jeeps too. It’s not impossible to get parts for most vehicles, but it can take several weeks if you need to order something from the U.S. or Japan. If you’re not affiliated with a diplomatic mission, be aware that vehicle import duties are extremely high, especially for larger vehicles.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, and this has been a pleasant surprise. Internet is expensive, but speeds are usually fast enough to support streaming video/music without issues. Embassy homes are pre-wired for internet, so I don’t know how long installation takes from scratch.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Embassy employees are provided with local phones during their tour. Guyana (and Suriname) are considered part of the Caribbean, so U.S. phones also work fine with roaming plans. Private local cell phone service is a pain to set up, and probably isn’t worth it if you have U.S. roaming.

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

Think twice about bringing your pet here. There are no kennel services at all, and at least two Embassy employees recently had to ship their dogs back to the U.S. for medical care due when the dogs contracted severe tropical illnesses. There are very few vets available, and even the well-trained vets lack equipment to handle more than vaccinations and routine care. If you desperately want a dog or cat, just adopt a stray from the street, and find a friend to take care of it when you go on vacation.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Most EFM spouses work at the Embassy. Outside of hiring freeze(s) and government shutdown(s), Embassy management does its best to open as many EFM jobs as possible. Quite simply, this is a small Embassy in a difficult post, and there’s always a need for qualified extra help.

A few spouses also telecommute. Telecom infrastructure is reasonably good, as noted above, and there’s no real time difference to contend with, so established telecommuters can probably make something work here.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Some, although it varies by the personalities currently at Post. The Embassy generally has a few volunteers helping with the women’s shelter(s) and orphanage, and the local library has a Saturday morning reading program for kids. Guyana is a poor country, with all of the problems associated with that, so you can likely find other opportunities if you look hard enough.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops are fine for most public places. Business casual (think collared shirt and khakis) is acceptable for 95% of workplaces or other “formal” settings like a restaurant. If you’re meeting regularly with government contacts, or attending a high-profile event, you might need to wear a suit… but Guyana is always hot and humid, with no reliable dry-cleaning services, so no one wants to dress up unless it’s absolutely required.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Yes. Street crime is rampant in many areas of Georgetown, and it’s inadvisable to walk anywhere or travel alone outside certain safe spaces after dark. Many popular restaurants and shops are plagued by aggressive panhandlers. Drive with doors and windows locked at all times, and pay attention to who’s around you when you enter/exit your vehicle. The highways to the airport and Lethem are frequently targeted by bandits, and crime is enough of a problem that all Embassy houses have high walls, razor wire, and 24-hour guards. That said, Embassy personnel generally don’t have issues as long as they follow RSO guidance and otherwise exercise good situational awareness.

Driving can also be a high-risk proposition in and of itself, particularly after dark. Many roads are unlit; it’s not unusual to encounter wandering cows and horses on the highways at night. Drunk driving is a serious problem, even during daylight hours. Traffic enforcement is minimal, so disabled vehicles, horse-drawn carts, and out-of-control minibuses are also a big concern on the roads.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Road conditions are terrible, so car accidents are a daily concern. Guyana also has the full spectrum of tropical and mosquito/tick-borne diseases (although Georgetown itself is malaria free, so you don’t need daily meds unless you're traveling to the interior). Hospitals in Georgetown lack modern technology and training, and medical facilities are extremely limited. If you suffer anything worse than a routine stomach bug or cold virus, you’ll need to medevac to Miami for adequate care. Dentists are also few and far between, so best to take care of any root canals or orthodontia in the United States during your R&R.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Air quality is perfect outside of Georgetown. Within the city itself, air quality is usually excellent too, aside from the occasional brush/garbage fire. There just aren’t enough people/cars/factories to generate air pollution.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

If you suffer from seasonal allergies in the U.S., you’ll likely suffer from them here, so plan on ordering Benadryl, Zyrtec, etc. from Amazon. If you suffer from mild to moderate food allergies, pack a lot of epipens (since they can’t be shipped through the pouch) and hope you never have an issue. If you have severe food allergies, consider bidding elsewhere. There are no medical allergists in Guyana, and emergency rooms really aren’t equipped to deal with anaphylaxis.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Yes. This is a very small hardship post with limited opportunities for travel, which inevitably wears on anyone during a two-year tour. Do your best to make friends (Embassy or otherwise), try and get out of Georgetown every few weeks, and hope you and your family members avoid major medical issues.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Equatorial tropics. There are technically two rainy seasons (May – July and November -January), during which the rains are heavier, but the year-round forecast is essentially 90 degrees with a chance of rain, and lots of humidity.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Embassy kids attend Georgetown International Academy (GIA). GIA is very small, with rarely more than 20 kids per grade in elementary school, and only a few kids in each grade from 6th grade onward. As with any small school, our experiences were mixed. Some of the teachers are wonderful, but many are poor and/or ineffective, and teacher-parent communication is often lacking. GIA also doesn’t have a lot of resources to support programs beyond the basic curriculum, so there is little support for gifted/talented students or any other enrichment programs. If you have a middle or high-school student, your best bet may be homeschooling or boarding school.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

None. GIA simply doesn’t have the resources to handle special-needs kids.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

GIA has a preschool which, although crowded, is reasonably affordable and fairly well run. Aside from GIA, local preschool facilities often lack established curricula, have widespread safety and staffing issues, and (in some cases) still rely on corporal punishment for discipline.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Karate is the most popular after-school activity, and the school program (which is managed by a local dojo) is very well-organized. GIA also offers off-site tennis and swimming lessons, and there are a few other random club activities (e.g., tech club). GIA also has a surprisingly strong performing arts program: the annual school-wide musical, in particular, sells hundreds of tickets and draws local press coverage.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

The expat community is small, although growing due to the boom in oil-related activities. Aside from the U.S., very few Embassies have more than 2-3 diplomats in country. Morale within the Embassy is middling to poor – as noted elsewhere, this is a hardship tour with limited recreational activities and/or outside travel opportunities, so it just wears on everyone the longer they are here.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Most entertainment consists of dinner parties and/or outings to a local retreat. There really isn’t much else to do around town.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It’s not a great city for anyone, but probably works out best for two demographics. Families with younger elementary school kids will be fine, because the school is a good place to meet friends, and there is enough to keep kids under 10 entertained for two years. This also wouldn’t be a bad post for a couple if you’re a tandem (or at least both working at the Embassy), because the work is fairly interesting, and you’ll have plenty of money to travel. If you’re a couple with older kids, or if you’re single… good luck, as it may be a long two years for you.

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4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

Guyanese are generally open to foreigners. Any Guyanese have relatives living in the U.S. or Canada, and nearly everyone has positive views of the United States (even in the current political environment). As noted below, there also isn’t a lot of racial/ethnic prejudice. That said, this is a very small place, so if you’ve had a negative interaction with someone (e.g., refusing a visa, cutting someone off in traffic, declining to give someone money), don’t assume that you’ll never see them again. As with street crime, situational awareness is very important.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Generally speaking, race and ethnicity don’t cause a lot of trouble here. Guyanese often speak more roughly about racial/ethnic differences than Americans do (i.e., political correctness doesn’t really exist here), but many Guyanese are of mixed racial/religious heritage, and all of the ethnic groups usually get along with one another just fine. Guyanese take particular pride in celebrating everyone else’s religious holidays along with their own, and all of the big Christian, Islamic, and Hindu holidays are national events.

On the other hand, domestic violence and child abuse are major issues in Guyana, and sexism and gender biases are often deeply entrenched in local communities. For expat women, this issue is largely confined to catcalls and street harassment, but (as noted elsewhere) it’s best to avoid traveling anywhere alone.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Guyana is known for two things: Kaieteur Falls and El Dorado rum. Kaieteur is expensive, but lives up to the hype. The public El Dorado distillery tour is a rip-off, but they occasionally offer private VIP tours that are free and much more detailed. If you can't get on the VIP tour, just buy a double serving of 12-year or 15-year (the two best known vintages) and save your money on the admission fee.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Manage expectations accordingly: the highlight of most weekends will be a trip to the movies or a child’s birthday party. That said, there are a handful of decent restaurants in Georgetown, although the food and service quality doesn’t usually match the price you’re paying for a meal. There are three movie theaters, all featuring first-run movies from the US (and sometimes India) for half the ticket price. If you’re into sports, there is a decent golf course, a surprisingly well-maintained go-kart track, and a few places to play tennis. Georgetown also regularly hosts pro cricket matches, which are popular and reasonably safe if you go with a group. If you’re trying to escape the city, there are several wilderness lodges within a 2-hour trip – day trips are usually best as an overnight stay will set you back US$400/night minimum. There are also spectacular opportunities for birding, fishing, and wildlife viewing, but nearly all of them require a prohibitively expensive and/or lengthy trip into the interior.

Regional travel is also very expensive, given the lack of flights out of Guyana. If you’re dying for a Caribbean beach vacation (Guyana has no white sand beaches of its own), the most affordable options are Tobago or Barbados, but even these will set you back $300 per person for the flight. Another alternative - although the border ferry service was temporarily suspended as of this writing – is driving to Paramaribo (Suriname). This trip takes a long weekend, as the drive is 8-10 hours each way, but provides some unique perspective on the different colonial and post-colonial experiences in this part of the world. Driving to Brazil is also theoretically possible during the dry season, but you’ll need a convoy of high-clearance 4WD vehicles to survive the journey.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Peltogyne (“purpleheart”) wood is unique to rainforests in the area, and there are few places to buy purpleheart bowls and carvings. Some of the indigenous tribes sell handicrafts and/or antique Dutch bottles, which can also make for nice decorations. Aside from these, your options are limited to rum, coffee, and hot sauce.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Clean air, short commute, and interesting work.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

This is by far the smallest, most “off the beaten track” city we’ve ever lived in. The fishbowl phenomenon is quite real here, and it’s compounded by the cost and difficulty in escaping Georgetown (much less Guyana). We didn’t know how hard that combination can be until we experienced it ourselves.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely not. We had a lot of good/fun days here, and made some life-long friends, but two years is plenty long enough. This is a hardship tour in every sense of the term, and we feel lucky to have escaped without permanent damage to our health, marriage, or careers.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Skis, winter clothes, and ego. The first two are self-explanatory. As for “ego” – your happiness (or lack thereof) here will largely be dictated by how well you manage work and social relationships. If you get assigned here, leave your ego in DC, and spend every day trying to be the best friend / colleague / family member you can be. You can’t survive here without a strong social support system both inside and outside the Embassy.

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4. But don't forget your:

Imagination, creativity, and organizational skills. Do you have a unique hobby that you want to share with others? Got a creative idea for a party? Are you good at inventing board games or team-building activities? You need to make your own fun here, so the more imaginative/creative you are, the better.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Wild Coast, by John Gimlette (2011). The book technically covers the entire Guianas region, but is heavily weighted toward Guyana (British Guyana) over Suriname and French Guyana.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

If you’re assigned here, expect a hard two years. That said, it’s not impossible to have a good tour here. Make friends, support your colleagues, get involved with the school, and find a way to escape Georgetown periodically, and you’ll survive just fine.

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