(Guyana Guardian) – Along the pavement of a busy Georgetown city street, a man and two of his friends who had taken shade under a palm tree, sat down on the dirtside pavement of the roadway, while their suitcases were lodged against the large trunk of a palm tree.
From its outer appearance, the suitcases seemed sparsely packed, but their Spanish labels did give an indication that the owners were most likely visitors or tourists.
As they rested themselves against the ground, one of them pointed to a junction sign that read “Church Street” as if to reassure the others that they were at the right place.
Because of its state, seating themselves on the dirt-filled sidewalk had seemed to be a little odd choice, but was not necessarily unusual.
After all, there was not much grass there to hide the dirt.
The many busses that come in and goes out from that traffic-breaching parking spot daily, had shredded away most of the grass. This has left nothing more than their various tire impressions which were now half-baked into the ground by the sun, which tends to cover that area each mid-afternoon.
But the dirt rubbing against their underpants didn’t seem to be a hindrance to their seating choice.
Even so, the men seemed sweaty and tormented by the city heat, yet they happily babbled among themselves, seemingly unbothered by the unforgiving weather, or the noisy engines of the cars that were slowly passing by.
They spoke at a heightened volume, but most Guyanese passing there hardly understood what they were saying, and the men didn’t seem to care either.
They had come to Guyana less than 24hrs ago via the Cheddie Jagan International Airport at Timehri, and had provided an address for a Georgetown hotel on their immigration forms. But it later became evident that they have no intention of staying there.
Like many before them, they are actually in transit for a journey to Lethem, which is the main border town between Brazil and Guyana.
Lethem can be reached by smaller airplanes out of the airport at Ogle, or by busses that charges less than half of the price of the plane ticket. Moreover, the bus rides are more low lying and safer if and really want to interface less with the immigration authorities.
But today, the men came a bit too early to catch the bus, “way too early”, says a man who assumed that they were traveling to Lethem.
The buses would not leave until a few hours later, but the men seemed unbothered by it.
They were simply, relaxed, friendly and open; a seemingly standard attitude of most foreigners waiting there to go to Lethem.
Unlike those men, I was working on another story and was waiting on an aggrieved old lady to summon me into her premises which she said was in close proximity to the said Lethem pick-up point in that area.
I was already feeling too exhausted waiting outside of the air-conditioned comfort of my car when one of the three men distracted my exhaustion by posing a question to me in Spanish.
I implored him to speak in English instead; which he quickly tried to do.
The man, José González, who seemed to be the de facto leader of the three-man entourage had a reasonable amount of English vocabulary on his tongue, and thus served as the translator for the two others.
To me, his English skills were no more than that of a two-year-old child, which was adequate enough to survive in an English speaking country anyhow.
Assuming I was a prospective passenger, he questioned me about the journey to Lethem, as the other men nodded to my responses, while he tried to translate.
As a matter of fact, he figured I knew nothing much about the Lethem trail because I would never take a bus to go there.
For a moment, I think he assumed that I was probably an immigrant from Africa or somewhere else, trying to get across the border just like him. Because in reality, the trail is also a common route for Africans passing through Brazil to get home or to get here.
Over time, our conversation became travel-trusted, as he began to open up on his intents.
He claims to be an orthopedic surgeon from Cuba who was actually going to Uruguay, while the two other men were traveling to Mexico.
His younger brother already lives in Uruguay, a Spanish speaking South American country that seemingly offers a better life and more job opportunities for Cubans.
But though he had tried to go the legal way, the Uruguay embassy in Havana had denied him a visa.
Hence, his next best shot to get there, though illegally, is by land, which would take him through Brazil over several weeks before he is smuggled across the border into Uruguay.
There he can find work and be in a better position to help his family back in Cuba.
But, as strange as it may seem, Guyana remains the only continental country in the hemisphere that allows Cubans to land without a visa.
Therefore, it is the only country that Cubans can legally travel to by plane, in order to continue their journey on land on their way to Chile, Uruguay, or preferably the United States, via Mexico.
In other words, most of them have no other country other than Guyana (on the continent) to which they can travel visa-free and subsequently start their journey to Uruguay or the United States via Mexico.
For the year 2017, US immigration authorities say that more than 15,000 Cubans had crossed into the United States via Mexico. A few hundred of them claimed in their petitions that they had traveled via Guyana, and channel their way into Mexico before crossing the border.
But interestingly, the United States does not penalize countries that grant safe passage to Cubans on their way to a third country including the US, neither do they publicly pronounce on them.
So even though Guyana has now been transformed into a major transit point for Cuban immigrants, this scenario will not find its way into the country’s human trafficking scorecard; – at least not for now.
Furthermore, Guyanese being a migrant nation themselves are more understanding of immigrants who may be passing through their territory to get to somewhere else.
Hence, most Cuban migrants, like everyone else, are generally able to pass through the country freely without being bothered.
So for José, Guyana is a great country, and the only one on the continent that is seemingly more tolerant to their cause.
In referring to this country, he tried to put his English words into the right order and murmured “nice land and peace people you have”
I nodded in agreement, since I assumed that he was trying to say that “Guyana is a nice country and the people are peaceful”.
However, he maintained that language barriers and the immigration processes to obtain a work permit here is relatively difficult based on what others have told him.
Hence, he would not seek to linger in Guyana unnecessarily.
Taking out a photograph that seemed to be over-wrinkled from bad storage, it depicts a man standing next to a woman and two children. ”Yo y mi familia”, he said in a sharp Spanish accent, as he pointed to the man in the photograph and then pressing the palm of his hand against his chest.
“Oh. That man is you?” I asked inquisitively, as he nodded back in agreement.
“And that is your family?” I continued, to which he nodded and smiled, probably a bit unsure of what I had just said.
In person, he looked more worn out and tired when compared to the face in the photograph, but it still looked like him.
As he tucked it away and took out some documents that seem to be his qualifications, my cell phone rang, and I answered it before realizing that I had actually spent more than 25 minutes interfacing with him.
Wanting to leave, I gestured to him that I have to go now. But he outstretched his hand and held mine as he struggled to explain something to me, with a forced smile on his face.
However, at the same time, I myself was struggling to understand the sharp Spanish that he has transcended into.
And even though I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say, I assured him that it was ok, and then quickly wrote down my email address along with my phone number on a piece of paper, before giving it to him.
Though I didn’t know what difference it would make to give him my number, he seemed happy to have the contact information for someone in Guyana, maybe in case he needs to call someone for help.
I then hurried off to do my intended interview and never thought of the man again.
But yesterday, being nine weeks since I met Jose, I saw an email in my inbox from a sender with the name José González, but no subject line.
However, when I opened the message, it read (in terrible English); –
I is Josey in Paraguay now for 8 day now. I is very happy. You reminding me from Cuba you talk in gorgtown city?
Ordinarily, it seems like some mumbo-jumbo language because I did not know his name before that email.
But after quickly analyzing what he was trying to say, I then said to my self, “wow, the dude actually made it”.
After all, he is just one of the several hundreds of Cubans that will attempt to make the same journey to Paraguay or the United States through this country this evening, tomorrow evening, the next day, the next week, and the next month, and maybe until migrating via Guyana becomes meaningless or too prohibitive in years to come.