The Lost World: New York City’s Little Guyana

The Lost World: New York City's Little GuyanaIn April 2011, in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens, two rival Sikh factions, long at odds with each other, decided it was time to come to blows. As one faction prayed in a temple, the other entered. What happened next is straight out of a B-list movie you might see while traveling on a bus in Asia: members of each group reacted to the forthcoming fight by reaching for their swords — I’m not making this up — and a bloody sword fight ensued. A sword fight, in 2011 New York City.

And so, I decided I had to go. Last week a group of friends and I boarded the A train for the 40-minute subway ride to Richmond Hill. Our destination: Little Guyana. Indo-Caribbeans (Caribbeans of Indian descent), many from Guyana (and a few from Trinidad), have been settling here in droves since the 1980s. So many that while the country of Guyana has a population of 750,000, the Guyanese population in New York is said to be close to 200,000.

Guyana, a diminutive country in northeastern South America, is a mystery to many people. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even used the country as the setting for “The Lost World.”
It wasn’t exactly a “lost world” when we got off the subway and began strolling down Liberty Ave., the main thoroughfare of Little Guyana. There were no sword-carrying men ambling down the sidewalk. Just cars cruising by and blasting soca music, which is something like calypso on crack. Roti and doubles shops competed for attention with real estate offices. Realty is a big deal in Richmond Hill. So are doubles (pictured).

We poured into a doubles shop — Sandy’s Roti Shop — where a corner kiosk sold everything from belts and flowers to cosmetics and neckties, and another guy offered soca CDs. Meanwhile, the scent of subcontinental spices pervaded the air. Described to me as something like a chickpea-filled taco, doubles consist of a soft, thin, spongy bread with channa (chickpeas and Indian spices) inside. It’s a mushy eating affair but so good I had to get seconds.

This isn’t the first time my friends and I have gone deep into Queens to have an outer-borough eating extravaganza. Two months ago we took the Long Island Rail Road out to Murray Hill, Queens, also known as Korean Town. We spent the evening at restaurants where we were the only non-Koreans. Locals were asking us — and not in a condescending way — what we were doing there and how we found the place. I found spending the evening absorbed in a totally different culture — accessed so easily by a short train ride away — to be the best antidote when travel is not a possibility.

About an hour after munching on some doubles and strolling the main drag again — more real estate offices, doubles shops and clothes stores selling saris — we entered The Nest, a narrow restaurant serving up traditional Guyanese fare. A procession of dishes soon began landing on our table, many of which were fusion dishing reflecting the diversity of Guyanese society: corn meal-encrusted shrimp, chicken and potato curry and even a version of chow mein. Finally, a basket of fried fish nuggets was passed around. When we asked the waitress what it was, she replied, “shark.”

Later in the night we filed into Maracas, a popular Little Guyana club where we danced to soca music and drank bottles of Red Stripe and Carib beer and tried our hardest not to get into a sword fight. Our group, mostly journalists and editors, all agreed that we hadn’t been to a dance club of this proportion in a long time. Well, at least not since many of us had gone to similar clubs when traveling. The experience was all the more reason to appreciate the ability to “travel” around the world in New York City.