“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River
Ever since visiting Guyana three years ago, I keep thinking about it. That’s so strange – it’s a “failed state,” says the World Bank, with a high crime rate and ethnic strife. There is trash everywhere in the capital, soldiers in the villages—who hide from the gangs at night—and the country is going nowhere.
But there was something about the place that must have connected with me, because I keep wanting to go back. It’s not for the jungles or the scenic waterfalls (I didn’t visit any). But I liked the people, who were not just charming, but physically beautiful.
(This was also true of the people of Granada, where I stayed for nearly two weeks on the same trip. Granada was a place of stunning beauty, with perfect, white sand beaches and a chaotic, colorful downtown harbor. One day I discovered a white clapboard church steeple high up in the mountains, almost hidden by clouds and forest, but emerging briefly in gleaming sunlight if you waited long enough.)
Georgetown, the Guyanese capital, was built by the Dutch and British; the latter ruled Guyana until the late 20th century. And very practically, the houses and government offices are usually constructed of wood, with the foundations raised off the ground to prevent damage from the frequent floods. Guyana, in this respect, is a lot like Bangladesh or Louisiana, with the capital city on a delta below sea level. The neighborhoods and administrative districts have a ramshackle quality to them that is enhanced by this Anglo-Dutch approach to architecture. The windows are particularly interesting, with the use of louvered shutters that provide shade when the sun is overhead as well as ventilation, keeping the buildings cool.
Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I keep thinking that Graham Greene must have written a novel set in Guyana, but perhaps not. (Doesn’t one of Greene’s novels begin with a young, ambitious Brit who just arrived in a hotel somewhere in South America? He watches a lizard climb up the wall in his room, I think…)
I made it as far south as Linden, where I met funny, curious school kids and observed a mongoose scudding across the dusty road downtown – pursuing a snake, no doubt. (The mongeese were imported by the British in the distant colonial past to control the snake problem.)
The next day, I traveled east to New Amsterdam, taking an ancient ferry across the caiman-infested river. My driver suggested that we bring no bodyguards along with us, in contrast to the strong advice from my employer.
“If we bring them, the bad guys will wonder, ‘Why does that white man have bodyguards? He must have something worth stealing!’”
This made sense to me, so we dispensed with them. Sure enough, a woman on the ferry had a carload of bodyguards, who attracted a great deal of unwanted attention. I, on the other hand, ascended to the upper deck and gazed out on the river, chatting occasionally with a far-too serious little girl.
One thing that the Dutch and British left behind was a love of bureaucracy, which manifests itself both gently and forcefully in Guyana. The ferry office in New Amsterdam was a magical step back in time, another world that has remained almost static for nearly a century.
I had to get a receipt for the car fare, so I asked the beautiful-yet-contemptuous ticket girl how I could do that.
“Take your ticket upstairs to the receipt office,” she said, in exactly the same tone of voice that one might use at a prison for “line up over there and get disinfected.”
So I trod up the stairs to the wonderful “Receipt Office,” which was apparently an afterthought to the building that was cobbled together maybe in 1932. The windows had lace curtains, and a woman sat at the desk which was adorned only by an ink pad, a calendar, and a rubber stamp, which could be adjusted with small metal wheels for the date.
This is her job! I thought. This is her life! How often do we walk into some alien world and arrive in a completely foreign place and time, hosted by a fellow primate whose life has nothing to do with ours, who lives thousands of miles from everything that is familiar to us? And what was her life? She sat behind her desk, upstairs in the ferry office at the edge of a town carved out of the jungle, somewhere in South America. She could look out the window on one side and see the pier, with the ferry tied up, taking on passengers and cars and farm animals for trade. On the other side were people like me, who had climbed the stairs to present her with the sole reason for her existence in this place: a receipt to be issued.
“What do you want?” she asked helpfully, since there was only one thing anyone could possibly want from her.
“I need a receipt,” I replied.
“Give me your ticket,” which I did.
She then stamped the ticket. Twice. With two different stamps.
“Take your ticket back downstairs.”
“Um, but I need a receipt.”
“You get your receipt downstairs from the ticket agent.”
I then experienced two wildly divergent emotions. No, three.
One was the joy of yet again encountering the beautiful ticket agent-girl.
This feeling of happiness was muted somewhat by the dread of yet again enduring her steely, reproachful gaze: how dare I return with yet another superfluous request? She has better things to do!
These clashing emotions competed with another thought: why the hell was I just sent up here to get my ticket stamped when I could have just gotten the receipt from the ticket girl to begin with?!
But no. If that were the case, I would never have enjoyed the anthropological expedition up the stairway. I would never have met the woman behind the window, who let me into her world, with her ink blotter and the teapot in the corner and her lace curtains which, perhaps, she sewed herself, long ago.
Friday, April 14, 2006
Have been thinking about myth and poetry recently. This may be due to the heightened sense of fear and insecurity I am experiencing here - both as a journalist and personally.
Here are fragments from some poetic works, with no (unnecessary) comments:
I am like a flag surrounded by vast, open space.
I sense the coming winds and must live through them,
while all other things among themselves do not yet move:
The doors close quietly, and in the chimneys is silence;
The windows do not yet tremble, and the dust is still heavy and dark.
I already know the storms, and I'm as restless as the sea.
I roll out in waves and fall back upon myself,
and throw myself off into the air and am completely alone
in the immense storm.
"Premonition" by Rainer Maria Rilke
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
IV and XII from “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird”
Wind sighs in
Lie next to me,
A message from Baku