The Blythlyway in Guyana

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Joker of Seville.
What poet would triangulate their location instead of their fate? But I, I asked that shameless question where am I rather than what I should ask upon wakin to the wonders of the world. Who are You? And what is it you call yourself?
--Derek Walcott

My first instinct upon finding myself in a new place, be it the next neighborhood over or a country across the globe, is to link myself to the geography of that place. First sitting still where I find myself planted, then walking the streets in ever expanding circles around the location of my home, finally then go ride farther out by bicycle and map that new found ground. It is only by the physical self-propelled contact with the landscape of a place that I start to feel a part of it. Personally it is something which I can not do with-in the confines of an automobile. For invariably this daily sojourn down the dirt paths or concrete bi-ways leads to contact with the people, the fellow travelers who share the plane upon which I wander and who have so much ready knowledge of this new wonder of the world.

Then perhaps the question becomes Who are you? What do you call yourself?
But, how does one ask this intimate question of those you know nothing about?
It is tempting to me to simply approach everyone and stick out my hand and ask What's your name?
Unfortunately the way this gets done usually starts with- Hello I'm Jeremy. Only then getting to the- Who are You. In other words- Hi, I am here weither you are interested in the slightest bit or not and I expect that you will now open yourself up to me. Using this approach at best occassionally leads to a lengthy conversation, mostly about myself, in which occassionally I can glean some information about the other. I walk away proud that I have reached out, and glad to have explained the reason for my existence in the strange landscape. But, generally I remain ignorant about the other person and, unless chance brings out some coincidental mutual occupation or dream, there is little to no personal connection. At worst the cold call causes the other to have serious concerns about why I am asking them so many questions in the first place. What gives me the right? Who do I work for? For there is no context to the exchange, no reason for it to happen at all in fact, and without contextual knowledge of those who are around us we all tend to assume the worst. There are afterall alot of reason that I could be searching out information, not all of the good ones, and alot of reasons that you wouldn't want ot tell me anything about yourself or your business, not all of them bad. Not to mention that not everyone shakes hands the same way you do, they might not even shake hands at all. Nor does naming have a set of universal guidelines. Are you asking for the familiar name, the christian name, the street name, the name your mother call you, etc. etc... In Guyana people often consider what I would call their first name to be a highly powerful secret, known by only a trusted few. Is that the name I am asking for them to tell me? In short to walk up to someone and ask them their name is a dubious way to learn anything about anybody. Discounting the fact that is is exhausting, especially on days when I don't even feel like smiling as I ride by on the bicycle.
Instead maybe the pro-offered question- Who are You? can be usefully tied to the internal question of where am I?
I have been planted in this house and this yard for one month. Everyday finds me in these confines for some significant portion of the day. Always the doors and windows are open. I spend hours outdoors weither working or simply sitting still on one of the stoops(which ever one isn't currently in the direct sunlight). From the dinning room table, where I sit to write or from the hammock where I read, I can see out all three doors; Can watch a person as they walk towards me down the street, as they cross in front of the house, and as they continue to stroll away out of view.
I know that the elderly woman who lives across the street is named Clarice. I know this partly because I went over to her the first day the sun came up on our arrival in Stanleytown and introduced myself. But I know more: that she has a damaged arm, that she wears beautiful hats and fancy dresses when she goes out On the Road yet sometimes just a bra and shorts while on the porch on a particularly hot afternoon, that they just finished building this her new house( and the plumbing should be done soon) so that she could move back next door to her sister Eleanor back into the place she grew up in instead of being so far away (about 1/4 mile away), that she is helping to raise an 11 year old girl named Faith, and that one afternoon, unannounced and unpromted, Faith came calling on Miriam and I and proceeded to tell us her life's History and her future dreams, as well as singing us her favorite song after asking us to sing a few of ours. I know all of this because everyday Clarice sits on her porch and I sit on mine and we wave hello acress the street, sometimes prompted by whatever comes our way into a conversation. She has already told me the names of many plants and animals( not to mention people walking by). Sometimes she reminds me to stop working in the heat. Just today she informed me when the garbage collector comes by and how much he charges. Valuable information all.
Then there is Christopher. Or should I say one of his names, the name he gave me. He is a twenty five year old man I met one morning while I was outside weeding and untangling the vines from around the Papaya tree. He was working on clearing the brush off the overgrown lot next to Clarice's House ( Vlarice was particularly watchful that day). He was with three other men and he approached me unbidden and asked me my name. We talked awhile; this was his business, one of the men was his brother, the rumpled card he showed me and off which I took his phone # said his name was Suren M. But he told me his christian name was Christofer. He loaned me some tolls while they went on luch break and I gave them cold water and let them keep the larger equipment in my yard when they left for the night as they were coming back the next day. That night he took me to his friend's pool hall or gathering place and I realized that I was not twenty five and that I didn't need to go there often. Didn't quite desire to be around the posturing of young peacocks. But the people were interesting ( especially the one named Cocaine who held himself well, seemed a little more mature, didn't rise to the needling of his cohorts unnesicarilly, and shook my hand with intentionality- so much for a name). Besides it was my first time out of the neighborhood at night in a strange land. We stayed out till what seemed a very late 9:00. He insisted on buying some ice cream for Miriam, feeling bad that she didn't get to go out as well. We talked in the front yard for a little while and I tried to tell him what I could respect from the evening and yet also what I was not interested in being around. He seemed areeable enough and was thoughtfull and I saw him the next dayagain at his work. It occured to me that he might come aroudn alot, which was good as I like to learn about people, but that also I needed to draw some lines about availability. So I told him I would call him sometime soon.
That next weekend he called and I told him that I was unavailable to go out with him, but I would call him on Wed. When I called the number from the card and asked for Christofer, I proceeded to have a very confusing conversation with a Suren M., who was not Christofer, and I was a Jeremy, but not his Canadian accounts keeper. Eventually we figured it all out and he said that he might know who Christofer was and he would pass on the information that I called. So much for names, let alone knowledge or trust. Then I saw his brother and asked him about Christofer- to which he confusedly replied- You mean David- and gave me his cel phone number, which didnt'e work. More of the same confusion and diminishment of knowledge. I saw him 1 week later two seperate times. Once I waved as I passed by, once I pulled the bike over and had a soda with him. He vaguely answered my queries about Suren and the phone number. Today he called and asked if he could come over immediately- some trouble at the bank I think he said. So over he comes and proceeds with a fairly somber story of money and loans and asks for 5,000 guyanese, which becomes then 2,000, then a ring he might have to sell. We have a long talk where in I do the best I can to explain that I can not loan him the money, and not only because I don't have it to give to him. I am glad to help him by working if he needs it in anyway I can help, for his busines perhaps, or with paperwork at the bank. And we talk generally about his financial difficulties. He is serious and listening and aking questions and thinking aloud about how he shall proceed. It is a good conversation and when we part I tell him that I have been unable to call him but he should call me next week. I have learned very little about the man who calls himself to me Christofer, but in the process of just being in my house I have started to answer some part of the question- Who am I.
But stopping at the home is a limiting way to get to know people, and despite my contacts with the lutheran church here; the good man who is the pastor, his wonderful wife who teaches us to cook Guyanese style, the three congregations every sunday, the men's group, the boys who teach me to play cricket- I feel the need to explore this my neighborhood and make contacts with my own feet. To do this I take guidance, and have for some time now, from a book by Heinrich Boll entitled Billards at Half past Nine O'clock. As the title suggest the protaganitst picks a few activities upon entering a new town adn then performs them with regularity- thereby habituating himself and others to his presence in the place.
So with my feet twice a wek, on wed and sat in fact, I walk to the internet cafe where I am typing up this very text. And by having done so for three weeks I have myself an office. I am getting to know Joline, the woman who runs this place, as well as her son Brian. Getting to know that they run the grocery next door, and that they rent pirated chinese DVDs, and providing myself with regular contact with the streams of people who come in and out of the two shops. Last week I typed up a medical document for one of her clients as I am the fastest typer in the place. The other day I spoke with two guys who used to live in Philadelphia. I slowly get to know them and they slowly get to know me.
A few times a week I walk to the cafe nearby and get a beer or two for dinner for Miriam and I. Or have them refil a little flask of a bottle with a funnel from their barrel of rum, which we keep in the freezer to make daquaris and Pina Colads using only fresh fruit. After two weeks I learned the names of the proprietors son-Justin, and John, a young man who play alot of nintendo. After three weeks Justin and I sat and talked for a few hours one sunday Afternoon. Suddenly I was across fthe table from a man who has traveled more estensively in the world than I, who is an advisor to the Miss Guyana pagent, who has a degree in finance and who is applying to master programs in the United States for next year. I had thought, erroneously, that he simply kept a cafe which also sells clothing. I a glad I let him speak when he was ready and didn't simply ask him to tell me who he was. He also knows the best beach to go to nearby.
And keep going further afield by bicycyle to learn about the town I live with in and which also adds to my definition. The market on Tuesday and Sat. morning. Where early on I had a friendly exchange with a vendor of roots and fruits( the vegetables are in another area). His name is Joseph and, after learning that his son was named Jeremy, I settled on the habit of always visiting him first. On Sat everything is bustling and we exchange quick talk while I pick out the days goods between the crush of other shoppers. On tuesday things are quieter. Plenty of time to talk if I make the time available and don't simply rush in and then again. In the next month, hopefully he will take me on his friday night buying run, from 8pm till 6 am, to the fields to prepair for the big Sat market.
And then occassionally timing and personality and ritual mesh together so well that things unfold with a quality of ease and rightness which is too smooth to translate. For by chance one friday, when I was pedaling around looking for a game of football, I found nothing at the three main feilds. And where on another day I may have called it and returned home, on this friday I asked one person on the side of the road, who kind of directed me to aneighborhood father back, where another person showed me roughly where to look, which lead me to a small field of half dirt/half swamp, about the size of half a regular pitch. And slowly people came out of their houses, and a ball appeared, and then two small square goals, and before I knew it I was in the middle of a regular pick up game which happens every friday because all the local clubs don't hold practise on Friday. And again through feeling, I introduced myself to one person out fo the fourty who by the end had gathered to play and watch. Roland is his name. A dreadlocked man of thirty who has more skill on a ball than I've seen in awhile and who simply had a good demeanour.
Now I missed a Friday, I'll admit, and as any who know me should realize, I'm not as habitual as I may make myself out to be. But the following friday I returned and there again was Roland first to the field after I showed up and sat in the empty lot for half an hour. Yet I didn't exchange more than a few words with him beofre the game, simply a greeting, as he knew why I had come- to play football. Then one of those games where the feet work without the heads interference. Playing on the opposite squad to Roland. Hard tackles with him, fighting for the ball shoulder against shoulder. My teammates faces a little more familiar from the first weeks game. Afterwards as I was leaving, on the bike in fact, I simply said take it easy to Roland, who was bent over stetching at the waist. He had been sullen near the end of the game, frustrated by hi teammates. He even put an end to the game when someone fouled him in the fading light- simply saying "I can't tell what's going on" and walking off the field. Everyone else followed. So I was not going to strike up a conversation, but simply say see you next week. But when I spoke he bounced up full of graciousness and we spoke at lenght about the game and his neighborhood. He lived nearby and in fact told me that Sunday morning he was having people ou for something I should come. I explained my reason for being in the country and my ties to the church all morning sunday. Well come by in the late afternoon then, he casually suggested and i left for the night to pedal home in the now dark. On sunday after our three services and after our afternoon nap, Miriam went back to lead confirmation class. I read for awhile, then toured arund the neighborhood as is my sunday afternoon habit. Nobody about to speak of, so I pedaled to the oterside of town heading back to one of the churches because I wanted to help them move some dirt and generally make myself available to them as well. Swung by the neighborhood where Roland lives. On one corner a speaker was set up and some benches, and about fifty people were milling about but I didn't see Roland amoung the faces and I wasn't really sure I was in the right place even so I kept pedaling on to church. After shoveling and wheelbarrow hauling dirt for an hour or two, I pedaled back home as Miriam took a ride with pastor Roy. I said I would stop by to see if I saw Roland and in any case wouldn't be home late, maybe in fact before her.
On rounding the corner back into the neighborhood, I noticed that the crowd was larger. And decided that I would simply ask someone if they had seen Roland. No one seemed to recognize me in the crowd of 100 people, but when I mentioned this name to two younger boys, they jumped up and went to look for him. But they didn't see him so I started off. Only to hear my name called out above the music and see Roland pedaling up on a bike. What followed was a rush of being ushered through the people, back to the large Cook Up pots behind the stands (huge woks really. Plate of food handed to me by someone, a cold drink given from out of the old Ice Cream cooler they used for a Ice Chest. People introducing themselves and loud talk over louder music, where for once I could pretend it was the music and not the creole that made me unableto understand. I stayed for three hours again getting home at the now extremely late seeming hour of 9. The crowd had increased, the DJ gave way to live music. Slowly all the peoples faces started becoming clear as people who I had played football with earlier; the rapper, the cook, all gathered with Roland who carried alot of respect in the gathering. Unbenownst to me, and without asking- who are you- I found myself welcomed into an old fashion block party. And then when I left a guy named Andrea made sure to guide me out of the unfamilliar night streets till I got to a road I knew the potholes on and after I insisted I could find my way he left me again a stanger in a stange land. But the music followed me all the way home and Eventually at my doorstep I could hear it's deep bass, the same deep bass that had bounced around the air on other nights, except this night I had been at it's point of origion instead of longing to know what was going on, and who was there.
I played football on the next monday at Roland's invitation, played poorly in fact, but will get to play again on friday.
And now I know something of a neighborhood not my own even in Guyana. And I worry less about asking who people are and simply hope to live more among them so that I may continue to shape my integrity which depends neither on who I am nor where.
All names of course have been changed to protect their owners.


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