The Blythlyway in Guyana

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Standing in lines; how I learned to love the queue.

In it's wonderfully reassuring and seemingly universal way school started two weeks ago, in the first week of september. I figured that I had settled in well enough and that it was time to start searching for opportunites to get myself involved, in an organized fashion, in the life of New Amsterdam. Volunteering at a Public School felt timely. I had been cutting bait for some time why not try fishing.
My first inclination was to simply go to a few schools and inquire if I could be of any use to anyone. But when I told a few members of the congregations about this plan of mine they all recommended that I first go to the Office of the Minister of Education. This sounded rather formal to me and perhaps on a larger scale than I felt necessary. I mean go to the minister of Education to ask about volunteering in a school? I specifically am not looking for a full-time job. I'm not even sure if it is technically possible for me to have one as I have no work visa. Further more I am not about to suggest that I am qualified for a teaching job, much less profess this to the Minister of Education. Being in a room of 30-40 children makes me nervous the way standing in a large herd of cattle makes me watchfull; you know if you trip and fall down they might just walk all over you.
Like everywhere being a school teacher means you are vastly underpaid for the work you do as well as under appreciated by society. In Guyana the teachers make 20,000 Guyanese a month or about 100$US. It is, however, a good important job and a steady one at that. People work hard, and really need conections, just to get these jobs. The last thing the teachers need is some American with time on his hands coming in with grand plans. But I headed over to the Office to offer my services. I figure I can read and write (both fairly well I like to think, though not spell obviously) and I have some experience with theatrical productions, so maybe there is a school play or something I can help out with, or some literature class, as long as it's not math based I can probably be of some value to a teacher.
The Grand sounding Ministry of Education turned out to be the regional Department of Education. The building is pretty small. It looks more like a house than an office. There is a driveway and a few cars parked in the carport. There are a number of dogs in the yard which look like they belong, and a number of school children on the side wearing uniforms. (All schools in Guyana have uniforms. They are differentiated by color. I have seen green, blue, brown, grey and a great bright pink for a nearby elementary school. Boys wear colored shirts and darker pants, girls wear skirts and vests or jumpers. All the uniforms are hand tailored in the last few weeks leading up to school opening. All the tailors in town are kept pretty busy.) The only entrance to the building is at the top of a set of two staircases. One goes up on the left and the other on the right and they meet at the top on a small landing before going in the door. As I parked my bike I noticed a large sign on the left side staircase which said in very large letters that the office is open to the general public on Wednsday. Since it is tuesday and I am not even really qualified to be called a member of the general public I hesitated before going up. There was a man on the landing who had a shirt and tie on and who looked generally like he knew what was going on. He has seen me notice the sign, so I shouted up to him something on the order of "That leads me to belive that the office is not open today." To which he reponded simply "Well people are here why don't you give it a try." Sounds resonable to me so up I mount.
A few feet inside the door there is a half wall, the door itself opens in to the right and on the left there is also a wall. All of which gives you the sense of being in a cattle shoot, unable to see where you are going, but forced in a direction which you are not completely convinced you want to be headed. The space is lined with chairs and all are taken by middle aged women sitting listlessly, as if they have been there for some time in the heat and expect to be there for some time longer. Behind the door are a few more chairs, also occupied, which end at a desk looking to be reception, except no one is sitting at it. In fact in the interior of the office there is very little activity at all. There are cabinets, desks, chairs, and three doors that lead to back offices, as well as a back spce whcih I can not see into. I stand for a little while in the middle of everyone not sure if I should go forward farther into the room.
It is my general habit upon entering a place, where there is a line of people and a desk or a window, for me to try to be a patient as possible and to smile at whoever makes eye contact with me while I look around. Also I generally don't speak or ask a question until someone signals me- excepting to perhaps figure out if thee is an end to the line. And always I attempt to place myself into a position of serene repose. I feel this is really the only way to be in a room of people who are waiting for something to be done for them and yet still manage to have a good time. It gives me a chance to study faces if I think about it, as well as practise sitting still. In a room of seven people I don't know, I figure I should be set for at least 45 minutes. Plus it makes me appear tranquil as well as helps me remember that I've really got nothing but time on my hands and this is in fact fairly interesting and new for me. Generally I find that people are more apt to really help you in the long run if you don't insist upon their help immediately. But then I generally have a lot of time myself and can spend it how I will.
Eventually a woman, who I think maybe the secretary, comes into the main room. She has that practiced ability to be in a room with people who are waiting for her attention, yet still get what she needs to get done, all the while avoiding eye contact until she is ready to give you her attention. So I remain there looking up in here direction with a smile on my face whenever she passes by me. I feel a little foolish after a number of passes, a little like a puppy in fact, but there are other people who have been there longer than me and they are also looing at her expectantly so I figure I should not be the insistent foreigner and just hold tight. Indeed fairly quickly, after she has dealt with one or two other people, she turns to me and asks how she can help. Or rather she asks if I am from a certain organization. To which I have to respond negatively since I've no idea what the organization is that she is speaking about. This is almost always how conversations begin for me. It is a fairly good assumption of anyone's part here that I am part of some organization or another, and of course I am, but I am neither entirely comfortable claiming myself a missionary, nor truthfully working with anyone. So I always have to say no and then explain what Miriam is up to and thus my presence in front of them. She asks what I am there for and I tell her my vague desire to volunteer in the schools and how should I go about it. It is strange that I don't want a money or a job. In fact she asks me just that. You don't want to get paid? But besides the potential problems I have already mentioned with me being employed. The truth is that I am in the ridiculous position to be able to not need to make money this year, I mean we could always use money, next year our financial situation is completely up in the air, but while we are here Miriam's stipend covers our expenses if we use some thought in our monthly budgeting. I don't tell her all this but I'm behaving strangely none the less. She tells me that the regional director will be available tommorrow. IF I can come back then maybe she could help me. Alright, that's kinda what I thought, thank you. And I make my way back through the catttle shoot and back outside. Just a short nice trip through purgatory. I feel a little bad for the people I leave behind still waiting in their chairs.
When I pull up the next morning there are people everywhere. The yard is buzzing with people, both staircases leading to the entrance are stacked with people. There are 100 plus people standing in line or at least waiting on something. The problem I instantly have is where does the line end? Or are there multiple lines, I mean there are two stair cases. I truthfully feel just like leaving and coming back some other time. It is after all just the 2nd week of school. All these parents and teachers have infinitly more immediate and important concerns that I do. The regional director is overly busy I am sure and doesn't need to deal with me as well.
But I remember that I am in no hurry, have in fact nothing to do for the rest of the day. SO why not put my toes in the interesting looking water? See what I see. I pick the left staircase at random and ask the person on the bottom stair if this is the end of the line. "No, I don't think so" he responds "just push up and ask." Now I am not particularly timid and I have no problem with close quarters or physical contact with other people. But walking up the stairs through the people feels wierdly wrong. Like exiting the subway by the stairs at Time Square during rush hour except, instead of swimming with the tide of people all moving in one direction, everyone is moving extremely slowly and even though you know that they all want to go forward, only you can crawl over and through them to the exit. Add to this that I am obviously a stranger and I feel the double edged sword that is ignorance on the one side and privaledge on the other. I hope I am not offending anyone. Through the cattle shoot, which is now teaming with people sitting and standing, so that there really is nothing to do besdies keep going, with a polite smile. Nobody seems to mind. There is no where to stop until I'm spit out near the secretaries desk. The interior of the office is like something out of a Kafka novel. There are clerks literally running form one room to the next; efficent, hardy, yet meek looking men. There are two lines going into two back rooms. There is even a special door which remains always closed except when one of the clerks rushes in and dissapears inside. This I gather is the regional directors office. People are standing in some semblence of order in the middle of the office, all facing this door and sitting up or leaning towards it when ever it opens even slightly. There are teachers looking for paperwork for transfers, parents with registration papers, young women trying to apply for jobs. All of it much more important than me.
The woman at the very front of the line gets confused for the secretary as more people come in behind me. It does seem like you just head for the front and hope to get some answer. The woman starts answering questions, even telling a young girl and her mother that the girl doesn't have the right materials for application and that is she gives them what she has it will just get filed and forgotten. I talk to a few people, ask about where I should go, is the office always this busy, etc. etc. Nobody really knows much. One man simply says "Pick a line and then don't get out of it or you'll never get anywhere." I have been standing in the middle of the room for about an hour. No one has gone in to be seen by the regional Director, the clerks are still rushing about like mad. But I've seen the Secretary that I spoke to yesterday so I sense progress.
Pastor Roy, Miriam's supervisor, comes up the stairs and enters the room. He has a package for the Director. We spend about 20 minutes talking and standing around. At one point he boldly interupts the Secretary and asks her to take a package into the Director. And she does! People are a little jealous of him. But it's also obvious that he is important somehow. Eventually the Secretary mistakenly makes eye contact with me and emboldened by Pastor Roy I seize the moment. All I can get out is excuse me. And she says "Yes, I'll tell the Director you are here and that you were her yesterday." Real progress there. And it makes me glad I was here yesterday--like I've been waiting all night and today to see the Director, unlike these other poor retches who have just been waiting for a few hours now. Pastor Roy can't wait any longer as he has another appointment so he leaves.
I start to notice the Heat. Because it is really, really, really hot. And there are alot of people in a fairly small space. At about the same moment it seems there is a subtle surge forward by everyone. The lines become double wide. I get the feeling that everyone from outside has now come inside. A clerk, who is trying to get through people, senses that order has been lost and before chaos sets in he starts to leacture/berate the people blocking one of the doors to an office. He is patently disgusted by our becoming unglued and tells everyone to pull it together (more or less). Again, not just subtlely, but almost magically, there are less people in the room; like the tide has gone out.
One or two of the teachers has been let into see the Director. But the heat is starting to get to break me down. I start to remember that I have no reason to be here and the fun is about up. I decide to go out and stand oon the shaded stairs to get some air- with the intention of leaving shortly. Somehow the stairs are completley empty. I really can't say that I saw more than 3 or 4 people get something done, but maybe the clerks were shuttling information outside, or maybe they were all in a group, or maybe it's getting close to luch and they simply gave up. Whatever the case, it kindles the hope that maybe I will be seen, which again suddenly seems overly important. I decide not to leave just yet and go back inside.
As soon as I put my head in the door, the Secretary calls for me, as if she has been looking for me. I get ushered into the room and taken through the special door. I feel almost giddy. The Director is behind a desk talking on the phone, there are a few teachers standing before her at the desk. There is a large circular red velvet couch which dominates the room. The secretary and some clerks are at the back of the room confering about some matter. No one pays any attention to me except the teachers who exchange what I take to be conspritorial smiles with me, we are the choosen few who have made it; it is a bonding over our mutual triump. As if all this weren't enough the room is air conditioned! I stand for a few minutes, then think to sit down on the couch. It is a big couch and it feels good to sit down after standing for so long. I scoot over to the far backside incase anyone else wants to sit down(no one ever does) and also to get further out of the way. I take out my notebook and start randomly leafing through pages, reading bits and pieces of my writing. Another teacher enters the room and stands near the couch. She is also now smiling at her success in gaining the hallowed ground. After a few minutes I lean over and whisper " And it's even air-conditioned in here." To which she beams a wide smile.
The other two teachers have left and the Director suddenly call me over to the desk. She is an indian woman with a stern face which also smiles invitingly. I stand up in a hurry and start to introduce myself and explain my presence. She cuts me off nicely by saying that the Secretary told her and she asks me again if she is right in thinking that I don't want any pay. Pastor Roy has mentioned earlier that he know the Director well and I should use his name if I get the chance. I tell her about Miriam and the Lutheran Church and the stipend. I tell her that besides my own writing and a few other commitments I have time to give and I thought to give it to the schools. I mention that I am not available full time, sensing that to suggest I would work full time with no pay would be insulting somehow, too unimaginably immpossible to be true. We talk about what I do, what I could do with the school. She says she wants to send me to a good school, not one with underacheivers, so that they will appreciate what I have to offer. She says she will call the principal. I think I am done and start to thank her and then leave. But she tells me to sit down; she'll call the principal now. She gets interupted by a phone call herself and af ew tasks which are brought to her. But eventually she gets the Secretary to call the school and then gets on the phone. She starts to tell the principal about me, Says I have written seven plays, hangs up and tells me the principals phone number as she looks for something to write it down on. I open my book and she is impressed that I have a nice book to write in. Paper supplies are prety meger here adn my book is truthfully very unusually nice. Something I have until this moment taken completely for granted. She finishes the exchange with a few instructions and then proclaims loudly as I am about to leave and the door is opened tha I am a fantastic person and that the world needs more people in it like me. I am startled by her sudden praise and can only manage a thank you and profuse thanks for her help. I sneak a raised eyebrow glance of surprise and amusement over to the teacher I whispered to earlier, thinking that she too must be appreciating the strange machinations of the Director, trying to capture some of the earlier comradery. The teacher is looking at me with wide eyes and smiles back at me like I am somebody important. It's all a trifle ridiculous and I'm kind of laughing to myself as I go down the stairs, past the people who are still waiting in the chairs. I can almost imagine at this point that they are the same people as yesterday and they have never left. Of course I manage to remember to thank the Secretary.
Thinking that I was supposed to return the next day with a resume to give to the Secretary I came back to the office. The yard is extremely quiet, but it is the afternoon so I think that may just be how it is in the afternoon. As I start to head up the stairs I notice that each step has at least one dog stretched out asleep on it. I have to in fact step over them and around them to get in the door. The chairs are empty. Nobody is around except for a Principal, who is behind the Secretary's desk and with whom I have a good talk. I wait for half an hour or longer. All I wanted to do was drop off the resume and truthfully I was begining to think it a trifle annoying that this was taking so long. I didn't want to waste my time that afternoon, I was tired and I still had other things to do. Abruptly the Director came out of her office surprised to see me. As I handed her the reume she asked if I had visited the school. I had misunderstood I guess, though the instructions were pretty clear I had thought. She briefly looked at my resume and declaired it quite impressive. I have always liked my resume but I have also had prospective employeers tell me things more to the tune of looks like you've wandered around quite a bit or seems pretty inconsistant. Or course she wasn't going to employ me, but I got the feeling she meant it. I said I would visit the school, then I left.
The whole process has left me feeling that I can not overestimate the value of my educational background, cant under appreciate how much more education that I have than so many others, how much opportunity I have hadto experience the world and foolow my dreams.
The other day at the grocery store, I was standing in line, sweaty after a football game and dressed in simply shorts and a t-shirt. I was waiting to buy two cars of juice and I had tucked a five hundred dollar bill (guyanese) in my waist ban. I was feeling like I knew what was going on. I understood how the line worked, that people came to it from both directions, that a woman would take my juices and another would call out the price. I was even feeling like I was glad I only had a five hundred on me,like it somehow made me more of a regular guyanese,instead of using the big 1,000 guyanese bill. In general I was feeling I knew my place in the scheme of thins.
The boy in front of me was about 14 or so. His basket was full of hand pakced pags of dried chickpeas and some spices. His total was 2,300 guyanese dollars. He proceeded to pull out two large wads of 20 guyanese bills. And the Cashier counted them not like they were worth a nickle apiece, but as if she had done it a million times and was only interested in the total. The boy was not self conciousof the demarkation of his money. I still am but I am working on it.


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Oh man, I admire your perseverance; I wouldn't have made it. I would have assumed that the busy office was a sign of cosmic disapproval with my intentions or something.

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