The Blythlyway in Guyana

Monday, October 30, 2006

Epiphytes abound in Guyana. They are also called “Air plants”: it’s such a lovely name for something so solid and yet seemingly impossible. I had never heard of such a thing before and didn’t really believe it was possible even when I read about them in A NeoTropical Companion by John Krichner (an indispensable introduction to the animals, plants and ecosystems of the new world tropics or where we live presently, not to mention a reminder that the science of biology has kept moving forward even if I last studied it in 1989). But then I started seeing these air plants everywhere and my amazement only increased. Not that I haven’t been surrounded by the phenomenon all my life, since lichens, mildews, and mosses also fall into this category, but in S. America the climate enables the epiphytes to reach new heights; large plants not microbes sprout up on top of everything. The seeds of these plants are transported on the wind or in the belly of a bird, then fall from the sky sometimes with accompanying glue. Remarkably they stick to tree limbs, fence posts, and even thin rubber coated telephone wires. They shoot forth roots and stems and leaves, no matter the seeming unsuitability of their newfound host. In some cases the epiphyte creates enough of a root system that it builds up it’s own soil base fifty feet off the ground and then it starts to collect and provide water and nutrients for both itself and it’s host tree. Large trees can hold hundreds of these air plants on their limbs, an ever expanding handing garden weeded only by the monkeys as they travel over the branches; Trees of life upon Tree of Life. Other times the epiphyte strangles the host and it alone remains to grow up over the skeleton of what was there before it ever landed. If I didn’t clean off the branches of the Guava tree in the front yard it would soon succumb to the vines of these air plants, for every three weeks there are a new half dozen seeds that have sprouted on it’s limbs from out of nothing. On the other hand, when I see one hanging lonely from an electrical wire I wish it the best of luck.
The New Amsterdam market is a daily carnival of people, food and merchandise (and, like today, the occasional bull, which snuck in for a quick munch before being collectively chased and batted, with sticks and old boards, out of the place). I started going to the market twice a week only to shop for the vegetables and fruits that we would eat during the course of a week. It was a good task as it kept me focused enough to go in and not get completely bewildered and overwhelmed (because my first few more wide open trips were frankly wonderful, but exhausting). I quickly started relationships with two particular vendors with large stall in the back of the market. I would walk around the outside of the various market buildings on the way in so I could avoid walking through the hoards of vendors shouting out to me constantly: ‘What you shoppin?!”, White boy shoppin!?.”, “Shoppin, you shoppin for!?” and their occasional tugging on my arm to slow me down to purvey the goods I assume. Then, with bags full, I can walk back through the interior and have a ready excuse for not buying anything else. “No sorry, I already bought (insert pro-offered vegetable, fruit, rat poison, cow head, mouth still gaping for air catfish, etc.)” raise the bag and keep moving, unless I actually see something interesting- you know, different from the norm. I eventually added two other vendors to the routine and I can now get just about everything we want without thinking about prices very much or quality. I decided to trust these vendors, their prices and their goods, and they trust that I will buy from them with regularity. They are happy to see me, let me know what is especially good, and give me extra when they don’t think they will be able to sell it by the end of the day. I am excited to go up to each person and their stall and talk with them about their days and lives and not haggle about prices. Because the prices are extremely cheap for produce no matter whom I would go to so it is not actually worth it in for me to find the best “deal”. For instance I bought six beautiful mangos today for 100$ Guyanese (about 50 cents US). Now I could possibly have found 10 for the same price if I had tried as it is mango season and they are everywhere. But the monetary savings is not worth the use of the time I could spend talking to people and building relationships. Nor is it worth the possible detrimental interactions that going to another vendor and haggling opens up.
One day Lene (my above ground vegetable, melon and banana seller) didn’t have any lettuce. So I on the way out I asked around for it and eventually a woman responded positively with a smile and pulled out a few heads, threw them in a bag without saying a price at all and thrust it into my hand. Were I with my vendors, whatever price they say I take, if I want the product. Even if it were not my vendor, I usually would just hand over the requested amount. But I was tired and slightly pissy on this day, so when she said two hundred dollars I was a little taken aback. I had gotten almost twice as much for half that price before. I mistakenly said as much aloud. A few times. She continued to insist that it was two hundred. I pushed the bag back at her and only held one hundred in my hand. Finally she reached in the bag, took out a tiny baby head (roughly five leaves, merely a symbol), threw it back on her stand, pushed the bag back to me and took the one hundred dollar bill. Classic bartering and I was right. I won; I got the lettuce for the correct price. But she was affronted that I thought she was cheating me (or acting that way at least) and I was annoyed at her being affronted (she was wrong). We had finished the transaction in silence and I walked away while she pretended I didn’t exist. It didn’t feel to me like I had saved anything at all; the 50 cents was for me inconsequential, might not have been so unimportant to her, and in any case it was a poor substitute for our smiles. I stick to my vendors now, unless my mood is one of openness and interest in the lives of others and their stories.
But I have found that increasingly I am coming to the market as much to explore as to shop now that the shopping has become less foreign and unpredictable (though don’t get me wrong, about every other week somebody has something which I have never seen before). I’ve been to the market four times this last week, twice doing nothing but walking around exploring every nook and cranny and talking to who ever will talk to me. Putting the seeds into the air to see where they will land.
In front of the market, as I wind my way along the perpetually crowded street- where the buses and cars inch forward in one direction only through the bikes and people who are going every-which way carrying every-which thing- I will invariably be approached by a money changer, perhaps a few in a row. They are men of all ages, size and race with large stacks of bills in their hands, all eager to help me change my foreign currency into Guyanese dollars. At first this was disconcerting, not only because the piles of money are so large (it took me awhile to get into my head that the biggest bill in Guyana is the 1,000 and it is worth about 5$ US), but also because I had been told and read in the paper how it was an extremely bad idea to be seen in the crowded street even suggesting that I was trading money; I would hurry by and quickly dismiss them with barely a look. It began to beg the question why, here in the middle of the country, would I need to exchange money (I haven’t had any foreign currency since the first day in the capital when we exchanged the few hundred US we brought with us at a bank). And further, there aren’t even that many foreigners around, how can it possibly be necessary or even remotely profitable for all these men to be doing this job. Then it dawned on me that it was not I specifically and alone, the American that the moneychangers were approaching. In large crowds in a foreign place it is hard for me to not take everything very personally: everyone is watching me I assume and, though this is based in some reality, I often take it too far and it is only in moments of revelation that I realize that the whole thing isn’t set up to either serve my needs or trick me into doing something stupid. In fact, the moneychangers exist because large quantities of foreign currency is either sent here by Guyanese living and working abroad or brought here with them when they return or visit.
I have already burned the paper this week (in our bi-weekly garbage/brush inferno) but there was an article which gave some recently reported numbers for ex-patriot money sent to S. America from abroad. If, as an example, the Dominican Republic has gotten 2.5 billion dollars in loans/grants from international development organizations in the last ten years (the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, etc.), during that same time period 18 billion dollars has been sent back by individuals from overseas (i.e. not simply America). Multiply that out around Latin America and we are talking about a huge amount of money earned outside of the home country. In fact when I first deigned to talk to a moneychanger about why he was there he quite simply said “Were it not for money sent in from abroad Guyana wouldn’t work.” I think he meant that quite literally for not only do people live off the money sent to them, but many of the meager jobs that do exist in Guyana are dependent on outside capital. The other side of this unfortunately is that a large portion of the population, those who could really benefit the country by remaining here in Guyana, leave for greener pastures. After seeing the state of the schools, the near lack of public support for anything, the sorry state of infrastructure, etc. I can’t say that I blame the ones that flee when an opportunity arises. And lest we start to complain about the amount of money being drained from our own country and sent away to other shores, it is also worthwhile to note that only about 10% of money earned by immigrants goes back to the their home countries. In California, immigrants add one hundred and twenty billion dollars to the local economy and send away twelve billion. It makes infinite sense really for countries with very large religious populations (not simply Christian) to be tithing exactly10% of their earned wealth back to the poorer countries where they were born.
One afternoon I started to cycle around town. Left the house with no destination and no time to be done with my wanderings. Far from aimless I held the meditation upon my lips that I should talk to someone about theater in New Amsterdam. I took one side road, then another, circled around the Esplanade, almost went up to the heights of the Canje bridge, and then finally, unsuccessful, I pedaled by the market to pick up a Starbroek newspaper. There are three dailies in Guyana. One is a more or less an official government paper, the other was known for sensationalism but is now delving into news, and the 3rd is the Starbroek News. I find it to be fairly interesting to read two or three times a week for local, regional and some international news. It is impossible to find any other paper in New Amsterdam, which is good in some ways as it focuses me here in Guyana, and bad in other ways because I have a fairly old addiction to reading a major international paper a few times a week. I always get this paper from a guy at the front of the market, even though people sell it from little roadside crates in various places all over town. I parked my bike and dug out the money, while a moneychanger lurked nearby. He wanted to help me buy the paper, or change money, or would I like gold, silver, jewelry- “this bracelet on my arm is good silver and given to me by a friend to sell if someone were to express interest”. It is at these moments that I like it that the vendor knows me: knows I will buy the Starbroek, is ready to hand it to me before I am ready with the money. I did my best to ignore the moneychanger; brushed him off pretty well in fact, easy and nice. Then I stood near the bike for a minute, undecided about if I was done for the day or not. The street was quieter than usual, it was late in the day and almost everyone else had headed home. I lingered in the spot where normally I would have felt harassed. The moneychanger glanced over once or twice. I almost started a conversation, he almost started one, but we turned away from each other. Suddenly he was at my side and I was glad to talk; we had eased into something comfortable to both of us. He spoke quickly, scattered, yet driven, and I was interested in catching up to his speech. When I mentioned theater to him it lit up his eyes (or at least after a few attempts at talking about theater he understood me when I said drama). He did drama. Or had done drama. It was exactly what he had been wanting to get started doing again. Everything was at it was supposed to be, Inshalla. We spoke for a half hour there on the road. He was ready to start getting a production together- he insisted that he would cast it, as he knew all the right people. I tried to pull in the reigns by saying we actually needed to talk about what it was that we wanted to do. Then we got onto talking about football. He loved, in fact lived for football. We were supposed to meet; perhaps I was a messenger sent from God. We left each other that time talking with the intention of meeting sometime in the next week, Wednesday perhaps. But he was nervous about the length of time till we would see each other; one week after all was a long time, a lot could happen in between then and now. I call him Z. Ally. He turns fifty in December.
A few days later I dawdled in the market after I did the shopping. Decided I would see all of it that day, eyes open, what I came across I would engage. Upstairs, in the main building, there are textile shops: a few tailors (little booths with a solitary man or woman behind a machine framed by the window counter), women’s boutiques with formal wear and braziers hanging over bare wooden crates, a children’s shop with toys and clothing but no children. Everyone moves slowly up here as the heat gets trapped inside the roof and the air is still; the dust suspends itself in mid-air, going nowhere as long as you walking through it do not disturb. It’s not a very crowded place, feels semi-deserted compared to the bustle below, and has a muted quietness to it which is very calming: the shrill calls of vendors downstairs aged and mellowed by trickling up through the heavy wooden planking of the floor, the slight clacking of a turning sewing machine making rhythm for your own feet as you walk down the wide open center aisle. If there were a coffee shop or café I would spend time in it every week.
I went into the one men’s shop, which was decorated with Rasta design, and looked at the shirts, which some distant day in the future might be purchased by someone and taken down from their tortured racking. The proprietor and I exchanged a few words as he showed me some of the undershirts that I inquired about. He calmly brought out some books from behind the counter, gave me two and said he had just the person for me to meet. I casually said that Wednesday afternoons were often free for me. He was free as well on Wednesdays as the market closed after a half-day. I gave him my phone number. He said he would call. His name is Uncle and he would turn 30 within the next week.
I saw Z. Ally on the way out of the market that day. He wanted to see me on Monday of the next week. I told him I might stop by the market that day. Even though I knew that I was going to be out of town. They also teach you never to tell anyone that you are going to be away from your house. Especially when you have already broken a primary rule, which told me not to say where it was that I lived. It’s all very confusing this issue of trust and I sometimes find myself lying to shelter us from these people we do not know, yet who open themselves up to us so readily. That night I started reading the books that Uncle had given me and in one I found a literary lecture which actually quoted at length from the exact last four books I had been reading here in Guyana while trying to catch up on my Guyanese/West Indian literature. It was published in 1973, by the Official Organ of the National History and Arts Council of Guyana, when the now opposition party was the ruling party. It was as woefully outdated as I was behind in my knowledge; it was a startling, amazing, perfect fit. And yet it was a sad statement on the state of the country. There exists no current addition of this journal, at least none that I have seen, and the library doesn’t carry much in the way of literature published post 1980. Time stopped somewhere and, like the dust on that second floor, nobody seems to want to stir it up very much, as if too much has now accumulated and to tackle the task might only lead to suffocation and not a refreshing cleansing of the house.

“This is sort of frustrating, but one of the immutable laws of being human is that the people who show up are the right people.”
Anne Lamott from Plan B Further Thoughts on Faith

“Contact had occurred and there could now be no escape”
V.S. Naipaul from An Area of Darkness

Somewhere in between these two quotations lies a fairly accurate description of what it is like for me to schedule my time in Guyana. On the one hand if I wake up everyday and let the people I meet (the people who show up) and the circumstances of the day (for instance if it is raining-delay everything by two hours)-let these dictate the course of that day it can be remarkable how exactly right everything fits together, uncanny even. On the other hand people do schedule things days in advance and then when the time comes weither or not the event will take place or the person will show up is predicated upon a delicate mathematical formula of many variables, which in my ignorance of the culture I would call “Complete and Utter Randomness Theory”. Added to this is that people often schedule me for something without really asking me if I can make it or not (I think this is due to a combination of excitement at the chance to engage with a stranger and wonderful hospitality which tries to include me in it’s activities.) Often times then I am either waiting around for something to happen that won’t or brought somewhere to a “meeting” that I didn’t know was going to happen, nor what it is about and my part in it, until I am on the scene (teaching at school is like this everyday). But it is hard to explain theoretically. It will perhaps be clearer if I tell you how it worked last week.
On Wednesday I went to the market in the morning and on the way out saw Z. Ally. There was no mention of why we hadn’t seen each other on Monday. It was as if our conversation had never happened. Just as interestingly what that he had scheduled me to come with him at 5:00 that very day to a football field somewhere to start coaching this team that he and I were now going to coach. He had no idea he was going to see me that day. I remembered that he liked football, had even spoken of wanting to have his own team to coach. But we were talking about getting together over coffee and talking about theater. Plus I had a rehearsal for a church play that I had been scheduled to go to at 6:00 that night and I doubted if I could do both. He insisted it would work. He would come by at 4 and it would be OK. I demurred, and then said I would meet him, he could come by my house no less (because I’m still in the stage where every chance I can get for someone to take me somewhere new I jump on- and I forget rules easily). I got home and almost instantly got a call from Uncle saying he wanted to come get me at 4:30 and he had set up a meeting with the guy he wanted to whom he wanted to introduce me. I said I couldn’t manage it. He was disappointed. I suggested the next day at the same time and he agreed easily, not even having to bother checking with the other guy. We hung up. Then I waited for Z. Ally. He didn’t show up. I wished I had told Uncle to come by as I was starting to see how tenuous scheduling something in advance could be, he probably wouldn’t come by the next day either. I left for my rehearsal and half of the people where actually there and it went fairly well.
Thursday morning I was supposed to be in school all day teaching. On Tuesday the two teachers I work with had both made specific plans for me and them to work with certain classes on Thursday and then after school would be the first meeting of the Drama Club that I have ostensibly been starting for the past four weeks. When I arrived at school both teachers were absent that day, one for sickness the other for some official business, which I guess she didn’t know about on Tuesday (and I don’t mean that flippantly, two days is forever at that school). The Drama club meeting was canceled once again because somebody hadn’t talked to somebody else about something (to say I have no idea what is going on would be an understatement). So I had a free day to myself again, fine by me. The kids would sit without teachers for that day, staring into space or maybe working on questions written on the board until the inevitable breakdown into chaos throughout the whole building, teachers or no, which provokes the random screaming of teachers and slapping of hands with rulers and other general attempts by tyrants to regain control of slaves. I had tried to be available, but was not up to facing this prospect with no lesson plan and no sense of schedule for the day. I am an American after all.
A few hours later Uncle stopped by our house. I had kind of told him where we lived, but I wasn’t supposed to be home. Yet because of the canceled school there I sat. I invited him in while I finished my tea, offered him something to drink as well, and we talked for a few moments but I noticed he was distracted. He suggested we leave to go meet the guy that he was to introduce me to, settle in there and not have to move again. We left in hurry and with a greater sense of purpose than was proper for two people who had just met up fairly randomly. He took me on a bike ride to the back dam area of New Amsterdam, where the houses stop being made out of concrete, then stop being stilted and eventually are compounds of low to the ground wooden structures, which look like they have always been there or that they have grown up straight out of the earth. Everything was surrounded by green life and the children stared up at me from the ditches where they were entertaining themselves, half naked and surprised to see the apparition that I was. The man we were going to meet wasn’t home. I sat down with the man’s son and another Rastafarian near a small shack at the back of the property, neither inside nor outside just wooden slats, which on one side were fences and on the other side walls. Uncle went to look for the man and it was ridiculously natural for me to remain behind, unbuttoning my shirt to let my skin show to the breeze. Uncle came back empty handed and we waited. I was conscious of needing to be in Canje at 6:00 for men’s fellowship at one of the churches. The man named Braks came home and we sat in his drawing room inside of another outbuilding made of upright wooden slats. The inside was as neatly put together as the main room of my grandmother’s apartment - except for the single bare bulb hanging exposed as the only light source as the sun went down. He pulled out old playbills from shows he had done. He gave me the only copy of one of his plays, hand typed and yellowed on flaking legal sized paper held together with a safety pin. I kept reminding myself that I was sitting in the chair of a fifty year old Rastafarian Playwright and Poet as people began filtering in and out past the bare bulb, each one stopping short in surprise upon first seeing me, but Braks treating my presence so naturally that they assumed I belonged. I was conscious later of having been less formally respectful than I would have thought I would have been. A deep and easy comfort somehow instantly settled upon me: where, as like in my Grandmother Blyth’s house, I felt that anything could be said and talked about with interest and respect given to the person who was speaking, yet contradictions and arguments would be given in passionate reply. I decided that the church function would have to do without me that night. And as I would find out later that night that meeting took place at an entirely different location unbeknownst to me and had I left one good thing for the promise of something supposed to be I would have pedaled in the dark to wait for nobody.
Friday afternoon I was going to do some computer work at the internet cafe, go straight from there to play football and then straight again to attend rehearsal in Canje at 6:00. It was a fairly tight schedule but I thought I could get everything in I wanted to get in. As soon as I got to the Internet café the power went out. I decided not to go home, but pedal around, go for a spin as they say. Three streets later Z. Ally came riding by on his bike. We both laughed at how Wednesday didn’t work out. We rode together through the streets, talking about trying to find a space in which to put a performance on, he may be a good source for spaces. He invited me to come with him to the mosque to break the daily fast during this month of Ramadan. I was very interested, but had that rehearsal scheduled. We parted and I went and sat outside the church for an hour in the dark waiting for nobody to show up. Seemed like a bad mistake to go to the thing that was scheduled and not do the thing that was presented.
And so it goes. How do I choose where to be guided and where to stick to schedule? It’s both the amazing beauty of the culture and the hair pulling irritability of it.
I participated in a lot of worship that weekend, perhaps because of my need for guidance or perhaps because I am after all a missionary in Guyana. It is a country where on Saturday night we can drive out to Canje and witness the massing of people on the streets, and lights strung up, and in oil lamps at the Temples for the Annual Hindu celebration of Diwali or the Festival of lights. Where if I try to stop in the midst of the crowd and take a picture, the children shout out with excitement “White Boy take my picture, take my picture.” Then on Sunday go to three Christian services in the morning in the same neighborhoods. Ending the evening at the central mosque (because I pedaled by the market and saw Z. Ally who again invited me on the spur of the moment), where I was given wonderful food to eat and then had three more hours of prayer- all after the sun went down. I couldn’t help but thinking once, while on my knees in genuflection, that the Prophet Mohammed was thinking when he introduced regular specific worship five times a day- cause then he would know where to find people.
Roots are growing, soil is collecting and Miriam and I are most certainly being well fed. I only hope I can give some nutrients back to our hosts. Perhaps it is better after all to just concentrate on meeting those who show up and not feel trapped because contact was supposed to have been made.


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