The Blythlyway in Guyana

Friday, January 19, 2007

I bought a new pair of football boots in the first week of the New Year. Since my toes were spilling out of the rips in the sides of my running shoes, I felt it was time to put a little money into my renewed athletic endeavors. After playing one game my feet have been raw and bloody for a week and I have realized that I need to break in these “new skin” (as the footballers call out when you walk onto the field with shiny shoes) or break my feet. For, even though these football games are informal, everyone takes every day’s match extremely seriously. Once everyone is on the pitch and the game starts there is no leaving the game because of blisters. The game ends, often well after dark, only when the last goal is scored. I mean there are guys that go into hard tackles barefoot in the middle of cleats- feels kind of silly to let down the team and walk off the field because the boots are rubbing wrong. Out with the old, in with the new. Happy New Year indeed, mind the sore spots.

Miriam Adelaide and I are attempting to return to a more sustainable weekly level of activity after the frenetic pace of the month of December. She is starting to spend time at the office again and that, combined with church council meetings in the early evenings, means that I have the house and the kitchen table (my office) to be alone in again for long stretches of time to write and read. Or at least that is the idea. Being in Guyana has a way of turning your plans into convoluted non-linear confusion, which work themselves out, but never how you thought they might. It’s a bit like… well life, but in an ongoing, constant, regenerative cycle which feels about an hour long at times and leaves me out of breath and staring into space, unlike those celebrations which look back at the course of a year and provoke a chuckle for the ridiculous miracle of how you have come to be where you are.

We were issued a 3-month visa upon entering the country. It expired some time ago so we have been technically illegally residing in Guyana. We are illegal aliens. Our paper work is in process, don’t get me wrong, we are trying to put everything right by the law. We have a letter, which states that we can apply for a new visa to take us until August. The letter was issued fairly quickly after our written request to the ministry of home affairs; I believe it took only about two months to reach us. This is actually a pretty quick response on the scale of governmental responses. I know a man who has been waiting to hear about his qualified high skilled workers Canadian visa for 6 months and after looking at a website was comfortingly told that 80% of applications are processed within 24 months. And we are already in the country. He and his family wait daily for more information, which will dictate the course of their lives. Do they stay or do they go now?

In order to get our visa approved we have to get a medical certificate, which states that our chest x-ray is clear, our stool shows no parasites and our blood carries no venereal diseases. At first we thought we were going to have to travel to Georgetown to find a lab for this work, but then we found out that one of Miriam’s Parishioners is a receptionist at a respectable lab here in New Amsterdam. There are of course no appointments- anywhere. The first time we showed up we were X-rayed and sent home with the negatives. The technician wasn’t in so we should return the next week for the other two tests. I dropped the large negatives on the road, while riding the bike home, as I waved at a fruit vendor and avoided a pothole. Luckily nothing ran over them and they missed the puddle- eventually I am sure someone will certify that we are clear: they looked good to me.

We returned to the clinic. As the technician was drawing my blood, with an impressively sterile looking needle, I learned that he was the son-in-law of a Lutheran Pastor upriver. After a short spell in the waiting area (next to a guy with metal sticking out of his shin after reconstructive surgery, apparently the hospital sends people to this clinic for X-rays) the tech asked to see me in the other room. He started asking me personal questions. I inferred that something was amiss with the blood test. Eventually he told me that we had both tested positive for syphilis. I suggested that Miriam perhaps should hear the news.

We were uncertain what to do next. It seemed very unlikely that either of us actually had the disease, and I suppose some righteous indignation or blank refusal to accept the results as valid would have been appropriate for a Pastor and their spouse. But…instead we were on our way to a Doctor that the tech recommended to speak on the matter further. The technician was extremely professional; he assured Miriam that everything was confidential. However, as we left the lab we observed that in the future medical testing should perhaps be separate from congregational members and Pastor’s son-in-laws.

After a few minutes with the Doctor, in a small two room office in an unmarked backside of a building, we could have gone straight on to the pharmacy, picked up vials of some absurdly strong penicillin cocktail and enough hypodermic needles to stick each other 8 times each - in daily alternating checks of course. We followed our rule of shopping, a corollary of which pertains to medical situations- before you start sticking each other with needles, stop, breathe, walk out of the office and talk it over for a little spell.

We also remembered we have other resources at our disposal. Pastor Dick is a gynecologist, and an American missionary living in Georgetown with whom we have exchanged pleasant conversation. With-in a hour of leaving the office we realized that we had had a barrage of medical tests before coming to Guyana in the first place, wouldn’t they have said something if we both had syphilis. Dick, of course, told us to get another test and he recommended a lab in Georgetown. Plus he said there were a lot of steps we should take before we started sticking ourselves with needles, which is, I think, really good advice in general. We were not completely excited about having to go get another test in Georgetown; the process would take the better part of a day. But until we did, and got a non-reactive result, we were now illegal aliens carrying a communicable disease. We realized that because of Miriam’s schedule we could either go the very next day or in two weeks. We decided on the next day. And we did relax when the next test turned out negative for both of us. Now we don’t have syphilis. Lucky for us. And we can get our visas. Or at least we can go to the next step of collating all of our paperwork and bring it to the ministry of health, which means going back to the New Amsterdam lab and asking for the stool sample results to be written on a separate sheet of paper from the positive STD test (we are playing rock, paper, scissors for the dubious honor of doing that task.) Oh, and get someone to read a chest x-ray. Then with any luck everything will go smooth in Georgetown and it will only take a day of queuing through government offices to get our visas. We are preparing to spend the night.

* * *

As I was hanging out the laundry today to dry on the line, a young mother and her child came to the gate. The standard practice in Guyana is walk up to the gate and shout out “Inside” until someone pokes their head out to see what the ruckus is all about. So following protocol the woman stood and said “Hello, Inside”. I asked her to come into the yard, while I finished hanging up a few shirts that were draped on my shoulder dripping wet, and then turned around to see what was what. I didn’t think I recognized the two, but it’s best to assume that they know me from somewhere. The mother asked if I could help her with the child with some money. I was unprepared today; thinking I was going to spend the day alone inside the house writing. I asked her to come into the house for a second while I thought of what I could give them. They followed me inside through the back door. I gave the little boy a copy of a Dr. Suess book. Picked it randomly from a pile on the couch. “Green eggs and Ham”- didn’t really catch that until after they had left. Then I gave her the remaining eggs in the fridge and some tangerines hanging in a bag. We didn’t have any prepared food in the house and I stood at the open fridge trying to decide if I should give her some beans or perhaps the remainder of a pineapple. In the middle of this the next-door neighbor woman came in a huff up to the front door. She asked to see me outside privately, where she told me that I wasn’t to let people like these into my house. I had broken protocol. I think it would have been proper to have them stand at the door, or maybe better the gate, while I did the searching. I said I knew, apologized to the neighbor, thanked her and she left. I saw her later in the day and she said nothing so I guess she is not mad at me, though at the time I was concerned that I had shamed the neighborhood or some such ridiculousness (or that she knew something more about these two hungry, crafty, dangerous? strangers than I did- I try not to think that way but it creeps in and I might as well admit it). I returned to the kitchen and put the pitiful eggs and tangerines in a bag and told the mother that was all I could do that day. One book, three eggs and four tangerines. I of course had money upstairs, but couldn’t get myself to leave them and get it, or thought I shouldn’t. Protocol, which we have decided on - don’t give out money at the house. Yet I could see this young mother looking at the contents of my refrigerator with need. Most likely this is why you are supposed to ask them to stay outside the gate. To be spared the feeling of discomfort that arises when you see your humble possessions become grand and overflowing in the eyes of someone without. I palmed the little boys head with a friendly touch and told him to have fun reading his book. “ I do not like green eggs and Ham. I do not like them Sam I am.”

A few nights ago, just as Miriam and I were sitting down for dinner another stranger came to the gate and asked for ‘Inside’. Turned out that she was a member of the mostly defunct Lutheran church next door to our house. The church still going on, still meeting weekly: without a pastor, with walls falling apart, glass missing from the windows, standing water all around. She had made us two elaborately embroidered pillowcases. We asked her if she would join us for diner and she hesitatingly agreed “just for a little moment”. Over dinner we learned of her life four streets away. Of her husbands death two years ago. How she has four boys in the house age 12-26. How they all live on her husbands pension supplemented by the occasionally work the older boys could find and her own needlework. She had almost left the country last year (gone ‘Outside’, they literally say), to start working as an embroiderer for someone in Barbados, when she had been informed that the person who she was going to be working for would have charged her more in living expenses (on credit of course) than they would have paid her and slowly she would have been trapped in the proverbial sweatshop. She had decided not to go. She was a great baker of breads and pies she said and was thinking that she would start to increase their income by baking a few items for the market each day. It was a long enjoyable dinner; she ate with great care, like my Grandma Smith- food on her plate long after Miriam and I had finished eating. Before she left I managed to put the left-overs (wonderfully named ‘Put- forwards’ here) in a container along with some candy canes and a Christmas stocking with money hidden inside. It was the 12th day of Christmas, our last gift exchange. Was it correct to put money in the stocking, proper protocal we wondered? Should we have even given money? She has since returned with a nice potted plant, a type of herb for cooking, as well as some yellow water coconuts. I saw her on the street and she teased me that she was plotting to bring by some more fruits, but didn’t want to let me in on the plot. Strange things we worry about, while others extend everything they have to offer even as they don’t know what the next day will bring.

A friend of ours has been married and living with her husband for over thirty years. In the last months they decided that he would go ‘outside’ to work in order to continue to support the family. His visa was suddenly, unexpectedly approved when he went to the capital to check on its status, and when that happens you go immediately. He boarded a plane the next day. She traveled to the airport to see him before he left the country, but the car she was riding in broke down and she missed his flight. Most likely they will not see each other for at least two years.

A parishioner of Miriam’s had us over for lunch last week, wherein she served an impressive feast of international fare. It was the most complicated meal we have eaten at someone else’s home, except perhaps the Christmas dinner we ate at Judy’s next door with the other American missionaries. We sat to eat it with her five grandchildren who live in the house with her and her husband, as well as at least one of their own children. I sit in the pew next to these granddaughters of hers in one of the worship services on Sunday morning. Sat down by accident on the first Sunday and found myself surrounded by little girls; I had chosen their pew. Now I hold the book with them and make them laugh with my singing. They help me get through service with their fidgeting and we make sly faces at each other. The grandparents built the house over the course of fifteen years when ever they could put away enough of his cane-cutters salary to construct the next wall. The other girl’s parents are living in other places, working and sending money back or unable to take care of their own children because they don’t have stable living conditions. One of their daughters is in the United States. Her mother can’t get a visa for a visit (mainly because the U.S. State department thinks, broadly, that since they are poor it wouldn’t just be a visit). The daughter is afraid to come back to Guyana, because she fears the crime targeted towards the returning Diaspora, and although she has proper papers she doesn’t trust that she will be allowed to re-enter the United States. They haven’t seen each other since she left twenty years ago.

In the market last Saturday, at Samuels stall I started talking to an elderly woman who I had exchanged pleasantries with a few times. We stood in the hustle of the shoppers holding hands and she told me that her grandson has just died. He went into the hospital with pneumonia and they not only cracked open his chest but sliced apart his abdomen as well. She saw him leave the operating theater with blood soaked bandages and blood coming out of his nose and then he died. It’s not exactly an isolated incident. I’ve heard about more wrongful deaths in the last half year than I’ve heard about in my entire life. We lamented together in the crowd. But her presence and bearing led me to ask about her other grandchildren. She would be putting her love into those even more now. And alternating between our acknowledgement of the inequality of suffering, we spoke of my brother and how that same week he had just had the first baby in the next generation of my family. Death and life accepted as accompanying each other, neither taking the sorrow from one nor removing the joy. I saw her yesterday in the market and we walked out together talking about the continuing world. Her daughter, whose child had recently died, had just had a little girl.

Judy, our next-door neighbor, had to perform another funeral for a suicide in the last week. Young men and women kill themselves at an alarming rate. They take poison. Often times they give poison to their children first and then take it themselves. Life is less uncertain than death to some it appears.

The government has dramatically changed the tax structure in the New Year. It is fairly chaotic in markets and at stores currently. Lots of arguments about prices. Nobody is sure if they are being cheated or not, nor who exactly is receiving the benefits. People with the least amount of money are the first to be adversely effected. It promises to be a rough transition. The opposition party has called for a national shut down to protest the government’s policies. It is hard to judge how likely it is to happen. People wake up every day unsure what the price of bread will be, or building materials for that next wall.


* * *

Last night, after teaching reading in the afternoon amidst the chaos of the school, I sat in Braks garden with his son and two other members of Conca Nya. They showed me more plants that I have never heard of before and I tasted more leaves and fruits and nuts. All the while 5-10 year old children were carrying old paint cans full of water they had gotten out of a broken pipe in a trench. They carried it, set it down to rest, picked it up again and walked on coconut husks and planks through the mud- only to return again for another load while the water was running. The men picked coconuts from high overhead using long poles, or scrambling up the trunk barefoot and shirtless forty feet off the ground. One man stood over the pile and chopped off the husks and cracked the shells with brisk, seamless motions of his sharp cutlass driven into the fruit cradled in his open palm. A slip would mean no fingers, but a slip was out of the question. Out of one of the coconuts came a fully developed heart, which is how the seed starts to feed itself. Apparently it is fairly rare to open one up fresh and they said it was a good sign. They gave half of it to me. The heart was spongy and super sweet, unlike anything I had had before.

I sat in Braks’ kitchen as he prepared food on a propane single burner. Occasionally a child prompted by his mother would come into the kitchen and ask for something to eat. Braks would give them an option of a papaya or a tangerine. The house filled slowly with neighborhood children of all ages, some watching a movie in the living room, some sitting in the dirt floor enclosed porch playing goatskin drums and singing, some continuing to collect water. Braks’ standpipe was working that afternoon suddenly; it hadn’t run for four days. We filled every available vessel and brought them into the kitchen. I wandered among the groups.

Two boys outside, who I had talked to before, taken pictures with, given magazines and books to hold in their own hands, asked me for money. Then the younger one asked me for a bike. I asked them how it had been that morning when the rains had come down hard for a long time. Our yard had been flooded, the streets standing water traps to leap over, the trench at Braks’ house overflowing into the garden and nearly swamping the little wooden bridge. I wondered if they had been under a zinc roof like I had been, and had the tremendous noise made the same impression on them as it had made on me. Their eyes opened wide when we talked about the sound. One said it had been cold. In a very clear, calculated voice the older of the two boys, maybe 11, said that if he had two tires and a chain he would have a bike. I asked him what he meant and we translated the size of the tires needed- I said I would see what I could do though I wasn’t promising anything. The younger one (maybe 6), sensing that something was going on, asked me for money again. I told him I needed ideas, plans. At the time I was washing off an elaborately carved sign depicting Guyana, it had become caked with mud and was lying on its side on the dirt outside the back door. I asked if they would make sure the sign stayed upright. I showed them a piece of wood I was going to carry home. It was an unfinished throwaway cutting from a sawmill- a thin piece of good hardwood, with a handle in the middle. They asked me what it was for. I said I was thinking of cutting it in half and carving one side into a sword with an enclosed handle, and the other into a cane.

The power started ebbing out and the water stopped flowing. I sat in the light of a single bulb singing for an hour with them; the drums were now the only entertainment. I got up to leave and in the dark outside my flip-flop got sucked down into the mud with a miss-step on a slippery plank and the break of the toe strap, which I had been waiting for, came. I went to look for the long stick I was thinking of carrying home and found that the boys had decided it was interesting after-all. Good for them. I’m not really a wood carver anyway, don’t need a sword anymore and thankfully not yet a cane; besides I doubt I could have managed the ride home. I negotiated the wooden bridge only plunging into the trench on the last step, not quite correct in my guess at where land started again. I pedaled home with one bare foot through the mud paths and then onto the darkened streets. The whole ride home, while trying to avoid those potholes that were known to me, I caught only flirtative glimpses of guessed at obstacles on the road ahead in the sporadic illumination of oncoming life. So I did what everyone can: I sang.

Never get weary yet
Never get weary yet
Never get weary yet
Been struggling down this road for a mighty long time but we
Never get weary yet

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