A Priceless Vacation
Guyana Journal, January 2007
Judging from the position of the overhead sun and the length of shadows being cast by the flagpole I could tell it was a little past noon. The temperature, even in the middle of December, must have been hovering near ninety degrees. And, unlike Toronto where I now live and where it is reported that a snowstorm of fifteen to twenty centimeters was on its way, here the skies remain steadfastly blue, with wisps of transparent white clouds floating imperceptibly westwards towards Venezuela. This was Guyana, the country of my birth, the land I departed from many years ago in search of a better life.
But now that I sit and stare at the scenery before me, I am forced to ponder whether or not I made the right decision to leave. The pastures always seem greener on the other side, they say, but allegory and proverbs aside, in all my years in Canada, and with all the money I spent on fertilizer, landscaping and lawn care, I have yet to see foliage, flora, grass, lawns and pastures so verdant and green as that which unassisted nature now displays before me. This truly is as our National Anthem says, Green Land of Guyana.
Before me are scores of coconut palms, growing everywhere, without pattern or symmetry, some reaching for the skies, and others leaning ominously over the riverbank The palms surround the resort like bodyguards, protecting the huts from the occasional wild inland gusts, filtering the air, and waving rhythmically as though welcoming visitors to rest in their shade. And some visitors, like the man in a broad-brimmed straw hat reclining on a green and white lawn chair under the shade of a hut with a novel in hand, have taken up its offer.
Undoubtedly, the attraction of this place is its quietude, its placid waters, and its primal ambience. Had it not been for the plastic kayaks and Plexiglas rowboats, crafts imported from abroad, and the television antenna rising above the main cabin, one would think that this place was insulated from civilization. Yet, such is the solitude we long for after months and years in busy metropolitan cities with bumper-to-bumper commutes, long and hectic workdays, and intermingling with cold and indifferent cultures at our workplaces. Here, however, we have the best of both worlds. If guests feel the urge to catch up with news from around the world they are not forced to wait until they return home. Looming over the main cabin was a tall, sprawling antenna that beamed in signals from communication satellites roaming the skies above.
The antenna, shaking in the wind on its long and slender one-inch galvanized piping, reminded me of the advent of television in Guyana and its arrival in our home. Our family was among the first in our village to erect an antenna in an attempt to snare signals from a local operator who appeared to be pirating signals from an American satellite. I still remember the excitement when we first erected the antenna and fed the cables through a hole we had punched in the roof. One person was on the roof, turning the galvanized pipe that supported the antenna while the others sat in front of the television, shouting instructions: turn left; turn right; a little bit back; a teeny bit more; hold it. I think I hear something. I am seeing something. Then the antenna holder would shout through the hole in the roof. Can you see anything? Is it working? Can I come down now? When we said yes, he scaled down the ladders from a forty-foot height without any assistance because the ladder holder had left his station after he heard the commotion in the house. Both men raced into the living room and joined us and we watched, in awe, hypnotized by the black and white bubbles called snow that filled our color television screen. When we heard something faintly resembling voices we straightened up like cobras about to strike. The sounds, though screeching horribly like microphone feedbacks, got our attention and we strained our ears to decipher the broadcast as if aliens were trying to reach us with a planet saving communiqué. After fiddling with the tuner we were finally able to snatch periodic black and white appearances of what appeared to be the then popular game show, Tic-Tac-Toe hosted by an affable gentleman named Martindale. We strained our eyes and ears until we began to see streaks, like lightning bolts, flashing periodically across the screen.
It was then that we leant about scrambling of signals. The local operator had begun to scramble the signals because he had come to realize that little buccaneers like us were raiding his booty. But we were not to be deterred. Already sweetened by the sounds and sights of the treasure that lay in that magical box called a TV, we eventually found someone who had begun to make a decent living by hooking up homemade descramblers. A week after our visit to his home we had a makeshift box and were beaming in signals in color. Imagine the ecstasy of having Dallas and Dynasty and Falcon Crest and McGyver and game shows and news and HBO and Showtime and TBS and Wrestling with Hulk Hogan and the Junkyard Dog, when prior to this the only entertainment was bumper ball and obsolete movies at bug-infested cinemas. Overnight we became the place to be and night after night our living room was filled with friends, family and neighbors who wanted to share in the magic of television. We, the boys, even had our chores done for free, by coercing neighborhood kids to wash the car, clean the yard, feed the chickens, and so on, and this they did for the price of free admission to see McGyver and Sidekicks and other teenage series that played on Saturdays.
Today there are countless cable and satellite providers, offering hundred and even thousands of channels for ones viewing pleasure. The antenna above the resorts main cabin beamed in news, sports and entertainment from America. From CNN to HBO, from Wrestling to Sports Center, everything could be found to keep guests current while they were away from home.
The placid river that ebbed in front of me was about eight hundred meters wide in some places and even wider in some areas. It was the mighty Essequibo River, the longest river in Guyana, and the largest river between the Orinoco and Amazon, measuring some six hundred miles in length. The river's name is said to come from an Arawak word meaning "hearth-stones, perhaps a reference to the Arawak custom of collecting stones from the rivers banks for their firesides. Sourced in the Kamoa Mountains on the Brazilian border, the river flows north to the Atlantic Ocean through forest and savanna, producing countless rapids and waterfalls, and eventually meandering its way through an estuary filled with islands. Many tributaries feed the River, including the Rupununi, the Potaro, the Mazaruni, the Siparuni, the Kiyuwini, and the Cuyuni rivers. It finally empties into the Atlantic some thirteen miles from Georgetown. The entrance to the river is heavily silted but once over the bar the river is navigable as far upriver as the town of Bartica some fifty miles from the mouth. There are three hundred sixty five islands in the river. The largest three, Leguan, Wakenaam, and Hogg Island, split the channel for a distance of twenty miles from its mouth. Off the middle of Hogg Island, on the eastern side, is Fort Island, the seat of Government of the country during the Dutch colonial era.
In the water before me a white couple (they could be Portuguese but I couldnt tell as I could not overhear their speech) were splashing each other jovially with the cool water. The Portuguese was the only Guyanese ethnic group that was hard to distinguish abroad. They were serendipitously fused into the white groupings so that even other Guyanese would pass them on the street without knowing they were part of the Guyanese ethnic mosaic. In all likelihood this couple was here on one of those vacation packages so heavily advertised in North America to lure Guyanese back home for the holidays. The man was big and round and from the back he looked like a ringer for Jackie Gleason. He was wearing a black and purple body-fitting suit like divers wear in the Olympics, or so it seemed, for as I come to think of it, with his size any suit would be body fitting.
The water was dark brown but strangely I could still make out the reflection of clouds on its surface. With the overhead sun beating down, the surface of the water had the appearance of corrugated glass. It had a brooding serenity and had it not been for this being a resort I would be reluctant to enter in. I had been to the Camuni Creek, with waters just as black, and had heard stories of how big black Caymans attacked and killed swimmers and fishermen. When it wasnt the Cayman it was a Camoodie, the indigenous constrictor. Still, in a place like this I will not venture far from the shore but will remain where my feet are on solid ground and where my chest is above water.
The fat man held the woman in a half-Nelson chokehold, had a fistful of the dark water cupped in his hand and her mouth pried open with his free hand. I imagined he was saying, Drink! You said you had to come back here because you missed the labba and black water. Well, here is some black water. Drink! The woman resembled him, even from the back, and could certainly pass for his sister. But I would wager that they were husband and wife. After years of marriage husbands and wives begin to look alike. So I am told. For me this is good news. My wife is a good-looking woman.
I watched them frolicking like newlyweds and I thought about all the people who wanted to migrate to the developed countries, the young men and women who queue up daily outside the American and Canadian embassies, hoping and praying for a visa, any visa, for one day visit if possible. They were unwittingly trading a provincial life for a stressful one. Most of them live here without debts and credit. Indeed, most are without cars, without televisions, and without name brand clothing and equipment. But they own mortgage free houses, eat fresh meat and vegetables, play in open pastures, live in communities that watch out for them, and breathe unpolluted air. Here, coexistence with the rest of creation could hardly be that far removed from life in Eden. But now they brave thunder and lightning to get to Georgetown to secure a visa for lifetime mortgages and unending car loans, for long commutes and road rages, cold winters and humid summers, hermetic communities and indifferent neighbors, overt racism and covert discrimination, frozen foods and TV dinners, jobs for which they are overqualified and remuneration that is half of what is paid to whites, quality time with family traded for fantasy television. Sure there is a trade off in every decision we make. But who can measure the opportunity cost of leaving ones birthplace for a strange land? And who can compute a cost-benefit analysis to determine which is better? Then again, who cares for such analyses? Those who look across the fence never appreciate what they have. They see only what they do not have. And who dare to try and convince them otherwise? Those with a point of reference can reduce the number of variables in the equation but few would dare to try for they know the response all too well: you are trying to keep us down, or back, or in the dark, or from having the opportunity to stand on equal economic footing. So, reluctantly, you allow them to experience it for themselves.
But frankly, I miss this place. I hate to admit it but I miss this place. I miss the simplicity of its lifestyle, the hospitality and unpretentiousness of my people, the flora, fauna and its proximity to natural creation. I miss its smog-free air, acid-free rain and preservative-free foods. I miss its assorted fresh fruits, fish and vegetables. I miss homemade drinks and snow cones on a hot summer day. I miss the rich dialect and the wake-house stories. I miss sitting out late at night by the culvert and shooting the breeze with the boys. But I cannot return here to live. Life has become too complicated for me, as it is for most immigrants whose children are born and raised abroad. This is not their home and they could never feel the kind of kinship to this land that I feel. So, like the children of Israel who sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept when they remembered Zion, I too will remember these cool, dark waters and ponder the unknowable outcome of a life that had never left its shores.
A lone Golden Arrowhead flutters lazily beside the ramp that leads to waterfront. The colors were bright and the pattern unmistakable red, green, white, yellow, and black. Strangely, I could still recall the meaning and significance of the colors and design of the national flag from my social studies classes in elementary school. The arrowhead along its middle signifies Guyana's journey into the future. Coincidentally, it was pointing north, perhaps indicating where most thought the future lay. It was set on a green and red background with narrow white and black strips along the sides of the arrowhead. The five colors were also seen as symbolic to the country various assets: green for the agriculture and forests; gold representing the country's mineral wealth; red for the zeal of nation-building; black border, depicting the people's endurance; and white symbolizing the natural water potential of the country. The design and colors of the flag that replaced the Union Jack of its colonial past had already been chosen during the period of the PPP Government from entries submitted through an international competition. An American, Whitney Smith, submitted the winning five-colored design and the name chosen for the independent nation that of Guyana was chosen by a select committee appointed by the House of Assembly in 1962.
As I beheld the flag fluttering gently in the breeze I could not help but overhearing the National Anthem playing in the background. For me, the two always went together, like Siamese twins. Reverend Archibald Luker wrote the Anthem, Green Land of Guyana, and Cyril G. Potter, a prominent Guyanese educator and musician, set the words to music. What a glorious day it was, Thursday, 26 May 1966, when Guyana became an independent nation. Public buildings and business places were brightly decorated with streamers and buntings bearing the colors of the Guyana flag. Cultural performances took place at the National Park, attended by thousands of dignitaries, including the Duke and Duchess of Kent who represented Queen Elizabeth, and representatives of foreign governments. At midnight a somber ceremony took place. The Union Jack, the symbol of British colonial rule for 163 years, was lowered and this new flag, the Golden Arrowhead, was raised to the top of the mast. When the flag was at the pinnacle of the pole fireworks began to light up the skies. Next day the State Opening of the Parliament of Guyana took place, preceded by a military parade accompanied by much pomp and pageantry.
Interestingly, even as we reveled in our freedom they were others who were threatening our territorial integrity. This holiday resort and its Golden Arrowhead are located on territory in dispute with between Venezuela, our neighbors to the west. At Independence, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Iribarren Borges, acknowledged that his government recognized the territory of the new State but only as that which is located on the east of the right bank of the Essequibo River, and that the boundary between Guyana and Venezuela ran through the middle line of the Essequibo River, beginning from its source and on to its mouth in the Atlantic Ocean. This meant that Venezuela was laying claim to almost seventy percent of the countrys landmass. We had already lost to them some land in the North-West District and a good portion of the Cuyuni Basin when the Tribunal of 1899 gave them a portion of the land demarcated inside of the Schomburgk Line. In a similar fashion, our neighbor to the right, Suriname, a former English then later Dutch colony, was also making claims on territory south of the Corentyne River, an area known as the New River Triangle. As of now the issue is at rest, albeit having a doze, perhaps waiting for the discovery of oil or precious minerals.
A lone volleyball net stood between the main cabin and the waters edge. The American tourists made the most use of it. They came out to play but only when the sun was up and the temperature was at its highest as they wanted the dual benefits of tan and exercise. The tan was most coveted. It effaced the ghostly paleness from their bodies and elicited envy from fellow workers back home. Visiting Guyanese, on the other hand, waited until the sun was down before venturing out. They were already tanned from birth. But what caught my attention was the crystalline white sand in which the poles for the net were driven. For a moment I thought the sand was transported here. After all, I was accustomed to seeing brownish sand and muddied waters along the Atlantic coast where I grew up. Then I remembered that these areas were much higher than the coastlands and that the weathering of the crystalline rocks of the Guyana Shield that penetrated this region brought the white sand that is characteristic of the interior. The Dutch settlers had found that while the white sand facilitated construction of sea defense and drainage systems the soil was not as fertile as that on the coastal plains and that posed a challenge for their agricultural ventures.
Along the ramp to the rowboats an Amerindian woman was sweeping dust and fallen leaves into the water below. Five young children stood by watching her as though they were her supervisors doing an on-the-job inspection. This was not unusual for Amerindian families. Statistics show that Amerindian birth rates are the highest of all ethnic groups, as are birth rates among the poorest classes of society, where children are the only form of life insurance and where women have few options to limit childbearing. The woman had her head down as though she was concentrating ardently on every speck of offending dust. Even from afar I could see that her eyes had that hollow look, as when one sleeps with eyes opened. It was hard to imagine what she was thinking about. Come to think of it no one seems to care what Amerindians are thinking about. I was brought up to see them as an inferior race, barbaric and docile, with the Buck Man being an allegory for stupidity, and one who displayed boyish giddiness at something mesmerizing being likened to a Buck Man coming to town. It did not help my perception of them when I entered High School and on the first day of assembly the principal introduced the Amerindian scholars, and later I was told that they were boys who were admitted with lower marks in some form of affirmative action for indigenous peoples. This woman belonged to one of the indigenous Amerindian groups but I could not tell whether her ancestry was Warao, Arawak, Carib, Wapisiana, or Arecuna groups that inhabited the forest areas. They were rarely seen in the populated coastal areas although a few have intermarried with blacks and East Indians.
Like aboriginals everywhere, the native Amerindians, fooled by the promises of protection and mutual trade, also had their lands taken away and their people exploited by the conquistadors and later by colonist powers. This was their country and no one asked their permission to come and settle here. Nowadays they must fight for land that was theirs. What is hardly known by most Guyanese is that colonists enslaved many of the Amerindians. In fact, this colony of Essequibo was the centre of an Amerindian slave trade prosecuted by the Carib nation and mostly managed by Surinamers from the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Caribs were integral in securing slaves for the Dutch, just as African tribes were instrumental in feeding the slave ships with human cargo for the British colonies. But their actions were necessary to their survival as a race. The Spaniards were rounding them up from both sides of the Orinoco and confining them in missions and they had little choice but to seek Dutch assistance to defend themselves. Eventually then saw their continuing survival as bound up with the maintenance of the Dutch plantation system in the Guianas and reluctantly remained in alliance with the Essequibo authorities, monitoring the frontiers of the colony for them and watching the plantations. The Dutch also used them to attack the Jesuit and Capuchin missions on the Orinoco that were seen as a Trojan horse for Spanish penetration in the region. The Amerindian slaves endured much the same brutal conditions as their African counterparts. The women were made to work in the bread gardens and cassava fields and their labor proved to be essential to the survival of the infant colony given the small number of early Dutch and Africans settlers. They supplied foodstuffs to the plantations, especially salt fish rations for the slave population, and the Europeans depended on them for a range of other commodities such as hammocks, corials, balsam copaiva and annatto, the red-orange dye the Dutch used to color cheeses. When they were finally freed the colonizers turned to Africa for replacement labor. Interestingly, the freed Amerindians became the policemen for the new labor force slaves from Africa. And when the African slave trade came to an end in 1793, the freed slaves became plantation policemen for the new labor force the indentured laborer from India.
The Amerindians that I had become acquainted with all seemed very passive, almost docile and stoic as if they were confused by modernity. But their history bespeaks a nation not so docile and not easily suppressed, and not so stoic. In fact, Catholic missionaries found them to be a jovial and fun-loving people. These days, however, there wasnt much for them to smile about. Just like African slaves did, the Amerindians fled from plantations as soon as opportunity presented itself. And just as Amerindian slave catchers returned black runaways, Carib slave catchers brought back Amerindian runaways. Amerindians also took part in uprisings, most notably in the 1687 revolt in Berbice.
Loitering beside the gazebo were two Amerindian teenagers. What was striking about these young men was their bearing and attire. Even though I had seen Amerindians in Georgetown and was aware of the fact that many of them had become acculturated with city life, I still had etched in my mind the picture of people in loincloths carrying blowpipes and arrows. But it was clear that western culture had begun to invade the interior and its peoples. These young men were dressed in Nike and Tommy Hilfiger apparel and wore watches and gold rings. And unlike the typical Amerindian whose locks were dark and straight and cascaded across the circumference of their scalps, like Larry from the Three Stooges, these two young men had hairdos and sideburns like Elvis Presley. Even the young girls who followed after their mother were dressed in Tees with name brand logos emblazoned across the chest and had their hair held in scrounges and bejeweled clips and multi-colored ribbons.
As expected, external influences had not only contributed to a change on attire but also to the changing dynamics of their village life. The younger people, especially, began to measure status and success by the amount of consumer goods they acquired and unfortunately this meant a de-emphasis on subsistence agriculture. Many of them, aware of the power of money, had gone off to mining operations in the interior and had left their families behind.
Bundles of freshly cut cassava lay on a table beside a shed on the south side of the main cabin where most of the cooking took place. Cassava comprised the staple diet of the Amerindians, supplying them with necessary carbohydrates. They obtained their protein mainly from fish but also from wild meat. Lately their source of fish had been drying up due to the destruction of the rivers by heavy-duty earthmoving equipment and by the poisoning of the waters with toxic chemicals such as cyanide and mercury. With the virtual non-existence of potable water they had been forced to glean their supplies from creeks and rivers but these too had come under threat of pollution due to the rapid growth of resource extractive industries. Approximately 85 per cent of the Amerindian population falls below the poverty line, but considering the resources available to them, this should hardly be the case. As of now, sixteen percent of the land mass had been titled to them. The title allows them to fish, farm and hunt on the land, and to exploit timber for commercial purposes. The forestry reserves under their control could sustain them for generations.
At the back of the cabins, leading into the forest, was an overhead ramp, like a suspension bridge, from where tourists could chance upon sightings of the elusive Jaguar. The forest was rapidly gaining international reputation for its healthy jaguar populations that seemed not to be troubled by the appearance of curious humans. From this vantage tourists could overhear the unearthly cry of howler monkeys echoing through the trees. And if they lift their eyes to a clearing in the forest canopy they might see the awesome Harpy Eagle, just one of the more than seven hundred species of birds that are indigenous to this land. Presently the skies overhead appear colorful, with flashes of scarlet, yellow and blue, as a contingent of macaws make their way home. The large and brightly colored macaws provide feathers, especially the tail feather that may grow up to forty centimeters in length, for the colorful headdresses worn by the Amerindians and other Amazonian tribes. Amerindians believe that those who dress in feathers may gain spiritual strength and protection and are likely to emulate aspects of the behavior and appearance of the bird whose feathers they wear. The Akawaio and Waiwai men are far more elaborately adorned with feathers than the women. In fact, collecting feathers is like collecting trophies. A male suitor, for example, will try to impress his potential wife and her family with his skills as a hunter by showing off his vast array of feathers at social occasions and ceremonies.
As I gazed on the red and green and yellow macaws heading south my mind wandered back to the days of Millie the macaw, that represented this country at the Expo 67 fair in Canada. Unfortunately for us, Millie did not embody us well, in the sense that she did not represent all of us. In fact, Millie represented only our immoral side. She had nothing to say about us just winning independence from the British but instead rattled off every known swearword in the Guyanese lexicon. And that took quite a while to complete. Some post-Expo 67 analysts blame Millies embarrassing string of expletives on the workmen who built the Guyana booth. This theory sounds plausible when one considers that hammers, nails and fingers have combined to produce some of the most colorful phrases in any language. As soon as the exhibit was declared open, Millie opened her beak and shocked would-be admirers with an outburst that would make Richard Pryor feel like a saint. Unfortunately for Millie, the international community was not yet as desensitized to immorality as they are today and so she was judged and deported from the country. It was a day of infamy for us. Our ambassador was deported for excessive and mindless swearing while her teachers were spared. Millie came back, not kicking and screaming, but cursing and swearing, repeatedly, all the way home.
Just as my mind was beginning to wander about what became of Millie after she retuned home in disgrace, I felt a hand upon my right shoulder. It was my blond haired, blue-eyed Canadian boss. He spoke softly. You know, you have been staring at that picture on your wall for the past half hour. You like that place, eh? And I replied, Youve got that right.
Guyana, I presume?
Yes, how did you know?
My wife has relatives there and I even know some of the words you guys use. But tell me, why would you want to go back there? I hear there is a lot of trouble and violence going on.
I know, but I have a problem.
What is that?
I drank its black water and ate its labba.
I see. Now thats a problem, isnt it?