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A Vision of the Promised Land
Richard Rupnarain

Some people dream of a better life in a better place and wake up to the nightmarish realization that their dreams would never be realized. Such is deemed to be the fate of inmates in Dante's inferno.

Some dream of a "promised land" where peace, love, equality, justice and brotherhood would reign but the assassin's bullet denied them that privilege. Such was the fate of Martin Luther King, Jr. who never had the joy of seeing the beginnings of such change with his own eyes.

Still, others, aware that they will never enter the promised land, continued trying nevertheless because they had a vision of the land and the assurance that untold millions will reap the benefits of their untiring labours. Such was the fate of the Hebrew lawgiver, Moses, who was shut out of the land of promise but assured that his people will enter the land flowing with milk and honey, and persevered to the end.

In July 1995, Harry Lal, a morally upright young man from Diamond Estate, also had a dream of a better place. But unlike Dante's inmates whose promised land was Heaven, and Moses, whose promised land was Canaan, and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose promise land was a day of peace, equality, brotherhood and justice for all, Harry Lal's promised land was America, and his dream was for a piece of the American pie.

It all started when he passed his GCE exams and began to contemplate his future. He and his childhood buddy, Lionel Ramsammy, sat on the upper steps of the Ogle Community Centre with two beers on a humid Saturday and talked about what they wanted to do for a living. Lionel was a bright boy but never took his studies seriously and not surprisingly scraped through exams with grades that were not good enough for university matriculation. With few options left open to him in Guyana he decided to go to America, work hard, save his money and open a gas station.

Harry, on the other hand, was the academic type. He wanted to be an engineer at the sugar estate and surmised that if he completed his degree in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Guyana he was guaranteed a senior staff position with the estate with the usual “progs”. Then he would hang with the big shots at the senior staff club, get a Land Rover, a free house in a gated community, and special messenger and grocery services.

So Lionel went to America and Harry stayed in Guyana and pursued studies in Mechanical Engineering. Four years later Harry obtained his degree and the job he wanted, in addition to a huge house, a Land Rover, a club membership and all the other privileges of senior management personnel on the sugar estate. It was better than he had imagined. Naturally, one would expect him to be fulfilled and content, and he was, that is, until the moment when a shiny black Trans-Am decked out with a spoiler, cell phone antenna, and mag rims, pulled up in front of his home one sunny July afternoon.

It was Lionel’s first trip back home after he left the shores of his native land five years ago and the first person he called on was his best friend, Harry Lal. To say the least, Harry was awestruck when he saw the black Trans-Am in his driveway with a throng of excited children circling the car like vultures anticipating the demise of their prey. Only Guyanese big shots were able to afford a Trans-Am and Lionel not only possessed a Trans-Am, but he actually shipped it three weeks before his departure from America so that it would arrive in time for his vacation. He planned to use it to “paint the town red,” impress the local “binis”, and then sell it to cover the expenses of his vacation.

Harry descended the stairs slowly, absolutely mesmerized at the figure that emerged meticulously from the car. If the man on his driveway was indeed Lionel then America must be a magical place, he thought. The Lionel that left Guyana grew a beard, mostly out of laziness to shave, never combed his hair, sported a denture of misaligned teeth with two missing in front, and dressed gaudily. But the new and improved Lionel had undergone a Cinderellian transformation, sporting wrap-around sunglasses, tight-fitting Levi jeans and tee shirt, high top Texan-style leather boots, and a Travolta-like strut. Though he gained a few pounds his complexion was clean and the texture of his skin looked firm and healthy. This Lionel exuded confidence and sophistication, and was the antithesis of the person who left five years ago.

As he genuflected towards the gate he pulled at his leather jacket and passed a comb once over his slick black hair, then pocketed the instrument like a gun in its holster, and looked around to see if anyone noticed. Then he goose-stepped up to Harry, wrapped his arms around him and gave a big hug.

“Hey, hey, waz up, man?”
“Me deh.”
“Nice digs, man.”
“What you mean?”
“Nice house. So where’s the chick?”
“I ain’t got no girl yet.”
“Oh, that’s a shame, man. Here, see this baby here, guaranteed to get us some girls.”

Harry came out on the bridge for a closer look at the girl magnet. He had never seen a dash with so many instruments and gadgets and literally jumped out of his seat when Lionel cranked up the stereo and blasted a Jimi Hendrix eight track so loud that the vehicle vibrated at every beat of the bass guitar. He imagined himself at the wheel driving past Guyana Stores where all the young people hung out on the weekends and envisioned the looks on the faces of the fancy town girls who paraded around Hotel Tower and Moonsammy's Boutique. Lionel's suggestion snapped him out of his daydreaming.

“Go on, man, step inside and take her for a spin,” Lionel coaxed.
“You sure?”
“What do you mean if I’m sure? It’s just a car, man. Go ahead!”
"Where is the gear stick?"
"It's an automatic, my man. No clutch. Just put it in drive and give her some gas."

Harry buckled himself in the driver’s seat and drove around the block, slowing when he came in proximity of Seeta Budhram's house in the hope that she would be on the verandah. As fate would have it she was not on the verandah and his opportunity to show off was lost on some “pagaley” girls idling by the street corner. The engine roared whenever he depressed the accelerator, gauges moved up and down, a visual treat for race-car junkies, and the rhythm of Jimi Hendrix’ guitar pulsed in synchronicity with the engine. Yet, all the while he drove his mind was elsewhere. How could Lionel afford a car like this? What kind of job was he doing? How much money does he make? He purposed to find out discretely during their dinner at the Blue Saki restaurant off Regent Street.

Later that Friday evening they pulled up in the Demerara Mutual Life Insurance Company parking lot just a block west of the Blue Saki Restaurant. It was approaching six in the afternoon and by then most workers had left for the day. A few of the younger folks hung outside Matt's Record Bar trying to decide on the best hangout for a few beers. When they saw the Trans-Am pull into the parking lot the guys froze speechless and remained awestruck as if they saw an indescribable heavenly body. When Lionel emerged from the car the girls froze speechless as if they saw a heavenly body of a different sort. They knew from his demeanor, his air of confidence, his clean complexion, and his attire that he was from “out away”, and when he passed by and glanced over at them and smiled they giggled like school children. The guys on the other hand did not find anything about which to smile. The green monster and the black Trans-Am had already done their work. Nevertheless, just being seen with Lionel gave Harry a sort of elevation in status and he enjoyed the shared spotlight with the nonchalance of one who was accustomed to such ostentation.

The short trip from the parking lot to the Blue Saki restaurant provided more than welcome distractions. The prostitutes that hung out at the Oassis bar at the corner of Regent and Hinck streets recognized in Lionel a potential windfall and invited him for a good time for just $10 US dollars. Even Shakira, the homosexual, made his pitch for some action. He was prettier than the female “fare pickers” and the only evidence of his true identity was his muscular and hairy legs. Lionel smiled at them and strutted on, stopping briefly at a music store to check out the latest local releases. To Harry’s amazement he purchased a handful of calypso and reggae music. Before leaving for America Lionel hated calypso and all forms of West Indian music and listened exclusively to Jim Reeves and Indian music. Naturally, Harry felt a compulsion to ask what brought about the change in taste.

“I didn’t know you listened to calypso,” he said.
“Oh, yes! All coolie people in New York playing calypso, soca and reggae music, man.”
“Don’t know, man. Maybe it gives us identity or something.”

The Blue Saki Restaurant was patronized mostly by white-collar workers, and that evening it was jammed with employees from the surrounding offices, the usual Friday afternoon crowd that stopped in for a few beers and the restaurant’s famous Russian style chicken. When Buddy, the restaurant owner, spotted the slick foreigner beside Harry he came over, introduced himself and cleared a table for the two men. To appease the wrath of those in line Buddy told them Lionel had a reservation but they knew otherwise as they were well accustomed to seeing businessmen throw themselves over foreigners for a few American dollars.

That evening, as they awaited their Russian chicken dinner, they drank only Heineken, much to the envy of the men consuming Banks beer and much to the adulation of their girlfriends. After a few beers Harry felt the time was ripe to begin his inquisition.

“So, what’s been happening since you left? I remember you wanted to buy a gas station. How did that go?” Harry asked.
“Nah! Changed my mind. Too many gas stations in New York, man. One at almost every corner. Besides those guys make like two cents a gallon of gas, and for what? Every other day one of them is being held up by armed robbers. Too dangerous man.”
“So what do you do?”
“Oh! I work with mechanic chap from Corentyne. He got his own shop on 161st just a couple blocks west of Yankee Stadium.”
“You guys must be raking it in, eh?”
“I do okay, man. I make eight hundred a week, tax free. Got my own house in Bronxville and my Lincoln. Not bad for a guy with only high school education, eh?”

“That’s good money,” Harry confessed as he calculated the conversion rate in his head. The prevailing exchange rate on America Street in Georgetown was close to a twenty Guyana dollars to one US dollar. At that rate Lionel was making sixty-four thousand Guyana dollars a month. He, on the other hand, a qualified engineer with a senior management position was making twelve thousand dollars a month. He was more than shocked at the disparity between their earnings and lifestyle. With just an high school education and a basic mechanic job Lionel was able to buy a house, a Trans-Am, a Lincoln, stereo decks, fancy clothes and take vacations around the world every year. He, on the other hand, a qualified engineer could not afford those luxuries. Had it not been for his job he would not have had a house or a vehicle. He had worked and studied hard to reach the upper echelon in the sugar industry only to discover that men who flunked out of school and did menial jobs in America were able to maintain a higher standard of living than the upper middle class in Guyana. The obvious inequities between him and Lionel made him angry and right there at the dinner table that night he resolved to right the inequities. He was going to America!

The next few days with Lionel only intensified his resolve to migrate to America. Lionel took him to the finest restaurants, the hottest discos, and Harry noticed how differently people treated Lionel and how the girls went silly when he spoke to them with his South-Bronx lingo. As Lionel's vacation drew to a close Harry revealed to him his desire to go to America and Lionel gladly penned him an invitation which he could take to the US Embassy.

In fact Harry became so dissatisfied with his lot he could not wait for Lionel to leave and the day after Lionel departed he put together his papers and headed to the American Embassy on Main Street in the quest for a visitor’s visa. He had his bank passbook, letter from his employer, and the invitation from Lionel ready to show the consular officer as proof that he had someone who will take of him in America. As it turned out the consular officer was in a bad mood and that morning he denied every application for a visa. He never even asked Harry for proof of anything but simply told him he had no immediate family in America to support him during his stay. Lionel was friend, not family, the officer pointed out. He made two other attempts in the next three months but was denied a visa on both occasions. On his second trip to the Embassy he was told that they had issued their quota for the month and that he should try again the following month. When he turned up the third time he was told that as an unmarried person he had no binding ties to Guyana and would not hesitate to stay in America when his visa expired.

After the third rejection Harry felt like giving up in his quest for a visa to the promised land. But the more he thought about Lionel and the Trans-Am and the sophisticated life the more he became dissatisfied with his lot to the point where he could not concentrate on his work and began making elementary mistakes which in turn resulted in several humiliating reprimands from his boss. But it did not bother him because he could no longer bear the thought of the inequities that existed between him and others like Lionel who were less qualified and who were able to return home to much fanfare and royal treatment and had resolved that come hell or high water he was going to find a way to America.

So, nine months after his friend Lionel went back home he sold all his possessions and doled out all his savings to a local back-track contact person, the sum of ten thousand American dollars, and headed off into the South American jungles for a long and dangerous trek through Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico. He was amazed at how organized the back-track trade had become. They had guides, housing, transport, and rogue immigration officials in every country along the way to ensure a smooth and efficient journey. In fact he did not recall at any time having to speak to any immigration official or guide. He and the other four men who joined them on the way just followed the guides blindly but trustingly, hoping and praying all along the way that they were not involved in a scam that was intended to deplete them of ten thousand US dollars. After all they had no proof they paid the money as no receipts were given to them and they were not even privy to the names of their guides.

Three weeks later, bearded, blistered, sunburned, mosquito bitten, and much skinnier than when they left home, they finally arrived at the Mexican border to the south side of San Antonio, looking like the famished Nicaraguan guerillas they passed on the way. The temperature was unbearably hot and their insides felt like the sands of the Kalahari Desert. The only thing that kept them going was the sight of the promised land. America was less than a quarter of a mile away from the McDonald's restaurant at the border outpost where they stopped in for a drink and a last minute briefing. They could see the star spangled banner atop the Customs and Excise building fluttering viciously in the strong evening breeze and the ominous forms of US marines patrolling along the inspection booths. At nightfall when visibility was poor they were scheduled to cross the border along with thousands of other back-track groups and local chicanos who looked for work. Some of them would be caught by the guards, the guide warned, but most of them would make it to the waiting trucks. Those who were caught would be taken back on the next trip free of charge. As they waited at the outpost the Mexican guide gave them last minute instructions.

"Okay, amigos, vatch for zee seegnal. Ven you hear zee veestle, vamos! Follow me and zon't stop. If zey catch you, zon't worry. Zey will lock you up overnight and send you back home zee next day. But zon’t worry. We take you anozer time."

Harry could hear his heart beating as the hours ticked away. He was deathly afraid of being caught and sent back home. On the other hand his heart raced with excitement at the prospect of entering the promised land where Lionel was expected to be waiting for him in his Lincoln. From there they would travel non-stop to New York City where he would fasten his bib and get his knife and fork ready for a slice of the American pie.

That evening he and the others waited out the setting sun in silence, their eyes mostly affixed on the huge banner of stars and stripes that waved to them from across the border. Several hundred back-trackers had joined them during the day and while Harry felt safety in numbers he was extremely gratified to know that he knew none of them and that no one recognized him. Their milled around the entrance to the border crossing, mingling with the white American tourists who shuffled in and out of the little stores that lined the border town, buying crafts, souvenirs and other memorabilia. As he observed the modicum of the white tourists he once again mused on the pervasive inequities of life. Why were white people allowed to enter foreign lands and patronize their citizens while colored people were denied entry into their countries? Who determined the destinies of individuals? Why must some be born in a land of famine and drought while others revel in unearned bliss? He was equally disturbed at the sight of the vast number of children who should have been in school but were instead huckstering or panhandling on the streets. Hardship and the struggle to make ends meet was everywhere, even in the ambience of affluence, he thought to himself.

Then the huge iron bell atop the spire of the ancient Catholic Church began to toll. They all counted the beats. It was 9:00 p.m. The sun had almost disappeared but the huge searchlights, controlled by light sensors, were still off. The back-trackers took advantage of that small window of opportunity and marshaled their forces to the crossing.

“Okay amigos! Venga! Pronto! Pronto!” shouted the one they called Pablo.

The pacesetters were local Mexicans who made a profession out of being caught and deported. They ran headlong into the guards and allowed themselves to be caught and detained so as to buy time for the back-trackers to escape to the waiting trucks. In less than five minutes the Pamplonic stampede was over and, save for a handful of captives, they had all made it safely to the promised land.

Harry sat in a corner of the truck with his head bowed as the immigration official drove him back across the border. What were the chances of just one person being caught in a mob of a thousand charging desperados? And what were the odds that the one person had to have been him? Why was Murphy’s Law only applicable to him? Was it because only he knew of Murphy’s Law? Was ignorance that blissful? He began to wallow in self-pity and, like Job, began to loathe himself for his failure. He was an educated man who could definitely make a contribution to America but they refused him, three times thrown out the front door and once at the back, and allowed instead the riff-raffs. He was not a believer in predestination or in the fatalistic karmic unfolding of events, but that night, as he waited in the holding cell at the border station, he wondered if he was like Moses, destined to be shut out from the land of promise after having a prevision of its beauty.

Later that evening Pablo came to visit him at the local police station where he was being detained by Mexican authorities after being turned over to them by the U.S. border patrol.

"Amigo, you okay?" he asked with a tone of definite concern.
"Yes, but how do I get out of here?" Harry replied.
"I get you out, okay?"

Pablo disappeared for a moment down the dimly lit passageway where he met with and whispered a few words to a guard in khakis and passed him something that looked like money. Minutes later the guard came and opened the cell door and told Harry he was free to leave. Pablo was waiting for him in front of the station.

"Amigo, zon't be sad," he consoled, “I take you anozer time, just like I promise? Only one problema."
"What problem?" Harry asked with an air of expected resignation.
"You have to give me one hundred twenty American dollars."
"But all I have left is one hundred dollars. And I already paid you ten grand. This is robbery!"
"Amigo, eez no me fault you get caught. You run like senorita. You have to run like speedy Gonzalez. You no watch cartoon veet speedy Gonzalez?"
"Look! I don't know what you talking about and I still don't know why I have to pay you more money. When you said you will take me another time you did not say anything about more money!"
"Zis is true, amigo, but I can't take you back through San Antonio. I have to take you to Sasabe and pay coyote to take you into Arizona. Zis is why you have to pay zee money. Not for me, amigo, is for zee coyote."

Harry knew the coyotes were the professional smugglers and figured he had come this far he may as well go the distance. Reluctantly, he emptied his wallet into the outstretched hands of Pablo who began to salivate like a chihuahua as his bulging eyes followed each note as it made its way from his wallet to Pablo's eager palm.

"There! That is all I have. Now, where am I going to stay until Friday? I have no money and no food."
"Zon't worry, amigo. I take you to Altar and coyote take care of rest."
"Altar? Where is Altar?"
"Oh! Altar is zee little town where everybody meet before crossing border into Arizona. Come, let's vamos!

So they boarded a rusted truck with bald tires and a broken muffler, thirty of them in all, and headed out for Altar. Hours later they pulled up in front of a ramshackled old motel and were told to get off the bus. Pablo handed them over to the coyote, a severely sunburned Mexican who, with his huge sombrero, bloated stomach, and thick, dark handle bar moustache, looked like the split image of Fernando Sancho. The coyote counted each head as they disembarked the truck, settled his business with Pablo, and then ordered them to follow him into the motel.

The motel was a converted house, as were all the motels in the area, catering to the burgeoning demand for overnight stays by migrant groups. The house was extremely filthy and even the dim lighting could not conceal the garbage that littered the hallways or the cockroaches that scurried along the walls. The coyote told them they would be six to a room, three each on two triple-decker beds jammed into rooms that could not have been larger than eight feet long and six feet wide. Harry and his five roommates chose their bunks without saying a word to each other and after what seemed like an eternity among strangers the Mexican across from him lit a cigar and broke the silence.

"You no Mexicano, no?"
"No. I am from Guyana."
"Ghana? You no look like African!"
"No! Guyana, in South America, near Brazil and Venezuela."
"Ah! Benesuela? Si. Me have seester in Benesuela. She name Manuela. So you want to go America, no?"
"Where you go?"
"New York! Queens! Where are you going?"
"I go Minnesota. I have farm there, many years now, but I go home for Cinco De Mayo, and now I can't get eet back to Minnesota. But I try again! By zee way, me Ramon."
"I am Harry."
"Harry? Ah! Dirty Harry, no? I like Clint Eastwood."
"Yes. So what happens now?"
"We wait till coyote come. Nothing to do. If you want you could walk around town and get chiquita."
"I think I will go for a walk."
"Be careful, amigo! Los ninos pick your pocket. Pocos banditos!"

Harry was least concerned about the pickpockets as he had nothing left to steal. For the next three hours he wandered around Altar, continually amazed at the vast amount of people waiting for their chance to enter the promised land, some for the first time, but the majority, like Ramon, just trying to get back home after visiting relatives in Mexico. He observed the flow of human traffic, including young girls who were under constant escort of mean looking men. The girls seemed afraid. Harry estimated there must have been over five thousand people crammed into the little transient town, all waiting for the Friday blitz on the Sasabe border. As expected the hucksters took advantage of the unrelenting heat and exaggerated stories of death by dehydration to sell water, backpacks and salt tablets but their fervent sales pitches on him ceased abruptly when in exasperation he pulled out his pockets to show them he had no money. He returned to the roach motel and fell asleep out of dire exhaustion.

Next morning he awoke to discover that the coyotes had announced a sudden change in plans, after learning of a plot by the U.S. border patrol to beef up coverage for the weekend, and that they decided to make a surprise dash for the border during the night. He was sound asleep and did not hear the call for assembly and so was left behind. He looked around and could not believe his eyes. The town was virtually empty. Everybody save for him had left for the border and they were in all likelihood already in Arizona. He sat on a beer crate and cried, for how long he had no clue, but there and then he resolved that it was not meant to be and so he traded his watch and gold eagle band for a truck ride to the nearest airport.

The next morning a Mexican border official took him to a small airstrip and shipped him off to Venezuela in a cargo plane. From there he had to make his way home. While waiting at Caracas for a ride home he began to contemplate his position. He was now worse off than before he set foot on the perilous mission. He had no home, no means of transport and was ashamed to ask his employer back for his job. He thought about how people would perceive him if he returned home and he felt ashamed to face those he knew. As he debated his immediate future he heard something familiar, the sound of creolese coming from a middle-aged Indian man, a bag handler at the airstrip.

“Hey, buddy, you aright, bai?” he asked.
“Yes, yes,” Harry replied, "you from Guyana?"
“Yes, Berbice. You get ketch, eh?”
“Yes. How you know?”
“Oh! We have Guyanese here everyday bumming a ride back home. We got a cargo plane leaving leaving for Lethem this afternoon to pick up beef. I could get them boys to drop you off.”
“Thanks. But I don’t even know if I want to go back home. I have nothing to go back to. I give away all my clothes and stuff and used up all my money.”
“Listen, me understand. Same thing happen to me, my friend. After three tries I decide to stay here and work. I meet a lot of we country people here in Caracas. Most of them is people who get ketch and send back but they too shame to go back home. I get married to a coolie girl from Bush Lot. If you want to stay I could introduce you to some people.”
“But I have no place to go.”
“Don’t worry. You could stay with me til you find wuk. By the way, me name Jainandan. Them boys does call me Jai.”
So Harry stayed in Caracas and found work as a mechanic. He spent the first six months with Jai, his wife and Jai’s nani, Punwassie. One day when the old lady saw him looking depressed she attempted to comfort him.
“Shame a bend head but he na bruk neck,” she said to him in a gentle rebuke.
And when once he mentioned the idea of trying back-track again through Mexico she warned him against what she deemed was a foolish move.
“Caca-roach na gat business weh fowl cock deh,” she said, meaning that it was dangerous to go where you do not belong.

So Harry accepted his lot and within a year he was married to a niece of his good Samaritan friend, a brown skinned coolie girl named Sattie Gowkarran. Three years later they had two children and seemed happy and content with their lot. Harry had his own body shop, Sattie worked at a grocery and nani helped with the children and the housework. Harry meanwhile had found inner peace as he accepted the fate that some people will never have their dreams fulfilled, some will and some will at least have a portent of it. Nevertheless, he reasoned that he was better off than the inmates in Dante’s inferno who will never see heaven, or Martin Luther King, who never saw his promised land of peace, equality and brotherhood, or Moses, who though having a glimpse of Canaan was barred from steeping foot into the land. After all, even if it was just for five minutes of illegal occupation, he could boast to his children and grandchildren that he, Harry Lal from Diamond Estate in Guyana, once set foot on the promised land.

Richard Rupnarain formerly from LBI, Guyana, lives in Toronto, Canada. Email: