When we lived in China, I had to report in at the police station whenever I wanted to leave town. We needed a residence permit, a foreign expert’s permit and a work unit permit, as well as a passport. There was no question of driving licences. So when people told me that it would be a slow and frustrating process getting our documents sorted out here, I had the picture in my head. Dirty concrete offices. Grumpy power-hungry petty bureaucrats. ‘Queues’ in which you were the only person not bunking. A smart angry young woman who wanted to rule the world but only ruled the photocopier and was taking out the discrepancy on you. A million forms, all in Chinese characters, which must be thrown away if you made a mistake. Time spent, time wasted, time for a stiff brandy by the time you escaped.
We got our driving licences yesterday. The office was clean and cool. We sat on a pleasingly local-made hardwood bench. A courteous and efficient young man dealt with our documents, handed them back with a smile, stamped and filled out our temporary certificates and waved us out. It took ten minutes. Today, we went for our TIN number registration (like an NI number). If anything it was even better- we were dealt with in a brisk friendly manner by a small friendly man. Numbers allocated, we left with our smart colourful certificates in fifteen minutes flat. I cannot begin to imagine being treated so well by officialdom as a foreigner in Britain.
So, with unexpected free time, we went to the zoo. It’s about twenty minutes walk from Brickdam along one of the main roads. When I say ‘main road’, I don’t mean pavements, or verges, or a bearable surface, I just mean central. Georgetown has a peculiar ability to look chaotic and bustling and half-empty all at once. Similarly, it feels like a backwater, an urban hub and a frontier town rolled into one.
The sun was full power, making the canals smell strongly of rotting papaya. I don’t stroll in this heat- I trudge. The zoo is set in a surprisingly beautiful garden- it remembers its glory days much more clearly than most of the town does. The small trees are full of egrets, perched evenly like white fluffy flowers; the tall palms are full of macaws screeching indecorously. They have no restraint, macaws. They hang out their dirty laundry and family feuds for the neighbourhood’s participation. They should all be called Frank. In fact, there is a giant rodent in the zoo called John (species, not pet name).
Zoos are poignant places. The weeping capuchins looked so despondent that I got mournful in solidarity. The African lion had despaired long ago. The jaguar looked a little happier but not exactly wild. But perhaps the most incongruous were the harpy eagles. The cages are pleasantly leafy, but so small that the largest eagles in the world cannot extend their wings at all, let alone flap them. The macaws in their huge enclosure were making all the protest on behalf of their more reserved neighbours. B took photos, I indulged in pleasant melancholy with the monkeys and our friend Paul viewed us and them with his usual quiet amused reserved benevolence.
We strode (only joking- trudged) back home along white hot roads, via Regent Street. This is Georgetown's main shopping street. Not a tree in sight, which is unusual here. Open square manholes, so watch your step. Hardware shops, clothes stalls with the same items (mainly stretchy low-cut nylon), grilles through which your item is passed, concrete, smiling and generally un-pushy shopkeepers. Small stalls of polystyrene cases with lukewarm fizzy drinks. A coconut stall if you're lucky. They machete off the top and carve the lid into a scoop, so you drink the milk with a straw and then eat the meat. By the time we got home to Brickdam, I was dazed with the heat and exhausted with the walking. I climbed up to my much-loved eyrie of a bare boarded bedroom and poured myself over a chair to re-set under the soothing influence of the fan. I wonder when I'll get used to the heat? x