Monday, 16 February 2009

Rich man Poor man Beggarman Thief


He lives in an enormous house-cum-hacienda-cum-cum-loggia-cum-filmset. It's by the seawall, a couple of miles out of town. 'Seawall' conjures images of white beaches, cocktails, people relaxing, crashing blue surf. Here it's more like Belfast docks but hot- an ugly protective wall to protect the reclaimed land from the sea. Much of Georgetown lies a couple of metres below sea level. The Dutch did a good job, with dykes and cokers and a serious seawall, but even the Dutch have to admit to Canutish effectiveness when it comes to controlling the sea.
So his palace looks out on to a heavy, graffitied concrete barrier. As we walked in, a blast of Abba, followed by a visual image straight from Mamma Mia- about twenty attractive young people and children cavorting (yup, properly cavorting, bright laughter and all) in a figure-of-eight pool. Waterfall, fountains, underwater lighting, sound system blasting out "money money money"- and the choice of song is NOT poetic licence, I promise!
The couple were very hospitable, particularly the husband. He runs a large store here which is about to lead to a supermall (Guyana-scaled). He talked incisively about business, the international financial crisis, job creation, the Guyanese diaspora and alternative Caribbean models of development. His beautiful youngest daughter is a golden girl- uber-confident, courteous, attractive, happy. He is secure, slightly mercurial, expansive, an unselfconscious lord of the manor. His wife is prosperous, plump, envied, with a ready smile that I didn't see in her eyes. They were gracious to us. There was something slightly over-ripe about it all, but I might have been carrying that odour with me.
There is a government-run Amerindian hostel in a run-down part of Georgetown. Unless they have family in town, Amerindians (who live throughout the 90% of Guyana that isn't the coastal strip) stay there when they come to town. They live in large dormitories with no privacy, so theft is a big problem there. It costs 500-1000 Guyanese dollars a night- I have no idea how they afford this, as very little cash exists in the interior.
We strolled around uncomfortably, saying some hellos. The priest who took us thought our discomfort unreasonable. To me it felt like a trip to the zoo- a rather voyeuristic viewing. The lady who runs the hostel warmed up when I asked her about her own home. She's from the Pomeroon river, a rainforest community. I had forgotten that smiliness is rare on first meeting- I noticed that in November when I went south. The children were finding playthings in the concrete rubble and on the filthy choked creekbanks. It was the day after Valentine's, so discarded balloons were everywhere, being bitten, kicked and popped. The adults looked listless, or worse than listless. The zoo came to mind again- that lion, turning her back, too bored even to sleep.
A rastafari man lives on the pavement outside the presbytery. A striking man, tall, with very dark skin and a long ex-handsome face. The hair that is technically his glory is tied under a filthy old shirt, I think blue originally. He sleeps on 3 layers of cardboard. The older Jesuits usually give him dinner in a plastic tub. Sometimes he asks, sometimes he doesn't. Occasionally he has a camberwell carrot of a spliff, but most of the time, spliff or not, he is clearly in a world which is not the street outside Brickdam. He very rarely looks at passers-by as if they are separate from that world. He looked very straight and clearly at me once, but I have no idea what he saw.
Malcolm told a story at dinner. Thieves broke into the garden of the presbytery to break in the side door. The dogs were loose, so when the larger puppy leapt out they swiped its head off with a machete.
Four seasons in one day. I'd forgotten this feeling of immediacy that seems unique to developing countries. Please forgive me, I'm about to have a Portentous Moment! I think 'civilisation' blunts life and death. Maybe that's why in the west we're so bad at death. Sometimes I think we're not that great at life either.


  1. Sarah this is a fantastic blog, with wonderfully descriptive writing which gives us at least some idea of what you and B are experiencing, both externally and internally. As a reader, it makes me feel more connected to you and what you are doing. I hope it does the same for you as a writer. Keep it up please! :o)

  2. Having nagged to be able to comment, I'm finding myself really struggling to find anything to say, other than to echo 'what he said'. Thank you - your blog absorbing and thought-provoking. Especially when your daily decisions revolve around things like 'swede or carrot puree' and 'naptime before or after lunch'?