Friday, 20 February 2009

A walk with Shivani and Camilla

I have to admit that I'm a curmudgeon of a cowardy custard. Given a choice between a new experience or hiding with a book, I turn the page with relish and carry on reading.

So when B shouted up the stairs- "em... we've got visitors!", my unalloyed delight was preceded by a smootering of reluctance. I was beautifully ensconced on the balcony of our little wooden house in Berbice. The sea breeze was blowing through the coconut palms and the solid metal security grille. The sun was just beginning to set on the ramshackle ravishing wooden baba yaga house that filled our view. I was engrossed in Gerald Durrell's "Three Singles to Adventure", telling of his animal-collecting escapades/ escapology in Guyana in the 1950s. Would I be stupid enough to trade my own 21st century adventures for a vicarious trip through someone else's, fifty years ago? Almost certainly.

With confident shouts of welcome, two girls bounced up the stairs. Shivani and Camilla are daughters of the night watchman. They are both tall and beautiful, and speak with strong Berbice accents. They had come to take us out for a walk, so out we went. No prevarications. We went first to their house. On meeting their super-friendly mother, we realised they didn't have strong accents after all. We also met the puppies, four little labradors (roughly) a few days old, eyes still shut.

Then we strolled through the back streets of town. Berbice is a backwater, with the positive connotations of that in the ascendant. A lot of locals have been here for generations and wouldn't consider leaving. Like anywhere in coastal Guyana, everyone has some relatives overseas, mostly in the US and Canada. Estimates put as many as 1.5 million Guyanese overseas, with only 780,000 in the country. In Georgetown it seems that one or two members of each family remain, with a diaspora of tens or twenties. Here people seem more rooted, more settled, contenter.

As we walked, Camilla paired up with B, Shivani with me. We two talked about family, about devils, about caimans in the ditch on the way to school, about what makes a beautiful house (Shivani= concrete and a few Disney touches, a turret perhaps; Me= wooden, on stilts, carving round doors and windows). Naturally enough, I liked old, she liked new. I liked character, she liked modernity. By the end of the walk, she was hitting me every time I liked the 'wrong' house.

She is the bigger talker, and she and Camilla agree that she's socially more comfortable, more extrovert, better at making friends. She seems oblivious to how much easier her character and looks make life for her, and to how this conversation would feel to Camilla. Camilla, on the other hand, listens with ease and interest. It is very hard to believe she is only 13. She talked about drink problems in the area, about religion, about her studies.

We got back at sunset. The frogs were beginning to sing, and Maddie the parrot went back into her cage. We had curry and roti with the Jesuits and then retreated to our shell, our little wooden haven. It's funny- people think we do these radical travels because we're intrepid. Actually, it's because we're not. We'd both be couch-potato, lazy, sociability-avoidance, channel-flicking sloths if we let ourselves! Hence the two singles to adventure.

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