There is a fantastic poster irony at the Aishalton Administration Building. It is an information flyer for the National Post Office. It advertises their wonderful range of services, and gives new postal rates, with a phone number below to find out more. It is carefully laminated, and displayed in the lobby of a town with no postal service and no telephones, landline or mobile. I seem to be the only one who chuckles.
When I was in primary school, I remember a short story about the Pony Express. I’d always had an instinctive pro-Indian bias in the playground games: injuns seemed to breathe a musky potential, whereas cowboys evoked gung-ho cloddishness- what B would call ‘seat-up kind of guys’. But this was different. The wild but controlled dash to get news to the farthest reaches. Sensible derring-do, that seemed laudable; American rugged individualism, the hard graft of the American Dream.
There’s an element of the Cowboy Express in the system here. Every vehicle becomes a post van, every motorbike a Rupununi Courier. We all carry what we can, and most items seem to arrive at their proper destination too. You may remember that Guyanese post is fraught with trauma; this is much simpler. Under the ‘proper’ post, friends from here cannot pick up a package for us in Lethem, the nearest post office, even if they have a letter from us authorising them, so picking up a ‘proper’ parcel would cost us ten hours in time and probably $10,000 in fuel. On the other hand, under the informal Rupununi Courier System, people trust you with fragile and terrible responsibilities, most of them not sealed. I haven’t been asked to carry a baby yet, but it’s certainly not out of the question.
Travelling round the villages in recent weeks, we have had our first proper experience of being Rupununi Couriers.
From Karaudarnau we return with a package for the District Education Officer, two important handwritten forms for the church, of which of course there are no copies, and a splitting black plastic bag of clothes (with a treat of cream crackers peeping out) for Roy’s little daughter at Aishalton Secondary.
From Dadanawa we collect a small box for a patient in Aishalton hospital, and a young Amerindian man in need of a lift.
At Achawib, the headteacher hands me a $1000 note to give to his daughter who is in my choir, with strict instructions to buy flipflops with it, NOT snacks. We also bring back one small boy for the school, and one large and quite new Brazilian bicycle which a woman had borrowed to cycle from Aishalton to Achawib with her baby on her front in a sling- a whole day’s journey.
The least straightforward errand is at Sand Creek. We have been asked to bring back a photograph of a boy who was operated on for his cleft palate in January. He was due back to the hospital for a check-up some months ago, but how can parents even consider the expense and complications of the seventeen-hour journey when it’s not an emergency? Little Peter Jacobs comes out of nursery school with his teacher, takes one look at B and bursts into the most heart-rending sobs.
Peter waiting to be dragged away
We had not stopped to think, but B looks (very, by local standards) like the R.A.M pilot who took Peter away from his Mummy those months ago. He naturally deduces we have come to take him away. I could kick myself hard for a thoughtless idiot. B had the brilliant idea of getting all his classmates out for a group photo, so he slowly recovers his composure. I suppose I now have a glimpse of what it’s like to serve a subpoena. (I speak to his mother, who says that the scar does not pain him much, but when he eats hot food it leaks through the little hole at the top of his scar, under his nose, and hurts him). We eventually leave without Peter, but with several photos and a flatbed full of coconuts.
Peter reconciled, looking most fetching in my hat
It all sounds rather charming; a kind of grapevine-cum-underground railroad-cum-giant family. And often it is. But think how much power resides with the vehicle owners, who already had the clout of money behind them. If I was a local person, I would struggle sometimes, having to place my trust and my urgent errands in someone’s hands simply because they have more power than me already. It’s a place where rights are not sufficient. What use is it to me if I have rights to freedom of information and freedom of movement, but not much possibility of either? The Rupununi Couriers carry a big responsibility, whether they are conscious of it or not.