Friday, 27 February 2009

Granny, 72, fights off AK-47 bandits

The newspapers here make depressing reading. Every day violent burglaries, murders, muggings, perpetrators skipping bail and complex, detailed, persistent domestic violence jostle for space on the front pages of both the Stabroek and Kaiteur dailies. So this headline bellowing from the front of the Kaiteur News leapt out and grabbed us. And by 'us' I mean all of us- though with an interesting spread of reactions. Desiree, Angie and Patsy, the lovely Brickdam domestic staff, were literally shrieking with laughter. I have never heard them laugh so much. The Indian Jesuits found it absurd. I really enjoyed hearing the jokes multiply- "watch out for that Angie!" (Angie is about 80 and hale but frail) etc, but my own feelings were different. Relieved? Encouraged? This morning when we were waiting at the Guyana Revenue Authority, where the obstructive, despairing, sullen Carolita was doing her utmost to deflate, depress or otherwise derail everyone's day, a dapper, open-faced, Dumbo-eared Indo-Guyanese man stood up and prophesied: not quite doom about to rain from the sky on the GRA and all who sail in her, but something along those lines. I felt much the same about the PAYE Prophet as I do about Euline Hinds, the Hero of the Day.

Here is the article in full:

Two bandits, one armed with an AK-47 rifle, were no match for a 72-year-old re-migrant who forced them to flee empty-handed by dousing one of them with pepper spray.

The bandits had attacked the home of Euline Hinds and her husband, Desmond, at 35 Section C NonPareil, East Coast Demarara, at about 22:30 hours on Wednesday. Police believe that the bandits are the same persons who have been carrying out a series of robberies in the area.

Euline Hinds was in no mood to be relieved of what she had toiled so hard for after years in the ‘cold’.
Relating the sequence of events, Hinds said that she was in the downstairs living room watching the television programme ‘American Idol’, while her husband dosed (sic) off in a sofa next to her. The next things (sic) she knew, two bandits, one with a rifle and another with an iron bar, entered their home. The bandit with the gun pointed it to her sleeping husband’s chest, causing him to wake with a start.
According to Hinds, her husband held on to the gun and tried to wrest it from the bandit but his accomplice struck him twice in the head with the iron bar. However, the pensioner gamely held unto (sic) to the gun. Mrs Hinds then grabbed a tin of pepper spray that was nearby and sprayed it into face of the bandit who held the iron bar. “He started to shout, and stumbled out of the house. The other one with the gun managed to free himself and he too ran away. I ran behind them, but they got away”, Hinds said.

The woman explained that had she managed to get the temporarily blind bandit to the ground, he would have been a dead man.

“I was not afraid. I ran behind them. I would’a leave them walking with a white stick for the rest of their lives”, the brave 72-year-old said. “I left this country long before they were born and all them snow and cold I take. I would not allow them to take it away. They did not give something to keep”, Mrs Hinds told this newspaper.
“Once you got something in your hand, you must aim to their eyes”, she advised.
She said that both bandits were wearing black clothing. Neighbours reported, later, that they saw the men enter an abandoned house lot, apparently for the injured bandit to wash his eyes. They were unaware at the time that the men had attempted a robbery nearby. The police were subsequently summoned and a massive investigation launched.

The attack occurred despite the police announcement that they had established a special unit at the Vigilance Police Station to track down the perpetrators, who they believe are responsible for several robberies.
Guyana has a massive problem with apathy. When systems don't work, public promises are reneged, security goes down the pan, the commonest response is a scowl and "this is Guyana". Too much despair leaks forward, into the future, as well as inward, into the mind and the senses. There are many ways to skin a cat (or, to coin a topical local metaphor, 'many ways to run over a dog'), but all forms of resistance surely shore up in solidarity against the despair of the majority. It's heartening to see the brave, the angry, and even Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, getting busy with the diatribe, the letter to the paper and, best of all (hee hee!), the pepper spray!

Sunday, 22 February 2009

The end of Chapter 1

We left Britain exactly a month ago. I’d like to take this auspicious moment to share with you some of my great discoveries of the first month, in order of how much they astonish me. (By the end they aren’t at all astonishing, but still, Lipton’s, pull your socks up!)

1. I can still rough it. I knew B could but I wasn’t sure about my own stamina!

2. I am a talkative introvert and B is a laconic extrovert. This makes us socially rather bewildering.

3. Everyone who grew up with mangoes not only has their own way of peeling and eating them, but also rubbishes everyone else’s way.

4. Most religious people are much more tolerant of other religions than they are of different branches of their own. (This might be the same point as the one about mangoes- I’m not sure)

5. Home is in limbo- when I say ‘home’, Mirfield doesn’t present itself any more, but there is no new picture in its place.

6. I CAN get up at 6a.m. every day.

7. Familiarity breeds contempt with handwashing.

8. It is almost impossible for me to imagine respecting myself without DOING anything. I suspect one of the hardest things about the months ahead will be comprehending that my value does not lie in what I do.

9. Poverty combined with hope breeds solidarity. (Poverty without hope breeds crime I think)

10. Tetley’s tea is two whole leagues ahead of Lipton’s, which tastes of air freshener.

A month of living in separate rooms in a Jesuit presbytery has been of course highly instructive! We have been allowed to make ourselves completely at home, which I think is pretty handsome of them. And it’s always interesting to deduce what we’re getting accustomed to (as they always used to ask in China, “Are you a-customer-ed to the life here?”) from what ISN’T on the list.

To The Lighthouse

I have been burying myself in P G Wodehouse, not Virginia Woolf. So when B suggested we should go to the lighthouse, it seemed only fair to give a little homage to the good lady who made my last year at college such a headshredder.

It was about 5pm. We took a taxi up to the rough and dodgy back streets which make up the north-west end of Georgetown. The lighthouse is stranded mid-street, opposite the molasses silo, looking rather forlorn. It’s brick, hexagonal, fetchingly red and white striped, built by the English in 1869 to replace the wooden Dutch one.

It was locked. There was a large chain on the gate.

We shouted to the watchman, who ambled over incuriously. It emerged that his incuriosity stemmed in part from his being deaf and dumb. He pointed overhead, and we looked up to see an Afro-Guyanese head poking from a window. “Yawgortiz?” “Sorry?” “Y’all got tickets?” “No!” “OK”.

Not sure whether “OK” meant “sod off” or “never mind”, we lingered. Something appeared from high above. A rope, lowered inch by inch to our faces, with the key to the lighthouse on the end of it. We let ourselves in.

The last lighthouse we climbed was on honeymoon. What a difference. This one had wooden steps instead of stone, leaning drunkenly, a hexagonally corner-turning handrail. Over halfway up, we came to the key dispenser. Turns out he’s a real lighthouse keeper, manning the inland light for ships coming into the Demerara. He keeps the log, handwritten, in big school notepads with a ‘Lighthouse Logbook’ label glued on to the front.
(note death-like grip on the railing)

We carried on up, into the narrow neck, popped out the top and opened the wooden doors to the platform. When I say ‘platform’, perhaps ‘tinfoil’ would be a better description. The rail was mercifully solid, no namby fencing or other health and safety pansyhood. Broad, interesting, unbeautiful view of the docks, run-down quarters of town, building sites. Then up into the light itself, wonderful wavelets of inches-thick glass, a golden light that B guesses is gas-fuelled. Well-oiled cogs, a cared-for object. It makes me notice that I haven’t seen many such here.

Back down to solider ground, we chatted for a while with the lighthouse keeper. Gave him 500 dollars and rightly guessed that his significant “Thank you” meant “forget the change”. A bargain at the price, though.

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.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Post me no post!

Ah. There had to be SOMETHING this unfunctioningly, obstructively, mundanely, boringly awful- every country has. If it isn't the driving licence office, and it isn't the VAT office, and it isn't the bank, it must be the Post Office.

First, you get a piece of paper delivered to your address telling you you have a parcel. You are forewarned that it will cost 500 Guyanese dollars collection fee, plus whatever they deem appropriate for duty and taxes, unspecified at this point.

You then plod off to the central post office. Imagine the filthy concrete corridor outside the dark grey concrete toilet block in a spectacularly run-down old concrete comprehensive school. That's the front entrance of the national Post Office. You find your window. Opposite the window is a row of chairs, identical to the ones in Lewisham hospital A&E. People have the same expression on their faces too- a kind of pained, hopeless boredom that has a spark of anger in it.
Hand over your leaflet to a girl trained in eye contact avoidance. Her whole being, it seems, is awash with despair. She walks the walk of the doomed, talks like someone who has worked in a Jobcentre for FAR too long, looks at your leaflet as one imagines Mary Queen of Scots looking at her own death warrant, minus the drama. Huge sigh. Says something that sounds like "yaweyeee".
Another long sigh, this time fetched deep from the abyss of a well-practised diaphragm. "Y'all got ID?"
Hand over passport. Writes number, very very slowly on to your slip.
Walks away. No, 'walks' is far too dynamic a verb. 'Drifts' is good except it sounds too noncholant. How about 'dearths'? Yes, she dearths off (slowly of course) to seek your parcel. About ten minutes later, just as you've fought your way into a Lewisham hospital chair, your name is called.
"Brassome?" You watch as they chop into your parcel with a huge knife and not too much care. The belongings are rooted through, to mild curiosity from fellow queue-ees. The biro is wafted along your pale trousers that escaped the knife.
Unexplained hiatus. Everyone in the queue is unconsciously assimilating the MQofS/ Post Office Sigh.
Customs officer comes out and roots through your parcel. Leaves.
Second unexplained hiatus.
Opportunity to give thanks for learning the beautiful gift of patience.
And now your slip comes back, with an utterly arbitrary figure written on it for 'duty', and another for 'VAT'. Everything in the parcel is VAT exempt, and duty exempt too as far as I can tell, but since it costs less than last time, I don't argue.
"Hurray!", you think. Done.
Ah no.
Next, the parcel is re-taped and put on another table.
Third unexplained hiatus.
Next, you get called forward, with all the verve and charm of Eeyore on a very, very bad day. You pay for your parcel. "Hurray!", you think. Really done this time.
Not so.
Now you join your final queue, with the slip received from the payment, to sign in a Large Exercise Book before receiving your parcel.
As you walk (exhaustedly or gaily, depending on your temperament and length of time in captivity) to the exit, you remember a conversation with a Jesuit yesterday about the Horrid Internet, and how it has led to the death of the Lovely Post Office, and how young people now don't engage with the present because they can remain in past lives with contact through the internet. I say, God bless the internet. And P.S.- please don't ever post me anything!

Journey to the East

When I was flying out to Guyana in November, the journey took 45 hours instead of 20. So I made some Guyanese friends. One told me that, if I was to have seen Guyana, I must go to Berbice. Her Georgetown childhood was peppered with trips there, and she said it was friendlier than Georgetown, better weather, better food and generally a bit of a paradise.
Can't really disagree with any of that.
We went by taxi. B fell asleep, and I fell into a musing meditation. Half an hour from Georgetown, I found the phrase 'tropical paradise' popping in to my mind, so I hit 'pause' on the muse-muscle and looked round. A nice rich blue sky, road lined by coconut palms. Blissful, blissful cool created by the speed of the car, rushing through the front windows and battering my hat into submission. Individual wooden houses, mostly on stilts to avoid floods and mosquitos. Some with gardens, some with washing, all with hammocks strung where the ground floor would be. The absence of rooms means an absence of tasks, so the hammocks are usually occupied. Every so often, wide open space of paddy fields, populated by greedy looking cows and their companionable egrets.
The traffic was about half sane, half psycho. The psycho half is minibus drivers and livestock with a death wish. All the boy racers in Guyana work as minibus drivers, eternally accelerating hard, braking hard or hitting the horn hard. Cows, donkeys and goats are plentiful road users, and generally don't at all mind the traffic. The sane half is donkey carts, cyclists, motorbikers and car drivers.
The new Berbice bridge took 21 years to build. It's a floating bridge, very basic, probably took about 2 months to construct. The rest of the 21 years was spent, one must deduce, arguing. We crossed it in ten minutes. Up until Christmas 2008, you had to take a ferry across the Berbice river. From Georgetown to Port Mourant would take about 6 hours. Now it takes 2.
So we crossed and entered the region of Berbice. Still the lovely houses, the egrets, but now large areas of sugarcane too. We passed cattle trucks full of canecutters, 60 workers on hard wooden benches, heading home to drink away their tiny salary on expensive Demerara rum.
Musing resumed. I pottered around my memory of other rice paddies, other egrets, other palm trees. We passed the smartly repainted Vigilance Police Station, cruised through sunny, palm-covered Lancaster, and left tiny, wooden-housed Hong Kong behind. I wondered about what makes a day worthwhile, sitting there feeling so HAPPY because I was cool, nothing hurt and there was nothing worthier I should be doing.

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.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

It's raining knives and knitting needles

A perfectly prepared Parika peddler!

Why is rain here fascinating, when in the UK it bores, annoys and frustrates me?

Well, in England the rain is cold. My clothes get soaked and can't dry. I've ALWAYS forgotten my umbrella. Enclosed spaces smell of rotting wool, open spaces smell of wet pavement and exhaust fumes (hmmmm- I've spent too long in the town, haven't I!)

Here, the first sign of rain is an abrupt and usually extremely welcome breeze. Next, if you're inside, is the noise. It's like a rushing. The noise comes from the roof or the ground, but seems disembodied- it doesn't drum. At first it bounces, but it flomps from the sky so quickly that it soon has nothing to bounce on except water. For about half an hour it stands on roads and paths, and then it begins to develop currents and rush.

Our little gutters would never cope. So buildings will have a great fat drainpipe running down the middle of some roofing and emptying in plumbing-system quantities on to whatever or whoever is beneath. Protection from sun and rain can often double up, so the same tarpaulin that provides shade suddenly becomes crammed with passers-by unwilling to have all their clothes and belongings turned to pulp.

Malcolm Rodrigues took us out the other day. Malcolm is a local, one of only three Guyanese Jesuits. He reminds me of a bird. Dark brown eyes, a kind of darting happy attentiveness. He made the garden at Brickdam, and he also looks after the dogs. He's extremely clever and has held a lot of inter-Caribbean and university posts, but all his attention is devoted to lab work with stroppy fifth-years at the moment, and to the dog's puppies. He's a real democrat. He pays himself no attention, has no perceptible ego, does not have Presence. No-one applauds, perhaps because he so clearly doesn't need it. He reminds me of de Mello's story of the diamond.

We went to see a cycle race. We crossed the Demerara floating bridge, a massive haphazard child's meccano toy with greedy-looking brown water lapping just below the road edge. It was hard to tell which way was up- water reaching up, water lavishing down, thin strip of grey-brown road, grey-brown light and muddy grey-brown cars in between.
We saw the riders sheltering together under a large tarpaulin, skinny tyres shying away from the sheet water. We guessed they would postpone the start, so we set off to see the Essequibo river.

Georgetown is on the Demerara. Parika (accented like 'paprika') is on the Essequibo. Twenty miles wide at the mouth, with islands big enough to live on. Apparently the biggest is larger than Barbados. I suspect it's a very nice town, especially if it isn't underwater when you visit. It isn't that the heavens open- it's more like experiencing life as an amphibian does. The arm that isn't under the umbrella is of one being with your sleeve within seconds. Almost everyone stops what they're doing and gets under an awning. We did.

... she didn't

A man approached me. Small, grubby, smelling distinctly of recently-consumed, not-freshly-opened beer.

"Welcome to my country! Where y'all from?"

"Y'all like cricket? Ooo we WHUPPED y'alls asses yesterday! We destTROYed ya man! Ooo! Hee hee heeeeee!" (This was proper mirth, not a laugh but gurgling mirth)

"This rain didn't suppose to be like this. This is dry season. It's climate change. What you do in your country and we're experiencing the effects. You see? Our ecosystem all messed up."

"Your Jeff Boycott, he was good though. But this lot- we WHUPPED y'alls asses! Ha ha!"

"Well, gotta go. I run this here internet cafe. Anytime you want to see Parika, you come find me here".

And he reeled gently off. Next time he reeled gently past, the beer was fresher and more confined to the breath.

My part was to nod, smile, affirm and feel guilty for climate change. He's right of course, but I was surprised. I hadn't expected the language and awareness to be so universal.

Meanwhile, it rained. Sometimes it slackened, sometimes the drains gurgled, the drainpipes opposite ejected water with force so it banged on to the street below.

In the end we gave up and drove back- to find the cycle race over. They had gone ahead in the rain and wind, and were happy enough with the times achieved. Malcolm joked over dinner that the guy doing the breast stroke won. It's seriously dangerous cycling on skinny tyres in deep and flowing road water, but I suppose they're used to it. For myself, I'll stick with yawning under the awning as the rain comes tumbling down. It's somehow restful. And we'd better get used to it!


Saturday, 7 February 2009

Red tape and harpy eagles

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

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

A view from the streets of Georgetown

Cows everywhere, as soon as you leave the city centre. Filthy beautiful canals, full of bottles, wrappers, single shoes, rotting vegetation, polystyrene, lilies, egrets. An old black rastafari man who sleeps outside the Jesuit presbytery on cardboard. Sand on the road edges. Peeling paint on peeling planks on delapidated beautiful fragile wooden clapboard houses. Turrets, weathervanes, balconies, all precarious. Dogs crawling under cars and street stalls for shade. European Union officials in suits leaving their building round the corner, climbing into air-conditioned cars to go home to gated compounds. Mango trees dropping their fruit on to cars. Long narrow horse carts.
Minibus horns. The sound of violent acceleration. The sound of abrupt deceleration. Horns, horns, horns. Singing from churches. Children talking on their walk home from school (no school buses). Market stalls shouting wares relaxedly. The TVs blaring from the gambling shops. Gut-vibrating bass from the taxis and expensive cars. Lovely lilting Caribbean accents. Under it all, fans whirring. After it all, fans whirring.
Hot tarmac, hot sand, hot grass. Curry and roti. Exhaust fumes. Rotting. Sweat. Sugar fermenting at the rum distillery. Ripe fruit. Mosiguard and sun cream (I carry my own aura of both everywhere). Faint odours of sewerage. Cookup rice. Hot car seats. Old, much-worn synthetic shoes, with sweaty feet inside them.
Mangoes (made in heaven). Milk powder in weak tea. Exhaust fumes. Tingling lips from Mosiguard (inadvertent) and hot sauce (advertent!). Sticky mouth from dehydration. Cold beer after a boiling day.
Permanent stickiness. Mango skin, condensing straight from the fridge. Thighs on boiling plastic car seats. Running hands through hair I've cut off. Filthy feet in flipflops. Itchy bites. Cold shower on hot skin.
In other words, it's sensory overload here. Dermot told me today to take things easier, but it feels so strange. We're already going at about 40% of the speed we go in Britain! It will take quite a while to wind down.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Wet wet wet

At the Greenpeace ship moored in Belem for the WSF
My feet are all wrinkly, as if I've been in the bath. My shoes and rucksack and hat and socks and life generally are sodden!

Serves us right. We went to the Amazonian zoological garden today, and B forgot his umbrella. So the camera got my umbrella, and we got wet. It's a beautiful garden, but for the first while we were too waterlogged to appreciate it. After two hours of drenchment, we got a seat in the cafe. The day looked up. We ate meat in fermented cassava sauce (intriguing and mainly nice), and watched the rain bounce off the little lake, the giant leaves, the canoes and people other than ourselves. The park has more kinds of rainforest trees than I could count- beautiful. When the rain slowed to a mere downpour, we wandered round and admired the tamelife (I guess that's what you'd call ex-wildlife). The manatee looked so sad, so lonely and so resigned. The macaws pointedly ignored us, in a self-conscious, back-turned manner, whereas the scarlet ibis just got on with life, pecking hopefully at the remainders of papaya rind. The Amazonian tortoises were probably my favourite, climbing over each other and plopping down in heaps for a nap. They run over each other like caterpillar tanks.

All the paths were so deep in water you could see which way the current was running. When the rain stopped, the treetops were fugged up with mist, and invisible creatures started shrieking. It's strange listening to the rainforest and heavy traffic at the same time! We squelched home wetly, stopping to buy beer for the final evening on the way. It's peculiar, climbing off a pretty grungy bus, then trying to dash across a six-lane highway which is running 6 inches deep with water, loaded with backpacks, a 12-pack of beer, camera, walking stick and two umbrellas- "whomp squelch clunk clunk squoosh squelch clunk whomp eeeeeeeeeeeeeek"...

The World Social Forum ended today, not with a bang but a whimper as far as I could see. It's been an interesting experience but I'm not sure I'd attend another. This kind of magnitude (roughly 80,000 people) kyboshes any chance of coherence. A large quantity of events were cancelled, moved, unfindable, unwatchable or unmemorable. My own duncehood with Portuguese of course didn't help. But I think maybe the WSF is not for people like me. Others seemed to get lots from it.

We were planning a sunset trip on the Amazon to finish our stay in Brazil, but considering that a reasonable amount of river had already fallen on our heads, we decided to take it easy this evening instead. Off to Guyana early tomorrow, when a new (hot but hopefully dry!) chapter begins. Wish us luck. x