Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Furnishing a home

Yesterday I received this message from Amar, the Indian Jesuit who is in charge in Aishalton (and is therefore likely to feature widely, broadly, squarely or otherwise in this journal in future):

“When you are in lethem pls do some of your personal need like cooking vessels, gas stove, buckets mug, jug etc and one big matras since the bed big, is ready.”
So today we went shopping for everything needed to furnish a house that has only doors, walls, one table and a bed big.

First we went to the poison shop to buy Triton, an insecticide which should be effective for three months. The shopkeeper measured our 50ml carefully into a second-hand hipflask-sized vodka bottle, labeled it “POISON” in red, and then explained that it should kill cockroaches, centipedes, wood ants and scorpions as well as mosquitos. Since we have already met all of the above fauna in our spring-summer-autumn-winter-and-spring cleaning in the new house, we found this reassuring. Across the road we bought two Brazilian hammocks from an afro-Guyanese lady whom I love because she calls me ‘babes’. They are soft and wide and look very comfortable. All chairs in Aishalton are solid wood, dead flat and a bit hard on the butt, so our seating will be hammocks.
Next we went to R&R, the hardware store. As befits Lethem the wild west town, this store features machetes, fishing net and a wide range of crowbars as well as batteries and inverters, nuts and bolts and tools. Here we bought screws and fishing net, as B had the brilliant idea of using it for storage in a house innocent of wardrobes and drawers. Third stop was the Savannah Inn, home of quality items. This was the big spend. A hallucinogenic red double bed mattress, two pillows, mosquito netting and two sets of 1950’s soap opera bedding (just sheets and pillowcases of course- remind me what a ‘quilt’ is?!). A mirror, much to the hilarity of the Jesuits: “What’s that for? Do you NEED it? Can’t James tell you if you look OK? Tee hee!” 8 hilariously feeble coat hangers for £3 which seems a bit steep frankly. A huge round tub for B to be Washerman while I’m at school, ‘Destruction’ washing powder (that’s not its name ONLY because they don’t have a Trades Description Act here) and clothes pegs. Everything for the modern kitchen i.e. a two-ring gas hob, one pan with lid, one baby frying pan, a flask, two mugs, a tub of solid soap for dishwashing, 3 scrubby sponges, two buckets with lids to serve as bins, 2 large and 3 small cockroach-proof storage boxes, a mop, a brush and, most important of all, two buckets for the well.
With this embarrassment of riches we will travel to Aishalton on Friday. The entire house furnishing (minus the bed big) cost 65,840 Guyanese dollars; about £220. It would have been much cheaper in Georgetown but transportation is prohibitively expensive, so it probably comes out quits. Before, I was looking forward to arriving; now it’s an excited yearning to create a home after more than three months of living out of rucksacks. It’s gripped! It’s sorted! Let’s offroad!

PS There’s a prize for anyone who spots cinematic references in this entry...!

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Heading South in Starlight

As we leave Georgetown, the stars are vivid over the sugarcane fields. Frogs whoop dreamily in the canals that divide one plantation from the next. The Big Bus blows its airhorn every time we overtake a pedestrian, and my cheekbones vibrate in sympathy. We pass the El Dorado distillery, reeking urgently of warm rotting sugar with a hint of urine. We pass tiny Hindu temples in people’s front gardens, a minibus emblazoned with ‘In God do we Trust’ (very wise, with that driving style), rum bars with their bare concrete walls and oddly cosy striplights. At the Linden highway, we leave the Demerara river perpendicularly behind us, and begin the long journey inland.

After two hours we reach Linden, where all buses must check in at the police station. There is a delay whilst a man is charged. The woman constable is shouting that he is a murderer, a wife-beater, it’s attempted murder, ‘dat why he fit for da lock-up’. The male police officer is smiling and joking and trying to write up the initial report. A minibus-load of passengers is being looked over one by one, Creole hurled at speed, a raised eyebrow when the Brazilians fail to understand. Eventually they wave us off, not even checking names. The Big Bus has a bona fide reputation, so the police concentrate their attention, snide remarks or hostility (depending on mood and professionalism) on the minibus passengers. The Brazilians melt away too, looking at the floor, perhaps grateful to the wife-beater for the distraction.

Next comes six and a half hours on heavily rutted unsurfaced road. Five times we stop and the lights go on- two more police checks, three toilet stops (three beers just before the journey wasn’t clever last time guys, and it isn’t this time, but I bet you’ll do the same thing next time too!). It’s a fitful and languid sleep, but somehow pleasant with the breeze swooshing through the bus. At 5:25am we reach the upper Essequibo. B is sleeping like a granddad, mouth hanging open, stertorous breathing (I love that word and have never had a chance to use it before- thanks B!). I get off the bus and spend the next hour and a half watching the sun rise over Kurupukari crossing.

It isn’t a dramatic sunrise. At first I just gaze, dazed with sleep. Then I plug in my ipod, for the first time in weeks. My father is playing Liszt, softly, into my ears (with the caveat ‘-and if it’s not good, I shall wipe it!’). The rainforest looks friendly here, domestic. The trees are not tall, many of the leaves look like familiar deciduous trees of my childhood. The sun falls on the opposite bank with a caress today, not a fanfare of trumpets. I have one of those rare prismatic moments; where every colour, relationship, event of my life, past and future, is concentrated here, now. The vivid, thrilling richness of it appears as a fact, not as a challenge. As if my past and my future want nothing of me, except to be welcome to join me here on the bank of the Essequibo, listening to beauty that was created for me as a gift, and looking at the road that lies ahead, cutting into the welcoming forest on the other side of this river.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Hanging out with Harold

Harold is 78 years old. He is a Chinese-Guyanese Jesuit in Georgetown. For about the last twelve years, he has been slowly dying of what looks like septicaemia. His feet are disintegrating in an uncanny echo of the bound feet of his female ancestors in China many years ago. Since I first met him in November 2008, he has shrunk.

Harold is Georgetown's greatest critic. The energy he spends on choler is not remarkable, until you stop to think of his life. He is living every moment with the kind of pain, accumulation of discomforts, malodour and indignity that would drive me to whining wretchedness in minutes. The tedium of lying alone in a wooden, cluttered room, all day, for years. The scaling of stairs that are equivalent to a severe rock-climb to most of us sluggards. The three weekly visits to a 1950's time-warp of a hospital. The lying on the margins of presbytery life, listening to your own world continue without you. I have NEVER heard Harold complain about any of that. Instead, he argues fiercely with the Bishop's policy. He critiques his colleagues' use of their leisure time. He gives pithy short shrift to Guyanese politics, and bemoans the degradation of Georgetown's formerly beautiful canals and historic buildings.

Harold says Mass with vigour and verve. He is a curmudgeon where most of us would be a cripple. He invests himself more in his socio-political surroundings than I have ever done. He does not have a simpery-'saintly' bone in his body. I do not think he could say himself how much his anger springs from illness, and how much it is his bastion, his armour, his protection against desolation.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Deja Vu and Starting Again

Sitting on the flight to Guyana, I looked in my handbag for a pen, and noticed that its contents are a microcosm of our life just now:

· Wallet containing credit card, debit card, US & Barbados & Guyanese dollars, Brazilian reals, sterling and my engagement ring (I’d be likely to get mugged for it in Georgetown)
· 10 safety pins
· E-tickets, passports, boarding passes and receipts for the excess baggage slapped on B’s bike without warning
· 20 undone crosswords, ripped out of a book to save space
· Wetwipes husbanded from the Virgin flight to Barbados, and tissues
· B’s cardboard Guyanese driving licence (handwritten, with a big staple through his forehead)
· Guyanese phone top-up card and a UK SIM card
· Headtorch
· Stick of mosiguard
· B’s contact lens pot in a clear plastic bag, and his glasses (in case our luggage goes missing)
We landed and took a taxi to Brickdam, passing my favourite roadsign, from the traffic police-
On the way I tried to text Father Anil to say we were on the way, but I’d forgotten his service provider, GT&T, is huffing with mine, Digicel, so you can’t send texts.
Being back in Georgetown feels like putting on old smelly boots- familiar, sweaty, with a pungency you can ignore but not without effort. Somehow they do feel like my boots, though. Some things have changed. The rastaman I told you about in February has gone, murdered in another part of the city; the Jesuit regional superior announced this to all in the region, because he mattered to us. Last week the whole northern part of the city was under knee-deep water because the rain was held in by all the rubbish choking the drainage canals. Streets were awash with festering garbage, apparently. Even at the best of times, much of Georgetown’s beauty is unrealised- floods are not the best of times.
We are not going straight to Aishalton, because our house is not ready. Sound familiar?! Last night, we spent a couple of hours helping Amar, Edwin and Britto to load up the Aishalton pickup truck for its return south- without us, but with most of our luggage. 10 crates of bibles, 2 industrial sized clamps, B’s bike, donated second-hand board games, a 35-cell battery for Aishalton primary school, emergency pickup-mending toolkit, a new solar panel for our house, and various unsalubrious squishy boxes and bags to be handed out to the designated owner at villages Amar passes through on the journey. It would be difficult to enumerate the public services a soft-hearted South Rupununi jeep owner performs in the course of a year.
The déjà vu isn’t just the unspecified wait in Georgetown. It’s the discombobulatingly complete unacclimatisation from the heat, stickiness and insects, which makes it feel like starting again. (I won’t say ‘afresh’ and nor would you if you smelt the armpits of my shirt!). It’s the loss that underwrites days and soaks a little sadness into waking up, as the brain registers who it is that’s missing. But perhaps we’re the lucky ones, who have the culture shock and the melodramatic absurdity of changing places and paces and faces to accompany the slow realignments in the heart’s geography.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Mooring ropes

A boat needs mooring ropes at several points. When the wind is up, or the bank uneven, you put out 'springers' to keep the boat steady and secure.
And so do we. Some people attach us to our lives in obvious or mundane ways. Some are not really vital. Some wiggle and tug. But a good mooring rope is a precious thing. The springers don't just moor us. They make life better- more comfortable, better balanced, safer.
Take one away, and everything needs rebalanced. Like the lost tooth, the demolished landmark, the stolen wallet full of ID, the constant draughty reminders of absence chill the back of the neck.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Discretion & Valour

It’s strange to be back. The first couple of evenings we wandered around in the dark, accustomed to light switches that mean nothing. I staggered into a dark bathroom and recoiled from a large cockroach in the sink, which was the sink drain and not a living thing after all. My first shower felt vaguely disgusting, like bathing in my dinner. I think the warm water felt too like soup to be cleansing. The first morning I awoke and marvelled at the ceiling. Who could have scrubbed a ceiling so clean? It’s plain, matte, flat white, all over.

Sue’s funeral is tomorrow. We have all been working on the order of service- John chose the contents, B photoshopped the pictures, I formatted and printed and Brosc stapled. Here is an encompassable task. Every time I fold a cover I see her walking away from me, into the Dolomites.
The flowers are not lavish- white irises, ivory tulips, lilac sprigs, and forsythia from the garden. Two of Sue’s camellias will be tucked in there. John is choosing a tree to plant in the garden for Sue- something English that blossoms in spring. We are not extravagant. The other day at dinner, I saw John chipping away at the pastry on the edge of the dish, making sure he got the crunchy bits, didn’t waste any, and suddenly saw that he would be OK. I am proud of these three men; John and Mark and James, such solid names, strong as trees and always changing and generative like a forest too. Grateful and daunted to be a Broscombe.