Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Interior is a Foreign Country: They Do Things Differently There

Not long out of Georgetown, we are stopped by an Afro-Guyanese policeman whose Creole leads to instant misunderstandings with Amar’s heavily accented Indian English. But the eye-opener is with Percy, our Amerindian driver, who is viewed with great suspicion. “You Guyanese?” he snaps, checking his I.D. card again disbelievingly. Percy does not respond in kind, despite his superlative claim to that identity, at least if centuries count for anything.

Guyana’s indigenous Amerindian population is only 7% of the total, but they occupy 95% of its land, and have done, archaeologists reckon, for approximately 11,000 years. 90% of the population lives in the remaining 5%, the coastal strip. For many of them, that 95% is one place, ‘the interior’. Ten years ago, a Guyanese could not travel freely in their own country. They needed a separate pass for each place in the interior to be visited. And it’s prohibitively expensive. And it is neither comfortable nor convenient to get ‘there’, or to move around once you have. Amerindians, except some groups nearby, face equivalent barriers to visiting the coast. The physical gap compounds the information gap which compounds an imagination gap that keeps the two worlds apart.

On our return to Guyana, we had been catapulted straight into the Jesuit Regional Meeting. It’s a delicate privilege to sit in on parts of an insiders’ meeting when you are an outsider yourself. But over the two days we are there, the generalizations being made stand less and less up to scrutiny, because in so many senses we are discussing two different countries. The key child protection issues are completely different between coast and interior. Demographics- different. Work roles- unrecognizably different. Constraints, problems, rewards, relationships- all different.

I have misquoted L. P. Hartley’s opening sentence in "The Go-Between" because there is a time-gap between the coast and the interior as surely as there is a cultural gap. We in the interior live in a deluvian world, drenched with nature red in tooth, claw and my blood (in the case of the mosquitoes). We live in constant awareness of food, water shortage, death, birth, jaguar attacks, huge dinosaur-like birds, cow slaughtering- what Garrison Keillor calls “living between the ground and God”. On the coast most people live a life more akin to the one I was born to: cars and phones and running water and street violence and sassy children and fashion and abysmal radio adverts for small businesses and junk food and jobs. We inhabit different centuries of social interaction, of opportunities and of possessions- different belongings and different belonging.

Aishalton is a self-absorbed world by necessity, since we have no commonly available media at all. No news. No transport. Most difficult of all, no communication. I remember chuckling at an attendance list being passed by a visiting NGO round one of our village meetings with “Name” and “Telephone” as the two columns, in a place with no landlines and not even a mobile signal. Villagers may understand all the words in a Georgetown newspaper but unless they’ve worked there, been educated there or lived there they cannot visualize any of it. I recall my student last term: “Miss Sarah, what’s a pavement?” Clearly, the Georgetown people running the meeting suffered the same imagination gap- “How can there be no telephones?” I’m told that in the 1960’s, students used to do exchange visits to the interior. Maybe it’s time to relaunch this. Because with voting increasingly following racial lines, and with the steady increase in the rich-poor gap between coast and interior, an alienation slowly breeding from all those gaps could rip holes in Guyana’s skin through which its unity bleeds away.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Journeying Mercies

As a child, knee-socked in a sombre Baptist prayer meeting, the oft-repeated weighty phrases bedded in my head. ‘Journeying mercies’ was one of my favourites. The ‘our-er’ assonance gives it a reassuring rightness; of course there should be mercies. What did those sober Ulstermen mean? Usually, I reckon they meant ‘arriving mercies’- the danger was the journey itself, the mercy the safe arrival. But I like the idea of the journey as the bearer of mercies; the travel of consolation.

I’ve never done the journey the whole way from Georgetown on the Caribbean to Aishalton near the Equator in daylight before. The rainforest begins after about two hours and stretches and stretches and stretches beyond the imagination. Hours pass, rutted red road, spattered dull green roadside trees. A kind of mental lumbering results from all that lumber- synapses slow down, minutes last for hours and hours for minutes. The rear oscillates similarly, between numbness and agony. It is not a journey where you can forget your own existence: the aches of holding one unnatural position prevent unselfconsciousness. The footwell is full, as always here. I am acquiring the necessary fatalism about that. For one person in the back to move their foot is everyone’s business.

My favourite rainforest tree on this journey I decide to name the Teenage Boy tree. It is very tall, painfully thin, in drainpipe trouser bark, with that mop floppy haircut that always seems to come back into fashion with some minimally tweaked detail. And to complete the resemblance, it never stands up straight.

We reach the Kurupukari crossing of the upper Essequibo at 1pm. I had not realised that you have to pay in Georgetown, eight hours away: if you reach this point without your docket, you have to go back and fetch it. Can you IMAGINE the uproar if we tried that in Europe?! Eight hours driving could take you across two small countries.

I see evidence of the creatures of the rainforest adapting almost magically to their changing environment (can’t you hear the reverentially hushed Attenboraic tones?). Stopping outside Iwokrama Rainforest office to show our papers, I see a sand lizard darting into the pile of cement powder it has made its home, by a heap of rusting iron. The only creature not hoping for rain.
When we reach the Rupununi, the crossing is almost completely dry. We encounter Mary from Dadanawa Ranch, trotting across the sharp stones in bare feet to greet us, in Wapishana of course. Her warishi is full of wet washing, strap across the forehead supporting the basket on her back. She swings it off her head and I reach to lift it into the jeep. With both hands, I can barely raise it. She is four foot six. Her friend follows on a bicycle, baby held on the crossbar, bucket hanging from the handlebars with three puppies inside.

And there are yet more mercies. I find myself coming home. Like Moley in the Wind in the Willows, the scents and ordinary sights arouse a sense of belonging, of symbiosis. The first crested caracara, the call of the southern lapwing, our trees- my first Wapishana word was ‘iminaru’, the sandpaper tree. The assumption that you wave at everyone, demonstrating that we’ve left Lethem and its delusions of suavity behind. This year I can see that the road is a road, not a sand track across endless savannah, and I recognise all the turnings, and know the villages at the end of them. And at the end of the journey, the soft bed, the candle in a frankfurter tin, the chilli soup and the relaxed undemanding welcome of the sisters, who have cleaned my house but also offer me the freedom of theirs.

I have lived among the Wapishana for a year now. People know at least my public face. I have been welcomed back with typical understated warmth. The journey of real mutual understanding might be on the horizon. I am sure it will be full of unique and startling mercies.