Friday, 8 October 2010

Will miss, won't miss, wouldn't have missed for the world

What do you miss when you leave your home behind? I have enjoyed hearing very different answers to that question from the distinctive subgroups of Guyana’s White Invaders. Gap Year volunteers select their yearnings carefully as a statement of personal identity: “I miss a proper pint of real ale/ cheese and onion crisps/ Wkd”. These are statements of self as much as statements of appetite, and tend to come out loudly and proudly. Few admit to missing their family: it takes a lot of security to announce that at eighteen. Older volunteers rather intriguingly tend to choose a statement of national identity: “I miss marmite/ cheez whiz/ moules frites/ biltong”. The posher expats miss high culture: “good bookshops/ a decent glass of wine/ a top-quality concert”. Their yearnings nearly always seem to include a quantifier.

My own missings have been very different this time round. In China in the mid-90s I was homesick, so whilst marmalade and coffee and grapefruit had me mildly wistful, it was missing family that really twisted my gut. Here, for the most part, I have hankered less. Guyana is itself. Enjoy it while you can. I miss big sensible things like exercise and vegetables (the outcome, I fear, of turning into a big sensible thing). I don’t have many belongings that I love, and even those I do (like my engagement ring) I left behind in England without feeling any threat to my identity.

But as I begin to unwind all the small roots from Guyana, I become aware, stem by stem, of losses that will hurt. Here are some of the things I will miss, won’t miss, and wouldn’t have missed for the world.

Will miss

Aishalton mornings between 6 and 8am. The sunshine is autumnally cool and effulgent. There are tiny droplets on all the flowering grasses. It’s quiet but never silent as people go about their morning tasks, and there is usually laughter floating in the cool fresh air.

The placid, deep smiles of people who have not had any truck with ambition. We carry more tangle in our eyes than we are usually aware of, but it’s only visible by comparison.

Working with our young adult trainees. They remind me joyously why I came here, and the memory of them will keep me wistful that I had to go, even when I am glad to be elsewhere.

Watching Eustace weave- that hypnotic ité green, rustling and dancing itself down into flatness. That is the best Wapishana dance there is.

Knowing and being known by pretty much everyone you meet, every day. A world almost devoid of strangers has a lot less calculation and a lot less hostility in the air. Devoid is the wrong word of course: it’s a fullness, not an emptiness.

The stimulating company of people whose culture is immeasurably different from mine. Trying to learn their language keeps that fascination daily alive.

Having the freedom to choose between a range of interesting work each day, all of it clearly valuable and worth doing. It’s invigorating even when it’s daunting.

The visual vibrancy of Guyana. I remember when I left Yushu and slowly moved out of the Tibetan areas through the Hui Muslim and back into Han China, that sense of dullness and desolation that made my footsteps leaden. Life looked so grey, physically as well as metaphorically. An English November is unlikely to be any more technicolour than I remember.

Won’t miss

The only place I said goodbye to with glee: my pit latrine.

Milk powder. Why?! You’ve got cows: don’t you know how to use them?!

Forro- one of Brazil’s great aural abominations. I never, never, never, never want to hear that relentless 4/4 major-key robotic moronic identical-chord-progression essence of tedium again in my life.

Funding bids. It’s hard to spend so much energy on interventions I don’t really believe in. There are very few people in Aishalton who wouldn’t gain more benefit from skills training than they possibly would from money at this stage (though I’m happy to be bidding with one person who will).

The wildlife usual suspects within my compound (scorpions, monkey spiders, poisonous snakes and centipedes least of all).

The feeling of artificial performance fabrics on my skin. This is how I imagine bacon feels in a Styrofoam breadroll. I am so looking forward to silk dresses, in colours other than beige, to cotton undamped with sweat, and cuffs unadorned with a sticky astringent glue of suncream and mosquito repellent.

Being so po-faced and having no sense of humour. I sometimes regret becoming moulded quite so ponderously into the shadow of my work. Taking life so very seriously isn’t always a virtue. My face actually aches after a good laugh now- my laughter muscles have literally atrophied.

Wouldn’t have missed for the world
Being taught to pick a lock by two tiny giggling nuns. Blues Brothers meets the Sound of Music (with a touch of bhangra thrown in).

The sensory richness of life in the Rupununi. At risk of rhapsodising for hours, I will just mention three examples. The indescribable green of a mango tree heavy with fat sweet mangoes and fat screaming parrots fighting each other for the best. The fireflies that flash back at lightning. The ungainly improbable lollop of a giant anteater brushing its mad feather tail through the dry crackle of savannah grass.

Watching my husband’s incremental transformation from person-with-camera to photographer.

And, in the end, rather to my surprise I find that I would not have missed any of it. Not even the scorpion sting in my sleep, not even the months of illness. Life could not be the beautiful equation it is without every element in poised relation, even the mysterious dark matter. Who knows what we would become, or fail to become, without it.


  1. Well said. I've bookmarked this one. Expat no more (if ever?).

  2. Beautiful, I think that when all is said and done, we don't really regret any of the things we've done because they've made us who we are, we are our experiences!