What’s that noise? A shrieking crank of a rusty water-pump perhaps? But why would somebody continuously pump water in the night? Or was somebody practicing the violin for a Schoenberg concert? No, not in Georgetown Guyana. A loud record of the Lady and the Tramp in the Disney movie howling at each other? The One Hundred Dalmatians let loose in town? Delirious. What’s the first plane out? Those were the thoughts of a displaced modern “Saïdjah” transplanted from his comfy habitat into a totally unknown world.
Both protected by a romantic mosquito net, his “Adinda” was sleeping peacefully beside him, unaware of the rambling thoughts of her recently acquired hubby, who was knocking on his compass to find out where he was. After a six-hour journey, the plane had landed at a slightly lit airport on a late evening in April 1974. Hit by a fire wall of steamy air, accompanied by some 24 suitcases with stuff needed for the Blessing of the Marriage – including champagne – we were whisked along immigration and customs agents as if we were a royal couple, into the arms of enthusiastic family members, waving wildly at “Adinda” and looking curiously at that white fellow from Amsterdam. Did he look like the former Dutch colonial masters? Or a bit like those British imposters who followed later?
Packed in various cars, we trucked in pitch dark over a potholed old airport road. The airport was built during World War II by the American Army Engineers to protect their access to Guyana’s rich bauxite mines for their fighter planes and to protect them against German attacks that were after these resources as well. (Since then, this road has been substantially improved.) We traveled 45 minutes through sparsely lit villages with Dutch names (such as Soestdijk), along sugar fields and sweet-smelling rum factories, into Georgetown. Under Dutch colonial regime, it was called Stabroek, after a gentleman who was the Governor of the Dutch West Indian Company (WIC) in the 18th Century. When the British took over Guyana after one of the many European wars in the 19th century, Stabroek became Georgetown, named after the British King George III. But many of the old Dutch names were kept, like “New Amsterdam”, and so were the colonial administrative structures in Demerara and the Berbize. Stabroek market is still Georgetown’s main market.
Somewhere around mid-night, “Saïdjah” entered the home of his “Adinda”. Definitely a much better situation than in Multatuli’s bitter story. Houses in Georgetown, some still dating from the Dutch colonial period, are built on stilts because of the often high waters (torrential rains and rising mighty rivers coming from Brazil’s Amazon forest.) Even though the Dutch built many dykes and sluices, ground floors get often flooded. At the top of the stairs stood a fierce mother-in-law, staring at him, piercing eyes like laser beams. “Now we finely meet,”she said, offering a suspicious smile after our phone-calls from Washington D.C. (Who was this guy? What the heck did her daughter fall in love with?) “Yes we do,” he said, standing half-way on the stairs on shaking knees, looking up, feeling naked.The great father, an exemplary gentleman, smiled encouragingly. That helped. One sister, a “late-comer” who still lived in the house, talked in Guyanese that he could not comprehend. What would the morning bring?
Exhausted from the flight and the long homecoming, we went to bed almost immediately. Houses in Guyana are self-air-conditioned. Walls reach two-thirds to the high ceiling, leaving the top open, and air circulates around, pushed by the outside breeze. Much like the chambrettes in the dorms of my boarding school, though much larger. Very ingenious, but what if I let a fart? Or snored? Or what if you made love and they heard the stumbling on the bed and sexy screams and squeaks?
Thank God that in the tropics light starts at 5 a.m. Saïdjah’s curiosity to see where he had landed became untenable. First, to the bathroom. This is part of the community-architecture: open at the top, for everyone to hear. Again, what if I let a fart? They would know it was me! Only Dutch people fart like that. I just put my fingers in my ear, as if it did not happen. Best in multiculturalism is to fool yourself you’re in your own place. Then I trotted to the front of the house. It looked out on a T-crossing with a narrow street ahead, lined with green patches of grass and colorful homes along it.
Small cars and green buses wriggled through, as well as wagons pulled by horses and sometimes donkeys, transporting wood and bags of cement.
Dogs (must’ve been the ones that barked all night) crossed the street in suicidal mode but they were doing that all the time, as they smartly avoided getting run over by traffic. Kids dressed in green, blue and yellow uniforms walked to school, chatting, with broad smiles. Women walked to the market, men drove to work. People on bikes peddled along, as if they had all the time.
A most peaceful view of a most peaceful town, so to see, with flamboyant trees in full bloom.
I relaxed. My Adinda, dressed in a white shirt and tiny shorts, brought me a cup of coffee. Soon I smelled toast, bacon and eggs. The radio brought the local news and happy Caribbean calypsos. The mother and father came to chat. Did I sleep well despite Georgetown’s nightly noises?
The most interesting experience was my immediate conclusion: “First” and “Third World” differed only in the Third World’s warm climate. I would reach a similar conclusion in my World Bank work. There was no difference in terms of intellectual capacity. Application of that capacity perhaps, and the critical mass of that capacity, but that was very dependent on the political environment. The mother was head of a Home Economics School and had been to the USA on scholarly visits and to Europe with her daughter, now married away, to places I had never been. The father was a business man. “Adinda” had two brothers, one a high-level attorney in the British Government (the highest “non-white”), another an engineer finishing studies in New York. Another sister was a nurse, certified in London, living and working in New York. Her mother said: “it does not matter where you come from, but where you are going.”
The rusty pump during the night turned out the sound of tropical crickets. Also, in Georgetown the night belongs to the dogs and the happy Caribbean music wafting out of bars. You get soon accustomed to that.
I remembered the fortune-teller, whom I met when I started work in Holland, as part of an agreement with a lovely young lady who had a room for rent in her large apartment. The reason I wanted that room was that she had a grand piano, and I could use it to practice on. To my regret, the young lady refused. So I went back to the fortune-teller and asked her why. “First,”she said, “your stars paint you as a Don Juan and that frightened the landlord. Secondly, I also discovered that your lifelong task is one of constant adjustment. Your stars are not stable but in perpetual flux. That frightened her too. While this may hurt you on the way, if you don’t reject your destiny, it will also be your savior.” Meaning what destiny? I sat stunned. Fortune tellers only interpret the stars and do not give clear recommendations.
Horishi Teshigahara’s wonderful Japanese film “Woman in the Dunes”, based on Kobe Abe’s novel, came back to mind. A man is captured by unknown individuals and thrown into a deep pit. The pit holds a house with a beautiful woman. How did she get there? They bring them food everyday. He tries to flee to his previous imagined freedom but cannot climb the loose sand. Eventually he succumbs, falls in love with the beautiful woman and relaxes. When his jailers extend a ladder to him, he does not want to leave the pit anymore. “It does not matter where you come from, but where you are going.” That was it. Destiny reached. The road was clear.
Next – The festivities and country visit.