Monday, July 02, 2007
Congo-Nya Town Hall New Amsterdam Family Cultural Event.
The youth drumming band at town hall New Amsterdam. Everyone calls these youths with drums the Taliban, as in they will come in and take over if you don't watch out. And on practise days in Braks home, when the boys arrive they do creep in and take over everything. They also are pretty good musicians already and were the hit of the entire night. The bassist had to wrap his leg around his chair to get enough leverage to hit the drum and when he got up to drag it off stage it looked bigger than him. And they sung a version of a popular song called 'Poverty' that was potent.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
The road ends at a fence, but it is a public path that goes through to the back road. Mostly the gate is to keep the grazing animals away from the growing vegetables. The electrical line ends right here. The electric company comes around every once in awhile in company of the police and they arrest anyone who has set up a tenous wire to the last pole. But, if anyone goes into the office to ask about offical lines being extended they are told that there is no plan to extend electric lines. So everyone hooks up to the poles that are there with dangerous fire/electicution hazzard wires and relies on the word of the street being spread to them before the police show up at the door. The white pipe on the right is typical of the place where these children get their daily water. Usually it is a broken pipe, which sticks out from the stagnant water of the trenchs. The water comes out of the pipe usually once a day for a few hours, but sometimes nothing comes out for weeks and then everyone goes searching.
Deep in the middle of a drumming practice session for the young upcoming drummers of the neighborhood. They are going to be given a spot in a show coming up at the New Amsterdam town hall. They are learning to play together well, but sometimes the shaker plays too fast or the bassist drifts a little, then Braks puts a stop to it and tells them they have to concentrate. "Now, play the music proper." he instructs and they are off again chasing the beat.
The road makes a great football pitch, coconut husks make good goal markers. The cheerleaders in the Green Bay Packers outfit carry the buckets, which they use to get the water that they need for daily life. The pipe is only about two hundred yards away, which is close compared to many places on the road and in the world.
When the rains come down the back road becomes a mire, and it impossible to walk in anything other than your bare feet or muck boots. In this picture the road was under two feet of water, and it effectively cuts the women and children who live in these houses off from the rest of the world of New Amsterdam. Our own house, with it's zinc roof, becomes a lonely enclosed place when the rain beats down its drum. The sounds from outside cease. It feels good to be alone and enclosed. But we have electric lights and water running from pipes inside the house, not to mention windows to shut out the sometimes sideways rain.
Children fishing in the trench on a sunny dry day. They get very excited whenever they pull anything out, be it fish on the line or tadpole in the bucket. Keep on biking down the road for about half a mile and these scenes are repeated again and again, adding to the real sense of life that happens here on the cow dam.
Another side. Where people leave the area, to go abroad or as they say in Guyana 'Outside', or simply to some other part of town. Then the houses stand unused and slowly rot or are eaten by wood ants. Or someone moves in and the building continues. In the mean time the children have more rooms to explore and play in.
As the road continues and the sun starts to set, the houses continue to be built in the reclaimed bush in the ever expanding unregulated side of New Amsterdam. On day not too long from now, these houses will be next to more houses and more children will live their lives in this beautiful yet burden filled Cow Dam.
I have decided to try a pictorial essay on the part of New Amsterdam commonly called Cow Dam. It is my intention to show some photos of what is a trip in my every day life on the bicycle to the backside of New Amsterdam. I hope you see many things as I do every time I go for a visit.
This is a road that leads back to Cow Dam. It is made of a broken rock conglomerate, which seems like a terrible idea as I bounce down its irregular surface, worse even than the cobblestone streets near another place I have called home in Philadelphia. But when the heavy rains come and every street floods, this material stays roughly intact. In other words you don't have to plunge barefoot through calf high mud, which is the case on any road that is smooth and dirt. This road was dirt just two years ago. Everyone says it is a great improvement. Like every road in New Amsterdam it is traveled by people on foot, on bike, and the occasional car, as well as inhabited by donkeys, goats and cows.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Monday, May 14, 2007
The sun was going down at the Maipaima Eco-lodge and flamboyant scarlet Macaws the size of eagles were flying overhead and settling into the tops of the heavily vined trees that surrounded me. I was reclining in a chair, sipping a cup of after dinner cocoa while peacefully watching this strange new world convert itself into night. The chair was on a raised wooded platform, abutting the central thatch covered Benab in the middle of a cleared circle of the tropical rainforest. The circle was about 200 yards in diameter, beyond which vision was cut off completely by the darkening wall of the ancient woods. Miriam was inside washing the dishes from the dinner I had prepared (Chicken ala Orange- the chicken carried in with us raw, wrapped in newspaper, the orange picked from a tree in a nearby village).
There was a sudden alarm raised by some unseen birds nesting nearby, followed by a long sustained roar. The sound originated from close enough that it distracted me from the neon spotted preying mantis on the rail in front of me, which I had been watching eat a squirming insect head. It occurred to me that it actually was possible that the noise was coming from a terrifically large wild cat that was very close. My first impression was enhanced by the sight of Griffin and Harper (two young men from Nappi village) who came running out of the forest very close to the sounds origin. They, however, didn’t keep running to the security of the Benab, as I would have thought prudent, but turned almost immediately and disappeared back into the wall of green, headed, I guessed, closer to the sound. Well Griffin was our guide, he had walked us in the 7 miles from the openness of the savannah and talked with knowledge about every tree we passed, and Harper was the caretaker of the lodge for the month on the rotating village schedule, so I figured if they wanted to rush into the darkening forest towards a sound which makes me nervous in a zoo, then they must know what they’re doing.
I took another sip of my cocoa and resumed my observation of, what I might have failed to stress, was truly a ferocious, neon spotted preying mantis, which was at that very moment ripping the flesh from a still living creature. Sure it was only about two inches long, but up close, real close like I was now, its mandibles were extremely vicious and moved with lighting speed.
Griffin came running back out of the forest; Harper didn’t reappear. The birds started screaming again in alarm; the jaguar paused in its maiming of Harper and roared again. Griffin saw me and started yelling excitedly and motioning for me to hurry over. I got up slowly from my chair, cocoa still in hand. I didn’t feel the need to rush into anything, I hadn’t after all told them to go into the Jungle (lets drop this educated rainforest crap) after a Tiger in the dark. Griffin’s shout became audible.
“A family of Howler monkeys is right near by, do you want to see them?”
Oh. Monkeys. We had been hearing them all day long declare the hour at their eternally set times. Monkeys, nice, not as cool as a Jaguar of course…But Monkeys in the neighborhood, that’s great. I started to take another sip of my cocoa. Then it occurred to me that Howler monkeys are large primates that live entirely in the tops of trees, hundreds of feet off the ground, and if I hurried I could actually see some before it got completely dark, because they were only a few hundred feet away. I ran through the kitchen and told Miriam and we both ran out across the sand of the clearing and into the rainforest close on the barefoot heels of Griffin. We dodged around roots and over logs, through a rain gully or two, and then stood still straining our necks upwards trying to locate them way up in the canopy. In the quiet, just before my eyes made out the first hanging silhouette, I realized that both Miriam and I were barefoot as well: barefoot in the jungle at dusk, looking up into the trees for monkeys.
Ever since we learned we would be coming to Guyana, Miriam and I had been hoping to get into the interior. Not that the majority of Guyanese get a chance to see the savannahs and rainforests of their own country in their lifetimes. For most it is a trip they cannot either afford to make or don’t feel compelled to take. But for us now nearing our time of departure we had begun to think seriously about how we could make a trip. A few casual conversations had put us in the enviable position of having a Guyanese family decide to take us under their wing and show us some of the variety of their land. A woman in the Lutheran church up the Corentyne had a sister who lived in an Amerindian village called Nappi, located in the Rupununi Savannah at the foot of the Kanuku mountains, near the town of Lethem on the boarder with Brazil. If we could get to Lethem they would meet us there. If you’ve ever been shown the overwhelming hospitality of the Guyanese, you will already realize that we were going to be shepherded and given to feel like family from the moment we met the first relative in Georgetown until we were returned to our own home in Stanleytown.
Anita, the woman from the church, first met us in Georgetown at the ticketing office. She gave us some materials to take with us to give to her sister Eleanor in Nappi: yards of mosquito netting mostly. Anita had waited at the ticketing office for over three hours for us as the Berbice river ferry had broken down and delayed us considerably. We purchased our bus tickets, which are not available in advance except at a small unmarked office miles from the bus depot and then only on the day of the journey, and even then the woman behind the desk shook her head and said it was impossible, before printing out tickets for us a moment later after some amount of silence (just a hint never ask why it is not possible just wait quietly for a few minutes and often it is easily done, I can’t explain it that is just how it is with paper work here in Guyana, saying anything makes it worse). A niece picked us up and drove us to her sister’s house, which was a block from the bus station (these women were both daughters of Eleanor). We stored our bags there for the afternoon and then took a quick shower later that evening before getting on the bus, and then another a week later when we would get off the return bus considerably hotter in the mid afternoon sun. As I said we were shepherded.
To enter the bus station is to suddenly feel like you are in South America. The costal areas of Guyana do not evoke South America. Everyone speaks English and the population makes me think I am either in India or Africa, or even an island in the Caribbean, but not South America. But once in the bus station, the language changes to Portuguese and the people buying tickets are suddenly now either Brazilians, with their instantly recognizable sense of style and quick, smooth sensuality, or Amerindians, whose features you see in everyone in the country even though they themselves are fairly hidden on the coast. There were two older Amerindian women who stood silently in line in front of us waiting to check in. They both wore dark blocky wrap around sunglasses, even though it was nighttime. In fact they kept them on the entire trip and the blankness of their eyes contributed to a perception of great stoicism, which I often project onto those who carry themselves with such repose. I later learned that cataracts are quite common in the remote villages (perhaps due to diet) and more than likely it was for this reason that the women wore the dark glasses, which I have also seen on my own grandmother before and after her cataract surgery. But on that night, in the waterfall of Portuguese and amidst the peacocks of a new country, I thought the grandmothers were observing much on the sly and I envied them their unobstructed vision.
If you have taken a Greyhound bus for any length of time across the United States, then you will understand something of the trip that took us in for the next 18 hours. I personally have taken many Greyhound trips, some of which lasted many days, and I consider then some part of my education on America. Likewise I would recommend this bus trip, at least one way. If you can afford the plane fare, I would be envious of the trip back from Lethem over the vast track of rainforest, but without driving through it I am not sure how it is possible to understand the actual distance.
As I said the trip started out as something familiar. The BMW bus was comfortable with large seats and overhead compartments. No chemical toilet on board, so none of the unpleasantness of the smell near the back seats where we had been assigned. We drifted off to sleep on the Linden highway, which is the best-paved road in the country, and I only woke again after we stopped in Linden itself. A stop in the middle of the night on some back street in a middle sized town. Hazily remembered except for the vastness of the lit up and operating open pit mines that surround the town. These mines are what produce the great quantity of dust that flies so liberally in Lethem that peoples eyes start to develop creeping patches of scar tissue in the corners, which slowly grow over the pupil and render them blind. The eye seeks to protect itself from the ravaging of the earth, while the raw materials get shipped down river and then made into aluminum in some other country.
Then much drifting in and out of sleep through the bumps, as the road became dirt shortly after Linden and darkness took over all around. Around two in the morning we stopped at a building with bathrooms and snacks and nothing else to be seen in any direction but more darkness and the shadowy outlines of high encroaching trees.
Sleeping upright in a seat, weither it be on a bus, car, plane or train, is an acquired skill. I learned it best when I was a cab driver in my early twenties. After a few months on the job I could tip back the seat just slightly, cross my ankles underneath me, and drift off with the radio receiver in my hand, only disturbed when I heard my car number squawked out by dispatch. It is a form of meditation done properly.
As the dawn’s light started creeping in I began to realize that I was not on a Greyhound bus. The road had gotten extremely narrow in the night and heavily rutted. Both sides of the road were lined by hundred foot tall trees, any low spots in the track were standing water. The driver apparently considered this a mandate for appalling speed (in the rainy season the bus probably needs as much momentum as it can get to wade through the water holes). The result was that we were hurtling through a tunnel of trees, with light and vision flickering nauseatingly and branches reaching in through open windows tearing at flesh, all while plunging up and down with the unexpectedness of a carnival ride. People were starting to vomit. I had the worrying sense that I might just join them at any minute. I locked my eyes forward down the aisle and out the front windshield in an attempt to settle my stomach and so that at least I would see our impending death as it rounded the next blind corner. But looking down the aisle was not dissimilar to being in heavy seas on a large vessel. The horizon dipped in and out of view and my stomach tried to hide each time in my throat. The only possibility was to close my eyes and practice that meditation I preached a moment ago. Occasionally bags would work themselves loose from the overhead compartments and fling themselves violently on those at peace below.
We came to a river in the middle of the morning and got out to watch the barge make its way across to us. Boards were laid out at rivers edge, where the bus and a large truck backed down and across them onto the barge, where there were more boards thrown across huge gaps in the steel decking. The passengers all stood by the railings and tried not to be crushed by the loading vehicles. A small motorboat pushed its nose against the side of the barge to turn it around in the current and then the pilot took us across. A nice hour long diversion in the fresh air, then back on board the space mountain roller coaster for a few more hours, till suddenly, with the abruptness of a line, the trees stopped and we were in the wide open savannah. Instantly grasslands stretched out towards distant hills and my vision was unobstructed because the only trees were scrubbed cashew trees, which had dispersed themselves evenly as far as my eye could see.
In the open, and on the sandy smoother roads, the driver really let loose. I didn’t realize you could four-wheel drift a bus with eight wheels, but, on those winding roads with nothing to hit, the driver repeatedly proved it could be done. Occasionally we came to small creeks crossed by narrow slat board bridges exactly wide enough for six out of our eight wheels. Once we all got out and walked over before the driver crept across all alone while we watched the bus sway precipitously.
Before we arrived in Lethem we stopped by the side of the river, which is the border with Brazil. All the Brazilians got off and went through customs in a canvas tent set up on the side of the road. Two large pillars of a steel bridge rose out of either side of the river, but it was hard to tell if they were being worked on currently or had been abandoned. Somebody is going to need to build a pillar in the middle of the river for it to be finished. Currently there are small boats to take you across to Brazil, all of which I am sure only cross at this point and then seek out the little tent for their approval. What we had seen is the road, which connects the capital of Guyana to Brazil. It is about 500 Kilometers long and takes about 18 hours on those days when it is passable at all. There is no road at all connecting Georgetown with Guyana’s northern neighbor Venezuela.
The streets of Lethem are wide, like any western town with more land than it knows what to do with. After winding around town, dropping off almost everyone else on the bus at their front doorstep, we got off finally, crossed the street and were met by another relative (this time a son who works for the Guyanese Geology and Mines Commission). He had someone take us in the back of a pick-up truck to an empty house where we could stay the night. When we arrived at the house a woman came over from somewhere nearby and showed us how to use the shower and pointed out the large pot of food that she had made for us to eat. We were stunned by all of this, which was completely unarranged by us and freely given. The son stopped by and said he would come get us in the morning. Miriam and I walked around town for awhile and then sat on a cement bench on the edge of town and watched the sun go down and the mountains fade from view. It felt like we were on the mesa in Taos, New Mexico and we were instantly at ease in this new, but familiar topography.
In the morning we loaded into the back of the pick-up truck with our packs, two five-gallon bottles of water, and two frozen chickens. Eleanor’s son had suggested we buy chicken when we asked if we should bring any food in with us. The water is the privilege of the traveler, yet at the same time the stigmatism of the alien: our bodies will reject the water that is clean to you. We thundered out of Lethem holding our hats against the wind, eyes squinting, teeth tasting dirt.
Riding fast across the open expanse of a savannah in the back of a pick-up truck is, I believe, one of the great pleasures in life. It makes you understand why dogs are so damned happy to go for a car ride. Once after being in the mountains for 14 days away from the human world, I hitched a ride on a small county road in Northern California in the back of a pick-up truck. At that moment I might as well have been an astronaut, such was the expansiveness of the worlds suddenly zipping by my eyes. After a time the chicken started to thaw and the pink water began to roll around the bed of the truck mixing with our packs. But in the back of a pick-up truck that kind of thing just doesn’t really matter, because it is necessary to concentrate pretty hard on just staying IN the back of the pick-up truck as the driver unleashes across a dirt expanse with the cavalier freedom of the raised axle four by four.
The road crossed draws, which would be four foot full in the rainy season, and wound through eight-foot high conical termites mounds. After about forty-five minutes the clouds started to close around us and hard fat drops fell. The driver stopped the truck and put our bags inside the cab and kicked the younger passenger out to the back to make room for Miriam and I to sit, her on my lap, inside the cab. It was tempting to turn down the offer and pretend that it didn’t matter to us if we got soaked. But we had no idea what we were going to, and showing up wet didn’t seem like an intelligent choice, so we gratefully accepted and drove through the rain while the young man stood outside, erect like a bird letting the water bead down his back. It is little gestures like this that put me into my place of honor here and remind me that I shall forever return the hospitality of strangers to those who are strangers in my home.
Nappi Village is one of three villages in the Macushi territory on the Northwestern side of the Kanuku Mountains. The center of the village is on a small rise and consequently looks over the wide grasslands around it that is dotted with numerous homes. There are two gigantic Mango trees, which provide shade and snacks to the school children of the nursery and primary school located with-in a stones throw of their heavy laden branches (for one school day we took successive classes outside under these trees and sang songs with them and told the story of How the Macaw Got His Colored Wings, which I had perfected on the walk out of the rainforest after having my first real glimpse of these birds just before the monkeys came roaring). There are also three churches in various states of construction, which was surprising for such a small population, and according to Eleanor was also causing some division in the community. I suggested that perhaps we should stay away from all three so as to not enter into the division, but Eleanor put paid to my sly attempt to skip out on church by quickly announcing that we were her visitors so we would attend the Catholic church the next morning. We did attend that Sunday morning service, done in both English and Macushi, while the breeze fluttered the pieces of colored cloth and cut strips of newspaper that truly beautifully decorated the space overhead with the spirit.
It is a small place, Nappi Village, less than 500 people I’d hazard to guess. There are no electricity lines here at all. The water comes from wells dug in the ground or is collected from the sky. The truck we rode in on was the only vehicle I saw that week, besides bikes, a motorbike or two, and bullock carts. The main forms of transportation across the 35 km into Lethem are bicycle and oxcart. We had seen a farmer, loaded up with 100 lbs of plantains, pedaling into the Lethem market as we were coming in that afternoon. When Eleanor was the head teacher not that long ago, she would take a bullock cart into Lethem and back spending the entire day on the road to pick up the teachers salaries. The houses are made with either a local adobe brick or an imported red brick and they are roofed tightly with the fronds of a local palm and occasionally the rust ready zinc. There were no mosquitoes, or at least so few that we could count them, which was freeing in a way that I’d forgotten. It was currently the end of a dry season though and we learned that it was a different story during the rains. About one in five villagers get malaria in their live and those often more than once. In the rainy season sometimes it is not easy at all to get to Lethem and even the paths in the surrounding area can be under thigh-high water. As with the blocky dark glasses on the bus passengers, I can place an unflinching gaze on the faces of the villagers of Nappi as they look towards the immortal sunset from under their thatch covered doorways.
Three quarters of a mile from the village center we were dropped at a house surrounded by palm trees and set against the glorious panorama of the Kanuku Mountains. Grandma Eleanor came out to meet us. I overplay this just a little tiny bit, but I can think of no other way to describe the hospitality given to us by this wonderful woman: a bed in her house, home-cooked meals, long talks on her porch, and introductions to all her friends. We learned just small fragments of her life over the course of those conversations. Although not originally from the village of Nappi, and of east Indian decent, Eleanor has lived in the Rupununi for 36 years or more and raised nine children here. She came originally as a schoolteacher. She lives alone now, so much a part of the village that she is on the council of elders, and her husband and children, who live in Georgetown, come back to Nappi, to Eleanor, and to their original home whenever work and money allow. It was this home that became our home for the week. We slung up hammocks outside on the porch and swung in them for hours reading and looking up occasionally with disbelief that we were near the mountains again.
On great aspect of Eleanor’s house was that she had a generator, one of two in the area. Every night, a little after dusk, a neighbor would ride over on his bike and fire up her generator for her. Plus she had a television. So every night children and adults came over and sat around for a few hours watching images from around the world. We would meet people on the road during the day walking barefoot and driving oxen, talk a little and then say goodbye, only for them to say, “I’ll be over later for the show”. It was like a cinema in the days before television. At the end of the show the generator would be turned off; the whole world quieted with only the heavenly bodies as light, in and among humans dwelling.
After two days of walking around the village, laying in the hammocks reading, eating tasty food and watching the evening show, Eleanor decided that we were rested from the bus ride and made arrangements for a man we had met named Giles to take us on a walk into the mountains, to the headwaters of Nappi creek. She gave us directions to his house and we set off in the morning behind a bullock cart loaded with school children.
This way my first chance to look closely at the construction of these two wheeled carts. The axle a single golden rod of the trunk of a hardwood tree, the wheels cross-cut disks: two sturdy things put together with hand tools and rolled across rocky roads and through waist high creeks by a team of oxen. It takes a certain amount of disbelieving witness to remember that wheels, good wheels, can be made without metals.
We turned off at Giles path and he came out of his home to greet us, threw on a shirt, grabbed a small cloth bag in one hand, a cutlass in the other, and off we went. Never did find out what was in that bag, but I learned pretty quickly to stay a few yards back from Giles as his cutlass arm struck quickly and with out warning at anything starting to invade the path. I must also mention that Giles wore no shoes.
We learned that everyday Giles walks five miles back and forth to his farm barefoot. Earlier I had noticed the children of the village playing football, some with a ball others with an empty plastic coke bottle ½ filled with rocks. The children were running full speed on a rock-strewn pitch and kicking a rock-filled bottle as hard as they could with bare feet. The villagers of Nappi have tough feet.
I, on the other hand, do not. Though my favorite footwear is a pair of flip-flops, and though I’ve been known to wear these until the snow builds up a few feet, I have been a ginger foot all my life. A gravel road might just as well be broken glass for the slow steady way in which I must place my bare feet upon it and limp across. For this hike I was wearing my only pair of shoes that were not flip-flops- my football boots. I have written previously about how these shoes give me pretty bad blisters if I do not tape my feet. So now I was following a barefoot older man into the forest with tape wrapped around my pale dainty toes and shoes on top of that. To make matters worse, at first we were just walking in savannah lowland and the path was muddy and blocked by large pools. So while Giles just barefooted though them, I had to jump around looking for a roughly dry spot to land on if I wanted to have dry shoes, which I did.
At the line where the forest started the world was quickly blocked out by that all encompassing green that still makes me a little nervous. The path narrowed and then became many paths, all of them about equally used. The paths are not hiking trails but ways to get from one section of farm to another. We might have been able to find the headwaters, if there was a map, but we most likely would have walked in circles a few times in the process. Farther in the path became less clear, less packed dirt and more tangled with potentially sharp things to step upon (there is one type of seed that falls from a tree that looks as if it is specifically designed to impale a wayward barefoot). Giles’ pace didn’t slow at all. We crossed the Nappi creek once; Giles and Miriam (who had highly engineered sandals on) waded straight across, while I picked my way across hopping from rock to rock. I was feeling pretty good about my dry feet until five minutes later when we had to re-cross the creek and there were now no rocks to hop upon. I waded across resigned and, it might have been my imagination, but I thought I saw Giles give a grin. He didn’t talk much that whole day so I took every gesture as significant. We continued picking our way across stones and traveling on top of root systems as much as on the ground and I became convinced that Giles feet were made of something other than flesh.
In the end we came to a waterfall in a channel carved through stone and Miriam and I stripped down and dove into the coldest clearest water we have seen in Guyana. I know some people like the ocean, and others large lakes, but give me a cold mountain river flowing over boulders and I’ll pick it every time. The headwaters of Nappi creek turned out to look something like any number of rivers on the North Shore of Minnesota and we ate hardboiled eggs and peeled a summit orange with the growing knowledge that the unfamiliar can turn out quite familiar after all.
On the way out we swung by Giles’ farm: a number of different hectares burnt out of the jungle at different intervals over the years and at different stages of crop planting. Again at first it appeared very unusual to our new eyes: Banana trees and Cassava trees against the back wall of the tropical rainforest, and such rapid hungry growth that I couldn’t make out sweet potatoes from the invading forest eager to reclaim its land. But as my eyes adjusted I found corn stalks in among the unknown vertical vines, and squash spreading out in competition with the tentacles of the forest floor, and finally tomatoes staked out with their green morsels just starting to speckle red. I did not know that slash and burn rainforest agriculture would be so familiar as a tomato. Giles showed us his main living quarters on the farm, a simple two walled structure with a thatched roof. He used to live here all the time with his wife and children, but when the kids became old enough to attend the village school he moved closer into the village so that he would have to commute to the farm and not them to school.
As we crossed the creek one last time heading back, I noticed that Giles’ right foot had two small cuts, just nicks really, but red and soft, newly made from that days walk. My own feet were now about at the point of blistering and as we walked, and as the path became a little smoother, I remembered a season in Vermont farming in a muddy clay barefoot everyday, flip-flops discarded till the ½ mile walk down the gravel road to home. I let Miriam and Giles get ahead of me and then stripped off my wet shoes, my wetter socks, and that athletic tape which I had sheepishly re-applied after the waterfall swim while Giles looked on. I strapped the shoes to the outside of my pack and put one foot in front of the other, so to speak.
The earth was cool and instantly soothing. Mud squished between my toes and made me slip here and there, but I only went down once. And I did step on something fairly prickly under my right little toe, but I picked it our pretty quick without even really trying and kept going on down the path. Turns out there isn’t anything particularly unusual about the material that makes up the feet of the villagers of Nappi. They just don’t start with the assumption that shoes are necessary. They start by placing their souls directly on the earth.
Sometime after Easter I received a gift of a cross with the instructions that I could keep it or give it to who ever I choose. I don’t own many crosses personally, though it is a symbol that I have lived with all my life. The only cross I can think of that I claim ownership to is one that I use for a clang inside a clay fired bell hung above our door to announce the arrival of the stranger. The gift cross is wooden and has a painting on it. The painting is of a man walking on a path with a cutlass in his hand. Technically the man has on flip-flops, but then again I do like flip-flops. In the painting there are large trees, mountains, and pathways through the mountains. There is a field of corn. I think I shall keep this cross, as I could not have a better souvenir from my time spent in Nappi village at the foot of the Kanuku Mountains. It hangs in our kitchen and reminds me of one of the ways that it is possible for my brothers and sisters to live.
Saturday, May 05, 2007
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Maipaima ecolodge, Nappi Village.
Miriam and I were taken into this fantastic setting seven miles inside of the Kanuku mountain. A easily walkable dirt road connects the village of Nappi to the Eco-lodge. Private bedrooms, a fabulous kitchen, flush toilets, and a river runs around it for constant swimming and bathing. This lodge is open for tourists and is pretty amazing. Using this as a base the rest of the bush is at your feet especially with a local guide. On the one night we stayed here a family of Howler Monkeys strolled by in the tree tops right next door yet 300 feet overhead. I would strongly suggest trying to come to Guyana and stay in the Kanuku Mountains, I have a hard time imagining a better eco-tourist destination. The place has not seen very many visitors and is very remote, yet completely accessible for just about any physical ability. The possibilities of trips farther into the Mountains are spectacular. For more information try: Conservation International, or Foster parrots, or contact the lodge itself at email@example.com Make sure you go in the dry season though as otherwise the area can be underwater.
Watching the life of the Bush gather in the tree-tops. At dusk the bush comes alive and in the clearing of the Nappi Eco-Lodge the ability to look clearly in a 360 makes for amazing viewing. In the morning sit back and drink coffee, while the Macaws fly by and the Howler Monkeys stroll the heights. This location is ideal to start longer trips into the bush. The Kanuku Mountains are said to have the most species diversity in the country. It would be easy to spend two weeks here relaxing in the clearing during the dusk and dawn and hiking all over the bush during the day.
The main living area at Giles farm in the Kanuku mountains. Giles and his family farm at least four different slash and burn small plots in the middle of otherwise dense forest. The plots are of different age and are used on a rotating basis for a number of years and then left to grow back into the bush. Giles used to spend most nights here, but as his children got to school age he moved to a house nearer to the village so that he and not his children would have to walk the five miles or so one way every day.
Eleanor's house. The kitchen is the structure on the left. Miriam is reclining in one of the hammocks. The dog's name is spot. Water was collected off the metal roof, or brought up in buckets from the hand dug well a little ways off. It rained enough while we where there so that we didn't have to haul any water. But taking bucket baths in the wide open Savannah was a great way to get clean.
The Kitchen of our host/grandmother Eleanor. It is a fantastic space, seperate from the house in a building made of a type of adobe brick and palm roof, it has a huge table and two stoves. The nine children that she raised in this kitchen certainly ate well if they ate anything like we did. I dream of having a kitchen like this one day.
Saturday, March 24, 2007
I am not an early mover in the morning, never have been. Generally I prefer to sleep until the sun has had time to reacquaint itself with the sky. I leave the virginal rapture of the sunrise to the Dawnists and content myself with the more tranquil termination of day into night, which the dusk proceeds. The colors are after all the same. “But the morning is such a peaceful time.”, some, like my spouse, would retort. And I couldn’t agree more- nothing like peace and quiet for a pleasant sleep.
The only exceptions to my prejudice against seeing the sunrise, which have proven consistent over the course of my life to this point, are either those evenings when I have managed to stay awake all through the night or when I am going on a trip. When I was a small child in Nebraska I remember the hazy time period of the pre-dawn when my parents would lift me from my bed and shuttle me to the packed Volkswagen bus, where I would fall back to sleep on the floor sharing the inside of flannel sleeping bag with my sister and brother. When we awoke again, miles had gone by underneath our heads, we were much closer to Chicago, and family, and Christmas, and the day was indeed a different and exciting place to enter into. Other mornings in the mountains, in the wee hours of an alpine start, I have gladly jumped out of the sleeping bag into the day’s fresh chill, downed a quick hot cup of tea, and gone ever upwards through rock and snow until at last reaching the High Point: if I were allowed to see it that day. There I would sit still and quiet in the exposure: everything dropping away. Then back down again to safety before the storm came or the night fell. On these days it was imperative to rise early, the outcome of the day, perhaps even the safety of my person depended on an early start.
While in Guyana I have been starting my days on average around 7:00 (5:30 on Sundays of course), mostly having to do with the proximity of our rooster to the bedroom window and Miriam’s regularity with making a cup of coffee. I can not say it has ever felt necessary to be up at that time, it simply seems like what is expected in this land when the sun always rises around 6:15 give or take a half-hour. Day comes so you rise; shinning is not required. But last Friday the prospect of rising before the dawn in order to meet Braks and the rest of Congo-Nya at the ferry terminal for the first boat to Georgetown had me bouncing out of the bed. Here again was a chance to move before the sun, to climb towards a place where I might find something new to listen to in the quiet of the High Point( if it were to be reveled to me) past now not the Rock and Ice, but the sun and city of this tropical costal capital in South America. As the blind Reverend Gary Davis sings, for this weekend at least: I belong to the band Halleluiah.
The Cricket World Cup has started to take over the country of Guyana. It started last week with the West Indies defeating Pakistan. In the Caribbean everyone celebrated, in Pakistan (especially when the team lost their next game to Ireland) people rioted, burned the team in effigy and threatened the autocratic cricket team selection board with overthrow. Interestingly the political climate in Pakistan also suggests that the military dictatorship is in trouble. It is not a stretch to say that the Cricket World Cup can influence political events. Not really knowing anything about cricket before moving here I can understand that Americans perhaps have not even heard that this event was being held. It is in fact the third largest sporting event held globally after the Olympics and the Football World Cup. A lot of people are flying from around the world to the islands to watch matches for a month’s time. Guyana, because it really is an island in the Caribbean, which happens to also be attached to a mostly unpopulated rainforest section of the continent of South America, is part of this event. Starting on the 28th of March, 8 games will be played in a brand new stadium, financed by India, in Georgetown during the second round of the tournament. The government is placing the growth of the tourism industry and even Guyana’s future on the ability to host these games. Georgetown is going through a massive clean up in order to make it hospitable for foreigners. Hotels are being built and upgraded, roads are being repaired, and there has even been some talk about installing traffic lights and garbage cans. Braks has been talking about going to Georgetown for some time now and it is in order to get a feel for what is going on in the city in the weeks leading up to the games here that we headed down on Friday. Most simply put the event is exciting, but also a possible way for the band to actually make some money.
I showed up at the ferry at 5:30 for the 6:00 first boat. This of course is ridiculous here in Guyana, being early, but I still get a little nervous about time. You would think that weeks of watching school children slowly dribbling into class for the first two hours of every school day would set me straight with what time means here, but I cling to start time as always. Everybody else showed up by 6:30. The boat had just stopped loading by that point and the large two story gates had been closed and locked. It is an interesting moment at the ferry; the crowd is somewhat arbitrarily cut in two by a large fence even though nobody on either side is going anywhere as the boat has already been loaded. Sometimes a person will be able to convince someone to open the gate by the not so subtle use of explicative combined with apparent personal power, but mostly everyone is either locked in or locked out. The crowd stands around talking to each other, and passing things through the links, and then the boat leaves and the gates are opened and the crowd becomes one again. I don’t understand it, but there is a lot I don’t understand down here. Cast upon new ground, first realize that you know nothing.
I had spent most of the time waiting sitting on a set of wooden bleachers off to the side watching the constant flow of people. It was fun to realize that I knew a good many of the people walking around this foreign city in the early morning. There were two buses full of my fifth form Tutorial students on their way to Georgetown for a field trip, a few little children from Miriam’s parish with their mothers, market venders, taxi drivers, a doctor, and my newspaperman. It was good for me to start early on my weekend practice of sitting still and watching the world pass until somebody else told me it was time to move on. I wasn’t quite there yet, I was fidgety, kept getting up and walking around, trying to get comfortable, not being sure where I should stand, then returning to the bleachers off to the side to attempt to observe unobtrusively. Then the band arrived. Seven men from the age of 17 to 58 carrying drums and bags for travel. As naturally as I could I jumped right in with them, picking up a drum and a bag while moving into step besides Braks. We had missed the first ferry, but that was because Braks wanted to take the smaller passenger transport instead. I hadn’t known it existed, but then again I know nothing.
I have tried before to explain some of the monetary values of the Guyanese economy, usually the exchange rate and that sort of simple building block. What I perhaps have not stressed enough is that there really is no work, especially for the poor young black men who make up the band. They have not been shown much in the way of education by the school system, but even if they had been their options are pretty bleak. Maybe a clerk’s job at a store along with thirty others waiting on five customers. Or perhaps a governmental job with say the post office, or the schools, hospitals, or police. All these pay at an average of less than a hundred dollars a month. The electric bill at our house where we mostly just have a fridge and a few lights runs about 25 dollars a month. What happens is that just about anyone who can get an education and then pull all the right strings leaves the country to find work abroad. The remainder of the young men are part of a large pool of unskilled labour and are treated as so many mules- weither it is cutting sugar cane all day in the fields with a machete or mixing cement in huge piles by hand in the middle of the street for hours on end for the occasional house that is being built by someone with overseas funding. The lucky ones are those who get to actually do this punishing labour, everybody else has to figure out someway to get a little cash to live. While sitting in the house some days I think to myself that I am strange. I sit inside the house many days reading and writing not going anywhere at all. Then I look out the window and see that in every other house there are men and women of all ages sitting in their houses or on their porches day after day not going anywhere at all. The only strange part about me is that I don’t need to be making money while I am here and I will continue to eat. That and come August I will be going somewhere. In this economic context the Conga-Nya Cultural Foundation is not only a keeper of the communities culture, but a very necessary employer. I have been going around to the schools in the area with the band for about a month. The show that they provide for the children and staff of these schools is a great event in the school year and one of the best things I have seen happening in these schools which all too often are chaos and mental drudgery. The average amount that the band gets paid for each show is probably around 6,000 Guyanese dollars. Take out 1,000 for transportation, divide the rest somehow between the six members of the band (not even including Braks the leader in the cut) and maybe everyone walks away with 800 Guyanese. That’s about four dollars U.S. The work is not consistent and it don’t really pay, what do you say want to join up? Or course it beats shoveling concrete.
Now here we all were headed to the capital to get a feel for what was going on. New world and new situations, for me as well as for some of the members of the band who had not done this before either. I was glad for the time I’ve spent talking with Braks and sitting in his home often times for hours with nothing in particular to do. I felt that our friendship had been allowed the time to grow in trust and openness that made it possible for me to accompany then on this trip to Georgetown. As much as I like to think I am a good guy to have around, Braks was only adding to his burdens by inviting me into the group. An extra person to squeeze in a bus, an extra person to house, an extra person to feed.
Right before I left the house I realized that we only had 3,500 guyanese dollars left. 18 dollars US for two days in a capital city didn’t seem like a very significant amount of money. I took all of it and figured I would go to the bank sometime in the weekend because, well I can, I have a bank account, unlike everyone else in the band except for maybe Braks. Besides I had heard that supposedly the city now had ATM machines that would take foreign bank cards, for the tourist of course, and I was interested in seeing if I could actually simply walk up to a machine and take out cash with my plastic. When you haven’t done that for a while it is pretty amazing when it works again.
Immediately I gave Braks 700 Guyanese for transportation to Georgetown enjoyed the fast river crossing (have to take that boat more often), and then jumped into a Volkswagen bus with everyone else. I rode the whole way with a drum between my legs and my head banging the roof on the bumps, but it was a pretty comfortable ride all told. I knew everyone in the bus, the driver only sped when it was appropriate and the music blasting out of the speakers was at least good. One of the popular songs at the moment came on as we neared Georgetown. Everyone perked up and smiled widely as we all sang loudly with the Chorus. “I’m gonna get on a plane with my baby one day and fly, fly, fly away. I’m gonna get on a plane one day with my baby and fly, fly, fly away.” I’ll admit that the thought made me pretty happy and that for me at least it was also true.
The driver dropped us off at the corner of Regent Street and Camp Street. Congo-Nya had played this corner many times. It is in a busy shopping district and it had provided good money. This is what we were going to do in order to get a feel for what the streets were like, set up on a corner and start playing. We piled up the bags on the concrete and I sat on mine and read the paper becoming the guard of our stuff in the busy street. The band looked around for a few things to sit on: a broken chair, a crate, a plastic packing case, and some cardboard to rest the bass drum on. They set up a stand with handmade crafts, mostly beaded jewelry that they spend off days making. They squeezed over for a woman who obviously was a vendor on the street often. She started to set up her cardboard stands and pulled out underwear, socks and slippers to sell along with all the other little street stands that sell underwear, socks and slippers. A man showed up with two wooden cases filled with watches and some vague plastic items. He opened up and started to set up on the other side of us. At one point he told the band he needed a little more room and the bass player squeezed over, the bags got piled higher up, and I stood up and moved out of the way. Somebody handed me a cowbell and a stick.
Braks took up his shaker, which was made from a calabash tree in his yard, and the band started hitting the drums.
The reaction from the people passing by was pretty incredible. Braks would stand on one side of the sidewalk, facing the band and point occasionally to a box on the street with a slot for money. Men and women would start dancing as they walked by. Braks knew everyone and almost everyone smiled at him and put money in the box as he exhorted. “A donation for Culture, Support Culture.” I stood out front near the street, turned towards Braks my back leaning on a concrete column. A guy named Bunny stood on the other side of him playing a long piece of bamboo. Eventually I got over my shyness and started trying to play the cowbell. I have no idea how to play a cowbell. I felt like I had a pretty good little three beat swinging flourish going there for a while, trying to at least move in time to the music and not make too much noise with my instrument as it was sounding kind of like a dull piece of metal being hit with a chopstick. Actually I was pretty proud of myself; I had never played with a band on the streets before. I was pretty proud that is until later in the day when a guy named Blackie picked up the cowbell and started hitting it with a plastic lighter. Somehow he made the thing sound like the heavy strings of an electric guitar twanging out a surf rock riff, and I again realized that I know nothing.
We played for about two hours, taking a few five-minute breaks in there. The band members are all talented musicians and it amazes me how they can make impressive percussion music for hours without ceasing. Invariably I would loose the beat and drift away. Only to hear them steadily playing onwards on the right note, all the while Braks calling out and shaking the gourd like it held the very spirit inside it.
There are police everywhere on the streets of Georgetown. I don’t think this was the case when we first arrived. Since Christmas the government has been increasing the police presence in the shopping district especially and now that the World Cup is here they are very visible everywhere. There are trucks with about 8-10 machine gun armed young men with a military style jersey and a beret who roll by and jump out in twos to walk the street. These guys don’t really talk to anyone; they just try to look as hard as their weapons. The average age might be 20. There are unarmed constables who walk among the people more or less giving orders. And then a variety of other uniformed ranks of different specialties I guess. At one point there were about six armed men standing around us on the corner watching. The police are not the most respected group in the country. In the last week a family in Miriam’s parish was robbed at night by a group of armed gunmen and when the police finally responded, at 8am the next day, the mother felt that she recognized the voice of one of the police as being that of the bandit who had held a gun to her head while she held onto her baby boy and said she didn’t know where the money was hidden. So it was slightly disconcerting to be surrounded by the men with guns, but Braks didn’t seem to be bothered so I just kept hitting my cowbell and smiling.
Out of the blue the watch seller started agitating the bassist to move over another few inches, for all of us to move over so that he could get his stand flush with a window even though it was standing up perfectly straight as it was. It was quite obvious that we had no room to move without packing up. Braks told him that we couldn’t and wouldn’t move anymore. We had gotten there first and the streets were supposedly free territory. The watch seller appealed to the constables and they stepped up to tell the bassist to move. Braks then stop everything and in a calm, but aggressive way, started telling both the watch seller and the police what he thought of the situation.
I had heard that the government had been clearing the streets in certain areas of vendors, and that there was a system of bribes that vendors paid for the police not to move them. It was not he first time Braks and the watch seller had been down this road and I suddenly understood that this was one of the things Braks meant when he said he was trying to get a feel for the streets. He has been playing for years in Georgetown, at official events, schools, and on the streets, providing just the kind of cultural atmosphere that the government has been saying that the city needed to welcome the tourists. Now he wanted to see what that actually meant. Could he play easily on the streets, showing people he was in town and thereby start the process of finding more jobs or would it be a constant hassle. He has had the hassle before. He wasted no time when this one showed up.
Braks obviously did not like the watch seller very much. He did not appreciate him bringing the police into the affair. He stood in the face of the officer and told him that he was sick of the corruption of the police in the country. He called him “a ten cent police- do anything as long as you get your ten cents.” Then Braks started to really get into and I saw again that he has a pretty serious voice in this county and he is very unafraid to let it sing loud. He can become the fullness of the Rastafarian Warrior and his speech is filled with the prophecy that the bible uses for the denouncement of the ruling corrupt world and the uplifting of the righteousness of truth. The constable and his partner said nothing after a few minutes and then they actually backed off and walked away. I don’t think I have ever seen this happen and it seemed like a good victory. But Braks was too hot to be finished and the watchman did his part keeping it up as well. Without warning, perhaps as fed up with the inaction of words as Jesus became in the temple with the moneychangers, he reached over and tore down part of the watch seller’s stall. Unlike Jesus he didn’t break anything, but it was still a clear violation. He shouted with all his fury: “These streets are free for the peoples use, but you have made of them the paths of robbers.” But he realized that he had gone too far and he walked away to simmer down.
The watch seller went to get the police. The police came back, but nobody had seen anything; it must have been an accident. The police left, the watch seller folded up his cases and locked them and then he left. Braks returned and the band started playing again. Shortly a police vehicle pulled up with the watch seller in it. A woman with a uniform of superior rank got out and very calmly told Braks he would have to leave, he could play somewhere else but not here. Everyone started packing up and Braks was smiling and laughing and shaking his head while occasionally repeating the phrase “the stone that the builders refused, will be the corner stone.”
Later I learned that this woman had given him permission to play at that spot. Something had changed. The vendors on this street now pay money to someone, unofficially of course, and so they should get something for their money. Apparently for the watch seller that meant he was entitled to the space right up to the windowsill and wouldn’t settle for a few inches less.
Braks had gotten the taste of the street that he wanted. Now we would move to another spot and see what the reaction was there. We walked as a long train of drums and bags heading towards the Starbroek Market and the heart of the city. Braks confided in me that he would have to go to the Deputy Mayors office in the next week and get a letter from him giving him permission to play anywhere. He was hoping that it wouldn’t have been necessary. I started the band up singing one of their songs called Harmony needing a little myself to take the edge off the encounter where I was merely an onlooker.
Braks stopped us on a side road one half-block from the market. Everyone threw down their gear and sat on the sidewalk while Braks went to talk to the owner of the building. He had played here before, then gotten kicked out, but it was a new owner so who knew. At least there were no vendors around.
The band bought local juices from a guy with a cooler on wheels. All day we drank these juices, which come in a tied plastic bag. You get a little straw and poke it through the plastic and drink while holding the bag with a certain pinch of the forefingers around the straw and the knot. They are all over Guyana. The juice inside is sometimes pineapple passion fruit, or star fruit cherry, or whatever is plentiful at the time, blended with water and cane sugar. They are cheap. You can buy about four times as much juice for the same price as that which comes in sealed bottles. You just have to trust the vendor and his water supply. I had a loaf of bread in my bag, which I took an occasional bite out of, but nobody ever wanted any when I offered it and I didn’t see anyone eat anything else during the day until dinner. Even though they were playing music for about seven hours. Since my time around the group I’ve gotten the impression that there is one meal a day and then whatever juice or fruit you can find.
The new owner gave the go ahead to Braks and soon the band was at it again. More people here, crowds pressing in, men watching from their permanent spots leaning against the walls, children sitting on the curb right at the feet of the drummers, street people dancing crazily and women smiling as they passed on the way towards market. And all the time money coming into the box. I never saw just how much money was made, but I was surprised at how quick people were to add what they could. Probably 8 out of ten people gave something. I think that one explanation is that in this country people carry loose bills in their pockets. There are only four denominations 20, 100, 500 and 1000. The twenty is virtually worthless by itself (10cents) and very easy to take out and put in the box. Loose change. But people were also genuinely respectful of the band and the music. I got the sense that what they were doing, playing on the street, wasn’t that common, or that if it was this band Congo-Nya was the ones who did it. In the end it was a powerful reminder that small amounts of almost useless money, when given by many hands to one collection, has the potential to make a substantial sum. It certainly was a better paying gig then the school jobs and the Ministry of Education sanctioned those. Here all they had to do was avoid the hassle while they hustled just like everyone else for the money for the day.
What did I do this whole time? Amazingly I was able to just stand and sit and watch the world go by as if I did not exist. That sounds not so amazing, but after you’ve been one of the only people that looks like you walking around in an entire city for awhile it is pretty hard to feel invisible. Being part of the band made me anonymous, at least if I didn’t make any sudden movements. The stiller I sat the better. The taxi drivers who swarm the town didn’t pester me, nobody tried to figure out where I was from and tell me how they had been to New York, nobody even asked me for money. I stood on the street in the busy market area and didn’t have to speak or think twice about guarding my person. And what did I see? One of the most entertaining sights in the world for my money: the constant flow of people of many shades interacting. Just sitting still everything dropped away and I could see more clearly. Could see that human beings are beautiful, as beautiful as the most pristine mountain vista.
. At one point I did get up and go with a friend named Rascal to try to see about getting more copies of a brochure I had made up for the foundation. We ended up traveling around the city to different copy shops and at all of them, including the biggest one in the city, we were told that the machine that was needed to make the copies was broken until Monday. While we were traveling in search of the impossible copies Rascal updated me on the health of his mother. I had heard that she had entered the hospital earlier in the week. It turned out that she was dying. By one of those multiplications of misery his son also entered the hospital this week for an illness. Both of them live in New York. Despite many attempts he has been unable to get a visa from the U.S. state department to visit his dying mother and ailing son. He is too poor to demonstrate the type of assets and ties to Guyana that will assure the U.S. government that he is not a risk to overstay his visa and become a dreaded illegal alien. Rascal is well educated man in his fourties. Governments are not as beautiful as people.
The day ended early for the band because nobody had seen the place we were going to sleep and Braks wanted to settle in there before it got dark. So again we picked up and walked away. We walked down the middle of the streets, a larger group now as another drummer had chanced to join the players, and two singers, who did the school tours but lived in Georgetown had also show up. We were headed to a place that one of the singers had arraigned for us to stay. It wasn’t far to walk and the mood was pretty uplifting as we strolled the streets. I noticed a bank and asked Braks if I should stop and get more money. He pointed to the line that wrapped around the block and told me not to worry about money. As it turned out, even after spending 2,000 on transportation, I would return home with 1,000 guyanese left in my pocket. The trip costing me about 10 US dollars total.
I have stayed in Georgetown a few times now. Usually I stay at a guest house, which for Miriam and I costs 5000 guyanese (25 US) a night. Not a bad rate, but also not a possibility for the band. The only way the trip begins to work financially is if they find free lodging. As it turned out the place we were staying was only about 2 blocks from the guesthouse I usually stayed at. We arrived at it unexpectedly. I was simply happily bouncing down the lane.
In the middle of a block there was a series of non-descript wooden houses stacked on top of each other. Hardly noticeable at first glance, there was a walkway going into the middle of these houses with a framed wooden portal, which served as the entry gate. Next to this portal was a small caged shack where we said hello to someone inside I could not make out, and who apparently was on watch at the gate as well as selling little pieces of packaged and homemade food stuffs. We were waved in and started single file through the portal and down a slanted wooden raised walkway missing a quarter of its slats. As we walked farther into the interior of the block the wooden houses started to rise all around us and within twenty steps we were completely surrounded. A young girl was bathing in a bra and panties using a flexible pipe, which was connected to the main water supply. In order to wash her hair she had to bend her head very close to the drainage ditch, which the wooden walkway ran above. We then entered a maze in a confusing narrowing of walls, windows, doors and roofs which all ran together in the urban palate of gray wood, rusted metal, and green mildew floating atop mud. We turned once right, then left. At a concrete pillar holding up a sagging roof corner we turned right again down a narrowing broken pavement alley. In twenty feet there were some plants that had been potted in an absent section of concrete. It looked like a dead end, but everyone ahead disappeared to the left one after another. When I got to the plants the small narrower alley became visible. It was lined on one side by a pockmarked concrete wall and on the other by a fence made of 20 foot high sections of metal roofing standing on end and nailed in place with bleeding nail heads. It was darker suddenly, and the walkway was slanted so precariously, and so narrow that I had to use the concrete wall to pivot my shoulder on with every other step while being constantly mindful of the jagged metal on my other side. At the end of twenty feet of this there was another vertical sheet of zinc, which formed a gate and once inside the gate we were home.
The ten of us filed in past the gate and stood where we could find room on either a set of wooden stairs leading up to a door, or on parts of a wooden platform on the front and side of a little one room roofed house that stood directly in front of us and filled the rest of the space. While Braks went in to inspect the lodging, the rest of us stood against each other in the enclosed space. All around the zinc roofing fence blocked out all view. The sky was cloudy I think, but almost immediately the sense of a sky, or the openness of the sky ceased to be tangible and instead the gray clouds became instead a type of ceiling. Braks came out and declared the place perfect. Just what he wanted a quiet place where he could escape the bustle of the city.
There was one queen-sized bed, space perhaps for 1 person to sleep next to it on the floor and a space at the foot of the bed, between the bed and a defunct stove, where another person could conceivably curl up. That was what four- five people. Outside maybe a person could sleep on the wooden decking in front of the door if they lay diagonally and maybe another on the side next to the fence. Both of these wooden areas, in fact the entire area were above what appeared to be a swamp. Some other members of the band were skeptical. Braks would have none of it; he was grateful for the free spot and made the necessary gestures of appreciation now. “One night is nothing, if need be I’ll sit out here all night while you all cuddle on the bed.” “We’ll sleep in shifts” his son quickly joked. “Four people could sleep under the bed if it came down to it” Braks said quite seriously. Then he turned to the young man who had provided the place for us and declared that for four or five people it was of “International quality”. Of course there were seven of us but we would figure that out when the time came. Bags and Drums were shrugged off shoulders and people picked out a space to sit, while others started getting buckets to haul water from the girls bathing pipe so we to could wash off some of the days dirt and sweat.
Braks went inside and divided up the day’s money, then handed it out to everyone. Bunny went out to get provisions for that nights meal. Everyone settle in, stripping down to vests (undershirts), or changing into a clean shirt after their turn at the bucket. I washed my face and put some lavender oil on my forehead and at the base of my skull. I noticed a stool in my quick glance inside and pulled it out. It was about 5:00. Everyone sat back and let the night move in. From somewhere a TV was placed on the counter inside the room and turned on. It stayed on throughout the night.
We spent the first few hours talking until dinner had been made. When it was ready everyone got a plate heaped with rice and a side of vegetables and Soya chunks. A group of kids and young women from inside the enclosure came in to get some of the food, which had been prepared knowing that they would come. The kitchen was up the wooden stairs and was the back of the singers girlfriends parents house, I think. It looked like any kitchen anywhere: pots, pans, water bottles, Tupperware, sink, stove, fridge. From the top of the stairs the view expanded out a little. I could see that beyond the fence at the back there ran a wide concrete drainage ditch filled with sludge and water but most likely cleaned in the city push for the World Cup. Across the ditch there was a large warehouse with cemented up windows and barbed wire everywhere. Behind the fence on the side was an empty lot about forty feet across and filled with the remains of half burnt dwellings and overgrown bush. The house with the kitchen blocked the view in one direction entirely and a two-story wall without windows was the vista from the front door of the lodging. There was a door under the stairs, which I was told was the entrance to another dwelling place, but it remained closed while I was there.
Neither Braks nor I left the area all night. The other guys came and went, but I wanted to take in as much of the feeling of the enclosure as possible. Plus I had been out in the open on the streets under the bright sun all day so it felt pretty good to be surrounded. Late in the evening I did go back out the narrow passage and to the concrete pillar, but the view only changed in that I could now see more wooden structures, narrow two story places leaning sideways, and many little garden shed, which turned out to be where people slept.
After dinner I learned that the whole place from the guard cage to the back fence was an illegal squatters tenement. Even the nice kitchen was constantly under threat of being torn down. The police had been there already two times that day looking to harass and get what ever they could from whom every they cornered.
Around the city there are many other areas, which have been declared illegal squats even though often times people have been living in these places for decades without assistance from anyone. For the World Cup the government was putting up large freshly painted white walls and then lettering them with advertisements to hide the eyesores from the tourists. Some of the lots are terribly run down, though often not much worse than the legal lots right next to them. Some of the squatters keep immaculate houses and gardens, though most don’t have room to grow food. I didn’t see any men except those in the band the entire time I was there. It appeared that only women and children inhabited the place.
The group sat talking well into the night, seats shifting, sometimes leaning against the wall, other times on a stool, still again with legs crossed and square on the ground. Actually I moved the most. Everyone else had the ability to sit mostly still in one place on the unpadded wood for hours on end.
At some point people started to drift away. One of the singers had a gig that night. Bunny had found a place where four of them could sleep. One or two just disappeared somewhere for the night. Finally Rascal left to go home and it was just Braks, his son Ras LJ and I. We went inside and closed the door and window and watched replays of the days World Cup Cricket matches. Ras LJ took the floor at the end of the bed, curling up on the hammock that he had brought with him. Braks took a small side of the bed near the door and the bedside near the wall was mine. Before falling asleep Braks said “You don’t snore do you, I can’t stand snoring, If you snore I’m gonna be out the door” I sat outside on the hammock I had brought for a little while trying to take in the night and the solitude. I knew that Braks usually woke up around 2 in the morning and then sat alone outside with his thoughts until dawn. It was the only time he ever got to himself.
Eventually I came inside and tried quietly to crawl over Ras lj and into the corner of the bed without making too much motion to wake Braks. I used the hammock for a pillow and my shirt as a cover from the mosquitoes. It was hot inside that little room, the TV played on, and the single naked bulb shone directly in my eyes unless I coved my head with my hat, but I really didn’t care that much about sleep. Sometimes it is more interesting to stay awake all night long and see how the morning shapes itself from deep inside the dark. So although I did drift off here and there, I mostly tried again to stay still and let everything drop away. Braks got up in the night and disappeared outside leaving the door open. Then the light from our outside ceiling slowly dimmed back on. The dawn from inside the enclosure wasn’t, that morning at least, a stunning revelation of renewal.
The band returned member by member and I got up and sat with everyone again on the gray wooden decking in the gray light coming down from the outside ceiling. No one spoke for a long time. Then the outside ceiling started dropping rain and we all retreated into the room, stacked on top of each other now, legs and arms intertwined except for the space given to Braks, who napped again on his sliver of bed. I got up from my stool in the middle of the entangle to check on the rain and lost my seat. I stood by the door, half in half out, not quite able to take the constantly droning television, but enjoying the cooling wetness of the rain. A clay-mation cartoon of Peter Cotton Tail from the seventies came on the television suddenly and everyone laughed along to the story. I felt like I was 8 again and had gotten up extra early and sat dumb in front of the television while the Nebraska Agricultural report droned on about the price of hogs and soy. And then just when I didn’t think I could take it anymore the cartoons had begun and my sister and brother had joined me for the fun. When the rain stopped we went out into the streets and played all day long.