Friends in unexpected places
It’s a long life if you’re lucky and nothing can be taken for granted. That is particularly true if you leave the comfort and safety of your homeland and go to live somewhere else. That’s called being an expat and it means you’re among people you didn’t grow up with. You don’t know their culture, their traditions and their standard practices. You don’t know where the shops and restaurants are, or which taxi drivers you can trust not to rip you off.
As an expat you are therefore at the mercy of the population wherever you find yourself.
My return trip from Guyana is by plane, from a small airport just outside Georgetown. It’s called Ogle, this airport, and it’s also called International, because you can fly to other countries from it. The very word international makes it sound sophisticated, if you’ve forgotten what other ‘international’ airports can be like.
The previous night I milked the ATM at the hotel for $6,000 and it’s all gone –the taxi was $1500 and the bill for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant (Japanese food) was mind-boggling. I’m not worried. There’s always an ATM at an international airport. It might even offer USD, and if the machine doesn’t, the cambio will.
But there is no ATM at Ogle International (there might be now, because it had been delivered, they told me, but it wasn’t operational yet) and there is certainly no cambio. Check my wallet and I find a $500 bill. In most countries this would be cause for celebration, but when it’s Guyanese dollars you can’t afford to go mad.
A young man in a white shirt with dark blue epaulettes appears to be in charge of the whole shebang. He’s very friendly, very polite and duly shows me where I can collect my ticket, which is reserved but not paid for. I’m so tired from the previous day’s cross-country taxi challenge that I walk out of the ticket office without my passport and the girls are highly amused when I return to claim it.
Outside, a middle aged man asks me where I’m going, because apparently I look like I don’t know.
“Suriname,” I say, and he too laughs. He meant which part of the airport, and he shows me a café that looks as though it has nothing but in fact sells everything. I am served by a very friendly, mumsy, 40-something black woman in a navy and white hooped jersey dress that makes the long, bumpy journey all the way down to her ankles.
The ethnic mix in Guyana is largely African and Indian, and being white is not a comfortable thing here. This morning’s taxi driver has already explained that he was hampered on our trip by other drivers who may have noticed I was in the car.
However, he, the hotel staff and this substantial woman couldn’t be nicer. She roots through a chaotic medicine cabinet and finds me some Ibuprofen.
Having knocked these back with some water and a cheese sandwich, I would like to stay and take on still more fluids, because check-in is not for another two hours, but all I’ve got left is $100.
I slope across to the departure shed – I mean lounge – and tell my tale of woe to a girl from another airline. She smiles and wordlessly goes into the back office. Returning with a fistful of Guyanese banknotes, she gives me $500, and even though it’s not as much as it automatically seems, it’s a kind gesture to a tired traveller.
The Immigration people let the side down, but that’s Immigration people for you. First the woman in the kiosk checking the paperwork literally throws mine back at me and barks “You haven’t signed it.” Then the man running the x-ray machine flicks his fingers to hurry me up. Where I come from this is not just the height of bad manners, but a request for a knuckle sandwich. Whether it’s how he was brought up or how he was trained, it’s just how he is.
Two weeks later I’m back in Guyana and back at the same office. Again I’m early and again the sweet, quiet security girl with the gold tooth is there. They let me in because it’s starting to rain and she walks with me up to a door with a canopy where I can shelter.
With 20 minutes to wait, I expect her to disappear, but she doesn’t. It’s a nice, shady courtyard and I ask her about the other buildings. She tells me the complex is owned by Eddy Grant, the Guyanese-born musician who moved to the UK and had hits like Baby Come Back (with The Equals), Electric Avenue and Give me Hope, Jo’anna.
The girl (let’s call her Celine) is interested in who I am and what I’m doing here, because as usual I am clearly not from around these parts. In exchange she tells me that Eddy Grant is a nice guy, not at all affected by his fame and fortune, and he still has the dreadlocks.
Celine is not married, and I can’t help asking why. Not that getting married is the holy grail for women, but she is good-looking, pleasant, kind and helpful: how can she have avoided it? She seems to realize I’m not passing judgment or even being nosy. I’m interested because she is instantly my friend.
Celine leans against the wall, trim and smart in her sandy-coloured uniform with a matching tie. These Guyanese men have missed out here. My unspoken thoughts boom, as through Eddy Grant’s PA system.
A man did propose to her once, a long time ago, but she was young and irresponsible and she didn’t think it was a good idea, so she said no. She has two children, both around 20, and it sounds like she’s happy enough.
Celine has never left Guyana but would like to try somewhere else one day. “I’m still young,” she says. When I ask her direct later on, she says she is 40.
In a country where the economy is weak and wages are low, getting away and starting afresh is not easy. Guyana is not a place to run away from, anyway. There is no internal strife, and although it doesn’t feel safe for someone like me – white, middle-aged and presumed to have money – for this girl it is probably secure enough.
There is a new government and optimism is in the air. Several people tell me how the cricket World Cup in 2007 – hosted by the West Indies, of which Guyana is a part (as regards cricket) – brought money and visitors and how they’re trying to build on that. That was eight years ago, and the fact that it still means so much here is perhaps indicative of a lack of other landmarks.
The Caribbean region in general relies heavily on tourism, but Guyana, like Suriname, is not an island and doesn’t have the beach-centred vacation to offer. Both countries have lots of countryside, jungle and water, but mangrove swamps instead of miles of golden sand, so without a major industry to generate revenue, optimism seems to be the order of the day. Goodbye then, Celine. And good luck.