The plane’s dark and nearly empty. The only sounds are the hiss of air
blowing through the cabin and the muffled roar of jet engines. Out the window I
see a string of tiny lights twinkling far below. Must be the coast of a big
island – Cuba? The white lights form a long line of sparkling points on a black
surface. Reminds me of the bracelet of tiny diamonds that I
gave Danielle last Christmas. I wanted to give her something better but
it was all I could afford. Grad students don’t have much money. Besides, even
if I could’ve afforded a more expensive gift it never could’ve matched the
jewelry her father’s given her.
In the dark cabin I see her face, larger than
life-size; her blue eyes stare at me, look through me. I close my eyes; she
disappears. Why am I running away from her?
-Yes, why are you?
-You’re scared! Spineless
-Dammit, leave me alone,
-Feel my fear!
I turn on the overhead light and read a paperback novel
I brought with me. The printed words take over my thoughts. Relief.
I continue reading for a while longer…
-We’re stronger, louder than that stupid
I feel like covering my ears to block out the
voices, but they’re inside not outside.
-That won’t work,
I’ve always heard voices in my head, starting way
back when I was a kid. I grew up out in the country, the nearest neighbors
about a mile away. Except for my parents, I was alone; I didn’t have any
playmates to run around with. My voices kept me company. It was like I had two
guys to talk to. One’s totally wild. I’m kind of afraid of him. He always tried
to get me to do bad stuff – he still does – like stealing money from my Mom’s
purse so I could buy the model airplane I wanted. The other guy’s always
telling me what I ought and ought not to do. He thinks he knows everything. But
he helped me control the bad guy, kept him from totally taking me over. I
probably would’ve turned into some kind of delinquent, like James Dean in Rebel Without a
Cause, if it hadn’t been for the bossy guy.
As I grew older I got a few friends at school. My
teachers spoke a lot like the prissy know-it-all voice. And bullies and spoiled
daddies’ girls, who’d cry and have temper tantrums if they didn’t get their way,
sounded a lot like my crazy voice. When I finally got some real friends my
voices gradually weakened and faded into the background. But they were always
there and would bust out when I was in a tricky situation: like when my father
pushed me to go out for the football team, or some of my wilder friends wanted
to throw red paint on mean old man Schnedigger’s
house just for the hell of it. Then my voices’d step
up to the plate and start dishing out their opinions and ultimatums, real loud.
In calmer times they’d stay in the background, but I always knew they were
there and I could call them up myself if I wanted some advice. But I was real
careful about that because I didn’t want to start them rolling and get out of
-You weren’t really in control.
-I thought I was, and that’s what counted.
In grade school, high school and college the three
of us usually got along. The only times they got loud and pushy in college was
when sex got too complicated. But I could handle them; I didn’t lose control.
Now they’re louder and clearer than ever because Danielle and I had a falling
out about when we’d get married.
-You’re a loser!
-Enough of this crap. Shut up!
I get up from my seat, go
to the lavatory and lock the door….Where
in hell am I going?
really don’t have to do this!
-You’re running away, chicken-shit.
-You can’t stop me! You’re asleep.
-You’re a fucking sleepwalker!
-I just want to think things over.
a good look in the mirror.
I step closer to the mirror and look at my
face. Has it changed? The basics: blue eyes, blonde hair, full chin, good
profile are still there. But when I smile it’s not the old easy smile. This
one’s strained, tense; I can’t force the old smile to come back. And my eyes,
they’re open wide, my pupils dilated.
bags under your eyes, wrinkled forehead: you’re worried.
-I’m not worried, just tired.
too empty. Get some of crazy’s emotions.
-What the hell does that mean?
have no feelings or imagination. They’re mine.
do, too. Danielle wouldn’t go for a guy without feelings.
-She’s empty, too. You’re both flat as
an airport runway.
-How do I get emotions and imagination?
figure it out. I’ll help you.
-You don’t need prissy’s
help! Just do what I say.
-Shut up! I don’t need either of you.
might’ve had voices, but they probably suppressed or ignored them out of
existence. If they didn’t they probably thought they were going crazy or having
a nervous breakdown….I never tried to totally suppress my voices. I’m
not afraid of them.
nuisance, but now they’re going beyond that. They’re louder than ever….I can
usually ignore them for a while and get back to reality which is what I ought
to do now.
I’m still looking in the mirror when the
plane hits an air pocket. I’m thrown off balance and nearly fall. The captain
announces that everyone must return to their seats and fasten their belts. I
walk carefully back to my seat….My conversation with my voices disturbs me. What’s
happening to me? I used to be able to control them, but now I can’t.
-You can’t control me!
can’t handle the crazy guy. But when you’re calm, we’re calm.
Back in my seat I think about the past,
trying to remember what got me into this mess: My last two years of college the
Viet Nam war was raging out of control. I wasn’t going on to medical school and
I didn’t want to get drafted. So I had my family minister help me file with my
draft board for a CO – a conscientious objector. I avoided the draft, but I was
forced to do some kind of service. I ended up teaching at a mission school in
Zaire for two years. While
I was in Zaire I saw a lot of hungry people. They were trapped in a world without
enough food to live healthy lives. I decided that I wanted to do something to
help feed people in tropical countries. When I returned to the US I applied to a
bunch of schools and chose a university that had a strong program in
international agriculture. I’d work on getting a PhD. And it wasn’t far from
New York and Danielle. We could see each other on weekends two or three times a
-She was too damn close!
Danielle and I decided to get married before I got
my PhD. At first I was OK with that. Then we set a date: in December, 1974, between
Christmas and New Year’s. That’s when my troubles started. I didn’t tell
Danielle but I got panic attacks when I thought about getting married.
-Run far away and think about it! Forget
As the date got nearer I knew that I wasn’t ready.
I remember the day I told Danielle I couldn’t marry her in December like we’d
planned. I needed more time.
know what’ll make you happy.
time to find out.
She asked me why I needed more time. Didn’t we both
agree that we were perfect together? Yes, we really loved each other. But I
told her, again, that it was too soon. No it wasn’t, she insisted. Hadn’t we
known each other for a long time? Why wait? I told her that I didn’t know why,
but I had to think things over, alone.
Then I had an idea: If I got a consulting job
working in a tropical country I’d be far away from her. The right job would fit
in with my graduate program. So I told my professor I wanted to take a year off
to get some experience in the real world and asked him if he could help me find
a position. He was surprised by my abrupt change in plans. But my mind was made
up. I told him that working on an agricultural project in a developing country
would strengthen my professional background. I
didn’t tell him about Danielle – the real reason I wanted a year off. My prof reluctantly agreed and put me in touch with a company
that was looking for an agricultural expert to work on a project in Guyana. I
knew nothing about the company or Guyana but I had to get away, and the company
had to find a person who’d work there. I got the job and two months later I was
ready to go.
-Stupid, going to a place like Guyana!
don’t care. I have to get away from her.
on the present. You’re about to meet your new boss.
It’s 2:08 a.m. and we’re approaching Georgetown. All I can see from my
window are some yellow lights in a geometric pattern – a landing strip. Five
minutes later the plane descends, then bounces and skids on the runway making
an alarming screeching sound. After the plane stops a flight attendant opens
the exit door. Hot humid air envelopes me, making me feel like I’m in the giant
greenhouse at the botanical garden on campus. But looking out I don’t see palms
dripping with thick twisted vines, only black tarmac and a large poorly lit
wooden building with a few uniformed guards stationed at its doors. I’m tired
and sleepy when I walk down the steps onto the tarmac. I feel slightly detached
from everything. I know from experience that things will get real only after a
good night’s sleep.
together. You’ll meet your boss soon. First impressions count a lot.
Inside, the terminal’s quiet; no one’s around
except the handful of passengers who got off our Pan Am flight and a few sleepy
airport officials. The building’s run-down, lit by cheap fluorescent lights
that color everything bluish-grey. Nothing looks quite real, especially the
people. White skin turns a sickly gray; dark skin has an ashy dead look.
-You’re in a creepy place and you haven’t
got a clue! You’re helpless!
Crazy panics too easily. Everything’ll be OK.
I’m wandering around like a robot looking for the
baggage area. I see a white man – no other white men around, must be Charles
Boyle, my new boss. He approaches me while I stand still, staring at him. I try
to look pleasant but I’m so tired I can only force a weak smile. He looks
uncomfortable and nervous – or irritated? –
clasping his hands tightly in front of him, not smiling or showing any
signs that he’s glad to see me.
“Are you Mr. Hanes?”
He looks me in the eyes for an instant – I smell
whiskey on his breath – then quickly turns his head toward the baggage area.. He seems about fifty years old, six feet tall, solidly
built, a beer-gut, maybe weighs about two hundred ten pounds. Closer up: light
blue eyes, slightly curly brown hair, a scar on his left cheek – a knife wound?
His complexion’s slightly ruddy – a drinker? He’s wearing a floral-patterned
Hawaiian shirt and light brown khakis. Overall, he reminds me of a middle-aged
retired boxer or wrestler.
-Definitely not someone I’d hang out
up. He’s my boss, not my date.
“Yes, I am. Mr. Boyle, I presume? Pleased to meet you.”
I hold out my hand to shake his. He hesitates an instant then shakes mine. His grip’s firm but
he pulls back his hand too quickly.
“Did you have a good flight?”
No sense of humor. He didn’t acknowledge my “Doctor
Livingstone, I presume” allusion – too subtle for him? Maybe his awkward
response is my fault – my lame joke. It’s late and I’m nervous.
“It was OK, but way too long. I need a good night’s
I see a frown on his face when I mention sleep.
My bags feel much heavier than they did in New
York. Boyle picks up one of them. He seems preoccupied, doesn’t have much more to
say, maybe it’s just the late hour.
“Let’s go this way.” He walks quickly towards the
customs area leaving me lagging behind. “There’s an agent over there.” He
points to a black man in a brown uniform who looks like he’s waiting for us.
Walking rapidly makes me short of breath. I put my suitcases on the customs
counter. The agent stands up slowly, like he’s afraid he might lose his
balance, and puts on his glasses to look at me.
“Lemme see your passport.
You have sometin’ to declare?” His thick West Indian
accent makes me realize how far away I am from home.
“No, nothing. Only
personal items: clothes, a camera, a radio and a few books.”
whiskey, anytin’ to sell?”
“What you gonna do wit de camera and radio?”
“Goddamit, Mr. Hanes said
he hasn’t got anything to declare!” Boyle’s not in the mood for bullshit
explanations and arguing with the man. He won’t waste his time on a lackey. He
wants things to move along – his way.
His anger startles the agent. He stands up
straighter and looks at Boyle, marks my bags with yellow chalk and says, “OK, you
I don’t say anything to Boyle because I’m still
sizing him up. He’s my new boss and I want to get a good idea of what he’s
like. Without a word he points the way to the exit and starts walking faster,
maybe he wants to tire me even more than I already am.
better not treat me like a lackey, even if I’m only a grad student.
If you’re negative you’ll come across as someone with no self-confidence.
Mr. O’Reilly, the partner who hired me at BOAP –
the engineering and architectural firm of Blaine, Overton, Anderson and Pew in
New York, my new employer – admitted to me that they had trouble filling the
position of agricultural expert for their Guyana project. And since Chuck Boyle
was so eager to get started they decided to look no further. I was their man. I
hate to think of myself as their choice of last resort, but it looks like I am.
going to have to bust my butt to show O’Reilly and Boyle that I’m more than
just capable, that I’m “top drawer.”
A burst of shouting comes from a ticket counter on
the other side of the terminal. Boyle and I stop and turn around. About a dozen
young people in green military uniforms are screaming and brandishing their
raised fists at someone I can’t see.
The green mob shouts, “Traitor, you ain’t goin’ nowhere!” and “We’re takin’ you back! You ain’t gettin’ away!” Their threats startle me and get my
“Who are they? What’s going on?”
“They’re just a bunch of thugs, delinquents. This
damn government uses them to intimidate people. I’ve seen this before. This is
what happens when you have some goddamn socialist government.”
-What a screwed up place you dragged us
the one who told me to run away.
-Yeah. But not to a shithole like this!
What’s the teen gang up to? Who gives them their orders?
I remember reading somewhere that Guyana had a kind of watered-down socialist
government – not as extreme as Cuba’s. Will I be free to do what I want? I
guess I’ll find out as time goes on. From what I see tonight I sure want to
steer clear of the green teen militia. I don’t want to think what they’d do to
me, if I rubbed them the wrong way.
Boyle and I walk out of the terminal. “My van’s out
in the south lot.” He points to the only vehicle in a large parking area. I
notice the outside of the terminal needs a coat of paint. The parking lot,
overgrown in spots with weeds and brush needs repaving. I wonder if the rest of
Guyana has a similar look? Maybe
it fits me. I feel as run-down and depressed as this place.
-Yeah, wallow in your shitty self-pity!
-Get a grip.
We load my bags into a light brown Chevy Suburban
and start out on the main road to Georgetown. None too soon, I don’t know how
much farther I could’ve carried my heavy suitcases.
“Yeah, socialists turn their kids into attack dogs.
It’s disgusting. I had to get outa there. I don’t
feel like fighting tonight.”
Boyle doesn’t say anything else for about two
minutes, then, “I asked BOAP to get you out here two weeks ago. We have a lot
of work to do.”
Even though I’ve just come off a long journey he
doesn’t wait to start complaining. He’s not at all friendly and never really
welcomes me. O’Reilly’s staff at BOAP never told me that there was a big rush
to get to Guyana. When I get to know Boyle a little better I’ll find out that
he always acts nervous and impatient. It doesn’t matter if you’re precisely
following a timetable; you’re always too late or too slow.
“No one at BOAP said you wanted me earlier. But I’m
here now and ready to go.” I’m trying to show some enthusiasm even though I’m dead
The road outside the airport’s paved but pocked
with potholes which Boyle doesn’t try to avoid. He just crashes through them.
He could care less about damaging the van or making the ride smooth. The
landscape, what I can see of it at 2:47 a.m., is a flat plain. I don’t see any
hills or streams. Most of the area’s probably under sugarcane. There are a few
trees along the road and a few small buildings – can’t tell if they’re houses
or just sheds for cane. The dark flat landscape also reminds me how depressed I
feel leaving Danielle and the US. Why didn’t I pick some place with beautiful
beaches, valleys and mountains?
Maybe Boyle’s trying to show me that he’s a tough
guy who can dish out the punishment. Is he
the strict father who always needs to punish his bad boy?
come here to suffer. Get into your work. Do something positive.
After a long silence Boyle says, “I’ve been here a
month. We’ve got a lot to do.” Another long pause, then, “I’m gonna tell you a few things about myself, so you’ll know where
I’m coming from; how I do things and what I expect from people who work for
What am I going to hear now – personal details?
They usually come out slowly as people get to know each other. But now I see
that Boyle doesn’t do the usual thing. Maybe he wants to snow me with his
background while I’m still intimidated by his bullying of the customs agent at
the terminal….I’m right, he’s going to tell me about
“Some guys can’t live without a family….I never
married, never will. Don’t have time for a family. I worked in a lot of
countries; way too much trouble for a wife and kids.”
those tough-as-nails bachelors. This might be a problem.
tough guy has a soft core. Just find it.
Army when I was sixteen. Lied about my age. I
wanted to fight in the War. No way I’d stay home with
a bunch of kids. Danger’s my thing….World War II was the last real war. I was
at Normandy. It made a man of me.”
if he doesn’t remind me of my gung-ho Air Force uncle, always bragging and
exaggerating about the brave things he did – boring.
“Don’t have much education, but I made captain. I
can shape people up; get things done. If a guy doesn’t give me his maximum,
“My father didn’t have a lot of education and he
did OK,” I offer.
No response from Boyle.
Korea and Nam, too. Nam was a goddamned shame. We should’ve dropped a
couple of H-bombs on Hanoi, then we’d’ve
won. Instead, it was a big waste and a goddamn bunch of hippies wrecked our
one of those “goddamned hippies.” I’d like to argue with him about Viet Nam but
I don’t dare, not now, maybe some other time.
“After Nam, I left the army. I could see that
another war would be just like Nam, or worse. So I started working for
different consulting firms. Got jobs in places that scared
the Washington pansies. No problem for me. I worked for BOAP before,
they’re OK. But most of their partners got too soft living in New York. They
don’t get out and see the real thing, a damn shame.”
He must be a lonely man. I guess he lives for
adventure. There’s no place for a woman, or anyone, in his life. From what he
described it looks like he needs physical excitement, danger, instead of love.
Men like him often do well in the military.
“You’ve sure done some interesting things.” I don’t
know what else to say. He tried real hard to impress me with his military
background. I have zero interest in the military. I can’t
tell him about my CO, that’d really make things rocky, or maybe end them
“I worked hard in Zaire and Nigeria. I’ll work hard
on this project and we’ll get some good results.” I’m trying to show some
Boyle turns his head and looks at me like I’m some
naughty kid that needs a good talking to: “I’m counting on that. You gotta be tough out here.”
The rest of the way to the hotel we’re both silent.
After our strained conversation I know that he’ll be watching and testing me to
see if I can meet his standards. I have the training and knowhow he needs for
the project. From my conversations with BOAP I found out that Boyle has no
background in agriculture or economics. Why would someone with no agricultural
experience be chosen to direct an important agricultural development project in
Guyana? I have no answer to that and it makes me uncomfortable…
good at organizing an office, getting out a final report.
-Fuck that! There’s something screwed up
about the guy!
he doesn’t think he’s going to tell me how to do my work.
After about fifteen minutes of driving through
miles of flat sugarcane fields we enter Georgetown. It seems as quiet as the
airport, but it’s past 3:00 a.m. At last we pull up to
the Park Hotel, an old wooden three-story structure painted white with a red
metal roof. Its guest rooms face out on a veranda along the perimeter of the
building, and in the moonlight it looks like many other late nineteenth century
hotels one might find in a British Caribbean seaport. It also reminds me of one
old wooden firetrap hotel in a down-and-out upstate New York town where I slept
one night years ago. But at this late hour I don’t worry about sleeping in a
building that could burn to the ground. I’m dead tired from the long flight and
the late arrival and I’m looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
“Here we are. Be ready to go at 7:30. We’re goin’ to the Berbice River then
upstream to Tibibiri.”
“You mean four hours from now?” I don’t think I
heard him correctly. He can’t mean this morning!
“Yep, can’t waste any more time! Gotta get going.
Pack something for a couple of nights and leave the rest with the clerk. You’ll
be back in Georgetown in about three or four days.”
like Boyle’s military discipline. But I’m exhausted. He caught me off guard and
I don’t respond.
-Tell him to fuck off, you’re not going
anywhere without a night’s rest!
We walk into the dark lobby. The old wooden floor
creaks under our steps. At the check-in desk Boyle impatiently rings the bell
four or five times. A sleepy clerk in rumpled clothes comes out of a back room.
“This is Mr. Hanes. I reserved a room yesterday. He
only needs it for tonight.”
The clerk looks like he’s been asleep and is slow
responding. When he realizes it’s Boyle he perks up.
“Yes sir, I remember sir; beg your pardon, sir.”
“Give Mr. Hanes a wakeup call at six o’clock.” I
see a glimmer of a sadistic smile when he turns and looks at me.
sir, no problem sir.”
The clerk’s afraid of Boyle but I’m too tired to
care. Boyle leaves. The clerk checks me in and helps me upstairs with my bags.
The room’s small and clean with mosquito netting around the bed – the most
important thing. I wash up in the small bathroom, rubbing my face with a
washcloth, too tired to shower. I’m really pissed off that Boyle expects me to
get up early and head out on a road trip. Why shouldn’t I have a day to get
rested and organized?
-I can react to his shit, no problem!
I’ll tell him what I think of his fucking plan!
don’t want that.
-You want me to act like some weak pussy!
You’re the pussy.
I didn’t tell Boyle how I felt about his plan
because I think that this is my first test: to see if I’ll cooperate and go
along with his orders, no matter what. He doesn’t care about what I need. Does he treat all his employees this way, or am I a special case?
What does he know, or think he knows about me?
into that; it’ll only make you paranoid.
I need a good night’s sleep so I can get myself
together for the first field trip. I’m angry and find it difficult to doze off.
Lying in bed wide awake I have a gut feeling that I made a huge mistake in
accepting this job. But I don’t want to get too upset. I remember some bad
times in Zaire and Nigeria where I overcame some difficult situations. I was
tough then and I’m tougher now. Besides, I’ve been in Guyana only a few hours
and I’m in no condition to make any serious decisions. Slowly I calm down and
try again to sleep, but I can’t. Every time I doze off I snap back awake a few
minutes later, thinking about Boyle. My anger won’t let me sleep.
-You mean my anger!
I look at my watch, it’s
6:04 I get up, get dressed and go downstairs to the dining room for breakfast.
After drinking three cups of coffee – trying to jolt myself awake – I’m ready
and waiting for Captain Charles Boyle.
-You can do
this. Boyle thinks, or hopes, you’re going to crack. Hang in there.
Boyle arrives at the hotel in a Land Rover pulling a trailer carrying a
small boat with an outboard motor. All loaned to us, he explains, by our
sponsor, OD – the US Office for Development. A middle-aged Chinese man, Mr. Wu,
is his driver. Boyle doesn’t ask me if I slept well. He just expects me,
without a word of protest, to go on a long trek up a black water river without
a decent night’s rest.
“Give Wu your bag and get in the back seat. We’re
taking this boat to the Berbice River about sixty
miles east of here and then go twenty miles upriver to Tibibiri.”
“OK, I’m ready,” I lie.
-Why lie, I’d tell the asshole exactly
what I think!
I’m aware of the problems we could have because of
the miles of rough roads. And I’ve traveled on tropical rivers before in Zaire,
so I have an idea of what I’m in for. The Berbice
could have stretches choked up with dead trees and vines hanging out over the
water that could slow us down. Maybe we could do this distance in one day in
the US, but in Guyana I’m not so sure. The day’s going to be long and
challenging because a stubborn jerk wants to test my mettle.
Leaving the city the three of us begin our drive
east along the coast where the road closely follows the shoreline. It’s still
cool but it’ll heat up fairly quickly. The sky’s clear and blue, but a brief
thunderstorm can always roll in from the Caribbean. At first, most of the
coast’s nothing more than wide brown muddy shallows reaching out into the sea.
These flat muddy plains remind me of some of the muddy flats I once saw exposed
during low tide at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
my trip I figured I ought do a little research. As
usual I did it ass-backwards. I should’ve gone to the library and read about
Guyana before I signed a contract with BOAP. But anyway, I did find out some
stuff about its geography and history: The British built earthen barrier dykes
in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
extending them in long strips along the coast so that some of the muddy plains
could be drained and cultivated. Thousands of acres of dark heavy fertile soils
were reclaimed and sugarcane planted.
the British colonials got black slaves from the West Indies then indentured
farmers from India to work in the sugarcane fields. Guyana’s population is a
little more than half East Indian and slightly fewer, less than half, are
descended from African slaves with some Chinese, a few Portuguese and Amerindians,
the aboriginal inhabitants. Most of the people live along the coast, on or near
the drained plains. The interior’s mostly an unpopulated jungle except in a few
areas where there’s bauxite mining. Large rivers flowing through the jungle
interior, like the Berbice, have isolated settlements
along their banks.
Now as we drive along I see that the sugarcane’s
been harvested and immense gray plumes of smoke from burning heaps of cane
stubble and leafy trash rise up from the flat landscape. In some places I can
see muddy shallows just north of the dykes. I don’t see any sandy beaches,
charming coves or harbors where northern tourists can anchor their yachts or
sailboats. I’ll find out that there’s no real tourist business and that most of
the visitors are businessmen or agents from other governments who are only
interested in bauxite or sugar exports. The dreary coastline’s a disappointment.
Guyana’s just a dismal backwater, unlike the nearby Caribbean islands or its
Spanish or Portuguese-speaking continental neighbors which have beautiful
beaches visited by tourists from all parts of the world. In the past a day at
the beach could cheer me up, but there’ll be none of that in this country.
Working for someone like Boyle I’ll have to find
ways to entertain myself. Maybe I’ll meet some friendly Guyanese folks who’ll
take me in, teach me about their culture and show me around….But I’m
a white man from a powerful, meddlesome country. They won’t trust me. In Africa
it was difficult to get to know any of the locals. And the ones I thought I was
getting close to only wanted a handout or help in getting to the US.
Some parts of the flat coast have a few scrubby
forest remnants sprinkled around the edges of vast sugarcane fields. Boyle
hasn’t much to say as we drive along. He shows no interest in the landscapes,
the sugarcane farms or the villages we drive through. He never asks Mr. Wu to
stop in any of the small villages with tin-roofed houses built on stilts and
small, cheaply built Muslim mosques or Hindu temples. Large potholes washed out
by tropical rainstorms make the narrow road difficult to navigate, but Mr. Wu
manages to avoid most of the potholes by driving slowly – about twenty or
thirty miles per hour.
Finally, Mr. Wu breaks the silence. “Mr. Boyle,
sir, we have problem. The trailer pull bad. I think
there problem with tire.” He’s quite placid and doesn’t seem too troubled by
“OK, stop and let’s take a look.” We get out of the
Land Rover and see the flat tire. The old trailer tire couldn’t take driving
over the potholed roads.
“Goddamn son of a bitch, it’s flat! Do we have a
“No sir, Mr. Boyle. It old trailer from OD garage.
No one use it much.”
“Shit, we’re gonna have
to find something else to carry the boat. We’re not gonna
sit on our asses! Gotta get to Tibibiri before dark. And goddamit, we will!”
The unexpected problem seems to drive Boyle crazy.
His blood pressure must be up because his face’s redder than before. He kicks
the flat tire. I’m sitting off to the side watching Boyle’s temper tantrum and
have nothing to say. I want to stay out of his way.
-Serves the son-of-a-bitch right! Maybe
he’ll call it off for today!
“Mr. Wu, leave the trailer and go back to that last
village we drove through. Find someone with a trailer or a flatbed truck. Tell
them we’ll pay good money for some help.”
Mr. Wu says nothing, unhitches the trailer and sets
off in the Land Rover for the village. Boyle and I stay with the trailer and
boat on the edge of the narrow road. The dense growth of scrubby trees, bushes
and vines forms a green wall on both sides. Boyle, cursing and fussing, paces
around the disabled trailer.
“Well Hanes, just our goddamn luck! There’s always
trouble when you depend on machinery in a place like this. Nobody maintains the
“Yeah, we’re unlucky this morning,” I respond,
keeping my cool, the opposite of Boyle.
The heat and oppressive humidity increase as the
sun rises up above the trees. I put on a cap to protect my head from the
intense rays of the sun and sit down in a bit of shade near the trailer.
-How do we get out of this
mess, and how long will it take?
complain. You’ll look weak.
An hour later, around 9:30, Mr. Wu still hasn’t
“These people’re goddamn
unreliable! If they did things right they wouldn’t need all our aid money.”
“Mr. Wu’s seems like a good man. He’ll come up with
something.” I vainly try to calm Boyle.
“We passed a small stream about five hundred yards
back. It flows out to the coast. Come on, we’re gonna
check it out.” He starts walking back down the road in the direction of
I slowly get up from my shady spot and reluctantly
follow him. Walking along I’m thinking that if there’s a stream its banks’ll probably be choked with vegetation. About five
hundred yards back we do find a small stream. I hadn’t noticed it when
we drove by. It’s only about twenty feet wide, overarched with thick vegetation
and its banks choked with brush and vines. Just as I thought, it looks impenetrable.
The shade makes the stream look black so it’s impossible to judge the water
depth without walking down the bank and stepping into it.
Boyle protests, “We’ll wait another half hour for Wu. If he’s not
back by then we’ll pull the trailer over here, flat tire and all, and launch
the goddamn boat. Then we can get out to the coast and motor to the Berbice. We’ll still make it to Tibibiri
We’ll have to do at least twenty miles on the
Caribbean following close to the shoreline. Once we’ve found the mouth of the Berbice we’ll have to do another twenty miles upstream. All
in a rowboat with an outboard motor! First, I don’t see how we can get through
the dense thorny vegetation blocking the stream. Then, assuming we can make it
downstream, how will this small boat do on the Caribbean? We don’t know
anything about the conditions of the coast beyond the dykes. Who knows what we
might find there. This
is idiotic and dangerous.
complain or contradict him on your first day.
I’ll put up with his shit. I can take a lot more than this fifty-year old man,
more than twice my age. I’m in better physical condition.
Boyle’s a pain in the ass. If there were another
person with us who had some common sense we’d make him reconsider….My friend Steve’d know how to handle Boyle better than I do. Steve’s
tough, one of the strongest guys I know, and smart. He never does things the
hard way. He’s clever enough to find an easier way and goes for it. Steve, where are you when I need you?
coming down next month for a visit, remember?
he’ll stay the whole time I’m in Guyana.
To cheer myself up I’ll think about Steve for a while: He’s as tall as I
am and built like a boxer. His cocoa-brown complexion, striking green eyes and
sensual lips make him intensely sexy. I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Lots of women and gay men are turned on by him. But he has a whole other side
that really appeals to me – he’s creative. He studied painting and sculpting
when he was in college, got a degree in fine arts. After he came back from Viet
Nam he took up photography. His recent photos of people and places in New York
are quite good, at least I think so. The extreme images he saw in Viet Nam
probably turned him on to photography, but he denies that. He’s determined to
become a professional photographer.
I’ve known Steve almost as long as I’ve known
Danielle. We met one Saturday night at a mutual friend’s party in Baltimore.
I’d just had a fight two evenings before with Danielle on the telephone. She
told me she didn’t want to see me that weekend. I should stay home and think
about the awful things I said to her. I didn’t want to obsess about our damned
argument all weekend so I decided to go to a friend’s party, get my mind off my
troubles. My friend’s gay but I never slept with him. I had a few gay friends
off-campus, and I messed around with one or two for a while. But after I hooked
up with Danielle I didn’t hang around with gay guys – or, practically never….Some
attractive women at the party tried to come on to me but I wasn’t interested. I
just wanted to have a few beers and get stoned on grass.
I was real high when I saw this good-looking black
guy. Said his name was Steve. He was at least as stoned as I was. We started out
talking about the movie “Tom Jones,” which we both’d
seen. We must’ve chatted for over an hour. People were going home but we were
still talking. Our friend looked at us for a moment, shook his head and said,
“What am I gonna do with you two?” He took our hands,
pulled us up from the sofa, led us to a bedroom and pushed us onto the bed.
Steve and I looked at each other and started laughing, then kissing and hugging
and so on. It was all so natural.
That night we had terrific sex, a surprise to both
of us. I hadn’t been turned on by a guy in a long time, same for him. We
exchanged addresses and phone numbers. I told him I came to New York some
weekends. He said to look him up. I did. I’ve
had affairs – mostly with women, a few times with guys – and I thought I was
comfortable with that.
-Liar, you weren’t! Still aren’t.
gets here, take an honest look at your confused sex life.
After that weekend Steve and I were close friends.
Sometimes on my way for a weekend with Danielle I’d come to the city a day
early and spend the night with him. Our relationship was laid back; we weren’t
obsessed with each other. Our sex was hard, athletic, masculine – real
enjoyable to both of us. My times with him didn’t interfere with my times with
Danielle. My strongest commitment was still to her. Sex with her was romantic,
-Not much of an emotional commitment with
Danielle. You just thought there was.
tell Danielle about Steve someday. Honesty’s important. She might be surprised
at first but she’ll accept it.
-Fuck off! How many women’ll
put up with that shit?
if you tell her, she’ll dump you. You should’ve told her before you came down
here, see what she’d do.
her and she loves me, no matter what.
doesn’t care what others think about me. She knows she can count on me and
that’s the most important thing.
know that for sure.
cold feet about marrying her has nothing to do with Steve.
-You can’t keep
thinking like that; it doesn’t make sense.
When Steve and I first hooked up I didn’t think it
had anything to do with Danielle. Besides, he told me that he had a few
girlfriends and another man friend, a sex-pal. He wasn’t looking for a tight
deal with anyone, man or woman. That was cool with me. But then things got
rocky with Danielle when I told her that I had to go away to think about
getting married. I was totally surprised at how angry she got.
you didn’t know her as well as you thought.
didn’t want me to spend my weekends at her apartment. I had to call first then
we’d negotiate a time when I’d come by. We no longer slept together. So I spent
more time with Steve; we had some hot times, better than ever. And without
really wanting to, we got closer. I had some feelings for him that didn’t exist
were my feelings!
When I was stressed out over Danielle my voices
started getting louder and clearer. That scared the hell out of me. I needed to
talk to someone about them. Steve and I were closer than I’d ever been with any
man before. I was spending way more time with him than with Danielle. I trusted
him and I thought I could tell him something I’d never told anyone before….Late
one night, after we just had a round of terrific sex I told him:
“I don’t know – you’ll probably think I’ve lost it
– but I hear voices in my head.”
He looks at me, his brow furrowed, concerned. “What
do you mean, ‘voices?’ ”
“I mean what I call my ‘normal voice’ – the one
that’s talking to you now – sometimes says things in my head that I don’t want
to say out loud. Like when I’m talking to someone and something’s weird about them,
but I don’t say it. Or I think a guy’s a jerk but I don’t have the guts to tell
him to his face, I just think it.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. That’s normal. I’ve
been to some parties where I’d like to tell some people that they’re a bunch of
assholes, but I keep it to myself,” he says.
“That’s it; you understand. I have two other
voices: One’s a kind of advisor, a real straight arrow
guy. I guess most people hear this voice; he tells them what’s right and wrong.
Some people call him their conscience. The second one…I don’t
know if most people hear him the way I do. He’s off the wall, crazy.”
Steve sits up
straighter, leaning against a pillow, his legs stretched out in front of him.
I’m facing him, my legs stretched out in front of me. I put my left leg over
his right leg.
“OK, I think I
know what you mean. Most people hear some kind of ‘good’ voice, but they don’t
always do what it’s telling them.”
“Yeah, and sometimes I hear a wild
insane voice. It’s like a crazy guy who feels anger and fear; he shouts about
it. He’s into sex, fighting and other extreme stuff,” I say.
Steve squints, pondering what I just told him. “I
guess you’re describing something inside you that’s like an animal. It’ll do
anything to survive. Most people want to suppress that.”
understand. In most people the insane voice is already part of their
personality, that way it’s easier to control him, or ignore him. In me he’s a separate
person. It’s like he’s outside me, but I know he’s in my head. I can always
hear him, but sometimes, if I try hard, I can tune him out and don’t do what
he’s telling me to do,” I say. “I’m sort of afraid of him.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty weird, but it’s not that bad,”
I grab hold of his left hand. “Yes it is. Most
people don’t hear the crazy person like I do….If they did they might think
they’re having a nervous breakdown.”
“But you hear him and you’re not crazy. Maybe your
voices are hallucinations,” he says.
“If they’re hallucinations they’re still real. I’ve
always heard them. The wild one comes in when I’m having sex with you, big man.
They’re both stronger when I’m in trouble or freaked out, like now, with all
the Danielle stuff.”
“I can see how somebody might hear crazy things
when they’re bummed out.” He reaches over and strokes my left arm. “You look
sane to me. You won’t turn into some psycho, will you?”
I laugh, “No, don’t worry, man. Maybe they keep me
from going over the edge. Losing it totally.” I’m staring off into space.
Steve pulls my arm. “Are you OK, TR? Now
you’re scaring me!”
I come back. “Yeah, I’m OK. Sometimes
they wear me out, thinking about them. I’d like to turn them off.”
-You need us.
“There, I just heard a voice. My conscience said, ‘You need us.’ ”
“I don’t know, TR. I guess I understand….I have some voices, too, but I don’t pay much attention to
them,” Steve says.
“See there. You do understand. Sometimes you
talk like my voices; you and I are alike. You’re my alter ego; that’s why I
feel so close to you.”
“Yeah, I feel close to you too, my man…but alter
ego…That’s like Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Who’s the monster? Must be you with that crazy person loose in your head. Damn,
TR, I am getting to know you better.”
My affections for Danielle and Steve were held in a kind of synergism –
still are. When Danielle and I had our falling out I got closer to Steve. But
the feelings for Steve were much more intense than would’ve been the case if
Danielle weren’t in the picture.
-They’re my feelings. I got so fucking wrapped up
guilty and depressed because I was cheating on Danielle, and I was involved
with Steve at the same time.
-That’s what happens in love triangles,
thought, and still thinks, you have another woman.
-See how fucked up it is! Why we all had
to run away!
-Now I wish I didn’t listen to you.
Running away is fucked up, too.
I remember one weekend when Danielle and I thought
we were going to get back together; our love would be stronger than ever.
Ironically, that same weekend Steve and I had a bad fight – almost punched each
other out – and I thought I might lose my good friend. But Danielle and I
didn’t get back to the way we were and the next time I saw Steve we were solid
Talking about my job in Guyana upset Danielle. But
she finally realized I was serious about going far away to think things over.
Our relationship was almost totally broken at that point. She really thought we
were finished, but I wasn’t sure. I
convinced myself that going to Guyana was the right thing. It was getting too
complicated with Danielle and Steve in the same city.
-You need to
decide what kind of relationship you want. Is it with a woman or a man?
-He could have both at the same time. So
fucking great! He shouldn’t’ve told Steve about
really bad idea. He’d go nuts and end up losing them both.
up! Both of you. I’m here; I’ve got time to figure it
Steve wants to become a professional photographer, so I told him that
would fit in perfectly with my plans to work in Guyana for a year. I pointed
out that he could take a lot of great photos down there. A coffee table album
about Guyana could help him break into the professional world of photography. I
also pointed out that since he’d be totally free of a day job he could pursue
photography as much as he wanted. I’d provide the housing, a place for his
darkroom, a car and other things he’d need. He agreed that was a great idea.
And since he worked for an old buddy in New York he could easily get a leave of
absence from his job. Three weeks before I left for Guyana he told me that he’d
definitely come down and live with me. Being together every day, instead of the
occasional weekend visits we had in New York, wouldn’t be a problem – Danielle
would be far away; he’d have his photography, and I’d have my work. I’d go down
first and get everything set up and he’d come down about a month later…
I’m so happy that Steve’ll
be coming down and staying with me for a long time – I hope for the entire time
I’m working in Guyana. Before, on my foreign jobs, loneliness was a serious
problem when the stay was longer than a few months. With a close friend I can
share personal problems and other stuff every day. We don’t plan on announcing
our real relationship to anyone. Why complicate things? I haven’t told Boyle or
O’Reilly at BOAP about Steve. It’s none of their business. But something’s gnawing
inside me: How am I going to live with my boyfriend and work for someone like
Boyle at the same time? I guess I’ll have to make sure that Steve’ll
have no contact with Boyle. I could lease a house in a Georgetown neighborhood
far from Boyle and the project office. Still, the prospect of having him here
will give me the strength to put up with all sorts of crap. Thinking about us
here, together, calms me…
-Sex between two men will hit big down
here, if anyone finds out. But fuck it! I’ll enjoy Steve! Whatever shit happens!
will help you learn more about a close relationship with a man.
I’m in a good place when I daydream about living
with Steve. We’ll do all sorts of things together: Take river trips to
Amerindian camps in the jungle, where Steve can take some fantastic photos.
We’ll get to know some Guyanese and they’ll show us things that most foreigners
never see. I’m looking forward to the future. But in another part of my mind
I’m afraid that things might turn out totally different.
Boyle’s pacing around looking at his watch every two minutes, waiting
for Wu, and I’m still sitting next to the broken-down boat trailer daydreaming
about Steve. But then I feel something on my trouser leg. Judas Priest! It’s a
goddamn black scorpion! It’s about two inches long! I jump up and shake it off.
My pleasant reverie about Steve is abruptly finished.
Boyle sees me jump up and signals with his hand to
come over to him. He says he’s waited long enough for Wu. Looks like I have no
choice but to go along with his crazy plan – to put the boat in the narrow stream
and row out to the Caribbean. We’re going to do things the hard way. I have
plenty of experience with that: I survived for two years in Zaire where every
day was a challenge: living in a house with primitive plumbing and an even
worse kitchen, electricity for only three hours a day, teaching science to
African students whose minds were filled with superstition, worrying about
getting malaria, coming down with fevers that nobody could diagnose, bouts of
diarrhea for days, and a lot of other horrors. Now I have to reach down deep
into my reservoir of stoicism built up from my experiences in Africa.
Boyle and I lift up the trailer hitch and try to
pull the trailer with the boat. It takes about five minutes to pull it ten feet
down the road. By this time a small group of onlookers, mostly teenagers and
children from a nearby village are watching us, whispering to each other and
laughing at the two white strangers trying to pull a trailer with a flat tire.
Some in the group see an opportunity to squeeze out some cash from the helpless
white guys. A group of smiling teenage boys approaches us.
“OK, you big strong guys; let’s see what you can
do,” Boyle says.
He points to five of the sturdier older boys among
those who’ve volunteered. They agree to help when he offers them a few dollars,
US of course. They pull the trailer down the road and get close to the stream,
then use their machetes to cut down some of the dense brush growing on the bank.
They pull the trailer down to the stream’s bank and drag the boat into the
water. Boyle and I hand them our baggage to load into the boat.
“OK. The boat’s in the water. Now we just paddle
downstream to the coast,” Boyle says confidently.
He thinks he has it all planned out. The outboard motor’s useless because the stream’s too shallow and unseen
stones, tree branches and roots underwater might damage the propeller. I can’t
see how we’re going to paddle in such a narrow, shallow stream with all the brush
and vines hanging out from the banks. We’ll have to chop and cut vines and
brush and push and shove along the bank with our paddles.
get us stuck and some animal will attack us.
-No, go along
with him. You’re in better shape and just as stubborn. Before the day’s done
you’ll show Boyle how tough you are.
“OK, let’s go,” I say.
We get into the boat and start rowing and pushing
our way downstream toward the unseen coast with no idea how far away it is. In
some places we have to hack overhanging brush and vines grown down to within
three or four feet above the water surface. We chop away until the boat can
just barely squeeze under the vines and brush. The pushing and hacking’s hard
work. Little sunlight breaks through the leafy branches and vines overhead,
only tiny beams of light reflect off the dark water. Gazing up at the branches,
overhead, I’m startled to see the white belly of a large anaconda – I guess
about fifteen feet long, hard to tell for sure, part of him is coiled up – spread
out across some overhanging tree limbs about twelve feet above our boat. The
snake’s head hangs down from a branch and is cocked to one side, examining us
with one eye. The anaconda can easily drop down on us. I’m standing up, trying
not to make a sudden movement. I slowly reach over and nudge Boyle with one
hand and slowly raise the other to point up at the snake. Boyle stops pushing along the bank with his
oar. Neither one of us says a word; we wait to see what the snake might do. The
anaconda doesn’t move. My heart’s pounding so hard it feels like it’s coming up
in my throat. I say, “Ahead, slowly.” We push the boat until we’re no longer
directly under the snake. We made it! I look back for the snake. He’s still up
there in the trees looking at us, but not pursuing us. Now I can look back at
him from a safe distance. I can’t take my eyes off him; he’s beautiful.
“We’re OK now,” Boyle says.
-Feel Boyle’s fear! Mr. Tough Guy
Asshole isn’t as brave as he wants us to think….Without fear I can’t exist!
is good for you, too. Fills in some of your empty “mental
keeps me from thinking about Danielle.
-Keep her out
of this. You’ve got enough with Boyle.
“Ouch!” I knock my head on an overhanging branch
and forget about the snake and the voices. I yell at Boyle to look out for a
big vine up ahead – to push over to the left, so we won’t get tangled up.
“We’ll be OK when we get to the coast. This is just
like some streams in Nam. But there’s no Viet Cong hiding on the banks trying
to pick us off. This is a piece of cake.”
Exhausted and covered with nasty scratches on my
face and arms I figure we’ve only gone about one-half of a mile in an hour and
still don’t know how far away the coast is. We keep pushing and paddling. I’m
starting to think that we might not get to the Caribbean until late
afternoon....At last, through one final thicket of branches and vines I can see
some daylight ahead. We’re approaching the stream’s mouth. We get a glimpse of
the sky and slash and push faster. Ahead I can make out blue sky over a wide
band of brownish muddy water extending out at least a half mile toward the open
sea. We push ourselves closer to the opening. Looking farther out, I can barely
see beyond the muddy zone, the blue Caribbean. At its mouth the stream bank’s
exposed, the tide’s low. The water along the shore’s shallow over a muddy
bottom. Here’s the next needless stupid challenge of the day: getting through
the mud. And it’s all because Boyle couldn’t wait for Mr. Wu to return.
“We made it. But there’s mud on the bottom and we
don’t know how deep it is. The tide’s low; we can’t use the outboard motor,” I
“We’ll just get out and push this damned boat to
open water then we can start the outboard.”
He doesn’t think about danger: like sinking into
the mud while we push the boat. He wants to roar ahead like some brainless
bull. We take off our shoes and socks and roll up our trousers. The sun feels
like it’s cooking the flesh on my arms so I put on a long-sleeved shirt; I
don’t want to get sunstroke or sunburned. I’m amazed that we manage to get out
of the boat and into the water without capsizing. About six inches of water
cover about six inches of brown mud. Water and mud’s almost to my knees, so
much for rolling up my pants. The mud’s not very sticky, but the suction when I
raise my legs to step ahead makes walking difficult. Pushing the boat’s slow,
and the churned up water and mud gives off a nauseous odor of sulfur. Worse
still the sun’s getting hotter as it rises higher
overhead, slowing our progress more and more. The dry shirt I put on about
fifteen minutes ago is almost drenched with sweat. I silently play the stubborn
stoic as we push the boat. I imagine Boyle walking into a deep muddy hole and
sinking below the surface. I’d do nothing, just stand and watch him wave his
arms around frantically while he’s sinking. Or maybe a shark’ll
attack him. I can get into the boat and save myself faster than he can.
-Damn, that’d be great! Except we’d be screwed with only you pushing the boat.
But we don’t encounter any deep pockets where one
or both of us sink into the mud, like sinking into quicksand. And we don’t see
any sharks. About a half hour later – water almost up to our waists – exhausted
from pushing Boyle says, “Let’s get back in the boat. The water’s deep enough
to start the outboard.”
I can tell he’s way more tired than I am. He’s
sweating a lot and panting and gasping like he just ran a marathon. He’s also
risking sunstroke because he stubbornly continues to wear only a short-sleeved
Hawaiian shirt and is hatless under the blazing sun. Back in the boat he starts
the motor and we roar ahead out to deeper water.
“Now we can make up some time!” he shouts.
About ten minutes pass then the wind picks up. At
first it feels good to feel the cooler air blowing onto my face and across my
hot wet shirt. But then I notice the water’s getting choppy and the cool breeze
is changing to gusts, soon producing waves nearly a foot high. I look at Boyle;
he seems oblivious to the change. At one point the aluminum rowboat, skimming
beside a high wave feels like it might capsize.
-This shithead doesn’t care if he kills
himself and us!
“Look, there’s a fishing boat out there about five
hundred yards away.” I point to the northeast.
The boat’s about twenty feet long and fitted with a
single large square sail like a boat from the Persian Gulf.
“So what,” Boyle says.
“They’re signaling; they’re trying to tell us
The boat’s out in the deeper blue water. The men in
it are waving and yelling something. Boyle stops the outboard motor.
“Go back. Go back. Big storm!”
The men yell over and over.
We wait until their boat gets closer. When it’s
about five hundred feet away one of the men shouts again and points to some dark
clouds out at sea to the west, behind us. He repeats the warning about the
approaching storm and says it’ll be here in about thirty minutes. We turn
around and look. A thunderstorm’s coming toward us; that’s why the wind’s
picking up. It isn’t very far away – maybe about twenty miles. We were so busy
pushing the boat that we didn’t notice the storm. I’m impressed by the vast
size of the thunderhead, wide and tall with a white mountain of clouds on top
and flashes of lightning shooting out from its dark underbelly.
“Bad storm. You turn over,
or blow out to ocean.” They’re all looking at us with concern. They must wonder
what two foolish white men are doing in a small boat out at sea.
“They’re fishermen. They know the sea better than
us.” I hope Boyle won’t ignore their warning. “Thank
you,” I yell back to the fishermen.
Boyle’s standing up in the boat, a scowl on his
face. “OK, goddammit. Let’s go back.”
Boyle’s not completely unhinged after all.
“We’re still going to Tibibiri.
Maybe Wu got us some help,” he says.
Grudgingly, Boyle turns back towards the little
stream. We motor back to the muddy shallows, get out of the boat and again
slowly push it back through the mud. We’re still pushing when the wind gets
more violent, blowing loose paper out of the boat. Suddenly, it starts to pour.
Large raindrops beat down on our heads making it difficult to see clearly.
Thunder booms and several strikes of lightning come down into a forested area
about three hundred yards away. Standing in water I hope we won’t be
electrocuted by a lightning bolt. We’re not far from the stream and the cover
of trees. Once we’re there, the overhanging green canopy won’t keep out the
rain, but hopefully, will give us some small protection from the lightning.
When we get back to the road the rain’s stopped.
The small crowd of locals that saw us off has disappeared, but they soon come
straggling back knowing that we’d have to return, given the thunderstorm.
Soaked to the skin we get out of the boat, sit on the stream bank and wait for
Mr. Wu. Looking at my watch: it’s 3:12 and I’m numb
and hungry; I haven’t eaten since 6:30 this morning. I’m exhausted from pushing
the boat over the muddy shallows and through the stream. My legs feel like
jelly. Boyle has to be more exhausted than I am. Before this trip he probably
had no idea of the mess we’d get into. I have no doubt that I’ve been tested
more than he planned, and he’s paying for it, too.
“Where’s Wu? Has anybody seen an old Chinese man?”
Boyle asks the small crowd. No one’s seen Wu come back.
“Maybe he went to another village if he couldn’t
get help at the first one. I think he’ll come back with something.” I try to
reassure Boyle. If Wu comes back soon I hope he’ll bring some food with him. I
could care less about the trailer.
“He had enough cash to pay for some help,” Boyle
Boyle’s a good old American who thinks money can
get you just about anything. My experience is the opposite: No amount of money
can get you what isn’t available in a poor country. And lots of people think
you’re just an easy touch for some cash. It’s obvious that Boyle hadn’t planned
for any emergencies and now he’s paying for his error.
After 4:00, Mr. Wu finally returns, followed by an
East Indian driving a large flatbed truck. “Good man, Wu, I knew you could do
it!” Boyle’s happy now.
hypocrite. A while ago he said Wu was unreliable.
Wu’s arrival only means more drudgery. I was hoping
he wouldn’t come back until after dark, then we’d have to call it a day and
continue tomorrow. But no such luck, I’m in for more abuse today.
Boyle shakes hands with the truck driver. “We need
to get this boat to the Berbice this afternoon. It’s
The driver looks at us, then at boat in the stream
and scratches his head. He’s sizing up the situation and calculating how much
money he can squeeze out of the crazy Americans.
“How much you pay?” The truck driver’s direct and
to the point.
“I’ll give you twenty dollars US.”
“You make joke, I go home.” The truck driver
Unwilling to change his plans, no matter what,
Boyle negotiates with the driver to take us and our boat to the Berbice for eighty US dollars. Some young men will be paid
to load the boat onto the flatbed truck. Mr. Wu’s sent back to Georgetown with
the Land Rover and will return tomorrow to repair the trailer’s tire then
return the trailer to the OD garage. All this time we haven’t eaten anything,
not even a sandwich. Boyle won’t take a few minutes to stop at some local café
for a bite of whatever strange dish they might have to offer.
Riding in the front seat of the truck I suggest,
“Can’t we stop for a few minutes and get something to eat? We haven’t eaten
since 6:30 this morning.”
“Dere be small restaurant
in next village; dey have good curry and dall,” the driver offers.
“No, just forget about your stomach. I’ve got some
water. That’s all we need. We’ve got enough energy to get us to Tibibiri.”
damned stupid man! I want to shout it out loud, but I can take whatever he
dumps on me.
Finally, we get to the mouth of the Berbice River. Across the river I can see a medium-sized
settlement. Some children play on two wooden wharves,
while a few men appear to be unloading a barge tied up to a third wharf. Behind
the modest waterfront are seven or eight tin-roofed wooden buildings on stilts.
That’s all I can see of the town from this side of the river, looks sort of
run-down. Boyle tells me it’s called New Amsterdam and it’s in Surinam. Men
with empty canoes quickly row toward us. As usual in these kinds of places
we’re beacons that lure the locals. They’re hoping to squeeze a few bucks out
of us. The taxi canoes maneuver themselves right next to the bank where Boyle
and I are standing. The ferrymen say they’ll take us to the other side for a
few dollars. Boyle tells them we have our own boat and we’re going upriver, not
to the other side. They look at us like we’re nuts and tell us it’s too late to
go upriver; it’ll be starting to get dark in an hour or so.
The current here at the river’s mouth is slow.
Large clusters of floating vegetation cover about a fourth of the dark brown
river’s surface. The green clusters twirl slowly and glide around like some
alien ballet: They collide with other clusters and coalesce for a few moments
then slowly break apart. The coalescence and breaking up repeat over and over
until the clusters swirl and glide slowly past the limit of the river’s mouth
and float out into the open sea.
“I find help, unload boat and put in water,” says
A small crowd of curious onlookers gathers around
the truck and the driver gets four young men to help unload our boat and
baggage. In about half an hour the boat’s in the water and the baggage is
“You wan’ stay here for night? I have family here. Dey give
you room and food. It be dark soon and dere bad tins on river at night.”
The driver looks at us like we’re on our way to
fight some river-monster. It’s already a little past five and it gets dark at
“No, goddammit! Enough of this bullshit! Today won’t be a total
waste! We’re gonna keep moving. Things’ll
be easier; we have an outboard motor. Come on Hanes, get your butt in the boat
and let’s get going.”
We board the boat. I’m in a daze – exhausted,
hungry and almost completely overcome by Boyle’s stubbornness. But what can I
do? Stay here by myself? My imagination’s full of nasty things that could
happen to Boyle:
-Maybe the son of a bitch’ll
have a heart attack. Or you can capsize the damn boat. You’re a good swimmer
and he’s real tired. He’ll get tangled up in the green floating crap and drown!
-Don’t be a
fool. Just go along with him. He’s older, tired and frustrated. Maybe he’ll
change his mind and stay in New Amsterdam.
-Will you both
just shut up! I’m too tired to listen.
It’s twilight. The boat’s ready to go and Boyle
starts the motor. We’re off. The water gets blacker and blacker as the sun
drops quickly behind the trees on the western bank. We don’t make much progress
going upstream against the current. Sometimes it seems like we’re not moving
ahead at all. I can barely make out the large green clusters of vegetation as
they float toward our little rowboat. Each one’s at least ten feet in diameter
with leaves protruding about six inches to a foot above the water’s surface. I
can’t tell how thick they are. Maybe they extend farther out, invisible below
the surface of the black water. It’s getting darker and the river’s narrowing
slightly. I think the green stuff now covers about a third of the river’s
“Watch out, you’re heading right into that
stuff!" I warn. “There’re two more coming at us.
Keep to the left!”
The ballet of twirling gliding clusters I enjoyed
in the bright sunlight becomes a hellish dodge’em
carnival ride for us at night. If Boyle gets us tangled up in the stuff the
propeller will jam. Our two tiny oars won’t do much good. We’d probably just
float back downstream past New Amsterdam. No one will hear or see us at night.
Embedded in one of these green rafts we’d float out to sea. And who knows where
the ocean current would take us. We could only hope that we’d get picked up by
a passing boat.
-You just sit on your ass and let Boyle
drive us into a disaster!
Fifteen minutes later it’s dark. We can’t see much
at all. Luckily a full moon’s rising so there’ll be some light to help us. In
the moonlight the clusters look like small silver islands moving slowly towards
us over a black surface reflecting the bright white moon. The banks of the
river are dark silver-gray walls of dense vegetation. The river makes no sound.
The only noise comes from the small outboard motor and the gurgling water
churned up by its propeller. Because of the danger I can’t really appreciate
this dreamlike surreal setting.
could feel the beauty of it all I’d be calmer.
-That’s your problem: you can’t feel
like a normal person. I do the feeling for you!
“Can you see where we’re going? I can’t. It’s too
dark and we’re way past the lights at New Amsterdam. Let’s find a place to pull
over,” I plead.
The darker it gets, the greater the risk of getting
trapped in the river plants.
“OK, OK. I thought we could get past this damn
floating stuff. It could jam the propeller. And we can’t see what’s under
asshole finally gets the picture.
We both start scanning the banks to see if there’s
some place where we can spend the night.
“I see an open area on the left bank. Let’s go
there,” Boyle points out.
Near the bank the boat gets grounded in shallow
water. Boyle stops the motor – total silence. The deep river and the jungle are
completely still, but I know there must be all kinds of creatures watching us.
“Here, take this rope. Tie us up to that palm tree.
We’ll sleep here.”
I get out of the boat and wade up to the bank to wrap
the rope around the base of a palm. As I pull the rope tight and tie it, I see
the bank more clearly.
“There’s a bush-path going into the forest.
Anything could be roaming around here in the dark. Did you bring a flashlight?”
“Nope, don’t have one.”
“Did you bring matches or anything to start a fire
with? What about a gun?”
He didn’t bring a gun or matches. He made no plans
to spend a night out in the jungle, and we have no way to protect ourselves
from animals that might be prowling around.
“We’ll sleep in the boat, wake up early and start
back upstream,” he says.
The boat’s too small, it can barely seat two, and
with all our baggage I don’t see how we’re going to sleep in it. We
don’t have sleeping bags. No flashlight or campfire. We’re fumbling around in
“How are we going to sleep? There’s no room to stretch
had it, stoic or not. Boyle and I are too tall for the boat. We’ll have to curl
up in fetal positions with nothing soft to lie on.
-You found my anger. Feels good, huh?
Tell Boyle he’s a jackass!
just shut up!
“Let’s go back to New Amsterdam before the moon
I’m not scared of wild animals. I’m just totally
exhausted and it won’t be that hard to go downstream and find some place to
stay in New Amsterdam.
“Take it easy, I’ve got something that’ll knock us
He pulls out a bottle of cheap whiskey from his
duffle bag and passes it to me.
“Here, chug this. Always
works for me. A few gulps and you’ll feel no pain. You’re not some pussy
teetotaler are you?”
-He’s a goddamn bully! If you had a gun
you could put a bullet through his head and throw his body overboard; it’d
float out into the Caribbean! But you’re a pussy CO.
I gulp down as much whiskey as I can tolerate on my
empty stomach. The mosquitoes are chewing me up and I don’t have any bug
repellant. The moon’s sinking behind some tall trees on the western bank and
it’s getting darker. Everything disappears into the blackness. I can’t see the
trees or the brush on the shore right next to us. But I can feel the dark
silent water flowing slowly under us. What
else is in the dark water?
Drunk and uncomfortable I try lying in a fetal
position on the rowboat’s hard aluminum bottom. That’s no good. Maybe if I try
to remember some times when I slept deeply, like a bear in hibernation….That
only makes things worse. Disturbing thoughts about what happened today and what
might happen tomorrow buzz around in my mind like a swarm of threatening hornets.
-You don’t deserve a good sleep! You put
up with Boyle’s crap all day long. You’ve been asleep for years!
I force myself to drink more of Boyle’s cheap whiskey and lie down
again. My head’s spinning, but finally, no hornets. At last, here’s the image
I’m looking for: I’m lying with Danielle in her queen-size bed with its light
blue satin sheets and pillowcases carefully prepared for her by Lizetta, her father’s Italian housekeeper who cleans her
apartment three times a week. Danielle’s sleeping under my arm blending in with
the softness and coolness of the satin. Oh, what a paradise! She’s the most
beautiful woman I ever had a serious relationship with. She’s the only woman
I ever had a serious relationship with. And here I am running away from all
that, for this hell!
Danielle and I dated for a long time. My best friend Charlie
introduced me to her my junior year in college. She was sixteen and beautiful:
long straight black hair, large blue eyes. She was tall and slender with the
body of a model. Danielle and I dated every time Charlie and I went up to New
York. One weekend Charlie lent me his apartment while he stayed at school to study.
Danielle and I slept together for the first time. We fell in love.
Spending two years in Zaire working off my CO
obligation was difficult for Danielle and me. I was worried that she’d forget
about me. She’s a beautiful woman and a lot of guys were always chasing her. I
was never much for praying, but while I was in Zaire I prayed that she wouldn’t
forget me and that we’d take up where we left off when I returned. We wrote
lots of letters. We tried to be honest about our social lives: who we were
dating and how we felt about the person. I think she lost interest in me for a
while but later, fortunately, her affection for me revived. I was relieved.
Both of us felt that there was no one else for either of us. We tried hard to
keep our relationship alive. Amazingly, we did. When I came home we were still
I can imagine
what she’s doing now, thousands of miles to the north: She’s probably meeting her parents at one of her father’s favorite
French restaurants. Her parents are going to try and cheer her up, but dinner’s
dismal. She’ll hardly speak at all, eat a few pieces of bread and barely touch
her maigret de canard – her favorite dish. Watching
her father enjoying his riz de veau will
make her nauseated. She told me, several times, that dishes like that remind
her of the strange smelly platters prepared for her father by the family’s
Moroccan cook, many years ago in Rabat. I know her parents will be concerned
about her health, especially her father who feels sick, too, whenever she’s
ill. A strong protective feeling he’s had for her since her birth will overcome
No one wants to talk about me and why I ran off to some pathetic
little country they barely heard of. They know that Danielle pleaded with me
for weeks not to go, but I left anyway.
Her mother will probably try to cheer her up, “TR won’t be gone long.
He went there to get some professional experience.”
But I know Danielle, and she won’t be convinced, but she’s not
willing, yet, to think about other reasons why I took off and left her, abandoned
her. On her walk home, Manhattan’s concrete sidewalks will probably only
reinforce her feelings of loneliness and exposure in an unfriendly world. The
people walking toward and away from her will be invisible. She and I were so
close and so happy. Now she’s alone and afraid. She ought not to have gotten so
completely bound up with me....Her mood’s been slowly changing into anger.
She’ll vow that I’ll pay for making her feel like this. No one, not even me,
can get away with doing this to her!
I can’t control myself any more. I sob quietly. I
don’t want to wake Boyle. He had no trouble going to sleep; he passed out and
he’s snoring loudly. I ought to kick him, wake him up! If I were
sane I’d get on a plane for New York the minute I get back to Georgetown.
fucked up, asshole. Now you’re paying for it, and it’ll only get worse.
know, but what can I do? Just leave me alone.
strong. Good can come from this. Patience.
After what seems like hours I finally pass out.
I wake up when it’s starting to get light. I’m sick to my stomach and
have a monster headache. Slowly I become more aware. I feel like I’m standing
on my head! I look up and see the front end of the boat tilted up towards the
palm tree at about a thirty-degree angle. We’re still in the tidal zone of the
river’s mouth and the tide’s gone out leaving our boat tilted up on the muddy
riverbank. Grabbing an edge of the boat with both hands I pull myself up and
look down at Boyle who’s asleep in a fetal position, snoring loudly. What a pathetic sight!
“Hey, wake up!” I yell, and shift my weight
violently back and forth to shake the boat. I’ll be
damned if he’s going to sleep more than me!
He wakes up, still drunk. “Wha..what’s wrong with this goddamn boat!”
“The tide’s out; we’re grounded! We have to get out
and push it back into the water.”
This time I’m giving the orders. Boyle sits up
slowly. We climb out of the unstable boat, sink down into the muddy bank and
push the boat back into the water then we get back in, our legs covered with
stinking black mud. Boyle starts the motor and we continue our journey upstream
to Tibibiri Farm. Watching the jungle unfold along
the banks of the river as we progress slowly upstream, I realize that some
things have changed:
can’t intimidate me anymore. I’ve passed my “test” and survived in better
condition than he has. He can still give me a hard time, but he’ll never again
showed him that I have some guts.
The river’s about a third of a mile wide at this
point. Now I can identify the floating green rafts: they’re large clusters of
water-hyacinths. Their glossy green leaves reflect the sunlight and contrast
with the dark brown almost black color of the water. The muddy banks are
invisible, hidden behind a dense wall of shrubs and trees with large hanging
vines projecting out over the edges of the river. In some places large trees
have fallen into the water, their trunks and tops submerged leaving roots
exposed up on the bank. The current’s not strong because of the river’s
considerable depth. Strange invisible birds sing in the jungle beyond the bank.
And the sun, still low in the sky, hides behind the tall
trees of the eastern bank. It’s cool and will stay that way only for a
little while longer.
Boyle doesn’t say much as we make our way slowly
upstream. But he does point out a danger lurking in the river: “Rivers like
this are full of piranhas. Lots of them during the dry
season. In the wet season they move out into the small streams.”
Great, another terror to deal with! What season’s
this? I remember the fires at sugarcane farms we passed on the road from
Georgetown. Burning’s done only in the dry season, so it’s likely that schools
of hungry piranhas are patrolling these waters just waiting for a clumsy oaf
like Boyle to abruptly stand up and capsize our small boat. We’ll try to swim
thrashing around in the dark brown water like a couple of panicked seals, but
we’ll only attract schools of thousands of piranhas hungry for lunch. Each
little fish will tear off and eat a tiny bit of our flesh with its razor-sharp
teeth. They’ll leave when they’ve eaten everything down to our bones. They
might have to work on Boyle for hours.
This morning Boyle’s subdued. Like me, he’s
exhausted. I’m glad he didn’t mention the piranhas last night when we were
trying to avoid the water hyacinths. This morning I only hope he’s a decent
navigator and won’t do anything to capsize the boat. He hasn’t been drinking
and seems to be recovering from his hangover.
Once in a while I see a small clearing where a fisherman-farmer
family lives. There’s usually a little dock, often collapsing and need of
repair, and a small unpainted wooden shack built on stilts up on the bank. A
few times an adult or a child appears, smiles and
waves. I wave back. When I return to Georgetown I’ll find out that the people
who settled along the river are descendents of Dutch settlers who came here in
the late eighteenth century and intermarried with Amerindians. These river
people fish and grow crops on the richer soils of the river banks.
The river narrows little by little as we continue
upstream. I see fewer floating rafts of water-hyacinths. I feel more and more
like I’m moving through a chute with dark green walls and a bright blue
ceiling, the sky. Shadows made by the vegetation along the banks darken the
water more and more. Again, I imagine schools of piranhas hunting in the black
water. I’m tired, hungry and have a bad hangover. The fiasco on the Caribbean
yesterday and our night on the river seem like a bad dream, but they were real.
All of it was pointless! Maybe we could’ve arrived safely the same day with a
little more careful planning on Boyle’s part.
Early afternoon we finally get to Tibibiri. I
try to convince myself that things will get better now. Maybe Boyle will let up
and I can try to adjust to this strange place. He’ll never admit it, but I’m
sure he’s as glad as I am to get here. Today he hasn’t tried to push me around.
I think he’s more comfortable with me because I survived and didn’t complain
about all the crap he was dumping on me.
No trees grow near the wharf, only thick bunches of
bushes, vines and weeds. The scorching sun’s almost directly overhead; the
temperature’s risen into the high nineties, at least, and the air’s so humid our shirts, hats and trousers are drenched in
sweat. The wharf’s slowly breaking up: its wood black and gray with age and
rotted through in many places. We have to be careful not to step into a hole or
on a rotten plank and break a leg or fall into the piranha-infested water. A
run-down storage building at one end of the wharf’s near total collapse, its
metal siding twisted and rusted and windows smashed. Next to it I see a rusty
steam shovel and a large broken-down bulldozer; they look like some abandoned
World War II ordinance on a South Sea island. The rusty machinery and the
crumbling storage building are slowly being swallowed up by the jungle. The
road leading up to the wharf is deeply eroded, and I don’t see any tractors or
-Feel my pain!
I so vulnerable? I came down here to get away from my bad feelings. Instead,
they’re worse. Steve’ll help me feel better.
-Get away from whose feelings? They’re mine; you just borrowed some!
around won’t solve all your problems, but he’ll be a good friend who’ll help
when things get difficult.
“Why’s this place in such bad shape? Wasn’t it
built by OD?” I ask Boyle. “It looks like they spent a lot of money and put in
a lot of effort building the farm. Why did they abandon it?”
“They shelved the project about ten years ago. It
was too hard to get people to live here.”
That’s it? He didn’t answer my question. What
discouraged the settlers? Where did all the money come from to build the wharf
and the buildings and import the heavy machinery? For some unknown reasons –
unknown to me, that is – OD set up our current project to review in more detail
whether Tibibiri’s any good for any kind of
agriculture. Why? They can see it isn’t – just look around. Do they really need
my expertise to review the area all over again? I’m starting to have serious
doubts whether I’ll get any practical experience working here. Maybe I’ve made a huge mistake coming here.
see what happens. There’s lots to learn and see in
this country besides this project.
“Let’s go to the headquarters. There’s a skeleton
staff there to take care of houses and barns,” Boyle informs me.
He walks me to the farm headquarters which includes
two barns, an office and four small bungalows all built for the original staff.
They’re still in fair shape. The jungle’s been kept away. In the farm office a
middle-aged black woman’s seated behind the only desk in an otherwise empty
Boyle approaches her and says, “Hello, Mrs. Nestor.
How are you doing today?”
She looks up from her papers and stares at Boyle,
“I’m doin’ quite fine, tank
you, Mr. Boyle.”
Boyle turns and looks at me. “This is Mrs. Nestor.
She’s the manager and she’s in charge of maintaining buildings and lodging
visitors. Mrs. Nestor, this is Mr. Hanes. He’s the agricultural expert who’s
going to work on our project.”
Mrs. Nestor stands up and walks around to the front
of her desk. She’s a tall athletic-looking black woman, wearing a brown
short-sleeved khaki shirt, khaki trousers and a brown baseball cap. She has a
“no nonsense” demeanor and looks like someone who can handle herself in any
“Very pleased to meet you,” I say, shaking Mrs.
Nestor’s hand. She doesn’t smile, but looks at me somewhat suspiciously.
am I going to get a cold reception from the Guyanese?
with Boyle you might.
meet you, Mr. Hanes. How are you doin’, Mr.
Boyle? We expected you last evnin’.”
“We had a few problems, nothing serious.” His
explanation’s short on details. I’m tempted to tell her about our trip, but
describing the stupid disastrous trip would embarrass him.
Mrs. Nestor greeted Boyle and me coolly. I get the
impression she doesn’t like Boyle, but after my experience with him I’m not
surprised by her reaction.
“Come along now; I’ll walk you to your lodgin’. Someone will brin’ dinner at 5:30 and your breakfast at 7:00 tomorrow mornin’. Electricity comes on at 7:00 in de mornin’ and goes off at 7:00 in de evnin’.
We come to a modest bungalow and enter, “You have a
shower and toilet in de house. But you only get runnin’
water when de electricity’s on. Dere are clean bed
linens, mosquito nettin’ and towels in your rooms. If
I were you I wouldn’t walk around at night wit’out a
flashlight. You might step on a snake or sometin’. If
you need anytin’ more come to me office.” She recites
her instructions like a speech she’s given many times before.
As she turns to walk out the door Boyle says “Mrs.
Nestor, could you radio a message to my driver, Mr. Wu, in Georgetown? Tell him
to send someone else to get the broken trailer, and to fetch me tomorrow at
Mrs. Nestor says she’ll send the message and leaves
Boyle introduces me to John Stanton, the project economist, who just
walked into the room. John’s been waiting for us. Boyle explains that I’m the
project’s agricultural expert. We shake hands and I tell him I look forward to
working with him; he says likewise with me. John’s sixty-two years old with
brown thinning hair, slightly overweight and shorter than Boyle or me. Dressed
in a light brown polyester leisure suit, black horn-rimmed glasses and wearing a gold Rolex, he has the style of an upper-middle class
businessman vacationing in Miami.
He looks at Boyle, “I was getting worried that
something happened to you two. Mrs. Nestor radioed Georgetown last evening, but
no one knew where you were.”
“Oh, we just had some boat trouble, nothing
serious. TR got a good look at the river. Should be some useful
information for your study.”
What bullshit. He says nothing about the problems
we had. The man just can’t admit that his bad planning caused us a lot of
trouble. I’d like to tell John then and there what happened, but I say nothing.
I don’t want to embarrass Boyle on my second day on the job.
“John has a lot of experience in farm economics. He
owns a farm in the Central Valley in California,” Boyle says.
I’m impressed that he’s a successful farmer from
California, but farming there is nothing like farming in Guyana. The soils and
climate are totally different. John’s quick to reply that he’s retired from
managing his farm; his son’s taken over. With the introductions over we sit
down to dinner. Food, at last! My forced fasting’s
over. Dinner conversation’s mostly polite chitchat about Guyana and our
project. After dinner Boyle excuses himself and walks over to the farm office.
After Boyle leaves John and I talk for about half an hour. Somehow I feel like
I can be candid with John and tell him what really happened to Boyle and me. I
describe the aborted launch on the Caribbean and our night on the Berbice tied up to a palm tree. I tell him that Boyle can
be impulsive, arbitrary and stubborn – not very pleasant to work with, or for.
After I tell John all this I wonder if I should’ve kept my mouth shut. Even
though John seems like a good guy I really don’t know him.
“Sounds like a hard way to travel. Chuck Boyle
might be a difficult guy to deal with, but just between you and me I think we
can handle him.” He smiles. I sense that John’s genuinely
friendly and easy-going, a pleasant change from Boyle.
I tell John that I’m surprised to see how run-down
the farm is and ask him what he knows about the place. About fifteen years ago,
he explains, an incompetent OD “expert” thought
that the grassy open areas here in the jungle were like “Iowa prairies” and
that a corn, soybean and cattle farm would work real well. OD bought into the
idea and hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on buildings and
equipment. But the prairies were only infertile sands and the whole project flopped.
says now we’re the new and improved experts who’re going to try and figure out
what to do with the place. He thinks we can come up with a few good ideas. I
say I hope so. I’d hate to think we were wasting our time.
is so typical: Americans thinking that money can do anything,” I say.
rapidly getting dark. John leaves the room and comes back with a Coleman
lantern. The room’s brilliantly lit, our long shadows talking to each other on
the wall on the other side of the room. John’s mood changes,
becoming more personal and serious in sync with the coming of darkness.
Then out of the blue: “Four months ago, I had open
heart surgery. Here’s the scar.”
He lifts up his shirt and shows me a purplish scar
about eight inches long on his chest. “That’s where they cut and pried open my
I’m surprised that he’d discuss such a serious
personal thing with someone he’s met only a few hours before.
painful. Are you OK now?”
John’s no doubt proud he survived such extreme
surgery. But I’ve heard that some people have bouts of depression after open
heart surgery. Was I seeing this now?
“It was painful at first, but I don’t feel anything
now. My doctor said I’d be all right if I don’t try to lift anything heavy.”
I’m concerned that John’d
come to work here so soon after a serious operation. What’re his reasons
for signing up for this job? He doesn’t appear to need the money; successful
farmers in the Central Valley live quite well. Another fishy American. This
old guy isn’t what I expected; I can’t picture him tramping around in the
“I was a widower for a long time, but last year I
remarried. My wife’s a lovely English lady. She’s twenty-two years younger than
me, but we have a lot in common. She inherited a family farm – I should say
estate – which she manages very well. She’s quite a gal! She’ll come down here
for a short visit later on.”
more to this old boy than meets the eye. Why did he sign up for a job in a
backwater like this? It doesn’t add up. I tell John about my times in Africa –
Zaire and Nigeria. And that I’m studying tropical agriculture. I don’t talk
about my personal life. During our conversations I’m pleased that John
hasn’t shown any aggressive unstable behavior like Boyle. I think we’ll work
that night, around 3:30 a.m., I wake up and have to pee. Boyle’s snoring loudly
but I don’t hear anything from old John in the next room. I get up quietly and
tiptoe through the short hallway. John’s door is about one-third open. There’s
a light on; I peek in. He’s sitting at a table with a small bright light he’s
placed next to a book – notebook, journal? He’s writing. Is he writing notes
about Boyle and me? He’s easy to talk to – made me feel totally at ease. I told
him some things about Boyle that I probably should’ve kept to myself. What’s he
you’re too paranoid. He’s probably writing to his wife. Go back to sleep.
Mr. Wu picks up Boyle early the next morning – earlier than expected.
They’ll be returning to Georgetown by bush-tracks and gravel roads, not by
river. Boyle’s arranged for a farm worker to navigate the boat back to New
Amsterdam where Mr. Wu will pick it up and take it back to the OD garage.
Before his departure Boyle arranges to have a driver take
John and me anywhere we want to go in the Tibibiri
area. If we need anything or have an emergency we’re to contact Mrs. Nestor and
she’ll radio Georgetown. John and I will spend the next three days out in the
field where we can get a better understanding of the area’s resources and
discuss our roles in the project.
An hour after Boyle’s departure a tall thin
middle-aged mulatto man knocks at our bungalow door. I open the screen door and
he walks slowly – you might say sheepishly – into the room.
“My name’s Percy. Mr. Boyle says I take you
wherever you gentlemen want and help carry tin’s.”
Percy has glasses with thick lenses – makes his
eyes look unusually large – and a big bulbous English nose and light brown
“I hope I’m not too early for you gentlemen. I know
experts need time for plannin’. I don’ want to rush
“Not at all Percy, you’re right on time. I’m TR Hanes and this is Mr. John Stanton.” John and I
shake Percy’s hand.
“We’re ready to go. Can you put this shovel in the
of course sir. Here, let me take it. Does the young gentleman or
Mr. Stanton have anytin’ else to put in de van?”
Percy’s manners are exaggerated and old-fashioned.
John and I say we’ve all we need and that we’re ready to go. Percy’s polite and
attentive, maybe too much so. He’s helpful enough, but he’s a sycophant. He’s
constantly asking us if we’re OK or if we need something. He calls us
“gentlemen” and keeps repeating how fortunate the Guyanese are to have experts
like us come down to help them. Maybe I’m too harsh, too soon, but I don’t
think Percy’s comments are sincere. He’s a hypocrite who praises authority, but
at the same time hypocrites often can have another hidden agenda: to tear
authority down. This is my first impression of Percy; time will tell if my
assessment of him is correct. Politeness isn’t always insincere. After all, his
behavior was appropriate for a British servant.
In Zaire and Nigeria I learned that servants were
expected to act like toadies when they worked for white colonials. Most of them
knew that white people were not to be trusted. They often gave arbitrary
orders and most expected to be flattered when waited on. When I was teaching in
Zaire I made a sincere effort to build a good relationship with my students. I
felt that my students and I overcame a lot of insincerity – we got over a lot
of hypocrisy that Africans use when dealing with white people, and vice versa.
After two years of teaching the students gave all their departing teachers a
farewell banquet. They wrote me a testimonial saying that “I was the only
white person they’d ever met who wasn’t racist.” I’ll never forget that. I
hope I can live up to it here in Guyana. But after my first Guyanese
experiences I’m wondering:
just some naïve guy trying to reform an out-of-control phony world?
trying to make yourself feel special. You’re an outsider. Just be a good person.
Percy drives around following a bush-track through
the jungle until we find a place that looks like a site typical of the whole
area. John and I get out of the Chevy Suburban and walk into the forest. Most
of the trees are about thirty to forty feet tall and only about fifteen to
twenty feet apart; the biggest ones have trunks about twelve to twenty inches in
diameter. Must be a second-growth forest; the original forest would’ve had
bigger taller trees and more open space between them. An excess of vines grow
up the trees, some reaching the treetops. All kinds of bushes, some thorny,
grow on the forest floor. They’re closely spaced making it difficult to walk
around them. We decide we need Percy’s help to get through. I go back, get
Percy and tell him to bring a machete to cut through the brush. We catch up
with John and Percy starts hacking away at the bushes. The farther away we get
from the bush-track the more open the forest becomes. Deeper inside the jungle
we find a large open area, approximately ten acres of flat grassland, misnamed
a “savannah.” There are no trees, vines or bushes growing in the open area,
only tall grass. Insects buzz around our heads and we hear strange bird calls
coming from the jungle that surrounds us. We’re in a remote area far from any
kind of settlement or sign of human activity. Walking around this open area we
see that the only vegetation’s a coarse inedible grass about two feet high.
Anyone who digs into the top eighteen inches of these soils will see that
they’re only sterile quartz sand mixed with a little organic matter which will
quickly disappear when cultivated. I point this out to John and he agrees. In
future we’ll concentrate on the forested areas and the richer soils along the Berbice. My first impression of John is correct: he’s a
pleasant fellow to work with and a keen observer and interpreter of field
conditions. A half hour later John says he’s getting tired and walks back to
the car with Percy.
I continue to walk around alone thinking about these sterile sands. I
look at the vigorous jungle abruptly rising up at the edge of the grassy sandy “savannahs.”
The difference between the forest and the grassy field is striking. Similar
grassy landscapes in Iowa produce tons and tons of wholesome corn, but now I
understand why anything of value, like a crop of corn or soybeans, will never
grow here on these barren sands.
jungle traps me, surrounds me, keeping me a prisoner inside this grassy area
which isn’t what I thought it was, what it should be. The “experts” who chose
the location for Tibibiri Farm were taken in by these
“prairies.” I’m alone in this fake pasture; there’s only me and my voices. On
the surface the inedible coarse grass growing on the infertile sands looks lush
Danielle planted seeds on your flat “prairie” mental landscapes. You wanted the
seeds to grow into a wonderful marriage. But it didn’t happen.
“prairie” infertile? Things were going OK, but at the last minute it all fell
apart. We couldn’t harvest our crop, our marriage?
-Come on cornball, quit your whining!
Dumping all that bullshit on yourself will only get you a crop of weeds!
there’s something outside Danielle and me that messed us up.
Steve never influenced me with Danielle.
-That’s a bullshit lie!
affection was always for Danielle....but now a lot of those feelings are going
-You mean my feelings!
that’s what’s driving TR mad.
love Danielle. Steve’s just my best friend.
What does that mean? You don’t understand yourself.
why I came down here: I’m gonna learn more about
myself. Maybe I haven’t dug deep enough to find what I really need.
-Jackass, you need my feelings so you can go deep inside yourself.
York City’s artificial; nothing but weeds and a few scrubby trees grow there.
-True, but you
made things more unnatural with Steve. You’re afraid to admit how Steve affects
your love – if you can call it that – for Danielle. You’re one confused guy!
different. He’s a good friend, but he was in the background and would’ve stayed
in the background if Danielle and I hadn’t started having problems…
-Or maybe it’s
the other way around: Steve caused the problems with Daniel. You’d better snap
out of this.
it’s mostly my fault. Maybe I poison the relationships I get into.
-You need to
dig deep into yourself. Do what you sometimes tell others to do: “get to know
why I had to get away from her: I can’t dig deep down with her around. Besides
I already know a lot about myself.
than most people, but you’re complicated. You need to go a lot deeper.
A loud howl
from a monkey in the jungle startles me. Mocking me?!
-You know your
sex life is all mixed up, but you don’t understand how it affects your feeble emotions.
-That’s because the emotions are mine, not his. He just tries to borrow them
life’s under control. I know who I am. When I’m with a woman I’m straight; when
I’m with a guy I’m gay. Don’t tell me I don’t…
Just then a swarm of jungle hornets suddenly appear
and slowly circle around my body making deep buzzing sounds. I don’t want to
get stung by one of these bastards; their poisonous stings could kill me. I run
to the van to escape them, and tell John and Percy to shut the windows and
drive away quickly before the hornets get to us.
-I had to run
-Just like you
had to run away from Danielle.
-She’s not a
your obsessive thoughts make her seem like one.
-That’s shit. I
just need to figure out what’s going on with me.
You’ll drive yourself crazy – maybe you already are.
Now leave me alone!
The next day, we take another field trip in the opposite direction. This
time we get an earlier start to try and avoid the afternoon heat and,
hopefully, the nasty bugs. Percy follows another bush-track that’s more eroded
than the one we drove on yesterday; it has lots more gullies and sand traps. I
have to hand it to Percy, he knows how to maneuver
over, around and through the obstacles. But the ride’s much bumpier and the
Chevy Suburban sways back and forth, sometimes violently. John isn’t taking it
very well; he’s pale and tense. It doesn’t help that the van has no air
conditioning. I ask him if he’s OK; he says he is. We go on a little farther
then I tell Percy to stop, that we’ll do our field walk here. We don’t see
anything really different from the day before – same soils, same jungle growth,
same open areas. John walks around with me for a few
minutes then goes back to the Chevy. I spend another hour digging around and
taking notes then go back to the van. It’s almost noon and we head back to the
farm. John doesn’t say anything but I know he’s grateful to me for keeping the
fieldtrip short. The third day we stay at the farm and look over the
broken-down equipment and buildings left from the failed Tibibiri
project. On the fourth day we return to Georgetown. Driving through the forest
I see that there’re absolutely no settlements in the Tibibiri
area. The first road’s nothing more than another bush-track. After traveling
eight miles we finally come to a graded gravel road built to access mining
sites and transport bauxite to Georgetown. People settled along this road
aren’t farmers, but live off the mining.
Percy gets us back to Georgetown in late afternoon.
He lets John off at the Park Hotel where he plans to stay for the rest of his
time in Guyana, or until he can find a small comfortable apartment to rent and
a cook and housekeeper to go along with it. He must have a large per diem. I
definitely can’t afford room and board at the Park for the rest of my stay in
Before leaving the Park Hotel I ask Percy if he can find me a cheaper
hotel that’s clean and serves decent meals.
“I know a place, sir. Dere’s
nice lodgin’s at the Emerald Bijoux. I hope you don’
mind, it’s mostly Guyanese stayin’ dere.”
“I don’t mind at all. Let’s go check it out. And
you don’t have to call me ‘sir’, my name’s TR.”
democratic and American of you.
After a five minute drive to a working-class
neighborhood we arrive at the Emerald Bijoux Hotel. It’s a three-story cement block
building, stuccoed white, definitely not as classy as
the Park – no verandas or fancy gardens. However, it looks clean and moderately
“Here we are, uh, TR. I’ll go in wit you and tell the clerk you require de best room in de place.”
“You don’t have to say that. Just introduce me.”
We enter a dark atrium furnished with a threadbare
oriental rug and some second-rate paintings of Caribbean beach scenes on the
walls. At the registration desk Percy introduces me. The clerk’s a tall skinny
black kid with glasses.
“Dis is Mr. Hanes. He’s workin’ on important government business. He requires de
best room you got.”
that old geezer not to say that.
habits die hard.
The clerk responds, trying to be as hoity-toity as
Percy. “No need to trouble yourself,” then looking at me, “Mr. Hanes, we have lotsa good rooms. Wanna see
some?” The clerk sounds like he doesn’t like the old man putting on airs.
“Yes please. Percy, wait for me while I look at a
room, and I want to check out the restaurant.”
The room’s on the second floor. It’s tidy enough
and the bed linens are clean. Doesn’t look like there’d be a problem with
bedbugs, but I can never be sure of that until night when the lights’re off. The bed doesn’t have mosquito netting –
that’s a problem – but the clerk points to a green pyrethrum coil on the
nightstand to keep mosquitoes away. The bathroom’s old and worn out, but seems
clean and it doesn’t stink. I decide the room’s OK. I’ve stayed in much worse
in Zaire and Nigeria.
I come back from my inspection and tell Percy that
the room’s OK and the restaurant’s menu lists some good Caribbean dishes that I
remember eating years before on a holiday in Barbados. He brings in my bags and
I tell him to fetch me at 7:30 tomorrow morning.
“Now you be sure Mr. Hanes gets what he requires.
And keep away any beggars dat might be pokin’ around,” Percy instructs the clerk.
“You got nutin’ to
concern yourself. Dis be a
The clerk’s tired of the old man’s instructions. He
won’t tolerate another Guyanese putting on airs. Percy goes back to the van and
leaves. This afternoon I don’t see many hotel guests around, only a few
servants sweeping floors and carrying things into the kitchen. I have an early
dinner of large portions of chicken, rice, black beans and fried plantain.
Strangely, I still don’t see many patrons.
After the meal I go for a short stroll before dark.
I walk past a lot of modest wooden bungalows probably built in the late
colonial days before World War II. Nearly all of them are painted white with
green storm shutters fitted around the windows and with metal roofs painted red,
green or silver; I don’t see any tile roofs. Most houses have fences enclosing
small yards with a palm or other tree, pink or purple bougainvilleas, some
crotons with green or blue leaves speckled yellow and various other tropical
shrubs. Some of the yards aren’t well tended. Tall grass and weeds have taken
over. Ambling around for an hour tires me. I still haven’t fully recuperated
from my marathon with Boyle. I return to my room at 8:17, go to bed and fall
Two hours later I’m awakened by a loud steel drum
band playing on the patio next to the hotel restaurant and bar below my window.
The music isn’t unpleasant, but it’ll keep me awake. Then I hear some people in
the hallway laughing and slamming doors. I get out of bed, put on my trousers
and go to the door. Should I open it and see what’s going on? I
don’t want to get involved in some drunken shouting match. I step
out into the hallway where a black man and woman are stumbling and weaving
around. The man’s trying to support the woman and they’re both laughing loudly.
The woman sees me and says, “Hey, ya wan’ some fun? I like white boys!”
Her male friend glares at me, as if I’m interfering
and causing trouble.
“No, I’m just trying to get some sleep. Could you
please be a little quieter?”
“Ya don’ like Guyana girls?
Ya white boys don’ know what ya’re
missin’!” slurring her words she lurches toward me,
but the man grabs her around the waist and holds her back.
for trouble white boy.” The man’s frustrated by the woman’s attention to me.
“No, no trouble, could you just keep it inside your
The man opens a door and pushes the woman inside.
Their door slams shut and I go back to my room. The wall’s paper thin and I can
still hear them laughing and carrying on. Now it dawns on me that most of the
hotel guests are probably prostitutes and their clients! I should’ve questioned
Percy about this before I rented the room. I sometimes ran into the same thing
when I stayed at local hotels on my field trips in Zaire and Nigeria, but it’s
too late now to find another hotel. I don’t have a car and even if I did I
wouldn’t know where to look for a decent hotel. Like so many situations I’ve
encountered in Africa it’s a matter of stoically putting up with the annoying
crap. I retrieve some earplugs from my baggage and half an hour later I fall
Around midnight I wake up again, but this time I’m
being eaten alive by mosquitoes. At least five or six are buzzing around my
head, so I light the pyrethrum coil – a green substance that burns slowly
producing an unpleasant acrid smoke. In a few minutes the smoke drives away
most of the mosquitoes. In spite of breathing in the unpleasant, probably
unhealthy smoke, and faintly hearing the steel-drum music even with my earplugs
I fall asleep. At 2:37 I wake up again. This time a whole swarm of
mosquitoes found me and I see that the coil’s burned out. I frantically search
the room for another damn pyrethrum coil. There’s none. To escape the
mosquitoes I pull the bed sheet up over my head. I’m tired and sleep fitfully
until about 5:30 when I decide to get up, bathe, dress and pack my bags so that
I’ll be ready for Percy when he picks me up after breakfast. I go to the
bathroom, turn on the faucets in the tub and voila, no hot water, only a
trickle of some brownish cold water. I make do with a cold sponge bath. At 6:49
I go downstairs to the dining room. A young black waiter asks me what I’d like
for breakfast. I order a typical English breakfast of eggs, toast, fried
tomatoes and sausages. Eating the breakfast’s the best thing that’s happened to
me at the hotel. After breakfast I tell the clerk I’m checking out and pay the
“I hope you had a good night, Mr. Hanes,” the clerk
says with a wide smile. He probably thinks I took part in the night’s special
“It was OK.” I don’t want to complain, that’d serve
no purpose. Best not to be the fussy white man who thinks he’s better
than the locals.
A little later Percy drives up to the main entrance
of the hotel and sees me waiting, sitting on one of my suitcases. He asks me if
I had a good sleep and a good breakfast.
“The breakfast was great, but I didn’t sleep too
well. There were too many mosquitoes and no netting around the bed,” I
I don’t want to discuss the other problem involving
the prostitute and her client.
“Maybe Mr. Boyle’s office manager found me a house,
or I can stay a few more nights at the Park Hotel. I’m not coming back here.”
Percy takes my baggage to the van and drives me to
the project office. I don’t know where I’ll stay this evening, but I know it
won’t be at the Emerald Bijoux.