Tuesday, June 21, 2005

I Go Well With Bread

We met our homestay family through an odd exercise where every volunteer was given a slip of paper that contained a statement about a type of food, and the host parents were given another slip of paper with the matching dish name. My slip of paper read, "I GO WELL WITH BREAD," and when it finally came my turn I stood up and recited the phrase. My homestay mother had a slip of paper that read, "BUTTER," and so like others who came before me, I crossed the courtyard to sit with her. When the exercise was over, they led us to a group of vans which would deliver us to our homestay house in one of the two villages near Georgetown.

I'd love at this time to be more frank and specific about my homestay mother, but Peace Corps restrictions will not allow me to do so. What I can share is that my homestay "mother" does not work, instead tending the house all day. Her husband, my homestay "father," works at a processing plant in Georgetown. They have grown children whom I have seen only once, since they live elsewhere. Like a microcosm of Guyana, they are an interracial couple, and my "mother" is mixed Indo-Guyanese and Amerindian.

Grove, which is not found on many maps, could be considered something of a bedroom community for Georgetown: a lot of people live here and work there. There's one main road that leads to Georgetown, a road that services much of the East Coast of the Demerara. In fact, that river can be seen just to the west from the main road. Off the road on the other side are several blocks of crowded private homes. Most of the population of this area consist of Indo-Guyanese, though it is certainly mixed. To walk down the road at almost any time of the day or early evening is to expose oneself to a cacophony of several types of music, from soca to reggae to chutney to light rock. Stop in the center of the road and you might simultaneously hear Celine Dion, Mighty Sparrow, Sean Paul, and the wailing falsetto of a Bollywood diva.

The neighborhood spaces out a little as you get out toward where my homestay parents live. Follow a road that has been mightily rutted and pitted by heavy trucks (the area is experiencing a housing boom), and littered with cow and dog dung, and you will pass a series of wooden houses with tin roofs, or tin houses with wooden roofs. Dogs and cows share the road with people on bicycles or walking and with speeding buses. Every couple blocks or so a wooden shack has been erected to sell some type of goods or another -- along the road leading to my homestay one passes a group of men cutting coconuts, a "rum shop" where any number of refreshments besides rum are served, two stands selling fruits and vegetables, a tiny barber shop no larger than a wood shed, and yet another rum shop. This last one is known among volunteers as the "Carib Shop" simply because of the prominent Carib beer signs on its outer walls. The real name of this joint, ideal for "liming" (hanging out) in the evening, is unknown. But its description as a shack is quite accurate -- it is merely a four-walled building with one room inside, a screened window or two for selling bottled drinks, and a covered and fenced-in area containing some plastic chairs and a shopworn pool table. It sounds much worse than it actually is; there's something quaint and rustic about the humble Carib shop, and it is a nice place to spend some social hours with other volunteers. This neighborhood has seen Peace Corps volunteers for years now, so our white faces don't elicit the same kind of attention we might receive elsewhere.

But I was going to mention my homestay house. It's quite average for the area, one-story concrete affair with a tin roof that stretches up about 15 feet. The outer walls are a creamy orange tone, as is the concrete fence that surrounds the yard and fends off wandering cows, dogs, and people. Also very common to this area, the space immediately inside the gate is paved with concrete, taking place of a front yard and making for much less muddy access to the house on rainy days. Most houses in this area are built in a similar fashion, with huge slabs of concrete mounted between rebar-reinforced posts, then topped with a wooden beam structure and shingled with plates of corrugated tin. Many cost-effective fences and outer buildings are made exclusively of corrugated tin. And, yes, inevitably the tin rusts, creating the timeless Caribbean appearance of pastel- or white-painted houses with oxidated roofing.

Houses in this area are spaced apart more so than one would see closer to town, and much more so than Georgetown proper, where need not be endowed with super powers to spring from rooftop to rooftop. Out here, though, the houses generally rest a comfortable 40 feet apart, sometimes a little more, Not far enough that one cannot clearly hear the music playing in the house next door, but far enough that a nice garden-like ambiance is created by the palms and banana plants springing up in each backyard.

Between the blocks, where in a semi-urban American neighborhood one might find a service alley, one often finds a ditch or trench. The water here is usually an amazing color ranging from brown to green, most definitely not potable, the runoff from hundreds of homes and their washing or rain gutters. Bridges to cross these trenches are spaced periodically along the block, some of them for foot traffic only. Sometimes one must maneuver behind other houses to find a pedestrian bridge that leads across the trench, and most often it is a rickety affair of planks or creosote-dripping railroad ties. A fall into this water would not be pleasant, even on the hottest of afternoons. But each trench is a riot of life, with reeds and lilies growing green and thick beneath one's feet, tiny fish skipping across the duckweed, and larger but unseen fish making an occasional ker-sploosh among the reeds. Locals claim sometimes one can see alligators in the trenches. By these I presume they mean caymans, not full-grown, Florida-style alligators, but I guess that remains to be seen.

Up next: Inside my homestay house

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