Tuesday, June 21, 2005

In Which I Become a Tour Guide, Part One

Let me take you inside a Guyanese home.

Cross the threshold of my homestay parents' gate and enter the yard, and depending on the time of day one might immediately see birds (day) or huge toads (night). The toads, I should point out here, are easily the size of my clenched fist, sometimes closer to two. Locally they are called crapaud (pronounced "cruh-po", an interesting similarity to St. Lucia).

The house proper is set about three feet off the ground level. Every house locally is built so, with space underneath either encased in solid concrete or left open, the house perched on pillars of cement blocks. Other houses take this one step further and raise the entire house one level up, so that the building is effectively two-story, only with a great open space in the area beneath the house in which often are strung clothes lines amid piles of buckets or boxes or barrels. Some of the more wealthy families might park a car under the house in this way. Yet others fill in this area, often renting it out to supplement their income, a house on top of an apartment.

But my house is one-story with a solid foundation. The front porch is semi-circular and covered, swept daily to keep off the dust, and decorated with a scrap of linoleum. Leave your shoes beside the door, obeying Guyanese custom, and step over the transom past the lockable security gate and solid wood front door, and you find yourself in a modestly-sized living room. The first thing you might notice is that the walls of the house do not connect with the ceiling -- a local design to improve air flow in the house, the inner walls, which are constructed of wood slats and painted various colors (green, in this case, and orange in other parts of the house), extend only ten or so feet up. This leaves a gap between the top of the walls and the house's ceiling, where wooden beams and naked corrugated tin roofing are exposed. The walls are very simple (forget sheet rock) and so wires leading to various light switches and electrical outlets are left affixed in plain sight and painted to match the rest of the walls, a modest attempt at camouflage.

The furniture in the living room consists of a matching set with a love seat, couch, and single chair, all facing one another with a distance between of only a single pace. Tucked in the far right corner as you come in is an entertainment center, a largish black number with sliding glass panels which, due to a lack of good storage space in the kitchen, serve double-duty as a china cabinet. A 16-inch television is perched on the center shelf; cable is not available out here, so the antenna on the roof sends down the often snowy signals from about six different local stations, one of which mostly specializes in broadcasting American television feeds from NBC; at night it is possible to catch Fear Factor or Friends reruns. Other stations play almost exclusively Guyanese-produced shows, often very sedate affairs with an Indo-Guyanese or Afro-Guyanese man or woman speaking woodenly about one subject or another. These shows seem hopelessly arcane to me, the subject matter so tightly woven in local politics and interest that I cannot hope to culturally comprehend it, not to mention the sometimes impenetrable accent which is enhanced by poor television reception. (Side note: One local favorite is a program that runs in the evenings called the "Obituary Channel," where slow-scrolling dedications to the dearly departed are set to music. The tunes selected are always surprising, ranging from the grating wails of a Bollywood banshee, to a Patsy-Cline-like version of "The Sweet By-and-By," to the local reggae favorite that seems to play from every available radio all day. The grainy photos of the departed, who might have died yesterday or in 1982, stare blankly as the epitaph, paid for by the departed's friends and family of course, rolls sedately past.)

On the left-hand side of this room is a homemade curtain made from floral-print cloth which serves to demurely hide the door that leads into my room. Adhering to Peace Corps policy, the door may be locked from within or without, although I rarely choose to do so, with a simple tumbler latch and key. My bedroom is painted a sort of creamy green color, the wooden slat floorboards covered here and there with a throw rug or carpet remnant. A wardrobe and bureau have been provided for storage of my things. The bed is a broad twin slid into one corner. Dangling from the wooden beam high above is a wire holding up a mosquito net, which I must tuck around the bed at night forming a sort of canopy to protect me from the squadrons of South American insects that patrol the night. A solitary fan is arranged to point doggedly toward the center of the bed; it provides a cool enough wind that in the dead of night sometimes I find I need a sheet. Problem is, with only one outlet in the room I cannot both use my computer and the fan, so most of the time I must use my computer for short stretches at a time on waning battery power. As I write this, the fan is unplugged so that I may rejuice my laptop.

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