Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Scenes From a Town

New Amsterdam is considered the second largest city in Guyana -- or, depending on whom you talk to, the third, right after Linden. Even if it is the second largest, it is far smaller than Georgetown, which seems like a megalopolis by comparison.

Our town is modest, composed of three main sections. The first, to the north, is a neighborhood that spans the Canje river. That river is spanned by an arched bridge of far greater quality than you might expect. The second section is in the center and consists of the urban center of New Amsterdam. The third, Stanleytown, rests just to the south beyond a massive graveyard that you must pass through to get to all the stores. All three of these areas are tucked against the eastern bank of the Berbice river, which twists down from distant interior jungles to dump out into the Atlantic Ocean a few miles north of the city.

Picture New Amsterdam proper as three parallel roads, each about one mile long. While mostly straight, these roads do pinch in closer together at the ends. Even at the widest, the three main roads are separated by no more than about two blocks of distance. The road closest to the river is called "The Strand," and has few businesses along its length. It is more heavily wooded than other streets, and a thick mass of trees prevents most views of the river itself, which runs only a dozen yards or so away. The central street is called "Main Street," in a stunning display of creativity. Here a great many of the town's shops lie, scattered down the length of the road nearly from one end to the next. However, there is a section several blocks long where they tend to be more densely clustered, right in the center. The third street, farthest inland from the river, is called the "Backdam." It is so named because once there was a reservoir in that area, and the road was literally built along the shoulder of the earthen dam. Now the water is gone; in its place are great open fields or reedy ponds, the city's beloved basketball court, the Fire Station, and the Library. East of this area is a neighborhood called Vryman's Erven, which stretches back toward the distant cane fields.

Those are the three main streets. Running perpendicular to these are a large number of smaller side streets like ribs. They connect the three streets. Some are narrow, some wide; some are paved, others dirt. Mostly they are residential, with houses of various income levels tucked elbow-to-elbow along their length. Many of these side streets have businesses on the Strand half, and very few businesses can be found on the Backdam half.

There are so many side streets that I can't possibly name them all. Indeed, some of them do not have obvious names, the road signs long since fallen away. Others possess two names: an original, and a new name inspired by some local politician like Cheddi Jagan or Forbes Burnham. Both names are used interchangably by locals.

The most important of these side streets is, inarguably, Pitt Street. Here the businesses are two-story and line the narrow street like a Caribbean-inspired European alley. All kinds of wares can be found here, from clothes to plastic tubs to hammocks. Most of these goods are brought in from China or Taiwan -- cheap and inexpensive, and also not of the greatest quality. I've referred to Guyana as a nation of dollar stores; this isn't meant to be cruel, only a factual observation. The available goods are knock-offs and generics. Anything else would be too expensive for a developing country.

Pitt Street and her stores lead like an arrow right to the Strand and the looming structure of Town Hall. This two-story building was built long, long ago and so could use some repairs, but it still stands as the focal point of New Amsterdam affairs. Here, in the upper floors, all the town's business is conducted by the mayor and the council. The bottom floor is a great, sprawling marketplace with such a profusion of goods that it will require an entry of its own. At the time of this writing, there is a book fair being held in a large room in the second floor of the town hall, where a large auditorium has been filled with many tables of books brought in cheaply from America.

This section of the Strand has quite a number of businesses, like a shoe store, several furniture stores, and an nice (air-conditioned!) branch of ScotiaBank. At the north end of the Strand one can find the Police Station and the access road that leads to the stelling, a covered wharf where the ferry to cross the river docks.

Main Street has several shops of note, most important of which is a grocery store, a video rental store, and a Qik Serv. This last is a fast-food place that serves some fairly shoddy fare, but it is clean and brightly-lit and relatively pleasant to be in so it has become a town sensation. Also along Main Street are about seven Chinese restaurants -- for some reason, most of the restaurants are Chinese, not Indian, as I was expecting. Main Street effectively ends at an Islamic Masjid on the north end and a graveyard on the south. Down on the southern end there is also the titanic wooden structure of the old hospital. It now stands, mute and abandoned, like a vast haunted house. Some nights the place is lit to prevent homeless from sheltering there; other nights it is black and spectral.

New Amsterdam is not a large town. Everything one needs is nearby, and from one end to the next is, at most, a ten minute walk (not including the neighborhoods to the north and south). It is far longer than it is wide, and its dusty, busy streets can sometimes seem a little claustrophobic. But it is a relatively safe town and provides everything I'll need for the next couple years.

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