Thursday, November 17, 2005

How I Lost my Independence, Lost a Friend, and Nearly Lost the Peace Corps: A Drama in Three Parts

Part One: The Concert

Wednesday evening, and I'm in my host's house eating some dinner (macaroni and cheese with soy chunks -- one of my staples these days). A commercial comes on television for a reggae concert, and at first I'm only partially paying attention because most of the names are unknown to me, but then they say headlining it will be legends Gregory Isaacs and Luciano, two of my favorite musicians. I perk up instantly. My first thought is: "I have to go to this."

My second thought is: "Wait, I can't go. I'm still in my three-month initial 'lockdown' of Peace Corps service, even if it will be ending soon, and there's no way I can leave the New Amsterdam area."

My third thought is: "... unless they don't know I'm going!" And so my fate was sealed. I called some Peace Corps and local Guyanese friends to see who wanted to go. I eventually put together a group that involved two fellows from World Teach (an American volunteer organization out of Harvard that sends people worldwide to teach for a period of one year; these guys have been here a couple months), a local woman whom I have been friends with for a few weeks, and a couple of her relatives. This woman (whom I'll call "N") and I met at a local dance, when her friends noticed me watching her dance. She was quite ...*ahem* good. Since then we've have had a mutual but passing attraction to each other which has never been able to bear fruit because she is married. While that might not stop a lot of Guyanese men -- or women -- it stops me, because I am a firm believer in honesty and fidelity in relationships. She has been engaging in the process of divorcing her husband, though, and has been talking about how we can see each other when she finally leaves him. For my part, I have to admit I've been a little skeptical; I've adopted a "wait-and-see" attitude about it. I'm not a sucker, and I'm not overly invested in such an outcome. If it happens, fine. Or not? Fine. She's very attractive, and recently a friend of mine who met her finally admitted why I might have been taken by her.

But over the course of the coming week I would learn a lot about this "N," and not all good.

On Saturday afternoon we all met at the stelling (an old dutch term for a dock) and took the ferry across the Berbice river. I hadn't seen N in a while and upon first seeing each other there was an odd, if hard to place sense of trepidation. As we stood at the ferry's port rail and watched the river slide by, I mentioned that I had hardly ever seen her during the daytime, and she became suddenly very anxious about whether seeing her more clearly illuminated was a good or bad thing. What you need to understand about this particular individual is that she tends to dress very sexy, all the time, and gets some kind of rush from drawing the male gaze. But it's more complicated than that: she also claims to grow tired of the constant sexual predation directed toward her, and says one of the things that drew her to me was my opposite demeanor. One does not need to psychoanalyze her very hard to tell that, deep down, she needs male approval and the only way she knows how to do that is through sex.

Off the ferry we caught a minibus bound for Georgetown. This thing was like a white bullet shot from a massive gun, the driver hurtling us toward the city as if trying to outrun a nuclear blast. All the while we were subjected to a high-decibel stereo system that simultaneously throbbed and hissed with extreme low-end and high-end speakers, as though attempting to induce deafness at both extreme ranges of hearing. The bass was a seismic phenomenon, setting the hairs in your ears to a fevered and itchy vibration and making the breath in your lungs catch. The treble was a spray of acid, or like having acupuncture needles coated with alcohol inserted into your eardrum. Throughout all of this our attempts at feeble conversation were halted by N's ringing cell phone.

We had dinner in Georgetown, recovered our sapped strength, then made our way to a part of town called Kitty where a friend of N's offered to host us. There we dropped off our backpacks in a nice locked room and called a car to go to the National Park for the concert. All along N's cousin kept insisting that it was far too early to make our appearance, and that even though the show started nothing would be happening for a couple hours. Turns out, she was very right. When we arrived there was only a scattered audience dotting the arena floor, and no artists on stage. We ended up standing in a clump and trying to entertain ourselves by dancing to the piped music coming from the speakers.

This part of the National Park had been constructed into a large outdoor arena. Perfectly square, it was a large paved area big enough to accommodate different kinds of courts for sporting events. The south side was occupied by a large stage area with security buildings and performer trailers on either side. The yellow stage was decorated with several images of the Jamaican and Guyanese flags, honoring the cultural "Unification" at the heart of this celebration. The remaining four sides of the arena were bounded by covered bleachers which themselves could house several hundred people. At the base of the bleachers were several mobile junk food tents or stands, selling everything from beer and soda to chicken and chips. In the center of the arena was a wood-fabricated building serving as the sound and light center for the concert, long snaky bundles of power cables radiating out from it.

Shortly after arriving, it occurred to me I forgot my camera back in my backpack, which was resting at the friend's house about a mile or so away. So I decided I should go retrieve it, since exactly this kind of thing is why we I have a camera in the first place. At first the guards wouldn't let me out, saying I'd have to buy a whole new ticket to get back in ($2000 Guyanese dollars, or about $10 U.S., but this constitutes a lot of money down here). At last I persuaded him to do me a favor and I slipped out the gate into the night. It was a long walk down some lonely roads, brightly-lit cars racing past in the night, but at last I arrived at the house (farther than I remembered, but exactly where I placed it), got my camera, and came back. At this time, in a remarkable bit of foresight, I separated my money into different areas on my body and brought a little more than I thought I might need.

Back at the show the action was just getting started. Over the next few hours, acts of varying talent and energy took the stage. None of them were familiar to me, though some were certainly known locally because they elicited various degrees of reception from the audience. In attendance must have been every Rastafarian in all of Guyana: at one point, I remember looking around and seeing nothing but a sea of dreadlocks, red gold and green clothing, and images of Haile Selassie I. And the performers were no different, every last one of them a Rasta.

The show lasted several hours. As the crowds grew and our group found ourselves more and more packed in, I became aware of the amount of male attention "N" was getting. Of course, she had changed from her sexy street clothes to an even sexier concert outfit, and guys were sweating her, big-time. Two of them lingered nearby, trying to buy her drinks and chat her up. The mutual attraction between us, which might have flourished in this environment, was somehow changing and I felt a wall forming. Something was going on, and I had no idea what it was. I could hardly get her to talk to me. But these guys weren't having to work at it too hard. At first I mistook it for a simple jealousy-evoking game, but I've been the unwilling victim of such mind games before and this was somehow different. It was more like she was simply changing her mind about me, somehow. Which is odd, because for a while now we've chatted on the phone and our friendship has only grown. She had a tough time lately with some personal matters which took her out of the country, and she called me often for emotional support, even though such calls were certainly very expensive. And now it was as though she were a stranger, and growing more detached by the minute.

After a while she excused herself to go get something to drink, and one of these guys went with her. I didn't see her again for what must have been a couple of hours. She simply never came back. At first I refused to care, acknowledging that she isn't my girlfriend, doesn't belong to me or owe me anything, and -- besides -- if she wants to try and suck me into a stupid game she'll find I'm not the easy mark she thinks I am. One gains power in situations like that by simply not caring. But this turned out to be an idealistic dream. After an hour or two I found myself wandering the grounds looking for her. Neither of her relatives knew where she had gone off to (and by this point the World Teach friends of mine had found others from their organization and were clumping elsewhere). I climbed into the bleachers, meandered through the crowd, and tried to tell myself I wasn't jealous.

I couldn't find her anywhere. I did, however, spot a member of the Peace Corps administration. You might remember that I wasn't supposed to be out of New Amsterdam yet; on top of that, no Peace Corps volunteers can pass through Buxton (a dangerous town east of Georgetown) on public transportation, which I had just done, and if we are out of site we have to fill out a form and report our whereabouts, which I hadn't done either. So I avoided walking where she might see me.

At long last I found N. She was sitting in the bleachers with one of the fellows she had met. He was the perfect archetype of a thug: gold teeth, braided hair, tank top, basketball shorts, handkerchief on head. I came up to her and put on a very innocent demeanor, as though it had hardly crossed my mind that she was hanging out with some other guy (I had bought her way into the show!), so I casually asked how she's enjoying the concert. She complained that her feet were hurting, hence her sitting down, but that she'd return shortly. I shrugged okay and went on my way. She remained exactly where she was for the next three hours, and when she finally moved, it was only to find a new spot a little closer to the stage where she could sit with this fellow and chat some more.

As I said before, I was an unwilling participant. At this point, I just washed my hands of the whole business and chose to enjoy the concert. It's as though, I thought, I'm here alone. So I'll be alone. Let me just enjoy the reggae.

The reggae was amazing. I have listened to reggae for more than ten years now, and each year my knowledge of the genre and its performers has increased. Along with that, I've listened more and more exclusively to this genre than others. This knowledge has skyrocketed this year, as I hear almost no other type of music in Guyana than reggae and dancehall. After all these years, to be at a reggae concert in the Caribbean -- where I live no less -- surrounded by Rastas... well, it was an amazing experience. It reached a peak when Gregory Isaacs came on stage. This man, looking pretty old these days, is probably the biggest name in all of reggae-dom, or at least the biggest still living. In fact, as an exercise I tried to think of another who could compare and thought of nobody: some came close, like Dennis Brown or Burning Spear. But Gregory Isaacs has done much to define reggae music over the last few decades and is one of the most beloved performing artists of that genre, just behind Bob Marley hiimself. In fact, he was a contemporary of Marley. And here he was, strutting out on stage not a dozen yards away from me. He wore a brown suit and a felt hat, and looked all the world like the consummate Caribbean "old man." Singing in his characteristically nasally voice, he gave us fine renditions of his top hits, like "Night Nurse" and "Love is Overdue." Here I was especially glad I had gone back for my camera, because I was able to take mpeg videos of Gregory Isaacs (and Luciano, later)!

And let me tell you something: after all these years of scoffing at the screaming Beatles fans on the Ed Sullivan show, or the girls fainting at Michael Jackson concerts, I finally understood the power of seeing an entertainment idol of yours in person. All during Gregory Isaac's performance I felt tears welling up in my eyes and a surge of powerful emotion. So this was idol worship! I began to wonder at the experience, and I realized that it must have something to do with feeling like your world and the performer's world are overlapping. You have known, all along, that of course they share the same world as you and have the same human needs and have day-to-day lives, but somehow they are still separate from your world. People you know listen to the music this artist produces, and their words impact your life or illuminate your viewpoints or underscore your experiences, and yet nobody has ever met this person. This performer lives on as a half-realized idol, a giant among men. And when they get on stage, occupying the same relative physical space as yourself, and you see them as a human being standing a short distance away from you, a jarring merger of an idealized and real world begins to form, and for a moment they are just another human being. And then they start to sing those recognized songs... Suddenly there are several worlds overlapping, and all the meaning you have come to associate with these songs comes rushing up to become a vivid associative ache. In that moment the music is personal.

Incidentally, I didn't feel as deeply moved by Luciano. Mostly that was because of the irritating drama unfolding with N, but also because the police, concerned about the concert going on past 3:00 am, interjected after each song with a reminder that the show needed to wrap up, and then pulled him off stage after only three songs. Three songs. And then, abruptly, it was over.

It was in those moments that something very bad happened.

To be Continued...

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