Thursday, November 17, 2005

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

Part Three: The Truth Comes Out

Where I last left off, I had gone to a reggae concert with some friends and had been caught by Peace Corps after having my wallet stolen. I was back in New Amsterdam, freshly chastised and burning over being snubbed by a friend.

Right off the ferry, N called me. I quickly realized this wasn't a social call: she spent very little time with small talk before outright asking me what was to be the outcome of my being caught. I told her I wasn't kicked out as yet. She said she was relieved, but then rather than continuing to talk she brusquely cut short the conversation. Granted, I wasn't in the best mood, nor was I especially disposed to talk to her at that moment, but something about the way she fled from the conversation seemed... odd.

The walk home was bad. Everything I saw seemed ugly and hateful. I wanted to ET. I seriously considered it.

I spent the rest of the day brooding, then went to bed. When I woke up the next day I felt a lot better about things, and thoughts of ETing were gone. However, I was still bothered about N so I tried to call her. Couldn't get her on the phone. I'll try again another time, I thought. The remained of the week I focused on two things: prepping for the grammar class I teach at the University of Guyana on Friday, and moving out of my host's place into an apartment of my own. As for the first, I had been having trouble with the class because A) it's someone else's class and I'm bound to their assignments and their pace, and B) my knowledge of grammar has been frighteningly stretched thin by this class. Most of the two hours I'm flying, essentially, by the seat of my pants up there. The students have been introduced to tons of concepts and it's all knowledge I haven't used in many years, so most of the time I don't know the answers to their questions. My own memories are dredged up slowly by their own notes from the week's lectures. I don't like being in that position, so this week I resolved to come to class more prepared. So I spent a good deal of time taking notes on the parts of speech, phrases, clauses, and the like. I wouldn't be caught slipping again.

Class went well, by the way. Very well. It felt good.

As for the other thing, the apartment, I launched into major negotiations with the landlords. They want not only the first month's rent and one month worth of rent for a damage deposit, but they want a third month's rent as an extra damage deposit. Problem is, Peace Corps only pays for first month + damage deposit, and anything else is no-go. The landlords "distinctly" remember me saying back in August that I'd pay for that myself, out of my own pocket. I don't remember saying that -- what I recall saying was that I'd pay them to furnish it for me with a whole set of things they are trying to sell. They debated furiously with me, but the simple, cold math defeated it every time: I simply don't have the money to pay them what they were asking. They felt slighted and cheated, because they had held onto the place since August, just for me, because they promised it to me then. All this time they could have rented it out and had it making money, plus they had made the concession of bringing the rent down to my mandatory maximum of $35,000 Guyanese dollars a month. But I started seeing that they are also feeling a little gunshy, because the people renting out the space downstairs for a business had made tons of unsanctioned modifications to the building, like rewiring it themselves, and then had bankrupted their budget and been unable to pay the remaining rent. (Actually, Peace Corps initially refused to allow me to take the apartment because this business was downstairs. When I found out it was closing I called them back and they acquiesced. That was the first major hurdle!)

I assured them I'm altogether a different type of renter, much more responsible and low-key, and on top of that, they were gaining the incredible benefit of having their rent coming from the United States government on a regular basis that isn't dependent upon my working hours and salary. They saw the point, but wouldn't budge on the expanded damage deposit demand. We finally agreed that I would pay an additionally $5,000 Guyanese dollars every month for one year to pay off the difference, plus the furniture they would leave. Crisis solved. Now they are perusing the lease, and as of the date of this writing, I'm expecting to go in there tomorrow and fill it out, give them their initial moneys, then begin moving on Tuesday.

Incidentally, Tuesday is Diwali, the "Festival of Lights" in India. It is a national holiday and there are many celebrations. I'll try to write about it in a separate entry.

All week, though, I was looking forward to this weekend. New Amsterdam hosted their annual "Town Day" celebration, a huge concordance of businesses and entertainment crowding New Amsterdam's main street. During this time, they close off the main street and vendors fill stalls along both sides of the road. Much alcohol is imbibed. It's a festive atmosphere, and people have a great time. I've been looking forward the Town Day since I arrived in New Amsterdam. I always thought by the time it arrived I'd have a girlfriend, but clearly this was not coming to pass. The previous weekend, though, everything had seemed like it was poised for my long drought to finally come to an end. But it hadn't happened; something else happened instead. All during the week I didn't talk to N. I started to get an odd feeling.

The first night of Town Day was a little underwhelming. In part that was because I had to teach my college class, which lasted until six o'clock, then counting the hour it takes sometimes to get back to New Amsterdam (the regularity of minibuses running that route drops drastically after dark), and the hour or two I had to take to change out of my work clothes and get some food, I ended up missing much of the evening's celebrations. I ended up meeting up with two PCVs from the area. We found a spot on the blue stage-like platform of a local eatery located near Chapel street and watched the crowds go by. I had never seen so many people on the main road! They wandered back and forth, styrofoam containers of cookup rice in hand, a bottle of Banks beer in the other. As we sat the two PCVs and I noticed a group of young ladies sitting nearby and enjoying the evening. Something about them looked hispanic, like they were from elsewhere in South America. One of them in particular struck me as looking Columbian: she had long blonde hair and the light-but-slightly-caramel complexion you see on women on Telemundo. We speculated on her heritage for a while, then called it an evening.

Saturday was a little more hectic. A friend and fellow GUY 16 member, stationed right across the Berbice river, came over to copy some of my CDs and to visit. We burned music all afternoon and watched a movie, then finally I walked him to the ferry just as the sun was setting. Earlier that afternoon when we had gone to get food the place was relatively dead, most of the stalls operated on a skeleton crew during the hours of the burning hot sun. Now -- what a difference! The place was jam-packed, so that the street was totally blocked to traffic and we had to weave through bodies down the center of the street to even make progress. It was like Mardi Gras: women dressed in their sexiest attire, trinkets sold all along the street, standing-room only, lots of beer. My concern for this other PCVs laptop computer raised to a fever pitch as we walked through the crowd; he carried it in a zippered laptop case that looked, to me, very obvious. But nothing came of it, and I saw him onto the ferry and made my way to La Carib, the highest-quality local restaurant, where I was to meet everyone else for the evening. All the PCVs from New Amsterdam and up the Corentyne coast were there, plus the two American volunteers from World Teach and the two British girls from Project Trust (both organizations send volunteers to teach worldwide for a year). All of us had a great dinner and chatted for a couple hours.

At this time, they wanted to retire to the house of one of my fellow PCVs for libations and entertainment. But I felt like I needed to get some pictures of the Town Day celebration in full swing, so I told them I'd come by later and I made my way back to my homestay for my camera. On the way I saw the crush of people had dwindled a little -- only slightly, but enough that cars were able to slowly slink down the middle of the street once more. I got my camera and went around taking some pictures. Mostly what there was to see were the people, hundreds of them, a wall down either side of the main street. Taking photos in such a crowd was both tricky and nervous-making. I was afraid someone might steal my camera, or that they might take offense to being the subject of a photograph. Besides, it was just plain crowded and my pictures kept getting wrecked by stray cars or knots of people crossing between me and my subject. So I switched emphasis, and took some time-lapse shots. Not all of them worked, but three or four came out great; one day I mean to post a ton of pictures and I'll be sure to put a couple up from that night.

Once or twice I saw N in the crowd. She was wearing something sexy as hell -- imagine that. I came up behind her and her clump of friends to say hi, camera looped around my wrist. Earlier that week I had seen her sitting in her car waiting for her husband to get food (did I mention she's married? She told me she was separating from him and was going to move far away, which was the meme I was functioning under for the last couple months of our friendship). She saw me and waved me off. I wanted to chat but couldn't. That had been the only time I had seen her, until now. So I came up to her and she seemed odd, like she was unsure whether she should talk to me. Understandable -- New Amsterdam is a small town and people gossip here like crazy. If she talks to anyone, it will be known to everyone in short order. So we kept it brief and she went on her way.

Done with that, I returned my camera to my homestay and rushed over to my friend's house to join the party in progress. But on the way I realized there was going to be a huge dance that evening at the Esplanade grounds (something like an all-purpose sports/fair/assembly field just on the edge of town). I try to go to most of the dances here, if for no other reason than because they are fascinating, and I've tried over and over to get other volunteers to go with me. But they don't like reggae like I do, and tend to feel more threatened in situations like that. I thought maybe this time I'd change their mind.

Nope. They wouldn't bite. All they wanted to do was sit in the hammock, listen to CDs, and sip "Five Year." So after dawdling for nearly two hours with them, I finally got the hint, and decided to go to the dance by myself. I walked down to the Esplanade grounds and immediately upon entering the crowds someone grabbed my arm. I turned to find it was the blonde hispanic-looking woman. She had seen me and was curious who I am. Pleased at this turn of events, I stood and talked with her for quite a while. Discovered she has a boyfriend -- just my luck. But also, during a lull in our long conversation, she dropped this on me:

"It's funny," she said. "I was here with a friend of mine. But when she saw you coming she ran away. I don't understand it."

It took me a second, then the gears turned. "Was her name [N], by any chance?"


Great. So now not only was she not answering my calls and acting strange when I see her on the road, but she was running away from me! My mind raced. What had I done? Had I said or done something to greatly offend her? Did my breath stink? My conversation? My dancing? Or maybe she was interested in me and was hoping that, finally, at the reggae concert I would show my affection by macking on her as hard as the gold-toothed thug had done. Whatever the reason, I realized then that something had changed in our friendship, probably for good. I wandered through the packed dance to see if I could find her, but she was nowhere to be found. It was too dark, too shoulder-to-shoulder.

But at least I got the number of the blonde girl. She's not hispanic, by the way. Guyanese, born and raised. And not a real blonde.


As I write this, it is about three weeks later. I still haven't talked to N. By now I know any friendship we had, or anything more than might have come, is totally gone. And I still don't have any idea why. I toyed with the idea of calling her to ask her bluntly what happened, then telling her she needn't worry about me trying to talk to her anymore, but I finally opted not to bother. I know where her cousin works; maybe I'll ask her what happened. She was there. She'd know. But other than that, I am moving on. I saw the ugly side of N during that week, first at the reggae concert and then during Town Day. She had been so nice before, calling and chatting with me for long periods of time. Everything seemed to be going along so nicely. But now she's back with her husband (there's a surprise) and it's all as if nothing had ever happened. All I have to show for that weekend at the concert is some nice footage of Gregory Isaacs singing "Love is Overdue" and a signed reprimand from the Peace Corps.

There's always some new drama in the 'Corps.

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