Monday, December 12, 2005

My Last Hours, Part Two

Having signed off that I was to ET, I had about 24 hours to wrap up my affairs. Peace Corps hit me with a TON of paperwork. As if to prove my point about bureaucracy, in the seven years since the last time I ETed, the amount of paperwork had increased to the Nth degree. Literally, I think the paperwork has increased by over 1000%. They handed me a thick packet of stuff to sign, stuff to know, and a long list of things to get checked off and filled out from every branch of their office. It was a Friday, mid-morning, and I knew I had to get it all done by the time the office closed at 5:00 pm, because I wouldn't get another chance. They began arranging for my flight and I started visiting offices.

The last time I'd had anything to eat was the night before, at a big Thanksgiving get-together at the Dutch Bottle. By now I was hungry, but had no time to get any food because they had chosen to do this at the end of a week and there was no wiggle room. They could have waited until Monday, which would have been better for everyone, but of course rational thought isn't PC Guyana admin's strong point.

One of the things I had to do was close out my bank account. We had just received December's pay, about a week earlier, and I had to give all of it back because December hadn't started yet. Thing was, I had already spent some of December's pay because moving out had broke me (Peace Corps doesn't give you nearly enough to settle into your new apartment, but I had also been forced to dig into my settling-in allowance to feed myself during that awful homestay), and staying in Georgetown had used up any last bit of spending cash I had (Peace Corps doesn't give you a per diem, they reimburse you, so if you get sick you better have some spare cash on hand). So in addition to all the other loads of paperwork I had to do, I needed to go stand in line at Scotiabank for a couple of hours to close out the account, then return to Peace Corps office with about $200 US worth of cash. I had to pay back all of it, plus some I didn't have, so they said they'd take it out of my per diem for my ET, what I'm supposed to live off of until I leave Guyana, and also from my readjustment allowance, which would arrive in check form to my home of record. I managed to convince the cashier to let me take about $1500 Guyanese dollars (about $7.50 US) with me, because I needed to pay my landlords for my power usage and had to make some phone calls.

Once I had done these things, I was left with exactly NO MONEY. At no point during this day was I given a moment to eat, and they took away the money I was to eat with. It wasn't until Saturday, almost two days later that I was finally able to eat anything, because some kind fellow PCVs from my area took pity on me and bought me food. When I explained that to our illustrious CD, he seemed quite unconcerned.

The cashier proceeded to arrange a flight for me. I stopped by later that day to pick up my ticket, only to discover it was dropping me off in southeast Texas, in Houston, when my home of record is in west Texas, nearly 500 miles away. I pointed this out to her, but she seemed incapable of realizing just how far that is. "It's like the distance from here to Columbia," I said off the top of my head, which turned out to be pretty accurate. She was surprised at this, but couldn't offer me a solution. So I approached someone above her, who also seemed unable or unwilling to act. I vowed to bring it to the CD next time I saw him.

So anyway, having finished my paperwork, I am escorted back to New Amsterdam by our Safety and Security officer. Riding with us was a fellow who is in charge of Safety and Security for the entire Latin/South America area for Peace Corps. He is stationed in Bolivia or something, but travels a lot to visit all Peace Corps offices in the Americas for various business. Possibly he was in town about my issue, though frankly I doubt it. He is a pretty nice guy, and the three of us talked on our way back to New Amsterdam, during which time I found out he agrees with me on a lot of issues. However, he did think my situation was so dangerous that he agreed with me having to leave the country. I admit, having both Kitty (our S&S officer) and this guy both in agreement sold it to me a little more than Terrence and Jim were able to do. Quite frankly, I don't trust Terrence, or our new CD, to have the volunteer's best interests truly in mind.

Back in New Amsterdam, Kitty dropped me off at my place and said he would be back to pick me up around noon, so we could head back to Georgetown where I'd spend the night before departing Sunday morning. My first task was to visit my landlords and give them the bad news. I thought they'd take it poorly, and be angry at me or Peace Corps, but by then they had started to think of me less as a faceless renter and more as a friend, and they were very sad to see me go. I told them Peace Corps would cover them for the missing month of rent (in a stroke of serendipity, I only signed a three-month lease). Then I went inside my apartment and began packing. Again, I had no food that night, because I had used all of it and hadn't had a chance to buy anything new. Working on some kind of reserves, which was surprising considering how sick I had just been for the weeks prior, I packed most of my things and fell asleep after midnight.

In the morning, I finished packing. During this time, other volunteers from the area came by to say goodbye to me and I gave away a whole lot of things. I had a water pump, fan, stove, various kitchen items and foodstuffs, bathroom things, and even a few items I had brought with me to Guyana but were easily replaceable in the states. They made off like bandits that morning. Then they kindly sat with me as I finished my packing and gave me some much-needed company. We speculated on who might have sung to Peace Corps. Still no definitive answer, but there was one volunteer from nearby we thought might have been responsible. It was just like her to do something like that. Hearing I had nothing to eat, one of them took me down to a local Chinese food place where we eat a lot (they have an air conditioner!) and got me one final serving of egg fried rice. Ah, memories. He was also kind enough to drop me by Evil Eyes so I could buy a CD, then we gathered up some of his from his apartment, and in the last hour before I was to be picked up, I hurriedly ripped a bunch of songs I'd been meaning to acquire for a few weeks. Reggae songs, mostly, things that we hear all the time in Guyana and that I wanted to have for posterity. One of the other volunteers, who is trying to change her site to New Amsterdam, decided she might like to move into my now-vacant apartment (none of them had ever been there before, that's how short a time I was there), so I introduced her to the landlords.

And then Kitty came and it was time to go. I hugged them all goodbye and thanked them for all their support over the last few months. The Latin/South America S&S guy had gone on to Suriname, so it was only Kitty and I, and another volunteer who was going back to Georgetown for medical reasons. We drove to the stelling to await the ferry.

We sat there chatting, taking first in line because of our diplomatic plates. Just as I was saying something to Kitty, I suddenly stopped and nudged him.

"Kitty," I hissed. "That's him! That's Howard!"

Kitty looked over, suddenly alert. Nicole's boxer husband, the very man whose possible dangerousness had led to all this, was passing right by our Land Rover. "You don't think he's looking for you, do you?" Kitty asked me.

"I don't think so," I replied. "I don't think he even knows about me." But he was looking for someone Howard stood a few feet away and scanned the stelling, obviously searching for something, then not seeing it, he turned and strode away. There was something almost poetic in that moment, like I had reached the inevitable climax in a drama. Maybe he was looking for me. Maybe he had heard about me. I didn't think so, and had no reason to believe it, and even Terrence and Jim and Kitty didn't think he knew about me. But here he was.

Fortunately, nothing happened. I kept imagining what would have happened if there had been a showdown, how it would have been with Kitty having to fight this boxer. Kitty is no small guy, despite his cute nickname. He's a barrel-chested Guyanese tough-guy, and a fight between them would have been epic.

At last the ferry came, and I watched New Amsterdam recede into the horizon. Before long I was dropped off at the Windjammer, again, and dropped off my things. I had some plans for the evening, to see Scott Stadum one more time, as well as a friend from the Georgetown area. Plus, I really wanted to see Buddy's night club. All these months I'd been dying to go there (a picture of the place is coming, so you'll see why), and bad luck had always kept me from it for one reason or another. Tonight I was determined to go there, even if it meant walking in and walking out, just to say I had.

Kitty drove me to the Peace Corps office so I could finish out my termination. I had to drop off some paperwork and some Peace Corps-issued equipment. It was early evening and the place was deserted. After I had finished my tasks, Kitty was upstairs doing something, so I took the opportunity to write a quick message or two on the computers. As I sat there, in walked Jim, our CD. I didn't know he was around. He chatted, trying to stay Pollyanna-ish about me leaving. It would be for the best, I'd see. As we talked, Kitty came back in. Jim asked about my flight, and I told him that the ticket the cashier had bought was dropping me off 500 miles from home, in southeast Texas. "Didn't you tell Sasha?" he asked. Yes, I did tell Sasha, but she shrugged it off. He said he wasn't able to do anything about it himself -- an obvious lie, or at least a grave misconception, because if anyone is able to to anything about it, it would be the Country Director! He asked what I was going to do about it. I told him my only idea came from the Latin/South America S&S guy, who had informed me they were unrestricted government tickets, and that I should be able to change flights easily. That seemed to satisfy Jim -- maybe I could, maybe I couldn't, but either way I would be out of Guyana and he could wash his hands of me. Next I told Jim that I hadn't had any food for two days because I was never given a per diem, and he told me "if you have any unfinished business, write it down and send it to us, and we'll see what we can do." Thanks, but that doesn't help me EAT.

And it was at that moment that Jim and I had an exchange which perfectly sums up how we felt about each other.

"Well," Jim said, "To tell you the truth, I'm glad to see you go."

Realizing this statement was a little too bald, he rapidly followed it up with: "I was worried about you." Pause. "You believe me, don't you?"

"Yes," I said. "I believe you're happy to see me go."

And that was it. We parted company. Kitty drove me to a Rastafarian restaurant where Scott and a few of my GUY 16 companions were waiting to buy me a farewell dinner. My appetite was spoiled by fasting and bad interactions with staff, but the food was excellent and I was very grateful for the gesture. I fought back tears as we reminisced on other volunteers and Training experiences. Hearing I had exactly no money with me, they kindly offered me a few hundred Guyanese bucks to get me through the rest of the night. Then we parted ways and I took a cab back to the Windjammer. I was supposed to meet Scott again for a short night on the town, but hours went by and it became clear he wouldn't be able to make it, so I went out by myself. I revisited a night club where I had met a nice young lady a few nights before, planning just to give the bodyguards (who know her) a note about how to reach me, but to my pleasant surprise she was there, so we got to see each other one more time. Then, just before heading back to the hotel for my airport pickup (which was at 1:30 am), I dropped by Buddy's night club. At long last, after all these months, I was finally going to Buddy's. Strange, and kind of ironic, that I only got to go in the last hours of being in Guyana.

Back at the hotel I gathered my things and met one of our drivers and we headed to Timehri airport. It was one last ride in the van, the same one we rode in nearly ever day of Training. And adding to the melancholy note was a sort of symmetry: it was late and dark as we rode toward the airport, and the night we all arrived in country it had also been late and dark. It was sort of a ride backward, out of the country.

The airport was heavily air-conditioned and I waited miserably, cold and drowsy, for my plane. At last I boarded and stepped off Guyanese soil. The beauty to this flight was that it left at sunrise, and so all the way back to the United States everything was brilliantly lit and clear. On the way to Guyana, the sun had set before we ever reaching Barbados, so we had landed in darkness and never even seen the place. But this time, I saw many wonders on the way. I got to see just how far out to sea the muddy, chocolate ocean extends from Guyana (it slowly fades out, maybe around a hundred miles from shore); I got to see how small Barbados really is, and saw it's amazing cliffside on the Atlantic seaboard, with gorgeous little beaches nestled between gaps in the cliffs; I got to see St. Lucia laid out before me, so distant it the whole island could fit in the window, yet so clear I could make out the neighborhood where I had done Peace Corps so many years ago; we passed over Puerto Rico and I could see every road and town and forest and city; then we passed over the amazing Bahamas, and I marveled at it's unique geography. Picture in your mind a desert, with hundreds of miles of rolling dunes. Now flood it by about thirty feet in crystal-clear turquoise water, so that you can still see every ripple and warp of sand. It extends like that for hundreds of miles, broken only by occasional clumps of coral reefs, like dark blotches on the sand, or tiny uninhabitable islands poking up brown and tan from the water's surface, hairy with coconut palms and mangroves. There was nothing down there, no civilization, no humans. Occasionally the water would get deeper, and once we passed over the trench that extends south from New Providence, a dark blue abyss with a sharp cutoff. But then we were over Andros, with its many tiny waterways and mysterious pools. During the whole time I couldn't take my eyes off the sights below, the primordial marine desert of the Bahamas, until at last it vanished and was replaced by the flat expanse of Florida and the city of Miami. As we circled around the city toward the airport, I could see thousands of blue roofs across the neighborhoods of Kendall and West Miami, tarps serving as temporary roofing.

The flight to Houston wasn't as interesting, though seeing all the ships in the Gulf at night was a fascinating sight. The ticket problem was solved by having my mother buy me a ticket from Houston. I believe Peace Corps owes us that money, because their responsibility is to get the volunteers back to their home of record, or at least to the nearest airport. The nearest airport is Abeline or San Angelo, not bloody Houston.

But I got back all right, and now I'm focusing on moving to Hawai`i, which I intend to do by New Year's. I have more to write about my Peace Corps experience -- much more. I want to go back and fill in some gaps, and write a note to future PC Guyana volunteers. Stay tuned for that.


Anonymous said...

I am a Guyanese who have been reading your blog for some time now. I am glad to hear that you made it back home safely. I think, however, that you might not even now grasp the real danger that you were in.

I dont know you BTW. I just know some of the actors in this drama.

nusilusi said...

Just curious, were you even given the option to transfer to another country?

Brian Reeves said...

Nusilusi -

No, the CD said they only transfer folks to a different country in rare circumstances, because it is a lot of money and effort to retrain volunteers. Only if the volunteer has shown that they are of such incredible usefulness and energy do they consider it, and I admit, I was really low on mental energy at that point and hadn't gotten on well at my site. And they said they couldn't transfer me elsewhere in-country because my possible threat could easily find me... which is probably true. He has lots of money. So, no, they didn't offer that.

Henry Roth said...

My goodness! You ET'd again! Sad. As a fellow PCV and 30 something, you have to play the game. You obviously failed at the game and what makes me angry is that you have turned your failure into the PCs failure. It is obvious you screwed up and PC tells you a million times that you must live by a higher rule because everyone is judging you with a harder book of laws.

I hope you find your way in life but you need to look at life differently. You need to be more aware of "Brian" and not from a "oh woe is me" side.

Staff sucks, I agree but all you have to do is keep your head down as your biggest enemy is always your fellow PCV.

Remember Brian, Americans suck. I advise that you get yourself to a no where island and stop having expectations.

nusilusi said...

A girl I was in training with got offered a position in Guyana because of language issues. She didn't end up going.

Anyway, good luck with you next project in life. And don't give up on the idea of living/working abroad again someday. There are so many ways to do so that don't involve the US gov't!