Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Center Cannot Hold

And so you can see how my relationship with AEA started to fall apart, as they refused to put me to work doing things that exploited my talents and previous experience, assigning me only to tasks I couldn't do very well, and then accused me of being a lazy complainer.

All this time, I was suffering through the homestay from hell.

Yes, I bet other volunteers could tell me horror stories that would make my experience sound like Club Med in comparison. But circumstances are circumstances, and the ones I was in were rapidly deteriorating my mental condition.

It actually began during training. My homestay was a modest home, middle-class by Guyanese standards, and the married couple who lived there were quiet, unassuming, and quite normal. The man of the house, an Afro-Guyanese, worked at the rum bottling plant in Diamond. The woman of the house, a Chinese-Amerindian mix, stayed at home and kept the household. They lived in a two-room home Grove, south of Georgetown, where most of the other PC trainees also stayed. For water they collected city water in two huge, black tanks out back. They had grass in the yard, though it was pitted and unwalkable because of the wandering cows that plague all neighborhoods in Guyana.

They were a nice couple, but shortly after my two-month training homestay began, I ran into trouble. It all involved a locked bureau.

Like all other homes in the area, theirs had metal bars over the windows to prevent burglars, which is a huge problem in Guyana. But having heard of another volunteer who had his laptop stolen despite such bars (he let it out near the window), and of the break-ins which happen routinely in the area, I decided it might be prudent to lock mine in a bureau they had in my room. Until this point, I had no need for the key they gave me; I locked my room while I was in it, but not while I was gone, and never locked the drawers. One day I put my laptop in it, locked it, and left the key hidden under a book on the top of the bureau. When I returned home from training that day, lo and behold, the key was missing. My homestay "mother" was the only person in the house that whole day, but she insisted she didn't go in my room while I was gone other than to sweep, and would never touch a key. When my homestay "father" came home from work, he had to fish out a spare they had in their own bedroom. But he wasn't happy with me, because I had asked if my homestay mother had taken the key. This had been done not in a spirit of accusation by me, but merely inquiry. To be honest, I wouldn't have cared if she had taken it, perhaps for safekeeping. I don't know. He unlocked the bureau, and I didn't use it anymore for my laptop.

Fast forward to the next week. I wake up one morning, am gathering my things for training that day, and to my utter surprise, I see the tip of the key sticking out from under a book. The same book. Where I had kept it before. That might have indicated it was my simple oversight, and that the key had been there all along, but I had checked underneath that book half a dozen times, and there had been no key. I had even moved the book, flipped through all the pages thinking it might have been in there, and even taken the damn thing with me to read during breaks at training. I had also physically removed every single other item from the top of that bureau, even pulled it out away from the wall to look behind it. No key. So imagine my surprise when I woke up to find it where it was supposed to be.

Of course, I had to know how it got there, returned to its original spot. So I asked them. They both denied having anything to do with it at all, asked me if I had simply missed seeing it before, and in the end, my homestay father accused me of being a "very suspicious person." My relationship with them was never the same again. I minimized contact with them, staying mostly in my room or out during the evenings. I considered locking my bedroom door while I was out, but figured it would only do more harm than good; besides, they had already shown they had extras of each key in the house.

With that unfortunate homestay experience behind me, I went into the next one. Peace Corps Guyana requires all volunteers to spend the first three months in their new assignment in a homestay -- that makes five months all told, counting the two from training. It's hard for me to live in someone's house for a couple days, much less almost half a year. Being subject to their rules and their timetable is one thing; I can just never shake the feeling of being a burden or that some sort of expectations are hovering over me.

In New Amsterdam, I was placed with a young guy (for the sake of privacy, I'll call him D here). He worked at the Adult Education Association where he was in charge of computers. I dedicated a blog entry to how D's house was set up, so I won't go greatly into it here, but I'll recap a few crucial details. The yard was big, with three houses in it. His sat in the middle of the yard, an unpainted wood building on four-foot stilts. Next to his house was a cream-colored house where his friend lived (until his friend moved abruptly in September to Barbados). On the other side was an ugly, unpainted monstrosity on high stilts that had no occupant by the time I moved in. It was under that house that I sometimes slung my hammock, did my laundry out of a sorry pipe in the mud, and chased chickens when I was bored.

Being on stilts was vital to houses in the area, since during much of the year the ground is utterly soggy with mud. In fact, to get to his front door, one would often have to tightrope-walk across planks laid across the grass. It was either that, or sink one's shoes up to the ankle in muck water. Chickens, donkeys, and wild dogs and cats routinely wandered into the yard and left special gifts, even more incentive to stick to the boards.

D was an attractive Afro-Guyanese man in his mid-twenties. He wasn't too much of a drinker, nor did he go out to clubs much. His main diversion was chasing women. And boy, did he catch a lot of them. He drove a motorcycle everywhere, which probably enhanced his image, which was one of roguish charm.

I occupied the other room in his house, which was flimsy and cheaply-constructed. Not that it was very far below the construction quality of most houses in Guyana -- the walls were a single layer of wood planks with occasional gaps in between. There was no ceiling, and the walls didn't extend all the way to the roof. I guess this was to help air move through the house, but it had the effect of making every sound from anywhere in the house as crystal-clear as though it had been made in your own room. Whispered conversations might as well be in your ear. And the floor was not much better, with cracks between the floorboards wide enough one could see the chickens wandering through the mud underneath the house during the day. The stilts were old and tended to rock, not to mention the floorboards which sometimes bent under the weight of an adult passing.

D's way with the ladies became apparent to me shortly after I arrived. I was introduced to a young lady who was his "girlfriend." Silly American me, I thought this was a term that meant something. There was an implied exclusivity there, but I had yet to learn how relationships in Guyana are valued. She lived in Georgetown and would make the trip to see D every couple weeks. Most days she would call at some point and D would spend a while on the phone having a hushed, empassioned conversation which ranged from sweet nothings to vowing he was not cheating on her to expressing a fervent desire to see her, all sometimes in the range of a few minutes.

As a Guyanese woman, his girlfriend was very savvy. She knew, having grown up there, what I was about to find out. Guyanese men are cheaters. Guyanese women, too, as it turns out. The whole country is screwing the whole country. No wonder HIV is sweeping Guyana.

I would come home and find another woman sitting in the living room, D preparing food, or chatting with her, or watching television, or making her wait while he talked on the phone to someone, or ran down the street for groceries. She would sit nervously, not sure what to make of my presence. Sometimes I would talk to them, but not for long. There was always an uncomfortable air in the house, and so I would simply retreat to my room. Before long, D would shut off the television and put on a CD of romantic music. Their conversation would grow quieter, a mere murmur over the loud music echoing through the whole house. I would put on my noise-cancelling headphones and try to drown it all out, entertaining myself with a computer game or a book or writing the first chapters of my new novel.

And then, inevitably, they would retire to his bedroom. His bed and mine were adjoining the same wall, which was no thinner than a row of planks could be. When he climbed into bed, just that level of motion would jostle the house enough for me to feel it in my room. But when he went into his room with a young woman, pretty soon I would begin to hear the smacking sounds of kisses, some more low murmuring, then a long silence. This was followed by one of two things: I would hear her gathering her things and leaving, at which time D would be compelled to drive her home on her motorcycle. Or, and this happened much more often, they would begin to have sex.

It bears some repeating: the walls were thin. They didn't connect to the ceiling. There was absolutely no isolation of sound in that house. Their activity would start to set the whole house into motion, and pretty soon my bed was rocking just as if they were in it with me. I could hear every sound, every moan, despite the loud music blasting from the stereo system in the living room. The first time this happened, I found it amusing, and a little embarrassing. I'm no prude, but I'm also not big on sharing such an experience with near-strangers.

As the months wore on, and I began to see how frequent these romantic interludes were, I grew less amused and more annoyed. It was an intrusion into my peace almost every night. Some evenings or afternoons I would come home and find D's motorcycle parked out front, the front door locked (it was rarely closed when he was home), and the romantic music blaring from the house. It was so loud, one could hear the lyrics from halfway down the narrow lane where we lived. It was always the same CD, a mix of American top 40 and adult hits, things like Celene Dion or Michael Bolton; anything they would play on a "Light Rock" station in the States, or that you would hear coming over the Musak speaker at your dentist's office. I always knew when I heard that CD being started up that I could expect to be subjected to an evening that would make Hugh Hefner blush.

Irritation soon became madness. If D had "gotten lucky" only so often, perhaps I could have dealt with it. But it happened every couple nights, regularly, and quite often with some entirely new young lady. I was newly arrived in New Amsterdam, and to be frank, was hoping to get a girlfriend in the area. As I watched D's ladykilling, I started to wonder if there was a young woman in the entire area he hadn't slept with. The thought was sobering. Especially combined with the HIV/AIDS statistics they hammered into us during training. On the occasion when I would go out to a dance or a club, I would look at the women and wonder which of them had been with D, or were routinely with men like D, and just how rampant this sort of behavior really was.

It turns out, it was everywhere. The more Guyanese I met, the more I encountered casual tales of affairs, cheating, casual sex. I don't think there is anything necessarily wrong with the latter, as long as all parties involved understand what they are doing, but in Guyana the sheer rate of it was overpowering. I quickly despaired of meeting anyone I could put trust in. And to be involved in a casual sex fling scared the pants off me, because I feared catching an STD.

And so the rocking house continued. Some nights he wouldn't get started on it until midnight, even knowing full well that I had to be at class early in the morning. I'm not a good morning person -- I hate being awake in the mornings, and have very negative thoughts about myself, my life, and the world in the hours between 6 am and 10 am, for whatever reason. This is made all the worse when I have had poor or insufficient sleep the night before.

One night, I had enough. Just as D got started, I threw on my clothes and shoes and slammed the door meaningfully on the way out. Passive-aggressive, I guess, but I was never very good at open confrontation. But I couldn't take being in that house one more minute with the walls shaking. I walked out onto the Backdam, a street between New Amstedam and Stanleytown, a dark, lonely stretch of road at any time of day, much less in the middle of the night. We were always warned about that road, but I went out there that night looking for trouble. I wanted someone to mug me, because I was consumed with so much rage and bitterness that I was hoping someone would just try it. They could stab me, beat me, whatever -- I just wanted to plant my fist in someone's face.

This was a real eye-opening moment for me. I knew instinctively that I was spiraling, seeking the darker side of life in New Amsterdam; I would frequently go to late-night dances out on the dark basketball court, where people were drinking and smoking weed heavily, bodies pressed closely together, tempers flaring, women wearing provocative outfits, young men doing wheelies on their motorcycles up the backdam, fights breaking out. I went to the nightclub just outside of town which was said to be owned by drug dealers, and the site of frequent fist- and gun-fights. I was drinking rum more and more. Spending most of my time by myself, in my room, sealed away under the mosquito net with the fan pointed on me, day and night, avidly reading book after book.

Moving out to my own apartment changed all that. I've written about that place, and posted photos. It was a breath of fresh air, a way of controlling my environment that I needed. But I never got a chance to make it back out of the dark place I was in. Those three months in New Amsterdam, living in D's shithole sex den and being unwanted at my site, had taken such a toll that I had done some things that were undoable. My secret trip to Georgetown to see a concert, my involvement in a scandal with a local Guyanese blogger who hated Peace Corps, an argument with our incoming CD, rumors that I was romantically involved with a boxer's wife, and whispers that I was going to dangerous clubs and dances, had filtered back to Peace Corps and throughout New Amsterdam and ruined my reputation with both. And anyone who has been in Peace Corps can tell you that you reputation in your site is crucial. Without it, your capacity is diminished or ruined.

With enough time, it's possible I could have repaired that image, my relationships with AEA and other volunteers, and gone on to have a positive, useful Peace Corps career. But there were too many factors stacking up at a critical juncture, and I had nowhere to turn. Seeing the first steps in my mental decay, I once called our APCD (the one who got our beloved CD fired, and who, in turn, was sacked some months after I left Peace Corps) to come visit me. He did so, but was not terribly interested in my complaints. Aside from the sex, I had legitimate problems with the homestay, as it was not conforming to Peace Corps regulations (locking door, some type of drawers to place items, privacy, etc.). He laughed off all of them. At that moment, I knew I couldn't even turn to the Peace Corps administration for help. With their aid, maybe placing me in a new homestay or -- better yet -- letting me skip the damn homestay thing altogether, and move right into an apartment, I think my downfall could have been slowed or averted. I needed help, and there was none to be had.

Perhaps one could say I'm just not good with homestays. I actually predicted that going in, and was a little nervous when I discovered that volunteers in Guyana had to endure extended homestays beyond what other volunteers worldwide required. In fact, most volunteers in Guyana live so closely with a local family that, arguably, they are in a homestay environment for their entire stay.

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