Summer has hit and Montreal is hot hot hot. People moving slowly slowly in the steamy air.
Summers like this take me back to Guyana days, and I remember in sharp detail the smells and sounds, the way tropic air lay heavy on the skin, the pace all living things took that was so different from the way they’d move if they were in Vancouver.
Let me take you there. Here is chapter 1 of The Water Here is Never Blue.
In Guyana the night is dark, true dark. In Guyana the night piles thick and velvet, Prussian blue from the ground beneath your feet to high above your head. It is all around you, not confined just to the sky, but laying too along the ground, at the side of the road, in the air above the canal water, and lurking among the grasses and the trees. Thick, so thick is the night that it comes in close and nudges you. It has a pelt that brushes cheeks, a weight that curls in the nape of your neck, and it fills your mouth with black and wet solidity. It is alive. Alive with sounds and smells, something you can almost hold in your palm. Night there is not like anything I had ever felt.
Guyana, Guyana. True dark, true night was the first Guyana thing I learned. We left Canada in daylight and landed there, outside of Georgetown, in the night. Our plane touched down at Timehri airport. Out there, I saw “Welcome” and “International” written on a little whitewashed building beside the runway near the bottom of the rolling metal stairs. I stepped off the plane and out onto those stairs that shook and clanged metallic underneath my feet. Welcome to Guyana. There I stood,slapped to stillness by that water-thickened air. That’s when I saw, for the first time, what true true dark could be, what night dark had within itself when left alone to spread and stretch and fill all nooks and crannies. How could it be so hot and yet so densely solid dark? You gulp air just from the shock of it. Taste greenness on your tongue. Jungly ancient vegetation sweetened by a hundred years of rattling sugar cane. Tasting too of other things, things hidden there among the canes, things my tongue could not detect, not yet. Trade winds stirred that sultry air, swirled it sluggishly round me in the velvet dark. The airplane’s open door was there behind me. Back inside that plane was Canada, but I was standing on the edge and facing out, out to Guyana.
My father was already striding through the steamy dark and was almost at the whitewashed airport building. Behind me my impatient brother and my sleepy little sister waited for my feet to move. They leaned forward, my mother at the end, and all were pushing air. I felt it piling up behind my back. Hesitation time was past, and I must move, make my feet ting-tang-ting down metal stairs to first contact with Guyana soil. With each step my clothes were shaken, and all the little bits and shreds of northern air that clung, sunken into pockets and wedged in creases all the way from Canada, were driven out. Replaced, right then right there, by stronger, wetter, Caribbean stuff. I was changing, without knowing it, before my foot had even reached the ground.
Changing as I walked, changing how I walked. Already feet were moving, a little bit, not much but some, already moving to rhythms never heard before. That’s soca. It’s a left-right sway. It was the Mighty Sparrow singing his calypso hits, pumping out of speakers in the terminal. Strange music clattered up the night, soca beat so strong it can change the tempo of your feet, can make your blood wash rhythmic in your veins. Welcome to Guyana with a trill, a rolling, high-pitched sound. The Mighty Sparrow sang, he sang, “Drunk and disorderly, always in custody, me friends and me family, all men fed up with me, ’cause I drunk and disorderly.” Hear the jump in that, words that even spoken cannot sit still. That’s a sound to make a white girl start to whine, and in Guyana whine is dance. She whinin though she just touch down, fresh fresh, she new and never been to Mashramani, never been to Carnival, but there she go, she swayin to that soca beat without knowing that she is. Welcome to Guyana.
It was July 31, 1974. I was thirteen years old, and Guyana too was young. Guyana, a newly minted country, was just eight years and sixty-three days into independence. The country and I both young and restless, full of optimism, full of hope. Wide-eyed and credulous. We—my mother, little sister, brother, father, me—were fresh flown in from where I’d lived my life up to that day, a suburb of Vancouver. There the lawns were flat and weedless, kept trimmed and bound by pebbled borders. Gardens were filled with annuals. My father liked Razzle Dazzle Petunias, their flopping heads all striped like candy canes in red and white. Dad planted tulip bulbs in lines so straight he must have used a ruler; spring blooms broke soil in even beats, uniform across the garden beds.
I came from a place where everyone looked just like me, and all my friends had names like Carpenter and Collinge. Where fathers, just like mine, drove off in mornings and returned at night to wives in aprons who served them Scotch and, later, dinner, chickens roasted, sometimes steak. It was a place where girls had long blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin, and some, like me, rode horses, English saddle, double reined. Black, velvet-covered helmets. Shiny leather boots. In that place the air was thin both night and day. Darkness there was cold and light, black linen faded out to grey. Where I came from nobody ever heard the word Guyana, not until they heard that I was moving to that place.
What was Guyana? Mr. Larson, my grade seven teacher, pulled down our classroom’s world map and stuck his pointer on a spot in South America. A spot so small the pointer covered it entirely. This, he said, is Guyana. This is Guyana, and it is where the Plunkett family (necks turned and everybody stared at me) will be living in a few weeks. He tapped the map where a peanut shape was painted cotton-candy pink. The label read “British Guiana,” and the colour matched Rhodesia, Uganda, Swaziland, and other places all in Africa. That map was out of date. I knew that even then, but no one seemed to notice. Mr. Larson smiled at me. Guyana, he said, is where you will find sugar cane and bauxite mines. And water, lots and lots of water.
You can’t see that water on the map in Annieville, the elementary school where I was sitting listening to Mr. Larson, but it’s there. Oh it is there, and plenty plenty of it. Water flowing as in rivers, water falling over mountaintops, water surging, water flooding, water in the air, and water on the land. Water bringing life and bringing death as in mosquitoes, cholera, filaria, and yellow fever too. Those things were also things no one where I grew up had thought of, but I knew of them. I knew because I’d had to have the shots for some, and each was now recorded in my yellow cardboard booklet listing all inoculations.
That yellow cardboard book was in my father’s hand, stuffed inside my passport, the first passport I ever had. My photograph was inside too, in black and white, a grinning me, bucktoothed and shy, my freckles strong enough to show in light grey dots across my nose, my hair pulled back, my long blond hair that now was gone. Gone. The first and only time that it was cut, sold to a barber who said it would make a man’s toupée. Fine and pale. “We are moving to the tropics,” my mother said when we drove to the city on that day. “In the tropics it is very hot. We are moving to a place that’s near the equator. You will be very hot with all that hair.” My father didn’t like that, but he agreed with her. He didn’t like that I was going to lose my long blond hair. It reached way past my waist, and once when I was standing with my mother in a lineup at the grocery store I felt a man, an old man, stroking it, his shaky hand passing feather-lightly down my hair. My mother saw him doing that. I know she did. I saw her eyes flick overhead. I saw her smile. She smiled but it was small, and nudged me up so I was standing then in front of her. The tropics aren’t the place for hair that’s thick and long, that’s heavy on your back. She said all that again while I watched in the mirror, sitting in the barber’s chair and watching him with scissors in his hand. I saw him wrap a tail-like switch of wheat-blond hair, wrap it carefully in tissue paper, thin fuchsia paper rustled in his hands.
Sugar cane and bauxite mines. Hot tropic air. My mother and my teacher were both right. Guyana had all that, and plenty of it, but water was what brought us there. That’s what my father told the customs men while we all stood, behind him, me, my sister, and my brother, good and quiet. Standing silent in the late-night tropic air. I was looking at my shoes. Standing in my yellow polyester travel suit, a skirt and matching jacket, poking with my tongue a stitched-up hole inside my mouth. That hole was where a tooth had been. It had wandered there, growing in the wrong place, and our family dentist had tried to fix it the day the barber cut my hair. When we got home that day and I was all excited about my new suit, special clothes to travel to a special place, my dad hesitated then reached out his hand and softly touched my hair as if to stroke it, but ruffled it instead. I was thinking about all of that and staring at my shoes and poking with my tongue at the stitched-up hole so new the wiry dentist threads still scratched. Meanwhile my father answered questions that the customs men, dark as night and shiny too, asked him, “Who are you?”
“You are Canadians?”
My father answered, “Yes.”
“Five of you and why you here?”
How did my father answer? His back was there, just there in front of me and broad enough to cast a shadow, blocking out the light above the customs desk. I could see his freckled hands and even see the red-gold hairs that grew down his arms and even across the backs of his hands and out onto his fingers, faintly there, but there. But, I didn’t hear him tell the customs man why we were there. Why, why were we there? Why had we moved? Why did we have to sell my horse, cut my hair, leave my dog with someone else, though I’d been told when we returned he would as well. I’d get my dog back some day, one day when we left this place. Why are we here? My mother says we’re here to learn and for adventure, to see new things, to see the world.
My father might have said to Guyana’s customs man, “I am a civil engineer. I’m here to map your rivers, assess them for their power and their strength,” and that would all be true. That much I knew. Direct and true, straightforward, simple easy. He might have said, “We’re here to serve the new Guyana. Comrade Burnham’s vision brought us here,” and that, as well, would also have been true, at least in part. It’s true there was a Comrade Burnham, and it was his plan to power up the country using all Guyana’s rivers as the source. It’s true that hydro power, damming rivers, was my father’s specialty. He might have said, “I’m here to watch,” and that’s a part of learning, and that would also have been true.
True, true enough. Stamp, stamp. The customs man banged down his inky stamp five times. He reached out to hand those booklets back to Dad who took them, red-gold hairs and freckles on his hands. I never realized how white white hands could be. Welcome. We walked through to where Guyana truly starts. Sugar cane and bauxite mines and water, soca music, blackest night, a place where water hangs in air.