Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Can't you hear that rooster crowin'? Must be something on his mind.

Dylan's words called to me our first night in Guyana at 4:00 in the morning, and at 4:15 and 4:30.Outside the little house my wife was raised in traffic whizzed by, particularly the mini buses ubiquitous in the country on all the main roads. People in this small South American country sandwiched between Venezuela and Suriname are on the move, going to work, building their houses, traveling to market, and going back and forth to America. I learned that while everyone wants to come to America to earn money and build better lives for their children, everyone also cherishes the simple life they have in Guyana filled with the sounds of laughter, Caribbean hip hop and roosters in the yard. My ten days in this tropical summer country gave me a new appreciation and a deeper understanding of my wife and her family, and the country they call home.

The People

The market is composed of these rough hewed sheds lining the street filled with the fruits, vegetables, meat and fish grown, raised or caught by local people. Of course, no trip to the market could be complete without a certain amount of catching up. So, because it's been 11 years since she's lived there, Neeta spent most of the two hours we shopped there chatting with old neighbors.

In addition to flour, rice, spices, meat, smoked fish and produce, people sell baked goods, sweets, juices, clothing and religious articles. As we shop, cars, trucks and bicycles drive up and down the street around people, cows, donkeys, sheep and carts blaring music from home made CD's.

 "No Krishna. No Buddha. No Allah. Just Jesus. Jesus saves!" Holding 
 her Bible high, a woman parades up and down the street hawking Christ. Most of the country's Afro Caribbean population are either Christian or Muslim. Most of the Indians are Hindu, but it's not unusual to find a statue of Christ among the gods and goddesses in a temple.

Traffic, Guyana style. Cows like these just ignore the cars while calves nurse.

Known to his eight children as Daddy and to his 18 grand children and 11 great grandchildren as Aja or Nanna depending on whether their relation is through a son or a daughter, Polo Singh is the family patriarch. Whenever there's company, you will usually find him sitting there besides the door in his silk baseball shorts, a soft spoken and gracious host, but one who is firm in his convictions. According to "Mr. Polo", as his daughters refer to him, the house must never be left without someone guarding it. The family joke is that there must be gold in the door posts.

Here's Polo with three of his daughters. Satee, known only as Sissy by her siblings is the eldest child, Neeta in her Brett Farve pj's is the sixth oldest and Indira with three grandchildren of her own is the "baby" of the family.

The Kids

There is no such thing as baby sitters in Guyana. Families take care of their own adding bedrooms to the house as generations multiply. When she was in sixth grade, Neeta's mom died forcing her to leave school to care for her younger brother and sister and do the cooking. All her older brothers and sisters had by that time, married and moved on. Now, there are five family homes. Dad lives with Neeta's younger brother and his wife and two kids in the original family home. Of Neeta's older brothers, one died and one lives with his wife, son and grandchild in a neighboring community. Satee has a daughter and her three grandchildren with her and a son who lives separately, and Indira and her husband live with two of their kids and their three grandchildren.

Our nieces, Sharda and Ranita. That's Sharda's husband next to her, who we call Boy.(Don't ask) These two when joined by my wife will tell preposterous stories, then dissolve into shrieks of laughter. Neeta came home totally hoarse from all the laughing. I had no idea what they found funny most of the time since I only get about 20 % of what goes on.

My lanky 11year old niece, Ashti, youngest daughter of Neeta's brother, Rangi and his wife Jean. They will be immigrating to the Bronx next year or so sponsored by Jean's sister. Ashti competes with her sister for hammock space especially if it means sitting with Daddy, Mommy or Aja.

Vashti, our 13 year old niece is taking extra classes in computers. She is learning about power point demonstrations, Microsoft office applications and e mail.

This is Indira's daughter, the 20 something Ranita and 13 year old Sandee who is the daughter of Sharda, Satee's daughter. Very quiet and reserved, Sandee exhibits maturity far beyond her age. I wouldn't be surprised to see her married in a few years.She is enrolled in a business course in Second Form.

Neeta's younger sister, Indira with her three grandchildren, Andre and Joshua (children of her son who lives upstairs from her) and the never still Amit, whose favorite game was throwing himself in the hammock where I was dozing.Very amusing, Amit.

Trick shot of Vicky, Sharda's 6 year old son, balancing Amit on his hand.

Even trickier, balancing Uncle Joe on your hand!

Fishing with the family and the kid down the road.

Daily Life

Every house has an altar, and every day begins with a prayer.Though not fervent, Guyanese Hindus respect religion as evident by the large statue of Lord Hanuman you see at the top of this page. Everyone who can afford it does a yearly thanksgiving ceremony to the god or goddess of their choice, and in the process, feeds family and neighbors with a traditional 7 curry feast afterward. People rely on each other and on the kindness of neighbors. The day is measured by food. It seems that meals are always being prepared, always available, though eating together isn't a priority.There are banana trees, coconut palms and a myriad of other fruit species in almost every yard and people also grow some vegetables like bagee which is a spinach like green, squash and bigan (eggplant). Rice and sugar cane are grown commercially. Chicken, duck, lamb, goat, pork for the non Muslims and beef for the non Hindus are sold in the markets and supermarket stores or raised by people individually. It is not unusual to see cattle, sheep or goats grazing freely on the roads miraculously surviving the vehicle traffic and finding their way home at night.The roads are busy with animals, horse carts and people flagging down the aforementioned mini buses which hold a driver, a conductor who collects fares and as many people as they can squeeze in (often 15 or more). People drive on the left at break neck speeds, but most vehicles have steering wheels on the right, a remnant of British rule, I suppose or a death wish.

Kids go to schools that are like long open box cars  to afford some ventilation.Class sizes are generally large and teachers aren't above smacking hands with their rulers. It's all very British. Aside from the rice and sugar cane industry, there is mining and a lot of construction. As people grow wealthier (many from contributions from their relatives in the US), they make improvements on their homes installing in door plumbing, stoves and refrigerators and rebuilding with concrete instead of wood. Infrastructure is poor. There is water piped in to most homes and electricity available most of the time. We encountered about 8 to 10 blackouts of from 10 minutes to one hour while we were there.No one has hot water, except maybe the very rich, so you bathe by throwing the cool tap water over yourself. Except in the early morning, this is pleasant since temperatures are hot and often humid.

Most people have dogs to protect their property at night, but don't treat them as we do. They generally wander the streets by day and get fed with table scraps at night.They are tolerated rather than loved as part of the family. Parrots and monkeys are more likely to be given attention as pets. It's the third world.

Homes can be as scarce as this  tiny shack inhabited by the family of a "rum drinker" to homes with air conditioning and bathrooms in all the bedrooms and guard shacks outside to protect them. Often, they can be located next to one another.

The other extreme. If you double click on the picture at the left, you will see an orange and white extravaganza. Apparently, home decorating has yet to become a highly refined art in Guyana.

This is the simple home where Neeta grew up very happy with 7 brothers and sisters.

  After she married and saved to open a small business, and saved again,             she built this home. Unfortunately, she never got the opportunity to live in it, preferring to move to the United States where she eventually decided to marry me and live happily ever after.

Whether you have a kitchen or not, many people still do a lot of cooking outside.This is edo (a kind of root vegetable like cassava) and eggplant being cooked.

This is a local temple.The flags are planted every time a worship service or puja is conducted. Needless to say, being a priest or pundit as they call them is pretty steady work.

Surrounded by the gods, here's the happy couple praying for protection from mosquitoes.

Neeta bravely facing down a cow who wandered over to check out the vibes.

This was pretty much my pov for most of the time I wasn't eating.

Here's Neeta's sister, Indira and her husband packing the ton of illegal food we took back with us past the scrutiny of US Customs. I'm only kidding. They're just harmless souvenirs.


m sourdough said...

Great photos and story - thanks.

m sourdough said...

Great story!

Joe Ambrosino said...

Thanks twice, m sourdough!

Carla and Michael said...

Joe and Neeta, thank you for this wonderful post. It was really wonderful and so inspiring. I didn't realize you had this one also. I just joined you to follow and will be back often. Thanks again.

Carla and Michael said...

This was so awesomw and so inspipring. I didn't even know you had this blog. I'm a follower now and have it saved do I can come by and visit now. Thanks.

Joe Ambrosino said...

Thank you guys! I started this blog awhile ago to tell the story of my life in the commune, but then thought I needed to have a place to write about non food events, so I keep it going. Nice to have you here.