80 hours in Guyana

A cricket match.
A cricket match. (Greg Scholl for the Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / May 12, 2002

GEORGETOWN, Guyana - It was hot, still, at 11 p.m., and we were standing there in our boxers, in the dark, looking from behind the hotel room curtains at two guys talking quietly with the driver of an idling 4 " 4. Dim lights cut the scene only at its edges.

Paranoid? Maybe. There was nothing wrong with the men, really, as they laughed and chatted in the street.

But listen to this, a story that Lennox, the cab driver, told us on the way into town: That very morning, five bandits, escaped from prison weeks earlier, had surfaced again, armed with machine guns and sniper rifles, maybe grenades. They went after a woman gardening outside her home. They carjacked a 4 " 4 out by the American school. The evening before, another couple got carjacked a few blocks from this hotel, in the center of a national capital that is not much bigger than Worcester. On the radio in the hotel lobby, callers to a talk show said the police were no better, quick to kill, out of control.

Yet, in the next morning's early light, young girls passed beneath our window in white shirts and dark skirts on their way to a breezy, wooden schoolhouse. Friendly men pushed carts full of hard, green coconuts, sliced the coconuts open, and served them with a straw.

So what were the rules in this place? What was fact and what fiction? Was it worth it to find out?

We sat there, behind the curtains, facing a traveler's dilemma. How do we take this limited context - these first hours of darkness and haze and bad news - and move beyond, into the sun? If we were to join this world, we would feel, within minutes, a connection as sweet and pure as the clear milk in one of those bright green coconuts. We would learn that truth boils in a murky place, like the rice pudding bubbling above a wood fire behind the Radha Krishna temple, set on the corner of Quamina and Camp streets, a few blocks from the center of town. And we would learn what it means to be "84-for-3 before lunch."

We had come here, to this city on the north coast of South America, for 80 hours. It was a spontaneous trip, plotted a week before, when I had called Greg Scholl, a childhood friend and avid photographer. I suggested that he and I go somewhere, anywhere, and explore the place visually. Greg thought a minute, then said, "Guyana."

Guyana was settled by the Dutch, colonized by the British, and has been independent only 36 years.

Today's Guyanese are few - only about 700,000 - but they are richly diverse, descendants of East Indians, Africans, native Amer-Indians, Chinese, and Europeans. They speak English and worship in Christian churches and Hindu temples and Islamic mosques.

The country's interior has pristine, threatened, tropical terrain.

Yet if this place is known at all from the outside, it is often, still, for Jim Jones, the deadly Kool-Aid, and that day in 1978 when some 900 people died in a remote village near the border with Venezuela.

So before our 80 hours began, we did not know that people here, despite living on the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by Suriname, Brazil, and Venezuela, consider themselves Caribbean. And we did not know that once a year everything stops, in the daytime at least, for cricket.

Thursday, 12 p.m. Hour 16

The high sun cast hot stage lights on the crowd outside the Bourda cricket grounds. Reggae music pumped from the Carib Beer tent. Vendors sold roast chicken, curried vegetables, and fried dough filled with egg. The people buzzed, circling, relishing the suspense building on the other side of the white and green timber stands.

This was the first day of a five-day Test Match between the West Indies - which, composed of Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados, and others, was the home team - and India. The national teams from the realm of the former British Empire - from New Zealand to the West Indies, from Zimbabwe to India - roam the globe regularly playing one another in matches, the biggest of which are Tests.

We were walking, in other words, into a kind of cricket World Series.

A short row of wooden steps led into the Members Stands, a place where old cricketers and well-connected supporters sat and chatted, ate and drank, and watched the game. At the top of the steps there was an open foyer, at the back of which stood a long bar. Here, members bought cold bottles of Banks beer and long slender glasses of 5-, 10-, and 15-year-old rum.

After lunch, Carl Hooper stood in his white trousers and white shirt at one end of the dirt rectangle and waited for an Indian to bowl the ball, hard and fast. Hooper, tall and calm, tried to strike the ball past the men playing positions with names like Silly Mid Off, Square Leg, and Gully. Hooper's hits, depending on how far they went, would earn between one and six runs each.

All this cricket - scoring and strategy, rising stars and old customs - was new to Greg and me, who grew up cheering Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates. And, particularly during those early hours at Bourda, cricket made baseball's nine innings seem a tidy, predictable affair.

The "84-for-3," we learned, meant that during the morning, the West Indies had scored only 84 runs with three batters already out, not a good start. Now Hooper, who had already scored 70 runs himself, was trying to get his team back into position.

A bubbling, chatty cricket fan, who, from the way she was sitting in her chair, seemed to know it would be a long time before anything resolved, talked about the news.

The bandits, they were probably on the run, somewhere in the backlands, the low, sugary stretch heading inland from the sea wall that holds back the Atlantic. Such drama, she said, is not normal.

"There might be a one-off. I might be in the wrong place at the wrong time," the woman said. "But other than that, the violence stays within its circles."

Thursday, 8 p.m., Hour 24

There were many circles here, and one of them was spinning, that evening, around Manzoor Nadir, the minister of tourism.

Nadir, in a dark tan suit, was perhaps the best-groomed man in a well-groomed group mingling beneath the high, thatched roof of the Umana Yana reception hall. The place was full of hopeful young women wearing sashes that said things like "Miss Car Care," or "Miss Short & Associates." The women smiled and nodded amid the munching of deep-fried shrimp, waiting for Miss Universe 1998, Wendy Fitzwilliam, and Miss Universe 1999, Mpule Kwelagobe, the guests of honor.

Nadir said that tourism in Guyana is largely limited to return visits from some of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who've left the country to settle in New York, Toronto, and London, among other places. He hoped to attract others to see the natural wonders of the interior, including the stunning Kaieteur Falls, one of the highest single-drop waterfalls in the world, and the Rupununi savanna, near the border with Brazil.

Nadir told me that violence here usually has one of two causes: love gone wrong, or political struggle between Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese communities.

"We have our little disturbances during election time," Nadir said, "but then it clears up."

This was too much for C.N. Sharma, who hovered beside me while Nadir talked.

"Most of our killing in Guyana is related to drugs," said Sharma, a short man with neatly trimmed silver hair.

"These men who were in prison, that was the negligence of the prison," Sharma said. "Those guards were not trained. The bandits are not killers. That is the police."

Sharma, who heads a small political party and broadcasts a boisterous television forum, was referring, specifically, to the case of Shaka Blair, a young black man from the village of Buxton shot by police the week before.

The case did look suspect. All the police we'd seen around town were unarmed, soft-eyed young men and women dressed in powder-blue shirts and dark trousers. More famous, or notorious, among the Guyanese are the so-called "Black Clothes" units, armed with automatic weapons and bulletproof vests.

One of these units, apparently, showed up at Blair's home, put Blair's wife and child in one room and, several minutes later, Blair was shot dead. Sharma said this kind of thing happens too often.

Old divisions drawn across race and class and power were digging deep into young Guyana.

Sharma told me he has been beaten by police and by criminals. This, it seemed, gave him a certain objectivity.

"Everybody in this place knows C.N. Sharma," Sharma said, taking a view of the chattering room. "I am so popular, so very, very popular. Every little kid knows who I am. Everybody. You ask any guy around and they'll tell you they know C.N. Sharma."

Friday, 1 p.m., Hour 41

It was lunchtime, and the players for both teams had walked into the Members Stands to eat plates of rice with curried chicken and vegetables.

Half an hour later, they took the field, with Hooper still batting. Hooper would soon score his 200th run, a rarely reached "double century" that put the West Indies in a commanding position. When he cleared the 200-run mark, Hooper turned and pumped his fist and the crowd hoisted their glasses and let out a cheer.

Downstairs, I saw Greg talking with a young woman, born in Toronto, raised in Guyana, who had recently graduated from college in the United States.

"I'd say half the guys in this place have guns with them right now," she said.

She laughed. There is a law, she said, that if you own a gun, you have to carry it with you all the time.

I'd seen the private security forces around town, uniformed men carrying machine guns. Pay them and they protect you. I'd seen the television commercial advertising handguns and shotguns for "hunting, security, or personal protection."

"If someone broke into my house," the young woman said, "I wouldn't call the police. I'd call my two friends. They have guns."

Saturday, 6 a.m. Hour 58

A gray and windy dawn opened on Georgetown, a lush city with the feel of a stage set. The wooden buildings are low, the streets wide. The architecture is refined, the planning exact. But much of it - buildings and streets - is worn at the edges, trailing into a vague world.

We made our way to the north edge of town and the low cement sea wall, a buffer against the Atlantic Ocean in a place that feels more landlocked than coastal. Some mornings, Hindus come here and, in worship, place wide, flat leaves in the water.

Except for the very central streets, Georgetown feels like a village. Homes in the residential neighborhoods are usually surrounded with barbed wire - "grilled up," as one man said. But neighbors shout greetings. They keep an eye out for one another.

By late morning, downtown was bustling. A long line drifted outside the GT&T offices, where people had come to pay their bills on the last day, lest their phone lines be cut. We stopped at St. George's Cathedral, an Anglican church, said to be the tallest free-standing wood structure in the world. Inside several dozen people sat and prayed. The cool emptiness beneath the wood beams held a hope I'd seldom felt in heavier, stone cathedrals.

Along Robb Street, near an Internet cafe and a music store with shelves of bootlegged tapes, Jerome, an easygoing young man giving us a tour of town, bought coconuts. The milk tasted sweeter and cleaner than that from coconuts with a dry, dark husk.

We toured the public botanical gardens, then, across town, rang at the gate of the Radha Krishna temple. The caretaker took us inside to see the gold and red and green altars. Around back, three men were cooking dinner to follow afternoon worship. Bowls of rice, garlic, eggplant, and potatoes sat on a long table. The men pushed wood into the fires and stirred the pots.

Amid the smoke and spice, we shook hands and laughed. We were no longer tourists, here, just two more friends passing by.

"It would be great if you'd all come back and taste it," said Karan Singh, tending the bubbling rice pudding. "You'd enjoy it, really enjoy it. And then you'd come back again."

Saturday, 3 p.m., Hour 67

It was our last afternoon, and we wanted to linger, one last time, in the shade of the wooden cricket stands. I saw Bharrat Jagdeo, the 38-year-old president of Guyana, dressed in jeans, a polo shirt, and brown leather sandals, heading to tea. I asked if he had a minute and he said, "Yeah, sure, why not."

He eased into a white plastic chair. For nearly an hour we would talk, about paying off foreign debt, about building an economy in a country with ailing bauxite mines and sugar fields, about the cost of racial and political divisions.

He coldly dismissed the crowd that had gathered the day before beneath the open shutters of the Members Stands to protest the Shaka Blair shooting. The crowd was just bitter, Jagdeo said, that their party, the traditional party of the Afro-Guyanese, had lost power 10 years before. Then Jadgeo talked about how everyone needed to work together.

The sun beat hot. The West Indies defense, which had only taken the field that morning, had just gotten out Sachin Tendulkar, a kind of Ted Williams of Indian batsmen. So it is better to end where the president began.

"Hooper, 233, Chanderpaul, 140, Sarwan, 53," he had exclaimed, ticking off the West Indies batters' scores, when slipping into that plastic seat.

"The batting was really very good," Jagdeo had said. And the top scorers, "They are all Guyanese!"

Somehow, having navigated dark and light, unseen chaos and easy, open calm, I understood. Our journey beyond the hotel room, away from chauffered taxis, had brought us close enough to know the tensions of life here. And this, simply, was the reward: to feel the delicate balance in a small place where people struggle, often alone, to sort fact from fiction, then shout for joy, together, when a man named Hooper or Chanderpaul or Sarwan knocks it past the Silly Point.

I found Greg. The West Indies bowlers were still trying to shut down the Indian batsmen, but we decided to go to a local restaurant to eat chickpeas and garlic and drink cold Banks. We walked out onto Church Street, where the crowd had been milling, building, for three days. Shirtless, sweating men danced, delightedly, in the paths of slowly passing cars.

A low cheer rose from the stands behind us.

"Hey," Greg said, "I think they got a wicket."

Tom Haines can be reached by e-mail at

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