I am sipping a beer on the patio of Palm Court after sunset. Even now, the tropical heat withers my shirt. Insects surround patio lights and the sound of cicadas fills the air.
I am in Guyana, South America. Not Africa. Not Ghana. No. I am in Georgetown, the capital city of a country nobody would know about if it hadn’t been for the mass suicide at Jonestown 15 years ago.
Around me I hear conversations in German, French and American. These are the forward scouts of global corporations preparing to buy up the country as it emerges from its first fair elections in 26 years. Just a few months ago, Jimmy Carter and a group of international observers were here making sure the election wasn’t rigged again. Funny. Locals claim the CIA helped rig the first election back in ’68 in order to put the former regime in power. What goes around…
The country is digging out from decades of corruption. I am told that among other things, the man in charge all those years, Burnham, had torn up the coastal railroad and sold the steel and put the money in his pocket. Took the bauxite plant away from Alcoa. Spit in Uncle Sam’s eye and cozied up with Castro. Yep. The very same guy put in power with the help of the CIA decided to be a socialist and nationalize the economy. He died in ‘85, leaving the place in shambles. It took a few more years, but his predecessors have finally lost power.
After meeting Rupert Haley, a Guyanese expat wanting to return to help his country redevelop, I put together some backers from Oregon and headed down here with him to scope out the opportunities. The plan was to manufacture furniture for export. Outdoor furniture, made from sustainably-harvested tropical hardwoods.
We are late to the party.
Apparently, the multi-nationals have been eyeing Guyana for some time, and a few big Canadian companies have already sewn up most of the prime timber contracts. I’m guessing it’s because both countries are part of the Commonwealth.
Guyana had been a British colony for 152 years until it gained independence in 1966. The British had taken it away from the Dutch, who took it from Spain. The Dutch had done what they do best: build dikes and canals, drain off mangrove swamps and plant cash crops like tobacco and sugar cane, which needed laborers. Because the local Amerindians weren’t robust enough to enslave, the Dutch shipped in blacks from Africa. When the British took over they also brought in blacks, and when slavery was abolished, indentured servants from India. African blacks and East Indians make up a majority of the population with less than 1% white. Needless to say, I stand out.
Even though I’ve missed the gold rush, I’m going to meet with a local timber company tomorrow to talk about a deal. Some of Guyana’s hardwoods are virtually bug and rot-proof, and will make a very high grade of outdoor furniture. I want to source certified sustainably-harvested timber, not only because I believe in it, but because I think it will help add perceived value and justify a higher price.
Because one US dollar is worth 172 Guyanese, we have hired a cab for the entire time we are here rather than rent a car. Omar, our driver, dropped me first here at Palm Court, and then took Rupert to Rima Guest House where we are staying. It’s not even a block away, and Rupert was supposed to meet me here 20 minutes ago.
Rupert left Guyana because he was on the outs with members of Burnham’s party. He said it was all settled, especially with Jagan now in power, but I was beginning to wonder. If anything happened, there was no one else down here I could trust. Without Rupert, I was just a lone white guy ripe for the pickings.
“Mr. Jackson, sir.” It was my waiter.
“Mr. Haley called and left a message. He says you are to meet him back at your hotel.”
“Did he say why?”
“Sir, I did not take the call.”
“Alright, thank you.”
“Here.” I handed him the equivalent of five US dollars, which covered my meal, drinks and a healthy tip. “Keep the change.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jackson, sir.”
I do not feel comfortable walking after dark in Georgetown. Not alone. Not glistening white. Not even the short walk around the corner to Rima Guest House.
Once, during broad daylight, two rough looking blacks tried to pick my pocket after I walked out of Fogarty’s, a desperate-looking department store. I caught their signals, so as I walked into the crowded narrow street of the roundabout, I was aware of how one had stepped in front of me carrying a backpack, while the other fell in behind. As the lead dropped his backpack and bent down to pick it up, he tried to push me back into the other as he stood up. I side-stepped, and he backed into his partner. Both gave me dirty stares as I kept walking.
Not everyone here is out to get me. But those that are, find me easy to spot.
Like most places, some parts of town are worse than others. As we rode in Omar’s taxi through Albouystown past a group of men, he warned me to keep my arm down inside the cab.
“They’ll grab your wristwatch and won’t let go,” he explained. “They don’t care what happens to your arm.”
– unfinished –