A returning Guyanese gets her comeuppance in beautiful Guyana

by Samantha Bacchus McLeod

Leh we go for a quartuh.

It is ten in the morning.

This is Guyana we Guyanese does drink whenever we want, all day and all night, he turned to grin at his sidekick in the backseat.

I looked back to see the dimwit slapping his knees and laughing in glee, his grin was not attractive; thin lips pasted against crooked yellow teeth and rum-red eyes glinting.

I am ready to eat, and just so you know I am a vegetarian.

We gon go to Fat Bai Karnuh fuh a quartuh and Ital.

Guyanese Rastafarian food? Ok!

He drove down little side streets more like alleys than streets, the passing scenery grew depressing, moving from the marketplace where stalls piled with produce lined the main street, through streets with wooden houses on stilts, into a dark neighbourhood of grey and falling-down shacks with rusty tin roofs and black holes in the walls for windows. The stench rose up from the stagnated gutters. Unkempt people stared at us as they lounged around crooked stoops and broken gateways.

A woman screeched at a skinny teen running away from her, “Wen I ketch yuh rass ah gon kill yuh, yuh fuckin bugga batty!

Danny and Fineman laughed heartily. Danny said to me, tha is one of de mos thieving antiman in de place.

You mean he is a gay person, or as you would say, a homosexual.

A hama-who, the halfwit voice sounded harshly beside my right ear, I flinched and looked at the halfwit’s working brain, my brother, Danny, to explain to him what I meant.

Danny ignored us both.

We jerked to a stop. Danny and Fineman hopped out and slammed their doors simultaneously. I sat still wondering…

Danny leaned into the window, relax this is the best Ital in town.

I had a choice find my way out of here, or trust my brother. Mom trained us well in this incomprehensible unfailing loyalty to our siblings

We walked across a shaky slab of board spanning a gutter, through a muddy back yard. A few more twists and turns and we arrived at a white-washed concrete wall rising six feet high, we walked through the intricate wrought iron gateway, flanked by two pillars rising up, holding up nothing but robust orange and pink bougainvilleas.  The yard is clean with picnic tables and benches neatly laid out on a poured concrete deck, pots of tropical flowers and ferns of all descriptions ring the seating area.

A tall Rastaman worked under a wooden shed, four blackened stockpots lined up on the waist-high fire pit. Wispy smoke trailed up around the pots. The aromas of delicious filled the air, smoky coals and spicy Ital, vegan dishes sans salt. Rastafarian fare.

Danny sat at a table, hey Fatman! bring a quartuh rum and coconut watuh.

An obese Guyanese Indian man rose up from a hammock under the bright green-painted stilt house, the empty hammock bounced up three feet and then swung gently in the still air. The obese man waddled from side to side in a slow sideways shuffle that miraculously propelled him forward into the steel-grill-locked-down fortress of a rumshop. These shops are a normal sight in Guyana, usually a square wooden shed, encased in ironwork that would be impossible for a burglar to break into.

I wandered over to the cook pots where the tall Rastaman was deftly chopping hot peppers with a cutlass and bare hands. His hip-length dreadlocks, pulled back in a ponytail, glistened with clean, and his long beard was braided in one fat plait.

His eyes sparkled kindness itself, his smile crinkled his whole face as he lifted the lids one at a time;

Ah gat pumkin, clang the lid slapped back to keep the steam in the pot.

Ah gat bhaji, he gave it a stir and half cocked the lid to let steam out.

Ah gat Ital, he grunted in satisfaction when the aromas steamed up into his face.

Ah gat eddo leaf calaloo, he said lifting the lid of the last pot.

My knees went weak, my childhood love of this dish came rushing back. I used to watch my aunt cut the leaves from the stems with the sharp cutlass she wielded like I would a paring knife. The painstaking cleaning of the leaves, the chopping, grating of coconuts and the milking of coconuts, and the long wait as the aroma of the spinach-like leaves simmered for hours until it was the texture of a silky puree . The coconut-creamed savoury puree was served over hot boiled rice. I felt pure joy at the memory of my Guyanese childhood and Guyanese food.

I pointed at the medium sized calabash, then changed my mind and went for the large one. The Rastaman raised an eyebrow but complied.

He plopped two pot-spoonfuls of the gooey peas and rice into the calabash. One spoonful bright yellow pumpkin stew, one spoonful eddo-leaf calaloo. I groaned and he added another spoonful of the calaloo. Taking the calabash from him I shuffled off lest I spill a drop. I do not remember conversations nor surroundings, just this propelling back into history. My love of food is what gives me a history. For every experience in life, there is food connected to it. Every morsel of the food made with local organic vegetables left a glorious impression on my tastebuds

Returning the scraped clean calabash to the cook, thank you, that was delicious.

Wheh yuh from gyal?

Canada, as I peered into another pot giving off steam, ah potato curry.

Ah mean wheh yuh from heah in Guyana, yuh Guyanese nah?

Oh, Regent Street.

Oh rass, you is Danny sistuh!

I am. How come you are selling rum in an Ital restaurant?

Becaaase, he rass is nah a rrrale Rastaman, the Hammock man laughed this out from his reclining position where his hammock shifted heavily just 2 or 3 inches off the ground.

The Rastaman laughed, is true, I does mek good Ital so meh fadduh mek me start dis business. but is aight cause I does do aright.

Alright then. Uhm, the ital is really really good, I haven’t had ital in more than 15 years. Thanks again.

My brother and his friend were on their third quarter. They laughed often, like donkeys braying, they laughed at the way the shop owner’s ass climbed out of his shorts, they laughed when the young gay man came in and was chased away, they even laughed when I asked for the tab.

Danny said around the ice cube in his mouth, I will pay the bill, you is meh sistuh nuh, ah gon get dis one.

They drained the last of their fourth quarter. That would make it a whole bottle of rum. Why didn’t they just order that?

We walked towards the gate to leave. The shop owner made a fast-waddle over, he swept his palm over the littered table, oy! eheh is who paying fuh all dis?

Danny pointed at me , hey gyurl, you pay de bill and leh we go long nuh.

We walked across the shaky boards that I now see is a little wood bridge across a trench of milky muddy water, flowing down-trench between lush grass on either side of the embankment, here and there waterlilies recline gracefully on wide dark-green leaves, the blush-pink flowers seem to tremble every time a fish brushed its stem.

As we drove slowly back through the tight alleys and corners, I saw clear what I had refused to see – the houses on stilts were weathered by the sun and rain but stood tall and strong. The women sat on scrubbed stairs chatting animately, the broken gates were not gates but benches beneath ancient mango trees pregnant with sweet-smelling yellow fruit. Old men sat beneath their leafy shade. Wooden planks served as bridges – over the milky muddy waters flowing around waterlilies – to their yards. Every yard overflowed with fruit trees and flowers. The people seem to be of mixed race mostly, Blacks and Guyanese Indians with heads of those iridescent black curls that flow beautifully about their shoulders.

We stopped to let the young man who was being yelled at earlier go by. He was carrying a dripping bag of ice.

He grinned at us, eheh Danny bouy, is who dis?

Is meh sistuh.

Is when yuh gon bring a bruduh from America fuh meh?

Danny laughed, go lang yuh rass befoe yuh muddah start hallering fuh yuh.

On queue, the lady yelled, Joseph, de ice melting, hurry na man, yuh fadduh waiting fuh he dinnuh.

Danny looked at me in the rearview mirror, is wha wrang wid you, like yuh ferget yuh Guyanese?

Fineman piped up, she issa white homan.

My mouth opened of its own volition and the words spewed out, shut yuh skunt fineman!

Welcome to Guyana, dis yuh home, Manta.

My brother grinned from ear to ear as his eyes met mine in the rearview mirror.

Read another travel story about Filoti, Greece here.

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