Conversations With A Guyanan Taxi Driver

`OH look, Madame! The doves!!'' exclaimed the driver as the rush of wings encircled the taxi. In this country of beautiful black and brown skin, even the doves are taupe; we had surprised them as we turned the corner. ``Ah, the doves,'' he said with reverence, ``wherever you find them there's sure to be peace and hope.'' His sense of it was biblical - reminding us that the dove was part of God's reassurance to Noah that the flood would soon be over.

Peace and hope are not two qualities a Westerner would readily associate with this developing country on the northeast coast of South America. ``Backwater'' is more often the quickest, and most ignorant, association with Guyana.

Guyana has been hidden behind many Western influences, but with its resource base this country has the potential for being a jewel of the Caribbean. It has been said that colonial rule may have brought a sense of law and order to Guyana, but it failed to leave a sense of civilization. Like a troubled teen-ager who must learn to leave behind its childhood of exploitation (by the Dutch, French, and British), Guyana must leave the lethargy, poverty, and corruption which keep it from assuming its rightful place in the wider world economy.

It's unsettling to realize that a country with the deepest topsoil of the region has only started feeding itself in the last few years. The dormant sugar cane plantations seem to groan for workers. With a virtual monopoly on the hardest woods in the world, it is an anomaly to find only one out of every four sawmills working. Much has been written about the dialogue which must take place between the developed and undeveloped countries of the world, and Guyana has much to teach in spite of the collapsed economy it has suffered. What my dad and I learned on our trip there in December 1987 can best be shared through our conversations with taxi driver George.

He came to us through Mr. Brown, a member of the church that had invited me to visit the country for a week. George was many years senior to Mr. Brown but their friendship had been cemented through several crises. Mr. Brown was a painter with a good list of houses to paint, but he had the significant problem of living in a country where there was no paint. Their efforts to help each other included securing George's taxi whenever any visitors came to town.

There's something about cities in the developing world which makes one eager to get into the countryside. But George encouraged us to see what he called the ``hustle and bustle'' of Georgetown - a town of 200,000 which sprawls lazily along the narrow northern coastal plain. Here are shadows of the city which was once one of the garden cities of the world; the flamenco trees still add a beauty to the boulevards in spite of the awful condition of the roads; the stately mansions of colonial periods testify to the durability of the wood, which only needs a little paint to restore it to the glory of 300 years ago.

It was in Georgetown that we discovered the greatest untapped resource of all - the people whose patience and fortitude have somehow kept their families alive and together in the middle of a crippled economy. Family togetherness may be an overstatement. While we found an incredible commitment to blood relations, everyone talked of a son or daughter, father or mother, who had left when the British did. (Thanks to George's newly Americanized son, George had tires for his taxi and mighty shoes on his feet - ``mighty'' because being only 3 degrees from the equator the L. L. Bean hiking boots seemed a bit heavy!)

But for those who had stayed, togetherness is the only way to explain the four generations which continue to live in the houses of their birth. A modest home which welcomed me had a dozen people living in three rooms, but despite this they were celebrating the arrival of American relatives who were adding to the household number for several weeks. Simplicity, order, and cleanliness filled that home; the highly polished hardwood floors were part of the reflected light I saw and felt there.

These are a people who spend six to eight hours a day standing in line for basic commodities. This can only be considered an act of faith because of the scarcity of the provisions in the government stores. The black market - which operates openly on the curbs of the downtown streets - offers little more in terms of substantial goods and looks more like a carnival than the display of desperation which it represents. But for every wait in line there is a new friend to talk to; for all the pressure of the black market moneychanger, there is a warmth in his handshake when you part without taking his deals.

George worries most about the children. Driving past the athletic fields overgrown with weeds, he told us the joy of his boyhood running track and field in a sports day tradition only vaguely remembered by his own children.

``They have no childhood, madame,'' he said with furrowed brow, ``no safe place to play.'' Then he told of the struggle for survival which has many children stealing in the streets.

But for people like George, the commitment to honest work has been preserved in spite of the pressures to make a living by less honorable means. The taxi (a 25-year-old Holden with a good paint job and a driver who rarely pushes it past 40 miles per hour) is his lifeline to honest labor, but it is also his link with a civilization of courtesy and generosity. We had the special privilege of engaging George's services over three days.

When he told us of days without food, there was no self-pity in his voice. Always there was the sacred conviction that ``God has been very good to me!''

At the end of one week his wife told him that all they had left was enough coffee to make a pot; they had to wait a couple of days until the next meal, after George had made a taxi trip to the airport. Suddenly he had the good fortune of a second request for an airport run, but George remembered his friend who had had no airport requests for many weeks. George gave his friend the other appointment.

When George got to the airport (on the long awaited day), he had the last of the coffee in his thermos. His client's plane was delayed the usual half day, so he was still there when his taxi friend arrived late that afternoon. ``Oh George!'' his friend called, ``I thought you might still be here. My missus has packed a picnic supper for both of us! The only thing is, I don't have any coffee.''

In spite of the irregularities in their diet, when we took Mr. Brown and George to lunch they ate calmly, without lust. In fact George's greater delight was seeing the boys working in the restaurant. He sighed with satisfaction as he noticed how quickly they cleared tables and how politely they took their customer's orders.

``This is very good for our country,'' he said, watching them.

I wasn't comfortable with George calling me ``madame.'' But I realized it was difficult for him to know how to address me. Even though he was old enough to be my great-grandfather (George says he wasn't old, just ``born long'') he wanted to honor my marital status and what he saw as the importance of my visit to the church. When I asked if he shouldn't stop addressing me so formally, he said with a twinkle in his eye, ``Oh miss, a little politeness never hurt anybody.'' It was the same reason he called Mr. Brown, Mr. Brown.

There was only one apparent inconsistency in George - it was the Playboy bunny logo which hung from his rearview mirror in the taxi. (All Guyanese taxis seem to have something hanging from the mirror, but his was the only Playboy logo.) When I finally got up my courage to ask him about it, he replied without concern, ``Oh, that is my deodorizer to keep my taxi smelling fresh.'' My dad kidded him a little, thinking he would get George to admit to some latent interest in that particular element of Western culture. But George kept missing the point. Fumbling through the misunderstanding, I tried to explain the Playboy organization, but I stopped.

Finally George rescued us. ``Madame,'' he said with solemnity, ``rabbits are very nutritious.''

Then he continued fondly, ``I remember the day when you used to be able to get a rabbit for Christmas dinner ... then it was only a slice of ham. This year we'll be lucky to get a chicken, and even that will have to come from another country.''

My dad and I left Guyana with more affirmations of hope than excuses for despair. All of the church members had George's quality of being able to preserve the things closest to their hearts, even though everything around them was trying to deny their value. These are people who are not victims of the society in which they have found themselves. They are the very agents of that which makes progress inevitable for places like Guyana. I found myself writing thank-you notes to each one.

I wanted to write to George too. In a checkout line one day I noticed some deodorizers he could use in his taxi. I never smelled anything but carefully washed vinyl seats in his taxi, but the deodorizers were rainbows - the symbol which God gave Noah to promise that the flood would never come again. So I decided to send them to George with an enclosed note telling him I hoped that he would not throw away his precious bunny, but that he would be sure to tell his clients from Western countries why rabbits were so important to him. If the Playboy logo could remind George that rabbits made a nutritious Christmas dinner, then somehow it gave me hope that the Western world might get back to the more fundamental and useful issues that would move us all forward as a civilization.

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