It was 1978. I had finished college in 1977 (age twenty-two) and my father was in Guyana on an assignment, so I went to visit him. This was my first solo international travel and it would take me to the other side of the world in South America. I was thrilled and to this day remember the whole trip with great pleasure. It was my first solo international flight and so I did not feel the almost twenty-four hours it took to get there; Bombay – London – Miami – Georgetown. No security checks. Check in was thirty minutes before flight departure. Days of freedom. The planes (Avro or Caravelle on Indian Airlines to Bombay and Boeing 707 on to London) were slower, but who cares? Wikipedia has this to say about the Caravelle jet: The Sud Aviation SE 210 Caravelle was the first short/medium-range jet airliner produced by the French Sud Aviation firm starting in 1955 (when it was still known as SNCASE). The Caravelle was one of the most successful European first generation jetliners, selling throughout Europe and even penetrating the United States market, with an order for 20 from United Airlines. The Caravelle established the aft-mounted-engine, clean-wing design that has since been used on a wide variety of aircraft.
People would go to the airport wearing suits or sherwanis; both travelers and family and friends dropping them off. Flying was a serious activity and since not many people could afford it, those who could were considered noteworthy. People would drop the phrase ‘came by flight’ in their conversation so that others could envy them. Travelers would be garlanded at the airport and formally sent off. Perhaps they weren’t sure if they’d ever meet again. Anxiety about flying is a universal phenomenon; there is a reason why people stand up uncomfortably as soon as the seat belt sign goes off, long before the doors open. No matter how comfortable the flight, we can’t wait to get out of the tube that transported us to our destination.
On the day before I was due to leave, I was to have lunch with Arif bhai and Zakia Aunty (friends of my father) in Habsiguda. I also had to go to the travel agent that morning to collect my passport with the visa, foreign exchange (we couldn’t take as much money as we wanted and had to get it officially by a Reserve Bank permit), and tickets. After completing my travel related tasks, I started off on my blue Vespa scooter from Somajiguda to Habsiguda (about twenty km). On the way, I stopped at the Begumpet airport post office to mail some letters. We used to believe that if you mailed a letter in the airport, it went faster. Not wanting to leave my little bag with its precious cargo of passport, money, and tickets in the scooter pannier box, I took it with me to the post office while I completed my transaction. Then I left for Habsiguda where I had a lovely lunch with Arif bhai and his family (his sons were dear friends of mine) and then an even lovelier snooze. As usual, lunch was centered around meat – Arif bhai’s famous roast – the most delicious roast that I’ve ever eaten. If I were a sheep, I would want my ending to be as Arif bhai’s roast. Dum Biryani, Bagaray Baingan, Dum ka Kheema filled into the bellies of whole capsicums, which gives it a wonderful tangy taste, and Badam ka Meetha. This was not every-day lunch by any means and had been made especially in my honor as I was leaving.
Every time I eat traditional Hyderabadi cuisine, cooked well, I tell myself that there’s no cuisine in the world which comes even close in comparison. Until the issue of diversity was brought home to me very rudely one day when my dear friend Peter Ramsingh in Guyana (who comes later in this story) ate Biryani at my home one day and said, ‘Next time I eat at your place, cook anything but this.’ This was the greatest test of our friendship and that it survived shows how close we were as well as the thought that acceptance of rejection is an important element in cross-cultural relations.
I woke up at about 5 p.m. after my nap, had a cup of tea, and then took my leave. As I was being hugged and wished well by everyone, Arif bhai asked me, ‘So all your papers and tickets and so on are they all with you and safe?’ I said, ‘Yes Arif bhai, I have everything right here.’ And as I said that I opened the scooter’s pannier box and reached in for my little leather briefcase but there was nothing there. I went cold. That bag had everything I needed for my trip. If I lost that bag, I was not going anywhere just then, maybe never. To get a new passport and visa alone was something that didn’t bear thinking about. The foreign exchange was all the money I had in the world. And everything was gone. I collected my thoughts and tried to recall where I had gone after leaving the travel agent’s office. I remembered that I had gone to the post office in the airport and had taken the little briefcase with me inside because I wanted it to be safe. My heart sank. I remembered leaving it on the post office counter, now more than 4 hours ago. What chance was there that it would still be there? Almost none. There was only one thing to do and that was to go there and take a look. I rode my scooter there in a trance. My mind was numb. I was not even thinking of all that could go wrong if I managed to lose all those things. I parked the scooter and walked into the post office, expecting the worst. But as I entered the building the first thing I saw was my bag, just where I had left it.
I picked it up, unzipped it and everything in it was just as I had left it. Nothing moved, nothing taken. Today when I reflect, I remind myself that if I tried to count the blessings of Allah on me, I would be at a complete loss. The only common factor is that out of all of them, there is not one about which I can say that I deserved it. It is only out of His Grace and only He knows the reason.
Next day I arrived at the airport an hour in advance, not because of any regulation but because I was so excited. We boarded the flight and I took a window seat as I wanted to see the city from the plane. The runway at the time ran right behind our school, Hyderabad Public School and an aerial view of the school was a thrill to look forward to. The State-owned Indian Airlines was the only airline in the country, and even on domestic flights served full meals. Being served food during the flight was also another thrill. The Hyderabad – Mumbai flight was on an SE 210 Caravelle which had a very tube-like cabin but I was too excited to care about anything other than takeoff. Flight announcements were thrice in the whole flight. The first one by the purser/head stewardess telling us where the life jacket was for an entirely overland flight. There were no cell phones and so nobody told us to turn them off. All the electronics in the plane were in the cockpit and you didn’t want those to be turned off. They didn’t tell us how to lock the seat belts because they assumed, we knew or could ask our neighbors. We still can, but now they tell us. The announcement was in two languages, English and Hindi where they assured us that we would be fed, ‘Udaan mein bhojan diya jayega.’ The second announcement was in midair where the pilot spoke about the outside air temperature – maybe he wanted to ensure that we would wrap ourselves warmly if we needed to exit the plane at that point, relative ground speed – so that we would be adequately impressed with how fast he was driving, and sometimes he would point out some interesting topography if we were crossing some major town or river or mountain range. That depended both on his knowledge and whether he thought we would be interested. The third announcement was just before we landed when they told us the time, though we all wore watches and were in the same time zone – IST and warned us to wear our seat belts. Nobody bothered to tell us about overhead lockers and luggage shifting. Having flown, eaten, dozed, read the inflight magazine cover to cover twice, dozed, visited the toilet to see what it was like, tarried in the galley for the same reason, peered into the cockpit, smiled at the pilots and been smiled back at, dozed, woken by the last announcement, we landed in Bombay long before it was renamed Mumbai.
I spent a day with my friend Adil Rahman at St. Xavier’s College. We ate chat at Chowpatti and talked the night away. The Bombay – London flight was on Air India, which like all those flights left at 2:00 a.m. So off to the international airport by a trusted yellow cab, which took forever in my overly excited state. Customs and Immigration were a nightmare in India in those days. You were asked for bribes from everyone and no matter how small the amount, you had to fork it out. Then I boarded the Boeing 707 for London. That plane looked huge compared to the Caravelle.
From London to New York we flew on Pan Am (Pan American Airlines) on a Douglas DC 10-30. Pan Am was one of the best airlines that I have ever flown but sadly went out of business in 1991. From New York we flew to Miami, FL and then took off for Georgetown, Guyana on a really old Boeing 707 of BWIA (British West Indian Airlines). The joke was that BWIA used to be called ‘But Will It Arrive’? In those days, if you were a transit passenger, you did not need a visa for any country that you landed in during your journey. On reaching Guyana, I realized that my luggage had its own travel plans and I knew not what they were. So, I landed in Timehri International Airport with literally the shirt on my back. I bought a couple of shirts and trousers on the way home, my excitement at being in another country far more powerful than my grief at losing all my worldly belongings in one shot. Interestingly I felt a strange sense of lightness at having lost all my possessions, as if I had been relieved of a burden. I never did find the luggage and I realized the true value of possessions.
I’ve lived in many places and with many people; but the way Guyana and the Guyanese entered and stayed in my life is different from all else. To this day, I remember those days as if I were there just last week. It has now been thirty years since I left Kwakwani, but I can still hear the sound of the tug-boat’s horn as the captain alerted us to say he had seen us on the other bank and was coming over to ferry us across the Berbice. Guyana changed my life. When my family left at the end of one year, I had the option of leaving with them or staying on. I stayed on. For another four years. I applied for a job in a mining town two-hundred miles from Georgetown, called Kwakwani which became my home. I got my first house after my father left. My own house where I lived alone. I got my first car, a bright yellow Land Rover pickup truck that had seen a lot of life. And with me, it saw still more.
I remember with tears in my eyes, the meaning of friendship as taught to me by Norman Lindie who stepped between me and another man, as I was standing in front of my office during a strike. Later I asked him why he did it. He said, “Din ya see Man!! De man had a knife in he hand behind he back. He bina come to finish you. But when he saw dat he gotta deal wid me fus, he change he mind ras.” (Didn’t you see that he had a knife in his hand which was behind his back? He came to finish you, but when he saw that he would have to deal with me first, he changed his mind.) Norman was built like a Mack truck.
Such were the people of Kwakwani…simple, sincere, and dependable. People who loved you and were not afraid to show it. People, who once they became your friends, opened their homes and hearts to you. There was nothing they would not do for you. Peter Ramsingh would come and wash my car. When I would protest, he would say, “Man! Wa ya problem? I love washing cars!!” Simple, eh!!
Of these people is the next story……………….
Timehri Airport, Georgetown, Guyana, South America; a long way from home in Hyderabad, India. My first independent job, my first foreign country.
The plane circled to land at Georgetown, Guyana. It was an old Boeing 707, which had seen a lot of service and belonged to the venerable BWIA (British West Indian Airlines also known as ‘But Will It Arrive’). By today’s standards, it was a very primitive plane. The seats were rather cramped, but when you are with a plane load of people from the Caribbean you forget everything. Not too many places in the world will you find people who have so little and yet are so content and happy. And so willing to share it with others. It seems that generosity of the spirit is inversely proportional to the amount of wealth a person has. The poorer people are, the more generous and willing to share.
As the plane made its final descent, I looked out of the window and saw lots of lush green vegetation and the sea the waves lapping over an absolute flat and featureless black beach. I knew I was looking at the famous mud flats, mud that was reasonably firm when the tide was out but as the tide started to come in, the water would make the mud particles more and more mobile. This made the whole thing extremely treacherous and if anyone were unfortunate enough to be out on the mud flats at this time, they would simply sink in the mud to and extremely unpleasant death. That is why there was nobody on the ‘beach’ in Georgetown.
Immigration in Guyana was a long, never-ending line. Once I was through immigration I waited endlessly for my luggage. My two bags contained the sum total of my worldly possessions and it appeared that both had been lost. It was not a very auspicious beginning to arrive in a foreign land with literally nothing more than the shirt on my back. But that was how I arrived in Guyana.
I was met by a very pleasant gentleman with a huge smile, which I realized is a typically Guyanese trademark. His name was Neville and he was the driver that my father had sent to get me. The first item on the agenda was to get some clothes, so we went to the main street in Georgetown, to the only department store there called Guyana Stores. Even though I came from India, which was a poor country, I noticed that the shelves of Guyana Stores were rather bare. There was not much concern for packaging or display. Fans stirred the still and humid air while a radio belted out some Reggae music. I bought a couple of dashikis (a lovely West Indian shirt in colorful prints) and some toiletries and we were ready for the journey to Linden, where my parents lived and where the headquarters of the Guyana Mining Enterprise (GUYMINE), the state owned, bauxite-mining company, was located.
My father had come to Guyana a few months earlier to work as the doctor in the hospital of GUYMINE, one of the two major employers in the country. GUYMINE (formerly Linmine) was owned by Alcan of Canada and when they owned it, it was named Demba. Demba was nationalized by the PNC Government in 1971 and like in the case of many good socialist governments, people were given managerial positions based more on their political leanings than on their managerial ability. The results were predictable and rapid.
Neville drove his Land Rover like there was no tomorrow and as we raced on a single-track road with almost no traffic, I was struck by how much the Guyanese countryside was like South India. Thick lush green vegetation everywhere. Some trees I recognized – Jack fruit, tapioca (cassava), yams, bananas in plenty, some coconut, and lots of lush green grass; the Bread fruit tree was new for me. The soil was very sandy. And the water in several streams and in the Demerara River to which we eventually came, was a dark coffee color.
Neville did a running Guyana-101 with me as he drove. He told me that the water was perfectly clean and good to drink but that the color was due to various dyes that leached into the water from the roots of trees on the riverbank. He also told me not to jump into any river to swim because most of them had Piranha and because some are tidal and have some treacherous currents. When I told him that I was fond of fishing he told me to be careful when wading across streams as in the sandy beds sometimes would lie concealed a kind of fish called a Sting Ray, which has a poisonous sting in the tail. And under the overhanging banks would sometimes be concealed Electric Eels which could give a shock strong enough to stun you unconscious. I realized that there was much to be learnt about South America and tropical rain forests and what lived there.
After a couple of weeks into what was supposed to be a holiday, the routine was getting a bit mundane. I heard about a job opening in a mining town, two-hundred miles inland in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest on the bank of Rio Berbice, called Kwakwani. I applied and to my great delight was immediately selected. Two days later I was in Kwakwani. My delight at having done well in the interview was a bit short lived when I realized a few days later that I had been the only applicant – nobody wanted to go there. Neville and I drove the 60 miles from Linden to the bank of the Berbice River. The road was cut through the rain forest with thick forest on either side such that you could only see a few feet into the forest. The road itself was not paved and its condition would vary between bad and worse depending on how much rain fell and how busy the graders were in the mines. When they had some free time, they would send a grader or two to fill in the craters masquerading as potholes and smoothen the surface and the road would stay fairly smooth for a few weeks. Then it would go back to its roller-coaster state until the next encounter with the graders. I was to get to know that road very well in the five years that I lived in Guyana and actually held the record for the fastest time on it – sixty miles in sixty minutes – in my beat up old Land Rover. The road literally ended on the bank of Rio Berbice such that if you were not alert and were driving too fast, you could actually come racing out of the forest around the last bent (nothing to tell you that it was the last bend and any different from the million other bends just like it) and land straight in the river which was about half a kilometer wide and perhaps 50 feet deep at that point. Not a happy thought at all.
When you reached the river bank, you flashed your lights and hooted your horn until someone at the waterfront diagonally across on the opposite bank where the bauxite crusher and loading platform was located, heard you and sent a barge to get you. There was no bridge on the Berbice River and so you had to drive onto a barge and be floated across to the other side. The water of the Berbice was also coffee colored, but it was good to drink. I got out of the car in which Neville and I had driven here and went to the edge of the river and dipped a few handfuls of water to wash my face and to taste it.
Neville saw me doing this and said, ‘Comrade Baig, not sure if you know what a Piranha is, but all our rivers have them in plenty. They really love your fingers, if you know what I mean.’ I promptly pulled my hand out and counted my fingers.
As I stood on the bank of the river, I was struck by the silence of the forest. Not silence as in lack of sound, for there were many sounds, but silence as in no human sound. I could hear Macaws talking to each other as they headed home. They pair for life and have great conversations exceeded only perhaps by Canadian Geese who also pair for life. Lesson: conversation is essential to a good marriage. Forests breathe and speak and are visibly and audibly alive. Even if you don’t know their language – and it differs from place to place – you can still hear them. Then there are the smells. The smell of the first rain after the dry season. The smell of the markings on trees of territorial creatures which are meant to warn away potential threats. The smell of vegetation, growing or decomposing. When you sit quietly in a forest and let it talk to you, it does. Gently and gradually. Naturally, it takes a little while because first your ears must stop buzzing with the residue of our own noisy, raucous sounds of so-called civilization. They try to drown out everything that the forest is trying to tell you. But if you are patient and give it some time, then gradually the buzzing fades away and you start to hear the breeze rustling in the leaves. You hear water dropping from the top levels onto the canopy below. You hear the occasional ripe fruit or dry branch fall to the floor, to become either food or manure. You learn to tell the difference between a sound made by a living creature – which may be potentially dangerous or useful – and the sound of something that is not a living creature. All this and more will happen if you give it some time, are observant, and are willing to learn.
As I looked at the South American Amazonian rain forest for the first time, there were many sounds in that forest which I did not recognize at the time but knew later to be those of Howler Monkeys, Toucans and Amazonian Parakeets. I was thrilled to be there. There was nowhere else that I would rather be.
Speaking of off-road speed records, I was in Linden very late one night. There was a dinner party at a friend’s house that went on till midnight. I had driven to Linden from Kwakwani after work and had arrived by about 7.00 pm. The party was what all such parties are like – full of laughter, noise, and camaraderie. I had a lot of friends there and so couldn’t leave as soon as I would have liked to. Also, they don’t serve dinner until very late to give people a chance to have a spiritual experience first. By the time I could leave, I was very tired and sleepy. Sensibly, I should have stayed overnight at the Guymine Linden Guesthouse or with some friend, but I decided to drive through.
I was driving a Land Rover Defender, which was at least 15 years old – a light blue color with a rear door that would swing open every time I went into a pothole at high speed, a fairly common occurrence on a dirt road. I had developed a technique of simply swinging the steering wheel to the right and bringing it back to the left and the door would slam shut. That way I didn’t have to stop to shut the door.
Once I was out of Linden and entered the Kwakwani Trail as we called it, I floored the accelerator and held the truck to a steady 60 miles per hour. On a dirt road, that is fast. The Kwakwani Trail wound its way through the rain forest without the benefit of a single streetlight or any form of illumination for its entire length up to the Berbice River. During the day, you would pass perhaps two or three cars on this entire journey. At night and especially at the time that I was on it that night, there was nobody at all. It was as if I was the only human being alive.
The forest all around was dark and silent. The road was illuminated as far as my headlights reached and then it was dark. The Land Rover knew the road and drove itself taking the turns and climbs and slopes from memory. Alright! Land Rovers are not that smart – it was me. And on we went, the engine a steady roar deepening as we started up a hill and singing a high-pitched whine as we descended the other side. I was sleep-deprived far more than I realized and without realizing, I drifted off into a semi-somnolent state in a daze in another world. The result was that I almost went there.
Suddenly, there was a huge crash. The Land Rover rose in the air and slammed down off the road on the sand verge and the engine stalled. I hit my head on the steering wheel and got a nasty bump but seemed none the worse for it. The headlights had gone off and there was an eerie silence. All I could hear was the pinging of the cooling engine. I realized then what had happened. I had fallen asleep at the wheel, doing sixty miles an hour. As I say, Allah saves fools from themselves and I am a living proof of that. The truck hit the side of the road, which at that place was a huge sandbank, went over it and came down on the other side in the loose white sand of the savanna. If this accident had happened a mile earlier, I would have driven straight into one of the huge forest giants and wrapped myself and the truck around its trunk. If it had happened a mile later, I would have gone off the side of the road into a ravine which the road went along for quite a few miles from that point on. As it was, I was intact, and the car appeared to be so as well.
There was no point in trying to take the truck out of the sand at that time of night or to try to drive and risk a worse accident. I decided that the wisest thing to do would be to simply go to sleep in the truck and so locking the doors, that is what I did. I fell asleep almost immediately. When I woke up it was just beginning to get light. I started the engine and it started immediately. I put it into four-wheel drive and reversed over the road side barrier and then took off for Kwakwani in the rapidly brightening dawn. As the sun rose, I rounded the last bend and took the slope of the Trail going down to the river, thankful for having lived to tell the tale of this rather hairy drive.