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Strange Lands And People
By Martha Nemes Fried
Mort, Nancy and I boarded one of the Moore-McCormack ships headed for Port-of-Spain, Trinidad on the third of June in 1954. We were high with excitement as the ship pulled out of New York harbor. We had not been abroad since our return from China and we looked forward to spending three months in a tropical paradise. The journey started well. We had a spacious outside cabin. Nancy was fascinated with the porthole and looked though it to watch the waves of the ocean several times each day.
The food was superb and plentiful. For the first course at dinner they usually offered crab and lobster. Crisp-skinned tender roast duck, roast beef and steak were on the menu for the main course. We had a choice of green salads, vegetables, rice, potatoes or noodles to accompany the meat. The ices and cakes they served for dessert were comparable to anything one would have expected to have at Lutece and fresh fruit was always available. I ate my way through the menu at each meal.
The ship had an outdoor swimming pool, which delighted all three of us and we happily splashed in it each day. After two days at sea the bartender made a Horse's Neck for Nancy the moment Mort and I appeared with her in the cocktail lounge for our five-o'clock martinis. There was entertainment and dancing each night. I put Nancy in her bunk, read her a story and returned to the lounge for the buffet supper served at eleven. Mort always checked to see if she was asleep a half hour later.
We encountered stormy weather at Cape Hatteras and many people on board became ill. We knew from previous experience that it was best to eat all our meals and to stay on the top deck. After five days of courteous and efficient service by staff and crew we arrived at our destination. I wrote to my mother fairly frequently. She was very good about saving my letters and presented them to me at my request upon my return in a neatly tied bundle.
My first letter in the packet was from Trinidad.
The engines stopped at six in the morning . . . about a mile out to sea at Port of Spain. We had our passports checked, then had breakfast, finished packing and boarded the launch by descending on the ship's swaying rope ladder. I carried the live cargo, Nancy, tightly clutching her stuffed animals. Mort carried our standard L. C. Smith typewriter tied to a square piece of plywood, and his briefcase. The launch took us ashore as two musicians entertained us by playing steel drums and singing risque calypso songs.
We first checked in at an expensive tourist hotel. Nancy was ripping it apart by inches when I heard of a guest house that catered to families. It is owned and run by a retired British army doctor and his wife. Most of the guests are British, frantically emulating the upper classes in speech and manner, and in the midst of all this are three tall Texans and the Frieds. Nobody understands what anybody else is saying; we are akin to parallel lines going in opposite directions. The wooden ceiling of the terrace where we have our martinis before dinner is alive with salamanders and one fell into my drink yesterday. Our hostess asked the bartender to get me a fresh martini and in the next breath she told us that they found five bushmasters on the terrace one evening when they returned from a late party. They were small ones, she added to comfort me.
Trinidad is all that the ads show, a profusion of flowers, lush greenery, umbrella shaped trees, and tropical birds of many hues. There are parakeets, kiskadees and some birds I have not yet learned the names of. An English couple we met at the guest house took us out to Maracas Beach on Sunday and one of Mort's Chinese friends took us for a drive around the hills.
Mort had a letter of introduction to a Chinese elder statesman and called on him the day we arrived. A lavish lunch was hosted by him the following day and the members of his club insisted I come along. One of the guests at the lunch was a doctor who told me the major health problem on the island is tuberculosis.
One week later:
Our plane took off four hours late at Piarco airfield. We had our last good meal on board for a long time to come. An hour and forty minutes later we reached British Guiana. It took about an hour from the airfield into Georgetown, driving through the bush over the bumpiest of roads, nine-tenth dirt, one-tenth paved patches. The driver who took us to the Tower Hotel promoted it as one of the best in town. This edifice transported us back into the middle of the nineteenth century. We believed it must have been built for a possible visit by Queen Victoria.
They gave us the royal suite; bedroom, sitting room and a bathroom that boasts the first toilet ever constructed. We quickly learned to leap when we pulled the chain of the toilet to avoid getting drenched. There is also a shallow tin tub the size of a swimming pool, but we have not quite worked up the nerve to test any of its faucets and confine ourselves to washing up at the sink. Nancy took one look at the ancient iron crib covered with peeling green paint the first night and burst into tears.
We turned the double bed down and found a colony of worms on the sheet. It was well past midnight and we were exhausted. The maids were asleep, so we removed the sheet, shook it thoroughly clean, remade the bed, lay down with Nancy between us, tucked in our mosquito netting and went to sleep. We spent the next morning, after an inedible breakfast, trying to get into the other best hotel in town, but it was full up.
Nancy was two months shy of three years when we took her to British Guiana. We had the foresight to bring some of her stuffed toys and dolls, games, jigsaw puzzles and books, and most importantly, her $14.95 record player and her records. Just before we closed the lid of the trunk, Mort slipped in two long playing records of our own, a Glenn Miller and a Benny Goodman. Lunch at the hotel was ghastly. We were dejected, tired, hungry and cranky. Thousands of miles away from ordinary comforts, family and friends, not knowing a single soul in Georgetown, we were blue. Mort plugged in Nancy's record player and put on the Glenn Miller record. He put his arm around my waist and we danced around the room to Tuxedo Junction while Nancy looked at us. She was partly bewildered, partly frightened, as if she realized in a flash her parents were a pair of lunatics. We picked her up and the three of us danced around the floor long enough to lift our spirits.
While Nancy took a nap, Mort went out to look for better lodgings. He found a smaller, but much cleaner place where the plumbing was new. We were to move the next morning. Keen, aching hunger, the kind that burns a hole in the stomach and has one obsessing about food, was an unfamiliar sensation to us. We comforted each other with the thought that we would soon be more happily situated in the new hotel. Having put an advertisement in the local paper for a house, we found a furnished bungalow, the greatest feature of which was an electric refrigerator. The cottage was in a suburban section of Georgetown called Dixie. We could not move in for three weeks as our landlord was staying in the house until the end of June.
Our room in the Woodbine Hotel was clean, the furniture, including the crib, was new and we had a shower of a more modern design. We looked forward to lunch in our changed surroundings. The cook had prepared a stew that tasted as if the meat had been macerated in petroleum. Mort and Nancy ignored their taste buds and ate out of sheer desperation. I lived on omelets, rice, noodles and potatoes for three weeks, which made me fat and anemic, but I was not to find out about the anemia until we returned home.
Mort had applied for and received a grant to conduct research in British Guiana, a colonial possession of Great Britain in South America, in the summer of 1954. The purpose of his field study was to gain better understanding of the acculturation of Chinese indentured laborers and voluntary immigrants in a British colony. He called on all the local Chinese leaders in the fields of education, business and the professions as soon as we arrived and conducted lengthy interviews with them. We were invited to a Chinese home for lunch, dinner or tea each weekend. Numerous banquets were given to honor us, consisting of at least sixteen courses, by the leaders of the Chinese community. The cuisine was nowhere near as good as that served in China or in New York's best Chinese restaurants, but I managed to get it down. Each time we visited a private home Mort always conversed with the man of the house. My assignment was to find out about the situation of women while Nancy played with the children.
Women whose existence is severely limited in a small repressive society which considers birth control a crime, open up to a completely strange woman who comes from thousands of miles away and is not likely to return. This turned out to be my experience on each subsequent field trip. In the course of my efforts to gain information I found that just being a good listener achieved the best results. The women of British Guiana told me that for each live birth there had been a miscarriage. One could safely assume that a woman who had three children had been pregnant six times. The wife of a doctor who had three children told me she would kill herself if she ever got pregnant again. Her husband traveled to attend professional meetings in the United States and England. She had begged him to bring her a diaphragm, but he was adamant in his refusal. For the first and only time in my life I wished men could have babies.
Here is another excerpt from a letter to my mother written on June 17:
I tried to get Nancy into the local nursery and spent this morning observing. It was another medieval place with sixty tots crowded into a room the size of our living room. They sat in stiffly starched clothes on little wooden chairs and were expected to be absolutely still and quiet, learning nursery rhymes by rote. Their only equipment was a slate on which they learn how to write (the four-year-olds and up). They also had little sticks and torn sheets from picture books for the younger set.
Every few minutes the head teacher yelled "Shut your mouth!" at some little child who dared to be a bit exuberant. Nancy just sat there terrified into complete silence. I apologized to the lady in charge for having taken up her time, mumbled something about differences in teaching methods and led Nancy out by the hand.
We got to know the owner of our hotel, who was also a ship's chandler, and some of the guests while we waited to move into our bungalow. We became friendly with a middle aged English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Coomb. The husband was a short, portly man with a bald pate and a jovial disposition. He was in charge of a sawmill up the Demerara River, owned by a British company. They came to town because his wife had become very ill and needed high quality medical attention not available in the interior.
Most of the doctors in the colony who had been trained in the West were the descendants of Chinese immigrants whose fathers paid for their medical training at a British or American university. Some of the other physicians had been educated in India and had emigrated more recently. Mrs. Coomb, who looked ashen and drawn, had no children of her own. She immediately took a liking to Nancy. She taught her new games and entertained her with stories which gave me a chance to read. I was absorbed by Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny at the time and grateful for the uninterrupted hour during the day Mrs. Coomb's kindness to Nancy afforded me.
The Coombs always joined us for drinks at five. Mr. Coomb, Mort and I each had a beer or a Tom Collins. Mrs. Coomb had club soda on ice. They told us their lives were quite difficult in the jungle, but indicated the pay was extremely good. Mr. Coomb, who had signed a five-year contract with a British lumber company confided they were willing to endure the heat, the snakes, the Bete Rouge, the mosquitoes and the piranhas because the job in the sawmill was their only chance of realizing their lifelong dream of buying a pub back home. By working hard and staying the course, they could save enough money to do it.
"You should see her with a machete," Coomb boasted about his wife's courage and skill. "She chops up those snakes so fast, they haven't a chance." He showed us his left calf with an ugly scar where a small chunk of flesh was missing. He had been having a dip in the river to cool off when a school of piranhas attacked him. He tried to outrun them, but they moved faster then he could.
Mrs. Coomb told us one evening that a Mr. Walton, a newly arrived American at the hotel who claimed to be a surgeon, invited her into his room to show her his case of surgical tools. She said she had only seen such expensive and sophisticated implements in the most advanced hospitals. He indicated that he had operated on natives in the jungle while he was prospecting for gold and diamonds in the fields alongside the Essequibo and Mazaruni rivers. She had successfully drawn him into a conversation, and with her knowledge as a former surgical nurse, she became convinced he was not a qualified surgeon and horrified that he might be mutilating innocent people.
Mort and I thought of Joseph Conrad's Kurtz and shuddered. This man was a handsome, blond, blue-eyed, apple-cheeked, all-American male in his early thirties, the sort one expected to find modeling clothes for Abercrombie and Fitch. He certainly looked nothing like the fiend Mrs. Coomb's description conjured up in our imagination. He was amiable and very well mannered. I had to alter my preconception about the face of evil to visualize him practicing his amateurish skills on hapless natives.
The day before we moved into our rented bungalow by the sea wall in Dixie a young black minister who had been staying at the hotel had a psychotic breakdown. He did a weird dance alone on the nightclub floor as the rest of us watched him with growing apprehension. It was clear he was unraveling and we could not take our eyes off him. We were mesmerized by the scene, chilled to the marrow of our bones by the gravity of his condition and our impotence in the face of it.
His young pregnant wife and a minister arrived the following morning to comfort him, but by then he was beyond the consolation of affectionate familial ties and the succor of religion. He paced up and down the reception area endlessly repeating something nobody could understand. His wife, who was barely past adolescence, stood by and watched. She was terrified as he was finally taken away to an insane asylum. I made some inquiries about facilities for the mentally ill in the colony. Mrs. Coomb said the place where he would probably spend the rest of his life was worse than Bedlam had ever been.
All the houses in the colony were built on stilts for protection from heavy flooding during the rainy season. Every house was surrounded by a wide drainage ditch local people used for urinating, defecating and garbage disposal. We could only enter our bungalow by crossing over a little bridge. The walls did not meet the roof of the house but rested on four foot-long posts placed at the corners. This was an architectural feature I had never encountered anywhere else. Cool breezes off the Atlantic blew in at night, which made for comfortable sleeping. The variations in the climate were quite extreme. It was well over a hundred at high noon. A large straw hat or a parasol was essential for those who ventured out. It dipped well below forty degrees at night.
After we shivered through the first night in the house, we bought thick cotton summer blankets. We did most of our shopping at Booker's in town. The local people referred to the colony as Booker's BG. The Booker family owned plantations, forests, gold, silver and bauxite mines as well as a large food market and a department store in Georgetown. Bauxite, essential to the production of aluminum, was the major revenue yielding export.
In addition to the blankets, I purchased a length of Moygashel linen at Booker's and made myself a new dress on the sewing machine our landlord left behind. I also turned out a few outfits for Nancy. Booker's market carried imported lamb from Argentina. I asked the butcher to cut it in cubes for lamb stew, one of Mort's favorite dishes. The wild oregano growing in our garden greatly enhanced its flavor. I wrote to my mother a month after we moved into our bungalow.
I have been leading a very quiet life -- reading, cooking, sewing and walking. I help Mort interview informants and write up the results. My task is to question women about intimate things they would never reveal to a man. It is the sewing, though, that I am really excited about. I have made a dress and a blouse for myself and a sunsuit and skirt for Nancy. I am about to embark on a fancy dress for her. It is so much cheaper than anything bought in a store and everything fits perfectly. Mort is really delighted with my sewing and wants to buy me a sewing machine when we get home.
Our house, located near the sea wall, was next to a breeding ground for anopheles mosquitoes that struck like kamikaze pilots. The creatures caused us great discomfort and I immediately returned to Booker's to buy about twenty-five yards of mosquito netting. I ran up two sets on the sewing machine to protect Nancy's bed and ours. We were all safe once we were tucked in under the netting for the night. Mort was protected by his trousers, but Nancy and I got bitten worst in the evenings between dinner and bedtime. We had angry red welts the size of silver dollars on our legs. I could not put on a pair of shoes for a week, a condition that kept me confined to the house with my legs soaking in a bucket of ice water.
I kept the freezer going around the clock making ice cubes to reduce the pain of the mosquito bites. I spent several dark nights sitting on a stool with my legs immersed in ice water until they became completely numb, reciting every poem I remembered by heart while Nancy and Mort slept. Each of us fell victim to Bete Rouge, a common pest in the colony. The Coombs advised us to rub the irritated areas with cooking oil; they said it would suffocate them and they would drop off. We tried their method and found it effective.
The house, in addition to the electric refrigerator, had other agreeable features. It was situated near an enormous open field where we could watch graceful egrets through the large windows of the bungalow. The prolonged, shrill notes of the cicadas that had unnerved us in the evenings in Georgetown with their persistent, loud symphony as we drank our after- dinner coffee could not be heard in Dixie.
Shortly after we moved in a neighbor told us about a chicken farm operated by two Americans who had been stationed near Georgetown during the war. The local chickens were pretty awful, so they said, and the veterans saw a good opportunity to make money by catering to local families of means and the colonial establishment. They returned after the war was over and bought a piece of land to raise superior chickens with scientific equipment. The place was a good distance away, but Mort liked the exercise the bicycle ride provided and from then on we had chicken every Sunday. We invited Mr. and Mrs. Coomb to drinks and dinner. They taught us to play bridge; we taught them to play Scrabble.
The greatest gift our landlord gave us was the recommendation of Constance, our housekeeper. She was a South American Indian woman who had been raised in a convent. I always gave her money for shopping at the end of the day because she went to the market early in the morning on her way to our house. She brought us fresh fish, crabs and avocados, a pineapple and a variety of other tropical fruits each day. She introduced me to cassava and taught me how to make cassava puffs by grating the tuber and mixing it with beaten eggs and flour. At first she called our daughter "Miss Nancy." After two days we asked Constance to drop the "miss" and just call her Nancy.
A few weeks before Nancy turned three she had a sudden curiosity fit. She sat at the table with Mort while I prepared lunch and asked in rapid succession how the table was made, how the chair was made, how the avocado I was slicing was made and then, "How was I made?"
"You grew inside me."
"I'm not kidding. It's true. You grew inside me. Just as the new baby grew inside Susan. Do you remember how fat she looked before we left?"
She gave the matter serious thought for a few seconds before she ventured forth to commit some small mischief. Her actions were always propelled by curiosity. About half the land the house was built on had been paved over with concrete. We warned Nancy each day to stay on the concrete because kraits, bushmasters and boas slithered among the lush growths in the garden and some of the foliage was poisonous. She rarely listened. She put a leaf in her mouth she had torn from a bush one afternoon and came upstairs screaming. Constance picked her up before I could get to her and took her downstairs. She asked Nancy to show her the plant she had chewed. Constance took a leaf and put it in her own mouth as soon as Nancy pointed to it.
"It stings," she said, "it burns the tongue, but it's not harmful."
She gave Nancy some cold water to drink and put a piece of banana in her mouth. The crisis of the day was over.
The afternoons when Constance did the ironing were particularly enjoyable. I usually sat in a chair stitching a garment for Nancy or mending a sock for Mort and listened to her stories about her girlhood, her education in the convent, her marriage and the births of her children. Her mother had died young and there were no aunts to tell her how a baby was born. The nuns in the convent did not, most probably could not, prepare her for pregnancy and motherhood. She was on her way home from work in an advanced state of labor with her first child when a neighbor stopped to ask her why she walked bent over with a limp. Constance demonstrated to me the way she had walked as she told me this story, then related how she replied to the woman. "I must have eaten spoiled food because I have cramps."
The older woman said, "You're having your baby, you foolish child. Get yourself to the hospital quick!" She laughed as she recalled the incident. Her eldest son was thirty years old. Constance had no room for bitterness in her memories.
Millions of ants moved in with us when the rains came. The floors and walls were alive with ants. The memory of it is so vivid I find myself itching and scratching as I write this. Constance took a broom and calmly swept them off the walls and floors clearing them out of the house. The first time I went to the kitchen in the middle of the night I saw giant cockroaches scampering across the floor. Anybody who has lived in New York has had an acquaintance with a cockroach or two, but nothing like the South American branch of the family. They were from an inch-and-a-half to more than two inches long and scared me half to death. Constance told me the next day not to worry, just take a broom and sweep them out, she instructed, but I was too squeamish to attempt it.
Constance slipped and fell in the kitchen one morning hurting her shins rather badly. Her legs swelled up alarmingly fast and I suggested she take the rest of the day off but she would not hear of it. I put ice packs on her legs to lessen the swelling. As soon as she appeared the following morning Nancy rushed to her and asked how she was feeling. Her eyes became moist.
"She is a good child, so full of kindness. Imagine, she cares how I feel," she said to me with happy amazement.
I asked Constance to stay in the house with the two of us when Mort decided to travel to Surinam, the Dutch colony next to Guiana, and stay there for five days. He went to investigate how the Dutch ruled and to survey their colonial possession as a possible site for future fieldwork by his graduate students. I convinced myself I was afraid to be alone at night, but the truth was I wanted Constance's company. Nancy slept with me in our double bed and Constance slept in Nancy's.
The colony was one of the safest places I had ever known. People only got violent with family members and friends. If a man found his wife in bed with another man he hacked him to pieces with his machete. The courts invariably considered the husband's action justified. This happened fairly frequently, but random violence against strangers was unheard of. We walked around Georgetown during the late evening as well as in the daytime, certain we were secure from harm.
Nancy and I explored the city while Mort was away. I took her to the movie house, confident she was old enough to sit through a full length feature. I remember everything about that afternoon except the film. I would not be able to recall its title or a single scene of it if my life depended on it. The movie house had an ironclad rule about segregating the races. The balcony was reserved for Caucasians. Before the film started, Queen Elizabeth was shown on the screen in full uniform atop a horse while the strains of the English national anthem were carried by loudspeakers in every corner of the theater. The English mothers stood at attention with their children, hands firmly planted on hearts. Nancy skipped and hopped from one wooden seat to another on the half empty balcony slamming the seats up and down. I had to endure the disapproving stares of the Brits, but it was a small price to pay for principles. I asked Nancy repeatedly to sit still to no avail. She must have known somehow that in the secret recesses of my heart I was glad she acted up. I was quite upset with "the downstairs for colored peoples only" rule. I did not put my hand on my heart for a monarch who could not claim me as a subject. Nancy, always her dear, exuberant self, made a political statement of her own.
Elliott Skinner, who was a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University at the time, was conducting his own fieldwork in Stanleytown. He came to Georgetown for much needed supplies which he tied to his bicycle. He offered to do errands for me while Mort was away and I shall always be grateful for his many acts of kindness. Mort returned from Surinam with two large pieces of heavy black silk on which a Javanese artist had painted Wayang puppets. He also brought a South American Indian carved wood stool and a small earthenware charcoal brazier. We had one of the Wayang puppet paintings framed and hung it in our living room when we returned to New York. I do not have enough wall space in my apartment and it hangs in Nancy's guest room now.
We received an invitation to take tea with Sir Alfred and Lady Savage, the governor and his wife, during the second month of our stay. We had been interviewed by a reporter for the local newspaper a few days after our arrival and the article appeared with our photograph on the front page. The governor's office had been tipped off that an American anthropologist, who was a professor at Columbia University, had come from the United States to conduct research. Inviting visiting Americans to tea was routine colonial policy; the newspaper story merely brought our presence to the attention of the governor's social secretary.
The governor's palace was fairly large and the property well maintained. The garden was full of lush, vividly colored tropical blooms surrounded by Mauritia palm trees and mangrove shrubs. The large reception room where tea was served felt comfortable enough but it was poorly furnished. We wondered if this was due to the austerity of the Labor Government in power in Great Britain at the time, or if the crown had always considered this colony of considerably lesser value than its other possessions.
Of all the Chinese residents we met in Georgetown Mrs. Chen, the wife of a Chinese school teacher, was the most generous with her hospitality and asked us to tea several times. She was a cheerful and amiable woman whose idea of tea was a feast of many courses. She served small sardine sandwiches, tarts, scones, Chinese egg rolls, curried crab turnovers and many more delicacies the taste of which I well remember. I also recall the memory of Mort and I eating long after we were stuffed to the gills, not wishing to offend her by refusing her offerings. She had a one-year-old baby and was happily pregnant with her second child. It was Mrs. Chen who covered my legs with an excellent English medicine that began to promote the healing of my welts.
Steel bands were a novelty to North Americans at the time. We first heard them when we arrived at Port of Spain in Trinidad. The sound was joyous and exhilarating and the lyrics were sometimes humorous, sometimes romantic. The words often expressed serious commentary on race relations. There was one particularly clever song I remember, "If you ain't white, you're black." We bought the record, a 78 RPM, and played it for friends for years.
British Guiana had a marvelous melange of people. They were descendants of Chinese, Indian and Javanese indentured laborers, the progeny of African slaves, Portuguese, Dutch, English and East Indian settlers, Meztizos and native South American Indians, all of whom had intermarried and produced the first rainbow coalition I had ever seen. It was like a magnificent garden with every flower on earth in full bloom, however,there was considerable tension that could not be ignored. The early Chinese settlers worked twenty hours a day to give their children a better education and a leg up on the economic and social ladder. Their offspring were successful doctors, dentists, lawyers, educators and businessmen. They were objects of envy.
The East Indians and Africans formed a political coalition to gain independence from Great Britain. The leaders of this coalition were Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, the first representing the interests of the East-Indians, the other, a highly educated descendant of African slaves, aspiring to a better life for the progeny of other Africans. Many of the younger Chinese men, the intellectual grandsons of those who labored mightily in the past, joined the independence movement. In 1953 the colony was granted a liberal constitution and universal adult suffrage. Dr. Jagan won a majority in the legislature. Five months later British troops unseated the government claiming that the elected leaders were engaged in a plot to establish Communism in the colony.
The sedition trials of Dr. Jagan and his wife Jeanette, were in progress during our stay. The Jagans met while Jeanette studied political science at the University of Chicago and Cheddi attended their school of dentistry. I had seen a photograph of Jeanette Jagan in Time magazine representing her as a woman completely devoid of feminine attributes. The sessions were open to the public. Mort attended the proceedings nearly each day and told me that Jeanette was very attractive. The photograph was not a true likeness; it was a political statement. The Jagans had a son, about six or seven years old. Having sentenced them to a prison term of three months each, the British government, as evidence of its humane colonial administrative policies, declared the sentences were to be served in succession to assure the child of having one parent at home.
One of Mort's new Chinese friends was the owner of a large market. I did some of my shopping in his store. The soil in the colony was so saturated with moisture that vegetables for the table could not be grown; they rotted in the ground. Mr. Chou's store was well stocked with tinned vegetables and ham from Holland, items that became essential parts of our diet. He also made rum, a popular beverage in the summertime, and gave Mort a bottle as a present. We assumed he had a professional distillery.
I had my usual martini at five the next day. Mort was sitting in an easy chair reading a book and sipping his drink. I looked up from my book and was stunned by the color of his neck. It was purple. Mort took off his shirt and we discovered his chest and back were purple too. He had been drinking Mr. Chou's rum, which had been made in a bathtub, not in a distillery. Mort poured it down the sink hoping it would not corrode the metal drainage pipes.
The three of us visited Elliott Skinner in Stanleytown across the Demerara River. We took the ferry, which landed at Vreed-en-Hoop and rode in a taxi from there through bush country over a bumpy winding road to Stanleytown. We were greeted with a generous lunch cooked by Elliott's wife, and Elliott even managed to get ice to fill a bucket for my swollen legs. Mort took a photograph of me drinking milk with a straw from a coconut Elliott had opened for me as I sat on a chair, my legs knee deep in ice water.
Elliott told us it was customary in Stanleytown for a woman to stand visibly pregnant before the minister on her wedding day. Men wanted to be certain they did not marry a barren woman. There was an automatic assumption that childlessness was always the woman's fault; the society did not allow for a concept of sterility among males. As in most countries, even ours at the time, virility was measured by the siring of numerous children.
Women with small children who would never even had met in their native land, and if they did, would find they had nothing in common, easily become friends far away from home. I spent several afternoons during the week with the wife of a sergeant who was attached to the British garrison in the colony. She was a simple soul, kind and generous, patient with her children and above all, terribly homesick. One of seven children, she came from a close-knit family. Both her parents were still alive and she missed them all very much. Her children were three and four years older than Nancy; they played simpler games to accommodate her. What I remember about her most fondly was that unlike the wives of her husband's superior officers and the spouses of colonial administrators she never once made a racist remark.
One of Nancy's favorite places to visit was the large zoological garden in Georgetown. We decided when she was born that we would divide parental responsibilities. Taking her to the zoo was to be Mort's because I was raised in a country with mostly gentle farm animals. Poisonous snakes and alligators made me nervous. Nancy was fascinated by the white mice and stuck her fingers in their cage. She was bitten which gave him quite a fright. I reminded him when they came home there was no need to worry; she had been given a tetanus shot before we left New York. No sooner did we calm down from the zoo incident, Nancy fell into the drainage ditch in front of our house. Constance pulled her out. What to do? We could not sterilize her by boiling! We bathed and scrubbed her from head to toe twice, washed her hair three times, rinsed her twice, brushed her teeth twice and made her rinse her mouth repeatedly with a strong mouthwash.
The whole time we were in the colony there was an underlying fear flowing like a river inside me which I constantly tried to ignore. I was convinced I would never get out of the place alive. If we were not going to be crushed by a thirty-foot boa constrictor we could be bitten and poisoned by a bushmaster or a krait. There were less dramatic possibilities, but I tried not to count the ways. The day we were leaving I put on my plastic cap before taking a shower. I felt something move inside it and removed it. It was a cockroach more than two inches long. I instantly broke out in a rash from head to toe.
Constance gave Nancy a pair of hand crocheted slippers lined with blue silk as a farewell gift. Her face was awash with tears as we said our good byes. I wanted more than anything in the world to bring her home with us, but we could not afford to do so at the time. Children create a powerful bond among women. I was to have the same close relationship with our housekeeper in Taiwan; however, it is Constance who continues to occupy a very special place in my heart.
A colleague of Mort asked me about three months after our return how the field trip had been for me. I had gained some perspective by then and replied that it had been very difficult, but I would not have missed it for the world. Each time I find myself on the far side of an arduous experience the knowledge that my mettle has been tested and not found wanting is of great comfort to me. Life is hard. Churches, synagogues and mosques would not be filled each day if it were not.
Nancy returned to Guyana to conduct fieldwork in 1983. It was a free country by then, politically, economically and socially chaotic. It had also been the scene of a mass suicide. We had not seen Constance in nearly thirty years. Nancy tried to look her up but she was not able to locate her.
I have a photograph of Constance standing by the gate to our bungalow, smiling. I shall cherish her memory as long as I draw breath.
Martha Nemes Fried has published two hardcover books; each came out in paperback. Nineteen of her stories have been published in the following magazines: Ceteris Paribus, Eclectica, Savoy Fiction, Megaera, Dynamic Patterns, Zinos, News of the Brave New World and C/Oasis. She was born in Budapest, Hungary and came to the United States when she was a child.
Contact Martha Nemes Fried at
Contact Martha Nemes Fried at firstname.lastname@example.org