Georgetown Gone Wild | A TFT Exclusive
In the recent New York Times-acclaimed book Wild Coast, British travel writer John Gimlette traverses the untamed world of South America’s Guyana. In this TFT-exclusive excerpt Gimlette takes us to a “Georgetown” most Americans have never imagined.
From the court, a beautiful city, as light as feathers, fluttered off down the coast. Perhaps – like its people – Georgetown didn’t truly believe it belonged here, and so it hovered over the water. Nothing was firmly attached. It was all built on canals and breezes, a city of stilts and clapboard, brilliant whites, fretwork, spindles and louvres. The streets were as wide as fields, and the cathedral seemed to drift endlessly upwards, reputedly the tallest wooden building in the world. One area was even called Lacytown, as if, at any moment, it would simply take off and drift away, home perhaps.
Naturally, with so much kindling, Georgetown was always burning down. During the nineteenth century, it was devastated five times by fire, and then another four times in the century that followed. There’s always a good reason for these fires, riots or an eruption at the Chinese fireworks plant. The latest victims, in 2004, were a cinema – one of the last in the city – and the Roman Catholic cathedral. Faced with these disasters, the Townies would simply cut some more sticks, and start all over again.
Water too was a constant feature of the Townies’ lives. At high tide, the sea towered five feet above the city, all held back with a wall. It was all a permanent reminder that, tropical though the city may have seemed, it had the soul of Amsterdam. For two hundred years – well over half its colonial existence – Guyana had been Dutch, and this was the town of Stabroek. Muddy, hot and flat, it may not have looked much but, during peace negotiations in 1802, it was considered a better bet than Canada. A few years later, the British grabbed it again, and named it after George III, the farmer king. Soon afterwards, the whole soggy colony passed to Britain, to be known as British Guiana.
Two centuries on, the moisture was as vigorous as ever. People often told me how, a few years earlier, their city had all but vanished under several feet of water. Most of the time, however, it was just a low-grade skirmish with the damp. The forest was constantly trying to creep back into this city, along with the mildew. Even concrete rotted here, and cars seemed to moulder. By day, the canals were silky and green, and by night they were operatic with frogs. ‘Why? Why?’ they’d sing, which made the dogs all howl. Nature, it seemed, was gradually reclaiming its inheritance.
Amongst this riot of parrots and flamboyants, the Townies could still be fleetingly British. They’d talk about things like ‘Spring’ and ‘Autumn’ whilst the weather remained doggedly hot. They could even be a little archaic, with children peeing in ‘posies’ and having ‘tennis rolls’ for tea. In the shops, too a little Britishness had survived; you could still buy Vicks Vapor Rub, a bottle of ‘Nerve Tonic’ or stack of True Confessions. Meanwhile, Fogarty’s department store was like a huge pink slab of Croydon, now quietly decomposing. Downstairs, it had a 1940s café, complete with skinny sausage rolls and dim lighting as if the war – like the café itself – was somehow still going on.
But nowhere felt quite so left behind as the city museum. Downstairs were all the odds and ends of colonial life, together with Britain’s departing gift: a tiny Austin Rolls-Royce Prince. Upstairs, meanwhile, hadn’t changed at all since 1933, when Evelyn Waugh called by. The same, faint miasma of formaldehyde still lingered over what he’d described as ‘the worst stuffed animals I have seen anywhere’. Not surprisingly I had the place to myself, and so the curator pounced on me and made me take my hat off.
Out on the street, traces of the old empire were harder to find. Of course, almost all the civic buildings were notionally British – although they didn’t always look it. Often, even the queen’s most loyal architects had let heat and fantasy go to their heads. Father Schole’s City Hall looked like a runaway dolls house, and Blomfield’s cathedral had used up so many trees that, even now, it was at risk of vanishing into the mud. It was only in the details that Georgetown’s streets were still lingeringly British; the Hackney carriages, the EIIR letterboxes, the statue of a great sewage engineer, and a pair of Sebastopol cannons. Once, however, I did see a large building site called ‘Buckingham Palace’, although – sadly, perhaps – before any resemblance had taken shape, the financing had failed.
Despite these trappings, I soon came to realise that the Guyanese were neither British nor truly South American but lived in a world of their own. Sometimes, it seemed that being foreign came so naturally to them that they didn’t even understand themselves. There were several thriving dialects, and the city would grind to a halt not just for Christmas but also for Diwali, Eid and Phagwah. Depending on who I asked, the national dish was either roti, chow mein, a fiery Amerindian concoction called pepperpot, or chicken-in-the-rough. Originally, each race had had its own political party, but now there were fifty. Amongst a mere 750,000 people, this sometimes made Guyana feel like several dozen countries all stuffed into one.
I often felt this as I walked across Georgetown. One moment I’d be passing Chinatown, then a mosque, ‘The House of Flavours’, a Hindu temple, and the Pandit Council. Then, I’d turn a corner and find myself in the middle of a ‘Full Gospel Miracle Crusade’ or a Mexican Circus (‘With Real Tigers!’). Occasionally, the different cultures seemed to elide, creating tantalising hybrids. Who I wondered, was behind all the Duck Curry Competitions? Or the ‘Festival of Extreme Chutney’? Most of the time, however, everyone kept to themselves. As I passed through each neighbourhood, the music changed – from reggae to Hindi, through soca and hip-hop, and back to calypso.
All this would be odd in a big city, and yet Georgetown was tiny. There was only one escalator in the whole town (and it still drew a crowd), and the rambling National Gallery received just twenty visits a month. Everyone knew everyone, even the men who sold horse-dung from their carts. You couldn’t do anything, it was said, without word spreading outwards through the Spit Press (‘You tell Tara,’ as one taxi-driver put, ‘and Tara tell Tara’). Only I was the odd one out: a bucra, or white man, in a town with everything but.
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