by Mykel Board
[Recap: From the start, it doesn't look good for this trip. Everything goes right... always a bad sign. Nothing portends disaster like everything going right.
Easy subletter in New York... smooth flight to Miami... promises of “meet you at the airport/seaport”... $10 a night accommodations in Guyana, the rest free.
Uh oh! Too good. The better the news before, the bigger the fall later. And things get worse. (Better) Miami goes so smoothly you could cry. The only problem is a lot of rain-- heavy rain. The streets are rivers... waves in the pool. I get wet. Very wet.
Then on to North Trinidad, where my friends pick me up at the airport and take me drinkin'-- and more drinking. Then, to South Trinidad... some fun adventures... meet a Goddess... er... Empress... of a girl. It doesn't rain so much in Trinidad.
Then to the airport and off to Guyana.
In Guyana, my facebook friends from KEEP YOUR DAY JOB! meet me at the airport. From there, we go to Jamal's. This is the only time I have to pay for a place to sleep: 15 days for $150. Not bad. No, it doesn't go perfectly. But it goes, and I meet some great people in the country-- including Jamal. My trip to Kaiteur Falls in the jungle is-- at 741 feet-- a high point.
The two weeks of my stay in Guyana are adventure-filled, and beer-dulled. Most days, it rains. Sometimes for just an hour or two in the afternoon. Sometimes all day.
“I don't get it Mykel,” Jamal tells me. “This isn't the rainy season.”
“Rainman,” I say.
He doesn't get it.
The plan is to travel to Suriname with Keep Your Day Job! But, uh oh... a drummer problem. Two drummers agreed to tour with us. One, a close friend, the other, more PUNKROCK. They ditch the friend for the punkrocker. He bails at the last minute. The now former-friend doesn't answer emails. This cannot work out. We go to Suriname anyway-- drummerless. It works out.
In Suriname, I stay with a punkrock student and his super-generous parents. They cook for me every day. I mention a local synagogue; they arrange a tour. I mention a trip to “the interior,” bang, we're there... surveying monkey meat. When dad can't do it, they get the poor son, Jose, to chauffeur me; as if he doesn't have enough with schoolwork and his own band, ADHD He hopes for rain... It's an excuse to stay home. Often, there's rain.
Then it's on to French Guyana, where the brother of one of my top ten pals, Simon, lives with his girlfriend Marie. His name is Florian.
I take a small boat across the river that separates French Guiana from Suriname. The captain lets me choose my port of entry: “legal or backtrack?” I choose legal. At immigration, I annoy the white immigration officers by asking for a passport stamp. They give it to me and hustle me away. I'm hungry as shit and don't know where I am. It's raining.
What happens? Marie meets me on the road, helps me negotiate a ride with a French Guianan truck driver, and gets me to her place. Smooth as a baby's ass. The first morning is a crepe breakfast. Then a dip in the pool. Then, I donno. Everything is spot on... except for the rain. Well, there's the car. Florian's car breaks down just before I arrived. Bad news?
No problem! His friend lends him a jalopy...windows don't close... wipers don't work... car door doesn't open from the inside.
My first days in French Guyana are distress free... unless you count the bottom paddling I get from my friends' spare bicycle. I have one of the best days of the entire trip: canoeing through the Amazon with Florian, as my French guide. Chased by dogs, paddle-blistered hands, bitten by mosquitoes, stuck in the roots of swamp trees... it's wonderful.
Then an afternoon trip to a former French work camp, a type of holding prison for workers sent to French Guiana when it was a penal colony. I see Papillon's name scratched into the floor of a cell there.
After that, it's meet the friends and the adventure continues.]
Last month I wrote about buying a ticket for the Work Camp tour. That was at a small tourist office by the intersection of the Marowijne River (that separates Suriname from French Guiana)and the Caribbean Ocean. The office serves as a kind of meeting point, and information center for French expats and other non-natives. Tacked to the outside door is this:
Mama Bobi? Sounds Yiddish. Taki taki. Nenge tongo? What?
It just so happens I know... sort of... what they're talking about. The Guyanas (Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana) were colonies that used African slave labor to work for their colonial overseers. Slaves were given food and some sort of primitive housing and they had to work... mostly long hard hours in the sugar canefields. It's like capitalism-- with free food and housing.
A lot of the slaves didn't like it though. In Guyana, there was a rebellion. The rebels lost. In Suriname, the locals used the native Indians to keep the slaves in line. In French Guyana, the French used penal colony workers to supplement the slaves who ran into the jungle to make their own communities.
In the beginning of the colonial period the Guyanas weren't clearly divided. One ran into the other. What is now Suriname used to be part of British Guyana. Later, the British and the Dutch traded. The Dutch got Suriname. The British got New York. I often think the Dutch got the better deal.
Escaped slaves had little regard for borders. They settled anywhere they could, trying to maintain their distance from their white slave masters, and the Native Indian bounty hunters.
To communicate with each others, the runaway slaves developed a language using what they knew. Mainly a mixture of English and Dutch, the new language, Tongue of the Negroes, (Nenge Tongo, get it?) developed its own vocabulary and grammar.
Is it just a jumble of Dutch and English? It doesn't look like that.Asaw is the word for elephant in Nenge Tongo. It clearly isn't from either of those Germanic languages. How did that word get into the language? There are no elephants in South America. Looks African to the experts... and so there's more to the language than meets the ear.
The language also uses a process called reduplication common to some languages like Japanese (guro guro, a growling stomach or tokidoki occasionally). Moshi moshi... which is what the Japanese use when they answer the phone-- means MOUSE in Nenge Tongo. Dutch and English rarely use this kind of word structure.
|Some Nenge Tongo|
Carlos, one of Florian's fellow teachers is tri-lingual: English, French, Nenge Tongo. He teaches Nenge Tongo in his spare time and this afternoon I sit in on a lesson.
At Carlos' house, he brings out the local booze. It's my kind of language lesson that begins with a drink! The bottle's label says Rhum Supreme. On it is a drawing of a somewhat frightened slave, and some squiggles that look like a combination of a swastika and a penis.
Mighty tasty stuff-- the rum, that is.
I think I'll have another, a third please! Even though it's Caribbean, I can feel AFRICA course through my veins with every sip. Ever since the canoe trip, there's been JUNGLE in my blood. Now it's AFRICAN JUNGLE, transplanted, but still African....
“Another rum tangitangi!” Somehow I don't remember much more of the lesson.
After the lesson, we're off to an outdoor restaurant by the beach. I buy Parbo for the crew... it's the least I can do for my free lesson.
Suddenly there comes the sound of drums. Not South American... not Calypso... not socca, not something from Parbo nights.
“What's that?” I ask.
“Drums,” says Florian.
“It's African,” I tell him, “I can feel the rhythms. I can tell the players... Slave blood runs through their veins. The agony of chains, the ecstasy of chains removed. The original weltshmertz, expressed the only way possible, through beating... harsh... beautiful. The sound of AFRICA!”
“Huh?” he says.
“I've got to find it,” I tell him, “I need to experience this... this... this... essence. Real African blood, translated into the sound of hands and sticks against animal skin.”
I stand up and follow the sound... into the building next to our outdoor table... around the corner. It's getting louder... calling to me in it's most primitive agony. Ahead... an open door...
FUCK! I can't believe it. A bunch of white people. One colored guy, at the end, barely in the group... a token... that's it. The leader is a white woman in her late thirties who wouldn't look out of place at a feminist anti-porn rally. That's it! My uncle Bernie in Forest Hills has more African soul than these guys.
|From French Guyana|
Crestfallen, I slink back to the table where my friends are enjoying the beer.
“Did you feel the essence?” Florian asks.
I change the subject.
“Carlos,” I say. “Could you do me a favor?”
“Sure Mykel, as long as it won't humiliate (he pronounces it like a Frenchman: oomeeleeAht) me.”
“Would you say something in Nenge Tongo to all the reader who is reading about this adventure?”
“Are you sure your grammar is right, Mykel?”
“I know my audience,” I tell him.
And here it is: Carlos speaks to my reader. Sorry about the heavy background noise. Kids are annoying all over the world.
|From French Guyana|
During my trip, we go to visit Carlos' sister in a Nenge Tongo village. The escaped slave descendents have not only made their own language, they've designed their own buildings... a kind of suburban house, on low stilts to keep it off the often wet, sometimes completely liquid, land.
Here is an eerie picture of one of the houses. Check out how it's raised off the ground.
|A Nenge Tongo House-- in the rain|
They've also developed their own fabric designs. Earthy colors and intricate patterns.
|Marie checks out the Nenge Tongo goods|
The next day is my penultimate one in French Guyana. We're gonna start with a trip to a Hmong village, then end with the super carnival. A festival planned for months... like a carnival... The teachers have worked on this... trained... found talent... worked with it... make tents... booths... got sponsors. It's the super big deal of the year.
“Mykel,” Florian tells me, “it's got everything you want: a trapeze, clowns, bands, sexy girls on stilts, movies. It will be the best thing you've ever seen in South America... maybe in your life.”
“Is it better than sex?” I ask.
He turns to me, stares hard at my crotch, then snickers.
“It depends,” he says.
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