It is a ritual to go to the airport with my father to collect and drop off our perpetual rotation of relatives. It is an unspoken time to bond. My father is the kind of man who will not say much, but whose awareness and consideration to the people and conversations and gestures and things around him is of a level that few people, even those of his family, realize or appreciate.
A sweltering day in Queens. Hot asphalt. I know this trip to JFK International Airport by heart. A five minute drive from our house, it feels like the airport resides in our backyard. On summer nights my grandfather, Papa, will sit out on our deck with a glass of Scotch on the rocks watching the planes dangerously skim the rooftops of my block en route to one of JFK’s landing strips. If you close your eyes and listen only for the roar of the engines, a sound like waves colliding with jagged rocks on loop playback, it feels like you can lightly run your hand over the wings.
“You know,” Papa will start, his Caribbean accent colored with a British lilt, reminiscent of a childhood and adolescence lived under the empire on which the sun had eventually set.
“Why is it that Americans forget about the past participle, Nad?”
I miss my grandparents whenever they take their annual trip Back Home. Cut to the slick automatic doors of the entrance to ARRIVALS. My father and I treat arrivals in the airport like a stakeout.
“You stay on the end closer to the door. I’ll be by the magazine racks,” he says the way a leader of a military operation would.
We stand on opposite ends of a throng of people waiting for two flights arriving from Colombia and Guyana. Spanish and Creole mingle side by side, settling quietly over the terminal the inevitable way dust settles on window sills.
“Guyana nah suh bad now, yuh know,” I hear one bystander tell someone.
“Me cyant even imagine livin’ there now bwoy. Meh get to used to Dis Place,” contemplates another.
“Dem was bad days we left man. Now everyting is different. Yuh nah shart of anything,” another jumps in.
Anything you want. I grew up short of nothing, yet what I wanted the most, to the know the fields and streets my parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts walked through, ran through, danced through, rode bikes and scooters through, I could never seem to grasp.
Sure enough my Papa and Grandma waltz out, my Grandma leading the way and fretting about something to my grandfather. Two huge suitcases resembling ripe guavas ready to burst hide half of my grandmother’s lean body.
“Dhruv, how yuh do,” greets my Grandma. Her scent, all flowers and sweetness, lingers. I greet my Grandma and Papa with a kiss on the cheek, the way we are brought up to greet both family members and strangers we welcome into our homes, a remnant of Back Home.
Back Home is its own entity, a phrase with roots extending outwards and in, wrapping around the ripe memories of my family members and around my own empty memories of Guyana. It is a term that is interchangeably used in moments of anger, as well as moments of happy nostalgia. Many Creole words are like that, able to take on multiple identities, able to move fluidly across the terrain of emotional feelings.
“Anything yuh want, Guyana have now,” my Grandma tells me and my relatives with pride as we stand around the suitcases on the floor of the dining room like pilgrims standing around a holy relic.
I’ve traveled to ten other countries and numerous states before ever going back to the country my own family comes from with a memory that will retain more than a hot flash of images that may not even be my own. I am told that I did, in fact, go Back Home when I was one, a chubby cherub of a brown baby with skin untouched as of yet by the relentless gaze of tropical sunshine. There are disputes as to whether or not I came back with measles or an ungodly amount of mosquito bites. It is still a site of contention between my parents.
“I don’t know why you decided to take her back to that dizz-GUSTIN place,” my father has said on numerous occasions to my mother who pays as much attention to his words as she does to American reality television, that is to say nil to negative nil.
“Dhruv you’re dizz-Gustin. The girl didn’t come back with measles. Just mosquito bites,” she will repeat like a mantra.
Pause. Part of the problem about writing about a place which exists only as a myth in your imagination, mythologized in conversations by your family members is trying to write down the way in which those who have lived there talk about it. Dizz-Gustin. In technical terms it can be translated into ‘disgusting’. But the way it is spoken evokes more than the word ‘disgusting’. Guyanese Creole English is an alter-ego of the language, spoken with the whole body and utilizing facial expressions, hand motions, sometimes other people.
My grandmother is a pro at evading the greedy hands of Customs Officers. She has smuggled back in her suitcases 10 bowls worth of ri-riri peppers, 5 bags of Guyanese bread (tennis rolls, plait bread, solara), bags and bags of sweets (pera, sugar cake, fudge), frozen chunks of fish (scaly green hassa, shiny snapper) and a slew of other vegetables which are imported Ova Here, the term used by my family members to refer to their adopted home, but decidedly taste different.
“Back Home have everyting now,” my Grandma repeats.
“KFC, air-conditioned malls—”
“Toilets inside the house,” interjects my uncle Nigel in jest as he takes a bite of the homemade fudge.
Back home, in my house in Queens, my home, I take out one of a plethora of my baby albums. My father’s camera and video camera were some of his most cherished possessions. I still remember playing with the multitude of film canisters which lived in all corners of the attic we lived in and later the house we moved into. My childhood has been meticulously documented and arranged into these dilapidated albums and a series of video cassettes by my mom and dad. In ways I am grateful, but sometimes I am horrified.
The snippets of Guyana I try to paste together in my memory’s album from conversations, photographs and online reading still provide some basis for me to create an image of the place. It is a place that will mar my body with battle scars. It is a place which changes physical bodies. The land and climate will mark outsiders. There are photos where I can discern glimpses of the wooden houses on stilts, the wrap around verandahs where family members and friends gyaff , the popular pastime of chatting, the Bottom Houses, that negative space between the bottom of the house and the dusty ground where hammocks are hung, caharies of curry cooked and dogs sleep. The green rice fields and dark, murky rivers weaving their way like a snake through the country. Green, green, green and the seawall, a place where stones laid down by human hands meet the Atlantic ocean.