The oil company workers eat upstairs in the Executive Lounge of the Marriott. We stay there too when we return. MSNBC drones on in the background. Most of them, overdressed and sunburned in this place that hangs off the equator, are from Texas.
My father, the son of a Cornelia-Ida rice farmer, worked his first job pumping gas in Georgetown to afford math textbooks for his A level exams. His boss, who managed the Esso station back then, asked why would you leave this when he migrated to the Bahamas. That was code for you’re better off settling.
We eat outside on the balcony of the lounge one night and it makes me feel seasick. To return is a privilege. To stay here is a privilege. To wax poetic about diaspora from a distance is a privilege. do you even understand what was lost to bring you here, Safia Elhillo writes in “to make use of water.”
The air con inside the lounge is trash compared to the sea breeze that rolls in from the brown water of the Demerara River. Or is it the Atlantic. At some point the mouth of the river unfurls into ocean. Dad points out where both meet, but it’s all just water to me. He notes GuyBridge to the left, the fourth-longest floating bridge in the world that connects Georgetown to West Bank Demerara. It’s kept afloat by 114 pontoons.
I’m constantly confused by the difference between East Bank, East Coast, West Bank, West Coast. The language of where water meets land guides how people understand geography here. You can be on the bank of a river or on the coast of the Atlantic. When I do a kind of fact-checking of this piece I get the banks and coasts wrong. “Just look at the map, Nad,” my dad says. But even then it’s all just water to me.
When we drive over GuyBridge the next morning it feels like we are dangerously close to the water. I become hyperaware of our proximity to water when we return to Guyana three times after my grandparents die. In New York, I’m used to bridges that tower above currents, not comfortably skim the top of them. I’m used to bridges carrying trains between boroughs, to the rumble of the J train hustling over the Williamsburg.
On that day on the lounge’s balcony, Mom recounts taking walks across GuyBridge when she was a teenager. Bamboo sticks with colorful flags tied to them dot the shore below, markers of where morning prayers were offered to the water. We note how much sky there is here. And, then, a pause.
What was never there before: an oil rig, floating like a period with no sentence in the distance.
God said to Noah: Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.
It is a precise punishment, one defined by numbers. Noah is 600 years old on the “seventeenth day of the second month” when the floodwaters arrive, and the rain did fall for 40 days and 40 nights. Mountains are submerged more than 20 feet deep underwater and the floodwaters remain for 150 days.
“Georgetown gon’ sink. We have plenty life jacket ready. You don’ worry. We gon head into di Interior when it happen,” Sister Lynn, the herbalist who has been living in my grandparents’ home since they migrated out, tells my mom with a conviction I envy. I too want to have unwavering faith in something. This time, Sister Lynn warns, we should listen to the Lord.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, according to their Twitter, “puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet’s most pressing problems.” Their Climate Hot Map is dedicated to showing how global warming is affecting the world now.
The observation, that “without improved sea and river defenses and drainage systems, the coastal plains of coastal Guyana face serious flooding—if not complete inundation,” is a devastating one. Not just because parts of Guyana’s coast already “sit from 19.7 inches to 39.4 inches below sea level,” but because 80 percent of the population lives in those coastal parts. Protections that are in place: seawalls, mangroves, and natural sandbanks.
For a country whose coast already suffers from erosion and mangroves that are dying off as sea levels rise, oil drilling and production is a kind of death sentence.
The Nandy Park house stands on stilts high enough that we call the space below the first floor the bottom house. Sister Lynn sees her patients here. I imagine the floodwater rising up, the clinic submerged, waves overtaking the verandah, patients floating in orange life jackets. It is easy for me to receive Lynn’s sermon as hyperbole, to laugh at the absurdity of it and her fierce belief in verses of the Bible.
Guyana is covered in water, but it’s not submerged. Yet.
When I hear the word rise, I think slow, I think calculated, I think rising up from the wooden pews of a church with its feet firmly planted in the earth. The sea is doing something more than just rising. It is soaring. Leaping. Revolting.
dear nandy park house
that rests on wooden stilts that assumes
that birthed the bottomhouse sleeping
beneath our feet house that swells and creaks with the rain
like an inflamed joint
house with iron grillwork spread like a
over mom’s bedroom window
old house with the window that frames the goosebery tree outside
will you walk on water?
They call it first oil. The date and time of birth are recorded. December 20, 2019, 9:34pm. Sagittarius sun, Libra moon, Leo rising. The headline: “‘It meant so much to me’ …EBD youth says on being the first to test Guyana’s oil.”
The misguided optimism is not an exception despite the fact that first oil came without “necessary systems like a local content policy or a petroleum commission.” “Bittersweet,” the Guyana Times International calls it.
We record the dates of things like disasters. December 20, 2019 is no different.