V. S. Naipaul’s insight, in identifying a sort of unconsciousness, a lack of feeling and seeing, in his native Trinidad and Tobago and India, comes home with force upon landing at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport.
One is lost for words as the plane taxis down the runway to the tiny airport building.
The first sight is an old, apparently abandoned, Laparkan building alarmingly lacking maintenance, with a faded, washed-out “welcome to Guyana” sign hanging on loose boards, in what used to be white paint.
The dilapidated building is the first eyesore to greet a visitor to Guyana. Then right next to it is the even worse looking fire station. Can we not paint this first fire station that greets visitors to our land? The faded yellow paint is a picture of dilapidated neglect.
Then there’s the greenery. For the first part of the runway the grass is uncut. Where it is cut, the ground is exposed, as the grass is shaved clean in spots. The Cheddi Jagan International Airport must have the worst-kept lawn in the Caribbean.
What is shocking is that President Donald Ramotar landed at this Airport recently, from a sojourn to the US, and the United Nations, and yet the place remains drab. As President, did the eyesore that is our Airport grounds strike him? Did he see and feel the utter shame of landing on home turf to such unpleasant sights?
This is where Naipaul’s observation, his telling insight, serves to instruct us about the kind of society we form. Having the exposure to airports across the Caribbean, and in the US, and seeing the kind of maintenance and upkeep that happens in public spaces in Washington and New York and elsewhere, including our Caribbean neighbours, how did the President feel flying home to see the Cheddi Jagan International Airport looking so drab and unpleasant?
One suspects that the President, and the ministers and State officials who fly frequently, may not see and feel the drabness at all. Either they may be too busy to look out the window of the plane and internalize the thoughts that lead to such feelings, or their minds are too busy with more important affairs.
But, knowing the way this Government reacts, one rather suspects that the President would excuse the state of the airport grounds on Guyana being “poor”. After all, this is the excuse Government gives for okaying the pirating of text books, the crime scourge and the corruption crisis.
Being poor, then, means that we cannot cut our grass well, or paint our public buildings.
Naipaul’s observation that a kind of unseeing and unfeeling unconsciousness takes over such societies as ours should wake us up.
Our writers and thinkers, observing the finer things of what makes us a refined, developed people, teach us about ourselves.
So, with Naipaul’s sombre warning at the back of the mind, one ought to look at this society and feel the sensitivity of our pain, of our failings, of our lack of effort.
Apart from the grounds of the airport, moving through the villages, one walks smack into a glaring symptom of the severe brain drain that cripples this nation.
Even the quality of human resources at the airport shows poor training in such basic necessities as human relations and customer service skills.
In fact, touts hang on for “a raise” from the moment of checking through Customs to loading one’s luggage in the car.
And then there’s the Immigration Officer who politely requests “a lil raise nuh” for lending his pen to the incoming passenger filling out the immigration form.
This is the gateway to this country. Foreigners may find it quaint and enchanting and even exotic. But if we want to seriously develop this country, our effort must start at the Airport.
How could ministers travel to and from international destinations through the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, and not see or feel the desperate cry of the place for urgent massive reform?
Our leaders dress in immaculate suits and drive lavish vehicles to take their polished places in Parliament Buildings, with the drab nastiness of Georgetown, littered with trash and the deranged folks of the city, seeming not a concern at all. We fail to see. We fail to feel. We fail to act, to make an effort.
It took the foreign embassies to lead a clean-up campaign of our once Garden City of Georgetown, a place now known for petty thieves and pick-pockets rather than for the friendliest folks in the British Commonwealth.
A nation falls at times, but how far do we allow ourselves to fall?
When we fall to the abyss of not seeing or feeling anymore, of accepting things as they are, of excusing away neglect, we face the stark reality of Naipaul’s insight: we may have become an unfeeling people, an unconscious nation.
Yet, what a blessed land this is, so sunny and fertile and bright and peaceful. Why do we allow things to fall apart? Why do we fly past the grounds of our own International Airport with unseeing eyes and unfeeling hearts?
Years and years of neglect may have become habit for us. The dilapidation may have become our norm. The falling apart no longer stares at us in rebuke. We look blankly at the neglect, at the fading paint and the littered streets and the naked destitute, and lack the consciousness to see and feel anymore.
Maybe it is the way to numb the pain of our fall, for to not see or not feel is to not care, to not cry for the broken walls.
Yet, those walls collapse onto us, and when the society implodes, when social chaos starts to mirror the state of our public spaces, we wake up to face the crisis of our slothful ways.
Things catch up with us eventually. Naipaul warns us that remaining unconscious as a people is a tragedy, not an innocent escape.
The Cheddi Jagan International Airport, that blatant instant symptom of what and who we have become as a nation, is a warning sign to us: we must wake up and feel again, we must care for the state of our society – every aspect and facet of it.