Anthony Bourdain captured my attention and enraptured me several years ago by his brilliant story telling. He described cultural practices of other peoples as joyful discoveries, ending mostly with the food they consumed and the traditions that gave rise to the particular dish. He visited places that I would never see, tried dishes that I would never taste, related cultures that I would never experience, all with a rare gift of dialogue and expert camera work that brought to life the country, its traditions, its people and its food. As he was investigating foods and restaurants in Queens, New York, he discovered the birdmen of Guyana and devoted part of an episode on Queens to them. Relating this story, is the best way that I can think of paying tribute to Anthony Bourdain.
There is no time that I do not remember not being revolted by the caging of birds. Whenever the occasional report appeared in the press of a Guyanese being caught by the authorities smuggling birds to New York in the horrendous conditions that smugglers do, I would unsympathetically turn the page, considering the method of smuggling and the life of captivity of birds too painful to contemplate. But the darker reality of the ‘pastime’ came to me a short while ago when I was told that not far away from my home a motor cyclist stopped, dismounted and attempted to rob a passerby of a bird in a birdcage in his hand. Weeks after, it was reported that a young man on a motor cycle was shot dead as he tried to rob someone of a bird being carried in a birdcage. I don’t know if it was the same motor cyclist. Upon inquiry, I was told that a bird can fetch up to $200,000.
(Kamal Ramkarran is the author of the original and longer version of this 2009 article, which has been abridged and amended by me with his permission).
The swizzle is Guyana’s long lost, but once favourite, alcoholic beverage. Even though it was synonymous with Demerara and had enjoyed worldwide fame, it is now almost unknown in the country which gave it birth. In the 1800s and up to the mid 1900s, the drinking of swizzles was an established custom, even passion, among Demerara’s upper strata. It became the preferred cocktail of the day, long before the combination of rum and coke was ever discovered.
Two of Guyana’s cultural and artistic giants were born on November 22 and 23 respectively. To celebrate their birthdays, they got together on the 22nd celebrated through the night until the 23rd so that both birthdays would be given due recognition. I heard the story twice from Stanley Greaves. The first was at an exhibition of new paintings, ‘Dialogue with Wilson Harris,’ in November last year at Castellani House in celebration of his 80th birthday. I heard it again in a brief address by Stanley at a book launching last Monday on the life of the late Wordsworth McAndrew, in which he again related the story. We can only assume that these annual events inspired them to greater achievements.
Roy Brummel, a widely known educator and folklorist himself, wrote a book, ‘Mih Buddybo Mac’ (My Brother Mac), Part 1, on the life and work of Wordsworth McAndrew, and introduced it to the Guyanese public at Moray House last Monday evening. He also introduced his novel, Halfway Tree, a must read. Roy’s biography of Wordsworth, his novel, the works of Stanley Greaves and of Wordworth McAndrew, show that although circumstances have taken them far from Guyana, Guyana has never been far from them, as Roy said. The creative impetus, inspired by the homeland and the common heritage, remained intact.