My skin failed me that first summer in Guyana. I tried pasty lotions and wide-brimmed hats, long sleeves in the midday heat. Still, I turned bright red: I shone like a cherry. Miss, like ya get burn up? my students said, pressing a finger onto the red glow of my shoulder. Ya must careful! Sun hot! But there was nothing I could do. Skin peeled from the part in my hair. Light streamed through my gauzy curtains, and when I left the house it burned through my clothes. It colored my days and savaged my pores until I was red and raw, until I could no longer remember what it was to be touched without wincing.
There are no vestigial British aristocrats in Guyana, none of the prim, post-colonial garden parties you might imagine in Barbados or Jamaica. The English lost sanity in the heat, counting up mosquitoes by the thousands. Eventually they gave up and sent Scottish farmers to oversee the plantations, leaving behind generations of McCurdy’s and Douglases. I was one of only a few hundred white faces in the city, and the others were ravaged like mine. Guyanese call albinos “devil-whip.” Blue-eyed and freckled, their skin is tawny and thick like a scar. The Guyanese with Portuguese ancestors have wrinkles that crumple their skin, starburst lines radiating out to their bleached hair. Every evening in my mirror I saw the day’s burnings. In their faces, I saw a lifetime’s.
Coastal life in Guyana is a temporary concession between two powerful neighbors: to the North, the Atlantic which mingles its muddy brown into the clear Caribbean Ocean miles off the coast; to the South, the “Interior,” vast jungles, savannahs, river ways and mountains, inhabited by some of the rarest flora and fauna in the world. The land is massive, thousands of tracts of virgin rainforest stretching across to Venezuela and Suriname, down to the Brazilian border. I lived, as the majority of the population does, in a narrow band of cultivation along a one-road highway, just miles from blackwater creeks that wind down to Kaieteur, one of the most powerful single-drop waterfalls in the world. Humans have created a viable habitat here, growing rice and sugar, irrigating fields, and building roads. These tasks are backbreaking and require constant diligence to maintain. When abandoned the land quickly reverts to overgrowth. Life here is a constant campaign against an encroaching jungle.
There is lore that North Americans adjust over time, that their blood thins (or is it thickens?) in the constant heat. This did not happen for me. From the night of my arrival at Timehri airport, I sported small beads of moisture across my forehead and nose. My Guyanese friends laughed at my inability to “acclimatize,” and took to pointing out how often I was sweating when they were not even hot. My constitutional deficit plagued me, and I wondered how others managed to rise to the demands of tropical living. Sun and insects were the grounding factors of my life, the burns and bites a constant reminder of where I was, and the physical battle I was always losing.
The sun was at the heart of it, impassive, granting its twelve hours of sunlight to all equally. Yet its constancy made it seem a foreign sun, very different from the one that had once merely tanned my skin and warmed my face. Because Guyana is just north of the Equator, daily, throughout every month of every year, the sun is at its strongest, rising at 6:00, setting at 6:00. It often seemed to pulse with white light, and it is this sensation that I remember most, a constant rippling that emanated from this blinding yellow ball in the sky.
From the sun came the heat, which seemed to bear down separately, an unwelcome layer resting on you, as willful as another being. It felt like many small children clinging to my body: one at my hip, two on my legs, another splayed across my chest and head. At first they are manageable, benign, but they soon begin to get heavy. You can’t put them down, they are clutching at you. Other times it seemed a parasite. My body was inhabited. I became a complex system for the simple act of diffusing heat.
My burns always surprised me. They seemed to appear from the inside out, a new layer of skin forcing its way to the top, then peeling off in delicate ribbons. My fingertips, as they had applied the lotion, were often visible in the outline of crimson. In a vain attempt to stem the pattern, I once sat under an awning for hours at a school event. My colleagues laughed at me at the end of the day, Miss Katrin, like ya still get red! Every part that wasn’t covered — my face, arms and neck—was singed. I learned later that I had been burned from the reflection of the sun off the grass.