Margaretta Pos – Galibi
The open boat drifted in to shore under cover of darkness and slipping over the side, we waded onto the beach in French Guiana. I didn’t have a visa, or even my Australian passport with me, so I was entering French territory in South America illegally but I didn’t think about it.
Hugo Pos on a ferry boat, 1997
I was thinking about my father.
It was June, when the sea turtles make their annual pilgrimage to the equatorial region to lay their eggs and we went ashore silently for fear of disturbing them. We had crossed the Marowijne River from Galibi, in Suriname, at its vast mouth into the Atlantic Ocean. It took an hour in one of the big, motorised canoes that ply the river, with the boatman cutting the engine for a quiet landing. There were no life jackets. Not that it really mattered, I told myself, because of the possibility of piranhas lurking beneath the surface of the water. Even scarier was the thought of one of my father’s stories, of being in a canoe when a huge, plate-sized tarantula materialised from under an empty seat.
My father, Hugo Pos, had visited Galibi in 1975 when in Paramaribo for the former Dutch colony’s independence celebrations. Finding it overwhelming, he left the capital for Albina, a small town on the Marowijne where he’d enjoyed family holidays before leaving his homeland for Holland. It was the perfect place to escape from the hullabaloo, and about which he was to write: Albina was, as I had known it always, peaceful, sunny, imperturbable, with just a little life happening by the riverbanks, where Indian and Bush Negro boatmen moored or prepared for a new journey along the river.
He couldn’t relax however, and engaged an Indian boatman for an expedition to Galibi, planning to spend the night there on a coconut plantation. Once highly productive, he found it badly run down but was welcomed politely, if unenthusiastically, by the couple living in the manager’s house – Marinus and Louise – who offered him a drink.
He raised his glass to the country’s independence and his hosts gave him a strange look: ‘The Indians,’ Marinus started to say, but nothing followed. Talkative they were not. I had to guess what they wanted to say. It could be that their words had no meaning, that the emptiness of their existence in this decaying plantation had also settled on their use of words. Again Marinus started. ‘The Indians,’ but again he stopped. Did he want to say that between the Indians and the recent declaration of independence there was an unbridgeable chasm? … My ears were still ringing with the big words and speeches I had heard in Paramaribo. It was all nation building, national brotherhood, and nation above all.
Three decades later, I knew the future had not fulfilled its promise of national brotherhood, but I was focussed on my father’s story and my initial destination of Albina. It was the wet season and we jolted along the pot-holed, waterlogged dirt road in a battered old mini bus until we reached our lunch stop, when it teemed with rain and delayed our departure. One of the others on the same expedition pulled out a paperback. To my astonishment it was a copy of one of my father’s books, De Ongewisse Tijd- Uncertain Times – and in it was his story about Galibi.
“I’m his daughter,” I said.
I explained that I was born in Tasmania during his short-lived, post World War II marriage to my Australian mother. In turn, my fellow traveller was astonished and we embraced, delighted by the coincidence of our journey together in the author’s footsteps.
There is a photo of my father on the back cover, taken in Albina. On the front, there’s a photo of a rusting, tin shanty next to a billboard: Bienvenue au Suriname. Welcome to Suriname … but for anyone crossing the river from French Guiana, it’s a dispiriting scene.The photos were taken in 1997 when Hugo returned to Albina after an absence of more than twenty years, after the civil war that had killed the early promise of nationhood. It was after this trip that he wrote the Galibi story, in which he said: There is nothing left of Albina. The village will be rebuilt eventually, but the picturesque waterfront will not be there.
A decade later, I am there and Albina is a sprawling shantytown. But he is dead and I cannot tell him.
The market was in full swing with local produce and cheap goods from China, made by the poor for the poor for the benefit of someone else. It was a shock to find ubiquitous Chinese goods flooding into this small town known to few and I was glad to find a stall selling the hats favoured by both Creoles and Bush Negro women – descendants of slaves who escaped into jungle – made from brightly coloured, starched cloth, folded and pinned in an African style. I rejoined my companions wearing a hat and one of our group took a photo of me with my father’s book, before a downpour washed out the starch and the fabric flopped over my eyes, shutting out the squalor of his once beloved retreat.
We went from Albina to Galibi by motorised canoe, arriving at dusk when the mosquitoes were humming a vengeful song. We slathered ourselves in tropical-strength repellent high in toxic diethyleoliame, but it was better than being bitten at Warana Lodge, where we shared small, hot, airless bedrooms, each with two hard, narrow beds.
Dinner was prepared by local villagers and served by Hubert, our Carib Indian guide, who surprised us by saying he had a two-year old daughter in Paris. A French anthropologist had spent a year in the region studying local customs, particularly musical traditions and his daughter, a dancer, had come on a visit and stayed for several months. Hubert had little education, but like many Indians on the Suriname side of the Marowijne who criss-cross the river, he could speak some French and they became friends, then lovers. When she returned to Paris, she had given birth to a child. He planned to visit them; they might marry, he might even stay in France.
Hubert spoke animatedly about his daughter, of how she would be brought up with two cultures. He was tall, lean and handsome and I imagined him falling in love with the dancer and she with him. The child must be beautiful and I asked to see a photograph of her. To my surprise, Hubert fell silent before saying he had none with him. Lying on my bed that night, under a mosquito net with holes in it, I wondered if the child would visit her father’s village when she grew up, just as I was visiting my father’s country. But as I drifted off to sleep, my thoughts returned to my father’s story, to Marinus and Louise, and I wondered about their lives in this remote place.
Remote as it was, Galibi was an Allied intelligence post during World War II. Suriname is rich in bauxite, needed in the United States for the wartime production of planes for the Allies. French Guiana, however, was under the Vichy regime and provided a base for German raiders deployed in the Atlantic to sink the bauxite cargo ships. A few brave men risked their lives in crossing the river, to pass on information gleaned about German shipping movements. One who dared was a fearless, handsome young man called Jean Christophe. What fate eventually befell him, Marinus and Louise told my father, they didn’t know, but when they had a longed for child, they named him Jean Christophe.
The conversation moved on. It was the wrong season, but my father said he hoped to return one day to see the turtles laying their eggs in the sand.
“The warana,” Louise whispered. The sea turtles.
Walking up to the house from the river, my father had seen a tombstone in the garden:
Mort pour la defense des tortues
Friend of the turtles
God save his soul
When Louise whispered ‘Jean Christophe,’ he realised the inscription was for their son. Their beloved only child. And at the mention of his name, a torrent of words poured from their lips. They talked animatedly about their son, who grew up with the local Indian children. When he was older, the boy daily crossed the river to French Guiana to go to school in St Laurent and became fluent in French. He developed an intense interest in the natural world and read books in French on the subject which they bought him and which they showed my father with pride, books they themselves were unable to read.
The boy spent many nights with the Indians on the beaches on either side of the mouth of the river. They collected turtle eggs, to eat and to sell, while he tried to protect the eggs, from them and from their dogs. And when the eggs hatched, he tried to help the baby turtles reach the sea, shocked that the mother turtles had so carelessly abandoned their eggs. Tragically, he met an unknown fate. It was thought that he swam too far into the ocean while shepherding baby turtles to safety and was killed by sharks. His body was never recovered but fishermen caught some of his luxurious, curly hair in their nets and gave it to his grieving parents, who buried it beneath the headstone.
“He must have been a wonderful boy,” my father said to his parents. “May I see a photograph of him?”
Hugo Pos in a canoe on the Maroni River, 1997
They fell silent. The atmosphere was so highly charged that with a gesture of regret, my father left the house and spent the night on the beach where mosquitoes feasted upon him. Penance, he thought, as he wondered why they were so upset. He had wanted to see a photo of the boy to bring him to life. He came to the conclusion that for them, to produce a photo of their son would have the opposite effect; it would not be an affirmation of life but proof of his death.
When my father returned to Galibi in 1997, Marinus and Louise were dead. Walking around the grounds he noticed the tombstone for their son was gone and asked the elderly Creole woman living in the derelict house what had happened to it. She was astonished: Their son? Where did you get that idea! They had no son. In a flash, he realised that in their loneliness, they had invented a son, an extraordinary, special, unique child. And he understood that in asking to see his image, he was the unintentional cause of his death.
I imagine that Marinus and Louise, after my visit, because of a simple question, were confronted with the unreality of his existence and removed the tombstone, and maybe even threw it into the river. This was a completely different kind of death, so complete that it dragged away the whole of Marinus and Louise’s past existence. For them, there was no more Jean Christophe, life with him was over; so was theirs. I, who was the cause of his death, am now the only person who can make his life continue … not with a memorial headstone, but as a presence, on the beaches of Galibi, with the turtles.
When he finally saw the turtles, which he did on this visit, he refrained from taking any photographs. He couldn’t. It would be sacrilege, he thought, given what had happened. Instead, he wrote a story, in which to bring Jean Christophe to life.
Without the burden of Jean Christophe’s ghost, I took a lot of photographs.
The turtles were laying their eggs on the French side of the Marowijne and we rose early to get there before dawn. It was cool and clear and we passed the twinkling lights of St Laurent that seemed to reflect the wondrously starlit sky. Arriving at our destination, we waded ashore and waited. Suddenly, a huge leatherback turtle rose out of the water and with rowing motions of her front legs, laboured up the beach and began digging in the sand. After the effort exerted in making a hole, the turtle went into a trance before laying her eggs. Coming out of it, she covered the hole with sand, again with the strange rowing motion, and headed back into the Atlantic. As the dawn shimmered over us, dozens of turtles heaved themselves out of the water and up the beach, repeating the same ancient ritual.
To my horror, a pack of village dogs burst onto the beach, barking in excitement whenever they found a nest, digging frantically and devouring the eggs. At the same time, a party of French scientists suddenly appeared from a village just out of sight. They ignored the dogs, erected a transportable pulley system and when a turtle went into a trance nearby, they moved swiftly. A needle was inserted into her to withdraw a phial of blood for research, she was measured; the flap in front of her pouch was opened and the eggs, and there were dozens, were removed by a scientist lying on the beach behind her. The lifting device was then placed over her, a harness fitted and she was winched into the air. The scales recorded 435.6 kilos. Lowered to the ground, she came out of her trance and returned immediately to the sea.
Aitkanti (giant turtle) on the beach of Galibi
One of group had a questionnaire in case of meeting eco tourists on the beach, of which we were the only ones, and he approached me. He was young, earnest and handsome, twenty years old, with thick, curly hair. Studying at the Sorbonne, he had volunteered for the project and had fallen in love with the turtles. Such extraordinary, prehistoric creatures, contemporaries of the dinosaur, he told me passionately. Endangered ancient mariners roaming the seas; he wanted to do what he could to help them, to save them for generations to come.
The questionnaire was straightforward. Name? Where did I come from? How old? Where did I hear about the nesting beaches? How had I got there? Had my guide told me flashlights were prohibited? That I couldn’t touch the turtles? There were other questions in the same vein and I answered them all, enamoured by his passion, wanting to help him but glad he hadn’t asked if I had a visa.
“Thank you,” he said.
I asked his name.
He gave me a dazzling smile.
When I was home again in Hobart, I had my photos printed and spread them all out on a table.Albina. Galibi. Hubert. The group. The river. The beach. The turtles. The French scientists. The bucket of turtle eggs.
Suddenly, my heart skipped a beat.
There before me was a series of a young man, standing beside a turtle, bending over her and crouching protectively beside her as she laid her eggs in the sand.
It was Jean Christophe.
There are three more photos in the sequence.In one, he is crawling beside the turtle as she lumbers back towards the water. In the next, he is swimming beside her. And in the final picture, there is just the sea. He is gone.
Hugo Pos, De Ongewisse Tijd (Uncertain Times), In de Knipscheer Publishers, Haarlem, The Netherlands, 1999. The short story, ‘De Stranden van Galibi’ (The Beaches of Galibi), translated from Dutch into English by Goshwin Pos.
All pictures: @ Michiel van Kempen