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A poem by Nicholas Laughlin

Published in The Strange Years of My Life

Everything Went Wrong

Don’t mention my name in your letters.
Don’t write down my address.
In fact, better not write letters at all.
Better no one knows that you can write.

You’ll know not to drink the water.
You’ll know not to travel by night.
Don’t carry foreign banknotes.
Never give your name when you pay the bill.

You will need a shot at the border.
The needles are perfectly safe.
Yellow fever can’t be allowed to pass.
I knew a man who died in just three days.

The weather turned truly nasty.
It flooded ten miles around.
A boat capsized. A box was swept away.
I couldn’t afford to bribe the customs guard.

Don’t trust the maps: they are fictions.
Don’t trust the guides: they drink.
In this country there’s no such thing as “true north.”
Don’t trust natives. Don’t trust fellow travellers.

Better no one knows you sleep alone.
Already no one remembers you at home.

I knew a man who died in just three days”: said to me by a Canadian man, an official of a gold-mining company, at breakfast one morning at the Georgetown Club, on my first visit to Guyana. I’d been travelling in the interior for two weeks and came back to town with a fever. The Canadian saw I was unwell and cheerfully advised me to get a malaria test. Luckily there was a clinic just a block away. The slip of paper with my “negative”’ test result is my favourite souvenir of that trip.

I probably borrowed the “swept away” box from Robert Schomburgk’s Guiana journals, but the rest of the poem is fiction (more or less). I have never considered bribing a customs guard.



Read more poems by Nicholas Laughlin