Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Kaieteur Falls and its Impact on the Patamona Race


This report investigates the ways in which the existence of Kaieteur Falls, Guyana’s most treasured natural wonder, has shaped the history, the beliefs, and the lifestyle of the people who found it first. It is based on discussions and observations in the village of Chenapou, where I lived from September 2013 to August 2014. As my primary school teaching project in the village progressed, it became apparent that the most strongly debated issues in the community were in some way linked to Kaieteur.

The fates of the people and the waterfall are inexorably entwined in a story of survival: of the old against the new; the powerful against the poor; and the ancestral, spiritual bond that links person to place.

As part of their commitment to project trust, every volunteer is asked to write a 'community study' on a topic of their choice. If you are interested in reading my full report, click the link below.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Home Again

Chenapou is a place without seconds or minutes, a place without appointments or deadlines. In Chenapou each day on the calendar is identical to the one before it- a question mark, a dawn bringing along any piece of work that happens to crop up, any trip that comes to mind.

The seasons pass and silently dictate the patterns of cutting, burning, planting and reaping out at the farms. The rains come and go, playing with the river, trying to catch the people out, but they’re always ready to go, when the time is right for fishing. Around them, the forest creeps up, wrapping itself around the village, but they’re always ready to cut it back and defend their land. When food runs short, they’re always ready to bake cassava bread and boil fresh buckets of cassiri. When they need a little money, they’re always ready to head into the mines and find some gold or diamond. And when everything is just fine, when food is plentiful, crafts are finished and farms are growing… they are ready to do absolutely nothing. Once their work is done, the days can drift by casually and contentedly.

Life in Chenapou has a purpose- survival.

I am now back in a world of distractions. I am back in a world where survival is no longer the goal, and we have to make up artificial aims in life, create problems for ourselves where there were none to begin with. Here, excess is more of a problem than shortage, and choosing what to do is more of a challenge than finding something to do.

Every second of our lives, if we are not working or asleep, we must be occupied somehow, watching this, listening to that, browsing those or chatting to them. There is no down-time, no empty space.
We are so busy being productive, but what are we producing? It all seems ridiculous to me now, the things we find to worry about and fill our time with, simply because surviving is far too easy a target. But I know this is my world, I couldn’t escape it forever.

After feeling the nip of a cold Scottish breeze on my face, closing the front door and finding myself back at home, it almost seemed like I had never left. Chenapou felt very, very far away.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Backdam

“No, of course I won’t bother taking my raincoat” I knew I was wrong the moment the first drop of rain landed on my shoulder. Ben was probably cursing me already for changing his mind about his own raincoat (But we never need raincoats when we do bring them!). The next thing I knew I was hunched awkwardly to the side in an attempt to keep as much of myself as possible under a little piece of tarpaulin, that covered our bags and a 4 year-old boy. Through the darkness our boat swept, black trees towering above us but giving no shelter from the hammering tropical rain that stung our faces, soaked our skin, made our teeth chatter, and kept the bailer-man busy. Thunder rumbled across the forest above the drone of the boat’s engine, as the last drops of colour drained from the sky and the six of us braced ourselves against the cold wind.

It was hard to believe that just an hour or so earlier I had been comfortably lazing in a rocking chair, soaking up the day’s last rays of golden sunshine, when a call and footsteps on the stairs snapped my attention away from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In less than two minutes, we had been recruited as workers for three days in the gold mines, and had started packing frantically to catch the ‘Just Now’ boat. Nothing like short-notice. Just before we left, out went the raincoat- “won’t be needing that”.

Eddie, the man who had invited us, kept the cold away by keeping up the chat throughout the journey. It was still a relief to pull in at the camp by the glowing embers of a fire and warm our insides with hot, spicy ‘tuma’, freshly caught fish and some cassava bread, before climbing into dry hammocks and sleeping bags.

A mining camp is quite a simple affair. Firstly there is the kitchen- where an old piece of oil drum acts as a wood burning stove and a picnic bench is put together with a few boards. Outside the kitchen is the washing-up table where the plates, spoons and mugs are kept with soap and containers of water. The camp cook’s only job is to havehot meals ready for the workers three times a day- to fuel the man power in the mines with rice or bakes, porridge or cassava bread. Then there is the worker’s camp-  a frame made from straight, sturdy branches and sheltered by a big tarpaulin. Some camps have extras, like kerosene stoves or even a generator, but this one here was lit at night only by flickering orange petrol lamps. All around, the forest, thick and wild, encircles the little camp, apart from at the landing where the Potaro rushes past, deep and black.

The backdam. We were finally going to the fabled backdam, the place where fortunes are won or lost, the place where men spend their lives scouring the land for sparkling diamonds and gold dust, the place where sweat and diesel is exchanged for those precious minerals that so many families now depend on for their little money. To the boss, the owner of an operation, working the backdam is gambling. It is investment on a huge scale- the camps, the engines, the pipes, the workers, the fuel and the food- it all comes out of their pocket, before the first grain of gold can be found. They might double their money, they might multiply it tenfold. Or they might lose every penny of it. The taste of success always keeps them at it though- who knows where the next $8m diamond is? Some have the option of settling down to a regular job with monthly wages, but the possibility of making millions in a few days’ work in the backdam always draws them back. It is almost an addiction.

Let’s face it; I’m never going to be a miner. I’m useless at using my hands, I care too much about my hearing, I’m weak and feeble I don’t understand engines, and I’m too much of a pessimist to believe  that there is any gold to be found.

To me, the backdam had no glamour, it had no thrill. It was simply brutality. What was another patch of untouched rainforest, teeming with life and lush vegetation, became a battlefield, where clanking diesel engines, men with axes and a power-hose waged war against nature. Tons of earth and sand were blasted to oblivion with the water jet, undermining roots, sending mighty trees down to their deaths. Cutlasses hacked away from above, slashing vines, slicing the soil and sending ants and centipedes and worms scurrying for their lives. The calls of the birds and the beetles were drowned by the deafening, machine-gun din echoing through the forest from the two old engines. All day long, filthy brown water, mixed with fuel, was pumped round in an endless circuit from pool to pit and back by hungry, sucking pipes. The result of the battle was an ugly mess of discarded roots, fallen trees, gaping holes and swathes of white sand.

Back in that rocking chair, a few days later, I sat examining my earnings. With the mercury burned off, my half-pennyweight of gold looked a little more attractive, and I found myself pondering over a mixture of feelings- satisfaction, wonder, guilt, and greed. Hidden away in those mountains of dirt and sand, these grains of wealth had been lying, all along. But was it ever mine to take? What was the true cost of extracting the gold from its home? And, despite all my criticisms, why do I feel the urge to go back for more?

Below are some pictures of a backdam that we visited a few days before the work I have described. 

Checking for diamonds
Beating the gold from the mat
A few hard days' work
Trying out the jet for the first time

A more experienced 'jetter'

Saturday, 24 May 2014

To Karisparau, And Back

To Karisaparau, And Back

A team of just three
Set off in the rain
To reach Karisparau
And reach back again.

Stumbled over trees
That fell in their way,
Went up to their knees
In mud, sand and clay,

Treaded carefully on
Moss covered logs,
Marched up the steep hills,
Trudged through the bogs,

Ducked under branches,
Slashed through the vines,
Walked on the big road,
And old narrow lines.

A trio of times
They stopped, as if dead-
A snake for each man
Directly ahead.

One brown, one red,
The black one the longest,
All slithered like spirits,
Melted into the forest.

A bad omen,
The forest people say,
To meet so much evil
All in one day.

But at last they arrived
After hours of sweat.
With sunshine and grasslands
They were warmly met.

With a view to the hills,
Their hammocks were hung,
Their freshly washed clothes
Placed out in the sun.

Before they had departed
They were told to expect
Silence and emptiness which was
Completely correct;

Barely a soul passed by 
For the visitors to meet
In the so-called village centre,
Whilst they rested their tired feet.

Time passed by,
And they could not forget
That their long journey
Was not over yet
(In search of that rarity,
A spot of internet)!

Ninety minutes more
They were on the road,
Behind great green mountains,
The orange sunset glowed.

Crossing the savannah
On a dry, sandy track,
With thirst longing to be quenched
In a creek cool and black.

If it was water they wished for,
Their dreams came full true,
Once at Karisparau airstrip,
In that fateful storm blew.

A deafening roar on the 
Roof of the shop,
Whilst they sat glumly inside
And prayed it would stop.

A pack of sweet biscuits
Was all they would get,
And there was no hope now
Of that internet.

Weary and drained,
They thought of the spot,
Where before it had rained,
They had hung their hammocks.

And when the storm passed,
Into the dark night
The three men dragged
Their feet by torchlight.

Each step was a struggle-
In the soft sand they sank.
They were up to their knees,
In a creek burst its banks...

When a voice in the darkness
Like an angel in the gloom,
Called them to return
And sleep sound in a room.

Perhaps this kindess
Saved those men from the worst-
Whatever apon them,
Those three snakes had cursed,

For not long after,
Raged a second fierce storm,
But by a stranger's sympathy
They were safe, dry and warm.

And when a clear day dawned
There was toast and sweet tea,
Even the internet worked
(For one of the three).

With all the gratitude
They could find,
They paid their hosts
And made up their mind

To stretch their stiff legs,
Move their heavy bones,
Pack up their bags,
And head for their home.

Stumbled over those trees,
That lay in their way,
Tried to avoid
All that mud sand and clay,

Balanced again on those 
Moss-covered logs,
Marched down the steep hills
And trudged through more bogs,

Ducked under branches,
Slashed through the vines,
Walked on the big road
And old narrow lines.

A team of just three,
Arrived home in the rain.
They'd reached Karisparau
And reached back again.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

An "Ordinary Day"

This is the most boring blog post ever. At least from my point of view- it's just everyday life. But perhaps to you the little differences might be of some interest.

To be specific, this was Thursday 20th March, 2014.

6am- Recall my alarm clock that went off at 5.15. At least in Chenapou it doesn't usually matter what time I get up. I get out of my hammock and put on long trousers and a jumper- to keep the last of the mozzies off and because 22 degrees is cold. I sit down to take down measurements of old toilet rolls and cut out coloured paper, in preparation for an art lesson involving rockets. When Ben gets up rain is falling hard, and he has the genius idea of showering under the gutter. It is the perfect, quick, power-shower without having to get cold walking to the river.

7am- Haven't made any breakfast yet because I can't stomach rice this morning, and we don't have any baking powder. At last Claude comes to open the little co-op shop next door and I buy a pack and begin mixing some monkey ears (quick fried bakes). Whilst baking I sip some tea- made with just 2 teabags between us instead of the usual 3- we're getting low and Sandra still isn't back from town with our new box.

8am- Finish off the day's lesson plans in my big pink book. Pack the things I need, swallow a doxy capsule and a vitamin supplement (when's the last time I had a piece of fruit?). Completely forget to shave before school for the first time all year.

9am- Nursery building is pleasantly quiet this morning as I say Guten Morgen to Grade 2 (Germany is this week's country of the week). I play guitar for their rendition of the Wheels on the Bus. For a change, we start the day with some science. I show them the cooled wax and butter that we melted in an experiment yesterday afternoon, to the fascination of the children, who happily get to work drawing diagrams to show the results. After most are finished and some pinned up on a display chart, we move on to English. To practise rhyming words, I set them the task of collecting sets of rhyming word cards in teams. The tricky bit is then using our knowledge of phonics to read properly all of the words, but we seem to be getting better at that before break time.

10.40am- Maths. A large set of cardboard 10s and 1s are coming in very useful these days, and today I just focus on the tens (or boxes of marbles if you prefer). We count in tens, and practise reading 10, 20... 90. I then give them their 1-100 number charts and in teams they race to place coins on the numbers I dictate. Everybody starts to get a bit excited after this so I hand out their books for them to do some exercises involving 10s, 1s, addition, and telling the time.

12 noon- I am getting very bored of my diet at the moment. Carbs, carbs, and more carbs... and it just got even more depressing because lunch is bare rice, with not even a bean or lentil to cheer it up. I might've lost hope if Ben hadn't arrived with some Bananas he had been gifted. Fruit at last!

1pm- Without really meaning to, I end up teaching Grade 2 to sing a German song about ducklings (from that book that Granny sent at Christmas) before we go outside for story time. We are now onto George's Marvellous Medicine, which hasn't quite caught the kids' imaginations as much as Fantastic Mr Fox, as they don't have a clue what half the things that George puts into his medicine are. I think they'll enjoy it more once Granny grows through the roof at least. After story time we practice writing 't's and 'p's in handwriting.

2pm- At last time for those rockets! Grade 2 happily get busy cutting and sticking and designing. Thank you to Viewlands Primary- it was the money you raised that allowed me to get the materials to do things like this. We run over time a bit but what does that matter when they're having fun? And still they insist they want to practise their spelling words before home time! I say Guten Tag and dismiss the class apart from those who's turn it is on the rota to help clean up the classroom.

3pm- I finish my marking then head over to Miss Bev's house to ask for some string. She isn't in so I wait near by and get fed some rice and cassiri. Once I have the string I go back to school to string up the rockets and suspend them above the classroom. On my way back I pass Ben with a couple of boys showing him how to shoot birds.

5pm- After that rice and cassiri I don't need any dinner, and I just sit down to write some of this blogpost before the mosquitos come out. Ben makes some quick noodles when he comes in.

6pm- Before it gets dark I head down to the river for a freshen up. I take some washing but in the drizzle and the breeze I'm feeling too cold to stand around. It's just a case of in, out, soap, in, out. Back home for a cup of lemongrass tea and a leftover monkey ear.

7pm- Head to my hammock for an early night, as there's not much else to do in our dark house, apart from cockroach hunting. During the night the chigger in my foot throbs and I curse myself for forgetting to remove it.

So there it is, another day over.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Kayik Tuak- Part 4, Fishing

For the tourists that fly in from Georgetown, walking the trails around Kaieteur Falls probably feels like quite the jungle experience.  There are few sign posts, the trails are quite uneven and to get to one of the viewpoints you even have to walk under some giant boulders where all manner of snakes could be lurking. They should try fishing with the locals.

Ben and I thought we were going to be fishing from a canoe, so we just went out in our flip-flops. What actually happened was that we drove down river from Menzie's Landing towards the falls, and turned off at a creek with some rapids at its mouth. We then stumbled and tripped our way along an invisible 'path' along the creek's edge that consisted of thick vegetation, roots, fallen trees, spiky plants, razor grass, slippery moss, rotten logs, swamps, creeks, sinking piles of dry leaves, muddy banks, hanging vines, and the possibility of snakes around every corner. Indeed, one member of the party spotted a metre long snake sliding into the water.

So the two of us amateurs would just about battle our way to a spot by the creek and get our lines in the water, only to look up and find that everybody else had caught another three fish and gracefully disappeared into the bush ahead of us. What little time we did spend fishing, instead of just keeping up, was only 50% successful as both of us dropped half our catch back into the water whilst trying to get it off the hook.

In the end, Ben took 3 fish and I took 2. Fazal, the 10 year old boy, had taken 18 from the creek in the same time. Looks like we'll need a bit of practice, and to remember our boots next time somebody suggests a fishing trip.

For our last morning at Kaieteur, it was necessary to have some kind of grand finale. This time, when we made the walk from Menzie's Landing, we took our hammocks. After a refreshing bathe in the water above the falls, taking care not to go too deep, and an atmospheric walk around the jungle in the mist, unsuccesfully looking for the cock of the rock (google image that), the hammocks were slung between two trees, right on a viewpoint, a few paces from the cliff edge. From here we could at last lie back in extreme comfort, one with an unobstructed view of the waterfall, the other with the endless green valley in front of him. Snacks were bough from the visitor centre, the sun came out, and even some of the swifts came out to play. I don't believe there is a better 'hammock spot' anywhere in the world.

6 hours later, I found myself in a familiar position. Curled over, back aching, under a blue tarpaulin that now smelled of fish as well as smoke. Damp, cold, and hungry. By the time the 15 HP engine coughed and spluttered and simply ran out of fuel, Ben and I said "thank you very much, we'll walk from here".

As we trudged through the dripping wet rainforest all I could thinkabout was being warm, dry, and inside a hammock. Spag-bol would have to wait, but hot chocolate and a bowl of farine would do the job.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Kayik Tuak- Part 3, Home of the Great Spirit

...Lying flat on your front, sprawled out over an overhaning rock with your head cautiously peering over the edge, you can watch the waterfall from top to bottom, at a distance of perhaps 10m from the water. It is impossible to retain any sense of scale or distance, gazing down to the rumbling chaos below. The water, that so innocently curves over the lip of the cliff, calming accepting its fate, gradually, as if in slow motion, stretches out and cascades into the nothingness of thin air. Jets of water seem to race each other past half-way, before finally shattering into a million shards of white and entering the stormy pool below, where waves crash into boulders, and swirling winds sweep spray into the the sky. 

A strange world exists around the plunge pool, of rocks that are vivid green, and plants that look tiny but are perhaps as tall as trees. And then, beyond the mighty, overhanging cavern, past the cliffs, a rainbow in the spray hangs in front of the valley. The valley stretches far into the distance, the Potaro snaking its way through the bottom, recovered from it's rough journey down the mountain. Everything else is solid green, up to the horizon, trees, trees, trees.

In order to spend as little time as possible at Menzie's Landing, and as much time as possible at one of the most beautiful natural wonders of the world, I made the half hour walk to Kaieteur, and then back, no less than 7 times over the course of the weekend. By the airstrip (a magnificent piece of engineering twice as wide as Chenapou's, and smoother than Paramakatoi's) there was an arrival centre for the tourists, that came in small batches for a couple of hours each day.

The centre was a good place to visit because a) you could buy snacks there, b) there was a telephone to call home from and c) there was a toilet, and toilet paper. On top of this, it gave us a chance to ogle at tourists; strange creatures with American accents, fancy clothes, watches and cameras. They sprayed each other with insect repellent and drank bottled water. With our long boots on and a cutlass strapped to my bag, we felt magnificently un-touristy, especially when we chatted to the guides like friends, as they were mostly from Chenapou.

Then the tourists would grab their new Kaiteur National Park caps and t-shirts and mugs, climb back into their planes, and a few minutes later peace and quiet and emptiness would return to the jungle. That was what made Kaieteur so special. For the remaining 22 hours of the day, one of the largest waterfalls in the world was entirely ours.

I thought it couldn't get any better, sitting in this untouched piece of paradise in the evening, with nothing to do but contemplate life, waterfalls, and how marvellous nature is. Then the swifts arrived, in their thousands. They flocked high in the sky, soaring gracefully and swerving around and flowing like water, then, as the reached the lip of the falls, they too dropped and cascaded down into the gorge, diving with terrific speed. But then they would turn, and duck through the spray, behing the wall of water, into the cavern that had been hollowed out of the mountain for them. No wonder, I thought, that the Patamona people once regarded this as the home of the 'Great Spirit'. I know where I would choose to live if I were 'Makanaima'.