Monday, 30 December 2013

First Impressions

After a week of life in Chenapou, I jotted down some first impressions, and a description of our house.

Chenapou is a peaceful place, and sitting out on the steps at night to eat our dinner, beneath a starry sky, watching the flashes of distant lightening illuminating the horizon, is a real contrast to the hectic and noisy job of a primary 2 teacher. Instead of twenty voices shouting “Sir! Sir!” all we can hear are the noises of the jungle, the insects and the birds. Around us in the darkness little pinpricks of light appear and disappear; the fireflies going about their lives.

We are invaders here, as humans. However hard the village tries to claim this land as it’s own, the forest will always find its way in. The plants and animals see no boundary between jungle and village. Everywhere you look, there is life.

Every patch of land that is not regularly cleared is thick with vegetation, every trail is narrow and lines by towering trees on either side. The houses are hidden away in all directions with large tracts of wilderness between them.

We occupy the left hand side of this building.
Our quarters, the teacher’s quarters, are located just opposite the school buildings. They are starting to feel like home now, after a hard weekend of scrubbing, wiping, brushing and sweeping. The building is raised a whole storey above the ground on stilts, keeping us a little further away from the creepy crawlies and snakes. This does not stop the cockroaches from infesting the place, or hundreds of moths from filling the roof when the light is on at night. The electricity for our light is generated by one small solar panel.

Wall, partially cleaned.
When rain falls on our zinc roof the noise can be deafening, but we know it means that the tank outside the house will be filling up nicely with fresh water. The kitchen tap is broken so we have to take all of our water from the low bathroom tap. After being passed through a filter, the water seems to be fine for drinking, although we still use purification tablets for now as  a precaution. The toilet doesn't work, so we have to fill up a bucket in order to flush it.

Next to one of the doors we have a long table at which I'm writing, and a couple of slat windows which can be tilted to shut out or allow in the breeze. The main part of the room is large enough to be furnished with a desk, a bench and a rocking chair. This chair feels almost unbearably uncomfortable however, and I whack my shins on it every time I walk past. Above head height the room is criss-crossed by three washing lines.

The kitchen is now reasonably clean and well equipped, after some intensive scrubbing and picking up a box of crockery left behind at the shop by last year's volunteers. We have the luxury of our new wok that we bought in Georgetown too, making cooking pancakes and doing the washing up a lot easier. The more we contemplate the length of time we are here for, the smaller and smaller our food supplies are starting to look. We are cooking breakfast and dinner for ourselves, and find the only difficulty is lighting the smelly, sooty old kerosene stove, on which the adjustment knob is stuck.

Our bedrooms are the only parts of the house that still need to be washed down with bleach, and their floors and the only floors that still need all of the grime and dust brushed out from the cracks between the floorboards. They now feel horribly dirty compared to the rest of the house!

We sleep in our hammocks, stretched diagonally across the bedrooms over the top of the beds, now without their dirty looking mattresses, which we have banished to the empty part of the house next door. At night it gets quite cool and we tuck into our sleeping bags. This is blissful compared to sweating through the night as we did in Georgetown.

Ben is finishing off the task of cleaning the bathroom, which he has been working at diligently for most of the day. The room consists of a toilet (pearly white after cleaning, but the seat is broken) and a washing area with some buckets. I much prefer bathing in the river.

After a hot day's work at school, there is nothing more relaxing and refreshing than a dip in the cool water of the Potaro, and looking up and own to the endless rainforest around you, listening to the incredible sounds, feeling so free and distant from your old city life.

The people of  Chenapou have already made us feel welcome. We have so far been gifted a bunch of bananas, a sour apple (nothing like our apples) and a couple of pears (more like an avocado). Lots of people in the village keep pet parrots and other colourful birds. Last Friday afternoon, whilst Ben and I tried our first bit of Cassiri, the local staple drink made from cassava, we met a green parrot who seemed to be able to say my name after a little training. The people also keep many chickens; the cockerels wake us up every morning, then peck around the yard for scraps of food. There are pet dogs, too, but they look dreadfully underfed.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Starting work. The next day.

Another diary entry. We arrived in Chenapou about 12 hours before school started the next morning, not having a clue what grade we'd be teaching what we'd be teaching them. It was quite stressful...

Straight to school. Not a single day to sort out our accommodation, to clean, to cookj, to prepare for being a teacher. Grade 2. Ben and I flipped a coin. He got grade 5, to be honest I envy him right now.

The grade 2 pupils, mostly, run about, shout, chat, escape, pay no attention. The ytake half an hour to write their names on their books. I realise many times that I am over-estimating their abilities. I try and work out something, ANYTHING, that might just hold their attention for 30 seconds.

It is hard. The paperwork is a mess. I don't have a book for lesson plans, or a register. Or many textbooks, certainly nothing for Spanish. I'm supposed to teach them Spanish! (Good joke) My head hurts, I am exhausted. A swim after school restores some sanity. Teachers are very nice, have been feeding us well whilst we have no stove to cook on. I'm too hot to write any more.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Making an Entrance

The following is an extract from my diary from the 1st of September. I thought it shows quite well what a mad but memorable day we had making the journey into the interior for the first time.

I got barely any sleep the night before we flew to Chenapou. Seemed to spend half the night chasing a cockroach around the inside of my mozzie net. Then got up early, final bit of packing, tidying up the flat, no sign of a vehicle from MOE (Minisitry of Education) so Rishon takes us to Ogle Airport.

After a few phone calls we manage to get some baggage paid for, but still need to cough up 25 grand for overweight. Then there's the fun of getting through Immigration. Our 2 week stay on the tourist visa has expired, and we have no official permission to be in the country. Thankfully our letters of appointment from MOE save us.

The plane was even smaller than expected. 4 seater with all our stuff squashed in behind. Very noisy but worth it for the views of Georgetown's suburbs disappearing, giving way to endless green, the mighty brown Essequibo. Mahdia (central town of region 8) sat at the foot of the hills, the point where the flat lands rise all of a sudden to form a barrier, a step up to an unknown land.

"When oh when will our plane come?"
In Mahdia we waited. And waited. We played cards, chatted to some Chenapou villagers, but mostly we just waited. It was fascinating watching the planes come, unload, load, take off again all in the blink of an eye.

By 4pm roughly, our bags were next in line. Our plane had no seats in the back, we had to cimply perch on a ledge, a couple of kids in front of us sitting on boxes.

I was exhausted, but completely amazed by the beauty we were flying over. Hills and valleys in sunshine, cloud, rain, every shade of green. I felt like the luckiest person alive to have been given this glimpse of one of natures wonders.

A crowd of villagers stood at the airstrip, many welcomed us, shook hands. Children started picking up our boxes. All around the rainforest looked spectacular in the evening light. I felt overwhelmed. This was my home now, I had made it at last, after months of anticipation, weeks of waiting, days of travelling. Chenapou.

The night is now a blur. I'm writing this after two days. The two most bizzare, tiring, mind boggling, stressful, fascinating, difficult, crazy days of my life. Everything is different.

All I remember is noises in the night, the terror of what sounded like rats. Turned out to be a moth. A bird sized moth though. Hammocks, nets, dust, candles, roti, sleep. Cold. What, cold!? Sleeping bag. Sleep again.

Friday, 20 December 2013

First Term Project Report

Dear Sponsors,

I am writing from Guyana to update you on the progress made at my teaching project in Chenapou Primary School.

The first school term began on the 2nd of September, and from this date I was given responsibility for teaching grade 2- a class of 22 students aged six and seven years old. To begin with, controlling the behavior of such a large number of young children seemed like an impossible task, especially in a tiny classroom with not enough benches, desks or books.

Over the first few weeks of teaching I began to discover methods of classroom management, including a gold star reward system, strict class rules and detaining pupils who came in late from recess or lunch. The challenge then really became how to teach the children as effectively as possible.

I focused first on turning our dull classroom into a more colourful, interesting learning environment by making posters and charts for the walls, and putting up pictures drawn by the pupils. As the school has no janitorial staff, it was also up to me to clean out the classroom every morning and arrange it properly, moving out a rotten cupboard and knocking out boards from the windows to allow some light in.

It did not take long for me to realise that me talking to the pupils or asking them to copy from the blackboard, was not going to teach them anything. I had to start making my lessons as interactive as possible, with many actions and objects to hold. Simple things such as using old cardboard to make number cards, letters cards and word cards opened up a whole new range or possibilities. For science lessons I started taking the class outside more often- to follow a compass North or to count how many types of fruit tree they could spot. Games such as hangman, wordsearches and tongue twisters were useful warm ups for English, and the children loved having team mental maths competitions at the start of every maths lesson.

Then came the real breakthrough- I picked up the school guitar and began to sing. If you stand and talk to grade 2, nobody will be listening, but if you start singing, it will be a different matter. As a class we began the day and end the day every day with a few songs- some nursery rhymes and a song that I invented to help them remember the date, as well as Christmas carols later on in the term. This instantly improved the attitude and mood of the pupils, and taught them a lot at the same time. When it came to the end of term Christmas concert, grade 2 were by far the most confident performers.

One other routine that made a huge difference was 'Golden Time'- just twenty minutes or so at the end of a Friday afternoon for the children to look at books, draw pictures, use my calculator or make models. This treat was enough of an incentive to improve the behavior of the pupils throughout the week.

Unfortunately it was just as we had settled into a solid routine and a comfortable classroom, when disaster struck. Contractors arrived with no warning one morning and started removing the shingle roof from our classroom, in order to replace it with zinc (a job which was still incomplete when I left Chenapou). This meant that we were forced to use a football stand as a makeshift classroom for the last few weeks of term, including the end of term tests. The results of my tests showed a lot- for English, which required the pupils to read and write, there was a clear cut division between the ones who could read (and got As) and those who couldn't read (and failed or got 0%). In subjects where I did aural assessments individually with the pupils, they scored much more consistently across the class. I had been trying to combat this poor reading ability by creating reading groups and holding reading sessions during lunchtimes, but much more work is clearly needed on this next term.

My plan to improve the performance of grade 2 next term is to spend some time every day learning basic phonetics, so as to help those who cannot read at all to catch up. I would also like to start incorporating more experiments and models into science and social studies lessons to make them more interesting for the pupils. Getting the pupils to answer all questions in full sentences and standard English (as opposed to their Creole) will make a big difference to their speaking and writing skills.

Without making this letter too much longer than it already is, I would like to mention some of my activities in Chenapou outside of my work at the school. I have found it fascinating gradually learning about Amerindian life and trying it for myself; working on farms, planting cassava, making cassava bread and cassiri, going fishing on the river, going hunting out in the bush. My partner Ben and I love the Potaro river so much that we asked a man to dig out an Amerindian canoe for us. We helped drag the boat down the mountain  from the tree it was cut from, and watched him complete it by roasting it in a fire.

I have experienced hot sun and tropical rainstorms and watched the river rise and fall. I have met too many snakes for my liking, as well as all kinds of beautiful trees, insects and birds. I have learnt how to handwash clothes, how to clean a house, how to cook for myself and how to sleep in a hammock. I have learnt too many things to write here, but perhaps the most important one is how to share. The Amerindian way of life is to share everything. Wherever you go, cassiri and cassava bread are free, camping is free, and you are welcomed as family. They share their work too- helping each other on their farms in community events called cayap. It seems to me that it is this sharing attitude that defines their culture.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter and thank you for supporting this project. I hope I have convinced you that I have been, and will continue to make the most of my time in Guyana and do the best I can for my pupils. I hope also that you are well, and would like to wish you a happy Christmas and new year.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Blogging without an Internet Connection

Hello internet, it's been a while.

After 15 weeks in the rainforest, the bush, the jungle, the interior, the hinterlands, the middle of nowhere, or simply 'home' as I now like to call it- I have arrived back in Georgetown for the Christmas holidays. It took three days of waiting for a plane, then a grueling 11 hour ride in a packed minibus along potholed roads, but Ben and I made it back eventually. Back on the map, back to things like roads and cars and people, back to phone calls and emails and electricity and bright lights and all sorts of strange and fancy things like that.

Let me explain how blogging from a place with no internet is going to work.

I have already done lots of blogging, you just don't realise it yet. Over the term I have been collecting photos and stories and observations and diary entries of interest, ready to be typed up. But of course I can't post it all at once because then nobody will read it all.

Thanks to some magical Google buttons, I can delay when the posts appear to be published, and pretend that I'm uploading them once a week from Chenapou. You can pretend too that you are receiving them real-time, or jut accept that you're getting the story in the right order, just 3 months behind when it actually happened.

Just treat it like people treat the newspapers the receive in Chenapou- getting the news 15 weeks late is better than no news at all.

So, after I have published a little project report of the first term (plot spoiler), we can start imagining that I have just arrived in Chenapou, and see where it goes from there. You can expect one post every Saturday.

Heading out on the 1st September. Essequibo River.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Goodbye Georgetown

Sidestepping a puddle that covers half the street, you are suddenly reminded that earlier in the day it was raining so hard, that you were soaked to the skin just crossing the road to get into a taxi. You wouldn't know otherwise, from the clear blue sky, the burning sun overhead. Sidestepping the puddle is easier said than done- the lack of any pavement pushes you into the path of minibuses that fly around the road, overtaking the rusted trucks, the horse drawn carts, the mopeds and the cyclists balancing huge tanks of water on their bike frames. 

Looking up past the iconic clock tower of Starbroek market, you notice the funnel of a ship, which reminds you that you are just metres away from the Atlantic Ocean. Another thing it is easy to forget. Georgetown does not thin out towards the sea, it doesn't even register its existence until it abruptly meets the narrow stone  wall that separates road from water, and just stops there. You could wander around the town for hours and not catch the slightest glimpse of the coast.

Ben and I walked back to the flat yesterday: past Giftland for soap; past the hardware store to pick up long boots; through the bustling, noisy market; coming out by the famous cathedral (highest wooden building in the world); then on to the post office and Umana Yana, the huge Amerindian hut; and finally to the sea wall which we walked almost the entire length of on our way to Cambellville, our district of Georgetown. The sun beat down on us the whole way, and we felt we deserved a cold coke from OMG (the cafe next to the flat) and a lie down in a hammock after that. 

We had been working at "School of the Nations", across the other side of town, helping to set up the library by filling up the shelves with box-fulls of books that had been donated from Canada. We were slightly jealous of the fact that they had more books than they could ever fit in their library, whilst we will be lucky to have just a handful of books in Chenapou, where we hope to be tomorrow.

Georgetown has been a fascinating experience, but as much as I have loved the places and people I've met here, I can't wait to get on that little plane tomorrow and fly over the rainforest, end up somewhere more remote than I've ever been before. I can guarantee there will not be an internet cafe like this one in Chenapou, so this is probably the last blog post for a while! I'll leave you with a couple of pictures. Remember you can see more photos if you click on the photo gallery link at the side of this page.
Breadfruit; fried on the left, boiled in the middle + sauces on the right

Umana Yana
The Seawall

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

First Glimpse of the Rainforest

Beyond the murky waters of the creek the trees begin to rise. The forest wall is thick with impenetrable vegetation, every leaf and shoot clawing for the precious sunlight, plants scrambling over each other, digging into each other with long, sharp thorns. The effect is a barrier, hiding the rainforest within, a forest that is one of the most pristine of its kind in the world. It stretches for hundreds of miles from where I stand. Behind that barrier, somewhere in that world of ants and vines, is my new home.

The forest allows just a few exciting glimpses- including a long trail of leaf cutter ants, scurrying with their loads up a tree in one direction and out of sight into the undergrowth in the other direction.

This creek is where we spent last Sunday, taking some time to swim and relax together before we all packed up and headed out to our projects.

Apart from us. Ben and I waved off the last two volunteers this morning, who set off across the wide waters of the Essequibo in a small boat, their cardboard box wobbling precariously at the front. Then back to the flat it was for us, to be greeted with the task of clearing up and cleaning the mess of 24 people. We found the largest frog I have ever seen in one of the bedrooms.

The last two days have brought rain. And nothing like the Scottish drizzle I'm used to. Proper rain in which you find yourself soaked to the skin after a few seconds, that pours of the roof in waterfalls and turns the driveway into a small lake. And puts a stop to the game of cricket we were playing.

Before the Rain
After the Rain

Friday, 23 August 2013


It was a strange feeling, watching the houses of Edinburgh shrink beneath me, disappear behind the clouds, knowing that it was the last time I'd see Scotland for a year. Three flights later, many hours later, many plastic cups and trays of plane food later, it was dark, save for the occasional flashes of a distant thunderstorm, and a few pinpricks of light. These pinpricks of light were the only trace of a whole country beneath me. Guyana, almost invisible by night.

Stepping off the plane felt like stepping into a bath. The warmth and humidity, even in the middle of the night, caught us all by surprise. We bundled into stuffy minibuses, winding open the windows and relishing in the breeze as we zoomed through the streets towards Georgetown. New, indescribable smells wafted in that breeze, whilst our eyes were glued to the houses flashing past. Amazing houses, all wooden, on stilts, and every one unique in design, decorated with elaborate patterns and colours.

I’ve been in the flat with thirteen other Project Trust volunteers since Sunday night, battling the cockroaches, the holes in the mosquito nets, the relentless heat and the heavy tropical rain. It’s not really so hard, we are cooked for by Rishon every day, fresh pineapples for breakfast and home-made rotis with dahl for dinner.

Our time here, when we are not shopping for our projects or attending training at the Ministry of Education, has been spent visiting the zoo, meeting the British High Commissioner and relaxing around the flat.

Most volunteers are heading off to the interior on Wednesday of next week, however the limited flights to Chenapou mean that Ben and I cannot leave Georgetown until a week on Sunday. This is slightly scary as the school term is supposed to begin the day after! Even so I’m looking forward greatly to getting out there, leaving the noises of the city for the peace and remoteness of the rainforest.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Corrieyairick Complete

I am a big fan of wide open spaces, I enjoy barren, windswept landscapes, cold, rainy days in the fresh air and the isolation of the mountains. I love the pure, clean water that runs off Scottish Hills and the unpredictable, ever-changing weather, the shifting seasons we are so used to.

So the constant heat and intensity of the rainforest seem like an odd choice for me. The idea of so much plant and animal life crammed into every square metre is a terrifying idea. It is almost inevitable that at some points during my year in Guyana, I will loathe the place, I will wish myself to be back home, shivering on a patch of heather instead of sweating in a cloud of insects. Perhaps after a year of living there I won't want to leave. The only thing that I can be sure of, is that it will be completely different to anything I have experienced before, and completely different to how I imagine it might be.

I was reminded of why I love Scotland last weekend, as I crossed the Corrieyairick Pass in glorious sunshine both ways, putting in the final piece of the fundraising jigsaw. Here is the proof!

A slightly concerning headline the day before...

Starting the cycle at 8.30 am, to get the sweaty climb done
in the cooler part of the day

The tandem riders in action

The main obstacles were fords like this one, large drainage
ditches, and the persistent clegs.

The crux of the route, a series of steep hairpin bends on loose rocks. Required a little pushing...

Success at the top of the hairpins

Coming back down was the fun part

After the cycle, Chris and I headed back over the pass in the other direction, on the way enjoying views into the distance some chewy sweets. The tandem was left for us at the start of the road, from where we cycled back to base camp at Balgowan. I was only 20 minutes off making it there and back in 12 hours.
Just for fun, we made it a triathlon the next day by going for a 12km paddle down the Spey. Here Chris attempts to make his inflatable kayak more sturdy by adding in some extra air.

Coming down the shallow rapids in the inflatable was interesting, as little protection was offered from the rocks!

Friday, 19 July 2013

Chenapou and Corrieyairick

The thermometer is reading 28 degrees in the shade. It never gets this hot in Scotland. Here, a hot sunny day is when it reaches the twenty mark. It seems that the climate is kindly allowing me to gradually acclimatise to Guyanese temperatures before I go there. Unfortunately it seems I have some way to go; a quick run down to the shops this morning resulted in me being so soaked in sweat that I had to change clothes and hang up the old ones to dry.

More About Chenapou

The first surprise fact for me about Chenapou when I got to training was that it rhymes with 'cow'.

Although there is a newly built airstrip at Chenapou now (after several attempts at getting it straight) the chances are that I will not fly there directly from Georgetown, the capital of Guyana where I will spend my first week. At least I hope I won't, because the other way to get there is to fly first to Kaieteur Falls. The village used to be situated here, until the Amerindians were bothered by the occasional tourists coming to sightsee, so they simply packed up and moved! A short walk upstream from the iconic waterfall followed by a couple of hours in a speedboat takes you to their new location.

The 500 members of the Patamona tribe who live here are very spread out, however, the centre of the village looks relatively compact in the pictures I have seen. The house in which Ben and I will be living in is just a stone's throw away from the school and the shop. Our accommodation is basic but well-equipped with a gas cooker, flushing toilet and electricity from solar panels. Solar panels are part of a sustainable development effort, funded by Norway in return for protection of Guyana's rainforests. Another project with similar aims is building a large hydro-electric power station in Guyana over the next few years- the Amaila Hydropower Project.

My job for the year will be teaching either grade 5 or grade 6 students in the local primary school, which is housed in one large room, with only blackboards separating the different classes. I am told I will get used to this, although it sounds like it could be a challenge to keep the children focussed, with so much going on
around them. I will be teaching English, Maths, Science and Social Science to the pupils, but also possibly spending evenings teaching the other teachers in the school who will be trying to achieve the qualifications they need to be officially allowed to teach in Guyana.

The neighbouring village  is called Paramakatoi (PK) and is a two day walk through the jungle away, although the Amerindians can manage it in one. I might make this my challenge for the year.

Supplies in Chenapou are very expensive, so we are recommended to buy most of our shopping for each term in Georgetown. There is no postal service, no internet, no telephone, and no mobile signal. The only method of communication is by radio, or finding somebody to take your post to Georgetown with them. Even if you manage this, the Guyanese postal system isn't the most reliable, so I hope you will understand if my blog is not well updated after I leave.

I Haven't Forgotten...

As part of my fundraising campaign to go to Guyana, I promised that I would mountain-bike over the Corrieyairick pass, then turn around and hike the whole 26 miles back over again. As a sponsored event, this became surplus when I exceeded my target, so absolutely nobody is sponsoring me for this challenge, however, I won't let that put me off, and it would be on my conscience forever if I just skipped it out. It was always a part of the fundraising, written in the leaflets, so it will be done.

This weekend, I hope to complete the Corrieyairick challenge, with the help of my family, despite the sweltering Scottish heat. I'll let you know how it goes...

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Foghorns and Frisbees


There is always something special about being above the clouds. Looking out at the view from the patch of long grass where I had pitched my tent, it would be easy to assume you were in the middle of nowhere, a blanket of cloud beneath, hiding what could be a vast wilderness. Above, there is a wide, blue sky, and within, just you, in your own little world.

But what this picture cannot convey is the sound. If you could hear the traffic, the music, the dockyard, you would quickly work out that you were not more than a few hundred metres away from a busy coastal town. This is the bizarre situation I find myself in, the night before my Project Trust training course.

I shouldn’t have worn flip flops in the long grass; it takes a good twenty minutes to remove all the ticks that have begun crawling up my legs, in search of a nice warm patch of skin to dig into. Once complete, I shut out the never-ending summer evening light with a blindfold and curl up, aiming to get a nice early night in preparation for catching the ferry at half five the next morning.

That is when it begins. Faintly, in the distance to begin with, then I gradually became more and more aware of it as it draws closer, eventually there is no ignoring it, and certainly no getting to sleep. Yet still it gets louder. Almost ear-splitting. Every few minutes, just as I am starting to nod off, somebody outside the tent takes a huge breath of air and funnels it through their vuvuzela for a full five seconds. My early night didn’t go to plan.

Quarter past four, flips flops on, stuff tent away, march down the road through the thick mist which now envelopes the hill, catch the ferry with about 50 other Project Trust Volunteers. It makes a similar noise to last night’s vuvuzela all the way to Coll. CalMac redeem themselves for keeping me awake by providing a fantastic hot shower on the boat.

“Where in Guyana is it you’re going?” asks somebody a few seats away.

“Chenapou” I reply, still unaware of how to pronounce it.

“You’re my partner. Nice to meet you, I’m Ben. Where have you been?”

Ben and I are going to spend a whole year of our lives together.


Throughout the week I experienced every possible feeling about going to Guyana, from “help, am I actually going to get back alive?” to “this is going to be the best thing ever!”  I realised that we will never be fully prepared for what we are about to do, but that is exactly the point. Mistakes and disasters are a necessary part of the learning experience.

Chris, the desk officer for Guyana, barely stopped for breath. From 9am till 11pm every day for four days he talked passionately about Guyana, about teaching there, living there, the people, the places, what to take, what to do, what not to do… Even if our brains could not work fast enough to remember anything he told us, the important things were his amazing enthusiasm and commitment, bringing us together as Team Guyana and setting a standard for us to aspire to.

Perhaps the most memorable thing on Coll was simply meeting the other brave volunteers who had signed 12 months of their life away to the mosquito infested rainforests and savannahs of Guyana, sharing our excitement and fear, playing Frisbee on the beach, swimming in the sea with the dolphins and seals, and of course ceilidh dancing into the night.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Fundraising Tips

One more post about fundraising…

I wouldn't call myself an expert fundraiser. I still feel lucky to have been able to raise all the money I did for Project Trust, it really took me by surprise how quickly the total shot up. Nevertheless, as requested, I am going to attempt to give some inspiration to future fundraisers, Project Trust Volunteers or otherwise, through a few top tips that I have learnt during my short money raising adventure.

Don’t Delay

At the beginning, I panicked. £5400 was about tenfold the amount of money I had ever dealt with in my life, and I felt like I had to pluck it out of thin air. Or I’d be in serious debt to my parents, or stuck at home with no plans for a whole year. What had I got myself into? I thought it was impossible.
It turned out that a certain amount of urgency was a very good thing. If you get the ball rolling as soon as possible, then by the middle of your fundraising it will have picked up considerable speed. The first thing to do is to tell everybody about it, then clear plenty of space in your timetable.

I started getting the word out about my fundraising in October. Notice how the results are not immediate- it’s only after about a month and a half that the money really starts to come in. If you have limited time to raise your money, you can’t waste that month and half.


If you are raising money for a charity, on behalf of a charity or to do something educational or charitable, then the next step should be to start researching charitable trusts and writing letters to them. You will be amazed by the number of these organisations out there, but will find it difficult to find any sort of detailed information about any of them. I have three main tips to do with trusts.

  1. Research as thoroughly as possible and cross-check everything. Only write letters once you are sure that the trust’s aims match what you are doing and that you are eligible to be given a grant from them. Sometimes the information from one source is vague, but a quick Google search will shed more light. You should expect to spend most of your time saying “No, no, no, no, maybe…. actually no, no, no…” Treat it as a great success when you come across a trust that is worth writing to. It will take several days of research to come up with a good list, but keep reminding yourself that there is no other way you could earn £4000 from a few days’ work.
  2. Focus on local trusts. 94% of the money I raised from trusts came from Scotland, and almost half of it was from within my home town. Location is a way for trusts to see you as connected and relevant to them.
  3. Personalise letters. Once again this will take a lot of time, but if you write a couple of sentences in each letter to show that you understand the aims of the trust you are writing to, and how what you are doing is relevant to them, your success rate should be a lot higher than if you send exactly the same letter to every trust.
My pie chart shows quite how substantial the portion raised from charitable trust can be.


  1. Think about what you are good at, and think about what your friends and family are good at, as you will need their help. As a keen musician it made sense for me to go busking, and hold a fundraising gig. However due to my atrocious marketing skills, I left the ticket selling for the gig to other, more persuasive people. Don’t be afraid to show off what you can do, and ask for lots of help in holding events. Every helper will probably spread the word to other people, and the chances are they will donate some money too.
  2. Target different groups of people each time you hold an event. I held dinner parties for my parents’ friends, which raised lots of money without putting any more strain on my own friends. Busking in Perth, Dundee, Edinburgh and even Surrey spread the cost over hundreds of members of the public, just giving a couple of coins each.
  3. Timing is important. Look back up at the line graph and notice how steep the gradient is over December- Christmas is prime time for all fundraisers. Hitch on to other celebrations too- Bonfire Night, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, Easter… If you are putting on events for your own age group, think about catching people at the end of term or just after exam periods.

I think the most important thing about any fundraising mission is to make it your own. Give it your unique style; see if you can come up with something that hasn't been done before. Take other people’s ideas and turn them on their head or combine them in new ways. There are endless lists of ways to fundraise, but the best one for you is the one that you design or tweak yourself.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Starting to Count Down

With school finished forever, it is time to start preparing for the next adventure.

In about 45 days from now, I will be starting the 4500 mile journey across the Atlantic to my new home, somewhere deep in the Guyanese Rainforest. This rainforest is said to be one of the most unexplored and unspoilt in the world, with thousands of unknown species of plants and animals; vast areas of uncharted land, broken up by countless rivers, creeks and waterfalls; and virtually no sign of human inhabitance.

I have started watching a BBC series called "Lost Land of the Jaguar", about an expedition to Guyana to explore its wildlife, from army ants and enormous spiders to giant otters and 8-foot anacondas. It has taught me what not to do, such as put your hand inside rotten trees or holes in the ground, swim too far away from the bank (in case of caiman or piranha), abseil down Kaieteur Falls, or leave your food out at night for the crickets. Despite the nasty looking insect bites I can't wait to be there myself. It is an alien world to me, with endless new things to discover and learn.

 We had to buy the DVD to watch the program (from 2008) but you can still read about it here or see a few clips from it here.

The Guyanese rainforest is not only important to the few people who live in it, it is of course a vital part of the world's ecosystem, a major influence of the world's climate, and one of the world's few resources yet to be fully exploited. For a poor country such as Guyana, the temptation to bring in much needed money through logging is high, and very little of the forest is protected. Despite some attempts by western countries to invest in sustainable development in Guyana in return for limiting carbon emissions from deforestation, the rate at which the country's 18.5 million hectares of forest is being destroyed continues to increase.

It is worrying to think that time is running out, if you want to see the world's great wildernesses, that sooner or later mankind may have sawed and drilled and dug its way into every corner of the globe, on its constant search for wealth to feed its growing consumer population. I truly hope that there is some way we can learn to live more sustainably, therefore making it possible to leave some parts of the globe to themselves, giving other species room to breathe.

I am excited to count down the days until I go to Guyana, because of the wilderness of its forest and the remoteness of the people within it. It would be unfair for the next generation if they had to count down the days until these things were destroyed.

Friday, 10 May 2013


After months of tentatively answering questions like "when are you going" and "are you definitely going to Guyana" with grunts of "um not sure really", it is a relief to finally say my project has indeed been confirmed and that my estimated departure date is the 17th August.

Chenapou will be my destination, a remote village of about 500 inhabitants on the banks of the Potaro, 3 hours journey by speedboat upriver from the famous Kaieteur falls. Here there is a primary school of 170 pupils, where Project Trust volunteers have been teaching for four years, as very few qualified Guyanese teachers are prepared to work in such a remote area.

There is very little information to be found on Chenapou, although a google search returns a page from the government website about Kaieteur National Park. In summary, the local people are from the Patamona Tribe and have their own dialect, although English is also spoken. Their way of life is still very much dependant on the forest and the river, with a considerable amount of their diet consisting of different forms of the root vegetable Cassava. They make Cassava into a powder called Farine, they make bread from it, they even make drinks out of it.

My accommodation will be a semi-detached house on stilts, presumably shared with my partner, which is even fancy enough to have a flushing toilet and solar panels to provide electricity.

Not that it reveals anything at all, you can view the location of Chenapou or Chenapowu as it seems to be alternatively spelt, on google maps here. The satellite image reveals it to be in the middle of a mysterious pixelated cloud. I find this makes it all the more exciting!

For now it is a case of getting vaccines, disclosures, references, letters... filling in all the paperwork and waiting for training in July when I'll find out the full details about my project and find out who I'm going with.

Below are some photos taken by a current volunteer in Chenapou who has a blog here.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Gig for Guyana (and the Arctic)

In some ways reaching the fundraising target for Project Trust in January felt like a bit of a disappointment. I thought I was just getting into the fundraising mindset, starting to enjoy the challenges it presented. For me it was a completely new skill, and that £5432.10 countdown figure provided a goal to strive for, providing some extra motivation when the pressures of school or music were not enough. And of course, it is always working towards the goal that provides all the satisfaction, not achieving the goal itself- it is about the journey, not the destination. So "completing" the fundraising seemed like a dead end. Until I realised that it wasn't.

For a start, any further money I raise for the charity Project Trust can be used to help other volunteers who have been less fortunate than myself with their fundraising for any reason. This is something that I see as a good cause, and I do not doubt that Project Trust will use the money wisely. Secondly, there are plenty of costs associated with my year overseas that are not covered by the £5400, including vaccinations and  travel to and from the Isle of Coll for my training course. For this I have set up a second fund, so that donations can still be made that will directly go towards my project. And, if nothing else, fundraising can be great fun, and I didn't want to see all my plans go to waste!

One such plan that I felt was too good to ditch simply because it was no longer necessary, was a fundraiser gig at a music venue close to my school in the centre of Dundee called "Non Zero's", (I have the owner, a great guy named Dave, to thank for letting me hire the place for the night, and for his professional live sound engineering which is a crucial part of any musical event). This event soon became a collaboration, after I talked to Katie Lumsdaine, an adventurous girl in the year below me at school who is spending her summer in the Arctic with the British Schools Exploring Society.

The Courier- Katie's Arctic Expedition

She was looking for events to help her raise the money for this expedition, and I was someone with an event, looking for somewhere that needed the funds it could raise. We decided to split the profits, but I reckon that her help in publicising the event meant that I personally raised more for Project Trust than I would have if I had been on my own for the event.  My strength was providing the music, finding the bands, hers was spreading the word, selling the tickets. Together we made it quite a success.

The photos below were taken by Jamie Ford and Linzi Peters and show most of the musicians performing. I'm sad to say I have none of the headlining act- two members of the Dundee band Seams played a stunning acoustic set which was the perfect atmospheric ending to the evening.

Alison Ross

Honolulu Circus

The finale of Lewis Davie's set, including brass section and saxophones!

Katie and Harry, going to two very different places!

Bedford Rascals
After expenses, the gig raised around £250, which I was incredibly pleased with. I know that our target audience- teenagers- is not an easy one to raise money from, as most of them are pushed to find enough cash for themselves. Seeing so many people turn up for the gig in support of both my gap year and Katie's expedition was fantastic, I hope they all enjoyed themselves as much as I did!

In total I have now raised over £7000 for Project Trust, which is something that I feel proud to have achieved. All that is left now is to start putting that money to good use.

Monday, 25 March 2013

First Shot at my New Job

Teaching a Lesson at Viewlands

Going back to visit my primary school, almost six years after I left, seemed at first like a journey back in time, with many familiar faces welcoming me back as if I'd only been gone for the weekend. On my way across I eyed up the little forest of saplings behind the hockey pitch of Perth Academy, and remembered that I helped to plant those trees whilst in my last year at Viewlands. I've grown a lot since then but if it were a race the trees would be winning. Once inside, the corridors seemed an awful lot smaller, the ceilings a lot lower, but there was still the same atmosphere of business, the same clatter of voices and plates in the lunch hall.

After my visit last term to talk to the whole school about my Guyana project, the children took part in a dress down day and managed to raise over a hundred pounds for Project Trust to go towards my fundraising total. I hoped I could thank the school for this fantastic contribution in some way, and it just so happened that the P7 teachers had already come up with the perfect idea. Seeing as their pupils were studying the rainforests in class, I was given the opportunity to teach a lesson on the geography of Guyana and link it to what they had been learning. This would also be good practise for me at being charge of a class of children, something that will effectively be my job for most of next year.

It turned out that the children knew a lot more about rainforests than I did, so I left that part of the lesson for them to teach me, and after a bit of map-work locating Guyana, I focussed on a couple of ideas they will soon be meeting in secondary school geography; population density and climate. You may be interested to see what they discovered: 

Population Density of Guyana = 3.5 people/km2
Population Density of UK = 256 people/km2

If this seems like a huge difference already, try taking into account the fact that 90% of Guyana's population lives along the coastal strip (10% of the land), leaving a very sparsely populated interior indeed. In the lesson we discussed the various reasons for this.

I was incredibly impressed by the willingness of the P7 classes to learn and participate in the lesson, with bucketfuls of enthusiasm, thoughtful answers, interested questions and respect. It was really this that made my visit a success, as well as the generous support from Mrs Gellatly and Mrs Oliver who photocopied my worksheets and ensured I had everything I needed for the lesson.

Thank you so much to the teachers and pupils for a rewarding and encouraging teaching experience. I hope to be back, perhaps with a bit more first hand knowledge of the rainforest for you next time!

Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Land of Many Waters

An introduction to the little known worlds of Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana...

'Guiana' has long been the name given by the native people to the mysterious, mostly unexplored land of dark, dense rainforest that lies behind a 900 mile stretch of muddy coastline, just above of the Equator on the north east flank of South America. However Guiana is not only a name, but also a description, a reflection upon the most influential feature the country has on the lives of its people- it means the 'Land of Many Waters'.

Today Guiana consists of three territories, marked by vague, disputed boundaries. The largest of these is Guyana, which lies to the west, bordering Venezuela, and has roughly the same surface area as Britain. Closest to the mouth of the mighty Amazon river is French Guiana and sandwiched in between is Suriname.

The sheer abundance of water in Guiana previously led people to believe that the country was nothing more than a closely packed collection of islands. Solely in Guyana, over 1500 rivers gush through the forest, racing to the Atlantic Ocean. They do so with such turbulence that no ship bigger than a canoe makes it further than 90 miles inland along even the largest rivers, without being torn apart in the torrents. These rivers define boundaries, isolate tribes, block passage through the country and act as a lifeline, a source of food for those who are brave enough are to inhabit the interior. The rivers are home to hundreds of species of fish, perhaps including the largest freshwater fish in the world, as well as less friendly creatures such as stingrays and electric eels.

Over three times as much rain falls each year on Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, as does on the Scottish town of Perth. Water is everywhere in Guyana, it fills the air, resides in the swamps and feeds the rainforest, creating the prime conditions for a miraculous ecosystem in which many undiscovered species still roam. Water rots buildings and spreads disease, it constantly threatens the inhabitants of Georgetown, who live precariously below sea level, with only a man-made wall holding back the Ocean, which is said to be the colour of plaster due to Peruvian sediments, washed across the continent.

However, Guiana is by no means the only name ever used to describe this watery world. Early French and English maps label the region as 'Equinoctiale' or 'Caribana, Land of Twenty-one Tribes'. For a while to the Dutch it was the original New Zealand, before they came up with an enchanting name that captured the sense of danger and remoteness, the possibility of success, the curiosity associated with an unknown world. They called it de Wilde Kust, 'The Wild Coast'. There are no natural harbours along the entire coastline of Guiana, although it is on this 10 mile wide muddy stretch of land by the sea that 90% of the population live.

The naming of the place which lies between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers is ultimately a trivial thing, for the simple reason that it has never truly been owned by humans. Throughout its turbulent history of bloody wars between French, British and Dutch settlers, current day Guyana changed hands 9 times, Suriname 6 times and French Guyana 7 times. These squabbles over sugar plantations and coastal towns never changed the fact the vast majority of Guiana is untamed, unexplored jungle, they never made any part of the country an easy place for humans to thrive or gave the population any real sense of national identity.

Even today the population of Guyana is a mere 750,000, and not a single road leads to the outside world. Without an aeroplane, it takes four weeks to travel to the interior of the country. Most of its inhabitants are insects, trees, snakes or jaguars. It is a comforting, solid reminder that the world has in no way been conquered by human development, that nature still rules in some little forgotten corners.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

A Guide to Busking

Over the Christmas Season, I managed to raise almost £500 from busking. 

For fellow/future fundraisers: I think the most important thing I learnt from this is that it pays to focus on what you are good at. Of course not everybody is a musician! But everybody does have particular skills and talents, and when it comes to fundraising, it's worth personalising the way you do it, focussing on your strengths will earn you more than trying to do too many things or events that don't suit you.

If you are a musician and are thinking of giving busking a shot, read on...

Playing music out in the streets seemed like quite a scary prospect at first, would I be good enough? Will anybody think to give me money or will they be more likely to throw rotten fruit at me? Will I get arrested?

The first note is certainly the hardest, my saxophone felt terribly loud and piercing when it first cut into the peaceful hubbub of Perth City centre on a Saturday afternoon. But it was not long at all before I settled into my music and began to enjoy the sound of my instrument reverberating along the street and became part of the atmosphere, rather than an intruder.

Patience is important.

The first note comes a long time before the first penny in my experience. If you take a look around at the people on the street at the moment that you begin playing, you can be pretty sure that none of them will give you money. You need to wait until your sound has fully blended in to the mood of the street, until you have truly become a part of the scene rather than just the person who's suddenly started playing an instrument. People who have walked in from a distance and gradually noticed your music getting louder and louder will be the first to give money. So don't panic that you've played two songs and not earned anything yet- stick at it as consistently as you can.

Pick your spot carefully.

It can be tempting to go straight for the busiest place in town. However, I found that there isn't a direct correlation between how busy a street is and how much money you make there, and there are lots of other factors to consider:

1. Busier streets can be noisier- and you need your sound to project far enough for people to notice you from a distance.

2. You certainly don't want to compete with traffic noise, so aim for pedestrian areas well away from main roads.

3. Before you start, survey the area and note where any other buskers are located. You need to keep a good distance away in order to find new business.

4. Be aware of the shops and businesses around where you play. These will affect your audience, and bear in mind that your ideal audience tends to be young children with their parents and older people.

5. Without getting in the way of anybody, you need to be visually prominent and easily reachable so people notice you and can give you money without going out of their way.

6. If you are busking in a city, do a little research to check if there are any regulations or permits required.

People pay to be entertained, not for musical ability.

Another mistake would be to believe that the amount you make is dependant on how good you are and how technically accurately you play your music. It is far more important that you create a pleasant mood, impress people, or play tunes that they recognise. Choose easy music that you know well so you can communicate with your audience whilst you play.

My biggest successes were close to Christmas time, when I played carols and well known seasonal songs, but improvised variations on them to make the melodies more interesting. The combination here of recognisable tunes, a cheery atmosphere and a bit of showing off seemed to work very well.

The visual show you put on is also important.

Dress smartly or unusually, and let people know why you are doing what you're doing. Wherever I went busking I took with my some cardboard signs that said Project Trust, and Thank You! on them, as well as a few of my fundraising leaflets, to catch people's eyes and let them know that I was raising money for charity and for a specific purpose. When I was busking on a beautiful white grand piano by a fountain in a cafe in England, I proudly wore my formal kilt outfit. I regret not getting a picture of this!

A few busking experiences...

On my first day I was told to move on by an angry man: "My baby is trying to sleep!"

One afternoon getting a series of comments along the line of "You're trying your best" and "You've made the effort"... should I take those as compliments?

Earning myself 10 Australian Cents, some Indonesian money and we think Croatian money.

Being interrupted by a man who wished to tell me that his father is called Harry Potter, and request the Skye Boat Song which I had to figure out the notes for on the spot.

Meeting a lovely guy from Norway and a German girl who bought me a Coffee.

Playing for 20 seconds until I was informed that I wasn't allowed to on the shopping centre's patch of pavement... Dragging everything across to the other side of the street, to play there for 20 seconds before a group of people dressed in medieval clothes piped up their crumhorns 10 yards up the road!

Agreeing with the apologetic security guard of Marks and Spencer that it was okay for me to busk outside the store as long as I didn't touch their marble.

I hope this was helpful for musically minded fundraisers or interesting to read anyway, let me know if you have any further questions.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Fundraising Target Has Been Met!

Just for the record...

I would never have dreamt three months ago, that I would have made it to the target of £5400 in January. In fact I'm still finding it a little difficult to believe that I'm there already! Yes, there was some hard work involved, but I really can't take all the credit...

The generosity that I have seen has been absolutely amazing, not only from charitable trusts but also from a huge number of individuals- friends, family and complete strangers- and it is really to them that I will owe my year away with Project Trust to.

So thank you!

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Guyanese Dinner Party, 12th January 2013

Here are some pictures from a Dinner Party that I organised as a little fundraiser for my Project Trust fund.

Thanks a lot to everybody who came and made the evening a success, but especially to Linzi Peters for helping me out in the kitchen all night!

The Guyanese Black cake (a traditional delicacy around Christmas time, made with lots of black treacle and rum) was decorated to match my apron.

Some felt in the colours of the Guyanese flag helped liven up the dinner table, whilst Guyanese bunting was used to decorate the room appropriately. Yes, we even got everybody to stand and sing the national anthem.

Linzi painted her nails specially for the occasion, although she wasn't too keen on the most authentic Guyanese dish we cooked- Plantain Balls. The plantains looked very much like huge green bananas, and tasted rather starchy. After boiling them, peeling them, mashing them, blending them with ground peanuts, shaping small balls out of the mixture and finally frying them and dipping them in hot chilli sauce, they became relatively edible!

Don't worry, the goldfish escaped the fish broth that was made for starters. We found some Red Snapper instead, it seemed to be the most South American fish we could find.

The guests tucking into some pork belly with jerk seasoning and a potato and pea mash. Alongside the Black Cake there was a tropical fruit salad for desert.

They did have to work for their food however! A quick quiz on Guyana revealed a bit about the country they were sending me off to.