Saturday, 29 March 2014

That's all for now...

It's the 29th of March, and I'm in Chenapou, approaching the end of the 2nd term. I wonder what I'm doing?

Well, actually its 2nd of January, and I'm sitting in an internet cafe in Georgetown. This time delay thing can be a bit confusing.

Whatever date it is, that's the end of my blog posts from term 1. Hopefully, when it comes to the Easter holidays, I'll get the chance to visit somewhere with internet and upload a few more posts.

For now I'll leave you with one of my favourite photos from the first term.

This is Junior Marco, son of Gregory Marco. Gregory has a farm at the bottom of the rapids, a good hour's paddle upstream from the school, depending on how fast the river is flowing against you. It is an amazingly remote place to live, surrounded for miles in every direction by wild, forested mountains. This boy is in grade 6 at school, but he is not going to be an academic- he is a true Amerindian. His talent lies in being able to catch five times as many fish as we could, in being able to run, barefoot and bareback, with perfect balance and without snapping a twig, through the thickest forest. He will undoubtedly make a great hunter when he grows up, as he already knows most of the tricks to living in the bush. This photo was taken early in the morning, perhaps around 6 o'clock, after Ben and I had spent the night camping at Gregory's farm. Junior seems quite pleased with the gigantic leap he just made from boulder to boulder, over the fierce white water.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Canaima

The Canaima. A man, but no only a man. Shifting freely between the skins of any animals, the Canaima has one purpose only. To kill. He is the evil that lurks in the forest, hiding in the shadows, choosing his next victim. But even in your own home you are not safe, for Canaima will simply step into the skin of a bat and fly in to see what you are up to. Nobody know who the Canaima will choose next- it could be a little child or a big man, it be one person or three.

When you walk alone in the bush, he will shake the trees to frighten you, and your fear will soon grow into a sickness. If you meet the Canaima, your only hope is to kill Him fast. But no ordinary arrow, no ordinary bullet will take Him down. You can only stand a chance if you walk with your special wax tipped arrow, ready at all times.

Few people have seen the Canaima, and lived to tell the tale. His shape-shifting form has been murdering the Amerindians, bringing suffering to them, for as long as they can remember. His exact nature is obscure, why He kills is a mystery, but one thing is certain. Everyone will meet the Canaima one day, it is only a matter of time before He catches you.

The details of the following story have been lost in translation from Patamona to Creole, Creole to English, but the basic plot remains to tell us a little more about the sinister being known as Canaima.

Once upon a time, a man was married to a woman and they went to build a house for themselves in the forest. On hearing of their plans, the man's new brother in law warned him of the Canaima, who walked in that part of the forest. Nevertheless, the warning was shrugged off and the couple settled down in their new home together. 

On their first night there, they got into their hammock and were starting to drift off to sleep when the rasping bark of the Canaima echoed through the forest and jerked them awake. The man tried to stay calm and said to his wife "we must snore gently, so that the Canaima knows we are sleeping". The wife began to snore while the man came up with a plan. Again the bark of the Canaima, this time, closer. The man slipped out of the hammock silently and tied a string to it, holding the other end of the string himself. He picked up his knife and edged forward cautiously.

The Canaima's bark came again, this time loud and clear. He was coming straight for them. The man's heart was pounding, but he was brave. He came right to the door of his house, and tugged on the string, signalling for his wife to snore more loudly, so that the Canaima would be sure that they were asleep. The footsteps of the Canaima drew up to the door, paused for a moment there. The man could hear the deep breathing of his worst enemy, inches away. But this was his only chance to take him by surprise. Reaching round the door, he grabbed for the Canaima's hand, pulling it inside up chopping it clean off. The hand was his, but the Canaima escaped into the night. At least the couple could now get back into their hamomck and sleep in peace for the night.

The next day the man decided to go and see his brother in law to tell him about his encounter. He took the hand in his pocket to show him. It was a good distance away, perhaps a mile, and when he reached the place he called for his brother but there was no reply. The brother's wife came out looking weary. The man asked what had happened to his brother in law.

"He was out fishing last night and an alligator bit off his hand. He is dead now, look, his body is under that warishi."

"No" replied the man, "he was not out fishing last night. It was I who took off his hand. Look, here is the evidence. Your husband was the Canaima."

Saturday, 15 March 2014


The huntman steps swiftly and silently through the trees. Over his shoulder he carries a gun, at his belt he has his knife, and that is all he walks with. Picking his path carefully up the mountain, he breaks a small branch every few paces to mark out the way he came.

To the two white boys panting and stumbling along behind, every patch of forest looks the same, every tree is just another tree. But the huntman sees everything. He sees every plant, what you can make out of it, what ailment it can cure. He sees every species of tree and knows which are good for burning or building, how to cut them and what kind of birds you could find in their canopies. He sees every pawprint, he sees what kind of animal was going where and when. And of course his eyes are constantly alert, ready to pick out a snake, lurking in the branches ahead. The snake is the huntman's only enemy in this forest.

The forest floor is damp and gloomy, only the odd ray of light from above making it down to the soft, thick bed of fallen leaves underfoot. During the day it is quieter, in the heat the bird calls and insect noises don't penetrate so far, and many of the jungle creatures are hidden away, waiting for nightfall.

Without map or compass, he navigates by the contours of the slope, the angle of the sun, the faint sound of the river. All of a sudden he stops. "Let's take a look down here". We descend a little past some huge boulders, and the sound of rushing water grows louder. After hacking away some thick vegetation, we climb carefully into the sunlight. We have reached the edge of the river. But it is not only the edge of a river, it is the edge of a waterfall. First time, after hours of walking, our guide has taken us straight to the exact spot where the Potaro river plunges over a huge clifface, turning to white spray before it hits the rocks below, on its way down towards Chenapou village. I am reminded of Fantastic Mr Fox, tunnelling underground and coming up directly underneath Boggis' farmhouse first time.

The most spectacular thing, is the way this wonder of nature is hidden away, deep in a jungle, with not even a trail to it, no spot to land a helicopter, no passage to it by boat. There is no viewing platform, no barrier, not the slightest clearing away of the rainforest. This is a place very few people in the world have been, a place left beautifully undisturbed.

I laugh out loud with joy, applauding, stripping off to take a shower in one of the small stages that come before the main drop. Perhaps the most scenic shower of my life. The dark clouds above begin to open, the air becomes thick with heavy tropical rain. I realise now that I really am surrounded by water in every direction. This is the Land of Many Waters alright.

Later attempting to look up the waterfall on the internet proved to be fruitless. It is marked as Iatuk Falls on my map, but the only information on it that I could find was on a list of waterfalls in Guyana, that vaguely stated that its height is "over 60m". Clearly nothing in comparison to Kaiteur, but pretty big all the same.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

How to Make Buns...

How to Make Buns... in the UK

1. Pop down to Tesco in the car to pick up your ingredients.

2. Turn a knob to preheat the oven.

3. Mix the ingredients with the electric whisk and put the dough in the oven.

4. When the timer beeps, take out the finished buns.

5. Stick the dishes in the dishwasher and sit down to enjoy your buns in front of the telly.

How to Make Buns... in Chenapou

1. The week leading up to the baking day must be spent walking around the village, asking around until you find somebody who has a couple of dry coconuts that have fallen from their tree. Don't forget to save up enough money to buy flour and margarine. If you are very lucky the shop might have eggs too, but otherwise you will need to do more asking around to find someone with a hen who is laying eggs.

2. The night before, take your cutlass and hack your way through the tough outer shells of the coconuts.

3. Early on the morning of the bake, set off into the bush with an axe, cutlass and warishi (hand crafted Amerindian backpack). Find some nice pieces of wood and get chopping until your back aches, the sweat is pouring down your face and your hands are beginning to blister. Pack the wood into the warishi and make the punishing journey home with it on your back, the straps digging into your shoulders and forehead, taking care not to let the long pieces of wood snag on branches or bushes.

4.Crack open the coconut shells with the back of your cutlass and begin grating the insides, using an opened out milk tin with holes punched in it.

5. Combine the ingredients by hand, stirring vigorously until your hands are starting to get cramp. Grease the pan and put out the buns to rise.

6. Meanwhile, gather some kindling and small twigs to start the fire. When the fire grows big enough, get somebody to help you arrange some heavy rocks and balance a large empty oil drum on top of them above the fire. Now place a metal sheet on top of the drum and move some burning sticks there to heat the oven from above. From now on these two fires will need constant attention to ensure they have enough fuel and are spread out so as to heat the oven evenly. Use a hand crafted wicker mat to fan the fire when it is getting low.

7. It will now be early afternoon, and the heat of the tropical sun combined with that of the fire is stifling. The smoke drifts into your eyes making them sting, no matter which side of the fire you stand. Nevertheless, crouch down to slide your tray of buns into the oven, then, using an old cloth as an oven glove, replace the lid, securing it with a stick dug into the floor. Stop the hot air from escaping by sealing any gaps with old clothing- be sure to soak them first though.

8. Every now and again, brave the heat and the smoke to open the oven and see how your buns are looking. When you think they are done, use a wooden canoe paddle to slide out the baking tray. Take your buns inside quickly- if you leave them unattended the dogs or chickens or some other creature will be sure to help themselves. (Yes, speaking from experience).

9. Walk down to the river to fetch some water, with which to do the washing up. Scrub hard with a wire brush to get the burnt bits off.

10. It is starting to get late now, so pack up your buns and make sure you give one to everybody who helped you along the way.

11. At last, as the stars come out, sit down in your hammock with a cup of lemongrass tea and enjoy your bun.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Hunting for Treasure

I hadn't traveled this fast in almost two months. Whizzing down the familiar stretch of river that we have swum many times, I relished the cool breeze and waved at people on the shore washing their clothes, from my perch on the side of Mervin's leaky boat, propelled by a whining 15 horsepower engine. The sun was starting to lower in the sky, leaving us in the shadows of the towering trees that line the steep, muddy banks. As we swerved around the skeletons of old branches, fallen into the river, sweet little birds would skim across in front of us. They would glide effortlessly and catch the same little insects that the fish were jumping for from below, sending little ripples across the glassy surface of the water.

Past Creek Mouth we went, watching the mountain above the village disappear around the corner, along the straight stretch to Karisparau Landing- the limit of our knowledge of Chenapou. From there on we were in unknown territory. For every previous set of Project Trust volunteers, I thought, this would have been their passageway into Chenapou- coming the opposite direction from Kaiteur- but for us this was a journey into uncharted waters.

The river always brings surprises; after long stretches of seemingly undisturbed wilderness, you will come across a little landing or a dugout canoe hidden away in the shallows, a narrow pathway cut up the bank, even a clearing and a glimpse of a house. Chenapou gets bigger and bigger the harder you look. The real surprises for us this time, though, were the mining camps (tarpaulins stretched out among the trees, surrounded by curious looking machinery and big empty oil drums) and the miners themselves, out working the river on the bizarre looking water dredges.

We came around a bend about ten minutes after Karisparau Landing, to discover a small fleet of these dredges, like a flotilla of drifting little houses in the middle of the river. They were churning out water behind them as if they were being propelled by little paddle steamers. Off the side of the wooden platforms, kept afloat on top of old oil drums, sat topless men, surrounded by tools, engines, buckets, containers of fuel, hammocks, ropes and pieces of wood.

As we drew closer, the steady hum of the boat's outboard was gradually drowned out by the jerking rhythm of old, rickety engines. Metal on metal, metal on wood, coughing and spluttering, shuddering and shaking, the dredges were churning out music like that of the orc mines in a Lord of the Rings movie. On top this the gush of water, being sucked from the depths of the river, through a pipe and over a series of sloping mats, filled what little room was left in the ears. The din was painful to me as we climbed aboard the dredge, but I know the workers, who sit there all day long with no ear protection, could no longer have enough hearing for it to bother them.

Eventually, the platform ceased to vibrate with the force of a small earthquake and a blissful silence filled the air as the engines wound down to a halt. I noticed a man who had not been there before. I also noticed it was raining. The sound of the rain on the tarpaulin, usually deafening in itself, had been completely overpowered. The extracted himself from half of his neoprene suit, took off his diving goggles. His job for the fast few hours had been 20 feet down in the murky depths, clearing away the sand to get at the precious gravel beneath, with the hungry, sucking end of the pipe. A tough, dangerous job. His only link to the world above- a little hose blowing air for him to breathe. The sand above him could have closed in and burieds him at any time.

Watch this video on repeat to discover what it is like on a water dredge (put the sound up as high as possible for a more realistic experience).

The belt connecting the motor to the air pump was not running smoothly. Out came the hammer, to take out the nails holding down the pump, they inched it into place, but a hook was in the way. Out came the cutlass to hack off a piece of wood. They started nailing back the pump, but it was at an angle. Out came the cutlass again to quickly fashion a wedge. Then a piece of rope was tied to help secure it from shaking, with a branch cleverly being used to twist the rope and make it taut. I admired the instinctive way the workers improvised with the materials they had, creating a makeshift factory out of pieces of tree and nails.

The rain came down heavily and started making puddles along the edge of the tarpaulin. Emptying the puddles splashed water all over the deck, but it was mostly wet already from the splashing of water from the dredge.

Darkness was beginning to close in, but on the dredges worked as we sped back up towards the village. They continued to chug away hopefully, in their endless search for the precious treasure buried away in the murky depths of the Potaro.