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'.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Kayik Tuak- Part 2, Menzie's Landing

...After what felt like an awfuly long time- partly due to Fazal Junior's commentary ("We are reaching now sir! Oh no, sir, it is far still, but not so far far far") but mostly due to the cold and the wet and the pain in my back- all but one of my wishes had been fulfilled. It turned out that large plates of spaghetti bolognaise don't materialise out of thin air.

We awoke as daylight began to peep through the cracks in the wooden walls of a small house, full of dust and bat droppings, at Menzie's Landing. It was still raining. Having dropped off the rest of the family at a campsite with the tarpaulin last night, it was just Fazal, Fazal, Ben and I. The senior of the two Fazals disappeared somewhere or other and it was quickly realised the some mis-communication had lead to us believing we would be somewhat better catered for. We hadn't taken any food with us, so over to the shop we went. The three of us ate an entire pound of dry, tasteless biscuits for breakfast. Thankfully the shopkeeper took pity on us and served a little hot chocolate too.

It didn't take long to get the feel of Menzie's Landing. It certainly wasn't the bustling little village I had expected to see right next to the country's premier tourist attraction. It was quite the opposite. By midday we had met all the inhabitants (and counted them on two hands). The place was the ghost of an abandoned mining village, most of the houses silent and empty, some missing their roofs and gradually being reclaimed by nature. What little was left was made out of rusting old oil drums. It was a miracle the shop sold anything, but it was clear what his main business was. The shelves were stacked with rum and vodka, and in the corner there was a cardboard box full to the brim with empty high wine bottles. High wine is 69% alcohol. On this grey, drizzling day, Menzie's Landing was the perfect place to be lonely, miserable and drunk.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Kayik Tuak- Part 1, The Journey

I wonder what my old friends are up to right now. In the UK, it's around 10pm and it's a Friday night. Perhaps they are still in front of the mirror, checking themselves in their best dress, or they are already on a bus, watching the streets go slide by with their shops and bars and restaurants, on their way into town to find somewhere with bright lights and loud music.

I often have little moments of reflection like this at the more surreal point of my experiences in Guyana. At this particular moment I am bent over double underneath an old blue tarpaulin that smells of the smoke of many years of campfires. Under the tarp everything has turned to black and white in the fading light of evening, but I can still make out the shape of the boy next to me on the cold aluminium bench. He is cold too, he is hungry too. Before the weather turned he was his usual excited self, loading his slingshot at the sight of any bird worth catching, point out to us the parrots and the macaws flying over the treetops in the evening sunlight and providing a running commentary to the journey. Now the rain has subdued the ten year old a little, but at times Fazal Junior still pokes his head out from the tarpaulin and makes his best guess as to where we are. "Not so far now, sir. Well, a reasonable distance, yes, but not so far far far. Oh no, sir, we are not there at all, still far to go sir, but not so far far far."

The sound of the rain on the tarpaulin grows a little, and I am sure that there is just as much water on our side of it as on the other, but at least it keeps the breeze off. I feel a sense of admiration for Fazal's father, Fazal Senior, who has no shelter at the helm of the boat, and mut stay alert through the night, on the lookout for branches and rocks, keeping track of where we are by the creeks and bends in the river.

As the night grows darker the driver sweeps a thin, powerful beam of torchlight from bank to bank, spotting out pairs of eyes. From the colour of the reflection he can instantly say if it is a labba or a tapir, a deer or an alligator. At one point we pass by an alligator in the water, close enough to see the jagged outline of its back.

We are on the Potaro River in the wobbly aluminium village boat. A whining, 15 HP engine has pushed us all - granny, dad, mum, daughter, daughter, son, Harry and Ben (plus fishing rods, nets, hammocks, rope, sugar cane, bags, pales, containers of fuel, knives, bowls, pots, cutlasses...) - at a modest pace down the river from Chenapou. We had left there in the hot sunshine after school, with things like jumpers and raincoats far from our minds. Despite the bowl of fresh cassiri I downed while I had the chance, I am hungry, Ben must be ravenous. My back aches from the bent position under the tarp, and I all I can think about now is being dry, warm, and inside a hammock, preferably with a large plate of spaghetti bolognaise in my stomach. Never mind that stupid waterfall.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Happy Easter

This time around, time is very precious in Georgetown! I regret that I won't be able to upload very much on the blog, and it will probably be full of spelling mistakes.

Just after one day here in the capital, Ben and I need to roll out to the interior for term 3. It's been a great holiday down in the savannah's of region 9. Horses, cowboys and beef sums it up!

Thank you so much for reading the blogs over the last few months, its great to see there have been some views. 

1 hour 45 minutes before the internet cafe closes. Time to get typing...

ps. forgot the camera cable so no photos ):

Project Report, Term 2

Dear Sponsors, friends and family,

I am writing from the remote Amerindian village of Chenapou, Guyana, to update you on the progress in my placement here as a Project Trust volunteer teacher. This has been my second term in the rainforest, in charge of a class of 22 children aged 6-7.

You may recall that at the time of my last report, work had been severely disrupted by the absence of a roof on my school building. I was neither overjoyed nor terribly surprised to find it in exactly the same state when I returned from the Christmas holidays! As a result, Grade 2 were accommodated in the other school building with the higher classes, whilst we waited patiently for the roof to be finished.

After the holiday in Georgetown, where contact home had been so easy, readjusting to the remoteness and quietness of the jungle was surprisingly difficult. The distance between myself and home never felt quite so far as it did during those first couple of weeks back in Chenapou. On the other hand, at least I had in my control a group of children who I knew, and who knew me, and discipline was gained without all the hair tearing and despairing of last September. We settled down in our restored classroom with its fresh lick of bright paint, tried to make do with the inadequate furniture and got down to business.

The classroom itself became one of things I took most pride in- spending many afternoons creating posters, display boards for pupils’ work and filling every corner with something colourful and pleasing to the 6-year-old eye. It was certainly a world apart from the dark, dingy place I had found myself in last term. Along with the classroom came the new class routines, such as a permanent seating arrangement with table groups named after animals. Each afternoon the rota would dictate whether the Lions, Bears, Tigers, Alligators or Jaguars were to help me clean the classroom.

I would like to specifically thank Viewlands Primary School for their donations towards this teaching project, as I made use of the funds at Christmas to buy a variety of school supplies. These included paper, pencils, rubbers, sharpeners, rulers, crayons, scissors, glue, a calendar, a clock, a jigsaw puzzle and some modelling clay. These things may sound quite basic but they made an immeasurable difference to what we could do in class. I have seen with my own eyes how much more likely a child is to learn if he/she is pasting colourful words and not staring at a blackboard.

It had been a promise of mine to make science lessons more interactive, and I believe I have kept my word. Grade two have made parachutes out of old plastic bags, sailing boats from old cans, rockets from toilet paper tubes and a rain gauge from an old plastic bottle. We have also planted seeds, pulled out plants, watched a windsock, boiled water, melted wax and butter, fried an egg and tested all sorts of things to see if they sink or float.

Last term’s report also mentioned a severe issue with reading ability. My response this term was to go right back to basics and fill every morning with phonics- teaching letter sounds one by one with the immensely useful Jolly Phonics song booklet. Games such as I-spy and bingo were popular with the kids and did a lot to reinforce sounds. It was a joy to see children who I had almost given up on, at least identifying and writing the initial sounds of words. I may have neglected to push the top pupils beyond their comfort zone by doing this, but it felt essential to me, at this early age, that I at least give the whole class some chance of learning to read properly.

Possibly the things that stood out most of all from this term’s teaching for me were the readings of Fantastic Mr Fox and George’s Marvellous Medicine. To see the children’s imaginations open wide in those great worlds of Roald Dahl’s was a special thing.

Towards the last third of the term the idea struck me to begin a study of ‘Country of the Week’ in an attempt to convey something of the outside world to a group of children who have mostly only as far as Georgetown and back, if that. This was a success, partly due to a wonderful book of children’s songs from around the world- Australia may still be a distant concept to anyone in Chenapou, but at least singing Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree… seems to bring it to life.

The children of grade two have inspired me greatly this term. Their curiosity, their energy and their little moments of genius have provided all the reward I could wish for as a teacher.

Once again this letter is running beyond its proper length, but I cannot conclude without showing off some of the little adventures Ben, my partner, and I have been on during our free time.

We have seen Chenapou’s own Potaro River plunge over a 741 foot drop, at the most secret, untouched wonder of the world imaginable. We have experienced culture shock just going as far as a neighbouring village, with scary things like fences, concrete, and wide open spaces. Our jungle trekking abilities have been put to the test and we have had the joy of patrolling the river in our own dugout canoe. In the village itself we have run the lines for football matches and held early morning fitness sessions, whilst still finding plenty of time to lie in hammocks and enjoy the slow pace of life here.

I will finish again with one of my overriding thoughts for the term- what on earth did I need all of that stuff for back in the UK? By my old standards, I now live with so very little, and the people around me even less, but aren’t we all perfectly happy? I haven’t yet worked out what life is about, but at least I’ve managed to eliminate stuff.

Thank you for reading this letter, I look forward to hearing any questions or comments you may have. You will at the latest hear from me again sometime in August.

Best wishes,

Harry Carstairs