Thursday, 26 March 2009

Losing Sue

I need to say something about this. Excuse the inadequacy.
Sue was the splendidest mother-in-law. I know many people envied me! She was one of the least vain women I have ever met, despite looking so great in her 60s. Her paintings, her dry expressions, her way of saying “d’y’knoooooow!” and looking at one of her sons with mock-despair were all a source of delight to several of us! Her thoroughness, consistency, that having-to-tie-knots-the-right-way-up quality, were all part of what made her such a good friend and such easy company. I think she was rather flattered being invited to our birthday parties, to my hen party, to our wedding anniversary weekend, but of course we knew she and John would be great company. I think what all these aspects of her have in common is a harmonious quality. She fit together so coherently- the way she dressed, her painting style, her dependability at work, her faithfulness to recipes, her top marks on the NYA yachtmaster exams, her understated undramatic way of loving people. I don’t really believe she’s gone. I will have to return to England to do that.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

This strange and mournful day

The first indication we had that anything was wrong was a Chinese whisper that one of our parents had died.
The Aishalton medical officer, Bernard, came round and said he thought that one of our daddies, called Joaquim, had died, and we needed to go to the police station to find out more.
We went to the police station. There we were met with a barrage of angry questions- turns out we had gaffed badly by not reporting our arrival two weeks ago to the police. Once that was cleared up, they said there was no message or report of any such thing. We insisted that they transmit to Lethem to check. Crackle crackle. All that “Lethem Lethem 5310 come in” palaver. Crackle crackle eventually distilled into a yes from Lethem police; Father Joaquim (a Jesuit we had already met in Lethem) had passed on information that one of our mothers has died. Which mother? We don’t know.
I wonder if you can imagine the horrible lottery of loss in the pit of the stomach while you sit with someone you love waiting to discover which mother is dead?
They thought it was almost certainly James’ mother. Our internet access has been down since last Thursday, so we went to Burning Hills (the local fleshpots of Babylon) and begged them to start up their internet (it wasn’t due to be logged up till 6:30pm and we were there at 10:30am). They grudgingly said yes, but only had backup battery for the satellite modem. We only had 15 minutes of laptop battery left.
So we checked our email. Nothing in mine. Nothing in B’s. Looking back on it, everyone clearly thought that someone else had told us the news. But at this point, we at last found a detailed message explaining that Sue was very ill. And that was all. No-one was online for us to check with. Via an arcane set of links I managed to get hold of Dermot, the regional superior of the Jesuits here, who confirmed that it was true. Just before we logged off, a message came from Peter Lear, the cousin who married us, offering condolences. We eagerly read through the message from my mum to Peter which had triggered his, still attached at the bottom, and that’s how we found out what had happened.
That half-hour was a horrible, unforgettable tension- trying desperately not to second-guess, not to cross bridges, just to concentrate and to make the most of each of our 15 minutes before the battery died.
The battery died. We walked back into town. Completely shocked, bewildered, but at least knowing that we needed to get out fast. Getting out of Aishalton fast is not always possible. Not usually possible in fact. Father Amar was in Georgetown. Father Kuru was not heading North again until Friday. But B had made a friend through shared interest in photography, who went to huge trouble to whisk us up to Lethem. Not only that, but he got us there in time to get straight on the overnight bus to Georgetown, on which he had cunningly reserved the last two seats. We didn’t even have a chance to email Georgetown and let them know what was happening.
Angels came thick and fast. Paul, the ‘rugged teddy bear’ we attended the World Social Forum with, appeared out of the blue from behind a tree by the road in the middle of the night and joined us on the bus. He had walked from village to village for a few days and had been planning to catch a different vehicle. What are the chances? I suspect him of magic powers. He lent B his hammock for the rest stop, and he and I talked and talked for those four hours.
Dawn came up on the Karupakari crossing, revealing the ferry we had travelled on only three weeks ago, not expecting to see it again for about a year. The six-hour journey after the river crossing became rather dreamlike. The minibus is a wasp to the big bus’s queen bee- it blasts and rockets and rickets along at top speed whatever the potholes. The road is red dirt, and winds through rainforest for hours on end. Diesel fumes misted and illuminated the greenery with a strange blue light. As we entered a tunnel of trees I was suddenly struck by a sense of hurtling towards my own death. It was not a fear, but it did make me ponder whether we really believe death is coming to us all? We speak as though it’s a freak misfortune. After three hours or so, I found myself looking at the red streak through the lush plush green and being completely calm in it. We had set off. We had no internet access, no possibility of using a phone, there was absolutely nothing more to be done. I found myself utterly present and not at all past and future.
Now it’s 5:30pm. This day has been 36 hours long so far. We are in Georgetown and other people, bless their lovely hearts, are making all the arrangements for our onward journey. Three moments are sitting in my head like slices of a tree trunk. First, getting that “yes, I’m sorry, it’s true” from Dermot, and the rush of sadness that does not belong on paper. Second, waving out of the window at our new friends as we left Aishalton, knowing no-one could deserve such trustworthy and empathetic companions after a few short weeks. And third, sitting by B in the hammock, watching his face leak hints of what was inside him, and understanding that I should not talk. I always talk. My refuge is words. His is not, and he needed silence. It was not wisdom that kept my big mouth shut- it was just love.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

A meditation on insects

It’s not so much their giant waspishness- their sting alone is longer than the wasps I’m used to. It’s not so much that their back ends are articulated like a lorry, or hinged like an old gate, and their legs are so long I can see the barred colour markings. It’s the way they drift aimlessly about, driving me mad with anticipation of their journey’s destination.
Still, they haven’t shown much interest in stinging. Yet.

It’s not so much the way they crawl over my hand when I fetch a clean plate from the drying rack in the evening. It’s not so much their affinity for evening darkness when I am more likely to blunder into them. It’s the way their oblivion to my shared creaturehood gives them utter confidence in barging around in, on and ALL over my personal space.
Still, at least they don’t bite.

Kaboura flies
It’s not so much the way the tiny little black specks of git-hood bite wherever you have missed with the mosiguard (knuckles are a favourite). It’s not so much the wild itching. It’s the unfairness that even though you strive mightily not to scratch, an inadvertent brushing of the bite from a worthy cause like washing up is enough to scar and itch exponentially.
Still, at least they don’t give you diseases.

The beloved female anopheles mosquito
Ah, lady of the dusk. An ode to thee becomes an odious, a paean becomes a pain. Trust D.H. Lawrence to write a poem about thee. Typical.

How can I compare thee? Bringer of malaria, whiner in the sleepless night, invader of nets, munchea indiscriminata, festermeister of infected ankle bites (poor B!)

What shall I say in thy favour? Is there no ‘still’? Nay, I fear not. Thou art ugly beyond compare in a not-at-all ladylike fashion. Thy song is like unto the worst whingeing nag. Thou bitest without discriminaton or remorse. Thy body is host to foul disease, thou spreadest pestilence literally before breakfast. I cannot find a good thing to say about thee. Verily I am off for a good sulk, throughout which I will nevertheless strive not to scratch.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Into Great Silence

Sitting in the back of a flatbed truck yesterday, trying not lose my teeth as we rocketed over another rut, and simultaneously to answer Ivy’s question about whether we have savannahs in England, drinking in the smell of hot grapefruits from Kim's tree, I suddenly realised in disbelief that we had not yet been here two days.

We’re in Aishalton at LAST! The journey took six hours though it’s less than a hundred miles. The track is deep sand in some places, ugly rutted rocky or gravelly in others. It goes across or through countless creeks. When I say some of them are surprisingly deep, I mean we went into them in rear wheel drive and were surprised to find we couldn’t come out again! Father Paul Dominic, a diminutive Indian ascetic philosopher of 68 years old, climbed out and waded round to engage the four-wheel drive on each front wheel every time we were surprised. We arrived happy but less than fresh.

We’re moving in in three stages. First, four days in the Jesuit Presbytery. Then a few weeks in the government hostel, guarded by the foursquare efficient distant-smiling Petronella. And then into a little house of our own.

Sitting on the balcony of the presbytery today, I listened to the silence again. Silence is commonly said to fall, but it definitely doesn’t here. It bulges, spreads. It is the reality that underlies, and the noises are the fragile, ephemeral phenomena. This quality of silence is most evident in the early afternoon. The world slows down until it almost stops. The heat squeezes you, inflates you. It expands out into the valley spread below the house. The bleat of the goat is stifled; even the tweet of its kid, exactly an octave higher, trembles in the fat air and is squashed. One last flock of parrots vibrates its cricket-like unresonant harshness into the afternoon and then expires into a treetop. Stillness expands. You can hear it.

At about four, the birds begin to sing again. I hear a guitar in the church behind. A distant motorbike farts across the valley. A tiny boy emerges from the thatch directly opposite, half a mile away, and begins to wind buckets up the well. Awakeness returns. But silence continues to be present. Once you’ve heard it, you can’t stop hearing it, lying underneath, confident and profoundly simple.
So when Ivy asked me if we have savannahs in England, I didn’t know how to reply. I don’t know what the question means. Does she mean wide open places, or grasslands scattered through with villages, or places where giant anteaters, armadillos and huge storks flourish? I found myself thinking of the Scottish highlands- ironic in a place that could bake your brains out in ten minutes flat! The quality that reminded me of Scotland was not simply wilderness, but the potency of the silence. Despite the roar of the truck engine, the babble of Wapishana and the giggles from the children sharing the flatbed with me, the crashing, creakings and splashings of the various substances over which we drove and the dry crackle of iminaru (sandpaper tree) leaves underfoot, the savannah has a breathing silence which I hope you have the chance to hear sometimes in your life.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Doing Nothing

Anyone who knows me can attest that I am not an intuitive relaxer. If I were a pharmaceutical, I would be in the stimulants rack, not with the sleeping pills. If I were a car, it would be a stressy conscientious Peugeot (B has the temperament of a Bentley, with the odd flash of Maserati). My animal is most decidedly not the sloth. In the drinks fridge I fear the family resemblance is less Copella and more Red Bull.

So take me out of my extremely busy natural habitat and put me down in the middle of the Guyanese savannah with nothing to do, and who can tell what will happen?

We have been in Lethem for a week, and have just found out that we will be here for another one. We have no role here, except as the kind of pesky house-guest who overstays their welcome and spends their time rubbing your nose in how busy they aren't, while you work twice as hard getting on with your life AND looking after them.

B- to the manner born...
Added to this, Lethem is possibly the most undiverting town I have ever seen. I don't mean the nastiest, not at all. That title hangs in the balance, at this point in my life, between two places: Milton Keynes, where I spent many a cold despairing hour waiting for a bus to my tutoring engagements and pondering how any town could be so built for convenience and yet so incredibly, soul-wrenchingly wretched; and ShiJiaZhuang in North Central China (have a go at saying it- "shrr-jeea-djuahng"- slowly through a mouthful of porridge, and see if you still feel so sunny about life), where I thanked God I was not getting off the train as it looked like the confluence of Dickens' bleakest cityscapes with the anti-Communist-propaganda photographs in my school history textbooks. No, Lethem is not nasty. It is simply barren of diversions. There is nothing to go and see- no town hall, no museum full of comic caricatures of Amerindian ways of life, no cinema, theatre, old church (or old building of any description)- and very little to do. The shops are innocent of anything most of you could possibly want, and even to us with our 40kg of life possessions, the fake tupperware is about the most exciting. There are very few restaurants and the waitress service is, judging by recent reports... errrr... bracing. There seems to be one bar. We might try it out if we ever get bored.

So what do I do instead? I look into my heart and I can honestly say that at this moment I am not bored at all. I don't know if that surprises you, but it astounds me. It is thrillingly out of character.
I watch the roosters with their furry breeches racing purposefully round the yard, necks extended racehorse-style. I swing in the hammock, paying heartfelt homage to the extraordinary view of the Kanuku mountains. I invest grateful attention in a cup of Maxwell House ground coffee that I would have rejected scornfully six weeks ago. I read wonderful battered novels with their covers missing that I would have ditto. I notice my foibles instead of hurtling past them or blaming them on busyness. I am gentler with them too, because I have the leisure to contextualise. I get up at 5:45 despite the empty day that yawns and stretches before me like a cat in the sun. I go for bike rides that remind me of China- deep sand skids, rough gravelly stretches, hat-compelling sunshine, pick-up trucks full of standing young men, swaying with the bumps and yelling cheery heckles that get carried off in the dust cloud.

Everything I do is a digression. Look at the meandering, unfocussed oxbow of a blog entry I've just wound round the back passages of your poor bewildered brain! But a digression from what? I've just read Albert Schweitzer's extraordinary "On the Edge of the Primeval Forest", an autobiography of his time in West Africa. He had a grand purpose; to cure the diseases of the Black Man. It's full of wonderful good sense- "in the tropics a man can do at most half of what he can manage in a temperate climate" alongside the ingrained racism of his time- "the negro is a child, and with children nothing can be done without the use of authority. We must, therefore, so arrange the circumstances of daily life that my natural authority can find expression". Schweitzer has been a bit of a hero of mine for a while, but I do not envy him his terrible clarity of purpose.

Who knows what will happen? It will be good to live each day as though life itself is more important than work. As though it is NOT my role to know, to judge, to direct, to manage. Schweitzer's goal was progression. Perhaps mine is digression.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

A request

We’ve left Georgetown behind, with its internet cafe, fantastic (!) postal service, phone lines and constant comings and goings of visitors.

In a few days time, we move to Aishalton, our new home. There is no electricity, so internet access will depend on solar panels, satellites, weather and whose need is greater than mine. Recharging the laptop ditto. Updating the blog will take planning and luck. I’m just beginning to feel rather isolated!

So if you enjoy reading these spasmodic and eclectic wibbles, please sign up as a follower (same goes for B’s photo blog: It will be so good to feel befriended and accompanied, and to know who I’m talking to!
Thanks. x

Journey to the South

Sunset from the Jesuit garden in St. Ignatius village, Lethem
(B's favourite photo angle- from below- hippopotamus maximus!)

It’s the end of an ordinary day in Lethem. A small Amerindian boy chases someone else's horse out of the church compound. Only the commonest birds are in sight, flying home to roost- parrots, in pairs, squawking like toys, battering away frantically at the air, and lazy vultures cruising, on the lookout, gliding out over the river into Brazil and the sunset.

Our journey down here was (I’m told uncharacteristically) smooth. We had a royal send-off in Georgetown from Dengue Steve, Typhoid Ramesh, Laptop Rayan and BMX Britto. They came to drop us off at 7:30, and sweetly killed time with us till 8:30 when the bus actually arrived. We all managed to board and set off bang on time, 9pm. The Big Bus would have looked pretty shabby to me two months ago. If you drove up to Victoria Coach Station and started loading, there would be a few complaints. No-one could call it fancy. But it was the most comfortable seat I’ve sat on since leaving England, despite being plastic and ripped. We had the front two seats. Luxury!
The journey starts with two hours of surfaced road, and a stop-off at Immigration at Linden. Immigration? Have we crossed a border? Does the bus cross a border at all? Nope. But Immigration check us all out, especially the Brazilian passengers.
We then set off on the main part of the journey- on a good trip such as ours, a mere 12 hours on unsurfaced road. This “highway” is the main artery to more than three-quarters of Guyana. In my one hour Traffic Survey, I counted 6 vehicles. As you can tell, most of the population does not live in this three-quarters! The suspension copes so well that both of us manage a fair bit of sleep between 11pm and 5am.

The last five hours are the best part. At 5:45, the Big Bus is first in the queue for the Rupununi ferry- a 500 horsepower plank raft with a steel undercarriage. First, all the passengers walk on. Then each vehicle reverses down a steep muddy riverbank, and then across two planks on to the raft. The angles involved did not suit the Big Bus at all. Considering the palaver, it’s hard to imagine they go through this every day. The minibuses fit themselves on round the big bus, and the passengers keep hopping out of the way each time another vehicle gets packed on. At about 6a.m, a prime time of day for biting insects, the ferry sets off. It pulls upriver for a while, crossing the current high enough to counter the pull and nudge up to the opposite bank with aplomb. A boy in a vest and ragged denim shorts refills the fuel tanks with a chopped-down bottle as funnel, rinsing out the old diesel into the almost-pristine river.
Looks like it defies physics: Big Bus and Small Ferry

The road now goes through Iwokrama rainforest for an hour. I see my first “don’t litter” sign in Guyana, warnings against hunting and logging, alert-looking wardens. It’s heartening. Sadly every right-minded creature in the forest avoids the Big Bus like the plague. We stop for breakfast at Annai, a small village with a positively posh eco-resort and a red dirt landing strip. In the ladies’ toilets there’s a faded photograph of Prince Charles and a giant otter gazing at one another in mutual benevolent befuddlement (there isn’t one in the gents, B tells me). I get a decent cup of tea for breakfast; I’ve come to terms with the ubiquitous powdered milk.
The rest of the journey is over the savannah. We see egrets and vultures, and a few herons, but nothing more exciting in the way of wildlife. I don’t blame them for scarpering in the face of the Big Bus. The Kanuku mountains march us the last two hours into Lethem, rising abruptly out of the flatlands, cloaked in rich green trees.
One of the many plank bridges over the creeks
Once we reach our destination, it’s one last trip to Immigration, where you’re waved through swiftly unless you’re crossing the border, and we descend one last time from the comfy seat’s embrace to greet the equatorial heat and the dustclouds and the sweat and the cicada scream that I already don’t notice and the manic all-night cockerels and the kaboura flies of Lethem.

Monday, 2 March 2009


Monty Python never dies. The world 'luxury!' evokes nearly as universal a response as mention of dead parrots.

There is no doubting that the cappucino I am cradling, nicknamed "The Penultimate" (yes, I have got to the point of naming and crooning!), is a luxury. But it got me thinking about how utterly relative luxury is. The things that look like luxuries here don't at home. It all depends on where you're standing. So I thought I would take a moment to notice that a bit.

From Georgetown, these things seem like unimaginable luxury:
-A lie-in
-Hot water, to get the dishes dry or the clothes really clean
-Energy between 10a.m. and 4p.m.
-A trip to the cinema
-Dogs that ever shut up
-A state of being which doesn't involve itching
-Fresh milk
-Live music (even at Mashramani, nearly all the music was canned)
-A room of two's own
-A roast chicken dinner

But on the other hand, in Georgetown, I have these luxuries I could hardly have imagined in the previous life:
-Time; to spend, to kill, to waste and to fritter
-The magic mosquito net tent every night
-Families playing street cricket at sunset
-Great enjoyment of little things (The Penultimate's brief life is over, but I applaud it nevertheless!)
-A collection of P.G. Wodehouses that exceeds even my father's
-A husband I see every single day
-Mangoes that fell straight from heaven
-Enough sunshine to warm even my cold clammy bad moods!
-Fighting green parrots swooping round the city centre
-Tapir taxis- possibly the cutest and most impractical vehicle ever
-Waking up in the morning with NO idea what today's adventure will be

... which, of course, gets me to pondering about whether these luxuries have to be confined to different lives, or whether I'm just a twit who isn't very talented at making the most of what she's got! But then, it's a rare person who is. Lucky me; I'm married to one!