Friday, 31 July 2009

Retail (aversiono)Therapy

I head off sub-shopping on my bike. (Sub-shopping involves telling your conscious mind you are going out for a bike ride, and you might just stop off at a shop if you happen to pass: that way you’re not too disappointed when they have nothing at all to sell you except bad dry Brazilian biscuits and nylon undergarments). I pass the non-smelly dump (pleasing to me, disappointing to the mangy hungry dogs that slink away as I approach). The path is so narrow that the stiff grasses tickle my spokes, playing harp melodies. I splash through some mud and almost stall, heaving the pedals manically round so I won’t have to stop and put a foot down into three-inch bog. Nearly there now- not that I’m heading anywhere in particular of course... I get superstitious about setting my heart on things.

Aishalton is the shopping capital of the Deep South. We have four shops which are clearly distinguishable from homes (as long as you know where to look-and look hard!). Their stock overlaps on a very few staples: jam (always guava or pineapple), tomato paste, tinned ‘sausages’ (the EU regulations would burst into flames at the merest pong of them as you open the can) and baking powder. Otherwise they specialise: one in hardware, one in cleanliness, one in luxury goods (coke and oreos, and we even saw apples once but they’d all gone by the time it was our turn), and one in cheapness, playing cards and brightly coloured, terrifyingly shiny-fabricked brassieres.

First I find myself at Fortnum and Mason’s. First impressions are so important in attracting a certain kind of customer. Not only is the veranda floor tiled, it’s so clean you could eat your dinner off it. You enter the emporium and are immediately met by a clean glass counter with stationery, hair scrunchies and Pink Lady lip gloss. The shelves are tidy, but not exactly embarrassed with overstock at this stage of the rainy season. I come away with just two sachets of FlavorAid (violently coloured chemical drink flavouring which nevertheless masks the smoky odour of fireside-boiled drinking water).

Next stop is Morrison’s. It is neighbourly and proclaims its wares on cheery posters, but the “more reasons more reasons more reasons” leave me dissatisfied and wondering whether ever to come back in just the same way Morrison’s does: less reasons less reasons less reasons. Less food too. Still, she does stock “cook in me and I’ll feed you all week” pans, pins, pens, barbed wire, bolts and blowtorches. AND her guava jam is fractionally in the lead (I saw seeds in it once). She stocks chicken, potatoes and onions, but doesn’t have any of them this week. I nearly buy tinned mixed vegetables but I’m just not quite that desperate yet. Next!

Our third emporium has two strong Lidl resemblances: the eclectic ad-hoc stock, and the harassed and miserable looking staff. Also like Lidl, they have the best value and widest (!) range as long as you don’t insist on something in particular. It looks like an Aladdin’s cave of nylon, plastic and tins. The staff often disappear into the dark rear of the shop. Sometimes they come back. The beer is out there. There is often a crowd of drunk men by lunchtime. I buy coke (which in England I never drink but outside is a must somehow), a different brand of EU-scandalising pseudo-sausage (not a halal chicken Vienna!), some perceptibly firm potatoes, and garlic in some improbably professional-looking packaging. B and I will marvel over that for a while when I get home, speculating on its carbon footprint, which I’m sure will be nothing to almost any item we would buy at Sainsbury’s. That’s one thing about shopping here: no refrigeration means no transported perishables. We generate a standard (Lidl-size) bag of rubbish here in the time we would fill a dustbin at home.

Last stop is perhaps the most mysterious of all. Let us call it The Old Curiosity Shop. I suspect the tins of unidentifiable fish of being Dickensian anyway. In Georgetown, we realised with a profound shock that this is where China sends the stuff it doesn’t want. The unnamed tinned fish here looks familiar. Perhaps it is fried dace from China. Curiouser and curiouser, perhaps it is the very cans of fried dace we turned our noses up at in the Gobi desert. That would larn us! The red bra dangling in front of my nose gleams reproachfully. The umbrellas are fetching, and the Chery Chempagne drink positively delicious. But my enquiries for eggs, beef, chicken and onions are all met with the kind of sullen incredulity appropriate to trying to buy such items in a lingerie store. They do in fact usually sell the above, but it’s hard to believe from the flat finality with which my queries are rebuffed. Still, B got even shorter shrift last time- when he asked if there was any beef, they replied “Not in YOUR size!” I’ll leave it to you to deduce the error from context. I am an English teacher, after all...

Time to go home. After two hours of touring, we have enough for a strange, stodgy, protein-free meal. A successful shopping trip.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

I spy with my little eye...

.... a royal barge, children red in tooth and claw, and a giant stave.

I open the toilet door to see a carapace sailing sideways, slow, regal and splendid in its tiny glide. Only a moment later do I see its motive power: a procession of tiny black ants. Throughout my (hrrrmph) stay, the royal progress sails on, millimetre by millimetre, to its grisly end. So must Mary Queen of Scots have felt on seeing the yawning maw of the Tower of London- except that of course, she wasn't already dead. Lucky cockroach, escaping at least the mental agony. Then on the other hand, Mary Queen of Scots didn't get eaten.
The children are playing outside the back door, over in the mango grove. The happy laughter. How sweet! Oh. Those are catapults. A sudden outraged squawking and a great flock of green parrots rises. A series of dull thuds. Down they come like rotten pumpkins, some still struggling. The happy laughter. Little brutes! Off they trot, handfuls of claws, pendulent fat broken bodies, feathers akimbo. Only later do I discover that the parrots are for the pot, not for spite. There's no meat to buy; the neighbours' chickens are beginning to show slingshot wounds. 'Waro Damorid' sounds a lot more socially acceptable than 'parrot pepperpot' but they taste just the same.
I go inside to plan my two-week music course. Now then. 26 participants registered, aged 8-55. No-one has ever studied theory. All like singing, and some can too. No manuscript paper, printer, stereo, textbooks, metronome or instruments. So I start designing my giant stave. We will make it of string. We will people it with our initials and with A-G words like 'deaf' and 'face' and 'caged'. We will trample all over the theory of music with our flipflops, and stomp it into submission. And if it won't submit, pah! We don't need it anyway. We'll continue to roar and pause unfathomably over the contours of Amazing Grace and How Great thou Art. If Nature doesn't like Nurture, it can always cart it off with ant-like efficiency and eat it.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Sisters, Sisters, never were there such devoted Sisters

From left: Calista, Goretti, a friend, Leonarda

One of the benisons of life here is falling within the orbit of the sisters. 4 foot 10 dynamos, from tribal India, at first they seemed to belong in a batch. They are much loved, much accepted here. They visit and sit with the old and the sick. Women come round to discuss marital problems, violence they dare not yet stand up to, children running wild. There is a steady, unobtrusive stream of grateful visitors with fish, a few fruit, a little box of buns. The sisters told me just after I arrived “we feel our home is over the next hill only”. They merge right in. They arrived in 2006, and three of them have not been back to India since.

As we settle in here, they become more distinct. I know how each prefers their tea (no mean feat, since they always say “as you like”!). I know who will get up in front at church, who will catch birds or iguanas, who prefers teaching teenagers and who is more comfortable with the little ones. I guess who is the best cook, who dreads laundry, who kills the chickens. Their community life is very private, but every Saturday now they come to our house for afternoon tea. We have a truly lovely time together. I have thought several times of attempting to word-paint them, but have only now plucked up the courage. Since they have appeared on Picture of the Day (Sister Calista holding the bluebird), it is time to usher them gently out of seclusion and on to this stage too.

Her smile is twice the size of her voice. She is the oldest, at 68 (hard to believe), but in many ways the youngest. She has an innocence that has something to do with never studying while always learning- but always for use, never for power. She is too humble to get up and speak in front of a crowd. She would lose all her words. Her beam and call of “Ahhh!” whenever I appear rejoices my heart. You would choose her to visit your touchy relatives, for company on a journey, to sit with you when you were ill.

Sister Goretti
The first time I went to a birthday lunch with Sister Goretti, I got a shock. I had thought her the quietest of the four, but get her at a party and she whoops and rushes, initiates singing, drags people up for speeches. I have rarely seen someone do this without wanting attention for themselves. She doesn’t. She has a wonderfully dismissive nod when you thank her for her manifold and tiny acts of kindness. Her English is weak, and I think there must be a reason for it. I’m not sure she believes in words very much. You would choose her to shoo everyone into the front rows of church, break the ice at a stilted party, work wisely with a depressed person.

Sister Lucy
A sweet name and a sweet face. You could mistake Lucy for early thirties until you look closely. We know her least because she recently returned from three months in India. Last week I saw her playing Chinese whispers with a group of streetwise and relatively disaffected ‘yoof’ I know from the secondary school. They stood in a circle holding hands. They have no defence against her happy and expectant cajolery.

Sister Leonarda

‘Leon’ for ‘Lionheart’, definitely. Leonarda is a trained midwife and health worker. The first question she ever asked me was “how is your urine?” (Not without reason, I hasten to add!). She is rotund and vital, stout and doughty, an Indian Sister Cadfael. The sparkle in her eyes fits with the revving motorbike roll of her ‘r’s. She is that rare combination, a great talker and a great listener. Not a dreamer or a judge, but valiant and hopeful in the teeth of her own pragmatism. Resourceful, nobody’s fool, generous to the faults and weaknesses around her. You would choose her to run your orphanage, have a word with your flirtatious daughter, give short shrift to a slimy politician.

These four live humbly and generously amidst the physical hardships that make up normal life here. To me they represent everything that is admirable about dependency- interweaving, mutuality, the risk of loving. The fact that their graceful stamina goes unremarked makes it if anything even more remarkable.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

This week, I 'ave been mostly feeling....

... despairing rage!

Monday. Laundry day. Sometimes the backache outweighs the sweet buzz of moral rectitude. But usually it is weirdly satisfying. Five hours between two of us, the walks to and fro to the well, the 'final' rinse and the little heart-sink at the fizz of not-quite-soap-free cotton, one more walk and thump and then the sweet satisfaction of fragrant, sun-dry clothes. Even when it rains and the washing can't dry, still, the strife is o'er, the haulage complete, the stale sweat stink defeated. Hallelujah!
This week, it's a war. We do the laundry together (well, to be precise, I start soap-sudding stinkies at six while B still snoozes). I haul 24 buckets up the well, B more. He washes the hammock single-handed:- anyone who knows B will immediately leap, Lewis-Carroll-like, into imagining a world of arcane techniques, the ingenuities, the sheer inventive brilliance with which he approaches this task.
We get it all done in the morning. Mid-afternoon, I look up from the bid proposal I'm scanning, ear alerted by a quiet but unfamiliar noise. The line is shaking. I flop from the hammock and head for the door, to find a huge cow, working its way along the washing, masticating. It has finished with my only t-shirt and moved on to my shirt. The sleeve is shredding, and so are my nerves. Anyone who says cows are colour-blind is lying- it avoided both of B's red t-shirts between the two now-defunct tops. For one brief moment I looked in slow motion, watched it drool from the corner of its muzzle, revolting wad of half-digested mashed viscous cotton, watched my sleeve seam part, green slime oozing in. Then I roared. I ran at it. I yelled obscenities. The hoofmarks where it dug in to turn and run are deep enough to have collected water this morning. Usually I would be nervous of that bulk, those horns, but rage at the sheer injustice of it consumes me. After all that scrubbing and thumping, after all that HAULAGE!
The shirt was coated in a kind of liquid green silicone. It looked like those bodies in goo in the Matrix. In fact, it's a visual effect to be found in every horror movie and most of the sci-fi films ever made. And the SMELL! Since people compliment my powers of description, I am going to do you a favour and NOT describe it. My t-shirt was similar but, as a paler colour, is suffering more long-term. Like what happens when a two-year-old finds Mummy's clothes dye supplies and has a go at tie-dyeing. I was too depressed to re-wash them, so B did them both. You can imagine the thick white foam, the scrubbage, the unprecedented thoroughness. Of course I cannot replace the clothes. But they will never feel fragrant again. I will wear them with a shudder. The eternal footman will point at my cow-stains and snicker.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Midnight in the Twiglet House

First comes the pattering- the lizards arrive. They run across the mosquito netting, weight spread, twisting their heads and pooing with avidity. Second comes the quiet throbbing rip of a hungry horse heaving up grass. Then it’s the bat, the one I call Red Bull, on speed as usual, hurtling round corners like a boy racer, also excreting with enthusiasm. And now comes the thunder, first a lapping ripple, then kettle-drum rehearsal at the London Symphony Orchestra, then a threatening roar, and finally Dolby Digital earthquake sound effects. With the last comes the rain,
from rustle
to patter
to splatter
to batter.
Bits of thatch rain down gently, like ash. With the rain come the cows, sheltering under the eaves, a foot from our heads. Tonight they are restless, and knock on the shutters to be let in. Even though I know it must be cows, I still call out “Hello?”, the knock is so human. They “mmrrrrrruurr” low in their throats, upset and jostling. They knead the ground. As the rain dies down, most drift away, and I drift off, to be woken by the sound of dung hitting earth right behind my head. Even at 2am, just startled awake, I immediately think “cow not horse” from the sound of all that shit hitting, the flat splat of cowpat.

I’m tired today. I love the twiglet house. But sometimes it would be nice to spend a night in arid sterility, a clean white soundproof room, insulated from the rustle, splat, rip and growl of nature in all her glory.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Air, hair and a bit of a scare!

I guessed the rain would come in many flavours here. Actually it’s the air. Today it is slightly heavy and moist, like wearing a thick damp fleece jumpsuit. Yesterday the whole atmosphere was a perfect, smooth blancmange, and walking involved pressing yourself forward step by step through a giant milk-based dessert: laboursome, with a sticky residue (so THIS is what it feels like to be a raspberry in a pannacotta!). On a cloudy morning when it’s below 25, the air waits, motionless, humming just below the level of hearing. On changeable days it is like swimming near the shoreline: you enter cool pockets with a shock, and then without warning it’s warm again. You can feel the currents following their own mysterious trails of logic. But best of all are the precious minutes before the rain. The wind jaguars come leaping, roaring, playing havoc with the shutters. You can stand in the cool blast and feel your eyelids blowing back, or use the moment to hurtle around grabbing in your laundry before the rain variously hurls down, chucks itself at you or suffocatingly embraces the world.

Short hair is definitely the ideal choice when it’s hot, AND when it’s rainy. It dries quicker in both cases (sweat or rainfall). But haircuts are gold dust. I had a thousand dollar (£3) haircut in Georgetown, but I don’t get to Georgetown much. And frankly, ‘£3’ suits it better than ‘thousand dollar’- that one certainly gained in translation! So Alison, a good friend and mother of the lovely Ashley, has agreed nervously to cut my hair. I sit on the adjustable salon chair (a bench laid on its side). We sit outside my back door, to the amusement of all the market day bystanders. My gown (binbag with hole in the top) is lowered over my head. B empties the last poisonous remnants from a spray bottle of ‘Shoo!’ insect repellent and fills it with water. Alison has brought her paper scissors. I explain the rough outlines of modern female hairdressing (an area in which I have vast expertise of course), with some demonstrative chopping gestures, and then we’re off. The ‘Shoo!’, it transpires, is still rather potent and needs another rinse. The scissors are a tad blunt. Our neighbour, whose body consists of 30% solids, 10% water and 60% parakari (the local firewater) comes over to lurch, belch and touch my white skin. My demonstration needs some clarification halfway through. But the outcome is definitely less Georgetown and more Toni and Guy. I’m VERY impressed. Alison is a woman of many talents. She is fully qualified as a cook and food handler, and is called out sometimes to local villages when they need caterers for a special event. She cuts both her boys’ hair. She recently completed the sewing training provided by the Basic Skills Trust in Aishalton, and has made some impressive-looking clothes, including Ashley’s Nursery School Graduation dress.
Ashley (in the graduation dress) and Alison
She is hoping to open her own snackette this Autumn. Having tasted her chicken and roti and her cake, we are ardent supporters of this enterprise! Motivated purely by women’s empowerment, of course, not greed.
Alison and Ashley leave after sharing some market day cake and drinks with us (‘Market Day’ is the concept- ‘Cake and Dodgy Home-brew Day’ is the reality) and trying on B's flipflops.
B is heading out the door to search diligently for the photo of the day, just as a snake is heading in. Our first large snake in Aishalton, and it is coming confidently in the back door of my house. ‘Alarming’ is rather politer than the word that popped out of my mouth (let’s just say the bats, birds and lizards do it liberally from my roof). Alison says it was a Whiptail. “You want to careful, it’ll wrap itself round your ankle, that one”. “Is it poisonous?” I ask. She looks slightly baffled. “I mean, does it bite?” Alison and Ashley smile. “A snake is a snake”. Enigmatic smiles, an open little phrase. Compact, clear and yet potent with so much interpretative, storytelling potential.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Aishalton life in numbers

(to the tune of “On the first Day of Christmas”, obviously)

On the 85th day in Aishalton, my tallies said to me:

719,000 Guyana dollars won for the Nursery School (thanks GENCAPD!),
720 dollars for half a chicken,
171 days since we left Ledgard Wharf and came to Guyana,
166.38 square miles that make up Aishalton village,
134 Toshaos (Amerindian village leaders) in the whole of Guyana,
103 paces from the well to our front step,
55 paces to the toilet in daylight, 66 in the dark (with 52 cranks of the wind-up lantern),
39 children in my larger Form 1 class,
20 places on my August music course,
16 children in Natalie’s family,
14 Aishalton people who feel like real friends,
11 bites currently on my feet and ankles (mainly toes, bizarrely),
9 bucketfuls of water to wash two pairs of trousers,
8 arm-hauls per bucket up the well,
5 children from Aishalton Primary who have just won national scholarships in the exams (WOW!),
4 festering mangoes,
3 days of Nursery School staff training,
1 bat living in our house,

And an oriole in the lime tree.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

A solidarity of small things

Once upon a previous lifetime, i.e. in Brazil six months ago, I wrote about solidarity. I wonder what you think about when you hear the word? I used to think rallies. Lobbying MPs. Sit-ins, protests, marches. They are all images of struggle. My subconscious thesaurus had solidarity firmly in the activist category- solidarity and oppression as obverse and reverse.

Here in Aishalton, we recently attended a consultation on the Guyanese government’s low-carbon development strategy ( After studying all that development theory, it was fascinating to see a ‘grassroots consultation’ from the small end of the microscope. It took place in the secondary school where I have been teaching. Two female government ministers, some environmentalists, Amerindian organisation representatives and facilitators flew in on a specially chartered plane. They proceeded to wilt and sigh their way through an exceedingly hot five hours on the town’s most comfortable chairs (carried up the hill from the Government Guesthouse on the heads of dormitory students), sipping Mount Roraima mineral water and garnering what breeze there was while the rest of us crammed into the body of the school on the children’s benches and regretted not bringing drinks. I wonder if they found themselves sympathising with the children who would sit exams here that same week in hotter weather, on harder chairs, with ‘papers’ written up on a blackboard fifty yards away. Perhaps I am being unfair to suspect they were too preoccupied with strategic thoughts or their own momentary discomfort to ponder the children’s daily reality. Our ‘consultation’ lasted five hours, of which all but twenty minutes was presentations from the front. Many of the local villagers, the bulk of whom left formal education at fourteen or younger, saw the discussion document (57 pages, including appendices, of fairly technical language) for the first time when they arrived that day. Heartfelt congratulations to those who managed to digest the gist, cogitate the debate and respond with aplomb. At four o’clock our Consultors dashed back to the airstrip in a regional government jeep, clutching smart handbags, face powder compacts, high heels and participatory legitimacy to their hot and smartly dressed bosoms. Those left behind variously smiled and chatted, talked positively about the message of the strategy and grumbled about tokenism, insufficient preparation and the authenticity of hasty and information-poor ‘informed consent’.

It’s a strange solidarity we feel here. The solidarity of wondering which battles to fight and which to concede in pragmatic powerlessness. Of walking off to the outside toilet in the rain at midnight. Of operating with a quarter of the information you need for every decision or discussion. Of smelling of pepper-sweat and mould and ripe socks. Of day after day after day of ordinary Aishalton life. Of laughing immoderately at mildly funny jokes. Of living on whatever you can find to cook, alternating between repetitive and experimentally weird. It isn’t grand or portentous. It expresses itself as much in the things you choose not to say (“In the UK a teacher would be sacked for doing that”, “Let’s get an NGO to send us lots of money!”, “how do you LIVE with all these biting insects!”, “No, I do not enjoy eating cassava every day”) as in the things you do say.

Tomorrow we have a meeting with the Toshao (village leader) to discuss the LCDS in preparation for the President’s meeting with all of Guyana’s 134 Toshaos on 20th July. Our Toshao wants to know which questions to ask. The old adage “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” springs to my mind. The Toshaos cannot meet beforehand, to discuss and then present a unified perspective. This is their biggest and best chance to be heard, and many Amerindians in Brazil or Peru would be astounded to be accorded such a moment, but it’s a hamstrung opportunity, circumscribed by so many things. It’s an Aishalton chance.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

“You SHALL go to the ball!”

Graduation- the season of the year for Aishalton’s fairy godmothers to go toke with the wands.
Students here do not give a lot of input into the design of school events. Unusually, for Graduation they were offered the chance to decide on their graduation outfits. They chose deep blue, between gentian and regatta blue. I didn’t know what to expect: American gown-and-mortarboard silliness? School uniform but just in a different colour?
The fabric was ordered in May. It arrived two weeks before graduation. It’s pale lilac. So much for protagonism! The students are matter-of-fact about the lilac. The boys will have black trousers, lilac shirt and tie. The girls will have lilac dresses.
Thirteen girls and two boys are graduating. Exam results will not arrive here until early September (about two weeks after students in Georgetown get theirs). So graduation is simply a celebration of completing five years of secondary schooling. There are 75 students in my first year classes. That is quite an attrition rate.
The day arrives. The school auditorium (i.e. the wide corridor from one end of the building to the other) has been decorated with lilac and white paperchains, ruched lilac curtains tied up with string, balloons advertising Century21, Brazilian car dealers, Budget car hire, Happy Birthday and Its-a-boy! balloons, Christian proselytising balloons.... We begin with a procession of the graduating class, to the strains of the school song, played with one finger and a great deal of flourish to a disco beat on a synthesizer. Here come 13 bridesmaids- tarty bridesmaid with red bra strap, embarrassed bridesmaid whose mother had gone against trend with a short skirt, girly and womanly, stumbling on unfamiliar borrowed heels, made up like a 50-year old matron, in they all come. What dresses! Lilac satin, strappy or strapless, mostly floor length, all fitted. It bears far more resemblance to a beauty contest than a school event. One boy has not turned up (whether because he couldn’t afford the outfit or couldn’t afford the loss of street cred I couldn’t ascertain). The solitary man looks striking, responsible, stiff with borrowed enjoyable formality.

Our programme is long. It seems that all Amerindians have a very high boredom threshold, and can sit through days of thoughtlessly delivered tedium. Perhaps it is simply good manners. We have several speeches, into which any thought that has accidentally stumbled has been solely dedicated to appropriacy rather than diversion, interest or, heaven forbid, delivery style. All of us are seated on the children’s benches, pressed close together. It is as usual over thirty degrees in the school, and the zinc roof presses ever lower as the sun rises ever higher.
Finally it is time for the certificates and trophies. B bought me fifteen sheets of card in Georgetown, so we had managed to print out certificates with eagles watermarked in colour to represent the school motto, ‘Fly to the Top’. Six of the fifteen graduates have won a trophy- best academic, best sporting, most cooperative, most disciplined, most improved, best dormitory student. One of the fathers has bought his daughter a trophy from himself, just for finishing. He is invited to the podium after the six prizewinners have been called out, and he awkwardly calls his daughter forward, stiff in her dress and the embarrassment of a carefully dressed up father, and presents her with a grand trophy. He has found a way for his daughter to be queen of the occasion for one brief moment: the first member of her family to finish secondary education.

It is dignified against all odds. The ballgowns are 1980’s Disney. The auditorium is shabby, the decorations mockable, and Synthesizer Man faintly ridiculous. The speeches are dull and the students’ achievements modest. And yet. For many of those graduating today, this is the grandest recognition they will ever receive. Most will soon be parents. Few will ever have formal employment. A life free of officialdom can also be pretty sparse in affirmation. So the fairy godmothers stay up late stitching, fathers find a way to get a trophy ordered from Georgetown, and the students look solemn and walk carefully on this, a day that ends one era and catapults them into a future without structure.