Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Deep South Games

You’ll want James’ photo album up in a different window while you read this!

The only fitting equipage in which to arrive at the Olympics of the South Rupununi is in a flatbed truck. It is dark when we load up the Bandeirante, a true bandit of a vehicle. Into the flatbed go the two bench cushions, requisitioned from a minibus in days long gone by. In go the buckets of snacks and flasks. Into the spare tyre goes Sister Leonarda. The rest of us perch on the bench cushion, all lined along the right-hand side because one of the bolts is gone from the spring-leaf suspension on the left chassis. Last of all, in comes a heavy, dumpy wooden flight of stairs, for easy ingress and egress. B climbs into the driver’s seat, “Grrrrrmph” grumbles the engine, and we’re off, just before 6am. They say a prayer on leaving, with a lovely unselfconsciousness. We sing to the sunrise, voices juddering and jerking over the bumps. We stop off for a picnic after an hour and a half of rectal lobotomy, and complete the journey in good spirits, arriving at about 8:15.

The Deep South Games are in their thirteenth year. The seven communities of ‘the Deep South Crescent’ (Aishalton, Awarewaunau, Maruranau, Shea, Karaudarnau, Achawib and Parabara) participate, and the winner hosts the games the following year. So this year Maruranau was the venue. The event lasts for six days, of which five are for imported sports (volleyball, football and cricket) and one for ‘cultural activities’. As if that wasn’t unbalanced enough, they call the imported sports ‘The Games’, and the last day ‘Indigenous Day’. What could be totemic risks being tokenistic.

The Games themselves are enjoyable of course. The opening ceremony is set for 9am, and by a feat of unparalleled organisation, it actually is. Maruranau’s Toshao, Mr Patrick Gomes, is head of the District Toshao’s Council and a man of great presence. (He’s also generous: he lent us his outhouse to sleep in, and later put up the Peace Corps volunteers too with no prior warning). Grass skirt for culture and microphone for modernity. Alcohol for sale all day to keep the visitors happy and boomed commands to pick up rubbish all day to keep the locals happy. The opening ceremony proceeds with the obligatory local dance, done with great dignity by older women brandishing excellent home-made maracas. A skinny giant white person lopes through it all, oozing around as unobtrusively as he can.

The teams then parade out. Our banner-carriers get dressed up in traditional Wapishana costume, just for the march. No-one ever wears this now except for cultural shows. Our sulky sultry young man is told sharply to remove his gangsta-style heavy chain and put on a traditional necklace instead. He wears his traditional dress hipster-height to show off his CK boxers. The feather headdress suits his smooth young face. All in all, it’s a profoundly telling outfit. The girl wears lycra shorts below the skirt for modesty; traditional dress doesn’t cover much.

We (Aishalton) have been preparing quite seriously for these Games. The footballers have been out training at 5:30am each morning for weeks, the volleyballers at 4:30pm for a couple of months now. The 8th August heats for the cultural events were hard-fought too, and for the most part impressive. We’re determined to do well.

We are ready. Our elegant young Aishalton ladies troop out to their cricket match looking the part, trim and fit. The barren and dusty crease is ready, after half an hour of brushing with a pointer broom. Here come Maruranau. They stomp out to the wicket heavily, barefoot and dressed in matronly skirts. But as it turns out, Maruranau is peopled by Valkyries. These valiant stout ladies should be running the world. If the gap at Thermopylae had been filled by those bosoms, the outcome would have been altogether happier for Leonidas. Those breastplates shining in the sun, those smiles, would have had the Persians fleeing for their lives. They excel in the element of surprise- no-one could ever be ready. And then BAM! – they smack that ball like a child’s worst nightmare clobber round the back of the head and they’re OFF. On the wings of song (perhaps Flanders and Swann). Fleet of foot, doughty and dainty and so, so fast. I hear the hoods in the back of the stands laughing in disrespect, but I’m laughing in delight. They acquire 97 runs in 20 overs without extending themselves at all.

With the Games complete, Indigenous Day takes its turn. I can make it sound dreamlike. I can zoom in close and show Eustace Martin’s face, patient and timeless, blowing smoke and then fire from tinder. I can charm you with Valerie’s speedy spindle, and fill your eyes with the rich gorgeous colour and flicker as the speed weavers race their ite leaves crossways and crossways into baskets. Or I can step back and show the emptiness at the edges of the wide angle. Fatima running in bare feet from the Awarewaunau boundary to win the long distance race against no-one. Rosana cycling alone to ‘win’ the bike race. Every single female archer failing to hit the target with all three arrows, and having to move them closer to winnow out a winner. Only three out of seven villages entering the arrow-fletching contest; two in the young people’s spinning race. And over it all, pounding Brazilian music. At the edges of every prospect, men stupefied with alcohol; staggering, dancing or down and out. Or I can speak with pride; of Aishalton’s many victories, and of their presence in every event. I can describe their triumphal return to Aishalton on the tractor, blowing horns and banging things, waving their trophies, brown-skinned and beaming and beautiful in the sunlight.

Overall we won. So next year, the Games are in Aishalton. And for the first time, there will be a planning committee with representatives from each village, so participation should be up. Maybe some trends are reversible, and the Games will be able to nurture a new generation of Wapishanas proud of their culture, and increasingly expert in its ingenuities. Maybe next year we’ll end the Deep South Games with an Indigenous Day that is not its colourful fringes but its crowning glory.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Virtually attending a Wedding

“It is only the beginning of a journey”, I tell myself with a sniffle. “One cannot always be there to see people off”.

Stephen and Sarah’s wedding day, four thousand eight hundred and twelve miles away. How can I mark the day auspiciously? Should I dress up? Should I go and stand outside Aishalton’s empty church at the appointed hour? Or find a white butterfly to throw confetti at? My stiff upper lip is at a loose end.
The wedding is almost ready to begin. You stand front right, waiting, nerves stretched tight as a harp. Stephen. I remember the undersized purple shrimp pocketed in a frail elbow. Two days old and still losing weight, four pounds twelve I think you were, and a peeled grape of tiny squeals. For some reason I remember vividly the bad eighties haircuts round the bed. Helen’s mullet, Philip’s loose perm and tight jeans. Esther’s exhausted face and dark (scared?) eyes. That was the last time I remember you looking helpless. You were an adored little thing, the beadiest most heart-rich smile 309 Whitewell Road ever saw.
I have a wonderful recording of you as an eleven-year-old, accent thick and chewy as liquorice, saying “So, am I going solo on this tape or what?” and a dry-as-dry-ice adult voice in the background drawling “Just carry on, Stephen”, as you entertained me strangely (far away in the Chinese desert) with jokes about corks up doggie’s bums. I never saw a child so suited to the epithet “irrepressible”.

As the readings sound out, I remember you reading at my wedding, almost two years ago. 1 Corinthians 13, the naming of love’s parts. Your strong accent somehow turned those adjectives into commands. I see my father’s face, heart-shaped and pointed with illness, the black eyes clinging on to you, averted for just a moment from the shadow of death. Seeing himself in you, hearing himself in the certainty and clarity of your voice. Profoundly and unshakeably proud of you. I exhort you with those words now. Love IS patient, it IS kind. It is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. Never forget, both of you, that love does not just aspire to these things. It IS these things.

The ceremony finishes. “Splendid!” booms the organ. I am in the back row, standing by the aisle as you leave the church. As they throng you outside, I take you in my arms, and tell you everything I wish for you. My heart for your happiness, my smiles for your joys, my teeth gritted in sympathy with the difficulties, my stomach clenched with the pains, my hugs for the coldness and my tickles and Monty Python for the dullness. I share a warm and excited hug with your bride. And as you leave the reception, amidst a big goodbye, for the first time on your wedding day I am akin with all the others. We all say farewell and continue on our diverging paths.

True, it is only the beginning of a journey. Not all is lost- I have not ‘missed it’. I am seeing your wedding through a glass darkly. And you both know that in a sense I was right there with all the others, seeing you off in style.

Friday, 11 September 2009

A cockroach in the mug is worth two in the mind

Today's 6am shock. Need I say more?

("The cockroach says "We are such stuff as nightmares are made on, and our little life is rounded with hatred and insect repellent".)

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

An interview with Paul and Taise

I met Taise first, back in March, huge baby Pius slung on her slim hip. But since then I see them often, working in the Sisters’ garden in return for food or some money. Paul attended a summer education programme and is now avidly interested in computers. Both of them come and look over my shoulder as I send emails in the chicken shed.

[Did I ever describe our internet access? It's redolent with Bond-esque subterfuge. Enter a grubby old shed, press one button and a huge bank of high-tech gadgetry rises from the floor, all dials and levers and gleaming chrome, as behind you a lake drains away to reveal a giant satellite dish. Actually that's not true- enter a grubby old shed, bring your own laptop, plug in a blue network cable and hey presto, satellite internet as long as it’s not too cloudy or stormy or otherwise inclement. Our shed is peopled with modem, wheelbarrow, chicken feed which is subject to ongoing chicken raids, leftover cardboard boxes, handwoven reed bags, fuel in huge drums, broken equipment, wistful hungry dog, dead car batteries, fish drying, laundry buckets, a vast collection of pointer brooms and two worn truck tyres.]

I am not sure how clearly Paul and Taise understand the reach of the internet, but their short online chat with my sister Naomi about a month ago made a big impression on them. They asked me to put them ‘on the internet’ so you can all read about them. When it came to the crunch, however, they were tongue-tied.

Paul and Taise with the church bell

There are eight children in the family. Paul is the fifth and Taise the sixth. (See for some of the others).

Paul says "my favourite things are fishing and reading. I love reading storybooks bad". Taise loves playing with the Sisters’ table football. When I asked what they think is the best thing about Aishalton, Taise said that Aishalton has jumbies- she couldn't think of a compliment. Paul said Aishalton would be best by keeping our village and environment clean. He thinks the best things are going to school and coming to church, but Taise interjected indignantly he doesn't come to church as much as she does.
Both of them like school. Paul's favourite subject is mathematics, but he likes all the work. When I asked about dislikes they weren't so sure, but Paul doesn’t like the floor when the dust is blowing in his eyes (the concrete was recently re-laid but it's powdering up to oblivion). Taise says "I like reading and drawing. I like the hot meal. But I don't like when people fighting me. Paul does fight me sometimes".
The difficulties in Paul's life are the exams at school, and the cows that come into the compound: "and I have to chase, and it be hard, and my hand is blister", he said, showing me his small brown callused mitt. Taise's hardest memory is when she went to Kayu’s birthday and got left alone in the dark. Neither of them mention the gardening, or hunger, or looking after younger siblings. These are the fabric of life, not the negotiables.

When I asked "If you could change one thing in your life to make it better, what would that one thing be?", Taise immediately answered "A dolly". Paul said "By not fighting when they calling me by names at school (like jumbies they calling me)". Oh, and a toy gun.

The last question is a hoary old chestnut: 'What would you like to do in the future?' Paul says he'll train to be a police and stop people fighting. Taise wants to train to be a nurse.

So what is their message to the world, via the mysteries of the internet?
Paul tells the world to stop fighting and stop drinking.
Taise says stop playing jumbie.
Both Paul and Taise are intrigued by the idea of the world outside Aishalton. But from a life of knocks, they are canny and cautious. They aren't taking too much as read in the fact/fiction department. If you have any reply to them, please leave a comment below this blog, and I will pass it on.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The road goes ever on and on

Thick dust boils up behind us in a dry foam, barrelling inward in grey-white plaits, like the swirls the beater leaves in half-whipped eggwhite. We are in the plank flatbed of the mini-truck on our way to Lethem. Minutes pass like hours, hours like dreams. We reach red rubbly trail, hard-crimped into vertebrae by work machines. I can feel the road’s spine in my own: mine compresses in sympathy, one vertebra shorter at the end of the six-hour journey than it was at the beginning. I remember on a previous juddery journey, trying to explain to a local lady about Slendertone. She wasn’t even amused: paying for excess vibration is the last word in absurd.

A family hitch a ride with us. (I think Percy only picks up people he knows, but he knows everyone in the Deep South so that doesn’t cut it down much). The three of them sit in the spare tyre: father heavy and pugnacious, mother slim and pert in her ‘No more autographs, I’m far too busy’ t-shirt, daughter ravishing with her perfect skin and first lost tooth gap, hat carefully aligned. I warm to the dad when he places his fat leg carefully along the tyre’s rim to hold his lovely ladies comfortably in place as we crash and bump along. The last time I rode in this flatbed was on the way to the August Games, with all four sisters. They truly ride in style: a double thickness bench cushion, a huge picnic and a set of wooden steps for climbing in and out, which would be a bit of an Everest for their short legs.

On the way to the Deep South Games

Pure white shocks the eye in two places. Great egrets perch ridiculously in the tiny sandpaper trees, dwarfing them, like an eagle roosting in your tomato plants. A massive, perfectly white cumulus cloud bulges over half the sky. This cloud was certainly not washed in a Guyanese machine. The grubby scuds in the foreground look more in place; the shoddy and mungo of the cloud world. Shortly after this I relish my glimpse of a peccary in a puddle, a hairy-hog waller.

Ironic that you’re all driving around good roads with your fantastic lumbar support, and here, where it would be most useful, we don’t even get a seat, and crash around in the back of an open flatbed, if we’re lucky enough to get a ride at all. The nearest thing I have to a cushion is my ipod, my tiny time machine that rescues me from too much reality and fills the engine roar with stories of other journeys, other cowboys and horses, other lives being lived differently.

He couldn't photograph the butterflies so took a cheeky zoom of me watching them!

Beauty assaults us twice more. At each creek is a swarm of small yellow butterflies, plain and blunt like cabbage whites. They flutter up in shoals as we drive through. And once, near the end of the journey, a raucous stag party of macaws rises up to flaunt and roister at the top of the tallest ite tree. B is tortured by the juxtaposing of suspense and a complete lack of suspension. The camera cannot cope with the truck’s tremolando. Photos blur, the view blurs, the hours blur until all that is left is the road’s spine and mine, and the miles still to go.

The disastrous macaw picture- there's a limit to what even Nikon's vibration reduction can do!