Friday, 28 May 2010


Last time I was in an international airport I spent several hours facing the following poster:
“You never actually own a Patek Philippe.
You merely look after it for the next generation”

I think that’s clever. First, because it justifies spending a small but fairly new car on something that tells you the time. Second, because it implies that it’s not even FOR you; buying yourself this opulent item is an act of generosity to your beloved child. Third, it’s an investment not a luxury, thus whisking it out of the frivolous class and straight into the prudent. Fourth, it gives you delusions of dynastic grandeur. And fifth and grandest of all, merely by buying this item, you are moving yourself into the social stratum that ponders legacies. And all this without mentioning watches, money, children, class, value, materials, build quality or price.

The reason it struck me so was a conversation I had had in Maruranau just a week or two previous. I will try to set the scene. B and I are driving around the Deep South on the Quest of the Holy Sewing Project. We have had a hot and spine-frottingly uncomfortable morning. We stop in with Adrian the Headteacher’s parents, even though we have barely met them, just because we want a break from stiff and awkward conversations. Adrian’s dad welcomes us like old friends, seating us on sawn-off log stools. He sends a man up a tree to fetch coconuts. He climbs using a figure of eight loop of cloth twisted round his feet, which he jumps up the trunk. The machete tucked down his back doesn’t seem to bother him. He lowers a huge bunch of coconuts. Adrian’s dad slices the top off and passes them on to be drunk, one, two, three each. The young green coconuts have only a thin, eggwhite-soft meat. He hatchets them in half and we scrape that out with a spoon.

We sit chatting of Aishalton, the Deep South Games, education and home. He tells us he has been preparing the ground for a full year now to plant a whole new set of coconut palms. He digs a hole 3 foot square by three foot deep, and fills it with compost. Watering regularly through the dry months, he keeps compressing and composting, compressing and composting. He fences to prevent the pigs scoffing all the compost. The crucial decision comes around May, when he must judge whether the rainy season is really set in. Plant too early and the coconut palm will die from insufficient water. Too late and it will not have a chance to mature as it needs to before the next dry season kills it off altogether.

His house is built for impermanence: mud brick and wood and thatch. Why would he collect money? The nearest bank is 6 rough and expensive hours away. The Guyanese dollar is a soft currency and few would bank on its worth. What expensive possessions would survive here? Electrics quickly die from the damp. Jewellery seems rather pointless when one is constantly grubby and scruffy and clothes never get clean. If it’s mouldable, rustable, or has any problems coping with heat, water, insects or being stomped on, forget it.

So he plants these coconut palms as the legacy for his grandchildren. It’s simple but genius. Doesn’t need replanting every few years, doesn’t need tending, isn’t susceptible to any of the listed attritions, and gives food, drink, shelter and roofing. When it comes to the crunch, which is more use? Somehow Adrian’s dad and his coconut palms make absolute nonsense of Patek Philippe.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Taking the Temperature

Confined to bed, out of reading matter, bored with crosswords, I read back over last year’s blog. The freshness of everything is as astonishing to me now as the smells and sounds were then. I cannot imagine noticing those vapours, those occurences, those stimuli now. They are the stuff of life.

I smell like everyone else. I remember in China being told that foreigners smell milky (the scrunkle in the nose suggested ‘sour-milky’). Now my pillow is pestilential, my hammock fetid. A combination of diet, handwashed clothes and sweat makes us all equal (a peppery, cupboardy, purple-green smell), as well as encouraging us not to sit or stand too close. When I arrived I never thought to analyse why people here don’t hug much...

The sounds I no longer hear are flocks of parrots screeching and fighting through the mango trees, the mid-volume lesson content of other teachers over the half-walls, the silent vowels at the end of Wapishana words that must nevertheless be shaped correctly. The fat cowpat that splats in the night no longer wakes me, though the screaming midnight horses still shape my nightmares.

And my CARELESSNESS! Imagine putting my hand on a surface without looking first! Imagine putting on a shoe without shaking first, and then looking! Imagine not checking the shower mug before plunging it into the water! Or wrapping a towel around myself without looking closely at it! Imagine standing outside my house in flipflops, without socks, in the red ants’ kingdom! B leapt a mile the other night, when in the middle of dinner a plummeting lizard landed squarely in his lap (they often fall from the roof in the throes of passion), but neither of us jump at all any more if they don’t actually land ON us. I think I remember actually crying the first time a lizard pooed on me in my hammock. Over-reaction. Now I just curse lightly.

I can tell the difference between 22 and 23 degrees without looking at the thermometer. Our temperature range in the shade is 10 degrees altogether, maximum, all year round, (this month only 5) so you become more attuned to the small differences. The humidity is a greater factor in how the heat feels than the actual temperature- humid days here feel moody, as though they have a persistent low fever.

Reading about those people I first met last year is so strange, now. I talk about them as if they aren’t quite real. Ivy is Ivy, not An Amerindian Archetype. The Sisters, wonderful as always, nevertheless have their foibles. Ashley remains my sunshine, but primary school is tracing the first frowns of impending womanhood on her face. She wants to be whiter, now. I hope that’s not my influence.

There are people who remember so vividly the self-important joy of young adulthood that they will always make great youth workers. There are people who retain so clearly the eureka moment of gaining new understanding that they will always make great teachers. I am the opposite of these. For facts I have a good memory, but I am a complete amnesiac of states. I slough off all my past incarnations so thoroughly that I cannot ever reclothe myself in them again. When I remember myself four years old, it is a pedantic, over-educated, justice-obsessed traveller looking out through those eyes at the stolen toy or the syrup on toast or the piano. I am an anachronism inside my own head.

Daily life weaves a fabric around us that becomes a second skin. Like skin, we tend to ignore it unless it lets us down. I am grateful to feel so acculturated, but I must simultaneously admit to missing the exoticism, the gorgeous novelty of it all. But the vital stuff of life is not adventure but le pain quotidien, the daily cassava bread.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Rupununi Rodeo

The Rupununi Rodeo is a paradox- two parallel events, opposite in atmosphere. Viewing it through a month’s distance, some great pictures and memories, and the rape of a foreigner, I can’t work out whether the two are yin-yang or oxymoronic.

On the one hand is the rodeo itself. This is not a smart stadium event, where professional sportsmen compete in fancy gear. It is a home-grown gathering from the ranches. Farmhands and cowboys are showing off the practical and dangerous skills that create their livelihoods. For 362 days of the year, these skills are for money, and capture, and subsistence, and are performed without spectators or applause. Then suddenly, they are for entertainment. It’s not an exact fit. It’s rather like holding an appendectomy competition between surgeons in an opera house- fascinating, but clearly not a fair contest in any real sense. You aren’t comparing like with like. Here in Lethem, there is nothing even faintly groomed about it. The bulls are uncoached and genuinely unpredictable. They are penned into a small stockade and get increasingly restless and disturbed as the day progresses. Occasionally, one will stroll out noncholantly and make the rider a laughing stock. Others rush the fence, clearly aching to gore the audience as well as the rider.

The best thing for me is recognising so many of the participants. We have been in Dadanawa many times and several of the finest rodeo riders are familiar faces. The classiest riders are those who don’t care about winning. Some of their most amazing feats are in the stockade, getting the animals into the pens, before they ever reach the arena. Paul Sinthill’s ability to steer a bull by flicking its tail, and his assurance round panicking horses, is at least as breathtaking as his feats in the ring. The last event of the day is the bull-lassoing. Paul does a neat job, but when his rope breaks and loses him the event, he throws back his head in laughter. He jogs back to the stockade, bare feet comfortable in the hot sand, face full of enjoyment. He’s a cowboy, not a sports personality. Nothing hangs on this as it does in a real round-up. The applause is like being given a medal for breathing. He is modest because the only thing he is pitting himself against is the bull, and vaqueros do not vaunt around bulls.

There is an innocence about the whole daytime proceedings. It is an uncomplicated pleasure to watch the horsewomanship of the ranchers’ stylish daughters, and the watermelon- and cassava bread- eating contests; the yin and yang of wet and dry. The rampaging ‘ever-vicious bulls’, as the MC dignifies them, rush the fence enough to thrill, but rarely enough to terrify. The baking sun smites the splintering wooden stands and punch-drunk punters alike.

The darker side is the night festival, a gigantic piss-up without the usual social constraints. I don’t suppose many people at the Oktoberfest notice the security detail much, or feel thankful for their subduing influence. To most of the after-hours Rodeo boozers, it’s just a rough-edged Friday night blur of unglamorous excess lasting three days. But take away the killjoys and who is to discourage rape and a little dark corner stabbing here and there? The Brazilian funfair at nights has a rickety, mustachioed unattractiveness that is less gigolo and more sleazy thug. And there is a hangover effect too. On the final day, fortified (or fooled) by a bloodstream full of stale alcohol, an American volunteer is arrested for offensive behaviour, first inciting a bull as none of the good vaqueros did, and then insulting the policeman trying to restrain him. Sullen, uncooked-pastry British teenage girls roam in glued supercilious huddles of eight or more, hangovers visibly worsening as rodeo reaches its conclusion and the sun finishes cooking the Rupununi lobsters.

And yet, despite this, the Rupununi Rodeo felt homely in the best sort of way. Somehow it made me feel very accepted, sitting with Cheryl from Dadanawa on the stands watching the world and his drunk granddad go by, while B perched on rickety fences risking sunburn and goring for good photos. Perhaps without the piss-up it wouldn’t be a real Rupununi Bacchanalia. Disorderliness is a defining characteristic of this place: the winding trails, the sporadicity, the vanishing past and unreal future.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Water, water, everywhere

Last year, we fretted as rainy season prevaricated. The wells dropped, the rains flirted and then hightailed it over the border to the ‘proper’ Amazon. Drought is too strong a word- we did have small floods and an unfordable Rupununi, but it was ‘enough’, not ‘plenty’. These are our two words for quantity here. “You got enough mosquitoes?” (frankly, one would be enough, so yes, I have enough mosquitoes). “Ple-e-e-enty plenty mangoes, they wastin’ in the yard”. So last year was not plenty plenty rain- not even one plenty. When we sang the song at school, “The coming of the May rains, the coming of the June rains, the coming of the July rains”, it sounded like a prayer.

Not this year. If last year’s rainy season was Hamlet, this year’s is Tybalt. Damn hasty. The May rains came in March. The August crop of mangoes is coming in now. Women tell me with glee that soon the air will be thick with kaboura flies, the Reepicheeps of the thorough biters. They speak with relish of flying ants, of “plenty mosquitoes” with gleeful emphasis. Trips to the well are disorientating: if I lose myself in the rhythm of hauling, when I come back to myself with a jolt I think I’m at the wrong well. It’s too wide and too reachable to be ours. The water is more than seven times as deep as it was in January. The worst drinking water shortage, ironically, comes when the wells get flooded. The water table runneth over; then it's a land table. Nor any drop to drink. Then the well becomes a Venetian street in Acqua Alta. Then we’ll start drinking the rainwater (if we can keep the cow slobber out of it).

It seems to me that the Wapishana language had two choices to make: a million words for rain, or just one. They have gone for the minimalist option- ‘wun(u)’ is used to mean water, rain, drinking water, a drink, and water levels in a creek or river.

Up to now, every time I comment on the rain, there is a chorus of knowing “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” jeers. I suspect by the coming of the July rains, we’ll have had the true experience of “ple-e-e-e-nty wun(u)” this time around. In a really heavy rainy season, the savannah ‘flood-up’ so badly that the ‘road’ is navigable only by boat, and whole plains are lake-bound as far as the eye can see. Vehicles trying to follow the line of the road get ‘stuck-up’ and only expert tractors or excessive patience can achieve anything.

Nights in bed listening to the soughing of the rain in the ite thatch are like nights at sea. In a heavy downfall a fine spray spatters on to the bed, diffused through the netting (there is no such thing as 100% inside here). The finest rain falls like snow; drifting, settling, shrugging at gravity before accepting downwardness. Nothing is to be seen except a shifting in the air, a trick of the eyeballs. Next comes the steady gentle rainfall; a low murmur of continuous sound, comforting, like the hiss of a wood stove. The patter rain is heavier, making paper-tickling noises as it hits the roof leaves. Then come the distinctest stages, splatter and batter. The final stage is the roar. At their loudest, the drops re-merge into one sound as they did at their quietest.

The ancient Israelites believed that heaven was above a giant reservoir of water, hovering over the sky. It feels like that here. If you’re inside, don’t try and put out buckets: get your valuables waterproofed, and then hunker down and wait for it to stop. If you are caught out, hope your coloured clothes don’t run. Be grateful for your nose which creates a little breathing umbrella for your face. Forget seeing; your eyes are brim-full of water. It hasn’t knocked me over yet, but I did once feel as though I was drowning. Suddenly the Wapishana single word for ‘rain’ and ‘water’ makes complete sense. When heaven’s giant water balloon bursts, it’s watering, not raining. It’s a single drop a whole world big.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Sewing up the Sewing Project

On 12th October last year, I wrote about a sewing project which was bequeathed to me by default. There was an update on 15th December. This weekend, we spent the last of the money and finished the project, holding a “How to Run a Sewing Centre” seminar at Dadanawa Ranch for women from seven villages in the South Rupununi.

The setting: a little universe of frontier self-sufficiency. Dadanawa has a scruffy grandeur all its own. A dignity of dirt and hard work. It’s not Amerindian, but its acceptance is earned and ungrudging. Set up in 1865, around the turn of the last century it was the biggest ranch in the world. Many Amerindians work at Dadanawa, and many times I have been surprised to hear stories from older friends in Aishalton who broke in some tough horseback years here in their leathery youth. It smells strong, musty and slightly rank- cowhorn dust, bat excreta, cow blood, skins, wood dust, ancient plumbing and a miasma of droppings. The blend is not unpleasant, evoking the musk of an old, strong ox. Evocative, but of somebody else’s more laborious life, emanating the kind of history that never gets written down. It’s Annie Proulx rather than Oklahoma. Everything has been repaired. Everything- the walls, the kitchen pots, the ancient landrovers, the vintage English cisterns, the short band radio. I love the place. It is everything I’m not. The welcome here is thorough but undemonstrative- its one kinship with Yorkshire. There is no power and they are having water problems, so we are asked to bathe in the river.

The women: wildly different, but hiding it under culturally identical layers of reserve. The ones I haven’t met before are quietest. Their ages range from 22 to 66, their confidence from zero to buoyant, their skills from excellent to beginner. Half have mis-read the letter, and expect to be practising cutting fabric and using an electric machine. The other half want organisational training, but some struggle to write and none do mental arithmetic easily. The most skilled women have met many times through training courses in exotic distant urban centres like Lethem. Others have gained confidence through church work or cooking for the school hot meal programmes. Some barely open their mouths at all. I think it is fair to say that Amerindians are cautious about new people. I cannot always distinguish it from suspicion. I try very hard here to be gentle and encouraging. It’s hard not be overpowering: I feel like a bottle of chilli sauce trying to act like milk. My skin colour is intimidating, and my education, and my identity as a teacher, and my fluent English.

The seminar: minimalist. We are unusually well-resourced for here: there is a school exercise book and pen for each woman, a flipchart which B rigs ingeniously from a beam with string, some marker pens and one handout with enough copies for everyone. We work hard on pricing: add up the cost of materials, don’t forget thread and incidentals, add on some labour cost for the sewer, add on a small margin for the centre to save for spare parts etc. Find out prices of equivalent (usually Brazilian) items from the few local vendors, and price below. Use this to help you set labour cost. We also talk about accountability, and sustainability, and having fun. With all of my jobs here, I have found a general disregard of morale in planning, and of style in conveying information. Unlike most trainees, Amerindians have an admirable, yewlike boredom threshold. But like everyone, they enjoy engaging delivery, participation, and memorable, hilarious activities. They are just too polite and too realistic to demand it.

The highlight: our fashion show. I asked each village to bring samples from their centre. I am staggered at the range they have brought. Painted tablecloths, school uniforms, patterned skirts, embroidered children’s dresses, perfectly waistbanded men’s trousers. I brought a few props- hats, sunglasses, necklaces, and a little make-up. I have picked out songs I think they might like for the catwalk- although it’s more of an oxwalk. One woman dresses as a man, another as a schoolboy. Each woman chooses her song. For a brief magic two hours, it doesn’t rain. We plug my laptop into the jeep stereo, turn on the headlights in lieu of floodlights, and down the stairs they come, to B.B King and Macy Grey, Mika and Basement Jaxx. We finish with Queen hollering “We Will Rock You”. They all sashay down the steps one last time, boogieing as our cheers and clapping make a tiny blip in the vast silent presence of a black savannah night.