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.


  1. The Wapishana are like the opposite of the Inuits aren't they? The Inuits have 90-something words for snow, the Wapishana would be justified in doing the same if they so chose. Wonderful writing Sarah. Nxx

  2. Would you like me to send you an umbrella?? ;o)

  3. It is funny, isn't it, to come from arguably one of the wettest parts of the UK but not to really know rain!?!! x