Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Cleaner Vacuum

Half-woken in the small hours by torrential rain, I fumble with the mosquito net to get up and cover the laptop with waterproofing. Entangled moth-like and feebly struggling, it comes to me that I am in Georgetown, not Aishalton, and I fall back exhausted. I’m insulated now, and have no need of Ortleib bags. Cause for thankfulness, a sensible person would think.

It’s strange, shifting environments so utterly, so suddenly. I was told by a proper hippy when I left China that the soul travels at walking pace. I think it might be true. I’m just about reaching Lethem tonight. My id should reach Georgetown around 19th September at 1pm. I’ll let you know her impressions of the journey when she catches up with me.

Here I am, cleaner but in a vacuum. Here, I am cleaner but in a vacuum. Similar statements, telling different truths. I read Annie Dillard and I am not sure she helps. Illuminates, maybe. “All those things for which we have no words are lost. The mind- the culture- has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel.” Words seem too blunt; words seem to blunt the raw gusting force of abandoning a home without ceremony. The richness of Aishalton laps at the edge of my mind in multifarious motley. It claims me in my dreams, and wakes me up bereft. Don’t get me wrong. I stank. I was shattered. I cursed the blaring Brazilian music pounding deep like mining drills at 2am. I worried constantly, especially since the scorpion in the bed, the snake in the shower, the monkey spider sent from heaven above plummeting towards the bedroom, and the man who got the back of his skull ripped off by a jaguar.

And yet. It is so REAL. So vibrant in its stinks. So viciously close to the unpeopled world. I want to say it is real like a child’s drawing is real, which is the nearest I can get to its strange dimensionality with my sand bucket and shovel.

Words fail me. I fail them. What remains is the attempt to finish the sandcastle I’ve been building, knowing it’s a feeble likeness, and knowing it will wash away, but rushing nevertheless to give you a representation of Aishalton’s fascinating, isolated, unique immediacy before the tide comes in.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

'The Contest', by Thomas Williams

Thomas is Aishalton's best carpenter, and a multi-talented man.

At dusk he came,
Young, shiny black and fleshy strong.
He lingered awhile,
Staring arrogantly,
Balefully eyeing the old front gate, there.
But an oath
With a stone
Trailed him down the rocky rutted way.

A monstrous shadow blocked the gateway;
Flashing beams pinpointed him,
And raining missiles did not miss him.
Then the challenging bellow
And weighty footfalls
Like the slowly receding tide
Gradually faded down the misty roadway.

At grey dawn,
Ah, my dears!
The slip bars no guard now,
But forlornly laid, like slain soldiers
In the gateway.
Surely, in the most sleepy hours
The stubborn young bull had returned.
Wreaked havoc with the gate,
Cropped the lusty grass,
Seasoned with thyme.
Then before first light
Made his getaway.

Thereafter, in an afternoon
Or many afternoons,
Leisurely, he idled past.
Maliciously, in long sideways glances,
Looked at the hated reinforced front gate,
Biding his time,
Calculating his next move,
For sure, that’s for sure.

The young one,
Hidden under the giant mango tree,
Immobile on the ancient rock,
Whispered desperately, “At the gate- the bull!”
Through the door I flew,
Hatred brimming,
“Death”, I’m thinking
Shouting crazily “Stone him, stone
The wretched bull”.
But already, shoving like the express train,
He was distant on the plain.

Then again,
In the small dark hours,
When sleep was most deep and dreams pleasant,
While roosters everywhere
Flapped and crooned wakefully,
The blunted index poked the ribs,
Then hoarsely she muttered “Cows”.
Lazy movement,
Serious munching, just outside.
Surely, most impolite.

The final assault had come.
The rogue had returned.
I looked at the barb.
I looked at the “x”.
Neither was disturbed.
Where had he made his gate?

The young ruffian
Sneaked around the wall.
Instantly spotting me, he charged.
Lightning he was,
Pushing, twisting,
Snorting angrily,
He forged through- then bolted.
And the bars?
Oh, how they cracked, ear-splitting cracked,
And loudly broke,
Real fast. In an instant/ in a flash.
All twisted in the dust
On a fresh dark moon.

The bull?
He had come and was gone.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

A Diary of Departure

Like a whirlwind, it’s over. My life in Aishalton has ended. In less than a week I have travelled a road that reminds me of grief. My departure felt like a rupture. As I write I recognise wryly how melodramatic that sounds. I think illness makes all misfortune strike us disproportionately.

The short version is this: in May, I came down with a nasty infection of the back which I had once as a child. Heavy antibiotics didn’t cure it, and it flared up again, so I came to Georgetown in June for treatment. A third time it attacked, at the beginning of August, and by the time I finished yet another hefty wallop of two simultaneous antibiotics, I barely had stamina left to stagger up to the training centre. So when the fourth flare-up began, we talked it through and accepted that I am no longer strong enough to recover in Aishalton. I am so weak now that every Tom, Dick and Harry ailment is felling me. My back needs cured, but I’m also risking malaria, dengue and who knows what by trying to soldier on. Workaholic- yes: hero or masochist- no!

The longer version? Here is a little diary of my last week. I wish I could have said goodbye to Aishalton, my home, in a less peremptory fashion.

Went up to the centre at 7:30, first time since last Mon. Got through an hour, then started blacking out. Had to hang on to the blackboard. Then had to sit down, which kills my back. Bailed out at 9:30. Fever. Got home and lay down. Don’t think I can do this any more. I am going to have to bite the bitter bullet, and find a way to leave.

B and Father Varghese online chatting about possible charter. He is stuck in town and needs to get back- I am stuck here and need to get out. Kills lots of birds with one stone. Half of me says “Yes!” and the other half cries “No!”. How can I go, right in the middle of everything? But how can I stay, harried by pain and worry just like that bullock I can see in the mango grove, harried by dogs while it waits for the slaughter?

Charter booked. Saturday lunchtime. Can’t get my head round it. Can’t believe I’m going just like that. Abrupt. But keep feeling flashes of relief, too. It’s out of my hands now. No more agonising. Alea Jacta Est. I’m so grateful for the flight. Jesuit generosity has never been so timely.

My last night. Videoed a stunning sunset, said goodbye to my literature students and trainees who were playing volleyball, preparing for the Deep South Games next week. Went out to the latrine late. There was just one firefly. Just one generator running. Just one ‘Moo’, and not a single star.
Goodbyes. People brought little gifts of their belongings- a locally made woven picture that looks just like my house, two beautiful seed necklaces that must have been hard to part with. Some women had found time to make me something: Psalm 23 painted on a cotton cloth, my favourite snacks for the journey.
I hadn’t expected tears from anyone except myself. There were quite a lot of tears. The only goodbye I didn’t regret was to my pit latrine. That I will not miss, never. At the airstrip some people were waiting, and there were speeches and gifts and a Wapishana song written hurriedly for me.

Flying out. Big, wrenching sobs, the kind a child cries. As their faces disappeared I was almost wailing: this is not something I do. Too sudden. That’s what I keep thinking. So much of our psyche there (yes, I did type ‘here’ unconsciously and have to change it) is formed by the difficulty of travel. It’s a part of our identity, that two-stage long-haul. I feel like MacDuff, from the womb untimely ripp’d. The flight was loud but calming. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when I saw the sun sailing strangely through the trees, passing like a silver disk below the canopy. For hundreds of miles the rainforest is flooded, and the sun was perfectly cast in the invisible water, travelling along with the plane like an impossible dazzling shadow.

So here I am, sucked out of Aishalton by some unseen hoover and deposited in Georgetown, amidst all the comforts except the home-made, and all the luxuries except the smiles of home friends. I close my eyes and I see Aishalton: some part of my mind still thinks I live there. I wonder for how many days it will remain as ‘home’ in my mind? I won’t know until suddenly it isn’t any more. ‘A few more moons...’, as Chief Seathl reminds me. Flux is the order of things.

Now it’s Sunday, and I lie on a comfortable bed in the Jesuit House in Georgetown, waiting to see a doctor tomorrow. Allowing for medical exigencies, our plan at the moment is to stay in Guyana until November. James has a list of photographs untaken that haunts his dreams and will pack out his days. I have a mountain of tasks to complete, conversations to finish by Skype, bids to see through and reports to help people draft in Amerindian cyberspace. The reflecting can come later. Before any of that, it’s rest and medication, rest and medication, the soothing hum of air-conditioning and the kindnesses of Bob and Malcolm.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Insulation from the natural world is unnatural.

I look round my house for a wall I can’t see daylight through. Not that it matters, since a few feet higher up there is a gap the whole way round large enough for any bird, snake or modest-sized rodent to sashay through, wherever the roof meets the walls. And anything can climb in through the roof thatch too. Our friend Edgar told us a story of dashing out of a friend’s home for a leak at midnight and being bolted out of an ité-roofed house. He was dressed only in a sheet. A little the worse for liquor, he decided to climb through the ité. Halfway through the solemn drunken care of his manoeuvrings he fell abruptly and got perfectly jammed, like Pooh plugged into Rabbit’s front door. I cannot but smile at the thought of his stout dignified personage, neatly clipped moustache, smartly tucked toga, bulging from the absorbent twiglet thatch like a candle from a cake.

Artificial insulation makes sense for warmth. We love hermetic sealing, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for bad. But perfect insulation leaves us unable to breathe. We become like Jill Masterson in Goldfinger, one of the shortest tenures of any Bond girl. She is painted all over in gold, which suffocates her because her skin can’t breathe. Is it a coincidence that here in the land of unsealing ceilings, I’ve never seen a child with eczema?

I tape up all my food boxes to keep the cockroaches out, but that’s unnatural too. Cockroaches remind us that we are part of the food chain. Funny, how outraged people are to be eaten by lions when in the end they will be thoroughly munched by the much humbler earthworm. I guess it’s the patience of the worm that reconciles us. Tibetan sky burial is the final refusal of insulation; welcoming the humility of death by being chopped into pieces and set out for the vultures. Cremation is the other end of the spectrum, thumbing the nose at death’s ravaging worms. But perhaps insulation is one of the reasons we city-dwellers have so lost our humility in the face of nature. It has given us delusions of control.

I know when I return to Britain I will struggle with the fact that I can’t hear the weather. That when I open the shutters there is no breeze because the window frames are full of glass, not air. That I can live in t-shirts whatever the season because every building has an artificial climate. I wonder when we’ll admit that climate control in our houses and cars implicates us in climate change in our oceans and weather? Nevertheless, I still yearn for it sometimes. A solid wall with no micro-views between the bricks. Food containers that contain only dead ingredients. Insulation in all its forms to keep the encroaching predators at bay.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Training People not to get Trafficked

It’s an intriguing remit: “Train young adults so they don’t get trafficked”. The funding comes from CRS (the Catholic Relief Service) and there aren’t many restrictions. We have to train 90 young adults over two years so that they don’t get trafficked. Subject areas given were “computer literacy, basic business management and entrepreneurship (e.g. bookkeeping), and career guidance. The training program will also include social and sporting events, and work with traditional leaders on organizing cultural activities (e.g. education in traditional rites like ant stinging, walks through forest to learn traditional value of flora and fauna) to help build social cohesion among youth and to increase pride in their heritage and culture”. We’re in the savannah so don’t have much forest to walk through, but I like the principle. Configurations of trainees, content, logistics, length and standards are left up to us.

How can you prevent someone from being trafficked? You can’t, of course- only the person themselves can. But you can inform them of the kinds of trafficking that exist here, and give them greater confidence and new skills, and educate them about their human and labour rights. The big problem in this area is that if you ‘Just Say No’ to labour exploitation, both here and nearby over the border in Brazil, you can ‘Just Say No’ to working at all. Most of the mining, logging, ranching and domestic work that constitutes the entire range of options for our young adults is somewhere on the spectrum of labour exploitation. We may be able to help them not to be trafficked into sex work, or held at gunpoint on a ranch, but we can’t give them all lovely ethical office jobs instead because there are about 15 of those jobs in 500 square miles, and their incumbents tend to stay in them for a loooooooooong time.

Our trainees are a delight to work with. Rumour tells me that we have a couple of Bad Boys, a couple of slackers, the village genius and the village dunce. In fact we have a committed, punctual, thoughtful, increasingly skilful group of valuable people, future leaders that the village can be proud of. Sure, there was a very deliberate creation of atmosphere in the first week, but that creativity and perseverance can only be maintained if it comes from the inside. Each day they note down what they have learnt, and there is a fascinating breadth in what people value. Wapishana weaving, knowing how to switch off a computer properly instead of with the power button, speaking clearly in front of the group, hitting the target with your arrow for the first time, creating tables in Word, finding out about labour rights, mapping the people who matter in your life.

I love watching them absorbed in their tasks. Bennis, silent and attentive, not to be hurried and yet unharried. Maria, the girl everyone loves, beaming with every new fact gained. Cyrus, a little ahead and a little aloof, diminuendoing as the social whirl crescendos. Leah, Miss Success Story, quick and nimble in mind and body and speech. Elroy, the class Jester, throwing himself from the lifeboat to gain attention. Immaculata, who does not speak, and laughs except when she is glad. Derek, always alert, infrequent smile glinting like watery sunshine. Marlyn, ducking her head every time I ask a question, suddenly producing perfect Portuguese pronunciation in front of them all. Ron, our Morph, giggling furiously as he jumps from “j” to “h” to “y” to “u” in our Giant Jumping Computer Keyboard game. Elizabeth, reserved and observant and fiercely self-critical. Hezron, everyone’s friend, ready to create and to mend. And Kristel, the verve girl, twice as awake as most humans, glittering with life.

I am so proud of them. Perhaps my illness is making me sentimental. But they are so modest, and for the most part their burgeoning skills are so undeveloped that they have no idea how vastly capable they are. I read somewhere that there is such a strong culture of entitlement in the U.S. that you can find whole college classes where every young person expects to be famous, to be Somebody, and won’t work in a dead-end job even for a little while because they are ‘worth better’. In that respect, globalisation seems to be holding up her greedy cheating mirror once again. We have a culture of unentitlement. People in the interior so often seem to accept and internalise the judgment that they are ‘backward’. Seems to me that it’s the judgement that’s backwards. These twelve young adults are most decidedly going forwards, and I am loving sailing along in their wake.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Tears on the Ité

The rains continue with vim. I lean out the shutters, watching the drips forming on each stiff discrete stem of ité palm like tears on eyelashes, dropping whitely down, steady and soft and rounded. However hard the rain is falling out there, my thatch weeps its quiet tears evenly, elegantly, separating out each drop.

A speech therapist told me ten years ago that the throat is the victim of tears in each human body. It bears the brunt of our tensions, our fears, our stressful careers and our unshed tears. That was one of the nails in the coffin of the unmourned corpse of my teaching career. I just don’t have the throat for it.

On what shall I blame this permanent ache in my throat, then? Laryngitis, sympathy with the rain, vocal strain from running my training course, unshed tears, my mind’s revolt against illness?