This month has easily felt as turbulent as the last – such great deal has changed since our time in Georgetown.
After spending our last few days in the capital preparing for our new lives in Guyana’s interior, we woke early on the 2nd, drove to the airport, and caught a plane to Matthew’s Ridge. The flying experience was an unsurprisingly huge contrast to the transatlantic journey we’d made not long before. The airport, more accurately described as a hanger, featured very little signage and essentially no security. To check in, we loaded our boxes of supplies on to the scales and stepped on with them to determine our combined mass – fortunately we weighed less than the limit – before they were chucked atop a trailer to come out with us to the plane.
A sudden torrential downpour meant the flight was delayed, but when it eased off a woman called our flight, checked off the names we gave her (no ID required) on a clipboard, and pointed us towards the plane. It was absolutely tiny, but served its purpose well. We flew low, allowing us to appreciate the infinite jungle separating Georgetown and Matthew’s Ridge. After around 90 minutes in the air, a dirt runway suddenly appeared and we touched down.
We unloaded the plane and were greeted by David, who helped us pile everything into the boot of his car and get in. With broken seatbelts and a cracked windows the car wasn’t exactly in the best condition, but all part of the experience. We shot off along the dirt road, and after a short drive arrived in Matthew’s Ridge. We got a quick glimpse of the village as he dropped off his other passengers and I must confess, the run-down buildings, free-roaming cows, and litter everywhere didn’t give the best first impression, but I’d soon come to love all this.
He dropped us and the boxes off at our house and passed us on to Sir Marcus, who spent ages installing locks, figuring out how to get our solar electricity to work, and doing some casual plumbing to get the back garden water system up and running (four large tanks filled with rainwater from the roof when it rains). Sir Marcus is the head of the school’s secondary department, but – noted from day 1 – has certainly done more than be our boss: he’s been incredibly attentive to our frequent DIY issues, and is always there to offer us advice and show us around the town.
We spend the rest of the first day cleaning everything up in the house (including as much of the bat poo from the walls as we could bare), and just generally sorted ourselves out. While the house certainly isn’t anything luxurious, it has all we could need: a sufficiently stocked kitchen including a gas stove, a flushing toilet and working shower, and our own rooms. Everything is in pretty good condition, as it was built especially for the first set of Project Trust volunteers last year. While we certainly recognise our luck with the house, I do miss washing machines, dishwashers, and microwaves. We went to bed early, nervous but excited for our first day as teachers.
We arrived at school the following morning and were introduced to the headmistress and rest of the teachers by Sir Marcus. There’s an assembly every Monday and Friday, so upon hearing the school bell bring picked up and rung, the students made their way to the flagpole and lined up. The assembly was fun, involving reciting multiple pledges and singing the school song as well as part of the national anthem. I must admit I was pretty impressed by the fact that every student seemed to know every word to all of these.
After a coin was flipped to decide who was teaching what, we were shown to our classes and pretty much left to ourselves. The toss resulted in me teaching grades 7-9 Integrated Science and Agricultural Science (the latter of which I know absolutely nothing about). Fortunately the first lesson was Grade 7 Integrated Science, so I was comfortable in the theory at least. Teaching’s becoming more and more natural as the weeks have progressed, but I’m definitely still working on it. It’s not been easy to have to learn about the agricultural institutions of Guyana or the different methods of slaughtering livestock the evening before teaching it to a bunch of 15 year-olds the next day – but I’m not shying away from the challenge.
One thing that’s genuinely impressed me a huge amount after having now taught for a month is the resourcefulness and practical skills of the students. While teaching a lesson on electricity, Sir Marcus suggested I asked the class to make a circuit and bring it in as homework. This seemed like an impossible task to complete, but I went with his advice and requested a circuit containing a switch, cell, and bulb. The deadline arrived at the end of the week, and to my great surprise I was presented with exactly what I’d asked for – a perfectly functioning circuit mounted in cardboard, containing each of the requested components. I just know that, under the same strained conditions, I wouldn’t have for the same results with Balfron students. A similar outcome was reached with I asked my Grade 8s to make a pulley. Perhaps a simpler task, but almost every member of the class managed to make something with parts found around the community. Akeilia and Sofina were far too excited to be on my blog with their creation.
September actually happened to be Education Month, and so the school did lots of different activities to recognise it, including a rally around the village, chanting the importance of education in the scorching sun (after which the students took great joy in pointing out the dampness of my shirt); a science and maths fair at which I was asked, without warning (classic), to explain some of the exhibits on show and a spelling bee attended by almost all of the school. I feel the time dedicated to these activities really shows how much and its children value education, something which I feel is mirrored by the community. As the only white people for miles, everyone knows we’re the new volunteer teachers before even speaking to us, and they often express gratitude for what we’re doing to help the town. Including us, the school’s secondary department only has 4 out of the 7 required teachers, so I do feel like I am genuinely making a difference.
Additionally, it’s also been Amerindian Heritage Month, so there’s been various parties on in the town. The Amerindians were the first to settle in Guyana so have lots of traditions to celebrate. Before the party starts, pepperpot (a traditional meat stew) and cassava bread (cassava is a vegetable that’s used for seemingly everything) can be bought, which‘ve been really nice to try. The parties themselves involve very loud music and chat where possible, with plentiful piwari, cassiri (both made from casava), beer and rum. Everyone here has been super-welcoming, it’s been nice to gradually get to know more people as time goes on.
When there’s no pepperpot to buy I do all the cooking for Mark and I, and it definitely has been interesting to go from making my family the odd meal to being the only cook in the house. In saying that however, we get to bring lunch home from school on weekdays, and the monstrous portions they provide actually often make up the bulk of our dinners. In our attempt to have no food waste, we’ve been known to eat two day-old unrefrigerated cookup of an evening.
In saying that, I have still got to cook at least something most nights, and it’s been great fun to try and learn local meals. I asked the cooks at the school to show me how to make roti, which have become a regular part of our diets, often accompanying my curries. Having to use my memory as a recipe means I’ve not quite perfected them yet, but I’ve got 11 months to get there!
I use lots of the local vegetables when I can, which are bought from our destination of choice – the Cheap Shop. They sell amazing sweet peppers, bora (similar to asparagus), erro (a really mushy potato-esque vegetable) and odd-looking cucumber (‘coocoomber’), as well as some more conventional veg. They also have the most lethal hot peppers I’ve ever seen. $100 gets you enough for about 5 days, because they’re just so spicy. The first time I bought them I fried two of the tiny things off with some garlic, which resulted in fumes that made me physically cry and both Mark and I have a coughing fit. We learned our lesson.
Snacks are either bought from the Cheap Shop or from the vendors outside of the school when it’s on. They sell all sorts of home-made Guyanese snacks that I won’t name but are delicious and cheap. Sir Marcus also brings in home-made cool-down (icy juice in a bag) and snacks every day to sell to his students, which I think is both funny and ingenious – he seems to make a healthy profit.
Due to its rural location, there’s not a great deal to do during the weekends here. However, we’d heard a few people speak about the Pakera Pool, and so one Sunday we asked for directions and walked along a dirt road to get there. The basin of the pool – or river, due to it being the dry season – appears out of nowhere, and the surrounding circumference of towering tropical trees and spontaneous appearances of birds and dragonflies make it pretty incredible.
Swimming in the pool was a simultaneously disgusting and amazing experience. There’s lots of clay in the ground here which means ‘swimming’ actually involves wading through a knee-deep layer of warm mud that bubbles when compressed. There was even one section which has an entire bank made of clay, which stained our backs and hands yellow when we slid down.
To add to the experience, we met some of our students, who excitedly called us over to show us the fish they were catching. With their bare hands, they’d group together and block the fish as they swam downstream, before extracting the slippery thing as it desperately flapped to escape. Very impressive. They claimed people always do this and then cook their catches during the wet season, so we look forward to returning then.
It was starting to get dark by this point and so after cleaning as much of the mud and clay off of ourselves as possible, we headed back. On our walk home, we were called over for a chat by a group of middle-aged Amerindians sitting at the front of their wooden house. Despite not being sober the group was really nice, and even offered us some of the High Wine they were drinking. We’d been warned to stay away from this particular drink, but they were drinking it straight so I took a sip. Not too bad, I thought, but after reading the label and discovering the drink was 69% alcohol, I was glad I’d only had a small amount. Mark and I both agreed to check what was being offered to us before accepting alcohol from drunk strangers in the future.
So, to conclude: I hope it’s clear that the first few weeks at Matthew’s Ridge have been pretty great, and have only increased our excitement for what’s to come as the year progresses. Despite the fact we’ve only been here for a month, I feel we’ve already met lots of fascinating people, tried some great food and drink, and have managed to settle into to teaching and our new lives in general. More to come next month!