Despite being uploaded late, this blog entry was written to the same deadline as all others (finished by the first of the following month). Its lateness will be explained in this post.
New October, new me – right? Not sure that’s a thing but after starting off the month with a pretty extreme haircut, that’s definitely how I felt. Both Mark and I had been putting off our first trip to a Guyanese barber for far too long (pun not intended), and with the relentless sun acting further motivation to get a cut we decided to bite the bullet and go for it. Despite having seen what looked like a fairly decent hairdresser on Matthew’s Ridge ‘main street’, we decided to ask a Grade 11 student with a respectable haircut where we should go. He told us to come to his brother that night, and so – not thinking that perhaps consulting more that one person (who has blatant familial bias) would’ve been sensible – we found ourselves waiting outside the shop later that evening.
The man who was cutting our hair had to eat dinner and buy more razors, but after about 20 minutes he opened the doors and let us in. His barbershop definitely seemed a bit homemade but actually looked pretty good, kitted out with an electric razor, proper chair, and a variety of mirrors. I volunteered to go up first, something which I might’ve thought twice about had I known that I was the first white person he’d ever given a haircut to. When asked what I wanted I said pretty short, similar style, but you just do whatever you think looks good. Risky I know, but I didn’t come to Guyana to play it safe.
One hour later he was finished, and I was left with hair that – despite being probably the shortest it’s ever been in a long time and having notably wonky fringe – wasn’t too bad, and was certainly a pretty big change. Furthermore he only charged $1000, and the fact it’s so short means that I don’t need to (or rather am physically unable to) do anything with it, which is a nice plus.
One of my first outings with the trim was a graduation event for the members of the previous year’s Grade 11 class that sat and passed CSEC (the big secondary exam in Guyana). Last year was the first year ever that the school taught to that level and so this was the first graduation they’d had. Despite starting over 2 hours late (Mark and I are forever ‘early’ to everything) and being attended by only 5 former students – it was definitely a success.
Lots of us had helped prepare the venue and the girls’ hats so everything looked the part, and the ceremony itself was nice – filled with speeches, songs, gifts, and general well-wishes. They even gave all of the attendees a lunch of macaroni cheese, fried chicken, fried rice and greens which meant it ended on a high. We stayed back afterwards and spoke to the graduates and their parents, who definitely seemed to appreciate the fact that we were there on behalf of last year’s volunteers.
Our next few days were rather sporty. Firstly, Mark and I took part in a ‘health walk’ organised by the school. We gathered before dawn on Sunday morning and set off in quest of the airstrip – about a 1.5 hour walk each way. Everyone seems to wake really early here due to the sun, so I’d definitely say that we were feeling the 5am start significantly more than our fellow walkers. It was really nice to get to speak to different people on the walk though, and it was pretty amazing to walk through the sunrise. Once at the airstrip we met up with some older students that had “taken a shortcut”, and I led a set of stretches for the group. After that, we quickly made our way back and arrived back at Ridge within no time, where Mark and I crashed on the hammocks for the rest of the morning.
Next up: school sports. There was tons of anticipation for this event, and after spending days and days having house meetings, selecting athletes, and organising the field – it was finally here! The day started with another early start for us teachers, as we were required to pitch up at 6 to help set the field up. Despite being 5 minutes late, it was an hour until any of our fellow colleagues decided to show up, but we’ve learned to accept Guyana Time at this stage.
Proceedings kicked off with a march in our houses around the field. I’m in Diamond house, and armed with our banner, green tops and war chant we definitely started off the day strong.
As the day progressed however, it became clear that Diamond’s strong start could not be maintained, and we unfortunately finished in last by quite an impressive amount. This didn’t detract from the day whatsoever though – with the music blasting from the speakers the school brought in, lots of food for sale, and constant cheering coming from fellow pupils and the community members present – there was a great buzz. We finished things off after sunset with an impromptu teacher’s race between Mark and I, much to the delight of the students. Mark absolutely destroyed me – but I’ll take the silver medal.
The next day was International Teacher’s Day, so we were up bright and early once again, ready to travel to the nearby town of Port Katuma for events they had planned.
The journey there was pretty amazing. We drove along the questionably-maintained road for around 2 hours, passing through lots of different villages and clearings for mining on the way there, as well as the infinite number of exotic plants and trees that lined the road. Despite stopping for an early-morning Banks during the journey, our driver was clearly very skilled and expertly navigated the road’s gaping holes and large bumps in his van. For some reason he’d decided to stick two large decorative banners on the top and bottom of the windscreen which definitely impeded his vision, but sticking his head out of the window when required seemed to be a viable solution.
The daytime sports events for Teacher’s Day were good fun to watch, but unfortunately Mark and I couldn’t get involved for various reasons. Instead, we spend much of the day eating the cassava eggs and phalarie on sale, and exploring Port Katuma. Katuma is a really nice place, pretty similar to Matthew’s Ridge but just a lot more busy – you can definitely sense the increased development and greater population.
The day’s events culminated in a concert featuring lots of different teachers from all around the region. So after being treated to a fantastic bowl of roti curry and mug of Milo (a hot chocolate-esque malty drink that we’re obsessed with), we returned to the proceedings. Despite there being the odd dodgy act (namely a poem complaining about teachers’ salaries which felt more like an angry political piece) the concert was really entertaining and was packed with loads of cultural dancing, drama, and songs. The grand finale called for all the teachers in attendance to make their way on to the stage and have a bit of a freestyle dance. We tried to get out of it, but the fact that I’d earlier told the MC all about Project Trust and why we were here meant that he specifically summoned us when he noticed our absence. We did our best not to embarrass ourselves too much, but the fact that both Mark and I were grabbed by two older ladies who wanted us to dance didn’t help. After giving it our all with our friendly partners, it was nearing midnight and the show was over. After eventually locating out transport back to Ridge, we made the journey back and fell asleep within minutes of arriving home.
Mining is such a huge part of the economy and culture at Matthew’s Ridge: right from the start we’ve regularly been meeting different people who all work in ‘the backdam’. After numerous conversations we eventually worked out that this refers to one of the many established spots in the area where one can mine gold. Some are farther and apparently more lucrative than others, but part of what makes mining so popular here is its accessibility – there’s plenty of choice. Only incredibly basic equipment and a good work ethic is required to become a gold miner, meaning that lots of our students mine at weekends, and will likely fall into the profession after school. While we don’t strictly encourage them doing this, there’s no stopping them and when one of Mark’s Grade 11s offered to take us and a fellow teacher to a backdam for the day, we weren’t going to say no.
So after careful planning (or as close to such as is possible in Guyana), we set out early one Saturday on the quest to walk to 26 Miles, the closest backdam to us. Still a 5 hour round trip however, which is no mean feat in the Guyanese sun.
I’m saying that, the walk was definitely worth in, taking us first along the road until we reached the sensibly named ‘big bamboo tree’ where we turned and followed an old train line, once used to transport goods from the mine at Ridge to Port Katuma. After turning, it definitely felt like we were more in the jungle. We saw poisonous frogs, a tiny (but cool) snake, a dog-like mammal whose name neither Mark nor I can remember, and far too many insects and birds to individually mention. A grade 7 and grade 5 spontaneously decided to join us for the trip the way, and they both loved to point out the tiger tracks that appeared and disappeared along the way.
These two boys actually came in very handy as when we finally made it to 26 Miles we spoke to a man who informed us that the proper mining operations weren’t commencing until next weekend, so there was only boring preparation happening currently. We exchanged ice water for some nuts, and then went to re-evaluate. As it happened, one of the boys’ mothers lived nearby, and he knew of a less official but still functioning backdam only about half an hour further – so we pressed on and went there instead.
Despite being unplanned, this diversion was undoubtedly a positive as is allowed us to properly enter the rainforest, where we could really sense the huge amount of wildlife around us, through a sudden explosion of green and the now constant noise. In saying this, we were unquestionably all pretty relieved as the clearing marking our destination come into view and we could finally us sit down properly.
The backdam itself was clearly used occasionally, but certainly not frequently. The centre of the small area held a fire pit and the skeleton of an old shelter, but that was pretty much all that was there besides the odd plastic bucket and lots of litter that had clearly been there for a long time. Guyana has a real littering culture (for lack of a better description) and the rubbish scattered around here didn’t look at all our of place or even particularly dirty if that makes sense? It’s interesting how you get used to things like that.
Anyway, it was coming up to lunchtime so no time was wasted in getting the fire going – Mark and I cringed as Ricardo used discarded plastic packaging as tinder – and in getting the food prepped for our heavily-anticipated ‘bushcook’. Monique (the other teacher with us) was in charge of our meal, and although claiming to not be a skilled cook – she definitely knows how to make good Shine Rice.
Some of the group had already walked down towards the actual mining area and arranged for a few of the men there to show us the ropes, so after consuming unforeseen quantities of the rice, we tidied up, grabbed the tools we brought with us, and headed down.
The miners were really friendly, kindly demonstrating the complete process, which seemed simple enough:
- Use a pick axe to extract as much rock as possible according to the size of your batel (the parabolic disk used to collect the gold).
- Place the filled batel in the water, and rub the rocks together so to separate them from their clayey mud coating.
- Discard the largest rocks, repeating until only small stones are left.
- Swirl the stony soup around the batel, gradually allowing the less-dense stones to leave.
- Release until only the densest particles remain. Carefully swirl these to create a line of particles and remove all bar the ones at the very centre.
- Place your finger in the centre of the batel so it covers the remaining few particles. Invert, remove your finger and examine the gold you’re now holding!
After seeing the apparent ease of this, I was really excited to give it a shot. Our mentor got us going by knocking out sufficient rock from the ground with his pickaxe, but then pretty much left us to our own devices. I must say, it certainly was fortunate that the students we were with had done this before, because it was far from as easy as it looked.
They very kindly helped throughout the lengthy process (perhaps more than I’m letting on), and after a long, painful half hour I was the proud owner of my very own gold! It may have been a such a comically small amount that my phone camera could barely even pick it up, but it was gold nonetheless. While unquestionably being worth it as a one-off experience, I wouldn’t say gold mining is any more a part of my future aspirations than it was previously.
Satisfied with our takings, we thanked our miner friend, gathered our belongings, and headed back. Our journey home was just as fun as the way here, entailing vine-swinging, more exciting wildlife and a dip in perhaps the warmest lake I’ve ever swam in. To top the day off, we received an impromptu lift home in the back of a passing pickup truck when when we were around half an hour’s walk away, allowing us to appreciate the sunset through our dusty wake and make it back before dark.
We didn’t do much the following day as one can imagine, but we did arrange to go out for a meal at Shellon’s restaurant with some of our friends.
Things work different around here: the ‘restaurant’ is really more like the home of someone who’s willing to cook for you, meaning that you call and request the food you want a couple of hours before. We simply asked for a “wide selection to feed 5 people, please”.
We were greeted by Shellon upon arrival and exchanged small-talk in her kitchen before eating, which completely changes the eating-out experience. When everything was ready, we hungrily took our seats. Shellon brought us plantain chips, roti, pouri, fried chicken, fried fish, eggs and veg (I forget the Guyanese name), bolangi – there was no stopping this woman and her bottomless output of food. She even brought out a flask of hot water and a great selection of tea (including Milo) for us, which were all included in the meal’s set price. Around 2 hours after arriving, we simply couldn’t consume anything else and so paid, thanked our amazing host, and waddled away. The meal only cost $1000, making it the best £4 I’ve ever spent.
Speaking of food, I’ve taken more steps to try and better my abilities in Guyanese cuisine by arranging to go into the school kitchen for an hour when I’m not teaching on Fridays. The ladies are a good laugh, and are more than willing to show me how they prepare the food. Some of the techniques they use seen pretty different to what I’m used to – namely using unforeseen quantities of oil and butter to cook everything, painfully grating garlic and onion instead of chopping it, and using a mixture of bleach and water to wash your hands – but it’s really interesting to observe and adapt to these changes.
Despite trying to embrace Guyana’s food culture, I’m still proud to my roots and demonstrated this when I decided to make shortbread for a bake sale the school was having. The notable lack of good equipment did prove challenging, but after working out how to use the old-fashioned scales we sourced and our cockroach-infested oven, I managed to produce something that resembled the biscuit. Everyone at school seemed to really like what I made (perhaps due to their lack of knowledge of Scottish confectionery), and my friends in the kitchen even asked me to help them make a batch so they could learn the recipe! I feel I did Scotland proud.
As mentioned at the start of this blog I’ve decided to spend a month off the internet, which is why this has been uploaded halfway through November. Mark and I listen to quite a lot of podcasts at Matthew’s Ridge, and I decided to give it a shot when a host of one of our favourites spoke about how he regularly does a similar thing. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it, but I figured that since there probably won’t be a time in the near future that I’ll be able to cut myself off so drastically, I should go for it now. Due to the fact that we only get internet access at school, it’s honestly not felt much different. I have definitely found myself wanting to show everyone what I’m doing through a post on Instagram and hear all about my friends’ news (as well as the actual news), but all of this really doesn’t matter. I’ve replaced working my way through feeds with working my way through books, and messaging my British friends with chatting to students and teachers. This all sounds very gap yea, but it has been nice. In saying that, I am looking forward to being able to redownload the apps I’ve deleted and seeing what I’ve missed.
Well, somehow, that’s another month passed. While I appreciate we’re fortunate to still have so much time left in Guyana, we couldn’t believe it when we put the 50th tally on our ‘Days at the Ridge’ wall earlier in the month. Time is passing quickly, but that’s got to be a good sign.
Thanks for reading!