November

I know it’s cliché by this point but I’ll say it anyway: I can’t believe that’s another month passed. Four months is a third of a year, and thinking about it like that is quite frankly crazy.

November kicked off particularly well when I managed to get myself on a week-long school trip to Mabaruma, the capital of our region.

Things started in a classic Guyanese fashion with plans constantly changing and the event being postponed on numerous occasions, but two hours before leaving it was finally confirmed that everything was in place and that two parents and myself would accompany the Matthew’s Ridge students for the week. I will readily admit that being the only teacher was intimidating, but so long as I didn’t lose the 18 original copies of their birth certificates and various other crucial documents entrusted in my possession – I surmised that everything should be okay.

Our long day of travelling commenced with waves and well-wishes as our packed minibus vacated Matthew’s Ridge and headed for Port Katuma. This first 2-hour leg went smoothly, with only a brief stop at our favourite roadside snackette where the kids bought provisions and our driver purchased a sneaky morning Guiness. Once in Katuma, we headed straight to the river and met up with our teammates from the different competing villages in the Matarkai sub-region. You’ve clearly not been reading my blogs if you think our boat was even close to being on time, but it’s lateness did mean I could treat myself to a huge bag of poulari and pepper which is never a bad thing.

After waiting for quite a while, the speedboats eventually came to pick us up. We all piled on to the rather unstable-looking vessels and sped off, with the bin bags (hopefully) full of our luggage at our feet. Note that “sped off” certainly isn’t an understatement – our driver seemed keen to demonstrate the power of his engine, even if it was at the occasional expense of our comfort when we juddered across the wakes of the boats ahead.

Despite this, the journey was pretty incredible – I must’ve had a smile on my face for pretty much all of those two hours. From the birds flying overhead to precarious waterfront houses, from the frankly crazy variety of boats we saw to the sudden torrential rain shower causing us to hide under a huge plastic sheet – it felt like a big adventure.

One of the parents on the trip, Mr. Greene, joined us on our boat. While we all nestled on benches inside the hull, Greene thought it’d be more appropriate to lie on the front. I must admit he did look pretty cool, enjoying his second lunch in style as we raced along the river.

It was dark when we arrived in Mabaruma, so after waiting for a minibus to come and pick us up (it wasn’t on time), we headed straight to our accommodation, threw down the provided mattresses on the floor, and quickly fell asleep.

I woke after a noisy night to Mr. Greene assembling the male athletes for their first daily run. It was 5am. Fortunately, my participation was not required so I fell back asleep after they left. I woke again at 7 to find everyone up, pretty much ready, and probably chuckling to themselves at the confusion on my face. You see – the Guyanese’s lack of concept of time is omnipresent, and this week displayed itself in Greene’s decision that the children needed 3 hours to get ready after their run to allow their “muscles to limber up” before a day of sports. Whatever. I acknowledged the futility in trying to extend my sleep and so got up, returning my mattress to the pile in the corner of the room and throwing my sheets back in my daysack.

It was now, in the all-revealing light of 7am, that I was truly able to take in our living arrangements for the next 5 days. We’d been given the ‘Learning Resource Centre’ to stay in, which is essentially one big classroom. Mattresses were provided for us to sleep on, and one of the other teachers had put up sheets to separate the boys from the girls. We had toilets, an outside tap which almost functioned as a shower (bucket showers materialised as the go-to for the week), and – besides a few chairs and a table or two – that was it. Despite being immensely different to the arrangements of every single other school trip I’d attended, I’d genuinely say it made the entire experience far more enjoyable – such a contrast and such an adventure.

Breakfast and dinner were delivered to us each day from the Ministry, and I must confess the food was surprisingly enjoyable. Very Guyanese (sugary porridges, deep-fried breads with cheese and butter, oily roti-curries), but very tasty.

Due to the rain, lots of the events had to be postponed towards the start of the week. This meant that there actually wasn’t a great deal for me to do during the day when at the sports field bar general supervision. There was however an agricultural convention in the middle of the week showcasing the local produce and potential of the area. The region plans to start growing many different crops, the most exciting of which is definitely being cocoa. I sampled some local dark chocolate and it was pretty great – hopefully the Guyanese chocolate industry grows sooner rather than later. Different guests spoke throughout the day, the most exciting of which being the Vice President of Guyana (the president couldn’t make it as he was being treated in a Cuban hospital). I feel the presence of such an important person at a seemingly minor event demonstrates just how much agriculture is valued here.

Our days at the sports field would wrap up at around 4, after which we’d return to the LRC. No activities were planned for the evenings, so I could spend much of the them as I wished. Two fellow Project Trust volunteers are teaching in Mabaruma, so this freedom allowed me to see them really frequently. It was fascinating to visit their comparatively colossal school and note the many differences between our projects, despite them both being in Region 1. They even invited me to their ceilidh club, which has definitely made me consider starting something similar at Ridge – we’ll have to see.

I think they thoroughly enjoyed showing my around their new hometown and quite rightly so – Mabaruma is really nice. With its paved roads and sturdy government buildings it’s unquestionably more developed, but still has the same fundamental feeling you get at Ridge. Kumaka, its market, was great fun to explore and contains so much more than we have, so it was nice to stock up. A particular highlight was the coconut I bought for the walk home, sold to me by a vendor next to a bus stop. He picked it out of his wheelbarrow and used a cutlass to slash an opening right then and there for me to drink the water. A steal for $100.

Not much happened after returning to the LRC, just a quick bucket shower, light dinner, and the early night made necessary by the 5am start.

The other teachers definitely clamped down after the first night’s antics, by pretty much always carrying a cane on them and hitting anyone who stood out of line. This seemed to be very effective however, creating not an atmosphere of fear but one of respect. I observe a similar result on an almost daily basis at school, and after many conversations concerning the method with colleagues (including those on the trip), you learn that that’s just the Guyanese way. It may be not be comfortable to watch as a Brit, but my students have actually approached me advising I start beating to improve discipline – of course I haven’t, but it’s certainly been interesting to note.

There were plenty of opportunities for me to race as a teacher throughout the week, and I took two of them. The first was a 10K, which started at 5am and involved running through the sunrise. While it was nice to get involved I came dead last, taking a wrong turn near the finish which caused me to have to backtrack and arrive after all the officials and other racers had left. They either didn’t bother counting the starters, assumed I gave up, or (quite likely) got bored of waiting – leaving me to run shamefully back home. The most incredible torrent of rain started before I made it back causing my humiliation to exponentially increase as I squelched into the LRC and had to explain why I was this late. The upside was that the rain was so heavy I showered in it outside, which has got to be a pretty unique experience. Someone also bought me the best channa I’ve ever eaten once I’d dried off, arguably making the whole ordeal worthwhile.

The other event was a rather spontaneous 400m, ran barefoot and in kit quickly acquired from students that I threw over my clothes. All I’ll say concerning this race is that ‘White Sir’ was no match for his two 20 year-old competitors, and the students managed to take even more joy in my plight (I think there’s a video of the race somewhere) than after the fatal 10K. At least my position was consistent across events.

Our week of sports concluded with a great last day. Each event has to be scored by three people, one from each region, and I spend the morning scoring for Matarkai. It was nice to speak to fellow teachers from across the region, and the fact the rain mostly stayed off meant we were kept on our toes. We concluded with a medal ceremony and a big reveal of the overall winning team, featuring the banners we’d worked so hard on the previous evening. My sporting success remained unchanged with our sub-region coming last, but if Balfron High has taught me anything – it’s all about participation.

Despite the week’s ups and downs, it definitely was sad to say goodbye to the LRC (and to my Project Trust friends!) when the minibus came for us in the morning. I bagged my breakfast to enjoy on the water, we made our way to the jetty, I frantically bought some final provisions in the time created by the boat’s lateness, and then we set off for home.

The journey was a bit of a classic. I won’t elaborate too much, but after one unplanned boat stop, an incredibly delayed departure from Port Katuma, and THREE lengthy breakdowns on the drive home (ultimately leading to the final hour being spent in the back of a pickup truck as it rained) – I’ll just say I was glad to finally arrive back home and recount the incredible week I’d had to Mark.

My trip to Mabaruma was the biggest of the month by far, but I have been lucky enough to other spend days outside of Ridge too. I won’t bore with too many details, but one outing that’s definitely worth a mention came just before the election.

Local elections fell in the middle of November, and it was really interesting to observe the way everything works regarding politics here. We began to notice the odd flag and poster appear around the village, but things really ramped up around a fortnight or so before polling day. Two parties, APNU and AFC, had notable campaigns in our area, and both of which held rallies in the street open for all. These started more traditionally, with the representatives (both of which we‘re friendly with) giving speeches outlining campaigns and slagging off the opposition, but after the free meal and merch were distributed they’d often descend into a party, with lots of alcohol and music.

The most extreme example of this was at APNU’s last rally, held in Katuma just days before the election. A mining truck had been arranged to take as many as possible from Matthew’s Ridge, so after school on that Friday a large group of us squeezed in and travelled out there.

The entire evening was essentially one big party. Huge speakers blared lively music throughout the night, allowing the army of green-shirted supporters to dance away under the bunting with their APNU flags in the air. It was quite the spectacle. A passionate MC introduced the party members as they took turns delivering convincing speeches about the improvements they would make throughout the sub-region, and the whoops and cheers were constant.

The MC concluded proceedings with the most animated spiel yet, offered everyone their pot-roast chicken and cook-up, and the officials left the stage. The party of course continued, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable night before a pickup (maybe our new favourite method of transport) carried us home.

APNU (the party hosting the rally) won the vote in Matthew’s Ridge, so perhaps parties should consider implementing this strategy in the UK. I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to the idea.

Ridge is a pretty small place, and quite frankly there isn’t a great deal to do during our days off or at the weekends – particularly as we’ve now been here for a fair amount of time. Spending the day reading in the hammock is admittedly very nice, but you do feel guilty after a full weekend of this. However, one of the things that we’ve found great fun is walking, and despite the lack of trails or official paths – we’ve managed to do a fair amount of this.

Easily our most ambitions trek to date came when we attempted to walk to Arakaka, the closest village to Matthew’s Ridge. We weren’t exactly sure how far it was, but estimated it would take us two hours to walk to the Arakaka Junction, and surmised that the fact there was a big sign welcoming us to Arakaka here meant that it wouldn’t be much further from there.

So off we set at 9:45, ready for the busy day ahead. Our 2 hour estimation was pretty much bang on, and we found ourselves at the junction comfortably before midday.

We had a quick stop in a dilapidated shelter and snacked on the failed bakes I’d attempted the previous night (pineapple jam makes everything better) before continuing. The track past the sign wasn’t great – requiring frequent mud-avoidance – but after around 45 minutes of winding through the trees we caught glimpse of what resembled civilisation and found ourselves in what we assumed to be Arakaka.

The village seemed much more basic and smaller than we thought, but we’d been assured it was possible to buy lunch here, so we approached a group sitting outside a shop:

“This is our first time in Arakaka, is there anywhere we could get lunch?”

“Ohh this isn’t Arakaka, this is Five Miles”, one man replied. “It’s an hour to Arakaka from here”.

So as it turned out we’d in fact not arrived at our destination, and since the Guyanese have no concept of time had some unknown but probably large distance left to walk. So with that, we thanked the man and set off once again.

It turned out that Five Miles is just a particularly nice backdam (area used for mining) that is clearly so popular that people have been able to open shops and live there. Its inhabitants were all very friendly, and we were called over for many, many conversations when walking through so they could suss out what two young white guys were doing walking past in the blazing midday sun.

After making it through the backdam the landscape quite dramatically opened up, letting us take in the full extent of the very impressive mining operation. It was quite breathtaking to see just how flattened everything had been in order to extract the gold – a huge contrast to the almost claustrophobic jungle we’d just walked through. As nice as everything looked though, we were hungry and tired and worried that there wouldn’t be any food left if we didn’t get to Arakaka soon, so vowed to flag down the next pickup truck that passed and try and get a lift. It didn’t take long for one to pass, and 15 minutes later we’d made it.

Despite its relative inaccessibility, Arakaka definitely appeared more developed than Ridge. Almost all of the buildings we saw had a colourful coat of paint covering their exterior and looked structurally sound. However, it was now coming up to 1:30, we’d been on the go for 4 hours, and we were starving – so no time was wasted in finding somewhere to eat. We asked the first people we saw and before long were sitting at one of the two tables at an eatery (really just a woman’s house), gorging on $1000’s worth of fried rice, fried chicken and pepper while having a pleasant conversation with out kind chef and her son. You just can’t get any more Guyanese.

Despite the warm hospitality and tasty food, half one was turning into two and we realised that our chances making it back before dark (six o’clock) were quickly diminishing. My legs felt pretty sore so I was apprehensive about walking the entire way back, but Mark seemed enthusiastic so riled my up to set off again. Bottles and stomachs refilled, we payed, said our goodbyes, and were on our way.

The walk back to the junction started off fine – it was nice to recognise features we’d passed and have some sense of where we were – but Mark’s condition quickly deteriorated. Around an hour and a half after leaving Arakaka the consequences of consuming such large amounts of meat and rice before exercising kicked in and his pace slowed as he started to feel sick. We made it to the junction only 15 minutes or so behind schedule, but after taking a break we realised there was no way we’d make it back before dark, particularly with our worsening physical states.

With our roles reversed it was now me that was doing the motivating, but as soon as I stood up I felt the ache of my legs and realised I likely wouldn’t make it back either. We decided to walk for half an hour more and then do a classic pickup flag-down. Mild anxiety kicked in when after 20 minutes not a single vehicle had passed, my legs felt like I’d ran a 20K without stretching, and Mark was on the verge of throwing up. But all stress was quickly alleviated when we heard the sound of a vehicle racing towards us, injecting us with enough energy to spring to life and flag it down. Before we knew it were back on our hammocks enjoying the sunset and reflecting on our crazy 29.8km (claims Apple Health) day.

As is perhaps imaginable, we didn’t do much the following day (which amazingly happened to be a national holiday), letting our muscles relax and sunburn recover. Over half a month has since passed and I’ve still got an prominent tanline left by this impressive streak:

All of this excitement may make it seem as if it’s no-work-all-play out here. But I can assure you that’s not the case.

I definitely am noticing myself getting much more comfortable in the classroom as time is progressing, but it certainly still is challenging. The large class sizes and teacher shortage don’t always allow the perfect teaching environment, but that’s such a big part of what makes this so exciting and rewarding.

One point that I have undoubtedly observed across all the age groups I teach is just how engaging they find practical activities. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: the kids here just get on with things. When tables break, they’re fixed within the half hour by willing Grade 11s armed with the school’s rusty hammer and old nails. When the classrooms are dirty each night, it’s the students who clean them. When there aren’t enough desks, it’s just accepted that the pupils are going to have fit somehow, and so they cram together without much bother. The students may not always listen – but they certainly don’t complain.

Transferring this into lessons may be difficult with the limited recourses we have here, but most things I’ve tried so far have been mostly successful and I absolutely plan to keep trying to teach in the most engaging ways possible.

We’re coming to the end of the term now which means Revision Week and then Test Week. Normally this should be a fairly easy time for teachers, but the fact that I had to deliver some rather confusing assemblies for the first time combined with teacher absences causing real issues has only increased the workload. One day Mark and I were responsible for 5 classes between us, all packed in a building normally used for 3! Fortunately Miss Monique’s absence on that crazy Monday was temporary, and she quickly reinstated some order the following day with her impressive ability to go from friendly to completely formidable in an instant. I need to work on that.

My self-imposed WiFi drought ended this month, something which I spoke more throughly about during last month’s post but I’ll briefly touch on. It was really nice to log back on and see what’s been happening in the world after what felt like so long away. Catching up with what my friends and family had been up to and reading the headlines I’d missed was fun, but I must confess I was almost underwhelmed by the amount of content that I actually cared about. In saying that, within under a day of having this information at my disposal once again I was straight back to my old habits – scrolling through Instagram and Facebook, messaging British friends instead of chatting to students and teachers around me. The experience has definitely made me realise that even after observing how quickly information fades to irrelevancy online, I’m almost hard-wired to want to consume it.

Saying all this probably makes me sound pretentious and annoying, but I bet most people would think the same if they were to do the same. To try and get some longer-term benefit to my month away, I’ve opted to use iOS 12’s new Screen Time and App Limits features – hopefully these help!

Well – that’s pretty much it for this month. After next week’s tests there’s only one more week remaining before school finishes, and then we’re off! I’m sure I’ll cover the Guyanese’s version of the festive season extensively in the next blog, but all I’ll say is that fact that Christmas reggae has been playing here for almost all month must be a good sign of what’s to come.

Thanks for reading!

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