I’m so happy to finally be writing this blog post. Somehow it’s now February which makes this over two months late, but such an unbelievable amount has happened in my life over the past few weeks which hopefully justifies this. This post and the next will outline everything, but all I’ll say is that I never expected to be writing my December blog post in a thick jumper, sitting at my desk with an electric radiator at my feet and a warm cup of Scottish breakfast tea by my side. But here I am.
All of the turbulence in my life that’s led up to now only really kicked off after Christmas, meaning that December started off completely as expected. The first pretty exciting thing that happened for me was turning 18. Admittedly the leniency of regulations in Matthew’s Ridge means becoming an adult is purely nominal, but as a Brit it was still pretty exciting. I therefore felt obliged to celebrate, so had a party at the house.
Although I started planning earlier for the night, everything came together on the day. Mark and I tidied the house up and decorated with Christmas decorations and balloons sourced from the school, we acquired chairs and a few bottles of rum from the relentlessly generous Ms Lexi, and purchased some cups and food boxes at from Cheap Shop. Unfortunately we couldn’t provide free drinks at the party, but organised a deal with Uncle Pear that allowed us to sell beer for a very cheap price. This price was so low in fact that word spread and people asked me on the streets that day if ‘Three Guinness for a thousand dollars’ was really true!
The ladies in the school kitchen were also really helpful, coming into work at the weekend to provide not only ice and containers for the beers, but they also prepared the most immense amount of cook-up for us to enjoy. Their huge pot sat proudly alongside Shelburn’s renowned channa, and the cucumber salad and fried rice I’d made. Not to brag but Esan said it was the best fried rice he’d ever had. We may have lost count of his Banks consumption by this point, but whatever.
Despite the fact many people demonstrated their Guyanese levels of commitment by arriving hours late or not at all, the night was really great fun in the end with plenty of dancing, chat, music, food and drinks.
My birthday was actually the next day, a Sunday, and this itself was just as nice. After cleaning up a bit, Mark and I grabbed the pot-roast chicken from Auntie Stacy’s that I’d specially requested for lunch, and had it with the large amounts of leftover cook-up. This was followed by an early-afternoon read in my hammock, and then a walk to the pools. Somehow we were the only ones there, and swimming alone in the expansive lake surrounded by the stunning greenery and birds, with blue skies above (in December!!) made it a pretty memorable birthday experience.
I got out as the sun was setting, and we headed home so to not get caught in the dark. In classic a Matthew’s Ridge fashion however, we didn’t get very far before Esan came hurtling towards us in his car, insisting we joined him as he was now heading to the pools – so back we went! More people arrived later on and we ended up having a great time, however unplanned it may have been. After a few hours, some El Dorado on ice, lots of classic chat, and a speedy ATV ride, we arrived home. It was late however, so I quickly called my parents, changed, and then we headed out to Auntie Shellon’s for dinner. She certainly didn’t disappoint, providing the usual feast we’ve come to love so much. We had roti curry, corrilla, cassava bread, fried chicken and fish, more pot roast chicken, Milos, black cake, raisin rice – a true feast.
Unable to consume another morsel, we rolled out of Shellon’s some time later and returned home. I opened some presents sent from home, cut the cake very kindly made for my by the HM (it seemed we were in fact able to eat more), then we opted to head by Third’s for some pools and beer. It was a truly great birthday, and I feel super-grateful to have been able to celebrate with the people that I did.
I’d definitely say that I’m a Christmassy person and must admit I was slightly concerned I’d miss out on the festive season when away from the UK. These fears we’re quickly put to rest however when I heard the first reggae version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen blasting in the streets, way too early in the month. Matthew’s Ridge loves Christmas.
Although I was away for the big day itself, I had the pleasure of organising my class’ Christmas party. We’d used spare time throughout the week to make decorations, which were were hung on all surfaces including the rather high ceiling (Kenard’s a dangerously good climber). Coloured chalk was put to good use in decorating the board with a rather non-snowy Christmas scene, and the benches were rearranged to create the dancefloor and banquet table.
Everything in place, the kids went home to get changed before eagerly returning in their new attire, carrying their Secret Santa present and food for everyone to enjoy together. To my great surprise, the gift exchange actually worked, and everyone received something in the end – not bad for Grade 7. The kids ate all the amazing food they’d brought, played games, and danced (Sir Lewis may have even busted some moves too), ultimately had having a really great time. The party was without frills, and served as a prefect demonstration of how people in Matthew’s Ridge simply don’t need much to enjoy themselves. This Christmas party had no tickets, no special venue, homemade decorations and food prepared by the children and their families – but I felt the kids had no less fun than we would at out Christmas dances. Perhaps an even better time, as they could proudly appreciate the work that they put into the event.
We had some time between school finishing and leaving for our holidays, and so did a few different things. I’ve always been a lover of true crime, and so have been interested in visiting Jonestown after I learned of its proximity to Matthew’s Ridge. While utterly tragic, the story of Jim Jones and The People’s Temple is fascinating. Lots of information can be found here, but otherwise just know that Jonestown was the site of an enormous mass-suicide, often considered a mass-murder, and was the largest non-natural loss of American life from the 70s when it happened until 9/11.
I’d been told many times by people who had visited Jonestown that there really was nothing to see there, but I was still happy to accept Quincy’s offer to take us. After turning off the main road and pulling up as far into the jungle as possible, he led us along a barely noticeable trail which had us navigating numerous obstacles. Guyana made the conscious decision to leave Jonestown alone after the incident and allow nature to gradually reclaim the site, which I agree with. The path came to an end in a small clearing, which hosted a solitary stone memorial recognising the tragedy, with some photos and artificial flowers at its base. This historical site wasn’t touristy, wasn’t commercialised, but stoically served its purpose and no more. It felt like a very different approach to how the UK might have treated such an event, but I liked it.
While both Mark and I would have loved to stay at home for Christmas, we’d arranged to spend the majority of our holiday away from Matthew’s Ridge, travelling with all of the other volunteers. Christmas was to be spent at Orealla – one of the projects in East Guyana, right on the Surinamese border. First we had to get there though. Four of the others joined us in Ridge for a few days before we all set off, and step one of our journey saw the six of us occupying approximately 50% of the seats on the plane which delivered us safely to Georgetown. We wasted no time here and spent the day buying gifts and provisions before leaving early the following morning. We all piled into a prebooked minibus and reached the port town of Skeldon a few hours later. We’d heard that today’s boat had been cancelled due a fatal accident on last night’s sailing, so spent most of the day strolling around the town. However, news came suddenly that the sailing was in fact going ahead, provoking a frantic assembling of the group, hurried purchase of a food box for lunch, and taxi to the harbour. The boat is first come first serve and we weren’t taking any chances.
As should really have been anticipated by this stage the boat was laughably late and, when it finally did arrive, any queue quickly descended to chaos, but we all got on in the end and managed to secure a spot on the roof. I made myself a rather comfortable bed from an oil drum (that actually leaked in the night), numerous bags (not exclusively my own) and lifejackets (that should probably have been in use). In fact no – definitely in use. The aforementioned fatality had occurred when a drunk man fell overboard, and while I had no plans to bring out the El Dorado on this occasion, I can easily picture myself slipping on the boat’s smooth, angled roof and falling straight into the river – unaided by the complete lack of railing. Anyway, I pushed these thoughts away and settled down for the night, chatting to some of the small boat’s many, many, many other passengers and watching the stunning treeline on the coast steadily move past me as the sun set, before grabbing a few hours of sleep.
The boat arrived in Orealla well into the night, so we payed the nominal fee and headed to one of Georgia and Jill’s (this project’s volunteers) friend’s house. Hammocks were strung, and we crashed out. This accommodation was only temporary however, so after a rather indulgent lie-in we relocated to Georgia and Jill’s house, where a more permanent arrangement was established. The house may only have been designed for two, but trial-and-error and an hour or so was all that was required to interlace a sufficient number of hammocks (1 inside, 1 on the balcony, and 10 outside underneath the house) to sleep an additional twelve.
I may not have spent this year’s Christmas in the most opulent of settings, but this particular holiday season was easily the most memorable and unique one of my life. So many things were completely contrasting to what I would normally associate with Christmas.
For starters, it was my first away from home. Obviously I have nothing against my family and love them all very much, but I must say that the experience of being with a large group of my friends instead of them wasn’t too bad. This was actually the first time the Guyana volunteers had been away together completely on our own, and it was really nice to spend time together as a group.
Perhaps obvious, but one other big difference to the norm was the location. Orealla is pretty amazing: palm trees line the sandy paths; almost everyone you pass says hello; only a short walk is required to take you out of the rainforest and into the savanna, a spectacularly contrasting flat of desert housing very little life; fallen mangoes are everywhere you look, providing constant free snacks. And the heat – it was just so strange to be singing along to Christmas songs while in shorts and a t-shirt.
Orealla lies right on the Courantyne river, and the tropical temperatures allowed for lots of swimming. I actually made it part of my routine to wash every morning in the river instead of the shower, and since the Courantyne is actually part of Suriname (its bank marks the border) this meant I’d travel to Suriname each morning for a shampoo. I thought that was quite cool.
Christmas day itself was just as unconventional but just as fun. We had a rather familial morning, playing games and giving out our Secret Santa gifts to one another. Despite receiving significantly less physical gifts than is normally the case when I’m at home, I was glad to see I didn’t feel like something was missing – watching friends open their gifts seemed to act as a perfect substitute. Don’t want to sound annoying, but it’s true. The HM of the Orealla volunteer’s school had very generously offered to give us Christmas lunch, so we donned our best clothes (Christmas socks for me), headed up there, and enjoyed some great roti curry and cake. Not a special meal in the slightest, but actually it didn’t matter – it was more about all being together. It did taste pretty great though, and we certainly didn’t turn down the dinner that the HM also gave us for tea to take away – after giving us lunch!
We headed home, played more some more games, and then enjoyed our generously donated Christmas dinner before heading out to a party. It was an unconventional, but great Christmas day highlighted by generosity, being with friends, and just having fun.
Our time in Orealla was pretty incredible, but we couldn’t stay there forever.
The journey back to Skeldon was fittingly crazy. I won’t bore with too many details, but all I’ll say is that it’s not every day you find yourself on a 7 hour overnight boat journey falling asleep on the hammock you just hung, with two people lying above you and two more below. Despite being able to fit 4 fingers between my chest and hammock above me above me, I slept fairly well. The boat reached Skeldon just in time for the sunrise, where I untied my bed, located my bag and wearily disembarked, not quite sure what had just happened.
Despite being tired, it was on this day that I made my first hospital visit and the whole health situation officially began. I hope I’ve made it clear that I had an overwhelmingly positive experience over the Christmas period, but one thing I’ve omitted is what happened concerning my health during this time. On boxing day, it was brought to my attention by one of the other volunteers the concerns raised by the rest of the group about my weight. They were all seeing me for the first time in months, and I was told they were shocked by how much weight I seemed to have lost. This surprised me, as I felt healthy enough and genuinely hadn’t noticed anything myself, but I contacted my parents nonetheless. They perhaps didn’t appreciate the urgency of the situation due to my lack of noticed symptoms at first, but after seeing a photo of me at a creek they became seriously worried. So too did Project Trust, who gave me instruction to go to Skeldon Hospital once back from Orealla to get as many recommended tests done as possible, then await further instruction.
It was at this point that I stopped and looked at myself and the photo in question and did see that I really didn’t look great, and realised that maybe I wasn’t healthy as I had thought. I’ve been asked lots lately how I didn’t notice my low weight earlier – and to be honest I’m not really sure. All I can point to is the fact that it must have happened very gradually – my partner also didn’t notice anything – and we don’t have any mirrors at home so I essentially never saw myself. I also felt healthy, was running regularly, and didn’t seem to have any problems with the food. In saying that however, there are certain things which I started to began to notice when my weight was on my mind, and other physical signs which I retrospectively realised could be attributed to my low weight.
Anyway, back to Skeldon Hospital. Skeldon isn’t a huge place and consequently didn’t have amazing resources. They managed to perform a couple of general tests, but these weren’t expansive in the slightest. I managed to get a weight from the questionable scales they had but couldn’t even measure my height – I had to do this in a nearby carpet shop I found. The values attained here may not have been the most accurate, but could at least provide a rough BMI, which confirmed the concerns expressed.
At this point, the group was due to travel to Parimaribo for New Year’s. I thought I was going to have to miss this to go to a better Guyanese hospital, but plans changed at the last second and Project Trust made the decision for me to continue to Suriname and attend the hospital there. Let me just emphasise just how last-second the change of plans was though – we’d arranged for a bus to pick us up at 6, and I was told I could come to Parimaribo at about 6:15. I stuffed my unpacked possessions into my bag and literally was ready to go just as the transport pulled up at 6:30 – someone had stolen the poor driver’s bus and he’d had to find another at short notice for us. I will openly admit that I should have perhaps shown a but more sympathy towards the driver instead of celebrating his plight.
Our onward journey to Suriname’s capital certainly wasn’t uneventful but I won’t bore with details. All that has to be said is that the 11 of us that made it (one unfortunately didn’t make it across the border) were very thankful to get out of the minibus in one piece and crash out in our accommodation.
New Year’s in Parimaribo was just as good, if not better, than anticipated. But I have to admit it was tainted by constant communication with my parents and Project Trust, who were liaising with hospitals and the insurance companies at what seemed like all hours of the day. I am so, so grateful for everyone who helped me – I’m sure they had better ways to spend their New Year’s – but the lack of effective communication channels between myself and the UK didn’t allow for a great deal of efficiency. I spent lots of time in hospital getting blood taken, questions asked, awaiting test results, sorting out confusing insurance details. It wasn’t ideal, but all this time on my own in such an unknown setting forced me to take complete responsibility and be independent to an even greater extent than had been the case thus far. I completely recognise how lucky I was to have the support network behind me that allowed me to get these health checks though – even having the other volunteers to return home to made a huge difference.
Fortunately, I’d be lying if I was to claim I spent all of my time in hospital during this stay – I certainly did get to experience lots of what Parimaribo has to offer. The capital is famous worldwide for its celebrations at this time of year, and right from the very beginning we could see why. For every single night preceding Old Year’s (their name for New Year’ Eve) a constant supply of fireworks lit up the sky, there were brilliant street parties and open air concerts, and the town just felt buzzing.
Old Year’s itself was undoubtedly the most memorable day for me. We’d been warned of the long travel times to the centre caused by the complete impenetrability of the crowds, so we made sure to leave our apartments in really good time. A taxi took us close enough to the action, but the driver said we’d be much faster walking so we got out and followed the sound of the blasting music. The streets were packed with vendors selling all different types of amazing Surinamese street food, feeding the hoards of locals and tourists alike. Fortunately we made it to the centre in good time, so could take in different styles of music coming from the various stages (as well as from different marching bands who’d make spontaneous appearances), and absorb the ecstatic atmosphere.
All this was great, but our excitement only grew when we saw officials start to lay down huge lines of red explosives on the streets. Being the naive Brits we are, we all hustled for the best spot while the end of the line was being lit, desperate to get the best views and photos of the explosion. However, a very quick retreat was made when they started to go off. Any discomfort that may have been experienced from the stages’ loud music of the intense nature of the crowds was quickly invalided as our poor ears were blasted, our bodies were berated by shrapnel, and our lungs were filled with smoke. I definitely noticed a few smug-faced Surinamese locals that must see this every year standing at the sidelines. We were more cautious for the explosions that followed, standing further back and putting the earplugs that we were given to good use. Health and safety definitely isn’t as big of a deal over there though – while the aforementioned discomfort generally acted as a sufficient safety barrier, some people did seem to get frighteningly close to the aggressive red lines as the explosions advanced nearer.
Throughout all of this excitement, I had been trying to make contact with the UK to know if I had to go to the hospital today. The wifi was frustratingly slow, but eventually I was told of today’s required tests, and managed to arrange a call with someone from Project Trust for an update. I would have had to leave the centre anyway to get a taxi, so arranged to call in 30 minutes, by which stage I should have managed to find somewhere quieter. By now though, the crowd was unbelievably thick. Every single route I tried seemed lead to another stage with a completely full audience for me to navigate through. After 45 minutes of intense people-wading in the scorching heat I finally managed to call Coll and give an update.
Feeling more than ready for a sit down (or preferably a sleep), I followed Google Maps on to a side street in search of a taxi. Suddenly, two men on a motorcycle approached me from behind, snatched my phone straight from my hand, and sped off. Completely shocked, I panicked and tried to chase after them. This was of course futile, so I resorted to frantically banging on the window of a nearby parked car. I explained my situation and we shot off in pursuit. Unfortunately the motorcycle was far too agile though, quickly leaving us behind at a junction before weaving through some combination of side-streets. The couple whose car I’d just blindly jumped into were fortunately very nice and stayed with me until I gathered myself together, letting me use their phone to call Project Trust once again (fortunately I was carrying my their number in my documents folder), and ensuring I got in a taxi. Fortunately not everyone in this world is like those men on the bike.
Once home I wasn’t feeling great so went straight to bed after letting my (rather unimpressed) parents know what had happened. I felt much better after waking up, and decided to not let today’s events ruin my New Year’s Eve. We all ended up having the most amazing time in the end, meeting so many great people throughout the night, getting to party in multiple different places to live Surinamese music and British classics alike, and enjoying plenty of the Parbo and BBQ that was on offer.
I don’t think any year will end like 2018 did, and while I may have lost all the photos – I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it any time soon.
And so concludes my December blog. I can only apologise for its lateness and distinct lack of photos, but I hope this can be excused. I’ll write my blog post for January as soon as possible, which will continue the story that finishes with my return to the UK. Thanks a lot for reading!