Almost four years ago to the day I began my random musings on this blog. In that time it has evolved from a predominantly word-based account of travels and the daily life of living internationally, to (I hope) an increasingly image-focussed reflection upon the diverse, distinct, and unique environments I am lucky enough to find myself in.
Two years ago I marked the second full year of this blog with a selection of images that captured the essence of that period.
Two years on again, I would like to repeat this exercise with ten carefully selected images from the period April 2013 to April 2015, which are collectively some of my favourites from this time and provide a small glimpse into another two years of travel, exploration, and life as an expat.
1. December 28th, 2013 – Angkor Wat, Cambodia
An incredible sunrise at one of the world’s most ancient and mysterious archeological sites. It is moments like this that make the cramped buses, early mornings, and days of unwashed clothes completely worth it.
2. December 18th, 2013 – Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
Taken as I stood on a bridge with the city of Yangon sprawled around me, this image sticks in my mind as the famous Shwedagon Pagoda seemed to be visible across the whole city.
3. July 2013 – Prague, Czech Republic
I’ve never actually written about Prague in this blog, but it’s where my teaching life began in 2009, so it holds a special place in my heart. Visiting again in 2013 reminded me just how wonderful the city is. One of Europe’s finest.
4. Georgetown, Guyana
My home for one year until June 2013, Georgetown (and Guyana) has a vibrancy that’s hard to explain in words. You really have to experience it to realise how the diverse cultures fuse together to create an intriguing country.
5. December 2013 – Bagan, Myanmar
Sunrise over the ancient pagodas in Bagan. It’s hard to put into words quite how beautiful this morning was, so hopefully the photo provides some idea.
6. January 1st, 2014 – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Spending the first day of 2014 in Ho Chi Minh City was a nice way to kick off a year that involved more travel and exploration. It was my first time in the south of Vietnam and I plan to return one day.
7. March 2014 – Sandwip, Bangladesh
The photo may speak for itself, but Sandwip (a small island west of Chittagong) was a total joy to experience when I stayed there for a few days with a colleague’s family. This photo was taken one early evening, and it’s one of my personal favourites from any of my travels.
8. August 2015 – Dartmoor, Devon, UK
It’s always nice to go home. Sights like this make it all the more worth it…
9. July 2014 – Huye, Rwanda
This is less about the actual image and more about the significance of the location. Fours years after leaving Rwanda, July 2014 was the first time I set foot once again in the Land of a Thousand Hills. It was a special feeling to be back there, even if just for a week.
10. March 2015 – Jessore, Bangladesh
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”
Some weeks ago I contributed a post to the Asian University for Women’s Center for Teaching and Scholarships blog. It is a space for teachers and professors to reflect upon their experiences as educators. I thought I’d share this post on my personal blog also, as it seems like an appropriate time. The current school year has recently come to an end and I’m feeling proud of the students I taught this year, as they have now successfully graduated from the one year Access Academy course and will move on to the full undergraduate program in August.
One of the most rewarding aspects of this job is the influence you can have on the education of your students. It sounds obvious of course, but well-planned lessons, engaging subjects, and interactive instruction is the catalyst for an effective learning environment. There may be times when you reflect on a specific class you have taught, or a topic you have covered with your students, and wonder if they gained as much from it as you had hoped. However, overall your support, guidance, and enthusiasm have the ability to direct your students on the path to independent and inquisitive discovery both inside and outside of the classroom.
Personally though, I have become aware during the past five years of incredibly varied teaching roles that it’s not solely my students who (hopefully) have this opportunity. From preparing lessons, teaching classes, facilitating discussion, and, crucially, from listening to my own students, I too have learned so much, and in many ways it has significantly reignited my individual desire for learning.
Upon completion of my Masters Degree, and prior to embarking on my life as a teacher, I spent 18 months working in an office. The job was fine enough and helped to clear some mounting post-university debts whilst introducing me to the day to day responsibilities of paid employment. However, it led to a noticeable stagnation of my motivation to seek out new knowledge. This may very well have been a consequence of my own personal misguided path, but the nine to five routine left me demotivated in other aspects of my life, and whilst I didn’t recognise it at the time, I needed something to change.
In hindsight I did learn tangible lessons from my first ‘proper’ job. It clarified in my head that having progressed somewhat zombie-like straight from school to university, I now needed to explore beyond that particular bubble. At this point I didn’t really know quite where that would take me, but as I reflect on the places I’ve lived, worked, and visited since that fork in the road, I feel pretty satisfied with the choices I made.
It began with an important and life-changing decision to rectify the dissatisfaction of 18 months behind a computer screen, and it was at this juncture I travelled to Rwanda as a volunteer teacher in a rural secondary school. It was a challenging year, but also highly rewarding. One of the main reasons for this was my assignment to teach Entrepreneurship.
My initial reaction was to panic and focus entirely on the fact that I considered myself to be the least entrepreneurial person I knew, most probably due to my cautious and frugal nature; two qualities that no career entrepreneur would ever claim to possess. However, once I set about building a syllabus, seeking out resources, discussing ideas with my peers, and thinking logically about how I could best guide my expectant students, it became something of a new and exciting challenge.
Entrepreneurship requires a great deal of “out of the box” thinking – something many of my students were not accustomed to. Therefore, in order to teach the students before me, I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. I recall sleepless nights, confused faces, and undoubtedly one or two lesson plans that in hindsight may not have been the most effective. Yet, by the end of the year this experience had taken me back to the period prior to my office job. I was driven to learn once again.
At AUW this experience has been no different. Teaching ‘Interpreting Texts’ in the Access Academy has provided me with broad scope to develop a course that covers a range of topics and utilizes a variety of sources and authors. This past year we studied issues relating to identity and gender. We debated the merits of anthropological research and scrutinized the influence of modern media on our lives. We investigated how fear and stigma perpetuates the global HIV crisis, and we spent time reading about the intricacies of a divided Sudan. We read textbooks, journals, academic texts, editorials, blogs, and even found time to analyze the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, and The Kinks.
Each week I feel I learn just as much as my students, and of course lesson preparation and in class instruction account for the bulk of this. What should not be underestimated though, and is a factor that has become abundantly clear during my time at AUW thus far is the knowledge I gain from my students.
We’re from contrasting regions of the world and they have faced significantly different journeys to my own, so whenever we discuss a topic in class or they write a response, I am exposed to new thinking and new perspectives I may have otherwise failed to consider. The wonderful consequence of this is that unlike my previous non-teaching job, which at times left me feeling uninspired and lacking direction, I now have no option but to learn and grow as both a teacher and a person, and to strive to consider the world around me. It is thanks to this job and my inspiring students that I am able to experience these opportunities.
This blog doesn’t really follow a set format as such. I tend to focus on anything that has interested or entertained me, an event that perhaps defines a place I’m in, a person or group of people I’ve met who have inspired me, a reminder that I don’t live in the UK, or just about anything I feel inclined to record through words and images.
On occasions my blog is serious (see previous posts about UN peacekeepers, reflections on life, etc.), but occasionally it’s the ramblings of a madman. So, welcome trusty readers to my 31st blog post, and allow me to introduce you to a friend of mine. Well, I guess you could say he’s my roommate.
From here on in this roommate shall be referred to as ‘Lenny’, the name I assigned him. In fairness Lenny may not even be male, but for the purposes of this blog post he is, and his name is Lenny.
Lenny arrived one day quite unannounced and made himself at home immediately. I left my desk to make a cup of tea, and when I returned I found Lenny enjoying his own liquid refreshment, attached to an empty fruit juice carton.
I soon realised he’s both agile and determined….
I wasn’t too sure what to feed him, so it’s been a case of trial and error. I’m sure he gets his fair share of mosquitoes, but this piece of guava seemed to take his fancy.
He was more suspicious of these sultanas.
The guava also attracted another of his kind, who I presume is now my second (and as yet unnamed) roommate.
Lenny looked on in intrigued confusion.
We’re both still getting used to each other’s presence, however. On occasions if I get too close or make any sudden movements, Lenny retreats.
And spies on me from a safe distance.
Lenny appreciates creativity and the arts. He enjoys many literary genres. In this instance his book of choice was the Georgetown phone directory…
He also enjoys American sitcoms and has excellent taste.
Yet, his favourite hobby by far is spying on me, and keeping a watchful eye on my movements. The other day he literally spent about 15 minutes just watching me. He needs to get a life…
Nevertheless, I can often feel those beady eyes fixed on me.
Lenny’s friend hasn’t quite built up the same courage yet, and prefers to keep a safe distance. In this case he peered down at me from a crack in the wall…
Although occasionally I catch him when he least expects it. Here he is in my coffee mug, the scamp.
And a very poor attempt at maintaining his anonymity…
So, there you have it. That’s Lenny (and his unnamed friend). He goes about his business in a quiet and unassuming manner, rarely disturbing me, unlike the mosquitoes – the bane of my existence. Lenny is of great use here as he snacks on them. I once saw him try to hunt down a fairly sizeable moth. He failed of course, but I was quite proud of his pluckiness and his spirit!
This isn’t actually the first time I’ve shared my home with a gecko. I had many scaly-tailed roommates in Rwanda too.
For anyone inclined to question my sanity at this point, never fear; Lenny says I’ve got nothing to worry about.
Sunday, May 5th 2013 was a notable date here in Guyana. It marked the anniversary of an event which played a huge part in shaping the face of the Guyana you find today. Exactly 175 years ago to the day, on May 5th 1838, the very first indentured Indian labourers arrived to work in the sugar plantations of the then British colony of Guyana. They weren’t ‘slaves’ as such, however their workers’ rights were neglected and conditions were often poor. They did however have the right to repatriation in India after five years. Some took up this offer, others decided to make Guyana their permanent home.
Over 200,000 workers in total made the journey from Asia to South America in the 19th century, and possibly the most telling statistic of all is descendants of those immigrant workers now account for 44% of the total population in 2013. The Indo-Guyanese are therefore officially the largest ethnic group in Guyana.
One aspect of this country that has intrigued me most during my time here has been the incredible diversity. For a nation modest in geographical area and with a total population comparable to the city of Leeds (UK), or Austin (Texas), Guyana is a melting pot for such a diverse range of cultures, peoples, languages, and traditions. In addition to the Indo-Guyanese; Afro-Guyanese account for 30% of the population, whilst mixed heritage Guyanese make up 16%. The Amerindian (indigenous) community accounts for the remaining 10%, aside from small Brazilian/Portuguese and Chinese communities.
This diversity manifests itself in so many aspects of Guyanese society. As I touched upon in a previous blog post, language is certainly a strong reflection, with the presence of English, Creole, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and nine Amerindian dialects. Cuisine is another. The popular ‘cookup’ is a Caribbean style dish made of rice, beans, meat, coconut and various vegetables all cooked together in one pot. Curry and roti dishes are readily available and popular, as are Chinese options, including the Guyanese style chow mein. Meat eaters get their fix at various Brazilian barbeques, and Amerindian cuisine is known for the spicy beef or pork stew, Pepperpot – customarily eaten during the Christmas period.
Music and dance is another diverse characteristic of Guyana. Traditional south Asian beats, tablas and sitars, and popular Bollywood songs frequently fill the air. Calypso, Soca, and Reggae are equally prevalent, and a reminder that despite being part of mainland South America, Guyana is very much influenced by its Caribbean connection. Brazilian and traditional South American music is also a common sound.
However, I feel I’ve been struck most by the religious diversity of this country, which is quite evident in Georgetown. Perhaps it’s because my eighteen months prior to Guyana were spent in the predominantly Islamic state of Bangladesh, where 90% of the population identify themselves as Muslim. My religious experiences were therefore defined by the distinct daily call to prayer, the abundance of traditional Islamic dress, and the Mosques of varying shapes and sizes. There is of course a sizeable Hindu community in Bangladesh as well as a modest number of Buddhists. Yet, overall society is defined by the teachings and values of the Qu’ran.
Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown
Christianity is the most widespread faith in Guyana, but given the history I touched upon earlier in this post, Hinduism is also very visible. Islam has a noticeable presence, despite being less represented in terms of actual followers.
From my front porch if you look to your left you will see a large Seventh Day Adventist Church, and if you look to your right you will see the towering structure of Guyana’s newest and biggest Mosque (currently under construction).
In the foreground a church and behind this Guyana’s newest mosque.
I decided a few weeks back to take a series of photos that would demonstrate Georgetown’s religious diversity, and I’d like to present these in this blog post.
(The images are best viewed in full screen mode!)
I’ll begin with the most followed faith in Guyana. It is estimated that 57% of the population are Christian, of which various denominations are present. Below is a selection of images showing the churches of varying shapes and sizes across Georgetown, most of which were built during colonial administration and therefore possess a significant degree of historical and architectural charm.
Susamachar Methodist Church, Georgetown
St George’s Anglican Cathedral, Georgetown
Smith Memorial Church – built in 1844
St Andrew’s Kirk, Presbyterian Church – The oldest building in Guyana, built in 1818.
Brickdam Cathedral (Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception) – built 1920s
Burn’s Memorial Presbyterian Church, Georgetown
Hindus account for 28% of the population, with the presence of Hinduism a result of the vast numbers of Indian immigrants brought to Guyana in the colonial era. Below are photos taken at temples across Georgetown.
Cummings Lodge/Industry Mandir, Georgetown
Central Vaidik Mandir, Georgetown
Radha Krishna Mandir, Georgetown
Guyana Sanatan Dharma Mahasabha Ashram, founded 1934.
The exact root of Islam in Guyana is debated. It’s quite possible that it first arrived with a number of the West African slaves. It’s also widely accepted of course that like Hinduism, the presence of Islam is a direct result of 19th century immigration from India.
The first three images below show the new Queenstown Jama Masjid. The original was built in 1895, but succumbed to old age in 2007 and was dismantled. Upon completion it will once again sit proudly as the biggest mosque in Guyana and will be a place of prayer for much of the city’s Muslim population. It sits literally right behind my house, and I have watched its growth with great interest. When I first arrived it was merely a shell, but 10 months on it’s nearing completion and will certainly be a grand structure when finished.
Below this are images taken at other mosques across Georgetown. I’m always more intrigued by the role of Islam in society here, and I think this stems from my time in Bangladesh.
Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown
Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown
Queenstown Jama Masjid
Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown
Queenstown Jama Masjid
Queenstown Jama Masjid
Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown
LBI (La Bonne Intention) Masjid
So there you have it, a selection of places of worship, which are dotted across Georgetown, some of which bear a connection to a bygone era when the foundations of religious faith were being laid in Guyana. My impression has been that generally speaking this is a spiritual society, signified by the vast array of ‘houses of god’, which vary in shape and size. Within one square mile of my house I believe there are at least ten different places I could visit to connect with god, if I were so inclined. I would therefore hazard a guess that there are at least fifty across the whole of Georgetown.
I could of course have delved much deeper into this subject area, but I was more interested in capturing and presenting the distinctive religious architecture that is displayed right across Georgetown. I am also pretty impressed by the manner in which religious respect seems to maintain a sound level here. Considering you have three significant world religions coexisting very openly side by side in such a concentrated area, maybe other places across the world could learn a few lessons on religious tolerance from Guyana.
It has certainly been two years packed full of discovery and adventure, and I hope my posts have given you a decent insight into some of this.
However, rather than sum up the past two years in words, I decided to choose my ten favorite photographs captured during this period, as images often have the ability to say a great deal more than words. So here goes, organized loosely in date order;
1. BaBe District, Vietnam
I chose this photo as it sums up the joy of traveling in so many ways. The new experiences, the unfamiliarity, the necessity of embracing a culture, the laughs, the friendships (old and new), the wonderful food, and often most important of all, the warmth and hospitality of the the people you encounter.
2. Hanoi, Vietnam
I love this place. I met some great people, ate some delicious food, and weaved my way precariously through the intense army of bikes and scooters that fill the roads. This photo was taken whilst I sat at a coffee shop one day. The city just felt so vibrant and full of energy.
3. Xayabouri, Laos
Taken during a homestay in Laos, many of the kids in the village had peeped timidly through the window to catch a glimpse of the strange foreigners inside the house. Fortunately this boy was braver than the rest and hung about long enough for me to capture this image.
4. Chittagong, Bangladesh
One of my favorite photos from the city that became my home in Bangladesh. There is so much joy and expression in these faces, and what I appreciate most about the photo is the fact that each person is looking in a different direction, with the boy in the middle looking straight at the camera.
5. Kolkata, India
One of the first photos I took on a lone trip to India. It’s a favorite of mine due to the contrasts. Kolkata is a city full of history and tradition, yet that little ‘m’ to the bottom right speaks volumes.
6. Darjeeling, India
Taken high up in the hills of Darjeeling, northern India, I remember being captivated by the peace and serenity of this place. Having hiked with my guide for most of the day we came across a small Hindu temple. The mist engulfed us and the area seemed deserted. It gave the impression of being so very far away from everything else in the world.
7. Banskhali, Chittagong District, Bangladesh
This was quite a day out, and I was lucky enough to capture this photo towards the end of the day which made the whole trip even more worth it. This man was the Hindu devotee at a local Charak Puja religious festival.
8. Rajshahi, Bangladesh
The waterways of Bangladesh provide a great deal to so many Bangladeshis. They are often a hive of activity, but one early evening here in Rajshahi I was taken by the tranquility of the riverside.
9. Colombo, Sri Lanka
Sunset on the beachfront in Colombo was pretty spectacular. I spent a long time watching the sun descend over the ocean and also this group of men fishing and chatting vociferously.
10. Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
One of my favorite locations in Bangladesh, Cox’s Bazar has provided many great moments and images. However, the afternoon spent watching the fishermen was a highlight, and this particular photo a favoorite of mine. A father and his young son working as a team to provide for the family, dipping in and out of the waves, they seemed happy to let me follow them for 10-15 minutes.
So there you have it. Ten images that stood out for me and sum up two years of travel and new experience. I have no idea what the next two will bring, but I know I will be armed with my camera at all times!
Okay, I’m going to cheat a little here, but I couldn’t end this blog without choosing a favorite photo from Guyana. It was hard to choose, but I think this one edges it. Taken from the window of a small plane on the way to visit some of my volunteers in Port Kaituma (a small town in the north of the country), it really did provide me with a first view of just how uninhabited and wild parts of this country are!
I’ve written this blog in my head on many occasions in the past couple of weeks. Of course, now that I sit down to document all of those words that seemed to come so effortlessly at the time, they have retreated to a dark, cob-webbed, inhospitable corner of my brain, joining other subjects such as GCSE Science, how to iron a shirt effectively, and anything related to Plymouth Argyle success stories.
Anyway, for the previous two months now I’ve been running…quite a bit. The motivation for which came from multiple prompts, but in short it is down to a combined drive to lose weight, and to develop a healthier body and mind…..blah, blah, blah, etc, etc. Thus, in this blog post I’d like to share my insights on the mental torment, but ultimate joy that running brings, and the intricate battles that can leave you teetering on the edge of abject failure, or a warm sense of achievement. The reason I’ve written this post in my head so many times is due to the fact as I go round and round the park, lap after lap, I try to divert my thoughts towards anything but the run.
Now, I know what you are thinking – this new regime merely represents a temporary new year’s resolution-style commitment, which begins with an all guns blazing Mo Farah-esque dedication to pounding the pavement, and ends as quickly as it started with the disgraced sight of me sobbing into my Banks beer and whining about how I’ll never get fit!
However, so far after a few weeks of avoiding alcohol as much as possible (like Prince Harry avoiding the paparazzi at a costume party) and a dedicated program of running at least four times a week, I am currently beginning to reap the rewards, albeit slowly. I started modestly, managing just two laps of the nearby National Park here in Georgetown, and they weren’t easy laps. In the unrelenting Guyana climate it felt as if the heat was singeing my lungs and the ground gripping and clinging to my ankles. It is one mile from my house to the park, and each lap is also a mile in total. So, at that stage I was struggling to complete three miles.
Initially I began by running in the mornings at 5.45am, but that plan soon failed due to the fact I struggle to function without a cup of tea. I moved the runs to the early evenings and a couple of weeks ago, as the sun began to set over the park, and the guards prepared to lock the gates for the evening, I completed my seventh lap and mile eight of the run. Whilst taking great satisfaction in that moment, I think what pleased me more was the fact I didn’t collapse into a heap as soon as I exited the gate, but realised there was still some energy in the lungs.
I have run a little in the past, completing several half marathons, but I think this current period is the most consistently I’ve ever committed to it. Also, my previous running experiences took place in the UK, and running in the humidity and heat of Guyana presents a new challenge.
I’ve been reminded in recent weeks that the mental battle is far greater than the physical. So many factors unite to convince your brain that running is the most ludicrous idea in the world, and you are far better sitting in a chair, drinking tea, and reading a book. Conquering the urge to shut down and do nothing, as opposed to running has been a challenge at times.
During the working day my attitude to the impending post-work run fluctuates more erratically than Zimbabwean inflation. One moment I can’t wait to free myself from the computer screen, plug in the iPod and enjoy the early evening sun, and the next minute my legs feel like lead, and I convince myself I haven’t taken in enough fluids that day and if I run I’ll collapse in a heap and melt. I have found though that there are two main factors which have helped me edge the battle so far;
1. The Running Playlist
In recent weeks I have been reminded of the magnitude of the perfect running playlist. The monotony of each lap would be too much without music. Getting your playlist right can propel you, but getting it ever so slightly wrong is a jogging calamity. I haven’t yet quite perfected it. I’m often close, but there are always one or two rogue tunes that simply don’t work on a running playlist and thus completely upset the applecart (the applecart carrying my mental strength).
Presently one particular song causes a confusing mix of humour, suppressed rage, minor insanity, strained vigour, and sporadic muscle spasms (but not necessarily in that order). It’s also a song that proved to me once and for all that I’m a little odd. I’ll verify this (not that I need to I hear you cry) by revealing here and now that about fifteen minutes into my running playlist comes ‘Zorba the Greek’ performed by the ‘Flying Dutchman’ – Andre Rieu. That’s right, quite possibly the worst song that could ever appear on a running playlist, it’s ridiculous. The song is wonderful of course…if you’re sat in a little Greek taverna supping red wine and eating moussaka. However, when you’re desperately attempting to establish some flow and rhythm in the early stages of a run it’s a complete nightmare! The fact is though I can’t delete it; because you see, what I have noticed is despite it completely ruining my stride and breathing, it makes me smile, pure and simple. At a make or break point when I’m usually on the cusp of succumbing to the heat and a complete lack of willpower, it pushes me on by actually making me take the run a little less seriously and diverting my thoughts away from the struggle.
Other songs interspersed on my running playlist, which also perform this task (but also confirm my weirdness) include ‘Ra Ra Rasputin’ by Boney M, ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners, ‘What is Love’ by Haddaway, ‘Delilah’ by Tom Jones, and ‘Surfin’ USA’ by the Beach Boys. I should be chronically embarrassed by all this, but sometimes I think you get to a point in your life when it’s too late for that…especially when the whiteness of my legs is a far more obvious and immediate embarrassment when running in the park here. I’m officially the man who cannot tan.
2. Fellow Runners
I hadn’t realised how important it is to have fellow pavement pounders around me when I run. There was a day a few weeks back here in Georgetown when the heavens opened and the wind whipped in over the seawall into the park. I decided to run anyway given that it at last seemed the perfect temperature for exercise. Upon arrival I found the park to be empty, not a single soul visible. I scoffed a little at the fair-weather attitude of the other park-goers and felt a little smug that I was there, laughing in the face of the wind and rain. Two laps in and the laughter had gone, the smugness had slinked away through the gate, and I was struggling severely with motivation. I soon realised that it was because I was not surrounded by other runners. I had no inspiration, no one to compete against, and essentially no one to drive me on. Not even Zorba the Greek or Boney M could propel me this time.
I struggled through the run and that evening I thought about just why it had been such a battle in the empty park. It may sound ridiculous, but I concluded that in the previous weeks I had gained a very certain familiarity with not just the park, but even more crucially its regular visitors. Running lap after lap is a monotonous and sterile exercise. However, the faces you pass make it interesting. They become familiar, and thus, reassuring. You begin to reason that surely if other people are doing this it must be logical.
Then there’s the facial expressions and gestures which become commonplace. There are several fellow runners who over the course of the past few weeks have developed from complete strangers to several different stages of relationship (in this order),
2. Timid grinners
3. Broad smilers
4. Timid grin head nodders
5. Broad smile head nodders
6. Broad smile, head nod and eye rollers (in a manner which evokes the emotion ‘here we are again!’)
7. Tennis invites (the other day a man invited me to play tennis with him!)
During one run I was stopped mid lap and asked if I wanted to join a group of people for a beer and some freshly baked fish, and another day I was stopped by a very friendly and interesting American chap who completely ruined my run, but had some great tales about his life in Africa. I’ve even on a couple of occasions seen fellow runners outside of the park going about their normal lives, and we’ve struck up conversation. It always begins with confused looks at each other and then it clicks – we know each other from the park. I had wondered if one day I’d meet my future wife during one of my runs, but soon reminded of the whiteness of my legs, I let this ambition fade!
Despite running very regularly for almost 3 months now, it still presents an up and down journey of mental torment. Some days the run flows by in a breeze, other days I vow never to go again. One day I don’t think I ate enough and literally thought I was going mad as I felt light-headed and almost as if I wasn’t quite there mentally! However, on most occasions now I am able to transform the endless monotony of the continuous laps into an almost peaceful content monotony. It does also help a great deal that the park is a picturesque location, as hopefully the accompanying photos testify.
I always walk home from the park to warm down and it’s at these moments I feel at my most positive at any point during the day, which does prove (to me at least) that exercise can have such a decisive effect on your mental wellbeing.
The title of this blog post is a song by Kula Shaker, which incidentally is not on my playlist, but I feel it sums up my relationship with running perfectly.
Water shortages, cockroaches, malfunctioning plumbing, blackouts, limited medical facilities, occasional unwanted attention from the local community, toilets that don’t always flush, the relief of having a toilet with a seat (and the despair of not!), school meetings which last hours and often result in stalemate or nothing of any note, sporadic bouts of overwhelming homesickness, little outside communication, facebook withdrawal, and infrequent and overcrowded public transport. These are exactly the kind of issues WorldTeach volunteers commonly face in their daily lives. I experienced it, and the visits I made to my volunteers last term proved these are challenges posed to many volunteers worldwide. Of course, most of these challenges are actually quite trivial in the context of the countries WorldTeach places volunteers. Yet every challenge can be considered a terrific learning experience, and for each one there is an equally rewarding encounter.
Not quite as easy as turning on a tap…
In my role as Field Director I have been able to view the experience of volunteering with WorldTeach from a different angle. For a start I’m no longer a volunteer, which instantly reduces the pressure in some ways, but certainly increases it in others. However, far more importantly I am able to get a sense of the volunteers’ experiences with the additional value of prior insight. I do, to some extent, have an idea of how they may be feeling and how certain challenges may cause more stress than others.
Anyone who followed my updates from Rwanda (seems a while ago now right?) will recall the epic battles fought with the ever present and constantly multiplying and growing ants I cohabited with. I duelled valiantly with them, but there was only ever going to be one winner, hence why I’m now in Guyana and they remain warm and cosy in their underground lair in Rwanda! My point being that if one of my volunteers raises any insect-related fears or concerns, I like to think I’d be able to offer some constructive and reassuring advice, rather than simply screaming (in a high-pitched and panic stricken voice) “RUN FOR THE HILLS….THEY’LL ONLY GET BIGGER!!” Hopefully this applies to additional scenarios besides solely mutant ants.
This was in fact tested a few days ago when two volunteers informed me they had just encountered a scorpion in their house. It scurried across the floor and past their bare feet during the evening. Now, in this scenario I don’t think I offered any actual advice, aside from stressing (like a concerned and slightly irksome, stating the obvious, parent) “In future wear something on your feet and don’t leave piles of clothes around,” (as this is where it emerged from). They sent me a photo and my response was, “That looks flipping scary!” I did actually say flipping too, no need for profanities, even if it was a large, black, poisonous (unconfirmed) tail-wielding beast from the abyss. I’m pleased to say though that these volunteers didn’t need any advice from me as they’d already handled the situation with great aplomb by this point. Their solution being, and I quote directly from one of the guys….
“I ran and got my real camera and took some pics….then I squished it with a shoe.”
Classic maneuver, and justification for the session I facilitated during our training at the start of the year entitled, ‘Insect Armageddon: The Art of the Squish.’ Anyway, I’m pretty sure Bear Grylls used this exact technique during one of his escapades in the desert. I also have no doubt that Ben Fogle has dabbled in the old shoe squishing method during his many travels.
Now, arguably the most enjoyable role in my job as Field Director is visiting the volunteers at their sites. I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss the experience of living in a more remote location within a tiny community. Village life in Rwanda was such a journey of random discovery. Georgetown does offer some exposure to this, but as my previous blog may have revealed, living in a capital city is certainly not the same as living in a village (newsflash). Still, perhaps I get the best of both worlds. I am able to experience firsthand the placements in Guyana, but enjoy access to some home comforts in Georgetown. I do reminisce about Rwandan village life a great deal, but maybe with the benefit of time and absence, I’m romanticising it in my head, selectively recalling the aspects that were so compelling, and discounting those that tested my comforted western resolve.
The view from my front door in Rwanda
Let me tell you a little about the sites we have placed volunteers in Guyana this year. There are a total of nine people in the group placed at four different locations across the country. Two are placed just outside Georgetown. One person in New Amsterdam, three in Bartica and the remaining three situated in Port Kaituma (map provided below). Each site presents unique challenges and charms.
Port Kaituma is probably the most remote. Accessible by plane or a two day boat journey (so I’ve heard) from Georgetown, it certainly seems to provide volunteers with the classic rural placement. Set deep in the dense ‘jungle’ of northern Guyana, from the sky it appears to be quite an insignificant little place. However, once you’ve landed and make your way into town you soon find out this community is pulsating with energy. Some positive energy…some not so positive. The mining industry is arguably at the heart of this, with the accompanying mining population acting as the arteries pumping life into the community. It‘s clear there is money available here, and I’ve heard stories of people going into a shop and paying for toilet paper with gold! It almost has a Wild West feel to it. Centred around just a couple of main streets you get the sense that everyone knows each other and consequently I imagine it takes on the sensation of living inside a bubble. The people I met were very friendly, especially the guys who shouted “Hey white boy!!” every time I passed. Banter.
The plane to Port Kaituma
Coming in to land in Port Kaituma
Port Kaituma is extremely muddy. Immediately prior to my visit, there had been some rain and thus the whole town resembled a mud-bath, or the perfect location for a wellington boot-wearing convention. I of course wasn’t prepared despite prior warnings and spent the whole visit resembling a Labrador on ice as I attempted to navigate the ‘roads’. On a more serious note, I made a comment earlier alluding to some of the energy in Port Kaituma being less than positive. It is noticeable in a community that serves as a thoroughfare or a temporary home for miners working in the surrounding area that certain services and trades feature quite apparently once the sun goes down. You find an edginess at this point and it reinforces the Wild West persona. It’s not a particularly dangerous place at all, and I felt far safer than in Georgetown, but it reminds you that particular issues, which are perhaps conveniently hidden from us back home, can manifest themselves so publicly in other places.
One of the volunteers with her class in Port Kaituma
Oh, and one more interesting little fact for you. Port Kaituma is actually very close to ‘Jonestown’ – the famous site of Jim Jones’ cult, which led to the deaths of 918 people (predominantly American citizens) on 18 November 1978. 909 of these were due to mass suicide/murder. In fact Leo Ryan, a US Congressman at the time was actually murdered by one of the members of the cult at the very airstrip I landed on and took off from in Port Kaituma. You can visit the site today, however nothing much remains and it is surrounded by thick undergrowth.
Bartica has certain similarities to Port Kaituma. It sits right at the door to many of the mining areas in Guyana and is known as the “Gateway to the Interior.” My visit was generally spent on the outskirts of the town as the volunteers are placed at a school there. One of the highlights of the visit was actually the journey. To reach Bartica you have to complete part of the leg by boat, and of course depending on the weather you can either sit back and relax, or cling on for dear life as your body is thrown around like a ragdoll. Fortunately both legs I timed it perfectly (complete fluke of course) and was able to sit back and enjoy a very pleasant river cruise! I like Bartica as a placement for our volunteers. The location has a pleasant balance of being rural, yet volunteers have convenient access to amenities in the town. They also have some great characters on their school campus, including the friendliest security guards I’ve ever met and a caretaker who was perhaps even friendlier. Well, I think he was being friendly…he had a thick accent so it was hard for my unaccustomed ears to decipher everything, especially as he was using a lot of Creole also.
On the boat to Bartica
The dock at Bartica
Volunteer teaching in Bartica
We have one volunteer in New Amsterdam, which is the second biggest settlement in Guyana. It’s down the coast from Georgetown and having visited just for the day, and spending most of it at the school, I didn’t get much of a sense as to what kind of a place it is. It does seem to represent a slightly scaled down version of Georgetown, and I plan to visit again in the coming weeks.
Finally, our remaining two volunteers are placed together at a school just on the outskirts of Georgetown. It’s a big school with around 1,000 students, and my visit was memorable for one main reason. I saw the biggest butterfly/moth creature I have ever seen. I was sat in the classroom and this thing flew in through the window.
My initial thought was how this bird is bound to distract the already excitable students. Then I realised it wasn’t a bird and was in fact a large flying insect that was bird-sized, and at that point I started to shuffle uncomfortably in my chair as I’m not a huge fan of bird-sized flying insects. I willed it to pass back through the window, but of course within seconds it had flown straight for me and landed on the upper corner of my chair, just by my shoulder.
I should add that I was at the time observing one of my volunteers teach a class and thus as soon as the winged insect of doom had landed by me all eyes had centred on my location. How would this strange foreign man react? This was the question etched across all the young faces.
Well, I’ll tell you how I reacted. I laughed nervously, remained where I was, whilst edging to the corner of the chair so at one point only one ‘cheek’ was perched on it, and soon succumbed to my irrational fear by shuffling across the room. Cue giggles and pointing. Eventually one of the students got up and shooed it away back out the window, and the giant flying insect incident was over.
Fortunately the students were very sympathetic and didn’t mock my ridiculous behaviour. Well, they probably did, but in their politeness they must have saved it for once I had departed. I was however reassured by my volunteer that she too had been struck by a similar fear, but was grateful that mine had stolen the embarrassment.
I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of my visits to the volunteers’ schools and sites. The opportunity to observe them teaching brought back a lot of great memories from my time as a volunteer teacher. It was also a reassuring and affirming experience, as I discovered that I could actually pass on some constructive advice to many of them. They’re a good bunch, and it was heartening to see how well they have settled and the hard work they are doing at their schools. As a volunteer you can never change the world, but as long as you give it your all and care about your work you can certainly make a positive impact.
Students in Bartica
The school campus, Bartica
Georgetown from the air
One of the volunteers with her students in Georgetown
Amid the confusion and excitement of another new country and adventure, the first thought to enter my mind as I made my way by taxi from the airport to my new home was, ‘boy, this place is relaxed.’ We passed house after house and each one appeared to share the same three prominent features; a front porch, a hammock strung up in said porch, and reclined in each hammock, a person.
For miles and miles this seemed to be the norm. The main road was lined with homes, similar in appearance; all charming wooden structures raised high off the ground to avoid potential flooding I presume. To the rear of the houses on one side of the road sat a wide body of water and behind the homes parallel to this there lay a vast blanket of green which stretched inland as far as the eye could see. In many ways this sums up Guyana.
A small splattering of settlements (the majority of which are very small) nestled deep among two significant natural features; forest and water (see photo below, taken from the plane on a recent trip to visit some of my volunteers).
On this particular July day it was misty, humid, and damp, and the behavior of the people I passed seemed to perfectly reflect the mood. Families and friends gathered on porches engaging in an activity I would soon learn to be known as ‘liming’.
To lime, as I understand it, is to generally get together and hang out. To gather, to watch the day go by, to take time out, to escape, ignore or share overarching stress or struggles, or to crucially devote a moment of the day or the week to enjoying life. I may well be over-thinking or dramatizing this pastime, but this is purely my own personal perception of something I have witnessed people partake in during my time here so far.
I’ve been based in Georgetown, Guyana for a period of almost five months now, but shamefully this is the first opportunity I’ve taken to sit down and attempt to describe this new location in words (ironically I’m doing this whilst sat at home in the UK having just arrived for Christmas).
Five months is a decent amount of time, but I have no doubt I’m approaching this update weighed down by the heavy burden of ignorance around my neck. When it comes to the exact dynamics and understandings of this place, I’m still very much a fresh bystander, so please don’t judge Guyana on my observations alone. However, the impression I’ve gained so far is that Guyana in general is a captivating blend of cultures and people, and Georgetown is a perfect microcosm.
Prior to my arrival I clung to the belief that with Guyana’s status as the sole English speaking enclave in the whole continent my successful transition would not be hindered by language barriers. I was wrong to an extent. At any point your ears can be exposed to Portuguese, Spanish, Creole, and even Chinese.
If you travel deeper into the interior regions you are also liable to hear any one of nine regional Amerindian dialects. Portuguese stems from the sizeable Brazilian population that has emerged in Guyana. This comes in the form of migrants who have settled here, or from workers travelling through on business, which in the majority of cases is due to a lucrative gold mining industry.
In Georgetown you see the Brazilian flag all over, and Brazilian bars swell the already congested nightlife. Neighbouring Venezuela is most likely responsible for the presence of Spanish, and Chinese seems to represent the new business investment transpiring at a noticeable pace, especially in Georgetown.
Officially I live in South America. There is no disputing the geographical fact. To the west you’ll find Venezuela, and to the south lays the giant of Brazil. Yet in Georgetown you can quite effortlessly forget this fact, despite the language variety I just touched upon. The music, the dialect, the food, and the approach to life; in so many instances it screams of the Caribbean. Again I’ve found this to be more the case in Georgetown, which is the hub of activity due to its position as both the main port and capital city.
In many ways Georgetown is an attractive city. Comprised predominantly of wooden structures, the old colonial buildings (built in large part by the Dutch) possess significant charm and character. A network of canals assists in the drainage of excess water. I often pause in appreciation of their splendor.
On occasions they send glistening channels of light through the heart of the city, as the setting sun dips and the overhanging trees create an intricate pattern on their surface. Some possess more charm than others however, and the aroma that drifts from one or two of them is questionable!
Georgetown used to be known as the ‘Garden City of the Caribbean’ and it’s easy to see why. There are a number of lush, green areas, attractive gardens, and the tree-lined canals pictured above. However, in recent years it’s apparent they’ve been neglected somewhat.
Just recently a taxi driver spent the entire journey bemoaning the state of the city he had known, but now seemed unable to recognize. He reminisced about the pride he once held, which has gradually eroded from bearing witness to a blatant disregard for what made Georgetown great in his eyes. He nodded his head to the left as we passed another area of litter collected in a ditch by the side of the road. Unfortunately this is not uncommon in many towns and cities across the globe. Nevertheless, my reassurances did little to appease his frustrations.
One green space though seems to be almost immune from the littering disease that has ravaged some parts of the city. The National Park is a beautiful open space that residents should be extremely proud of. During the day it comes alive as people fill the park and it becomes a real hive of activity, predominantly with runners, soccer players, and a women’s rugby team who I often see training there.
The same taxi driver also touched on another malady, which casts a cloud over his place of birth, and causes a different, but chronic pollutant in Georgetown. Crime and criminal activity have soared in recent times according to his observations.
I glance at the newspaper each day and unfortunately it often enforces what this man was telling me. Like any major city the world over, your safety is never guaranteed. Yet I genuinely think this may be the most dangerous place I’ve lived. This may surprise you, as it certainly surprises me. Maybe I’ve become paranoid from reading the newspaper too much, or perhaps the lack of familiarity has caused some personal self doubt.
However, the stories I’ve heard certainly don’t leave me short of evidence. People often assume that Rwanda was a treacherous place to live. History suggests this. Yet, it couldn’t be farther from the truth (in my experience). I would say that village life in Rwanda is the safest environment I’ve ever lived in. University life in Nottingham (once the gun capital of England) may run Georgetown close though.
There’s a burgeoning drug trade like many countries in this region, and as a result the associated crime drags close behind. There are the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, and the economic divide is glaring in some cases. You don’t walk the streets at night, and you don’t walk the streets on a Sunday as they’re practically deserted. If you do it’s at your own risk, especially if you’re a foreigner.
Yet, as is the case almost everywhere, we carry a brain in our heads, and if we engage this to its full capacity we can certainly avoid most unsavory situations. That doesn’t of course guarantee you full immunity from peril, as we also need to be in possession of a healthy dose of luck at most points in our lives. I try to be streetsmart and to respect the ways of this city, and keep my fingers crossed that my luck holds up. There’s common sense too, which is vastly underrated and often underused.
However, it seems to me that despite generally high crime rates, the majority of violent crime occurs between sources already known to each other. That is the victim and perpetrator are often previously connected, and for the most part you can exist harm-free on the periphery simply reading about the crimes as opposed to being involved.
Through my job I’ve been able to travel to some other places in Guyana, but I’ll touch on these another time. Despite the litter issues and the need for extra vigilance, I’m growing to appreciate my new home. It has been a gradual process as I enjoyed my time in Rwanda and Bangladesh so much.
Yet, Guyana and Georgetown are broadening my horizons even further and I try never to underestimate this fact. If you don’t learn and grow from new experiences there’s no point in embarking upon them, and I have no doubt this fresh location and new job is pushing me out of my comfort zone, which is scary yet very rewarding.