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Wednesday, 15 May 2013

July and an Update from St Andrews

I began writing this in August and have just realised that I never finished it. How terrible! I'm very sorry. As a way of an apology I will also write a few words about how much the trip has influenced my life now.

It's August now and I decided to write about the whole of July as opposed to just the two weeks I had in Guyana. This is partly because of a lot of thoughts that have been going through my mind in the last fortnight.

During the last week of school, as I said, the Grade Nines were sitting their National Exams. Monday was a holiday, so on Tuesday they sat their Maths exam. I saw the paper and it looked promising - most of the questions were about things we'd spent a lot of time on. I asked a few students how they think they got on - they mostly said it was easy and they thought they had passed, so that's a good sign. If I'm brutally honest, I'd just like to point out that it isn't very likely this many people have passed, as they say that after every exam.

During this week we had very few of the other students in classes, and unfortunately as teachers we were encouraged to tell the students to go home. As I was somewhat unwilling to do this, I wanted to give a few of them games to play some of the time, but there is very little in the school to give them. Emily and I did manage to do some activities with my Grade 10 class and this seemed to go down very well. We split them up into three groups and gave them activities to do. The most popular was a game where students have to make it across the classroom without touching the floor using only two chairs for each group of 8. They really enjoyed playing this and, though it did take them some time, they stuck with it and completed it. I was having fun even watching them, and there were students lined up around the outside windows just watching and laughing with us, which was a lovely sight.

On the night of Friday 6th we had a leaving party for myself, Emily, Fiza, Lisa and Candacie. There were quite a lot of people there, and it was great to say goodbye to people we had known for the majority of the year. That was the last time I danced forrรณ in Paramakatoi - I'm already missing it so much!

After this I spent the week visiting people, saying goodbye and drinking an awful lot of cassiri. The day before I left, Emily had organised dinner for me at our friend Monroe's. We decided to have a fire and roast chicken over it, and he is better at setting fires than us, so we agreed to have it there. In the end it was Monroe, Candacie, Emily and myself, each of us bringing something to eat. Emily also surprised me with an early birthday/leaving cake which was delicious!

It was Friday 13th that I eventually left Paramakatoi. It was very sudden - what had happened was a misunderstanding which meant I thought the flight had been paid for, but when I went up in the morning to check it hadn't. I therefore got money and went to pay for the flight and my weight, when the plane arrived before I was ready. I had to ask Emily to collect my hand luggage and the pilot waited for me while I paid. I said a hurried goodbye to those who had come to see me off, and then got into the plane. I can still picture Paramakatoi the way I left it on that plane. The Pakaraima mountains were so beautiful, though, and I was immediately distracted by the views I was seeing on the way to Monkey Mountain, that I didn't really think about the fact that I had left my home of eleven months potentially forever. I say this - I absolutely plan to go back, but who knows where I'll be in four or even two years' time.

After leaving Paramakatoi, the plane landed in Monkey Mountain, then flew to Mahdia, the capital of Region 8. In the end we were there for about five hours whilst the planes were doing shuttles in and out of villages in the region, and I eventually reached Georgetown around 6pm. I took a taxi to the flat to find some of the other volunteers already there. Many of them were planning to go travelling around the Caribbean or South America, or even just within Guyana itself.

Though I considered travelling with some of the other volunteers (since Emily had decided to remain in Paramakatoi until mid-August), I had a lot of trouble communicating with them whilst I was in Paramakatoi and therefore couldn't organise anything, and I wasn't really interested in being a tourist at that time. In the end I went home on the 17th of July, a month before I had originally planned to leave. It meant that I was going home alone, but my reasoning was that it meant I would have time to work and gather some money together for University, as my parents were sort of freaking out about the financial implications of that decision.

So I was brought to the airport by Kala's daughter Rishon and two of the other volunteers. My bag weighed under 23kg despite the plastic bag of farine and three hammocks I'd squeezed into my luggage. After a short wait in Cheddi Jagan Airport in Georgetown I flew to Barbados again, where I had a five hour wait for the next flight. Exhausted as I was, I ended up lying on top of my bags and drifting in and out of sleep for that time. I then got the plane to London and from there up to Inverness. The amount of thoughts rushing through my mind on arrival were too many for me to tell you about, and quite honestly too much for me to even remember. I recall Project Trust telling us on training that reverse culture shock was something we would be likely to experience, and that pretty much sums up how I felt.

What I do remember is the warmth and gratitude I felt towards my friends who had come to meet me in Inverness airport. They brought me biscuits and fresh strawberries. Strawberries had never tasted that good before in my life, and I doubt they ever will again. My parents were obviously there, too, and it was lovely seeing them. A year of not living with them and just experiencing their kindest of sides through their parcels and letters did wonders for our relationship.

I went home and unpacked and passed on my gift of a hammock to the family and that was the end of that. The parenthesis ended and I continued with my life.

As if.

I have now been back in Scotland for 10 months. I would be lying if I said I didn't compare my life here to that in Guyana on a daily basis. I am always surprised to discover that there are people who don't know that I spent a year of my life living in Guyana. I guess I have finally passed the annoying, “Well, when I was in Guyana...” stage, though I am sure there are people who would debate that claim.

I cannot count the ways in which my experiences in Guyana have changed my life. I remember being told recently that there are some languages in which the conditional case doesn't exist, that is, they do not describe how things could have been, would have been, might have been or any other alternative path, but they only say what was, what is and what will be. It made me value acceptance and progression a lot more, and consequently I have since tried not to wonder where I would be if I hadn't gone to Guyana, though there are a few obvious changes.

For one, I had no intention of going into University. My aim was to do some sort of technical theatre or similar in college and then get into the music industry - I still have the personal statement that I would have put on my UCAS application had I not made the decision to take a year out. The University application I made in Guyana was a decision I arrived at sort of half-heartedly at the time, thinking that I would like to have something to go back to if I chose to follow that path. However, as I chatted to the other volunteers and teachers I realised how fortunate we are in this country, and it became my intention to make the most of it.

In Scotland, education is free and of an excellent quality up until the end of your first degree. In Guyana, the students I taught would have to pay to attend a college if they wanted to complete A-levels, and also because of the distance these colleges are from their homes, they would have to pay to move into a flat in the capital, too. Never mind the fact that the Primary and Secondary teaching they received until this point was not at an appropriate level, on top of that, if they went into University achieving A-levels, any degree that they would graduate with would only be valid within the Caribbean. When you graduate from a Scottish University you are given a qualification that is recognised and valued across the world. What sort of a fool would I be to disregard an opportunity like that?

Hence, I applied to study Physics, and was accepted into the University of St Andrews, where I am now, 15 months later, sitting my second set of exams.

In a way my experience in Guyana has somewhat hindered my capacity to work. I left school very much a product of our education system: capable of sitting and passing exams in Sciences and Languages; a memory conditioned to remember formulae and rules that could be applied to these subjects; and terrified of failure and the shame of not living up to expectations. I returned from Guyana with my English vocabulary (never mind that of my other mother tongue) considerably depleted, my mind struggling to recall those things I had learnt in my fifth and sixth years of secondary school and my head filled with questions: “what even is the point in all this?”, “why do we live like this when there is a much simpler way of life?”, “do I even want to have a graduate career?”, amongst many others.

The ways in which that year has benefited my education, though, far outweigh these. I have developed an appreciation for the standard of education we receive in Scottish Universities, at no direct cost to us, as students. I have learned to work hard and do the best I can and not just make do with “scraping by”, as I had been doing in school. As a teacher, there is nothing more frustrating than watching a bright student fail put in effort to achieve what they are capable of and, as a result, fall behind. The students you gain more respect for are those who put in the work, regardless of their ability. I have developed an enthusiasm for life and people that I wouldn't have had otherwise, and the lack of which could easily have been my downfall in future, more difficult years of my degree. I have matured, become comfortable in my skin, learned to be apathetic to others' perceptions of me, gained the ability to relax, learned to accept others as they choose to be, learned that it is OK to be selfish sometimes and formed my own perceptions of true friendship. I have learned so much more than that, but there is a brief summary.

And it is as a result of all these things that I am where I am now. I feel that I have managed to end up in a stable, safe position after all of that. I know people who have dropped out of University, I know others who have returned to their Project to live for a while longer and I have seen people who have slipped right back into the routine of their old lives as if they had never left. I feel that I have achieved a happy medium. I am on the path to a potentially successful future, in terms of a career, should I choose to pursue it, and in terms of my life's ambition. For the time being, I want to experience new things and meet more people from different cultures and learn about other lifestyles. And I am happy to continue on with my life creating opportunities to do that.

A returned volunteer was quoted in one of the Project Trust booklets saying, “My Project Trust gap year has made me want to do something extraordinary every year. I never want to let a year go by without being able to look back and say, 'Wow, that was a good one!'” and I agree with her completely. Though I may feel a little tied down to University and St Andrews, that does not mean that I have to feel suffocated. In the past months I have made some great friends, some excellent revelations about what I want out of life and some exciting plans for a summer travelling in France and Germany, not to mention a years worth of studying. This trip has been the nudge I needed to get some momentum and animation into my life, for which I am now excited and motivated as ever.

If you need motivation to make your life more exciting, you will not regret something like this. Though essentially you may not want to be a teacher at the end of it (I don't), or even whatever else you volunteer as, the experience counts for much more than that realisation. My advice to anyone considering something similar is simply this: do it. I have been told so many times that in life we regret the things that we don't do, not the things we do. I truly believe this, and the sooner you get out of your comfort zone, the more alive your existence will become.

If you have read this and kept up with my blog until now, thank you. I hope you have gained something out of it, too. If you take nothing from it, I'm going to leave you with this from Steve Jobs:

“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Kind regards and best of luck for the future,
Tug of War in the beautiful Paramakatoi. Credit: Lisa Jardeleza

Saturday, 21 July 2012


The second last month of my stay in Paramakatoi has been a busy one. Towards the end of the month I had quite a few people beginning to say goodbye to me, in my opinion a little prematurely but, if I'm honest, I might not see some of them before I leave.

On the 5th of June we had a potluck dinner for Fiza's birthday. This is where the guests bring different dishes and share it with everyone else, so there is always plenty to eat. I think Fiza had intended for us to bring something from our country, so Emily a Scottish dish, Candacie something Guyanese, but because of the lack of ingredients it was difficult to do this. In the end we had shrimp cook up, salted fish, deer tuma, cassava bread, garlic bread, a chicken dish from the Philippines, some Malaysian chicken and German chocolate cake for dessert. Apart from myself and Fiza, the guests were Emily, Lisa, Candacie, Leon (a teacher) and some friends from the village: Vashti, China Doll and Mr Dublin (not the Education Officer, another Mr Dublin). At the weekend we also had a party in the village so that more people could come. It was really enjoyable, there was a lot of dancing, and plenty people because Fiza had made some cake.

The Grade Eleven CXC exams finished on Monday 11th June. That evening the matron of the dormitories had organised a graduation ceremony for the students who had been staying there. Candacie, Fiza, Lisa, Emily and I were invited to attend and we decided it would be a nice opportunity to dress up a bit.

Lisa, Fiza, Antje, Emily, Candacie

When we arrived the generator wasn't working and the dining hall was lit with candles, but after ten minutes the generator was fixed and we were all ushered inside. The fifty-something graduating students were the last to enter. The boys were all dressed in smart black trousers, white shirts, smart black shoes and bow ties. The girls were wearing black skirts, white blouses, and black high heeled shoes. They all looked very smart. I won't recite the whole ceremony but there were a few main parts which stick out in my memory. There was one item which involved a group of younger students holding up the names of each of the graduating students on a sign, and reading out short descriptions of them beginning with their initials. It was very nice, though Guyanese tend to be very honest and blunt so some of the students were a little offended by what was said about them. Another item involved only the students who are an active part of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, who were about half of the group. They were each given a new candle and the pastor, Father Balkarran, held a lit candle. The students sang a song as one by one the Grade Eleven students walked up to the pastor and lit their own candles, then lined up along the edge of the stage area. It was very pretty, although I fear the other students did feel excluded. At the end of the ceremony we were given some cook up, cake and drinks, while the teachers with cameras took photos of the Grade Elevens. It was a fairly well organised evening, for Guyana, but it still lacked the structure and fluidity that we would normally expect in an event like this.

Emily and I had been told that on the 17th of June (father's day) there would be a wedding, but instead there was a feast for the fathers, so the wedding was the next day. After school finished we went straight home to get changed and then to the church. The couple getting married looked very unhappy to be there, but when it came to the kiss, they got a bit carried away and started kissing each other all over the neck so they definitely wanted to get married. At the same time as the wedding there was also a games day for father's day at the playing field, so we went there for twenty minutes before going to the reception. At least half of the village was there watching the eating competition, the needle and thread race and other contests. As we left they were asking around for a bow and arrow for the shooting competition – we learnt afterwards that Leon had won it and received a large chicken as a prize. Anyway, we then walked the ten minutes to the groom's house and met the new Mrs Sandwell, who was from another village.

Antje, Emily, Hyacinth Sandwell, Fiza

They were serving cook up and chow mein out of big round pots and there was some tuma at the side, too.

I ate some cook up, not realising that there were pieces of pepper in it, and put a big piece into my mouth. I ended up feeling very sick from it, and trying to drink cassiri to cool my mouth – it wasn't until a few days later that somebody told me cassiri only makes it worse! It was very tasty though.

On Sunday 25th of June the National Grade Nine exam papers were supposed to arrive. On Friday 29th of June they finally arrived. The students in the dormitories had to stay there for a week more than they expected, despite the serious food shortages which the dormitories were facing. Both of these things were supposed to come on a plane from Mahdia. At one point the Community Teachers Association had to make donations to buy a bag of rice to feed the students. I will not begin to explain how frustrating this whole affair was.

Apart from the above we spent a lot of time visiting people. The village was muddy and wet a lot of the time but whenever the weather allowed it we went to see a lot of the friends we had made throughout the year. I have enjoyed the month a lot more than many of the others – even more! I feel like I am finally getting close to a lot of the villagers and I am beginning to feel sad about leaving so soon. Anyway, I'll leave it for this month.

All the best and thanks for reading once again,

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

# 9 - Exams

Hello everyone!

May is the exam month for everyone - in Guyana too, though not for everybody. I know a lot of you reading this will just have been finishing your exams as I am writing it. Hope you have all done well.

Here we have CXC CSECs. These are pretty much the equivalent of SQA Intermediate 2. It's the same age of pupils as for those exams, too. I didn't teach any of them, but it does disrupt the school a lot. On days when compulsory subjects are written, namely Maths, English, Social Studies and Integrated Science, the school is closed to students. We teachers are left to attend school despite the lack of students, which doesn't appear to make sense. If you consider, however, that the school has neither a (working) computer nor a (working) printer/photocopier, you will be able to appreciate how much paperwork has to be done by hand. Needless to say, it's time well spent.

Unfortunately, the National Grade 9 Exams are also fast approaching: Maths is on the 25th June. For the last three weeks in May and the following four weeks of June this means hard work. I am having two hours  worth of extra lessons three days a week to finish the syllabus. I am also planning to organize a mock exam for Friday, 15th June, just to shock the students and to encourage them to revise properly.

The exams are the main focus of May and June, but as it's coming up to the end of term, and thus to the end of the year, I have been trying to do as much as I can out of school. Emily and I have been spending a lot of weekends visiting people. In the first week in May we were invited to eat tuma with a villager called Miss Julinda.
Tuma is a type of stew, often with eddo leaf or some other sort of greens, most commonly made with meat, but sometimes with fish. A lot of people also like to put hot chili peppers into it, too. When we went to eat tuma at Julinda's, it was plain (so not hot) but it was made with meat from a deer which her nephew, Leon, a teacher at the school, had shot a few days ago. It was delicious. We were given cassava bread and some cassiri (the drink) to have with it, and we talked at lot to Julinda, her children and her nieces. After the meal we played some games with them. One game involved throwing a small hoop made of grass over a stick standing in the ground. The aim was to get the hoop around the stick and gain a sweet. Another game is called "dog and bone": players are split into two teams which then stand equal distances from the "bone" (we used a stick, but anything will do). The players are numbered and everyone has a partner with the same number as them on the opposite team. When a number is called, the two players with that number run to the middle and try to get the bone first, however once they have the bone, the other player can tag them and they have to give it up again. What usually happens if two experienced players are competing is, they run to the middle and sort of sparr until one player is quick enough to snatch the bone and escape to their team. Julinda always gave the winner a sweet, too. There were more than these two games, but I won't name them all. It was a very enjoyable afternoon.

On the 25th of May, Ryan, a volunteer from Chenapou, came to visit us. He had walked for ten hours through muddy paths and was very tired on arrival, so we let him sleep. The next day was a Saturday, so we took him to see the rest of Paramakatoi. We visited many people and drank a lot of cassiri, and in the end we spent all day out in the village. The 26th of May is Independence Day in Guyana, so there was a party in the evening at Vashti's shop. Ryan was obviously ambushed immediately by everyone, especially by some of the older women. The party went on until early in the morning and all the time music was playing and people were dancing forro and soca. It's difficult to describe the atmosphere of one of these parties, but it isn't like parties in Scotland. I want to say that the parties here are much less civilised, but this may be taken as a negative thing, which it absolutely isn't. I suppose a good description would be to say it's simpler. The host makes the tonic, sometimes cari or cassiri too, and that is what everyone drinks. Apart from that, music is played, people dance and people talk. But mainly people dance. And that is all. It is such a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere that you can't help but enjoy yourself. And it's nearly always dark, bar one small chink of light, which is great because you don't feel like everyone's watching you, and it contributes to the relaxed atmosphere. The dancing is something I'm going to miss a lot, because I am probably not going to find anywhere to dance forro back home.

Ryan left again on Tuesday morning, to walk back to Chenapou. Apart from that not much happened this month. Obviously a big part of it is the realisation that now it's June, I'm coming home really soon and that though I'm excited about returning home, I will be sad to leave Paramakatoi.

All the best to everyone. Thanks once again for taking the time to read this,

                                             Antje xxx