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Tuesday, 20 December 2011

BLOG UPDATE #3 November and the Three Month Mark

Last Friday, 25th November was our three month mark. I can’t believe a quarter of my time here in Paramakatoi has gone already. I expect they have gone a lot more quickly for me than for you. I have had an eventful month; incredible in many ways and obviously somewhat emotional but I am proud to say that there have been no breakdowns so far.
The last weekend in October a colleague of ours, Monroe, took Emily and myself down to Yahwong. This is a river that flows through the valley at Mountain Foot and a 1 hour walk away. We went to “topside”, i.e. the top of the falls. Since it had rained recently the water was flowing very fast and the falls were raging. It was truly awesome. We spent the entire day just bathing and climbing on the rocks. There was a particularly ferocious waterfall which made an arc from the rock it fell from, and it was possible to climb under this arc and just sit on the rock. I was unable to stay there for very long as it felt a little claustrophobic and my body decided it didn’t want to breathe in such a damp enclosed space. But it was really cool. The walk back up the mountain took about 3 hours. Monroe took us back up the road instead of the bush path (for a change of scenery, he claimed, though I believe he just didn’t have enough faith to believe we would make it back up the steep path) so it was longer and still fairly steep. When we reached about halfway the heavens opened and we were soaked through to the bone. It didn’t stop until we reached the top of the mountain again – just as we were entering PK again. It was my first outdoor experience of a rainforest downpour – and I enjoyed every minute of it.

The next weekend we celebrated Eid Al-Addha, the Islamic celebration of light. Fiza made us dinner, which was incredible: a Malaysian chicken dish made with hot pepper and turmeric, sticky rice (which she cooks to perfection), scrambled eggs and roasted peanuts. Candacie also made a type of bake with salted fish and a type of (very) hot pepper called spider monkey. This was also delicious, if a little too spicy for me. We had also decided to celebrate Bonfire Night, we had even considered the possibility of roasting marshmallows, but in the end we just burned the rubbish strewn outside the Guest House. At least it didn’t look like the Guest House was sitting on top of a rubbish tip afterwards.

Yes, we are, unfortunately, still living in the Guest House, after what will be 12 weeks on Friday 2nd December. There is some good news, though; Miss Norma, a villager who works for the Guyana Elections Committee, had asked her husband and her son-in-law to renovate a Peace Corps house for us. It belongs to the Ministry of Education so we are entitled to live there. Last weekend the guys finished the renovation and now all we need is for the R.Ed.O. in Mahdia to send us out some essentials. We have asked for a stove and gas, buckets (to fetch water – there are no taps), pots and other cooking utensils and a few other bits and pieces. We hope to have moved in by the end of the term, and definitely by the time you read this.
A few weeks ago we finally received a mailbag in Paramakatoi, nine weeks after we arrived. It was, for mw, an anti-climax, as the only letters I received were ones written to myself and Emily from Project Trust. I realise that I asked everyone to send letters to the flat in Campbellville, but it seems that Rishon (Kala’s daughter) is holding on to our letters there to give us at Christmas instead of sending them to us here. We have asked her to send them out so hopefully we will get them soon. Emily was lucky enough to receive some letters which had been sent directly to PK, so I suggest that from now on mail be sent directly to the first address I gave – in the first blog post.

So we are lucky enough to be in a part of Guyana which has strong influences from Brazil. They practice here a type of dancing called forro (pronounced fawhaw), and the parties consist mainly of this. They call the basic move a two-step, and the more complicated version a three-step, and it is usually a partner dance. Most people here are really good at it, and it is actually quite disturbing to see 8 year old boys dancing it, as it is somewhat sexual. So what usually happens when there is a party is that the hosts let someone know, and from there the word spreads like wildfire. Everyone is invited – from school children to grandparents – and basically is you hear about it, you can go. The more the merrier. Music is played from 6 or 7pm onwards, and it is then that people begin drinking. Wine is brewed locally by everyone – from tangerine to potato through every type of fruit that you can think of. They also drink cassiri, paracari and other fermented cassava drinks. Personally, I am not a big fan, but if you are offered a drink it is rude and nigh on impossible to refuse. Some of the wine we are offered is very nice, though. We would usually go to the party around 9pm since this is when everyone is drunk enough to start dancing. Within minutes men of all ages are asking us to dance. The conversations usually go something like this:
                “Miss, please for a dance.”
                “No, thank you.”
                “Why not, Miss?”
                “I don’t want to dance yet.”
                “Why not, Miss?”
                “I will dance later, but not yet.”
                “You know for dance?”
                “Yes, I know how to dance.”
                “Miss, I teach you.”
                “I know how to dance.”
                “You want some more wine, Miss?”
                “No, thank you, I just got this glass.”
                “I get you some wine, Miss.”
                “No, it’s ok, I’ll get some more later.”
                “Please dance with me, Miss.”
                “Just now. Come back and ask me again later.”
                “How long, Miss?”
                “I don’t know, just later.”
                “How long, Miss?”
                “About fifteen minutes.”
                “Ok, Miss. I come back.”
You get the drift. I must say, I don’t always say no, especially not if it’s someone I know, but at the beginning there are usually few people dancing and so everyone can see you dance. This is only a problem because “everyone” includes pupils, who take great pleasure in ridiculing us the next day, often about who you were dancing with and how happy you were about it. And those of you who know me well know how easily my face gets flushed, so playing it cool and remaining poker-faced is not an option. Needless to say the parties where there is little or no light tend to be the best ones, as we get no comments from pupils the concept of a weekend is somewhat overlooked here.

On Monday 28th November there was a general election here in Guyana. Every person who is allowed to vote is entitled to a ballot in their village, so about 100 people were brought to PK to be distributed by plane to the surrounding villages. I heard about one village where one man was able to vote, and because he had the right, just like everyone else, to a vote, the government spent half a million Guyana Dollars to bring the ballot to this village. It’s crazy. So anyway, during the past few weeks there have been several visits from political parties. The party in power last session gave a speech in the multi-purpose hall and apparently, forgetting that sarcasm is lost on the people of Paramakatoi, made a joke about changing Guyana to a communist country. The villagers were then too scared to vote for this party. But they won anyway. And the new President is allegedly only the new leader of the party because he can be controlled by the former President and leader, who was by law not allowed to stay in power for a third session, but clearly found a way to run the country from behind the scenes. Smooth. Elections have meant that the Guest House has been full up for the past two weeks and will be for the rest of this week. It has been difficult and exhausting, mentally and physically. We now have to queue to use the bathroom and kitchen in the morning, despite having a limited amount of time to get ready for school, which starts at 08:45. But it’s not all bad. We got the Monday off school since election day was declared a national holiday. So I enjoyed sleeping and lazing in the hot sun.

Monday was also our first day for a few weeks without electricity. On Sunday there was some sort of mini explosion or fire at the electricity pole and so on Monday and yesterday we’ve had no current. It does make a nice change falling asleep to a cacophony of snoring instead of the racket of some amateur action film at volume 100. Also, the iPod is temporarily broken, so it’s not like we need any electricity to charge anything. We are also running out of water as it hasn’t rained in over a week. You see, most guests fail to grasp the concept of water conservation since the majority of them come from Georgetown where there seems to be an abundance of running water. Some of the guests are really nice though. A man called Ewart from Kato comes to stay quite often and he is a very nice and intelligent man, so great to talk to; especially, he says, because we are the same age as his daughter, so he feels comfortable talking to us. There was also a “Brazilman” (as they call them here) who stayed for one night and couldn’t speak a word of English. He was still kind enough to try to converse with us and generous enough to give us a bottle of coke and a beer each, a lot of biscuits and some sweets before hitting the hay early, and leaving us with his phone to listen to Brazilian music. The fact that neither of us likes beer we have obviously entirely overlooked, since it’s the thought that counts. It’s visitors like this who we live for.

I am struggling to think of much else that has happened in the last few months. I am currently supervising my registration class whilst other classes do end of term tests. This class is doing a course called the Secondary Competency Certificate Program, which means they are in a lower class and get more class time to complete the syllabus. They are, therefore, given projects to complete instead of exams at the end of each term. Do the last couple of weeks have been jam-packed with work – trying to finish the termly scheme on time. I have not completed all the work I was supposed to this term with my classes. Luckily I had to write my own end of term exams so I was able to tailor it to what work we had actually done. So yeah, I am trying to keep an eye on forty 14-17 year olds right now. They are a bit of a handful but I love them.

So for now it is time for me to go. I will update the blog again at the end of next month, hopefully from Georgetown and hopefully with some pictures of our new house. Fingers crossed.

Another Merry Christmas to you all and lots of happy thoughts for next year,
All my love,

Antje xxx


Hello everyone,

The order of these updates might change a little but I just need to say, all mail that was sent to Georgetown I didn't actually receive until now (I'm back in Georgetown now), so I would like to ask you all to send everything to PK from now on. Sorry to change it again. It just means I get it sooner and that I can reply sooner as well. Thank you. The address is in the first blog post. Antje Kremer, Paramakatoi Secondary School, Paramakatoi, etc.

Love, Antje x

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Blog Update 2# - October 29th 2011

I apologise for the lateness of this update.  I had hoped to send another before the end of October, but time flies and you lose track quite easily here.

The last month has been incredible.  Teaching has become easier, we’ve managed to get some beef, we’ve made our first friend, and we’re really getting used to the way of life here.  The only let-downs have been the lack of a house (still) and the fact that there hasn’t been a mailbag since we’ve arrived.  But these are in my opinion minor problems, and only make me worry a little.

The other week, we heard that someone had slaughtered a cow.  So straight after school, Lisa and I went down to one of the market places.  We were faced with the sight of sides and legs of a cow strung up and some pieces lying on a table.  It was exactly how I imagined it would be.  We asked for two pounds each, and received them in two big chunks of meat and bone.  G$1,000 for 2 pounds.  That’s about £1.60 for a pound of beef.  It was incredible.  We made a beef and potato curry, and chili con carne.  This was dinner and lunch for three days, I think.  Our other meals often involve balle, which we have with scrambled eggs for breakfast or lunch, or with soup for dinner; porridge or pancakes for breakfast; mainly some sort of curry for dinner; and a lot of fruit in between – it’s currently banana and orange season, and we’re still getting some tangerines, though they are now out of season.

There are a few teachers who we don’t talk to much, but the majority of them we get on really well with.  We often play Scrabble with La Cruiz and Fiza.  Obviously Liza and Fiza (World Teach) are friends of ours, and sometimes it’s really nice to stay up talking to them, and Candy, who is also becoming a good friend.  The other teachers we get on well with in school, but few of them really talk to us outwith school, apart from Val-ann, Marcie and Monroe.  Val-ann gave us some tangerines from one of her many tangerine-trees, and is a very lovely person through and through.  Her mother is also incredibly warm-hearted and kind.  Monroe is a funny guy.  We’ve recently discovered that basically everything he says is a joke, and since then we understand him a lot better.

Last weekend, he took us down to Jahwong topside, which is a waterfall; the topside means we were at the 
top of the falls, as opposed to the bottom side which is where Mr Simon takes us.  It was really cool, especially since it had rained a lot so the river was full and roaring.  It also rained on our way back up the mountain.  I’m not talking about rain like it is at home though – this was torrential rainforest rain.  It took half of the road with it and soaked us to the bone.  It was amazing.  Monroe has also offered to get rid of the mouse that has taken residence in our house, which has chewed some of our flour-bags.  So we’ve managed to make some friends, which is great.

Washing cooking and keeping track of water/fetching water are part of our life now.  It’s funny how quickly necessities become regularities.  I don’t even notice anymore when something needs to be done, I just get on with it.  So it is the last week of October, and we are unfortunately still in the guesthouse.

Since Ms Lewis arrived, she has managed to get very little done.  The REDO visited the village for an hour (!) one Sunday and took a look at a Ministry of Education house which the DEO was hoping to let us stay in.  She made a list of everything which needs to be done to the building to make it habitable, and it was a long one; then she asked the REXO whether the Ministry could fund it.  What Ms Lewis has not managed to gather up the courage to tell us yet is that he didn’t say they would.  The REXO is apparently coming to check it out himself, but even Ms Lewis doesn’t know when that will be, so it could easily be next year before he comes.  So in the meantime, a woman from the Guyana Elections Committee in PK has said she will try to phone the REXO herself to see if he can approve of her son renovating it already.  It has reminded us once more of the immense kindness and generosity of the people here.  We couldn’t believe it when she offered us this.  So for now we are in the guesthouse.  Still.

Last night was the first night we’ve been alone in the guesthouse for about a month.  It was really nice to be able to cook our dinner in peace, and not get told we were doing it wrong.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the guests – they’ve corrected our cooking a great deal, be it with or without our appreciation at the time.  I’ve been able to perfect my balle, a type of deep-fried bread roll – believe me, it’s delicious – and my chicken curry.  Emily has taught me how to make delicious rice, and we are getting better at roti, an Indian bread you eat with curry.  Needless to say feeding ourselves hasn’t been as big an issue as we first anticipated, and I actually quite enjoy the regularity of cooking every night, though Emily seems to have taken over cooking dinner for the time being.

So, living with somebody new in a new country has been quite challenging.  So far we haven’t fallen out, but we obviously have disagreements.  I’ve never before realised how pernickety I am about the way I live and how I like things done.  I have been brought up to hate wastefulness, and therefore have become extremely efficient.  I make only as much water as is needed for tea, use only as many candles as will let me see what I am writing, put only as much food on my plate as I know I will eat, etcetera, etcetera.

I didn’t know though just how much it really bothers me when people aren’t the same.  Needless to say I have become somewhat more tolerant.  I am also very, very British in that I accept things as they are instead of fighting for something for fear of causing a fuss.  I believe I can fight for things when they mean a lot to me, but it seems I am also very apathetic when it comes to things which don’t bother me, but bother people around me – an example being the housing situation.  I’m not really as bothered about it as I maybe should be, and definitely not as much as Emily.  A few other home truths have been made apparent to me too, but I won’t bore you with the details.

Since my last blog update, there have been few other developments.  Shortly after I sent it, I went to Kato – a three-hour walk away – for the inter-schools sports competition.  This was a lot of fun; though it was cold at night – we stayed for three nights – it’s strange how quickly you can get used to something.  On our return, we had to finally get used to teaching properly – without interruptions from sports practise.  I was still struggling with one of my classes, until recently.  I told Mr Simon about their lack of respect, because I literally managed to teach them about one lesson’s worth of work in one week, and instead of confronting the problem, he told me that he would teach them instead!  This was not what I expected or wanted, but he insisted.  It turns out that now he’s given the class, along with another of my classes, to a volunteer teacher.  I did ask him about this, but he then told me that they would soon be changing the timetable because it was badly done, so we’ll see what happens.  I do like Mr Simon, so I’m not angry with him.  I just think his disciplinary actions leave a lot to be desired.  So now teaching is a lot easier – I teach the top three classes in grade 9, so I basically teach the same lesson three times.  I only have 15 out of 40 lessons a week though, so I don’t think it’s very good use of my time or the Ministry’s money.  As I say, we’ll see what happens when they change the timetable.

I’m sorry for not replying to any letters – I have not received anything.  Sammy is in town now so he might bring back a mailbag, or go to the post office, to tell them to send one out.  I can’t wait for the mailbag to finally arrive, and hopefully with some letters for me.  The only contact I have had with home apart from my sending letters was October 13th, when we managed to get to Kurukabaru, a village two hours away on a quad, and use the priest’s internet to start university applications.  I sent an email to my parents and my brother.  I didn’t have enough time to update my blog as well, otherwise I would have done.  I think we are going back soon to complete our applications so I’ll try to find the time to write an update then, although I might get there before this has reached my parents.

I hope you are all well and that uni, school and work are still good and exciting.  Please don’t let my lack of mail deter you from writing to me; I will appreciate a letter no matter how late it arrives.

Thank you for reading and much love to everyone,

Antje xxx

P.S. Merry Christmas everyone!! And best of luck for the New Year!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Blog Update #1 “Welcome to Paramakatoi! That mountain over there is called Kawa.”

I am writing this from a country called Guyana (South America; not Africa), from Region 8, in a town called Paramakatoi which lies on a clearing in the rainforest, after a long day sitting in the boiling sun…  In (what I’d love to say is my new home)… the Paramakatoi Guest House.  Confused?  So am I.  Let me start from the beginning.

We left Georgetown luxuries and Kala behind on a four-seater plane.  “The Ogle” is a small airport in Georgetown where most flights to interior leave from.  It’s seriously tiny and has little security. 

 The pilot basically came to the waiting area and says, “Miss Emily and Miss…… to Paramakatoi?”, so Emily and I followed him to the plane.  They didn’t ask my name again, so I just left them to wonder how it’s pronounced.  I do find here people struggle just as much with my name as they do in Scotland, the only difference being that here they don’t ask more than once. So anyway, we followed the pilot to the plane – on the way our bags were casually searched, and we were asked if we had any sharp objects, which of course we didn’t.  The plane was a tiny wee thing: as I say, four seats.  It had two little engines on the wings, and that was about all there was room for!  Our bags and food boxes came to a total of 451 pounds, which was of course too much for the plane.

So seven boxes and the majority of our toilet roll will be sent out on 25th September.  To get the boxes sent out to us, we had to pay a total of G$33,000, which is roughly £110.  We did expect to pay more than this, so we were pleasantly surprised.

So we took off within ten minutes of getting on the plane – the biggest delay was simply waiting for the co-pilot to turn up.  The engines were extremely loud, and therefore made any lengthy conversation impossible, but I’m fairly sure my face conveyed my excitement perfectly.  We took about ten minutes to reach 6,500 feet (sitting right behind the pilot, I could see all the dials and meters), so we were able to see a lot of Georgetown quite clearly.  It was amazing.  We then flew on, over the Demerara River (for those of you who don’t know, the Demerara River flows through the part of Guyana where Demerara sugar originates, hence the name of the sugar); over countless more rivers; all the while, we could see the landscape turning from savannah to mountainous rainforest.  It was really very spectacular.  Needless to say, I now know why Guyana is called The Land of many Waters – there are rivers everywhere!  Seeing them from above also made me appreciate how very untouched Guyana is: the rivers twist and turn with the land and the only man-made things within miles of them are small wooden houses sprinkled along their shores.

The pilot also took us over Kaieteur Falls – spectacular also to see them, but it just made me more excited to visit them.

We then flew deeper into the mountains and over a village called Chenapau where two Project Trust volunteers, Mike and Ryan, were flying to on the same day.  We saw Paramakatoi soon after the pilot began descending; it really is just placed on top of a mountain – it’s quite big though, even from the air.  Shortly before we landed, the pilot turned around and asked, “you want to free-fall?” and didn’t wait for an answer but just did it anyway.  I think he must have seen my face light up and assumed (correctly) that we did.  Emily isn’t the best at flying, so she wasn’t too pleased, but it was fantastic!  The airstrip is literally just a bit of road, just long enough and no longer, so the landing was exciting, if a little nerve-wracking.  When we got off the plane, we were greeted by four women and Nurse Wall – a missionary who usually looks after Project Trust volunteers.  She told us she was actually just leaving until December, but that we would enjoy Paramakatoi, and that she would be happy to help us when she returned.  We were also met by Mr Dublin, the Deputy Regional Education Officer (REDO), who asked a few boys from the school to help us carry our things up to our house.  They were about twelve, but stronger than us by a lot.  We followed them up the hill with a few of the women (or “Aunties”, as middle-aged women are called; older women are all “Granny” or the Patamona equivalent), who helped us carry our rucksacks.  We watched the boys walk up, past the house which we thought was ours (we’ve seen pictures, and it’s one of the only houses in the village that has stilts) and stop at a big house on top of the hill.  When we got there, we were faced with this:

Surprised as we were, Mr Dublin was very comforting.  He told us that there wasn’t enough Ministry of Education housing for all the teachers, so we would be in the guest house until they find a free house, which has turned out to be indefinitely, because there isn’t actually a spare house.  We’ve been told in the meantime we are welcome to have meals at the dormitories, until our food-boxes arrive.  Also, this week we’ve been told that there is a doctor’s house which is free because the doctor never stays more than a few nights, so we’re trying to get permission from the Regional Health Officer (RHO) to stay there.  Hopefully by the time I next update my blog, we will have sorted something out.

Anyway, we spent Friday lying in out hammocks on the front porch, and also wandering around the village meeting people and finding our bearings.  We lost count of the amount of times people said to us, “welcome to Paramakatoi.  We hope you enjoy it here.  You see that mountain?  That mountain is Kawa.  Kawa Mountain.”  But everyone is really lovely and welcoming.  We also bumped into Mr Harold Simon, the acting headmaster since the previous headmistress was let go; the region have not actually replaced her.  He is a lovely, adorable little man, and it was a bit of a relief to know that our headmaster was extremely easy to get on with.  We went to visit the two World Teach volunteers, Hafizah (Fiza) and Lisa, who are incidentally staying in the house that the Project Trust volunteers usually occupy.  There is another teacher staying in the adjoining house where we thought the World Teach volunteers would be staying.  Her name is Candacie (Candy) and she is lovely, and a very good teacher.  She’s here until the end of this year, and the she will be returning to Georgetown to do her teaching degree.  We all get on really well, and there are definitely no hard feelings between us.

On Saturday morning, we went with Mr Simon, Fiza and Lisa to Mr Simon’s farm which is at Mountain Foot.  It is about a 45 minute walk, although I think we maybe took a little longer.  The journey is entirely downhill after the first ten minutes.  It was difficult mainly because Emily and I had not had time to have breakfast or go down to the spring to get water.  Basically, Fiza turned up at eight and said “are you ready?” and we didn’t have a clue what she was talking about!  So we grabbed our bags, swimsuits and towels and headed down the mountain.  The view was stunning, and we passed farm after farm of tangerine trees, mango trees, cassava plants, pumpkin plants, watermelon plants, and the list goes on.  We were given a pumpkin and a cabbage between the two of us (Emily and myself).  After going to the farm, Mr Simon took us down to a creek, which was amazing.  The water was so clear and cool, we swam for hours.  It was such a relief to get out of the hot sun.

We walked back up the mountain around 2pm, after a lunch of fresh cassava bread and stewed bush-cow (tapir meat).  It was delicious.  The walk back up was difficult to say the least, and the heat of the sun made it exhausting.  We’re hoping to go down there quite regularly because it was so lovely, and the walk back up the hill can only get easier!

So on the first day of school, the pupils were all asked to weed the track for the inter-house sports.  They used cutlasses, so it took the whole morning.  We then had the afternoon off, which meant we had time to begin our lesson plans.  The next day was surprising in many ways.  The biggest shock was that the children do not know some basic things which should have been taught in previous years.  I teach grade nine maths, which is the equivalent of second year maths in Scotland.  The year is split into 9A and 9B classes; the A classes will be sitting their CXC exams at the end of grade II, the B classes are the ones who will not manage because they are either badly behaved or are not bright enough.  The A classes, however, struggle to multiply by any numbers bigger than ten, even 100.  The B classes are extremely difficult to control, and there is even one child in one class who doesn’t speak English, only Patamona, even though the language used in school is English.

In the meantime, I am beginning to get the hang of teaching, and understanding the accent also.  We’ve made a few friends in the village, mainly teachers and the cooks in the dormitories.  Our neighbour, Mr Winston Williams – the medic – is also extremely nice.  Some evenings we go down to the airstrip and just sit and watch the lightning or look at the stars.  There is lightning every night, all around the mountains; it lights up the clouds, and most of the sky on the horizon.  I’m sorry but I really can’t capture that on camera.
Apart from that, I don’t think there’s much to tell!  This is really a beautiful place, and I feel very at home.  It does get quite hot during the day, but it cools down at night.  It rains sometimes, maybe a couple of times a week, but that’s nice.  The only thing which is bothering us, of course, is the lack of a house, but we’re definitely happy here – everyone is very wary of the fact that the last Project Trust volunteers left after a week – we keep having to reassure people that we really are here for the year!

So anyway, now I have to go, I really need to send this letter today as the mail is only sent once a week.

Thank you for reading, all the best to everyone.  I hope you are all well and that those of you in uni are settling in alright.

All my love, Antje xxx