Christmas time here in Guyana, and I’ve got to say that the combo of trees, tinsel and temperatures the sunny side of 30° is truly bizarre! I’ve just written and sent a huge email to the subscribers of my mailing list, so instead of typing it all up again, I’m just going to copy/paste the email below…
(That means if you’re on my mailing list then you don’t need to read this post… and if you’re not on my mailing list, you need to add yourself!)
“Christmas greetings from the sunny shores of Guyana!
As I look back I realise it’s been more than a month – a whole thirty-something days – since I last emailed my loyal subscribers. However must have you managed without your regular dose of news from your beloved volunteer teacher? No doubt some of you have lost all hope in life, following the absence of my emails – fear not, dear reader, I am back!
(Make sure you’re sitting comfortably, this is a long one! Actually, you might want to go and grab a cup of tea before you start reading. And maybe a couple of HobNobs…)
So, where do we stand right now? I am a couple of days into the Christmas holiday, having finished the first term back on the 14th of December. The majority of the 22 volunteers in Guyana will be scurrying off to Tobago in a few days time (myself included) to soak up the sun, sand and sea for a whole week – we are very excited! After that we’re back in Guyana for a day or two before doing something for New Year… we don’t really know what yet. We might be going to Suriname, maybe Dadanowa, maybe somewhere completely different!
If it sounds like all I’m doing out here is relaxing and partying, well… for the next couple of weeks, that’s more or less the plan! But I feel it is well-deserved – I have spent the last 15 weeks working hard, teaching at Sand Creek Secondary School in Region 9. At 15 weeks the Christmas term is the longest stint of work, and it genuinely is hard work. So, with a whole term under my metaphorical belt, I feel in a good position to sum up my impressions on teaching so far…
I love it.
No, honestly, I do. As several of you will know I am considering teaching for a career after I finish university back in the UK. My time (short as it may be) in the profession so far has done absolutely nothing to dissuade me from this idea, and in fact has made me keener than ever to look at qualifying as a teacher back home.
(I mentioned I would be looking at teaching after university… for those of you who haven’t heard, I got accepted into King’s College University in London to study Computer Science! I applied for their 3-year course, but I got offered a place on the 4-year equivalent course that includes a year abroad, which means I’ll do two years studying in London, then I’ll get to spend another year in some far-flung corner of the world studying at a foreign university of my choice, before returning to London for my final year.)
So yeah, I love the teaching, but I’m not hugely fond of the sheer volume of paperwork that it requires. I don’t know if it’s the same for UK teachers (I know a few of my old teachers read this – care to reply and let me know?), but it seems that the Guyanese absolutely LOVE paperwork. I have to complete a termly scheme of work, a weekly work record, my daily lesson plans, my continual assessment records, CDIC records… honestly, I could carry on with that list. And of course, all paperwork here is done with actual pens, on actual paper – there’s none of this new-fangled computerised lark!
Teaching is, of course, all about the children, and they are nothing short of fantastic. They are (for the vast majority) incredibly cheerful, respectful and well-behaved. There are very few days that go by when students don’t bring me big bags of mangoes (which are so much better here), bananas (which are tiny here), ginnips (which are everywhere here), oranges (which are green here) and other fruit! In fact, “Strict Mark” has only had to come out of his cage a couple of times so far, and I’ve only had one student start crying during a telling-off (well, if you do insist on trying to cheat during my test, I will insist on taking you out of the class and having a few stern words with you!).
I teach Grade 8 mathematics, but for a myriad of reasons there are some serious gaps in the students’ knowledge from Grades 1-7, so they continue to surprise me with what they can and cannot accomplish. Who would have thought that the same class who mastered binary conversion in 2 lessons would take a week to understand how to round numbers?
After 3 and a bit months of solid teaching in Sand Creek I am well and truly settled into my routine here… let me take you through a typical day (you will notice that – like all well-trained animals – I gauge my days around my mealtimes!). I wake up at around 6:00am and amble to the shower, still more or less asleep. Once there I carry out my daily practice in the ancient art of “Washing-Oneself-From-A-Bucket-Using-Less-Water-Than-You-Might-Use-For-A-Cup-Of-Tea” (we’re still waiting for the water system to be sorted out, so we have to be very conservative). After dressing up in my teaching garb (I think I look very smart!) breakfast is served at 7:00am over in the dormitory dining room (we’re still waiting for our cooking equipment to be sorted out, so the dorms provide all our meals at the moment), which usually consists of bread and/or porridge, sometimes with egg or chicken sausage or occasionally pilchards. It’s very nice! Then it’s back to our apartment where I plan my lessons for the day (if I didn’t do them the night before), or just kill time in my hammock listening to music and/or reading my Kindle (if I did do them the night before). By 8:00am-ish I’m at the school, where I remain until 11:30am, a.k.a. lunchtime! Lunch (again, provided by the dorms) is rice, chow mein or farine, with some kind of meat (on most days). School kicks off again at 12:30pm, continuing until the last bell at 2:30pm-ish (it’s supposed to be 2:30pm, but we often forget to ring the bell, so it’s usually closer to 2:45-3:00pm). Unless of course we have a staff meeting, the longest one of which so far has gone on for nearly 4 hours! Most evenings include – in no particular order – a stroll to the village shop where they let me charge my phone/Kindle (we’re still waiting for the power to be sorted out, as well as the cooking kit and the water), a wander into the village itself to stop by someone’s house or just see what’s going on, reading more from my Kindle, getting paperwork done (but it has to be done before sunset mind, as remember we have no power and thus no lights), or whatever else takes our fancy. The evening is punctuated at 5:30pm by our dinner – which is almost always soup. That’s more or less it until bedtime, which is anywhere from 8:00pm to 11:00pm most nights, depending on what we’re up to. I know this will shock many who know me – back home midnight is an early night for me!
I’ve skipped over what I do while I’m actually at school, because there’s already a post dedicated to that on my blog… go to www.marksprojecttrust.co.uk and search for “terms and timetables”. Speaking of the blog, I’ve uploaded a TON of posts over the last couple of months that are really worth reading, but lots of them are still probably missing pictures. I promise to sort it when I can, but that might be when I get back to the UK, depending on whether or not Sand Creek ever gets Internet access.
As I said I’ve finished the longest term, leaving two left: 11 weeks for the unusually short Easter term, and 13 for the final summer term. That’s 24 working weeks left, but once you take into account the fact that each term sets aside 3 weeks for revision, exams and “end of term activities”, then add on national holidays and whatever else they decide to throw at us (without warning or planning, naturally), there’s probably at most 18 “proper” working weeks left – time’s running out extremely quickly!
Some of you back home will be very pleased to know that I have started learning to become truly domesticated. I was perplexed when I first arrived… for some strange reason my dirty clothes didn’t magically disappear, only to return a few days later clean, dry and neatly ironed! But I quickly learned that with the application of water, soap powder (or the wonderfully all-purpose “blue soap”) and effort, it’s actually possible to make clothes wearable again – who knew?! On top of that I’m also cleaning my own living area (which I actually did do back home from time to time), and I’ve even tried my hand at a bit of sewing to fix my shorts! I was very proud… probably more so that I had any right to be, but I’m still claiming it as a personal victory. However, the transformation into “Housetrained Mark” isn’t fully complete – I’ve still not ironed a single thing (and probably won’t for the duration of the year), and I’m yet to cook anything besides a few “bakes” when we stayed at Dadanowa ranch (they’re bread-like breakfast things, and they’re really very nice – I expect to make them often when I return home!). We’re told that we should have cooking equipment when we get back after this holiday, but I’ve learned to take statements like that with a hefty wedge of skepticism.
(Right, that’s more or less all of the school-and-work-time taken care of – you might want to take a minute here to refresh your cup of tea, go and visit the toilet, perhaps phone your loved ones who haven’t seen you for the three days you’ve spent reading this and assure them that you’re still alive, and then take a deep breath before we dive into my free time here…)
I’ve tried my hand at quite a bit of stuff so far in my downtime – archery, canoeing, mountain climbing, fishing, horse riding, picking (and obviously eating) mangoes, ginnips, coconuts, cashews and various other fruits, going to church, DIY-ing in our concrete shell of an apartment, getting a free flight over the Savannah in a 5-seater plane, helping out at village “self help” sessions, reading, plenty of liming and gaffing – all sorts of brilliant stuff!
Next term I’m hoping to do plenty more from the seemingly infinite list of things to do in Sand Creek (well, it’s a long list if you talk to the right people), but I’m also planning to dedicate a chunk of my free time to running classes in the village to teach basic computer skills to children and adults. Several parents have approached me lately asking me to teach them how to use a computer, so I’m hoping that DDO will be kind enough to lend me some of the village laptops (and his office a few nights a week!). I’ll keep everyone posted in the coming months on how well the Sand Creek Computing Crash Course goes.
Speaking of DDO, that reminds me… one book I read recently was “Spoken from the Front” by Andy McNab; it’s real-life stories from servicemen and women fighting in Afghanistan (it’s pretty interesting), and I noticed one thing they talk about a lot that I’ve actually experienced in Guyana as well – TLAs. It’s a military slang acronym for Three Letter Acronyms, which apparently the armed forces use heavily – it’s no different here! Let me give you a quick crash course in just SOME of the TLAs we hear/use on a daily basis:
DDO – District Development Officer
REDO and REO – I’m not sure exactly, but something about Education
HM – Headmaster
NOL – Notes of Lesson
SOW – Scheme of Work
ROW – Record of Work
NTP – Non-Teaching Period
PTV – Project Trust Volunteer
CDIC – Child Development Index Card
I could carry on, and there are many that I could use! The acronyms that refer to people (DDO, REDO, REO, HM, etc) are actually used in place of their names. It’s entirely normal to hear something like “God morning HM. I went down to DDO’s office in my NTP earlier and he’s going to REDO’s office next week to get some more CDICs”.
Also, on the topic of reading – if you’re taking an anti-malarial that gives you nightmares, don’t read Stephen King’s horror novel “The Shining” before you go to bed. Just don’t. (Don’t worry – the nightmares from my Lariam pills were pretty much constant over the first 2 months, but they seem to have left me alone since then.)
(Phew, the free-time bit didn’t take too long!)
Right, let’s move on to living conditions in Sand Creek. Several of my friends (I’m looking at you Cooper, Titman and Shannon!) were convinced I’d be living in a mud hut – alas, this is not the case: I live in a reasonably modern concrete apartment… or at least it would be “reasonably modern” if anything worked! We have no electricity – it’s coming soon– but we do get running water every now and then, when the moon turns blue and the local pigs start flying – I’m not exaggerating, we’ve had running water about 4 times since we arrived… but don’t worry, they’re fixing it soon. As I mentioned before, we have no equipment to cook ourselves food with, but that’s coming soon. The village office used to have Internet access many months ago, and they’ll be bringing it back soon, and Sand Creek will be getting mobile phone signal coverage soon.
Those keen-eyed amongst you may notice the repetition of “soon” in the above passage… I’ve come to realise that the Guyanese don’t actually know what “soon” means, as they’ve been telling me all of these things are coming “soon” for several months now. The more accurate information I’ve got by talking directly to the engineers is that we MIGHT have water by the time we go back in the new year, we MIGHT get electricity a few months after they finish the water, Internet could be in a few months or a few years, and phone signal will probably never get here in my lifetime, let alone my gap year.
(I’m reminded here of one particular Project Trust volunteer in China – she probably knows who she is – who was annoyed a few months ago that they sometimes have power-cuts, and the WiFi in her apartment doesn’t always work!)
Considering the reasonably limited living conditions… how have I been coping? Erm… rather well, actually. I’ve only been “properly” ill once, although I suspect that may change once I start cooking for myself! (For those who think I’ve got off lightly – in fairness that one episode of “proper” illness was truly horrendous). In terms of injury… well, I still have 10 fingers, 10 toes, and the right number of everything else… so I’d count myself as winning in that area as well. Considering the number of things out here that could probably kill me, I’m very happy to report myself as alive and well!
“Coping” doesn’t just extend to the physical stuff though… mentally and emotionally I’m happy to tell you that, well, I’m happy! The first couple of months were even harder than I anticipated (hence the vast tomes of reading I got through), and there were one or two days when I was sorely tempted to give up and go home (but only one or two), but around the start of November I “turned a corner” – as it were – and from then onwards I have been (for the most part) the happy, smiling chap I am to those who know me back home. As I said, the longest stretch is out of the way and it’s plain sailing from here, so there really is no need to worry about me in that respect!
(Nearly there now…)
The “Traveller’s Guide” put together by Cooper, Titman, Shannon, Dom, Rajan, Jess, Rachael, Ross and several others has proved to be a good source of amusement – thank you guys! I’m making pretty decent progress with it (I think), and I expect to accomplish almost all of them before I fly back to the UK. There are a couple that may be difficult, like “Drink a Guyanese beer” seeing as I don’t drink alcohol and I’m yet to see alcohol-free beer here, and there are a couple that will need to be staged, like the extreme ironing photos, seeing as I don’t actually iron anything out here. Speaking of progress – those of you who have seen photos of me lately will be pleased to know that I’m counting “Grow a ginger beard” as complete and I can finally shave this damned thing off!
With more than a third of the whole experience over already (!!!), I’m a little disappointed to report that the overwhelming majority of you reading this have so far failed to summon the vast energies required to write me with news from home. I’ve received letters in the post from a handful of people, and a few more assure me that theirs are on the way (post can take anywhere from 6 weeks to never), but really now people, how hard is it to write me a quick email? Don’t reply to this (because I won’t get it), but send one to
firstname.lastname@example.org (update: I’m back in the UK, so use email@example.com instead!) and let me know what’s going on back home… I know your lives must be empty without me, but surely SOMETHING has been happening?
Or, even better, grab a pen and paper and write me a letter! The rare, momentous occasions when Ken turns up outside my apartment bearing post for me are just one of the many highlights I’ve experienced so far… others include watching the sunrise from a mountain top, having over 80 people sing happy birthday to me together, coming home from teaching feeling like I’ve done a really good day, getting a free flight over the savannah, and waking up each morning to look out over the mountain ranges that Sand Creek sits beside.
I guess it’s only fair that I mention a couple of the “lowlights” of the year… the two months of nightmares as a side effect of my malaria medication (as mentioned earlier) weren’t fun at all – but don’t worry, they’ve stopped now – and I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not a pleasant experience to have to dash across the school compound towards the well in the dead of night with naught but a towel to protect my dignity after the shower ran out of water mid-use and left me covered with soap!
(And with that delightful mental image, we’re done!)
Phew, that was one behemoth of an email; in excess of 3,400 words if you’re interested – I’ve written far shorter essays than this! I think I’ve covered more or less everything that there is to cover – in fact I’ve probably mentioned stuff you already knew about… it’s so long between periods of Internet access that I forget what I have and haven’t told you already.
All that remains is for me to plea with you one last time – please, please, please email me now and then and let me know what’s going on back in the UK and in your lives! As I said I don’t get Internet very often, so when I do get online it will be nice to find a horde of emails from people back home waiting for me. Getting written letters in the post is even more amazing, just be prepared to wait several months for me to receive them. The email and postal addresses are on my blog, go to www.marksprojecttrust.co.uk and look in the top-right corner for the page about contacting me.
I hope everyone back home has a truly wonderful Christmas and a joyous New Year (assuming, of course, that these events haven’t been and gone by the time you finish reading this). I’ve sent a thick wad of Christmas letters to many people back home (with presents inside!!!) and they SHOULD have reached you by now – if you haven’t got one, then either a) it’s lost in the post somewhere between Guyana and the UK or b) I didn’t bother writing one to you. I’ll let you choose which one of those explanations you want to believe.
Take care, stay safe, and enjoy every single day life throws at you – I know I will!
I’ll see you all in just a little less than 8 months.
With much love to you all,