Posted by on August 19, 2013

So, it’s the 19th of August 2013 and I’ve been back in the UK for about a week now. The gap year is officially over, and this will most likely be one of my last posts (I’ll probably write at least one more about debriefing next week). Updates to this blog will stop but I’ll keep it online indefinitely, as I hope one day it may be useful to future Project Trust volunteers, or indeed anyone else who can gleam some benefit from these pages* (in fact that’s part of the reason I made an effort to keep updating it).

So, reflections on a year in Guyana volunteering with Project Trust…

In my 51 weeks in South America I think it’s fair to say I experienced more or less every emotion and feeling I could give a name to (and then several more besides that I could barely describe) – excitement, joy, misery, hope, pride, fear, loneliness, responsibility, nervousness, pain, accomplishment, a sense of belonging, a sense of rejection… you name it, I probably felt it at some point. Some of the good days of my gap year would rank as some of the best days of my life so far, and some of the not-so-good days would rank as some of the worst. (Importantly, the good days vastly outnumber the bad ones.) All things considered, I’d sum up my year – no, my entire experience – with Project Trust as… amazing.

I spent 39 weeks teaching at Sand Creek Secondary School and the remaining 12 weeks exploring, relaxing, holidaying, learning, nearly completing the Traveller’s Guide, and doing all of the other stuff that wasn’t teaching.

In that time I set foot in 7 different countries (Barbados, Guyana, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru and Tobago), visited many different parts of Guyana (Georgetown, Lethem, Sand Creek, Shulinab, Rupunau, Bartica, Goshan, Aishalton, Sawariwau, Baitoon, Katoonarib, Dadanowa, Kaieteur and Baganara), taught several hundred lessons, became an integrated member of the community, learned an awful lot about Guyana, got a good insight to the teaching profession, forged some excellent relationships, and basically had a brilliant time!

I visited a lot of places in Guyana, but for my time there the three main places I stayed in were Sand Creek (obviously), Lethem (for internet cafes and shopping) and Georgetown (the capital). I’ve written a lot about Sand Creek, but the other two… Georgetown is interesting and exciting for a few days, but quite unremarkable compared to the interior – take down the Golden Arrowheads (the national flag) and it could just about be any other semi-developed capital city. Lethem gives a much greater sense of being somewhere a bit different and is very useful – it has internet, big shops, the Department of Education, and is a transport hub for more or less all of Guyana. Towards the start of the year I wasn’t a big fan of Lethem (it bought back some less-than-wonderful memories for me), but gradually it grew on me and by Easter I honestly enjoyed visiting the town.

It may be very clichéd and more than a little melodramatic, but I don’t think I’m going too far in saying that PT has significantly changed my future. I met some absolutely amazing people in Guyana, within the charity itself, and on the Isle of Coll; I gained an understanding of an entirely foreign community; I (hopefully) helped to make a small difference to one small corner of the world; I hugely improved my self-confidence and learned a lot about how I cope in various situations; and I’m still considering a career as a teacher after I finish university. (I’m also pretty sure my gap year went some way in helping me to actually get a place at my favoured university.)

Before I left the UK, my main concerns were about whether I’d have the confidence to stand up and teach, and whether I’d be able to cope with the relative isolation of life in the interior Savannah. (My family on the other hand were more concerned about illness, injury, poisonous animals, not having clean water, etc… oddly enough I wasn’t really worrying about any of this.) The first concern of mine turned out to be completely inconsequential – as soon as I got up at the front of the classroom the fears disappeared and before long I was really, really enjoying teaching! The second concern had a little more ground to it – the first couple of months were pretty tough (especially as I’d been in Sand Creek 5 weeks before I managed to let my family know I’d arrived), but after that initial, inevitable “rough patch” was out of the way, I had no more problems on that front.

So, looking back on a year in Guyana, what are the highlights? Well for a start, there’s the teaching: it’s pretty fantastic. I can’t say that I loved every aspect of the job; there was certainly one aspect in particular that occasionally put me off the idea of a teaching career and genuinely reduced one of my colleagues to tears (for those of you who think you know what I’m talking about, you’re probably right). That one vicissitude aside, it must be said that there’s something incredibly rewarding about being able to look back on a chunk of your life and say “yeah, I made a small difference there… thanks to me, Grade 8 in Sand Creek Secondary know a lot more maths than they did when I arrived”. Teaching aside, other highlights included…

  • Setting foot in five different South American countries (Guyana, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru) and two Caribbean countries (Tobago and Barbados)
  • Visiting many different areas of Guyana (Georgetown, Lethem, Sand Creek, Shulinab, Rupunau, Bartica, Goshan, Aishalton, Sawariwau, Baitoon, Katoonarib, Dadanowa, Kaieteur and Baganara)
  • Learning some very important coping-without-mummy-doing-all-my-washing-and-cooking skills (which will save my life at university – thank you Miss Kathleen!)
  • Dashing through Bonfim towards the Guyanese border for a very good reason
  • Spending Christmas Day on a beach in Tobago, partying with the other Guyana PTVs
  • Bagging a free flight over the Rupununi Savannah just by asking if the pilot had any spare seats
  • Hitching countless free lifts between Sand Creek and Lethem on the back of various Jeeps, trucks, ATVs and motorbikes
  • Being completely accepted into a fantastic community
  • Blasting around open savannah on a borrowed quad bike
  • Painting a 11-foot-wide world map mural in the second term
  • Painting the school name on a 75-foot-wide wall in the third term
  • Going on a spontaneous, unplanned trip to Manaus (Brazil) and spending 3 days in the Amazonian jungle
  • Visiting Kaieteur Falls and Baganara Island in one day
  • Entering the school’s talent show with a small display of fire breathing
  • Enjoying a very emotional farewell party, thrown by the staff and students
  • Going on a five-week tour through Brazil and Bolivia that included:
    • Spending four days on a boat travelling from Manaus to Porto Velho
    • Crossing the Brazil/Bolivia border in a speedboat at Guajara-Mirim
    • Mountain biking along the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia
    • Visiting Copacabana, Lake Titicaca, Isla del Sol and Valley de Lune,
    • Spending three days touring the salt flats in Uyuni
    • Visiting the world-famous Cristo Rendentor statue in Rio de Janeiro
    • Spending time relaxing on Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro

Those are some of the highlights, but honestly I could write about so many more amazing experiences. If you want to read about more, read the rest of this blog! In the interests of fairness, if the above are some highlights, here are some of the year’s “lowlights” – i.e. some of less enjoyable experiences…

  • Spending a year away from my family, friends, girlfriend, colleagues, etc. with very limited communication – for me this was the biggest challenge by far
  • Spending 3 days horrendously ill – I’m talking hallucinations, fainting, hot/cold fevers, and having to remain within a few yards of the toilet
  • Enduring wake-up-screaming nightmares as a side effect of my malaria medication… every night… for 2½ months
  • Spending the two thirds of the year with no running water or flushing toilet (we had running water for a luxurious 3-month period in the middle)
  • Runing out of water mid-shower and having to dash across the school compound to the dormitory showers in the dead of night, covered in soap suds, with just a towel to protect my dignity
  • Coming within inches of serious injury and potential death in a minibus crash on the Lethem/Georgetown trail

The above is a sample of some of the year’s low points, but in no way am I complaining; they all contributed in one way or another to my year out, and I restate here that my entire Project Trust experience has been unbelievably incredible. The list of highlights is much, much longer, and most of the lowlights will make for good stories to tell in years to come!

If you are considering a gap year with Project Trust (or any other organisation for that matter), please don’t let anything I’ve written above scare you off, but at the same time don’t take the decision lightly: living and working in a far-away, foreign country for 12 months is a demanding challenge. There were days when I felt on top of the world, and there were days I nearly gave up and went home. I won’t lie to you and say it’ll be easy… but I can tell you it’ll be worth it. My overall advice: if you’re considering it, at least sign up for a selection course – you won’t regret it!

Considering all the amazing experices I’ve had, skills I’ve learned and people I’ve met, deciding to apply to Project Trust (way back in early-2011) was a brilliant decision. But I cannot claim all the credit – I must take this opportunity to thank all those who made my gap year possible. Here come a very long list…

  • My thanks go out forever to every single donor who helped me to reach (and surpass) my £5,100 fundraising target. Whether you were a major sponsor contributing hundreds of pounds, or you just chucked a couple of coins into my collection tins when you could, each and every one of you helped me to accomplish everything I have done this year. There’s a whole page of donors here, and to each and everyone one of them I say thank you.
  • My band of merry men (who were actually mostly women) must be thanked for their ever-present help with my fundraising events. Every attempt I made to raise money, I could count on finding Kayleigh, Tom, Charlotte, Michelle and Shannon (among others) eager to get involved and help however they could. To you guys and gals: thank you.
  • Without the tireless work of the staff on the Isle of Coll, Project Trust wouldn’t exist, you wouldn’t be reading this, and 20+ countries around the world wouldn’t benefit every year from the presence of their volunteers. My thanks go to every single member of the PT team, each of whom works probably far harder than anyone realises to make sure nearly 300 teenagers fly away to distant lands, do some incredible work, and most importantly return in one piece.
    • I especially thank Chris Hitch and Doug Young – my desk officers – for preparing me for the wonders of Guyana, always having exactly the advice I needed when I sought it (especially during those first few rocky months), and for the comforting knowledge that they were alsmo always at the other end of a phone – night or day – should I ever need them urgently.
    • She’s not technically PT staff, but I also thank Kala Seegopaul, our representative in Guyana. Kala and her family took very good care of all 22 volunteers when we arrived in Georgetown, and was another important link in our support system, always available to call upon for help whenever we needed it.
  • I certainly owe thanks to my PT partner Harry – the poor man had to put up living with me for an entire year! Somehow (and I don’t know how) he managed to survive the ordeal, and we remain friends as we both move on towards our respective universities; Harry in Edinburgh, myself in London.
  • I got on well with the entire group, but two other Guyana volunteers in particular were very good friends through the year, excellent supports when I needed them, and have become two of my closest friends abroad and at home. This applies for everything, but especially for that first week… Rocker and LC, I thank you.
  • My family (my mum especially) cannot go without a mention here – not only were they significant donors… not only did they provide me with so much of the epic-sized Gap Year Shopping List… not only did they support me every step of the way in every way they could… but they actually permitted me to travel off to South America for an entire year. To use the words “willingly allowed” would be a stretch too far for the imagination – perhaps “begrudgingly yielded” would be closer to the mark – but nonetheless none of it could have happened without that “yes” at the start.
  • Thank you to all of the people back home who took the time to comment on this blog, and send me emails, letters, postcards, photos and other goodies – a day when I got post was always a good day!
  • Moving across the North Atlantic now to Guyana, I want to say a warm thank you to everyone in Sand Creek who made me feel at home in their beautiful village. In my time there I met no one who made me feel anything less than completely welcome. From parents taking me to one side to thank me for coming to teach, to pupils bringing me regular parcels of fruit, every single person I met in and around Sand Creek contributed to my lasting (and incredibly positive) impression of the village. I look forward to visiting again in years to come!
    • In particular I want to thank the teachers and other staff at Sand Creek Second School; you made me proud to be called your colleague. Sir Kit, your management and constant willingness to help teachers and students will certainly help to make Sand Creek Secondary School a fantastic, functional establishment; Miss Samantha, I don’t think I ever saw you without a smile, and your singing and jokes will be sadly missed; Miss Abigail, you smiled just as much as Miss Samantha, and helped me time and time again when it came to doing anything with the form group; the kitchen staff – Kathleen, Dolores, Clementina and Laverne – you kept Harry and I well-fed in the first 5 months we spent waiting for a stove, and then taught us to cook with it once we gave up waiting and bought our own!

(That turned into a lot of thanking, but every single one of them was very much owed. I hate to say that there are probably some who have slipped my mind – if I’ve forgotten you then I am very sorry, and I promise it wasn’t deliberate!)

So, I think I’ve said about everything I planned to say, and rambled about plenty of other things besides. Where does that leave me?

I’m back in the UK, back in my normal life, and back to being self-employed. In a few weeks I move to London to begin studying at King’s College London University, doing a computer science course that grants me further chances to travel in my third year. During my work and during my travels I made a number of good friends who I hope I can keep in touch with, and the girl I met on selection has been by my side for nearly two years now. Literally none of this would be the case if it wasn’t for my gap year with Project Trust.

In one word… unforgettable.

* If you do happen to be someone considering, preparing for or actually on a gap year in Guyana, then I wish you all the best and really do hope this blog is useful for you. If you find it helpful, or you have a question, the email address on the contact page will still work for as long as this is online (I check it every now and then), or you can contact me through my other website, or you could just tweet me on @m_s_ormo.

I realise that most people new to this blog won’t bother to read 160+ blog posts, so I’ve put together a list below of the “main” posts and pages you might want to read if you’re looking for information on a gap year:

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