Thursday, July 21, 2005

Culture Day vs. St.Cuthbert's

This entry is about two events I somehow failed to mention when they happened. The first was called "Culture Day," an event that took place on I believe our second Saturday in Guyana. The second took place a couple weeks later, and involved a trip out to a place called St. Cuthbert's. It's a little long, but it should be of interest.

First things first. Culture Day was our first taste of things outside of the urban and semi-urban areas where we train. Early on a Saturday morning the Peace Corps vans came and picked us up and drove us far out of town to the south. Following the Demerara river inland, we finally took another highway away from the river and pulled into an area of forests and vast hilly fields. Here, at the end of a narrow and winding dirt track through the crowding forest we arrived at a retreat center of sorts. Mostly it was a large tin-roofed gathering hall ringed by small wooden shacks which stood in as cabins. The place had the delightful and tongue-tangling name of Kurukururu, and it was a popular spot to host church or business retreats.

We began by being introduced to the game of cricket. I'd seen it in the Eastern Caribbean, but never got very close to it, much less played it. But they divided us into two teams and we squared off on the cricket field.

Now, I don't know if you've ever played cricket, but it goes something like this: The field is roundish with a central stripe of dirt. At either end of the stripe is a wicket, a sort of trio of sticks attached to thin base that is easy to topple. It needs to be easy to topple, because the job of the "bowler" is to toss a ball at it and knock it down. If you're the "batsman," your job is to prevent this from happening by swinging a cricket bat at the ball. Much like one would do in baseball, that is if the pitcher was trying to knock over the home plate. Should the batsman connect with the ball and send it flying, he should then race down the dirt strip to the other wicket. That will score a point. And, like baseball, if you have time you can run back to the original wicket and score another point, and on and on until someone throws that ball back to the bowler. Again like baseball, if you aren't at a base when the ball comes back, you're out. To toss another layer of complexity on it, there are actually two people doing the running, one starting at each wicket (including the person who hits the ball). So, in effect you have baseball with only two bases, and both bases are constantly loaded.

There are other little rules, but that's the gist of it. It's actually pretty simple, really. I didn't want to play at first, but we were all required to, so eventually I had to take to bat. It was blazing hot outside and everyone could feel themselves burning as it happened. Gratefully, a bank of clouds came to temper the heat somewhat, but then all the running and swinging brought out the sweat. So anyway, I swung and connected, and ran as well as a 235-pound, out-of-shape man can run from wicket to wicket. Alas, the next batsman was struck out and by that time our team had cycled through and it was time to switch. So I took outfield and hustled as well as I could to catch the other team's hit balls. Eventually it was my turn to "bowl," or throw the ball, so I took it and underhanded the bad boy, trying to aim for the wicket. I struck the person out. Nice. So the next person took to the bat and I did the same. A fluke? Everyone was giggling at the nice run of luck. Then when I struck out a third person in a row everyone began to laugh hysterically, myself included -- the non-athletic guy, the one who hated sports and didn't want to play, bowled better than anyone else there!

The next thing on the agenda that day was learning to dance. Well, that's what I thought, anyway, but we didn't really get taught any dance moves. Or musical styles, either. They gathered us together and tried to talk a little about reggae and soca and dancehall and whatnot, but most people couldn't follow. Then we all got up and danced as well as we could for one song -- if memory serves, it was the old dancehall classic, "Action," by Terror Fabulous (I told you I know a lot of the music down here).

We ended the day with a swim in the black water. Now, this was our first experience with the stuff -- we've had a few since -- and we were a little alarmed. Walking down to the creek, we were treated to a stagnant pond, black and brackish looking, overhung with trees. We stripped to our swimming suits and slowly got in. The water felt very nice and cool, and surprisingly it didn't stink of rotting vegetation. But it was a deep orange/yellow/red color as we climbed in, roughly the same color as iodine, but so very dark that light only travels a few inches through it. Someone standing up to their knees in the water wouldn't be able to see anything more than their knee caps, and what skin was barely visible would be orange through the water. It sounds unhealthy as hell, but it was actually quite enjoyable. We swam down an adjoining arm of the pond into a jungle-like bayou, floating mats of vegetation bobbing along the edges and palms and great buttress-root trees forming a canopy overhead. I was up to my chin in the water, occasionally brushing against slimy sticks underwater, but otherwise unharmed. Some others came with me, and yet more rowed up to meet us in a colorful blue canoe. Together we explored the farthest stretches of the bayou. It was amazing.

I wanted also to mention St. Cuthbert's. It goes well with the Culture Day discussion, because it also involved swimming in some black water, and it was in the same general direction as Kurukururu. But it differed in one major way, and that was how to get out to St. Cuthbert's. See, St. Cuthbert's is an Amerindian village, and like most Amerindian villages, it is very remote and isolated. In order to get to St. Cuthbert's, we headed out the same highway as Kurukururu, but went farther yet, then pulled over beside the road where we were met by a huge truck. This truck was an old army troop-carrier, and was still painted the same army green and even had a covered cupola in the truck cab where a gunner's nest might be attached. We, however, rode in the bed of the truck, sitting on wooden benches or clinging to the overhead canopy's metal frame as the canvas flapped in the wind. The truck drove off road onto a winding trail of white dirt, and proceeded to follow this bumpy, twisting "road" for about fifteen miles, veering to avoid debris and occasionally plunging into vast, deep puddles left over from the rains. Following us was the rest of the Peace Corps staff in two Land Rovers with snorkels, and sometimes the puddles were so deep that the Land Rovers would be nearly buried under a wall of water as they plunged in. I got some amazing MPEG videos of the event, which one day I'll post here.

I am still in awe of that ride. It was very adventurous, trundling through the savannah like that. Hanging to the metal frame and rocking with the jostles, we were like riders on a subway -- a very rough subway, at least. And the fact that we were lined up in a huge troop truck, being followed by Land Rovers, made me turn to someone at one point and say how much like Indiana Jones this whole thing was -- as though our CD was Indy and we were the Nazis with the Ark.

Most of what we did at St. Cuthbert's was swim. More black water, so I won't belabor that. But it was interesting to see an Amerindian village. The missionaries had really worked hard to get them decent housing -- probably the first good thing I've seen from a missionary -- and so they had matching small wood-frame houses colored these bright and cheerful hues. There were a couple larger buildings, including a health center and the "Captain's" house. They also had a craft center where they sell wonderful works of sculpture and weaving, alas for more than I could afford at the time. They live very isolated lives out there, and it can be very hot, but there were plenty of shade trees. Plenty of fruit trees, too, for that matter -- I saw a starfruit tree (called "Five Finger" down here) that was so laden down with the juicy, ripe-looking fruits that I couldn't begin to count them all. And nobody was bothering to pick them! There was also a huge, colorful macaw clinging to a tree branch and it let us get very close and interact with it. Got a great shot of that.

At one point one of the Program people in charge of placement asked if I wanted to be placed out there (this was weeks ago, before they had finalized the sites). I said no. It was nice, and so were the people, but I really wanted something more urban. Turns out, nobody got placed in St. Cuthbert's. Three were put in Amerindian villages, all of them more remote than St. Cuthbert's.


gingerlee said...

Very very interesting Bri- I look forward to every posting!

. . .the swimming hole sounds a bit different that the Little Spokane! more like Papa's stock tank . . .

oh, I'd love to have been there to see the cricket game! Hey, we always knew you really WERE an athlete just waiting for the right time and place and the right game!

michael said...

I have been reading your blog since before you got your invite, and I love it. I cannot WAIT to see photos. But THIS, this sounds so amazing to me. I'm going to Paraguay for crop extension in late September, and I hopehopehope they have some natural features like this. I love various water systems, and i am keeping my fingers crossed hard that I get placed near one of them.

Brian Reeves said...


Thanks for writing. I intend to drop some photos on everyone very soon. In fact, one of them today, if I can get everything to work right. But if not, at least starting a week or so from now.

The black water out at the Amerindian village was really bizarre... it seriously was the color of iodine, you know, dark in large quantities but yellow-orange when close up. It sounds unhealthy, but it was perfectly fine. No piranhas, either. I have no idea what water systems Paraguay has, but there's someone I could ask. We did our Staging with the Paraguay people, you might recall, and you'll probably end up meeting her. I'll see if she would mind having you in contact with her. Being in contact with a PCV can really help as you plan to go into service somewhere.

Thanks again for writing. You too, "Ginger Lee." ;)