Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Living at the Namilco Compound

In early February we moved to the brand new Namilco building in a large compound in the commercial zone of Lethem.

Namilco stands for the National Milling Company of Guyana.  Namilco brings in wheat from the US and mills it into flour and other wheat products.  The milling is done at its facilities near Georgetown on the coast of Guyana, and the products are sold all over the country.  Recently, the company has begun to sell flour to Brazil.  Trucks loaded with up to 550 45kg sacks of flour grind along the trail from Georgetown to Lethem, where the sacks are unloaded into a bond (storage warehouse).  Then, even bigger trucks arrive from Brazil and carry 1100 sacks of flour off to Boa Vista.  The loading and unloading is done manually – that is, men carry the sacks on their heads or shoulders.

Dayan’s job as manager of the Lethem Branch involves maintaining the bond, promoting and selling the products locally, supervising the loading and unloading of trucks, and doing paperwork and liaising with the Brazilian buyer, the customs officials, and of course head office in Georgetown.

  View from the road.  The left-hand half of the top floor is our apartment.
Note green septic tank below, with overflow emptying directly to an open drain.  Hmmm.

 Guyanese truck unloading into the bond.

 Brazilian truck being loaded (note the two extra supervisors on top).

 Bond full of flour bags.

 Typical Guyanese small truck.  Hardy for the rough trail.
Driver catching a rest in the shade!

 Typical Brazilian truck - huge and designed for proper roads,
which Brazil has and Guyana hasn't.

 Hammocks slung in the bond. Nap time for driver and porter!

The bonus about this job is that above the bond is a two-bedroom apartment – the manager’s quarters.  It was so new when we moved in that I had to clean construction debris out of the bathroom and bedrooms, and Dayan had to arrange for a few last-minute finishing off jobs to be done, like getting the water tanks operational, and fixing up the hash job done by the contractor who installed the metal grills over the windows.  I managed to get an extra light installed in the open-plan kitchen/dining/living area, since the existing fluorescent tube was inadequate.  It was also urgently necessary to install some plastic lattice to make the balcony railings less of a death hazard, which were so sparse a large adult could easily slip through, let alone a child.  How the designer thought that smooth tiles (slippery when wet) would be a good combination with a skimpy metal railing on the balcony, which is four to five meters above the ground, I do not know.
Balcony railings, pre-lattice.

View to the south from the balcony, post-lattice.
Some of the finishing details of the construction appeared to be rather sloppy by New Zealand standards, however the overall effect seemed totally luxurious to us:  tile floors, freshly painted walls, running water, a flushing toilet, insect mesh on the windows, and even a fridge and a gas-fired stove.

Initially the only furniture we had was beds and two plastic chairs.  This state of affairs lasted rather too long, but eventually our solid-wood locally-made furniture began to arrive.  We now have a desk, some shelves and a dining table, which has made life much more comfortable!  More furniture is on the waiting list.

 Open plan living/dining/kitchen.

Curiously, the bathroom was designed with no windows and no ventilation.  This seems crazy to me, but I have discovered that totally enclosed bathrooms are quite common in Guyana and Brazil, even in engineer or architect-designed houses.  (What are they thinking?  Perhaps they’re assuming there will be a housemaid or a housewife to wipe down every surface every day).  Of course, this silly design was disastrous for the MDF cupboards under the sink.  No natural light + humidity and moisture + no air flow + leaky plumbing due to another hash job = mould heaven.  My handyman husband has re-done the sink plumbing and banished the leak, and drilled some vent holes in the ceiling to allow the warm damp air to flow out via the roof space.  The brand new MDF cupboards will never be quite the same again, but that’s a typical lesson for building in the tropics.  Make sure your bathroom has good ventilation, and supervise your plumber carefully.  Oh, and don’t bother with MDF if you can help it.

The kitchen bench and sink were designed at a height perfect for a seven year old.  Rather hard on the old back if there is a large pile of dishes to wash.  I could just about kneel down to do the dishes (‘washing the wares’ in Guyanese-speak).  Or better still, get my seven year old to do them.

 Kitchen corner (sink just out of shot under the window).

Despite our attempts to keep food appropriately contained, ants always want to live in close proximity to us.  They have found ways into the fridge.  They go into the oven.  They have made nests in the electric kettle, the printer (no longer functioning as a result), in the calculator, in and under books, under tins or jars, and in many various spots around the house.  A common cry is ‘Ants’ nest!’  Every day or two we discover a nest and clean it out.  They just start another nest nearby.  On some remarkable days we found four or five nests.  We know we have only a small window of opportunity to leave food unattended before it will be overrun.  Luckily, the two types of ants we have in our house do not seem to be the biting kind.  The little red ones are annoying, the crazy black ones are annoying too, and both are ticklish when they are crawling up your arm.  But we are learning to co-exist with them, since excluding them is out of the question.  With Kalen being three years old, this learning is often ‘the hard way’, as he has a tendency to leave the sugar lid off, and forgets to close food containers properly.  And then the ants have a huge party.

There is one upside to the resident ants.  They clean up messes on the floor, and remove dead insects.  On one occasion I found a small scorpion in the kitchen (yes, a scorpion in the kitchen) and squashed it.  I couldn’t immediately bring myself to touch it to get rid of it, so I just left it on the edge of the bench.  Within a short time, ants had dismembered it and carried the carcass entirely away.

We have a deep drilled well from which water is pumped into two tanks for our water supply.  I presume the water is naturally rock-filtered as it is deliciously pure – unlike the town supply which is only supplied to some parts of the town for certain hours of the day, and tastes awful – so we consider ourselves very lucky.  We use it straight from the tap.

The manager’s apartment comes with some nice bonuses.  No rent to pay, no power bill to pay, no internet bill to pay.  No commute at all for Dayan.  And, one of the best features of all; the balcony, which runs the length of the top floor.  The compound is beautifully situated a full block back from the main road in an area where the neighbouring plots are mostly undeveloped (although there is a small mall being built next door).  The back boundary of the compound directly abuts the buffer zone along the airstrip.  So from our lofty, breezy balcony, we have a commanding view of the airstrip, and beyond that the new housing scheme of Culvert City, which is still mostly bare savannah; and beyond that the open savannah and the glorious Kanuku Mountains.

Aah, the Kanukus!  The most bio-diverse area on earth, I’m told.  The sight of these mountains make me feel completely at home, as they remind me of my beloved Pouakai and Kaitake ranges.  They are a balm to the eyes and an ever-changing work of art of nature.  I especially love to watch them at dusk, when from minute to minute they change from hues of blue and purple to orange, pink or violet.  During the rainy season they are often decorated with rainbows and fanciful cloud formations.  Recently, we saw the ‘once in a blue moon’ rise from behind the ranges, full, fat and fiery.

 A view from the balcony showing half of the ranges.

 Rain on the savannah.

 One end of a rainbow.

 A plane taking off almost in our back yard.

 A small but bright rainbow over Moco Moco.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Staying at mum and dad's place

While we were at mum and dad’s, Dayan tried to institute a compost pile for food scraps, and a semblance of a system to deal with rubbish (there is no affordable rubbish collection system), but it proved an uphill battle getting everyone to participate.  Likewise, being the kind of person who likes to be able to find things in the kitchen, I found it frustrating that almost every time I wanted to chop vegetables to cook a meal, I couldn’t find any of the three knives and had to go on a goose chase before I could continue with the meal preparation.  The disappearing knife might be found under the mango tree, under the coconut tree, in the porch, or somewhere else less predictable.

Other times, I couldn’t find the chopping board, because it seemed that each person (including various visiting family members) had a different idea of where it should be stored, and a couple of those places were very obscure, or so I thought.  And why was it that everyone except me could get the gas burners to light?  I went on an extended search of the local shops to find a viable tin opener because I refused to learn to open tins with a knife.  When I found one (at one of the ‘made in China’ suppliers), I took it back to another store to show it to the sales assistant, because he had apparently never seen one before and had no idea how it worked – hence the blank looks when I asked him if the shop had any tin openers.  I had to adapt my shopping and cooking habits to what was available and affordable locally, and also to the fact that we had a freezer but no fridge.  Yes, these experiences highlighted some weak points in my virtues of tolerance and flexibility.  They also emphasized some cultural and lifestyle differences between my Kiwi life and the life of a typical Rupununi person.

Other challenges during this time included a couple of diarrhoea and vomiting bugs, a necessary evil, I suppose, as we all adjusted to the local strains of bacteria and the conditions which predisposed us to succumb (well, really, how do you keep an adventurous three year old from ingesting a peck of dirt or two, and how do you keep the flies away from the latrine?).  The horrible bordered on the hilarious as we would put a clean sheet on the children’s mattress after one of them had puked all over it… only to have the other puke all over it (and themselves and each other).  Days spent washing pukey sheets and soiled clothes by hand, and airing out the mattress, nights spent doing emergency clean ups and toilet visits in the dark, and without running water.  My patience was well and truly tested as I would have to get in and out of my hammock net so many times each night.  Thankfully Dayan and I were able to tag-team to some extent.  “It’s your turn dear…”  And “where did you put the torch?”

I was mostly spared the nasties, but did have one unpleasant bout of something.  As Murphy’s law would have it, I had my sickest day on Christmas day, the day we had organized an extended-family party to celebrate three family birthdays including Kalen’s.  After withdrawing from polite company to puke at the back of the garden, I spent almost the entire day bone-achingly immobile in my hammock and could not eat or drink a single thing.  The party was, happily, quite a success in my absence and I suppose there was more birthday cake per capita, which has to be a good thing.

 One of the birthday boys blowing out his candle.

While Kalen outwardly appeared to barely notice that he was now living in a different part of the world, he did manifest a couple of interesting behavioural responses to his new environment.  In New Zealand his temperament and character were very easy-going and gentle with other children.  But within a couple of days of arrival at Granny’s house, where he was surrounded by male cousins who modeled ‘power rangers’ play fighting, toy guns and so on, Kalen’s behaviour became violent almost overnight.  He began hitting, kicking, pushing and shouting.  Was he just mimicking his cousins?  Had he not grasped the difference between play-fighting and real hitting and kicking?  Was he trying to vie with his little cousin for attention or dominance?  Was he manifesting some inner turmoil that he couldn’t verbalise?  I don’t know what was really going on, but naturally we let him know where our boundaries of acceptable behaviour lay.  As time has gone on the violent behaviour has largely subsided.  It became easier once we moved into our own home; however, when he is frustrated he still pretends to hit out, or makes an empty verbal threat to ‘lash you’ (Guyanese-speak for ‘hit’) while clearly remaining well in control of himself.

Kalen and his gorgeous little cousin Stephon, who at the age of two, could ride his bike without trainer wheels.  Poor Kalen (the same age as Stephon) couldn't even figure out how to push the pedals in the right direction WITH trainer wheels.

Ultimately, while living at ‘Granny’s’, we knew we would need to find our own space in order to establish our own routines, to eat our own choice of food, and to be able to unpack our boxes and stop living out of suitcases.  (Ha!  If only I knew then, that now, eight months later as I write this, Dayan and I still have our clothes and linen in suitcases).

Despite the challenges we experienced, this time at mum and dad’s was very special.  Zayna and Kalen got to know their cousins, aunties, uncles and grandparents, and we all got acquainted with the neighbourhood, the Lethem way of life, and some of the local treats.  For example, we made cherry juice with fresh West Indian cherries from the neighbour’s trees.  No relation to the stone fruit cherries of temperate climates; I think these West Indian cherries are also known as acerola and are very high in vitamin C.  We drank fresh coconut water.  Ate different varieties of mango. Tasted drinks made from the fruit of the ite palm (Mauritius Palm).  Discovered that Kalen adores plantain chips.

 Plenty of homegrown mangoes!

Giant coconut!

Ite fruit processing is quite involved - that's the fruit in the buckets.  You have to harvest the wild fruits from high up in the palm trees along the creek, soak the fruits to soften them, peel them, and scrape the bright yellow edible flesh off the large seed.  Good for making sweet drinks and iceblocks ('icicles' in Guyanese lingo).

I made an amazing rich icecream with jackfruit from Brazil, which was so sweet it needed no extra sugar.  We also boiled the jackfruit seeds which tasted very nutty.  We enjoyed cook-up rice, Amerindian tuma pot (fish in a peppery broth), farine (a couscous-like cassava staple of Amerindians), cassava bread (a hard bland biscuit-like Amerindian creation, also a staple), tasso (dried, salted beef), passock (a deliciously seasoned mix of shredded tasso and farine) and other local dishes. Ever heard of monkey ears or granny-belly-skin?  They’re types of pancakes which fit in the broader category of ‘bakes’ – flour-based breads or pancakes often made for breakfast.

Dayan and I took a trip to Boa Vista in Brazil and bought ourselves bicycles.  The perfect way to get around a small, flat town!  Zayna got a bicycle too, eventually, and Kalen has a small seat which attaches to the adults’ bikes.  Kalen found the seat so comfortable he fell asleep while riding on more than one occasion.  Not the safest way to ride, as you can see below, especially on a bike with no brakes.  This is not Dayan's new-secondhand bike shown in the pic - his bike actually has brakes, which, around these parts are seen as something of a luxury bike accessory - 'nice to have but not absolutely necessary'.

After Christmas Zayna started school at Arapaima Primary – the school her dad attended.  Here she is in her uniform ready to walk to school with Ethan and Savi.

We spotted an ad in the newspaper in early December for a Lethem managerial position.  We had no idea what sort of business the position was with, but decided Dayan should apply anyway.  I rewrote Dayan’s résumé to match the advertised position and a subtly schmoozy cover letter that would guarantee him a place on the shortlist (works every time).  At the job interview Dayan discovered that the job came with a rent-free apartment… which seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity.  Within a few weeks the job was confirmed, although we weren’t able to move to the apartment till early February 2012.  I felt a sense of gladness and relief finally moving to our own apartment, even though we had almost no furniture and very nearly had no water supply.  This was because we had been homeless – living in other people’s homes or travelling – for nine months.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Settling in Lethem

The old house which Dayan grew up in was knocked down, with only the foundations and a pile of bricks remaining.  It was the ‘new’ house (which we had helped to build by sending money a few years ago) which we would now be staying in.  We would share the house with Dayan’s parents and three of their grandchildren (Savi, 8, and Ethan, 7, who are Estraline’s sons, and Stephon, 3, who is Czarina’s son).  They had cleared the biggest bedroom for us, in which we made do with an old mattress on the floor for the kids, a hammock for me, and another hammock in the porch for Dayan.  All with mosquito nets, of course.

Mum and dad's house, unfinished composting toilet to the right of the house (above).
Huge mango tree to the far left, which is a wonderful shady place to sling a hammock.

View of the house entering from the street.  Note hammock tied in the porch.
Our room was the door to the left.

Kalen settled in to his new home without so much as a backward glance, whereas Zayna was unsettled and clingy for some time, and disliked us leaving her even for a little while.  This was tricky because we needed to go to Bonfim (the border town on the Brazil side of the river) almost immediately, because we were out of cash.  Zayna cried as we left for Bonfim without her.

Lethem has no ATM yet, but a tiny branch of a Brazilian bank in Bonfim has one.  I made many trips by bicycle in the hot sun – over an hour riding return – only to find the machine was empty or not working.  Anyway, when the machine is working, we can change the Reais into Guyana dollars once we are back in Lethem.  The shops in Lethem also accept Reais, but usually at a disadvantageous exchange rate.  There is a new bank being built in Lethem due to be completed in late 2012, which will have an ATM – and Lethem will enter the era of electronic banking!  Anyway, the need to extract our offshore cash was only a temporary measure till we could find local income.

We stayed at mum and dad’s place for about three months.  I enjoyed being around family, and having the chance to really experience Lethem ‘up close and personal’.  However some of the physical practicalities were challenging for me.  Firstly: no running water.  They have a tank which collects rainwater off the roof, but which tends to run out of water in the dry season.  This rainwater we used for drinking, by filling up buckets and carrying them inside.  Water for washing dishes, washing clothes, and so on, had to be pulled from the well.  I had to practice my dipping technique – at first I would drop a bucket in the well but couldn’t get it to tip over to fill up.  A skill I never had to learn in New Zealand!  I also got to practice my ‘washing clothes by hand without running water’ technique – and for a family of four, I can tell you this takes a considerable amount of time and energy.

Here's a picture of the well.

And me washing.

To bathe, we had a choice of a bucket bath outside (ducking down behind a chest height brick wall for privacy during daylight hours, or out in the glorious open after nightfall), or heading to the creek for a refreshing swim and a wash.  The creek was a big hit with the kids, and Zayna’s swimming confidence grew as she frolicked with her cousins.  Most afternoons the children would beg me to take them to the creek.  A further note about bathing under the night sky:  I generally enjoyed this, even though it could get a little chilly at times.  I just had to be careful, because unlike all the other members of the household, I glow in the dark.  Even on a moonless night, my bright-white birthday suit could be seen for miles around.  I became alert to vehicles in the vicinity, ready to duck down lest I be lit up by passing headlights.

I just had a thought.  Do my readers know what a bucket bath is?  In case you don't: you have a bucket of water, and use a smaller cup to tip water over yourself.

 You can see in the foreground our little bathing area.  OK for guys and short ladies (most Amerindians are quite short) but I had to duck down if bathing in daylight hours!

Note also the water tank with piece of home-made guttering to channel water into it, and nifty outdoor light - a lightbulb attached to a piece of wood dangling from a wire.

You can also see to the left the kitchen door, which is a split door so as to have the top half open for a window and the bottom half closed to keep chickens outside.  But on this day we were doing the opposite (to keep the breeze from disturbing the gas cooking flame).

Another challenge was that the toilet is a longdrop (pit latrine).  Ok, a bit stinky, and BYO toilet paper, but no big deal.  Except at night.  At night, as it’s unlit, it is somewhat scary.  Do not make the mistake of shining your torch into the pit (swarming with large cockroaches).  I made this mistake, and then I had to pretend to the kids that I hadn’t seen anything, and act nonchalant, because they were about to sit on it.  And if it’s been raining, you have to cross the treacherous mud to get to it.  Zayna and Kalen and I took to peeing on the grass at night rather than making the trek to the loo.   

As a postscript to this bit of detail, Dayan and I decided that an upgrade to the toilet arrangements were desirable, for convenience and hygiene reasons, so we have begun to construct a composting toilet for mum and dad, close to the house and with a permanent structure.  I will explain more about this in a future post, as it is a work in progress.

More about our stay at mum and dad’s place to come soon!

 Three hammocks under the mango tree!