The title of this blog is taken from my favorite movie: The Princess Bride. Miracle Max and his wife say "Have fun storming the castle!" as Inigo, Fezzik, and Westley set off on their big adventure to save the princess. And that's what this blog is about: adventure, fun, and saving the world.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Making Brooms

One of the most characteristic features of Karanambu is the isolation.  The ranch is about 125 square miles, with the nearest community of more than 30 houses about 16 miles away.  The sparse population allows for amazing wildlife sightings and has kept the surrounding ecosystems remarkably pristine.  So far I've spotted caiman, iguanas, an anteater, and several types of monkies.

 Mama Georgie and I making brooms from coconut branches

There are about 10 staff members living here - the same amount of people that lived in my yard in Jamaica!  I have adopted everyone here as my new host family, and they have adopted me as well.  Last week, after a rousing morning of bat killing (marapa in Makushi) Georgina told me I am her newest daughter and that I must learn how to make a broom out of coconut branches.  We set to stripping the green leaves off the stems of the branches midst swatting away the black flies.  After setting the stems to dry, we bundled them together and tied them with an old bicycle tube.  Voila -  A Rupununi style broom!

All finished - time to sweep!

Nature's Cure

Karanambu's cure-all:  the Neem Tree!

I'm happy to report that the effects of the mefloquine are not permanent!  Thankfully, the Peace Corps medical staff was very supportive and I was able to stop taking the mefloquine.  I'm feeling much better which I think is in part due to the Neem tea I've been drinking.  Karanambu has a beautiful large Neem tree, originally from India, which can do anything from curing cuts to purifying your blood.  It is even an insecticide (although the kushi ants - a big problem for local gardeners - still like to eat them).  Just boil a handful of leaves in two cups of water and drink three times a week until the malady has left you!  Like most herbal medicines, it's horribly bitter but I've been sneaking a couple spoonfuls of sugar into it.  Shhh!  Auntie Georgie likes to drink it with me, although she would never be so sacrilegious as to add a sweetener. Suzette tells me its a good contraceptive, although I'm not sure how many people know about that because family size tends to be rather large.  I even got one of the guests to try it to cure her cold, although I found out later it can cure pretty much anything except colds.  (Sorry Alana!)  I do feel better, and I'm hoping that the neem will make my blood so bitter that the bugs won't bite me at all!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

All Drugged Up

I had been a bit anxious about moving to Karanambu, nervous about new people and a new place.  As the days progressed at Karanambu, my anxiety, instead of easing, got progressively worse.  I was having trouble concentrating on what people were telling me, couldn't remember anything, and couldn't sleep.  My skin started tingling.  I got paranoid and started thinking that maybe my hosts were drugging me - like the kool aid incident from the 70s.  That's when it dawned on me - I was being drugged! - but not by the lodge.  Because there are cases of malaria in Guyana, Peace Corps medical requires us to take prophylaxsis medication to prevent volunteers from contracting the disease.  I hurriedly scrambled about trying to find the information sheet running back and forth between rooms and buildings.  Finding the sheet, I realized I couldn't even read it properly.  The same things were printed in about five different places with no apparent order.  I finally found the beginning of the document and was relieved to see that the first symptom was severe anxiety, the second paranoia, followed closely behind by feeling restless, unusual behavior, and feeling confused. Whatever temporary relief that passage had given me was erased by the next.  "In some patients these serious and sudden side effects can go on after the mefloquine is stopped." Yiiiikes!  I stopped taking the medicine and started learning breathing exercises.  Let's hope that my new found solidarity for people with anxiety disorders goes away soon!

Arrival in Guyana

I got a position as a Peace Corps Response volunteer at Karanambu eco-lodge in the North Rupununi of Guyana building a well for potable water and drip irrigation system for their garden.
I arrived in Georgetown on June 11th and spent the week getting to know the city.  Guyana is considered culturally Caribbean even though it is geographically in South America.  I saw a lot of sights in Georgetown that were familiar to me from Jamaica.  From the markets to the minibuses, I felt at home.  A lot of Jamaican reggae and dancehall was playing in the streets, and I saw Vybz Kartel’s face plastered on the shop windows.  In fact, the heavy bass from the cars passing the hotel set off the alarm on a few parked cars!  

From the schoolers in uniform to the minibuses, Georgetown reminds me a lot of Jamaica.

Stabroek Market

Georgetown, once known as the garden city, was built by the Dutch and is therefore characterized by the extensive canal system through the city.  It is six feet below sea level, and the ocean is kept at bay by the sea wall and kokers which can be opened to drain the city of excess water, or opened at low tide to flood the city and clean the streets.  In fact, last week a dozing koker attendant left one open and accidentally flooded the city.

A koker, with koker attendant station to the left.  The kokers and seawall prevent the city, six feet below sea level, from flooding.

An extensive canal system, built by the Dutch, crisscrosses Georgetown, and is largely overgrown.

One of the most striking differences between Guyana and Jamaica was the water, which is brown because of all the rich silt deposited from the three major rivers that flow through Guyana. 
A fishing pier surrounded by water made brown by silt deposits from the interior.

I arrived with another Peace Corps Response Volunteer, and we swore in after two days of orientation to the city and the Peace Corps office. 

Just after swearing in as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer.  From left to right Eric in charge of financial matters, Brennan country director, me, Flavio my program manager, and Jake fellow response volunteer.

I spent the next few days meeting Peace Corps volunteers and buying provisions because Peace Corps will not fly me back from the interior for another three months.  After 4 days in Georgetown, Flavio and I left for Karanambu.  

We flew on a small plane out of Ogle, the local airport.

 Eco-friendly reusable boarding passes

 All buckled in!

Tickets are paid for by weight so I hopped onto the scale with my bag on my back.  Our first landing was in Annai on a paved but potholed airstrip.  The landing at Karanambu was actually smooter although the airstrip was simply the iron-rich dirt which characterizes the interior of Guyana.  We were heartily welcomed to the grasslands of the Rupununi by Diane, owner of Karanambu Lodge and Ranch, Jerry a returned resident to Guyana, and Royal, senior member of the Amerindian staff.

 The welcome committee at Karanambu airstrip
The buildings at Karanambu are made of brick baked from laterite which composes most of the surrounding soil.
Karanmbu Lodge is quiet and isolated, but full of wildlife which we witnessed on a boat tour down the Rupununi River with Jerry and Mike (staff at Karanambu).  We saw some fun wildlife.  The river is surrounded by forest and is home to all sorts of creatures like monkeys and parrots.

Riding the Rupununi River!

 Victoria Amazonica

The tour ended at a pond filled with Victoria Amazonica, a giant waterlily which looks like something out of a comicbook.  The lily pads are strong - Mike's baby brother laid on one to pose for a postcard photograph - and the birds like to walk on them.  They are bright green with spikes around the edges.  The flowers only open at night and turn from white to pink on the third day.  I was half expecting them to pick up our boat and eat us or at least carry us to the mothership, but as it was we sipped lime juice and listened to the passing parrots as the flowers calmly opened.  

 An iguana naps in the afternoon sun.

Some red howler monkeys

Karanambu generously built a house specially for volunteers and I'm neatly settled in.  The plan is to dream and plan until the managers of the lodge return in August.

Home sweet home

Living in luxury!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Things I learned from Jamaica

My close of service was May 17th. It was so hard to say goodbye. The last week was full of tears, talk of ambitious travel plans, and last minute bustling. Westphalia sent me off in style with an extravagant surprise going away party at the school which was decorated so splendidly it was barely recognizable. The event lasted from 6:30 until midnight and was filled with songs, dances, good food, speeches, and of course no Jamaican even would be complete without a big sound system with plenty of music! The teachers, staff, students, parents, and community members were so generous and loving. I have never felt so appreciated in my life. If I had gotten that much attention at the beginning of my service I would have crawled under a table or gone running for the nearest exit. But, after having lived as a minority and a foreigner for two years, I could handle attention.

 dancing with my host sister Peenie

all the teachers I worked with in Jamaica


My experience in Jamaica has taught me many things, and changed me in some ways irreversibly. I've given it a lot of thought, and started a list of all the things I've learned in Jamaica. So here it goes....


how to share

how to handle attention

what I look like to other people


how to be friendly/talk to strangers

to sing and dance more

how to eat bones and fat

to be more observant and aware of what people are doing and why they might be doing those things

to be cleaner and more conscious of dirt

to understand the place and purpose of animals

how to entertain myself

to be ok feeling hungry

all about fashion and nails

how to wait

how to give gifts

how to receiving things

to be more comfortable touching and being touched

an appreciation for clubs and partying

how to communicate without words

my hosts sisters (Peenie and Tashorn), me, and my godson

every grade sang songs and wrote postcards

When I first arrived in Jamaica we did an exercise in training. Everyone who thought that work was more important than people went to one side of the room. Everyone who put people before work went to the other side of the room. At that time, I was one of four on the work before people side. Probably the best lesson Jamaica has taught me is put people first. So, thank you to all the amazing people who formed my Peace Corps service!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Treasure Beach Triathlon

Sammi Travis, a fellow PCV and good friend, and I decided last year that we would enter the Treasure Beach Triathlon this year. Treasure Beach is a windswept tourism town on the southcoast which can tend to be a little lonesome if you don't bring your friends. Luckily we had ours - a whole house full of them. As my friends and family know, I am not a sports person. I quit the T-ball team when they took away the T. I got cut from the volleyball team in 8th grade. I always chose table tennis over basketball in gym class in high school. Needless to say, this was my first race. I might as well make my first race a triathlon! Training would be an excuse get fit, and a great way to celebrate two years of service in Jamaica. As it turns out, neither of us really trained, but we both won the purple monkey award, a special award for those who come in last place!

Receiving the purple monkey award.  Yes, it looks red to me too.

The triathlon consisted of a little bit of open-water ocean swimming, a lot of biking on dirt trails and backroads, and to top it all off a healthy dose of running. We all lined up on the beach, and then charged into the sea at the whistle. My bathing suits had been destroyed by the salt, sun, and handwashing, but my shorts and tank top worked fine for me. I backstroked my way towards shore, where Sammi, being a faster swimmer, was waiting for me. Being slightly unorganized, as things tend to be in developing nations, there was no water at the end of the swimming of the race. A little parched, we donned our clothes and helmets, hopped on our bicycles and started riding.

Within the first 5 miles of riding I passed a racer sitting at the side of the trail with his out-of-commision bicycle. Being the good Jamaican that I am I stopped to see if he needed any help. Roadside assistance in Jamaica is wonderful. If you are stopped on the road for any reason most cars will stop and ask if you need help. And most of those drivers know some mechanic work to help you too. Sammi road up a little later and the two of us helped him patch his bicycle tire, another skill we had learned in Jamaica. Unfortunately, while we were helping him every last racer passed us! Sammi and I are slow people in general (late because I stopped to smell the roses individuals) so this didn’t really bother us too much.

In fact, soon after we started riding again we passed some large mango trees with people eating mangoes below them. Still feeling thirsty from the swim, Sammi suggested we stop and join them. Hey, we’re already in last place and I made us stop to fix the tire, why not? We stopped and ate and chatted, and ate some more. We tried three varieties of mangoes, and got invited back to load our bags before we left the next day. Bellies full we got back on our bicycles again. Well, apparently word got out that there were “two white ladies climbing mango trees!” because every water station we passed people asked us how the mangoes tasted!

We did it!!

We parked our bicycles at the finish line, and began the run. By now, the sun was hot, and we were both tired but happy. As we were coming in for the home stretch, we realized that we were going to run past the house that we were staying in. We had brought two red stripes with us for a celebratory toast, and the opportunity was too fortuitous to pass up. I popped into the house, popped the bottle caps, and popped back onto the road. We left the bottle caps on the beers, which is a Jamaican style of serving beer, which made them convenient travel mugs. We crossed the finish line, beers in hand, to the cheering of our fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, and cries of “we’re going to put you in our newsletter!” from the Treasure Beach women’s society. The triathlon was an allegory for the way we live our lives, its not about the destination, it’s about the journey. The purple monkey will sit proudly on my shelf as a reminder to stop and eat the mangoes!

Proudly cradling our red stripes after the race

Friday, March 23, 2012

Books, Books, and More Books

I would like to publically thank The International Alliance for Children's Literacy for their generous donation of a barrel of books and school supplies. In fact, it was so generous that it was too many books for Westphalia All Age School! I distributed the books around the island to other Peace Corps Volunteers and so their donation has actually helped thousands of children in dozens of schools in many parishes across Jamaica. Big ups to this wonderful organization!