Song of The Open Road

DSC_0209I immensely enjoyed the audiobook version of Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, though I must be honest and say that I probably didn’t NEED the book, as I find myself living with a natural-born vagabonder who has been living this way since he was 15 years old.

But if you’re new to the experience, feel an attraction to the idea of incorporating travel into your life as something intrinsically part of that life, and not just spending a load of money to go for a short, predictable, industry-designed tour, then this book will show you where, and, more importantly, how to start.

Most people think that traveling for extended periods of time is only for the extremely rich, or the extremely irresponsible and feral. But travel as a way of life is an ancient and honourable way of discovering how to become fully human, and discovering oneself as well. And it’s really not as difficult as you’d think. The same measures that a vagabonder takes in order to SAVE money are the very things that also provide that traveler with the most amazing experiences and a more in-depth, satisfying, life-changing encounter with that country. A willingness to eat where the locals do, travel side by side with them in buses or on ferries, stay in locals’ homes, accept invitations to local events, and learn the language of your host country, will give you something that a 10-day holiday by the pool of a hotel catering to foreigners and hanging out with tourists from your own country, can never provide.

Kris and I saved money for just two years…he, working as a boat carpenter for the local fishing industry, I as a salesgirl in an art shop. Okay, we have the boat, which is probably the ultimate way to vagabond because the biggest expenses you will encounter on your travels will always be 1) transportation and 2) accommodation. With our home-built, no-engine, no-electronics, super-basic sailboat, we have cut both those expenses to a fraction of what it would cost to fly around countries, stay in hostels (which, even though cheaper than hotels, can vary greatly from country to country in price, and will eventually take up a lot of your budget), or buy gallons of fuel for a more conventional sailboat.

We don’t have a lot of money, but that’s okay because when we are running low we can look for work, or just decide to head home. There are no iron-clad schedules to follow…we like a country, we stay as long as we can. We don’t like the country, we leave the next week. That said, you’d be amazed at how cheaply you can live in other countries, if you live almost like the locals. In Brazil, we were spending an average of US$2,000 a month. For two people. In Guyana, that’s gone down to an amazing US$600 per month. Either way, both places cost much less than it costs us to live back in Australia, AND we are getting the experiences of a different culture, learning new languages, making friends, and tucking away inspiration for a whole new body of art and creativity for when we return home.

So if traveling and experiencing a new culture at the grassroots level—their food, home life, environs, people, language—gives you a little buzz and thrill of excitement, know that it’s MUCH easier than you think. There’s no need to commit to a period of time, and two months is as legitimate a vagabonding stint as two years. I RECOMMEND this book! It’s inspiring, it’s practical, it’s a better book to have than any Lonely Planet guide, which only leads you down the well-trodden paths, to boringly safe and touristy places, to have uniform experiences like everyone else.

Botany, Baby

It’s impossible to sketch in Guyana, and leave out the greenery. One is surrounded by riverine forests, and on our walks around the surrounding islands we come across interesting plants all the time, so my sketchbook is starting to look a bit like a botanist’s records of the New World.

This flower belongs to the same tree that Kris brought his weird jungle fruit home from. I painted the fruits on postcards, blogged about them here. Found this specimen growing in Gabriel’s Creek.
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I also painted a Cecropia leaf. Cecropias are apparently yummy, as we have found both howler monkeys and sloths in their branches. The Amerindians use the leaves medicinally.

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These pretty flowers smell like jasmine, though it is a small tree and not a shrub at all. A single pink petal encloses the others in the bud…the other petals are white. Grows on Baganara Island, hanging over the water, on the resort grounds.
flowering branch

Note: Most of my blog content these days is from two or three weeks back, because of how difficult it is to get onto the internet; so while my posts may be about terrible, rainy days and so forth, the rain had actually eased by the time I could post about the experience, and we are enjoying a mix of rainy nights and sunny days, at the moment. Since then I have been to Georgetown, even! But I am still working on my posts for that part, and most likely won’t post about them until we get to our next destination. Incidentally, we are hoping to leave Essequibo River on Friday, the 19th, and Guyana itself by the 25th or so. We are headed for Granada, it may take another 10 days or so, so my next posts will start to show up in the first or second week of July.

The Wreck of the Mazaruni

Wreck of the Mazaruni sketchKris was going crazy with the rainy weather, too, and didn’t even have me to talk to, once I got into my painting. At last we decided to go exploring the Essequibo River a bit…rain or no, at least the sailing part would give him something physical to do, and we’d have a different foggy grey jungle view to look at…

We headed back down the river, the way we came when we first arrived. We’d seen a wrecked ship along the banks, halfway down, that had fascinated us…the jungle was taking it over, growing over its bridge and filling the cracks in its hull with vines and ferns. So we headed for the same spot, and anchored for two days near the wreck of the ship “Mazaruni”.

Of course, the first thing I did was sketch the ship…once, in pen on brown bag paper, and then a (less successful) watercolour, in a brand new sketchbook that I had bought at the Darwin airport to use up my Aussie dollars, and decided to finally use.

DSC_0200(My first experience with Moleskine watercolour sketchbooks, I have to say I was very disappointed, the paper is crappy, only 20% cotton and with a tendency to bleed a bit. What gets me is that, for the exorbitant price I paid for the thing, I could have bought nearly 2 pads of Arches 100% cotton watercolour paper. Shoot.)

Kris, on the other hand, went exploring in the dinghy…around the ship, and discovered a creek that ran behind it. Up the creek he saw Morpho butterflies (common in Guyana, but magical nonetheless…Vladimir Nabokov collected these iridescent blue butterflies. These days they are being farmed for jewelry and collectors, so the wild population has managed to recover from the past centuries’ mania for naturalist collections) and a large boa constrictor.

We started calling the creek Gabriel’s Creek, after a scene from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, where Jose Arcadio Buendia and his band of men come upon a galleon smothered in jungle, miles away from any sea.

Scarder, Pauline, and me

Mr. Scarder
Scarder is our butcher in Bartica. We came upon him one day, cleaning and cutting up cow’s heads. they’re used in a dish called “souse”. No part of an animal is wasted here…like many non-Western cultures, every bit can be bought, cooked, and eaten. It’s practical, and it would never occur to people here to cover it up, or pretend that what they’re eating is anything but a dead cow.

Miss Pauline
Also paid a visit to my favorite roti and curry shop…Miss Pauline not only agreed to a photo, but asked for one taken with me, so Kris took this shot.
Me and Pauline, Queen of Curry
Before this photo, I had not looked in a mirror for 7 weeks…we don’t have a mirror on the boat, and I was gauging how I looked by other people’s reactions to me…from the cheeky rastafarians amorous proposals, to the way old ladies or small children smiled at me…

I was shocked by the amount of grey at the temples! On the bright side, I have lost more weight, I am down to 74 kgs. now, from 94 kgs. three years ago. Those too-tight dresses I bought a year ago are now a “relaxed fit”. Yay!

Into the jungle

green world 1As the gloomy days stretched on, I moved from my journal and making postcards on recycled oatmeal boxes, to a small canvas…expanding on the plants and elements of the previous two, I painted these two fantasy jungle scenes, using plants and details both real and imagined.

DSC_0198They match up to form a bigger picture.

Craving sun

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It rained for three weeks, straight. Without sun, the solar panel wasn’t feeding the battery. Couldn’t use the lights on the boat, nor the laptop; certainly there was no internet. No chance to do the laundry. Everything in the boat was damp, musty, smelly, or starting to sprout mold. There was nowhere we could go for a walk on these boggy islands that are technically below sea level and therefore flooded during the wet season. We sat, or lay around for hours at a time, in the dark. There were several days at the beginning of all this when I thought I would have a little melt down. All my energy was starting to funnel into something like suicidal madness. There were times when I wanted to rush screaming out of the boat and jump into the strong current of the river, kicking my legs, churning the water with my arms, risk drowning just to feel alive again.

I caught desperately at the few threads of sanity remaining, and forced them into painting things, instead. Imagined scenes loosely based on the jungle all around us. Mechanically, at first, but as the ideas started to spread, I was pushing paint around with more and more enthusiasm.

It all started with the journal page, above. I went on to make this postcard (gave it to Kris…)

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Not the first time creating something has saved my sanity…I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Monument of Hope

Hope Monument ParkI came to sit in the park and playground of the Monument to Hope in Bartica, a couple of times. There was never anyone there, it was a good place to be alone and sketch. The monument itself was not very sketchable…a grey granit obelisk, erected in memory of the men and women who died when a boat full of escaped convicts arrived in the town at dark and robbed several of the gold-buying businesses.

The swing set was more interesting, though probably not very exotic. I’ve been having some trouble with this whole “travel sketching” idea, to be honest. Because we have been to some exotic places, I guess I felt that I owe it to my sketchbook to document the unusual, the novel, the never-seen-before. Naturally. When else will I get a chance to see these things? But, sorting through the files on my external drives, I came across this little PDF booklet, Start To Draw Your Life, again, by Michael Nobbs, and felt a twinge of longing for the days when I would draw my running shoes, a coffee cup, a tea strainer…nothing fancy, just getting lost in the drawing…

Because something in me loves the overlooked, ordinary, everyday things about life, and let’s face it, even up a river in a jungle, most days are just ordinary days…when you do the laundry, or sit on deck with a paperback novel, or cook oatmeal for breakfast. And if you did a tally of time spent “having adventures” and time spent doing everyday chores, you’d find that we spend probably 70% of our time just plodding along, doing the countless little things that make up a life. And why not paint that? It is as authentic and legitimate a subject as jungle vines and vernacular architecture.

It’s easier, too, to find a subject and paint it, if it’s around the home. Thing is, I love to do the drawing, I love adding colour. I don’t care what the subject is, in the end, I just love the doing. If I have to wait until I am somewhere unusual, or doing something exciting, before I can pull out my sketchbook, I won’t get to draw and paint as often. And that’s frustrating.

So, I know I’m in Guyana, living in a boat on the river, surrounded by howler monkeys and a dawn chorus of hornbills and parrots, but folks, sometimes my sketchbook posts will feature things from my kitchen, or stuff on my desk. And that’s fine, too.

Guyana

Guyana April16My elation at finding an internet café in Bartica was short-lived…that the connection worked on the day I blogged was a fluke, and we returned every day for the next five days but could not get even the most basic homepage to load. At least I managed to inform friends, family, and blog readers about our whereabouts, and let them know that we are fine.

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Things are pretty good here, actually. I know I made Guyana sound like a hostile wilderness, and Bartica like a lawless settlement of primitives and cutthroats, but things here can’t be so crudely stereotyped. The truth is that we feel so much safer in Bartica than we ever did in the Philippines (or even some places in Darwin.)

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Guyana is actually a pretty trouble-free country. Sure, its capital, Georgetown, is over-dramatically portrayed as a city of constant and widespread crime (although I suspect that if you crunched the numbers you’d find it to be no more violent or crime-infested than any big city in the U.S.) Yes, the apple of the government sector is probably wormy with corrupt, self-serving officials (what country’s government is not?), and yes, there is racial tension between the different groups (especially as some groups are more determined to accumulate wealth than others), but the bottom line is that it’s a really big country, it has plenty of resources—bauxite, gold (15 tonnes per year), diamonds, timber forests, granite quarries, fresh water rivers, agricultural land, shrimp, sugar cane and rice exports—and a really small population (less than a million). There is still quite a lot of the pie to go around, and everyone still manages to get a piece of it.

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Seventy-five percent of Guyana’s wilderness remains untouched. Seventy-five percent. The amount of uninhabited, virgin jungles, savannahs, swamplands, and river networks, makes it an extremely precious natural jewel on this otherwise sadly blighted, dying planet. It is a paradise of river rapids, giant waterfalls, freshwater fish (450 species, including the monstrously large arapaima and several species of piranha), fabulous birds (the harpy eagle being the largest), wildlife (sloths, jaguars, giant otters and anteaters, to name very few), highland plateaus so remote that only helicopters reach them. As I said before, this is what the Brazilian part of the Amazon used to be, but is no longer. Guyana is one of the last real wildlife sanctuaries in the world. I’m so glad we’re here to see it now (I wonder how long it will hold out against insatiable loggers, miners, investors, the all-consuming, all-destroying greed that is spreading over the world like a wildfire out of control…)

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Guyanese are aways extremely polite. You never walk into a shop to start talking business right away…you always start with a warm “Good mornin’,” and genuinely asking the other person how they are. They don’t just pass over the pleasantries routinely, but listen to the replies and respond personally. In Bartica, the locals are warm, generous, open-hearted folk who start to treat you like family within 30 minutes of getting to know you. At a little eatery for lunch last Friday, after I praised the lady’s cook-up and chicken curry, Pauline took me into her kitchen to show me how they were made, and before I left she hugged me. That’s a lady I bought lunch from for the first time.

David's House

Folks aren’t wary or uncomfortable with human interaction, yet, and walk right up to me while I am sketching, sit beside me, start talking…conversations start up so easily, and slide into being cheeky within minutes. How often does one enter a shop to buy a mere pack of smokes, and end up slumped over the shop counter, together with the Indian shoplady—both of you roaring with laughter, tears running down your faces?

baganara island 14Twice, now, these quick conversations have culminated in a spontaneous invitation to visit, straightaway, that person’s home, to meet the whole family, scratch the family cat, to eat Creole food, and to sit for an hour with the family matriarch, going through her photo albums of grandkids. It’s just the most incredibly friendly, accepting, sharing culture. For example, after having lunch and spending four hours with David, a chef and sculptor (who pulled over, got out of his car, and came over to where I was sitting in a playground to introduce himself) and his family, his 84-year-old mother took my hand, leaned close to me, and said “Come back whenever you want…I feel like I known you a long time.”

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Is it any wonder that I’ve fallen headlong in love with these people?