Craving sun


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…)

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

Embroidery on marbled fabric

Kehaar on marbling2A week of rain…it just pours and pours. Nowhere we can really go on days like these, and not much we can do on a dark, gloomy boat. I sat in the crepuscular shadows and stitched a tiny sailboat against a roiling sea of marbled green and blue canvas. It captures the feeling of being alone on a wild sea, perfectly…

Kehaar on marbling1We marble our own fabric; this is a piece we made for an exhibition in early 2014. It was then that I figured out one good way of combining marbled fabric with hand embroidery…rather than try and tackle the intricacies of the marbling patterns, themselves, I try to see the print as an environment for some small motif…a hut on an island, a cat hunting a rabbit in tall grass, gold fish in a lily pond… It works well, and I love doing these small designs, as the embroidery is finished in a few hours, very satisfying to start and complete a project on a single day!

Kris requested this piece; he wants to frame it and hang it next to his chart table. The sailboat is just under 5 cm. (2 in.) high. Worked in split stitch, couching,satin, and french knots.

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 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.

Bartica 2 - 11

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.)

Bartica 2 - 04

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.

Baganara Island jungle04

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…)

table roots4

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.”

Guyana April06

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

Jungle Boogie

Reality can be so much stranger than fiction.

baganara 05-12 004

Take this unidentified jungle fruit that Kris picked up on one of his exploratory walks around the island next to which we are moored. The thing is unbelievable.

The size of a grapefruit, it smells faintly of crushed flowers. The bright orange pulp in the center is wet and sticky, and carries numerous little oval seeds. The fruit, a smooth white ball when unripe, splits open into 15 clean segments, each one tipped with a black unguis. It’s like a glowing jewel protected by fierce talons. Something out of a sci-fi movie.

jungle boogie postcard

These watercolour postcards of the fruit are very different from my collection of safe little floral sprigs and predictable foliage, no? Simultaneously more authentic, and yet improbably fantastic. Surreal.

jungle book postcardWe went for a row around Baganara Island and took some pictures. Baganara Island flowers6

Baganara Island jungle08Baganara Island flowers8The variety of trees, all growing together on one small island, was wonderful to behold…so many different kinds of leaves, seed pods, flowers, all growing willy-nilly. We didn’t see any animals (we were probably making too much noise, or it was the wrong time of day) but have been told by the people on Baganara Island that there are howler monkeys, sloths, toucans, yellow-headed vultures, and labba on the island. We’ll definitely go exploring the island on foot over the coming weeks, hoping to catch sight of some of these creatures!between islands1

Baganara Island jungle05table roots3

I was calling it ‘jungle’, but we have since realised that all this dense wilderness—the towering trees, these massive buttress tree roots—around us is already secondary-growth forest.table roots2

When Kris went hitchhiking for three days into the interior of the country (he was trying to reach Kaieteur, and got to within 10 miles of the famous waterfall, but had to turn back because the boatmen at the last outpost wanted US$200 to take him that small distance. One way. Well, it’s $250 to take a small plane out there and back, so he’s decided to book a flight, instead.) the roads took him past jungle where the trees were three times the height of the ones we see growing around Bartica. Aerial roots as thick as a man’s leg hung down in dense curtains from the tops of these giants, and dozens of other trees had taken root in these aerial tangles, so that swaying groves of trees were thriving in mid-air. If you stepped a few metres to either side of the potholed logging and mining roads, the light among the trees faded, and the snarl of jungle stretched away in perpetual gloom. That there are still places like this in the world!

Along one stretch of road, their Bedford truck passed a couple of Amerindian men, walking along. Wearing jeans and wristwatches, but bare-chested, each one carried a hunting bow and small bundle of arrows.

The mind does somersaults in excitement.

So far off the beaten track, I think I’m on another planet…

sorry for dropping off the face of the planet. We left Brazil on the 1st of April, because Kris suddenly became obsessed with going somewhere that wasn’t thronged by other yachties and hordes of tourists. Our last day in Jacare the internet was down, so I didn’t even get a chance to post a notice on my blog saying that we’d be out of touch for a while.

After 20 days at sea, here we are, in Guyana…not French Guiana, where all the other yachties go, nor Suriname, which is also known as Dutch Guiana, but the Republic of Guyana, formerly British Guyana, but now an independent country. Famous for the Jim Jones massacre, where some preacher from the U.S. convinced/forced his thousands of followers to kill themselves to fulfill some crazy divine plan he’d become obsessed with.

We are 40 miles up the Essequibo River…a huge river of yellow water, full of small islands crowded with jungle and massive trees. We are anchored in front of Bartica, a gold and diamonds mining frontier town. Everyone has gold fever, the town is full of miners, 4×4 army trucks come in and out, taking all the men out into the jungle, where they dredge or pan or dig for gold for a few weeks, then come back to Bartica to get drunk and live in the whorehouses until their gold is gone.

It took me a week to locate the only internet cafe that actually works…it’s in someone’s living room, and as I write this, a young lady is watching The Exorcist nest to me.

I don’t know how often I will be able to write…things pretty much cost their weight in gold, around here. We live on river fish that look like piranhas, steaks of Arapaima (this monster fish grows up to 4 metres long), and Kris has been threatening to bring home a capybara to cook some time next week.

Plenty of good hardwood in this town, so Kris has been repairing things on the boat. Plan is to stay until the repairs have been made, Then Kris wants to hike 5 days through the jungle to reach a massive waterfall in the inbterior…it’s called Kaieteur, and supposedly rivals its more famours neighbour, Iguazu. There’s quite a lot of climbing to do, and I don’t think I can join him on this. I will see if I can take a small plane tour to see the falls, otherwise, I’ll sit at home for a week, going crazy. :)

This is the real deal, as far as Off The Beaten Track travel is concerned. The jungles here are still pretty much intact. tourism doesn’t come here, this is what the Amazon used to be, before loggers, cattle men, and thousands of tourists descended upon it….We are the only sailboat in Bartica,, and possibly also the only tourists right now. Hotels and things here are for the miners, not for visitors on sightseeing tours. As a result, people are genuinely curious and unbelievably friendly.

Although part of South America, Guyanians consider themselves West Indians…they play cricket, not soccer, lots of reggae, marijuana for sale in the market, folks speak Creole and English, and the food has been really wonderful…pepperpot, cook up, roti and curries (after the British abolished slavery, the former African slaves of the Dutch refused to work the sugar cane, so they had to bring Indians from India over to work as indentured labourers. Their descendants remain, consider themselves Guyanians, and brought their food and culture with them), lots of rice and beans, LOTS and LOTS of chillies. I am in Habanero heaven, it almost killed me, the first day. I overdid the pepper sauce.

That’s it for now, noi pictures, sorry, I didn’t think I would actually find this elusive internet cafe today. Maybe next time.

Just wanted to drop a line, reassure everyone that we are okay, that we’ll be here another month or two, and the next stop will probably be Trinidad/Tobago.

Brazil’s beautiful books

This is not my photo. This is Ademar Ferreira Mota, a.k.a. Chocolate, 63. He is a camelo from Itajai, Litoral Centro-Norte, and was the star of a documentary called O Vendedor de Versos . Click on the image to see the report and a youtube video of Chocolate.

Cycling along the very touristy Tambau Beach on his way to the money changer on Avenida Nego, Kris stopped to check out a camelô (street vendor with a rolling/moveable cart) selling cheap little pocketbooks on the esplanade. With ugly paper covers and dark grey paper inside, the tiny books are just something for people to read as they lie on their towels in the sun, and then throw away before leaving the beach. Just seeing books for sale on the beach was weird: to think that people would choose to read! Kris assumed they would be nasty little romance, crime, or espionage novelettes— bite-sized disposable pulp fiction for the masses, but when he browsed the covers he was amazed to find authors he knew well: Julio Cortazar. Mario Vargas Llosa. Dostoevsky. Joseph Conrad. Dickens. Chekhov, of all people. It was astounding. To occupy themselves while sunbathing, Brasileiros read the classics. God almighty.

I found the same thing when I went to check out the bookstores in João Pessoa’s shopping malls; what strikes us is the high quality of the books available.

Livraria LeituraI mean two things by “quality”. First, the selection of titles/ authors is delightful. Charles Bukowski’s poetry, for instance, is conspicuous. I saw the complete essays of Virginia Woolf, in a gorgeous edition, with a jacket covered in velvet-flocked scarlet leaves and flowers; a massive tome of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, with all the fantastic illustrations Harry Clarke did for them. The Complete Odes of Pablo Neruda (this one had me sorely tempted.) Just hundreds of the best literature, art, philosophy books, all beautifully presented and prominently displayed at the front of the bookstores, not just relegated to a small shelf in the back.

I also mean the physical forms of the books themselves, the books as objects. Fine publishing seems to be alive and well in Brazil; there were so many really beautifully produced books: embossed jackets, stamped foil titles, gilt or coloured page edges, ribbon bookmarks, sometimes a mix of different papers in one book, coloured printing on thick, soft ivory paper like cloth. Sometimes the text was printed in colour, too. Some of the books had deluxe finishing touches, like embroidered fabric bellybands, or clamshell boxes with leather straps and buckles. Some of the art books were oversized, nearly two feet long and a foot wide, with black & white photographs printed in silver halide.

A bookstore here is like a church for people who worship good design and beautifully made things. I spent hours in every one, looking at everything, though I could hardly buy these books (and I really longed to be able to buy these books in English. Some titles, like Neruda’s Complete Odes, are out of print in English. Very sad, as they are poems rich enough to eat…)

Once or twice I found a pretty book and was pleasantly surprised to find that it cost the same as a cheap hole-in-the-wall lunch, so I skipped lunch, bought the book, and snuck it home.

Po de Lua (Moondust) by Clarice Freire

Books from Brazil

Ivory pages with blue edges, this pretty book looks like someone’s Moleskine sktchbook, with all the text written by hand, and little drawings in coloured pencil. Not sure if it’s a poem, but the subtitle is “To lighten the seriousness of things”; I think it’s light, inspirational philosophy.

Freire is a young Pernambucana, from Recife (just two hours away from here). She plays with the way words are made up, connecting different parts to each other like Lego, coining new ideas and meanings.

Books from Brazil

Books from BrazilClarice Freire’s Po de Lua website has more of her drawings and poems.

Books from Brazil

Por Que Oxala Usa Ekodide by Descóredes M Dos Santos, with illsutrations by Lenio Braga, 1966.

Books from Brazil

Ekodide is a feather from an Amazon parrot, used in the initiation rituals of Orixa (Orisha) and Candomblé. This beautiful book, with its quirky handwritten text and powerful drawings by Lenio Braga, tells the story of how the ekodide came to be used in the rituals.

Books from Brazil

Books from Brazil

Fantasias by Flávio de Carvalho, with poems by Katia Canton

These gouache paintings were done by Carvalho, an architect and designer, as costumes for the ballet performance A Cangaceira, in 1953. Contemporary poems by American Katia Canton accompany each of the 15 designs.

Books from Brazil

Books from Brazil

Books from Brazil

Books from BrazilBuying brand new books is A Big No-No on this trip. Our budget can’t handle such extravagance and the rule is self-imposed. We are supposed to stick to second-hand bookstores, or (better yet) swap the books we’ve finished reading for different ones on the yacht club’s shelves (usually a dismal, ragtag selection of pulp novels), but I simply couldn’t resist these three art books, and bought them as my souvenirs of Brazil, as well as for the inspiration.

Find your tribe : : Arte Nomade

A month in Brazil had passed, and we had acquired enough rudimentary Portuguese to express ourselves and hold simple conversations. We started looking to establish a rapport with some locals. This usually (but not always) means locating the artists. A shared enthusiasm for creativity and skills is another way of ‘speaking’. This affinity can fill the gaps—or, sometimes, outright replace—imperfect language skills. So when we spotted the Arte Nomade bus, parked under a tree across the Jacaré riverside park, we headed straight for it. Up close, we saw that the visual impact of the bus was created by a surprising combination of unexpected elements, each layer cranking our amazement up another notch as we came to understand what we were seeing, and how it had been used.

First, there was an encrustation of assorted stainless steel bits and pieces, all skillfully welded together to form elaborate sculptural ‘growths’. These were riding spurs, cooking pots, colanders, forks and spoons, canisters, pipes, twisted cables, rings, screws, buttons, bolts, perforated sheets…a lifetime of saving or scavenging stainless steel from workshops and garage sales, it seemed, had been welded into this gleaming reef of metal.

Tucked into the stainless steel’s nooks and crannies, and creating a remarkable contrast with its metallic sheen, were animal parts (horns, skulls, bones), an occasional cameo of Krishna or some moon goddess, or a baby doll’s head looking soft and pinkly incongruous among the silver pieces;

there were dried plant parts (branches, roots, pinecones, seed pods), large glass globes (marbles, old fishing buoys), hunks and clusters of quartz crystals

(the main crystal, mounted on the front of the bus, was the size of a loaf of bread!), and, perhaps most astounding of all, living plants…succulents, cacti, tiny leguminous sprouts.To a Western eye, perhaps this assemblage would come across as gruesome, or creepy, but from the point of view of Eastern philosophy, this was no more than the way things are: Life, Death, Rebirth. The Soul and the Body and the different elements…that 8-tonne-bus crawled with symbols, like a hippie van that had made it all the way to Nirvana, and then had come back.
We introduced ourselves to its owners. Pardal, and his partner Rosa, were uncompromising artists who had quit their day jobs, decades earlier, and were committed to living solely for the creation of their art. Not only did they support themselves by this work, but they refused to compromise their artistic visions and pander to the tastes and understanding of the general public to make themselves more popular. That would be hard to do in developed countries like the U.S. or Australia…imagine how difficult it would be to do this in a not-quite-stable economy like Brazil’s!

Pardal designed and built one-of-a-kind sculptures, incorporating stainless steel, plants, crystals and waterworks, much as he had on his bus (only the small fountain [!] on the back of the bus wasn’t operational at the time of these photographs!). Rosa handled his public relations, running around and discussing the sculptures with their clients. She also made beautiful one-off pieces of jewellery, artfully distorting spoons and forks (you could hardly recognise them) into settings for semi-precious stones, crystals, shards of rock with tiny fossilised fish or prehistoric plants, a curl of horn, a nosegay of feathers.

We became frequent visitors to the Arte Nomade bus…any time Pardal’s motorbike—also smothered in his signature style—was parked by the door, we knew he was home. He always had time for us, making a pot of jasmine tea to share and then sitting in the doorway of his crazy bus, talking about the effects of art upon life, the meaning of being human, how to live in a genuine and meaningful way, and about his sculpture ideas for an upcoming festival in Europe.

A gentle, ageing Buddhist who’d spent many years in India—vegetarian, non-drinker, non-smoker (also, contrary to the stereotype, he didn’t use ganja)—I remember him telling me, one night, as I slapped at mosquitos on my legs: “You know, every time you kill one of these, you are destroying a really amazing, tiny, tiny mechanical engine…unique in the world and impossible for our finest engineers to replicate!” He never scolded or preached, though, and this was said with a mischievous smile. He had the sort of eyes one would describe as ‘twinkling”.

Most of the time he never spoke ill of anything or anyone. His attitude to the foibles of the world was “It exists, and so there is a reason it exists…we don’t have to know the reason.” He had an incredible faith in the human being, which he didn’t talk about so much as put into practice. He never locked his bus when he and Rosa went away—despite it being all that they had, and full of expensive welding and metalworking tools; his motorcycle didn’t require a key to start. He, too, believed in the “problem with a gift in its hands”, saying that if anything was stolen, it was to lighten their burden of possessions or to prepare them for something better; he also believed in karma.

Once I found him in a slightly world-weary mood, frustrated by the stupidity of strangers who would knock on his door and then seem to want to argue with him, or attack his beliefs and lifestyle, just for the heck of it. As though it weren’t enough for them to live their conventional, phoney, dissatisfied lives; they must also browbeat others into conforming to the same (and then they’d want to take selfies with his bus.) Twice I heard him (mis)quote Mark Twain: “The more I know of man, the more I like animals,” and a tired look would flitter over his face. He’d had enough of the crowds, and he longed to take his mobile home, motorbike, and Rosa off into the empty hinterland, where they could live like hermits, tend a vegetable garden, and be surrounded by only nature. “But,” he shrugged, “it is not always so easy, nowadays.”

Even less settled than we are, Pardal had neither postal nor e-mail address. When we left Jacaré, we lost our only means of communicating with him…namely, to walk along the beach to where his Arte Nomade bus sat, in the shade of a tree, overlooking the rio Paraiba, and call his name through the open door of the mobile home. I wonder whether we’ll ever see or hear of him again.