Spring 99: Et In Patagonia Ego
Autumn 1998: Life of Raleigh.
Christmas 1997: Golden Christmas

Life of Raleigh

If Raleigh International had existed when Monty Python performed their "luxury" sketch, it would have gone something like this:

"Mosquito bites? Pah! When I was on Raleigh lad, we had more ticks than hot dinners."

-- Hot dinners eh? You were lucky. We had to cook on corrugated roof of local church, wash up with spit from stray cat and strain pondwater for our tea.

-- Tea? Luxury! When I was on Raleigh, we didn’t know meaning of tea. Our tea was sweat we’d scrape off our backs after fifty-mile trek through snake-infested jungle. We had to chew on our own shoelaces we was that hungry.

-- We used to dream of shoelaces!

-- And you tell that to the parents back home and they won’t believe you…

Recounting horror stories from the foreign bush courses through our British blood like the Charge of Light Brigade. Something in our genes programmes us to outdo one another with tales of hardships and brushes with death abroad. Britain probably has more voluntary organisations sending our youth to distant parts of the globe than any other nation. Like the public school regime and our inclement weather, we like to think suffering makes us into better people.

Raleigh International started life as a sailing ship which took a crew of young people on an adventure, teaching them how to sail and work as a team. Fifteen years later, the youth development charity has sent thousands of 18 to 25 year-olds to developing countries to work on community and environmental projects. Although regarded by many as a jolly hockey sticks, somewhat pseudo-military organisation, it is at pains to shake off its Volvo-family image and improve the cross-section of staff and venturers who raise up to Ģ3,000 to join their expeditions. Their Youth Development Programme for example, aims to attract young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, while the number of international venturers increases all the time. Whether Raleigh will ever shed its overgrown scout image is doubtful, but the recipe of a sprinkling of suffering, a measure of altruism and a dash of teamwork and leadership skills certainly seems to go down well with venturers and future employers alike. Just don’t mention the ‘long-drop’ toilet facilities.

Scattered to the four corners of Belize in Central America this spring, over a hundred young Raleigh venturers were hard at work on their horror stories. The hottest, dustiest, least picturesque and most tick-ridden project site on the Belize expedition was in the squatter town of Bella Vista. The closest thing to a ‘pretty view’ was scrubland and the dust-choked Southern Highway. Over a three month period, the venturers built a three-classroom concrete-block primary school from scratch, topped with a shiny new roof and adorned with painted tropical fish.

Initially, a rumour circulated in the village that the foreigners were being paid for their work. None of the villagers came to help out. A public relations campaign soon put paid to the rumour, but then the locals simply thought the venturers were mad. As the opening day loomed, they worked from seven in the morning until seven at night in up to 40 degree heat to complete the school. They camped in scraggy secondary forest on the edge of town, had to transport their water from a well a mile away in a wheelbarrow and were woken every morning at four by packs of dogs, followed by cockerels at six. Bella Vista was voted the best project site of the Belize expedition. Although its popularity was in fact due to the two project managers who ran the site, only Britishers would think such a place was in any way nice, and sing a song to the tune of ‘Bear Necessities’ about it afterwards.

Another, more subtle example of this very British tradition are the dive sites which Raleigh run. Belize is world-renowned for the barrier reef which lines the length of its Caribbean coastline. Raleigh has tapped the reef’s potential to attract volunteers since its first expedition to the country in 1992. Two remote, turquoise-ringed, palm-peppered islands provide the bases for their dive sites. In their first week venturers are taught how to scuba dive by instructors. They’re then set to work amassing baseline data on sedimentation levels caused by changing land use on the mainland. Days are spent diving, lolling about on cricket-white beaches, writing letters, snapping sunsets and watching frigate birds fish for their supper. Tans deepen, clothes are shed and the underwater world of wonders the venturers have discovered never ceases to amaze.

Sounds idyllic? Exactly. Far too Robinson Crusoe. What we need are slithery boa constrictors, hairy tarantulas, scrabbling nocturnal crabs, thorny, stinking mangroves, a measly litre a day to wash with and invisible sandflies with bites like Jaws. Oh, and an eight-foot high, fly infested Baywatch tower long-drop. It simply wouldn’t be Raleigh without a plethora of nasties and gripes to write home about.

And then there’s the food. Although the venturers showed a remarkable capacity to improvise on a theme, and even went so far as to build ovens to bake bread and pizza, there’s only so much you can do with corned beef and dehydrated packets of soya mince day after day. Even the weekly luxury of porridge ā la raisins and condensed milk failed to inspire after a month or two. Much as the suffering wasn’t silent, venturers still extracted some sick pleasure from counting how many weevils they could find in their morning mess tins. Seconds anyone?

Conversations in camps revolve around the perennial themes of food, sex, bowel movements, childhood television programmes and fantasies about hot baths and pints of bitter. Everyone knows your beeswax, your pet hates, your pets’ names, the details and number of your amorous encounters and your all-important A-level grades. Hell is other venturers, Sartre might well have declared, had he been on Raleigh.

But without the bites, the runs and the absolutely essential ingredient of work not dissimilar to slave labour, no self-respecting Brit would even dream of joining a Raleigh International expedition. You couldn’t face your friends down the pub without at least one close encounter with a boa to recount. Life-long friendships, unforgettable memories, edified characters? Pah! Luxury!

Golden Christmas

In the village, the tinsel, fairy lights and coloured balls, the plastic pine trees, crackers and plump, scarlet Father Christmases go up one by one. Children are good for once, blackmailed by the prospect of presents by the bucket.

The streets of El Pauji, a map-prick in the bush of southeastern Venezuela, have been deserted for weeks now. No-one meets in the evenings around the general store, or sits outside on plastic chairs sipping beers. The chickens seem to sense something is afoot. They cluck far from the houses and pick listlessly at dog-ends, eyes peeled.

Out-of-towners start to arrive in the week running up to the 25th. Families of Pemon Indians, who might have walked for days across the patchwork of plains and forests of the Gran Sabana, laden with food from their forest clearings, are re-united. The women prepare litres of kachiri (manioc root gut-rot) for weeks in advance of the "Krismasi" Festival -- the Christmas of the anglophile missionaries of earlier this century -- and the men do a grand job of drinking it all.

The Brazilians (the border is only a few hours away) roll in too, in cars no-one would think could make it down the 50 miles of suspension-bashing road. Out come the guitars, the bongos and the bottles of rum, the cigarettes and songs, and it’s only three in the afternoon. Where’s the party, they want to know, unaware that they’re it.

Doņa Aura, the village matriarch, likes Christmas. Her assorted offspring come back to the nest and she likes to think her gaudy, bleached decorations outshine everyone else’s. Business is good in her restaurant. She gets a chance to hear news from the Outside, and regales visitors with the local gossip, of which there is plenty.

Nothing escapes Doņa Aura. She holds court by the door, barking orders at her youngest daughter, arms folded across her bosom-belly, cackling at her own vulgar jokes. Stray, mangy dogs snoop about hoping for scraps, until a stone in the backside sends them back to their bone-dreams in the shade.

As the 25th approaches, the men start trickling back into the village from the myriad creeks they’ve been panning. The general store becomes a hub of activity. The ancient scales come out of their box and preside over the once-blue table outside. Tambara, who shuffles the shop -- ‘runs’ wouldn’t be altogether accurate -- tries to keep up with the stream of miners. Arguments break out. Curses are exchanged, tall stories elongated and beer bottles emptied. The name of Tambara’s store translates as ‘The Fight for the Fiver’.

The miners extract hollowed tubes of bamboo from inside their trousers, and delicately decant their gold dust onto the dish. A tense silence rules while all eyes follow the listing, tick-tock motion of the apparatus. Tambara had some electronic scales at some point, but no-one trusted them. The weight finally established, bundles of notes are handed over, more gripes about the price aired, and more beer bought.

Tambara was one of the men who found the second-largest diamond in South American history, the Barabas or Bolivar stone. One hundred and fifty four carats of billion year-old carbon. Tambara and his partners sold it for a pittance, and then the one whose name stuck to the stone’s, Barabas, scarpered with most of the money.

Next door, in his tin sweat box, Jose the Brazilian diamond-buyer is also hard at work. Diamonds are trickier than gold. It’s harder to determine a stone’s quality. Some of the men will have been working alone for weeks, camped deep in the forest. Lonely, scared and hungry. If a buyer then claims there’s a hairline crack in a diamond, just to get the price down, things can get ugly. The nearest National Guard outpost is an hour and a half away, and they have to hitch-hike to get to the scene of a crime. Miners honour a complex verbal code of conduct, but "my gun is bigger than yours" also seems a popular way of settling disagreements.

A schedule of yuletide events slowly takes shape. The local bar, recently equipped with a satellite dish and a dance-floor, is plugging a happy hour till 7. The community hall will host a Bingo Baile, a dancing bingo ball, until the electricity grinds to a halt at 9, or someone donates a generator for the night. The local band isn’t quite sure whether to play at Christmas or on New Year’s Eve. There’s a party at so-and-so’s, bring a bottle.

The Brazilians have already run out of food and, worse, alcohol. A trip to town three hours away is in the pipeline. Their hangovers seem to grow more severe every time I see them. Their afternoons are spent down by the rivers, being pummelled back to Earth by the various waterfalls.

On Christmas Eve, my English friend volunteers under duress to walk the two mile round-trip to buy the rum. He returns an hour later, walking none-too steadily despite a remarkable improvement in the fluency of his Spanish, one bottle clear to the half-way mark. A dented cauldron makes its annual appearance, fruit is sliced, sugar and water added, bottles emptied, and we’re off : caipirinhas all round. Later we shamble over to a neighbour’s house, draped in sheets as the Wise Kings, singing English carols and bearing gifts. We missed the Happy Hour, and so too the satellite link-up. By then, even the dancing and bingo were looking doubtful, although we did make it into the village eventually.

I don’t remember getting home, but I do recall telling a miner at some point that in my country Christmases were white.

"Ha!" he said, producing a nugget from his pocket. "Out here, my friend, they’re golden!"

The golden man? Well, not quite, but certainly the closest I’ll get to El Dorado.