Friday, October 12, 2007

Back To Reality

Saturday I got up and looked out of my window at Emily and Dwayne's house. More snow had fallen overnight. They took me to the airport and, needless to say, I had a good cry.

Back in Anchorage there were cars and roads and people and bustle - all the things I had got used to being without in the past week. Marti from the Authors To Schools programme kindly picked me up and took me to my hotel. On the way we stopped off at her house and, as we were driving along her street, there was a moose and her baby casually standing in someone's front garden. I went all the way to the Bush and never saw a moose. Then, in a suburb of Anchorage here were two about 6 feet away from me. I expected to round the corner and see a black bear sitting on a porch with a can of Budweiser and a bag of Cheetos.

I was at the airport at 3.30 the next morning. Checking in with absolutely no voice was good fun. When I got on the plane in Seattle I was starting to feel a little rough. I had the window seat - J. This Spanish (I thought) guy got on and said "I think you're in the wrong seat." "No", I said, "I'm seat J". "I'm H, and that comes after J unless I didn't study well at school." I refrained from saying that yes indeed, he didn't study well at school and just said "G is there, J is here." Had he politely said "Oh, I really wanted a window seat" I would have got up and let him have it. But he was so rude. He was still ranting on when the big sweaty guy in front of me got up and said "She's in J. It's the window seat. That's G over there." Thank you, my knight in sweaty armour.

So, Mr Annoying sat down. Despite the fact that my nose was blocked, the stench of the cheap aftershave that he had apparently bathed in about five minutes before wafted over me a really strong smelling cheap aftershave. There is no suitable simile to describe the fug of gag-inducing Eau De Stink. Oh goodie, 9 and a half hours. By the end of it, I was going to be hallucinating about diving into a swimming pool filled with the stuff. It couldn't possibly get worse. He turned to the guy on the other side of him "I'm from Sicily." Excellent. I had seriously pissed off a mafia don. There would be no sleep for me just in case I woke up with a horse's head on the headrest next to me.

I had a look at the list of films I could watch. Very unlike me I chose a horror film. Now, I'm not good with horror so I seldom watch it. I'll admit it, I'm a wuss. But the listing had a film called 1408, based on a Stephen King film, and starring John Cusack. Now, I like John Cusack and I thought "OK, I'm on a plane with 600 other people, the screen is 2 inches square, I'm sitting next to a man who smells like a sewer - how scary can this film be?" So I started to watch it, and it was pretty good. Not too scary although I did squeak a couple of times. They brought the food round, I carried on watching. They came to collect the trays. My eyes were glued to the screen. I lifted up my tray to pass to the air stewardess as she came round. Something really REALLY scary happened in the film. Well, what else could I do? I shrieked (which luckily came out a mix between croak and squeak), and flung my tray up in the air. Bits of food, plastic cutlery, cups, little plastic trays, and a roll which was so hard I could have battered my seatmate to death with it, flew into the air. Sadly, what goes up must come down. And it did. All over Don Smelleone and the couple in the row in front. They were picking bits of pasta out of their hair for the rest of the flight. Whoops.

So, that was the end of my wonderful vacation. I had the time of my life. So many special memories, so many friends made, so many new experiences. The scenery was breathtaking, but even that was dwarfed by the amazing experience I had in the Bush. I loved speaking to the children in the schools and came home with a huge bag full of drawings and stories. I have a few of them stuck to my fridge and will be rotating them regularly. I left some money as prizes in a writing competition and I've already had a few entries - some of them really good.

Apart from the trip being a lot of fun, I learned so many things - including that you can eat brown bears but not black bears, that I need more practice driving an ATV, that I can embarrass myself by crying every day, that ice cream made of fish and Crisco tastes delicious, and that the duct tape holding in the window of a plane doesn't need to be scary. Mostly, I learned that I would love to go back to Alaska one day, and if I do, I will definitely be going back to Aniak, Kalskag and Sleetmute.

Thank you to everyone for bearing with me and reading my nonsense, and for your comments either here or via e-mail. It's been a lot of fun, and almost made me wish I kept a regular blog. I shall be updating the blog at least once more, mid November time, just to report on the competition and updates on things happening in the Bush - I'm keeping in touch with as many of the teachers and children who can put up with me. If anyone wants me to let them know when the post goes up (or if you just want to say hi), please e-mail me at donnaem at gmail dot com.

Until then, I shall leave you with some more photos of gorgeous scenery, friends made, and the wonderful teachers and children of the Kuskokwim River villages.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Last Day In The Bush

Friday was spent at the High School in Aniak, doing writing exercises with several classes of the older children. I varied the exercises depending on the class. It was a fun day. I found that the High Schoolers in general during my visit were some of the most difficult to get through to, but also some of the most rewarding. You could just tell when they got it, and the light went on, and they started to enjoy it. There are some very intelligent and creative students. One told me he wasn't going to be able to write me a story, he just couldn't do it. Two days later he sent me a really imaginative and well written story.

The last class of the day was especially interesting as it was conducted by video conference, with 3 students in the room, and 3 at 2 other schools. It made for an interesting hour. In that one we talked about music and how songs can hae stories in them, and be the jumping off point for ideas. We discussed the lyrics of a Nickelback song (Rock Star). Great fun. When I was their age, I would have loved to have had their teacher - he was great.

This picture shows one of the aspects of life in the Bush I really like. All the schools have pictures around the walls of the teachers and elders who have been important to the school and the village.

Every day I've had at least one 'stop me in my tracks' moment. This one was when I was doing the radio commercial exercise with one of the classes and the 4 boys who made up one of the groups were sitting with blank stares and blank pieces of paper. "OK, if you were picking up a book right now, what sort of story would you like to read about?" "Cryptozoology" said one. "Errrr, and what's that?" said I. So he then went into a very articulate and technical speech about what it is - having to do with creatures whose existence has not been proved. So they ended up coming up with a really inventive story about Bigfoot.

These students have lots of hidden depths. One of the girls is in an organisation called the Dragon Slayers - a teen volunteer around-the-clock emergency rescue team set up by the fire chief. They fight fires and respond to medical emergencies in Aniak and the surrounding towns. They are all aged between 13-18 and are mostly girls. Again, I was struck by how these young people have done so much more in their lives than I have, despite the fact that they live in a small village, cut off from what we would consider civilisation.

I gave out the rest of my gifts. I was pleased that I had had enough pens, pencils, notebooks and cookies so that all of the children I met got something. And since the aspersions have been cast by Paulie Walnuts - one of my dearest friends - and by my own FATHER, here is a photo of some of the children with their treats. I think, gents, that you will now have to give up on spreading this vicious rumour that I ate all the biscuits.

In the afternoon there was a pep rally for the whole school for a girls volleyball game being held that evening (between the Aniak Halfbreeds and the Kalskag Grizzlies. There was a poetry reading, a volleyball game between the teachers and the girls' team, and they also gave me a round of applause, which was lovely, if blush-inducing. It was a lovely wind down to my week and, as well as watching proceedings I sat chatting to one of the High School students - Amanda, and we were going ga-ga over a chihuahua puppy that someone had brought in. Ginger was dressed in a little coat that said 'Brunettes have more fun'.

After the pep rally it was home for a quick bite to eat before the volleyball game. Aniak's only restaurant closed down recently, and is currently awaiting new ownership. They do, however, have a fast food outlet. They have a pizza hut. I don't mean Pizza Hut, I mean a hut where Esther makes the most delicious pizzas. Really yummy.

The volleyball game was good fun. It's a real village event, and the hottest thing happening in Aniak on a Friday night. Children from the Elementary School were coming in and out and when they saw me I got hugs and waves. And one little boy with a cheeky face came and sat next to me and said "I enjoyed writing stories. When are you coming back?"

A little girl came up and said "My sister wants to see you outside." Blimey - the last time I was at school and someone said 'my sister wants to see you outside' a girl twice as big as me wanted to steal my lunch money and my maths homework (ha! more fool HER since I can't count). So, heart in mouth I went out and, phew, Amanda was there with her husky Sunshine. The family has about 10 dogs, but Sunshine is her special one. So we chatted for a while and I got licked to death by Sunshine. I really liked Amanda. She is a quiet, caring, thoughtful girl, wise beyond her 13 years, and with a smile that lights up her face.

After a while I went back inside and watched the Halfbreeds beat the Grizzlies, which went down well in the gym. A lot of the spectators had relatives who played on both teams, but the loyalty seems to be to your village rather than your relatives and friends :o)

Back at Emily and Dwayne's there was a knock at the door. "Donna, it's for you" said Emily. For me? Has the patience of the villagers finally been exhausted? Have they come en masse to run me out of town? But no - it was Amanda. In her quiet voice she said "When I took Sunshine back home I thought, 'what would Donna not have back in Scotland?' so I made you this." 'This' was a piece of caribou antler which she had sawed off one of the caribou her family had caught, and she had scratched on one side 'Aniak' and on the other 'Alaska'. Also a little box of beautiful shiny stones. I burst into tears and gave her a huge hug. What a way to end my last day in the Bush, with the friendship and generosity that I encountered everywhere during my week here.

And on my last day here it snowed. Just a bit, but that's now the start of winter. By the end of October the place will be covered in snow, and it will last until about april time. The wide, fast flowing Kuskokwim River will freeze to a depth of 5 or 6 feet, and it will be thick enough to drive on. Hard to believe. I would love to see it. And I'd love to whiz up and down the frozen river in a snowmobile.

Well, only one or two more posts left to go - I'm sure you will be pleased to know. If you've stuck with me so far...what the hell's wrong with you people?!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Mmmm...Blubber For Dinner

This is a picture outside the back of Emily's house. I could see both ends of this rainbow - it was beautiful.

Today I was on familiar territory - back in Aniak in the Elementary School where I had spent Monday afternoon. Surprisingly enough, the teachers and children all seemed happy to see me back. There were cries of "You came back!" And "How long will you be here?" and "I drew you a picture Miss Donna." It was like coming home :o)

Some classes had written stories for me after I had visited them earlier in the week. Mr Brock's kindergarten class sat like little angels while I read to them one of the books I had brought for them.

Mr Henry's First Graders recited along with me as we read out the story 'We're Going on A Bear Hunt'. They knew all the words and it was great fun. They then all drew pictures for me, and finally they each read out a page of the book they are working on about bears (here they are pictured with a page from their book.

With the 5th and 6th graders in the afternoon, I had taken along a set of Harris Burdick posters and as a group the children made up a story about one of those. It shows someone coming down the stairs, a tiny door in the wall, and a rolled up carpet that appears to have something inside it, and has the caption "He could have sworn he had seen the doorknob turn." I asked the children questions, for suggestions as to what was behind the door (an elf, a baby, a mouse, a bear, an alien) and what was wrapped up inside the carpet (a ghost, some treasure, a giant, the alien again (another class decided it was Mike Myers which was hilarious). We took votes where there were lots of suggestions for how the story should go. They came up with the most wonderful story about a boy who opened the door to find an evil elf standing there. The elf said "Give me my treasure." The carpet was a magic carpet and the gold goins were hidden inside, so the boy got on the magic carpet (not realising that the elf had caught hold of the carpet and was flying along with him). The magic carpet went to Iraq (we had lots of suggestions including Anchorage, Disneyland, Scotland and Antartica but the vote went to Iraq). As they were flying over a village in Iraq a missile hit the carpet and the pot containing the old coins broke. "What happened next?" I asked. "It was raining gold coins over the village" said one of the girls. Wow.

The teacher went onto Amazon and immediately ordered a set of the posters (I would have left her them but I had already promised them to one of the teachers in Kalskag once I had finished with them - they went down really well with all ages - all the children loved making up stories. With the older ones I sometimes then showed them another and we talked about it for a few minutes and I then asked them to write a short story about it. Having done the same exercise in a group, they then had the confidence to let their imaginations really run wild. One of the other posters is a man holding a chair over his head, and a lump under the rug. I got some great stories for that one.

So the day passed all too quickly. That evening it was the potlatch supper. Lots of Dwayne's relations came over. I lost track of who was who, but there were aunts and uncles and cousins, and Dwayne's grandma, who was a wonderful lady. Some of the children brough me gifts of pictures, and some of the adults also bought me gifts. I got 2 jars of preserved salmon, and a pack of the lovely salmon jerky stuff I'd had earlier in the week. One lady brought me some salmon recipes that she had made into a card with pictures of the family's fish camp, which was lovely. A couple of the recipes were for dishes which people had brough - including the most delicious salmon dip which I really MUST soon as I can find out where I can buy the 'liquid smoke' the recipe calls for.

Also on the menu was baked salmon, Russian pie (salmon and vegetables with a pastry lid (delicious), salmon in breadcrumbs, and then the two things I was half dreading, half dying to try - muktuk and aqutak (a-GOO-duk). The muktuk were little slivers of meat - about two thirds pale pink and a third black. The pale pink was whale blubber, the black was whale skin. The pink had a really nice taste but the whole thing was decidedly chewy. It didn't expand in my mouth, as threatened, but you certainly couldn't bite it - it had to be swallowed whole.

Finally - aqutak, or eskimo ice cream - which I had been really looking forward to. There were two different kinds - one with blueberries and salmonberries, one with low bush cranberries and high bush cranberries. So, as a spoonful of crisco, sugar, fish and berries made its way to my mouth they all watched me. It was DELICIOUS. More delicious than a desert consisting of fat and fish should really be. It didn't taste of fish. It also didn't taste of lard. It was light and fluffy and bursting with fruit. I might get this wrong but I believe the recipe is as follows: you boil a white fish, take all the head and skin and bones etc out and squeeze the fish until all the water comes out and all you are left with is little flakes of white fish. Then add about 3 tablespoons of Crisco (more if you like, a bit of milk (I think, and some people add a tin of condensed milk), sugar to taste and then use your hands to beat it until it's light and fluffy (no, really, it DOES go light and fluffy). The add fruit. Lots and lots of fruit. I'm not sure whether you freeze it or just chill it. It was really lovely. I would make it at home but it would probably end up tasting like fish and lard...

I was told that they had thought of bringing Stinkheads but thought they would spare me that. Even hearing the name made me feel extremely grateful, but when I found out the recipe, I was even more so. (Note: Maddy, you might want to look away NOW) Take some fish heads (OK, you can stop there), wrap them in fish entrails (no, really, I do NOT find this remotely tempting), then bury the whole lot for a couple of weeks. If you dare, you can then dig it up and apparently the fish heads will have cooked (no, actually they will have fomented and festered) and the fish heads will be nice and soft. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Pass the ketchup. And a sick bag. Judy was glad to discover that I have my limits. I might eat half a pound of lard and oodles of whale blubber, but I have my standards. I do draw the line somewhere. That line is very slightly above rotten, stinking, mouldy fish heads. Actually, I think my line is drawn at fish heads, full stop.

Before we ate, Dwayne collected a little of each dish and set it aside. Later on he burned the food in the wood stove as an offering to those who had passed. I went first, and then the other guest (a nun from the local parish), and then Dwayne's Grandma. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that some of the important village elders have schools named after them and this lovely lady was one of those as she had taught all ages of village children during her life, and also taught yup'ik. A great end to a great day.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Sleetmute - Part 2

So, after the High Schoolers in the morning, it was the Elementary children in the afternoon. We drew pictures, told stories, and I read them one of the books I had brought for them from Scotland. We had fun and, again, I came away with loads of pictures of all sorts of things - bears, fish (the boy who had over lunch told me how to kill and gut a ptarmigan, and what the best gun was to use for shooting bear, drew me something dripping in blood. I don't THINK it was me, but I can't be 100% certain... One of the girls (aged 9) drew the most wonderful picture of she and I going berrypicking. The picture was full of blueberries. She also sent me an e-mail later that same day saying she hoped I remembered her. At the end of the e-mail she said "What I want to be when I grow alive." These children really filled my heart with all sorts of emotions.

At the end of the school day the children went home and the airline picking me up rang to say they would be collecting me in 50 minutes. Ah, the usual check in hassles of going out to stand on the gravel runway :o)

Sue, one of the teachers gave me the present and letter from the cook, Mary, that I mentioned in an earlier post, saying that Mary was too shy to give it me herself. Luckily I didn't open it then or I would have just burst into tears. However I did go back inside and thank her and she gave me a hug. Then Lorna, the other teacher lent me an ATV and took me for a trip around the village. It's a lovely little place. First of all we went down to the river, and I took loads of pictures as it was gorgeous down there.

While we were there a native Alaskan man came down - he was taking some people downriver to another village in his boat. What a character. His name was Joe and when he realised who I was his eyes lit up. He was Ryan's Dad. I told him that his son was very bright and had a great imagination. He wanted to have his picture taken with me and he gave me his address, telling me that I had to put him in my next book and send him a copy. He also gave me a lucky pebble from the beach. Well strictly speaking it was just a pebble, but we decided it was a lucky one. He was hilarious.

We then drove around the village some more and Lorna showed me a bath house and a honey bucket. The honey bucket is the toilet they use if they don't have a toilet indoors. I'm very glad I didn't need to use one. Honey is not a particularly apt description. The bath house is like a sauna only, apparently, 1000 degrees hotter. Men and women bathe naked, but separately. Even without the stove on the room smelled fresh and sauna-like, but I'm not sure I could have coped with the heat.

While we were there, a native Alaskan lady who worked at the school came out of her home and invited us in to look around, which was a real honour. Most of the houses there have the most glorious view of the river, and she told us that she was born across the river. She pointed out a spot where she had been surprised by a bear when she was about 13. She was berry picking at the time when suddenly a bear appeared in front of her. She siad her mind went like a rolodex as she flicked through everything her father had told her about what to do. She stayed totally still. When the bear lowered its head she remembered that her dad had said that with its head like that it wouldn't be able to see her, so she moved slowly backwards. When it raised its head she stopped again. It took her about 15 minutes to get away. When she went back the next day her pail full of berries was still there.

Listening to her story was very relaxing. Yup'ik people talk very softly, very slowly, and with pauses to think. When you say something to them they pause and consider before answering.

All too soon it was back to the plane. My pilot for the journey back was so young I have chicken in my freezer older than him. "You're...ummmm...very young for a pilot" I said. He just grinned. "Everyone tells me that. Want to sit next to me? Just don't touch the red button." OK, I get it now. Don't touch the red button. Yes,yes, OK, I get the message that bush pilots don't trust me with the red button.

On the way back to Aniak - a flight of just over an hour, we had a stop to pick people up in Crooked Creek, which he warned me had one of the worst runways in the area. In comparison to the gravel and potholes I had already encountered? How bad could it be? I wondered. It was like landing on a roller coaster. Great fun.

The rain started on the way back. Even if I had had my eyes closed I would have realised. Mostly because spots of rain were hitting my face. And I wasn't sitting outside on the wing. Nope, it was raining INSIDE the plane. Now I realised what the duct tape was for.

I had a wonderful day in Sleetmute. Very special for all sorts of reasons.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Face For The Radio

Well, my Mum always said I had a face for the radio. Now it's time to discover that I also have a voice for mime. Before I went out to the Bush I did a radio interview and it's now up here: (just click on the Murder and Mayhem programme date 10/06/07. And I no longer sound like that - I have absolutely NO voice left at all. Why does everyone else with a sore throat sound like Lauren Bacall, and I sound like Squeaky The Stupid Sounding Squeaky Thing From Squeakville?

And i just found out that the radio station has a link to my blog, so if anyone is reading this - welcome. I love your state, your scenery and, most of all, your people.

Friday, October 5, 2007


So, after spending a day in the school in Kalskag, I flew back to Aniak. The next morning I was being picked up early to fly to Sleetmute - one of the smallest villages along this bit of the Kuskokwim. They only have 15 students in the whole school, but were flying students in from Red Devil, Stony River, Crooked Creek and Chuathbaluk, so altogether with Elementary and High School there were going to be about 35 students.

Since the rule was the more flights I take, the smaller the plane gets, this was to be my smallest plane - which meant I got to clamber in and sit next to the pilot, Steve, and to wear a pair of earphones and talk to him on the microphone. "Don't push the red button." That was the safety demonstration. I even shut and locked my own door. I felt like Biggles.

So, sitting on my hands so I didn't touch the red button, we set off. Steve told me that the fog meant that we had to fly low over the river. "If you see a bear or a moose will you point it out?" I said "Of course" said Steve, confidently. Needless to say, we didn't see so much as Winnie The Pooh, let alone one of these 14 foot bears with the huge heads the children keep telling me about.I now think there are no bears in Alaska. Steve asked me if I wanted to take the scenic tour. Well, duh...So we stopped off in Red Devil and Stony River along the way. If I thought Aniak and Kuspuk airports were small, they were nothing compared to these. Aniak has a proper runway. It's about 6 feet long but it has tarmac and white lines. Most of the runways in the small villages are basically just a track in a field. If you're lucky there's gravel. If you're UNlucky, they are full of potholes filled with water. Each time he was coming in to land Steve would say into the radio something like "5 miles from Stony River, landing from the north". Of course, when we landed, there was absolutely nothing around -- no other planes, no people, and definitely no control tower. "Who are you telling?" I said, "The bears? So they can disappear before I get here?" He just laughed.

Steve is employed by the school district and his job is to fly people and supplies to and from the various schools, so I got to visit a couple of the schools I wasn't actually going to be talking to the children at. In Red Devil all the pupils except one (ie, about 10 of them) had actually already flown off to Sleetmute to see me, so I went in and said hello to one poor lonely girl who was having a test. In Stony River (a lovely little place)I paid a quick visit to each of the classes, and had a chat with the Principal and the cook.

The schools are all named after people of importance in the villages, so there are schools called 'Gusty Michael School', 'Zackar Levi Elementary School', Auntie Mary Nicoli Elementary School', and each of them has ATVs out front - what a great way to arrive at school.

Eventually I arrived in Sleetmute. This was where Special Agent Vernon came to meet me and started my day off on such a high note. First of all I saw all the children together and introduced myself and had a question and answer session. Then it was an hour and a half with the high schoolers. This was my first experience of talking to High Schoolers, the other children I had seen had all been Kindergarten through Elementary. I was expecting grumpy teenagers. I started off with a couple :o) I had split them into four groups and told them they were going to do a radio commercial for a book (thanks Jools!). They had to make up a synopsis for a book, make up a title and an author name, and also tell us why we should buy their book as we all only had enough money to buy one book.

They started off with blank looks and blank pieces of paper. Some of them said they didn't know what to write but as I went round the four groups the most wonderful ideas started to emerge. Some of these students have great imaginations, and the things they were coming up with were funny and touching and interesting. One group decided to tell a story which was a mix between traditional and modern. The group consisted of 2 sets of sisters who were all cousins. (I have subsequently heard from them by e-mail. I told them I enjoyed their story and that they should maybe think about doing some stories based on yup'ik traditions but with their own twist. So they're going to interview the village elders and write down the stories, and hopefully do a book. I was thrilled).

I'm doing a competition for all of them. In every class I have been I told the students that if they write a story and send it to me, I'm going to be having a competition (I left some money with Emily for prizes). There are several that I hope will do, as they had such great ideas.

The older children all have laptops, which is part of a programme out here. They use them for music and fun and chatting, but they also use them for schoolwork. One boy of about 15, Ryan, showed me a story he had written called The Key. He has promised to send it to me - if he doesn't I will be badgering him for it because it was excellent.

All the High Schoolers really got into it and I think...hope...they enjoyed the morning. I've heard from Emily that the ones she spoke to said they did.
After the High School kids it was lunchtime. What I really like about these villages is that they invite the village Elders in for lunch. So sitting with the children are the village's senior citizens. I like that. In this picture, Vernon is the one with his hand up and the big grin on his face (which never left him the whole day - he's such a character, Ryan is the one in the white t-shirt staring into space, and the 4 girls writing the book (Bedu, Darien, Tracy and Wendy are at the back to the left of me).

Over lunch I sat with some of the Elementary children. I learned a lot - the est way to shoot a ptarmigan, what to do if I see a black bear. That you can eat brown bear but not black (they eat the trash in the dumps and their meat doesn't taste too good!). One boy of about 8 told me about his gun "I have a .223" he said. "Is that a rifle?" said the big city girl. He looked at me with disgust and said "No, it's a bolt action." His words were dripping with a "You're so stupid" subtext. "Oh," said I, not wanting to ask what a bolt action was and show my ignorance still further.

Well, I will stop here for now. I have much more to say about Sleetmute but need to pack my case as I am going back to anchorage today. I will be sad to leave. Very sad.


Before the Brief Interlude I left you, dear reader, as I was gettting off my duct taped plane in Kalskag. I was staying with two teachers - Karen and Dave - who had kindly invited this stranger into their home. It was a lovely home and full of things from the local area, plus the Far East where one of their sons lives. They have been there about seven years. Karen teaches at the elementary school and Dave teaches Special Ed at both schools.

After a brief respite to sit down and have a glass of water (with special instructions to only drink the filtered as the ordinary water contains arsenic and mercury), and a delicious home made cookie, it was off to the school for a potluck supper with the other teachers. Also, some of the children turned up which was fun.

It was also the one and only time I encountered the not so pleasant side of life, a side I had heard about while being briefed in Anchorage. I think I mentioned that alcohol is a problem here, which is why a lot of the villages are dry. People here for some reason can't drink socially, but instead they drink to get drunk. A young man turned up who the teachers seemed to be wary around, and they watched him closely. Afterwards, I was told that the Tribal Council had recently thrown him out of the village for abusing a child. He was back, it appeared, and only the tribal council could do something about this. Most of the children here seem to be happy and healthy and loved and well cared for (in fact, in one of the other villages, one of the teachers told me that the parents never hit their children), but it's a small village, and life is hard, and sometimes the children get left to fend for themselves. So they play out until all hours and when they do go home, a lot of them still live in one room so if their parents are drinking or arguing, then the children are tired for school the next day. The younger children sometimes don't turn up for school because no-one in the family has bothered to remind them they need to go. The older children are better at turning up. I found that very heartening - I was trying to imagine how many children in Glasgow, given a chance to either go to school or not, would actually go. I came across a number of children who live with their grandparents, and some have even been adopted by them - one lady told me that her daughter drinks too much, so her children now live with her, the grandmother.

I know that that evening I wanted to round up all those children I saw playing out and take them home with me to keep them safe.

Anyway, enough of the sad stuff, but I do want to tell everything I saw and felt on my trip, and not just the happy stuff (which has FAR outweighed the sad parts).

Karen and Dave don't have a car. Roads in Kalskag are hardly worthy of the name, so almost everyone travels by ATV. Yippee!! This meant I got to travel on the back of one. Dave drove and Karen and I sat on the back, covered by a warm rug, as we drove to the school. We passed a Russian Orthodox church (it seems that the two main religions around here are Russian Orthodox and Catholic. In church the men stand on the left, the women on the right (no seats, and services can last up to 4 hours!) In the churchyard the men are buried on the left, the women on the right. There were a couple of graves just outside the fence. Karen told me those were for unbaptised babies. Yu'pik traditions also play a huge part. When someone dies a 'feed' is held 7 days, 40 days, one year, two years etc after their death. It's a big feast where they honour the person who has passed on. In Kalskag (although not in all the other villages), the 7 day feed is held sitting on the ground, so the spirit of the person who has passed on can share the food.

The next day was spent in the school. I spent about an hour and a half with each of the 4 classes in the elementary school. I did different exercises in each one and it was such fun. The littlest children I read to, and we made up a story, and they drew pictures for me. With another group we did our fingerprints and made up stories based on Harris Burdick posters I had brought with me. With the oldest group we actually made up our own mystery story which was hilarious as we had the children in the class as witnesses, suspects, victim, police...The children completely made up the story and it was about the school turtles going missing. When I asked what sort of things the witnesses might see, one of the boys said "One of the suspects might be carrying a bag of turtle food." One of the suspects said "But he might be hungry." And when I asked one of the suspects what his alibi was for the night of the turtle theft he said "I was at the store." "Did anyone see you?" "No, it was dark and I was robbing it." It was great fun - they are all so bright and funny.

I took photos of all the classes, and some of the children wanted extra photos taken with me either in groups or on their own. I also had each class do something that I could bring home with me - so I have a pile of pictures and stories to remind me of my trip. From Kalskag, I also have a book that one class gave me, which is set in the area and is very like the lives they live so I can't wait to read that. And Karen gave me a gift of a Kuspuk - a traditional dress here. I'll take a photo of it and upload it when I get home.

The janitor in Kalskag has a hook instead of a hand. He was in Vietnam in a helicopter and they were shot. His hand was shot off and when he said to the helicopter pilot "Look, my hand has been blown off, the pilot fainted and the helicopter crashed.

When it was time to go I was told "The plane will call the school and tell us when it's going to land. It did. I definitely want that sort of service from Northwest when I fly home to Scotland. It's great just turning up at the field where the plane lands, driving up to it and then just getting in and taking off. Check-in and security take...oooooh....30 seconds. Before going to the plane the principal of the High School took me up to a high point where I had a beautiful view over the gorgeous Kuskokwim River.

I meant to say before, please excuse any typos etc. I have limited time to post and am just setting down my thoughts in a mish-mash and not checking over the post before I send it - so apologies.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

If Anyone Wonders Why I am Here...

This is just an interlude - longer posts will follow on my days in Kalskag yesterday and Sleetmute today but two things happened today which were so wonderful I had to share them.

First of all, I met a very bright and funny High Schooler called Vernon who is a real character (he came out to meet me from the Bush plane, told me he was my bodyguard, and that he could speak in a Scottish accent but he wasn't going to because he would never be able to get his own accent back) He is dyslexic but he was so happy to be telling stories and using his imagination (which is a wonderful one) that he decided he is going to write a story for me. (It's called 'Jonah and Vernon and The Wolves')

Secondly Mary the cook (a lot of the cooks in the schools are elderly native Alaskan ladies. Mary is profoundly deaf and very shy) gave me a present and a letter. I have taken pictures of it but for some reason I can't seem to upload my pictures to my laptop at the moment (now done!). It is three ornaments made out of the paper covers that individual tea bags come in. Wonderfully intricate circular ornaments made of hundreds of tea bag covers, folded, twisted and somehow fastened together, I have no idea how. And she wrote me a note which says:

"Donna - thank you very much for coming to Sleetmute. Our students enjoyed your company very much. I wish you could come again someday but maybe it's impossible. But you are more than welcome to come and entertain our schoolkids. Enclosed are souvenirs from Sleetmute, I made them out of tea bags. People use them as wall decorations. I hope you like them. Please take care and again, thank you very much for coming. Sincerely, Mary." And she gave me a hug. For an elder to do this is a real honour.

So there, amongst all the other hundreds of reasons why I am here, are just two. I'm not ashamed to say I cried.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Tales From The Bush

Since I was fogged in in Aniak, Emily took me to the elementary school which is Kindergarten to 6th Grade (so, ages 5-10 I guess. The school was very accomodating and arranged for me to spend half an hour with each of the 5 classes (I go back on Thursday to spend all day with them). Needless to say, I was very nervous. I've never taught children before. Before we left Anchorage I was warned by people who had been to various villages that the children would probably be very shy, and that they wouldn't want to be touched (And, which brought a lump to my throat, that some of them would flinch if they WERE touched). Well, that so didn't happen. Every class was chatty and friendly and I was surrounded by excited faces and asked lots of question (was I married, where did I get my necklace from, did I know their auntie Sarah/uncle Nikolai/mother/sister/grandfather, if not, why not, and could I stay and teach them every day).

The first class was Second Grade - ages 6/7 and I read them a story. They started off several feet away. By the end of the story they were all crowded around my knees :o) My second class was a kindergarten class. We talked about bears and moose and fishing, and they showed me purple potatoes. And at the end of the class they came and gave me hugs. I almost cried. They were so sweet.

I asked every class I went to how many of them had seen a bear, how many had seen a moose, who had gone fishing, who went out to pick berries and in most classes all their hands went up. Then I told them I had never seen a bear (or, as Gary would say...a BAT), or a moose or done any of those things and that I wanted to hear about their lives and their families and what they did. So I got great tales of moose hunts and huge bears and someone whose face was clawed by a bear, and going to fish was wonderful.

When I was in the final class of the day, Emily came to tell me that the afternoon plane to Kalskag was able to leave so she drove me to the airport and I checked in. In the Alaskan Bush this basically means going up to the counter and saying "Hi, I'm Donna and I weigh a horrible number of pounds." The planes get smaller and the airports less airport like every village I go to.

So I got into the plane with 5 other people for the 20 minute flight to Kalskag. I was taking pictures of the scenery when I happened to notice that every window in the plane was held together with tape. And since I know nobody will believe that I took a couple of pictures which I will upload at a later date. Seriously, the plane was held together with duct tape.

Now, I said the airports got less recognisable with every trip. Well, in Kalskag there IS no airport, just a gravel field. The plane landed, the pilot walked across the wing, jumped down and took my bags off and the principal of the school drove up next to the plane and picked me up. No interminable walk to the terminal, no long waits at the luggage carousel and, yes, every single flight I have taken in the Bush, my luggage has come with me.

My trip to Kalskag deserves a post of its own so more in the next couple of days, but just to update you on a delicacy I have to come on Thursday at the supper, let me tell you that I am having Aqutak (pronounced A-goo-duk), otherwise known as Eskimo Ice Cream. Mmmmmmm, sounds good doesn't it? Well, let me tell you the recipe as far as I can make it out from what some of the children have told me. First you take berries of various sorts (sounds yummy so far, right?), then you get a salmon (or seal, or whale blubber or reindeer fat) and you squeeze it until all the fat and juices run out. Because that's really not enough fat, why not go ahead and add a couple of pounds of Crisco or lard, then beat it all up with your hand until it's light and fluffy (no, really, it DOES get light and fluffy apparently). Enjoy. Then take a trip to the Emergency Room to get your arteries unclogged. Apparently it's delicious, and does not taste of fish. And since I live in Scotland, the home of the deep friend snickers bar, I can't wait to try some.

I love this place and these people. It would be a tough place to live but everyone is so wonderful and welcoming and happy to see me. And the children are bright and funny and affectionate and just so very very warm. All my joking aside, this is a very humbling, fulfilling and fun experience and I am so unbelievably fortunate to be here.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Waqaa Cangacit From Aniak

That means 'Hello, how are you'' in Yu'pik by the way. Well here I am sitting in the school district offices in Aniak. I'm supposed to be flying to Kalskag today but I am on 'weather hold', which means that Kalskag is fogged in and the planes can't fly. They're going to give us a call if it lifts.

I flew into Aniak yesterday. There were 6 people on my flight, and my hand luggage had its own seat. The safety demonstration was very casual. "There's a sickbag and earplugs in the seatback in front of you. Help yourself to coffee and snacks." Taking off and landing in a small plane is VERY different to the float plane. Much bumpier and great fun. While flying, every part of you that touches the plane vibrates. It was like having a very fast hard massage on my bottom. I wish the journey had lasted 15 hours :o)

Aniak is on the Kuskokwim River and there are lots of small rivers running off it, so the scenery is lovely (still no bears, but apparently they are around). Emily picked me up at the very tiny airport and drove me to her home. She lives by the river in a lovely house. Her boyfriend Duane made dinner and some of their friends joined us. Duane has a 7 year old son who is a real cutie and they have 2 dogs and 2 cats (one of which slept with me which was lovely). Duane made the most delicious moose soup and some smoked salmon that was very dark and like salmon jerky. Really tasty. They told me that each summer there is a fish camp which the whole village goes to. They catch the salmon, gut and clean and prepare them and then some is dried in smoke houses for a week or two, and then that lasts them during the winter. It's very expensive to live here with milk and fresh food costing a lot. One of the guys who was here is currently building his own home and he said that the cost of shipping in materials doubles the cost of building a house. Duane's family is coming over on Thursday for a traditional dinner, with everyone bringing something. Now, when I say family, I MEAN family. Duane has 88 cousins on his mother's side, most of whom live in the village (which has about 600 residents). It's a non dry village, which means that it's not illegal to have alcohol. Emily was telling me that when she first moved to Alaska to teach she was in a dry village and her social life was very curtailed because, as a teacher, if she was even in the company of people who were drinking she could have had her teaching license revoked. Alcohol can be a big problem in the villages, with a fair amount of children affected by it.

Last night when I went to bed it was so dark and quiet out. In the winter there are about 4 hours of daylight and Emily was saying that in the summer it gets dark for a little while about 2am and then gets light shortly thereafter. There are no street lamps in the area and the only light I could see from my window was one from the airport (which I at first thought was the Northern Lights until I realised that the Northern Lights probably didn't swing from side to side like that (oh, the tribulations of being a city girl!)

Today and tomorrow I am supposed to be in Kalskag, which is a very traditional village, so I am hoping to learn some more Yu'pik words. Wednesday I am in a village called Sleepmute, where the school has just 15 children, but they are flying children in from other small villages. I'm looking forward to talking to the children, and am a little nervous, but I have lots of exercises that I have planned that I can do with them, and I have books and pens and sweets for the children, so even if my teaching is crap, at least they will get treats! Everyone has been really lovely and it's a real thrill for me to be here.

More later in the week I hope. If I could say goodbye in Yu'pik I would but so far my vocabulary is restricted to hello, how are you, five and crap :o)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Leaving ...On A No Jet Plane

Well, actually, it's a teeny tiny single engined plane. Wish me luck that my pilot is old, and not bold, as there are no old, bold Bush pilots.

In about half an hour I leave for the Bush. Mum - just let me say once again that if I do not manage to post until Saturday 6th (or possibly not until I get home on Monday 8th) it does not mean that I have been:
a) Eaten by a bear
b) Been invited for dinner not realising *I* am the main course (feeding 8 villages for a month). Thanks to Judy for this suggestion to add to the list of Things Donna Needs to Worry About
c) Become the wife of the shaman (thanks Gary and Ted - please send a wedding gift - a couple of walrus heads would be nice - we need something for the mantlepiece.

I am heading off to Aniak, Upper Kalskag, Lower Kalskag, and a village which appears to be called 'If We Can Get You There, Cripple Creek' since that's how everyone refers to it. I haven't asked why it's so difficult to get to (Mum - I'm sure it doesn't involve rappelling).

I'm very much looking forward to my adventure and I discovered that I have been granted a huge honour, which I am enormously grateful for. I am being thrown a potlatch supper, which is a ceremonial meal. As guest of honour I have to eat everything I am offered. Not normally a problem, except I understand that fish heads dipped in seal fat may be on the menu.

Seriously, I am very excited about this opportunity and everyone has been wonderful.

It is most unlikely that I will be able to blog while I am there but if I can I will; otherwise, see you in about a week.

Oh, and by the way, the interview I did may be appearing on here:
next Saturday (and they are going to give me a call while I am in the Bush to see how things are going). Not sure whether it WILL be Saturday but it will be fairly soon.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Fat Bird Has Landed

Well, I'm catching up on my blog posts here as I had a little internet problem yesterday (aka known as Donna Is Thick As Two Short Planks). So this post is about Wednesday's plane trip.

We got into the van on our short trip to the airfield, and Judy started handing out travel sickness tablets like a very maternal drug pusher ("the first one is free, lady"). I was popping those little suckers like smarties until Judy belatedly read the back of the packet "Oh, wait, it says only 2 in 24 do you feel?" We'd left the hotel and gone about ten minutes up the road when we came across three moose (mooses? meese?) at the side of the road, just as happy as you please. You know that joke about the horse that goes into the bar and the barman says "Why the long face"? Well, I think that could be written even better about meese. Their faces are HUGE.

(This picture and the next one are taken from the plane as we went INSIDE the mountain by the way).

I started to worry about my upcoming radio interview (more about that in the next post) when I was telling Gary that I wanted to see a bear. "You want to see a WHAT?" "A bear." "A WHAT?" (I have never seen a face so aghast by the way). "A BEAR. I want to see a bear." He still looked puzzled "Why can't I understand what she's saying?" Apparently my 'bear' sounds like American for 'bat'. I am now Batwoman.

I'm beginning to get a complex after my episode with the automated lost luggage thing, and now this. I've been practising my American accent but I just sound like an extra from Gone With The Wind who's had their jaw rewired after a freak accident involving a chainsaw and a baseball bat (or is that baseball BEAR...Gary?)

So, we arrived at the airfield where there were lots of little red and white planes held together with string and blu-tac. Suddenly, we all felt the urge to use the restrooms. We went into the office where they told us that Mt McKinley was shrouded in fog, so we could visit Mt Spur instead. I needn't have told you that by the way, I could just show you my pictures of the top of a mountain and you wouldn't know any difference, but since I have respect for you, my audience (all 3 of you)...well, except for you, Paul, I decided to come clean. As with the glacier thing (I've been showing all my 500 glacier pictures to people and I can only remember the name of one of the glaciers - Surprise Glacier (as in, it's a surprise I can remember it) and when they say "What's that one called?", rather than admit I don't know I just say "That one? Oh yes, that's Ramones Glacier" or "Ah, yes, the spectacular Johnny Depp. A magnificent specimen of glacierhood."

So, anyway, we decided that Mt Spur was just as good as Mt McKinley and we waited for our pilot. The guys did a bit of shopping - buying t-shirts "Do I suit this shade of green, ladies?" "Does this powder blue bring out the colour of my eyes?"

I asked the guy behind the desk if we were going to have to weigh ourselves before we got on the plane (we'd had to give our weight when we booked the flight). I had lost the 10lbs I had taken account of when giving my weight, but, well, funnel cake and American plate sizes cause havoc with a girl's good intentions. I made sure to point out that I was wearing really heavy boots as I was afraid of stepping onto a scale and having a big booming voice shout "You LIED, fatty!" The bloke behind the counter said "We had one guy give us his weight without clothes on, can you imagine." Oh. Everyone chuckled, except me. I ALWAYS give my weight without clothes on. I started to worry that sitting on the plane naked would be a tad chilly but luckily for everyone I was not made to strip off.

So we got onto the plane. We all had a seat by the window. The safety demonstration consisted of "There's a sickbag in the pocket in front of you," and off we set. It was a float plane so we took off from the water which was amazing. We all had headsets on so we could hear the pilot talking to the control tower, and he also had music. Our take off was to The Ride of The Valkyries and there was some very apt music throughout the flight which was fun.

A glacial lake...

The scenery was absolutely stunning - first of all the flat plains and loads of trees. Then we were up into the foothills of the mountains before finally emerging from the clouds to see the top of the mountain range and Mt Spur. We were taken the scenic route, past glaciers, over an active volcano with steam rising, right down into the mountain which was an unbelievable experience. At one point I almost cried, the experience was so fabulous.

Can you see a bear in this picture? No? Neither could I, but it's there - probably disguised as a tree and raising its middle finger to the skies.

Coming in to land on Beluga Lake...

On the return leg we flew over Beluga Lake and the pilot said "Fancy a break?" He landed the plane on the surface of the lake and taxied into the shore. We all got off the plane to complete silence, nothing around us for miles and miles apart from this glorious scenery.

Oh, and some bears. I went walking up the beach and discovered some bear tracks. Luckily, even a city girl like me could tell they were pointing away from the best lunch the bear could have expected. Oh...wait...maybe it was walking backwards...

I could have stayed at the lake for ages, but all too soon it was time to get back in the plane and return home. Gorgeous, truly gorgeous.

By the way, I have another 400 or so photos of this day if anyone's interested? :o)