Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I Left My Heart (and my coat) In Alaska

On Saturday morning I left Aniak, very sad to go and leave the beautiful area and friends old and new. I got up on Saturday morning to find that the river outside the window which had been mostly unmoving ice for the rest of my stay was now flowing freely. Break-up had arrived and they were all looking forward to being able to go out in their boats at last. People would just stand and watch the river and see the big ice mountains caused by ice crashing into ice.
Cheryl took me for a final ride around the village and I took a few photos, including this one of the fairground, submerged in water and suffering the wear and tear of winter storms.

And then it was off back to Anchorage, on planes that I wasn't allowed to fly any more. It was strange being back in a city. There were cars and people and shops and real airports and roads. As I sat on the plane I felt a jab up my nose. I couldn't work out what it was. I looked down and the underwire from my bra had poked itself free and was making a bid for freedom. I tried surreptitiously to shove it back but it was having none of it so I casually whipped it out and stuffed it in the back of the seat pocket. The next person in that seat will think it's a vital piece of safety equipment.

My hotel in downtown Anchorage was the gorgeous Historic Anchorage hotel. For some reason I was upgraded to a suite. Shame I wasn't going to be able to make the most of that as I had to leave Anchorage at 4.30 the next morning. I dumped my bags and it was off for a flying visit to Nordstroms. I had an hour and a half to buy presents and shoes. Several presents and four pairs of shoes later it was off for a quick trip to see my friend Sylvia. It was all too brief but a lovely visit all the same, and then I met up with some of the lovely Alaska Sisters in Crime members for a meal and drinks at Rumrunners.

After that, it was off to my plush suite to finish packing (luckily, all the books and pens and sweets and biscuits I had taken had been given away so I now had room in my suitcase for my new shoes) and a few hours sleep - interrupted at 2am by a drunk man outside my window shouting "I'm a mean mother****** and I can kick anyone's ass." He shouted it about 4 times then apparently fell over because his next shouted phrase was "Ow, I hurt my knee." Yep. Some mean mother****** he was.

Last time I was in America I left my coat in San Francisco. This time, I left it in Anchorage airport. I will soon have a coat in every state.

The trip home was uneventful - unless you count the stramash one of the gifts I had bought caused at security in Amsterdam. Four big men with guns surrounded my hand luggage. They put it back through the security thing three times, then eventually opened it, took stuff out and put it back through. Still apparently the same problem. I waited patiently, slightly worried because I had stupidly put my powdered butter in my hand luggage. Powdered butter is not yellow. It's white. I had what looked like a plastic bag full of cocaine in my handluggage. I was starting to sweat. One of the security men delved into my bag and pulled something out, looking at me accusingly. Luckily it wasn't my powderred butter. It was a brown plastic rubber toy shaped like a dogbone that had 'Alaska' written on it. He squeezed it. It squeaked. That seemed to satisfy them and they re-packed my hand luggage and waved me on. So let that be a lesson, kids. Just say no to rubber dog toys.

And so, I am home, and back to normality. I've already had several e-mails from the students - some have sent me stories and poems, some are just saying hello, and my friend Brad wants me to go to his graduation next year. I will go back, and if there's any way I can be there I will be at Brad's graduation. It feels like my second home.

I love the place - the surrounding scenery is majestic and very beautiful, the schools are a bright and positive place to be, everyone is extremely welcoming and friendly and, above all, the students are very very special to me. I left a little piece of my heart behind the very first year I went and I've added more each time I've been since. Plus, of course, there's a little bit of my stomach from where I flew the damn plane. In place of body parts I have loads of wonderful memories of places visited, old friends re-visited, new friends made, hugs given and received, new experiences, adventures galore, some wonderful writing, lots of laughs, and a few tears.

Bye for now Kuspuk School District. I'll see you again soon.

Lots of love, Donna xxxxx

Friday, May 7, 2010

Learning 'I Have No Brain' in Yup'ik

And so to the last village on my trip - Stony River - a lovely little island about an hour upriver from Aniak. I'd never been here before but already knew some of the students from previous visits.

Cheryl and I had slept well in the school library, next to a classroom with chirping chicks. I found out afterwards that tradition says that all the schools are haunted by the children of adults who attended the school. The only children I saw were very much flesh and blood, however. We got up early and went for a walk around the village. It was a gorgeous day - chilly but sunny. First we visited the little village church and then we decided to go a different way from that we had gone the night before. We may have gone somewhere we shouldn't have. Whoops. It's a gorgeous place. Very quiet and pretty.

When the students arrived for breakfast, it was lovely to see Brad and Robert again. Brad and Robert are brothers - 16 and 17 years old - friendly, polite, gentle, funny and both of them extremely talented writers. Since I was there last time they have both sent me some of their writing. Brad, in particular, regularly sends me the most wonderful poetry - all about nature and the outdoors. During the day I had a chance to have a good chat with each of them. Both want to go to college. Robert wants to be a police officer (and hopefully SWAT!), Brad is possibly going to study to be a construction manager. They both love being outdoors and building things. They helped their dad build a cabin for their grandparents, and they are going to build a boat this year. There's something about both of them that makes them very special to me and I was really sad to leave them as I hugged them goodbye on Friday. I think I probably embarrassed them both as I told them that they are two of the nicest young men I have ever met, that they are talented and special and capable of doing anything they dream of, but they humoured me :o) The rest of the children in the family are equally lovely, and also very talented. Nichole, age 13, has written a really long story which she is going to send me. Michael, age 9, was a real star in class. He was in the elementary group that I had and I gave them cards with character and setting on and he wrote me a really imaginative story. At the end of the class he asked me if he could have more cards to write another story. And the youngest boy is Nels, who is 7. He's very bright and cute and surprised me and his teacher with the story he wrote for me. This picture is of the four brothers and their sister plus Simeon, known as Junior. The older boys really look out for their younger siblings.

In the High School class I had both Brad and Robert were there and one of the little exercises I got them to do was write about a memory. Robert wrote one about Brad, saying that he was getting on his nerves and wouldn't stop talking. When he walked away from him, Robert found that his pockets were filled with sawdust. He said "I asked my Mom if I could beat him up, but she said no." You can really feel the love they have for each other.

Over the two days I had each class twice - grades 1-4, 6-8 and then all the older students. The Arts Festival had all sorts of good stuff - tie-dying (you can see some of the results in the pictures here, beading (I had a go at that and was rubbish - they were all laughing at me. One of the girls, Crimson, took pity on me and made me a bracelet because my efforts were so bad), making keyrings, decorating boxes, boomwhackers, painting...I'm sure the writing bits were the least interesting, but they all submitted with humour and good grace and I had fun, even if they didn't :o)

With the two younger groups I did the character/setting cards and they wrote me stories, and I also did the character sheets. As usual, I got some that made me cry and some that made me laugh. Some of the students seemed to use the exercise as a way of exploring their feelings, others really stretched their imaginations- I had a character who was a bear but wanted to be a wolf, one who was the abominable snowman but was really a boy in disguise, one who was an alien girl who wanted to come to a planet that had proper air so she could save her family. With the older group I did an exercise where they had to get into groups and pretend to do a radio advert for a book, which they then had to perform for the rest of the class - trying to persuade us to buy the book. I was giving a prize for this one (cold, hard cash). In the end I gave two prizes as they were all so good. A group of 4 students did a very funny one about the Monkey Bar Gym and they won a prize to share. Brad did one on his own - he pretended to be the radio host and really made the book sound exciting. And he said that his author was going to donate money to a childrens' charity for every book sold. When I gave him his prize he said "I can't take that." "Of course you can," I said "You won it." He is such a sweet young man.

I also got them to write some non fiction. Maria wrote 3 wishes that were so lovely. She wouldn't let me read them out but I wish she had done - I think the other students would have been impressed. In every class I left it up to the students as to whether they read things out, I read them out, or I didn't read them out at all. Most of them let me read them out - surprisingly, even the personal ones. Needless to say, on a couple of occasions I struggled to hold back the tears. On one occasion, I didn't manage it.

The toilets at the school couldn't cope with the large influx of people so we had to have a new rule when the showers overflowed "If it's yellow, keep it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down." I don't think I need to say more, do I?

Maria spoke more yup'ik than anyone I have met out here. She would come up to me and try and teach me something else. I can now answer the question "Do you have a brain with "I have no brain." (It sounds something like bah-TREE-toh) She also very patiently tried to teach me to count from 1 to 10 but when you consider that numbers 8 and 9 are Pingayunlegen (pronounced 'Ping-ay-OON-ligen' (with the g in the back of the throat as though you've swallowed a tennis ball)) and Qulngunritaar (pronounced 'I can't bloody say that') And then she would ask me all sorts of questions about me and where I lived. Each answer would be met with "Holy cow." She was so funny and sweet. I got lots of questions about whether I had a boyfriend and children. They all thought Ewan was a really weird name :o)

I am a gussack - basically a non-native. However, Maria and her friends said I was now a gusskimo - someone who is half white, half eskimo. I was very honoured.

In the evening, some of the boys built a bonfire outside. Worryingly, as you can see from this photo, it was only a few feet from a sign that basically said "For goodness sake, don't get fire anywhere near these tanks full of gas." We cooked marshmallows and made S'mores - two cooked marshmallows on top of a big chunk of chocolate and put between two graham crackers. Delicious. Some of us just ate marshmallows, as you can see from this picture. We finally went inside when the mosquitos came out. I may not have seen a bear, but I've seen a mosquito the size of one. Good grief - they're enormous. For some reason, they seemed to like me, and I'm now the proud owner of mosquito bites the size of Scotland.

That night we all camped out in the school. Crimson, the girl who had made me the bracelet, wanted to sleep next to me, so she hauled a mat out of the gym and put it next to my sleeping mat. I kept waking up to find her little face about an inch from mine.

When it came time to say goodbye the next day I was very sad. It was a very special couple of days. We went down to the airfield and waited for the planes to come and pick us up. Cheryl and I were travelling back to Aniak together.

Happily for me, it was Fred, my favourite pilot. For the first few minutes he flew really close to the water so we had a wonderful view of the sun sparkling on the water, and the ice breaking up. It really was spectacular. At one point I was about to say "How low are we, exactly?" when I saw him checking out of the window at my side. "Just making sure I don't dip the wing in the water," he said. I guess that answered my question - about 5 inches.

Fred and I both had headsets, Cheryl couldn't hear us. I turned to him and said "Cheryl said she'd really like to do that G-Force weightlessness thing."

"Are you sure she said that she would be OK with that?

"Yep." I crossed my fingers, hoping that when I had told Cheryl about my previous experience last year and she said "Oh my, that sounds absolutely terrifying" what she actually meant was "I would love to do that." But it was too late to worry. Fred, still flying low over the water, picked up speed and headed along the river. Just as it looked as though he was going to fly straight into a bunch of trees (and I'm sure at this point I heard a faint yelp from Cheryl in the back, the plane lifted into the air, my stomach turned over, and I came out of my seat as though I was in space. I laughed gleefully.

And then Fred said the magic words. "I guess we're going to have to take it higher if you're going to fly the rest of the way back."

"I guess we are", I said, casually, passing my camera back to Cheryl with a shite-eating grin on my face.

So, there I was, merrily flying at my usual 500 feet, following the river when Fred said "Are you scared?"

"No, should I be?" As I said it the plane started yawing (oh yes, people, I know the terminology - just call me Biggles) from left to right and Fred was grinning. "You bloody stop that," I said. "That's not fair."

"If you had your feet in the correct place, you'd know what I was doing."

I just stuck my tongue out and carried on. After another little while he said "Are you ready for a challenge?"

I looked at him. That entails me either gaining or losing height and going off course, so I try not to do it too often.

"You wanna fly over those mountains?"

He pointed to these enormous great buggers in the distance.

"How high would I need to go?"

"About 4000 feet."

"OK, if you're sure."

The next few minutes consisted of me saying "Am I high enough yet?" in an increasingly panicked voice and Fred saying "Nope" in an increasingly calm one. Honestly, the man's unflappable. He just rests his arm on the dashboard thingy (technical term, sorry) and gazes out of the window at the scenery.

But I did it. I got high enough to fly over the mountain. Didn't see a bloody thing except the spot in front of me, but Cheryl got some photos. Then we started to descend.

"Come down at about 300 feet a minute and head for that bit of the river. By the time you get there, we'll be ready to come in to land."

"OK," I said, watching my little descending dial. Or so I thought.

"Donna, why are you still climbing?"

"I'm not! Look that little needle is going down."

"That little needle's the wrong little needle. It's this one you should be looking at."

"Oh." I watched the correct little needle.

A minute later Fred said, "Well, you made up for climbing that last minute."

"How do you mean?"

"You came down 700 feet in that minute there."

"Look, I have all these bloody dials to watch." By this time, Fred had added another dial for me to watch - I was up to 4 now. "You can't expect me to get all of them exactly right."

"It would just be nice to know what height you're going to fly at so I can tell Aniak we're coming in at a certain height. It's nice for all the other planes to know."

I thought for a moment. "Can't you just tell them we'll be coming in somewhere between 500 and 3000 feet?"

But I managed to get my act together and start a slow descent. After a few minutes Fred said "We've got about 1300 feet to descend."

"How long will that take?" I said.

He looked at me. "Oh any thing between an hour and 5 seconds, since it's you."

"Oh haha very funny."

It was truly brilliant. I have never had so much fun in my life. Cheryl was looking a tad green by the time we landed though. I gave Fred a big hug and thanked him for making my trips such a wonderful experience and for being such a good sport.

Emily had gone off to a graduation, so I was going to be staying at her house on my own. Jim picked us up from the airport. "Where does Emily live?" he said.

"Errrrrr...near the river," I said, helpful as ever.

He looked at me pityingly. "Donna, we're on an island. Everyone lives near the river."

Waqaa Cangacit From Stony River

Back from a wonderful couple of days in Stony River, so time to catch up on my last day in Kalskag. This will be a fairly brief post as I am absolutely shattered.

On Wednesday I got up and walked all of 5 yards to work with the High Schoolers in Lower Kalskag. The High Schoolers out here are probably the most challenging but also the most rewarding to work with. Today I was in Melanie's Class and the students rotated around to me. With one class, I had them for two periods so we got to do loads of stuff and I got to know them a bit.

As ever, they surprised me with the openness, honesty and willingness to talk about really tough things, as well as with their humour and good nature.

When I started this blog two and a half years ago, before my first trip, I said that I wasn't just going to talk about the good things, but I was going to try and give a full picture of life here. But, while I am happy to talk at length about the happy things, and the great stories that some of the students did for me, and tell you exactly who they are, there's a lot of things where I won't give the students' names and a lot that I find out that I wouldn't mention on here. Some of it's really sad and makes my heart ache for these students.

There are a lot of things which make life so difficult for them out here - alcohol problems in the families, physical and sexual abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, self-harm, suicide. It's not just the adults who drink, sometimes the students do too. One I spoke to has just come out of a rehab programme. And it's not just the high-schoolers. There's a drug called 'punk' which basically sounds like magic mushrooms. They add it to the chewing tobacco. And it's on sale at the village store.

One of the exercises I do is where I get the students to make up a character and get to know them by answering questions about that character - what they look like, what their favourite things are, what their bad habits and best personality traits are, what they are most afraid of, what they want out of life and what their biggest secret is. The results of this exercise have really surprised me - a lot of the students, instead of making up a character, have used it to talk about something close to them. One student in one of the villages made me cry because, while I was talking to her about the character, and telling her how powerful and painful some of the things she had written were, she told me that it was actually her. The experiences were something that an adult should never have to suffer, let alone a small child. Sometimes it's hard not to cry. Sometimes I just cry. I want to take them home and keep them safe. All I can do is hug them, what good is that to them?

And then there are the students who write me brilliantly funny stories or descriptive or inventive stories. And they do it with great enthusiasm. A couple of students who didn't finish their stories in the class have since e-mailed me their finished stories with an "I hope you like it." There is some real talent here - one sixteen-year old, Martin, showed me a film he had made. I told him he should enter one of his films for a competition - he's really good.

While I was in between lessons one of the students brought me in a note from her cousin - little Catherine who I had met the day before. "I will never forget you. Call me." She gave me her number again. So, as I had an hour or so after school and before the plane came to pick me up to go up to Stony River, I called her and she and her friends came over to hang out. This is us, with a tiny little puppy. I don't know how you spell his name but it's pronounced something like 'Slaqtaaq' and it means 'Little dog who wanders around the village'. Before I left Karen gave me a beaded pen holder, made in Kalskag, and a card signed by every one of the kindergarten and elementary students. Yes, I cried.

And then it was off to Stony River which is about an hour and a half upstream. Part of the flight was with Steve, part was with Matt. As I didn't get to fly it meant I could watch the scenery and take loads of pictures.

We flew through the mountains - practically into the mountains. I could almost reach out and touch this peak. I'd never been to Stony before so was really excited. It's a beautiful little island of about 3 and a half acres. The scenery pictures in this post are from Stony. There are only about 50 people who live in the village. This is the petrol station. One of the teachers, Rick, took us for a walk around half of the island and then Cheryl and I settled down in the school overnight. I've never slept in a school before (well, only at my desk when I wasn't supposed to).

We then had two days of an Arts Festival to which the other small schools upriver flew their students into. More of that in the next post, along with making S'mores, learning bad words in Yup'ik, an overflowing toilet, and a hair-raising flight over the mountains. It was a lot of fun.