Outsider In an illegal rave

I am in a damp dark corridor, lit only with a handful of LED camping lights. It stinks of bleach. In the murkiness, I can’t see either end of the long narrow space. What I can see is the odd doorway leading here and there with luminescent scrawl on the white walls, optimistically marking out bathrooms and a bar. Whilst I stand in the gloom alone I can hear the roars and sing-alongs of a joyous stadium full of Foo Fighters’ fans in the near distance. I knew this night was going to be ‘an experience’ but the surreal has already started.

Filming an illegal rave for a documentary about party drugs is why I’m here, in these railway arches in East London. I haven’t ever been to an illegal rave. As it’s only 10pm, I can’t yet say I’m at one. This is just the pre-amble, which basically means that all the film crew of two and I have been doing until now is hanging out in a grimy dank space more habitually inhabited by pigeons with a bunch of teenagers – and a French woman called Sophie.

Somewhere in her thirties, Sophie, a softly spoken and relaxed presence, is the only grown up involved in this venture. She is incongruous amongst the largely ineloquent teenagers styling themselves as a rave crew, supposedly running the operation. What I’ve garnered this evening about rave organising is that, if you can’t find an appropriate urban space (read large abandoned remote warehouse) in the lead up to the intended event, you find someone else who already has. Enter Sophie.

I am told Sophie is the resident squatter. My preconceptions immediately struggle with this: the most relatable person for me there, there is no way I can see myself living in this miserable place by myself. What makes someone like her capable and willing – or with no other option but – to live here? I soon find out, however, that, although she ‘squats’ the space, she doesn’t actually occupy it. Huh? She just organises her own ‘parties’ here or, like tonight, rents it to other ravers and then goes home – to her other squat or luxury rented accommodation?? Who the fuck knows – I’m being bombarded by new concepts on a minute by minute basis!

Our way in to this whole venture is via J; a skinny genial kid with large 80s-inspired glasses and little dreadlocks. Literally letting us in is Lewis; square-jawed, good-looking, he talks without really moving his mouth. He un-padlocks the chain and wedges open the hoarding boards that make up the gate for us to squeeze through behind a thick, waist-high slab of concrete.

Once inside, there’s access to three arches. Two still show signs of their previous lives as roads, complete with pavements, signposts and pigeon shit. The middle arch was converted at some point into construction workers’ temporary living accommodation – now the uninhabitable (by mine and squatter Sophie’s standards!) stinking spooky space I’m standing in guarding the filming kit. The film crew, rave crew and a handful of girlfriends and hangers-on are a hive of action elsewhere. Sophie’s gone to get a generator.

A Foo Fighters song I recognise well finishes to the immense roars of the crowd, feeling full of life. Where I am right now I feel… on edge. Jumpy. Finally, Lewis arrives with a padlock so we can secure the kit in a little room. I’m relieved as hell to get away from the perfect horror movie corridor I’ve been stuck in.

* * *

“How the fuck do you not know how to send a location pin? Fuck man! Ok, when you look at your phone, in the top right there’s a little cross….”. I don’t overhear the rest of the conversation but the apparent technophobe on the other end of the phone is the guy bringing the ‘rig’, or sound-system. He’s lost. The closed off roads thanks to the nearby concert are not helping. Neither is the fact that he’s rumoured to have prematurely started his night off with ‘too much’ ketamine. He needs to get here soon, though – the Snapchat invites have just gone out to a couple of thousand people who will be starting to make their way…

***

The rig eventually arrives, along with a handful of ravers required to remain patient for the time being. As the speakers and decks are manoeuvred into place, the levels of tension visibly reduce – anxious argumentative teenagers have given way to a well-versed cool. It is at this precise moment that a voice and some flashlights interrupt proceedings through the metal grills blocking up the arch we’re currently under. “You’re trespassing. All your activities are on CCTV. We can see you’ve got a sound system. The police have been called – they’re on the way.”. Oh.

I have a decent amount of sympathy for someone who’s just trying to do their job and I see the sense, for the most part, in many of the laws of our land. It’s also against my nature to be deliberately antagonistic. It is, therefore, uncommon to find myself on the side of the fence that I’m quite literally on tonight. But have we broken any laws? The security guard flashing his light keeps informing us that we have, thanks to a ‘Section 19’ notice that’s been served, apparently stuck to one of the outside walls. With our non-resident squatter, Sophie, absent from the scene we’ve no idea if he’s bluffing or not. Our solution for now? Apparently to keep completely shtum, move the rig under the hidden middle arch and wait to see if the police really are going to arrive and break up our party before it’s even started.

***

The security guards have left for now but in another arch another problem is unfolding. Sophie’s arrived back with a generator, cycled over on a trailer attached to a Boris Bike. Having left it to he boys, though, it looks like they’ve completely effed it up: the pull chord is stuck and the generator Just. Won’t. Turn. On…

Oblivious to the problems, ravers are starting to turn up in droves, able to slip in less conspicuously now that Foo Fighters fans are streaming past our arches, singing and exuberant. Music, dancing, fun… their evening; certainly not ours.

* * *

It’s gone midnight and our illegal drum’n’bass rave looks thus: in one archway, Sophie and a handful of ravers exchange words through or over the fencing with the police who have indeed turned up. In another archway, J and his girlfriend Lola are trying to fix the generator with the help of our director and his handy multi-tool. In the middle archway the remaining ravers are gathered. They sit in little circles, with phones playing out tinny music between them. Some of the girls are sucking on dummies (a practical trend designed to give their jaw something to do when the incessant ecstasy induced chewing starts). Along with braces on their teeth, hair in pigtails and asexuality in sports gear and trainers, it’s impossible to get away from how frighteningly young most of them are.

Their activities to relieve their boredom are far from innocent, however – smoking weed and cigarettes, snorting lines of various powders, setting light to things and starting to tag on the walls with paint pens. Despite their evident disregard for the law when it comes to their Saturday night activities, the idea of ‘grown ups in charge’ seems ingrained – one chubby, pigtailed teenage girl calls out to me from her circle as I’m walking past “’Scuse me, when’s it gonna get started?”. I chuckle inwardly in disbelief. Proving myself even more to be one of the only organised and responsible adults present, I’ve also become the unofficial snack and water point, which gets me chatting to one particularly interesting individual.

Tsar is 19 and has recently got out from a spell in jail. Complaining of his hunger, I’d given him a banana earlier in the night. Now he needs water to wash something sticky off his hands (Seriously, hours of raving with no food or drink?!). “Codeine.” he explains, gingerly holding out what looks like a medicine bottle, “Or that’s what it’s supposed to be. I was gonna sell it but someone opened it and spilt it so now it’s all sticky.”

He’s a tall good-looking mixed race kid with a small but thick afro. He tells me about how easy it is to make money selling drugs in prison and how much you learn in there. He asks me questions about work, what we’re doing here and whether or not we want any weed. He’s obviously pretty bright, as well as quite charming – later on I’ll see him dangling over the fence chatting to the police officers about football. I can’t help but think he could be doing a lot with himself. But before that thought goes any further, and before I find out what he was in jail for, I’m pulled away to witness the latest blunder the night has to offer.

Back in archway one, the final attempt at getting this rave going is underway. Someone has managed to get hold of a cannister of diesel which they are now pouring into a creaky-looking old generator heaved out from god knows where. Does this generator start? No, of course it doesn’t.

It’s Tsar that vocalises what everyone’s thinking: this night is a flop. Evidently ‘over’ their sit-down gathering in a crappy venue, the would-be law-breaking revellers start obediently queuing up at the gate to be let out. The supremely patient and pragmatic police officers who’ve been milling around outside for the past couple of hours are letting it be known that no-one will be in trouble and no sound kit will be confiscated should everyone leave now.

As I go to retrieve the filming gear from its room off the dank corridor in which I started my night, I walk into a thick fug of noxious fumes. The pen tagging that had begun earlier on in the night has metamorphosed into full aerosol graffiti. Not an area of white wall remains.

I trundle out with my suitcase of production kit, past the police. I’m not quite sure how or whether to greet them.

It’s nearly 3am by the time we’ve packed everything into the car. The train station by which we’re parked hasn’t opened yet, so the bored teenage scenes from inside the railway arches have merely been transposed to outside of them. I find Sophie there too and give the padlock key back. I wonder what her night will now consist of.

As we drive off to do yet more filming, I wonder what I’ve just been part of. It has been equal parts surreal, eye-opening, bemusing and troubling… I’d never been to an illegal rave before and, really, I still haven’t!

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Outsider In interviews for jobs in TV production

This was my third interview.  Would it be third time lucky?

Interview number 1.

In a surprisingly sombre office, the first interview barely counted: 15 minutes with my interviewer, which I mistakenly took as being a good sign. I thought that it meant my CV and application had just screamed out ‘Hire Me!’ and that the face to face bit was a mere formality.  After all, it was for a receptionist job – a position I’d held a good three times in the early years of my working life – and I’d been called for the interview the very same day I’d applied.  I probably went in feeling over-confident and quite possibly treated my interviewer as an equal rather than my potential future manager; she can’t have been three years older than me.

What I hadn’t yet understood is how TV recruitment works: fast, casual, and on feeling. Although we both knew that I could do a receptionist job standing on my head, her feeling might have been that I wasn’t cut out to be her subordinate.  At least I got some feedback – competent, intelligent (!) but probably more suited to production.  Oh, and not available quickly enough.  Like I said, TV recruitment needs arise, and need to be sorted, fast.

Interview number 2.

Interview number two was for a slightly more challenging role: Office and Executive Assistant.  These probably don’t sound very much like telly roles to a non-TV person, and quite a lot like your average ‘office job’, which I’ve been steadfastly avoiding for the whole of my working life…  Well, they pretty much are office jobs, but in a bit more of an interesting and creative environment.  I’ve worked out that I’m good at organising, coordinating, anticipating, communicating – doing all the bitty things.  And creative industries need people like that to Get Shit Done.

So, whilst I work on flexing that less tangible creative muscle (known as editorial in TV-land) or picking up the technical aspects of production through personal pursuits, I’ve decided my best path currently is to play to my strengths within the industry by making myself utterly indispensable on the logistical side.  Especially as I’d be laughed out of the room if I tried to get anyone to take me seriously as a producer or researcher at this point in time!

I left my second interview high as a kite, feeling like it couldn’t have gone better.  One of the interviewers was finishing my sentences, and so I let her believe everything she wanted to about me. There were no awkward moments, I got to ‘sell’ myself, and I was in there for double the time they’d initially said. By the end I was being asked about my hobbies and holidays. Surely things don’t get any better than that?

I skip out of the bright, young, funky and friendly office, fully expecting to be asked for a second interview the following week, as that was the timeline I’d been given. I even start researching and preparing for the next round.

A week goes by and, no matter how many times I refresh my inbox, no ‘We’d like to invite you for a second interview’ email arrives.  Inexplicable!  I was awesome!  Wasn’t I…?  I start to panic, as the ‘no news is good news’ mantra isn’t doing it any more.  A quick google of ‘what to do when you don’t hear back from a job interview’ and I feel somewhat reassured.  I plan for a follow up email in a few days time, cos I’ll surely get a response either way, right?

Well, apparently, three weeks can go by since an interview, two weeks since you were told you would hear back, and a week and a half since a follow up email, and it is acceptable in the TV industry – or from the interviewers of this company – to not respond.  At all.

No time to dwell, though, as, in the meantime, another company has got in touch with me to conduct an informal phone interview AND I’ve made it through to the second face to face stage…

Interview number 3.

This company and its offices are the biggest and most impressive yet, although a bit more traditional feeling.  They also smell of someone’s curry lunch.  I’m here to try to become the Development Team Assistant – the best title I’ve interviewed for thus far.  On arrival I find that my phone interviewer, and one of the intended interviewers of today, is off sick.  Consequently I’ll just be meeting with the Director of Development.  He is the person I probably have to impress the most but the one I will have less contact with of the two.  I have no idea if this is a good thing or not.

On leaving the interview, I still have no idea.  I feel, bizarrely, like I haven’t had an interview at all.  Not in the standard sense, in any case.  As in, I’m not actually sure if I was asked any questions, or particularly had the opportunity to talk about myself…

I learnt a lot about the company and the details of the role and about the person (my interviewer) and people whom I would be assisting.  It is as if it were purely down to me to decide whether or not the role and company appealed.  Whether or not I appealed to the company is, well, a mystery to me.  When it came to the inevitable end question of ‘do you have any questions for me?’, I almost returned it straight back!  I chose, more diplomatically, to ask him if he wanted me to elaborate on anything, as it’s difficult to shoe-horn in one’s carefully prepared responses to all those standard interview questions that you’ll definitely get asked when you actually don’t get asked them.

I’m left, then, with no sense of where this is going.  Is it possible in this case that my CV and initial phone interview really did scream ‘Hire Me’ this time, and the face to face was literally that: ‘Hello, here’s my face, my arms, my legs, the expressions that I make’, and how bright, calm or personable I am?  And how will my face, arms, legs, eyebrow wiggles and general persona compare to those of the other people coming in for this non-interview interview experience?  Is this more of the casual TV, ‘on feeling’ way of recruiting?

I won’t know for a few days yet, but I’ve been sincerely promised that I will hear back either way.  On this note, I decide it’s time for me to follow up on the ghosting experience I seem to be going through since interview number two: it’s time for the phone call.

Big anticlimax: my main interviewer is in a meeting.   I leave a message and she will ‘hopefully’ get back to me. We shall see.

***

It’s been three months since I actively started my intensive job hunt in TV and I’m three interviews down.  I remain decidedly not employed in the industry but still sure that it will happen… although where, when and how, even when an interview is staring me in the face, I am, evidently, still in the dark about!*

*Two weeks later I get offered the job from interview number three, so I’ve taken it.  Interview two has still never got back to me.  Their loss.

Outsider In Cuba: Lessons from Havana in 24h

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

I’m in the taxi from the airport. My extremely accommodating driver is my first Cuban voice into the Cuba of today and the changes the island is going through. His words are accompanied by dark, damp urban views affording me a frustratingly low-key visual entry into the country: I glimpse palm trees, squat blocks of houses, a few other cars.

He explains that now having internet access, and the opportunity of meeting more tourists and speaking with Cubans who travel, have given him a newly positive view of his country. The free education and healthcare, so frequently cited, for example. Now that private enterprise is allowed there’s also generally a lot more hope. Being enterprising seems to be in the Cuban nature. He tells me that he taught himself English from scratch, and driving tourists to and from the airport every day is how he practises. He works seven days a week and has taken just eight or nine days off this year. His English is excellent.

Reaching Old Havana, we pull up in a back street. In the drizzle and low lighting, everything is a picture in sepia until I step inside my casa. This first casa particular, akin to a bed and breakfast, is quite something: marble staircases, furniture from 19th to mid last century, highly decorative tiles all worth taking pictures of (so I do), and ceilings three times the height of an average person. This house also happens to be chock full of religious (Catholic) paraphernalia.

I don’t ask too many questions of my hosts; my Spanish is frazzled, as am I. My low key start to Cuba continues in the same vein with bed calling. The spectacular, I hope, will start tomorrow.

***

Morning one and it’s pissing it down with rain. Biblical levels of rain. Most of the streets have turned into small rivers. Spectacular scenes, yes, but not quite what I was hoping for. Committed to a walking tour of Old Havana that I am already on, we find ourselves taking shelter in a warehouse type building that happens to be hosting a jiu jitsu and taekwondo competition for children and teens. I notice that there are some blind and partially sighted participants as we watch the warm ups and tumbling exercises across the multi-coloured mats.

Waterfalls are cascading in through the windows, doorways and holes in the roof. Small lakes spread across the concrete floor threatening the activity but the Cubans are unfazed.

A judo instructor befriends me and gives me some tips on where I can find salsa clubs to go dancing. He doesn’t ask me for anything untoward in exchange but perhaps a donation towards the martial arts centre. He doesn’t insist, though, and is quite happy just to chat and then leave me be.

Sheltering in the martial arts warehouse turns out to be the best insight into Cuban life of the day, as the rest of it is spent… surrounded by tourists. The centre of Old Havana seems strangely quiet save for the sheer masses of guided walking tours. I find myself mostly observing other tourists in horrified fascination. Being part of the mass of tourist numbers doing guided tourist things was, ignorantly, and arrogantly perhaps, an experience I wasn’t expecting.

One sight I had been expecting, and am not disappointed by, are the promised classic cars – American, from the 50s and 60s, mostly Chevrolets and 80s Russian Ladas. At the airport, my taxi driver had pointed out a car that used to have the honour of being a security vehicle for Fidel Castro. Russian built, bullet-proof, apparently. Now it carts tourists around.

By the end of the day I am having my first in depth chat with a young Cuban. Denis is 28, Afro-Cuban. Very quickly going past the pleasantries, he is telling me about living conditions and his views on Cuba. With so few jobs around, he feels young Cubans have become unmotivated, and just do what they can to get a fast buck. He tells me that he is opposed to the government, describing it as a dictatorship. Despite having trained as a nurse, he no longer works in the profession and, instead, goes house to house selling bleach. He makes more money this way. It also means he’s not working for the state.

We talk about housing conditions. In fact, it was in catching me taking a picture of his house that our conversation started. I saw a photo opportunity in the dilapidation. He, along with many others crammed into the space, has to live in the dilapidation. I don’t go inside but through the glassless barred windows I can see that the state of reparation is appalling. In fact, driving back out of the city, past more and more buildings, it strikes me that never before have I been somewhere where such a great proportion of the buildings are in such dismal condition.

Eventually Denis and I come to be discussing the dream many young Cuban men have – escape from the island via a foreign woman. Marriage to a foreigner is the best passport for leaving the country to a more economically secure and democratically free life. It seems that love is an unnecessary bonus for the Cuban men who salsa their way into the beds and hearts of these women but for him, he tells me, it must be the basis of any relationship. However, when five minutes’ later he’s telling me that he may be falling in love at this very moment on the street, I decide it’s time to bring our conversation to a close.

So from love, to food, which actually is a love for me. Unfortunately, it is currently only remarkable in that I’ve eaten virtually the same bloody thing for every meal since touchdown: sandwiches. My midnight snack on arrival at the casa was a reconstituted ham toastie.  Breakfast included a roll with egg.  Lunch was a tuna sandwich.  My afternoon snack, a round hot crunchy bread with sweet tomato sauce and cheese, masquerading as a pizza but folded into a sloppy sandwich.  And dinner? Cheese and ham toastie. Lesson learnt – when you have the choice don’t go for a sandwich because there are probably many occasions when it will be the only thing available to eat!

***

Looking back, I can see that, in under 24 hours, I had stumbled across some of the main themes that were to recur throughout the trip, onto which I would build a bigger picture of Cuba today. The positive and negative aspects of the revolution in evidence: good health, socialist practices and education; disenfranchised youth, but a hope for the future; the important feature of tourists to this isolated country, offering a means of escape from poverty or a literal escape from the island. The friendliness and willingness of Cubans to talk and share, and to praise and criticise Cuba – and flirt! – in equal measure. And the former glory, the faded grandeur peeking through crumbling facades and infrastructure…

I was determined that the food situation was going to get better, though. I wasn’t eating just sandwiches for the next three weeks!

Outsider In Ecuador: Living in a farming community

In May and June 2011, I spent a few weeks in what felt like a forgotten part of northern Ecuador – a mountainous rural zone called Intag on the edge of a cloud forest.  I pillaged the emails I wrote home to friends and family at the time for the posts here.

As with every Sunday, we squeeze in to the back of the community milk truck with grannies, children, a dog, urns full of hand-drawn fresh milk, and anything/one else needing transporting to the village.  For the locals, Sunday in Cuellaje was The Main Social Event of the week; for us it was a chance to write home.  Hard to believe the place had internet – when we’d first arrived before moving to the even more remote farm that became our home, we were astounded the village even had electricity!

We bump down the hilly mud paths, giggles and shouts as things and people bounce around and nearly out. Despite the moist and muddy setting, everyone looks at their best, defying the six other days of the week where it’s impossible to be anything but filthy, us included – we spend most of our time running, jumping, climbing trees with the kids from the school I’ve been teaching at and of our host family.

The family we live with are a young cattle farming couple and their two daughters, 8 and 10, doing well for themselves compared to neighbouring farming families struggling to get by with up to 9 children.  The six of us – the family, my travel buddy and I – squeeze into their two bedroom bungalow  which sits at the side of the mud road.  It’s made of breeze block with mostly concrete flooring inside, and a kind of shed attached at the back with a mud floor where food is kept for the animals (and us) and a cooking fire occasionally is occasionally lit.  Normally, though, they use the gas burner in the kitchen – cum dining area cum entrance to the house.

There can only be three other farmhouses within 1km but we can’t see them; just beautiful hilly surroundings.  We are in a bubble of our family, the school, and the odd passerby, dog, visitor.  The only gringo we see is when we tramp the kilometre or so up to the farm owned by Ned, the only native English inhabitant who settled as a farmer and then started the volunteer and eco-toursim project here.  Almost total immersion then, and very much a different way and pace of life…

Daily life

That week I had mostly been:

– dirty. Yes.

– wearing wellies – because of the mud, of course, and rain..

– ..getting rained on – being in a cloud forest means that it’s a pretty wet and humid place and we arrived at the tail end of the wet season.

– riding to school in the mornings on the back of a motorbike with the engine switched off to save petrol as it’s all downhill. Other modes of travel have included the milk truck – of course – or a cattle wagon, for long journeys to the village, horse, mule, quad bike, or just our legs.

– getting up at 6am and going to bed before 9pm. As farmers, our host parents get up at 5am to milk the cows, and get all their work in before it gets dark at 6pm-ish. Being on the equator, these hours of light and dark are the same year round.

– sleeping in a fleece, down jacket and socks. Partly because it was a bit cold but mostly to stop the damn ‘no see-ems’ munching my feet and ankles and arms – tiny little bastard flies that bite A LOT but you NEVER catch them in the act!

– trying to keep out the millions of actual visible flying insects that want to get into the bedroom at night, including a moth the size of a sparrow – not a joke.

– spotting tiny bright black grasshoppers. Hundreds of them, everywhere (except in our bedroom – the only insects that aren’t!). They don’t seem to have the common grass or mud-coloured variety here.

– watching animated barbie films over and over and over… Thanks to living with an 8 and a 10 year old. It’s helping our Spanish though, so..

– ..getting a bit better in Spanish – yay!

– doing the washing up with a child’s sock. It being the preferred implement is somewhat representative of the kitchen situation as a whole – not a sterile aesthetic environment, but one that prioritises the storage and preparation of food, a proportion of which comes from the immediate environment. To be blunt, my old food tech teacher would have kittens over the dirt and grime! We won’t dwell on that side of things, rather, let’s talk about…

..Food

Things I’m getting used to:

– Eating shedloads of rice.

– Eating shedloads of rice and potatoes – now a totally normal combination on a plate. Or rice with any of a seemingly infinite variety of tuber/root/potato vegetable they have here. Still can’t get my head round pasta and potatoes though.

– Using corn for feeding everyone and everything in more ways than my imagination had ever previously stretched to: dry and crunched up with hot milk; ground up into a paste and cooked in its own leaves to make a sweet or savoury cake; toasted and salted; rubbed and boiled so it inflates twice the size; boiled and eaten with fresh cheese; used to feed the pigs; used to feed the chickens…  tons and tons of it.

– Eating fruit that we don’t even have names for.

– Drinking hot fresh milk.

– The new, quieter cockerel as we ate the one that used to wake us up! Bit of shocker when the mum told us he was in the soup we had one evening. I think he was getting on a bit, though. And he really was very noisy.

– Drinking boiled water that tastes like the pot we boil it in. As for the water situation, then…

Personal hygiene

There’s no hot water. None. Not a drop. Water to the house is sourced from the nearby river, and there is no system to heat it so it is Mountain Fresh. I might be going on a bit about the dirt thing but we really are chuffing mucky. Because, of course, it’s not fun having cold showers.  I realise that a warm shower is such a pleasurable thing, and being able to have one every day and be clean, such a privilege. Probably, if only cold water existed in the world, we wouldn’t waste so much of it as the bathing rate would dwindle from every day to every other (or three or four!) days.  Going on from this…

I’ve seen that cleanliness and hygiene, do not – of course! -, have a universal standard. When you work outside in the mud or dust and you get dirty just by stepping out of the shower, and when washing clothes is hand-grinding time-consuming work, what’s the point in making yourself clean too often?  Here, walking down the road you get dirty; sitting down, eating, picking up a bag, you get dirty; boiling a pot of water, YOU GET DIRTY. You may as well keep your clothes on for a few days running, including sleeping in them, and have a shower for special occasions, like Sundays, when you go into the village.

So this is where we find ourselves. Everyone trying to up their Sunday best appearance as we cling to the sides of the milk truck, rattling, rolling and windswept past farms and lush, hilly fields

I’m looking forward to having Cuellaje’s concrete under my feet for a little while, a home-made fruit ice cream, and writing home about all this different wonderfulness.

To learn more about tourism, volunteering or conservation in the area, read more on their blog and Facebook page, or contact Ned Cresswell on their Cloud Forest Adventure website.

Outsider In Ecuador: Volunteer teaching at a rural primary school

In May and June 2011, I spent a few weeks in what felt like a forgotten part of northern Ecuador – a mountainous rural zone called Intag on the edge of a cloud forest.  I pillaged the emails I wrote home to friends and family at the time for the posts here.

It was a Thursday when I’d been filling an email to the brim with experiences of volunteering as an English teacher in a primary school in a remote Ecuadorian farming community.  I’m sure things have changed immensely in the five years since I was there but, then, slow slow internet was only available in the main village of Cuellaje; its tentacles had not spread to the farms, one of which we were staying in, dotted around the community, miles apart, separated by hills, mud tracks and very little transport.

Usually our only chance to make it to Cuellaje, and so connect with the outside world, was on a Sunday when we’d head down with our local host farming family – along with every other member of the surrounding communities. This was the day for churchgoing, food shopping, playing a variant of volleyball (very high net, no smashes) and generally hobnobbing in the village in one’s Sunday best. With only four dial-up computers available and a lot of teenagers around, it was also the day for fighting over internet.

On this Thursday, though, the teeny San Antonio primary school was closed. This wasn’t the first occasion that the children had been treated to a no lesson day since my arrival a couple of weeks before, but this time it was owing to a serious meeting. With only 17 children in the primary school, the education supervisors of the parish had deemed three teachers to be one too many, and so all had gone to Cuellaje village to decide who would be moved instead to the secondary school there.

While their fate was being determined, my travel buddy and I opportunistically made the 40min trek into the village on the back of the milk truck – the most regular and reliable form of transport around – so I could write home about my exploits… this time, school life, starting with a caviat:

An unsteady stream of volunteers with dodgy English teaching credentials is the only access to the language these children get.  English has relatively recently become part of the national curriculum in Ecuador, but it takes a long while for teachers’ qualifications to catch up, especially in rural areas.  People like me partaking in what I now see as ‘volontourism‘ doesn’t necessarily improve the situation, and potentially dis-incentivises local governments to train up teachers… still, I found myself there, happily ignorant to these ethical qualms whilst I learnt quite a lot but also felt appreciated by the locals.  (You can judge more here.)

I was teaching three groups of children, roughly divided into the 5 and 6 year olds, 8 and 9 year olds, then the 10 and 11 year olds. The school itself was pretty dilapidated but cheery and it soon felt normal, though it certainly wasn’t by western standards: faded painted concrete walls, broken windows, doors that barely locked, outside toilets and sinks, no playgrounds as such, just an uneven grassy field, and pencil-scribed workbooks to be rubbed out and used again.

None of that seemed to matter, though, as the kids made the best of it all. They were pretty up for learning, especially as I tried mostly to do games. It was a million times easier than teaching moody French teenagers which had been my experience up to that point. They could be a pain in the arse sometimes, of course, but mostly they were hugely entertaining, and wanted to play all the time. They were upbeat and adventurous, grubby and fun-loving like kids should be – even the 11 year olds who could have been pre-pubescent horrors but just weren’t. It inspired a child-like feeling in me again.

On the way home from school it could take anywhere between 40 minutes and 2 hours to walk back because of the many kids we’d have in tow. There were often various stops to scramble up mud banks and climb trees in order to scrounge whatever wild-growing fruit was obtainable. I would mainly stand at the bottom, shouting directions, giving a leg up, and catching things on the way down. Always generous, any of their fruity bounty they would share, from their grubby little hands to ours. I would accept with glee, my heart always won through my stomach… unfortunately, this was a surefire way for my stomach to also win out over my bowels…

In other food matters, before the school day even started we were fuelled with two (!) breakfasts: one at home and one at school with the kids. The latter consisted of a thick porridge-like drink tasting vaguely of banana and called colada, with biscuits and granola. We were also once treated to piglet uterus, which was a first. Like the kids, the teachers often insisted on sharing food with us and, on this occasion, wouldn’t divulge what we were eating until after we’d finished. I felt only a little weird about it.

The teachers were nice and pretty laid back. The volunteer ‘programme’ coordinator, an English guy named Ned who’s ‘gone native’ and become a farmer in the community, was of the opinion that they were “bone idle”. I’d rather believe it’s a cultural difference… although, it is true that, by mid-way through my time volunteering, there had already been the inexplicable days of no classes, and on National Children’s Day we just played games, ate corn and cheese and watched Ice Age

Slightly incomprehensible situations were commonplace in my life there, thanks to the giant culture differences and my not-fast-enough-improving level of Spanish. The now semi-anthropologist in me would have seen this all with quite different eyes but, five years ago, I was an English girl amused by the new oddities and contradictions I felt I was witnessing. And school seemed particularly rife with them.

Sometimes there were rules and timetables for things, other times there weren’t. As far as I could tell, it depended on the mood of the teachers.

Sometimes I’d end up taking one of the classes for an entire morning whilst, for example, the teacher put together a flat-pack cupboard so couldn’t possibly teach at the same time.

Break time could last 10 minutes one day and one hour the next.

Once a whole school lesson consisted of putting cut grass into a big hole in the field. I also believed at one point that the teachers were making the kids do gardening labour for them, but apparently it was part of the curriculum…

Monday at school was, inconsistently, the ‘day of patriotism’. The children were supposed to sing the national anthem, flag waving and hands over hearts. Extremely important for patriotism, it appeared, is having clean fingernails and ears, not wearing wellies and having a clean and folded hanky in your pocket. If not, a bunch of squats was doled out as punishment – for lack of patriotic cleanliness, I can only suppose.

Ultimately, propriety and orderliness were fighting a losing battle against a group of farm kids living on the edge of a cloud forest, where boundaries and time seemed loose. For me, this daily picture somewhat encapsulates it all:

The girls would start off the day, puffed up and pleased, with elaborately plaited and immaculately scraped back hair; the boys would have it combed, parted and plastered down to one side with water, all to stay that way for an hour at most. Their once weekly mother’s-hand-scrubbed uniforms – cold water, brush and soap against stone – stood no chance against their daily antics: they were generally ragged and torn, and increasingly dirty as the week wore on. This image was all topped – or bottomed – off by sock-free feet jammed into unmatching wellies…

The teachers reacted alternately with utter dismay, or total indifference.  And the kids, of course, spent 99% of their time not caring a single blooming jot!  And I adored them all the more for that.

To learn more about tourism, volunteering or conservation in the area, read more on their blog and Facebook page, or contact Ned Cresswell on their Cloud Forest Adventure website.

Outsider In a documentary making competition: It’s edit time

This follows on from my last post detailing the first half of our 36h short documentary making challenge.

It’s Sunday morning and I’m at home, all revved up with nowt to do. I’m well aware that when it comes to editing a documentary you can’t have too many cooks. Maximum two, or you’ll spoil the broth big time, entering into a creative and cooperative nightmare. I am not one of the two, unfortunately, owing to my under-developed editing skills (apparently iMovie don’t cut it), and being slow off the mark to proffer my abode as the edit studio.

My mistake, as I’m finding it difficult to be out of control.  I am ITCHING to tell the story – to stitch together the narrative, to create something worthy of the planning and filming work we’ve put in – and of the subject – our night time food delivery king.  Not having assigned clear roles at the outset or made any one person director means that the final choices come down to the editors.  From my end, at least, our ‘egalitarian easy-going set-up’ could prove flawed now we’re at this point.

At 5pm, team non-edit (friend and I) are at his waiting to receive the first cut to then record some appropriate voice-over.  I am nervous and excited to see it.  When we watch it through, I am… confused and disappointed…  Instantly I start pouring questions out to my friend which he can in no way answer: Where was the footage from this cam, that cam? Where were these bits from the interview?  The story isn’t the one I thought we were telling.  Plus, it doesn’t actually look like a documentary yet.

We watch again and I’m making notes all the while my non-edit partner, a videographer by profession, and well-accustomed to this stage of the process, remains calm.  They have just spent an entire day getting to this point, he reminds me, and they’ve made certain calls – and edits – for a reason.  But, but, I think…

I quickly calm down, and strike through my ‘feedback’ notes.  None of this is mine, despite my claim to ownership as initial idea generator.  It’s a collaborative learning process above all, and I have to put my creative and competitive feelings aside.  As such, friend and I just get on with our end of it: we record an intro and an outro and send it over to the edit team.  We then hop on a train to east London as we’d agreed to join forces for the final touches.

It’s 8pm. We’re in a plush modern flat turned temporary edit studio in Dalston.  There are beautiful views, of which our teammate who rents the place made a lovely time-lapse – it makes it into the credit shot of our film.

We sit down to watch the updated edit that the last three hours of hard work by these guys has produced… and it is SO much better than the 5 o’clock version!  There is a whole variety of shots and footage included now; in a restaurant, Soho at night, weaving shots from the bike through traffic, food close-ups, a title – London’s Night Rider.  Of course it was never going to be just the interview – how stupid of me to have worried that might be the case! The cut of the interview and order of narrative are still not how I thought it would be, but, overall, the doc looks good.

We watch it over a couple of times, make suggestions for final editing, and put together the credits.  It’s after nine when we finally press submit to upload the film to the London Documentary Network competition site.  High fives all round.  Despite our potentially chaotic all in and all hands on approach, and my disappointment at not being part of the edit, it was quite a dream team to work with, and a very enjoyable weekend.  I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, and appreciate all the hard work of my comrades.

Nevertheless, I’ve taken a copy of all the footage in order to create my own version.  It’s amazing how you can tell so many stories with the same footage – it really is all in the edit.

This whole process served up lessons and reminders from start to finish. One, of course, is how people interpret things in very different ways – just looking at the same thing for sure doesn’t mean we’re seeing the same thing.  In filming particularly, I learned that it’s best to designate ONE director, and to be that director if you have a strong vision of the story you wish to tell.  Otherwise play your part and then let it go.  As I’m not sure how well I can handle the latter on an idea I’m passionate about, then the other lesson is to up those editing skills – a surefire way of having a say!

Better get on it, then, the next competition‘s only a few weeks away!

Outsider In a documentary making competition: Get team, make plan, go film

We start in a hidden room behind the back bar of the BFI Southbank.  In feeling, a gentleman’s club or small stately home study-cum-library, with book-lined shelves, leather armchairs and a compact bar.  The small group gathered swells as bodies enter the room bit by bit.

A sticker on my chest tells all present my name.  It also indicates that I have no skills.  That is, no overtly relevant skills for the particular adventure we are about to embark on.  But, I have a secret weapon!  I’ve brought along a friend whose sticker is embellished with little coloured dots denoting all the necessary technical skills – and gear – for the undertaking of the next two days: he has a camera, audio kit, editing software and, crucially, the wherewithal to use it all.

I can’t hang on to his coat-tails entirely, though; I’ve got to prove my worth.  Excitable this morning, and impassioned, I have bubbled into the room and, coloured dot-less as I am, I figure that this is what I need to sell – charm, chat, humour, story-telling, ideas… So I amp it up a notch.  It’s 10am on Saturday but what’s wrong with a little light flirting when trying to complete a team to make a documentary in just 36 hours?

When I had first learned about the Doc in a Day competition organised by the London Documentary Network, I was simply keen to learn the process of making a short factual film from start to finish.  Approaching this weekend, though, I find myself anxiously hoping to get together with a good group, have a great idea and story, and the ability to pull it off.  Basically, I want to make a bloody good documentary.  Consequently, I have slept badly and am not sure that, once I’ve charmed my way onto a team, I’ll actually be able to live up to my promises…

***

Once ‘crewed up’ by 11am, we were given an exceedingly broad theme (in compensation for our exceedingly narrow time constraints) and we started knocking around ideas.  Most crucially, we needed to see who would allow us to make a documentary involving them.  Luckily for me, a very interesting and personable friend agreed to be filmed.  Yes!  First justification for my being part of the team.

A lot of planning, planning, note-taking, mind-mapping, questioning, planning and, by 4pm, it’s looking good and we’re feeling confident.  We think we know our story, our angle, our questions, and we’ve worked out what kit, locations and shots we might need. We go our separate ways to get all the bits and bobs required, agreeing to reconvene at 7pm for filming.

Whilst everyone else is getting lenses, radio mics, extra cameras, lighting kit and more jumpers(!) my arduous task is to get my bike into Central London.  The theme for the doc competition being ‘Movement’ and our subject the founder of a late night food delivery service, we’ve determined to do an interview whilst cycling.  I’m up for doing the interview – handy, as I’m also the only one with a bike (justifications two and three for being a doc team member).

New to cycling in London, I have, however, never taken that bike north of the river from where it and I currently live south east.  I am more than a little bit nervous as I set off.  Plus tired.  Plus thinking about all the questions I have to remember to ask come interview time…

… a looong time later and I’m at Goodge Street wondering what on earth possesses someone to want to spend their night-time cycling around crazy-busy Central London trying to get food as quickly as possible to want-it-now customers!  Another question to add to the list for my interviewee.

GoPro attached to one set of handlebars, my mobile phone-turned-camera sticky-tape and hair-band affixed to another, and lapel-mics in place.  We’re ready for a jaunt around some miraculously quiet back streets making our interview look like a chat whilst on a food delivery.

Maybe it’s because I’m tired. Maybe it’s because my interviewee is somewhat of a pro interviewer (as an ex-TV presenter) and keeps telling me what (not) to do.  In any case, I’m wondering what I’m bringing to this documentary making party – apart from my bike.  I tell myself that it’s ok if all my skills are currently soft – as opposed to hard and techy – but that they can’t be squishy – flaccid.  Basically, I’ve got to be really bloody good at my soft skills – ideas, organisation, research, questions, story crafting, narrative, people, directing etc etc – if I’m going to get anywhere doing this type of stuff.  And I have decided that ‘this type of stuff’ would be a wonderful way to make a living.

… alternatively, I could go and get myself some expensive kit, then I’d be invaluable – at least in this documentary making comp.  I’ve learned that ‘all the gear and no idea’ can totally get you picked for a team!

***

It’s midnight and we’re again going our separate ways.  Despite our ambitious set-up of multi-camera filming and sound recording of two people riding bikes (and my insecurities over my own doc making credentials), it all seems to have gone smoothly.  In our surprisingly egalitarian easy-going set-up, each person took their own role and just got on with it, the odd suggestion chipped in from the other members.  No arguments or artistic spats, no director…

This being the case, whoever can and wants to edit will be taking all the footage home and starting the process tomorrow.  I want but I can’t, the mastering of a professional edit suite on my current to do list.  This stage is all a little bit of a mystery to me and, as the footage goes in one direction and I in another, I feel the documentary slipping away, out of my hands.

Nothing I can do then but to get me and the ideas, images, doubts and questions of the day all swimming round my head back home.  And my bloody bike, of course.  I set off with a slight weariness and a small knot in my stomach – although this time it’s not just about navigating London’s streets on my bike.  TBC.