Though I have a lot of time for the written word, for me the appeal of the spoken word is the greater. Ideas from a good talk, lecture, or even a chat get into my mind with minimum interference. And spoken commentary has an immediacy that is seductive. Moreover, with talking there is the added advantage of the associated body language plus the chance to question.
I suspect that it is my ease with the spoken word that has given me a deep respect and affection for teachers, a profession that presents itself in all sorts of places and guises. I refer here to those who act as guides for holidaymakers. Like in the teaching profession, most guides are passable, some are awful, and there are those who are gold dust as they lift a holiday or trip onto another plane. Gunnar was one such guide. It is 14 years now since we spent five days with him in a ‘people carrier’ exploring the west of Iceland. He was our age and prior to guiding drove round the island selling and delivering farm equipment. He knew the countryside as though it was his own, but he knew much more besides.
That week he was our guide/driver and his commentaries and stories were spellbinding. In his particular Icelandic English and with his gentle humour he informed about almost everything (nature, history, geology, astronomy), and at the same time enthused us with Icelandic culture and customs. With him it was no surprise to find yourself swimming in a newly discovered hot-water spring in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by ice while he spoke about geothermal energy; or chasing across tundra to be just under the flapping wings of a majestic sea eagle as he spoke of Iceland’s birds of prey.
Gunnar never dodged our questions and like any good teacher managed to read our minds and so adapt his responses to our interests. When the countryside got a little dull he would recount Iceland’s 13th century sagas, filling us in on the antics of one author, the memorably named Snorri Sturluson. Because the stories obviously amused us, he took us on a detour to see the spot where Snorri would bathe when staying with his third (or was it his fourth?) wife and patron!
Nobody matched Gunnar until just recently when in Kenya we spent two days with Andrew. He had left school at 15 and was inspired to learn about the preciousness of Kenyan wildlife from a retired expat doctor who set up a ‘nature’ group in his village. At 20 or so Andrew realised that working as a guide in a Safari park would allow him to be close to wild animals and plants and to help aid their preservation. To this end he started learning English and training to be a professional guide.
We met him before the sun rose one early morning as he helped us into his 4×4. From out of the dark we heard his gentle measured voice; his impeccable grasp of English, vast vocabulary and slightly quirky accent learned from tapes supplied by Manchester University Business School. We soon discovered that this 31 year-old lived and adored nature and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of it.
Somehow, whether he was telling us about plants, animals, meteorology, geography or whatever, he imparted the information in story form. And when animals presented themselves – elephant, lion, giraffe, rhino, zebra, cheetah, eagle and more – he seemed to understand what they were thinking and ‘where they were coming from’. He was of the earth. He spoke with great precision, care and tact, a quality that came to the fore when clarifying for me the difference between grazing and browsing (cows graze because they eat grass, giraffes browse by virtue of eating off bushes and trees), or between horn and antler (deer have antlers and antelopes have horns; unlike antlers, horns are never shed) and so on.
Saying goodbye to both Gunnar and Andrew was difficult. Ten years after our first visit to Iceland, we went back and tracked down Gunnar who accompanied us on a trip once again. He was just as special. If ever we go back to Kenya, I will certainly search out Andrew. These people, with their deep knowledge and their way with words, are precious.
Photo: The Story of Egil Skallagrimsson attr. to Snorri Sturluson