The dark side of travelling…

Foreword: For a long time I have been loath to write in this blog due to the mishaps that plagued the last couple of weeks of my travels. I have realised however, until I put down in words the worst of my travelling experiences, I won’t be able summon the enthusiasm to write about the best. My worry is that this post could potentially deter people from travelling to the places mentioned, or even from travelling completely. This isn’t my aim, and I encourage anyone interested in continuing to push the boundaries of “ordinary” travel to do so and with gusto. This is more a cautionary tale of how everyone is vulnerable to what I like to call, “the authentic South American experience.”

So let me rewind to mid August last year: I had just spent 6 weeks high in the Venezuelan Andes, volunteering at a zoo, learning Spanish and generally having a fantastic time. On my final night, in order to take away some lasting memories of the bars and clubs I had frequented during my time in Mérida, I did something I never normally did – I took my camera out with me. On our way home however, my male companion and I were mugged. Nothing too serious, just two men, one armed with a piece of wood hammered through with a nail, who patted us down and relieved us of our money, our cameras, and almost 5 weeks of memories which I had stupidly not backed up. I still kick myself now, up until Venezuela I had been religious about making sure my photos were safe, but I had gotten lax and overly relaxed during my time in the posada.

Not what I had been expecting of my last day in Venezuela, I spent it rushing back and forth to the Police Station in the hope of getting a statement for my insurance. Unsurprisingly nothing ever came of it, although to be honest I wasn’t too bothered as no amount of money was going to bring my photos back.

That night following the attack I flew alone to Caracas and spent the night in a dive of a hotel near the airport. Still in shock from the attack I felt genuinely uneasy about being by myself for the first time. Even bolting my door shut and jamming my backpack in front of it didn’t give me any peace of mind and I barely slept.

Early the next morning I flew to Trinidad in twin-prop Caribbean Airlines plane, where, as often happens to me on all forms of transport around the globe, I was sat next to a nutcase. In this case, it was an Opus Dei priest who informed me he had been watching me at the airport, invited me to his church and forced a large number of propaganda-filled leaflets on me. As soon as we landed, I ducked down behind the crowds at baggage reclaim and hailed the first taxi I could find outside. Now I had the added fear that I was being watched and that I was possibly about to be abducting and brainwashed by members of a notorious cult (thanks Dan Brown…).

Trinidad had been a last minute addition to my travels and I hadn’t read up on it at all before my arrival. I found out too late that unlike it’s tourist friendly sister island,Tobago, Trinidad was basically a no go area for foreigners. The island recorded 485 homicides in 2010, making it the murder capital of the Caribbean, hardly something to put in the tourism brochures. Whats-more it’s ugly. Almost all the island’s income, I learned, is based on industry, and the whole island, once a haven of natural beauty, is now covered in factories.

My “safe” hotel was located in Chaguaramas on the northern tip of the island, next to the local port and around 10km from central Port-of-Spain. I spent 3 lonely days, mostly in my hotel room awaiting my flight to Guyana. When I wasn’t on an organised trip of the capital (sat in the car, doors bolted, with a minute to hop out for photos), or of the Caroni Bird Reseve (delightful boatride where at dusk you can see ruby tinted clouds of Scarlet Ibis returning to roost) I wasn’t allowed out of the complex of the hotel. When I suggested to the woman at reception that I could walk to the nearby, well-renowned and apparently award-winning, fish restaurant, she looked appalled. She told me in her heavy Caribbean accented English, “thees iz naut thee place tuh goh fuh a waulk aluhn.”  I tried to reason that as it was only a 2 minutes away, and that a taxi really wasn’t necessary. The fear she held for me in her eyes told me this wasn’t just a ploy (as often they are) to extract money from the “rich” foreigner. I allowed her to ring for a taxi. She was also concerned about my return from the restaurant, seeing as it was a Sunday night, and there would’t be many taxis around. She told me the driver would wait while I finished my meal (“ow lang d’yah tink ya’ll be eytin?”) and come and collect me afterwards.

My flight to Guyana was uneventful, and as I landed on a dirt strip runway early in the morning, I surveyed with new hope the vast swathes of unbroken rainforest below. This was what I had really come travelling for, to see the untouristy, the unvisited, the unknown.

I was immediately struck how poverty stricken, to an entirely new level, this country was. The taxi ride to Georgetown looked like a scene from a wild west film with ramshackle wooden huts as houses, but rather than desert, the background was spectacular rainforest, thick, uninhabited and virgin.

I awaited the arrival of my boyfriend, Marcus, in Kara Lodge, Georgetown’s most “expensive” hotel. It was writhing with Americans, either Christian missionaries looking to bring “enlightenment” to the uneducated masses or business men seeking their fortunes in niche tourism, and very few others. I felt out of place once again, sat by myself in the hotel restaurant at lunch, listening in on their conversations on the various tactics to change “this poor destitute country” i.e. make it more like their own…!

The day of Marcus’s arrival, I took a taxi to the Surinamese embassy to apply for my visa. I had been turned down the day before for wearing shorts, and a string top, the irritable guard, a sour faced large lady, saw this as inappropriate attire for this very official looking wooden shack. That day I succeeded in entering the barbed wire compound. This was also the life-changing moment, although it didn’t particularly seem it at the time, when I met a bald, sweaty Australian man in the waiting office. I had seen him walking the dirt track to the embassy from my taxi window. He stuck out to me too, and for a moment I understood the stares of the locals I had endured as even I gawping as we passed him by. This meant something far more important to me however. Another real tourist. I wasn’t alone here.

In the sweltering waiting room our first meeting was short. He introduced himself as Bob. I disliked him at first as he bragged how he had spent the last 10 years of his life travelling, and was currently taking 3 years to cycle the length and breadth of South America. We arranged, I grudgingly, to meet at Kara Lodge that night, “after all,” I thought to myself, “beggars can’t be choosers.”

At 8 that evening, the three of us stepped out the entrance of our hotel just as night was falling. Within minutes we had been accosted by a man of tramplike appearance, who spoke to us in an almost indecipherable Guyanese accent. He followed us down the empty, dark road, telling us how he had just been let out of jail. Bob, attempting to defuse the situation as he clearly had many times before, started by congratulating him. That didn’t shake him off, we started walking faster. My warning lights were flashing nineteen to the dozen, “get out!” my brain was yelling to me. But we were on a deserted road. There was nowhere to go. The old man began to get angry and mutter threats under his breath (“ahyll gut yers…”) peppering them with Guyanese swear words I didn’t recognise, and others I did.

It wasn’t supposed to end badly that night however. I don’t believe in god, but if I did I would believed in that moment he had been smiling down on me. A pair of lights appeared around the corner of the street ahead, and slowed as they came towards us. With my blonde hair I was the most conspicuous person in the whole town. It was my taxi driver from the night before who, as per my request, had taken me to his favourite local restaurant so I could try out some typical Guyanese fare. Last night he had seemed a little bit overbearing, talking constantly and thrusting his rapidly written number into my hand as bid him a hasty farewell outside the hotel, take-away bag in hand. In that moment however, I couldn’t have been happier to see anyone else. He leant out of the window and in a worried tone asked us where we were going, before begging us to get in his taxi, telling us he would even take us there for free, “these streets ain’t for walkin’ after dark!” A real life deus ex machina!

We continued struggling to made arrangements for our trip. We were trying to get to Kaieteur Falls, the country’s most impressive attraction and the world’s largest single drop waterfall. Although maybe only some 140 miles away from the capital as the crow flies, the waterfall was hidden deep in the thick Guyanese jungle. There is little or no tourist infrastructure in Guyana, and once you reach the end of the road (read cleared dirt track through the rainforest), quite literally, in Mahdia, it is up to you and a machete to organise a route through the remaining 40km of virgin forest to the falls.  We had little interest in the easy and overpriced route by plane, an option taken only by the upper class adventure travellers, which would have us hurried in and out on the same day. Instead it would take us (so we thought…) 3 days of driving, hiking and some very dodgy wooden kayaks to reach our goal.

The aforementioned non existent tourist infrastructure meant that we found ourselves trapped in Georgetown, increasingly frustrated, as plans were constantly changed and cancelled. Fearful of spending unnecessary money in the relatively expensive hotel, we made the fatal error of moving to the cheap, travelled hostel/miner hangout, Jerry’s Place, on Bob’s recommendation.

At dusk on our first night at Jerry’s we hailed a taxi to take us to a restaurant only to discover to our embarrassment that it was barely 2 minutes around the corner. On collecting our pizzas, we declined the offers of a taxi from the hawkers outside on the grounds that it was still light, only two minutes walk away, and that the drivers were making us uneasy, giving us strange grins and making half-hidden threats in jovial tones, “leave them, they want to take a walk? Yaes, eet’s a good night to stretch your legs! He, he, he.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, within 40 seconds, we were accosted at gunpoint by three youths. We were stood outside a relatively busy bar, however when questioned later, strangely no-one inside saw a thing. I handed over my handbag without resisting.  I had failed to clear it out after moving hotels that morning, and it contained my new camera which I had bought just the day before, my blackberry, some bank cards and a bit of cash. Two of them frisked Marcus, whilst the other with the gun, pointed it in my direction. After all his pockets were checking they turned on me. One of the unarmed youths, with a wicked smile, pointed to me whilst speaking to his armed friend, “just shoot her!” They cackled  like hyenas as I burst into tears.

For whatever reason he decided not to pull the trigger and within seconds it was all over, and they’d run off in the opposite direction from which they had come and disappeared into the growing darkness.

That night I understandably reached rock bottom. I felt trapped in Georgetown as our plans kept being delayed further and further and now I had been attacked for the 2nd time in under a week. I felt like I was being watched, that nowhere was safe. This feeling was compounded when the very next day, a random man let himself into our hotel room and shocked to see someone inside shiftily asked us what date we were leaving as he had someone “asking about the room.” Immediately suspicious, we went to reception and asked the manager about our mysterious visitor. He had no idea who he was. He hadn’t been a staff member, just an opportunist robber. Nowhere felt safe, the streets, our room, everyone was out to get me. I had panic attacks trying to decide if it would be better to leave our passports hidden in the room, or to chance taking them in the money-belt once again. It has been proved to work in the field, as it hadn’t been discovered under Marcus’s t-shirt during the mugging. That was perhaps the one thought that saved me from insanity at that point, at least our passports and my hard won exotic stamps had survived.

My torment lasted for two more days, and six whole days after I arrived in Georgetown, we finally managed to start our trip to Kaieteur.

I have never felt so relieved to leave a place as I did that grimy, lawless little capital. I watched from the bus window (read rusty VW campervan) with a smile on my face as we left its filthy, menacing streets behind. We drove into the wilderness on tracks that quickly became less and less navigable as they became more and more reclaimed by nature. Signs of habitation grew fewer with every mile we advanced and soon, all we saw for hours on end were great swathes of vegetation towering over and around us and our battered VW.

This, was what I had come to Guyana to see.  I hadn’t come to experience the people, and the desperate levels of depravity poverty leads them to; that had meerly been an unfortunate byproduct of visiting such a place. I had wanted my travels to be more than a drunken full-moon party on a beach in Thailand, and finally that’s what I was getting. I had come to see the natural beauty of an almost untouched land, and to experience something that very few others had. I had to put my troubles behind me and focus on the journey ahead. It would prove to be worth even the greatest hardships.

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