On The Road With Dad

by Thomas William Parrott

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We left London as the dawn was rising and flew off to the Lost World. With no baggage to put under the plane, check in was relatively quick and painless, I did have my bag emptied by a member of the Heathrow army of airport security, but it didn't take to long and we were soon on our way. The flight to Charles De Gaulle was like any other flight to Paris, with added nausea caused by a supreme of lack of sleep and nerves. Arrived in CDG and took a bus through the bowels of the airport to our gate, where I attempted to catch some z's but a booming french female voice woke me every two minutes telling me which gate to go to, and what flight was now leaving and would passenger X please report to gate Y. Once I boarded the plane I pushed that good old silver button on my chair, pushed earplugs into my brain and crashed. Awoke. I'll have the chicken please. Slept.

We arrived in Caracas mid afternoon. Met with our guide from Conde Verde, stepped outside the airport to smell that hot sweet smell of the tropics, only to realize that dads jacket with his wallet was still sitting in the overhead compartment of the Airbus. Luckily, it wasn't half inched and the staff at the Air France desk had already located it..

The Jungle Concrete

I've been to Caracas before, I think I was seven of eight. The only thing I remember was the long sweeping road and tunnels from the airport lined with huge cigarette adverts. We made our way down this very road, winding through the hills towards the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. On the very outskirts of the city, the favelas litter these hills, basic colourful buildings looking like lego bricks stacked on top of one another, with scaffolding poles and supporting rods sticking out of the ground around them. As we made our way deeper into the city, the freeways and fly overs started to pile up. Imagine throwing Birmingham into Kew Gardens and then leaving it in the sun for twenty years. Tropical trees grow from the cracks in the highway supports, traffic jams sit slap in the middle of this concrete and jungle love child. Our hotel was in the middle of town, and after checking in and having a quick glance at the closed tourist shop, we arrange to meet Daniel, our guide, in a few hours for dinner. image description


A shower, a few photos from the window of the room and a power nap and the few hours had passed, and we met up with Daniel and Doris in the lobby, dodging the tribes of Hugo Chaves supporters (CHAV's) wearing socialist blood red sports tops and t shirts and went for a spin around town in a Honda Accord. Caracas at night is pretty much downtown Los Angeles, minus the glamourous Beverlly Hills and surftastic Santa Monica and more of the urban decay of the streets of Hollywood. But it's fascinating. The simple 1930's designed white bridges, the huge pollution stained concrete towers and the massive corporate branding rising up from every skyscraper. Someone made a lot of money in the 1970's selling the blueprints of LA to Caracas city developers. We found a steak house with valet and ate and drank and conversed for two hours. Daniel drove us back and we arrived at the hotel merry and well fed. Our beds greeted us and we were asleep before our heads hit the state owned clean (ahem) white pillows.


The Lost World

The last few days have been so manic and hectic and busy I don't really know where to begin. I've moved from Caracas to Ciudad Bolivar to Canaima to the thickest dark damp depths of the Venezuelan jungle to Santa Elena, speeding over the border into Brazil in a kamikaze taxi going 100 miles an hour. I'm now in a hotel in Boa Vista, Northern Brazil. I took a big gulp of air in Caracas and I think I finally might be able to breathe out again now.

We left Caracas for Ciudad Bolivar after going up the cable car to the dizzy heights that surround the city, to see the huge flag that dominates the skyline and follow all the other pretty visitors around the ground floor of an unopened state hotel. Ciudad Bolivar was the hottest place yet and stepping off the plane I felt my jeans stick to my legs in a matter of seconds. Luckily the hotel we were staying at was directly opposite the airport so we were back into the cool before too long. It was now night and after eating possibly the poorest excuse for a cheeseburger i've ever seen ( and i've seen my fair share let me tell you) I showered and slept.

image description The next morning we left for Canaima on a tiny cessna plane. I kept getting the feeling it was going to cut out or our quite overweight pilot would have a heart attack and I'd be forced to attempt to fly this tractor with wings. But thankfully it didn't and I spent the flight snapping away at the ground below. As we came through the clouds to land, off in the far distance the silhouettes of the huge tepui (tabletop mountains) could be seen on the horizon. This was the Lost world and we were about to land in it. After clambering out of the plane and sorting out our bags we met our guide, Carlos, of the native Pemon tribe. We climbed aboard the back of a truck with another eight people and headed straight to the river.

I still trying to taste the words to describe what Canaima National park looks like. Spectacular, stunning, unbelievable all seem way way to obvious and cliche. If I could have been writing this as I stepped into our ten meter motorized wooden canoe, I still would have stolen someone else's words -image description



"So...we disappear into the unknown. This account I am transmitting down the river by canoe, and it may be our last word to those who are interested in our fate..."



image description Our little tribe set off down the river gob smacked by the scenery and pointing and snap clicking, all of us living up to our european tourist etiquette beautifully. After twenty or so minutes, we were told we had to get out and walk across the plain then re-board the boat on the other side because the weight of the boat with everyone in it would have been too much to get though the shallow rapids. We walked and talked and got to know each other through multi lingual broken chit-chat. There was a French mother and her son, two Swiss couples, a Venezuelan girl and a German. At least I think he was German. I didn't speak to him at all. And us. The British. I spent the walk fiddling with my camera, get the right light setting and lens etc. We re- boarded our vessel and set off from the banks.

It's here the adventure adrenaline started to course through my veins as we cut off from the main river and delved deeper and deeper upstream into the jungle. The huge tepui soared into the clouds around us. It looked as though the entire plateau was hanging from the sky by these huge rock anchors, and we were floating, meandering along in the green gaps in between. It was mouth open, breathtaking natural beauty. It just was. For four hours we twisted and swayed up through the river, carving our way into the green. And then, all of a sudden the boat came round the last bend and there in distance, trickling down from the shoulders of one of large tepui, was the Angel Falls. image description

The canoe banked up by a rocky shore, and after a quick change of socks, a couple of dextrose tabs and some water we plunged into the rainforest. The trail winded through the jungle, under the canopy, in the thick humid evening air. If you want to know what it was like, imagine watching Indiana Jones, whist being in the Lily house at Kew Gardens whist running on a treadmill in the shower. We slowly climbed for an hour, the tangled roots and rocks underfoot, avoiding red ant hills and tarantula nests. Until, absolutely knackered and sweating like marathon runners, we finally reached the foot of the Angel Falls. Luck was on our side, and after a few minutes the clouds cleared from the summit and we could see the angelic water falling and turning into mist in all its glory.

image description We took the opportunity to climb down before everyone else, so we could take it a bit slower, the risk of slipping greatly increased by a sprinkling of rain and also, I don't think you can truly understand the thrill of trekking through the jungle, alone, with my dad. ( I realize I have almost reached every boys dream of becoming a young Henry Jones Jr, and I have the fact Dad does slightly resemble Sir Sean)

Darkness descended with us from the falls and we were soon walking in the twilight, slapping mosquitos and discussing the inner workings of the American army during the Vietnam war. We reached the shore again and the boat took us from one side to the other, where our camp was for the night. After a dip in the river and dinner, Carlos showed us the Pemon tactics to sleeping in a hammock. Some conventional, some not so conventional. As everyone else fell asleep I kept my eyes open for as long as I could, gently swinging, just listening to the dark. It was silent.



The only thing I could hear was my own breathing.

The Lost World part II

The next morning we awoke early and after a small breakfast, disembarked from the banks back down the river, back towards civilization. The mist was spread over the plateau and once again the tepui appeared then disappeared into the fluff. We floated on downstream as it slowly started to rain. The rapids were so much more aggressive and therefore more thrilling going downstream, although with the now obese rain drops and the spray from the river I was soon absolutely drenched. By the time we reached the plain that we'd crossed the day before the rain had stopped, giving us a chance to dry out a little, our fingers wrinkled from the saturation. It was only a short ride back to the Pemon village of Canaima, where we unwound ourselves from the boat and were shown to our rooms, giving us a chance to dry off and wash the tannin from the river out of our hair. Not long after this we went out into the lagoon to stand behind a waterfall and get drenched all over again.

We left Canaima the next afternoon, flying back to Ciudad Bolivar, where we managed to review five hotels, have a city tour and grab some food for dinner all in the space of two hours. We made our way to bus station, swapped some gear around in our bags and jumped on a bus to Santa Elena.

I've never been to hell, but if I could picture what the journey to hell would be like it would be something along the lines of this bus journey. For the first three hours there was ridiculously loud latin american music videos played, with no way of turning off the speaker that was by my ear or the TV that was in my face. After that, a scratched disk of Transporter 3 in spanish came on, and skipped along for another two hours and after it finished we were treated to an hour of the dvd menu on infinite repeat. The air conditioning was on full blast so even though I was wearing four layers I still froze my nuts off. As we came closer and closer to the Brazilian border we were stopped (it was now 4 a.m) a total of six times, everyone woken up, sometimes told to get off the bus, and show our passports to soldiers armed with AK47's. As far as I could figure out this was just because the members of the Venezuelan National Guard were so bored out of their skulls and had nothing better to do than stop a bus, board it, look at half of the sleepy passengers passports then leave. Hell.

image description We arrived in Santa Elena at around seven in the morning, where we were met by Eric of Backpacker Tours, who showed us to his posada where we showered off the stench of Beelzebub's bus ride. Santa Elena is like a small californian town, and it what I imagine a lot of little Latin American towns look like. We drove around with Eric for the day and ended up drinking in his bar in the afternoon.image description After driving around the border for half an hour, we found a cab that would take us into Brazil for a reasonable amount. We unloaded our bags, wished goodbye and gave our thanks to Eric, and set off across the Venezuelan Brazilian border and towards Boa Vista down the straight road across the savanna at breakneck speed. I have an inclining that the cabby was trying to impress the latin goddess in the front seat, maybe because for the entire two hour drive he didn't stop talking to her whist she nodded patiently, attempting to hide her boredom as all goddess's do. He changed the cd in his stereo to slow grooves, lowered his cracked sunglasses down his nose, and showed off his heavy feet. She seemed to grip herself tighter with every grin from him. I quietly watched from the back seat and became one with the vultures that were circling above.

We arrived in Boa Vista in the evening and after eating an awesome cheese and fish dish and rocking round town in a '92 chevy we slept and left for Guyana in the morning. I'm now in Rock View Lodge, near Lethem in Guyana, gettin' eaten alive by mosquitos.



"It's hot.... damn hot. Hot and wet. Which is good if you're with a lady, but aint no good if ya in the jungle." - Roosevelle Roosevault
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Guyana

I should probably start off explaining that somewhere in a different lifetime, far far away in another galaxy where we are all trees growing upside down with our roots in the air, I lived a full fruitful and happy life in Guyana. My memories are filled with times spent with guyanese women and my heart, in parts, still belongs to them.

We arrived in Rock View, near Annai, by public bus and settled into the hotel which is basically a few buildings in the heat of the savanna. It's very welcoming and after a quick nap and a wash I ended up playing cards with a girl called Jo, who taught me a game called money. She won. Poor me. Rock View Lodge is owned and run by a gentleman called Colin. It took me an entire day to work out who he reminded me of, and its not the greatest likeness to call someone; He was Dr Hannibal Lecter. Not in the sense that he murdered and ate people, but that very well mannered way, polite to the point that it became sinister. I doubt there was a cannibalistic side hiding in his thick frame, liver with peanut butter and tall glass of lime juice just doesn't have the same ring to it.

In the morning we were supposed to go on a little trek but it was rainning so hard that we just stayed in our room, alternating between reading novels in the hammock and sleeping, all the time being slowly nibbled by mosquitos. By the evening we were so adaquatly relaxed and rested that after dinner we gentle fell asleep. A days rest well earned. The following morning we made our way along the trail up the through some more jungle to see the fabled view from the rock across the savanna, pursued the whole way by a very timid but intrigued dog. That afternoon we caught the glowing interaserve bus again to the Canopy walkway. I spent the journey entertaining and trying to get a photo of a bright eyed little boy who kept peeking his head up between the seats. I failed. And I still bitterly regret not trying harder to get that shot.

image description The Canopy Walkway at Iwokrama is pretty self explanatory, its a netted walkway 100 feet in the air so you can walk around the canopy to spot wildlife. One of the big draws to Guyana is the opportunity to see a wide variety of wildlife, including jaguars, a dozen rare bird species, scarlet macaws, giant river tortoises, lizards, the list goes on.

The canopy walkway was supposed to be a chance to get some wildlife photos, but all in all we saw some green parrots, heard a few howler monkeys in the distance and got bitten by more mosquitos. I even woke at five in the morning, to get the light to get some awesome shots and nothing. Zilitch. Bugger all. I climbed an hour through the jungle to hypo up a tree at 6 in the morning. Not impressed with my diabetic control.

image description The plan for the afternoon was to catch the bus to Georgetown, but we got radio communication that the bus was cancelled. In true Kerouac spirit we decided to go down to the dirt road, the only road that runs up Guyana to Georgetown and try to hitch a ride. We sat in the orange dirt, throwing rocks at signs, piling pebbles into potholes, talking of our plans to see the guts of the country the only way you can, by thumb. Giant bees the size of golfballs took an interest in our backpacks which we had to scare away at a distance with bits of bushes, only to sit back in the dirt to hear that familiar buzzing again, jumping to attention and grabbing our weapons ready play their never ending game. I lay by the side of the road reading 'Big Sur' hoping to rouse the spirit of old jack to get us a ride. We wasted close to five hours on the road, and one car, one bastardly motor, one Toyota came bumbling along. One ride which was already filled with people who peered back at us with a smug content as they past by and off into the distance disappearing into the swirling dust. The road closed at 4.30pm so we made our way back up to the jungle lodge with our tail between our legs, dreading the early morning start to catch a ride at five in the morning, in the dark, on a road known to frequent jaguars. I spent the evening catching up with friends through skype and a large satellite, fearful that in the morning I may be breakfast for a predator. To make situations worse, a bushmaster snake was spotted on the road leading from the Lodge to the road, so now we not only had to be keeping a sharp tired eye out for large deadly cats, but also large deadly snakes.



image description Some journeys are truly latin american.



We reached Georgetown alive and sweaty and tired and throughly vibrated by the trench of a road and a bitch of a ride. We were a day late and as such I didn't get to take any photos of Georgetown, because of the torrential rainfall that blanketed the city whist we were there. But from what I saw of it, Georgetown was amazing. All the houses were wooden villas raised up on supports, some rotting into themselves, collapsing into the lille trench moats around them, others pristine like American summer houses on the shores of Cape Cod. Georgetown is what I think New Orleans would have been like in it heyday, but replace the jazz with a reggae Caribbean spirit, add more rum and you're almost there. Everything we ate was fried. Fried chicken, fried rice, Chow Mien. The beer was cheap and there were beggars everywhere. I always think its unfair to judge a city when you've only been there twenty four hours, but my judgement of Georgetown is split. Its a love and hate type of thing. Like so many things are.

We vacated Georgetown this morning very early to come to Paramaribo in Suriname. The journey here was scary. The bus driver drove at close to 90 miles an hour all the way, even through built up areas, was chatting away to the passenger whist on a phone and there were no seat belts. I kept having visions of my death in a horrific head on collision with a dump truck. Thankfully we arrived in once piece and I write this from an awesome little creole motel in town run by a french family chatting to a German psychiatric nurse. I may rewrite this because I write whilst defiantly...definitely, intoxicated. Ahh well.

Suriname.

The madness has set in. My elbows are gone. Eaten away by a thousand flying carnivorous insects set on the destruction of my joints, attracted to my flesh from the glucagon rich film of sweat that adorns my little frame. I feel I will itch forever. My diet is a staple of rice with bread, beer with water. The madalines that once tasted so devine, so heavenly, and sent me running back to my younger breton self, now seek spiteful revenge by raising my sugars above and beyond stable levels. The madness has set in. From the heat dontya know. It was 38 degrees in Paramaribo and after three hours of trailing the streets in the midday sun, it all became too much and I had to find a corner to quietly die somewhere. I sheltered in a cafe, drank my body weight in diet coke and scuttled back to the guest house on the other side of town. If I had stayed out a second longer in the heat, my skin would have melted along with the insides if my mind. The madness HAD set in.

I awoke to cries from an unpleasant backpacking couple from outside the creole guesthouse. After opening the door to them because the guesthouse owner was out, and after patiently looking blankly at them swearing at me, we left to get some food. We ate all our meals at another dutch guesthouse a short walk away, which had excellent pasta and excellent cold beer. One thing that is very odd about Paramaribo, apart from the strange sense of alienation from not being dutch, is that the language spoken by the locals isn't dutch. (Suriname is a Dutch Colony) It's a weird mix of French, Brazilian Portuguese, Dutch and English baked in the Caribbean, and its known as Sranan Tongo. Its impossible to even try to comprehend, mainly because the entire language is a bastarisation of four other lauguages in dialects that change every two weeks. (I ended up chatting to a linguist who was staying in our guesthouse for an evening, fascinating stuff. ) I didn't get so see much of Suriname because we were a day late due to the bus cancellation, that and the dehydration insanity. But from what I saw of Paramaribo, its very much like Georgetown, amazing old wooden buildings, bleached relics of the sun, with paint flakes falling from the walls and where the rust is a permanent visitor.

image description We left Paramaribo for the Marouini river, which acts as the natural border between this tiny country and French Guiana. As we unpacked our bags out of the car in the sun, and passed through the single building of passport control to get our passports stamped, the weather in an instant went from beaming shards of sunlight to a torrential downpour, and by the time we were half way across the watery crossing in our little motorized bathtub, we had to stop. We floated there in the rain for ten minutes or so, and once again in an instant, the rain had gone and the naked sun and the heat was back with a vengeance. We paid and thanked our transporter, got some snacks and I sat eating pringles and cats tongues like a freed convict by an old wreck of a city bus, green and muddy, presumably because had been pulled from a river after a crash.

image description We got a ride from one of the young workers from the shop to where the minivans to Cayenne depart from. He was from Amsterdam, learnt English in Paris and French in Suriname, and was now living with his girlfriend and two kids in French Guiana, He listened to 50 Cent, but said he had a Buck 65 CD somewhere in the back. Kudos. His cheeky grin and squinted charm was a refreshing change to the solum, smile erased faces of the dutch in Suriname. We caught the minivan to Cayenne, stopped halfway and had our bags searched by French customs officers in awfully short shorts and reached a hotel before sundown.

The next day we wandered around Cayenne, which is a basically a small french town really. Apart from the fact it's the capital of a South American country. French Guiana is just France, but in the jungle. All the road markings and signs and cars are french. The cars that lie rotting upside down covered in vines, slowly being reclaimed by the jungle by the side of the road, upon closer inspection, are old Renault Clio's . Possibly a Citron. Its quite bizarre. There was an old abandoned hospital facing the main square which was all shut up with chained doors and concreted windows. Looked like it would have made some awesome photos. Ah well.

image description The next day was a public holiday so there was absolutely nothing to do. We lay bored in our room flicking between either 3 channels of bad french game shows or 2 channels of out of sync, poorly dubbed Portuguese movies. The madness was evolving. The following morning we left for Kourou, where we were supposed to see an Ariane 5 space rocket launch, but for whatever reason the launch was cancelled so we made do with a swim and the most expensive and worst meal yet. We stayed in an extortionately priced hotel because it was the only one to stay in, and everything was ridiculously priced. A word of warning if anyone plans to visit French Guiana, spend your money in supermarkets buying food that you can make yourself, meals are very very expensive here. In the evening we watched a classic of the french new wave, Breathless, with Jean Paul Belmondo looking agonizingly cool. We slept well, knowing in the morning we would be departing for the infamous Devil's island.

The Devil, his island & me

The trip to the islands the next morning required us to get up very early and walk across town to catch the ferry that would take us there. The only other people up as early as us were the never ending gaggles of gendarmes out for their morning run. Every time a group passed, tired bonjours with the odd chirpy salute greeted us. It took us an hour to get to islands, and the rain had set in by the time we reached them. We were dead before the boat even sank.

The Salvation Islands were, until 1955, a penal colony. If anyone reading has ever been to visit Alcatraz, its vaguely reminisant of that towering monument to the history of mans criminal imprisonment, yet completely different. As you approach the islands they seem like paradise, a trio of idilic islands situated 10km offshore in a heartless blue sea, rocks brushed with sunlight, washed with white and coconut palms arching out over the rocky shorelines. For a brief moment I even got caught up in the madness of the view and heard the sirens in the waves and my mind chanting 'bliss-bliss'. - But these three islands are not a heavenly paradise. They stand as a dark marker of incarceration, cruelty and mass destruction of humanity.

The main island, Isle du Royale, has the hotel and and the remains of the chapel, the hospital, some of the isolation cells, as well as a few of the buildings some of which now act as rooms for the guests. The heat is enough to induce madness, but can be beaten back with cold beers and strategically placed fans. The island is covered in a cornucopia of wildlife; macaws, monkeys, caiman, peacocks and fearless chickens. Between the gaps in the walls stare out tiny cats, watching your every move like haunting reincarnated figures of the prison guards. The evening air is thick with mosquitos and the ground is acne'd with toads

The second Island, Isle Saint-Joseph is a five minute boat ride away, and is huge, completely deserted, forgotten prison complex. We wandered around alone for the best part of two hours, gawping at the buildings which the jungle has clawed back. The roots of the coconut trees have broken the walls of the cells and burst more twisted iron bars out of windows than a thousand prisoners could have ever done. Roots two feet thick grow along the corridors of cells, trees growing up through doorways and free into the canopy above. I can't imagine a better symbol of freedom than a giant tree ripping apart the concrete bricks and iron bars of a cell, with a pandimonium of green parrots gripping its branches.

image description The most infamous and smallest of the three islands, Isle du Diable (Devil's island) is inaccessible, for the waters that surround the isle are not only treacherous because of the deep under currents that can suck a boat under, but also the small stretch from one island to the next is infested with sharks. Man eating sharks. Devil's island is infamous because of its cruely to the prisoners and people who were kept there, right up until 1955. No-one ever escaped from Devils Island. No exceptions. Whenever an inmate died or was executed, which was done it seems at the whim of the prison guards, their corpses were thrown to the sharks. Only children and prison guards gained the dignity of a proper burial.

I sat in the evening watching the sun set by the rocks on the shore that faces that island , wondering how many ghosts of how many cursed men were looking back at me from the other dark shore. Its hard to picture a sunny island as a place of hell- but maybe thats the whole point, your eyes are blind to intolerable suffering, akin to the Nazi death camps, because it just looks like a pretty postcard.

The stay on the island overnight wasn't the most comfortable, but in respect to the souls who met their grizzly fate upon the island, I feel I should bite my tongue. We disembarked for the mainland in the afternoon, entertained by the school kids on a field trip singing old Macdonald in french.





I've had an amazing three weeks crossing and photographing the Lost World, battling hostile jungles, standing behind waterfalls and screaming across borders in the twilight. I'll never forget any of it, attempting to try and coax one memorable part of this trip would somehow cheapen the other brilliant memories. Its been a fantastic journey across five relativly undeveloped countries, each very unique and stunning in their respective ways. But tomorrow sees this adventure sadly comes to a close, for I arrive back to familiar lands, and after crossing Paris, I shall be soon back in gritty old England. It seems odd to say, but oh how I have missed the London stink... Yup, we all go a little mad sometimes.

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