by Mykel Board
ENTRY FIF- TEEN
aprox Nov 17, 2013
[Recap: From the start, it didn't look good for this trip. Everything went right... always a bad sign. Nothing portends disaster like everything going right.
Easy subletter in New York, smooth flight to Miami, promises of “meet you at the airport/seaport.” $10 a night accommodations in Guyana, the rest free.
Uh oh! Too good. The better the news before, the bigger the fall later. And things get worse. (Better) Miami goes so smoothly you could cry. The only problem was a lot of rain-- heavy rain. The streets were rivers. There were waves in the pool. I got wet. Very wet.
Then on to North Trinidad, where my friends picked me up at the airport and took me around drinkin'. Then, I moved to South Trinidad... had some fun adventures, met a Goddess... er... Empress... of a girl. It didn't rain so much in Trinidad.
Then it was to the airport and off to Guyana.
In Guyana, my facebook friends from KEEP YOUR DAY JOB! met me at the airport. From there, we went to Jamal's. This was the only time I had to pay for a place to sleep: 15 days for $150US. Not bad. No, it didn't go perfectly. But it went, and I met some great people in the country-- including Jamal. My trip to Kaiteur Falls in the jungle was literally (741 feet) a high point.
The two weeks of my stay in Guyana were adventure-filled, and beer-dulled. Most days, it rained. Sometimes for just an hour or two in the afternoon. Sometimes all day.
“I don't get it Mykel,” Jamal told me. “This isn't the rainy season.”
“Rainman,” I said.
He still didn't get it
The plan was to travel to Suriname with Keep Your Day Job! I'd be a roadie! Mykel tours with a band... again. Yowsah! But, uh oh... a drummer problem. (A drummer problem? Hard to imagine, huh?) Two drummers had agreed to tour with us. One, a close friend, the other, more PUNKROCK. They ditched the friend for the punkrocker. He bailed at the last minute. (A punkrocker bailing? Hard to imagine, huh?) The now former-friend did not answer emails. I could not play drums. This could not work out. We went to Suriname anyway. It worked out.
In Suriname, I stayed with a punkrock student and his super-generous parents. They cooked for me every day. I mentioned a local synagogue; they arranged a tour. I mentioned a trip to “the interior,” bang, we were there... surveying monkey meat. When dad could't do it, they got the poor son, Jose, to chauffeur me around; as if he didn't have enough with schoolwork and his own band, ADHD He hoped for rain... It was an excuse to stay home. Often, there was rain.
Then it was on to French Guyana. There, the brother of one of my top ten pals, Simon, lived with his girlfriend Marie. His name was Florian
I took a small boat across the river that separates French Guiana from Suriname. The captain let me choose my port of entry: “legal or backtrack?” I chose legal. At immigration, I annoyed the white immigration officer by asking for a passport stamp. They gave it to me and hustled me away. I was hungry as shit and didn't know where I was.
What happened? Marie met me on the road, helped me negotiate a ride with a French Guianan truck driver, and got me to her place. Smooth as a baby's ass. The first morning was a crepe breakfast. Then a dip in the pool. Then, I donno. Everything was spot on... except for the rain.
My first days in French Guyana were fun-filled, and distress free... unless you count the bottom paddling I got from my friends' spare bicycle. Yesterday, I had one of the best days of the entire trip. Canoeing through the Amazon with Florian, as my French guide. Chased by dogs, paddle-blistered hands, bitten by mosquitoes, stuck in the roots of swamp trees... it was wonderful. I'm writing this almost half a year after the trip, and I still remember this as my biggest adventure! Mucho much merci for that one!]
“Mykel,” says Marie, “you should go to jail.”
“That's something I often hear,” I tell her.
“No, I mean, you know the camps, where they put people,” she says.
“That's something I hear less often... it's more my parents' generation,” I say. “It's a religious thing.”
She gets it.
“No,” she say, “I mean the labor camps... like in Kafka.”
“Oh, you mean a penal colony,” I tell her.
She frowns. “I don't think so. That's a thing that men have, right?”
“No,” I tell her, “men AND women can be in a penal colony.”
“Well in any case, Mykel,” she says, “you should go. It will be good for you.”
There is a sinister undertone here. It reminds me of those “I hate to do it, but it's for your own good.” moments of my otherwise happy childhood.
The French have a long history of penal colonies. The also diminuative-yet-powerful Napolean died in one. Steve McQueen played Papillon-- in a movie of the same title-- about escaping from one.
Penal colonies are nasty... like slave colonies... only worse. Penal colonies are meant as punishment. With slaves, the owners had to pay for them,and therefore needed to protect their investment. If a slave died, that was a big financial loss. With penal colonies, the workers came free. If a prisoner catches his balls in a canefield scythe, a fresh prisoner is already on the boat to replace him. The first guy continues his usefulness as fertilizer.
The plan is to bicycle to the tourist center in town and buy a ticket to the Penal Colony-- actually just a camp for workers in the colony. I'll join up with a bunch of French tourists, take the tour of the camp, then meet Florian and Marie for a trip to Nengeland... a part of French Guiana populated by escaped slaves who have developed their own culture and language.
I'll meet them around the corner from the camp. They'll pick up the bicycle and me, and head for slave country. From a penal camp to former slaves. Sounds like a cheery day ahead.
I reach the tourist center about 4 in the afternoon.
“Sure, wacha want?” he asks.
“I want to visit the penal colony... er... camp,” I tell him. “I don't want to stay there overnight, or go for the authentic experience, if you know what I mean.” I wink at him. “I just want to see the place.”
“Je voudrais voir le camp du prisineurs.” I say, hoping if I speak half in French and half in English with a fake French accent, he'll understand me. It works.
“Oh sure,” he says, “there's a tour in an hour. It costs 5€.”
I pony up the cash.
“Meet inside the camp under the big oak tree,” says the young man, handing me a ticket. “The guide will come for the group.”
I wonder if there'll be any other English speakers in the group. Maybe the guide will bilingual the tour... or someone else can explain what he's saying. Some of the pathos of my tour of the slave-holding pens in Senegal was lost because of my French deficiency.
It's a sinister looking day. As usual, clouds are low. It's not raining, but the threat is as real as a klansman with a wooden cross and a jerry can of gasoline.
Here's the view from the oak tree.
Then, the rain comes. Just a few drops at first... but it's never just a few drops. I'm alone under the tree, and slowly getting wet.
I look for shelter. There's a nearby building with an overhang. It looks like a one-room schoolhouse, but I doubt penal camps had one room school houses.
I check my cellphone for the time. It's just 5. The scheduled tour time. No one else is here. I wait ten minutes and check the time again. 5:02. It's raining harder now.
A car pulls up. A small thing, maybe a Renault. It's blue. It pulls right into the middle of the open field, next to the big tree. Out gets a man about my height, looking more Mexican (or Peruvian) than French (or Caribbean).
I go into the rain hoping he's the guide. We shake hands.
“Je suis Claudio,” says the Mexican.
“Mykel,” I answer.
“Est ce que vous et le guide de tour?” I ask... feeling stupid, for speaking in French to someone so Spanish-looking.
He frowns in non-understanding.
“Vous parlez Anglais?” I ask.
He shakes his head.
“Solement francais.” he says.
“Bon, Nous essaierons” I say.
“Est c'que je suis seul?” I ask.
He shrugs again... and smiles.
Claudio unlocks a big gate and motions for me to go in. We pass through it, then through a smaller archway into the first building. Taller people would have to duck.
I like this guy. He's modest but knows his stuff. We go from building to building to building. He describes the rooms, the conditions, the background of the prisoners, their working conditions, food, sanitary facilities.
I understand about half.
An look! Here's a barefoot, very white, vertically striped (much more flattering than the classic American horizonal prison stripes) mannequin prisoner.
I touch his pajamas. Give a tug. We move on.
In one build- ing, the car- riage of a train car lays on some track... obviously brought in from outside. I don't understand the details, but I think the train was propelled by physical prisoner labor. Yep, they dragged it through the jungle to the cane fields. Neither coal nor wood, but penal power.
In a yard outside all the buildings lies a cement square. There, Claudio informs me, stood one of two guillotines that rewarded various minor infractions.
“Ici” he tells me, pointing to a spot in the corner of the square, “c'était l'endroit pour le seau pour les têtes.” Or at least he says something like that. I'm only reporting the Google version.
We head into the cell blocs where the prisoners slept. I try out a bed... lie back on the hard wood... testing it. Claudio fastens some ancient leg irons around my ankles.
“Ils ont été portés dans la nuit.” he says, snapping the clamps together.
Not only wasn't this prisoner going to escape, he wasn't going to turn over on his side and puke up his beer like a normal person. I'm frozen on my back, unable to do more than touch myself... and Claudio isn't that attractive.
Shit, this is it. I'll be locked in here forever. At the mercy of this French-speaking Mexican. He can do anything to me! Who's gonna know?... until they smell the rotting corpse.
He unfastens the leg irons. We move on.
Several of the cells have prison graffiti scratched into the walls and floor. One cell has a fantastic drawing of a sail boat. A huge thing... like the Nina or the Pinta. Some have French words-- or names scratched into the walls or ceiling. And on the floor of one cell, there it is... TWICE:
Yep, THIS was the place where Papillon stayed... at least until he was shipped to the island where he made his escape. Wow! Right here. I feel like I'm meeting Steve McQueen.
The tour is coming to an end. I can see that we're heading back to the same door we passed through at the beginning. I reach in my pocket for a couple of coins to give as a tip. I know the French are notoriously bad tippers... but I'm not French. I give the guy a couple Euros.
He smiles, but not a grinning WOW-THIS-IS-THE-FIRST-TIME-ANYONE'S-TIPPED-ME smile... but just a polite thank-you smile. I guess not all the tourists here are French.
I walk out of the camp, pulling my hat deeper over my head, in futile protection against the rain.
(Oh yeah, you can see the full set of pix I took on tour. Just click on the image below):
I get on the bike and peddle to our rendezvous point near town hall. We're supposed to meet at 7 o'clock. It's now 6:43. At 7:03 I begin to worry.
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