Call of the wild

Holidays in the sun part 1

"You rass go suffer bad!" was my father's response when I declared that I was ready to visit Guyana, my ancestral country, for the first time in my 28 years. Since I was born in Stepney, actually within the sound of the Bow bells, I could be classed a Cockney. But when people ask where I'm from, "London" never seems a sufficient response. My appearance is that of an Amerindian, the indigenous people of Guyana. "Ghana?" they ask. No, I say. "Guy-an-a". They look blank and say, "Oh, nice". But they'd be wrong again.

Guyana is a former British colony on the northern tip of South America. It has few beaches, but it does have thousands of square miles of rainforest. Clive Lloyd, the ex-West Indian cricket captain, comes from there. I'd sworn never to visit this faraway land of hand-dug toilets and ferocious insects, like the infamous, blood-sucking "Marabunta fly", a sort of winged piranha, but curiosity had finally prevailed.

Our party consisted of my mother, father, brother and pal Tony, a blond, six-foot-two plumber, who was full of anticipation for the rainforest's rare birds, alligators and waterfalls. Tony was undoubtably going to attract attention from the locals, but he was more enthusiastic than a Labrador puppy on its way to the park.

On arrival at Georgetown airport, our excited relations cracked open bottles of rum and chopped a couple of coconuts with a cutlass. Minutes later, we sped off in a rattling VW Camper through wild roads, past stinking rivers and across the Demerara river via a mile-wide pontoon, the longest, floating bridge in the world.

La Grange, our home for the duration, was on an unlit road with a creek running either side. All the houses were reached by foot-bridge. The buildings were raised on stilts, leaving room for hammocks and gas lamps below.

My mother was soon in the arms of my grandma, both of them crying and kissing. Chinese food and more rum were dished out, and my inquisitive young cousins gathered around. They had never met a white man before, and set about bombarding Tony with questions. "How much pound you can lift?", "How much cane you can cut?", "How much for a Walkman in England?" Tony had a question of his own: "Where are the beaches, man?" I only knew of one, rather dubiously named "63". I changed the subject.

Exhausted by our interrogation, we retired to our room, where the ceiling failed to meet the walls. The sound of crickets in the night air was comforting. Flashes of fire-flies enchanted. Then came the flapping sound. I looked for Tony's face in the darkness and saw fear. "What the fuck is that?!" he said. I flicked on my torch to confirm my fears. Bats. They were flying in and out of our room like it was open day at Bloody Buggery Batschool. It was to be a long night.

Just before dawn, I was woken by the cockerel crowing, which set off the cow next door, not to mention the Kiskidee bird: "Kiss kiss kiss Kiskidee". At 5.30 in the morning, with a hangover, jet lag and 53 raging mosquito bites, there was no point in trying to sleep any longer. I got up and went to brush my teeth. I was directed to our garden creek, but my mother swiftly intervened. We were situated next door to a butcher who slaughtered his animals and threw the scraps into the shared creek. This would have brought a whole new meaning to flossing, so I cut to the breakfast.

On offer at 6am was fried fish with roti, or goat curry and rice. I opted for cornflakes, but was interrupted by a burning sensation in my chest. "What the fuck was that?" I asked, as politely as I could. My chest had ballooned into a hard welt. Ravi, one of my cousins, approached to inspect, and then, giggling, announced to all that a Marabunta had "bit my rass". I could have gladly snapped his neck like a chicken's.

The sleepless nights and early mornings became a regular pattern. I soon became as enthusiastic for bed as the kids in Nightmare On Elm St. By the fourth day, I found myself murmuring the mantra "hell-hole... hell-hole..."

Georgetown, the capital, was a welcome respite from this wilderness. We drove in Uncle Dennis's Datsun, watching the road go by through the floor. Georgetown is a picture of crumbling Dutch colonial splendour. St George's Cathedral, built by the British in 1889, dominates the horizon. At 142 feet high, it's the largest wooden construction in the world, and is encircled by bustling streets crossed by canals, horse-and-carts, cows and pigs. The market sells good fish, from shark to bangamary, and the black-and-red crabs hang in bunches like bananas and wave at passers-by.

That evening, relaxing in the hammock with a glass of rum, I was approached by cousin Bobby. He told me that he was recently married and needed a television. Initially shocked at my cousin's audacity, I soon learnt that this was a common feature of Guyanese-British relations. But no matter how rich I was considered to be by Guyanese standards, I could not possibly meet Bobby's demands. He was undeterred. He persisted, as though I were his bank manager. I seized the rum and retired to my room.

That night, as I drifted into delirious sleep, the sound of distant drums, either real or imagined, seemed to spell a warning: the worst was yet to come

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