It seemed like a simple enough task. There was something held up in Customs at the Johan Adolf Pengel (that’s pronounced something like pen-hell) airport in Suriname, and I had to go and get it. What could be easier than driving to the airport?
Well I’ll tell you what would be easier: driving to an airport with the benefit of signs, that’s what. Call me an old traditionalist. Call me unadventurous. But I’d been here less than six months and been to the airport twice, including the early-hours, pitch-dark arrival which can’t really be counted. We are not homing pigeons. We are not animals that can find their way home through some sixth sense. We are human beings, equipped only with maps, and in the second decade of the 21st century, maps on mobile phones.
We’re not doing it by the stars, or by scenting traces of aviation fuel on the breeze. We’re not native trackers, with our ears to the ground to detect the vibrations of landing jetliners. We’re jumping into our cars, heading in the right general direction and relying on road signs, simple pieces of painted metal or wood mounted on poles on the side of the road, pointing to the places named on them.
If it’s a question of expense, I’ll pay for it myself: one sign just on the edge of Paramaribo, pointing towards the JFK highway, saying ‘Airport’.
But no. We’re left to our own devices. Extensive consultation of the phone map shows that you follow the traffic past Nieuw Haven to the junction with Lachmonstraat, then over some sort of bridge, left at a junction and look for the roundabout. Take the last exit and that’s it.
But what if you don’t take the left turn you’re supposed to? What if you’re geographically challenged? I went looking for Nieuw Haven once and found myself an hour later looking at the cathedral – the opposite direction. How long can a man survive in extreme heat, in a hostile environment, with just a small bottle of water and half a tank of petrol?
The airport is at the village of Zanderij, in an area known colloquially as the middle of nowhere. It was originally a Pan-Am stop, and legend has it that in the 1930s, when flying was a kind of sport for the wealthy, a male-female pair of pilots made an emergency landing at Nieuw Haven because they couldn’t find Zanderij. The US Air Force developed the property during the Second World War, and nowadays it is rarely glimpsed in daylight, because the vast majority of flights arrive and depart extremely early in the morning or late at night, so that their connections at bigger airports are at reasonably civilized times.
The good news today for the driver leaving Paramaribo is that (and this is not very scientific) if you head out on the main drag and straight through the intersection where you see Roopram, a Surinamese fast food place, on the right, you very quickly find the small bridge, a modest little thing not to be confused with the towering landmark that is the Jules Wijdenbosch (which you passed five minutes earlier). Keep going for a few minutes. They’ve thrown in a small airport along the way, just to plant seeds of doubt in your mind, but I only noticed that on the way back.
Make a left turn, find the roundabout, take the last exit. Signs at the roundabout? Nope.
But yes, it feels like a substantial road out of town, so we may be in business. Now, in preparation for the return trip, assuming I’m not heading into the heart of darkness, never to see civilization again, I start deliberately noticing things. A Chinese supermarket (there are literally hundreds of them In Paramaribo), a mosque with a police station sign right outside, a stretch where there is a little side-road alongside, separated by concrete lumps you could easily drive over.
And then – whoops of celebration – a sort of roadside bus garage, as featured on the map, which I must have subconsciously registered during the planning sessions.
Now, according to what I did consciously see on the map, the highway should split at some point and I have to be on the fork that goes left.
It’s getting quieter. Fewer cars. Huge lorries going too slowly. No shops, no petrol stations. No fork in the highway. No road signs. Is this even the correct highway? I’m going to be stopped soon by a peasant with one tooth in his mouth. I’ll be kidnapped, whacked over the head, barbecued and eaten by his cackling family.
Just one sign, that’s all I want. One ‘Don’t panic, stranger, you’re almost there’. But no, there’s nothing.
And then… what’s this? Such-and-such a hotel wishes you a good flight. Other signs saying similar things. Call off the barbecue, old villager, I’m going to make it.
Can’t find the way into the airport, of course, because there isn’t a sign saying This is The Airport. And when I do, the place is almost deserted. Never mind. The natives are friendly, even the Customs people. Sign this, pay that (ah, we are still in the civilized world). Then back on the road.
The middle-of-nowhere section. The bus garage. The Muslim police station. Thirty-five Chinese supermarkets. The roundabout. I’ve been to Pengel and back and lived to tell the tale.
A dog-eat-dog junction, the little bridge. Lachmonstraat.
Paramaribo, I take it all back. You’re a beacon of sophistication in a cruel world. Who’d have thought I would be so pleased to see you?