French Guyana (or Guyane, as they call it), is geographically very confusing. Two weeks after leaving France, having entered the tropics and crossed the Caribbean, we finally disembarked, in … erm, France. Admittedly one of their overseas départements, but nevertheless part of the EU, unlike far more familiar places such as Monaco, Jersey and the Isle of Man. And we just walked in, with nary a policeman, customs official or immigration officer in sight. (Hint to anyone intending to smuggle themselves into another country – go by cargo ship. Though preferably not actually inside one of the containers.) We found this rather disturbing, partly because we are generally very law-abiding, but also because of both guidebooks' stern warnings about the importance of getting proper immigration stamps. Consequently we wasted quite a bit of time trying to find someone who could (a) understand what our problem was (not easy given the decrepitude of our French) and (b) do anything about it. After being passed up the hierarchy like the proverbial hot potato we ended up with a friendly official in the prefecture who could manage (a) by dint of good English but not (b) since the only available stamp was at the airport. However he insisted that we didn't need it since we were EU citizens who had arrived from the EU and indeed were still there. Reassured, we devoted ourselves to the next bureaucratic battle, getting visas for Suriname, where we wanted to go as soon as possible, but that can all wait for the next chapter.
The geographical oddities don't end there, though. As you might expect for a South American country close to the Caribbean, most of the people are black. A significant proportion, however, including nearly everybody running a grocery store or general shop, look Chinese, although they're actually from Laos or other former French colonies in south-east Asia such as Vietnam.
Having hired a car, we spent a day visiting a village called Cacao, populated by Hmong people from Laos (why they had to leave Laos, and why they finished up in Guyane wasn't clear), who seemed to have rapidly abandoned the back-breaking labour of rice paddy cultivation for the rather more French approach of driving tractors.
The one sort of people we never saw were Amerindians, though we made no attempt to penetrate the interior of the country, having decided to leave all that for Surinam, which looked to be significantly cheaper. It could hardly be more expensive; practically everything in Guyane seems to be imported from France, as we had seen at first hand, having arrived with a thousand container loads of such stuff.
The final piece of disorientation comes from the presence, in this thinly populated country consisting of largely untouched rainforest, of one the largest spaceports in the world. We got up very early one day to drive to Kouru, to go on a tour of the Centre Spatiale Guyanais
. We were quite anxious about getting on the tour, as you have to book in advance, and various attempts to do so by phone and email had not been acknowledged. Thus we were very relieved when we were finally issued with visitors' badges and bundled on to the tour bus, hard hats in hand, together with about twenty other tourists and a guide or two (all thoroughly French). As we were taken around the various rocket assembly, launch and control facilities (both defunct and current), I found myself able to follow most of the commentary; admittedly this is a topic I've taken an interest in for many years, but still, this actually was
rocket science, in French
, and I was able to understand it! Maybe my French isn't so terrible after all, if only I could shake my obviously atrocious English accent.
Prior to all the space science we had our first tastes of tropical jungle by going to a couple of nature reserves with handy trails we could take at our own pace.
The first one, at the Tresor reserve, was a delight, where we were alone with all the vast, creeper-festooned trees we could wish for, although the primal simplicity of the experience was slightly diluted by all the plants being neatly labelled with their botanical details. The second one, the Sentier de Miranda, was a lot scarier, despite other people being around. It started well enough, with a French family pointing out a
Sloth with a baby, high up in the trees where we would never have spotted it by ourselves. However after we had chosen one of the two trails on offer, it got more difficult, as we were unable to find the birdwatching point promised on the map, and were confused by forks in the path that weren't shown – or labelled – at all. We started to lose confidence that we were still on the right path, and as the trail went up and down several valleys (or the same one several times, it was hard to tell) we were getting very tired, just as it began to get dark. Were we in fact heading deeper into the jungle instead of towards the exit? Would it become pitch black before we could find the way out? Would we have to sleep in a tree? Were there any dangerous animals here? Just as we were slogging our way up another tree-root encrusted slope, we were stunned by the surreal sight of a posse of runners careering down the path towards us. I just about managed to get my wits and French together to stop them and ask for the way out, which they kindly told us, not out of breath in the slightest, before pelting off at breakneck speed. It turned out that we weren't very far from the exit and had been on the right path all along. When we finally staggered, exhausted, from the trees, there were the runners relaxing in the car park; our nightmare jungle hell was clearly their casual after-work jog.
We did what else there was to do in Cayenne (which is surprisingly small) and its surroundings, most of which are very nice, and then set our sights on Suriname. Public transport seems to be a privately run affair, and we found an outfit at the 'bus station' (a stretch of curb with a couple of minibuses parked) that did the run to St Laurent, the border town where we would get the ferry. The ferry runs twice a day, at 7am and 1pm, and so there are two buses, one leaving at 3.45am and the second at 6.30am; the catch is that neither bus leaves until it has enough passengers, 'enough' being five for the first bus and eight for the second. Since we wanted to get to Paramaribo the same day, the risk of the second bus not leaving until 2pm (as sometimes happens if passengers are particularly thin on the ground) encouraged us to go for the early bus, with the added benefit that it would pick us up from the hotel, avoiding the need to stagger down the road with our overstuffed backpacks.
Because we were struggling with mobiles and phone cards, not to mention our garbled French, we engaged the hotel reception to call the bus operator and book our places, and then went to bed as early as we could manage after packing everything for a quick getaway in the morning, as we would be picked up at 3am. We set our alarm for 2.30 and slept. Imagine our surprise, then, when the phone in our room woke us up at 2.15. When I assembled enough wits to remember what a phone was, I answered it, and was told something in French about a taxi. Swearing vehemently (but quietly, so as not to wake the other guests), we started throwing on our clothes. A sudden thought prompted me to call down to reception and explain that we weren't expecting a taxi
, but rather a bus
to St Laurent. “Oui,” he said, he was talking about the collective taxi to St Laurent. More swearing. In less than ten minutes we were downstairs in the lobby, where the receptionist was sleeping on the sofa and there was no taxi!
Realisation dawned that the hotel had kindly booked a wake-up call in good time for our 3am pick-up – without telling us. So there we were, sitting in the lobby at 2.30 with the snoozing night receptionist, still half asleep ourselves, with nothing to do but wait for the taxi at three. Three o'clock came – and the taxi didn't. Eventually the receptionist called the driver, then, reassured that he really was coming, went back to sleep. Eventually the taxi came at 3.30, already full of passengers, and we were off, going very fast in the dark on a road of variable quality, with a cracked windscreen. I decided the driver had done this many times before and caught up on as much sleep as I could, crammed into the front seat with Els and half our luggage, with music blasting out of the stereo; Els stayed wide awake and enjoyed the sunrise.Finally we were deposited at 6.30 outside the locked gates of the ferry port (a concrete ramp with a hut), where we ate the breakfast we'd brought and waited for the crew to open up and the immigration officer to arrive. Despite our misgivings at having no entry stamp, the officer gave us an exit stamp (apparently important for the entry into Suriname) without hesitation, and were soon crossing the river into another country.
Footnote: notre chemin est un exploration de les langes même que les pays, donc nous essayons de faire un petit tronc de chaque écriture dans la lange de la pays ou nous restons. La langue official de la Aristote est Anglais, donc ça est eu facile, mais maintenant je dois faire rire nos suivants Français! Et, même que il semble que ceci est un traduction fait par le Google, j'ai fait moi-même.
Rockets launching into space
Jungle and baguettes