January 13, 2007
The tourism agency in Paramaribo told us that there were no public buses to Albina, on the border of French Guiana, so we would have to look for a private minibus. We soon discovered that the only system for these buses was pure chaos. As soon as we started walking near the buses with our backpacks, three guys grabbed us and aggressively started competing for our business. They wanted thirty SRD (about $12) to make the short trip, and when we explained that we paid less than one-third that price for the bus from Nickerie to Paramaribo (a much longer trip), they said, "Oh, you mean the public bus? That left already."
I walked over to the public bus terminal and confirmed that indeed the bus had left already, and the next one wasn't until tomorrow. So the the city's own tourism office didn't even know about the public bus and we had to pay three times as much to go with these jokers. We eventually negotiated what seemed like a decent price and waited.
As I said, there were three guys competing for our business, so we had to wait for our man to drum up enough customers to fill his minibus before we could leave. I couldn't think of a worse way to run the buses. There was no schedule, no fixed price, and no cooperation between buses, so there was no chance of anything getting done with the least amount of efficiency. We happened to get lucky and only had to wait about an hour.
Things got even worse when we reached Albina. We had to cross the Maroni River to get to Saint Laurent, in French Guiana. Before the bus even stopped several guys were shouting and sticking their hands in the windows while running with the bus to get our attention. It seemed that they all had their own boat and all wanted us to cross the river with them. But before we could do anything, we had to go to immigration and get stamped out of the country. Finally, our driver agreed to take us over to immigration so we wouldn't have to get out of the bus and get mauled by fifty touts.
After getting stamped out, we walked back to the river, and once again several guys tried to get us to go on their boat, all the while grabbing us and even trying to take my backpack from me. Each of them said the others were liars and thieves, and each of them claimed to be the first to talk to us, so I had to go with them. I just picked the one who looked the least thiefy and went with him.
Half an hour later, the boat pulled into the shore of French Guiana and dropped us off. It was an historic moment for both Craig and I, as we have now both been to every country and territory in mainland South America. As soon as I walked on shore, however, another boat pulled up and met an awaiting ambulance. Some paramedics pulled a guy out of the boat who had what looked like a nasty wound from either a machete or a gun in his thigh and looked like he might bleed to death. That sight certainly killed the moment, but he was still conscious and only a few minutes away from the hospital, so maybe he made it.
We got stamped in and had a chat with the friendly French custom officials in the small amount of English they spoke. Next we sat outside the office to have some Lunch. Craig, without thinking where he was, got up and relieved himself next to the building. Suddenly, a car pulled up and a female police officer got out and demanded to see Craig's passport. When she took the passport into the customs office, Craig said to me, "I think I've been caught having a piss." Ten minutes later, the lady came storming out of the office and started yelling something in French. When Craig said he didn't understand, she switched to English: "Do you know what you did? This is not Australia, you are in France now. You can't just go around doing whatever you want." She threw the passport back to Craig and drove off. It seemed like she wanted to give Craig a fine, but couldn't because he was still at customs.
After the near fine/deportation, we found a place where we could camp under a guy's shelter behind his house. Two other guests were staying there: A Dutchman named Otto who claimed to have been to 150 countries and came to French Guiana to look for work, and Dominique, a Frenchman who works as a mining boss/helicopter pilot/yachtsman/compulsive liar who claims to have killed twenty-five Brazilian men who were trying to steal his gold.
We also took a walk to the center of town, where the remains of one of France's former penal colonies was still standing, and a fleet of twenty or so rowboats had just finished paddling across the Atlantic. At night we went to a cultural festival where an interesting variety of African and Amerindian dances were presented. This concluded my long day of traveling from South America to France.