Monthly Archives: January 2007

French-Only Tours

January 22, 2007
Day 481

Picture of rocket.

A model of the actual rocket that is used in the launches.

Alina found out for Craig and I that we could take a free tour of the rocket facilities this afternoon, but that it would have to be in French, which neither of us speaks. The only way they'll do a tour in English is if we bring a group of twenty or more people, which of course, we didn't have.

Since our tour option was French or nothing, we decided to go with French. Alina drove us to the facility on her way back from her lunch break. It was an impressive modern place. The tour guide was a lady who spoke good English, and she apologized for only having the tour in French. We were given a long presentation about the facilities, and from what I could glean, it seemed that Kourou was the European Space Agency's main commercial launch site for geosynchronous satellites. The location was chosen because it's only four degrees north of the equator, resulting in 10% better fuel efficiency than launches from Cape Canaveral, it's well protected against hurricanes, and the launches occur over a completely unpopulated area (the Atlantic Ocean) in case anything goes wrong.

After the presentation, we were driven around the site. Every now and then, people would "ooh" and "ahh" and photograph seemingly unphotogenic places which I assumed were launch pads. The guide for this part of the tour said he didn't have time to translate anything into English, though, so I'm not really sure.

Seeing a modern rocket launching facility should have been fascinating, but it turned out to be pretty frustrating because I don't speak French. Fair enough, I'm in France, so French is obviously the local language, but this is supposedly the launch facility for the ESA, so you'd think they'd do tours in other languages. Maybe it's because the few tourists who seem to visit French Guiana are almost all from France.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Urban Trekking

January 21, 2007
Day 480

Picture of dog.

An attack dog.

Today, Alina, Craig, and I drove to the capitol city of Cayenne for some trekking. We walked along a well-maintained trail on the far side of the city that led us past a dam, through a bamboo forest, and around an old fort. The walk concluded along the coastal road with some of the biggest houses in the country.

Just off the road we spotted a sleeping sloth, apparently oblivious to all the human activity in the area. I guess urban trekking can be a good way to spot wildlife afterall.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Couchsurfing in Kourou

January 20, 2007
Day 479

We started hitching early this morning, but had some trouble getting anyone to stop for us. Finally, in the middle of the rain, a strange man with about $10,000 of camera equipment for his "hobby" took us into Kourou.

I tried calling Alina, our couchsurfing host in Kourou, but she wasn't home. Luckily, while I was searching in vain for a map of the city, she spotted Craig while driving around and picked us up. Alina, who grew up in Romania and Germany and previously lived in France, works on the rocket. It's the EU's state-of-the-art facility for launching satellites into geosynchronous orbit so it was great getting to know someone who works there. We spent the day hanging out with Alina, her boyfriend Greg, and some of their other friends in town. It was a nice change of pace to act like one of the locals for awhile.

A Day of Hitching

January 19, 2007
Day 478

We started the day walking to the junction where the roads going to Cayenne and Mana split. According to the map, this point was just outside of town. However, it turned out to be about a 10 KM walk with all of our gear, so we were pretty hot and sweaty when we finally reached the junction. We were fortunate to get a ride to Mana right away. It was a nice little village, so we had lunch there.

Next, we tried to get a ride to a town called Aula, but it proved difficult because nobody would stop for us. Suddenly, a car pulled up from the other direction and out popped a hitchhiker. When I looked a little closer, I saw that it was none other than Otto himself! He had been trying to get a job at a ranch nearby. "Jesus Christ! You have to be a real cowboy to work at that place!" So the job hunt continues and Otto keeps stalling his payment for the hammock space, which by the way includes $6 everyday for breakfast because he refuses to cook for himself.

Anyway, Otto had never heard of Aura, but he was able to get a truck to stop for us with his great thumbing skills. The driver was a lady heading to a ranch just past where Otto was job hunting, and she was almost positive the place we were looking for was "Awayla," which was actually in the other direction. So the reason nobody had heard of the place was because it was printed wrong in Craig's guidebook. We didn't have time to head back, so we took the ride with the lady. Ottto, always the class act, was able to bum a cigarette from her. As we were pulling away, Otto said, "We shall meet again."

After the lady dropped us off, we got a ride on a big truck to the main highway, then on a bread truck heading all the way to Cayenne. I had to call Alina to make sure everything was OK for tomorrow, though, so we got dropped off in a small town.

We only wanted to go another 20 K's from there to a picnic area where we could camp, but we were unable to get a ride for the last two hours of daylight. We walked off the road a bit, trying to find somewhere to set up camp. We found some flat ground that wasn't visible from the highway, but it was swampy and we were sure to get eaten alive by mosquitoes, so we decided to walk a bit further.

Within one minute, jackpot! A guy picked us up in his truck and drove us nearly to Kourou. Along the way, we had an interesting discussion about the state of French Guiana. It is an actual department, rather than a territory, of France, so French people may freely come and work here. Some people here would like it to become its own country, but French Guiana is highly dependent on its motherland for almost all goods other than some food, and it is widely believed that if independence were achieved, some of the same hellish circumstances that afflicted both Guyana and Suriname in the 1970's and 1980's would apply here as well. However, it is clear that French Guiana is culturally quite different from France, yet it exists under the French law system, which causes many social problems that need to be addressed.

Our kind driver dropped us off at the last of several picnic areas near Kourou and continued on his way to Cayenne to visit his family for the weekend. The location turned out to be prefect with a shelter to protect us from the inevitable rain and a stream with drinkable water and fish. After hitching all day, we were happy campers.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Back to Saint Laurant

January 18, 2007
Day 477

We got up before dawn to find some activity at the port in Maripasoula. A boat full of empty fuel drums was about to leave, so we jumped in with them and took off. We were able to move much faster downstream, and plowing over the waterfalls was no problem. We stopped at several more Maroon villages and got back to Saint Laurant just before dark in the middle of a rainstorm. Otto and Dominique were still around, telling crazier stories than ever. I had been in touch with Alina, a couchsurfer from Kourou, and we made plans to start heading her way tomorrow.

Nothing Doing in Maripasoula

January 17, 2007
Day 476

After breakfast I walked around Maripasoula to try to find the visitor's center only to find out that it didn't exist. I learned that most tourists who come here go to a lodge about thirty minutes up the river. I was able to find the owner of that lodge, but he told me that it was currently full of military doing their training so tourists couldn't visit it. The entire tourism industry here is based on that lodge, so there was nothing more for us to do but wait until tomorrow when we could get a boat back to Saint Laurant. We hung out in the gazebo in the pouring rain all afternoon and met some interesting locals who all seemed to be involved in some semi-legal mining operation.

This trip appears to have been a mistake but I'm actually surprised it hasn't happened yet in the Guyanas. So few tourists come here, and there is so little information about these countries, you just have to go somewhere and hope it works out for the best. And until now, it has.

Eventually a Beautiful River Trip

January 16, 2007
Day 475

Picture of boat.

A boat on the Maroni.

We indeed were awoken at 5:30 AM, about one hour before dawn. Soon thereafter, the four fat women began babbling again. This time, they mixed "Are you going into the jungle?" along with "I have one week of fuel..." and their usual deluge of Taki Taki as part of their mocking routine. At one point, the driver decided that the boat was unbalanced and asked Craig and I to move over, despite the fact that the women weighed five times as much as us. Maybe he was afraid of talking to the women after seeing how they treated us.

The women finally got off after a few hours. Omara asked me why I wasn't talking today. I told her "Because you somehow think it's funny that we eat food and like to try to sleep at night and you've laughed at everything we've done constantly for the last day." Craig threw in "You're the rudest people I've met in three years in South America," along with some other phrases that were not nearly as kind. Something was seriously wrong with these women, the one in particular, but at least we were rid of them.

Picture of river.

The Maroni River.

The rest of the trip was quite pleasant. The river was low, so rocks were sticking up everywhere. This also created many sets of rapids for us to navigate around and over. There was also one case where we had to portage all of our gear around a large rapid. This was not at all like the Corentine on the other side of the country, which was wide and deep as far up it as we went. Surprisingly, the area was more populated than along the Conentine despite the rougher terrain. We passed Maroon villages and boats similar to our own almost constantly. This was probably due to a higher amount of mining in the area because most of the boats were full of fuel drums, and we passed many excavators in the river.

We made it to Maripasoula at dusk. We got dropped off at a fueling center and had to walk half an hour to get to the center of town. It was a bad time to arrive because we didn't speak the language, knew nothing about the town other than that it was a nice place to visit, and didn't want to pay $60/night for a hotel room. We decided to set up camp near some fishermen by the river and look for the visitor's center tomorrow.

The photo album for this entry is here.

The Woman Who Wouldn't Shut Up

January 15, 2007
Day 474

Craig and I walked over to the jetty with boats leaving for Maripasoula in hopes of securing a passage there either today or tomorrow. On the way there, we had to pass the dozens of boat drivers heading to Albina. We practically had to beat them off of us with sticks despite the fact that we weren't carrying our backpacks, which might have served as an indication that we wanted to cross the river. We were delighted to find that a boat was leaving this afternoon in which we would be considered "freight." We went back to our guesthouse, packed up our gear, and headed back to the departure point, this time having an even tougher time with the "Albina" crowd because we actually were carrying backpacks.

While waiting for our boat to depart we met a girl named Omara who was heading back to her hometown in Suriname. We were delighted to hear that we'd be on the same boat and therefore would have some company to talk to.

It had been raining constantly all day, but it stopped as soon as our boat left. This was especially good luck for us because the boat was a long dugout with no roof to offer protection from the elements. We were joined in the boat by Omara, her three sisters, the driver, and two other employees. It seemed like the sisters hadn't talked to each other in years because they constantly gabbed in their native language of Taki Taki. It was quite the jovial atmosphere.

We stopped for the night a few hours later in a small village. Craig and I were the only ones with a stove, so when we boiled a pot of water to cook with, one guy demanded that Craig give him some. This would've been no big deal, but we didn't have a lot of fuel, and as soon as you give one person water, you're cooking for everybody be default. Craig explained to the guy that he didn't have enough fuel for everyone and if he wanted some water, he could easily get it from one of the villagers. They didn't seem to understand this, and suddenly the lady who never stopped talking all afternoon said that she'd do the cooking and Craig would just have to lend the her the stove. Craig said "I have one liter of fuel. This has to last a week in the jungle. When we run out of fuel, we can't cook anymore and we starve." This led to tremendous bursts of laughter when the lady translated it for the others.

We were told that we'd have to get up at 5:30 tomorrow, so I tried to go to bed early. However, the woman who would never shut up kept talking and laughing loudly, and every now and then she'd mockingly say "I have one liter of fuel..." Everyone else stopped responding to her eventually in a subtle cue that it was time to go to sleep, but she didn't get it. Eventually, she was just talking to herself.

At about midnight, Craig and I decided that we'd had enough and moved the tent as far away from her as possible. As I was walking away, she asked if I was going to the jungle, and I just said "yes," hoping she'd finally shut up. I fell asleep a little while later, and I was still able to hear her laughing in the distance.

Saint Laurant's Prison and Rowboats

January 14, 2007
Day 473

Picture of bars.

The bars of a prison cell.

I got lucky this morning because, while the Saint Laurant prison is usually closed, today it was open because the trans-Atlantic rowboats were getting ready to leave town. As I entered the prison grounds, I saw them on display in the courtyard. They were full of modern equipment like radios and GPS devices, but in the end, they were still rowboats. I was amazed that a group of people could have the patience, let alone the strength to make such a voyage.
The prison itself was also fascinating. Most of the buildings were falling down, but they still bore the marks where the prisoners were chained to the walls, and still gave a chilling idea of how horrible life must have been for those imprisoned there.

Picture of stairs.

The dilapidated staircase of one of the prison buildings.

Later I walked around town with Craig, Dominique, and Otto. We came upon a parade of sorts, presumably for Carnaval, and sat on a curb for awhile to watch. There were a group of girls, being led by their teacher, who dressed like waitresses and carried trays with plates and martini glasses on them. They were followed by a percussion group, which consisted of a bunch of teenagers who banged somewhat of a discernible tune on homemade drums. This was followed by a group of overweight, middle-aged men who dressed in leotards and wigs. They pranced around like women carrying a badminton racket in one hand and a beer in the other.

That appeared to be the extent of the parade except the strangest act of all. While everything else was happening, there was a group of kids dressed entirely in white, including white masks and gloves, who constantly chased and attempted to corner the rest of the kids and violently powder their faces with flour.

Our conversation consisted of Dominique telling stories of which I believed not a word, and Otto telling of his persistent fascination with, and paranoia of, the world.
For example:

Craig: So Dominique, have you been to Australia?

Dominique: Yeah, I sailed there on my forty-meter yacht. I got it from a police auction in Miami, just like my new Cadillac Escalade that I got for $2000.

Otto: Jesus Christ! Miami is dangerous. The drug dealers will kill you for $2. They have nothing to lose.


Me: The prison was interesting, but the part where Papillon was held was closed.

Dominique: Papillon is a bunch of bullshit! He told nothing but lies and exaggerations.

Me (thinking): Sounds like someone else I know.


Craig: We're heading into Brazil next.

Otto: Jesus Christ! Be careful there. They'll kill you for $1. Those guys have nothing to lose.

And so on all day long. Talk about a couple of characters! These are two of the most fascinating people I've met in a long time, and to have met them both at once was quite the treat!

The photo album for this entry is here.

An Historic Moment, and of What Transpired Five Minutes Thereafter

January 13, 2007
Day 472

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.