Half an hour of sailing and 200 euros the poorer we arrived on French soil – we were in Europe. What do you mean, Europe? We were in the middle of the rainforest! Since when did France consist of rainforest? Rainforest with tarantula spiders, one-meter long iguanas, exotic birds, and sloths… Well, French Guiana is not an independent South American nation, but an overseas department of France – hence part of Europe. It is an idea that took some time getting used to.
Before we had left Brazilian soil, the captain of the ferry had collected our car papers, saying he was obliged to do so. On the French side he handed them over to some official, who subsequently handed them back to us. According to the captain, they try to prevent the illegal importation of Brazilian cars this way, since his is the only boat that transports cars to the other side (at least officially).
Three times we checked what paperwork needed to be taken care of; which stamps we needed. The customs officer gave us a somewhat pitying look and repeats, once more, “Vous êtes Hollandais!”
As if that explained everything. But yes, it did. We were Europeans in Europe, and no stamps were required.
Europe it is
Europe manifested itself quickly enough. Instead of handling reais notes that all have the same size, I now struggled with the tiny 5 euro notes and the huge 50 euro bills. When I want to select the eurocents from a Tupperware box full of coins, I don’t recognize them – a yearly recurring moment of confusion when we return to the Netherlands. The antique Dutch quarter, which somehow ended up in this box, is picked out easily enough. But somehow the 10 and 50 eurocent coins always appear to look more like South American coins than European cents do.
When, later that day, I had to pay 4,99 in a grocery store, the cashier gave 1 eurocent change – that coin is still in use here, whereas the majority of European countries no longer bothers with it.
For a hamlet this size, St. George de Oyapock, there were a remarkable number of (European) road signs, notably too many indicating a one-way street; there was no way we could legally reach the central square, even though we saw enough cars parked there. Must be the French touch, we gathered. We remembered ‘In Rome, do as the Romans do’ and took it that in St. George this meant driving against the flow of traffic.
Expensive, but Affordable Wine!
Along the central square were the town hall and two restaurants. Set menus cost 12.50 euros. They were typical French, three-course meals and probably not a bad deal, but, one way or another, way above our budget. How would a choucrout Alsacienne (sauerkraut from the Alsace) taste in the tropics? We didn’t permit ourselves to give it a try and stuck to our intention do our own cooking again, now that we were in expensive Europe.
In my best French I asked at one of the restaurants if I could use the bathroom; in Brazil this never is a problem. Here it was no problem either as long as I paid 1 euro for the honor. Right. Have they gone mad? At the Chinese grocery store I paid 1.60 euros for 3 carrots, 1 onion and 1 tomato. However, the wine made us smile: bottles starting at 2 euros!
Along the waterfront we set up lunch in the shade of bamboo. For the first time in ages we prepared a pressure-cooker meal of rice and tuna (here’s all about our pressure cooker cooking on the road). We had to get into the habit of cooking again. The meal turned into to some sticky kind of rice-tuna soup, but the red wine compensated for this first effort. We also learned quickly again that wine goes to your head much faster than beer does.
Downtown we met David. We hit it off and sat talking on the pavement for at least two hours. Meanwhile our Land Cruiser stood one block down the road, unlocked and windows rolled down in front of the town hall where locals stood demonstrating for a safer St. George de Oyapock. Paradoxes in life…
David is a Canadian who had been traveling in Europe and Africa for the past two years or so on his BMW 1200 GS. He was on his way to Brazil and, ultimately, Ushuaia. In Canada he bought the motorcycle brand-new with a three-year worldwide guarantee, so when parts had to be shipped to Nairobi, BMW paid for them including all customs charges.
When, one day, he flew back to Canada to attend a friend’s wedding, BMW offered to revise his motorcycle for him at their expense. Can’t have a BMW looking too used, now can you? David laughed as he told his story. With his long hair, his beard, and well-worn shirt he is the seasoned traveler who has other priorities than a neatly washed and polished motorcycle.
Problems with Illegal Immigrants
I went hunting for tourist information. There was no Tourist Information Office and I gave it a try at the town hall. I struggled to make myself understood. After several inquiring looks the receptionist realized that I was looking for a map, and she ordered someone to fetch a photocopy from somewhere in the building. Meanwhile I studied notice boards listing the local government’s ambitious plans.
Even though I racked my brains for each French word I wanted to utter, I had no problem understanding or reading it – I lived in France twenty years ago and although my French used to be fluent enough, it has become buried under four years of Spanish and Portuguese. Chatting to the receptionist makes me realize again why I love the French language so much, it’s simply the most beautiful language in the world.
The receptionist explained the drawings on the notice board. They were about restructuring the town, to update the land register. There were too many ‘invasions’ – locals or illegals settling on a piece of land and then claiming it as theirs, which is a common problem in Brazil and Paraguay as well.
“Where do these people come from?” I asked.
“Mainly from Brazil,” she answered.
“Why?” This surprised me. As far as I was concerned, paradise was on the other side of the river.
She hesitated. “Let me put it this way. The locals will tell you that Brazilians will try to find a French husband or wife, so they become French themselves and can claim social security under the French system.”
That, of course, is nothing new. This happens in Europe all over the place. Still, this statement left me utterly dumbfounded. Maybe because I don’t understand (yet) why a Brazilian would want to live here. In my eyes Brazil is paradise (of course I understand that my standard of living is different than that of many Brazilians, and that they have a completely different frame of reference for these kinds of choices, but still).
Maybe I still don’t fully realize yet that I am actually in Europe, and what this means in terms of material wealth. The language and restaurants may be French, but the people are darker-skinned than in Brazil and it still doesn’t feel like Europe as I have always known it.
I had read, and heard from Brazilians, that it is hard for them to travel to French Guiana. They have to apply for a visa (150 reais), while they don’t need this visa to travel to continental Europe. For them it’s easier to fly to Paris than to Cayenne. Together with the Surinamese, the Brazilians create French Guiana’s problem of illegal immigration. They want to earn euros and return home, at least that’s the idea, but often they stay. They work illegally in gold mines, or as domestics. There have been several large-scale sweeps during the past ten years to rid the country of illegals, but according to the government they are back within a week.
Surely, the Police Will Help us – They Always do!
The receptionist couldn’t tell me where we could camp safely and told us to seek information at the police station. She marked the station on my newly acquired map: PAF.
“Which stands for?” I asked.
“Police Air Frontière,” she said and her boss, standing next to it, confirmed it.
“What do they want with Air here? Agua seems to make more sense,” I responded, but of course I just arrived here, so what do I know?!
We drove to PAF.
“Police Aux Frontières”, the sign said.
Made more sense to me. But again, who am I?
We drove onto the premises and were immediately surrounded by men in uniform, carrying guns.
“Go away, you are not allowed here!” Angry stares.Coen and I looked at each other. “Right, what was their problem?”
Coen and I looked at each other. “Right, what was their problem?”
One of them spoke just as much Portuguese as we do French and so we had a fluent conversation – not so– but he did understand that we needed a place to camp.
“They can’t stay here!” one said to the other. This I understood perfectly.”No, of course not!” our spokesperson confirmed.
“No, of course not!” our spokesperson confirmed.
This conversation boggled our minds. Where were those friendly, helpful police officers we always met in Brazil? In the whole of South America we never felt as unwelcome as here.
But there was a parking lot farther down the road where we could stay. Officially it was for use during the day only but apparently there was a police officer living there in his camper – we had already seen his vehicle standing there – and so we could park there as well. In the parking lot we could hear from the sounds inside the camper that somebody was there. But nobody came out, nobody said hi. Maybe he didn’t want contact and we decided not to bother him.
It had been dry all day, even though we had arrived in the middle of the rainy season – we consider this a good omen. That night we had our first French Guyanese concert of thick yellow-brown toads. We decided to get a good start at the French way of life and gorged ourselves on a baguette with French cheese (let’s not exaggerate; it was vache qui rit) and a bottle of Carbernet Sauvignon while watching the movie of Papillon for that specific French Guiana touch.
Rainforest, and More Rainforest
North of St. George de Oyapock the road was smooth as a billiard ball; no pebble, no washboard, no sleeping policemen – Coen was a happy man. More than 90 percent of French Guiana consists of rain forest and it stretched in all directions. From hilltops we looked over an ocean of tropical confusion of growth. Its immensity was staggering, overwhelming, yet claustrophobic.
Tracks disappeared on either side into the rainforest, a number of which lead to illegal gold mines. It is one of the problems the country has to deal with, together with intensive drug trafficking. Border areas are often dodgy, but here we have been warned more than usually not to stop due to carjackings and hold ups. Whether these were stories or facts we didn’t know. Fortunately, we were confronted with neither.
2-euro Cabbage and Men’s Talk
We took a left turn onto a narrower, also recently tarred road and arrived in Cacao around lunchtime. While Coen parked the Land Cruiser, a group of men jumped up from a wooden bench in front of a shop and resolutely marched towards the Land Cruiser – the beer bottles in their hands are accompanied by a big smile.
“I want to buy your car!” one man exclaimed, laughing. His teeth were white as in toothpaste commercial. “This is magnificent!” His eyes glittered with admiration.
“Wow. That looks awesome,” the only white man, dressed in black T-shirt and jeans, cried out.
An explosion of technical questions followed.
I left them to their men’s talk and strolled into the local supermarket. In French Guiana, local supermarkets are run by Chinese, who appeared to only work and never smile or chat – at least not with me. The tomatoes were overripe; I left them be. Among the carrots I found three that at least are still orange. Together with two expensive oranges and a big onion I had my catch of the day; in terms of fresh food there as little else to choose from. It appeared we would be eating a lot of onions and dubiously looking carrots the coming days.
While I was considering the 5-euro-a-kilo tomatoes and 3-euro-the-kilo brown lettuce, Coen was making friends. Gwen, the man in the black T-shirt, knew a place to camp. Minutes later we followed his vehicle as he traversed the hamlet and exited it via a dirt road with deep puddles. A bit farther down the path we stopped at a spot where some odd-looking nets were fastened to high tree branches.
“To catch insects,” Gwen explained. “French Guiana is the best place on earth to catch butterflies and other exotic insects. It’s a booming business here.”
“What about the gendarmerie?” Coen asked.
“Oh, it’s fine with them. Catching insects is legal. As to illegal activities, don’t worry about it. The gendarmerie patrols here on a daily basis. This used to be a problem area but it no longer is. Cacao is a quiet, peaceful village.
“Look, this is the carbet I was talking about. That’s what they call this type of Amerindian rainforest hut here. My friend moved to Cayenne and the carbet is no longer used. Make yourselves at home,” Gwen offered.
And so we stayed, and enjoyed.
Tired of Traveling
Three-quarters of the hut were surrounded by rainforest. During the day we enjoyed the company of dozens of lizards, birds and crickets. We heard the babbling of the brook, which was only a short distance behind the hut and could be reached by a trail into the forest.
I went for a dip before night would fall and the mosquitoes would appear from wherever they hide during the day. I stretched out in the water and felt the cool water run over my naked body; I imagined the water taking all the tension from my body towards the Atlantic Ocean. My paralyzing tiredness was due neither to the red wine I was no longer used to, nor a result of dengue or malaria, I realized – thoughts that had crossed my mind this morning.
It is tough to explain the strain of the traveling we experienced during the last couple of weeks. There was the pressure of our visa that were about to run out versus the distance we still had to cover – which included two excessively expensive river crossings whose procedures were not at all clear to us. There were dirt roads to conquer. We had no idea what their state would be during the rainy season, and as we were about to hit them a bridge collapsed, messing up our schedule even more.
Traveling in the tropics has its own strain. We are both familiar with malaria and dengue and are keen on avoiding both. The tropical climate is not our favorite to begin with as it tires us out quickly.
Then there was the daily job of finding a safe place to sleep along one of South America’s main drug trafficking routes. Where could we drive, park, sleep without being robbed of our possessions or lives? How did we maintain the balance of taking the warnings of locals seriously while not getting paranoid and as a result travel like lepers who avoid contact with others at all costs.
Working had become more or less impossible. It was too hot to sit in the Land Cruiser with all blinds drawn to work on the laptop, whereas sitting outside with electronic equipment was like writing a message on our foreheads: rob me.
Since Coen and I both have the tendency not to focus on negative or uncertain aspects of our lives and tend to brush them aside, we don’t talk about all this. We both deal with it in our own way. Coen becomes snappy, I store it in my body until I’m too exhausted to move.
Here in this tranquil stream in the rainforest of Cacao I allowed the tiredness and stress to flow away, out of my body and towards the ocean. I listened to the calls of birds, the chirping of crickets and the never-ending buzzing of insects. It all sounded and felt familiar. We had been in the tropics long enough to recognize it all. Life is a magnificent puzzle, which, one way or another, is always solved, I realized. We had been in such need of a safe, quiet, solitary place to camp for a couple of days and relax, and then this day we met Gwen. Fantastic.
Who Are You?!
We had arrived in French Guiana in the middle of the rainy season. Doing laundry was only possible if we stayed somewhere long enough and had lots of sunshine so it could dry. This hadn’t been the case for weeks. The first morning in the carbet brought a promising blue sky and scorching sun and soon lines were strung across the garden and clean clothes were drying.
As I returned from the brook with the next load, I heard angry voices – shouting even. As I entered the garden I saw Coen gesturing wildly and with a flushed face struggling with the few words of French he knows. That in itself is no mean feat, let alone when confronted with a very angry Frenchman, who in his anger spoke faster than fast. It took a while before I understood what was going on.
Coen was talking – shouting – with the owner of the hut! The carbet hadn’t been abandoned at all, but did have an owner who sometimes came here in the weekend. And this day it was Saturday. Can you imagine! You want to do some maintenance on your weekend retreat, only to see it occupied by a bunch of foreigners. It would be funny were it not for the fact that this man was very upset and difficult to get through to.
I referred to his friend Gwen and at last I could convince the owner that we are not ‘invaders’, as they call them here. As in Brazil, French Guiana has to deal with people who simply invade somebody’s property and subsequently claim it as theirs – an invasão they say in Brazil. Suddenly the penny dropped and he turned into a completely different person. A smile, apologies. “Stay. Stay for as long as you want. Sorry I yelled at him,” he told me while pointing at Coen.
Nordine lives in Cayenne with his family and just came for the day with his two boys to do some maintenance. He didn’t get much done after we met. We hit it off and chatted over coffee and sandwiches and later in the day over a glass of France’s excellent red wine. Thanks Nordine, for letting us stay in your carbet. Let’s have another glass of wine together one day!