Au Revoir, la Guyane

After seven months, the longest I have ever been away from the United States, my home, my family, my time in Guyane has come to an end.

Administrative Wednesday

I began wrapping up my affairs in Guyane on Wednesday, when I went to the Rectorat first thing in the morning to pick up my birth certificate, its French translation, and my payslips (which are necessary for me to reap the full benefits of the French social system when I retire). Unfortunately, all of my payslips were still in Saint-Georges, where they had been mailed even after I began working in Roura. Just a regular French administrative, bureaucratic oversight. And something I’ll have to follow up on after I return home.

I met with my bank account manager to fill out a form for an international wire transfer and had to explain that the U.S. does international routing codes differently from European countries. Yet another administrative difference I cannot understand about my country; although I would say our refusal to adopt the metric system is far worse.

Relieved to have accomplished those tasks, I walked the perimeter of Cayenne to the large covered market for one last soup at the bustling corner stand where the teaching assistants meet every Wednesday for “Soup Time.” We ate at one high table with the teaching assistants and the mother and two daughters of the Hmong family who had graciously hosted my friend and I during our weekend in Cacao. And that became the first of the goodbyes.

Sea Turtles

That evening, just as the sun was beginning to set, my friend and I walked to the beach to look for sea turtles laying their eggs. The conditions were right: the waning full moon was out, the high tide was receding, and the curtain of night was descending. We listened to music as we sat on the rocks and watched the clouds turn from grey to blue to pink to purple and then inky black. When night fell, we began to walk toward the salines, salt marshes, where there are no lights to hassle the turtles as they labor over their nests.

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Suddenly, I noticed the trail of an enormous turtle who had made her way up onto the beach and had already begun digging her nest, her fin feet flinging sand behind her in long, heavy strokes. She was breathing heavily. We lowered ourselves onto the sand several feet away so as not to disturb her, and watched, mesmerized, as she continued to dig. Without much warning, the wind picked up and we were pelted with raindrops, huddling against each other and humming “La Vie en Rose” to stay warm.

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The tortues luth have very few defenses: instead of a shell, they have thick, oily skin, giving them their “leatherback” name. Instead of webbed feet like land tortoises, they have fin-shaped limbs for swimming. They are enormous: 1.8 to 2 meters (6 to 7 feet) in length and weighing, on average, 384 kilos (847 pounds). During breeding season, females lay around 110 eggs, 85% of which will hatch. Each female lays up to nine of these “clutches” of eggs each season. In Guyane, the nesting period is from late March to late August.

I remember witnessing one of the last newly hatched turtles to make its way to the sea on my first weekend on the beach in October. Seeing the baby turtle stumble into the crashing foamy waves one week after arrival, and then the gigantic mother laboring and laying her eggs at night in the pelting rain under the full moon just before my departure was a metaphor for my experience in Guyane coming full-circle, the cycle of life completing another turn.

La Dernière Journée à l’École (The Last Day at School)

My last day at school passed in a blur. I began the morning at the maternelle (preschool), where I had some Easter coloring for my kids. I told them all that it was our last day together, how much I would miss them, and why it was important for them to keep practicing English. They asked me why I was leaving and where I was going, and clung to me as the bell sounded shrilly for la récré (recess). Even after all the pains of keeping them well-behaved, which was truly character-building, they had always been innocent and curious. I had tears in my eyes as I finished my last class and walked to the gate for the last time, a few of them following me and waving goodbye.

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At the école (elementary school), I stopped by each classroom to say a proper goodbye, to finish the sad part before celebrating English and my time there with a big party in the afternoon. For the last two weeks, my students had been preparing final projects. The little ones drew monsters and then labeled their body parts with numbers and colors. A slightly older class colored the flags of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Two intermediate classes made small posters about themselves with drawings and captions in English. My oldest class worked in groups to complete research and make posters about the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. All their work was hung outside the line of classrooms, and I was so proud of what they had accomplished. I really challenged them to speak and write in English, and they surpassed my expectations for students at their age.

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I had planned an hour-long English celebration for the end of the day. The students gathered in the central carbet and the little ones sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Oh Sun, Sun, Mister Golden Sun.” The whole school joined in for a roaring round of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” then we played Simon Says and a similar actions game, where the winners from each class received lollipops.

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At the end, the Directeur thanked me for my work and a couple students from the percussion class began a song. I instantly recognized the rhythm, the melody, the drumbeats of a traditional Guyanese song, though the paroles (lyrics) had changed to a cheerful round of “Au revoir.” One of my fellow teachers, a beautiful Creole woman who was always impeccably dressed in bright matching colors, began to dance, the steps uniquely Guyanese. And she pulled me onto the floor with her, the students and other teachers clapping in time.

All too soon, the bell rang and the children were shuffling onto the bus, waving and crying out, “Au revoir, Andréa!” And that was it.

La Dernière Soirée

The last teaching assistant party was organized by the Rectorat, who told us to meet at sunset at a carbet near the salines on the beach in Rémire-Montjoly. As it turned out, there was no carbet, but we were lucky enough to find one last time the kindness of strangers: the nearby restaurant agreed to host our potluck party at no cost, even providing glasses, tablecloths, and silverware.

There was a looming sadness over the night, even though we heartily enjoyed the last of each other’s company. We left the restaurant at midnight and finished off the party with a few hours of pool and hot tub time at my friend’s house. Then some of the assistants left to go home, and we clung to each other, not wanting to say goodbye.

Saying Goodbye

On Saturday morning, those of us who slept over woke early and ate some pains au chocolat, weary and unwilling to part. Then, each of us left one by one, and I had to say goodbye to two of my closest friends. We hugged repeatedly and insisted that it was not goodbye, but the beginning of a long distance, traveling friendship. And just like that, I left in the pouring rain, as though even the skies were crying for our departure.

I had lunch with one of my fellow teachers, the first Roura colleague I met, who drove me between Rémire-Montjoly and the small town when I wanted to visit friends. My host mom came to pick me up, and we enjoyed a last coffee before saying “Au revoir.”

Today, I will exchange gifts with my host family as we have our last lunch outside on the beautiful terrace overlooking the jungle canopy in the back garden. Then my host mom and sister will drive me to the airport, where I remember arriving seven months ago, clueless and slightly terrified but content to be starting anew.

Then for the next two weeks, something familiar: London. And on the 6th of May…home.

I dedicate this blog

To everyone who welcomed me in this strange and beautiful place I have come to love.

To all the incredibly strong, brave, independent women I met: my roommate in Saint-Georges, my host mom in Roura who left France with her husband and children because of the remarks they encountered about being a metisse (mixed) family, my fellow teacher in Roura who left France with her husband and small children to teach in French international schools around the world when her family told her it was too dangerous, the Hmong teacher in Cacao who does everything to make sure her students live up to their potential, and my friends’ host mothers in Rémire-Montjoly who have encountered loss and learned how to be happy again.

To the teachers who dedicate their lives to educating and defending the rights of students.

To my fellow teaching assistants, whose friendship and laughter saved me from the sadness of being alone in a new place.

To my students and to all the children of Guyane, whose innocence and beauty has taught me about the true importance of life, and what it really means to change the world.

The End

I’m not sure if I will ever come back to Guyane. I would love to—there are still places I want to see, people I would like to visit, but it is still difficult and expensive to get to. I had no idea when I arrived how attached I would become to this forgotten little corner of South America. In spite of all that, this place has had a profound effect on me and on the trajectory of my life.

30,000 words: 7 months, 2 schools, 2 towns, 2 homes, 33 teaching assistants, and hundreds of children have been the substance of that which I have written. Thank you for reading my blog—I hope it’s not my last. I have a feeling this is only the beginning of the adventure, and so I leave you with a wish and a song.

N’ayez jamais peur de la vie, n’ayez jamais peur de l’aventure, faites confiance au hasard, à la chance, à la destinée. Partez, allez conquérir d’autres espaces, d’autres espérances. Le reste vous sera donné de surcroît. –Henry de Monfreid

(Never be afraid of life, never be afraid of adventure, trust in chance, luck, and destiny. Leave, go conquer other spaces, other hopes. The rest will be added unto.)

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“We Are” by E.sy Kennenga

My Tips for Traveling to South America

1. Do not refuse to take diarrhea medication. Diarrhea can be a serious threat to your travel enjoyment, let alone your health. I can attest to this.

2. For mosquitoes: Huile de carapa in French or Andiroba in Portuguese. It works brilliantly for both preventing and healing mosquito bites, which can give you malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and now chikungunya. It smells terrible, but it’s worth the peace of mind knowing you have a solid defense against the little vampires.

3. If you see a public toilet, use it, even if you don’t have to go. If it’s free, tant mieux (all the better). You will eventually have to make a pit stop, so don’t take those toilets for granted when you see them.

4. Embrace the culture. Music, dance, food, art, lifestyle (siestas!). “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This has never been so true, especially when you are trying to experience the most of a place.

5. Drink fruit juice! It contains loads of vitamin C which you will need to battle various germs from traveler’s diarrhea to malaria. Tip: In order to avoid diarrhea from the juice itself, mix 1 part juice with 1 part water.

6. You will not see jaguars and tarantulas everywhere, like you think you will.

7. Drink more water than you think you need.

8. Take it easy when going on a hike. The jungle air is so thick sometimes, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air rivals the quantity of oxygen, making it very difficult to breathe.

9. Toe worms and eggs—take them out!

10. Do NOT touch the trees! You never know what may be camouflaged against that bark—snakes, spiders, acidic sap that can burn a hole in your skin (yes, this exists).

11. Taking showers is IMPORTANT. Being smelly (smelling like a human), attracts lots of mosquitoes. Showering daily (or twice daily) is necessary to wash off not only sweat, but whatever microscopic bacteria linger on your skin that can make you sick.

To the ends of the earth, would you follow me?
There’s a world that was meant for our eyes to see.
– “Ends of the Earth,” Lord Huron

Tour Archéologique de Cayenne et la Montagne de Kaw

In the last two weeks, I was treated to two guided tours, courtesy of one of the teachers with whom I work.

Tour Archéologique

The first was a discovery of the archaeological treasures left behind by the ancient Amerindians who crossed the prehistoric land bridge over the Bering Strait, navigated the land that is now Alaska, Canada, the continental United States, and central America to finally settle in the tropical paradise that is Guyane. There are now six different Amerindian clans in Guyane, six different Amerindian languages being spoken. As Guyane develops and new buildings and housing developments are constructed, more and more ancient Amerindian pottery is unearthed. A new museum recently opened in Kourou at the site of a set of rock engravings unique to Guyane—they resemble no other rock carvings in all of South America.

In the morning, we stopped at a small building hidden just outside of downtown Cayenne where archeological volunteers donate their free time to reassembling, sketching, and cataloguing Amerindian pottery, among other finds, with the eventual hope that they will one day be able to open a small museum collection. It’s a difficult aim: while they find spectacular treasures for their field, it’s hardly enough to draw a general audience—let alone enough government funding.

My colleague showed me pictures of the archeological dig where they found clusters of broken pottery. The pottery “dump” had been carefully assembled—many pieces are thought to have been purposefully broken in order to cover something—presumably bodies in a sort of funeral tradition. The pottery they find is mostly everyday, smooth yet uneven clay bowls of different shapes and sizes. Occasionally, they unearth more elaborate pieces, like giant funeral urns with faces and engraved patterns.

The archeological building itself has an incredible collection of materials, from stone axes to colonial porcelain to bones. Unfortunately, they don’t know enough about the “big picture” behind it all to put together a public exhibition. What surpised me was how little they knew about the Amerindian pottery they discovered—Amerindians still guard their precious heritage today in Guyane, but the archeologists rarely ask them questions—they say that’s the anthropologists’ job. It seems like a weird disconnect to me.

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Our next stop was a singular rock engraving of a serpent, presumably marking the territorial boundary or a certain clan or perhaps a danger. As many historical things in Guyane, the rock was hidden behind unkempt jungle shrubs, with a badly deteriorated description behind cracked Plexiglas. Just down the road were two more elaborate carvings, one bearing a turtle symbol. The site had also been discovered in 1997 as the home of one of the funeralistic pottery deposits. Indeed, digging through the dirt, we unearthed a few tiny fragments of red painted clay pottery.

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The final stop was the beach—the very same where I presumably picked up a ver de chien (dog worm) only a few weeks before. I didn’t know at the time that the rocks just down from where we sunbathed harbored some very important Amerindian rock markings: polissoirs (literally, polish marks) the ancient traces of where men and boys sharpened their axes. These come in two shapes: long, thin slots for sharpening the edge and round craters for smoothening the sides. Because their axes were made of stone, they needed an equally hard stone to polish their tools. These rocks were the perfect choice of material: granite. Incredibly resistant, formed from the slow cooling of lava at the continent’s edge. There were about twenty markings in total.

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La Montagne de Kaw

Last weekend, the same teacher and I embarked on a morning hike series around the Montagne de Kaw (Kaw Mountain)—the elevated plateau that makes up the very edge of the South American continent. Kaw is also known for its marais (marshes), low-lying flatlands of mixed fresh and saltwater home to the majority of Guyane’s caïmans (crocodiles).

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We started out on a small, easy 45-minute sentier botanique, where we saw no shortage of typical jungle creatures. First on the list? A small tarantula, of course, which my colleague promptly picked up after shielding its eyes with his machete. Then a scorpion—not a highly dangerous one, as its pincers were relatively proportional to its body. The larger the pincers, the smaller the body—the more dangerous the scorpion. After hacking some bark off a decaying fallen tree, we observed a sleeping beetle larvae, a ghostly white thing cocooned in its hollowed-out hole.

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As we made our way back off the trail, my colleague stopped suddenly. “Un grage!” The very venomous diamond-backed snake I had accidentally stepped a couple weeks before. Unfortunately, the serpent didn’t stop for a picture but slithered again into the surrounding brush, this time making no threatening rattle imitations.

Next stop: the edge of the South American continent. Quite literally, La Montagne de Kaw is one of a series of plateaus of laterite making up part of the edge of the South American landmass. It was an incredible rock formation, long hunks of laterite carved by rainfall and subterranean rivers. Most of the plants growing on top of the rock were ferns and small trees, as larger trees cannot push their roots into the hard stone. One enormous tree, however, managed to find an alternative solution. Rather than trying to send its roots down into the rock, it spread its massive foundations along the surface of the rock, its roots the size of medium tree trunks. In the rain, they looked like slick, winding boas. Once we made it to the base of the rock, we entered a small grotto carved out by an ancient subterranean river. There, we found a hoard of bats and spiders—the very same that inspired the animated beasts in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. These spiders were fascinating. They are mostly blind and so live in nearly complete darkness, only making their way out at night. They have relatively large bodies but long, spindly legs and dart sideways like crabs at the movement of the air surrounding them. If I weren’t so interested, I would have been horrified. Luckily, they’re harmless.

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After completing that brief excursion, we continued to the end of the road, where it meets the Kaw marshes. There we embarked on the longest sentier (trail) of the day, making a stop off the path to visit a rather large cave, again hollowed out by an ancient subterranean current. This was very Indiana Jones—there was even a skylight shining on the cave floor, marking what might have been an area to display a skull or impressive jewel. We saw dozens of those blind, crab spiders, and encountered swarms of mosquitoes. Several years earlier, my colleague noted, he and some other archeologists had found Amerindian pottery and crocodile bones in the cave. We were not so lucky.

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We made a brief stop to see the ruins of a former colonial vestige and cacao mill before making a slow climb a hill. At the top of the long sloping incline was an enormous, elaborate Amerindian rock engraving. It bore the same winding serpent with a triangular head (indicating venom glands) as the singular rock carving I had observed a week before. Unfortunately, we didn’t stay to look for long because literally all of the mosquitoes in the jungle had decided to await us there. But the most exciting part of our day we encountered on the way down.

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I had been taught what mygale (tarantula) dwellings looked like, but I had never before encountered one. All the mygales I had seen (only two) happened to be crossing the road in Roura, and were relatively small compared to the enormous beasts that people trap, kill, and sell in glass cases to the cheeky gift shops for Métropole tourists in Cayenne. I happened to glance into a cobwebbed hole at the base of a tree when I saw one. A huge (bigger than my hand), hairy, dark brown spider. My colleague tried to coax it out of its hole so we could study it more properly, but the spider predictably retreated out of reach. Dommage (a shame). “Bon.” He said. “On ne dit jamais deux sans trois.” Meaning, “We never just two—always three.” Meaning that spider and the one I had spotted first thing in the morning were only the beginning.

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Indeed, I saw three, maybe four, in addition to that monstrosity, all slightly smaller but still larger than my hand. Finally, we succeeded in aggravating one enough with a stick to the point where it stormed out of its hole in a stiff attack position, bearing its venomous fangs. Much to my surprise, my colleague succeeded again in shielding its eyes and picking it up by the tough abdomen to give me a closer look at its mouth. It was gross and mesmerizing at the same time. I truly respect these creatures, who have relatively little defense against their predators.

I ended the day exhausted but satisfied by our discoveries, with une vingtaine (series of twenty) of mosquito bites on the back of my legs and bum. So I slathered on a handful of Benadryl (extra strength) and took a long sieste, visions of mygales in my head.

Weekends d’Aventures

A few weeks ago, two other teaching assistants and I rented a car and embarked on a weekend of two once-in-a-lifetime adventures: witnessing a rocket launch and flying via ULM (ultralight flying machines—basically gliders) over the jungle.

Of course, as everything is here, the weekend was not without several bumps (and I’m not just talking about turbulence during the ULM flight).

On a Thursday night, 24 hours before the planned launch of Ariane 5, France and Europe’s pride, we learned that the launch had been postponed due to high winds and poor weather conditions. On Friday morning, we set out to Cayenne to rent the car and make our way to Macouria for our afternoon ULM flight. The rental agency had only one car available, and it was one of the more expensive plans. We decided to rent the car for the weekend, so that in case of another launch postponement, we would still be able to make it to Kourou. In addition, their credit card machine refused both our international debit cards as well as our French cards. Then, after sorting the payment out, the woman refused to put me on rental contract because my U.S. license was only dated to 2012 (when I turned 21), even though I have been driving since 2008. One of the other teaching assistants still hadn’t gotten her driver’s license. This meant that only one of us was legally eligible to drive the car (even though they had no problem putting me on the agreement the last time we had rented a car from them), and she had never driven an automatic before. Well, it was a weekend of firsts for all of us.

Shortly after having successfully rented the car, we got a call from one of the ULM pilots telling us we would have to postpone our flight until the following morning due to the same wind conditions that impeded the rocket launch preparation. No surprises here—such is the way of everything in Guyane. So we made the most of the day and having the car by enjoying soup at the market, hitting up the beach, the two largest supermarkets, and the only shopping mall in the country.

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ULM Flight

The next morning, we set out early for the ULM flight in the pouring rain, desperately hoping that it would clear up before our flight. We arrived to find two husky military men awaiting their flight before us, staring at us dubiously as we eyed the two ULM gliders. After getting over our initial pre-flight jitters, we took off! The gliders, which weighed about 400 kilos (about 880 pounds)—less than half the weight of a smart car—took off briefly from a short grassy runway, hobbled a little on the ascent as the winds picked up, but then settled into a calm, humming pace as we sailed at 500 meters (1640 feet) over the jungle below.

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It was quite an experience—much more intimate than flying over in an enclosed plane. Despite the winds whipping so viciously that I found myself freezing cold even in my jacket, I was only slightly terrified—it was more exhilarating than nauseating. We flew towards Cayenne, which was smudged out by low hanging clouds and fog, then turned back and passed over the zoo and broccoli-sized forest before flying out over the sea. The beach and the ocean were the same color—a muddy tan swirled with dark brown silts. It made me remember what a truly unique, strange, and wonderful landscape Guyane has. Lingering fog added to the mystique we saw from overhead in that fleeting journey through the ciel (sky).

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Montagne des Singes and Centre Kalawachi

With the free time we had between the ULM flight and the rocket launch, we decided to climb Montagne des Singes (Monkey Mountain), which ironically has no monkeys to speak of. We saw nothing, not even a sloth, or an exotic bird. The view from the top was expansive, overlooking the vast Centre Spatial Guyanais. It was difficult to tell through the mist, but we were sure we saw the ghostly white Ariane 5 rocket awaiting its fate on the horizon, between the land and sea.

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On our way back to Kourou, we stopped at the Centre Kalawachi, an Amerindian cultural heritage center with two large carbets, one for guests to sling up hammocks and enjoy traditional manioc (cassava) and the other housing a small artifact exhibit and gift shop.

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Ariane 5 Launch

After registering for our launch slots at the Kourou Médiathèque (media center, AKA library), we waited about an hour and were herded onto frigid, air-conditioned tour buses, where we waited for another hour before making the hour-long journey to our designated launch watch site, 7.5 km (about 4.6 miles) from the launch pad—close enough to have gas masks on hand in case of an emergency.

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Ariane 5, at 53 meters tall with 774 tons of mass at lift-off, is enormous, making for a spectacular sight and sound. The total launch window, from take-off to satellite separation, was only 1 hour and 9 minutes, meaning the rocket was traveling about 20,000 km per hour, or 7.18 km per second (12,427.4 miles per hour, or 4.46 miles per second). The launch material itself was nothing special: two telecommunications satellites, Astra 5B and Amazonas 4A, to provide higher quality services and expand coverage in Europe and South America, respectively.

Within an hour of our arrival, we were fed ham and cheese sandwiches and maracudja (passion fruit) tarts and assembled on the pavement looking out over the launch site. Everyone was talking and prepping iPhones, iPads, and cameras for the spectacle. Rather suddenly, we became aware of someone on the television screen counting down…3…2…1. There was a moment of brief hesitation as the crowd stared, not a breath to be heard, at the launch pad. Right on cue, the main fuse lit and flames and smoke shot out to the left and right beneath the rocket as it lifted slowly off its base. The entire horizon glowed and lit up with a fierce white light. With the smoke and clouds, it was like watching the sun rise in a nuclear winter. After a few seconds of perfect clarity, the rocket disappeared into the thick clouds and continued to illuminate them from the inside. The crowd sighed a collective “Awww,” but was pacified by the approaching roar of the rocket as it broke the sound barrier. It was deafening—with the clouds obstructing our view, it sounded as though the rocket were right overhead, flying only a few hundred feet above us. As the sound emptied out, everyone retreated to the tent to watch the launch sequence on the television screens for a few minutes before we were herded back onto the buses.

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Because the video I took was shaky, unclear, and dubbed by my lame commentary (“Whoaaa!”), here is the official video of the launch we saw. Even here, you can see that it was very cloudy, but that the rocket flames managed to ignite the sky.

To watch an Ariane 5 launch with great visibility, check out this one from 2012.

What I found most stunning about the launch, being there to witness a triumph of science in all respects, was the exact precision with which every step must be completed in order for a launch to succeed. For all of its success and reputation, Ariane 5 actually failed on its first launch, due to a minor miscalculation, exploding in mid-air and raining down on the jungle below. Here is the video:

Sunday Sentier

Although it would have been nice to have a relaxing, uneventful Sunday, we had to take advantage of having a rented car all to ourselves, so we decided to go on a short hike next to Sentier de la Fort Diamant, a trail leading off of a former colonial outpost. We were followed by “Charlie,” a straggly stray dog with a strange gaping hole in its neck. It looked like a bullet wound (not that we would have any idea what that would look like), but we were later told that it was likely some kind of parasite.

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As karma for having given my mother “[more] gray hair” at the idea of our ULM sky baptism, I extracted a vers de chien (dog worm) from my pinky toe the following evening after eyeing what looked like a suspicious wart for the last 24 hours. These are rare, but not uncommon: tiny worms that travel on dogs, cats, monkeys, and the like that burrow into your skin to lay their eggs (thanks, Charlie). Once I had cleaned out the lesion, I was left with a pink hole quite a few millimeters deep just above the nail on my little toe. Needless to say, I was disgusted. I took it as a sign that it’s nearly time to go back to the U.S.—I need a break from the insects here, especially the ants and mosquitoes. (And no, I don’t have any pictures. Too traumatized).

Les Savanes Roches (The Savannah Rocks)

The following weekend, three other teaching assistants and I drove two hours in the direction of Saint-Georges to the Savanes Roches Virginies, one of the Inselbergs (“lonely mountains,” like The Hobbit) of Guyane. We entered the forest warily, following the path marked by a stone arrow, aware of our decision to ignore the guidebooks’ recommendation to bring a seasoned jungle guide. Luckily, the trail was clear cut and partially marked. In the few instances where we questioned what resembled a fork in the path, we always found that one route was more visible than the other. From what we had read, we were supposed to undertake an hour-long trek through the carbon-heavy forest to the final 30-minute climb. The path through the jungle was, in fact, so flat, we doubted that we had taken the right trail in the first place. But just on time, the last 30 minutes of our trek took us up above the canopy, and we stepped out of the forest onto an enormous, smooth granite plain. The landscape had suddenly changed: this was the so-called savane (savannah) that blanketed Guyane from Regina to Saint-Georges, a drier landscape with small cacti, aloe, and wild orchids and other plants that thrive on rock and harsh soil. At first, our view was obstructed by the brush, but as we made our way out onto the rock, we were greeted with a stunning panorama of what might as well have been a moonscape: monoliths of powdery gray rock, smoothed by rain and wind, in the middle of the lush green jungle all around. (See if you can spot the poison dart frog in the pictures below):

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On our way back through the thick jungle, we spotted nothing interesting. I remember longing to see a snake or tarantula in its natural habitat one last time before leaving Guyane. We had nearly reached the main road when my friend behind me made a kind of “Wwwoooaaahhh!” sound. I swiveled and in the leaves just beneath my feet, a brown, diamond-backed snake wriggled behind some dead leaves and proceeded to agitatedly rattle its tail in a threatening manner. “You stepped on THAT!” he said. I couldn’t help but laugh and attempt to peer around the brush to see if it was a good photo opportunity. Being the guidebook expert that he is, though, he urged us on, confident that the snake was a venomous species. I tried to spy its head to later be able to identify it—venomous snakes have a triangular head, the shape accounting for venom glands on either side of their jaw. Unfortunately, the snake was quite well hidden behind the leaves, but it continued its rattlesnake imitation—a trait often associated with dangerous snakes—until we passed by.

When I returned to school the next week, I explained the encounter to several teachers who know extremely well the animals of Guyane. After some dispute, we concluded that it was most likely the grage, the largest venomous snake in South America. The one thing everyone agreed on: I was extremely lucky not to have gotten bitten, especially after stepping on it, let alone coming into close contact with it. We were about an hour away from the nearest medical center, which would have been in Saint-Georges, where I used to work, and was only open Monday through Friday from 8:00 am to 12:00 pm. The other option would have been to get airlifted to the hospital in Cayenne, where, without a proper identification of the snake, treatment could be utterly useless.

La Dernière Soirée

Last weekend, about twenty of the teaching assistants met up in Kourou for our last party together. We rented out a carbet on the beach, a line of colorful hammocks slung up side by side, one last time. In the morning, we were greeted by the sun and wind and ran down to the ocean to make the most of our remaining time together.

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It was strange, having to say goodbye after such a seemingly short time of knowing each other, having really only spent that brief first week in Cayenne at the Maison de l’Éducation together. We had really become a team, braving the South American jungle and sharing the ups and downs of our teaching experiences as well as our travels in Guyane and abroad together.

What’s next?

After another vague response about the prolongation of the teaching assistant contract (something about not having enough money in the budget, only wanting to retain a couple of European assistants, etc.), I decided to leave at the end of my contract in April, head to London as planned to visit family and friends, and return home in early May. In fact, I will be home on 6th May, marking just over seven months of being outside of the U.S.—the longest I have ever been away from home, and yet, I am at home in the world.

“You will never be completely at home again because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of knowing and loving people in more than one place.” –Miriam Adeney

Vacances de Carnaval: Travail, Zoo de Guyane, et le Centre Spatial Guyanais

Thanks to the incredibly generous French government, my fellow colleagues at Éducation Nationale (French Ministry of Education) and I were granted two weeks off (paid!) from 22nd February to 9th March. If you haven’t yet noticed the pattern, academic holidays in France occur for two weeks every six weeks. People in other sectors (private businesses, for instance) are not so lucky. It’s not a bad scheme if you ask me—two weeks is more than enough time to refresh the mind and body, allowing students and teachers to return completely reenergized. Except for one small detail…Carnaval. So in this case, most people are returning to work dead tired and hung over from two weeks of constant partying, dancing, and parading.

While many of the teaching assistants left to party it up Carnaval style in Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil, and Suriname, among other places, I stuck around to spend time with my host family and observe the Carnaval traditions in Guyane. We went to several parades, where my host sister and I stuffed ourselves with popcorn, chichis (churros), and la barbe à Papa (literally “Dad’s beard”—cotton candy). Place des Palmistes in Cayenne was decked out like a carnival, with bleacher seating, food stands, and children’s rides.

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Aside from Carnaval activities, I found the majority of my vacation time taken up by job applications—no small task with just two months of my contract left here (still no word from l’Académie de Guyane on whether or not I can extend it). The positions I have applied for will land me in New York City or somewhere on the African continent, with Peace Corps being the only program with an undefined deployment date, position, and location.

Zoo de Guyane

En visitant le zoo, chaque visiteur devient lui aussi un acteur de la protection de la faune sauvage [en Guyane].

(In visiting the zoo, every visitor himself becomes an active protector of [Guyanese] wildlife.)

One afternoon, I went with my host mom and sister to the Zoo de Guyane, a lovely wildlife park with local and regional species only, making it an environmentally sustainable and animal-friendly endeavor. I was only disappointed that the jungle canopy walk (narrow wood and rope bridges suspended high among the leaves) was closed due to repairs—with the constant humidity, everything here is very difficult to maintain (including cars, household appliances, etc.).

The zoo boasts over 450 animals, including over 65 different species. There is one path that leads visitors on a circular route past the animal habitats, which are much more spacious than those of your typical American zoo. The animals seemed much happier and more at ease. In the two-hour walk, we saw a variety of creatures: iguanas, wild boars, alligators, snakes, birds, monkeys, and large cats—all typical of the South American jungle, with some species entirely unique to Guyane.

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Centre Spatial Guyanais

After attempting to make a reservation for a tour of the Centre Spatial Guyanais several times over the vacation period, two other teaching assistants and I finally got a hold of some spots. We rented a car for a day to make the most out of our trip, and despite being outrageously expensive (€220, including gas), it was worth it. Since we hadn’t gone anywhere during the two weeks we had off, the expense was justified. It was also worth the mental peace of mind of being to go wherever we wanted for one day without having to worry about getting from point A to point B.

Because guided visits at the center begin at 8:00 am, we left Cayenne at 6:00 am for Kourou, la ville spatiale (the space city), in anticipation of the various obstacles Guyane is notorious for (detours, traffic, poor signage, etc.). Given that we had stayed out for Mercredi Gras (Fat Wednesday), the last night of Carnaval, until 2:00 am the previous night, leaving so early was not such an easy feat.

Once we made it to the center, we turned in our passports for visitor badges and boarded the bus which would take us to the different control centers, assembly buildings, and launch sites. The land owned and operated on by the center is enormous—7 times the size of Paris—and includes both jungle and ocean. In fact, the famous Îles du Salut (see my post here) are part of the space center’s territory and have to be evacuated in case of an accident or falling debris at the time of a launch.

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Prior to 1968, when the space center in Guyane became operational, France’s rocket launch site was in Algeria. The current site at Kourou was chosen for two reasons: 1) Its proximity to the Equator, where the Earth’s turning speed is much faster and gives rockets extra velocity; and 2) The largely uninhabited surrounding territory, which includes an enormous expanse of jungle to the west and open ocean to the east. The spaceport launches rockets bearing telecommunications satellites as well as the Automated Transfer Vehicle, the craft which sends supplies to the people who work aboard the International Space Station. It is now shared by the European Space Agency (ESA), the French space agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), and the commercial company Arianespace. Non-European companies also pay for their satellites to be launched by the center’s rockets.

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On average, the spaceport hosts one launch every month, at no small cost to the agencies who wish to transport their satellites into space. The price? Millions of Euros per kilo of payload.  At present there are three rockets: 1) Ariane 5, 2) Soyuz, and 3) Vega, with Ariane 6, a lighter, more aerodynamic rocket, on its way to replacing Ariane 5. Ariane 5 is the largest, most powerful of the three rockets, supported by two boosters and a motor called “Vulcan”—yes, like the Star Trek planet. Soyuz is financed and operated mostly by Russia, and Vega, the newest, is backed mostly by Italy. Soyuz is unique because, unlike Ariane 5 and Vega, it is assembled horizontally before being transported to its launch site. Most of the rockets’ parts are fabricated in Europe and sent in pieces to the space center for assembly. Due to the explosive nature of the powder that is needed to power the rockets, the fuel is produced on-site rather than shipped.

The rocket launch sites themselves were enormous: tall warehouse-type assembly buildings that jutted towards the sky paired with cavernous concrete tunnels shooting out diagonally on either side to accommodate incredible amounts of smoke and flames.

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CSG is also concerned with protecting the surrounding environment. Because much of the land it owns contains rare and endangered species, the center goes to great lengths to preserve the surrounding environment. It even goes so far as to have a team of environmentalists evacuate the birds to a different location before a launch—I have no idea how they accomplish this, especially since launches take place on a monthly basis. Fire safety is ensured by members of the Pompiers de Paris (Paris Fire Brigade), and security is maintained by the French Gendarmerie with assistance from the Légion Étrangère (French Foreign Legion).

After a short grocery run and light lunch at a café in Kourou’s centre-ville, we headed back to Cayenne to return the car and do a bit of shopping. It was a lovely break from the previous week consumed with applications and lesson planning, and to top it off, the rain finally stopped to let through a burning, hazy sunshine that I assume will be our reprieve for the short but welcome mini dry season that is March.

La Saison de Carnaval!

Heureusement qu’on a la semaine pour se reposer [pendant Carnaval]! –Guyane Première

(Thank goodness we have the work week to recover from the weekend [during Carnival]!)

Carnaval in Guyane lasts from the 6th of January (Jour des Roix—Three Kings’ Day) to Ash Wednesday (this year, the 5th of March). It’s a long two months of dancing, parades, costumes, music, and four-day weekends. During the entire Carnaval period, you can easily find soirées (evening events) on any given Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night. On Thursdays, there are free Carnaval dance classes at Café de la Gare in downtown Cayenne. Fridays surprisingly boast the least amount of Carnaval-related action. People will often throw private parties, and families eat the famous Galette des Rois, a sweet and flaky almond pastry cake that is normally only consumed in metropolitan France on the 6th of January (le Jour des Rois—Three Kings’ Day), with a hidden fève, or small figurine, whose finder gets to wear a crown for the evening. The Guyanese really know how to get the most out of their Carnaval. On Saturdays there are two main venues that host traditional dancing with live bands: Chez Nana and Chez Polina. Chez Nana, I’ve been told, is reserved for an older crowd, while Polina attracts a younger population. This isn’t saying much, considering over half the population of all of Guyane is under the age of 50. And 50, as they say in France, is when your life begins.

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Opening Night

Carnaval always begins with the first parade and a spectacle (performance) at Place des Palmistes in downtown Cayenne. There are usually only a few groups who participate and the horn blowing and drum beating is a little shaky, but full of enthusiasm. Several hundred spectators gathered to watch this year’s performance, which took place on a rare sunny Saturday evening. The theme of this year’s performance was La Légende de Caïenne (The Legend of Cayenne) and told the story of two kings, Roi Brésil and Roi Cépérou, who live harmoniously on opposite sides of the Orénoque river. The prince of Caïenne is in love with the daughter of the Roi Brésil, and in order to conquer her heart, consults the village sorcerer, Piaye Montabo, who often communicates with the Grand Ésprit de la forêt (Great Spirit of the forest), Iroucan. Tribal music and dancing ensued, ending in the crowning of the Roi Vaval, the king of Carnaval.

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At the following week’s parade in Cayenne, the Reine Vaval, the queen of Carnaval, is elected. Both the king and queen are usually members of the Carnaval committee, and their costume designs are chosen from a selection of local couturiers (clothing designers). The king and queen are present at every parade from opening night to the end of the Carnaval period.

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La Musique, les Danses, et les Costumes de Carnaval (The Music, Dances, and Costumes of Carnival)

There is nothing like Carnaval music. Saying it is “upbeat” would be an understatement. The beats come relentlessly, fueled by the urgency of drums and trumpets. It has an essentially Caribbean feel, as most of Guyane’s Carnaval music is imported from the French Antilles, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Local radio stations mix in Carnaval hits with pop music, and the effect of that constant energy makes it impossible to stay melancholy for an extended period of time, despite the gray skies that permeate the Carnaval period.

“Kase le Zo” by Olivier Martelly, featuring Roodboy and Top Adlerman

Carnaval dances mimic the lustful urgency of the music. Dance partners shake and pop their hips in time to the music, their bodies almost vibrating to stay in time with the impossible rhythm. For this reason, partners must stay quite close, their hips glued to each other, giving the dances a very sexual charge. It is with good reason that many parade groups go around handing out condoms.

Costumes vary from traditional colorful silk Guyanese robes and painted white masks to tribal wear inspired by the ancient Amerindians to artful neon cardboard creations to bejeweled Brazilian bikinis and feathered wings. Any given parade will have a variety.

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Touloulou and Tololo

Chez Nana and Chez Polina are known for Touloulou and Tololo soirées. Touloulou is a ladies’ choice event, where the women—the Touloulou—come disguised in traditional Guyanese Carnaval attire from head to toe, with not an inch of skin showing. Women arrive solo, having been dropped off or parked their car far from the venue, so that no one can speculate about who they might be. It is really the ultimate anonymity, topped off by the fact that the Touloulou robes are loose enough to disguise even the woman’s figure. Tololo soirées are simply the male version of Touloulou, though they are not as popular as the ladies’ choice dances. I think men here enjoy the Carnaval power exchange. People who choose to participate in these events pay an entrance fee, and then whoever is selected to dance buys their partner a drink for each dance they share.

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Les Défilés et les Bals Masqués (The Parades and Masked Balls)

Every Saturday, after the opening week, a smaller town in Guyane is selected to host a Carnaval parade and musical exhibition. These don’t draw huge crowds, but are rather for the benefit of communities and families who can’t make it to Cayenne or Kourou every weekend for their Sunday parades. The king and queen of Carnaval attend every local parade, where the performers pay tribute to their presence.

The larger towns—Cayenne, Kourou, and Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni—frequently host bals masqués, which are similar to the Touloulou and Tololo soirées, but with everyone in costume sans (without) rules. There are also private bals masqués, which are more like house parties that people host.

There are two major parades that take place just before the end of the Carnaval period: La Grande Parade de Kourou and La Grande Parade de Cayenne. Kourou’s parade is the biggest of the year, drawing the most crowds and the most performing groups. Near the end of the parade route is a red carpet where groups perform a short selection from their repertoire, and are judged on their music and dancing. Cayenne’s parade boasts a green carpet, but the timing and performances are not as organized, so the effect is not the same as the constant energy of the parade in Kourou. Both parades exhibited Guyane’s cultural diversity, with groups representing not only Guyane’s native Creole people, but also Brazil, Suriname, Haiti, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and China, to name a few. In fact, Guyane’s Carnaval is so unique that UNESCO (the United Nations’ cultural preservation agency) may get involved in the preservation of its heritage.

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At the end of the big parades, the vider (literally “to empty”) takes place. There is a large truck with dancers and blasting music that rolls through the streets, followed by a massive crowd of dancing and singing people toting alcohol in plastic water bottles. This feels like a touch of Rio de Janeiro in Guyane—and it is fun! Everyone dances together, sweating and heating up the streets from the fresh air of the rainy season.

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Carnaval à Roura (Carnival in Roura)

When it was Roura’s turn to host the Saturday evening Carnaval parade, it was quite a rainy affair, but with no shortage of spectators. The music continued ceaselessly from the afternoon until well after dark, bringing a liveliness to the quiet town I had not yet experienced. I saw many familiar faces, including quite a few of my students, who ran and played alongside the performers as they marched through the town streets.

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The village schools where I work also hosted their own Carnaval celebration, where all the town children lined up and paraded their handmade costumes in front of the mairie (town hall) and down the rue principal (main street). The weather early that morning was not favorable—pouring rain and slate gray skies. Luckily it burned off by the time the children arrived at school and slipped into their costumes: colorful fish, natural tribal leaf skirts, striped sailor shirts, cardboard fruits and vegetables, and elaborate eye masks. I was in charge of face-painting: mustaches and goatees for the boys and circular swirls at the eyes for the girls, as requested.

We promenaded up the hill to the Maternelle (preschool), and added the little ones to the parade ensemble, as well as a pickup truck with enormous speakers for some music. We hadn’t made it ten minutes through the town without the sky suddenly erupting with rain. As no one had brought their umbrellas, we were all soaked by the end, paper costumes sliding off and tearing by the end of the parade. Luckily, the children were rewarded by the maire (mayor) with menthe à l’eau (mint water) and grenadine (berry-flavored water) upon their return to the school, where the rest of the day was spent celebrating Carnaval.

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Lundi Gras et les Mariages Burlesques (Fat Monday and the Burlesque Marriages)

The last few days of Carnaval are known as Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday), Lundi Gras (Fat Monday), and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday, the same one we know and love in New Orleans, although here it is much more family and kid-oriented). Lundi Gras is the evening of les Mariages Burlesques, where men dress and women and women dress as men and parade through the streets of Cayenne accompanied by the usual trumpet and drum Carnaval bands. It really is quite a spectacle to see Guyane’s tall, muscular men amble their way through the streets in dainty high heels.

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Mardi Gras et les Diables Rouges (Fat Tuesday and the Red Devils)

Mardi Gras, as I mentioned, is really much more children and family-oriented, likely because the majority of Carnaval is devoted to the scandalous hip-banging that entertains the adults. Everyone dresses in red and black, with angel wings and devil horns. The same parading and dancing ensues, with everyone in the streets by the end of the night.

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Mercredi des Cendres et la Mort de Vaval (Ash Wednesday and the Death of Vaval)

La mort de Vaval commences with a street parade where everyone is decked out in black and white to symbolize the end of the Carnaval period, which is normally saturated with color. It involves the typical music and dancing, until the final group escorts Vaval, the Carnaval king, to be burned at the stake at Place des Palmistes. There is one final spectacle, and that marks the end of Carnaval, though partying continues long into the night. Some friends and I trekked to Bar Domino, where there was a huge stage with live music and food stands surrounded by hundreds of people who came out for one last hurrah.

Carnaval really was a lively time, and it made the first leg of the rainy season in Guyane much more bearable—happy music on the radio, colorful costumes, and an assortment of events every weekend in spite of the rain. March brings a mini dry season, followed by the really heavy rains in April and May. Here’s to the last of the sun, and to the last six weeks of our teaching assistantship in Guyane.

La Vie à Roura, le Village Créole

In January, as stipulated by my contract, I began teaching English in Roura, a small Creole village about 45 minutes southeast of Cayenne. Despite missing my students and colleagues in Saint-Georges (not to mention life on the Oyapock River and Brazilian border), I now reside with a lovely host family in a beautiful house in Roura.

The town is charming, made up of colorful private homes lining small quiet roads. There are only a few stray dogs (who have only threatened to attack me once), and not many cars or vehicles, except when school is beginning and ending. Roura is found at the intersection of the Oyak and Mahury rivers, with nothing but hills and pure jungle surrounding. It is quite different from Saint-Georges—the rivers are empty, not bustling with pirogues shuttling people to and from each border. There is one convenience store, a Creole restaurant that opens by reservation only, a natural park, a médiathèque (a tiny library and media center), a town hall, a post office, and a quaint old church constructed in the 1800s when the first Creole people settled the land. There isn’t even an ATM—the closest one is a half-hour drive away, so for people who don’t have a car, they have to hitchhike or get a ride from a friend. Taxi collectifs rarely come here. Most inhabitants work in Matoury, a larger nearby town or Cayenne. People come here to get away of the congestion of the commercial district, and I don’t blame them. It is quite idyllic, a kind of utopia in the jungle.

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Ma Famille d’Accueil (My Host Family)

My host mom is from Alsace, a region in France that switched many times historically between France and Germany, and she works as a kindergarten-age teacher at the local elementary school where I teach English. My host father is from Togo in Africa, although he moved to France at a fairly young age to pursue his studies in education and teacher training. He is now working towards a Master’s degree in educational training and develops teacher training formations for local high schools in Cayenne.

They have four children: two sons at university in France, a 15-year-old son in lycée (high school), and a 12-year-old daughter in collège (middle school). I haven’t had the opportunity to meet the older sons, but I have listened to the rap CDs they have recorded. I love the boy and girl I live with, though: despite the fact that they are total opposites (much like my sister and I), their little battles are hilariously entertaining and when they get along it’s very sweet. The girl goes to school in Matoury, about half an hour away, and the boy goes to school in Cayenne, over an hour away on the bus in the morning traffic, making stops to pick up other students. The only two schools in this town are the preschool and elementary school.

The family left France in the early 2000s for Guyane because they wearied of the constant stress and pressure of working life there. They had also encountered little tolerance for being a racially mixed family—I was quite disappointed to hear this, since we always hear of France being so tolerant of human freedoms. My host parents applied for teaching positions in several of France’s Departements d’Outre Mer (overseas departments), and when they were assigned Guyane, they left and never looked back. They arrived much like we did: without housing or a clue of how to get anywhere. Luckily, they also benefitted from the kindness of strangers and found a family to take them in for their first few months. They have been happy here ever since.

La Maison (The House)

The house is a typical Creole house with two levels: the main living space on the top floor where you enter the house, and the children’s bedrooms on the bottom floor. The interior is painted all white, which gives it a light and airy feeling, particularly during the rainy season, with tile floor throughout. The doors and cabinetry are dark bois de Guyane (wood from Guyane). There is a large terrace overlooking a pool and the jungle below. It’s really quite lovely to be at the canopy level, with birds and sloths at eye-level—in Brazilian I had to look up to see these things.

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I have my own room and bathroom, and my bed has a mosquito net! Given my strange predisposition to mosquito bites, I am quite happy about this. The money that I pay for rent includes meals with the family: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My host mom is a wonderful cook, so I am eating much better than I was, mostly because I don’t have to rely on myself to conjure up something in the kitchen (if you know me, you know that this is my greatest weakness).

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The family also has two cars and a boat, which makes it easier to get around to places like the grocery store and downtown Cayenne—no more taxi collectif! I usually walk to school because it’s so close, and in the evenings I like to enjoy a run down to the bridge across the enormous Mahury River, which leads to the sea.

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Ma Routine (My Routine)

During the week, I work in the mornings and afternoons on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday at both la maternelle (preschool) and l’école (elementary school), teaching English to students ages 3 to 11. I eat my breakfast of Nutella and bread, grab my umbrella, and head out the door. I begin with the very little ones at the preschool, singing lots of songs and playing games. Later in the day I work my way up to the older students, giving them lots of practice speaking but also honing their writing skills with worksheets. Sometimes I help my host mom with the Eco Délégué (eco delegate) meetings at the elementary school: a group of older students who encourage their peers and the school administration to be environmentally friendly.

In the afternoon, there is a long hour-and-a-half break as la pause de midi. During this time, the family returns home to eat lunch. We always eat our biggest meal of the day at this time, usually a stew with rice or pasta

On Wednesdays, there is no school in Roura. Because the children go to school from so early in the morning to so late in the evening (4:00 pm), even with la pause de midi, they need a day off. My host mom and I clean the house in the morning, prepare lunch for the family, then take my host sister to her dance class. In that time, we go to the nearest supermarket, a huge giant of a food store, probably the closest thing to WalMart down here. Every time we walk out, I am floored by the prices and how much we’ve spent to feed a family of four (well, five, including me).

At night, everyone returns home from school or work and usually enjoys a quick siesta before getting back to homework or lesson planning. For me, I take an evening run once the temperature has cooled down. Dinner is a casual affair, the children and I eat at the kitchen table while the parents eat on the couch and watch the news on Guyane Première or Canal+.

Since I technically only work part-time as an English Teaching Assistant, I have no classes on Fridays, so I use that time to catch up on lesson planning, laundry, and visiting friends. Some weekends I spend traveling, while others I have passed quietly at home, enjoying the tranquility of this tiny town. On Saturdays, my host mom and I usually go to the market in Cayenne to pick up fresh local fruits and vegetables. Every week, there is a new kind of specimen I haven’t yet seen.

La Vie Scolaire (School Life)

When I first began working in Roura, the biggest shock for me was the difference in age and scholastic level of my students. I had grown so accustomed to teaching older kids, from ages 12 to 16, that I didn’t know how to handle the little ones, especially at the preschool. Instead of working with whole classes and a full-time English teacher to accompany me, as I did in Saint-Georges, here I am totally on my own. I like having control over my lesson plans, but I found at the beginning that I had trouble thinking creatively about how to keep the younger students occupied while learning at the same time. Slowly but surely, I have developed their respect and they are making more rapid progress than they were when I first arrived here.

Like in Saint-Georges, the student population is incredibly diverse. The kids are Creole, Guyanese, Amerindian, Brazilian, and French métropole (from metropolitan France). They all speak French (or are at least learning to) as well as another language: Creole, Amerindian, Taki Taki, or Portuguese. For this reason, it is even more difficult to teach English to them, as they already have no less than two languages taking up brain space. Sometimes, however, they surprise me and retain a song really well.

The school day is broken up into a morning and afternoon session, with la pause de midi and two periods of la récrée, la récréation (recess). Students at the elementary level have one teacher for all subjects, much like American and British schools. The music teacher and I are the only exceptions, taking small groups at a time.

Teachers often organize sorties (field trips), excursions to local attractions to expose the children to their own environment. For many of them, they don’t know much beyond their own backyard. The trips can be simple, such as a trip to the market in Cayenne to speak to the agriculteurs (farmers) and learn about regional crops. I participated in a sortie to an Amerindian heritage site, which included an outdoor exhibit of ancient rock carvings that were unique in all of South America to Guyane. It was fascinating—the most interesting thing I learned was that modern-day archaeologists consult the texts of early explorers traveling in Guyane to determine prehistoric sites of Amerindian villages, where they are likely to find pottery, rock carvings, and other artifacts.

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Les Écoles (The Schools)

The public preschool and elementary school where I work are the only schools in Roura. Some students travel very far in the commune to get to them. There is a private bus contracted by the school to transport the children back and forth. Many children come from a small Amerindian community downriver, and they take a pirogue. Both schools each have a small library and cafeteria, where the students who live too far away to return home during la pause de midi are fed. Classrooms here are very well equipped with paper, colored pencils, markers, paint, glue, scissors—everything little kids need to develop at that age.

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The walls of the elementary school are dark bois de Guyane (wood from Guyane), but the insides are painted white and covered in posters about everything from the local flora and fauna to world maps and vocabulary. At the center of the L-shaped group of classrooms is a large carbet (pavilion) where the children eat their snacks and play during la récrée (recess). They are not allowed to bring toys to school for two reasons: 1) If the toy gets broken, teachers should not be responsible; and 2) They promote jealousy, especially since the children come from varied economic backgrounds.

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Administratively, there is one principal that serves both the école (elementary school) and the maternelle (preschool), as well as two speech instructors. Some of the students who have a learning disability (quite a few have severe vision impairment, while others have a physical handicap or behavioral problem) are partnered with an aide.

Future Plans

Looking ahead, my contract ends on the 17th of April. I submitted an application to extend it until the end of the school year, but evidently they only reserve a few slots for those of us who want to do so. I am still waiting to find out. As l’Académie de Guyane just appointed a new recteur (director), the department is a bit of an administrative mess at the moment.

In any case, I have made plans to travel to the United Kingdom, France, and Germany in late April and early May to visit family and friends. I am looking forward to seeing some familiar faces!

In the meantime, I’m quite content with the new but now familiar faces of my young pupils here in Guyane.

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Visite de Cacao

A few weeks ago, another English Teaching Assistant and I were invited to spend the weekend with a family in Cacao, the small village in the jungle where France resettled Hmong refugees during the tumultuous 1970s and 80s in southeast Asia. I had been put in contact with the mother of the family, also a teacher at the local public elementary school, by a teacher that I work with in Roura. The women had been friends for a long time, as the teacher in my school used to work in Cacao. Because my English Teaching Assistant friend is also Hmong, though her family was resettled in the United States, we were eager to experience an intimate visit to the village—we had only been there once before for the nouvelle année Hmong (Hmong new year) in October (see my post here). Our main purpose was to spend a day working with the children at the elementary school and to practice speaking English with the mother, who had been certified to teach it to her students.

Getting to Cacao is not easy, and at the time we went, there was a massive gas strike that left the entire country without fuel for a little over a week. The father offered to pick us up on his way home from work, however, and it was an offer we couldn’t resist. We started out on the long road through the jungle in the direction of Saint-Georges, just as the sun was setting, but turned off and wound our way in the dark through the hills to the little valley that holds Cacao. That evening we went to dinner at a local restaurant and enjoyed a delicious meal of nems (egg rolls) and une soupe mélangée (mixed phō soup, with beef, pork, and shrimp).

The family instantly welcomed us, especially the mother, who was eager to practice her English. The mother and father had been transferred from Laos and Thailand, respectively, to France, where they grew up and went to school. Then they both came to Guyane to find work, the mother as a teacher, the father as a farmer (though he now works as an instructor at a center for recovering drug addicts). Initially, their parents hadn’t wanted them to marry—they pushed her to aspire to marry a doctor. But they were in love. In order to stay together while she finished her university studies in France, they married at age 19, and have been happily together ever since. They have two daughters, thirteen and nine years old, and a little three-year-old son.

The next day, we rose early and ate some croissants before heading to the school. My friend and I opened the morning with a couple of hours sitting around a circle on the floor talking about ourselves and our experiences in the United States. The children, between eight and ten years old, sat quietly, their eyes wide as they tried to understand our English. Their level of speaking and comprehension was astounding. They were able to form simple sentences and pick up on words they recognized when we were speaking. I loved the classroom decorations, with a corner devoted to English, including books, posters, and a floor mat map of New York City. I showed them some of my pictures of New York, Washington, the University of Maryland, and London, and they stared in disbelief.

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After a morning full of discussion, we went on a little walk through the town to the mayor’s office, as he evidently wanted to meet us, the two Americans, and practice his English as well. Unfortunately he wasn’t in his office at the time we arrived, but we enjoyed a panoramic view from the balcony of the town hall.

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Before la pause de midi (afternoon break), we spent some time at the collège (middle school), working in a class of troisième students (ninth grade). My friend and I took turns speaking to two small groups of students who were eager to hear about the U.S., particularly after project work on September 11th and its aftermath. Although they were shyer and quieter than the younger students, they were eager to hear what we had to say.

That afternoon, we led some activities for the younger children back at the elementary school, including Simon Says, an action verb version of Simon Says, and singing, including a round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (Tip for English as a Second Language—ESL—teachers: this song always sounds good, no matter how badly the kids mess up). One of the teachers—a man who taught kindergarten-age students—was disappointingly strict and scolded the children when they were too shy to present themselves to us. We mentioned it later to our host mom, and she was surprised at our quick ability to pick up on the dynamic in his classroom. Evidently, we were exactly right. He was much too harsh on them.

Later, the children put on a little spectacle they had organized especially for us, the two Americans. They performed scenes from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, one of my favorite children’s books of all time. Apparently they had tried very hard to perform it in English, but it was too difficult for them to remember all of the lines and their pronunciation. Instead, they sang some English songs at the end and presented us with English desserts: an apple crumble (substituting apple with coupoissou—a deliciously tart fruit in the coconut family), raisin muffins, and bread pudding. It was wonderful to see how motivated the children were to learn about the English language and Anglophone culture—it made me set the bar higher for my students when I returned to Roura.

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The next day we set out early to visit an organic farm in the area. The girls, my friend, and I sat in the back of the family’s pickup truck, something I’ve always wanted to do but never had the chance. It was so much fun to ride every bend in the valley, our hands outstretched to the wind, on our way to the farm. The farmer had come from metropolitan France to try his hand at living simply and farming using only natural techniques. He had left behind his wife, who refused to come until he had constructed a proper house on his terrain. You could tell he worked incredibly hard for his income, as organic farming is extremely difficult given the poor soil and fast growing speed in tropical Guyane. He told us he had to use a large amount of compost to support his plants in lieu of chemical fertilizer. Our host mom told us that this was unique in Cacao, for many Hmong families use chemicals to increase their crop yield and therefore their income. But more and more, bio (organic) is becoming a trend in Guyane, despite the difficulties associated with it.

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That afternoon, we had a picnic on a beautiful, private mountaintop known as “Jardin du Ciel,” or “Garden of the Sky.” Luckily, by the time we made our way up the rough, muddy road leading to the top, the sun had emerged, full blast. It was lovely to feel the warmth after so much wet weather. After eating our packed lunch of baguettes and saucisson sec (essentially salami), we explored the gardens and enjoyed various angles of the stunning views surrounding us. It was breathtaking—thousands of miles of the pristine, green carpet that was the jungle all around.

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In the evening, we walked around the village, recognizing places we had seen in October, though without the lines of temporary food stands and throngs of people who came for the tourist event of the year: the Hmong New Year. We saw some children from the school, who recognized us and instantly hugged us. I love that about the children here—we are their heroes, no matter what we do. We passed by the village church, picturesquely set on a little hill overlooking the town, just as the sun was beginning to set.

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That night, the family invited friends over to throw a party for us. There was so much food—mostly pizza, desserts, and champagne (all necessary components of a Guyanese soirée). The host mom made some of her delicious coupoissou juice, of which I drank several cups. It was nice to relax in a family setting, something that is often lacking and always nice to have when abroad.

On the last day of our short weekend in Cacao, we went to the local museum. There were thousands of butterflies and bugs pinned to canvases on the walls. We joined a group of people crowding around a man giving a presentation about the insects showcased there. They were gruesome—huge beetles and cockroaches, massive hairy tarantulas and giant leeches and centipedes—just like you would expect them to be in the South American jungle. To lighten things, we entered the butterfly garden outside where we observed a beautiful array of the creatures fluttering about, sipping nectar from tropical plants. Afterwards, we went to the weekly market. It wasn’t as crowded as usual, given the gas strike, which made for more relaxed browsing and bargaining. I ate the usual soup and a fried coconut dumpling, which were both delicious. Then I bought some oyster crisps (shrimpy-flavored chips) and lotus flower cookies (sugary funnel cake-type biscuits). It seems strange to have access to southeast Asian cuisine in South America, but I’m not complaining. My friend and I also purchased necklaces of bois de Guyane (Guyane wood).

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It was a lovely weekend en famille (with the family), and we already plan to go back—next time to do the Sentier (trail) de Molokoi, a long trek through the surrounding jungle.

Vacances de Noël: Suriname, Trinidad et Tobago

Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.

About two months ago, I embarked on two weeks of travel for the winter holidays. I was not alone, but with several other teaching assistants who I met up with along the way. In those two weeks, I experienced an overwhelming range of circumstances, from absolute poverty in the Suriname jungle to ostentatious wealth showcased on yachts and resort beaches, from relentless downpours in the forest to stunning blue skies on the sand, from casinos and karaoke to glass-bottomed boats and beach bonfires, from wizened locals to arrogant tourists—I saw it all. Those two weeks abroad felt like a year.

Au Revoir, Saint-Georges

Before the journey, I had to do something I absolutely dreaded: leave Saint-Georges and the Brazilian frontier. From the beginning of my experience in Guyane, I knew my seven-month contract specified that I would work three months from October to December at the collège (middle school) in Saint-Georges and four months from January to April at an école (elementary school) in Roura. As they are roughly two-and-a-half hours apart by car, there was no way I could split my time between the two for the duration of the school year. So I had to move. I left behind the beautiful wooden bungalow on the forested shore of the Brazilian border, my daily pirogue commute across the Oyapock River, the croissants and pains au chocolat at the little boulangerie, the daily afternoon Wi-Fi sessions and Coca-Colas at Chez Modestine with my fellow teachers, the American Culture Club, the weekend trips to Oiapoque for cheap fresh fruits and vegetables, and worst, my friends and students.

In only three months I had grown so comfortable and accustomed to the daily ebb and flow of life on the river. I cherished the sight of familiar faces everywhere I went in that small town. I relished the fact that I would hear no less than three languages every day: French, Portuguese, and English (though this one only with my fellow teachers). I embraced the roughness around the edges, the wildness of that place. And also the innocence. The people who go about their daily lives, scraping a living by selling their coconuts and watermelons at the market or shuttling people on pirogues under the hot sun each day. The children scrubbing their clothes in the muddy Oyapock, smiling as they recognized me from the boat. All untouched by the life that I know. Or rather, knew. Hours of blaring horns in rush hour traffic on the D.C. beltway. The furrowed brows of flustered New Yorkers as they squeeze through the throngs of tourists on the way to their slate gray palaces, gazing down at the world as their empire. Grumpy Londoners jostling their way into a stuffy carriage on the Tube. When I return to that world, which I eventually will, I will never forget their faces, carved by time, wind-burnt, and ruddy from the sun; the children’s slow, shy smiles, their softly braided hair, walking to school, umbrellas in hand.

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The night before I left Saint-Georges, the other teachers and I gathered at a friend’s house for a barbecue. Then, we danced. We danced, and we did not stop until 6:00 am, just before dawn touches the horizon. I slept on the pull-out couch of my fellow Brazilian teaching assistant, and woke at 8:00 am to get fresh croissants and baguettes from the boulangerie. I said good-bye, hailed a pirogue, and crossed over to Brazil one last time to collect my things. I quickly threw the remainder of my clothes into the suitcase, took a cold shower to wash off the morning’s humidity, left a goodbye note for my colocatrice (roommate)—who was still sleeping due to the previous night’s festivities—and crossed back to Saint-Georges. I met with my professeur référent for an omlette and fries, said a too-hurried good-bye, loaded my things into a fellow teacher’s car, and drove the three hours on the road through the jungle to Cayenne.

After spending a few days recovering from the lack of sleep at my friend’s place in Rémire-Montjoly, we organized a covoiturage, packed our bags, grabbed some Chinese food, and made our way to the uncharted (well, at least by us) territory to the northwest.

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When we arrived in Saint-Laurent, the large border town on the Maroni River, effectively the foil character of Saint-Georges, the sun was just beginning to set. The drive had been longer than the drive between Saint-Georges and Cayenne, over three hours, but refreshingly different. The landscape is like the savannah (though much greener): lighter, flatter fields with sparse brush and dotted with houses and towns along the way, unlike the isolation of the sinewy road through the jungle to Saint-Georges.

We met up with another teaching assistant and walked along the river to his host family’s house. The light was breathtaking—all yellow sky and stark brown silhouettes. We made our way past a Bushenengue community, made up of stout, cottage-like houses with pitched roofs and clotheslines strung between them. As we walked along the river, I noticed that the pirogues were made of thick planks of wood—much heavier and sturdier than the aluminum boats in Saint-Georges. We arrived at the house just before dark, watching the sun slip below the horizon as we walked down a muddy road to the riverbank.

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The host family was lovely—a Creole mother and Brazilian father with a three-year-old girl and little baby. The host father offered to take us for pizza and while we waited for the pies to finish baking, he ended up giving us a nighttime tour of Guyane’s second-largest city—including the ancien bagne, the old brick building known as the “transportation camp”—where they used to keep prisoners in transit before transferring them to the Îles du Salut, France’s penal colony. While we sat at the river’s edge, gazing at the lights in Suriname, we had a great conversation about the big scheme of things. Our friend’s host father had studied economics and was awarded a high-paying job in the government after university, but after a few years of enduring the pressure of the Sao Paolo lifestyle, quit in favor of a teaching position in Guyane. It made me realize how important it is to love what you do, no matter how much (or how little) money you make doing it. We agreed that we are responsible for the creation of our own purpose in this life, and it is important to resist the grind in favor of more authentic human experiences. He told me how pleased he was to see the work that we teaching assistants were doing—leaving our home countries (and extravagant lifestyles) to spend several months sharing and learning in a different environment. It was reassuring to hear that we were welcome here as strangers. As an American, I tend to be especially cautious of my presence in foreign countries—after so many historical (and current day) foreign policy blunders, I am careful to represent myself as an individual, and not an agent of American imperialism.

Once home, we dug into the pizza—once again, a disappointment, as pizza always tends to be here. French cheese just cannot do the job. Then we climbed under our mosquito nets into bed.

The next morning, I woke up with a not-so-pleasant feeling in my stomach—not a good omen for the second day of a two-week journey. And that was it: my first case of traveler’s diarrhea. I took it with a grain of salt—such are the realities of traveling anywhere in South America. Better diarrhea than any mosquito-borne illness (which I am certain I am still bound to experience, given the no less than two hundred mosquito bites I have gotten since I arrived here—this is no joke). And with that, we packed our things and headed to centre-ville (center city, downtown) to run some last-minute errands before embarking.

During the day on Christmas Eve, we went to the market in Saint-Laurent to eat lunch—we had soup, roti, and egg rolls—and then headed to the Surinamese consulate to purchase our tourist cards—no small price at €25 for each entry (multiple entries are not permitted). We made a quick stop at an internet café to check e-mail and confirm our guest house reservations in Paramaribo, and I called my family to wish them a merry Christmas. It was strange—it did not feel at all like Christmas, being both far from home and in transit. Then we hailed a pirogue, made a quick stop at our friend’s house downriver to make one last toilet stop, and left Guyane to the west.

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Suriname

After making the ten-minute crossing over the choppy Maroni River from Saint-Laurent in French Guiana to Albina in Suriname, we got our passports stamped and waited outside the customs building for a bus to take us to Paramaribo—the cheapest mode of transportation at just €8 for the three-hour ride.

The journey from Albina to Paramaribo was an experience in itself. The bus, a Volkswagen which looked like a tour bus out of the 1970s, was jam-packed with the maximum number of occupants. I found myself on a folding seat with my backpack in my lap, squished between two very large women with small children attempting to climb all over the interior of the vehicle. Everyone’s bags were stacked behind the driver’s seat, in a pile of comic proportions, completely blocking any view of the rear of the bus.

For the first part of the journey, the air conditioning was on full-blast, blowing cold, dry air into my face. Now, many people would not be bothered by the rarity of cool air in this climate, but since I have adapted to the temperature near the Equator, I cannot withstand even the slightest wind, let alone air conditioning. I would rather sweat it out in the humidity, even on that crowded bus. Luckily it let up after a while.

The landscape in Paramaribo was vastly different from that of Guyane. It felt much more like being in the interior of the jungle, rather than on its edge. The roads were paved, for the most part, except for one detour we had to take down a muddy clay path riddled with potholes. I remember wondering how we made it though without getting a tire stuck—a very real possibility that could have left us stranded on the side of the road in the forest during the rainy season for hours waiting for backup.

Just driving through the country, you could sense that it was inherently different from Guyane, largely in part because it is no longer administered by a European power: Holland granted Suriname independence in 1975. I felt that poverty was a lot more tangible here. There were no passport checks along the rode, mostly because illegal immigration to Suriname is not a huge problem. Everyone in the region who wants to leave their country is drawn to Guyane for its education system, work opportunities, and health benefits.

When we were about an hour outside of Paramaribo, there was some sort of commotion on the side of the road that caused the bus driver to slow down. Suddenly everyone was peeking out the windows and gesturing—there were three men slaughtering a cow on a wooden table with a machete. The bus came to a complete stop, and a few men got out…to buy some meat. They returned with plastic bags filled with pink, juicy hinds, probably teeming with bacteria from being out in the heat. We made one more pit stop along the way to let a few women buy some ginger, which was infinitely less disgusting. I can only imagine if the same scene had happened on a public bus in the U.S.—there might have been another revolution.

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We finally made it to Paramaribo after four hours, walked straight to our hostel, showered, and headed out in search of some Christmas Eve cheer. We stopped at a few stores, popped our heads into a casino, ate roti (one of the only restaurants that was open that evening), and wandered into a karaoke bar with a welcoming fiber optic Christmas tree, where we were the only patrons. We stayed there until midnight, sharing the microphone with the staff, belting out comfortingly familiar Christmas songs that we would have already been sick of had we been at home listening to the radio on a daily basis.

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Paramaribo

My experience in Paramaribo can be captured by three things: shopping, casinos, and karaoke. Coming from French Guiana, downtown Paramaribo was all kinds of magical. It was like a combination of a knock-off version of Las Vegas (due to all the stores and casinos—none of which live up to their names, parodies of internationally recognized brands) and a New England coastal town (thanks to the colonial, Victorian building architecture and its placement on a river). It was only after a few days that we discovered how outrageously expensive and cheap quality everything was, compared to the U.S. We noticed how run-down the beautiful buildings were—they probably had not been repaired or maintained since Suriname’s last colonial days of the early 1970s. But for those of us coming out of the jungle in Guyane, it was a kind of oasis.

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There were several glitzy casinos we frequented, all named “Princess.” I asked someone if they were all owned by the same person, but apparently they are just all owned by different members of the same family, all Turkish. When people asked where we were from, and we said America, their next question was always: “Peace Corps?” I learned that this is actually Peace Corps’ last year in Suriname, supposedly because the country had gotten its own development under control, but most likely because U.S.-Suriname relations had seriously deteriorated after the arrest of the President’s son in New York for providing material support to a foreign terrorist group. But in general, I got the impression that the people of Suriname have a good impression of the U.S. and Peace Corps volunteers, though not the government.

Walking around the city, we tended to notice all of the things that Paramaribo and Cayenne had in common, that Paramaribo did better. For example, the central park—the equivalent of Cayenne’s Place des Palmistes—was twice as large, filled with five times as many palm trees, and equipped a carbet, playground, and little river. There were also a number of cute, cheap guesthouses, making for a much younger, more vibrant atmosphere. The diversity of the cuisine was also refreshing—we sampled Dutch, Indian, and Indonesian, just to name a few.

Atjoni

The day after Christmas, we took advantage of the reignited transportation to hop on a bus three hours south to Atjoni, a tiny river town where pirogues shuttle tourists to jungle island lodgings like the Anaula Nature Resort.

I was relieved that my diarrhea was not so crippling after the first few days, but there were sudden moments of shooting pain and needing to find a toilet—which is not easy, and certainly not free, in the jungle. Within the first ten minutes of arriving in Atjoni, I desperately needed to find a bathroom, and when I did, it was 1 SRD. Not bad, but—the woman managing the toilets only handed me a small wad of toilet paper. Ugh. Certainly not enough. But somehow I managed.

When my episode had ended, I was able to concentrate better and observe my surroundings. What I saw was striking—I have never seen anything like it. It was not what people in America would consider “absolute” poverty—skinny children with big bellies walking half-naked down a dirt road. But this was poverty by any definition of the word. The town was filled with trash. When it began to rain, we took shelter under a ramp leading to the pirogues, and the pathway was cluttered with garbage. It was blowing everywhere and washing into the river. The inhabitants of the town were crowded around the general store, beers in hand at 11:00 in the morning. We were not the first tourists they had seen, but they stared longingly at our Jansport backpacks, Nike sneakers, Levi jeans. These were people who were trapped between absolute poverty and lower middle class status. They had all the trappings of capitalism: graphic image t-shirts, sneakers, jeans, cell phones, watches—all dated knock-offs in poor condition. You could tell they had a taste of the outside world, yet it was something that remained perpetually unattainable as they inhabited the wasteful cycles of supply and demand, their desire unable to satisfied by their lack of income.

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We found a trustworthy-looking boat driver who we commissioned to take us to the island where we would be spending the night. At the beginning of the 20-minute journey, the sky was slate gray and trickling rain. By the time we reached the campground, the sun had emerged and blue sky beckoned in the distance. Such is the joy of the rainy season.

The little “resort” was on a small outcropping of land in the middle of the river, surrounded by fat, smooth rocks creating little waterfalls. There were bungalows and carbets for slinging hammocks, as well as kitchen and toilet facilities. It was very well maintained. Just across the water was an Amerindian village—I wondered how they felt about tourists penetrating their corner of the jungle. The proprietor showed us to a cluster of bungalows where we were each afforded a bed with linen and a mosquito net. There was a communal shower and toilet, both in surprisingly good condition for their isolated surroundings.

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The first thing we did was attempt to navigate the rocks to cross over into the Amerindian village, where we were told by another teaching assistant who had already been there that we would receive a warm welcome. Unfortunately, the tide was much too high and the current too violent and we had to turn back. We laid on the rocks for about an hour, and returned to our bungalows just as the sun was beginning to slip below the horizon. After a nap—which we resorted to simply because there was nothing else to do after dark—we poured kettles of hot water over the ramen noodles we had packed and dug in.

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That night, after we had eaten and were lounging on plastic deck chairs outside the bungalow, we saw two young women and a middle-aged man sitting not too far from us, so we decided to say hello. They turned out to be two Dutch girls on holiday—both from Holland, but one currently living and working in Paramaribo—and their native guide from nearby. The girls spoke fluent English, so they had to translate our conversation for the guide, but we spoke for hours—about life in Suriname, mosquito-borne diseases, socialism—everything. The guide told us that all of his family members, including his 12 children, had gotten malaria at one point. Dengue fever, he said, is not a problem in the interior of the Suriname jungle, but there are frequent outbreaks in Paramaribo—the mosquitoes are attracted to polluted standing water. Needless to say, I was still thankful that we were provided with mosquito nets in the bungalows.

The next day, we rose at our leisure and ate some kiwi for breakfast before boarding the pirogue for the journey back upriver to Albina. On the way, we passed several little villages, and because the sun was out and the sky was a glorious shade of azure, people were out bathing and washing their clothes and dishes in the river. Children jumped off of rocks stark naked, holding hands and giggling. They took little notice of us. It was idyllic. And yet these are the villages in Suriname where the United Nations sends aid workers. Not to the dirty, seedy, up-and-coming towns like Albina, which was full of desire for the world of endless waste and capitalist greed we inhabit. I mentioned it to one other teaching assistant, who had done Peace Corps, and we agreed that we would rather be dirt poor in one of those riverside villages than have the slightest bit of money and live in a more accessible town like Albina. Refreshed from our brief sojourn in the jungle, we boarded a minibus back to the capital.

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When we returned to Paramaribo, having been dropped off in a busy corner of town with lines of buses and vendors hawking their merchandise, I noticed again the familiar twinge of intestinal cramps. I finally relented and strode into the nearest pharmacy, asking for anti-diarrheal meds. I was with another teaching assistant, and even though it was me who asked, she demanded, “Who has diarrhea? You, or you?” As if asking the meds was not embarrassing enough. I said, “Uhh, me.” She handed me a small packet of green capsules and instructed me to take two each day, one in the morning and one at night. I thanked her and, in a moment of sudden urgency, asked if I could use the toilet. She frowned and said, “Oh no…you’ll have to go to the casino.” Great. I haven’t showered in two days, just arrived fresh from the jungle, and need to ask a casino if I can use their toilet…in an urgent manner. Luckily, the casinos in Paramaribo really appreciate the business of their customers, and they let me in right away, muddy sneakers and all. That evening, I popped one of the capsules, and thus was the end of my torment. If only I had acted sooner.

Before we left Paramaribo, we made a trip to a shopping mall, which would have been much more productive if it had been cheaper. I was astounded at the prices—clothes and other merchandise cost twice as much as they would for the same cheap quality in the U.S. Instead, I settled on a much more reasonable purchase—a movie ticket to see “The Hobbit” in 3D, and in English, no less! Despite the fact that we returned to the hostel at midnight with a 4:00 am wake-up call to leave for the airport awaiting us, I rolled into bed, sleepy and content.

Tobago

Who would have known that an hour-long flight out of the South American jungle would land you in such paradise. Unfortunately, as always in life, paradise comes with a price. For us, that price was a day wasted in the airport waiting for a standby flight from Trinidad to Tobago. Had we known, we would have booked the 15-minute journey in advance. It was also just before New Year’s, which meant that many families were traveling between the two islands to visit their relatives. The bright side of waiting an entire day for a plane was that we boarded just before sunset and were treating to stunning views of the last light of day dazzling the turquoise waters of the Caribbean—a lovely contrast to the muddy coastal waters of Guyane.

When we arrived at our guesthouse, Candles in the Wind, the proprietor instantly welcomed us and suggested that we check out Sunday School, a weekly steel pan music performance in Buccoo Village, a beachfront town a short distance away whose bay is home to one of the best coral reefs in the world. We quickly showered—enjoying the warm water that was lacking in our guest house in Suriname—and dressed, ravenous for food. The proprietor drove us to Buccoo and showed us a shack with deliciously crispy fish and chips—there is no mistaking the British influence on the islands. We walked down the road, which was lined with cars and people, all there for the same reason we were: the music. Steel pan music has its roots in Trinidad and Tobago, the islands that are also home to the best carnival in the Caribbean. There were two main bands playing down the street from one another. We stopped at the bar where one of the bands was playing and jived to the music. The locals would call this “liming,” casually hanging out with a group of friends. The band was incredible, as were their dancers. Suddenly, just as we had finished ordering our drinks, everything went black. Power outage. The band didn’t miss a beat. We wandered down the road to the other music venue, where the band continued to play louder and faster in spite of the darkness. There we joined a crowd of dancers and let loose, absorbing the music and island breeze from the bay. Just as the performance was ending, the power came back on and the crowd went wild, applauding the band for their valiant efforts drumming through an hour of total blackness.

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As we made our way back up the road, there appeared to be a massive traffic jam, caused by some men having a disagreement about which way to navigate the parked cars. Profanities were spewed, but altogether the spectacle was hilarious. A British tourist marched up to them and tried to get them to see the hold-up they had caused, but they just didn’t care. Both of them wanted to be right—it wasn’t about the other cars. Quite a lesson in culture, and perhaps a lesson in foreign intervention.

The next day, despite the fun night, we rose early in search of breakfast and tickets for a snorkeling excursion. Just a 10-minute walk away, we discovered Store Bay, a gorgeous crescent of pristine white sand and turquoise waters so bright we had to shield our eyes to gaze at them. There were several boat men competing for our attention, and we selected one at random to purchase tickets from. After we had gotten our tickets, we made our way to some food stands and order bacon, eggs, and pancakes—the likes of which we had not seen since the States! Again, thanks in large part to the British influence.

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When we embarked on the boat, we were greeted with miles of blue water, so shallow you could see easily to the bottom hundreds of yards out. The boats, which were sturdy little wooden crafts with a flat roof perfect for sunning, had glass panels inserted on the main deck, which made for clear, magnified views of the coral below. Buccoo Reef is hundreds of acres in area, just a short distance off of Pigeon Point, Tobago’s prime beach destination. It is a protected natural park, meaning it is beautifully preserved. I have been snorkeling several times in the Caribbean before (in Aruba and St. Thomas), but I have to say, this was the best. And—it was only $15. We snorkeled at Buccoo Bay and swam in the nearby Nylon Pool, a stretch of shallow sand bank in the middle of the open ocean. Legend has it that if you rub the sand there on your skin, you will emerge more youthful. If lovers bathe there, they will be together for a lifetime. And other touristy myths like that.

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On the way back, the boat cruised past a massive beach party with loud music and several barbeques on a strip of land called “No Man’s Land.” Trinidad and Tobago really have the pirate thing going. We got dropped off at Pigeon Point, which was packed with vacationers, and ordered some crab ‘n’ dumplin’, a local specialty. Unfortunately, the crab ‘n’ dumplin’ didn’t live up to its hype, as it was light on the crab and heavy on the dumpling.

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The next day, we set out early on a full-day island tour. Our guide was very accommodating and suggested the best places to stop for photo-ops. After making our way through the town of Scarborough, we climbed up to Fort King George for stunning views of ocean from high in the battlements. An array of old canons made for a very authentic “Pirates of the Caribbean” feel. On the way back down the hill, our taxi driver stopped to give a crippled homeless man some money—poverty is far from invisible in Trinidad and Tobago. After winding our way around the lush green mountains and pausing briefly at certain vistas for several hours, we stopped at Englishman’s Bay, a popular tourist destination, to take a swim. The scene was very “Swiss Family Robinson”: a narrow strip of white beach lined by palm trees with an inviting turquoise bay nestled between two rocky outcroppings.

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When our taxi driver dropped us back off at the guesthouse, he invited us to spend New Year’s Day with him and his wife. “She makes an excellent curry,” he said. But we already had plans to spend the day relaxing on the beach—it was our only chance to do so before we left.

As it was New Year’s Eve, we enjoyed a quick nap and shower before heading out for a nice dinner at an Italian restaurant—the cuisine was much welcome. While we were waiting to go out in the guesthouse lobby, a guy came over and started talking to us. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call him “Adam.” Let’s just say, he is the “arrogant tourist” I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Evidently, he was a 30-year-old business entrepreneur who had gone to college in Colorado and dipped his toes in several industries, including a stint on Capitol Hill. He tried to convince us to attend a massive beach party at Pigeon Point that night, but tickets were the equivalent of $50, much more than we would have even paid to get into a club in the U.S. We politely turned him down, but he was very persistent. It was a relief when he caught up with some friends to head out for drinks before the party. But that was not the last we saw of him.

Despite our exhaustion from the day’s adventures, we continued on to a beachside bar that promised a midnight bonfire and fireworks. It turned out to be a lovely, relatively quiet beach party with some tourists and locals mingling outside. There were children lighting firecrackers at the water’s edge, old couples dancing to 80s hits, and some men gathering wood scraps for the bonfire. We plunked ourselves down on the beach, beers in hand, and waited for midnight. It seemed like forever—just like when we were kids and staying up that late seemed like an impossible feat—we were that tired. A middle-aged man struck up a conversation with me, asking what we were doing here, what our life plans were, etc. (he was a bit high). I told him my story, briefly, and he suddenly got very excited. “Ah, New York! You from New York! I used to live there, man, but it was too hard. Life too fast.” Hmm, I thought. There seems to be a pattern emerging—people leaving places like Sao Paolo and New York for the simple life, in the islands or the Amazon. He proceeded to tell me his life story, spending a lot of time on his son’s upcoming wedding. I congratulated him.

When midnight finally came, there was some obligatory hooting and hollering, then the fireworks began over the bay. It was beautiful—all the ships in the harbor lit up like ghosts, and the lights doubled when they were reflected in the water.

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On our last day in Tobago, we decided to take the glass-bottomed boat out again because we loved it so much, and because it was so cheap. This time, as we were getting ready to leave the guesthouse in the morning, we ran into Adam, fresh from the party the night before. Apparently it had been incredible—hundreds of people had turned out. Well. At least we were well-rested from our early night. He got really excited when we mentioned we were about to take the glass-bottomed boats and asked to tag along. We saw no harm in it, except that he was sure to be exhausted and completely hung over by the time we got back, so we said yes.

On our walk to Store Bay, we ran into a boat man who tried to sell us tickets for his glass-bottomed boat. The man followed us as we made our way to the beach, even waiting for us as we emerged from the ATM. Adam decided to capitalize on his motivation by negotiating a lower price for a private boat ride, including drinks and music. He seemed eager to please and so went along with everything Adam said. We didn’t object—who were we to turn down such an easily negotiated deal? Unfortunately, it was too good to be true—he had no intention of taking us out on the boat by ourselves, and when he didn’t have enough customers lined up by the 11:00 am boarding time, he transferred us to another boat that was already full of people. The only room for us was on the upper deck, which I was not opposed to, as I love the sun. It was too bad for Adam, who had tried fruitlessly to help the other boat man ready the craft, only looking like an ignorant American next to the supple, young captain. They had made quite the comedic duo.

Despite several attempts to brush him off, Adam consistently kept flirting with the other girls and I. It was actually quite pathetic—there were looks from the other passengers on the boat, mostly parents probably fretting that their children might notice the spectacle. In an effort to maintain a low profile, we mostly stayed on the upper deck, and profited from the sun in the meantime. The snorkeling was even better than the first time. The water was calmer and we were able to comfortably float on the current for a panoramic view of the reef below. We even saw a small sea turtle among the hundreds of coral formations and colorful fish.

When we disembarked at Pigeon Point, we thought we had finally lost Adam, but he appeared shortly and asked us where we were headed. We said we planned to spend the day relaxing on the beach. He finally got the message. We spread out our towels on the sand and watched the jet skis, boats, and swimmers under the Caribbean sun. I bought a hand-dyed turquoise sarong from a wizened old Rasta man, who hand-sewed the unfinished edge for me. Finally, as the sun began to set and rainclouds moved in, we made our way back to Candles in the Wind for our last night in Tobago.

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Port of Spain, Trinidad

Yet again, thanks to our lack of planning, we spent nearly all day waiting for a standby flight from Tobago back to Trinidad. Luckily it wasn’t a total waste, as we were able to secure tickets for an evening flight at noon and walked ten minutes from the airport to the beach to wait it out. After an hour-long delay and a long ride from the airport to our guesthouse just outside of downtown Port of Spain, we rolled into bed without much protest.

On our first full day in Trinidad, we decided to treat ourselves to some girly shopping downtown, hitting up stores with familiar brands—like Payless. It felt a bit like being home. Who would have thought—even the Caribbean is arguably more developed than Guyane. That afternoon, we spent a few hours touring the local history museum, which described, in artifacts and artwork, tales of gold and conquest, pirates and explorers, slavery and modernity, and a society rich in culture—especially music. For lunch we enjoyed some roti, an Indian specialty popular on both islands (and in Suriname). We stayed downtown until sunset, and watched the great golden orb slip below the horizon on the waterfront, then sought desperately for a maxi taxi—Trinidad’s version of a taxi collectif. It was no easy feat—I suppose public transportation is really something we take for granted in the U.S.

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The next day we had a full-day island tour. Our guide made some pretty terrible jokes, but by the end of the day he had us laughing and playing along. Since the main attractions we wanted to see were spread throughout the island, and one day would not have been enough to do them all justice, we decided to settle for a tour of the northwest coast. We first made our way to a small mountaintop village overlooking Port of Spain. The views were incredible, especially with the mist and fog that looped around the green peaks. The roads, however, were quite scary. I’m not one to have irrational fears, but going up steep hills in vehicles—especially slowly—terrifies me. Our guide made a quick stop on a farm to show us a massive cave carved into the side of an enormously steep hill. Then we made our way over the mountain’s spine and headed down toward the beaches and coves of Trinidad’s north shore. It was essentially a beach-hopping day, though our plans were impeded by the weather—we had come just at the tail-end of the islands’ rainy season. We feasted on shark sandwiches, bought some touristy shell earrings, and laid on the beach until we were too cold and had to move on. By the end of the day, we were exhausted from the constant movement of the van around the bends in the road. But it was worth it—the sights were extraordinary.

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On the way back to the guesthouse, we stopped at a pharmacy to pick up a few necessities. My friend took a picture of me, my arms full of an assortment of familiar brands and products from home, my eyes lit up like it was Christmas. I won’t be posting that picture—too embarrassing. Though I will admit the first couple of days back in Guyane took some readjustment.

The Way Back

We left Trinidad for Paramaribo, exhausted from our whirlwind tour around the islands, piled into a guesthouse for the night, and made our way on the long reddish brown road through the jungle to Albina for the crossing to Guyane.

When we arrived back in Saint-Laurent, we had our passports stamped for re-entry, and, seeing no possibility of finding a cheap ride back to Cayenne, hopped in a taxi collectif, waited for it to fill with other passengers, reluctantly handed over the €40 each for the ride back, and took the long, flat road back to the capital, our journey ending full-circle.

Shortly after, I moved in with a host family in Roura, the quiet little Creole village where I now work, my head full of what I had seen.

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All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. –Martin Buber

Le Système Educatif et la Vie Scolaire

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. –Nelson Mandela

Now that I have been living and working in Guyane for over two months, I have gotten an intimate look and good insight into the education system and school life here. I will start with the general basics about the French national education system, then get into the details of how things work at Collège Constant Chlore, the middle school where I am currently teaching.

Le Système Educatif de la France

The development of France’s education system is largely attributed to Napoleon (how surprising—isn’t everything in modern French society?). It is overseen by the Ministère de l’Éducation Nationale (Ministry of National Education).

School employees in France are considered civil servants, making the Ministère the largest employer in the country. Teachers, professors, and researchers (even at the university level) are employed by the government.

A French education is divided into three stages:

  • Enseignement primaire (primary education)
  • Enseignement secondaire (secondary education)
  • Enseignement supérieur (higher education)

Système Educatif Français

In order to graduate from each level, students must pass rigorous exams in order to obtain their diploma. Upon graduating from Enseignement primaire, they must pass the Brevet des colleges, and in order to finish Enseignement secondaire, they must pass the infamous Baccalauréat.

French university degrees are broken up the same way as in the U.S., as follows:

  • Licence and Licence Professionnelle (Bachelor’s)
  • Master (Master’s)
  • Doctorat (Doctorate)

The most prestigious higher education establishments in France are known as the Grandes écoles, highly prestigious and competitive institutions that allow students to specialize in one subject area, such as business or engineering. In order to gain admittance into the Grandes écoles, university students must pass two years of prépas (classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles), horrendously competitive programs that only the best students complete.

Something to note—tuition. School is free for French students up until university. Even higher education at public institutions is funded by the state, leaving only a small portion to be paid by the student. Low-income families can apply for financial assistance and sometimes even receive a monthly stipend for attending university. Private schools, on the other hand, can cost up to €15,000 per year (still less than many American public institutions, mind you).

Administration

France is divided up into regions to make for easier administration (i.e. Paris, Rennes, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Nice, etc.), and each of those regions has its own Académie. Guyane and all of the other Départements d’Outre Mer are considered their own regions. Each Académie has several inspectors who oversee the curriculum, meeting national standards, and hiring.

The school year extends from September to June, with classes in session from Monday through Friday. One major difference between the U.S. and France is that the French school day lasts much longer, leaving students with less time for extracurricular activities. In general, the school day starts at 8:30 am (7:30 am here in Guyane, because it is cooler in the morning), with a pause around noon, and ends around 5:00 pm.

Another major difference between the French and American systems is the amount of vacation time. Whereas French children spend considerably more hours per week in the classroom, they also benefit from longer and more frequent breaks. Roughly every six to seven weeks, teachers and students are awarded with two weeks off. Several of these breaks coincide with the major Christian holidays:

  • La Toussaint (All Saints’s Day): two weeks around the end of October and the beginning of November
  • Noël (Christmas): two weeks around Christmas Day and New Year’s Day
  • Hiver (winter): two weeks starting in mid February
  • Printemps (spring) or Pâques (Easter): two weeks starting in mid April
  • Été (summer): two months starting in early July

Regions are grouped into three zones (known as A, B, and C, easily enough), and each region has its vacations at slightly different intervals, so that the whole country is not off from school at the same time.

La Journée Scolaire

Students have each class every day, for about an hour, with a few longer sessions throughout the week. There is no such thing as “block scheduling” here, which tends to keep students on top of their subject matter throughout the year to prepare them for national exams. In France, students typically eat lunch in the cafeteria, but here in Guyane, where there is no school lunch hall and the town is so small, students return home during the pause de midi.

Curriculum is nationalized, although there are options for specialization (as students get older) that allow the students to choose their scholastic path. In high school, students can choose from multiple academic tracks.

There are three general series:

  • L (littéraire)
  • ES (économique et sociale)
  • S (scientifique)

There are also eight technological series, ranging from hospitality to applied arts to agricultural science. By the time French students finish Enseignement secondaire, they are already highly specialized in their respective field, so their university education does not include the same general courses that most American institutions require.

Students are scored the same way, all across France, from Enseignement primaire to Université. All classes and most individual graded assignments have a value of 20 points. 18 and above is essentially perfect, anything over 14 is considered solid, and 10 is considered the lowest mark in order to “pass.” Here, the academic philosophy is similar to that in the U.K. In the U.S., all students start out with 100%, and points are deducted for errors made along the way. In France, students begin with 0 points, and points are added for what the student gets right.

There are national standards indicating which capacities students should have achieved by each level of their schooling, dictated by the Livret Personnel de Compétences, a document adopted by the Ministère de l’Éducation Nationale. For foreign language learning, competencies to be developed by students include the ability to hold a conversation, understand oral and written messages, and write basic compositions. In addition, there are international standards of language learning to which French schools are held accountable, as set out by the European Union. These are described in the Cadre Européen Commun de Référence pour les Langues: Apprendre, Enseigner, Evaluer, a document adopted by all of the states in the European Union.

My Encounter with the French Education System in Guyane

No country can really develop unless its citizens are educated. –Nelson Mandela

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A painting done by the students at Collège Constant Chlore depicting the bridge between Brazil and French Guiana.

Other than the fact that administratively, the French education system resembles that of any wealthy, developed nation, it is quite distinctive academically. I first began to learn about the differences between the French and American school systems from my friends at the University of Maryland who had attended a French high school in the U.S. These differences have been confirmed and reinforced during my short time here, but they are by no means an accurate reflection of procedure throughout France (mainland and overseas departments alike).

The first thing I noticed during my initial observation week was the disciplinarian liberty afforded to the teachers at the collège. Students’ behavioral problems here do not even come close to equaling some of the actions I witnessed during my formative years at school in the U.S. Yet teachers often yell at individual students in front of an entire class, publicly chastising them for silly things, like making too much noise when pulling a chair out from under a desk, in order to enforce their etiquette. I was also surprised to hear teachers use the casual “tu” form of “you,” instead of the more formal “vous” with their students. Perhaps this convention is reserved more for lycée (high school) and université.

One practice that I have abhorred from the beginning of my time here is that of teachers handing back graded papers and exams in order of the lowest to highest grades, calling students by name and publicizing their scores. I actually spoke to the department head, also my professeur référent (mentor teacher), about this, and he agreed that it should be stopped. For one, it is an ancient academic practice, and two, it hardly motivates students. Rather, it damages their psyche and destroys any chance of positive motivation.

The second most prevalent difference I noticed was the tendency toward “aesthetics,” a practice that carries through from école maternelle (preschool) all the way to lycée (high school). Students are not only expected to complete their work, but they are also required to maintain a standard of appearance in their notebooks and assignments. From a very young age, they write in an elaborate French script that is much more elegant and refined than the American cursive we learn in third grade. Notebook paper is lined with a grid, instead of just horizontal lines, so everything—from letters to graphs to sketches—is supposed to be measured out and evenly spaced. Students will even go so far as to write with a ruler underneath their pen, guiding it along as they write. In every class, note-taking is color-coded. For example, in English class, students will write English words in blue and their French translations in black. Green and red are reserved for mapping various grammatical structures. Students tote little pencil cases as complete school kits, filled with everything from a ruler and protractor and compass to assorted colored pencils and glue sticks. These materials are required for their studies—largely due to this culture of aestheticism.

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On a similar note to the aesthetic tradition, much emphasis is placed on copying text from the blackboard or a textbook, verbatim. This leaves little room for students to identify the most important information from a lesson and write that down. I once read that when taking notes during a lecture, you should listen 80% of the time and write 20% of the time, taking down only the main points—when studying the notes, the rest will come from your memory. In the language classes I assist, the amount of time spent copying translations detracts from time spent speaking, reading, and writing—the three most important working components of language learning.

Geographically speaking, there are many external influences on students’ learning here in St. Georges. The tiny Guyane-Brazil border town is isolated in the jungle along the Oyapock River, but is a hotbed for diversity. My students speak many different languages, including French, Portuguese, Creole, and several Amerindien dialects. The school is taught only in French, which creates many problems for learning English in an already foreign language. It brings to mind much of the literature I have read regarding the importance of learning new languages in one’s mother tongue—perhaps a future dissertation topic.

With this cultural diversity also come poverty and a lack of employment opportunities beyond those offered locally—like running a small shop or driving a pirogue. According to my professeur référent, about 85% of the families in this town live on the Caisse d’Allocations Familiales—government welfare. When many parents receive the check at the end of the month, they line up outside the post office (which is also the bank—la banque postale) to cash it in, and then immediately begin to drink it away, one beer at a time. This is certainly not the case for all families here, but I have seen the long line outside la banque postale, and I have wondered.

Many teachers have personally taken on the responsibility to show the children the life that exists in the rest of the world. In a few cases, I get the impression that the teachers are not there for the kids, but rather for the simplistic, carefree lifestyle that the region offers. For the most part, though, they are dedicated to their work and genuinely care about their students. They seem to enjoy teaching while detesting the administrative side of affairs—like teachers anywhere. The large majority of the teachers here come from metropolitan France, and return to the mainland after a few years. They are mostly between the ages of 27 and 35. Just two weeks ago, my roommate (who is also a math teacher at the school) had two friends from France come to visit on their way backpacking through this part of South America. They had planned on working small jobs along the way, but when they asked to fill the vacancies for a music and technology teacher at the school, they were hired within a week. Fact is, it is better to have someone than no one.

Then there are the teachers who genuinely care about their students, who come to the school on a daily basis to improve their lives and empower them as they become young adults. A few weeks ago, one English teacher that I work with set aside an entire hour of class to discuss with her 3ème students (9th grade, 14-15 years old) puberty and the importance of personal hygiene. The talk granted quite a few laughs, but in retrospect, it was probably the only candid discussion of those issues these children have ever had. The teacher recounted a story of a former thirteen-year-old student who had gotten pregnant and left school. She is now fifteen years old with a two-year-old son. Last week just as class was beginning, one girl (fourteen years old) quickly ran out to go to the bathroom. When the teacher asked the other students where she was going, they said she left to go vomit. The girl returned, smiling and looking fine. The teacher turned to me and said, “There is a good chance she’s pregnant.” I was stunned. I asked what happens to students who get pregnant, and he said that they usually complete as much schooling as they can, have the baby, and never return.

On the administrative side of things, teachers are held quite accountable outside of the classroom. They teach 18 hours per week and spend about one hour preparing for each class, making a 36-hour work week. They are asked to evaluate students once per trimester (three times per academic year), both online and in person at conseils de classe. The conseils de classe are a series of meetings, each one focused on a different grade and level. Teachers attend the meetings where their students are concerned, and discuss each pupil individually among teachers of other subject areas. I went to a conseil de classe last week to observe how things are managed. Before the meeting, teachers provide an individual online commentary of a few sentences for each student in their particular subject. At the conseil, the principal and other teachers give more detailed remarks about that students’ academic performance and behavior. I found that the teachers were quite frank about students strengths and weaknesses, occasionally having disagreements. It showed, however, that the teachers are invested in their students’ performance. In addition to the conseils de classe each semester, teachers are expected to hold parent-teacher meetings for the classes for which they are the professeur principal. Essentially, each teacher is assigned one or two classes for whom they are responsible for tracking students’ progress in all subject areas. At parents night, they meet individually with the parent(s) as well as the students. Typically in the U.S., students are not part of the parent-teacher meetings. Here, I get the sense that it affords the teacher a higher sense of authority. Rather than protecting their children and insisting that they are perfect angels (as many would in the U.S.), they tend to acknowledge their children’s weaknesses. One mother blatantly stated that her daughter did not do any work at home, and another admitted that her son was always too tired to do his work when he came home from kayaking.

Students here are also held accountable for their education thanks to a decent level of bureaucracy. They each have a carnet de scolarité (academic record book), which they tote to every class. There they write their parental contact information, glue little flyers handed to them by teachers, and keep record of their absences and detentions. Children here each have a carnet de santé, a complete record of their health from birth to present, which they present to the infirmière (school nurse) at the beginning of each year. Unfortunately, the collège did not acquire an infirmière until mid-November this year. Each class also has an elected délégué de classe, a fellow student chosen by his peers to take responsibility for the attendance records and represent that class, acting as a liaison between the other students and their teachers. The délégués de classe also participate in the conseils de classe with the teachers, providing feedback on their peers and reporting back to that class with the comments from the conseil. In addition to the délégué position, students have the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular activities, such as soccer, basketball, kayaking, theatre, and choir, but they are not as popular (nor as “mandatory”) as they are in the U.S. for keeping kids well-rounded in their studies.

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I created an American Culture Club in order to get to know some of my students better, and to share a bit about my experiences in the United States with them. Although only a few showed up each week (roughly five or six), I felt the endeavor was a relative success. We would begin the session by watching part of the movie “Forrest Gump,” discussing afterward the cultural implications of the scenes depicting different moments in American history. I thought I would get bored watching the movie over and over again, but I realized each time just how nuanced the script and plot are. The students enjoyed the film, finding it funny and easy to identify with the characters, despite their cultural differences. I also enjoyed getting to know the students better, asking them questions about their cultural backgrounds in exchange for details about American history and culture.

In terms of classroom resources, Collège Constant Chlore is quite well-equipped, compared to other schools in the region. Each subject has textbooks of various levels, and they are in pretty good condition, though somewhat dated. Each classroom has a blackboard or a white board, and there is a small library with books, magazines, and about ten computers. There is also a separate IT room that offers internet access on about twenty monitors, but students are only able to use this room when their teacher reserves it for a class project. Unfortunately, I find that not many of the teachers make use of this facility. Not all of the classrooms have air-conditioning, but the heat is made bearable by large window flaps that remain open to circulate what few breezes come through. While all this is provided by the school, teachers are responsible for purchasing project materials—they have to be very creative in order to incorporate different media into the classroom. In effect, the students have the equipment they need to learn, though it may not be up to the shiny standards of U.S. schools. I would even say that this school is better equipped than some schools in the U.S.

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Before I conclude this 3,500-word piece (congratulations if you have made it this far, by the way), there is one more story that I believe exemplifies the education situation in Guyane. One day as my professeur référent and I were walking down the street I believe this example reflects the major problem with education in this tiny overseas department of France: the infrastructure and bureaucratic administration is there, but the resources and exigency to drive Guyane’s education to the same level as metropolitan France are missing. My référent saw a former student of his outside the patisserie, and immediately the boy, of about sixteen or seventeen years, smiled shyly and shook his hand. I did not catch much of their conversation, but when my référent into the patisserie, I asked him how he was doing and if he enjoyed English classes at the collège. He was very shy and I could tell he had a slightly learning disability, but he had a very sweet personality. After we said goodbye, my référent told me that he was about sixteen or seventeen and had one year left of collège, but he was not able to finish because the school could not find a specialist to accompany him to class and help with his learning disability. Other than that, he had been an excellent student, both academically and behaviorally, and had loved school. It was devastating to hear.

To conclude this quite lengthy and heady blog post, I can say that while Guyane is endowed with a highly organized, deep-rooted education system that tries to emulate those of developed nations around the world, there are many learning gaps and scholastic opportunities still to be addressed. Many aspects of the French system, such as the emphasis on copying and little homework, discourage academic independence, creating a huge learning outcome deficiency. So while French Guiana has the best education system in the region, attracting immigrants from Suriname and northern Brazil, it still has a long way to go to give its citizens an education equal to that in metropolitan France.

In two weeks, my term at Collège Constant Chlore in St. Georges will be over, and in January I will begin teaching at École Duchange, a primary school, in Roura, a wealthy Creole village in the jungle about 30 minutes (with no traffic, of course) away from Cayenne. My students will be much younger—between ages 6 and 10. They will be curious, but not as interested or receptive as my current students. I will miss the kids in St. Georges very much. Even in my short time here, they have always greeted me with smiles and an accented “Good morning, Andrea!” They are at the age where they are still cute but can hold a decent, mature conversation, about the movie “Forrest Gump” (which I have been showing them), for example. I hope that during my time here I have shown them a glimpse of the opportunities that are out there beyond the confines of this town—opportunities that they can achieve if they study hard and aim in the right direction.

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This blog post is dedicated to Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), a champion for human rights and dignity around the world.

There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children. –Nelson Mandela

Mandela

Source: Education in France, Carnet de Route de l’Assistant de Langue en France