25 September 2013
I am sitting in the common area of our current lodging just outside of Cayenne, French Guiana. My surroundings are simple, and brightly colored. We have been put up at the Maison de l’Education for our first week in Guyane, a sort of guest house for academic visitors.
There are 33 assistants in total, though not all of them have arrived yet. Everyone hails from the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Brazil, Suriname, and Holland. In our short time here, having arrived just 2 days ago, we have already shared cultural experiences and linguistic barriers.
My favorite new word, taught to me by a new friend, is “wahalla,” which means “drama.” It comes from the Yoruba language, which is spoken mostly in Nigeria but also in Bahia, Brazil. Wahalla provides an accurate description of some of the difficulties we have already encountered in getting situated here. There is little administrative guidance, but luckily the locals are very friendly and always willing to help, without receiving anything but good conversation in return. It is a nice change from the U.S., where everyone is seemingly too busy to lend a hand to a stranger.
Journeying to French Guiana
To backtrack a bit, I left on Sunday, 23 September at 3:00 pm from New York on a plane to Trinidad and randomly met another girl from the program. We stopped in Tobago for 45 minutes to let passengers off and on for the 15-minute flight to Trinidad. It was strange to think that a Boeing 737 would operate for such a short flight. In Trinidad, we met up with 3 others from the program and boarded a plane to Paramaribo, Suriname, where we encountered another teaching assistant (putting our total at 6—there are only so many ways you can get to this corner of South America).
Two other girls and I had reserved a guest house for the night, but given that it was 2:00 am by the time we had landed and passed through customs, we all decided to crash in the airport until our 11:15 am flight to Cayenne, French Guiana. The airport staff were not quite sure what to do with us. We were escorted to the departures hall, where we snoozed until we were promptly awakened at 6:00 am by the same woman to check in for our flight. It was kind of her to do so before the end of her 12:00 to 8:00 am shift, as we would not have known where to go otherwise. In the check-in line, we met another teaching assistant, making our grand total 7.
When we finally arrived in Cayenne, after flying over hundreds of miles of pristine jungle and thick brush, where we waited for about an hour for the person who was supposed to meet us. We suddenly had to resort to French, which most of us had not spoken in a while, to ask the information desk if we could make a phone call. At that very moment, our coordinator arrived, but announced that she could only take a few of us at a time.When we hauled all of our luggage to the car, the trunk would not open—because of the heat. So we left our luggage with the others waiting at the airport for their ride, and made our way to the Maison de l’Education in Montabo, just outside of Cayenne.
We received our luggage and met up with the other assistants a few hours later, relaxed away the stress of the journey, and enjoyed dinner at a local barbecue.
Exploring our Surroundings
On the second day, we rose early to avoid the heat of high noon and ventured to the beach just down the road from our residence. The sand was a tan brown, the water clouded with sediments near the shore but turquoise in the distance, the palm trees plentiful, and the flies abundant. There was not a single person on the beach, which made for lovely views of the sea, sand, and sky.
Later in the day, we met George, a local teacher with an office in the Maison de l’Education. Even though it was a work day for him, he offered to drive us to downtown Cayenne to stop at an internet café and buy cell phones. Again, this would never happen in the U.S. We were total strangers to him, but after some good conversation, he became our mentor and guide.
The rest of the week was filled with long walks into town, trips to the beach where we bathed in the warm salt water and watched the sun set over the horizon, and cultural conversations as we lounged lazily around the fan in the afternoon heat at the Maison de l’Education.
Guyane is a very beautiful but strange place. Administratively speaking, it is very disorganized, in large part due to the fact that it is a modern-day colony of France. I asked George if people generally enjoy being attached to the metropole, and he told me very definitively, “Yes and no.” Everything here is imported, making it very expensive and incredibly dependent. At the same time, France has provided many modern conveniences not found in this part of the world, such as paved roads and extensive infrastructure, the most important of these being the space center. Guyane, however, is very culturally independent from France. It is much more diverse here than I would have expected: there are quite a few ex-pats, Brazilians, Surinamese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and creole locals.
Being administratively attached to France, a country classified as having very high human development, most of Guyane is relatively much less developed. When doing a bit of research, I found that in 2005, Guyane was listed on the UN Human Development Index as having high human development (just one step down from countries like the U.S., France, Germany, etc.). Experiencing life here firsthand, however, has showed me that even high human development can encompass a striking level of poverty.
At the end of our first week together, after a day of administrative preparation and teacher training, all the assistants parted ways. It was a difficult time, as we had spent the week bonding over the administrative disorganization, trading words in our respective languages, and sharing our past experiences.
On Saturday, my mentor teacher, a Brazilian language assistant, and I took a cramped 3-hour van ride to Saint Georges, a town of about 5,000 just across the Oyapock River from Brazil. We were stopped mid-way by the gendarmes, French border control, who demanded our passports and identification papers. This happens often, as there is a large amount of illegal immigration into French Guiana due to the social benefits.
We made it into Saint Georges by 3:00 pm, leaving enough time to do a little apartment hunting. The housing prices here are astonishing, largely due to the fact that there is so much demand and so little supply. For that reason, most of the teachers live on the Brazilian side of the river, in little bungalows in the jungle just off the river. It is tranquil and beautiful, and in fact much safer than living in Saint Georges. The past few days I have been staying with one of the teachers, and I love it here.
On a not-so-great note, I am getting eaten alive by the mosquitoes. For the past week, I have slathered OFF Deep Woods Sportsmen with 98% DEET (an unhealthy concentration of chemicals) all over myself, and yet here I am with over 20 bites. I have been told that everyone here has contracted dengue fever at least once, but the risk of malaria is not as high. Well, at least I am mentally prepared.
I recently visited my school and met the principal and a few other teachers. I will be teaching 12 hours per week, but will likely be spending more time at the school to give students extra help and organize a club around English speaking and American culture.
For now I still have no “permanent” accommodation (I use the term “permanent” lightly because I will be moving halfway through the year to Roura, a town 30 minutes outside of Cayenne, the capital). I also need to open a bank account, submit a form that confirms I am living here, and apply for medical insurance from the French government. It has been a bumpy first week, though I am embracing these challenges as best I can and trying to learn as much as possible along the way.