La Vie à St. Georges de l’Oyapock (et au Brésil)

I won’t lie. In spite of the various setbacks of living in a place that is somewhat off the map (lack of internet, reliable electricity, and potable water, etc.), it is a charmed life here. There is a beautiful quality to the simplicity of this lifestyle. Everyone knows everyone and says “Bonjour” to strangers on the street. There are only two shops where everyone buys their groceries. There is one post office, one bank, one restaurant/hotel, one health center (the closest “full-service” hospital is three hours away in Cayenne). There are no complicated choices: whether to buy Tide or Purex, shop at WalMart or Target, invest in Apple or Google stocks. The people are much closer to the land, to each other. There is a very tangible sense of humanity present here.

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Daily Life

Despite having only arrived two weeks ago, I find myself settled into a small routine here, which I find is always necessary for adapting to one’s environment and feeling at home in a strange place.

Every weekday morning, I wake up at 6:00 am, shower and dress, then walk down to the dock where my pirogue is waiting to take me across the river from Brazil to French Guiana. I stop by the patisserie on my way to school to pick up two plain croissants for breakfast and a pain au chocolat for an afternoon snack. On my short walk I pass familiar faces, many of them children in my classes, saying to me, “Good morning, Madame Andréa!” or “Good morning, teacher!”

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I typically teach a few classes in the morning and a few classes in the afternoon each day, with a three- to four-hour break in between. During the heat of the midday sun, the school closes and children return home for lunch and a siesta. To avoid paying the €5 round-trip fee to cross the river to my place in Brazil and back, I plop myself down at a table at Chez Modestine, the only hotel and restaurant in St. Georges, and the only place with free Wi-Fi. Modestine is great for people-watching, blogging, sipping an icy Coke, and meeting new locals.

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I finish classes around 5:00 pm, when I head down to the river, hail a pirogue (okay, not exactly like a taxi), and cross back over to Brazil.

On Wednesdays, school ends early, so a few other teachers and I take a pirogue down the river to a small restaurant and beach just south of Oiapock. On the way, we pass under the bridge that connects French Guiana to Brazil. The bridge, which has been complete for a few years, is still closed while France and Brazil work out their trade agreements. It is much easier to cross the border by pirogue, as there are no passport checks. At the restaurant, we share amuse-bouches (appetizers, literally “mouth teasers”), batatas fritas (fries), and viande (steak) or poisson (fish), then head down to the river for a swim.

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The past couple of weekends I have returned to Cayenne, specifically the community of Rémire-Montjoly, to stay with another language assistant and her host family, so I have yet to experience a weekend in St. Georges.

Casa da Maryse

The cluster of bungalows where I am currently living with another teacher is known as Casa da Maryse, named after Maryse, the proprietor, a lively older woman from Montpellier in southern France. She has been living there for seven years, maintaining the bungalows and the surrounding property by touring the terrain daily, machete in hand to chop the undesirable jungle plants that spring up after each rainstorm. Maryse has cultivated a beautiful garden, with wild orchids blooming on tree trunks, mango and lime trees, the obligatory bougainvillea, and other flora native to the Amazon region. The other day I toured the entire property with her and was amazed at her youthful capacity to walk purposefully from plant to plant, on rough and sloping terrain, bending down to tend to every leaf and bloom.

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The bungalow where I live has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, an outdoor living area, an indoor living area, and a small kitchen. There is also a washing machine at the back of the house, which I have yet to use, as I am too afraid to know what creatures might be sharing that space…

In the bathrooms, there are electric shower heads that allow you to select hot, lukewarm, or cold water by flipping a switch. Unfortunately, the cold water is freezing, and the “lukewarm” setting tends to scorch, so I find myself alternating between the two every minute or so. Luckily, the water is potable at Casa da Maryse, though it is not at all safe for drinking on most of that side of the river. There are also screens on the windows which help to keep the mosquitoes at bay, though they always seem to find their way through the cracks. There is no air conditioning (rough at times when you’re living on the Equator), so we open all the windows and doors during the day, and at night–with the help of a ceiling fan–it cools down nicely.

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At night the sounds of the jungle come to life. As one another assistant said, “The expresssion ‘The city never sleeps’ is a rip-off to forests everywhere. They are, in fact, the ultimate at-all-hours sound-making machines.” (A.S.) I will occasionally wake to a strange animal cry, but for the most part, I feel safe with the window shutters locked and the doors barred.

In spite of my “routine” here, I have realized that the only real routine anyone has here is not having one. Everything is about the moment: what is happening now, who is going where at this moment. So, in my quest to fully adapt, I will also have to relinquish any attachment to my small daily routine to ease into the ebb and flow of life on the river.

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