For a few weekends in October, I returned to Cayenne to finish some administrative paperwork, open a bank account, and pick up some items that are not readily available in St. Georges (i.e. sunscreen and contact lens solution). I stayed with another teaching assistant who is living with a host family in Rémire-Montjoly, a beach-lined suburb of Cayenne with stucco houses, swimming pools, and lots of bougainvillea. Compared to my life in St. Georges, it is like a different world altogether, and I was able to see some of the cultural and class divides between métropole French residents and native locals.
According to the 2009 census, 56.3% of French Guiana’s inhabitants were born there, 9.3% were born in metropolitan France (hence the term métropoles), 2.9% were born in the French Caribbean (Guadeloupe and Martinique), and 31.3% were born elsewhere (mainly Suriname, Haiti, and Brazil). (Source: “French Guiana” on Wikipedia. Much as I hate to use Wikipedia as a “source,” there really is a huge information gap on French Guiana.) These statistics also fail to account for the Amerindien population here, which contributes enormously to the cultural and linguistic diversity. Living in St. Georges and visiting Rémire-Montjoly, I can say I have observed “how the other half lives,” including both the bourgeoisie and the native locals. But enough about demography. Plenty of time for blogging later about that.
There and Back Again
To get to Cayenne, which is a three-hour drive from St. Georges, there are two options: 1) Take a taxi collectif (a shared van) for €31 (€40 for pick-up and drop-off service); or 2) Find a covoiturage (carpool) on Blada.com’s Petites Annonces section. So far, I have taken the taxi twice and found three covoiturages. Although the taxis can be less awkward and more anonymous, especially when you and the driver are the only people in a covoiturage, but I so far I have enjoyed the conversations I have had with complete strangers, who have been welcoming and offered to show me around in their free time.
Covoiturage is a bit like what we would consider hitchhiking in the U.S., but it is slightly safer and more reputable. When someone is driving between two cities in Guyane, they will post an announcement on Blada.com. They expect additional riders to contribute to l’essence (gas, petrol), so it is not free, but it is certainly cheaper than the taxis. On my way back to St. Georges from Cayenne once, the driver decided to fill up the tank. It was the first time I had been to a gas station here, and I was curious to see the difference in price. Needless to say, I was horrified when I saw the number in Euros, then did the conversion to dollars. It looked something like this:
32 litres of gas: €55.00 = 8.45 gallons: $74.55
= $8.82 per gallon
As of October 6th, the average gas price in the U.S. was $3.38 per gallon for regular, making gas here cost over twice as much. That, combined with the fact that it is incredibly difficult to get anywhere without a car, plus the fact that practically 98% of everything here is imported, is just a snapshot of how expensive it is to live here. While residents may be better off under the French education and welfare systems, they certainly have to pay a pretty penny for daily necessities, especially compared to neighbors Brazil and Suriname, where everything—but especially food—is much cheaper.
My most recent taxi collectif experiences getting from St. Georges to Cayenne were a bit of a nightmare (though all things considered, it could have been much worse). I waited an hour each time for the van to fill up (they will not leave until every seat is occupied). The first time around, the van was air conditioned, which I thought was a nice surprise. The next morning though, I woke up with a raging sore throat, probably due to the fact that I went from having no air conditioning whatsoever (in 34 degrees Celsius, 93 degrees Fahrenheit) to being plunged into a freezing vehicle with the vent blowing directly on me. It has been just over two weeks now, and I am still fighting this cold.
The second nightmarish taxi experience, two men got into a fistfight (in broad daylight, mind you), and one of them got into the van and sat down right next to me. He also happened to smell like he had not showered in several weeks. And this was the non-air conditioned taxi. So you begin to see why I prefer covoiturage.
“Why don’t I take a bus,” you might ask. In the month that I have been here, I have seen no more than five buses. You can wait at a bus stop for hours, having read the schedule correctly, and still have a better chance of getting picked up by a kind, random stranger.
La Vie en Famille
One of the nicest parts of spending time with my friend and her host family is having the chance to interact with a French family and their circle of friends. They have hosted teaching assistants before, and they are always willing to share their food, culture, and language. We have enjoyed lovely afternoon meals in the shade away from the afternoon sun, and had productive conversations about differences between life in France (or in this case, La Guyane) and the U.S. I have found that no matter where I am, participating in family life is one of the keys to cultural acceptance and adaptation, and that is no exception here.
During the weekends I have spent in Rémire-Montjoly, we have spent time at the beach, the pool, and in the jungle. The beach here is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, soft brown sand lined with palm trees under azure sky. The water, however, is not quite paradise. Thanks to a huge influx of sediments from Amazon tributaries, it is cloudy, murky, and not at all turquoise. But that is a small price to pay. I have bathed in both river and ocean here, and I still prefer the sea. Another item to note: the “ocean” to which I am referring is in fact the Atlantic, and not the Caribbean. French Guiana is a few hours on a plane east of the Caribbean. At times it does feel like the Caribbean, though. There are sea turtles (we have seen a few struggling babies), coconuts (though not the typical kind), and deserted islands on the distant horizon.
One weekend, the host families took us to the carbet, a type of lodging in the middle of the jungle where you sling up hammocks, roast freshly caught fish over a fire, and jump off a rope swing into a murky brown river (that may or may not contain piranhas, snakes, and alligators). I have only been camping once in my life, and I have to admit, doing it in the South American jungle was a fantastic experience. I would not hesitate to go again.
We parked the cars at a boat launch an hour south of Cayenne, filled three motorboats with coolers containing wine, chicken, twenty or so baguettes (the French really do love bread), Prince cookies, and other sustenance; and large waterproof plastic containers stuffed with hammocks and duvets. Then we made our way about fifteen minutes downriver to a small tributary, where in the middle of the desolate jungle was a beautiful two-story tree house, complete with a bar, long dining table, and spiral staircase.
After unpacking, we ate lunch and the other twenty-somethings and I took one of the motorboats deeper into the forest down the tributary, hoping to spot some monkeys or even a snake. No such luck. We did take a plunge into the water, which was impossibly deep and refreshingly cooler than the pool or the ocean. When we returned to the carbet, dinner was being prepared and we sat down for a few rounds of La Belote, a complicated French card game that I have spent hours playing here and still do not fully comprehend.
At night, we snuggled into our hammocks. I was surprised at how chilly the night air was. Even with yoga pants, a rain jacket, and two blankets, I was shivering. It was the coldest I have been since I arrived. As I mentioned in my last blog post, the jungle was incredibly active once we (the humans) went to sleep. I heard all kinds of noises, animals scouring ceaselessly until the first light of dawn. It should go without saying that I had a difficult time falling asleep, and staying that way. Perhaps I was too afraid of falling out and remained too stiff, but I found that sleeping in a hammock was uncomfortable and overrated. Both my legs cramped up from sleeping as straight as a log and letting all the blood rush down from my toes. I was thankful once the dawn arrived, and remarkably well-rested given the rough night.
The next day we lingered around the dock, jumping off the rope swing and trying to touch the bottom of the river. Three of us stood on each other’s shoulders in an attempt to reach the deepest part and barely made it. Then came the fun part: the jet ski. My friend’s host father took another teaching assistant and I out to the main river, where he tried every trick he could to dislodge us from the back of the watercraft. We managed to stay on, but only with a good bit of shrieking and balancing on my part. Never in my life did I think my first jet ski ride would be on an Amazon tributary.
More adventures to come…stay tuned!