After three weeks of working, we teaching assistants were rewarded with a blissful two weeks of vacation for the Toussaint holiday. Toussaint is the French version of All Saints’ Day or Día de los Muertos in the Latin world. Every year it falls on the 1st of November, the day the U.S. bears its Halloween hangover. The people of Guyane are très croyant, meaning they have strong beliefs and take the holiday very seriously. Surprisingly though, it is not so much a sad time, as a time to remember loved ones and celebrate their lives en famille (with the family). The whole week before Toussaint, the cemeteries are very active. People come to clean and repair the tombs of their friends and relatives, bringing flowers and candles in preparation for the celebration. Then after sunset, on the day, they visit the cemeteries with their families, bringing food and drink, which they consume on the tombs themselves.
The night of Toussaint, we went to the largest cemetery in the country (in downtown Cayenne) to observe the practice. Lightbulbs were strung across the sky and lovely church hymns reverberated throughout the graveyard. Nearly every grave was adorned with beautiful flowers in every color, as well as little red candles, which illuminated the plaques and carvings. I was struck by the portion of the cemetery reserved for children. There were hundreds, maybe a thousand small graves marking the short lives of little ones. We took no pictures (but here is one from another blog), only walked quietly among the tombs, nodding in greeting to the families as respectfully as possible as third-party outsiders.
Observing Toussaint made me realize the importance of setting aside a public holiday to remember the dead. Obviously each religion in the U.S. has a specific time set aside for honoring lost loved ones, but there was such a unity among everyone here. In all fairness though, the vast majority of the population is Christian, so it is more difficult to create public holidays like Toussaint in the U.S. where there is more diversity. But the practice of setting aside a day, even a non-religious observance for honoring the dead, would be a nice way to improve family and community dynamics.
For most of the vacation, my friend and I stayed in Rémire-Montjoly and did lots of laundry and cooked for ourselves. We tried to save money by walking a couple kilometers to a large-ish supermarket (by “large,” I mean small to medium by U.S. standards) and buying the cheapest fruits, vegetables, and meal ingredients. Unfortunately, we realized that it is even difficult to save money here by cooking instead of eating out because food is so expensive. At the supermarket, we saw mushrooms for sale at €27 per kilo. Although there are many farmers throughout the country, the soil is not very arable, and the land and jungle brush must be burned to clear a plot of land and renew the terrain.
So we spent more than we would have liked, but by staying home, we also profited from the beautiful beaches, deserted by the métropoles who flocked to Paris for the holiday.
One weekend, we returned to the carbet, only this time with half the people, as the other host family members traveled to France for their holiday. As this was my second time there, I really came to appreciate the beauty of the treehouse (and the welcome fully-functioning toilet and sink with running water). We slung up our hammocks and enjoyed merguez (spicy African sausage—the French love this—so much better than hot dogs) and baked potatoes, as well as rosé, rum, and pear schnapps.
I woke abruptly in the middle of the night to a loud metallic sound. At first I thought nothing of it, though evidently boats and motors are often stolen in the cover of darkness. Then I heard my friend’s host father slide out of his hammock and go down to the dock, no light on, and plunge into the water. I waited, my heart racing, and then I heard him yell, “Ça coule!” which means, “It’s sinking.” Yes—the boat, which was our only reliable form of transportation back upriver to the cars (the jetski’s motor was not running at full capacity) was perpendicular in the water and going down at 4:30 in the morning. We rushed down to help—I held up flashlights while the host parents righted the boat and bailed out water with pots and pans. Needless to say, it was difficult to fall back to sleep. I have to admit, though, that my second hammock experience was infinitely more comfortable than the first. I had used a cloth hammock, and the fabric kept my warm and was more stable when I turned during the night.
When we woke up, we noticed three little bats swinging sleepily above us. It was the coolest bit of nature we saw all week.
From the carbet on the second day, we took the boat and jetski fifteen minutes downriver to Cacao, a small village in the jungle home to Hmong people, the first generation of whom were originally settled there by the French government after post-Vietnam War persecution in Laos. The Hmong people have created an incredible life for themselves in French Guiana. They are mostly farmers, and they sell their crops all over the country. Their homes started out as small wooden shacks, but are now gorgeous bungalows with terraces and beautiful views on the land.
We arrived in Cacao in time for the celebration of the Hmong New Year, when members of the community dress in traditional clothing and enjoy traditional dance, music, food, and entertainment. There is a particular game called pov pob that Hmong teenagers play at this time that consists of girls and boys standing in lines opposite each other and tossing balls back and forth. When someone drops the ball, they give an ornament to the other player and sing love songs and poems to try to get the ornament back. It is a sweet and innocent courtship that forges many marriages among the Hmong people.
In Cacao, which is in a valley, the air was so hot it was difficult to breathe. It was undoubtedly the hottest it has been since my arrival here. Sweat was pouring down the front and back of my body. When we dismounted the boat, we sunk ankle-deep into mud softened by the brutal heat. I nearly lost a precious flip flop (no really, the price of sandals is no joke here).
We walked around the market stalls, which are bizarrely tall for an interesting reason. When the Hmong were resettled in Guyane, they requested a space to sell their goods and were granted a market building by the French government. The creole population became angry due to their lack of support, and when consulted to build the market, built the stalls uncomfortably high for the Hmong, who are a rather short people. (I personally found that I fit in quite perfectly size-wise among the Hmong).
For sale at the market were fresh exotic fruits, colorful cloth goods, and traditional Hmong foods, especially soup. I was amazed at how the community could thrive on the income of selling soup in such a hot climate, but that is undoubtedly visitors’ favorite dish. We enjoyed some of the soup and egg rolls during a vicious rainstorm that quickly cooled the earth.
On the way back to the carbet, we were supposed to waterski but were thwarted by an afternoon thunderstorm. “À la prochaine,” the host father told us (“Next time”). We finally packed up the hammocks and coolers to return to the cars upriver. When we docked the boat, the host parents told us to wait and hold it there in the knee-deep water until they pulled the cars up. In the meantime, however, two other cars pulled into place, and the boat owners told us, “Bougez, s’il vous plait!” (“Move, please”), so we obliged. I took the rear of the boat, backing up as the car advanced into the water until I could no longer hold my ground. Mind you, I was fully clothed, but such is life in Guyane. C’est la vie en Guyane. The car ride home was a bit squishy.
On the last full day of our two-week holiday, we went on a hike at Sentier du Rorota, a public jungle preserve. We had hoped to see some wildlife other than the typical palm trees and bamboo, but there were quite a few people and it was the end of the day, so we walked fast, trying to beat the sunset. No such luck. Ironically, the next morning, I ran into a friend’s host parents who had just come from the same trek and had seen sloths, monkeys, a huge iguana, and parrots. It was a gorgeous two-and-a-half mile trek, wildlife or not. There were little waterfalls, a lake, thick and tangled tree roots, massive bamboo shoots, and extraordinary views of the beach hundreds of feet below.
On a side note, I got paid 80% of the first month’s salary by November. Not bad in terms of French bureaucracy.
À tout à l’heure!