Oiapoque!

This week I finally ventured to Oiapoque, the lively town on the Brazilian side of the river I currently call home. I had initially hesitated to go there on my own due to my inability to speak Portuguese. The only string of words I can put together is, “Você pode vir me buscar na Casa da Maryse por favor?” (“Can you come pick me up at Casa da Maryse, please?”) to call Telo, the piroguier who shuttles me between Brazil and French Guiana daily. This week, I finally organized outings with the Brazilian teaching assistant here and two other teaching assistants (one Brazilian and one Spanish) who came from Cayenne to visit me.

To get between Oiapoque and St. Georges, you must take a pirogue (€5 or 10 Brazilian Reals each way) about fifteen minutes downriver, under the bridge that connects French Guiana to the vast, rich territory that is Brazil. A couple of years after completion, the bridge still remains closed for two reasons: 1) Brazil has not yet finished constructing its customs buildings; and 2) The trade agreements between the two countries have not been finalized. Presidents François Hollande and Dilma Roussef were reported to make a joint, symbolic appearance on 13 December 2013, to demonstrate their resolve to “bridge” (pun intended) the economies of Guyane and Brazil. I am no longer sure if this is still happening.

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The best way I can describe Oiapoque, or at least put it into perspective for the Americans reading this, is as the “Wild Wild West.” The instant you traverse the river, you become immersed in a flurry of activity, cars and motorbikes speeding recklessly past on the reddish, pothole-ridden roads, vendors hawking their Havaianas and Ray Ban knockoffs, locals gawking and making obsolete comments in Portuguese (most likely about your backpack and harem pants—everyone else is wearing bedazzled jeans), and the vibrant sight and smell of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and spices. The whole town is like a giant flea market, each store blending into the next, offering cheap goods for unbeatable prices.

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Indeed, the exchange rate is fantastic. It is the best I have ever encountered in my travels. According to OANDA, on 24 November 2013:

1 Brazilian Real = €0.32, $0.44
$1 = 2.28 Brazilian Real
€1 = 3.08 Brazilian Real

For example, I purchased the following for under 20.00 Brazilian Real (€6.46, $8.76):

  • 1 pineapple
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1 garlic
  • 2 potatoes
  • 1 eggplant

In French Guiana, the pineapple alone would have cost €7.00 ($9.49).

I also discovered I love traditional Brazilian food: fatty soup with chunks of beef, potato, carrots, noodles, and celery; sweetly marinated steaks or crispy fish topped with farine (a yellow floury substance); lightly fried onion rings; moist white rice; peppery tomato salad, fruit juice, and coconut ice cream. It is like a delicious summer barbecue. All enjoyed for a low, low price.

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At night we lingered at an outdoor ice cream parlor (I hesitate to use the word “parlor,” but that’s what it would be considered in the U.S.), where I enjoyed a Brazilian chocolate flavor that tasted like a sweet combination of milk chocolate and a sugary fruit. Afterwards we migrated to a bar and grill for some Caipirinhas, Brazil’s official national cocktail, a mixture of regional rum, sugar cane, and lime with a Caribbean vibe. Then, around 1:00 am, we headed to a local joint for some traditional dancing. At this point, we were already exhausted and nursing food comas, but we managed to sway a little to the Latin beats on the fringe of the crowd. One middle-aged Brazilian man saw my pitiful attempts and invited me to a brief lesson. After five minutes of moving in a tight circle with painstakingly carved footwork patterns, I began to appreciate Brazilians’ talent for dance. Couples seemed to melt into each other as the night wore on, sweat pouring down their necks and backs as men led and women mirrored their motions beat for beat. At 4:00 am, we returned to the hotel and rolled into bed, leaving the party in full swing, true Brazilian fashion.

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The next morning, we woke reluctantly at 8:30 am in time for the hotel’s breakfast, a continental feast of traditional Brazilian cakes (manioc, tapioca, etc.), little round egg whites, slices of ham, and fresh fruit. Then we did some shopping and took a five-minute pirogue ride further downriver to Chácara du Rona, the restaurant and beach where I have been twice before with my fellow teachers. We enjoyed cheap, delicious Brazilian food and finally took the pirogue back to St. Georges in the late afternoon.

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Before going home, I decided to stop by Chez Modestine for a Coke and some free WiFi. While there, I noticed a foreigner typing on his MacBook Air (St. Georges is so small even I can tell who the foreigners are, and no one has the latest Apple products—it’s just me). I said nothing, but after I took a call from another American teaching assistant, he turned and asked me if I was American. He was the first American (non-teaching assistant) I have encountered since I left New York. Unlike most of the young, hippie, backpacking foreigners who pass through here, this man was clean-cut, middle-aged, and quite lost looking. We got to talking and he told me how he used to be in the military, and he just left Vermont seven months earlier to ride his motorcycle around the world. His name was Gail.

He had been through much of South America so far: Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Guyana (the former British colony), Suriname, and finally French Guiana. And yet, he confessed to me that my beloved Guyane was by far the strangest place on his list. Gail wanted to pass through here mainly to visit the Îles du Salut (where I was only a few weeks ago), the site of the famous book and film Papillon. When he crossed the border into Guyane from Suriname, he expected a reprieve from the poverty and , thanks to Guyane’s attachment to the French government. Instead, what he got was a taste of the weird dynamic here: a country held captive by financial dependence on France yet also privy to all the privileges of French citizenship. There is also, according to Gail, a sense of isolation—not just from the rest of South American and the rest of the world—but a sort of internal isolation: personified by the long, winding roads through the jungle with no cell phone reception and no one to help you when something goes wrong.

We made remarks about the depth of poverty here, how more than half of the population survives on government welfare. And to exacerbate the already tragic irony, a local beggar woman approached us on the restaurant porch, begging for 15 centimes (a term that no longer even exists under the Euro). Think a creole version of Fantine in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, driven mad by hunger and desperation.

After she left, we fell silent and went back to our work. I got up and wished Gail luck, then went to hail a pirogue for the crossing home. Our conversation did not end there, though. I replayed it over and over again in my head that night, wondering why Guyane is the way it is; reliant on France and not independently slugging along like its former colonial neighbors, Guyana and Suriname. And I realized that we do not know, nor can we fully begin to grasp the social and cultural tensions behind it, but we can see that it is both a blessing and a curse.

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