Visite de Cacao

A few weeks ago, another English Teaching Assistant and I were invited to spend the weekend with a family in Cacao, the small village in the jungle where France resettled Hmong refugees during the tumultuous 1970s and 80s in southeast Asia. I had been put in contact with the mother of the family, also a teacher at the local public elementary school, by a teacher that I work with in Roura. The women had been friends for a long time, as the teacher in my school used to work in Cacao. Because my English Teaching Assistant friend is also Hmong, though her family was resettled in the United States, we were eager to experience an intimate visit to the village—we had only been there once before for the nouvelle année Hmong (Hmong new year) in October (see my post here). Our main purpose was to spend a day working with the children at the elementary school and to practice speaking English with the mother, who had been certified to teach it to her students.

Getting to Cacao is not easy, and at the time we went, there was a massive gas strike that left the entire country without fuel for a little over a week. The father offered to pick us up on his way home from work, however, and it was an offer we couldn’t resist. We started out on the long road through the jungle in the direction of Saint-Georges, just as the sun was setting, but turned off and wound our way in the dark through the hills to the little valley that holds Cacao. That evening we went to dinner at a local restaurant and enjoyed a delicious meal of nems (egg rolls) and une soupe mélangée (mixed phō soup, with beef, pork, and shrimp).

The family instantly welcomed us, especially the mother, who was eager to practice her English. The mother and father had been transferred from Laos and Thailand, respectively, to France, where they grew up and went to school. Then they both came to Guyane to find work, the mother as a teacher, the father as a farmer (though he now works as an instructor at a center for recovering drug addicts). Initially, their parents hadn’t wanted them to marry—they pushed her to aspire to marry a doctor. But they were in love. In order to stay together while she finished her university studies in France, they married at age 19, and have been happily together ever since. They have two daughters, thirteen and nine years old, and a little three-year-old son.

The next day, we rose early and ate some croissants before heading to the school. My friend and I opened the morning with a couple of hours sitting around a circle on the floor talking about ourselves and our experiences in the United States. The children, between eight and ten years old, sat quietly, their eyes wide as they tried to understand our English. Their level of speaking and comprehension was astounding. They were able to form simple sentences and pick up on words they recognized when we were speaking. I loved the classroom decorations, with a corner devoted to English, including books, posters, and a floor mat map of New York City. I showed them some of my pictures of New York, Washington, the University of Maryland, and London, and they stared in disbelief.

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After a morning full of discussion, we went on a little walk through the town to the mayor’s office, as he evidently wanted to meet us, the two Americans, and practice his English as well. Unfortunately he wasn’t in his office at the time we arrived, but we enjoyed a panoramic view from the balcony of the town hall.

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Before la pause de midi (afternoon break), we spent some time at the collège (middle school), working in a class of troisième students (ninth grade). My friend and I took turns speaking to two small groups of students who were eager to hear about the U.S., particularly after project work on September 11th and its aftermath. Although they were shyer and quieter than the younger students, they were eager to hear what we had to say.

That afternoon, we led some activities for the younger children back at the elementary school, including Simon Says, an action verb version of Simon Says, and singing, including a round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (Tip for English as a Second Language—ESL—teachers: this song always sounds good, no matter how badly the kids mess up). One of the teachers—a man who taught kindergarten-age students—was disappointingly strict and scolded the children when they were too shy to present themselves to us. We mentioned it later to our host mom, and she was surprised at our quick ability to pick up on the dynamic in his classroom. Evidently, we were exactly right. He was much too harsh on them.

Later, the children put on a little spectacle they had organized especially for us, the two Americans. They performed scenes from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, one of my favorite children’s books of all time. Apparently they had tried very hard to perform it in English, but it was too difficult for them to remember all of the lines and their pronunciation. Instead, they sang some English songs at the end and presented us with English desserts: an apple crumble (substituting apple with coupoissou—a deliciously tart fruit in the coconut family), raisin muffins, and bread pudding. It was wonderful to see how motivated the children were to learn about the English language and Anglophone culture—it made me set the bar higher for my students when I returned to Roura.

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The next day we set out early to visit an organic farm in the area. The girls, my friend, and I sat in the back of the family’s pickup truck, something I’ve always wanted to do but never had the chance. It was so much fun to ride every bend in the valley, our hands outstretched to the wind, on our way to the farm. The farmer had come from metropolitan France to try his hand at living simply and farming using only natural techniques. He had left behind his wife, who refused to come until he had constructed a proper house on his terrain. You could tell he worked incredibly hard for his income, as organic farming is extremely difficult given the poor soil and fast growing speed in tropical Guyane. He told us he had to use a large amount of compost to support his plants in lieu of chemical fertilizer. Our host mom told us that this was unique in Cacao, for many Hmong families use chemicals to increase their crop yield and therefore their income. But more and more, bio (organic) is becoming a trend in Guyane, despite the difficulties associated with it.

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That afternoon, we had a picnic on a beautiful, private mountaintop known as “Jardin du Ciel,” or “Garden of the Sky.” Luckily, by the time we made our way up the rough, muddy road leading to the top, the sun had emerged, full blast. It was lovely to feel the warmth after so much wet weather. After eating our packed lunch of baguettes and saucisson sec (essentially salami), we explored the gardens and enjoyed various angles of the stunning views surrounding us. It was breathtaking—thousands of miles of the pristine, green carpet that was the jungle all around.

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In the evening, we walked around the village, recognizing places we had seen in October, though without the lines of temporary food stands and throngs of people who came for the tourist event of the year: the Hmong New Year. We saw some children from the school, who recognized us and instantly hugged us. I love that about the children here—we are their heroes, no matter what we do. We passed by the village church, picturesquely set on a little hill overlooking the town, just as the sun was beginning to set.

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That night, the family invited friends over to throw a party for us. There was so much food—mostly pizza, desserts, and champagne (all necessary components of a Guyanese soirée). The host mom made some of her delicious coupoissou juice, of which I drank several cups. It was nice to relax in a family setting, something that is often lacking and always nice to have when abroad.

On the last day of our short weekend in Cacao, we went to the local museum. There were thousands of butterflies and bugs pinned to canvases on the walls. We joined a group of people crowding around a man giving a presentation about the insects showcased there. They were gruesome—huge beetles and cockroaches, massive hairy tarantulas and giant leeches and centipedes—just like you would expect them to be in the South American jungle. To lighten things, we entered the butterfly garden outside where we observed a beautiful array of the creatures fluttering about, sipping nectar from tropical plants. Afterwards, we went to the weekly market. It wasn’t as crowded as usual, given the gas strike, which made for more relaxed browsing and bargaining. I ate the usual soup and a fried coconut dumpling, which were both delicious. Then I bought some oyster crisps (shrimpy-flavored chips) and lotus flower cookies (sugary funnel cake-type biscuits). It seems strange to have access to southeast Asian cuisine in South America, but I’m not complaining. My friend and I also purchased necklaces of bois de Guyane (Guyane wood).

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It was a lovely weekend en famille (with the family), and we already plan to go back—next time to do the Sentier (trail) de Molokoi, a long trek through the surrounding jungle.

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