Vacances de Carnaval: Travail, Zoo de Guyane, et le Centre Spatial Guyanais

Thanks to the incredibly generous French government, my fellow colleagues at Éducation Nationale (French Ministry of Education) and I were granted two weeks off (paid!) from 22nd February to 9th March. If you haven’t yet noticed the pattern, academic holidays in France occur for two weeks every six weeks. People in other sectors (private businesses, for instance) are not so lucky. It’s not a bad scheme if you ask me—two weeks is more than enough time to refresh the mind and body, allowing students and teachers to return completely reenergized. Except for one small detail…Carnaval. So in this case, most people are returning to work dead tired and hung over from two weeks of constant partying, dancing, and parading.

While many of the teaching assistants left to party it up Carnaval style in Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil, and Suriname, among other places, I stuck around to spend time with my host family and observe the Carnaval traditions in Guyane. We went to several parades, where my host sister and I stuffed ourselves with popcorn, chichis (churros), and la barbe à Papa (literally “Dad’s beard”—cotton candy). Place des Palmistes in Cayenne was decked out like a carnival, with bleacher seating, food stands, and children’s rides.

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Aside from Carnaval activities, I found the majority of my vacation time taken up by job applications—no small task with just two months of my contract left here (still no word from l’Académie de Guyane on whether or not I can extend it). The positions I have applied for will land me in New York City or somewhere on the African continent, with Peace Corps being the only program with an undefined deployment date, position, and location.

Zoo de Guyane

En visitant le zoo, chaque visiteur devient lui aussi un acteur de la protection de la faune sauvage [en Guyane].

(In visiting the zoo, every visitor himself becomes an active protector of [Guyanese] wildlife.)

One afternoon, I went with my host mom and sister to the Zoo de Guyane, a lovely wildlife park with local and regional species only, making it an environmentally sustainable and animal-friendly endeavor. I was only disappointed that the jungle canopy walk (narrow wood and rope bridges suspended high among the leaves) was closed due to repairs—with the constant humidity, everything here is very difficult to maintain (including cars, household appliances, etc.).

The zoo boasts over 450 animals, including over 65 different species. There is one path that leads visitors on a circular route past the animal habitats, which are much more spacious than those of your typical American zoo. The animals seemed much happier and more at ease. In the two-hour walk, we saw a variety of creatures: iguanas, wild boars, alligators, snakes, birds, monkeys, and large cats—all typical of the South American jungle, with some species entirely unique to Guyane.

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Centre Spatial Guyanais

After attempting to make a reservation for a tour of the Centre Spatial Guyanais several times over the vacation period, two other teaching assistants and I finally got a hold of some spots. We rented a car for a day to make the most out of our trip, and despite being outrageously expensive (€220, including gas), it was worth it. Since we hadn’t gone anywhere during the two weeks we had off, the expense was justified. It was also worth the mental peace of mind of being to go wherever we wanted for one day without having to worry about getting from point A to point B.

Because guided visits at the center begin at 8:00 am, we left Cayenne at 6:00 am for Kourou, la ville spatiale (the space city), in anticipation of the various obstacles Guyane is notorious for (detours, traffic, poor signage, etc.). Given that we had stayed out for Mercredi Gras (Fat Wednesday), the last night of Carnaval, until 2:00 am the previous night, leaving so early was not such an easy feat.

Once we made it to the center, we turned in our passports for visitor badges and boarded the bus which would take us to the different control centers, assembly buildings, and launch sites. The land owned and operated on by the center is enormous—7 times the size of Paris—and includes both jungle and ocean. In fact, the famous Îles du Salut (see my post here) are part of the space center’s territory and have to be evacuated in case of an accident or falling debris at the time of a launch.

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Prior to 1968, when the space center in Guyane became operational, France’s rocket launch site was in Algeria. The current site at Kourou was chosen for two reasons: 1) Its proximity to the Equator, where the Earth’s turning speed is much faster and gives rockets extra velocity; and 2) The largely uninhabited surrounding territory, which includes an enormous expanse of jungle to the west and open ocean to the east. The spaceport launches rockets bearing telecommunications satellites as well as the Automated Transfer Vehicle, the craft which sends supplies to the people who work aboard the International Space Station. It is now shared by the European Space Agency (ESA), the French space agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), and the commercial company Arianespace. Non-European companies also pay for their satellites to be launched by the center’s rockets.

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On average, the spaceport hosts one launch every month, at no small cost to the agencies who wish to transport their satellites into space. The price? Millions of Euros per kilo of payload.  At present there are three rockets: 1) Ariane 5, 2) Soyuz, and 3) Vega, with Ariane 6, a lighter, more aerodynamic rocket, on its way to replacing Ariane 5. Ariane 5 is the largest, most powerful of the three rockets, supported by two boosters and a motor called “Vulcan”—yes, like the Star Trek planet. Soyuz is financed and operated mostly by Russia, and Vega, the newest, is backed mostly by Italy. Soyuz is unique because, unlike Ariane 5 and Vega, it is assembled horizontally before being transported to its launch site. Most of the rockets’ parts are fabricated in Europe and sent in pieces to the space center for assembly. Due to the explosive nature of the powder that is needed to power the rockets, the fuel is produced on-site rather than shipped.

The rocket launch sites themselves were enormous: tall warehouse-type assembly buildings that jutted towards the sky paired with cavernous concrete tunnels shooting out diagonally on either side to accommodate incredible amounts of smoke and flames.

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CSG is also concerned with protecting the surrounding environment. Because much of the land it owns contains rare and endangered species, the center goes to great lengths to preserve the surrounding environment. It even goes so far as to have a team of environmentalists evacuate the birds to a different location before a launch—I have no idea how they accomplish this, especially since launches take place on a monthly basis. Fire safety is ensured by members of the Pompiers de Paris (Paris Fire Brigade), and security is maintained by the French Gendarmerie with assistance from the Légion Étrangère (French Foreign Legion).

After a short grocery run and light lunch at a café in Kourou’s centre-ville, we headed back to Cayenne to return the car and do a bit of shopping. It was a lovely break from the previous week consumed with applications and lesson planning, and to top it off, the rain finally stopped to let through a burning, hazy sunshine that I assume will be our reprieve for the short but welcome mini dry season that is March.

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