A few weeks ago, two other teaching assistants and I rented a car and embarked on a weekend of two once-in-a-lifetime adventures: witnessing a rocket launch and flying via ULM (ultralight flying machines—basically gliders) over the jungle.
Of course, as everything is here, the weekend was not without several bumps (and I’m not just talking about turbulence during the ULM flight).
On a Thursday night, 24 hours before the planned launch of Ariane 5, France and Europe’s pride, we learned that the launch had been postponed due to high winds and poor weather conditions. On Friday morning, we set out to Cayenne to rent the car and make our way to Macouria for our afternoon ULM flight. The rental agency had only one car available, and it was one of the more expensive plans. We decided to rent the car for the weekend, so that in case of another launch postponement, we would still be able to make it to Kourou. In addition, their credit card machine refused both our international debit cards as well as our French cards. Then, after sorting the payment out, the woman refused to put me on rental contract because my U.S. license was only dated to 2012 (when I turned 21), even though I have been driving since 2008. One of the other teaching assistants still hadn’t gotten her driver’s license. This meant that only one of us was legally eligible to drive the car (even though they had no problem putting me on the agreement the last time we had rented a car from them), and she had never driven an automatic before. Well, it was a weekend of firsts for all of us.
Shortly after having successfully rented the car, we got a call from one of the ULM pilots telling us we would have to postpone our flight until the following morning due to the same wind conditions that impeded the rocket launch preparation. No surprises here—such is the way of everything in Guyane. So we made the most of the day and having the car by enjoying soup at the market, hitting up the beach, the two largest supermarkets, and the only shopping mall in the country.
The next morning, we set out early for the ULM flight in the pouring rain, desperately hoping that it would clear up before our flight. We arrived to find two husky military men awaiting their flight before us, staring at us dubiously as we eyed the two ULM gliders. After getting over our initial pre-flight jitters, we took off! The gliders, which weighed about 400 kilos (about 880 pounds)—less than half the weight of a smart car—took off briefly from a short grassy runway, hobbled a little on the ascent as the winds picked up, but then settled into a calm, humming pace as we sailed at 500 meters (1640 feet) over the jungle below.
It was quite an experience—much more intimate than flying over in an enclosed plane. Despite the winds whipping so viciously that I found myself freezing cold even in my jacket, I was only slightly terrified—it was more exhilarating than nauseating. We flew towards Cayenne, which was smudged out by low hanging clouds and fog, then turned back and passed over the zoo and broccoli-sized forest before flying out over the sea. The beach and the ocean were the same color—a muddy tan swirled with dark brown silts. It made me remember what a truly unique, strange, and wonderful landscape Guyane has. Lingering fog added to the mystique we saw from overhead in that fleeting journey through the ciel (sky).
Montagne des Singes and Centre Kalawachi
With the free time we had between the ULM flight and the rocket launch, we decided to climb Montagne des Singes (Monkey Mountain), which ironically has no monkeys to speak of. We saw nothing, not even a sloth, or an exotic bird. The view from the top was expansive, overlooking the vast Centre Spatial Guyanais. It was difficult to tell through the mist, but we were sure we saw the ghostly white Ariane 5 rocket awaiting its fate on the horizon, between the land and sea.
On our way back to Kourou, we stopped at the Centre Kalawachi, an Amerindian cultural heritage center with two large carbets, one for guests to sling up hammocks and enjoy traditional manioc (cassava) and the other housing a small artifact exhibit and gift shop.
Ariane 5 Launch
After registering for our launch slots at the Kourou Médiathèque (media center, AKA library), we waited about an hour and were herded onto frigid, air-conditioned tour buses, where we waited for another hour before making the hour-long journey to our designated launch watch site, 7.5 km (about 4.6 miles) from the launch pad—close enough to have gas masks on hand in case of an emergency.
Ariane 5, at 53 meters tall with 774 tons of mass at lift-off, is enormous, making for a spectacular sight and sound. The total launch window, from take-off to satellite separation, was only 1 hour and 9 minutes, meaning the rocket was traveling about 20,000 km per hour, or 7.18 km per second (12,427.4 miles per hour, or 4.46 miles per second). The launch material itself was nothing special: two telecommunications satellites, Astra 5B and Amazonas 4A, to provide higher quality services and expand coverage in Europe and South America, respectively.
Within an hour of our arrival, we were fed ham and cheese sandwiches and maracudja (passion fruit) tarts and assembled on the pavement looking out over the launch site. Everyone was talking and prepping iPhones, iPads, and cameras for the spectacle. Rather suddenly, we became aware of someone on the television screen counting down…3…2…1. There was a moment of brief hesitation as the crowd stared, not a breath to be heard, at the launch pad. Right on cue, the main fuse lit and flames and smoke shot out to the left and right beneath the rocket as it lifted slowly off its base. The entire horizon glowed and lit up with a fierce white light. With the smoke and clouds, it was like watching the sun rise in a nuclear winter. After a few seconds of perfect clarity, the rocket disappeared into the thick clouds and continued to illuminate them from the inside. The crowd sighed a collective “Awww,” but was pacified by the approaching roar of the rocket as it broke the sound barrier. It was deafening—with the clouds obstructing our view, it sounded as though the rocket were right overhead, flying only a few hundred feet above us. As the sound emptied out, everyone retreated to the tent to watch the launch sequence on the television screens for a few minutes before we were herded back onto the buses.
Because the video I took was shaky, unclear, and dubbed by my lame commentary (“Whoaaa!”), here is the official video of the launch we saw. Even here, you can see that it was very cloudy, but that the rocket flames managed to ignite the sky.
To watch an Ariane 5 launch with great visibility, check out this one from 2012.
What I found most stunning about the launch, being there to witness a triumph of science in all respects, was the exact precision with which every step must be completed in order for a launch to succeed. For all of its success and reputation, Ariane 5 actually failed on its first launch, due to a minor miscalculation, exploding in mid-air and raining down on the jungle below. Here is the video:
Although it would have been nice to have a relaxing, uneventful Sunday, we had to take advantage of having a rented car all to ourselves, so we decided to go on a short hike next to Sentier de la Fort Diamant, a trail leading off of a former colonial outpost. We were followed by “Charlie,” a straggly stray dog with a strange gaping hole in its neck. It looked like a bullet wound (not that we would have any idea what that would look like), but we were later told that it was likely some kind of parasite.
As karma for having given my mother “[more] gray hair” at the idea of our ULM sky baptism, I extracted a vers de chien (dog worm) from my pinky toe the following evening after eyeing what looked like a suspicious wart for the last 24 hours. These are rare, but not uncommon: tiny worms that travel on dogs, cats, monkeys, and the like that burrow into your skin to lay their eggs (thanks, Charlie). Once I had cleaned out the lesion, I was left with a pink hole quite a few millimeters deep just above the nail on my little toe. Needless to say, I was disgusted. I took it as a sign that it’s nearly time to go back to the U.S.—I need a break from the insects here, especially the ants and mosquitoes. (And no, I don’t have any pictures. Too traumatized).
Les Savanes Roches (The Savannah Rocks)
The following weekend, three other teaching assistants and I drove two hours in the direction of Saint-Georges to the Savanes Roches Virginies, one of the Inselbergs (“lonely mountains,” like The Hobbit) of Guyane. We entered the forest warily, following the path marked by a stone arrow, aware of our decision to ignore the guidebooks’ recommendation to bring a seasoned jungle guide. Luckily, the trail was clear cut and partially marked. In the few instances where we questioned what resembled a fork in the path, we always found that one route was more visible than the other. From what we had read, we were supposed to undertake an hour-long trek through the carbon-heavy forest to the final 30-minute climb. The path through the jungle was, in fact, so flat, we doubted that we had taken the right trail in the first place. But just on time, the last 30 minutes of our trek took us up above the canopy, and we stepped out of the forest onto an enormous, smooth granite plain. The landscape had suddenly changed: this was the so-called savane (savannah) that blanketed Guyane from Regina to Saint-Georges, a drier landscape with small cacti, aloe, and wild orchids and other plants that thrive on rock and harsh soil. At first, our view was obstructed by the brush, but as we made our way out onto the rock, we were greeted with a stunning panorama of what might as well have been a moonscape: monoliths of powdery gray rock, smoothed by rain and wind, in the middle of the lush green jungle all around. (See if you can spot the poison dart frog in the pictures below):
On our way back through the thick jungle, we spotted nothing interesting. I remember longing to see a snake or tarantula in its natural habitat one last time before leaving Guyane. We had nearly reached the main road when my friend behind me made a kind of “Wwwoooaaahhh!” sound. I swiveled and in the leaves just beneath my feet, a brown, diamond-backed snake wriggled behind some dead leaves and proceeded to agitatedly rattle its tail in a threatening manner. “You stepped on THAT!” he said. I couldn’t help but laugh and attempt to peer around the brush to see if it was a good photo opportunity. Being the guidebook expert that he is, though, he urged us on, confident that the snake was a venomous species. I tried to spy its head to later be able to identify it—venomous snakes have a triangular head, the shape accounting for venom glands on either side of their jaw. Unfortunately, the snake was quite well hidden behind the leaves, but it continued its rattlesnake imitation—a trait often associated with dangerous snakes—until we passed by.
When I returned to school the next week, I explained the encounter to several teachers who know extremely well the animals of Guyane. After some dispute, we concluded that it was most likely the grage, the largest venomous snake in South America. The one thing everyone agreed on: I was extremely lucky not to have gotten bitten, especially after stepping on it, let alone coming into close contact with it. We were about an hour away from the nearest medical center, which would have been in Saint-Georges, where I used to work, and was only open Monday through Friday from 8:00 am to 12:00 pm. The other option would have been to get airlifted to the hospital in Cayenne, where, without a proper identification of the snake, treatment could be utterly useless.
La Dernière Soirée
Last weekend, about twenty of the teaching assistants met up in Kourou for our last party together. We rented out a carbet on the beach, a line of colorful hammocks slung up side by side, one last time. In the morning, we were greeted by the sun and wind and ran down to the ocean to make the most of our remaining time together.
It was strange, having to say goodbye after such a seemingly short time of knowing each other, having really only spent that brief first week in Cayenne at the Maison de l’Éducation together. We had really become a team, braving the South American jungle and sharing the ups and downs of our teaching experiences as well as our travels in Guyane and abroad together.
After another vague response about the prolongation of the teaching assistant contract (something about not having enough money in the budget, only wanting to retain a couple of European assistants, etc.), I decided to leave at the end of my contract in April, head to London as planned to visit family and friends, and return home in early May. In fact, I will be home on 6th May, marking just over seven months of being outside of the U.S.—the longest I have ever been away from home, and yet, I am at home in the world.
“You will never be completely at home again because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of knowing and loving people in more than one place.” –Miriam Adeney