After seven months, the longest I have ever been away from the United States, my home, my family, my time in Guyane has come to an end.
I began wrapping up my affairs in Guyane on Wednesday, when I went to the Rectorat first thing in the morning to pick up my birth certificate, its French translation, and my payslips (which are necessary for me to reap the full benefits of the French social system when I retire). Unfortunately, all of my payslips were still in Saint-Georges, where they had been mailed even after I began working in Roura. Just a regular French administrative, bureaucratic oversight. And something I’ll have to follow up on after I return home.
I met with my bank account manager to fill out a form for an international wire transfer and had to explain that the U.S. does international routing codes differently from European countries. Yet another administrative difference I cannot understand about my country; although I would say our refusal to adopt the metric system is far worse.
Relieved to have accomplished those tasks, I walked the perimeter of Cayenne to the large covered market for one last soup at the bustling corner stand where the teaching assistants meet every Wednesday for “Soup Time.” We ate at one high table with the teaching assistants and the mother and two daughters of the Hmong family who had graciously hosted my friend and I during our weekend in Cacao. And that became the first of the goodbyes.
That evening, just as the sun was beginning to set, my friend and I walked to the beach to look for sea turtles laying their eggs. The conditions were right: the waning full moon was out, the high tide was receding, and the curtain of night was descending. We listened to music as we sat on the rocks and watched the clouds turn from grey to blue to pink to purple and then inky black. When night fell, we began to walk toward the salines, salt marshes, where there are no lights to hassle the turtles as they labor over their nests.
Suddenly, I noticed the trail of an enormous turtle who had made her way up onto the beach and had already begun digging her nest, her fin feet flinging sand behind her in long, heavy strokes. She was breathing heavily. We lowered ourselves onto the sand several feet away so as not to disturb her, and watched, mesmerized, as she continued to dig. Without much warning, the wind picked up and we were pelted with raindrops, huddling against each other and humming “La Vie en Rose” to stay warm.
The tortues luth have very few defenses: instead of a shell, they have thick, oily skin, giving them their “leatherback” name. Instead of webbed feet like land tortoises, they have fin-shaped limbs for swimming. They are enormous: 1.8 to 2 meters (6 to 7 feet) in length and weighing, on average, 384 kilos (847 pounds). During breeding season, females lay around 110 eggs, 85% of which will hatch. Each female lays up to nine of these “clutches” of eggs each season. In Guyane, the nesting period is from late March to late August.
I remember witnessing one of the last newly hatched turtles to make its way to the sea on my first weekend on the beach in October. Seeing the baby turtle stumble into the crashing foamy waves one week after arrival, and then the gigantic mother laboring and laying her eggs at night in the pelting rain under the full moon just before my departure was a metaphor for my experience in Guyane coming full-circle, the cycle of life completing another turn.
La Dernière Journée à l’École (The Last Day at School)
My last day at school passed in a blur. I began the morning at the maternelle (preschool), where I had some Easter coloring for my kids. I told them all that it was our last day together, how much I would miss them, and why it was important for them to keep practicing English. They asked me why I was leaving and where I was going, and clung to me as the bell sounded shrilly for la récré (recess). Even after all the pains of keeping them well-behaved, which was truly character-building, they had always been innocent and curious. I had tears in my eyes as I finished my last class and walked to the gate for the last time, a few of them following me and waving goodbye.
At the école (elementary school), I stopped by each classroom to say a proper goodbye, to finish the sad part before celebrating English and my time there with a big party in the afternoon. For the last two weeks, my students had been preparing final projects. The little ones drew monsters and then labeled their body parts with numbers and colors. A slightly older class colored the flags of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Two intermediate classes made small posters about themselves with drawings and captions in English. My oldest class worked in groups to complete research and make posters about the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. All their work was hung outside the line of classrooms, and I was so proud of what they had accomplished. I really challenged them to speak and write in English, and they surpassed my expectations for students at their age.
I had planned an hour-long English celebration for the end of the day. The students gathered in the central carbet and the little ones sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Oh Sun, Sun, Mister Golden Sun.” The whole school joined in for a roaring round of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” then we played Simon Says and a similar actions game, where the winners from each class received lollipops.
At the end, the Directeur thanked me for my work and a couple students from the percussion class began a song. I instantly recognized the rhythm, the melody, the drumbeats of a traditional Guyanese song, though the paroles (lyrics) had changed to a cheerful round of “Au revoir.” One of my fellow teachers, a beautiful Creole woman who was always impeccably dressed in bright matching colors, began to dance, the steps uniquely Guyanese. And she pulled me onto the floor with her, the students and other teachers clapping in time.
All too soon, the bell rang and the children were shuffling onto the bus, waving and crying out, “Au revoir, Andréa!” And that was it.
La Dernière Soirée
The last teaching assistant party was organized by the Rectorat, who told us to meet at sunset at a carbet near the salines on the beach in Rémire-Montjoly. As it turned out, there was no carbet, but we were lucky enough to find one last time the kindness of strangers: the nearby restaurant agreed to host our potluck party at no cost, even providing glasses, tablecloths, and silverware.
There was a looming sadness over the night, even though we heartily enjoyed the last of each other’s company. We left the restaurant at midnight and finished off the party with a few hours of pool and hot tub time at my friend’s house. Then some of the assistants left to go home, and we clung to each other, not wanting to say goodbye.
On Saturday morning, those of us who slept over woke early and ate some pains au chocolat, weary and unwilling to part. Then, each of us left one by one, and I had to say goodbye to two of my closest friends. We hugged repeatedly and insisted that it was not goodbye, but the beginning of a long distance, traveling friendship. And just like that, I left in the pouring rain, as though even the skies were crying for our departure.
I had lunch with one of my fellow teachers, the first Roura colleague I met, who drove me between Rémire-Montjoly and the small town when I wanted to visit friends. My host mom came to pick me up, and we enjoyed a last coffee before saying “Au revoir.”
Today, I will exchange gifts with my host family as we have our last lunch outside on the beautiful terrace overlooking the jungle canopy in the back garden. Then my host mom and sister will drive me to the airport, where I remember arriving seven months ago, clueless and slightly terrified but content to be starting anew.
Then for the next two weeks, something familiar: London. And on the 6th of May…home.
I dedicate this blog
To everyone who welcomed me in this strange and beautiful place I have come to love.
To all the incredibly strong, brave, independent women I met: my roommate in Saint-Georges, my host mom in Roura who left France with her husband and children because of the remarks they encountered about being a metisse (mixed) family, my fellow teacher in Roura who left France with her husband and small children to teach in French international schools around the world when her family told her it was too dangerous, the Hmong teacher in Cacao who does everything to make sure her students live up to their potential, and my friends’ host mothers in Rémire-Montjoly who have encountered loss and learned how to be happy again.
To the teachers who dedicate their lives to educating and defending the rights of students.
To my fellow teaching assistants, whose friendship and laughter saved me from the sadness of being alone in a new place.
To my students and to all the children of Guyane, whose innocence and beauty has taught me about the true importance of life, and what it really means to change the world.
I’m not sure if I will ever come back to Guyane. I would love to—there are still places I want to see, people I would like to visit, but it is still difficult and expensive to get to. I had no idea when I arrived how attached I would become to this forgotten little corner of South America. In spite of all that, this place has had a profound effect on me and on the trajectory of my life.
30,000 words: 7 months, 2 schools, 2 towns, 2 homes, 33 teaching assistants, and hundreds of children have been the substance of that which I have written. Thank you for reading my blog—I hope it’s not my last. I have a feeling this is only the beginning of the adventure, and so I leave you with a wish and a song.
N’ayez jamais peur de la vie, n’ayez jamais peur de l’aventure, faites confiance au hasard, à la chance, à la destinée. Partez, allez conquérir d’autres espaces, d’autres espérances. Le reste vous sera donné de surcroît. –Henry de Monfreid
(Never be afraid of life, never be afraid of adventure, trust in chance, luck, and destiny. Leave, go conquer other spaces, other hopes. The rest will be added unto.)
“We Are” by E.sy Kennenga