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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Au Bagne: Les Îles du Salut

Last weekend a friend and I traveled to les Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands) off the coast of Kourou, French Guiana. (Kourou is where the Centre Spatial Guyanais—space center—is located, about an hour outside of Cayenne). Les Îles du Salut are known for their dark, mysterious history as the site of France’s old penal colonies. If you have read the book Papillon or seen the film, you know the basics.

We left early on Saturday morning, toting our hamacs, bottled water, bread, salami, fruits, and granola (there is only one place to buy food and water on the islands, the Auberge des Îles, and it is horrendously expensive). After getting dropped off at the dock by a taxi collectif, we waited for a couple of hours for the catamaran to take us to the islands, about a 45-minute ride on the open water of the Atlantic.

The catamaran was huge—it had a maximum capacity of 80 people. Luckily the morning’s rain showers ceased by the time we boarded the boat, so we were treated to blue sky, sun, and stunning (though a bit cloudy) turquoise water (quite different from the sediment-filled waters of the coastline). Despite the beautiful weather, the water was rough. For such a huge boat, the destabilizing effect of the current was incredible. The craft was tossed violently by waves coming in the opposite direction. I love boats, and I normally do not suffer from motion sickness, but this was the most nauseous I have ever felt due to movement. My friend and I were laying on the nets at the front of the boat, so we probably felt the most swaying, but it was impossible to avoid the fresh air and the stunning view. I could have kissed the ground when we arrived.

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The islands that make up les Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands) are Île Royale, Île Saint Joseph, and Île du Diable (the infamous Devil’s Island). Île Royale serves as the main island, as it is the largest and the only one to have guest lodgings (a hotel, old guards’ barracks, and hammock rooms). Île Saint Joseph is still occupied by military personnel, and it is open to the public (accessible from Île Royale by catamaran and a small shuttle), but it is uninhabited. Île du Diable is no longer maintained and is therefore off limits to the public, except for a few private boat owners who brave the vicious currents between the islands to explore the notorious prison site. Each of the islands is quite small, and can be circumvented in under two hours. For this reason, when people stay overnight on the Île Royale, they travel in large groups and bring coolers filled with food and wine to enjoy the ambience of the islands en famille.

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Once we hung up our hammocks in the carbet, we set out to explore Île Royale. After descending a steep stone staircase from the Auberge to the rocks and sea below, we were greeted by an imposing view of Île du Diable across the thick slabs of black volcanic rock and milky turquoise waters. There were signs warning visitors of the dangerous current (which I did not question given our experience on the boat crossing). We relaxed on the rocks and ate a papaya, watched a rainbow form over a thundercloud in the distance, and laid in the sun. We returned to our hammocks after about two hours, just in time to escape a sudden rainstorm that lasted until dark. Feeling hungry and bored, we trekked acrosos the old guards’ barracks with headlamps and flashlights to the Auberge, where we ate ham sandwiches and waited out another downpour. Newspaper clippings on the wall recounted tales of monster fish being caught around the islands, including sharks. Eventually we meandered back to the carbet and tucked in for a long night of pouring rain, ceaseless snoring, and the haunting feeling of being watched from long ago.

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The next morning, I awoke suddenly at 6:30 am to bright sun streaming in through the bars on the window and the sound of something clambering across the rooftop. Monkeys! We quickly dressed and went to the trail with bananas and granola bars. One monkey greeted us amicably from his branch, and when we offered a piece of banana, he shook the branch and cried out. Within minutes, we were surrounding by twenty of them, cautiously wandering over to us and holding out their tiny hands (like a child’s) for pieces of food. We tried to build a rapport with them, distributing the food equally and not teasing. Shortly after, I placed a piece of banana on my shoulder and had a monkey jump down from his branch onto my arm, as if he were my pet. It was an incredible experience that verified how much monkeys are like humans. They took the food with their hands, rather than with their mouths, and made little noises in acknowledgement of our gift. When they looked at us, which they did—making full eye contact—their eyes were full of wonder and emotion, just like a child. When they finished our last bit of granola, they ran back into the trees, disappearing high into the branches to avoid the daily incoming tourists.

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Later that day, we boarded a small shuttle to Île St. Joseph, the only other island open to the public. That was where we saw the cells. In the center of the island, atop a large hill, thick concrete walls now permeated by winding tendrils of jungle plants marked where men had slept, waited for eternity, to be freed from that inferno. They represented that despite the beauty of the islands, they had a haunting past that could not be erased in any amount of time, even as those walls decayed into the surrounding environment. The rest of the island was bordered by huge black rocks, made smooth by the pounding waves of the Atlantic. There was a little beach of crushed shells next to an old cemetery overlooking Île du Diable, where we stopped to sit and watch children playing in the knee-deep water. After a little while, we meandered back to the dock, where we boarded the shuttle back to Île Royale, to wait for the catamaran to take us back to the mainland. That crossing, too, was nervewracking. The little boat, at its maximum capacity of twelve people, was tossed by the waves, declaring just how impossible escape was for those imprisoned on those islands nearly a hundred years before.

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What we discovered that weekend was a seemingly untouched tropical paradise, juxtaposed with the ruins of the penal colonies that used to inhabit the “salvation” islands. I am currently reading a book called Au Bagne by Albert Londres, a journalistic inquiry into the prisons that was published in 1923, one year before they were shut down (largely because he had exposed their horror). As my proprietor Maryse said, “Il décrit la folie des hommes.” (“He describes the insanity of mankind”). What she was talking about was not the crimes of the men who were imprisoned there, but rather the incomprehensible, inhuman torture that was inflicted upon them by those who claimed to be agents of justice. Prisoners, once they survived the long trans-Atlantic voyage by boat, had to face malnutrition, disease, an inhospitable climate, and unspeakable punishments: torturous inquisitions, heavy manual labor, animal treatment. In cells that were open to the sky with merely a metal grate to prevent escape, they endured the impossible heat of direct sun, as well as the pounding rainstorms that plague the region from December to April. And during that time, the mosquito-borne illnesses that are not as prevalent in Guyane today were rampant: malaria, yellow fever, dengue.

Albert Londres shares some of the words he observed carved into the walls of the prison cells:

J’ai vu. J’ai cru. J’ai pleuré.

(I saw. I believed. I cried.)

Le Passé m’a trompé
Le Présent me tourmente
L’Avenir m’épouvante.

(The Past has cheated me
The Present torments me
The Future terrifies me.)

For what is now an island sanctuary for those who want to “escape” from the working life in Guyane was once a living hell, from which one could never escape. So many committed petty crimes or were accused of wrongs they did not commit at all. And when you are at Îles du Salut, you cannot forget its past: the ruins of the old buildings still stand, hauntingly overgrown by the wild jungle around. That history is undeniable.

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So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Vacances de Toussaint

After three weeks of working, we teaching assistants were rewarded with a blissful two weeks of vacation for the Toussaint holiday. Toussaint is the French version of All Saints’ Day or Día de los Muertos in the Latin world. Every year it falls on the 1st of November, the day the U.S. bears its Halloween hangover. The people of Guyane are très croyant, meaning they have strong beliefs and take the holiday very seriously. Surprisingly though, it is not so much a sad time, as a time to remember loved ones and celebrate their lives en famille (with the family). The whole week before Toussaint, the cemeteries are very active. People come to clean and repair the tombs of their friends and relatives, bringing flowers and candles in preparation for the celebration. Then after sunset, on the day, they visit the cemeteries with their families, bringing food and drink, which they consume on the tombs themselves.

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The night of Toussaint, we went to the largest cemetery in the country (in downtown Cayenne) to observe the practice. Lightbulbs were strung across the sky and lovely church hymns reverberated throughout the graveyard. Nearly every grave was adorned with beautiful flowers in every color, as well as little red candles, which illuminated the plaques and carvings. I was struck by the portion of the cemetery reserved for children. There were hundreds, maybe a thousand small graves marking the short lives of little ones. We took no pictures (but here is one from another blog), only walked quietly among the tombs, nodding in greeting to the families as respectfully as possible as third-party outsiders.

Observing Toussaint made me realize the importance of setting aside a public holiday to remember the dead. Obviously each religion in the U.S. has a specific time set aside for honoring lost loved ones, but there was such a unity among everyone here. In all fairness though, the vast majority of the population is Christian, so it is more difficult to create public holidays like Toussaint in the U.S. where there is more diversity. But the practice of setting aside a day, even a non-religious observance for honoring the dead, would be a nice way to improve family and community dynamics.

For most of the vacation, my friend and I stayed in Rémire-Montjoly and did lots of laundry and cooked for ourselves. We tried to save money by walking a couple kilometers to a large-ish supermarket (by “large,” I mean small to medium by U.S. standards) and buying the cheapest fruits, vegetables, and meal ingredients. Unfortunately, we realized that it is even difficult to save money here by cooking instead of eating out because food is so expensive. At the supermarket, we saw mushrooms for sale at €27 per kilo. Although there are many farmers throughout the country, the soil is not very arable, and the land and jungle brush must be burned to clear a plot of land and renew the terrain.

So we spent more than we would have liked, but by staying home, we also profited from the beautiful beaches, deserted by the métropoles who flocked to Paris for the holiday.

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Carbet Redux

One weekend, we returned to the carbet, only this time with half the people, as the other host family members traveled to France for their holiday. As this was my second time there, I really came to appreciate the beauty of the treehouse (and the welcome fully-functioning toilet and sink with running water). We slung up our hammocks and enjoyed merguez (spicy African sausage—the French love this—so much better than hot dogs) and baked potatoes, as well as rosé, rum, and pear schnapps.

I woke abruptly in the middle of the night to a loud metallic sound. At first I thought nothing of it, though evidently boats and motors are often stolen in the cover of darkness. Then I heard my friend’s host father slide out of his hammock and go down to the dock, no light on, and plunge into the water. I waited, my heart racing, and then I heard him yell, “Ça coule!” which means, “It’s sinking.” Yes—the boat, which was our only reliable form of transportation back upriver to the cars (the jetski’s motor was not running at full capacity) was perpendicular in the water and going down at 4:30 in the morning. We rushed down to help—I held up flashlights while the host parents righted the boat and bailed out water with pots and pans. Needless to say, it was difficult to fall back to sleep. I have to admit, though, that my second hammock experience was infinitely more comfortable than the first. I had used a cloth hammock, and the fabric kept my warm and was more stable when I turned during the night.

When we woke up, we noticed three little bats swinging sleepily above us. It was the coolest bit of nature we saw all week.

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Cacao

From the carbet on the second day, we took the boat and jetski fifteen minutes downriver to Cacao, a small village in the jungle home to Hmong people, the first generation of whom were originally settled there by the French government after post-Vietnam War persecution in Laos. The Hmong people have created an incredible life for themselves in French Guiana. They are mostly farmers, and they sell their crops all over the country. Their homes started out as small wooden shacks, but are now gorgeous bungalows with terraces and beautiful views on the land.

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We arrived in Cacao in time for the celebration of the Hmong New Year, when members of the community dress in traditional clothing and enjoy traditional dance, music, food, and entertainment. There is a particular game called pov pob that Hmong teenagers play at this time that consists of girls and boys standing in lines opposite each other and tossing balls back and forth. When someone drops the ball, they give an ornament to the other player and sing love songs and poems to try to get the ornament back. It is a sweet and innocent courtship that forges many marriages among the Hmong people.

In Cacao, which is in a valley, the air was so hot it was difficult to breathe. It was undoubtedly the hottest it has been since my arrival here. Sweat was pouring down the front and back of my body. When we dismounted the boat, we sunk ankle-deep into mud softened by the brutal heat. I nearly lost a precious flip flop (no really, the price of sandals is no joke here).

We walked around the market stalls, which are bizarrely tall for an interesting reason. When the Hmong were resettled in Guyane, they requested a space to sell their goods and were granted a market building by the French government. The creole population became angry due to their lack of support, and when consulted to build the market, built the stalls uncomfortably high for the Hmong, who are a rather short people. (I personally found that I fit in quite perfectly size-wise among the Hmong).

For sale at the market were fresh exotic fruits, colorful cloth goods, and traditional Hmong foods, especially soup. I was amazed at how the community could thrive on the income of selling soup in such a hot climate, but that is undoubtedly visitors’ favorite dish. We enjoyed some of the soup and egg rolls during a vicious rainstorm that quickly cooled the earth.

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On the way back to the carbet, we were supposed to waterski but were thwarted by an afternoon thunderstorm. “À la prochaine,” the host father told us (“Next time”). We finally packed up the hammocks and coolers to return to the cars upriver. When we docked the boat, the host parents told us to wait and hold it there in the knee-deep water until they pulled the cars up. In the meantime, however, two other cars pulled into place, and the boat owners told us, “Bougez, s’il vous plait!” (“Move, please”), so we obliged. I took the rear of the boat, backing up as the car advanced into the water until I could no longer hold my ground. Mind you, I was fully clothed, but such is life in Guyane. C’est la vie en Guyane. The car ride home was a bit squishy.

Rorota

On the last full day of our two-week holiday, we went on a hike at Sentier du Rorota, a public jungle preserve. We had hoped to see some wildlife other than the typical palm trees and bamboo, but there were quite a few people and it was the end of the day, so we walked fast, trying to beat the sunset. No such luck. Ironically, the next morning, I ran into a friend’s host parents who had just come from the same trek and had seen sloths, monkeys, a huge iguana, and parrots. It was a gorgeous two-and-a-half mile trek, wildlife or not. There were little waterfalls, a lake, thick and tangled tree roots, massive bamboo shoots, and extraordinary views of the beach hundreds of feet below.

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On a side note, I got paid 80% of the first month’s salary by November. Not bad in terms of French bureaucracy.

À tout à l’heure!

Petites Vacances

For a few weekends in October, I returned to Cayenne to finish some administrative paperwork, open a bank account, and pick up some items that are not readily available in St. Georges (i.e. sunscreen and contact lens solution). I stayed with another teaching assistant who is living with a host family in Rémire-Montjoly, a beach-lined suburb of Cayenne with stucco houses, swimming pools, and lots of bougainvillea. Compared to my life in St. Georges, it is like a different world altogether, and I was able to see some of the cultural and class divides between métropole French residents and native locals.

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According to the 2009 census, 56.3% of French Guiana’s inhabitants were born there, 9.3% were born in metropolitan France (hence the term métropoles), 2.9% were born in the French Caribbean (Guadeloupe and Martinique), and 31.3% were born elsewhere (mainly Suriname, Haiti, and Brazil). (Source: “French Guiana” on Wikipedia. Much as I hate to use Wikipedia as a “source,” there really is a huge information gap on French Guiana.) These statistics also fail to account for the Amerindien population here, which contributes enormously to the cultural and linguistic diversity. Living in St. Georges and visiting Rémire-Montjoly, I can say I have observed “how the other half lives,” including both the bourgeoisie and the native locals. But enough about demography. Plenty of time for blogging later about that.

There and Back Again

To get to Cayenne, which is a three-hour drive from St. Georges, there are two options: 1) Take a taxi collectif (a shared van) for €31 (€40 for pick-up and drop-off service); or 2) Find a covoiturage (carpool) on Blada.com’s Petites Annonces section. So far, I have taken the taxi twice and found three covoiturages. Although the taxis can be less awkward and more anonymous, especially when you and the driver are the only people in a covoiturage, but I so far I have enjoyed the conversations I have had with complete strangers, who have been welcoming and offered to show me around in their free time.

Covoiturage is a bit like what we would consider hitchhiking in the U.S., but it is slightly safer and more reputable. When someone is driving between two cities in Guyane, they will post an announcement on Blada.com. They expect additional riders to contribute to l’essence (gas, petrol), so it is not free, but it is certainly cheaper than the taxis. On my way back to St. Georges from Cayenne once, the driver decided to fill up the tank. It was the first time I had been to a gas station here, and I was curious to see the difference in price. Needless to say, I was horrified when I saw the number in Euros, then did the conversion to dollars. It looked something like this:

32 litres of gas: €55.00 = 8.45 gallons: $74.55
= $8.82 per gallon

As of October 6th, the average gas price in the U.S. was $3.38 per gallon for regular, making gas here cost over twice as much. That, combined with the fact that it is incredibly difficult to get anywhere without a car, plus the fact that practically 98% of everything here is imported, is just a snapshot of how expensive it is to live here. While residents may be better off under the French education and welfare systems, they certainly have to pay a pretty penny for daily necessities, especially compared to neighbors Brazil and Suriname, where everything—but especially food—is much cheaper.

My most recent taxi collectif experiences getting from St. Georges to Cayenne were a bit of a nightmare (though all things considered, it could have been much worse). I waited an hour each time for the van to fill up (they will not leave until every seat is occupied). The first time around, the van was air conditioned, which I thought was a nice surprise. The next morning though, I woke up with a raging sore throat, probably due to the fact that I went from having no air conditioning whatsoever (in 34 degrees Celsius, 93 degrees Fahrenheit) to being plunged into a freezing vehicle with the vent blowing directly on me. It has been just over two weeks now, and I am still fighting this cold.

The second nightmarish taxi experience, two men got into a fistfight (in broad daylight, mind you), and one of them got into the van and sat down right next to me. He also happened to smell like he had not showered in several weeks. And this was the non-air conditioned taxi. So you begin to see why I prefer covoiturage.

“Why don’t I take a bus,” you might ask. In the month that I have been here, I have seen no more than five buses. You can wait at a bus stop for hours, having read the schedule correctly, and still have a better chance of getting picked up by a kind, random stranger.

La Vie en Famille

One of the nicest parts of spending time with my friend and her host family is having the chance to interact with a French family and their circle of friends. They have hosted teaching assistants before, and they are always willing to share their food, culture, and language. We have enjoyed lovely afternoon meals in the shade away from the afternoon sun, and had productive conversations about differences between life in France (or in this case, La Guyane) and the U.S. I have found that no matter where I am, participating in family life is one of the keys to cultural acceptance and adaptation, and that is no exception here.

Weekend Activities

During the weekends I have spent in Rémire-Montjoly, we have spent time at the beach, the pool, and in the jungle. The beach here is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, soft brown sand lined with palm trees under azure sky. The water, however, is not quite paradise. Thanks to a huge influx of sediments from Amazon tributaries, it is cloudy, murky, and not at all turquoise. But that is a small price to pay. I have bathed in both river and ocean here, and I still prefer the sea. Another item to note: the “ocean” to which I am referring is in fact the Atlantic, and not the Caribbean. French Guiana is a few hours on a plane east of the Caribbean. At times it does feel like the Caribbean, though. There are sea turtles (we have seen a few struggling babies), coconuts (though not the typical kind), and deserted islands on the distant horizon.

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One weekend, the host families took us to the carbet, a type of lodging in the middle of the jungle where you sling up hammocks, roast freshly caught fish over a fire, and jump off a rope swing into a murky brown river (that may or may not contain piranhas, snakes, and alligators). I have only been camping once in my life, and I have to admit, doing it in the South American jungle was a fantastic experience. I would not hesitate to go again.

We parked the cars at a boat launch an hour south of Cayenne, filled three motorboats with coolers containing wine, chicken, twenty or so baguettes (the French really do love bread), Prince cookies, and other sustenance; and large waterproof plastic containers stuffed with hammocks and duvets. Then we made our way about fifteen minutes downriver to a small tributary, where in the middle of the desolate jungle was a beautiful two-story tree house, complete with a bar, long dining table, and spiral staircase.

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After unpacking, we ate lunch and the other twenty-somethings and I took one of the motorboats deeper into the forest down the tributary, hoping to spot some monkeys or even a snake. No such luck. We did take a plunge into the water, which was impossibly deep and refreshingly cooler than the pool or the ocean. When we returned to the carbet, dinner was being prepared and we sat down for a few rounds of La Belote, a complicated French card game that I have spent hours playing here and still do not fully comprehend.

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At night, we snuggled into our hammocks. I was surprised at how chilly the night air was. Even with yoga pants, a rain jacket, and two blankets, I was shivering. It was the coldest I have been since I arrived. As I mentioned in my last blog post, the jungle was incredibly active once we (the humans) went to sleep. I heard all kinds of noises, animals scouring ceaselessly until the first light of dawn. It should go without saying that I had a difficult time falling asleep, and staying that way. Perhaps I was too afraid of falling out and remained too stiff, but I found that sleeping in a hammock was uncomfortable and overrated. Both my legs cramped up from sleeping as straight as a log and letting all the blood rush down from my toes. I was thankful once the dawn arrived, and remarkably well-rested given the rough night.

The next day we lingered around the dock, jumping off the rope swing and trying to touch the bottom of the river. Three of us stood on each other’s shoulders in an attempt to reach the deepest part and barely made it. Then came the fun part: the jet ski. My friend’s host father took another teaching assistant and I out to the main river, where he tried every trick he could to dislodge us from the back of the watercraft. We managed to stay on, but only with a good bit of shrieking and balancing on my part. Never in my life did I think my first jet ski ride would be on an Amazon tributary.

More adventures to come…stay tuned!

La Vie à St. Georges de l’Oyapock (et au Brésil)

I won’t lie. In spite of the various setbacks of living in a place that is somewhat off the map (lack of internet, reliable electricity, and potable water, etc.), it is a charmed life here. There is a beautiful quality to the simplicity of this lifestyle. Everyone knows everyone and says “Bonjour” to strangers on the street. There are only two shops where everyone buys their groceries. There is one post office, one bank, one restaurant/hotel, one health center (the closest “full-service” hospital is three hours away in Cayenne). There are no complicated choices: whether to buy Tide or Purex, shop at WalMart or Target, invest in Apple or Google stocks. The people are much closer to the land, to each other. There is a very tangible sense of humanity present here.

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Daily Life

Despite having only arrived two weeks ago, I find myself settled into a small routine here, which I find is always necessary for adapting to one’s environment and feeling at home in a strange place.

Every weekday morning, I wake up at 6:00 am, shower and dress, then walk down to the dock where my pirogue is waiting to take me across the river from Brazil to French Guiana. I stop by the patisserie on my way to school to pick up two plain croissants for breakfast and a pain au chocolat for an afternoon snack. On my short walk I pass familiar faces, many of them children in my classes, saying to me, “Good morning, Madame Andréa!” or “Good morning, teacher!”

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I typically teach a few classes in the morning and a few classes in the afternoon each day, with a three- to four-hour break in between. During the heat of the midday sun, the school closes and children return home for lunch and a siesta. To avoid paying the €5 round-trip fee to cross the river to my place in Brazil and back, I plop myself down at a table at Chez Modestine, the only hotel and restaurant in St. Georges, and the only place with free Wi-Fi. Modestine is great for people-watching, blogging, sipping an icy Coke, and meeting new locals.

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I finish classes around 5:00 pm, when I head down to the river, hail a pirogue (okay, not exactly like a taxi), and cross back over to Brazil.

On Wednesdays, school ends early, so a few other teachers and I take a pirogue down the river to a small restaurant and beach just south of Oiapock. On the way, we pass under the bridge that connects French Guiana to Brazil. The bridge, which has been complete for a few years, is still closed while France and Brazil work out their trade agreements. It is much easier to cross the border by pirogue, as there are no passport checks. At the restaurant, we share amuse-bouches (appetizers, literally “mouth teasers”), batatas fritas (fries), and viande (steak) or poisson (fish), then head down to the river for a swim.

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The past couple of weekends I have returned to Cayenne, specifically the community of Rémire-Montjoly, to stay with another language assistant and her host family, so I have yet to experience a weekend in St. Georges.

Casa da Maryse

The cluster of bungalows where I am currently living with another teacher is known as Casa da Maryse, named after Maryse, the proprietor, a lively older woman from Montpellier in southern France. She has been living there for seven years, maintaining the bungalows and the surrounding property by touring the terrain daily, machete in hand to chop the undesirable jungle plants that spring up after each rainstorm. Maryse has cultivated a beautiful garden, with wild orchids blooming on tree trunks, mango and lime trees, the obligatory bougainvillea, and other flora native to the Amazon region. The other day I toured the entire property with her and was amazed at her youthful capacity to walk purposefully from plant to plant, on rough and sloping terrain, bending down to tend to every leaf and bloom.

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The bungalow where I live has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, an outdoor living area, an indoor living area, and a small kitchen. There is also a washing machine at the back of the house, which I have yet to use, as I am too afraid to know what creatures might be sharing that space…

In the bathrooms, there are electric shower heads that allow you to select hot, lukewarm, or cold water by flipping a switch. Unfortunately, the cold water is freezing, and the “lukewarm” setting tends to scorch, so I find myself alternating between the two every minute or so. Luckily, the water is potable at Casa da Maryse, though it is not at all safe for drinking on most of that side of the river. There are also screens on the windows which help to keep the mosquitoes at bay, though they always seem to find their way through the cracks. There is no air conditioning (rough at times when you’re living on the Equator), so we open all the windows and doors during the day, and at night–with the help of a ceiling fan–it cools down nicely.

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At night the sounds of the jungle come to life. As one another assistant said, “The expresssion ‘The city never sleeps’ is a rip-off to forests everywhere. They are, in fact, the ultimate at-all-hours sound-making machines.” (A.S.) I will occasionally wake to a strange animal cry, but for the most part, I feel safe with the window shutters locked and the doors barred.

In spite of my “routine” here, I have realized that the only real routine anyone has here is not having one. Everything is about the moment: what is happening now, who is going where at this moment. So, in my quest to fully adapt, I will also have to relinquish any attachment to my small daily routine to ease into the ebb and flow of life on the river.

Les Premiers Jours

25 September 2013

I am sitting in the common area of our current lodging just outside of Cayenne, French Guiana. My surroundings are simple, and brightly colored. We have been put up at the Maison de l’Education for our first week in Guyane, a sort of guest house for academic visitors.

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There are 33 assistants in total, though not all of them have arrived yet. Everyone hails from the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Brazil, Suriname, and Holland. In our short time here, having arrived just 2 days ago, we have already shared cultural experiences and linguistic barriers.

My favorite new word, taught to me by a new friend, is “wahalla,” which means “drama.” It comes from the Yoruba language, which is spoken mostly in Nigeria but also in Bahia, Brazil. Wahalla provides an accurate description of some of the difficulties we have already encountered in getting situated here. There is little administrative guidance, but luckily the locals are very friendly and always willing to help, without receiving anything but good conversation in return. It is a nice change from the U.S., where everyone is seemingly too busy to lend a hand to a stranger.

Journeying to French Guiana

To backtrack a bit, I left on Sunday, 23 September at 3:00 pm from New York on a plane to Trinidad and randomly met another girl from the program. We stopped in Tobago for 45 minutes to let passengers off and on for the 15-minute flight to Trinidad. It was strange to think that a Boeing 737 would operate for such a short flight. In Trinidad, we met up with 3 others from the program and boarded a plane to Paramaribo, Suriname, where we encountered another teaching assistant (putting our total at 6—there are only so many ways you can get to this corner of South America).

Two other girls and I had reserved a guest house for the night, but given that it was 2:00 am by the time we had landed and passed through customs, we all decided to crash in the airport until our 11:15 am flight to Cayenne, French Guiana. The airport staff were not quite sure what to do with us. We were escorted to the departures hall, where we snoozed until we were promptly awakened at 6:00 am by the same woman to check in for our flight. It was kind of her to do so before the end of her 12:00 to 8:00 am shift, as we would not have known where to go otherwise. In the check-in line, we met another teaching assistant, making our grand total 7.

When we finally arrived in Cayenne, after flying over hundreds of miles of pristine jungle and thick brush, where we waited for about an hour for the person who was supposed to meet us. We suddenly had to resort to French, which most of us had not spoken in a while, to ask the information desk if we could make a phone call. At that very moment, our coordinator arrived, but announced that she could only take a few of us at a time.When we hauled all of our luggage to the car, the trunk would not open—because of the heat. So we left our luggage with the others waiting at the airport for their ride, and made our way to the Maison de l’Education in Montabo, just outside of Cayenne.

We received our luggage and met up with the other assistants a few hours later, relaxed away the stress of the journey, and enjoyed dinner at a local barbecue.

Exploring our Surroundings

On the second day, we rose early to avoid the heat of high noon and ventured to the beach just down the road from our residence. The sand was a tan brown, the water clouded with sediments near the shore but turquoise in the distance, the palm trees plentiful, and the flies abundant. There was not a single person on the beach, which made for lovely views of the sea, sand, and sky.

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Later in the day, we met George, a local teacher with an office in the Maison de l’Education. Even though it was a work day for him, he offered to drive us to downtown Cayenne to stop at an internet café and buy cell phones. Again, this would never happen in the U.S. We were total strangers to him, but after some good conversation, he became our mentor and guide.

The rest of the week was filled with long walks into town, trips to the beach where we bathed in the warm salt water and watched the sun set over the horizon, and cultural conversations as we lounged lazily around the fan in the afternoon heat at the Maison de l’Education.

First Impressions

Guyane is a very beautiful but strange place. Administratively speaking, it is very disorganized, in large part due to the fact that it is a modern-day colony of France. I asked George if people generally enjoy being attached to the metropole, and he told me very definitively, “Yes and no.” Everything here is imported, making it very expensive and incredibly dependent. At the same time, France has provided many modern conveniences not found in this part of the world, such as paved roads and extensive infrastructure, the most important of these being the space center. Guyane, however, is very culturally independent from France. It is much more diverse here than I would have expected: there are quite a few ex-pats, Brazilians, Surinamese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and creole locals.

Being administratively attached to France, a country classified as having very high human development, most of Guyane is relatively much less developed. When doing a bit of research, I found that in 2005, Guyane was listed on the UN Human Development Index as having high human development (just one step down from countries like the U.S., France, Germany, etc.). Experiencing life here firsthand, however, has showed me that even high human development can encompass a striking level of poverty.

Leaving Cayenne

At the end of our first week together, after a day of administrative preparation and teacher training, all the assistants parted ways. It was a difficult time, as we had spent the week bonding over the administrative disorganization, trading words in our respective languages, and sharing our past experiences.

On Saturday, my mentor teacher, a Brazilian language assistant, and I took a cramped 3-hour van ride to Saint Georges, a town of about 5,000 just across the Oyapock River from Brazil. We were stopped mid-way by the gendarmes, French border control, who demanded our passports and identification papers. This happens often, as there is a large amount of illegal immigration into French Guiana due to the social benefits.

We made it into Saint Georges by 3:00 pm, leaving enough time to do a little apartment hunting. The housing prices here are astonishing, largely due to the fact that there is so much demand and so little supply. For that reason, most of the teachers live on the Brazilian side of the river, in little bungalows in the jungle just off the river. It is tranquil and beautiful, and in fact much safer than living in Saint Georges. The past few days I have been staying with one of the teachers, and I love it here.

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On a not-so-great note, I am getting eaten alive by the mosquitoes. For the past week, I have slathered OFF Deep Woods Sportsmen with 98% DEET (an unhealthy concentration of chemicals) all over myself, and yet here I am with over 20 bites. I have been told that everyone here has contracted dengue fever at least once, but the risk of malaria is not as high. Well, at least I am mentally prepared.

I recently visited my school and met the principal and a few other teachers. I will be teaching 12 hours per week, but will likely be spending more time at the school to give students extra help and organize a club around English speaking and American culture.

For now I still have no “permanent” accommodation (I use the term “permanent” lightly because I will be moving halfway through the year to Roura, a town 30 minutes outside of Cayenne, the capital). I also need to open a bank account, submit a form that confirms I am living here, and apply for medical insurance from the French government. It has been a bumpy first week, though I am embracing these challenges as best I can and trying to learn as much as possible along the way.

À bientôt!

Bon Voyage

New life, new blog. Thank you to everyone who followed me on British Invasion: Andi in London when I studied abroad during the spring semester of my junior year as a student at the University of Maryland. I hope that through this blog, I can share with you my experiences as I venture into uncharted territory (at least to me).

You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.
–Christopher Columbus

I am leaving in a day and a half to begin an eight-month stint teaching English in French Guiana. For more information about French Guiana and the program I am in, please see the About Me page (and keep reading in the coming months!). If you want to follow updates to my blog by e-mail, scroll down to the bottom of this page and enter your e-mail in the box.

When I learned of my acceptance in April, I was ecstatic to have been placed in a Département d’Outre Mer (a sort of contemporary colony) and not metropolitan France. Before I chose to commit, however, I decided to research la Guyane and learn about life in one of the “forgotten” corners of South America. What I discovered was a sort of informational palimpsest, dated resources whose words were constantly overwritten by what I heard from last year’s teaching assistants. The most valuable cultural lesson I have learned (or rather, affirmed) so far is to ditch the guidebooks and listen to the locals. And that is just what I plan to do.

I have a long journey ahead, both literally and figuratively (well over 10 hours on a plane). Here’s to transitions, new faces, culture shock, languages, and life.