French Guiana

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South America » French Guiana » Cayenne
August 16th 2009
Published: May 11th 2010
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We left Paramaribo in the morning via bus along a ridiculously rough paved road to the border town of Albina. We crossed the river by boat and got stamped into French Guiana. We would use the country’s capital Cayenne as our base so boarded further transport to take us the rest of the way. The country, as a French territory, uses euros and is a horrendously expensive place. Thirty five euros to travel the three hours confirmed the rumours! Our journey wasn’t without drama, a young lad and an old man were talking away before the conversation turned a little nasty. It seems that the young lad was from Paris and had moved to Cayenne because that’s where his family came from. He wanted to get away from ‘racist Paris’ but found the people of French Guiana just as prejudiced - this time against French people and not colour. As the discussion becomes more and more heated in the van, it boils over at the petrol station, leading to the driver having to step in break the two up and rearrange the van. Seems like the poor lad can’t win. It all sounds a bit barbaric but these people are really friendly, handing around grapes and cans of beer to the whole van. They did later kiss and make up.
We arrived in Cayenne to find our chosen ‘budget’ accommodation closed and the only available hotel costing a small fortune.

I had to spend the next morning getting another Surinamese visa to get to Guyana. It wasn’t a particularly smooth process (they needed so much information - seeming I already had been granted a visa, why do they need so much information? Flippin’ ridiculous) and I couldn’t get my passport back for two days. Cecilia had been given a multi-entry back in Trinidad and they would only give me a single. I think I’ve had enough of embassies. There isn’t anything to do in Cayenne so the only reason to stay here is for transport and available accommodation. It does have good bread and coffee mind you. It is also a good place to organise the things we want to do in French Guiana. We did find out that there is a rocket launch at the European Space Authorities Guyanese centre and a friendly travel agency managed to get us the last two official viewing places! It seems that unintentionally we would be hanging around longer than planned - a move that could bankrupt us in this overpriced tropic. French Guiana is strange: on one hand it’s very much so like a tropical France, then on the other hand it’s nothing like France at all. I can’t explain it any other way. We are also well and truly off the beaten track, not a tourist in sight, which makes up for the cost and transport issues.
We left Cayenne and headed to Kourou where we would be able to get a boat out to Iles du Salut. I awoke extremely tired and slept most of the journey to Kourou. We waited for the boat to leave and I started to feel even worse. By the time we got to the shores of Iles du Salut I really wasn’t feeling well and ended up sleeping under a palm tree. It was a real shame because the island was really beautiful and steeped in French history. Iles du Salut is the site of a famous French penal colony. With the setting and gracious buildings first impressions would suggest being sent here isn’t exactly a punishment. After I dragged myself up and visited the museum the truth would suggest otherwise. The French certainly did issue punishments that fitted the crime. It was a harsh and brutal environment. The colonies were featured in the novel ‘Papillon’ by Henri Charriere, who was imprisoned here for 9 years.

Back on the mainland we were then caught out by the difficult transport system - ie, there wasn’t any transport. We ended up asking in a restaurant where we were able to get a taxi back to Cayenne for another small fortune.
For the next few days I ended up bed ridden. A type of Guyanese flu had virtually paralyzed my body. Something I caught from the Surinamese tramp?
Not wanting to miss the launch we made our way back to Kourou and to avoid getting stuck again we checked into a €130 a night hotel. We spent the rest of the afternoon joining the group and travelling to the viewing platform to watch the launch. It was well laid out with a big screen to which information programs were relayed and would simulate the launch. Just as dusk passed the countdown started. At ignition we saw a big flash, followed by the blaze of rocket thrust - Ariane 5 was airborne. It seemed to move slowly as it blasted vertically upwards towards the stratosphere. Then the sound hit us! As impressive as the sight. Ariane 5 turned and then redirected out of sight. The screen relayed footage and real-time simulations. We felt quite privileged to have had the chance to witness such rare experience.
That was all we had time for in French Guiana. With me feeling pretty rough we headed back to St Laurent and the border back into Suriname. Quickly transferring back to Paramaribo I had to see a doctor because of how badly I was feeling. Waste of time really but at least I was sure I didn’t have any tropical/mosquito disease. By now we had well ran over our time for the Guianas, so the last leg in Guyana would be a whirlwind visit.
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