It’s true. I just spent 10 days in France. The language was French, as was the flag flown, the money was the Euro, everybody drove Peugeots, and the baguettes were excellent. It was France through and through.
But, I never left South America. How did I do this? I visited French Guiana, a department of France in the northeastern corner of this continent. It is one of those territories around the world that France still maintains. And it was a great place to visit.
I really enjoyed speaking French here. My French was buried under 13 years of rust, but a little bit came back everyday. Plus, the people there loved to hear my Quebec-influenced accent. (Or, at least, that’s what they told me… more likely my speaking was grating on their ears but they were too polite to tell me so.) I learned that the local rum really helps my French. Give me a few glasses of that stuff and watch the French just flow out of my mouth. The things I say in French while on rum are ridiculous. Good fun. Mom and Dad — thanks for putting me in a French Immersion school when I was a kid. It has finally paid off.
Everything is silly expensive in French Guiana. It is the most expensive part of South America. In fact, I have it on good authority that everything is 40% more expensive than France, since everything has to travel from there by boat. Damn. All these high costs means I have been doing some hitch-hiking and sleeping on the couches of random locals that I meet. The generous people of French Guiana have been very good to me. I am lucky. And, this has actually been a great experience. I feel like I have gotten to understand the type of person who moves from France to this underdeveloped, hot, humid, sweaty, jungle-y, mosquito-infested department. They like the adventurous lifestyle. And I like them for it.
These guys are party animals. I attended a rager at a house in Cayenne. Rum is cheap in French Guiana. (It’s the only thing that is, you have to sell a kidney for everything else.) And, in the Guianas, you can buy all kinds of crazy, tasty fruits that you have never seen in your life. Combine these two and you get a killer rum punch.
The city of Kourou is home to the Guiana Space Centre. As I learned on the tour, it is the perfect location for putting stuff into space: it is on the edge of the continent and thus surrounded by the sea (good for rockets falling into the ocean), has good weather, and is close to the Equator making launches 17% more efficient. It has become the space port for the European Space Agency.
This one is only a model. I tried to time my visit with an actual launch of a real rocket, but they were having technical problems with the pressurization system or something like that. Maybe they needed a new flux capacitor.
Mission control room. Very, very cool.
This was interesting. Whenever we put something into outer space, we include a message with it, just in case some aliens discover it. We really want this message to convey who we are, as a species, as a planet, etc. What would you put in the message? The astrophysicists chose a gold plate (we want those aliens to think we are classy) with the drawing below. Two naked people, a sketch of our solar system, and a few other drawings I can’t figure out. Good enough for me.
One of the highlights for a tourist in French Guiana is a visit to the Salvation Island (Îles du Salut), an old French penal colony. Back in the day, these islands were a horrible place to be. Now it looks like a tropical island I would like to camp on. It’s weird to think of the brutal things that happened at a place that looks so close to paradise. If you have seen the movie “Papillon” you are familiar with these islands.
Old solitary confinement building on St. Joseph island. I like how, left to its own devices, the jungle has slowly been taking back its island.
On the same island lies this postcard-worthy beach
Do I know where to sling my hammock, or what?? My hammock has become my best friend in the last month, I think I have slept in it more nights than not. That’s how you roll in this part of the world.
If I didn’t love French Guiana after all this, the deal was sealed after I watched giant sea turtles laying eggs on its beaches. These beasts can grow up to 700 kg (1500 lbs). I hate to do this, but I will quote my guidebook (Lonely Planet South America) for a description of this event, as I do not possess the language skills to do better: “Feel like part of the circle of life as you watch the peaceful ritual of dinsosaur-like leatherback turtles laying their eggs in the moonlit sand.”
It was awesome. It was Nature at it’s best. I kept looking over my shoulder for David Attenborough.
In addition to the turtles that crawled onto the beach at night, we were lucky enough to have this one do a daytime mission. My friend Julia (USA) gives a little perspective on the size of this creature.
You might be wondering: what does a giant sea turtle do on the beach while laying eggs? I have an answer for you:
I am currently in Suriname, the little country just west of French Guiana. I will continue to travel west until I have visited every last country on this continent… I have nothing else to do.