Monday, January 28, 2013

French Guyana; my first visit.

Fortunately, I get bored. Not the grinding boredom of a rainy Sunday afternoon of childhood, but the boredom of repetition. And so it was, in August last year, that I found myself daydreaming more frequently than ever about The Guyanas.

Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by the book Papillon, the tale of the French penal colonies of Guyana written by Henri Charriere. It is a fine, rip-roaring book; tales of adventure, escape, cruelty, jungles, lust and eventual redemption. But how were these institutions? Did they still exist?

So I bought a ticket and flew a couple of weeks later to Cayenne, the capital of this remote outpost of France. Still an integral part of the French Republic, Guyane lies on the north-east coast of South America nestled between Suriname and Brazil. It is a country whose economy relies on the largesse of the French population and the space industry in roughly equal parts; tourism is not a big business here; yet.

My original plan was to spend a week moseying along the coast from Cayenne to Georgetown in Guyana (formerly British Guyana), travelling through Suriname (formerly Dutch Guyana) in my Guyanas-a-Plenty tour of the Wild Coast. I thought that a couple of days looking at the island penal colonies would suffice, and otherwise I would spend my time in local taxis (canoes as it turned out) observing and collecting anecdotes. A mile and gentle journey.

Well, it didn’t turn out quite like that.

During the flight from Pointe a Pitre to Cayenne, my seatmate, a French man who had lived in Cayenne for twenty years, offered me a ride to town. I accepted, and despite the peculiar look that his friend shot as he picked us up, and squeezed the three of us into a small Toyota truck designed for two small Japanese, off we went; I beamed, happy to finally be somewhere new and exciting.
There is a major roundabout half way to town at which we should turn left, a cursory glance at a map had shown me, but we turned right, heading away from the city. This is the moment that one instinctively thinks of jumping from the moving vehicle, afraid that these two strangers had marked me to perform some unspeakable acts in the jungle that would inescapably end with fire-breathing ants slowly chewing away at my torso. I had read too much of Papillon’s punishments.

Fortunately I stayed in the car, and once in town, having stopped at Francois’ house to drop his luggage, he pulled up outside an Algerian cous cous restaurant, picked up a meal and drove to his friends’ house where we ate, drank a marvellous bottle (or two) of Bordeaux – for it is France – and whiled away the afternoon.

I realised than just how much more that the region offered besides the lonely echoes of long-empty prison cells. Guyane, and in fact the Guyanas in whole, are what Costa Rica thinks it is and wants to be. It is a region of unimaginable vastness, with deep rain forest and a few fabulous and fascinating eco-lodges. It is a region of three and four-day pirogue journeys staying overnight in Amerindian villages deep in the forest. It is a region of unspeakably cruel colonial administrations, and it is a region of enormous goodwill, friendliness and a most remarkable social cohesion. It is, in short, a region to be explored.

I wondered why nobody had ventured there in any numbers, and particularly few from Canada and the USA; and then I realised that it didn’t matter. I had stumbled on a new and exciting destination, and one that for a few years at least will offer those seeking a true adventure, with a piché of rosé at lunch, for it is France, Guyane was the place.

My journey was marvellous. I rented a car in Cayenne and headed west to Kourou, the centre of the European space program. Set in Guyane for its proximity to the equator and relatively clement weather, the site launches 12 – 15 rockets per year, bringing well-needed revenue and jobs to the region. The space centre is also open to visitors, but I had too little time. I was off to Devil’s Island, and the other two centres of the penal administration comprising the oddly named Iles de Salut. Not much salvation there, I have to say.

But an extraordinary place to be, and to wander; one of the islands is now a small inn, located in the original administrative buildings. Rooms are available, as are spaces to sling a hammock, and visitors spending the night, after the day trippers have returned to the mainland, will have a unique perspective of life on these mildly sinister and evocative islands. The second island, Royale, was the location of the isolation cells, made famous by Steve McQueen in the movie version of Palillon, and now the ruined cells and the fabulous undergrowth reclaiming the island, offer visitors a remarkable glimpse into the atmosphere of these ghastly punishment cells.

I loved the islands! Devil’s Island is impossible to visit as it is deemed too dangerous to land, but sailing around it one can view the small building that was built for Alfred Dreyfuss, a wrongly accused French spy in the 1800s; unsatisfied with building a cell on an isolated island off and isolated coast, the penal authorities built a wall around the house preventing him from seeing out, and forbade the twelve guards assigned to watch him from speaking to him. He suffered here for years before having his conviction overturned, and returned to France.

I spent the day wandering, sweating and taking photographs, and determined to return again, this time with more purpose and time.After spending the night in Kourou, I motored east toward the Surinamese border.