Showing posts with label St. Laurent du Maroni. Show all posts
Showing posts with label St. Laurent du Maroni. Show all posts

Friday, February 6, 2015

French Guyana; Papillon - Fact, Fantasy and Fiction

The Kitchen Block
French Guyana is not known for much. Its history is shady, its current politics virtually unknown, but the country does have an icon for tourists, and that is the penal colonies, and in particular the character of Papillon. The story of Papillon, Devil’s Island and the amazing escapes immortalised in the movie with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen has fascinated us for decades, and is a very strong lure to this very interesting, but rather remote country.
An old cell block - Isles de Royale

Devil's Island, seen over the convicts' swimming pool
Devil's Island

France used these brutal places both to hide the most incorrigible convictsalthough some of the deportees might not really fit that bill, but also as a rather weak attempt to colonise their bit of “The Guyanas”.

The Guyanas, either three, four or five of them, depending on how one counts, are bits of land that were conveniently ignored when in 1493 the pope carved up Latin America between the Portuguese and Spanish. Papal edicts carried no weight with the Protestants in the North East, and they have squabbled and swapped land pretty well continuously for the past five hundred years.

Convicts sentenced to serve their imprisonment in one of the distant colonies (Nouvelle Caledonia was another with a significant penal colony) would sail from Europe to the reception centre at St. Laurent du Maroni, and then spend the balance of their sentences in either a logging camp, the prison in St. Laurent or on one of Les Isles du Salut. The idea of the islands’ powers of salvation comes from the fact that the climate there is so much easier than the mainland, and the possibility of actually living through one’s sentence; and if one actually survived, those sent for eight years or less were obliged to spend an equal time in the colony, the principle of doublage, and those sentenced to more than eight years were obliged to remain in South America for the rest of their lives.

Only the guards were buried

The death cells

No wonder that folks tried to escape, and although rarely successful, some did manage to get away. The most famous in North America and Europe was Henri Charrière, known as Papillon, and whose escapades have left readers and viewers speechless with wonder and perhaps admiration.

But here’s the thing; the book Papillon was almost completely untrue. Charrière, himself, was a small-time pimp who was accused and convicted of an underworld murder. He certainly served time in St. Laurent, but was never on the islands, and seems to have lived a fairly bland life in this hideous environment.

The book, however, was a blockbuster. It is, however, very difficult to separate from the fine work by Rene Belbenoit, Dry Guillotine, which was published in 1938, and for aficionado’s of the whole Papillon story, and the French penal system, it is a magnificent book.

Belbenoit himself, credits a number of escapades to other prisoners, but did, himself, escape from the islands, and with several others washed up on the shores of Trinidad some seventeen days later.
The islands, and French Guyana itself, hold a strange attraction; spending time on les Isles du Salut is a truly moving experience, and one that I recommend to all. Nature is speedily reclaiming the prison, and watching the roots of giant trees slowly enter and crush the hideous cells cannot fail to fascinate.

The dormitory of Le Reclusion; Silence at all times
In addition to the islands, there is a great deal of history in the river community of St. Laurent du Maroni, the site of the penal administration, and the landing port for all convicts arriving from Paris. The town in unmistakably designed as a colonial centre; the architecture of the old camp, the staff buildings, the hospital and the fine mansions for upper management are all visible today, and the community itself has embraced tourism and interpretation of these sites.

I love St. Laurent, and appreciate the slow nature of this river town; wandering through the camps, looking deeply into the eyes of the convict whose statue “Le Bagnard” sits outside the tourist office, listening closely to the sounds of the forest unchanged for two hundred years gives a powerful sense of the despair and isolation that  all who worked or were imprisoned here must have felt.

The Convict - St. Laurent du Maroni
The history of the penal system in French Guyana is fascinating, the landscape surreal, and the islands, while today they lie peacefully in the tropical breeze, offer sudden and jarring glimpses into their dreadful past. Images and sounds flood one’s imagination, and only by stepping back a pace or two, and glancing at the blue sea can you realise how simple it is to step from one century to another, and perhaps from one life into a completely and utterly different existence.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Guyanas: Of Rum and Armadillo

Food and drink are important, and it is equally important to keep one’s mind open to new and exciting taste treats; the Guyanas are no stranger to eclectic meats, and there are several restaurants around happy to serve the unsuspecting Cochou-bwa, Pakira, Tatou and the suchlike. So clutching what was left of my taste buds, I ordered a combination dish and, it being in St. Laurent du Moroni, and thus France, could wash it all down with a most agreeable bottle of Bordeaux. 

Cochou-bwa seems to refer to a smallish wild boar; Pakira I was reliably informed was “Pakira” leaving considerable doubt about its provenance, and Tatou was translated simply as Armadillo.

Not that I needed a great deal of explanation as its rather tough exterior was a dead giveaway; however an armadillo roasted, opened with care and accompanied by some jungle greenery, it proved to be a highlight. I shall try and instruct my local butcher in Winnipeg, but I doubt that I will succeed.

Armadillo oddly, does not taste like chicken. Odd only because folks routinely describe any sort of unknown foods as tasting “rather like chicken”. I have heard this of a wide variety of mammals, some slightly fowl-like fish, insects and the more select parts of otherwise normal animal foods. Armadillo, however, belongs firmly in the pork family. 

Its flavour, sweet, rich and extremely tender, was delightful, surprising and interrupted only by the waiter’s insistence that my bottle of claret was insufficient to bring out the true succulence of the armadillo.

Rum was required for this.

Now rum is a catch-all phrase, in much the same way that “vodka” is a word that covers all manner of ghastly distilling experiments as well as some rather nice stuff. French Guyanan rum comes often in a rather mean looking bottle, made by the local “rhum co-operative”, and sold for very few euros indeed. Usually poured over a couple of pulverised limes, and a touch of fresh cane sugar, the concoction, a “ti punch” is really rather pleasant if not sophisticated. 

But as a dinner tipple to wash down the roasted armadillo, I was not sure. I thought long and hard about the inevitable headache, and finally took the plunge; it has to be said that the sweetness of the meat did balance the sugary character of rum; the volumes required to be a dinner tipple, however, were beyond even me. 

However, the rums available throughout the region are of rather high standards. In particular the El Dorado family of Guyanan rums offer some spectacular single distillate products, aged in small batches and offering a very distinctive flavour. They use original stills, some as old as 200 years, which may not sounds extreme in the world of old-world spirits, but for the Caribbean, these stills are unique.  

Suriname too offers some fine sipping rum. In particular, I believe, the Borgoe 82, blended and sold by Suriname Alcoholic Beverages NV is the finest. It is smooth, almost too smooth for those who enjoy a little bite from their rum, but a marvellous long and slightly caramel impression will bring a smile to the most jaded face.
However, I would still to rum before (and after dinner) and a gentle Bordeaux to wash down the armadillo.