Wednesday, June 07, 2023

My French Guiana adventure: Day 5

Today, I see Suriname!

I wake up early and head west in my rented Peugeot. It rains on and off the entire way, about four hours. I don't feel comfortable driving fast so everyone is passing me. The national route is one lane in each direction and very well maintained. Cayenne has crappy, nondescript cars. But as I approach the border town of St Laurent du Maroni (population 50,000; it's the second biggest city in French Guiana), I am passed by an SQ7 and a CLS wagon. I later learn that one-third of the cocaine in France is transported by drug mules along this road.

As I pull into town around noon, it is raining hard again. I park my car, run out onto the muddy grass, and take this photo. Across the brown Maroni River (they say some of that dirt in the water is from Peru) is Suriname. I made it. It is incredible. What an achievement.

I immediately run back to my car and drive a half block to the former prison. French Guiana used to be a penal colony and this was the infamous prison where Papillon stayed.

I highly recommend the movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen.

The prison/museum is kinda meh. Only a couple of buildings are open to the public and they're filled with sterile exhibits and contemporary art. Nothing jarring or macabre. Bummer.

Since I am so close to the equator, it gets very dark right after sunset. I want to head back to Cayenne as soon as possible. But I need to eat lunch first. There's a highly rated Chinese joint nearby. As I walk there, I notice a lot more Amerindian faces. I can't miss the restaurant. It's very busy, packed with Chinese, black, Amerindian, white, and mixed customers. I order the combination chow mein and these fried shrimps that I've seen in a lot of French Guianese Chinese restaurant menus. I sit at a communal table across from a middle aged black lady. At the next table, an Amerindian family who just arrived by motorboat from the jungle is enjoying har gow and shumai. The food is decent.

On the way back, I take a potty break on the side of the road. There are only two or three tiny towns between Cayenne and St Laurent du Maroni. I am amazed that there are no potholes, or even puddles, on the road.

When I had my YJ Wrangler in the '90s, before any long trip, I would pat the car on the dashboard and wish for a safe journey. For the first time in over 20 years, I pat the dash of the Peugeot and wish for a safe journey. The rain is really gnarly.

After 600 kilometers of white knuckle driving, I am back in Cayenne. I really scored with my hotel room. 

I fall asleep on the couch and am awakened by drums. It sounds like a high school marching band. Mildly annoyed, I wake up and walk to my balcony. It's a bunch of young people participating in a miniature pride parade. Upon seeing the trans flag, I get a little choked up.

Tomorrow, Brazil!

*I did not cross into Suriname and immediately come back because I did not want to be hassled by immigration/customs.

Sunday, June 04, 2023

My French Guiana adventure: Day 4

Today, I visit a spaceport! But first, breakfast. It seems like no brick and mortar eatery in French Guiana opens before 10:30. My tour is 40 minutes away from my hotel and it starts at 7am. Where am I going to eat?

Fortunately, I see a few blue collar guys hanging around this red Peugeot van in Kourou, so I make a u-turn and order a sandwich.

My 5 euro sandwich comes with beef, egg, and cheese. It's super filling and I cannot finish it before the tour, it's so big.

I had assumed the three-hour all-French tour was going to have us walk around a museum and peek into the command center. I had no idea we were going to be on a bus driving all over the spaceport! Our driver is Polynesian and our tour guide is super accommodating. Even though I am the only non-French speaker, she would come up to me after each stop and explain everything in English.

The facility is expansive. Because of French Guiana's proximity to the equator, it takes 25% less fuel to launch a rocket into space. The main rockets in use are Ariane 5 (soon to be 6) and Vega. Soyuz is no longer used since the Ukraine invasion. France and Russia have a long space friendship. The first French astronaut was sent up in a Soviet rocket in the 1980s. 

Security is tight. Army, navy, air force, police, Foreign Legion. They all protect the spaceport. 

The first stop is at an Ariane rocket launchpad. And our bus drives through it! There are two sets of parallel railroad tracks that are used to slowly transport the rocket from the hangar to the pad.

The rocket flames go down a hole, through that yellow tube, and away from the launchpad. That's a water tower next to the tube.

The rain stops briefly and we get out of the bus. This is a shot of the launchpad we just drove through.

The food at the spaceport is catered by Sodexo.

We then climb an elevated bunker where people can observe Vega launches.

The gray building in the background is the Soyuz launchpad. Supposedly, it looks totally different from the Ariane and Vegas launchpads because of the Soviets' different philosophy. We can't get closer because it has been completely shut down.

A sloth!

Here is the control room. VIPs and guests sit in comfortable lecture hall-style seats behind the windows.

There is a Lego model of the control room and lecture hall.

The four top VIPs, including a representative from France, sit here. She is the one who counts down from ten before blastoff. That orange phone is for emergencies, such as when an errant rocket needs to be destroyed.

I return to Cayenne, stock up on provisions for my upcoming road trips, and have dinner at a Creole-Haitian-Vietnamese place. It's just me and a table of 20 hot cops. I order a punch, thinking it's like sangria. It's actually a local specialty that you make yourself at your table. It's just rum, cane sugar syrup, and lime.

For my entree, I order stew. They have chicken, beef, fish, and pakira. Not knowing what pakira is, I order it. It's skunk pig.

Tomorrow, I drive 300 kilometers to the Suriname border.

Saturday, June 03, 2023

My French Guiana adventure: Day 3

I wake up in French Guiana! I heard my business hotel has free breakfast, so I zoom downstairs. The hot cops are still here, flirting with the restaurant staff, who are all young Brazilian women. 

I love free hotel breakfasts in America. It's usually platters of scrambled eggs, sausages, and bacon. The French make a valiant effort at a facsimile, but it's just different. The cook is in no hurry so the eggs never arrive, no matter how hard I use my psychic abilities to will them into existence. The baguettes, however, are fantastic. I make two sausage sandwiches for myself.

I go back to my room and this is my view. I have to go back to my original hotel, clarify the mess, and move there. 

I go back to Hotel des Palmistes. The hotel staff apologizes profusely and shows me to my suite. I come to realize that I have the best room at the best located hotel in all of Cayenne. I really dig that old timey airline poster in my bedroom. That's the town square my room is facing.

My living room. I do all of my trip planning and napping in this room.

Not bad for 106 euros a night. The toilet is kind of weak and the shower is like a coffin. But that's France for ya.

Other than my wife's bout with cancer, I really don't have any fears, living a privileged life in America. So these oddball trips to faraway lands give me thrills. My original plan was to travel throughout French Guiana in cabs and vans, but that was going to be difficult logistically and expensive. My best decision was to rent a car. I was fearful of driving in a foreign country. I was fearful of getting carried away by flood waters. I was fearful of getting lost without GPS. It all worked out.

I rented a manual transmissioned Peugeot 208 with 61,000 kilometers from Sixt. It cost 260 euros for the entire week-- a bargain. It was a lot of fun to drive, although I got passed by other cars constantly. It has a three cylinder engine, after all. My biggest weakness was traffic circles. They are everywhere. It was never clear if they had one or two lanes. And the GPS on my phone gave terrible instructions when I was driving in them, But again, everything worked out great.

ETA: Two more things gave me pause about the car. It has a lane centering system that tugs at the steering wheel. But because the lines here are so poorly marked, the car yanks the steering wheel at inopportune times. Finally, the car did not come with a spare tire because it had been used by the previous customer. I was given a tire repair kit. That scared me a little. I was going to some remote places.

I got the car in the late morning and head out for Cacao. It's a tiny jungle village populated by Hmong refugees. They produce 90% of the vegetables the country consumes. The Sunday market is a huge attraction. I am there on a Monday so everything is closed, save for one restaurant.

A young, tall, chubby Asian guy takes my order. We can't communicate so I point at a photo of a big bowl of noodle soup. It is so hot and humid, my eyebrows can't hold back my forehead sweat. As I wait, it starts pouring rain, albeit briefly.

I look at the condiments. They are either from China or Thailand.

What a meal. This reminds me of my favorite meal of all time. After a long bus ride in the Atacama, I got off in the port town of Iquique in the Christmas heat and ordered a seafood stew at La Surena II. Something about hot soups on hot days after long journeys.

After the meal, I head to the spaceport. I have a 7am tour the next day and I want to check out the rendezvous point today so I don't get lost tomorrow and miss the tour. Ahead of me on the windy road out of Cacao, I see some kind of buzzard eating a big ass lizard. The yellow Peugeot scares off the bird. I just had to take a picture of the victim.

There's a turnoff where you get a nice view of the jungle canopy.

Though the town of Kourou is tiny, I get lost finding the spaceport. I finally had to turn on my phone to get GPS. The Ariane 5 replica (1:1 scale) in the parking lot is a good marker.

Now that I know where to go, I drive back to Cayenne.

I walk to the highest rated Chinese joint in Cayenne. The owners tell me it's closed on Mondays. I go to a different restaurant and order mapo tofu. The drinks here must be subsidized. Beer is 2 euros a bottle at restaurants. A one-liter bottle of water in markets is 1 euro.

The restaurant is empty of customers. A Chinese couple are eating, but I suspect they are the owners' friends or relatives and eating for free. The large table is taken up by five girls, all under the age of eleven. They are sisters and cousins and are dressed in Chinese costumes. They probably just came back from Chinese school where they had rehearsals. 

I briefly talk to the owners. They've been here for ten years, later than most of the immigrants. But they admit they are still able to make good money here. Apparently the Chinese here are all from Zhejiang province (near Shanghai). That's where my dad's side of the family is from. In the 1930s, they left China for Japan in search of riches.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

My French Guiana adventure: Day 2

The Air France staff at Miami airport cared more about checking my yellow fever vaccination card than my boarding pass.

I love looking at the Departure board. Pointe A Pitre (Guadeloupe). That's where I'm going!

I like to think of myself as being a geography and history nerd. But I had no idea where Guadeloupe and Martinique are. Or their history. So I read Wikipedia the night before.

First, it was "discovered" by Columbus in 1493. When you fly over this part of the Caribbean, you quickly realize how easy it is to discover pieces of land. Islands are everywhere.

Second, the island was so prosperous (slaves and sugar), France gave up all of its Canadian possessions in order to get the island back from the British.

Third, it was owned by Sweden from 1813 to 1814.

There it is.

A highway. There was nothing like it anywhere in French Guiana, and it's one-sixth the size of France.

Though Guadeloupe was not my final destination, I did enter France so I got my passport stamped.

I heard about the legendary rum here. For six euros, I got the most expensive rum for sale at the rinky dink airport bar. It was called Rhum Vieux. My next flight was boarding so I had to finish it in three big gulps.

Back on the plane for a 30 minute hop to Martinique.

Per Wikipedia, Columbus spotted it in 1493 and landed there in 1502. Like Guadeloupe, Dutch Jews expelled from Brazil settled in Martinique. During World War II, it was controlled by the Vichy bastards so German U-boats went there for fuel and supplies.

Martinique looked pretty developed tourist infrastructure-wise. Lots of multi-story hotels.

As we hit French Guiana, it's just green, dense jungle. The only interruptions are caused by rivers.

Cayenne airport at sunset.

As I step out of the airport, I am hit by the humidity. I have a guy in a Hyundai Tuscon taxi cab drive me 30 minutes to my hotel in "downtown" Cayenne. As we pull out of the airport, it is a two-lane road with barely any traffic. It has a rural Japan feel. There are a lot of billboards selling four things-- an automatic Peugeot for 18,900 euros, cheap vacations to Fortaleza (Brazil), frozen chicken nuggets at a supermarket, and military/police recruitment.

I get dropped off in the dark at my hotel. The popular restaurant/bar on the ground floor is closed and dark. It is Sunday night. I approach the side door and there's an older, lanky, slovenly dressed guard sitting in a plastic chair. He speaks English with a Caribbean accent. He tells me the hotel staff is gone and he was not told that I would be checking in. I ask him to call the staff. He tells me he suffered a brain injury earlier that day and he doesn't know how to use a phone. What?! 

I leave my backpack (my only luggage) on the table and pace around in the heat. What do I do? The entire city is closed.

Then, a guy appears out of nowhere and offers to help. He is a hotel guest from Mainland France and he has an Australian accent. He works for an aluminum company and currently ranks as the third most frequent flyer Air France has. He is only in French Guiana for work for two days. His shortest work trip distance-wise is to Dakar. He spends 240 days a year traveling. Though he tried hard to help, I couldn't get a room.

I had booked a nice suite at this hotel for my entire stay. Frustrated, I was told to walk down one block to the fancy hotel next to the police station. I'll stay there for a night and come back tomorrow morning to sort things out. Fine.

I check in at the Hotel Amazonia, which appears to be a business hotel affiliated with Best Western. It costs a bit more than my original hotel. It is filled with cops. Dozens upon dozens of cops from France are here to protect the head of the European Space Agency, who is here for a visit. What's odd is that every single cop staying at this hotel is in their 20s, blond or brown haired, with the same physique, and the same height. The ones not in uniform are wearing tight t-shirts, short shorts, and shower sandals. And they're all eating pizzas.

Famished, I go to the hotel restaurant and get the cheapest entree, this fish.

Exhausted, I collapse on my bed. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring.