Monday, June 19, 2023

Highlights from last 14 months

It's been a while. Obviously, the highlights are mostly kids-centered. But with the end of the pandemic, I've also done some serious revenge traveling.

May 2022: Drove down to San Luis Obispo along PCH.

June 2022: Road trip to Seattle. Attended a Mariners game.

July 2022: Basketball camp.

August 2022: I took the boy to Monterey to see a bunch of old cars.

Also August 2022: I flew to Tacoma for Radwood and met the PNW contingent of Weird Car Twitter.

Also August 2022: I took a day trip down to San Diego and caught a Padres game.

September 2022: Portuguese dinner followed by opera.

October 2022: Pumpkin patch.

November 2022: Cuba!

December 2022: Got stuck in Kansas City thanks to Southwest and we had to drive 2,200 miles back home.

January 2023: Checked out a Carvana store.

February 2023: Bowling. (It was a slow month.)

March 2023: Got to check out a Hummer H2 up close.

April 2023: Legoland for the boy's birthday.

May 2023: French Guiana!

June 2023: A good friend got sworn in to be a judge and I made a side trip to a Channel Island.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

My French Guiana adventure: Day 7

My last full day in French Guiana. I've had an eventful week, so I'm going to take it easy and just hang around Cayenne. After I return the rental car, I set out to get some stamps to mail three postcards to my wife and kids and one postcard to Friend of the Blog Ramon in Chile.

The post office ordeal takes over an hour. First, I wait in a long line that winds around the outside of the post office. It's hot and humid and there's barely any shade. After a while, I realize everyone in line is actually there to do banking. I get out of line and enter the post office, where I wait in a much shorter line in the post office post office part of the post office.

The employees work so slowly. Every time an employee comes in, they give each other the three-peck kiss to each other. The customer in front of me is nice but smells putrid. It's my turn.

I can only buy a sheet of six stamps at around eight euros. I use my credit card but it requires a PIN. I don't have a PIN. I need to pay with cash (coins only). I only have seven euros in coins. Fuck.

I go back outside and go to a Chinese-run market and buy the smallest bottle of water. It's tiny. I break a bill and get enough coins. I go back to the post office and wait in line again. This time, I wait in line with a young man who has a fistful of one cent coins, which he promptly drops on the floor.

With the post office errand complete, I walk back to my hotel. On the way, I see two guys on the sidewalk hanging out with their eight songbirds, each housed in its own ornate wooden cage. The men are cousins. The one who speaks English is a fisherman and served five years in prison for being at the scene of a stabbing. His cousin drives special needs children around. We end up chatting for almost an hour about everything French Guiana, from race relations to jungle survival to the protagonist's father's murder.

For dinner, to celebrate, I go to the highest-rated Chinese restaurant in town. I tried going there on my first day in Cayenne but it was closed. Next to me is a table of six friends. For the first time during my trip, I see Black and Chinese people socializing with each other. The owner's daughter, maybe a fifth grader, is roller blading around the dining room, looking bored.

I ask the owner for the best seafood dish and she brings this to me. Cuttlefish, clams, and shrimp on a fajita plate. It is very good but does not taste like Chinese food.

Tomorrow, I leave this strange land. And it does not go as expected.

Thursday, June 08, 2023

My French Guiana adventure: Day 6

Today, I drive to Brazil!

The national "highway" heading east to Brazil is very different from the road heading west to Suriname. Today's drive is much curvier and hillier. And instead of driving through savannah, today I am driving through thick jungle. There are no gas stations for the entire 200km stretch between Cayenne and Brazil. My biggest concern, aside from the heavy rain, is a flat tire. My rental doesn't have a spare.

For much of the drive, I listen to the Omnibus podcast episode about the Gimli Glider.

Just as I could not believe that I had driven to the border with Suriname, I was breathlessly speechless when I parked the Peugeot and looked across the river at Brazil. I am in the town of St George. There is a flotilla of motorboats ferrying people between the countries. People from French Guiana go to Brazil to buy cheap groceries. Brazilians come this way for economic opportunities.

I walk around town. There is a busy supermarket. Well, as "super" as a town with a population of 4,000 can sustain. I walk in and sitting there, reading a newspaper, is the Chinese proprietor. He looks up at me and gives me a smiling nod.

Time for lunch. I go to a rundown hotel that has a restaurant downstairs. Even though the menu is in French, everyone is ordering in Portuguese. I use my one semester's worth of college Portuguese and order fish and chips. The cook walks next door to the fish stall, buys a fish that was just caught in the river, fillets it, fries it, and plops it on a plate. This might be my best meal of the trip.

Satiated, I have one more thing to do in St George. There is a French Foreign Legion base on the outskirts of town. I drive up a single lane dirt road and park about 50 yards from the guard post. I take my hands out of my pockets, smile, and walk as non-confrontationally as possible. A nice Nepalese soldier is standing guard. I cannot go in and I cannot take any photos. But we chat.

While holding his assault rifle, with red dragonflies buzzing around us, the bored soldier answers all my questions. He was studying business management in France when he changed his mind and joined the Legion. He is a really sweet guy. Not what I imagined a Foreign Legionnaire to be like. I say good-bye and head back to Cayenne.

For dinner, I go to a nearby fancy hotel's chic restaurant. Now that I'm a pro, I order a punch (local rum, cane sugar syrup, lime).

For my entree, I order a steak and a glass of red. Everything is tasty, but the steak is tough and the wine refrigerated and ice cold.

Tomorrow is my last full day in French Guiana. I had originally planned to visit Devil's Island. I canceled the plan because I did not want to take a two hour ride on a tiny boat on the open sea in the heat and rain. So I am just going to bum around Cayenne tomorrow.

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.