In our quest to visit every country in South America, we couldn´t leave out French Guyane (or French Guyana, as most English maps call it, or Guyane, as the French call it, or Guiane, as our book calls it...we are compromising and calling it French Guyane). Even though it isn´t even a country. (It´s an "overseas department of France," which I guess is the PC term for "colony" these days.) Even though it was rumored to be incredibly expensive (silly euro) and not at all non-French-speaker friendly. Even though public transport through the country was said to be nearly nonexistent.
All of these things turned out to be true. Nevertheless, there were a few interesting things to see and do, and we made a few really fantastic friends, without whom our whopping four days in the country would have been a lot less fun and a lot more expensive.
Guyane was originally intended to be the French Australia--i.e. a penal colony. Meaning that the most interesting tourist attractions in the country (I use this term loosely) are the former prison camps that you can tour.
In the border town of St. Laurent du Maroni, we took a 2-hour tour, in French, of the infamous Transportation Camp. I told Andy I would translate, but luckily the group we toured with had brought along their own translator, who was much, much better than I could ever have been.
Here is one of the cells at the transportation camp, containing the last original bed left in the camp. Yes, those two wooden slabs were a prisoner´s bed.
Life in this place was abysmal, with daily guillotining of prisoners that all other prisoners were forced to watch, and doubling of sentences so that prisoners shipped to Guyane had basically no chance of ever returning home to France.
The next day, we took a boat from Kourou to the Iles du Salut, three islands that were once home to notorious prison camps and are now, ironically, popular holiday destinations for locals and tourists. They have converted some of the guards houses into ridiculously overpriced hotel rooms, and Andy and I actually paid to stay in one of these, so we spent the night on Ile Royale, the largest island.
From Ile Royale, you could see Ile du Diable (Devil´s Island), which is where Alfred Dreyfuss was held for many years. Other famous political prisoners lived on that island, too.
Nowadays, though, most of the permanent residents of the islands are adorable little squirrel monkeys...
...and giant "palm rats" (which we think are the same thing as agoutis).
Back in Kourou, we visited CNES, the European space center. Here is the big globe at the entrance to the space center, lit up at night. Note the lighted rocket over French Guyane.
"Hold on," you are probably saying. "Why is the European space center located in French Guyane, of all places?" Well, as we learned from yet another 3-hour tour in French, the equatorial location, proximity to the ocean, and stable weather conditions actually make it the perfect place for rocket launches! And a rocket containing a satellite or two is launched every couple of months on the Ariane 5. In fact, one is launching in a few days, on August 21. We need to remember to look at the sky that night at 7PM to see if we can see it!
We have more pics from the space station, but we haven´t uploaded them yet. Suffice it to say that it is the dominating employer of the whole colony, with thousands of people, mostly Europeans, living there to work either directly for the center or in a related industry.
The people we lucked into meeting at the prison camp in St. Laurent--the ones who had brought their own translator--were some such people. There was one American, Dan, who was in Guyane for 6 weeks preparing for a launch of his company´s satellite, and with him was an entourage of people from various countries, some visiting for this particular launch and some living in Guyane. Dan´s group had come from Kourou to tour the prison, and he graciously offered us a lift the 2.5 hours back, since that is where we were heading anyway. This surely saved us at least 50 euros in taxi fare...and that was only the beginning.
Also in his car was Manuela, who lived in Guyane and worked for a company that helped organize everything, from office supplies to tourism, for visiting Americans and their ilk who came in for launches. She is originally from Italy and her boyfriend, Max, works for the space center, so they came over 5 years ago and she learned French and has worked in tourism since. She graciously busted out her cell phone and, a couple of calls later, had arranged our trip to the Iles du Salut and determined that we were not going to find an affordable hotel room in Kourou...at which point she offered us a room in her apartment for the same price as the cheapest hotel in town.
The infrastructure for moving from place to place is so poor, and the tourist info so hard to find in Guyane, that without the help of Dan, Manuela, and Max, we would have been frustrated, bewildered, and broke in Kourou. Instead, we had a warm bed, stuff set up for us in French, and rides all over town. Dan insisted on taking us out to dinner that night in Kourou to a great Surinamese meat-on-a-stick place, and on two trips to Glacier des 2 Lacs, where some of the best ice cream we have ever had was served.
And Max and Manuela were completely lovely to us. We had our own room and bathroom, a set of keys, rides to and from the boat, a tour around town, breakfast, and lots of snuggle-time with their adorable chihuaha, Gaia!
We don´t have a pic of Dan, but here is one with Max, Manuela, and Gaia. Thank you all again so much for your hospitality!
After Kourou we went to the capital, Cayenne, which was boring and expensive. The next day we were off to the border and back in Brazil. The adventure continues...
P.S. There will be no "Food of French Guyane" post, because we never ate at a restaurant other than the time we went out with Dan. Too expensive. We did find baguettes for 75 euro cents, though, and packages of Danish salami for 2 euros apiece (plus I got some Laughing Cow cheese and knockoff Nutella, both delicious things that Andy won´t eat) and survived on that for four days. Could have been worse!