The Guianas are a bit the odd-ones out in South America. With Guianas I mean, Guyana (until 1966 British Guiana), Suriname (until 1975 Dutch Guiana) and French Guiana (still French). Their colonial history is part of why they stand apart. They were not colonized by Spain (Portugal) as the rest of South America (Brazil) but by Britain, the Netherlands and France. These countries had more colonies in the Caribbean and therefore the Guianas had more links to this area than to their South American neighbours. They also did not gain independence as the other countries (except Brazil) in the early 19th century but only in the second half of the 20th century.

There is also a geographical component to their isolation. The Guianas consist mostly of hardly penetrable rainforest so they have been inhabited mostly along the coast and along the rivers. Road networks barely penetrate inland. In Suriname, I met an Austrian who just exclaimed “I love rainforest” as I asked what is bringing him to this corner of the world. If you are travelling overland and you visit one of the Guianas you basically have to visit all of them. Each has exactly two border crossings with other countries. Guyana has a very remote one with Brazil (deep in the forest) and one, along the coast, with Suriname. Suriname has the crossing with Guyana and one, also along the coast, with French Guiana. From French Guiana following the coast brings you back to Brazil.

Their outsider status is manifested in the world of football. They do not take part in the Copa America and they also do not play in the South America qualification for the football world Cup. They rather play the qualification of North and Central America. Well, in the case of French Guiana they do not play anything. It is, the same as Martinique which I visited two months earlier, an integral part of France.

French Guiana

– visited December 2013 –

Fully integrated into France, Guiana is also part of the European Union (we stretch far!). French Guiana is the richest corner of South America and one driver of the economy is the Guiana Space Centre. The earth rotates around its axis within 24 hours. The speed at which we move is determined by the distance we have to earth’s rotational axis. At the poles this distance is non-existent but gradually rises until the equator. In southern Germany earth rotates at a speed of 1,125 km per hour, at the equator that speed rises to 1,670 km/h (40,000 km circumference divided by 24 hours). We do not realize this movement as our atmosphere moves at the same speed. But for a rocket, that leaves our atmosphere, that makes a difference. Launching rockets as close to the equator as possible makes therefore a lot of sense and French Guiana is the EU territory closest to the equator.

I’ll state it right at the beginning, I didn’t really like French Guiana. I perceived it as one of the most unequal societies I have ever visited and for me this also has racial undertones. The space centre provides plenty of well-paying jobs and the full integration of Guiana into the centralized French state means that there is a steady stream of French civil servants coming over from the métropole. This leads to a situation where in a population that is 90% non-white nearly all the official faces are white. You see soldiers (nearly all white), you see teachers (nearly all white) and the minivan full of black people (and me) is stopped by white police officers. The driver doesn’t mind, sometimes they arrest someone, sometimes even two but they usually pick the right ones, he says. He also gives me some other advice, if you want to know something, ask a white person, they are better informed. I would have found this deeply offensive from a white person but from a black guy what can I say?

I make use of his advice. I am in a hurry; I have to get quickly to the Space Centre to collect my invitation and there is not even half an hour left. I walk into the gas station, buy something to drink and ask loudly for all people to understand how to get quickly to the space centre. I instantly have a lift (white people). The moment I realized that I would pass through French Guiana around the time of a rocket launch, I knew I would need to be there. That is the reason why I had to hurry in Suriname and that is the reason why I have to hurry now. Things are not going according to plan since I arrived. The two hotels in St. Laurent du Maroni had both been full and I had to find a plan B. I have my tent but where to pitch it in a foreign town? I find a place to stay at a restaurant 10 kilometres away, the room is cheap but how to get there? French Guiana is suffering from a lack of public transport. There are minivans on the big road along the coast from St. Laurent to Cayenne (what a beautiful name) and on to Saint-Georges at the Brazilian border. There are public buses in Cayenne but besides that there seems to be nothing. You either have a car or if you are too poor to afford one you do not need to move around. There is nothing to bring me from St. Laurent (43,000 inhabitants) to the Agami Hotel and my attempts at hitchhiking are fruitless. At least I find a taxi. I need to take another taxi back the next morning. Kourou, population 26,000, also has no public transport. As I need to go again to the Space Center, this time to visit the museum, I ask the owner of the hotel how to get there. She tries to call “the taxi” but he quickly tells her he is out of town. There is no other. She drives me herself; her son is currently travelling as well and she hopes when she is kind to me other people will be kind to him. She tells me to give her a call when I need to get back but I rather walk the 5 kilometres. I just didn’t want to walk it both ways. The hotel owner chides me for not calling. She is very friendly but she is also concerned. She askes me to pay by credit card, she wants everybody to know that there is no cash at her hotel. That makes her feel safer. Because of the rocket launch I booked in advance, the hotel is very expensive for my style of travelling (67,5€ per night) but was the cheapest I could find.

The launch is a disappointment. Rockets are launched according to when the conditions are good so the SOYOUZ VS06 (love it that it is a Russian one) is being scheduled for shortly after 6AM. I have to be at the meeting point at 4:30 in the morning. At first, I think that we can see the tip of the rocket from the IBIS observation point but later I realize that the tip of a rocket that I see is the mock rocket in front of the space centre. The only opportunity to see the rocket before the launch is on a big screen. When it finally takes off, it is a very distant white glow shooting into the sky. At least it didn’t cost anything.

Cayenne is the best part of French Guiana. It is not as beautiful or exotic as the name suggests, it is rather a bit rough and scruffy but it seems to be real. Again, no cheap place to stay, but at 45€ not as horribly expensive as in Kourou. I’d love to visit the small town of Cacao, just for its weird story. In the 1970s a small contingent of Hmong refugees from Laos had to be resettled in France. French Guiana seemed to offer them a life similar than at home. Their Sunday market has acquired a certain prestige but again, there is no public transportation.

Anyway, I have a choice to make. Where do I want to spend Christmas? Originally, the plan was to be in a big city in a Spanish speaking country but that is out of question now. Being in French Guiana is not enticing at all, we have the 20th of December and it is high time to move on to Brazil.