French Guiana, just as well known as the French Amazon, Guyane, and one of the three green knuckles. Know it? That’s okay. Not many people do. Even the French remain largely ignorant of their presence in the pristine Amazon rainforest.
For certain, the French Amazon, which sits snugly between Brazil and Suriname, attracts a great number of unusual characters, not least those who are living out their adventurist, naturalist, and alternative dreams. There are also Russian and European space center workers, teachers, doctors, firefighters, police and Legionnaires who are paid big bucks to be here and the Guyanese themselves: a jovial bunch of Amerindians, Maroons, Creole, and Brazilian migrants living alongside Hindustani, Javanese, Chinese, Hmong, and Haitians.
It is a land of colors, contrasts, cultures and chaos, and nobody leaves its shores without having found a touch of the wild within.
1. The Carnival
For two to three months of every year, this largely unknown department of France becomes a pulsating extravaganza of street processions, masquerade balls, cross-dressing parades, monkeys on stilts, giant mosquitoes, juggling jungle men, human trees, gorilla warriors, motorbike motorcades and dinosaur sized puppets.
You get swept up in a whirlwind of excitement and along with other seemingly ordinary people suddenly leap up to dance with each other, shake your bootie on a public street for everyone to see, and dive into throngs of passing mechanical insects.
It is a festival that purges all of life’s demands from you and lures you into stretching your boundaries so far, they will remain stretched forever.
The excitement of Charades bubbles beneath the surface every day. When you strike up a conversation with the Guyanese you can never be entirely sure whether they will speak French, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, or Taki Taki. They are possibly the most tolerant people in the world when it comes to accommodating individual languages as there are thirteen spoken here in total. Seven indigenous and six non-indigenous.
People switch back and forth between them effortlessly, the ability to speak four languages no big deal.
3. The transport system
Without roads, inland villages are reached by traversing wild untamed rivers in a pirogue. It’s the type of trip where your knuckles turn white from gripping the sides of the boat as it jumps up and down, riding below the waves and then above them.
With names like Hot Love, Keep the Faith, and Psalm 23, you can be forgiven for assuming they are comfortable, but they are probably not unless you specifically ask for a shade canopy or seat cushions.
Hitchhiking, a thought that terrifies many people around the world, is considered a relatively safe way to travel and the perfectly normal thing to do here.
People, at least half of whom are women, line up on the roadside with infants, shopping, wheelbarrows, luggage or large musical instruments waiting for a lift which normally eventuates within minutes.
Whether traveling by motorized pirogue or using your thumb, transport in French Guiana guarantees the unexpected.
4. The turtles
Between April and June every year, many of the beaches become a turtle highway.
There is something very personal about witnessing an enormous leatherback turtle huff and puff her way through the two-hour task of humping herself up the beach, digging a hole and laying up to 100 tennis ball sized eggs.
A few months later you get to watch firsthand baby turtles dodging dogs and birds of prey as they hurtle toward the sea like tiny windup toys.
There aren’t too many of us who don’t hold a fascination with space.
At the Space Centre hearing the final countdown is thrilling, even in French. Dix, Neuf, Huit, Sept, Six… At Cinq, you hear the dull roar of the launcher. Then, lift-off, that moment in time when everyone forgets themselves as open-mouthed they look skyward in a desperate attempt to spot the rocket as it appears between clouds.
The satellites propelled into orbit offer us a glimpse of what our planet looks like from space. It is a view so spectacular it is said to transform astronauts’ perspectives on life — and even draw them toward religion and spiritualism.
6. The homes
Many of the Guyanese have escaped the burden of paying for the great American dream by building a timber carbet, the name used for a traditional open-sided hut used by Amerindians. They are mostly owner built and vary from elegant double story structures to make-do ramshackle not quite living on the street, shelters.
Carbets show that housing should be less about crippling mortgage payments and more about sustainable, sensible and suitable.
Co-existence, as anyone will tell you, is about respecting each other’s space.
The Guyanese understand that the removal of one animal only frees up space for others to move in, so they have learned to coexist alongside wildlife which includes the magnificent matoutou spider than hunts down cockroaches, the Titan beetle that can use its jaws to snap a wooden pencil in two, and sugar ants that hide in every nook and cranny of the home until a minuscule particle of anything sweet is left lying about.
However, they also enjoy the thrilling experience of living alongside hummingbirds, geckos, and butterflies, which leads to only one sensible conclusion. It is better to live in harmony with nature, than without her.
Accepting that means you can relax and appreciate the wonders of the natural world.
8. Organised chaos
Life in the French Amazon is slow, so if you expect organization, infrastructure, and efficient service … well, just don’t.
An average daily scene comprises of watching animated Frenchmen drinking coffee from minuscule porcelain cups’ young school-aged children hanging from handlebars and pannier racks, while their mothers with infants strapped tightly to their breast peddle toward school; women walking along the roadside with full to overflowing sacks balanced precariously on top of their heads; and young men taking songbirds out for a walk.
All of this creates an ambiance of Caribbean charm mixed with South American craziness and you cannot help be spellbound by it.
A lack of light pollution in the French Amazon means the stars shine brighter.
It is a spectacle hidden from much of the world’s population who have to travel far from home to see it. But here we look up at an awe-inspiring expanse just like our ancestors knew it.
A bright night sky allows for normal circadian rhythms—the 24-hour cycle of day and night that we have used to maintain our health and regulate our activities for thousands of years.
10. Simple life
Food is a resource not taken for granted or wasted in French Guiana. Roadside verges, footpaths, the land beneath power lines, and backyards extending far beyond their legal boundaries are all commandeered to grow subsistence levels of bananas, cashews, coconuts, mangoes, and cassava which is shared among family and friends.
When you visit the market you know what you are going to find. You learn which fruits are in season and what effect the last week’s rainfall has had.
You can’t delay the setting sun or alter the temperature and with this surrender comes a secret feeling of being truly alive.
The people living in the French Amazon survive and thrive because there are no expectations or pressure. There is an all-encompassing relaxed, care-free vibe where nobody compares themselves to anybody else. What is the point when everybody is as different as chalk to French cheese?
Most importantly, the people here remain largely untouched by the nervous irritation of modern city life. They live surrounded by night skies, wildlife, and untamed rivers that reduce stress and mental fatigue. It is invigorating and revitalizing, a recovery of self that carries over if they leave.
However, I live in the French Amazon, not because of what it does to me, but because of how it makes me feel — Happy and Free.
You can connect with Donna @DonnaMulvenna
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