Cayenne, French Guiana is very serious about its role as one of the rainiest places on Earth.
I thought I was familiar with the problems of rain, having lived for many years in Seattle, where the persistent light rain causes all sorts of things to sprout, like moss and beards and excuses to hole up with caffeine and computers and hide from the world.
But tropical rain is heavier and more persistent. If Seattle rain is a medium-sized cat that sits on you and licks your face to get your attention, French Guiana rain is a jaguar that leaps on you and drools to get your attention. And then it eats you.
Our real problems with rain started when we moved into our house. It took six weeks to get the house, because our rental agent took spontaneous vacations nearly every day, and the Banque Nationale de la Bureaucratie Française needed a lot of paperwork.
Our house is a lovely old maison créole. I totally romanticized it at first. It has dark brown wooden windows and a pretty garden where loudly-squawking yellow-breasted birds take baths in the rain.
I stopped romanticizing it the first night, when we couldn’t fall asleep. It wasn’t just the motorbikes we could hear through those wooden windows, but also the barking of a dog whose job seems to be to protect our 90-year-old neighbor from motorbikes and stray cats and anything else the dog imagines it can hear.
When I say our house has wooden windows, I mean that nowhere in the house is the kind of fully-closing glass window I grew up with in North America, and this has been what they call an adjustment. Most of the windows are wooden shutters that look like this.
Pretty, right? But they let through air, mosquitoes, sound, and, of course, moisture. First, water molecules come through the wide spaces between the shutters.
Then they find our clothes.
No, they REALLY find our clothes.
No, I mean our dry clothes don’t stay dry, and our wet laundry can’t even get dry when we hang it up indoors, because there are so many water molecules coming through the window.
And then the mildew starts. I imagine mold spores looking a bit like rambutans, the round and spikey fruit that is almost as ubiquitous in French Guiana as mold spores.
The mildew invades the clothing.
The humidity spreads out. The humidity makes the floor slippery, the sheets heavy, the electronics wistful for North America. We find mold where we least expect it. A duffel bag, tucked into a cabinet. A black leather purse, first touched by some stray humidity.
Soon finds itself in an increasingly moist room.
The windows are shut, but only shuttered, and the air gets damper.
And by the time you find the purse, it’s nearly too late.
You want to clean it, but you don’t know when you can. It’s May, the height of rainy season, and you haven’t seen the sun in over a week. There is no hope of the purse drying, even if you hang it indoors, because the humidity is nearly as bad indoors as outdoors.
I shout to Bo. But he can’t hear me over the rain, and he shouts back,
And I think, “A mildew-over. That sounds about right.”
He can’t hear me because not only do we not have glass windows, but above and below our windows we have corrugated metal awnings, which make such a racket in the heavy rain without real windows that it sounds like we have personal timpani players hovering in the rain outside.
And sometimes it’s as if a whole timpani-heavy orchestra which, for some reason, has employed a yellow bird to squawk at non-rhythmic intervals, is playing a concert outside just for us. We can’t hear each other talk, can’t hear the phone, can’t hear ourselves think. We just have to listen to it.
It shows no sign of letting up.
That’s no surprise. I learned that it rains more in French Guiana in April and May than it rains in Seattle in an entire year. And in a year French Guiana gets a dose of rainfall just shy of twelve feet and three inches. That means if two Barack Obamas stood one on top of the other, they still wouldn’t be as tall as the height of the annual rainfall in French Guiana.
So I guess we’re here for now. Watching the rain and hoping that eventually the sun comes out before the mold spores start forming a union and demanding benefits from the French government or from us.
Maybe we’ll even get used to it.