Irrational Geographic (Part 2)

Where were we? That’s right; totally lost.

Previously on Pardon My French Guiana, we had five lessons in French Guiana’s geography. Now that you’re as befuddled as I am, it’s time for a low-budget sequel. Here are five more lessons.

lesson 6

French Guiana is roughly the size of Indiana.

indiana and french guiana 3

French Guiana has the fifth lowest population density on Earth, at just over two people per square kilometer. Its population is half that of Staten Island, a place that’s sometimes called the “forgotten borough” of New York.


Despite having half as many people, French Guiana is big enough –– or Staten Island is small enough –– that you could squeeze Staten Island into French Guiana 600 times over.

Staten island in french guiana

But I don’t recommend you try.

lesson 7

Much of the landscape, as I mentioned, is dense, river-veined rainforest, including some virgin forest. Most of the population lives along the Atlantic coast in the north, and there are few roads beyond the coast.

There’s even a national park in the south, a vast forest that, with a similar area in Brazil’s northern state of  Amapá, forms the largest protected area of rainforest in the world. But don’t expect to pack up le Winnebageau or the bicycle and drive down there to buy souvenir shot glasses. There are no roads. It can only be accessed by boat or plane or helicopter.

This was disappointing to learn, because I want to go. I’ve always felt about nature the way some people feel about their religion. It’s so breathtakingly beautifully bigger than me. But there are other, weirder parallels between French Guiana’s primary rainforest and theologies of some major religions of the world:


Whereas American national parks encourage you to show up and buy tchotchkes and waltz with Smokey the Bear (if not his actual ursine counterparts), French Guiana’s national park seems to prefer you don’t bother. And so, I propose a French Guiana alternative to Smokey. Sleepy the Sloth would rather you stay home and leave well enough alone. He’s saying French Guiana’s favorite phrase: No worries.

sleepy sloth 4

I’m not going to tell the French government what to do. All I’m saying is Sleepy the Sloth would look great on a shot glass.

It doesn’t mean the rainforest is completely untouched. For one thing, illegal gold mining is an enormous problem, leading to violence and mercury contamination. A friend in the local French military told my partner and I that even when miners are caught, they’re usually released right back into the forest at the place they were found. Oh, France.

But gold mining issues aside, the forest is pretty amazing and the biodiversity is mind-blowing. French Guiana is half the size of Washington State, dubbed the Evergreen State in the US, but for Washington State’s 25 varieties of native trees, French Guiana has over a thousand. And that’s just trees; there are over 10,000 native plants, to say nothing of all the insects and birds and mammals and, uh, giant tarantulas I really don’t like to think about.

lesson 8 population

Nobody actually knows how many people live in French Guiana, since the borders are a little porous. But it’s somewhere around 230,000. (Again, about half the population of Staten Island.)

Most of the population has diversely mixed ancestry (creole), tracing family roots back to Africa, South America, France, the Caribbean, and other places. There are also people from Métropole, which is what people here call Actual France in Geographical Europe. There are lots of people from Brazil, primarily Northern Brazil. There are people from Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Suriname, Guyana, and a smattering from other countries.

Just to make sure you’re really confused about what continent you’re in, there’s a Hmong community living in a village called Cacao. While I’ve met Hmong communities in Washington State and plenty of other places, the community here brought over a lot of their traditions and crafts and the like and has been re-creating life in Southeast Asia here for a few decades, perhaps with a grant from the International Society for Intercontinental Bewilderment. But when you visit the Hmong market in Cacao, there’s one clear sign you’re in French Guiana: the prices are about twenty-five times what they’d be in Southeast Asia.

There’s a sizable Chinese population, running most downtown shops and restaurants, and I’m beginning to fear that they’ve all come from some little-known province in China that specializes in westernized Chinese food of 1950s America. (If you’re from Sichuan Province and have restaurant skills, please consider emigrating to French Guiana. Pretty please?) There has to be some explanation for the preponderance of mediocre Chinese restaurants and lack of many other options.

chinese decree

Speaking of demographics, I know I can’t actually be the only Jew in French Guiana –– I keep hearing rumors of one here or there –– but I feel like the only Jew in French Guiana.

For such a diverse place –– about a third of the population wasn’t born here –– French Guiana manages to feel pretty insular. For example, people are genuinely shocked upon discovering that you don’t know a particular French bureaucratic procedure, like which form to fill out to get permission to fill out forms to start your very own form-printing business. Or something.

lesson 9

The official language of French Guiana is French, bien sûr, but it’s not the only language. There are some indigenous languages too, words from which have also entered local creoles. Wander around Cayenne and you’ll hear plenty of Portuguese from Brazilian immigrants and Chinese from Chinese immigrants. From market vendors, you’ll hear Lao, Chinese, French Guiana creole, and other languages.

A local TV show, A Kouman, takes a whimsical look at other languages (French sign language, French Guiana creole, Italian, Arabic, etc.) by staging short episodes with people who speak those languages. (Full disclosure: I was in an episode.)

French Guiana creole sounds like the dream come true of a kid trying to learn French in school. It eliminates all those nasal vowels with silent N and M and R, and it makes ample use of K. It sounds like a lot of short syllables, each starting in a hard letter and ending in a vowel. In short, it probably makes much more sense than French.

language development

There are other creole languages around, like Suriname’s Taki-Taki, famously the language with the fewest words (fewer than 400!). I am tempted to learn Taki-Taki.

But make no mistake, La France wants you to speak French. At the immigration office, when I sat around with a bunch of other foreigners being lectured to about the value of the French state and why we should not take advantage of the French system, we were told, en français, “Here, maybe you can get away with it, but if one day you go to work in Métropole, you cannot speak Taki-Taki or Portuguese or French Guiana Creole. Can you imagine it? No, you must have respect for la France and you must speak French.” Except as even the presenter knew, the only person in the room who did not understand French also did not speak Taki-Taki or Portuguese or French Guiana Creole. He spoke Chinese.

lesson 10

Because being in both Europe and South America apparently isn’t enough to cause an identity crisis, French Guiana also has not one, not two, but THREE flags.

This is the flag of France, and French Guiana is in France.

flag of france

This is the flag of French Guiana.

guyane la region

And this is the apparently also the flag of French Guiana.

french guiana yellow green flag

I propose a fourth flag, which may have familiar elements.

proposed french flag

Or, rather, I would propose it, if only I had the correct form.


4 thoughts on “Irrational Geographic (Part 2)

  1. As an undergrad my Turkish sister-in-law spent a semester in Reykjavik. She was at a bar one night when her very excited friends ran up to her with the big news: “The other Turk is here! The other Turk in Iceland is here!”

  2. That sounds familiar. I briefly met another Jew here. Not only another Jew, but another female New York Jew working in public health. And I met her a few days before she left French Guiana for good.

    “Where have you been???” she asked. “I’ve been looking for you!” I’d been looking for her too.

  3. Have you noticed any other orange-haired people in French Guiana? If it’s just you, maybe if you leave, I should take over the role of French Guiana’s only orange-haired person and only Jew.

  4. On the geographic front, I’d also like to point out that French Guiana looks kind of like a smooshed version of Wisconsin.

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