One recent night, hipsters invaded my neurons while I slept. I dreamed I was in a coffee shop in Brooklyn where everything was made of gleaming wood and there were only a few sustainable, fair-trade coffee beans for sale, nothing else. The barista sported mutton chops and a condescending scowl. I was telling him that I no longer lived in New York or Seattle, but in French Guiana, some obscure little place he probably never heard of. I woke up sweating ironic artisan guilt.
I wasn’t lying to the dream barista. This IS a small and obscure little place and most people have never heard of it. Which means you can admit pretty guilt-free that you have no idea where or what French Guiana is (in case you were getting ready to bring this up in therapy). I’d never heard of it either.
And so I present:
Today’s post: Lessons 1 – 5
First things first: French Guiana isn’t in Africa. Pretty much everyone who doesn’t live here thinks that’s where it is, and one friend back home encouraged me to learn African dances here. And maybe I will, but it would have to be via YouTube.
French Guiana is in South America.
Also, French Guiana is in Europe.
But French Guiana is in just one place.
French Guiana is sometimes considered part of the Caribbean, but it is not an island (although it has a few tiny islands, with some super creepy history).
French Guiana is in the Amazon rainforest. French Guiana is not a country. French Guiana is in France.
All true, but confusing. It’s why French Guiana, with perplexing geography and extensive natural scenery is best described as a small place with vast bewilderness.
French Guiana is a petit overseas department of France (DOM in French) in northern South America. It’s basically a colony whose residents continue to vote overwhelmingly to stay part of France –– and they are 100% part of France –– maybe not just because of French subsidies, but because they have inherited the French fondness for filling out forms. It’s at the southeast edge of the Caribbean region. Suriname is to the west, then Guyana.
Here are is a list of places people sometimes think I’ve moved: Guinea, Ghana, Guyana, Grenada, New Guinea, Geneva (they speak French!), Papua New Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, and French Guinea (which doesn’t exist anymore but does have a Wikipedia page).
Here is a list of places French Guiana is like: None, Nope not that one, Nowhere.
“Guiana” comes from an indigenous language and means “the place of many waters.” The name honors the array of wide rivers that curve through an otherwise-intraversable rainforest whose green growth is so dense, it would make an insecure head of broccoli reach for the Rogaine.
The letter i is a sticking point. Two countries over, there is Guyana, which boasts a waterfall three times the height of Niagara Falls. Guyana also boasts a y.
Except so does French Guiana. The name of French Guiana in French is just Guyane, or sometimes Guyane française.
But don’t put that y in English. Any mail coming from the US or Canada that says “French Guyana” or “Guyane française” or “French Guiana (Guyane)” gets redirected to Guyana. The Guyana post office, which operates without a website and with a gmail address, patiently reroutes said mail to French Guiana, apparently having its act together in this regard better than North American postal systems.
As I said, we’re in Europe, so the currency is the euro. You can’t pay in Brazilian reals or Suriname dollars. (Next door in Suriname, there are also places that won’t take Suriname dollars and instead prefer euros, such as the hopelessly hapless national airline of Suriname, which apparently has as much faith in its national currency as I have in its ability to manage flights.)
In the parts of Europe that are actually located on the continent of Europe (!), it’s normal to have euro coins from other EU countries, and when new bills are released, they pass into common circulation. Not here. When I handed a new style five euro bill to the counter woman at a local ice cream parlor, she scrutinized it as suspiciously as if I’d asked the kid in the corner with the crayons to, quick, draw me some currency. She handed it back, saying it wasn’t a real euro note.*
I live in Cayenne, which is the capital of French Guiana. Without the suburbs, Cayenne has about 57,000 residents. That’s slightly more people than Normal, Illinois, and slightly fewer than Krasnoturjinsk, Russia.
The cayenne pepper is not actually named for Cayenne, nor vice versa. The city’s name comes from caïenne, a small stove that 17th century sailors kept aboard their ships. When one such ship docked in Cayenne, the captain was so eager to eat fresh food that he declared unpacking the caïenne a priority. Having spent six weeks when we arrived cooking on a hot plate in a hotel room, I can sympathize.
I first saw centre-ville (downtown) the day we arrived. Our friend Jessica picked us up from the airport and drove us down Rue Charles de Gaulle. “This is the main street of Cayenne,” she told us. I looked out the window. Everything was closed.
Cayenne can’t make up its mind about its identity. It feels small and sleepy, until Carnival parades heave through the streets during a torrential downpour, and the distorted noise of a dance club pulsates until 7 a.m. Vibrantly-painted creole houses flaunt their colors next to crumbling buildings. The city motto is “fert aurum industria” which means “industry brings wealth.” There is no industry.
Best thing about Cayenne: The market, which has local passion-fruit juice and cinnamon and red bananas. Follow the market graffiti’s advice:
Worst thing about Cayenne: No Thai food. The one restaurant marked “Spécialités Thaïlandaises” is actually Chinese. Its owners labeled it Thai for marketing purposes, but had no interest in making Thai food.
Just 45 minutes west of Cayenne is Kourou, which is where the European Space Agency launches rockets. A few times a year, you can watch the Ariane 5 streak up through the sky like a banana on fire.
When we visited Kourou, we hiked up the Montagne des Singes (Mountain of Monkeys). Up top, we met European rocket scientists in town for the launch, which had been delayed. Their friends back home also thought French Guiana is in Africa.
Kourou and Cayenne are considered, respectively, the most dangerous and second most dangerous cities in France. I’m pretty sure going without Thai food is indeed extremely dangerous, so I take the safety precaution of making my own.
TO BE CONTINUED…
*hattip to TravellerX in the comments who corrected my euro currency knowledge in this section!