Tuesday, 26 April 2011

DOM-TOM Perignon

Firstly, an apology. I'm ever so sorry it's taken me this long to write the penultimate Samerica blog. The only excuse I can offer is that going home after such a trip is hectic to say the least.

Anyway, on to business...

Leaving Suriname for French Guiana was strange, as I knew I would be heading into Europe once more. You see, French Guiana is technically part of France (see the name of the place for more details), and as such is part of the European Union. They use Euros, receive money from Brussels and use European/French laws. It also costs a similar amount to Europe (i.e. a lot) and thus was by far the most expensive part of the continent. It's a little outpost of the Old World in the midst of the new one. It really was a peculiar thing speaking French, being surrounded by buildings of the same style one would find in mainland France and yet having the world's largest forest being half an hour away. 

The difference between French Guiana and the rest of the Guianas was startling. The climate and landscape was more-or-less identical, but the disparity in finances was evident to all. To give but one example: the roads in Suriname along which I travelled to get to French Guiana were dirt roads filled with random dips and holes. As soon as I crossed into French Guiana, the roads were all paved and of a much higher standard. It's the little things you notice.

Perhaps it's a sort of envy that has prevented there being any major transport links between French Guiana and the rest of South America. The only way in or out of French Guiana from/to other South American countries is by road. There are no flights, no trains, no ships, just dodgy people carriers driving at 80 mph. Or if you enter the way I did, you can climb into a tiny wooden boat and go across the river that divides French Guiana from Suriname.

It was hardly Royal Caribbean, although there was a similar number of sick people

French Guiana is what the French call a 'DOM-TOM' (D├ępartements d'outre-mer - Territoires d'outre-mer) and receives literally billions of Euros every year from Paris in support. For this reason - or so it is widely believed - French Guiana and many other DOM-TOMs always give a stern "Non!" when asked whether they would like independence. There is a negative side to all this Parisian interference, however. Many Guianese to whom I spoke complained about the long and painful decision-making process for anything major. For example: if they decided an enormous and expensive bridge were needed, the regional government (in French Guiana) would have to ask the national government (in Paris) if this was alright. I'm told this decision-making process takes roughly two years for such projects as French Guiana is - perhaps understandably - seen as a bit of a minor issue in mainland France, meaning issues considered more important are addressed first. Two years later, when the decision has finally been taken, the regional government can then start looking into the finance and planning of said hypothetical bridge. The mind boggles...

What's it like then? Well, to put it simply, it's exactly like France, just with more black people and a lot more sun. It's France, but Caribbean-ised. 

Caribbean take on Carrefour

Unsurprisingly, the predominant music genre is reggae... in French, which kind of works, or at least works a lot better than the Dutch reggae encountered in Suriname. The general psyche of the population is also very Caribbean in its nature - generally relaxed and very laid-back. I recall being the lone passenger on one of the sparse public buses in Cayenne, the region's capital, when the bus driver pulled over at a fast-food joint to get his lunch. I ended up sitting on the bus on my own for 15 minutes waiting for the driver to re-emerge. Where it is far from Caribbean is in the Gendarmerie (or 'police' to the Francophobes among us). During my time there I did not see one black Gendarme. Whether this was by coincidence, or whether there is something more to it I do not know. However, I did get a feeling that there was still an underlying current of racism and/or prejudice present. In fact, this went both ways to an extent: the service in restaurants was generally terrible. When I enquired as to why this might be, seeing as restaurants are a very French concept, I was told that many black serving staff at restaurants felt resentment towards white people for the slave trade and thus were loathe to serve whites, lest it appear like servitude again. 

They do occasionally get down to business around these parts. French Guiana is actually home to the Centre Spatial Guyanais - the Guyanese Space Centre - from which over two thirds of all commercial satellites are launched every year. I'd never even heard of it.

The question remains whether I would recommend going to French Guiana. In short, not really. It has a slight novelty to it, but that quickly wears off. If you want to live among the French for a few days, it'd be far more worth your while going to mainland France - not even the French come on holiday to French Guiana.

So there we have it. That concludes my blogs on all the many wondrous and interesting countries I've visited over the past two-and-a-bit months. Next time will be the very last blog in the series, and yes, I do indeed have a treat lined up for you.

Au revoir, and please, don't have nightmares.

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