Saturday, February 4, 2012

Remember: Over There is Europe

Today was a travel day,  and while that means I got few photos in,  I got a million stories from the day.  I traveled from Paramaribo, Suriname,  to Cayenne,  French Guiana.  Since there is relatively little written about this particular journey online,  I'm going to describe it in some depth,  so bear with me,  there will be plenty of stories at the end.

The traditional way of doing this is to go to the area where the shared taxis (minibuses) hang out early in the morning in Paramaribo.  This is on Waterkant,  near the ferry terminal,  roughly where Kromme Elle intersects.  From this excellent blog post:  I'm told that the taxi drivers can be a bit aggressive.  I was all prepared to follow that precise method when last night I met a guy (Danny,  who runs d-trips  )  who went out of his way to help me out.  He made some calls and found a taxi driver who was willing to come and pick me up at my hostel.  I'm quite glad he did,  because it turned out that this morning it was raining heavily,  and I would have had to hiked for about 15 minutes to get to the taxi stand,  and gotten drenched in the process.  Ashok was the name of my taxi driver,  and he drove at about the same speed he spoke:  very,  very fast.  Ashok showed up right on time,  picked me up at just before 7am,  and we drove out to the home of the second person on his list to pick up...who....was still sleeping.  So we spent a bunch of time waiting for her.  Eventually she got in the car,  and we were on the road.....back to the taxi stand that I had hoped to avoid.  Apparently Ashok did not have a third person for the car,  so we had to wait around at the taxi stand until he found someone going the same place we were,  Albina.  (pronounced all-BEAN-ah)  However,  we found someone,  and were on the road headed out of town by 8:40am.  We nearly did not make it out of town,  as we came very close to being in an accident,  which is too complex to describe here.  Just know that no one in Suriname drives like they do in Europe or North America,  add in faint or absent lane markings,  heavy traffic,  and a Cluster already in progress by the time we got there,  and someone pulled out without a final last glance from the direction we were coming from.  No collision,  no injuries,  a few words yelled out windows,  and we were on our way again.

Ashok's car,  which he is proud to own himself,  had some alarming clunks every time it shifted from 1st to 2nd gear (automatic transmission),  but it never broke down,  and we kept going down what is possibly the longest stretch of bad road I've been on in my life.  The road between Paramaribo and Albina is undergoing a reconstruction effort.  New pavement has been laid,  new bridges are being built,  and in general,  there's lots of sign of good progress.  However,  for lengthy stretches there are bone-jarring potholes,  some of which we flew over the top of at high speed,  some of which were meticulously navigated.  I can't say I'm surprised Ashok's car has clunks and rattles,  it took a beating this morning,  and Ashok tells me he makes the Paramaribo - Albina run every day.  It showed too,  he knew exactly where all the speed bumps were,  (Drempel in Dutch),  and knew what we could speed over and what we had to slow down for.  Along the way we stopped in a random spot,  picked up a woman and her 10,  maybe 12 year old son and added them to the back seat as well.  I was pretty fortunate to be in the front seat,  it would not have been comfortable back there.  We made a second stop for food at a roadside grocery store for a quick 10 minutes at one point as well. 

An interesting note about the road,  the soil is a bright reddish orange,  and a large chunk of this road is not paved at all.  The mud from passing cars painted all of the otherwise green vegetation the color of the road for many miles.

Before we go on,  I need to explain a word.  That word is "Pirogue"  This is a long,  flat bottomed boat.   These are the boats that ply the waters between Suriname and French Guiana.  In this case, most of them have a covered awning for a portion of the boat,  and they all have an outboard motor mounted on the back of them.  I was entertained but unsurprised to see an outboard motor dealer on the Suriname side of the river,  right next to where many of these boats were.

True to his word, Ashok dropped me off at the immigration building at the Maroni River.  It is important to note that the immigration building is not where most of the pirogues that cross the river hang out.  So,  what Ashok did for me was talk to one of the of the pirogue men,  and tell him that I was going to be dropped off at immigration,  and that he should pilot his pirogue over to that area and pick me up.  I never learned the name of my pirogue man,  but Ashok went even so far as to negotiate the price for me on my behalf.  Ashok was also great in being honest about the unbelievably low price he charged for my 3 hour taxi ride from Paramaribo to Albina as well.  $70SRD for the taxi,  $20SRD for the 10 minute boat rode across the Maroni river.  And best yet,  once my pirogue man was set,  the other pirogue owners left me alone,  as I was spoken for.

So my report on Ashok is as follows:  He drives aggressively,  but from the stories I hear,  no more so than pretty much every other Suriname taxi driver out there.  He was attentive to my needs,  was fun to talk to,  and although he made driving decisions I would not have,  he skillfully navigated us all the way through 3 hours of crappy road.  He also showed at my hostel the night before I left to confirm that I was there and wanted him to pick me up (above and beyond what he needed to do),  and negotiated my pirogue for me favorably,  including making sure I was picked up at immigration rather than have to hike back down the road to where most of the pirogues were.

The pirogue took me to French Guiana,  and since Ashok had also arranged this,  to the immigration station in French Guiana,  which also is slightly upriver of where most of the pirogues land.  I had gotten my passport stamped appropriately in Suriname on departure,  and had no problems getting it stamped for entry into French Guiana.  The official spoke excellent English,  and was pleasant and helpful.

The next thing I did was spend about 5 minutes looking for,  then giving up on finding the penal colony ruins.  According to the map I had found earlier,  they should have been a quick walk up the road.  My plan was to see them quickly,  grab a few photos,  then find a shared taxi to Cayenne.  However,  I was pretty hot,  and I understood that these taxis do not run all day,  and that you should get there as early as possible.  When I was unable to find the ruins after the first few minutes,  I bailed and went to find a taxi.  I'll probably regret that later,  as that was something I wanted to see in St. Laurents du Maroni. 

I found a taxi along the waterfront where most of the pirougues were landing and taking off,  this was about a 200 meter walk downriver from the immigration station.  I found one very quickly (really,  they found me very quickly).  I had arrived in French Guiana at 11:30am,  I found the taxi shortly after noon,  and the taxi departed for Cayenne at 1pm,  despite not being full.

What followed next was an extended series of getting more poeple in the taxi (again,  a small sort of van or minibus),  dropping people off in strange locations,  or normal locations,  continuing on,  and eventually arriving in Cayenne.  Before we get there though,  we picked up what appeared to be the taxi driver's wife and small kid.  We dropped off some groceries at his place as well which had been in the back of the van.  We tried to pick someone up at a residence who wasn't there,  so we came back later for them.  We dropped off the wife back at the waterfront where I had been picked up,  and picked up two more people,  along with a bunch of fresh fruit.  Finally we left St. Laurents du Maroni and headed east.  Dropped off a guy along the way,  which was good,  because he was crammed in the back seat with me,  putting four people in a 3 person seat.  He paid the driver and we continued on for about a mile before stopping at a police checkpoint.  The police checkpoint was conducted entirely in French,  but one of the passengers had something that the police did not like.  It was confiscated,  the girl who it belonged to was pissy the rest of the trip,  fortunately she just played on her cell phone for most of the rest of the trip.  Sadly,  I don't actually know what the item was  it was wrapped in black plastic.  The stop seemed more like an agriculture stop than anything else,  so I'm not clear why the bananas and fresh fruit was allowed to remain,  and it was clearly not fresh fruit that was confiscated.  Maybe alcohol?  It's hard to say.

I'd like to note that there were no toilets along this route,  when I asked for one at the Maroni river I was told to just go pee in the bushes.  This was communicated to me somewhat hilariously in French,  and with hand gestures.  The message got through.  When we needed a toilet at a small grocery stop en route to Cayenne,  the women got in on the action in a weedy  garbage strewn area between two fences.  They laughed,  hiked up their dresses and went about their business.  I did likewise,  except for the hiking up of the skirt part.

Once we got to Cayenne,  the bizarre stops got worse.  We drove past Cayenne,  out to the airport,  picked someone up,  went somewhere else,  dropped off some other people, then went to a gas station where we got air for our tires.  At this point I was beginning to get a little annoyed.  Air in your tires is a maintenance thing you do when you do not have passengers who need to get to their destinations.  I was tired, sweaty,  and wanted a hot shower.  The next thing that happened though was that another minibus showed up,  and we all swapped passengers and bags.  So now a new guy is driving me somewhere else.  I knew my first driver knew the English words "how much?"  so I asked him this while pointing to the new guy.  I was happier (although not entirely happy at that point) that he said,  "no,  nothing."  Ok, fine.  Fortunately the new guy did not try to charge me after he dropped me off at my hotel.  On the way to the hotel,  the French speaking passengers were giving him an earful,  so even though I couldn't participate in that,  I think the message was getting through.  I arrived at my hotel at 5:30pm,  4 1/2 hours after leaving St. Laurents.  The drive itself is only a 3 hour drive.  The roads in French Guiana are paved,  and excellent.  French Guiana was much hillier than Suriname,  and I was in the back seat so I couldn't see how fast we were going.  Ashok was at one point doing 140 kph on a stretch of nicely paved road. 

Ok.  For people reading this who are considering this trip,  please see the link above,  it is an excellent description of the process and has better photos of the key places.  (with the exception of the area needed to go to get a shared taxi to Cayenne,  I never did see that area. Quite possibly that was because I was with a less honest taxi driver in French Guiana)  My taxi to Cayenne,  which picked me up on the river and eventually finally dropped me off in front of my hotel,  cost 40 EUR. 

The one piece of information that I did not see written anywhere about this journey is this:  There did not appear to be any easy quick places to buy food in St. Laurents.  I had made some ham sandwiches the day before and bought some soda on the way.  I ate those for lunch,  and it's a good thing I did,  I was pretty hungry by about that time.  I strongly recommend bringing food with you,  otherwise it's likely that from about 11am to 1pm you'll be stuck either in Albina or St. Laurents without food.  Also,  Aruba,  Curacao,  and Suriname all seem to know nothing of the existence of granola bars,  so if you like those as snack food, stock up before you leave home. 

Ok.  In Cayenne,  I grabbed a shower,  a quick dip in the pool,  dinner,  and am now relaxing and writing this blog post,  and hoping that my impromptu laundry-in-the-sink is good enough and that my clothes will dry in a reasonable time.  I brought a length of rope and a caribiner with me,  along with a little bit of laundry detergent,  and today I'm pretty glad I did.  The rope is now a make-shift clothesline strung across my bathtub.  The laundry facilities in this hotel don't work with my schedule:  I can get them laundry tomorrow morning,  but don't get it back until Monday at noon.  I'll be doing the next part of my journey at that point and will need to leave earlier.

Hang in there folks.  I know this is a long post,  but I'm now getting to the good stories.  :)

1) The music in Ashok's cab started out as some nice bollywood/Indian music.  I commented on it,  said I liked it,  and Ashok turned it off and we listened to the news in Dutch for a while instead.  Why do people always change the music in foreign countries when I say I like it?  Bizarre.  That happened in Abu Dhabi too.  The driver took the Middle Eastern music out and put on Shania Twain.  Why?  The rest of today's trip had a soundtrack from a CD called "back to the '80's."  80's music it definitely was,  although I didn't recognize a single song.  Sample lyrics:  "It's time to stand up/get on the caravan of love/are you ready for the time of your life/are you ready?"  Once Ashok got tired of that,  he put in a CD of,  I kid you not,  bad reggae.  Every song on the CD was in the same key,  and all of them seemed to be in praise of Jah.  Sample lyrics: "With Jah by my side, why should I be afraid/of the pestilence that creeps at night."  Really,  it was like they were all exactly the same song,  just slightly different lyrics.  Identical horn stabs on most of the pieces,  it was incredible.  When the CD rotated around and started playing the first song again,  I think I was the only one who noticed.

2) Today was the second time on this trip that I was really,  really happy.  The first was when I wandered into Willemstad,  Curacao,  saw the amazing photographic opportunities,  and just had a fantastic time with the knowledge that I had made it that far.  Today was the second time.  I had just successfully gotten through exiting Suriname stamping my passport,  and I was on the pirogue heading across the river.  I wasn't in any country at that point,  and crossing that river in a boat just like that was one of the things I've been looking forward to the most on this trip.  I had a giant grin on my face all the way to French Guiana.

3) In Paramaribo I had seen a large brown rusting hulk resting in the Suriname River.  I asked Danny from d-trips,  and he had the following to say:  during WWII the Germans decided to block the flow of bauxite (and therefore aluminum) to the US by sailing a large ship into the Suriname river and then sinking it in the middle of the navigation channel.  The boat (apparently the only German boat to show up in Suriname during WWII) made it to the river,  but someone heard about the plan,  and the Suriname officials rounded up all of the Germans and arrested them.  One was missing though,  and he (in Danny's words) "pulled the cork out of the bottom of the boat" and sunk it.  Unfortunately for the Germans,  the boat was not in the navigation channel at the time,  so it made no impact whatsoever to the bauxite shipments.  The wreck has been there ever since,  and after hearing the story,  I regret not photographing it.  Apparently recently the ship has been drifting towards the navigation channel though,  and is starting to become a hazard,  so it's very likely that it will be scrapped and removed in the near future.

3b)  Ok,  just looked it up,  the ship is the Goslar,  and the official story is that it was scuttled to prevent it from falling into Allied hands.  I like Danny's version much,  much better.

4) The last piece of advice Ashok gave me as I was getting out of his cab was,  "Remember,  over there is Europe."  This is technically true.  French Guiana is part of France,  it is not really a separate country.  Many other writers who have talked about touring throught the Guianas (French Guiana,  Suriname,  and Guyana),  have not been happy in French Guiana.  For me,  I kind of like it here. I can use my credit card to pay for meals again.  There are large European department stores on the edge of town,  and I feel pretty comfortable and at-home here.   Because quite honestly,  by the time I left,  Suriname was starting to scare me.  One of the other people at the hostel had been mugged the night before.  He was okay,  and they only made off with some money,  not his credit cards or passport.  You'll remember that earlier in the week I had seen a fight between a man and a woman spill out on to the street,  and with the police on strike,  it was beginning to feel just a little unsafe around the edges.  My piece of advice for anyone considering going there is this:  Take a single day for Paramaribo.  That's enough to see the major sights,  including the fantastically amazing wooden Catholic Church,  plus Fort Zeelandia,  with enough time leftover to find some unique places to eat. Then,  book a tour to the binnenland,  which is the Dutch word for "the bush,"  or "the interior."  There are so many more interesting and fantastic things to see elsewhere in the country,  and I regret not having taken the time to do one of those.  I'm very happy I made it,  finally,  to Suriname after all the visa/Tourist Card gymnastics I went through,  and I'm very pleased with the experiences I had there as well.  Nothing bad happened to me at all,  and lots of awesome things happened.  I am also looking forward to continuing my trip Eastwards and into Brazil.  And remember,  over there is Europe.

Finally,  on a light note.  Last night while searching for dinner in Paramaribo, I came across a sign that said,  "Ministrie van Regionale Ontwikkeling."  I've since looked up what this means,  and it's not all that exciting,  Ontwikkeling is essentially, "development."  However!  I was very entertained with how this sounded to my American ears.  I think I would very much like to be a minister of regional ontwikkeling.  :)  Heh heh. 

Now,  enjoy some pics of crossing the Maroni river to French Guiana.

Pirogues waiting in Albina.

The view from my pirogue.  The thin line of green on the horizon is French Guiana.

Looking back towards Albina,  Suriname.

Successful Transaction,  St. Laurents du Maroni.

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