For­ever France

Guyane, or French Guiana, boasts baguettes, a beau­ti­ful coast­line, a rich eth­nic mix – and a glimpse of Devil’s Is­land. By Jonathan Fryer

The Oldie - - TRAVEL -

The French were so much bet­ter than us Bri­tish when it came to hang­ing on to the most de­lec­ta­ble bits of em­pire. Gi­bral­tar and the Falk­land Is­lands some­how don’t have quite the same ca­chet as Tahiti or Mar­tinique.

The largest by far of France’s re­main­ing over­seas ter­ri­to­ries, as well as be­ing the least well known in the English-speak­ing world, is Guyane, or French Guiana. This is com­prised of more than 32,000 square miles of trop­i­cal rain­for­est, with a north­ern coast­line fringed with man­groves. Guyane is bor­dered by some of the most in­ac­ces­si­ble dis­tricts of Brazil’s Ama­zo­nia and of Suri­nam, for­merly Dutch Guiana. But its main air­port pro­vides an um­bil­i­cal chord to the mother coun­try through a daily flight to Paris-orly op­er­ated by Air France.

Only 250,000 peo­ple in­habit this ver­dant land that is four times the size of Wales, but Guyane boasts a rich eth­nic mix. The in­dige­nous Amerindi­ans live mainly along the rivers in the in­te­rior, sub­sist­ing on fish­ing and by mak­ing and sell­ing hand­i­crafts. In the towns one finds de­scen­dants of the African slaves who used to work in the now largely de­funct sugar and ba­nana plan­ta­tions that had been owned by the early colonis­ers. Then there are the more re­cent Chi­nese im­mi­grants who seem to own all the small con­ve­nience stores, as well as run­ning Chi­nese and Vietnamese restau­rants and take-aways. Haitian mi­grant labour­ers are at the bot­tom of the so­cial pile, with French set­tlers, nat­u­rally, at the top. Most ex­ot­i­cally, there are also about 20,000 eth­nic Hmong from Laos. They were trans­ported to Guyane by the French when the lat­ter pulled out of Indo-china in the 1950s, as many Hmong had fought along­side the French forces against the Com­mu­nist Pa­thet Lao gueril­las and their equiv­a­lents in Viet­nam. These days the Hmong in Guyane mainly run veg­etable hold­ings that sup­ply the cen­tral mar­ket in the cap­i­tal, Cayenne. This is housed in one of those splen­did wrought-iron struc­tures that one finds in many parts of South America.

Not counted in cen­suses, deep in the for­est and hid­den from view, there are un­quan­tifi­able num­bers of il­le­gal Brazil­ian garimpeiros, pan­ning for gold, with which the ter­ri­tory is well en­dowed. The mer­cury the garimpeiros use as part of their prim­i­tive hy­draulic min­ing tech­nique poi­sons the area’s wa­ter

cour­ses and some­times the prospec­tors them­selves. Oth­ers who strike lucky will oc­ca­sion­ally get shot by ri­vals. This is as near as the mod­ern world comes to the old Wild West and should be avoided at all costs. Un­like Euro­peans, Brazil­ians need a spe­cial visa to go to Guyane, but that re­quire­ment does not stop the

garimpeiros from slip­ping over the fron­tier.

Cayenne, af­ter which the cel­e­brated pep­per is named, boasts some fine old colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tive build­ings that are grouped at the base of a hill on top of which still stands a fort that was es­tab­lished to guard the en­trance to the town’s small port. Most of the houses in the cen­tre of town are wooden and at­trac­tively painted in a va­ri­ety of pas­tel shades. But in the sub­urbs there are vil­las that would not look out of place in a pro­vin­cial French town. Be­ing part of France means that Cayenne’s bak­eries pro­duce de­li­cious fresh baguettes ev­ery day, while on the out­skirts of town there is a gi­gan­tic Car­refour su­per­mar­ket sell­ing ev­ery­thing from elec­tri­cal white goods to paté de foie gras and cham­pagne. A pub­lic bus con­ve­niently stops right out­side, though it does not run very fre­quently. Peo­ple who shop at Car­refour are nor­mally ex­pected to have cars.

The French have al­ways liked to dis­ci­pline their gar­dens; ac­cord­ingly the prin­ci­pal green space in the cen­tre of Cayenne fea­tures ser­ried ranks of very tall and slen­der palm trees. One can gaze out at them from the ve­randa of the Hô­tel des Palmistes, an at­mo­spheric old colo­nial build­ing that has been sen­si­tively con­verted into bou­tique ac­com­mo­da­tion with all mod cons (but no swim­ming pool). The pasta and piz­zas served there are among the best in South America. There are plenty of other restau­rants within a short walk­ing dis­tance, in­clud­ing a branch of the French chain Hip­popota­mus.

In the evening, Cayenne’s oth­er­wise sleepy main street is briefly en­livened by the pres­ence of off-duty French sol­diers who gather for a beer or to watch foot­ball matches in the one sports bar. They are there partly to try to con­trol the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Brazil­ian

garimpeiros but mainly to pro­tect the Euro­pean space sta­tion that is lo­cated at Kourou, an hour or so’s drive along the coast. One can watch the launch­ing of the Ari­ane rock­ets from there per­fectly clearly while sit­ting on a park bench by the sea in Cayenne.

To get to Kourou (which is out of bounds on the days when a rocket launch is tak­ing place) it is best to hire a car. The few pub­lic buses are in­con­ve­niently timed and taxis from Cayenne are pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. But it is from Kourou that one can get a cata­ma­ran over to the Iles du Sa­lut, just a few miles offshore. The is­lands got their name of ‘sal­va­tion’ be­cause early mis­sion­ar­ies found safe sanc­tu­ary from the plague there. But later the name con­tained a bit­ter irony, as for al­most ex­actly a cen­tury up un­til 1953 the is­lands housed pe­nal colonies for the most dan­ger­ous French crim­i­nals. The most no­to­ri­ous was Devil’s Is­land (Ile du Di­able), where poor Cap­tain Al­fred Drey­fus was in­car­cer­ated for nearly five years af­ter a shame­ful and anti-semitic mis­car­riage of jus­tice. Devil’s Is­land has never had a land­ing stage; men and sup­plies were trans­ported there over the wa­ter from the neigh­bour­ing Ile Royale by a prim­i­tive tele­feric con­trap­tion. This fell into the sea a few years ago and has not been re­placed, and it is now im­pos­si­ble to get to it at all.

Any­one try­ing to es­cape from Devil’s Is­land faced al­most cer­tain death from be­ing smashed against the rocks by the waves of the cruel sea or by be­ing eaten alive by the sharks that cir­cle around it. One must there­fore take with a large pinch of salt some of the claims made by ‘Papil­lon’, the con­victed mur­derer Henri Char­rière, who made a for­tune from his epony­mous au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, which was later turned into a ma­jor Hol­ly­wood movie (shot on the Ile Royale) star­ring Steve Mcqueen and Dustin Hoff­man. Char­rière was al­most cer­tainly held on the Ile Royale, from which es­cape was the­o­ret­i­cally pos­si­ble, though very dif­fi­cult. Even in that is­land’s pe­nal colony a very high per­cent­age of the prison­ers died, from malaria, in­hu­man pun­ish­ments or ran­cid food.

To­day the is­lands look idyl­lic from the hill­top restau­rant on the Ile Royale, where one can or­der tasty seafood, freshly caught and en­joyed with fine French wines. But as one walks along the usu­ally de­serted coastal path, past the nat­u­ral rock pool where some of the most priv­i­leged prison­ers were al­lowed to bathe, one is re­minded by his­tory that Par­adise can some­times be Hell.

‘There are vil­las that would not look out of place in a pro­vin­cial French town’

The mar­ket in the cap­i­tal, Cayenne, sup­plied by the veg­etable hold­ings run by the eth­nic Hmong from Laos

No es­cape: Devil’s Is­land, as seen from the neigh­bour­ing Ile Royale. Nowa­days it is also im­pos­si­ble to reach

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.