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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Cayenne, French Guiana: What a nerve-wrecking day!

Just arrived in Cayenne, capital of French Guiana (in French, Guyane Francaise). French Guiana is the last vestige of European colonialism in Mainland South America.  In fact, it is constitutionally part of Metro France and part of European Union. 

 

It took me 7 hours to get here from Paramaribo, Suriname.  Not so much the time that matters, but the anxiety that was involved.  Firstly, it didn't occur to me that the authorities in French Guiana officially requires a Yellow Certificate from visitors and I only learned about it while reading my guidebook in greater detail a few days ago.  Yesterday, my Surinamese friend who also runs a travel agency and cross border transport business, Wilfred, warned me that people have been disallowed entry into French Guiana when found that they did not have the certificate. 

 

I have left at home my Yellow Fever certificate, which I had earlier obtained for the purpose of the African journey rather than for French Guiana. I contemplated getting another certificate in Paramaribo but that would only be available on Wednesday mornings, and I have to get to Cayenne to catch a flight to Martinique on Monday. With the hope that I could persuade French border officials that I had taken the Yellow Fever vaccination, I printed a copy of my September 2007 blog entry in which I mentioned the vaccinations I had to take, and also contained photos of the cover of the vaccination booklets.

 

Fortunately, the friendly French border officials did not ask for the vaccination certificate and instead stamped my passport without any fuss.  Hurrah!  Given the tight schedule I have, my trip would have been in a mess if they didn't allow me to enter Guiana.

 

Secondly, even before getting my passport stamped by the French, I was really nervous of the mess that prevailed at the Suriname-French border, which is basically a wide river full of small canoes bringing people across.  I arrived at this riverbank after a 2 hour journey in a cramped-up shared taxi where I was squeezed between a fat Surinamese man carrying in his lap a huge cage with a noisy black bird and a petite Colombian hairdresser with dyed blonde locks, only to be mobbed by half a dozen aggressive black men soliciting for passengers for their cross-river canoes - two of whom were already having a tug of war over my luggage. I had to shout for them to stop (while secretly trembling with fear) as I had to get my passport stamped "exit" by Suriname Immigration. 

 

You see, this river might be full of people crossing this international border, but 99.9% of them did so without bothering about passport stamps.  Some of these Surinamese have dual Dutch nationality (Suriname being a ex-Dutch colony) and so as EU citizens have every right of entering French territory without formalities. The rest of the Surinamese and all sorts of South American nationalities I saw at the border simply crossed over to work at the French side illegally. 

 

The French doesn't give a damn because firstly, French Guiana, half as big as France in surface area, is very thinly populated with only 250,000 inhabitants, and so illegals doing dirty work is unofficially tolerated.  Secondly, French Guiana is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on its northern side, and by the deep jungles of poor Suriname and Brazil on the other three sides. So anyone who gets into French Guiana is stuck there.  No danger of them moving on to France proper or Europe.

 

I had to ensure that I get a proper Suriname exit stamp so that the French Immigration would stamp entry on my passport.  The problem was, because few bother about getting the Suriname stamp, the Suriname Immigration was located some distance away from the river side where action takes place. I had to beg the taxi driver to bring me to the Immigration, which is something he didn't have to do for the other passengers.  We drove so far away from the riverbank that I half suspected I was about to get robbed.  When we reached Suriname Immigration, the lazy, sleepy officials there had to be pleaded to put on their uniform and stamp my passport.

 

Then back to the riverbank, I got into a canoe full of passengers who had no Suriname exit stamp and had no intention of getting a French entry stamp.  The boatman, also a tall loud black man, was also not overly enthusiastic in bringing me to the French Immigration quay.  He disembarked the passengers at a part of French riverbank full of waiting taxi drivers and took his own sweet time chatting to other boatmen. 

 

Even as he returned to the boat with another black man supposedly to bring me to French Immigration 200 meters away, it occurred to me that these aggressive, scruffy people looked perfectly capable of rowing the boat somewhere and chopping me into pieces.  I had my dark glasses on and tried to look fierce and impatient.  Fortunately, all they did was to steer the boat to the French Immigration where I got my passport duly stamped.  The only negative thing was he demanded twice as much boat fare than earlier agreed, I supposed for the additional journey he had to make for my passport stamping.  I was relieved when I finally got into the shared taxi for Cayenne. 

 

What a day!

 

I would stay two nights in Cayenne before heading for Martinique, another French overseas department in the Caribbean, on Monday.

 

After settling my stuff at Central Hotel, I walked around Cayenne briefly.  It's a very wet day with intermittent showers.  Most of the shops and restaurants are, like those in Guyana and Suriname, run by Chinese.  I had late lunch at a Chinese café and chatted to their Hangzhou-born owners.  Since I do not speak French and had difficulty understanding the hotel staff and other locals, the local Chinese have provided me with some useful local tips.  Increasingly during my travels, I have found the new Chinese immigrants, now found even in the most remote towns in exotic lands, a useful connection in navigating new places.

 

 

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