French Guiana made a big impression on my first visit, so a return trip was inevitable. As a bona fide part of France, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic, it has things going for it that the other countries in the region – Guyana and Suriname – don’t.
The first is sophistication, and it is hard to use that word without sounding snobbish, but the sophistication is not so much to do with the people as what is available. You can buy things in a supermarket in the capital, Cayenne, that you can only dream of in neighbouring Suriname or the British of the three Guianas, Guyana. (The French also use one word, Guyane, for theirs, just to complicate matters.)
However, it’s the people that make a country and this départment has as wide a range of personalities as any other.
We cross the river from Albina, Suriname, to S. Laurent du Maroni on one of the long, thin, wobbly boats that manage to look indigenous in spite of the Yamaha outboard engine at the back. We have booked a rental car online from a global company, so we head for their office.
The room smells of armpits. It’s a hot country, but so are they all around here, and the supermarkets I have just praised sell deodorant and its high-powered ally, antiperspirant, but some people in this room clearly don’t waste their money on such fripperies.
The pale-skinned, burnt-nosed expat Frenchman behind the counter is unimpressed with our tale of online booking. That was the American website, he says. You’re in Guyane now. Don’t come in here with your fancy Yankee ideas.
He mutters to his sexy black-skinned, short-skirted colleague and she snorts in empathy.
He doesn’t like my wife’s Venezuelan driving licence – “We don’t accept them” – and points to mine where it says UK. “What’s that, Ukraine?”
“L’Angleterre!” I almost shout, but he has just talked himself out of our doing business with him and we go back to the river, where people tell us there are taxis. We asked them for the bus to Cayenne but they seem to think buses and taxis are the same thing.
It’s a minibus with 10 seats and everything broken that doesn’t actually stop it from moving. The paint on the inside of the door exists only as small, shiny islands in a sea of wear and tear. But it’s cheap and they’re about to leave, so we climb in and an uneventful two and a half hours later we’re in Cayenne, where we have booked a gite, which translates as something like holiday cottage.
It is up a lane near the big supermarket we enjoyed last time we were here, and is run by a fastidious middle-aged man with a knobbly, swollen nose that looks as if it was once a red, veiny, boozer’s appendage that has had the colour removed.
The gite is in his garden. His house looks as if it was until recently a small restaurant, and it has a well-stocked bar, but he says it’s only for his friends. I’m enjoying being in France because I learned the language at school and it comes naturally, whereas my recent struggles with Dutch are slow and frustrating.
Antoine (not his real name) shows us to our quarters. There are three small buildings in the garden, each divided into two living units, with a shared kitchen in the middle. My wife and I are accompanied on this trip by our 14-year-old niece, but we chose this place because we’re saving money.
The bedroom is small but adequate, a single bed jammed across the foot of the double. There is a nicely tiled shower cubicle of indescribable shape, but at the back, in the narrow corner of a v-shaped space, sits the throne room, separated from the rest just by a curtain. It is no ordinary curtain, though. The room is 12 feet tall and the ornate crepe screen hangs from the cathedralesque ceiling like Maria Sharapova’s grandmother’s ball gown. What the place lacks in practicality it makes up for in quirky French charm. If you found a set-up like this in England you would report it on the grounds of decency and hygiene, but this is France and they do things differently.
Is there wifi? Yes, says Antoine. Can you give me the code? No, says Antoine. I don’t tell anyone the code but I will put it in your phone for you. All three of us? No, only two, says Antoine, and our niece finds herself staring into the abyss of a Facebookless, Instagram-deprived weekend, squeezed out by the adults’ work-related needs.
Antoine identifies the small, barely visible dark rectangle high up one wall as a television.
There is airconditioning and there is a remote control, but you can’t adjust the temperature. He has ordained that 21C is the ideal setting and that is that.
In the garden there is a brick-built barbecue, every metal part of it rusty and a frog shacked up in a bucket underneath.
We hit the supermarket and stock up on paté and wine and bread and cheese, and the women go out for sushi with a friend who is living in Cayenne, while yours truly succumbs to the early morning, the travel and the heat. A couple of glasses of Beaujolais and I’m asleep.
Next Tuesday: sun, sand, sea and strolls.