There exist Guyana, Ghana, and French Guiana, and only one of them exists in Africa. The other two, Guyana and French Guiana are separated by Suriname, and together they comprise the least visited and most poorly understood area of South America.
Traveling across these three countries, collectively known as the Guianas, was in my game plan, and like most anyone in South America I had little idea what I’d find inside. I had no map, guidebook, reservations, or agenda, nor had I ever met someone who had traveled these countries. I was unsure of the spoken languages, the border crossings, and transportation. But what I lacked in local knowledge, I made up for in improvisation skills, and I looked forward to this next challenge.
Leaving my beloved Macapa, in the remote northeastern corner of Brazil, I boarded an overnight bus for the border with French Guiana. What was supposed to be a twelve-hour journey ended up being twenty. A blown tire left us sitting in the jungle for eight hours, and I spent the night sleeping on the cool pavement outside. The next day we met a blockade of buses stuck in a muddy hill slope and that didn’t help our timeliness either. With a fair bit of haste, I found the Oiapogue immigration office before closing time, and after paying my fine for overstaying my Brazilian visa, I hopped on the first motor canoe for French Guiana.
All of Guianas are politically divided by rivers. That means that after stamping out of the country, you have to find a local boat to take you for a duty-free ride to the other side. There, with a little bit of luck you will find another immigration outpost, and a little more luck will mean that the office is open and that you don’t have to spend an illegal night at the border town. That was the case for me as I entered French Guiana.
Securing transportation was another story. French Guiana is actually an extension of France, and their currency is the euro. This means that things are expensive, damn expensive. With no long-distance public transportation, you have to hire out a driver. I got a ride with a Brazilian woman to the capital city of Cayenna. Four of us piled into her truck and we had to pay forty bucks each for the 3-hour drive. I wasn’t happy; forty bucks could get me half way down Central America with an ordinary bus tariff.
Hotels weren’t any cheaper. The cheapest I found was a $60 plain single, about triple the rate I paid for my most expensive room in the past. And this one came with the rudest receptionist, perhaps person, I had ever met. As I browsed the nearby food joints, which was mostly greasy Chinese restaurants, I made the decision that the prospect of French croissants in the morning just wasn’t worth the price. I would leave French Guiana as soon as I could manage.
I got word that I needed a visa to Suriname, so I showed up to the consulate first thing in the morning. Because I’m a Statesan, I was not eligible for a transit visa and instead had to purchase a $130, 5-year travel visa (Since our government screws travelers, half of the countries in South America gets revenge on us, aka “reciprocity”). The visa fortunately took just five hours to process, and by 3 pm, I was in a private van, bound for Suriname. In just 26 meal-less hours in French Guiana, I had spent three-hundred dollars, the equivalent of two weeks travel in Bolivia.
In my van journey to Suriname, I was accompanied by four Surinamese men and a baby, all of whom were visiting home from Holland, their present country. They had not known each other prior to arriving at the Cayenne airport, but had teamed up in their overland travel to their homeland to cut costs. Like their Dutch colleagues, they were fluent in English and took me onto their team, eager to show me the ropes in their home country.
After a quick stamp of my passport, we negotiated a boat taxi across the border, and in a 10-minute journey we had crossed from the European Union back to South America. Happy to be back, we secured a two-hour road taxi at normal South American rates, along with a stopover at customs.
Our driver pointed me toward the immigration office, a residential balcony, with a sign that read “Korps Militaire Polite.” This couldn’t be right. There, five men sat out front, bare-chested, drinking beer, and watching football. I asked for immigration, and I was surprised to hear them respond, “He’s taking a shower and will back in ten minutes.” Still perplexed, I went for a walk to make sense of this casual border.
I found a building that displayed “National Police” out front, and asked the guard how I could get an entrance stamp.
“You’re too late,” he responded. “The office closes at six. Plus you came in the wrong way. You’re supposed to land here at our dock. You are now illegal. I’d like to help you get in but you’re illegal and you have to return to French Guiana.”
Apparently my Guyanese friends had requested our boat driver to take the “back door” to avoid the hassle of immigration. Good for them, bad for me.
Whatever. I was not about to hire another boat back across the border, and certainly not going to spend another night in a euro-priced hotel. I returned to the pseudo-immigration house to see if the shower-guy had returned. He had. As an official gesture, he put on his soccer jersey and left to retrieve his stamper.
Without any questions, computers, or documents, shower-guy stamped my passport and bid me a happy stay in Suriname. Sketchy. My biggest surprise was that he didn’t ask for a bribe. As we pulled out, I wondered if my my pseudo-stamp would give me problems at the western border, at the other side of the country. My new friends handed me a beer, and as we cruised through the curvy forested roads of Suriname, I worried less about my illegal entry.
Traveling with the Surinamese was quite a linguistic experience. Most people could speak English, but the national language was Dutch, and the street language is a creole, Sranon Tongo. On top of that over 40% of the population descends from Javanese and East Indian contract workers, who also carry with them their mother tongues, while another 15% are native and stick with local languages of their own. Despite being in South America, nowhere in Suriname will you find Spanish, because its three neighboring countries speak French, English, and Portuguese. To little surprise, Suriname is struggling with its national language identity.
The capital of Suriname, Paramaribo, was pleasantly different from Cayenne. Good vibes were felt all around in the “wooden city,” which has recently been declared a UNESCO Heritage Site. Delish Indonesian street food, cheaper accommodation, and decent access to the rainforest made me wish I had more time here. It’s a place that few travelers get to and based on the convenience factor, I sadly don’t think I’ll ever be back.
Another river crossing, this time in a heavy-duty ferry left me in Guyana, and for the first time in 15 months of travel, I was welcomed in English at the border. In the cheapest duty-free liquor store I had ever seen, I met up with Lania. She and her partner, Sal, ran a tour bus, and they basically road trip all over Northern South America in their 15 passenger van, picking up paying tourists and locals along the way. They had been doing this for years, car camping, living on the road, and actually making a profit out of it. It was a no-brainer that I would hitch a ride with them to Georgetown, sharing stories along the way.
What Georgetown lacked in aesthetic appeal, it made up for in unique surprises. On my first evening in the capital city, I checked out the local East Indian Cultural Festival. Because of the post-slavery arrival of indentured servants, Indians, with over 40% of the population, represent the largest ethnic subgroup Guyana. Their cultural heritage will not be forgotten here.
After several acts of Indian performances, the host called up their president to the stage for a presentation. A man casually dressed, who was sitting right next to me walked to the stage. I soon realized that this man wasn’t the president of the Indian Heritage Society. He was the president of the whole freaking country. Recently awarded with the U.N. environmental distinction “Champion of the Earth,” he received a normal ovation before he took his seat beside me again. In a country of less than 800,000 people, there was no pressing need for high-tech secret service agents. He had the same jurisdiction as the mayor of Albany, and despite being a PRESIDENT, he was treated just the same.
With just two days in Georgetown, I spent my second day watching a West Indies upset of England in the Cricket World Cup. Yes, cricket had arrived to town, and despite having never seen a match in my life, I was intent on scalping a ticket outside the local stadium. After finally understanding the rules, I am convinced that cricket is a better spectator sport than baseball, which outside of Yankee Stadium, doesn’t really say that muchJ