Several years ago, I remember having a heated discussion with some Latino friends over the existence of Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana, three South American countries that seem to have escaped the backpacking trail and – evidently – common mainstream memory. So when I found out that my colleague, Guillaume Doerig, used to actually live in French Guiana, my travel senses began to tingle and I just had to wrangle him into sharing his stories. This overseas department of France is roughly one-third the size of Ecuador with a human population of just 200,000 on land that stretches for 84,000km2. If there was ever a place to put on your 2018/2019 travel list, it should surely be French Guiana, the land of jungle!
French Guiana with Guillaume
Hi Guillaume! French Guiana is a place that I know almost nothing about, speaking as a New Zealander, so I am curious to know what made you leave Australia and why you chose French Guiana?
It stems from a personal reason. I was at uni in Melbourne, studying zoology, and I just found it so boring – I just wanted to get out. I was a bit ´anti-institution´ a few years ago and I just thought, ¨I’ve got the whole world to choose from – where can I go?¨ I have a British passport as my Mum’s English, a Swiss one because my Dad is Swiss, and a French one as I was born in France. So France used to be a big empire, with colonies all over the world, and I thought ¨what about French Guiana?¨ It’s in the Amazonian rainforest and the birds are drop-dead amazing, so I saved up and bought a 1-way ticket. This was in 2016, when I was 19.
That is amazing! So you went to Cayenne, the capital. What was it like?
I was in Cayenne from March until the beginning of November. It was unlike anything I had known before, coming from Melbourne, and it was the first time I’d ever set foot in South America. Guiana is a department of France that has been neglected by the State a bit, and that is reflected in the infrastructure. Physically the climate is tropical and just heavy with moisture, with a warm ocean. They don’t have four seasons either, just the wet and the dry. Everywhere was so green – because its jungle, you know? It’s a place of crossroads. It has a metropolitan French influence, a Brazillian/Latin influence, and a Carribean influence because there are lots of people living there from the Caribbean islands. Its a unique mix but also very westernized. It’s also really small, so I could go to the top of the hill and see all the edges of the city.
How did you support yourself?
I’d had hopes of working in conservation, as part of a project, but I couldn’t find any. I did manage to do a few excursions with GEPOG [the Study and Protection for the Birds of French Guiana] but I found nothing paid and nothing was stable. So I hopped on my bike and gave my cv to all the restaurants, and found a job as a waiter in Bar des Palmistes, which was a hotel/bar. I made some great friends there and I am still in contact with two of them.
Where did you live?
My first month I was in an Air BnB. I also found out that my Dad’s ex-colleague’s daughter lived there, so I got in touch with them. They were the most loving family – the best – and I lived with them for a little while. I would have broken without them. After that, I moved into a flat and shared with my landlord, Jean-Philippe. who was actually from Guadeloupe, which is a French island in the Caribbean. He had a little cat called Bagheera and that little guy was like my salvation, my best friend. He was the cutest little cat in the whole world and I miss him dearly, and I hope I get to see him again. You know, I really miss him – I’ve never felt a connection to an animal as strongly as that, so I think it’s worth mentioning.
You are bilingual, with your first languages being English and French. How did you find the language there?
The official language is French of course but – and this is a big but – a lot of the people speak Creole. To my ears, I didn’t know anything that they were saying.
What was the food like?
There was a lot of seafood and a lot of classic French cuisine. There is a huge market in Cayenne where they sell things like fruit from the jungle.
The jungle! Did you manage to get out of Cayenne and into the jungle?
I went on a few occasions! Out in the jungle is where you find most of the Amerindian people, living as they always have, and their main method of transportation is this long, motorized canoe called a pirogue. They go by the water because some of the places where they live, like Camopi and Saint Georges, are only accessible by water.
What was is lt like?
I went to Savane-Roche Virginie and Inselberg, which is literally a big rock that goes above the canopy. When I went there I went with a group of people who were studying there, and we put up these big nets to catch all the flying insects and birds for their study. We caught them, ringed them (which is where you tag their legs so other people know they’ve been studied) and measure them before releasing them. It is untamed jungle – like a David Attenborough documentary. Ever since I was a kid I would watch those programs and I’d hear this bird call when Attenborough was in the Amazon like this [imitates bird call]. That’s a Screaming Piha, this grey and drab bird with an amazing call, and when I heard that sound for myself it made me really realize where I was, and was one of the highlights from my trip. Also the howler monkeys at dawn, I was woken up by them and I remember thinking ¨Oh my god, I’m in this amazing place that few people ever see, waking up when the stars are still in the sky – this is what I live for!¨ Amazing that two of my highlights were just sounds.
Everyone who knows you, Guillaume, knows how much you love birds. How did you find birdwatching in the jungle?
In the jungle, birdwatching is actually so hard. You have to rely on your hearing, and close your eyes to finetune your senses. Bird species that I was most delighted to see would be the Great-Billed Hermit, Guianian Warbling Antbird, Cream-Coloured Woodpecker and the White-Headed Marsh Tyrant.
What about birdwatching in Cayenne?
Cayenne is a small, tropical town with some good parks, so I saw a lot of birds. Highlights would be the Blue-Grey Tanager, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird and the Black Vulture.
What else did you see in jungle?
Oh, lots. Snakes, Great big Whip Spiders (amblypygi), big toads, massive flies, really big insects – everything is so big there because the eco-system is so rich.
Did you ever feel afraid?
I had some pre-conceived ideas about South America, but in general, anywhere you go you should keep your wits. I was a waiter, finishing late, and one time I was walking home alone when someone came up to me and asked for the time. So – and I can only laugh about it now – I got my phone out and said the time. The guy said, ¨It can’t be – are you sure?¨ so I got my phone out and was like ¨here look¨ and he grabbed it! He ran and jumped on the back of a motorbike and I ran after them in my flipflops [jandals/thongs]. i just remember shaking my head afterwards and saying to myself, ¨Oh nice one, Guillaume!¨
What advice do you have for people thinking about going to French Guiana?
Be prepared for a 100% tropical climate. In the jungle, everything gets really wet. I had my passport in my pocket and it got completely soaked – it’s like being in a sauna permanently. Also try to learn some French before you go, because people don’t speak English and only a few know basic English.
Did you like this? You might be interested in reading about Emily H’s adventures in Bariloche, Argentina and Emily C’s experiences here in Chile! Above all, if you enjoyed this please give it a like and remember to subscribe to my blog to stay up to date with new posts (I have a newsletter now, too!). If you have any interesting story you would like told, please send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org