Une multitude de visiteurs et la descente du fleuve

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Hello from Maripasoula! It’s been an exciting last couple of weeks over here in the jungle and I cannot believe that it’s already almost the end of the year. For the second consecutive year, it feels so strange to see Christmas lights twinkling on the streets or Christmas movies on TV while dealing with plenty of mosquitos, sweat, and sunscreen. Time has been flying by and I’m going to be leaving Maripasoula for my next teaching placement in a few short weeks! I’m definitely feeling mixed emotions about this transition, which I’ll get into in my next post.

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Good news! I have friends! They come and visit me in my crazy isolated town!

I’ve been extremely busy recently, because Sam and I have received a plethora of visitors over the last few weeks! When I first learned I would be working in Maripasoula, one of my biggest concerns was about its level of isolation. I was worried that there wouldn’t be anything to do and that I would miss out on getting to know other assistants. Although it’s definitely pretty isolated here, many of my fears were assuaged as I’ve gotten to spend lots of time with my fellow assistants during vacation and weekend trips (:

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The view from Sam’s house! Even this is beautiful!

It has been quite interesting to have people come and stay, because it has opened my eyes up to both positive and negative aspects of life here that I might not have otherwise considered.

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Double rainbow over kayak club (:

It’s easy to get stuck in the same routine and become desensitized to the interesting or unique characteristics of a place, so it’s refreshing to be reminded of these facts. It’s also quite fascinating to compare our daily experiences with those of other assistants. We’ve had lots of fun touring around town with everyone and showing off our favorite restaurants and activities. We’ve kayaked, hiked, camped, crossed over to Suriname, gone out, and even celebrated a classic holiday and I’m so glad to have shared all of this with many friends.

Our first visitor was Georgina, a British assistant who lives in Cayenne, but will soon be moving to Iracoubo, a rural town even smaller than here. She blogs about her experiences in Guyane as well, so you can check out her own observations of her stay with us if you’re interested!

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The New Wacapou “beach”
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Hiking in the forest, can you tell I do a lot of this?

Besides Maripasoula standards like kayaking, crossing over to Suriname, and a little taste of nightlife, the highlight of the weekend was spending the day in New Wacapou, a tiny village located approximately 10km away from Maripasoula. Some of my students live there and it’s accessible by either the river or by a winding dirt road through the forest. We chose the land route and arrived after an early morning hike filled with spectacular views. After a bit of navigating (and an encounter with two of my students, because small town living is a thing), we found a lovely spot to set up next to the river. We passed a relaxing day swimming, tossing a Frisbee, snacking, and napping. It was too hot to hike back so we enquired around before finding someone who was willing to drive the three of us back on their quad. I had never ridden a quad before, so it was definitely a new experience to barrel through the forest while perched precariously on the back bench!

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Americans in France (but also South America) overlooking Suriname

Over Thanksgiving weekend, Louisa visited, along with several of her French colleagues. Louisa works in Kourou and is one of the only other Americans teaching in Guyane this year. As many of you probably already know, Thanksgiving is a weird time to be abroad and I was glad to be able to celebrate with a fellow American. We had a lovely dinner party with Sam and me, our visitors, and a bunch of friends and colleagues.

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Blurry but the excellent Thanksgiving crew

The meal featured classics like mashed potatoes, green beans, and pie, as well as dishes like quiche and empanadas representing people’s home countries. It was nice to share a quintessentially American tradition with people who had never celebrated it before and interesting to talk through both the pros (a time to gather together with friends and family to remind ourselves what we’re grateful for) and the cons (a mythicized version of an encounter resulting in the murder and displacement of millions of indigenous people) of the holiday!

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Giant trees on a giant hike!

Other highlights from that weekend included kayaking, plenty of caipirinhas, hiking, and a few nights at Maripasoula’s carbet, Le Terminus, an establishment I’d never visited before. We tackled a hike a few kilometers outside of town and it was one of the most beautiful walks I’ve done so far in Guyane, filled with massive trees and lots of variable terrain. As I’ve mentioned before, hammock camping (called carbet in Guyane) is an extremely popular method of lodging here. Some carbets are nothing more than simple wooden structures in a campsite, whereas others are more hostel-style with full bathrooms and even kitchen spaces. It’s a great way to travel on a budget and I honestly wish there were more options like it in the US or elsewhere.

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Pals clearly thriving in Maripasoula

This past weekend, two guests came to stay, Simone and Edith! Both native to the Netherlands, these two live in Apatou, a small town about 45 minutes south of St. Laurent. Sam was in town for their first night here, so we showed them all the Maripasoula highlights like our favorite pizza place, the classic Peruvian bar, and of course the river crossing over to Suriname.

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Sunset camping views
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Our humble abode for the night

Sam then left for the weekend and the three of us divided our time between the carbet in town and the one at the Cascades de Gobaya Soula. These waterfalls are about twenty minutes away from town by boat and are probably the most popular tourist destination in Maripasoula. We had already visited them during our very first week here, but this time around, Simone, Edith, and I carbet-camped there for a night.

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Sunset over the campsite (:

As the sun set, the reality set in of how completely surrounded we were by nature and little else. The sunset over the river was absolutely stunning and we spent the night engulfed by the chirps and calls of insects and other wildlife. In the morning, we hiked to the waterfalls and spent a few hours relaxing beside their freshwater pools before heading back to our campsite and then back to town. Needless to say, this trip capped off an absolutely incredible weekend!

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A pretty apt view of what it looks like to spend two full days in a boat

While all these visits have been awesome, one of the biggest highlights of my time in Guyane so far has been the river trip that Dan and I took. Dan is a fellow American working in St. Laurent. While it is possible to fly to both Cayenne and St. Laurent from Maripasoula, the flights are extremely expensive for both passengers and cargo. There also many small towns and villages along the Maroni River that are accessible by road or plane. Furthermore, some things like cars or building materials are too large to fit on Air Guyane’s tiny planes.

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Gold mining equipment, legal on the Suriname side but not the French side

The solution? A trip up or down the river by pirogue, covering the 250km of rainforest when going all the way from Maripasoula to St. Laurent. At best, this trip takes about 8 hours. However, during the dry season, the water decreases in level and the river becomes more difficult to navigate as boats must pass more slowly through boulders, rapids, and sandbars. Spending up long hours completely unprotected from the sun with the simultaneous chance of extreme downpours tends to turn many travelers off, but of course, two nature-loving Americans like ourselves could not be dissuaded.

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Beyond unclear if any of these people were actually excited to share a boat with Dan and me

Dan flew down from St. Laurent and hung out in Maripasoula for a night before the big voyage. We headed down to the city’s boat landing the next morning at around 6am, with a pirogue driver supposedly waiting for us. Two hours of waiting later, it was pretty clear that this particular driver would not be showing up, so the two of us, two Brazilian women, and a couple of French tourists that had been waiting for him were forced to find another vessel. We eventually succeeded and headed off downstream, with the next stop of Grand Santi!

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The river looking pretty beautiful at 6:30am
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Sometimes the river was narrow!

The day was unbelievably awesome, as we alternated between passing small, remote villages and enormous swaths of untouched forest. At certain points, the river was quite wide, while at other moments it narrowed until we were once again engulfed by forest.

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And sometimes not so much!

There were also many “sauts,” or small falls, and varying sized patches of rapids, all of which required expert knowledge on the part of the piroguier to navigate safely around rocks and over small descents. These moments were terrifying, but also stunningly beautiful. A particularly gorgeous stretch was an area known as the Abbatis Kotica, a beautiful zone filled with sauts and rocks for kilometers around. We made pretty good time after we finally got started, arriving in Grand Santi mid-afternoon after about five hours of travel.

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Grand Santi looking like a cute lil version of Maripasoula

Grand Santi is a town a little less than halfway down the river towards St. Laurent. Although it’s the largest village for miles around, it’s about half the size of Maripasoula and has a similar feel with fewer amenities or things to do. Nonetheless, we had a lovely time there, exploring the town on foot, taking a dip in the river, and sleeping in our hammocks. We stayed with some friends of another assistant and had a great evening cooking dinner and sharing stories. One of the greatest parts of my time in Guyane has been meals like that, where Americans, French, and Spanish sit around a South American table and enjoy one another’s company.

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Day two: on the “road” again

The next morning, we hit the water yet again, this time with an actual pirogue taxi who was relatively on time. Unfortunately, this timeliness was negated by multiple lengthy stops, first at a random bar on the Surinamese side and later at Apagui, a school in the middle of actual nowhere (it made me appreciate the bustling city of Maripasoula…). There, the passengers of the pirgoue (Dan and I, a Spanish tourist, and several Guyanese dudes) waited around for about an hour and a half to pick up three teachers, who were evidently making their escape to civilization for the weekend.

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Still smiling and not even that sunburned!!

Besides all the stops, day two was less eventful, if just as beautiful, as day one. There were fewer sauts, barring one enormous bit of rapids which was the only time the entire trip that we were prompted to actually put on our life jackets. We arrived in Apatou around mid-afternoon and said goodbye to the rest of the passengers, who were continuing final stretch on to St. Laurent.

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Shouts out to Dutch friends and French vehicles

Apatou is another small Bushinengue town along the Maroni and is also home to several of the Dutch assistants. We spent a lovely evening with them, swimming and tossing a Frisbee in a nearby creek, cooking dinner, and getting drinks with some of their colleagues. Apatou is smaller than Maripasoula, but it has a nice atmosphere and I hope to return there sometime before the year is up.

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Note the large dog who was convinced he could eat my frisbee

We headed out bright and early the next morning by road to St. Laurent. We had just enough time to squeeze in a quick market trip (where I was in absolute awe over the dining options and produce availability) followed by a quick supermarket trip (where I was also in absolute awe over everything) before I had to head to the airport to catch my flight back home.

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Still friends after two full days in a boat together!

Overall, the long weekend was a highlight of both my time in Guyane and was honestly one of my favorite nature experiences of all time. For those who know my various nature adventures well, I’m ranking this trip up there with the Boundary Waters, the Tetons, the Calanques, Merzouga, the Sine Saloum, and the Alps. I kid you not when I say that my jaw was fully dropped during during the entire voyage as I took in the beauty around me. Two full days on the water surrounded by Amazonia on both sides is not something I will forget anytime soon and I feel so incredibly lucky to have had such an opportunity. Dan and I had such a lovely time and I’m so glad I had such an intrepid fellow traveler with me!

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We didn’t even lose any of them!

When I haven’t been busy spending most of my time having lots of fun with fellow assistants, I have in fact also been working. The kids are as rambunctious as ever, although I think they’re finally starting to get used to me as I hear “Hello Miss Colleen” more and more often as I walk around town. Highlights from school include hilarious responses to a presentation about my life (vegetarianism, having a dog that actually lives in the house, and lakes freezing in the winter were all topics of great confusion), school-wide sports day (it’s always exciting when escorting 250 kids on a hike through town and the surrounding forest), and a recent Christmas party (if you want to really embarrass middle schoolers, I suggest making them give presents to one another as a part of a secret Santa gift exchange).

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One more Maripasoula appreciation photo for now (:

Of course, being the good public employee that I am, I am already gearing up for my next two week vacation. I’m really really looking forward to a change of scenery (hint, I’m leaving Guyane but not leaving France) and being reunited with two of my favorite Californians. Until then, happy holidays to everyone and sending love to my fam and friends all across the globe! Thanks for reading!

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