The beginning of the Eco-Travel Rally 2014: French Guiana to Suriname (Cayenne – Paramaribo)

Time flies! I’m already well beyond two weeks of my travels and I still haven’t written a single word… my apologies for that!! Honestly, I have been caught up by meeting a looooot of interesting people working in the environmental field in Suriname. Then I spent a really inspiring and peaceful week in the interior of Suriname (will write more about this later!), so I came back to Paramaribo (and internet connection!) only yesterday. So, here we go now with my first real blog entry:

So, what has been happening since I left Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, on July 8, 2014?


(For those who know little about French Guiana: it is a French overseas department, thus officially being a part of France and thus part of the European Union (“outermost region”). So, yes, we pay in Euros over there and have to follow European norms and regulations as if it was in Paris, although the territory lies in the tropical Amazon! French Guiana has a population of about 250.000 inhabitants for a territory of 83 846 km2 (which is about the size of Austria!). This means it has a population density of only about 3 inhabitants per km2! (although the vast majority of people live along the coastal plain – which leaves the interior almost uninhabited, other than by indigenous people, some maroons villages and, of course, the Brazilian gold-miners).

I left  Cayenne by hitch-hiking. Hitch-hiking is generally working very well in French Guiana: you get easily taken and normally waiting times are not so long. This is important, since depending on the season you might either get grilled in the sun (dry season) or soaked in a hurricane-like heavy rainfall (during the rainy season) or both in a row, since even during rainy season (which, luckily, is now getting to an end) it is not raining constantly, but only temporarily (and then pretty heavily!).

So, I was lucky that I got picked up just before the heavy rainfalls. I did a one night stay over in Kourou at my friend’s Erlande (who’s working there at the European Space Center). Arriving at Kourou I got to watch only the second half of the semi-final of the football world cup: Germany vs. Brasil. Already after 45 minutes a score of 5:0 for my national team!!! Germany finally one 7:1, what a match!

The next day I continued on the road to the West of French Guiana: still about 200km until Saint Laurent du Maroni. I got taken by a friendly trucker called Julien (originally from Martinique, but living in French Guiana for more than 30 years now). Besides the usual marriage proposals, we also talked about music, how he thinks that all Surinamese are robbers and each time he threw out his empty plastic bottles on the road, I tried to raise  the question why he doesn’t throw them in the bin later on, I just got the answer that with his tax money people are paid to clean up the road sides and that we need to create those jobs and when I asked him what would happen to that waste if it doesn’t get cleaned up, he just gave me the look “it’s always you white people that keep nagging about this environmental stuff”. :~

Two and a half hours later we got to Saint Laurent du Maroni, border town with Suriname. Saint Laurent has become famous as penal town and its prison where famous prisoners such as Papillon got deported to and arrested in between 1858 and 1946 after having been accused of crimes in mainland France. Entering the city always gives you a first taste of Suriname: there are many maroon people living and working there, so  trousers are usually worn very low and dreads are a common hairstyle!

After going through the French border control (where I was, once again, being congratulated on the German victory over Brazil the night before), I took a boat (“pirogue”, for  4 Euros if you take the semi-official boats that are equipped with life vests) to Albina, the Surinamese boarder town on the other  side of the Maroni River that separates French Guiana and Suriname.

on the Maroni River heading in a small boat to Albina

At the Suriname border control I met my future husband! Well, at least that’s what the border police officer in charge at the passport control proposed me in exchange for stamping my papers. For explanation: I was missing some information on my tourist card” that I already had bought a few months earlier at the Suriname embassy in Cayenne. Apparently the embassy changed some procedures and now it is necessary to have your name and passport number written on your tourist card. Without that I could not let me enter Suriname, according to the police officer, and I should go back to Saint Laurent, go to the Consulate there, and let them add those information on my tourist card. I was evidently not very amused by that proposal (requiring me to go back and forth, each time paying the boatman) and I asked him whether there would not be a possibility to solve things differently?! That’s when I got my marriage proposal: “So when I lose my job because of you (in case his boss would find out that he’d let me through customs without the proper procedure), at least you will be my wife!” So, this has then officially been the first time I have been bribing an official: with my phone number that I gave to the police officer in exchange for the official stamp and visa in my passport!!! Of course (or should I say “luckily”?!) no one checked my papers on the road to Albina, and so my marriage will still have to wait for some time (and that police guy will have to find someone else to marry, too)!

The 160km from Albina to Paramaribo are easy to be travelled on. I took a shared taxi (20euros per person, you might also find for 15e if you’re a good negotiator. Otherwise there’s also a public bus at about 8 SRD (approx. 2Euros!), but you need to fight your way through the hustlers and be lucky, that I’ll will fill up quickly, so that you don’t need to wait too long), since hitch-hiking does not seem to be a feasible option on that road where only taxis and buses drive and few individual transport takes place. This road used to be dirt road, but has been completely asphalted since early 2014. Nevertheless, we passed a road strip of about 100m length that had completely collapsed – apparently, this is part of the construction works carried out by Chinese contractors – quality is not their cup of tea…

While green has been the dominant color on this 1,5hours road trip through Eastern Suriname’s rain forests, blue and grey dominated the color scheme when arriving to Paramaribo: it was raining heavily and due to the poor drainage system, the city was flooded in many areas. Our taxi thus got a car wash for free!

floodings in Paramaribo

In Paramaribo I am staying at a friend’s who I met during my consultancy missions when I still used to work in Cayenne. “Parbo” how I prefer to call Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, is a multi-ethnic and very dynamic city. I personally really like Parbo for its very friendly and welcoming people, for its very good vegetarian food (thanks to the huge Indian and Indonesian (“Javanese”) community to whom tofu, tempeh and delicious vegetable dishes are something very common and not “from out of space” as it seems to many French people and cooks!), for its beautifully restored (but not always well maintained) UNESCO world heritage classified downtown with its wooden houses and amazing cathedral and much more.

paramaribo downtown

The following days I spent on identifying people I could interview for my blog (which will soon be posted) as well as to prioritize what kind of sightseeing I still want to do in and outside Parbo (I will provide some info on that too later on).

Bu next I will provide you with an introduction to Suriname and a quick overview on the main environmental issues the country is facing, so that you have some clearer idea on what kind of country I am actually traveling in.