Monday, January 23, 2012

Filadelfia, The Grand Chaco, Paraguay

NASA took me to Filadelfia

The above is neither misspelled or the result of interesting experiments with Guarani herbs. NASA is the name of the bus company that I used to get to the wonderful town of Filadelfia. More accurately this is the stadt of Filadelfia. This place is a Mennonite colony. Although Filadelfia itself is populated by emigrants of the Ukraine and Ex Soviet Russia, the language of choice is still Deutsch (or whatever weird ancient variant they sprechen)

For those of you unfamiliar with Mennonites, they are an anabaptist sect and a hippy one at that. Some of the original anabaptist were crazy genocidal arseholes. Mennonites are pacifists. Methinks pacifism became a wise chice after the Munsterites found out that regular Christians were more than ready to have a fight. The Mennonites still got persecuted and as a result they are spread across the globe. Here in Paraguay they are known for going to one of the most inhospitable places (the Gran Chaco) and turning it into very, very productive cattle grounds. Apparently they produce most of the dairy products in Paraguay.

The result is a very weird town. Many signs are biligual and there are very Krautlike youth loafing around doing fuck-all yet somehow looking more active than Paraguayans. They keep in tune with their European cousins by having crap hairrcuts and godawful music blasting from their ipods. It's on a very inflexible grid with neat houses and the odd museum dedicated to their forebears. All closed I'm afraid. In my wisdom I decided to come to an agricultural town full of religious nuts in high summer on a Sunday. There is absolutely naff all to see and do.

I did pop over to a church to see what was going on but the Teutons do their worshipping early so things had already started. I pondered going in but realised I didn't know when it finishes, how weird they are and how easily they would make me for a heathen. Even worse, most of them are in mufti. Some of the oldies were in costume but too few to make photography unobtrusive. The garb is like an attempt to make the Amish look cooler. The women wear still get frumpy dresses but the men get to shave and wear black shirts.

I was also tasked with a mission from one of the Kraut poker players of the hostel in Asuncion. He had come here with his parents and they had gone to worship with the locals. They met an old couple who where apparently ignorant of the story of the great German Volk. The poker player's parents remedied this by sending him a set of DVD on the history of the Germans (Amusingly the last chapter is the Weimar Republic. Nothing significant happened after that). The gambler had been waiting for someone dumb enough to go to Filadelfia. Enter yours truly. The couple in questions live a fair bit away from the hotel and it's 40 degrees so I did my duty by dumping it on the hotel receptionist.

So why am I here getting bored? The answer is the bus trip and a desire to have been to places I have heard of. In this case the Gran Chaco. This is the one famous place in Paraguay. It covers more than half of the country but has less than 3% of the population. It's where Paraguay had a war with Bolivia. Tintin's "the Broken Ear" satirised the callous positioning of western companies. Oil companies picked a side and the Bolivians got told by the Brits that they could kill Paraguayans but had better not touch the railway. As such I knew about it and therefore wanted to come here. Filadelfia happened to be the easiest town to access in the Chaco. The German god squad presence was just a bonus.

Basically I accomplished my wish by taking the bus and looking out the window. It's basicaly swampy and full of palm trees most of the way from Asuncion and then gets dry and spindly near here. It's stepping out of the bus while they fixed stuff that made me understand just why this place is so sparsely populated. It's basically a big oven with cows.

I must learn not to base my trips on borderline racist Belgian children's books.

Next stop Concepcion. A town named after shagging and hailed as the" pearl of the north".

Take care,


Friday, January 20, 2012

Asuncion, Paraguay

Finally made to the sunny and oh so fucking hot country of Paraguay. Famous for insane wars against much bigger neighbours, vicious dictators and very little else.

Got a night bus from Campo Grande and bid my farewells to Brazil. On the bus I immediately enjoyed being able to converse with people. I also thoroughly enjoyed Brazilans having trouble getting themselves understood by Paragauyans. Welcome to my world. Being on the move and changing countries perked up my spirits hugely. Getting in was easy formality wise although I did not check out of Brazil so I have sort of burnt my bridges for that country. Oh well.

Now in Asuncion I can relax and enjoy the many sights that this fair city offers. Or not. The heat here is insane and to be fair there is not much to see. I still like it. It's a properly lazy South American city. People do nap in the streets and you get a few mule carts kicking about. It's also wonderfully cheap unless you forget to buy beer in the day and end up at the petrol station. I am in a backpacky hostel and I can swap stories and get info. For some reason there is a large contingent of German online poker gamblers here . It's good to be back on the trail.

One sight of note is their pantheon. I will do more on Paraguay's fondness for a fight later. Their pantheon is what you would expect by day. It's a pretty, useless building topped with cross and with an honour guards consisting of 2 poor souls in full dress uniform trying not to faint from the heat. By night it gets a bit weird as the place is lit up with changing disco hues, the guards piss off and get replaced by Asuncion's finest break dancers. Beside watching that time is spent out of the sun drinkng terere. Terere is a herbal tea drank chilled in a cup with a silver straw. Half the people here walk around with a funky thermos full of ice water, a bag of herbs and a decorated cup and straw

Asuncion is fun in the detail. There are buildings so ugly they put Rio to shame but also some exquisite Beaux Arts jobs. The place is littered with statues of notable Paraguayans (oxymoron?) but what is interesting is the graffiti calling for human rights for the indigenous peoples. There are many swanky shop for the rich fuckers of this city and just in front there will be street vendors selling cheap knockoffs of the same goods. The city centre is full of cops so you feel quite safe except for drunks walking around waving tasers.

Anyhoo I'm back in traveller mode now. I will have to return here but for the moment I am going to take a bus to a place nicknamed "the green hell" to watch the amazing sight of German religious nuts making cheese. Will expain.

Take care,


Monday, January 16, 2012

Campo Grande, Matto Grosso del Sul, Brazil

You are officially richer than me. Why am I being charged more than locals?

This will be my last post from a country that has just bumped mine off the coveted 6th most loaded nation place. What did I think of this emerging South American powerhouse?
I should start with a confession. I was sort of prejudiced against Brazil from the start. Weirdly, it's the positive cliches that put me off this place. Samba, Carnival, Niemeyer architecture, football and beaches are all things that draw folk to this place. They also happen to be off little interest to yours truly. For me, Samba ia a military parade gone worng . 2 trumpets, 5000 tom-tom drums and what sounds like football chants. Niemeyer buildings look like a bunker specialist got his hands on Gehry blueprints. Football has always bored the crap out of me and the bigger the passion, the bigger my contempt. As for beaches; it's basically just sitting on sand.
The stereotype of the beaches being full of hot chicks wearing tiny bikinis did tweak my interest but is only half true. The bikinis are indeed small but as for the hotness...... Claiming something does not make it so. It remainds of when Brit politicians say that the Met, the NHS or the Parliament is the envy of the world. I can't help feeling they have watched to many Disney movies where a cute munchkin gets his heart's desire if he wishes it strong enough. I do have to give due respect to the chunkier women who still wear less cloth on their body than I do one one foot.

Another problem I have with Brazil is the language. Portuguese has alway been the ugly sister of the Latin languages. In Europe, Portugal is a thin wedge of the Iberian peninsula. In a way their language is nearly cute and amusing, like the way Suriname speaks Dutch. Not so Brazil. It's the biggest and most important country of the continent. It just looks like they are being deliberately awkward. If it was radically different from Spanish I would probably be less annoyed. I feel like I'm learning the piano but every third key is now a clavecin. It's just odd.

Prejudice aside, I could not miss out on Brazil. It's too big and too important. It's a country on the way up and those are often very interesting. The whole 6th biggest econmoy thing got the Daily Mail riled up but I think it's much ado about nothing. A country umpteen times the size of Britain with 4 times the population and resources a-plenty should have a bigger economy. There is also a stunning level of social inequality here. In Rio you can find some of the priciest real estate in the wolrd and areas so bad the army had to be called in to police them. Brazil does not feel like a poor country but a mismanaged one.

I can't claim to know much about Brazilian politics. I am amused by the fact their president, Dilma Roussef knows how to plant a bomb. From what I understand the problem in Brazil is actually excessive democracy. There are too many parties getting elected and some of them are blatantly there just to get cash in exchange for support. Any governemt wishing to pass laws must make a Faustian pact with these clowns regardless of how bent their own party is. That's why even anti-corruption zealots struggle. As far as I know the press is the one area of Brazilian politics that truly works.That might be comforting but I suspect it won't be enough to clean up the body politic.
My initial reaction to seeing the ads for the world cup and the olympics was to think of bread and circuses, except less fun. I have touched upon what I perceive to be an obscene lack of spending priorities. If you have billions to spare and you have a crap education sytem, fix that first ( I have been astonished at the way many Brazilans struggle with basic numbers). I will admit that the world cup does make cultural sense. Footie excellence and Brazil do go together. I supect if you had a referendum asking Brazilans to choose between the World Cup and computers in every classroom, it would be a close thing. Not so sure the Olympics but I loathe them. It's a colossal waste of cash and a pathetic ego trip for politicians. Even if all goes splendidly nothing has been gained. My life does not change one iota because some dude can jump a bit higher than other dudes.

In my opinion Brazil should not host big events but I will admit that Brazilians will want to. This brings me to an uncomfortable question. To what extent are Brazil's problems linked to Brazilians.? Some countries get lucky (Gulf states). Some countries get seriously fucked over (most of Sub-Saharan Africa). Sometimes meeting the people helps you understand why the country does well (Korea, Singapore, Germany) and sometimes not (France). And there are places where you can't help thinking their problems are linked to the way they are (most of the world sees Greece that way now). As for Brazil, I'm not sure. They might look indolent but when they work they put some effort into it. If Brazilians were callous enough to accept bent cops taking bounties for killing street kids in Rio why were people making goody bags for the river folk on the Amazon? Sometimes it seems they are allergic to planning but then again I have just taken a 20 hour bus trip that arrived pretty much on the dot.

To be honest I am speculating for nothing. Brazil's getting richer and money solves many problems. A growing middle class will want their streets safe, their schools decent and their taxes spent on other shit than villas for politicians. Eventually they will join the civilised world where corruption is like polo, a sport for the very rich. They will learn that the briefcase full of cash is very gauche and that true leaders accept a promise of consultancy "work" in exchange for favours. It's a brave new world.

So what's my take on Brazil for the traveller? I don't think I will come here again unless there is a special occasion. It's basically not my scene. That being said you can't tour South America and skip it's biggest and most important country. It does have a lot going for it for the holiday crowd if not for the culture vultures. It has got the best coastal real estate on the continent and is actaully pretty easy to get around in. There's no shortage of partying and the booze is cheap. Brazilian food (excluding Bahian) is boring but most of the cities have alternatives.

There are things that I liked with this place. I love that you can get fesh fruit juice anywhere. The transport is really quite good if you upgrade. I am impressed by the quality of the graffiiti of all things. The tags are crap but the paintings are really good. A notch above the fat letter crap you see in Europe. It's also a decent place to get your South American cliches in. Brazil has a prodigious cultural output. An easy way to test this is to try and think of 5 Brazilian cultural creations. Now try and do that with any other country in South America.

Brazil sort of reminds me of China. I'm glad I've been here but I'm also glad to get out. I'm in Campo Grande now and have been pondering whether to go into the Pantanal or not. Fuck it. It's a swamp and I need a change. Off to Paraguay!

Take care,


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Feliz New Year

Despite having little interest in this city, fate has provided me with a nice place to stay and a family crimbo. I have spent some time enjoying the delights of Copacabana. The beach, the sights, the music, the pouring rain, the stylish but broken pavement, the hordes of thieving favela kids. I can't help thinking about the time Rio complained about a Simpsons episode where they come here and get robbed by children, attacked by monkeys and kidnapped. Rio got an apology but I think they dropped the lawsuit. My humble opinion is that someone told the Rio tourist board they might not win if it came to court.

This is a catch up post of sorts. I have been based in Rio for a while and sort of settled. I am going to try and write about the places I saw outside of Rio before moving on to the great city itself

Florianopolis and the Iguacu Falls.

Florianopolis s a city about a 1000 k down the coast from Rio. My first impressions of the place and particularly the Isla of Santa Catarinha was that of a Brazilian Phuket. It's a kind of hippy dippy place full of rastas, surfers and other wonderful types. The beaches are nice but my problem is I tend to get bored. I swam a few times but I was interrupted by the Baywatch boys who thought the sea was too dangerous. I was mumbling about Brazilians being pussies until one of them sprang into action for some reason or another. Lifeguards who are that quick and fit indicate that they need to be.

Florianopolis itself is a large city. A fine surpise was the fun market near the bus station and a small park with a ridiculously big tree in the middle. Also of interest was the friendly tourist police who approached us and offered assistance in the risky task of ordering an avocado smoothie. Perfect English, a chummy attitude and relaxed garb made me a bit sorry for them. There was evidence of a real effort to be useful to tourists but the sad truth is that Brazilian cops are still famous for shooting kids more than anything else.

Anyhoo the next stop was Foz do Iguacu on the Argentinian and Paraguyan border. Of note was the interesting discovery of the diffrence between the luxury bus and the "normal" ones. The nice ones have seats like a plane's business class, free snacks and other perks. The basic buses have normal seats but what you are truly paying for is who you share it with. No relaxed couples going off to their beach holiday, enter the world of drunks and bizarrely deformed people. he places you stop for food and bogs are also much more downmarket.

Once in Foz de Iguazu the first priority is to get out of that place and get tpo the rgentinina side. Puerto Iguacu is a bit like Foz de Iguazu except much nicer. It's a bit odd as both towns seem to have the same economic base of tourism and cross border trade. Once settled in Argentina it was straight offt o the falls. This is a case where I recommend you google the place as it's too hard to accurately describe what is a very visual experience. In short, it's shitloads of water going downhill very fast.

After that it was back to Rio for Crimbo and New Year. Copacabana is one of those places that is a New Year's Eve place-to-be. They do put a lot of effort into it. There was huge stages, presumably famous artists and a pretty awesome fireworks display. The tradition is to wear white and I obliged although it was hard to tell if others did due to rain. More a sea of umbreallas and raincoats than anything else. It was a pretty good public party if you are into that sort of thing. I'm not.


Post festivities it was time to go to Paraty, a resort town favoured by denizens of Rio and Sao Paulo. It's a Ye Olde town with Ye Olde Churches and houses and Ye Verye Fuckinge Olde cobblestones. Paraty takes pride in their streets and its uneven cobbles. I hail from a cobbly city and I know good cobbling when I see it. This wasn't it. I did wonder if it was just that no one had bothered to do anything about it for 200 years or if it's deliberate. Is there a commitee to maintain the cobbles and preserve the slapdash and slovenly workmanship of their forebears? Paraty itself has crap beaches so the trick is to take an overcrowded bus to a place with..........nice beaches. Done

Now onto the meat of this post, Rio de Janeiro. Locals call it the Cidade Maravilhosa. This is a true testament to Carioca pride and enthusiasm. It's also a damning indictment of their grasp on reality. In a way Rio reminded me of Paris with regards to status. It's hugely overrated and over romanticised but any visitor to the country should still go there. My problem with Rio is that I can always see the flip side.

Rio has an amazing street life. Rio has lots of quasi indigent people with litle choice but to peddle stuff on the streets. Rio has famous beaches, Sugar Loaf mountain and the Christ Redeemer statue. The sights will be overpriced and all will be overcrowded. The pavements are tiled with funky designs. Tiles are hard to maintain hence lots of tripping. Rio has the famous Carnival and will host the world cup and olympic games. Trust me, Rio has other things to spend cash and energy on. I'm always a grump when it comes to world sporting events but when a country has huge social problems it makes things even worse in my eyes. It just seems that Rio's leaders have the same spending priorities as a teenage girl.

Anyhoo it's a short post covering a lot of time because I've not really been on the move and I'm sort of low. I often need to write soon after I see a thing as it feels fresh and intersting. Time tends to delete the funky anecdotes and only the crap stuff stay fixed. I'm off to Campo Grande in the West. Changing places usually perks me up so I will decide what to do on arrival. If I recover all my positivity I will use Campo Grande as a base to visit the Pantanal. If I still feel Braziled out I will try to go straight to Paraguay.

Take care,


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Belem, Brazil

Mangoes, mangoes everywhere yet I don't want to eat.

The avenues of Belem are lined with mango trees. It's novel and exotic but it leads to some rather interesting problems regarding slippage. This abundance of tropical foodstuffs had initially perked my appetite. However, eating random crap at small stalls because they look fun has got me to renew acquaintance with that old friend of the backpacker; food poisoning. This has 2 main consequences: My tours of Belem have been rather short and my mood towards the place has been less than charitable. There is a definite before and after. On arrival I would view typical Brazilian displays of enthusiasm as passionate and a sign of a people who wear their heart on their sleeve. Warm people who know how to have fun and mingle etc. Now I tend towards judging them for being indolent, superficial and, in some cases, quite callous. Hopefully I'll be more reasonable once I am off my self prescribed diet of lime juice, peanuts and crackers.

To add to my general toilet related bitchiness is that Belem has introduced me to a famous aspect of developing societies. The very poor amongst the obviously loaded. In the neighbourhood I am staying it's not to obvious as the place is a bit of a shithole but in the nice areas it's very striking to to point of being a bit of a cliché. Scrawny street kids trying to sell crap to bejeweled ladies. Private guards shooing away druggies from the entrance of a shiny apartment building. Macapa and Opaioque had few or no signs of wealth to provide the contrasts and poor people tend to be in small villages on the Amazon. Here, things mix. It's something I will want to look into a bit more but when I feel better and less negative.

It's not all bad in Belem though. It's a strange place as it feels like a boomtown that has slumped but is now booming again. Which is exactly what it is. The old city has loads of derelict buildings whose glory is long gone. There are rails for where the tram used to be. The port that once shipped the rubber (source of Belem's old boom) out is now too small for commercial use and clogged with rubbish. The whole place could do with a scrub up but a look skywards can explain why it won't. That's when you see the tall buildings where the new boom's winners live and work. In effect, the new Belem. The one you see when you get in by boat.

I'm also starting to realise something about colonial architecture in South America. They tend to be pale copies of what there is in Europe. The main difference being a tendency to include native stuff in the artwork. I'm sure I will find this icute but in my grumpy mood it just looks like a rather pathetic attempt to whitewash a very, very inglorious moment in the history of the Church. There is a fresco on the large basilisque here showing JC being holy to a group of Natives on one side and a bunch of whities on the other. Not shown: Whities using JC as a pretext to murder, enslave and dispossess the Natives.

As usual people and their activities come up high on good things to see. My favorite place here must be the Ver-o-peso market. There is a tourist trap section but most of it is a working market. That is unless tourists buy live rabbits, shaved coconut in 20 kilo bags or huge riverfishes. The best part of the market is the homemade remedy section. They have herbal potions for most illnesses and stuff that start to exit homeopathy and enter witchcraft territory. There are a lot of potions to get a person to like you, sleep with you or came back to you once they have dumped you. Most of them instruct you to use them on your target "em segredo". The Amazon kindly presents solutions for the eco-conscious date-rapist.

Beyond natural GHB, the one thing that I found rather intriguing is a bit of a political campaigning going on. It seems there is a vote tommorow on the status of this region. I am mainly guessing but it looks like someone wants to split the State of Para into 2 entities. In Belem at least, they are against. There are flags, adverts, stickers, t-shirts, cars with gigantic banners of the Para state flag and once what seems to be a giant papier mache kangaroo with the colors of the state and the opposiotion slogan of "Nao e nao". To add to the drama the TVs in the cafes often show a song cooked up by local artisst to oppose the move. The video looks like a straight rip-off of Live Aid. Famous folk arriving to the studio, singing while holding their headsets, the big chorus etc.

Anyhoo, I will leave Belem with mixed feelings, a stomach-full of loperamide and a few good photos. I feel a bit miffed that I didn't enjoy the place but that's life. To be fair, this place was just a destination for my boat trip.

Soon I will be on my way to the most famous place in Brazil. The home of Carnaval, samba, tiny beachwear and huge concrete Nazarenes.

Off to Rio,

Take care,


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Belem, Brazil

I spent my last night in French Guyana next to a river in a hammock watching fireflies. I handed back my wreck and took the only form of public transport in FG (the Cayenne municipal bus service run by a union of all things) to where the share taxis depart for St Georges de l'Opaioque (AKA the border with Brazil). The place is just at the entrance of Cayenne's Chinatown know locally as Chicago. It's not as nice or interesting as it sounds. I had heard about Chicago on the radio in conjunction to the Global Aids Day. I now know why.

My last 2 hours in Cayenne waiting for the bus to fill up were spent watching junkies walk, limp and flail around. These were end-of-the-road druggies. Most had suppurating leg wounds. What clothes they were wearing were rags and they too fucked-up to even beg. Some of them would just sit in the road and talk to themselves as cars went around them. Eventually the cops showed up. Like demi-gods they bounded out of their car and sprung into lifting and elderly Brazilian woman on the minibus for being in the country illegally. We pointed out that she was obviously headed to Brazil but to no avail. She was taken to the airport to be processed and deported to the place she was heading to. It's election time in France and police stats have to show action regardless of logic.

Another 2 hours of excellent French roads got me to St Georges.. There is a bridge to Brazil but the roads aren't ready yet so it was a motorized canoe ride into Brazil. The town on the other side was much more rough and ready than its French counterpart and much nicer. Unlike FG there was some street life. I had a bite to eat and watched folk do stuff before taking a night bus to Macapa, the capital of the Apama state. To make things a bit more fun there were reports of "pirates" stopping the buses with fallen trees and robbing everyone.The road was crap and I was glad I could not see the bridges we crossed (I could feel the planks though). I slept well except for when we stopped at little burghs where the Friday party was on. My introduction to the delights of Foro music.

Got to Macapa and crashed before venturing forth and getting a ticket for the boat to Belem. I found out I was stuck in Macapa until Monday. This was a bit of a mixed blessing. It's not exactly the most visited place in Brazil. There is an old fortress and a monument to the Equator. That's about it. That being said there is a nice waterfront and I had a pleasant time. I sat down at a cafe, ordered a Caipirinha and watched kite surfers do their thing. I was having a drink on the banks of the Amazon.

Once the sun goes down the whole riverbank is awash with small stalls selling anything from very good beef kebabs to ice creams and, of course, more cocktails. It's kind of fun ordering a drink from someone with a cart and two blenders but then again the result is something like a rather lethal milk shake. I decided to opt out of going to a Foro dancehall because I figured that just because the music was different they were still nightclubs; places I loathe with a passion.

Sunday was absolutely dead during the day. A combination of good catholic behaviour in the morning and no end of ungodly shenanigans the night before makes for a very, very quiet city. It was basically a day to drink fruit juices and watch a few cars and motorbikes drive around with huge banners of their favorite football club. I also stocked up on food and drink for the boat trip. A footie match between the 2 big Rio teams compunded the ghost town effect in the afternoon. In the evening said supporters gathered near the waterfront to celebrate or commiserate. Music was provided by people who think the huge stereo in the boot beloved by fuckwits back home is for wimps. They put concert sized woofers on the top of their cars.

The next day I went off to the port of Santana to catch the good ship Sao Francisco de Paula. I was set for one of the things I really wanted to do when coming to South America: the Amazon boat trip. It's also the only alternative to flying here and, to be fair, it is one of the shortest ones you can do at 26 hours. Still, it's one of the quintessential South American backpacker experiences.

The ship was a large 3 decker. The top deck is where the bar is and the other 2 have cabins for a high price or hooks for your hammock. I got there early and slung my hammock in what I thought was cramped spaces. As the boat filled I realised what cramped meant. I hitched up my hammock as high as possible to avoid the bum-in-face situation a lot of folk had to deal with. Once settled I got in and waited for the boat to depart.

It's sort of strange that a trip that is so hyped up can be that uneventful. Most of the time is spent drinking beer up top or napping in the hammock. The Amazon is ridiculously big at times to the point that I think we need new names for fecking humongous rivers. It's offensive that, in English at least, something where you can't always see the banks has the same nomenclature as the Avon. We would occasionally pass huge barges full of lumber neing pushed by tugboats. We did see a dolphin ar at least some sort of creature with a blowhole. If it was a dolphin it has the same habits as the bipeds around here and doesn't really do much when the sun is up .

A more interesting phenomenon was when we passed small hamlets on the riverbanks. Passengers would throw plastic shopping bags at people waiting in dugout canoes. The bags are full of clothes. It was a fun bit of charity giving and it impressed me a lot. There was also some very dangerous trading going on. A young kid drove his tiny speedboat (like a short version of a Thai longtail boat) into our wake and up a short ramp at the back of our boat to flog some homemade booze.

All in all it's rather bucolic. What made it special was that I had a "moment". These are times where what you are doing hits you in the face. After a gorgeous sunset I had a few beers up top, not having to face Sophie's choice of sunburn or Foro music. I would find a quiet spot away from canoodling couples and look out. I watched the dark jungle go by and , as we passed lit houses on the banks or moored boats, I would wonder what the people inside were like, what they lived off and what were they doing. It's then that it hit me. I was getting buzzed and having idle thoughts while travelling on the Amazon. The fucking Amazon! This is why I travel.

Just in case you were wondering.

Take care,


Thursday, December 01, 2011

Dacca Village,French Guyana, France. Regular France. It's just like Brittany really. It's not a colony in any way shape or form.

French Guyana is categorised as a departement. It's not autonomous or anything. The roads are good, the cops are thick (one of them was wondering where my visa for France was), the prices are European or higher and people are snooty (the expats at least). It has got few things that are markedly different. The vast majority of people here are creoles, there are dead sloths on the road and my passport now has a French entry stamp. Another significant difference from the rest of France is that there is no public transport. This means travelling here is tricky and expensive.

The plan was to hire a car and sod off to find the only cheap sleeping optons in French Guyana which are carbets. These are basicallly shelters where you can sling a hammock for 5 to 8 euros. Chucking in a few extra euros will get you luxuries like showers. My plan failed on the first day. I had met a French couple in Suriname. We would go to the border together and they would give me a lift to Cayenne in their hire care. I would go to a car hire place and get out of the rather charmless town of Cayenne. Being in la republique screwed this plan.

The couple's car had had its window smashed in St Laurent du Maroni (France-Suriname border) despite parking in front of the cop shop. Said cops were also so busy letting crime happen that they would not take a complaint untill 15.00. This made things very tight but still feasible time-wise. France still had a trick up its sleeve. The authorities have decided to participate in the South American sport of having constant pointless checkpoints. More time-wasting and explaining to the gendarmes that Brits haven't needed a visa or France since forever. Finally got to Cayenne 1 minute after closing time and, this being France, the idle bolshevik tossers couldn't remain open and extra 10 minutes. One very expensive night in Cayenne.

The next day I hired a wreck and went to Kourou, home of the 2 famous places in this country/region. The first one is the Isles du Salut. Frenchies and students of Gallic antisemitism know this place as where Dreyfus was sent. The rest of the world knows it through Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman and butterfly tattoos. I decided to skip this for several reasons. I would have had to spend another night near Kourou as the boat leave at 7ish AM, the tour is pricey and I have seen islands and ruined prisons before. I therefore chose to go for option number 2 that is both free and much rarer. The Centre Spatiale Guyanais, home of the European Space Agency and named Europe's Spaceport. Being in South America doesn't seem to bother them.

It's actually very interesting and good fun. I am old enough to be impressed by space stuff and the free tour is pretty impressive. They put you on a bus and drive you around the complex (it's huge). The guides try to be educational and give you info in the form of a Q and A. Why French Guyana? It's close to the equator and benefits from the slingshot effect (my mumbled answer: If it fails and the rocket crashes into a small village in FG, the French politicians can probably live with that). Who guards the place? The Foreign Legion in what I suppose is the less romanticised part of their jobs as they basically shoo away maroon poachers before a launch. Why is the fire brigade from Paris? They are soldiers hence are cleared for high security type stuff (my answer: They are soldiers and hence can't refuse to be posted here).

The quiz was held between slow drives past the huge hangars where they prep the rockets. The final destination was the launch pad of that great example of European space pioneering: Soyuz.

Europe has developed Ariane, a huge rocket, and Vega, a small one but they needed an intermediate launcher. Soyuz was proven (It's not often but when the Russians do make something that is reliable it is very, very solid) and the Russkies have the problem of their base being really far from the equator and verything else. Basically, the ESA have subcontracted the Russkies hence the Cyrillic at the Soyuz launch pad. The guides told us there is a bizarre set-up to avoid tech stealing. The top 2 floors of the mobile hangar are European only as they put on the payload and the lower floors are only for Ivans. I presume shitloads of spying goes one.

Anyway, got to stand on the blast exhaust trench and wonder if anyone had cooked something in it. After that it was back to the main base and the Jupiter control room. Old footage of NASA launches have conditioned me to think it would be huge with many shiny buttons. Not so. PC's have really taken the romance out of Space travel. Even more disappointing, there is no button or key or anything to launch the rockets. Boo!

After that, I hunted down a carbet on a farm nearby. The plus side was that the farmer let me pick bananas and mangoes, the minus was that he showed me the whole place. I'm glad I saw where coffee and chocolate come from but to be fair it was a bit dull. I am now in a Laotian village (more evidence of a colonial past) near the Kaw swamp where I might hire a canoe or just faff in a hammock. I'm definetely hunting for Laotian food.

Not sure what to make of FG. I see why it's dismissed by the trail. Without speaking French it's nearly hopeless to visit. There is a strange resignation even in the tourism adverts. One of them asked you to spend an unforgettable experience in French Guyana. The last sentence was "no one will believe you". Quite. More amusing for those who speak French was "La Guyane, ca vous bagne". A play on words on a more famous ad campaign for Brittany and referring to the mythologised French Guyana of gold-rushes and prisons. Amusingly there is still loads of illegal gold panning here with consequent dumping of mercury and anti-Brazilian attitudes and there is, of course, a prison but it's locals only now.

It is pricey and most of its tourism industry is based around weekending expats. Apparently FGis not a cushty posting in the Frog civil service and something of a punishment which might explain the jaw dropping stupidity of the plod. Basically FG from a tourism perspective is overshadowed by Suriname. Even local people prefer the old Dutch colony for hols. The bizarre official reality of the place makes me ponder as to wether or not I have been to a different county or a very weird and moist part of France. Fuck it. I'm counting this as one in the bag and I have the stamp to prove it.

I'm not sure when I will post again. I am going to Brazil tomorrow to try and catch a boat across the mouth of the Amazon to Belem. Even if all goes well and there is no waiting it's a 2 hour trip to the border, a 15 hour nightbus to Macapa and then a further 25 hours on a boat. Realistically I will be in Belem in 5 days. Should be fun.

Take care,