French Guiana and the $100 Question

After arriving in Paramaribo, Suriname on a long overland journey from Guyana, I was tired.

The week before I had been in Haiti, relearning humility thanks to missionaries and mosquitoes. The missionaries I liked, the mosquitoes, not so much -- but as I tell myself from time to time, it's all part of the adventure.

Paramaribo is a sleepy place, but it was my favorite stop of the time in South America on this trip. The people were friendly and helpful, I didn't get lost anywhere (new readers: I usually get lost almost everywhere I go), and I had a nice place to stay. After my time in Haiti and the 13-hour overland journey between borders, I was happy to hole up for a while, do some running, catch up on all the email, and so on.

Except for one problem: French Guiana lay 150 kilometers eastwards, and when would I possibly be in this part of the world again?


(Click to enlarge the regional map)

Even though I'm known to get around, the odds of my coming back this way anytime in the near future are pretty slim. When faced with a travel dilemma like this one, I'm not above making a basic pro-and-con list. Here we go:

Reasons NOT to Make the Trip

  • I was feeling worn out after 10 days of challenging travel (West Coast-East Coast flights, Haiti, Guyana-to-Suriname overland)
  • In Paramaribo, I had my best hotel of the trip, with free internet, air conditioning, and good coffee.
  • There was no public transport available, and chartering a taxi would require the princely sum of $100
  • I missed out on getting an early start, and had already had too much sun over the past couple of days
  • French Guiana is not technically a country - it's an overseas region of France - therefore, I wouldn't technically get one country closer to my goal

I thought those were all pretty good reasons to sit on my ass that day. But of course, I also had some good reasons to go for it.

Reasons TO Make the Trip

  • It was only about a five-hour journey there and back, in addition to whatever I did on the other side. Compared to my record of 36 hours in a bus (East Africa, 2007) or even the 13-hour journey a couple of days prior, five hours isn't that bad
  • $100 is a lot to pay a taxi driver, but on the other hand, $100 to visit a new country is extremely cheap. Now that I'm running out of Caribbean islands and places like Luxembourg ($20 train ride from Brussels), there aren't many $100 countries left for me
  • Even though it's not technically a country, it's certainly an isolated, geographically unique place. Think of somewhere like Puerto Rico or Guam, except much further away from the U.S.
  • I don't want to get to 190 countries and decide that I didn't really complete South America because of one small "sort of country" in the northeast. It's a long way to get back!

The basic dilemma was that most of the time I do what I want, and I didn't really want to head out on a trip that would be even more tiring. At the same time, though, I knew I pretty much had one chance to do this. Thus, I was puzzled and indecisive, and I had to make a decision quickly. In the end, what swung the decision was one simple question:

If I didn't go, would I regret it later?

Part of me wished for a different answer, but the rest of me knew better. The answer was yes. If I wimped out and hung around drinking coffee, I'd feel better that day, but later on I would have regretted not making the journey. My rule is "never pass up a country when it comes your way," and breaking the rule once would be like missing a posting day -- that way lies madness, as King Lear might say.

I also remembered my experience in Thailand years ago, where for just $20 and a one-hour truck ride I could have gone over to Cambodia for the weekend. At the time I thought $20 was "too expensive" and sat out the trip. Fast forward six years, and I went back to Cambodia and had a great time - but it cost much, much more than $20 since I wasn't already on the border. Now I was looking at dropping $100 -- a lot to pay for a taxi, but getting there from anywhere else in the world would have cost much more.

All things being equal, I figured that $100 is the new $20, and five hours in a taxi is the new one-hour truck ride.

No place is really "undiscovered" anymore -- that's a travel writing cliché that went out of style about 50 years ago -- but Suriname and French Guiana are definitely off the nomad grid. Suriname sees some Dutch visitors, and French Guiana sees some adventurous French travelers, but otherwise, there's not a lot of outsiders who regularly drop in.

I might complete South America this summer with all of the official countries, but I felt like there would always be an asterisk beside the northeastern part of the continent. I can picture it now:

Completed South America in Summer 2009*

*did not make it to French Guiana, the almost-a-country north of Brazil

The Decision... and the Journey

Here's where the story picks up in real-time.

I do the right thing: I order the taxi. We ride over to the border on two-and-a-half hours of bad roads. There's not much you can say about driving along over bad roads -- it's pretty much the same everywhere in the world.

The taxi has a DVD monitor installed, and my driver, two other guys in the back, and I watch a rousing set of low-budget Surinamese rap videos for about two hours. For the last half-hour, the driver throws in a bootleg Alicia Keys CD, for which I'm grateful. Alicia's got style. Surinamese rappers, well, I think there's some room for improvement.

Advanced Passport Stamping

We make it to the border, which is a bit confusing and has the potential to cause visa problems for beginning travelers. The trick here is that there is no actual border post where the pirogues take people across the water to the other side. To properly exit Suriname -- which you'll need to do to be allowed to enter what is effectively the European Union on the other side -- you need to go to the border post a few blocks before you get to the actual crossing. Most of the time, stops like these are mandatory and hard to miss, but no one checks anything at this border.

I go to the border shack (that's really what it is), get my stamp, and a warning - if I don't get the same set of stamps on the other side from French Guiana, I won't be able to get back into Suriname. Of course, I'll already be in Suriname by then, since the border shack is several blocks inland -- but the point is, then I would be denied "entry" into the country and have a problem leaving from the airport back in Paramaribo the next day. If it sounds confusing, welcome to my world.

To avoid all the confusion, just remember this: be sure to get the right stamps.

I get the right stamps, go back to the beach, and pay the set rate of $5 to go across the water. On the other side I wander to a container that serves as another makeshift border outpost. The French guys look bored as they give me two stamps -- one entry, one exit. Apparently I'm not the first person to come over here for the afternoon.

"What do you do?" one of them asks me. "Écrivain," I say -- I'm a writer. I don't know how to say "unemployed authority-challenger" in French, and it's probably not smart to say that to immigration officials anyway.

The bored French guys tell me they don't care if I stay around the border town for the rest of the day, as long as I leave by nightfall. I do hang around briefly, but there's even less happening in French Guiana as there was in the other Guyana. Also, since French Guiana is effectively a South American France, everything is priced in euros. Suriname isn't really that cheap either -- a lot of things are imported there too -- but at least it's better than a European Union on the wrong continent.

My two-week trip is winding down, and this is the turnaround point. I look at the water for a while before getting in another pirogue. I pay $5 and go back across the water, where my driver is waiting. We run a couple of errands for him around town, and one for me as I stop back at the original border shack. I receive yet another stamp, which entitles me to officially leave the country from the airport in the morning.

We drive back to the city with more rap videos en route, but no Alicia Keys. I pay the $100, which combined with the ferry rides of $5 each, make for a total of $110 for the day's adventure. Worth it? Probably not in a touristic interpretation of travel, but it's plenty authentic for me. Also, it makes for a fun story. You're still reading, right?


Back in Paramaribo at 9:00 p.m., I get another surprise when I hear that the airport shuttle is coming to pick me up at the enticing hour of 2:30 in the morning. I knew it was an early flight (6:30), but a 2:30 a.m. pickup is a record for me. Apparently the shuttle makes a lot of stops, and I'm the first one. "You can sleep on the bus," the receptionist says cheerfully.

Uh, I don't think so. But no worries -- I've successfully finished my first adventure in this part of the world. After Haiti, Guyana, and Suriname, I even made it to French Guiana for $110, with a free lesson on advanced passport stamping included.

Next, I head to the Dominican Republic, where I finally get to run and drink coffee for a few days. And then I come home, via SDQ-MIA-LAX-PDX. Here I am again -- for a while.


Suriname / French Guiana Image by RustinPC