I am a reluctant air traveller. Between being concerned about climate change and not enjoying being treated like a criminal every time I go to the airport, I avoid it wherever possible. Perhaps it’s my coming of age on London transport, but the way I see it, trains, boats and buses tend to depart and arrive from/in city centres, have better and/or amazing views, are cheaper and simply more convenient and relaxing modes of transport. Obviously over long distances overland travel is much slower, but personally I subscribe to the notion that the journey is the destination; a measured pace makes for plentiful opportunities for immersion and absorption in the travel experience. Thus it was that I departed St Lucia for a whirlwind view of the South American continent.
Once Upon A Time I left the Caribbean island of St. Lucia on a Friday evening and arrived in Barbados a mere 20 mins later…courtesy of Redjet, the Caribbean’s Low Fare Airline. I highly recommend them and their lovely staff, on time departure, safe arrival of baggage (unlike Left In Another Town) and nice prices. I spent a weekend in Barbados with my grandmother and uncle, catching up with a family friend who moved to Canada but was randomly back in Bim the same time as me, and bumping into some peeps from my church while strolling through Bridgetown…like seriously…so random. 3 weeks in St. Lucia and I didn’t see a soul from England but do so within 24 hours of arrival in Barbados. I did some shopping, gorged at the fish fry at Oistins and then headed to my next destination…Georgetown, Guyana.
Now, if I skipped over Barbados descriptions and you’ve never heard one before apologies. I’m not avoiding saying bad things. Barbados is a cool Caribbean island to visit, it’s nice. Very well-developed, nice nightlife and boardwalks but it’s not a patch on St. Lucia or Dominica in terms of beauty so after 3 weeks in St Lucia (plus I’ve been to Bim a million and one times) it’s just nothing to write about in my eyes. Hence very little writing!
Georgetown however was a different story altogether. My first time setting foot on the South American continent blew me away. It was so multicultural, so massive, so loud, so busy, a proper huge city you could easily get lost in. But baking hot! I loved it!!! While clearly still Caribbean, for me, looking out of the window as a taxi drove the hour from the airport to Georgetown city centre, it struck me that Guyana had the flatness of Barbados – not a slope in sight let alone a hill or mountain – but the tropical vegetation of St Lucia. But it also reminded me a bit of Mexico. It was super green with stunning brightly coloured flowers and plants and trees everywhere. So green you imagine you can touch the dew on the leaves. So many of them it reminded me of habitations cut out of rainforest, rather than communities located in the tropics. Absolutely heart-rendingly beautiful to look at.
I was accompanied on the journey by the Demerera river, a huge expanse of water which can only be seen to be believed. It cuts the country but is just one of three humongous rivers in Guyana. Oh yeah, in case you were wondering, Demerera as in the sugar! Imagine my delight to have sampled tea, made with Demerera sugar…in Demerera!! That’s the region Georgetown is in, much to my joy! Anyway, I’m still on day 3.
I only intended to stop in Georgetown for half a day but Surinamese visa troubles (minimised by kindness personified on security and an angel in the embassy’s visa section) kept me there for the best part of 3 days…which ended up being great cos I loved it and got to travel up and down it. Seriously. I spent 12 hours on buses in Guyana when trying to get out, as opposed to the intended 4. I don’t know what exactly I liked, the vibe, the people, the city, the topography, the vegetation, the 4 lane highways…it was just really exciting to be there. Someplace new, someplace different, with a good vibe. Maybe it was the combination of baking hot sun, good food and loud reggae music blaring from every vehicle, and most of the shops. Probably.
As I ended up staying slightly longer than planned, I got to see the primary school where my mum’s friend (a retired schoolteacher) volunteers, which is also the school where many of my favourite childhood reads ended up slightly against my wishes. Having visited it, I can certify it is in the ghetto, and the kids do value them so my bitterness has subsided.
That the kids actually read them I discovered when I went in with the aforementioned aunty. We bumped into one of the kids she’s worked with and the girl, who was about 12, explained that they need some new books because she’s onto the books on the top shelf now, she beamed. They’re arranged according to difficulty, with the bottom shelf being the starting point I was later informed, so she was asking to be further challenged. Even I, ‘That was MY copy of Hacker by Malorie Blackman…I LOVED that book!! OMG!! Granny by Anthony Horowitz?? That’s a great book!!’ as the reunion began with some of my most beloved childhood stories…even I begrudgingly admitted that my mum may have done a good thing in sending them to Guyana, if one little girl learns to enjoy reading as much as I do/did from them.
At 3am Wed I boarded a Bobby bus (which picked me up from the house I might add…now that’s what I call service!) which then proceeded to give me a tour of Georgetown in the early hours of the morning as it picked up everyone else before arriving at the ferry for 7am. For the second time because the first time I’d been refused purchase of a ferry ticket into Suriname on the grounds that I didn’t have a visa to enter the country. Ms. Accustomed-to-getting-a-visa-on-arrival therefore hightailed it back to Georgetown to pay US$45 for a visa to a country in which I had intended to spend a whole 4 hours. I would complain but I know that immigration is home to the most flagrantly racist and unjust sections of any government when you don’t hold a European/Canadian/American passport so I will not begrudge the Surinamese my inconvenience at their attempt to redress the balance.
Pleased as punch I therefore displayed my Suriname visa and bought a return ticket and then crossed another huge expanse of water before arriving in…Suriname. After a 30 minute river crossing – ie in only slightly less time as it took me to get from Spain, Europe to Morocco, Africa via the Mediterranean sea – in Suriname I was greeted by the hugest fly I’ve seen in my life, and one of the prettiest birds. Which made up for the scary fly. Immediately I was aware of being in the tropics proper. That bit further away from my oh-so-familiar Caribbean islands, and that little bit closer to Latin America.
Suriname looked a lot like Guyana, driving through, but a bit hillier. Paramaribo is the capital city that people in both Cayenne and Georgetown raved about as THE city in the Guianas and having spent a whole hour waiting for my bus to leave, I can confirm that the KFC by the bus stand has very nice toilets. And the buses are the most incredibly decorated I’ve ever seen anywhere. Which is a statement with some weight as I’ve used public transport on five continents. I didn’t spend enough time to be any kind of authority, but from my limited experience, it looked as if each bus was a unique mix of colour and graffiti art.
Having chased my luggage across the road after the bus conductor kindly passed it to his taxi driver friend rather than me, (literally chased) who bolted to his car with it lest I choose another ride to the border, I then almost suffered heart failure when I realised I had no phone reception. I’d had a local number in St. Lucia but had left the phone there for the travels and decided to use my English phone for texting and wifi while travelling. In Paramaribo, when I was about 3 hours away from ‘France’ and my sister, and wished to inform her, I had no reception.
That friendly ‘Welcome to St. Lucia/Barbados/Guyana’ text from T-mobile had not appeared and it was like 7/7 all over again. No reception, no explanation, sheer panic. Of course, as a woman travelling alone you never want to admit vulnerability so I was not going to tell my taxi driver that I had no idea where I was going (is Albina in Suriname or Guyane? Is Saint Laurent an area of Cayenne? Where the hell am I going??) so I coolly flashed a smile at my fellow traveller and explained that I had no reception and could I borrow his phone? And because I was not in London, he actually said yes. Bowled over by the kindness of Dopi, who let me text my sister who was entirely incapable of giving proper directions in advance ‘it’s cool…call me when you get to Albina…let me know when you’re nearly in Saint Laurent…’ Aaargh!!!! I somehow stayed on the right track.
Like with Guyana to Suriname, the Suriname-French Guyana/Guyane border was a natural one made up of water. Upon arriving at Albina (the border town on the Suriname side) just in time for immigration offices to have closed, I then entered a melee of men shouting at me in Dutch. A language in which I know one whole sentence. Thankfully Dopi was also going over to Saint Laurent and bless him for guiding me to a pirogue (boat) and then paying the €5 for my illegal passage into France. And to think I didn’t even carry the bag of ‘bits and bobs’ the driver’s friend had asked me take to his cousin in Saint Laurent. Talk about unmerited kindness.
That isn’t intended as sarcastically as it sounds. It turns out Suriname’s taxi drivers have great taste in music, and our driver was LOVING Kenny B‘s Best Of album. I know who it was because when I got out I asked him whose tunes he was jamming to like he was at a party for one rather than driving his taxi, and I conceded that they were some good tunes. Surinamese reggae is awesome.
As we arrived at the border just after the immigration office had closed, it was also just after the last bus to Cayenne had left so I was now stuck in Saint Laurent for the night. Lucky for me, my phone reception returned to me when I got to Albina and for the first time I was relieved to see someone at least knew where I was. Well, sort of. T-mobile reckoned I was in Guadeloupe some 1000 miles away…but reception was reception!! Bear in mind this was 8pm Wednesday and I’d been travelling for the best part of 18hours when I finally got to Guyane, my final destination.
Having been hooked up by my sister with her friends, I spent the night with them, before finally getting to Cayenne at 3pm the following afternoon. The delay was due to my zealousness about officially leaving Suriname: I jumped back into a pirogue the next morning explaining to Albert, my pirogue driver, that I needed to leave Saint Laurent illegally, enter Albina illegally, and then leave Albina legally, and enter Saint Laurent legally so that my paperwork was in impeccable working order. You know how much I’m a stickler for rules.
No? Well, having faced the full wrath of the Surinamese authorities I was proper paranoid about putting a foot wrong. It was all in a day’s work for Albert, who charged me €8 for the whole adventure and marched me to the door of the immigration officer in Suriname. But it did mean I missed the first Cayenne bus. Which meant I spent my first morning in Guyane wandering around Saint Laurent, a town with its own charm.
So finally, Thursday afternoon, a full six days after leaving St Lucia I finally made it to my lil sis in Cayenne. After the inevitable ‘OMG seriously, how rubbish are your directions?!!!’ we caught up and hung out. I also loved Cayenne, speaking French again, and watching iguanas stroll around the garden. IGUANAS. If I thought Suriname was the tropics, it was in Cayenne that I felt the full force of the surrounding Amazon rainforest, inching as I was closer and closer to it on this journey. Everything was just BIG. The ‘lizards’ that I was used to seeing scale the walls in Barbados and St. Lucia were a third bigger in size in Cayenne and were not even the worth mentioning when there’s actually an iguana strolling across the garden wall. It was literally like nothing I’d ever seen before. I’d seen iguanas in Thailand, but never wild ones walking around as domesticated as foxes in London.
After I ran into the house shrieking at a cousin of the fly I’d seen when I first arrived in Suriname hovering too close, I was reliably informed by my sis that it wasn’t a fly, it was a guepe, pronounced ‘gwep’. Like the lizard-iguana situation, it was a fly so big it couldn’t be called a fly anymore. It genuinely was like the size of my fist and pinky-red. I am thousands of miles away still shuddering at the memory of it.
I spent the week just chilling really; wandering round markets and shops, checking out the nightlife, the beaches and mangroves, sampling the cuisine. Seeing the locale my sister temporarily called home. Cayenne reminded me a lot of Martinique but bigger. Really developed, all the shops you get in France, super developed, but with black people.
Except, like the rest of the Guianas it was much more multicultural. From the little I saw in my week there, whereas in Martinique, like in most of the Caribbean islands, most people are Afro-Caribbean except the tourists – and lots of them are black too – or in Guyana, like Trinidad, the population is much more mixed primarily because of a huge Indo-Caribbean population, in Guyane, my sister took me to a town which Guyanais have nicknamed ‘white city’ because black people form the minority.
Obviously being in Cayenne I had to try out some Cayenne pepper. It was super hot. But I tasted Cayenne pepper in Cayenne yo! Still very cool! The other thing about Cayenne, and Guyane in general, was that it has to be the most heavily policed place I’ve ever been. I was there a week and cars I was in were stopped daily – whether they were private or taxis, and regardless of the skin colour of the driver. I had my bags searched, to show ID, to explain why I was in Cayenne on multiple occasions…it was unsettling and perplexing. The officers were always very pleasant, always white, and there were occasions where we were waved through police stops without being stopped, but it was intense. A tiny snapshot of what it must be like to live in an actual police state. Or maybe a young black guy in London. Gendarmes, Douanes (customs officials I discovered) harrassed me constantly and I was just on holiday for a week! Mad.
After a lovely weekend with my sis, I started packing on Monday am for my epic journey back to the Eastern Caribbean. With my paperwork intact, I should be able to make it back in four days, I thought. A chance whatsapp (thank u God for smartphones) revealed this would not however be the case. Redjet, my cheap and cheerful ride from Georgetown home via Barbados had gone bust over the weekend.
If I could get a flight out of Cayenne, I could leave a bit later and still get home earlier than planned. While flights from Cayenne into St Lucia were still extortionate, I could get a cheap flight from Paramaribo to Slu via Trinidad and Tobago and be home in…9 hours.
I couldn’t believe it. 2 extra days wiv my sis and home in 24 hours and a day earlier? Amazing! I imagine I’m the only person who benefitted from Redjet’s unfortunate fate, as we then gratefully planned a day trip to Brazil!! More water crossing but we made it!! A few short hours but I managed to try out paying for a meal by the kilo, wander around a bonfide Brazillian town and visit a waterfall on the Oiapoque river.
And then, before I knew it…it was time to head home. My oh my. I had a proper adventure back to Paramaribo. The tension of my first official co-voiturage (literally car-sharing, like couch surfing, but with cars), racing to the border to arrive before immigration closed for the night, then the Suriname reggae set on the three hour journey to the capital. This time when I landed at Albina I was prepared to be shouted at by men who were taller than me in Dutch, and I was able to calmly tell them to stop shouting at me. Instead of chasing the taxi driver for my luggage, I was able to ask him to please bring me back my luggage firmly. Experience is a fabulous educator. I still saw the luggage lifter receive payment from the taxi driver I chose, but I didn’t wait an hour for the taxi to leave this time, so I’ll live.
Surprisingly, more Suriname reggae and a night-time tour of Paramaribo courtesy of the fab chap from the Guesthouse Zin & Grand Cafe hostel (found on hostelworld.com) awaited me in the capital. Dude kindly drove me to an ATM after I counted out my last US dollars, Suriname dollars, and euros to pay for my room…except my card didn’t work in it, nor the next four we tried. It was quite unintentional but I got to see way more of Paramaribo than if I’d gone for the night-time stroll I’d planned before another 3am bus dropped me at the airport.
Despite my sleep deprivation, I grabbed a Kenny B CD at the airport before my flight left for Trinidad & Tobago where I managed to take a short tour of Port of Spain, have some Shark and Bake and lose my 2 ’emergency’ outfits (you know, in case your luggage gets lost) before getting on a Caribbean Airlines plane to St Lucia…home sweet home. My first time travelling with Caribbean Airlines definitely won’t be my last.
I arrived safe and sound, if minus a brand new dress. As gorgeous as it was, however the dress was a small price to pay for a fantastic overland adventure which involved traversing the three Guianas, a long overdue rendez-vous with the South American continent, and catching up with a loved one I’d not seen in too many months. Plus it’s totally inspired me to do Venezuela-Brazil overland for the 2014 world cup…exactly my kind of trip.