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French Guiana and the $100 Question

french-guiana

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

Reasons NOT to Make the Trip

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: RustinPC

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    32 Comments

    • Sheila says:

      Also, it makes for a fun story. You’re still reading, right?

      Heh. I sometimes wonder how many odd things I’ve done because I’ll at least get a good story out of them. Soaking my aching feet in the fountain at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Going bar-hopping in Roppongi with a woman from Kenya. Covering myself in lipstick and body paint in front of an audience. Things like that.

    • Fly Brother says:

      Excellent post! I’m going through a “should I or shouldn’t I” moment myself, as I plan my RTW this fall. I’ll have five weeks to see both Turkey and India, but I could cut some time from both to travel overland from Istanbul to Cairo via Syria and Jordan. Thing is, I’d only be in each place for two or three days, and the Syrian visa is a whopping $130, which shears any cost-savings off the already expensive ticket between the region and Mumbai. It’s refreshing to see your reasons “for” and “against” outlined here, and I think I can speak for many of your readers when I say I’m glad you won’t have some punk-a** asterisk next to your name in the history books.

    • Chris, it certainly is a fun story. When I was in Penang, Malaysia. I thought about taking a bus into Thailand, but chose not to go. I have regretted that choice for years. Yep, good choice.

    • Rowmcvie says:

      I love your sense of adventure, Chris! (I’m a new reader and my guess is that your followers are already aware of that trait of yours.) The stamps part of your story reminded me of the time when I was in 8th grade and living in Libya (it was a long time ago…). The French Club, of which I was a member, took a trip from Tripoli to Tunis (Tunisia). The teachers had our passports – which made me nervous even then – and conveniently left mine at the border crossing. You can imagine I wasn’t too happy when they realized what they had done and we had to make a special trip back to retrieve it. It all worked out just fine in the end but to this day, no one but me carries my passport when traveling. Thanks again for the great posts!

    • Etsuko says:

      Chris,

      I’ve only known you a few weeks, but while reading your dilemma I was thinking “I would be very surprised if he decided not to go”. But it’s nice to know that you too have sometimes have those hesitations just like the rest of us. Also, the story was interesting to me because when I went to Suriname and went to this beach across the lake, we pondered the same question “Should we make the trip to go over French Guiana?” while looking at that direction. But I was on a business trip (well, for United Nations Volunteers project site visit) and we didn’t have our passport on us, so it wasn’t really a serious question. I’m glad you went over there and now I know what I have missed 🙂

    • Aximilation says:

      Nice story, I enjoyed it. If I was in that position I probably would have had a similar debate, but ended it with “Carpe diem” and been done with it 😀 Glad you went for it!

    • Ben Kelly says:

      Awesome post. I was fortunate enough to go to Colombia on work once a few years ago, and I’ve always wanted to go back to South America. There’s something utterly awesome about the culture and the weather (although the “arepas” leave something to be desired).

      Good luck with the rest of the trip!

      Ben

    • Jacques says:

      Quite an experience!
      I don’t really know how spending a few hours in a place is important to you – to me it is more important to take a few days to discover a culture through its people than make a stop-over – but it makes for a very entertaining read. And as long as you’re happy with your trip, that’s the most important. You can now tick French Guyana in your Places page and feel good about it 🙂

    • Chris says:

      Hey all, thanks for your fun comments!

      @Jacques,

      Well, most places I go I stay for several days, but in this case it wasn’t possible. When I have to choose between not going and going for a quick visit, I’ll usually choose the short visit.

      @Etsuko,

      Interesting that you were in the same place! As mentioned, they don’t really check passports there, but of course, you never want to be in the border zone without a passport, so you probably made the right choice. 🙂

      ALSO –

      As of this morning, Anderson Cooper’s CNN site is now syndicating some of the travel writing. Here’s the first post, which tells a story most of you who have been reading for a while already know.

    • Sean says:

      When I was in Brazil a few months ago, we had a similar situation. At the end of our trip we found ourselves with half a day to kill in the sleepy town of Foz do Iguacu, and while we were tired, we knew that Paraguay was really close. There wasn’t a whole lot of value from a tourist’s perspective, but it was totally worth it to say I have been there and pick up a nice set of fake $5 Ray Bans! Also got a decent picture for my avatar out of that trip.

      Glad to hear you made the trek, although I am disappointed to hear Surinamese rap didn’t live up to expectations…

    • Chris,

      Thank you for this great story and most of all, thank you for letting us peek at your thought process – you crammed quite a few valuable decision-making tools into this single post.

      (OK, maybe the reason why I think they are so valuable is because my mind tends to work the exact same way when I am making a decision 😉

      Great writing to boot, which never hurts either!

      All the best for the rest of your trip,

      Emmanuelle

    • richard osbourne says:

      Nought venture, nought have.
      [Nothing ventured, nothing gained.]
      – John Heywood, Proverbs (pt. I, ch. XI),

      Till my boys are grown up enough to travel I can start again with them and the wife as family, we are living vicariously through you.

      Thanks.

    • finola says:

      I have two times I wish I’d taken a trip – I was in Japan and was invited by a Chinese friend to come back to China and in Finland and asked to go with a group to Russia – I felt guilty about ‘having’ to get back to my work in the Government Ministry. Many years later, I have a much different idea of what I have to do and what not!

      I must admit, I can’t help but feel you didn’t ‘visit’ French Guiana, but then it did fill your requirements, so all well and good.

      Out of curiosity have you been to Sint Maarten/Ste. Martin? (both of which are not ‘real’ countries) Leaving for a day trip to neighbouring Anguilla from there can be quite a passport stamp drama too if you’re not watchful.

    • DEADMGRWALKING says:

      Too bad you didn’t have more time to Kourou, French Guiana to the European Space Agency (ESA) launch facility to watch the two scientific space craft launch today (5/14).

    • Lorraine says:

      “If I didn’t go, would I regret it later?”

      When you think about it, this is the question almost every decision comes down to irrespective of the logic. The marketing adage “we buy on emotion and justify with logic” has much larger applications.

      I came across a good piece of advice years ago. Whenever you can’t make a decision flip a quarter … heads for choice A and tails for choice B. If the quarter lands on the ‘right’ side you want you’ll feel great and move on. If the quarter lands on the ‘not right’ side you’ll want to flip the quarter again (and again) until you get the ‘right’ answer.

      I thoroughly enjoy seeing the world through your eyes Chris.

    • Andrew says:

      Chris — Great work, as always! Your reasoning behind whether or not to make the trip to French Guiana reminds me a saying that’s a friend of mine quotes often when we’ve traveled together and aren’t sure whether to expend time/energy/money to see something we hadn’t planned on or that might be a schlep to get to:

      “You’ll never be closer than you are right now.”

      Kudos for going the extra miles (or kilometers, in this case). And keep us posted on your R&R time in the DR.

    • Nate says:

      Very cool post. That border crossing sounded like it might make me a little confused though!

      I get in similar situations as that. You hit the nail on the head with your “if I don’t do it will I regret it later” philosophy. If more people would think this way than they would be much happier with their life I believe.

      Good stuff.

    • matt says:

      Great choice, you always would have regretted that asterisk! To bad about missing the space launch, eh? That would have been great travel material to right about!
      Thanks for everything you share chris!

    • Ola says:

      I was also pondering a trip to French Guyana when I was in the Brazilian state of Para a few months ago, but it would’ve involved a few days ferry and bus trip North (or a more expensive flight), so I just stayed in Brazil to explore a couple islands around Belem – gorgeous islands, i have to add.

      Northern Brazil is actually full of French people and I spoke more French there than English (I don’t speak Portuguese) – have you been to these parts?

      Congratulations on your decision, Chris, now you can forget the asterisk! And you know… you can always sleep on the bus/plane/boat 🙂 (I know how difficult it is!)

    • Not surprised that you went to French Guiana. Those gaps on the map are annoying (I have Laos missing from southeast Asia and it annoys me every time I’m in the area with insufficient time to visit).

      Back in January I took a day trip from Santiago de Chile to Montevideo. Even though I’d have loved to spend another day in Santiago I wanted to get to Uruguay (fly over early morning and back in the evening) which I’d missed previously.

    • Traveler says:

      My one “what could have been” travel regret is Cambodia too, so at least you rectified yours. I must have been in Thailand a dozen times at various points while backpacking, but there was always some kind of skirmish in the news in Cambodia, so I didn’t beat the crowds to Ankor. If I had it to do all over again…

    • Alex says:

      Yes, I was still reading and having a good laugh at the end. Your simple and decisive question “If I didn’t go, would I regret it later? ” has been my mantra lately. You have probably seen the quote below before … but I will share it anyway, it is my favorite!

      “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain

    • Love love LOVE this story. It’s what international travel is all about.
      I like the stories too of what happens when you DO elect to miss adventures. One night in India, we were staying in a small little mosquito-and-monkey-ridden hotel in Chitrakoot. We were supposed to go have a sunset boat ride along the ghats. Instead me, my sister and my love elected to eat cheese sandwiches and curry in a deserted resturant, and get some gulab jamun delivered to us for dessert. We holed up in our room, played cards, watched terrible indian television and laughed ourselves silly.
      Best.night.ever. 🙂

    • SANJAY KUMAR SINGH says:

      Really a great example how U come upon a final solution,when do’s & don’t comes to your mind here & there. Your question “If I didn’t go, would I regret it later? ” has been my mantra lately.One of my favourite quote is:
      “LIVE LIFE KING SIZE”
      I think you are following this one.
      Cheers up.

    • I am happy that French Guyana gave you some content for an excellent post! I am just a bit disappointed that you could not enjoy it more because there are nice things to discover there. The two bored guys at the border were ‘gendarmes’

    • Darren Alff says:

      This is the sort of question every traveler asks him/herself at one point or another. I do it on a daily basis. I’m doing it today as I travel through Montenegro. But my question to you is this: You went through all that trouble to get to French Guiana, and yet you were only there for a couple hours, if that. My question then is 1) Do you consider that actually seeing/experiencing a country? And 2) Don’t you wish you could have stayed longer to see more, done more, met more people, etc. Won’t you end up regretting not having experienced more?

      Take me for example: I am currently traveling in Europe and while I did spend a couple hours in Italy on the Slovenia/Italy border, I wouldn’t consider my trip into Italy as “actually experiencing Italy”. And I sure as heck want to see more of Italy than just the little bit that I saw. While I technically visited Italy, there’s no way I would ever tell someone that I “experienced” Italy just because I spent a couple hours on the border. You know what I mean?

      This isn’t about you though. It’s really about me, or anyone traveling and trying to find the balance between wanting to see it all and wanting to experience a single place as much as they can.

      So I guess I’m really asking is, what is the point of rushing from one country to the next? What are you going to do when it is all over? Why not slow down and experience a little more? How do you find the balance between visiting all the countries in the world and actually “experiencing” all the countries in the world?

      Does that make sense? Again, it’s not about your personal travel choices, but instead, the choices we all make every day in how we spend our time. We could be doing this:_________ or we could be doing this: __________. How do we decide what to do?

      Maybe this would be a good topic for a future post? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Thanks again Chris. Keep it up!

    • Chris says:

      @Darren,

      Good questions and insight, dude. I’ve written about this subject a couple of times before, but I should probably do so again soon. In short, to your questions:

      1) Do I consider it as a visit? Sure. Do I consider myself an expert on it? No – I don’t consider myself an expert on almost anywhere I go. For me I enjoy the process of travel as much as the destination, so I don’t feel I need to do certain things to say I’ve been somewhere. As mentioned, most places I go I stay much longer, but it’s not always possible – see question 2.

      2) I don’t really regret not doing more there because it wasn’t an option. The choice was to go for the day or not go at all – so I went.
      My feeling about situations like that (and your time in Italy) is that you can always go back, right? Most of us have not seen all of our own country, so I don’t have any arbitrary standards for traveling somewhere.

      Again, thanks. Good points.

    • Good for you! I’m glad you went. I don’t have any stories like that, but will one day. And thank you for the lesson in passport stamps. I’ve only traveled in the EU, so that is good stuff to know.

      Safe travels!

    • I have probably never used this phrase so literally in all my life, but “Way to go Chris!” As I was reading your post, I kept thinking “go dude, go!” and I am glad to hear you did. I came upon this in Ghana, especially later in my trip when I was feeling tired and ill. The phrase “for I shall not pass this way again” kept urging me on and I willed myself to get to some places because I knew the regret would eat at me later. Now, being home a few weeks I am so glad that i didn’t bail on myself and my intentions. As I’m sure you are aware, sometimes when traveling you have to “Cowboy up and press on”, even though the comforts of the present beckon, or you feel like crap, or all the other reasons not to do something. Good on you for sticking to your guns.

    • Ari Herzog says:

      I love your writing. Always have, Chris, but for the longest time, I wasn’t following your blog. I’m back–and you’ve inspired me to add a comment, not to mention to click that big stumble button once I submit this comment.

      Keep the stories coming. I have some good ones when I was in China, but nothing beats that taxi ride.

    • Carl Nelson says:

      “défieur des autorités au chômage”

      There ya go, translated to French.

      And great choice really, if you have the chance to go, go. 🙂

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