This was definitely the leg of this trip that I was most excited about, and most nervous about. Both for the same reason. Traveling overland by public transport definitely holds a romantic realness about it. You’re often traveling with locals, getting an insight on how local people get from place to place, and if you’re fortunate you get a good chance to interact with them as well. I can only remember one time that I did the shared car/taxi thing, and that was several years ago when I took a shared bus/taxi service from Moldova to Transdniester. That was a large bus, however, but I’ll still count it since it left from the shared transport bus station.
In this case, everything I’d read online said that in order to be assured your share taxi would leave within an hour, you really had to be there before 7am, because after that time there were very few passengers leaving Paramaribo and you could be stuck waiting for hours for your taxi to fill up unless you wanted to buy all the spots up. Everything I’d read online told me to expect about 70 SRD for one of five seats in a share taxi (about $22) for the three hour ride to the border. With that in mind, I asked the hotel concierge to call around and see what options he could find.
He first came back with 500 SRD for a private car (about $155) which was absolutely ridiculous. In theory, I could show up at the share taxi rank and buy out all five seats for only 350. He then called “some friends” one of whom was willing to not only pick me up at my hotel the next morning, but would agree to come at 9am (yay sleeping in) and only charge 80 SRD. I figured for this price I’d be doing some sharing, but for the convenience of hotel pick-up, a “known” driver, and sleeping in it sounded great.
Fast forward to 9am…no sign of the driver. 9:15. Nothing. Hotel calls him and he answers…”stuck in traffic.” Finally, around 9:45, he shows up with his sister and her small child already in the car. Great, at least we’re off! No seatbelts, but wouldn’t really expect that in a bush taxi. Of course, where do we go? You guessed it, the share taxi rank! Fortunately, it was just to meet three of his “friends” he’d agreed to pick up and drive to the border, so the wait was only another 10 minutes or so. Doing the math, I was probably subsidizing the others a bit, but it was what it was.
He was a relatively safe driver, although once again the entire conversation was in Dutch. We attempted both French and English, but they couldn’t really keep up in either, so we spoke what Dutch we could and the rest of the time they all conversed in Creole. We did need to make one “ganja stop” along the way for the other passengers to smoke, and then we made another stop maybe 30 minutes from the border in order to…buy watermelons. All the passengers bought watermelons from the roadside, as well as buying huge slices of watermelon to eat. The driver offered “I buy you, you eat!” but I wasn’t in the mood for suspicious roadside fruits with another 4-5 hours in shaky taxis to go. This is where things got strange. He confirmed I needed to go to the immigration building (the locals don’t bother, and just take a water taxi across the river), since he knew it was important for foreigners to get the exit and entry stamps. “No problem, no extra.”
After we started up again, the driver’s English suddenly improved a bit. “You have girlfriend?” “Uh, no, too busy, too much travel.” “Oh too bad. I have 3 girlfriend. You have boyfriend? I have two boyfriend!” “Uhhhh…” This was definitely getting very very weird. Little more small talk and he gave up, until we pulled up to the border. The local boat tout across the river swarmed the taxi, grabbing at my luggage. Driver assured me “It’s ok, he my friend, he take you across river.” Ok, that’s fare. Saves me negotiating with the touts, and we confirmed the price was the same 20 SRD I’d seen online. Then, it got really weird. “You pay 80 SRD. If you no want pay, my friend have house down the street.” Now, I’m pretty sure he was suggesting trading the ride for, um, “adult activities” and I quickly gave him his 80 SRD and walked into the immigration hut.
You can see above the tout hurrying to the building along with my bag. Once inside, there were about 100 people milling about, most of them with French passports. I chatted with a few, and they were all from French Guiana. Seems it was important for them to get stamps too, to document just how long they’d been out of the E.U. It seemed to just be the local Surinamese who didn’t care. Of course, why the line? It was just before 1pm, and the immigration person was on lunch! I had to wait about 30 minutes, and finally he showed up. I’d obviously been in the region long enough by now, because when the shoving started I held my ground and was near the beginning out of the line.
What do you know…the immigration guy spoke not a word of English OR French. So, of course, I had to muddle along in Dutch. He wasn’t going to do anything for me unless I told him what I needed…or possibly gave him some happy weekend money. As one can do in Dutch, I decided to try and make up a word and see if it worked….I knew “uit” was the word for exit, and a “stempel” was a stamp, and “en” ends verbs, so why not ask for “een uitstempelen?” He grinned, I got my stamp, and was happy!
Having successfully navigated exit immigration, it was down to the boat dock, and my tout was happy to walk my luggage down the ramp to the boat.
I was the first one on the boat…which was a bad sign. I waited for 15 minutes, and it started to pour rain. No other passengers in site, and no sign we were leaving. This wasn’t looking good. I’d obviously gotten the “friend’s” boat, with no assurance it would ever be filled. Meanwhile, the boat next to us kept filling up. The captain had gone off in search of more passengers…and it got to 30 minutes passed…
The green boat was mine. You can see French Guiana across the river.
That said, it was a pretty decent boat. Life preservers and all! However, it was already going on 2pm, and I still had at least 3-4 hours to go. I did the only smart thing, and grabbed my luggage and bailed for the other boat. It was absolutely packed, but we left within 5 minutes. Not bad. Of course, we got halfway across the river, and one woman realised she’d left her 20kg bag of rice back on the dock, so we went all the way back for it!
Finally, we were off the boat right at French immigration. You can see the whole boat here. Not nearly as nice as the original one I’d hoped to go on.
French Guiana is an “integral part of France” and part of the European Union as such. It is not a territory as such, but a full Department of France. The best analogy would be that French Guiana is to France as Alaska is to the U.S. However, it is not part of the Schengen Area, and thus passport controls do exist between Guiana and mainland France. However, the people are full French citizens. So, that said, welcome to France! Euro and all!
Bienvenue en France! I have no idea what that street sign is trying to say, however. 50 kph speed limit in cities, 90 kph “not in cities?” Anyone French who can clarify? I walked up to the immigration shack, was met with a curious look. I’m imagining they don’t see a lot of U.S. passports at this border crossing!
The stamp was not the standard Schengen stamp, but the old-style pre-Schengen French stamp. Very cool!
Stamped…and it was time to find the shared taxis to Cayenne. I knew there were upriver like 1km where the “non-immigration” water taxis went, but it was raining. Hard. I found a local milling about, and he used his cell phone to call a taxi to take me there. Oh, you’re going to Cayenne? My friend runs a taxi to Cayenne. He will come for you. Come he did, about 10 minutes later. You guessed it, guess where he drove me. Yup, the share taxi stand! It was less than a 3 minute drive, and probably no more than a 7-8 minute walk. We got there, and we waited. And waited.
After the rain stopped, it was more than a little wet:
First it was “just four people and I go.” When there were four of us, “just one more.” Finally, after THREE HOURS of waiting, around 530pm, we set off for Cayenne. Yes, I’ve been on the road more than 8 hours at this point, but at least we were leaving, I had the shotgun seat in this minivan taxi, which was a doublewide seat which I had to share with some local teen who blasted his iphone on his earbuds listening to french rap the whole way. Three hours. Joy.
First two hours went quickly, and I had hopes we’d get there in time to find some food. I was sorely mistaken. We stopped in a small town called Sinnamary for bathrooms and a convenience store. At this point, I hadn’t eaten since I had a couple eggs and toast at the hotel around 8am, and was starving. It wasn’t optimum, but Chips Ahoy and Perrier were to be the dinner of champions. Joy. While we were stopped for 30 minutes, the sun went down, and the mosquitos came out. In droves. The van was now absolutely FILLED with them, and we picked up speed in order to try and flush them out. It worked for a minute, until we were stopped at the edge of town by a French military checkpoint. They IDd all the locals, but just smiled at the one white guy (ironically, one of the few non French citizens in the van) and waved me through. Supposedly there’s a huge problem with illegal immigrants from Brasil, which is what they were looking for.
Got to town around 9pm, and they offered to drop me off first. Thanks to Google Maps and the iPhone, I tried to direct him to my hotel, the Ker Alberte. However, he kept not wanting to turn where I instructed, telling me “there’s nothing there.” After 10 minutes, he gave up, and went to drop the other passengers off. Now it’s 10pm, and finally, I convince him to just listen to me, I show him the map, and he skeptically follows. Surprise, surprise, the hotel was right where the map said all along!
I got there just as a party was wrapping up. The Ker Alberte is a small boutique hotel, and they were hosting some sort of party for what appeared to be the who’s who of local society. The owner checked me in, and was the first person of the day I encountered who spoke not only some english, but much better English than my French. He laughed at the idea of finding food, and said there’s plenty leftover from the party, I’ll fix you up a plate next to the pool when you’re ready. Now THAT is service!
A few notes. Note the planteur punch he also brought me. Delicious. The little snackies were all tasty, a combo of savoury and sweet, and mostly unexpected. See the stuff that looks like delicious blackberry mousse maybe? Surprise, it’s a beetroot mousse! It was a fun whimsical play on finger food, and quite unexpected here! When I enquired if there was a possibility to buy a 1/2 bottle wine maybe to have while I watched the news and wound down, the owner found me a (very large) glass of wine as well, and said to enjoy. I can’t recommend this hotel enough – the service was stellar, the rooms were nice, and they had no problem letting me check out the next afternoon around 3pm since they weren’t full.
The owner had no idea as well how I might get to the European Space Centre the next morning, since it was late and the rental car agencies were all closed. With an 8am tour time, it was looking interesting. I’d had good luck today mostly, so decided I’d head to the share taxi rank a few blocks from the hotel at 6am and try my luck….