Space Oddity

ECUADOR, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil… France?

Bucking the trend back home, we abandoned South America for a week or so to return to the European Union. And toilet paper you could flush.

For the confused (and it took a bit of explaining to some – the EU bit and the toilet paper, but we will get to that), our lengthy first stay in Brazil was followed by a shorter crossing of French Guiana.

Which, despite being wedged between Brazil and Suriname and sitting on the cusp of the Caribbean, is an overseas departement of France and so part of Europe and the EU. 

Pretty much from the moment you roll up to the border crossing, things take on a peculiarly Gallic tinge, complete with the first Brexit gag to the British passport holders from the French border officer.

He at least knew how to deal with his departing EU colleagues, the immigration officer seeing us out of the country a week later taking one look at the words European Union on the front of my passport and going into meltdown.

Cue a delay and much consultation of a computer screen to work out how to deal with these pesky Brits.

Travelling may not be the same again.

European Space Centre

So which French side has turned up?

Pretty much what you would expect although, like most things French, it is not quite the same away from home.

It all looks sort of familiar with the same road signs, Carrefour and a plethora of Citroens, Renaults and Peugeots (bonus points for spotting all three parked in a row). 

The shelves are full of baguettes, cheese, pastries and French wine. A lot of the gendarmes and officials are on secondment from the mainland.

And after weeks of notices warning us against flushing our toilet paper, it came as a bit of a shock to find French plumbing able to cope with what we take for granted back home – it just took a bit of convincing that we were meant to do what once came natural.

Word of warning if someone visits your house after a South American overland trip. Do not leave a bin in the bathroom, just in case we act on instinct.

But there’s a distinct twist to this Gallic enclave, all a bit rough around the edges and with a rather more laissez-faire approach to life than you would expect closer to home.

Things were certainly a bit rough around the edges for the final 100km or so of Brazil as the tarmac petered out and we faced our first lengthy section of unsealed road on the trip, broken up by a bush camp on the side of the road.

All a bit of an African flashback, magnified by the presence behind the steering wheel of Steve Newsway who drove the other truck on my previous long overlanding adventure and was pressed into service through French Guiana with Will unable to get a visa without heading home to South Africa.

And having negotiated the rough stuff and shiny new bridge and border post back into Europe, our progress was halted in pretty dramatic fashion.

The road was winding its way through the jungle to the province’s largest city Cayenne when we stumbled on what we thought was a police checkpoint with plenty of shouting – right up to the point we rounded a corner and spotted the aftermath of a recent accident.

A military vehicle had overturned on one of the bends, throwing out several of its inhabitants who were being tended to on the side of the road by their colleagues.

Our resident nurse Bert – who, being Belgian, handily speaks French – sprang into life as we ferried the truck first aid kit and water to help out and directed traffic before backing up to wait for the ambulances and helicopters to ferry the injured to hospital.

Reports of the accident online in France said a dozen people were injured, three of them seriously. The worst seemed to be a woman with several breaks and fractures while others looked to have suffered back and head injuries.

Devil’s Island

Delayed by the rescue operation, we were late into Cayenne for a quiet night (for most) of street food and a quick drink.

Much of the next day was given over to exploring the city, which was rather more time than was actually needed. It is interesting enough and has a bit of a gritty edge, it is just not that big with not too much to see.

There is a good market complete with Vietnamese food stalls selling excellent, filling bowls of pho which tided us over until the evening celebrations for two truck birthdays.

Turning down the chance for more exploration of the city offered by a late departure, we headed the short distance to Kourou, home to the European Space Port which was our destination after a quiet day or so trying not to get our tent blown away or waterlogged on the beach.

And a fascinating trip it is too as we were shuttled around the launch areas and mission controls for the three separate launch systems run by the agency.

While that is the present and future of this small part of France, its past is rather less salubrious.

Originally intended to ape what the British had managed in Australia, French Guiana was a penal colony with more than 70,000 people shipped out here up to the 1950s.

Most notoriously, they sent infamous prisoners – think Papilllon and Dreyfus – to the Iles du Salut off the coast of Kourou.

While you cannot visit Devil’s Island, the harshest of the three three island jails, the trip out to the main Royale Island was well worth it. Although with no guide available and it only taking an hour or so to walk around, not sure we needed to be there so long waiting for the boat back.

Thankfully, the monkeys, agouti and the peacocks around the restaurant kept us entertained.

We did get a guide the next day around the transportation camp at St Laurent du Maroni – after an even bigger bowl of Vietnamese pho – and very enjoyable and informative it was too. 

Just not sure some of his jokes and smiling were quite in tune with the less than pleasant subject matter.

C’est la vie.

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The First 400 Pictures of You

BRAZIL provided a range of wonderful sights over our lengthy first stay in the country – almost as many as the plastic bags they insist on giving you for every item in shops.

Will end this trip with several thousand pictures, taken on my phone, camera on the occasions it is worth digging it out of my locker and the growing piles shared on the What’sApp group.

And that is before trawling through my travelling companions’ Facebook posts to plug any holes in my trip archives.

My collection would have been even larger were it not for several views being obscured by rain as we rolled north through Brazil.

It would have got totally out of control if my photo habits mirrored those who insist on running through the full range of approved Instagram poses.

Find something worth taking a picture of (and many things which are not) and you will see them lining up, getting their hair and clothes just right before chasing the perfect pose – heel raised, side on, hair flicked, peer over shoulder… you know the drill.

Then somebody else has a go, adding another pose which the initial model has to ape.

All while battling the growing queue – something Brazilians are not good at – and the others taking selfies around them, seemingly oblivious to other people and the scenery we are all there to see.

Chances are, once they have taken enough pictures, they will turn around and head off without taking too much, if any, time enjoying the view.

And when they look back at the pictures, they will have a shot of their face and maybe, just maybe, a small section of some stunning background in a corner of the screen. Next to a lot of sky.

The crowd at the foot of Christ the Redeemer in Rio was the most extreme case of seeking the perfect pose (followed closely by the walkway on the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls), regardless of how many people were trying to get past and savour what they paid to experience.

Which is why we took great delight in ruining any number of Instagram pictures rather than wait for them to run through the full checklist of poses.

Two Israeli girls joined us on a trip around the natural wonders near Lencois and barely cracked a smile all day, one doing the perfect imitation of a sulky teenager dragged out for the day by her parents.

That is until a camera appeared and all of a sudden they were all smiles, heels up, hair flicked and arms thrown out into whichever of the approved poses was appropriate for the occasion.

But they come a distant second to the Brazilian couple in front of us in the queue for the lazy river at the water park near Porto Seguro.

She started taking selfies as we joined the queue, all of which filled the screen from cleavage to the top of her head. It could just as easily have been taken at home.

Then he joined in, using the phone as a mirror before both clicked away the entire time we were in the very long queue – first individually and then a few shots as a couple. Several of which may have Lisa and myself in the background, rather ruining any Instagram post potential.

But if we thought that was it, we were sorely mistaken.

Having grabbed a figure of eight tube to drift down the ride, they sat side by side, phones in hand and proceeded to click away, right up to the point where we got fed up with them blocking the way, lost interest in ruining their pictures and basically shoved them out of the way.

Think they were too engrossed in their phones to notice.

Blocking the way is another Brazilian habit.

Not through any malice or intent, they just don’t seem to have any sense of self doubt or self awareness.

It is the same traits which have seemingly eradicated any form of body image issues, allowing them to wander around in the skimpiest of costumes – male, female, young, old, slim and not so slim – without a second thought.

My favourite is the middle-aged man rolling up the front of his T-shirt to walk around displaying his lovely paunch.

And they are the same qualities which make them oblivious to the fact the entire surrounding area does not want to listen to their pounding music all night.

We were able to tell the time at our campsite in Lencois by the 5am fireworks (although, in typical South America fashion, they were often a few minutes late) which marked the start of the morning procession through the streets by a marching band.

All that, after a full evening of religious services in which the Lord is praised at ever-rising volume before handing over to some more hedonistic musical performances, just in case you were getting a bit bored lying in bed.

Somehow we have got used to it.

Some of the time.

But you will see those traits most often in the lack of awareness of anyone around them.

Brazilians don’t seem to do single file. Why let somehow walk past you or come the other way on a narrow street when you can occupy the full width and stop every few yards for a chat?

And don’t even think about an orderly queue, they just do not exist.

The only things Brazilians appear happy to wait for is a meal. Whatever they order, whenever they order it, at least one person will wait until everyone else has almost finished before their food appears.

If it appears at all.

The only exception is a buffet when waiting is not on the agenda. Particularly on our day trip on a boat from Caravelas.

Food – breakfast, lunch and an afternoon tea – were served on a table at one end of the boat with a bench down each side.

Breakfast had been a free for all, lunch even more so, the poor chef having to make more pasta for the late arrivals who had been snorkelling after several people had gone back for multiple piles.

But afternoon tea, quite literally, took the biscuit.

Having spent much of the boat ride back sat on one of the benches, our stuff was all over it by the time the food arrived.

Briefly unattended to spread the word for those elsewhere on the boat, returned to find two Brazilian girls – one who really exemplified the lack of body image concerns when picking a swimsuit – had moved in next to (or on top of) our stuff and were intent on not moving and not letting anyone pass until they had had their fill.

Amazing the skimpy bikini bottoms survived the extra strain they were showing as she shoved past us through the queue to get off the boat.

Yet somehow, the Brazilian way has become more of an entertainment than a frustration and when in Brazil…

Well, maybe apart from the skimpy swimwear.

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Evening of Swing

HAVE been forced to acquire or relearn a range of skills during my overlanding adventures.

My cooking skills were put to the test in Africa and on the less frequent cook groups around South America, while camping – once avoided at all costs – has become second nature. Even something worth savouring.

My linguistic skills, never fluent despite a French A-Level pass which is being dragged out with differing results in French Guiana, have been put to the test in a range of languages. Normally mangled.

Must stop replying to people in the language from the previous country.

To that list of talents you can add one more – sleeping in a hammock.

Albeit with plenty of work to be done to reach anything approaching expert level

My previous approach of keeping well away was never going to work with hammocks forming our main source of accommodation on two different Amazon boat trips – one of 24 hours and another, still to come, over at least five nights.

Having taken my first tentative steps into hammock lounging during various opportunities to laze around campsites, the first real exam came on the overnight ferry from Belem to Macapa as our journey north out of Brazil towards the Guianas crossed its biggest hurdle.

The Amazon river delta.

There was no hiding place for the novice hammock user as the test was taken in the midst of a crowded deck with little room between the person on each side of you – some of whom may be even less adept at this new skill.

Home sweet home for the night. That’s my black and white hammock front left.

Lying in the hammock is not that hard – get comfortable and lie there. Been a master of that for many years.

It is the getting in and getting out which is the biggest problem, particularly given the lack of space on either side.

The first step is to decide on the height of your hammock – the higher it is, the flatter you will lie but with increased jeopardy climbing aboard or disembarking.

Greater height also comes with the added advantage that any stray elbows, feet or shoulders from anyone next to you have the opportunity to pass underneath. 

How a stray foot made it into my hammock at one point is far from clear.

Having jacked up the height of my hammock – originally slung by a ruthless advance party we managed to get in the priority boarding queue to secure a prime spot for us all – the question switches to how you climb on and off.

You have two choices, the more traditional sit on the middle of the hammock approach (not always easy to line up and avoid being perilously close to one side) and the more ungainly straddle technique – one leg either side and sit back or pull yourself up by the ropes.

Opted for a combination of the two, one to get in and the other to get out – mainly as getting my leg across after increasing the height was not an option, either for my health or those in range of a stray foot.

And so we whiled away 24 hours sleeping, listening to music, reading, drinking, playing cards, exploring the rest of the boat (which did not take long), watching the Amazon go by or just relaxing in our hammocks.

The on-board entertainment was blaring, awful music controlled by a bloke whose main contribution was playing everything at the wrong speed, ensuring Gloria Gaynor managed to sound like both Barry White and The Chipmunks. Think he thought he was mixing.

Most of us ventured into the boat’s restaurant, several of us later having to explore its other facilities more often than we would have liked.

Sleeping in a hammock needs a bit more work but it was a more comfortable evening than expected, especially in such tight confines and with many of the lights left on all night.

Not that it was the only unusual sleeping arrangement as we ended our lengthy stay in Brazil by eating up the miles heading north.

After our first day’s driving on leaving Lencois deposited us on the banks of the Rio Palmeiras for the night – which left its mark on Lisa after a slip down the truck steps – the next was interrupted by a walk to a waterfall and a swim in the bracing pool at its base with the added bonus of watching a group of monkeys feasting on fruit on the way back up the hill.

That night’s accommodation bordered on luxurious, an Air BnB in the small settlement of Taquarucu which came complete with dorms – although not enough, a few of us opting to stay under canvas on the lawn.

Told you camping had become the norm.

Alongside a pool and the standard facilities, it came with a sauna, which we could not get to work, and a kitchen which we certainly did – the cookery pupils from Salvador putting their lesson to the test and serving up moquecas.

That set us up nicely for a long, hot day on the truck until the search for a suitable bush camp.

Which is where the plan started to unravel.

Unable to reach the hoped-for spot or find something suitable nearby, we headed off on a detour to a place marked on an overlanding map.

The isolated Refugio do Raiz was a lovely spot, complete with refreshing showers, a kitchen, seating area and some shelter for those of us who grabbed a prime spot before the late-night downpour.

It was just getting there and away which proved problematic.

Turning down a wrong path in the dark needed a multiple-point turn to return to the main road which merely ground us into the sand, leading to a hot, sweaty session of digging and manoeuvring sand mats.

Refreshed by the facilities and a good night’s sleep, we started the next day in similar fashion, stuck and needing to turn in limited room – more digging, a touch of tree surgery and shifting a big pile of sand making way for the truck’s exit.

Which left the guy from the refuge scratching his head at what his unexpected visitors had done to his entrance.

There was no problem with room the next night as we pitched our tents – thankfully under cover again – in the vast empty area at the back of one of the truck stops which dot Brazil.

Surprisingly comfortable and handy, albeit limited in facilities shared with a lot of truck drivers. There was probably more scope to look after the trucks.

It was back on the road early as we headed off with a deadline to meet – arriving in Belem in time for Will and the truck to catch his slow vehicle ferry across the Amazon.

While they headed off to 36 hours afloat, we settled into our air-conditioned hotel and set about exploring the city, which mainly revolved around daily trips to a wonderful burger place in a mall and the banks of the world’s longest river as it nears the end of its journey.

It is practical rather than pretty although much of the waterfront has been turned into bars and restaurants while the old markets remain a fascinating place, although still not sure why anyone would want a bottle of spirits with a crab inside.

We jumped at the chance for beers priced around 20p at a club overlooking the river. Once we had paid a lot more to get in.

But our exploration of Belem was merely delaying the inevitable, our own ordeal by hammock.

Our destination of Macapa was hardly the most salubrious – think closed, run-down English seaside resort – but at least it came with a hotel bed.

And the final chance, for now, to sample a Brazilian caipirinha at the city’s birthday celebrations.

They always help with a good night’s sleep, hammock or no hammock.

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