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Sunday, July 06, 2014

NOAH IN (French) GUIANA or Mykel's Caribbean Blog Chapter 17

by Mykel Board


ENTRY SEVENTEEN
Nov, 2013

Noah in Guiana

[Recap: From the start, it doesn't look good for this trip. Everything goes right... always a bad sign. Nothing portends disaster like everything going right.

Easy subletter in New York... smooth flight to Miami... promises of “meet you at the airport/seaport”... $10 a night accommodations in Guyana, the rest free.

Uh oh! Too good. The better the news before, the bigger the fall later. And things get worse. (Better) Miami goes so smoothly you could cry. The only problem is a lot of rain-- heavy rain. The streets are rivers... waves in the pool. I get wet. Very wet.

Then on to North Trinidad, where my friends pick me up at the airport and take me drinkin'-- and more drinking. Then, to South Trinidad... some fun adventures... meet a Goddess... er... Empress... of a girl. It doesn't rain so much in Trinidad.

Then off to Guyana.

In Guyana, my facebook friends from KEEP YOUR DAY JOB! meet me at the airport. From there, we go to Jamal's. This is the only time I have to pay for a place to sleep: 15 days for $150. Not bad. No, it doesn't go perfectly. But it goes, and I meet some great people in the country-- including Jamal. My trip to Kaiteur Falls in the jungle is-- at 741 feet-- a high point.

The two weeks of my stay in Guyana are adventure-filled, and beer-dulled. Most days, it rains. Sometimes for just an hour or two in the afternoon. Sometimes all day.

I don't get it Mykel,” Jamal tells me. “This isn't the rainy season.”

Rainman,” I say.

He doesn't get it.

The plan is to travel to Suriname with Keep Your Day Job! But, uh oh... a drummer problem. Two drummers agreed to tour with us. One, a close friend, the other, more PUNKROCK. They ditch the friend for the punkrocker. He bails at the last minute. The now former-friend doesn't answer emails. This cannot work out. We go to Suriname anyway-- drummerless. It works out.

In Suriname, I stay with Jose, a punkrock student and his super-generous parents. They cook for me every day. I mention a local synagogue; they arrange a tour. I mention a trip to “the interior,” bang, we're there... surveying monkey meat. When dad can't do it, they get Jose, to chauffeur me; as if he doesn't have enough with schoolwork and his own band, ADHD He hopes for rain... It's an excuse to stay home. Often, there's rain.

Then it's on to French Guyana, where the brother of one of my top ten pals, Simon, lives with his girlfriend Marie. His name is Florian.

I take a small boat across the river that separates French Guiana from Suriname. The captain lets me choose my port of entry: “legal or backtrack?” I choose legal. At customs, I annoy the white immigration officers by asking for a passport stamp. They give it to me and hustle me away. I'm hungry as shit and don't know where I am. It's raining.

What happens? Marie meets me on the road, helps me negotiate a ride with a French Guianan truck driver, and gets me to her place. Smooth as a baby's ass. The first morning is a crepe breakfast. Then a dip in the pool. Then, I donno. Everything is spot on... except for the rain.

My first days in French Guyana are distress free... unless you count the bottom paddling I get from my friends' spare bicycle. I have one of the best days of the entire trip: canoeing through the Amazon with Florian as my French guide. Chased by dogs, paddle-blistered hands, bitten by mosquitoes, stuck in the roots of swamp trees... it's wonderful.

The only thing better, I'm told, will be THE CARNIVAL... an all night festival my hosts and their friends have been working on for months.

Before that, I take an afternoon trip to a former French work camp, a type of holding prison for workers sent to French Guiana when it was a penal colony. Papillon scratched his name into the floor of a cell there.

After that, it's meet the friends and experience a day in Nenge Tongo... the people and language of escaped slaves. I only have one night left here.]

============
It's the BIG NIGHT®... the night of the circus, carnival, benefit. The night my hosts have been working all year on. The night of clowns, food, athletics, aliens on stilts. The most important night of the French Guianese year.

Before we textomaticly transport ourselves to these final festivities, let's go on a last trip... to a Hmong village near St. Lauren du Maroni.

According to Wikipedia: During the first and second Indochina Wars, France and the United States governments recruited thousands of Hmong people in Laos to fight against invading military forces from North Vietnam and communist Pathet Lao insurgents, known as the Secret War, during the Vietnam War and the Laotian Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of Hmong refugees fled to Thailand seeking political asylum. Thousands of these refugees have resettled in Western countries since the late 1970s, mostly in the United States, but also in Australia, France, French Guiana, Canada, and South America. Others have returned to Laos under United Nations-sponsored repatriation programs.

Though there are plenty in the US, before this trip, my only contact with the Hmong was my French-Hmong pal Luc, who used to come to Drink Club when he was in New York. Here he is with the dogs at his farewell party in NYC.

Luc, at his farewell party in NYC
The Hmong Village in French Guiana has both a craft market and a food market. The craft market has everything from used axes to Hmong-made clothes. The fabrics are very different-- more muted and patchworky-- than the Nenge Tongo ones I saw earlier. But they're equally interesting.

Hmong Fabrics



The fruits and vegitables are similar to others in the Guyanas... and that means weird.

Take an ugly tubor with the unfortunate name of MANIAC... Please! 


Manioc!





It's a nice day. Only a few scattered clouds... like cotton balls... in the bright blue sky. We eat at a Hmong outdoor cafe... have fish with... er... fish sauce, waja think?



After lunch, we stop for a Hmong ice cream before heading back into town for the party to end all parties... the event of the century... the massive culmination of weeks of work... rehearsals... planning... jugglers... magicians... acrobats... everything. The sky is a bit darker now, cloudier with a few marshmallow-looking Stratocumuli.

We're off in the Hebdig jalopy. To the fairgrounds... somewhere out of town... a large open field with nothing but a long dirt road going to it... cars parked on either side. We park... get out of the car... head to the grounds... walking along the dirt road. A few drops of rain bounce off my fedora.

In a few minutes, we come to the entrance gate: a large lean-to with a table manned by a few attractive natives. Florian pays the entrance fee for all of us. A native hands us each a beer token.

When we enter, we pass a strange pile of wood. Just lumber, thin with several large cross sticks... not sticks, but beams... something to support a heavy structure. It's as if someone had planned to build something... gathered the material... then had a change of heart.

We pass what looks like a circus sideshow car. On the side, written in overly designed font is BLANK BE A PUNK. Huh? What does that mean? It'll take me this whole blog entry to figure it out.

Right now, I don't know, but it's fun to see some punkrock here.

First stop: the trapeze... a fancy high thing... watched over by several experts. While waiting for audience volunteers, they hang by their legs and throw each other through the air.

Mykel,” says Florian, “why don't you swing on it. You're fit.”

It's not my style,” I tell him. “I was a swinger in the 80s, but that was a long time ago.”

He doesn't get it.

Why don't YOU go?” I suggest.

Um...” he says.

You're such poules mouillées,” says Marie... and she climbs on to platform to prepare for the trapeze.


From Carnival of Rain
When she's done, the light raindrops have become real rain. No, it's not rain. It is apres moi... le deluge! A downpour so down... so pour... that each drop digs its own mini-grave in the dirt below. A rain of such ferocity that the carnival field becomes instant mud. My fedora drapes itself over my head like a wet washcloth.

You know those spring showers? Those heavy rains that stop as quickly as they begin? Those cool-off everything cloudbursts that are welcomed in retrospect? This is NOT one of those. There is no end. No stopping. No retrospect. This is a rain that keeps on raining. It is a rain of the entire ocean dumping itself on this poor bit of land.


Mud, rain, more mud, more rain.

Mud... rain... Mud... 
That wood pile I saw when I came into this place? Now I get it! It's for the ark! Two acrobats, two jugglers, two magicians, two trapeze artists... the only ones to make it out alive. 40 days and forty nights... waiting for the dove with an olive branch...

The show goes on, but I'm miserable. Soaked, frustrated from so much spoiled by rain. I'm the bad guest, I grab a chair from a nearby soaked field... bring it under a food tent... next to the barbecue... smoke in my eyes... MOSTLY out of the rain. There I sit and sulk. Florian and Marie go off. They've got obligations. The show must go on... One leg of my chair sinks into the ground. I spill into the mud.

Mud lake... this is only the start
Mykel,” calls Florian. “Come and see this. We worked so hard to put it together. You'll like it.”

Trying to suppress my inner misery and outer assholitude, I wade out onto the field in front of the stage.

There, on stilts, is an alien. 

Alien
There are more... green hair... white jumpsuits... mostly girls... some “girls”... This is gonna be fun. They're wearing white. They're on stilts. The ground is pure mud! Oh yeah.

Yes! It happens. Again and again.... once right in front of me. PLOW! Covered in brown... like the bottom of a toilet at a bad Mexican restaurant. The splash covers me too... neck to knees... brownness... thick mud clumps... serves me right for the schadenfreude.... but I don't think so at the time. I go back... sulk under the food tent.

Every 10 mintutes or so, Florian... or Marie... comes over to try to cheer me up. I won't be cheered. This is their BIG NIGHT, and I'm only adding to the rain on their parade.

Somehow, late and very wet, it's over. We slog back to the car. The road is a calf-high river of mud. To walk we have to life a knee high... higher...pulling our feet from the mud. THWUMP...THWUMP...THWUMP.

Finally the car! Inside, water spills from our clothes onto the seat... the floor. Florian turns the key.The engine spins in protest. Again... again... Finally, it starts. The wheels kick up a mudstorm before there's traction enough to leave our parking place.

It's a sad way to end what was a great trip. I leave the next day to retrace my steps and eventually end up in New York.

The next morning, as I'm figure out how to pack my still-soaked clothes. It's then that it hits me. That wasn't a BLANK BE A PUNK sign. It was DON'T BE A PUNK sign. I hope they forgive me.

-end-

[You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the RSS link at the bottom or by joining the Yahoo group for readers of Mykel Board's rants

You might also want to check the blog of Mykel Board's Columns .

WARNING: The Column Blog is neither PC nor PG. It might make you mad, or disgusted. The thin-skinned, politically correct, and easily sickened should stay away. You have been warned.

BUT WAIT! THERE'S MORE! In an ultimately useless effort to rid myself of apartment junk, I'm giving away CDs, cassettes, VHS videos and more. Just pay separate shipping and handling. (sorry US addresses only). The details are here. ]









Saturday, June 14, 2014

THERE ARE NO ELEPHANTS IN SOUTH AMERICA or Mykel's Caribbean Blog Chapter 16

by Mykel Board


ENTRY SIXTEEN
Nov, 2013

There Are No Elephants in French Guiana

[Recap: From the start, it doesn't look good for this trip. Everything goes right... always a bad sign. Nothing portends disaster like everything going right.

Easy subletter in New York... smooth flight to Miami... promises of “meet you at the airport/seaport”... $10 a night accommodations in Guyana, the rest free.

Uh oh! Too good. The better the news before, the bigger the fall later. And things get worse. (Better) Miami goes so smoothly you could cry. The only problem is a lot of rain-- heavy rain. The streets are rivers... waves in the pool. I get wet. Very wet.

Then on to North Trinidad, where my friends pick me up at the airport and take me drinkin'-- and more drinking. Then, to South Trinidad... some fun adventures... meet a Goddess... er... Empress... of a girl. It doesn't rain so much in Trinidad.

Then to the airport and off to Guyana.

In Guyana, my facebook friends from KEEP YOUR DAY JOB! meet me at the airport. From there, we go to Jamal's. This is the only time I have to pay for a place to sleep: 15 days for $150. Not bad. No, it doesn't go perfectly. But it goes, and I meet some great people in the country-- including Jamal. My trip to Kaiteur Falls in the jungle is-- at 741 feet-- a high point.

The two weeks of my stay in Guyana are adventure-filled, and beer-dulled. Most days, it rains. Sometimes for just an hour or two in the afternoon. Sometimes all day.

I don't get it Mykel,” Jamal tells me. “This isn't the rainy season.”

Rainman,” I say.

He doesn't get it.

The plan is to travel to Suriname with Keep Your Day Job! But, uh oh... a drummer problem. Two drummers agreed to tour with us. One, a close friend, the other, more PUNKROCK. They ditch the friend for the punkrocker. He bails at the last minute. The now former-friend doesn't answer emails. This cannot work out. We go to Suriname anyway-- drummerless. It works out.

In Suriname, I stay with a punkrock student and his super-generous parents. They cook for me every day. I mention a local synagogue; they arrange a tour. I mention a trip to “the interior,” bang, we're there... surveying monkey meat. When dad can't do it, they get the poor son, Jose, to chauffeur me; as if he doesn't have enough with schoolwork and his own band, ADHD He hopes for rain... It's an excuse to stay home. Often, there's rain.

Then it's on to French Guyana, where the brother of one of my top ten pals, Simon, lives with his girlfriend Marie. His name is Florian.

I take a small boat across the river that separates French Guiana from Suriname. The captain lets me choose my port of entry: “legal or backtrack?” I choose legal. At immigration, I annoy the white immigration officers by asking for a passport stamp. They give it to me and hustle me away. I'm hungry as shit and don't know where I am. It's raining.

What happens? Marie meets me on the road, helps me negotiate a ride with a French Guianan truck driver, and gets me to her place. Smooth as a baby's ass. The first morning is a crepe breakfast. Then a dip in the pool. Then, I donno. Everything is spot on... except for the rain. Well, there's the car. Florian's car breaks down just before I arrived. Bad news?

No problem! His friend lends him a jalopy...windows don't close... wipers don't work... car door doesn't open from the inside.

My first days in French Guyana are distress free... unless you count the bottom paddling I get from my friends' spare bicycle. I have one of the best days of the entire trip: canoeing through the Amazon with Florian, as my French guide. Chased by dogs, paddle-blistered hands, bitten by mosquitoes, stuck in the roots of swamp trees... it's wonderful.

Then an afternoon trip to a former French work camp, a type of holding prison for workers sent to French Guiana when it was a penal colony. I see Papillon's name scratched into the floor of a cell there.

After that, it's meet the friends and the adventure continues.]

============


Last month I wrote about buying a ticket for the Work Camp tour. That was at a small tourist office by the intersection of the Marowijne River (that separates Suriname from French Guiana)and the Caribbean Ocean. The office serves as a kind of meeting point, and information center for French expats and other non-natives. Tacked to the outside door is this:

Mama Bobi? Sounds Yiddish. Taki taki. Nenge tongo? What?

It just so happens I know... sort of... what they're talking about. The Guyanas (Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana) were colonies that used African slave labor to work for their colonial overseers. Slaves were given food and some sort of primitive housing and they had to work... mostly long hard hours in the sugar canefields. It's like capitalism-- with free food and housing.

A lot of the slaves didn't like it though. In Guyana, there was a rebellion. The rebels lost. In Suriname, the locals used the native Indians to keep the slaves in line. In French Guyana, the French used penal colony workers to supplement the slaves who ran into the jungle to make their own communities.

In the beginning of the colonial period the Guyanas weren't clearly divided. One ran into the other. What is now Suriname used to be part of British Guyana. Later, the British and the Dutch traded. The Dutch got Suriname. The British got New York. I often think the Dutch got the better deal.

Escaped slaves had little regard for borders. They settled anywhere they could, trying to maintain their distance from their white slave masters, and the Native Indian bounty hunters.

To communicate with each others, the runaway slaves developed a language using what they knew. Mainly a mixture of English and Dutch, the new language, Tongue of the Negroes, (Nenge Tongo, get it?) developed its own vocabulary and grammar.

Is it just a jumble of Dutch and English? It doesn't look like that.Asaw is the word for elephant in Nenge Tongo. It clearly isn't from either of those Germanic languages. How did that word get into the language? There are no elephants in South America. Looks African to the experts... and so there's more to the language than meets the ear.

The language also uses a process called reduplication common to some languages like Japanese (guro guro, a growling stomach or tokidoki occasionally). Moshi moshi... which is what the Japanese use when they answer the phone-- means MOUSE in Nenge Tongo. Dutch and English rarely use this kind of word structure. 

Some Nenge Tongo 
Carlos, one of Florian's fellow teachers is tri-lingual: English, French, Nenge Tongo. He teaches Nenge Tongo in his spare time and this afternoon I sit in on a lesson.

At Carlos' house, he brings out the local booze. It's my kind of language lesson that begins with a drink! The bottle's label says Rhum Supreme. On it is a drawing of a somewhat frightened slave, and some squiggles that look like a combination of a swastika and a penis.

Mighty tasty stuff-- the rum, that is.

I think I'll have another, a third please! Even though it's Caribbean, I can feel AFRICA course through my veins with every sip. Ever since the canoe trip, there's been JUNGLE in my blood. Now it's AFRICAN JUNGLE, transplanted, but still African....

Another rum tangitangi!” Somehow I don't remember much more of the lesson.

After the lesson, we're off to an outdoor restaurant by the beach. I buy Parbo for the crew... it's the least I can do for my free lesson.

Suddenly there comes the sound of drums. Not South American... not Calypso... not socca, not something from Parbo nights.

What's that?” I ask.

Drums,” says Florian.

Wiseguy.

It's African,” I tell him, “I can feel the rhythms. I can tell the players... Slave blood runs through their veins. The agony of chains, the ecstasy of chains removed. The original weltshmertz, expressed the only way possible, through beating... harsh... beautiful. The sound of AFRICA!”

Huh?” he says.

I've got to find it,” I tell him, “I need to experience this... this... this... essence. Real African blood, translated into the sound of hands and sticks against animal skin.”

I stand up and follow the sound... into the building next to our outdoor table... around the corner. It's getting louder... calling to me in it's most primitive agony. Ahead... an open door...

FUCK! I can't believe it. A bunch of white people. One colored guy, at the end, barely in the group... a token... that's it. The leader is a white woman in her late thirties who wouldn't look out of place at a feminist anti-porn rally. That's it! My uncle Bernie in Forest Hills has more African soul than these guys.


From French Guyana


Crestfallen, I slink back to the table where my friends are enjoying the beer.

Did you feel the essence?” Florian asks.

I change the subject.

Carlos,” I say. “Could you do me a favor?”

Sure Mykel, as long as it won't humiliate (he pronounces it like a Frenchman: oomeeleeAht) me.”
Wiseguy.

Would you say something in Nenge Tongo to all the reader who is reading about this adventure?”

Are you sure your grammar is right, Mykel?”

I know my audience,” I tell him.

And here it is: Carlos speaks to my reader. Sorry about the heavy background noise. Kids are annoying all over the world.


From French Guyana

During my trip, we go to visit Carlos' sister in a Nenge Tongo village. The escaped slave descendents have not only made their own language, they've designed their own buildings... a kind of suburban house, on low stilts to keep it off the often wet, sometimes completely liquid, land.


Here is an eerie picture of one of the houses. Check out how it's raised off the ground.

A Nenge Tongo House-- in the rain
They've also developed their own fabric designs. Earthy colors and intricate patterns.

Marie checks out the Nenge Tongo goods
The next day is my penultimate one in French Guyana. We're gonna start with a trip to a Hmong village, then end with the super carnival. A festival planned for months... like a carnival... The teachers have worked on this... trained... found talent... worked with it... make tents... booths... got sponsors. It's the super big deal of the year.

Mykel,” Florian tells me, “it's got everything you want: a trapeze, clowns, bands, sexy girls on stilts, movies. It will be the best thing you've ever seen in South America... maybe in your life.”

Is it better than sex?” I ask.

He turns to me, stares hard at my crotch, then snickers.

It depends,” he says.

-end-

[You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the RSS link at the bottom or by joining the Yahoo group for readers of Mykel Board's rants

You might also want to check the blog of Mykel Board's Columns .

WARNING: The Column Blog is neither PC nor PG. It might make you mad, or disgusted. The thin-skinned, politically correct, and easily sickened should stay away. You have been warned.

BUT WAIT! THERE'S MORE! In an ultimately useless effort to rid myself of apartment junk, I'm giving away CDs, cassettes, VHS videos and more. Just pay separate shipping and handling. (sorry US addresses only). The details are here. ]



 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

NAPOLEON AND MYKEL FIND THEY HAVE EVEN MORE IN COMMON or Mykel's Caribbean Blog Chapter 15

by Mykel Board

ENTRY FIF- TEEN
aprox Nov 17, 2013

NAPOLEON & MYKEL, 2 LITTLE GUYS IN A PENAL COLONY.

[Recap: From the start, it didn't look good for this trip. Everything went right... always a bad sign. Nothing portends disaster like everything going right.

Easy subletter in New York, smooth flight to Miami, promises of “meet you at the airport/seaport.” $10 a night accommodations in Guyana, the rest free.

Uh oh! Too good. The better the news before, the bigger the fall later. And things get worse. (Better) Miami goes so smoothly you could cry. The only problem was a lot of rain-- heavy rain. The streets were rivers. There were waves in the pool. I got wet. Very wet.

Then on to North Trinidad, where my friends picked me up at the airport and took me around drinkin'. Then, I moved to South Trinidad... had some fun adventures, met a Goddess... er... Empress... of a girl. It didn't rain so much in Trinidad.

Then it was to the airport and off to Guyana.

In Guyana, my facebook friends from KEEP YOUR DAY JOB! met me at the airport. From there, we went to Jamal's. This was the only time I had to pay for a place to sleep: 15 days for $150US. Not bad. No, it didn't go perfectly. But it went, and I met some great people in the country-- including Jamal. My trip to Kaiteur Falls in the jungle was literally (741 feet) a high point.

The two weeks of my stay in Guyana were adventure-filled, and beer-dulled. Most days, it rained. Sometimes for just an hour or two in the afternoon. Sometimes all day.

I don't get it Mykel,” Jamal told me. “This isn't the rainy season.”

Rainman,” I said.

He still didn't get it

The plan was to travel to Suriname with Keep Your Day Job! I'd be a roadie! Mykel tours with a band... again. Yowsah! But, uh oh... a drummer problem. (A drummer problem? Hard to imagine, huh?) Two drummers had agreed to tour with us. One, a close friend, the other, more PUNKROCK. They ditched the friend for the punkrocker. He bailed at the last minute. (A punkrocker bailing? Hard to imagine, huh?) The now former-friend did not answer emails. I could not play drums. This could not work out. We went to Suriname anyway. It worked out.

In Suriname, I stayed with a punkrock student and his super-generous parents. They cooked for me every day. I mentioned a local synagogue; they arranged a tour. I mentioned a trip to “the interior,” bang, we were there... surveying monkey meat. When dad could't do it, they got the poor son, Jose, to chauffeur me around; as if he didn't have enough with schoolwork and his own band, ADHD He hoped for rain... It was an excuse to stay home. Often, there was rain.

Then it was on to French Guyana. There, the brother of one of my top ten pals, Simon, lived with his girlfriend Marie. His name was Florian

I took a small boat across the river that separates French Guiana from Suriname. The captain let me choose my port of entry: “legal or backtrack?” I chose legal. At immigration, I annoyed the white immigration officer by asking for a passport stamp. They gave it to me and hustled me away. I was hungry as shit and didn't know where I was.

What happened? Marie met me on the road, helped me negotiate a ride with a French Guianan truck driver, and got me to her place. Smooth as a baby's ass. The first morning was a crepe breakfast. Then a dip in the pool. Then, I donno. Everything was spot on... except for the rain.

My first days in French Guyana were fun-filled, and distress free... unless you count the bottom paddling I got from my friends' spare bicycle. Yesterday, I had one of the best days of the entire trip. Canoeing through the Amazon with Florian, as my French guide. Chased by dogs, paddle-blistered hands, bitten by mosquitoes, stuck in the roots of swamp trees... it was wonderful. I'm writing this almost half a year after the trip, and I still remember this as my biggest adventure! Mucho much merci for that one!]


Mykel,” says Marie, “you should go to jail.”

That's something I often hear,” I tell her.

No, I mean, you know the camps, where they put people,” she says.

That's something I hear less often... it's more my parents' generation,” I say. “It's a religious thing.”

She gets it.

No,” she say, “I mean the labor camps... like in Kafka.”

Oh, you mean a penal colony,” I tell her.

She frowns. “I don't think so. That's a thing that men have, right?”

No,” I tell her, “men AND women can be in a penal colony.”

Well in any case, Mykel,” she says, “you should go. It will be good for you.”

There is a sinister undertone here. It reminds me of those “I hate to do it, but it's for your own good.” moments of my otherwise happy childhood.

The French have a long history of penal colonies. The also diminuative-yet-powerful Napolean died in one. Steve McQueen played Papillon-- in a movie of the same title-- about escaping from one.

Penal colonies are nasty... like slave colonies... only worse. Penal colonies are meant as punishment. With slaves, the owners had to pay for them,and therefore needed to protect their investment. If a slave died, that was a big financial loss. With penal colonies, the workers came free. If a prisoner catches his balls in a canefield scythe, a fresh prisoner is already on the boat to replace him. The first guy continues his usefulness as fertilizer.

The plan is to bicycle to the tourist center in town and buy a ticket to the Penal Colony-- actually just a camp for workers in the colony. I'll join up with a bunch of French tourists, take the tour of the camp, then meet Florian and Marie for a trip to Nengeland... a part of French Guiana populated by escaped slaves who have developed their own culture and language.

I'll meet them around the corner from the camp. They'll pick up the bicycle and me, and head for slave country. From a penal camp to former slaves. Sounds like a cheery day ahead.

I reach the tourist center about 4 in the afternoon.
Est que vous parle Anglais?” I ask the young man behind the counter.

Sure, wacha want?” he asks.

I want to visit the penal colony... er... camp,” I tell him. “I don't want to stay there overnight, or go for the authentic experience, if you know what I mean.” I wink at him. “I just want to see the place.”

Quoi?” he asks.

Je voudrais voir le camp du prisineurs.” I say, hoping if I speak half in French and half in English with a fake French accent, he'll understand me. It works.

Oh sure,” he says, “there's a tour in an hour. It costs 5€.”

I pony up the cash.

Meet inside the camp under the big oak tree,” says the young man, handing me a ticket. “The guide will come for the group.”

I wonder if there'll be any other English speakers in the group. Maybe the guide will bilingual the tour... or someone else can explain what he's saying. Some of the pathos of my tour of the slave-holding pens in Senegal was lost because of my French deficiency.

It's a sinister looking day. As usual, clouds are low. It's not raining, but the threat is as real as a klansman with a wooden cross and a jerry can of gasoline.


Here's the view from the oak tree. 

Then, the rain comes. Just a few drops at first... but it's never just a few drops. I'm alone under the tree, and slowly getting wet.

I look for shelter. There's a nearby building with an overhang. It looks like a one-room schoolhouse, but I doubt penal camps had one room school houses.

I check my cellphone for the time. It's just 5. The scheduled tour time. No one else is here. I wait ten minutes and check the time again. 5:02. It's raining harder now.

A car pulls up. A small thing, maybe a Renault. It's blue. It pulls right into the middle of the open field, next to the big tree. Out gets a man about my height, looking more Mexican (or Peruvian) than French (or Caribbean).

I go into the rain hoping he's the guide. We shake hands.

Je suis Claudio,” says the Mexican.

Mykel,” I answer.

Est ce que vous et le guide de tour?” I ask... feeling stupid, for speaking in French to someone so Spanish-looking.

He frowns in non-understanding.

Vous parlez Anglais?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

Español?”

He laughs

Solement francais.” he says.

I shrug.

Bon, Nous essaierons” I say.

Est c'que je suis seul?” I ask.

He shrugs again... and smiles.

We are.

Claudio unlocks a big gate and motions for me to go in. We pass through it, then through a smaller archway into the first building. Taller people would have to duck.

I like this guy. He's modest but knows his stuff. We go from building to building to building. He describes the rooms, the conditions, the background of the prisoners, their working conditions, food, sanitary facilities.

I understand about half.

An look! Here's a barefoot, very white, vertically striped (much more flattering than the classic American horizonal prison stripes) mannequin prisoner. 

I touch his pajamas. Give a tug. We move on.

In one build- ing, the car- riage of a train car lays on some track... obviously brought in from outside. I don't understand the details, but I think the train was propelled by physical prisoner labor. Yep, they dragged it through the jungle to the cane fields. Neither coal nor wood, but penal power.

In a yard outside all the buildings lies a cement square. There, Claudio informs me, stood one of two guillotines that rewarded various minor infractions.

Ici” he tells me, pointing to a spot in the corner of the square, “c'était l'endroit pour le seau pour les têtes.” Or at least he says something like that. I'm only reporting the Google version.

We head into the cell blocs where the prisoners slept. I try out a bed... lie back on the hard wood... testing it. Claudio fastens some ancient leg irons around my ankles.

Ils ont été portés dans la nuit.” he says, snapping the clamps together.

Not only wasn't this prisoner going to escape, he wasn't going to turn over on his side and puke up his beer like a normal person. I'm frozen on my back, unable to do more than touch myself... and Claudio isn't that attractive.

Shit, this is it. I'll be locked in here forever. At the mercy of this French-speaking Mexican. He can do anything to me! Who's gonna know?... until they smell the rotting corpse.

He unfastens the leg irons. We move on.

Several of the cells have prison graffiti scratched into the walls and floor. One cell has a fantastic drawing of a sail boat. A huge thing... like the Nina or the Pinta. Some have French words-- or names scratched into the walls or ceiling. And on the floor of one cell, there it is... TWICE:

Yep, THIS was the place where Papillon stayed... at least until he was shipped to the island where he made his escape. Wow! Right here. I feel like I'm meeting Steve McQueen.

The tour is coming to an end. I can see that we're heading back to the same door we passed through at the beginning. I reach in my pocket for a couple of coins to give as a tip. I know the French are notoriously bad tippers... but I'm not French. I give the guy a couple Euros.

He smiles, but not a grinning WOW-THIS-IS-THE-FIRST-TIME-ANYONE'S-TIPPED-ME smile... but just a polite thank-you smile. I guess not all the tourists here are French.

I walk out of the camp, pulling my hat deeper over my head, in futile protection against the rain.

(Oh yeah, you can see the full set of pix I took on tour. Just click on the image below):


I get on the bike and peddle to our rendezvous point near town hall. We're supposed to meet at 7 o'clock. It's now 6:43. At 7:03 I begin to worry.

-end-


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