There are two things you should know about French Guiana. First it’s flat, and second, everyone tunes in to SpaceTV. No, it’s not a euphemism for drug culture in this tiny piece of France in South America. It didn’t even cross my mind, despite the fact that I am writing this piece from Colombia where in fact, some people might really be spaced out.
French Guiana is a peaceful place. So laissez faire in fact, that thousands of French military personnel are based there to look after this tiny outpost of French civility in the Amazon. Here, you have all the amenities of France, because in actual fact, you are in France.
Imagine this, you travel 6,000 miles from Paris, across North Africa and the Atlantic ocean to land in South America and find that you can walk into any shop and place a phone call, and someone will pick up the receiver on the other end and respond to your heavy breathing with a cordial ‘Bonjour.’ It all has to do with a mythical place called the ‘Metropole.’ It took me several weeks in Cayenne, the provincial capital of the Guiana to understand that locals use the term when referring to the center of the universe: metropolitan Paris.
I couldn’t find an excuse to try this out, but I decided to thumb the local yellow pages back in my dimly lit room at the Hotel Amazonia to see what interesting things I could find. And voila, it was true. I had the Paris Telephone Directory in an abridged outback version on my wooden night table waiting for me to carouse advertisements for fine lingerie as another torrential downpour slashed its way through this grid city of painted wood and tin roofs.
French Guiana doesn’t offer many choices on a rainy day. You can pass time looking at cars in the Peugeot dealerships or sip a milkshake in Cayenne’s Centreville next to the swaying palms of its Place des Palmistes. There’s also the department’s favorite television network: live satellite assembly from the European Space Agency (ESA) on SpaceTV.
Look to the stars
Therefore, when I say everyone is spaced out in French Guiana, it is because the country is addicted to all things celestial. Essentially, almost the entire territory belongs to the ESA, the rest belonging to the French Foreign Legion with its regimental battalions scattered throughout the rainforest, ready on the spur of a moment for regime change. And you have to be very much out of luck to miss a rocket launch. It is the country’s main tourist attraction and source of income. Like football in Brazil, when a rocket blasts off into space from the Guyane, everyone cheers it on.
So, I decided to head over to Kourou, the hub of the ESA space programme and buy tickets for a launch. Driving down a beautifully paved highway in my rented Citroen, I could have been cruising the Autoroute to Lyon, except for the snake-infested grasslands on either side of the road.
I didn’t need my Michelin map to realize that I had landed in ‘space country’ after the two hour journey, when satellite dishes started sprouting up like mushrooms across the landscape and I found myself pulling into a sprawling car park only Walmart users could appreciate. I had arrived at the ESA Space Center and Museum, with its life-size Ariane 4 rocket pointing towards the heavens. I toured the air-conditioned museum, full of pictures of deep space and surrounding galaxies, and watched several hours of videos dedicated to the adventures in ‘L’Espace’ of the Ariane rocket programme, the jewel in France’s technological crown.
A shadowy past
Saint Jean du Maroni is a steamy resort town with few tourists. Its shark-infested waters were a deterrent for thousands of the “damned” who languished in one of the continent’s most notorious penal colonies, the Ile Royale. This archipelago of rust and wind is scattered 60 kms offshore and the cells where convicts such as Henri Carriére, author of the best selling novel, Papillon, were held can be seen only with a special permit from the department’s tourism board. After a daring escape from Devil’s island, Carriére bypassed Kourou to sail to freedom. Alfred Dreyfus, the esteemed 19th century General accused of treason and framed for being Jewish met his end on these islands in solitary confinement. His legacy is a small stone hut, where he spent his final days writing letters home and staring at the star-studded Atlantic sky.
So stargazing has been a pastime in the French Guiana for centuries. Its formidable weather and wind patterns make this territory ideal for rocket scientists and aerospace engineers trying out their high tech gadgets. The Hotel Cosmos or the ‘Auberge du Galaxy’ where I was staying for the much anticipated launch of Spot 104 was a small corner of France planted in the New World. ‘Punctualité’ is rewarded at meals with bottles of vintage Cote du Rhone and a generous portion of steak aux frites. Guests are guaranteed a 24-hour live feed of SpaceTV, with grainy video of real time satellite assembly operations inside the ESA warehouses, images so captivating that SpaceTV must be France’s secret weapon of psychological warfare and the modern entertainment equivalent of solitary confinement in a hotel room.
As dusk arrived, it was time to get the show on the road and see Spot fly. We boarded an air-conditioned bus and were once again put through an episode of award-winning ESA programming, with a special segment on the life cycle of non-geostationary satellites like Spot 104, a multi-million dollar satellite that would photograph every corner of the world and send the images to Google. We can map our favorite restaurants and landmarks in Bogotá thanks to Spot, assuming it hasn’t burned out by now on its non-geostationary path.
Guiana goes Google
After half an hour on the tour bus, we disembarked in a clearing deep in the Amazon. Fireflies glowed in the dark as we fumbled for our plastic chairs under the night sky, avoiding stepping on snakes and being mauled by howling monkeys. We were set for lift off.
Then came the music; French of course. Jean Michel Jarre’s epic, electronic new age ensemble blasted from towers erected in the distance. ‘Spot’ was leaving us to the rhythm of Oxygene. Then a deep voice emanated from the jungle, and the monkeys stopped howling. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” began the slow drone. “In a few minutes you will witness lift-off of our Ariane 4 rocket with Spot mapping satellite technology. Welcome to mission 104.” I felt I had stepped into Contact meets Apocalypse Now.
A glowing speck of light on the horizon transfixed the crowd, and a giant movie screen suddenly lit up in the distance to give us a closer view of the rocket’s final seconds on Earth. We were 20 miles away, but Ariane seemed the size of a firefly.
Then the man with a charred voice like Charles Aznavour, began the final countdown. “Trois. Deux. Un.” Silence. “Decollage.” Ariane had lift off. A streak of light raced into the night sky, passing over Dreyfus’s cottage, Casablanca, Milan, Moscow. Spot left us and began snapping away, the Google money machine in full force, and I was still stuck out in the steamy jungle of space country.
Photos by Richard Emblin