Guyana-Hopping Home

We arrived in Brasilia and were confronted with the question of how to get to the airport hotel, easily visible from the arrivals curb. One could take a taxi (which would have set us back about ten dollars). One could walk (but we didn’t know there was a sidewalk the whole way). The correct answer was to take a shuttle bus, but there was no apparent information telling us that the bus was up on the departures level. We finally found an Avis representative who could actually speak English (most airport staff can’t, and there was no information kiosk for the airport that we could see.) He directed us up to the bus, and then we got to the hotel right away. The hotel itself was fairly unremarkable, except in being a cheap airport hotel. I am afraid to look at how much the Hyatt in Orlando costs. We got up and headed to Belem.

On our entire trip through Brazil we would occasionally talk to people, those who speak English, about life there. Life right now is very difficult and unpleasant: the previous president, Lula, a socialist hope for all, turned out to be even more corrupt than many who had gone before. The current one is not much better. People don’t feel very optimistic, and this results in many parts of many cities being unsafe to walk around in with fancy cameras and tourist garb. The neighborhood we were in in Belem came with such warnings, though mostly for just at night. The hotel was French, and was quite cute. It was small, several rooms on two levels around a courtyard with an empty swimming pool, and a little French restaurant. Belem is on the mouth of the next river down from the Amazon, but it is definitely part of Amazonia (the states of Amazonas and Para). We had gone there because some said it had the best food in Brazil, which it turns out we had tasted when were in Manaus: tacaca, a soup made with tucupi, a gooey cassava paste, and jambu, a tongue-numbing herb similar in effect to Sichuan peppercorns. We went to the post office to buy stamps, found a philatelic desk with an extremely friendly agent, and walked out with lots of pretty stamps. Later, for dinner, we walked to Estacão das Docas, (station of docks), which were two warehouses next to former docks that had been converted into super-touristy shopping and restaurant spaces. The warehouse’s ceiling cranes had been converted into a platform for musicians, which moved back and forth above the audience during their sets.

We ate at La em Casa and had sampler plates, featuring a few different Amazonian fishes fixed in various ways; a few different grades of toasted manioc flour, one, farinha d’agua, was extremely crunchy. We had a few different juices of fruits which we hadn’t heard of (it turns out it’s hard to beat papaya, mango, passion fruit, and guava, probably because they are sweeter than the unknown ones). We had duck with tucupi and jambu. It was all quite delicious. Afterwards we went to the Amazon Beer microbrewery in the next warehouse and had a delicious IPA and listened to the guitar player floating overhead, singing the Brazilian equivalent of early Simon and Garfunkel.

Tuesday we started with lunch at Remanso do Bosque, a reputed fancy restaurant serving the Amazon cuisine. I’d kind of expected a tasting menu, but it was lunchtime and had an a la carte menu, so we ordered a few things. Before anything arrived, I noticed I didn’t have my phone. I launched Find iPhone on Ray’s phone, and watched my phone driving off with the taxi, getting further and further away. I decided to chase after it, and grabbed another taxi to try to track it down. Ultimately, after putting it in Lock Mode with Ray’s phone number displayed on the front, a manager of a glasses shop took it from the taxi, called the number, and soon I got it back. I had assumed it was still in the taxi; if I’d checked shops based on the location, I might have found it. One major problem with Find iPhone is that it shows you where the phone is but doesn’t show where you are, so as you walk to where it is, it’s quite awkward. I guess I’ll have to see if it’s in the new version before I report it as a bug. I got back to the restaurant and Ray was ready to call the tourist police, since he had heard nothing in the hour I’d been gone. He’d saved half of all the food, which was delicious. I guess everyone needs to have a spare phone in addition to their normal one, to deal with situations like this. Maybe three. After lunch we walked around the adjacent park, which turned out to be more of a zoo. A sudden storm cut that short; we had some sixty-cent raincoats we’d bought during a similar downpour in São Paulo, and were able to keep dry. The park downpour also served to get a number of pairs of lovebirds into artificial caves and other secluded areas. There was the definite impression that the park is where you went to get away from your parents for 2 reais.

Wednesday we got up at 2:30am for our 5:30am flight to Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. French Guiana is actually part of France, just like Guadeloupe and Martinique and the Pyrenees. They use Euros. They have a space center there which they refer to as being on European soil. Cayenne seemed much cleaner than Georgetown and Belem, and felt much safer. The architecture wasn’t all that exciting; one got the impression there were no tourists. The tourist offices were both closed, with no hours posted.

While walking around town trying to find the location of the closed or nonexistent tourist offices, we happened on a small museum-in-progress. They are trying to raise funds for the real museum, which is on the site of an old hospital. (The theme of repurposed hospitals seems to keep coming up. One in the heart of São Paulo is turning into a mega-development. Are old hospitals designed that badly that they can’t be updated? Do people no longer get sick?) Part of the museum-in-progress was about museuming. They had displays of the tools used to restore paintings, repair books, fix old taxidermy, and all the bad things that can happen to wood — not the sort of thing that is usually the text of a museum.

We gave up on tourist office hunting, and went to the Best Western on the theory that there would be travel agencies there. There was one, nextdoor. We had a question of how to get to the space center in Kourou, 60km away, to tour it the next morning (you can reserve on line), and the tourist agency pointed us to a super-cheap rental car company a block from our wonderful little airbnb. (One day rental was barely more than one-way airport taxi). After we picked up the car, we went to see a photographic exhibition which had been advertised around town, featuring photos taken by a local photographer who is now very old. One wall had hundreds of portraits from his studio, and the others had large artistic pieces. Mostly people, mostly the 1970’s. A fellow working the show was explaining to a batch of students how a Nikon F worked, with the lever to advance the film, and all.

We ate that night at Paris Cayenne, a French restaurant which prepared local ingredients. We had ravioli with atipa, a “walking catfish” which we’d seen at the little museum earlier in the day. We had guinea fowl, Pintade de toucoupi bredmafanes, they called it. Bredmafanes was French for jambu and we actually got to see a garnish of the little yellow flowers and leaves that tingle your tongue a few seconds. We also had “blaff”, which featured jumbo shrimps in broth which you stirred the crunchy toasted manioc flour into. It was a lovely place, with a series of artworks inspired by “Portrait d’une Negresse”, a painting in the Louvre. Each piece, painted on wood, featured someone sitting the same way as the original, but there were men as well as women posing, with varying degrees of accuracy and irony. The owner was quite engaging. So was one of the guests, with a long gray ponytail, whose ancestors had lived in the French Caribbean for three hundred years.

Thursday we left the house at 7am to get to our tour of the Centre Spatial de Guyane. Because French Guyana is only five degrees north of the equator, there is a substantial extra acceleration available to launched spacecraft compared with more distant bases like Cape Canaveral. It is quite a busy place, with a launch happening about every two weeks. They launch three different sizes of rocket: Ariane 5, a large rocket with two solid-fuel boosters, which generally launches two satellites at the same time; Soyuz, an old Russian workhorse which can launch one medium satellite; and Vega, a small solid-fuel rocket used for small satellites. They drove us in a bus (they’d assembled maybe 40 space geeks for the tour) to the Soyuz launch site, and the Ariane/Vega control center. Unfortunately, the tour was conducted in French, though occasionally the guides would speak in English to the 15 or so of us who didn’t understand the rapid commentary in French. Still it was all quite interesting: it was nice to see things; the information can always come from the Internet. After we got back to Cayenne, we went to a small Creole restaurant for lunch, and had armadillo stew, and boudin. It’s a bit complicated to take apart an armadillo. The museum lady from the previous day had suggested that eating it was forbidden, but we figured it must be OK, since it’s a restaurant operating openly. It was quite tasty. Since we still had the car for a few hours, we drove to a local trail where it was suggested we might see sloths in the trees. Indeed we did, two of them. We could count the toes on one of them (three). We also saw a tribe of monkeys jumping from one tree to another, and a little bird flying into a bush to feed its tiny chicks.

Friday a taxi picked us up at 5:30am to get to the airport for a 7:45 flight to Paramaribo. It took 20 minutes, we were there at 5:50. It turns out nothing happens at the airport that early and if we’d waited we wouldn’t have been charged night rates, either. At 6:30, the check-in counter for our flight opened. The agent complained that our hand luggage was too heavy (11kg instead of 8kg), so we checked another bag (free) and shuffled stuff around. Then we waited for immigration to open, which it did at 7am. Then we waited in the departure lounge, and 7:45 came and went with no information and no gate agent. Sometime around 8am, someone came and told us the flight was delayed because of the weather in Paramaribo. Soon they did let the eight or so of us join the people flying from Belem on the flight, and soon thereafter we were in Paramaribo. We ended up sharing a taxi for 15 euros each, for a one-hour ride into town. Paramaribo isn’t a terribly exciting place. There is lots of interesting colonial architecture, and a stunning wooden church. But people on the street were generally not friendly; many were drunk and many called us the usual names. I assume that the ones who say Santa Claus seem less aggressive than the ones who say Ho Ho Ho. I’m ready to go home, although being home is no guarantee of smooth sailing, with winter coming and rumors of strife among the housemates.

We did have some good food: Baka Foto is a view restaurant but their French chef does a great job with the local ingredients. (The best thing was the amuse-bouche, a little fish dumpling with jalapeno mayonnaise, and a pile of alfalfa sprouts mixed with orange peel.) There was a friendly guitar and pan pipe player from Peru, who played that one song that everyone associates with Peru and pan pipes. Apparently it is an authentically Peruvian song, before Simon and Garfunkel the media picked it up. We saw him again around town the next day. We also saw a guy who had been on the plane from Belem and the Space center tour. He has been on the road for 6 months with his camera, and has a way better blog than we do. We met him when he walked into Zus & Zo, where we were rehydrating and re-sugaring, and then again at Souposo. Souposo serves soup: we had a tasty crunchy peanut soup, with bits of chicken and salty meat, and a mustard soup, which didn’t taste that much like mustard but was still good. We spent Saturday afternoon on postcards and blogging, and went back to Zus and Zo for yet another soup and some North African beef.

Sunday we woke up at 4:30am to get picked up at 4:45 to be at the airport by 5:45 for our 7:15 flight. Unlike Cayenne, the Paramaribo airport was open that early and there was a long line of people waiting to check in. The line moved absurdly slowly, and I worried that we’d miss the flight, or that it would be delayed so that we’d miss the connection to Miami. (Ray attributed my worry to not having had coffee.) But as things got closer to the deadline, somehow they figured out how to make the line move faster. We flew 2.5 hours to Curaçao, where there was an absurdly long but somewhat quick-moving security line for passengers in transit (not entering the country), and then an absurdly slow-moving line at the transit desk to get boarding passes (since we weren’t given them in Paramaribo as we should have been.)

The pressure was relieved somewhat by the flight being delayed by half an hour, and we arrived successfully in Miami. E-Z Rent-A-Car looked somewhat cheesy, and there was an argument with the client next to me about the company policies for customers paying cash: he had a wad of $100 bills but no card with enough credit to fund his rental. The car we ended up with is very nice, some kind of Kia with enough room for all the luggage. TimeOut showed us a couple of arty things to do, so we drove (avoiding tolls by taking a route through the passenger drop-off zone) to Wynwood Walls, a trendy street art neighborhood in one of the rougher areas in Miami. All the parking there is PayByPhone, charging 24/7. We parked a block away for free, and walked around and saw many cute murals. We had a salmon Reuben from a Jewish bakery, and headed to the next place, Perez Art Museum. There were several good pieces there, we needed a bit more than the two hours we had. TimeOut then recommended NIU Kitchen, a tiny Catalan tapas place downtown which probably had the best food of the trip: watermelon soup, marlin carpaccio, baby back ribs, and two delicious cheap Spanish house reds. As I had surrendered to the Uber force earlier in the trip, I surrendered to the PayByPhone force in order to park anywhere near the restaurant. Turns out it’s kind of cool, in that you can “feed the meter” without walking to your car. They need that in Edinburgh.

On the last day of the trip, we sat in the same airbnb we went to last February, and posted the blog for the last month of the trip. We went to Cilantro’s Cafeteria and Juice Bar for some authentic Cuban lunch, and then drove around the 50s architecture of north Miami, up Miami Beach, then around Fort Lauderdale on local roads. Florida is making it harder and harder to avoid tolls. At one point I stopped in a pay parking zone to let Ray mail some letters, then I noticed a “parking enforcement” car drive by with cameras mounted on top. What is this world coming to? I’ll see if I get any tickets from that, via the car rental company with a $25 administrative fee. We killed a bit more time in a very cute state park, where we saw a kingfisher, a couple large iguanas, and an enormous cargo ship leaving the port after having dropped off its load. We returned the car, boarded the plane (both TSA Pre this time, yay), and sat on the tarmac while they removed all of the luggage so they could get to the cargo and remove it, a half-hour delay.

Now we are home, and will return to our routine until the next trip, in about three months. Stay tuned.