Leaving Paramaribo, my knee was feeling a bit better, but I didn’t want to ride over the bridge that crossed the river. It’s a 2km climb up, and then a 2km drop down, with a single lane each way that wouldn’t have been at all enjoyable during rush hour traffic. Thankfully the boats that used to get people across are still running, and I took one. I’d read another blog where they paid 20SRD ($6) each so I offered 15 ($4.50) and the boatmen accepted. We left straight away, with just one other passenger, as opposed to waiting like most other people. She had a bus to catch and so paid 5SRD, but apparently the normal fee is 1.25SRD. That involves waiting for the boat to fill up, which could have taken a while as there didn’t seem to be that many people waiting. The most interesting part of the ride was when we were trying to dock, which just involved aiming at a gap between two boats, ramming them and pushing them apart to get to the dock.
The ride from there went over some poorly paved road through an area that was being deforested. How the country, with about 500km of roads can’t make them perfect is a bit beyond me. At the 20km mark, I passed through a town and decided to rest my knee and get some water so I stopped and sat on the kerb outside a snack place. I used my broken Dutch to ask for a refill, and the teenage boy replied in perfect English asking if I wanted cold water. He came back with very chilly water with bits of ice floating in it, perfect. He asked me a few questions about travelling and disappeared for a minute before coming back with a few snacks for the road including delicious deep-fried plantain.
My next big break was at a fruit vendor where I stopped for about an hour. I wasn’t looking to buy anything, he waved me over. His name was Gino and he was full of conversation and the desire to practice his English. We spoke about many different topics, including his experiences living and working for 20 years in the Netherlands, the 3.6 billion guilders that the Netherlands apparently promised Suriname that they haven’t been given yet, border disputes between countries and reparations to name just a few. He was adamant that the ex-colonial powers needed to provide money to the countries where they’d had slavery and that it should be given to help the old people. He cited the jews which he claimed had been given lots of money post holocaust to try to make up for the atrocity. It’s a difficult topic, but I think that if for example the UK were ever to pay large amounts of money to the countries that used to form the British Empire it would never end. I could have spoken with him for a lot longer, but I had 45km to go to the next town of Moengo, my destination.
Just after saying goodbye to Gino and crossing a bridge, I was waved down again. This time it was a family of about 12 children. When they saw that I was stopping, they all ran over looking gleeful and asked me to take their photos. The girls made nice poses, the boys were more about using the bad English they’d learnt from movies and shouting them while doing signs. When I’d shown them the pictures, they were very happy, until I told them I would leave. They begged me not to, but I did and waved my farewells.
Another 10km down the road, a car pulled up next to me and the driver said “you want dinner Moengo?”. We both stopped, and I wasn’t going to turn down a free dinner and place to stay, so threw the bike in the car. It fit OK, but I didn’t. I got to squeeze between the door and the frame and there was just about enough space sat side-on with the saddle stabbing me in my bike. The driver didn’t speak English, and didn’t seem to be speaking Dutch either, but he was eager to talk to me and point things out as we went away. The problem with that was when he’d do so, the car would drift around, sometimes into the other lane, until his girlfriend, in the passenger seat, grabbed and steadied the wheel. Thankfully the road wasn’t heavily trafficked.
When we got to Moengo, he asked me if I’d be going to Albina, the border town, and I assured him that that was my plan. He was going to drive me, and we left Moengo, but then he realised that he was very low on petrol. I would have taken a lift, but I wasn’t paying for him to fill his tank so we parted ways. I never did get his name.
As it was just before 3, I figured I might as well keep going the 32km to Albina. I checked the Saint Laurent (the first town across the border) tourism website and saw that there was a 5:30pm boat. I figured that if I pushed a bit, I could ride the hilly and blustery 32km in a couple of hours, and in fact did so. About 5km before Albina, the grey clouds opened and rain heavy enough to make a sumo wrestler blush fell. I could barely see, and was being waved to the side by people hiding under awnings, but kept going, eager to catch my ferry, hopeful that it’d still be going despite the rain. The rain didn’t stop it, but the timetable did. It turns out that there was no Wednesday afternoon crossing and the website needed updating. It was a good thing, because when I showed my passport to the immigration official he took 30 minutes to give me an exit stamp. The 6 months that I’d been given when I entered the country was too much, I should have only received two, and although I’d only been in country for about 10 days he wanted to solve this issue.
While my passport was being sorted out, I waited outside and got speaking to some customs officials who wanted to talk. One of them, Ludwig, had a few questions, and on hearing that I’d started in Florida, told me about his 2 day road trip from Orlando to New York. I asked them if they knew a place to put up a tent or hammock and they said they weren’t sure. After a bit more talking, Ludwig said I could stay on his balcony if I wanted. Perfect. He had to work until late, so we sat round talking and he offered me a cup of tea and some yummy Christmas bread with peanut butter. A fine dinner.
The first ferry wasn’t until 8am and the terminal was only a few minutes away, but even so I was up and ready to go by 7. I changed the rest of my Surinamese dollars, and went to speak with Ludwig who hadn’t got home until past 11pm the night before. Even still, he was back in the office just after 7. We spoke about Suriname, its history, it’s future and it’s football team. It turned out that back in the 80s and 90s, he had played for the national team! I heard that just before someone came into the office where we were talking to let me know it was time for the 8am ferry, I said I’d take the next one, and spent the best part of an hour hearing about life as a national football team player from the Surinamese Paul Scholes/Xavi. He’d travelled a lot with the team, and it’s pretty brilliant saying I know someone who appears on the FIFA website and has played in World Cup qualifiers, especially one as nice as Ludwig.
I thought there’d be an official ferry at 9am, but it turned out it wasn’t until 10. No problem as there are countless boats going forwards and back across the river. I could have taken one the night before, but in the rain that made England seem arid it hadn’t sounded a fun idea. The official ferry was €4.10, and so when the canoe offered me a ride across for €5 it was OK with me. Less than 10 minutes later I was across the river and through customs which involved nothing more than a quick flash of the passport and proof that my French studying hadn’t seen me master the language.
The chain on my bike is a little rusty and had been a bit squeaky for a while, so seeing a bike shop I stopped. I borrowed a rag and traditional oil can, because it’s France, and performed a bit of much needed maintenance. It wasn’t well sign posted, but my Lonely Planet chapter about French Guiana mentioned a tourism office which was my next port of call. I got a few maps, both of the country and the town of Saint Laurent de Maroni and set out for a ramble. My understanding is that French Guiana was historically the French version of Australia, a penal colony, and so in Saint Laurent there was a former prison. I had a map and walked around the Transportation Camp, unable to find a way to get to the other part of it although honestly more concerned that my new camera gave me a Lens Error and refused to turn on a few times. Eventually I saw a door where a couple of men were standing and went over. They didn’t say anything to me, so after reading the sign I used my glorious French to say excusez-moi only to be told from a man wearing a tourism hat that I’d have to pay to enter the other half. I told him that seemed a bit crazy, a comment he didn’t take well to.
The man, who turned out to be called Lamien, decided that the best resort was to tell me that of course I should have to pay because whoever heard of free museums. I mentioned that in my country we have free ones, (not mentioning England at any time) to which he repeatedly screamed at me that I was a liar. Taken back, I told him that I found it offensive and would appreciate it if he would stop. He didn’t. When I pointed out he didn’t even know where I was from, he said it didn’t matter – nowhere had free museums. I calmly assured him again that my country did indeed have free museums, cue a continued torrent of LIAR LIAR LIAR. I asked him for his name, which he refused to give me, and told him that I’d like to speak to his boss to make a formal complaint. He laughed dismissively, either thinking I was bluffing or knowing that nothing would happen, but was happy to walk me to the exit. I tried to take a picture of him, but he kept his hand in front of his face, which in reality makes for a better photo.
He calmed down and stopped walking at the exit and so I said Let’s Go (in French) to which he started calling me a liar again, because I’d apparently told him (I hadn’t) that I didn’t speak French (I don’t). I let him know that I was from the UK and asked him if he’d ever been to the British Museum. He replied that he had, but couldn’t remember how much he’d paid, but he’d definitely paid. When I told him it was free the accusations of being a liar started up again, so I just walked back to the tourism office by myself, where I filled in a comment in the guest book and an official complaint letter. The lady behind the counter, who had been incredibly helpful, looked mortified and apologised profusely for his behaviour. I wrote my email and asked to get an official reply to the complaint, but I’m not holding my breath.
There was a bike lane to leave Saint Laurent, and I saw more cycle traffic on it (including the odd scooter) than I had in the previous 2-3 months combined. It turned out that it provided a safe place for students at the high school on the edge of town to ride as the road was otherwise only a narrow lane in each way. It continued to be so, with a decent amount of traffic, until I turned off towards to the town of Mana. Most people head there as giant turtles lay eggs at a nearby beach, but that’s in August. For me it was a good way to get off the main road, and gave me a short ride having spent until the early afternoon in Saint Laurent.
I passed countless houses, and they nearly all had a little stand outside to sell from. Most of them were empty, but the odd one had bottles of orange juice – probably freshly squeezed – and others had various fruits. They made for great places to take a rest whenever the rain picked up or the wind got annoying, as as well as the shelf to place products they had a bench where the seller would sit, or I would lie and nap.
In Mana, I stopped at a 8 a huit (think 7-11, but French, bigger and with more Foie Gras) where I picked up the cheapest food I could see and still spent my whole daily budget. The prices are even higher than in mainland France, where I’d be shopping at Lidl/Aldi, although the food – even in a place like 8 a huit – seems to be of a higher quality. It was going to be a week of buttered baguettes with the cheapest meat or cheese I could find. Riding around, I found the pampiers – fire station – where using my broken French to introduce myself and ask help I found a Surinamese guy who spoke decent English who, after checking with the chief, said I could feel free to put my tent up.
As there were a good number of mosquitoes, I cleaned up and I dove into my tent rather quickly. It was barely dark, so I started writing on my laptop, where the hard drive worryingly was starting to click a lot. 30 minutes later, the Surinamese fireman came over and asked me if I was hungry. Of course I was! He invited me to come and dine with the other 7 firemen. I was treated to a mountain of white rice, chicken wings, coke and of course red wine. It definitely made my image of French Guiana much more positive than it had been after my encounter with Lamien.
I was up and packing not long after 6, as the station was shared with other community services and my tent was in someone else’s part. No problem as I’d been planning to get up then anyway. A couple of hours into the ride I saw a tourist sign set back from the road and stopped to investigate. It turned out to be a 1.7km walking trail through the White Sands Forest that according to the sign was an easy stroll. Perfect. I figured if it was that easy I could take my bike, I was foolishly wrong. While the trail started off well, it ended up being me pulling my bike through a muddy path, as the heavy rain had continued the night before, and often having to fight through broken branches. My GPS had the route on it and while it didn’t seem to match exactly, I knew when I got to the part where it should have started to loop back, and of course it didn’t really. The trail dead ended, quite probably due to a complete lack of maintenance in months, and even without my bike I’m not sure where I’d have continued on (you can check out a video at the bottom that I recorded there). It ended up being a pretty terrible experience and I got to see little more than innumerable things trying to bite me, not a complete success.
The other highlight of the day was meeting Mirek, a Polish motorbiker who was travelling the other way round the continent having started in Ecuador. I’ve seen other motorbike tourists on the way, but they generally just fly by without even a hoot, so I was happy to see Mirek stop. He was a really interesting man to speak to, and could give me some information about the road ahead. If you speak Polish, or just want to check out his pics, here’s his blog.
When Mirek set off to make sure he got to Saint Laurent before it got dark, I did too, only to find that my front tyre was flat. I couldn’t find a cause of the puncture, but did get to disconnect my front brakes as they were rubbing on where my tyre bulges out and I didn’t want to spend time re-aligning my brakes. Thankfully the traffic level was fairly low so I didn’t need them.
In Iracoubo I found a fire station to rival, and probably exceed, those from Costa Rica. It had a fitness suite, showers with boiling hot water and a large flat-screen TV in the office. I explained that I’d stayed with the firemen the night before, and was hoping they could help me. Another Surinamese fireman, how many of them work in French Guiana, went to speak to the chief and I was again given the green light. I was shown to the showers and then, after they finished their group workouts, which I joined in for bits of, I was shown my room. I had my own room with 6 beds with Pierre Cardin mattresses and AC. Who could need more? It was tempting to try out the Princess and the Pea, but it seemed a lot of effort to stack all 6 mattresses.
Crossing Suriname River