Alain de Botton on the Pleasures of French Guiana
One of the more challenging but interesting destinations you could ever hope to travel to is French Guiana. The difficulties with French Guiana begin with trying to place it on a map. Seldom has a country been as easily and as regularly confused with somewhere else: Ghana on the western coast of Africa, Guyana east of Venezuela, Guinea next to Senegal, Equatorial Guinea below Cameroon…
The country is in fact located on the malarial northern coast of South America, between Surinam to the north-west and Brazil to the south, but there is an added twist, for this entirely impoverished malarial land is technically part of France, having been absorbed into one of the country’s twenty-six departements by its former colonial master in 1946. As a result, it is now a member of the European Union, its highest legal authority is the Court of Justice in Strasbourg, its agricultural and fishery policies are defined in Brussels and its currency, valid even in the Indian settlement of Pilakoupoupiaina on the Oyapock River, is the euro, from the European Central Bank of Frankfurt-am-Main.
Only two hundred thousand people are resident in a place which, with a total area of eight-five thousand square kilometres, is the size of Portugal. The country has no economy to speak of. There is hardly any tourism, for the sea is plagued by sharks and brown from river sediment nor, thanks to the poor quality of the soil, any agriculture. Roads down to Brazil are largely impassible, and the territory’s sole reliable outlet to the world is the daily flight to Paris (a trip to nearby Venezuela or Peru requiring a connection in Orly).
A layer of French bureaucracy and bourgeois ambition has been unevenly applied across this tropical kaleidoscope. In tin-roofed villages, terrains de boules abutt voodoo temples. The country’s only two roads, Routes Nationales 1 and 2, are fitted out with standard French signs, whose font, Frutiger 57 Condensed, is more accustomed to pointing the way to Nantes or Clermont-Ferrand but here twists itself around Amerindian place-names such as Iracoubo and Awala-Yalimapo. Restaurants (Café de la Gare, Bar Chez Pierrot) serve escalopes of wild jungle boar and Amazonian river fish with the scaly appearance of prehistoric coelacanths, cut into fillets and domesticated under a meunière sauce.
The French originally came to the region at the end of the seventeenth century, in search of rapid bounty. They did away with ten thousand Galibi and Palikur Indians and imported slaves from Africa to harvest sugar and coffee, but the crops failed, and the slaves revolted and hung their masters from the branches of the native Platonia trees. A few centuries passed before a new plan for the territory was hatched, this one involving a penal colony which, it was hoped, would emulate Britain’s success at Botany Bay. But the place refused to become a French equatorial version of Sydney and instead killed off its prisoners by disease faster than the French criminal class could supply replacements. The enterprise nevertheless struggled on for close to a hundred years, cementing its international reputation for cruelty and maladministration when France’s most famous victim of judicial error, Alfred Dreyfus, endured four years of solitary confinement in a tower on the not unfairly named Devil’s Island, eleven kilometres offshore.
The misery might have continued indefinitely, had it not been for the Algerian War of Independence, which forced France to pull out of its rocket test base in Hammaguir in the Sahara Desert, and go looking for a new location from which to explore outer space. With its proximity to the equator, its paucity of inhabitants, its political pliancy and its immunity from hurricanes, French Guiana triumphed over alternatives, leading to the construction of a high-tech space port on a strip of jungle north west of the capital, along with an adjacent new town, Kourou, designed to house workers and their families in functional concrete apartment blocks laid out along wide thoroughfares with grandiose names like the Avenue de Gaulle and the Esplanade des Étoiles.
I went out to French Guiana on a press trip to witness the launch of a Japanese satellite. The group was billetted together in the Atlantis Hotel (part of the Mercure Chain) which, though only newly built, was fast surrendering itself to tropical mould and the incursions of jungle fauna. The space town of Kourou was in no better shape than the hotel on its perimeter. Evoking comparison with Chandrigah and Brasilia, two other examples of modern architectural indifference to issues of context and culture, it was in an advanced stage of decomposition after only a few decades of existence. Unshaded wooden benches rotted unused by the manmade lake, having been designed to provide respite on the kind of afternoon stroll which it had not yet occurred to anyone in the tropics to take, whilst the concrete façades of buildings had buckled in a climate which from April to July could deliver in a single week as much rainfall as northern France might see in an entire year.
However, once inside the heavily fortified gates of the space centre itself, the situation was transformed. Immaculate buildings were dedicated to the assembly of satellites, the preparation of Ariane boosters and the storage of propellants. There were three control centres, a generating plant, barracks for a division of the Foreign Legion, two swimming pools, and a restaurant specialising in the native cuisine of the Languedoc. These were scattered across hectares of marsh and jungle, generating bewildering contrasts for visitors who might walk out of a rocket-nozzle-actuator building and a moment later find themselves in a section of rain forest sheltering round-eared bats and white-eyed parakeets, before arriving at a propulsion facility whose corridors were lined with Evian dispensers and portraits of senior managers.
Early on our first morning in the country, we were taken to look in on the satellite, which stood in a building not much smaller than Reims cathedral, on a central platform, bathed in a powerful white light, being ministered to by a congregation of engineers in gowns, hairnets and slippers. Raised up on its dais – its surfaces seeming to emit a pinky-red glow, its compartments opened to reveal dense wiring, the whole assembled out of such unfamiliar components as pyromellitic acid – the satellite looked like one of the most unnatural objects imaginable. Yet in truth it contained nothing which had not been present on the earth in the earliest days of creation, nor anything which had not (in its basic form, at least) originally been lodged in the chemical structures of the seas and mountains. It was the cogitations of the human mind which had cooked and recombined the planet’s raw materials into this most unlikely offering to the heavens.
On the day of the launch itself, at eight in the evening, under armed guard, we were driven in the darkness to an observational site in the jungle, only three kilometers from where the boosters would be ignited.
Across the humid night, Ariane launch stood out on its platform, illuminated by a set of arc lamps around which dense clouds of tropical insects were dancing frenziedly. Deeper in the jungle, there were peccaries and spider monkeys, giant anteaters and harpy eagles, while in this unlikely outpost of air-conditioned Newtonian civilisation, something was preparing to leave the planet. All shipping and aircraft had been cleared in an arc extending to the West African coast. Ariane’s engines took their last breaths of oxygen through a thick umbilical cord. Every remaining human had been removed from the area, all commands would from now on be executed mechanically. It was hard not to feel some of the same sadness that might attend the departure of an ocean liner or the lowering of a coffin.
Dix, neuf, huit, sept, retrait des ombilicaux… It was peculiar to hear a sequence so indelibly associated, via cinema, with Cape Canaveral being enunciated in another tongue. At cinq, there was a dull sound as if a shell had gone off, and a first puff of smoke rose from the bottom of the launcher. By trois, white billows had enveloped its base, and on the cue of un, et décollage … , the rocket ripped itself off its pad in immaculate silence.
When the noise reached us a second later, we recognised it as the loudest any of us had ever heard, louder of course than thunder, jets and the explosive charges set off in quarries, the concentrated energies of tens of millions of years of solar energy being released in a few moments. The rocket rose, and there was a collective gasp, a most naive, amazed Ahh, inarticulate and primordial, as all of us for a moment forgot ourselves – our education, our manners, our upbringing, our sense of irony – to follow the fine white javelin on its ascent through the southern skies.
There was light, too: the richest orange of the bomb maker’s palette. The rocket became a giant burning bulb in the firmament, letting us see as if by daylight the beach, the town of Kourou, the jungle, the space centre’s buildings, and the faces of our stunned fellow spectators. The scene brought to mind the moments of smoke and fire which the Old Testament prophets had invoked to make their audiences shudder before the majesty of their lord. And yet this modern impression of divinity was being generated by a most secular and pagan of machines. Science has taught us to upstage the gods.
The launcher pierced through a layer of clouds and disappeared, leaving only an untraceable roar which reverberated across the heavens, the earth, and the jungle. Then, through a gap in the clouds, it promptly reappeared, higher up than any plane could fly and reduced to a smudge of flame. The satellite I had been in a room with just a few days before was already reaching the upper atmosphere. The rocket boosters had been jettisoned somewhere in between and were on their way down, halfway to Africa by now, balancing off parachutes.
An odd quiet settled over us again. A nature-made wind could be heard through the trees, then the call of a monkey.
Straight after the launch, I fell into an unexpectedly melancholic mood, perhaps inspired by the realisation of how few of the accomplishments that lay behind Ariane’s launch would in fact be able to filter down reliably to every day experience and hence how much of life was set to continue as it had always done, prey to the same inner inclemencies, gravitational pulls and depressions as those our cave dwelling ancestors had known.
I felt keenly the painful psychological adjustments required by life in modernity: the need to juggle a respect for the potential offered by science with an awareness of how perplexingly limited and narrowly framed might be its benefits. I felt the temptation of hoping that all activities would acquire the excitement and rigours of engineering while recognising the absurdity of those have been overly impressed by technological achievements, and so who risk becoming targets of satire because they have lost sight of how doggedly we will always be pursued by baser forms of error and absurdity.
The next day was my last in French Guiana. To kill time before my evening flight, I toured the capital, Cayenne, ending up in the nation’s main museum, a traditional tin-roofed Creole house in a poor state of repair, filled with pickled snakes and frogs collected by nineteenth-century naturalists.
In a back room hung depictions of the country’s inhabitants at work, across different periods of history. The first frame was of a family in animal-skins peeling fruit; the second of some fishermen staring limply from the side of a canoe; the third of a horde of slaves setting fire to a plantation building, and the fourth of a couple of prison guards standing outside a prison block. Finally, three times the size of the other images, in attractive technicolour, came a picture of five white-coated engineers attending to a satellite’s cabling in a hangar in the space centre. The moral was clear: French Guiana had overcome the degrading labour of its past and was headed towards a future consecrated by the hand of science.
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