Cayenne the Jungle Book: Insects and Caimans and Sloths, Oh My!

Cayenne, French Guiana, sits just above the equator around the latitude of 4° north, on the northern coast of South America. We were undeniably in Amazonian territory in this French outpost, just the other side of the Brazilian border. An unlikely settlement on the fringes of the jungle, Cayenne seemed to barely keep the wilds of the jungle at bay, with the dense green and humid tropical forest gobbling up the main road leading out of town just a mile or two outside the city limits. Here Amazonian watershed rivers and tributaries nourished a very vibrant equatorial jungle ecosystem.


We arrived in Cayenne after a short sail of about a week from our previous anchorage in Fortaleza, Brazil. Even as we were at sea, sailing 100 miles off the coast, we were struck by the strength and influence of the Amazon River, because even at that distance offshore from the mouth and delta of the Amazon, the water was an opaque muddy hue. And it even tasted fresh—not salty seawater!

The Amazon's influence was pervasive, even in our anchorage in the Cayenne River estuary—also a thick muddy, milk chocolate colored waterway. From our tethered spot in the river, we were reminded daily of the jungle as its looming green canopy was the first thing we saw in the hot morning sunrise, and the last thing that engulfed the sinking evening sun. Everything grew bigger here. From our vantage point, super-sized two-inch long "palmetto" cockroaches occasionally flight-landed on our deck, as once did a fist-sized beetle that dive-bombed through the main hatch right into my galley sink! One time while walking on the harbor wharf, I almost blindly stepped on a prehistoric looking, dinosaur-sized insect, and during a family camping expedition deep in the jungle, giant oversized centipede-type creatures known as “scolopends” crawled amidst some of the overhead rafters. These creepy crawlers can grow up to 12 inches long and are actually quite poisonous.

On other occasions while on inland excursions, we would be hypnotized by flashes of deep luminescent blue as morpho butterflies flew past us with their 5-to-8 inch wing spans. And some intrepid souls indulged their fancy for evening caiman hunting, venturing out to some river tributaries, armed with flashlights as they targeted the reptile’s tell-tale red eyes poised on a river surface, steered by their sunken snouts gliding just below the waterline.

The reality of being in Amazon forest territory really hit us the day we were on a family sightseeing trip and we were forced to stop our loaner car in the middle of the road for quite a spell—the time it took for a sloth to cross the road— and for a really long time! It seemed like something out of a cartoon: every movement carefully articulated in slow motion.

We had come to Cayenne to find work, and a respite from the continual tourist visa paper chase. After two years of sailing up and down the Brazilian coast, having gone as far south as Buenos Aires, Argentina, our tourist visa options had run out for Brazil. Originally we had wanted to go up the Amazon River, as far as Manaus, but time constraints due to our final finished visa status, forced us to change our plans. Through our contacts amongst the cruising grapevine, reliable information had it that we could easily find work in Cayenne. Since French Guiana is a "departement"—a sort of permanent "state" territory of France, having evolved from its former days as a French colony—targeting work here seemed a good option for us since my husband is a French citizen, and I possessed full legal French immigrant status at the time. We hoped to be able to pad our savings a bit, thus extending our travel time a while longer.

In short order, Michel, an architect, found work in an architect's office, I found a part time job as a bilingual secretary with an American shrimping company, Sean started kindergarten, and Brendan accompanied me to work where I was able to leave him with a babysitter—one of the fishermen's wives. He spent the mornings with Desirée and her little girl Tasha in their simple cottage on the shrimping compound grounds, just a short walk from my office.

Our seven-month sojourn in this jungle way station was far from boring. The anchorage was filled with with about 50 boats, mostly French cruising families, all in temporary “civilian” modes: jobs, children in school, or some sort of respite or revaluation situation of their travels and sailing life thus far. “Rush hour” occurred every weekday at 8 a.m. when a wave of dinghies carrying families, couples, and the occasional solo sailor would be powered up by outboards, heading for the main dock and on to a landlubber’s 9 a.m.–5 p.m. “grind.” The dock was lively with activity and chatter as everyone landed and tied up to the dock, almost unrecognizable in “civilian” clothing—as opposed to our usual sun-bleached shorts, bathing suits, and T-shirts—before we all faded away walking, biking, or driving off to our destinations. It was one such morning that Brendan fell through the dock as we alighted on land, and I had the scare of my life when I saw him disappear into the opaque chocolate colored muck for what seemed like an eternity. He was saved and lives to hear the tale told again and again, as I have recounted in detail in a companion entry among this collection.

All four of us would pile into our dinghy and merge on the water with the tide of dinghies headed for the shore. Michel took Sean to school on his bike while I waited with Brendan for a ride from a colleague, who drove us just a short distance down the road to Sahlman Seafoods, my job, and Brendan’s nanny. By this time in his short life at 5 years old, Sean already had previously attended pre-school in France and Brazil. This would be his first real classroom experience in a regular class and a first in that he was in the minority as a white child—the only one in his class, I believe. The native Creole population of French Guiana is black, and there were very few white children in the school. Needless to say it was a curious turnaround for us, and on occasion we witnessed and experienced prejudice and racism towards the white population.

It was also a “first” for Brendan in that it was the first time he ever spent a few hours of the day away from us, in a “daycare” situation—also in the care of a Creole woman. Brendan was only 2 years old, so still very young, and not particularly outgoing nor friendly to new people at this stage in his life. So it was a bit wrenching for him at first when I left him for the mornings, punctuated by his frantic crying. Desirée assured me that it didn’t last long, and that eventually he warmed up to her and Tasha. It was hard to willfully put him through such a situation, but I knew I couldn’t always spare him certain sorrows; it was part of the lessons of life.

It wasn’t all work, however, during our stay in Cayenne. The anchorage became quite a community. Upon our return to the dock in the evenings, many of us would linger, socialize, do a bit of laundry, or set up impromptu dinner invitations. A shower had even been set up in the harbor, and it was a very welcomed convenience. One couple even indulged their entrepreneurial spirit and invested in a food truck where we would gather for a beer and some good cheer before heading back to our respective nests.

Amongst the many families in the anchorage, we counted about 30 children in the mix. We had made friends with many of these cruising families from various previous stops in Brazil, and it was really quite nice for all the kids now to have this time and opportunity to spend several months with each other. As it turned out, Christmas was just around the corner, and many of us adults decided it would be fun to really mark the occasion for the kids.

There was an old Brazilian “tapouille” boat in the anchorage—a large flat-bottomed barge-like sailing vessel used on the Amazon and surrounding rivers to ship goods from place to place. This one was in pretty decent shape, quite big with a nice interior space, and it sat idle in the anchorage. The owner agreed to let all us yachties use it for a Christmas party for the children. What started out as something humble, turned into a huge extravaganza as more and more people in the anchorage wished to participate. We collected money to buy a present for each child, and cornered a volunteer to play Santa. A talented seamstress among us was able to create a quite acceptable Santa costume out of a red king-size bed sheet that I donated to the cause. Each child approached Santa for a gift. It was the first time Brendan saw Santa, and he was rather hesitant. Sean couldn’t believe his good fortune: Santa in the flesh! In true French fashion, the potluck event became quite elaborate with some very gourmet items, and we all felt blessed with genuine Christmas cheer as over 50 people partied into the night.

The actual town of Cayenne was quite pleasant, with its 1800’s colorful Caribbean colonial architecture. The town nestled right up to the harbor and was easy to get around by walking or riding a bike. The population was a spicy eclectic cocktail mix of native Creoles, mainland French expats, Brazilians, Haitians, Surinamese, and British Guyanans of Indian descent, Hmong refugees from Laos (who mainly lived in Cacao, a settlement ensconced in the jungle), Lebanese, Chinese, and peppered with an occasional American and a survivor or two from the former Devil's Island penal colony. The additional influence of French culture and language intertwined with a Creole voodoo heritage rendered a truly unique flavor to Cayenne.

The daily open-air market was quite an experience. Aside from the many colorful exotic, tropical foods expansively displayed, it was nevertheless disconcerting to walk by the stalls that featured dead, hanging monkeys, caimans, and other unusual animals that made up some of the diet of the locals. I’ll never forget the time I passed a woman carrying two hefty iguanas, their legs rubber-banded together, under her arm along with her bulging bag of fruits and vegetables.

Hiking to a jungle camping spot

Not far down the road from Cayenne lies the city of Kourou, the European equivalent of our Cape Canaveral, and headquarters for the European Space Agency and the Ariane rockets that were being launched at that time. It seemed so incongruous to have such a high technology-oriented base planted in the middle of the jungle, yet French Guiana’s location near the equator made it an ideal spot for rocket launches into the proper orbits and consequently, the European Space Agency chose to build the launch facility here. Like Cayenne, the forest canopy literally laps at the boundaries of Kourou and the gates of the space center. There were a few launches during our tenure there, and on one occasion a group of us had  an opportunity to watch a launch from an exceptional and original site—La Montagne des Singes, or Monkey Mountain.

It was an incredibly clear, still, and striking moonlit evening. Several of the yachties had cars, so quite a few of us were able to head out of town to this high hilltop vista spot. We all just sat down on our blankets and had a clear view across the top of the tall dense forest to the floodlit launch pad straight ahead, a short distance away. The ocean fanned out to our right and looked like one of those magazines photos, sparkling under the the high moon. As the countdown hit its final mark, the launch pad lit up like daylight, a huge flame pushing the candle-shaped rocket up into the night sky, then tracing an arc towards the moon. It really looked like a huge firecracker high over the ocean, and then suddenly the flame trail was out of sight, headed on its voyage. For a brief moment, I think I understood how incredulous some of the native inland Amazonian tribes must be when they see such a sight, as we ourselves witnessed such a modern phenomenon from a very ancient jungle.

The red chili, or Cayenne pepper, originates from Cayenne and is named after this city—and aptly so. It is a place well peppered with life, novelties, and experiences. The equatorial heat and diverse people added a touch of spice that never ceased to surprise us. Although it’s not a tropical paradise, it is indeed a tropical treasure.