The Practical Traveller ends his tour of South America with a day in French Guiana.
Satisfied in South America after a 100-dollar taxi ride
After arriving in Paramaribo, Surinam, on a long overland journey from Guyana, I was ready for a rest.
I was in Haiti the week before, relearning humility thanks to low-budget lodging and an invasion of mosquitoes. The accommodation was acceptable, the mosquitoes not so much - but as I tell myself from time to time, it's all part of the adventure.
Paramaribo is a sleepy place, but it turned into my favourite stop on a two-week tour of South America. The people were friendly and helpful, I didn't get lost anywhere, and I had a nice place to stay. After my time in Haiti and the 13-hour overland journey between borders, I was happy to hole up for a while, do some exercise and enjoy myself.
Except for one problem: French Guiana lay 150km to the east, and when would I possibly be in this part of the world again? Even though I'm known to get around, the odds of my coming back this way anytime in the near future were pretty slim. When faced with a travel dilemma like this, I always make a basic pro-and-con list.
Reasons not to make the trip: I was feeling worn out after 10 days of challenging travel; in Paramaribo I had my best hotel of the trip, with free internet, air conditioning, and good coffee; there was no public transport available, and chartering a taxi would require the princely sum of $100 (Dh367).
I thought those were all pretty good reasons to take it easy for the day instead of undergoing yet another long overland trip. But I also had good cause to go for it.
Reasons to make the trip: it was only about a five-hour journey there and back, in addition to whatever time I spent on the other side. Compared to my record of 36 hours in a bus (East Africa, 2007) or even the 13-hour journey a couple of days prior, five hours wasn't that bad; the sum of $100 is a lot to pay a taxi driver, but on the other hand, $100 to visit a new country is extremely cheap; I didn't want to get to 190 countries and decide that I didn't really complete South America because of one small "sort of country" in the north-east. It's a long way to get back.
The basic dilemma was that I didn't really want to head out on a trip that would tire me out even more. At the same time, though, I knew I had only one chance to do this. I was puzzled, and I had to make a decision quickly. In the end, what swung the decision was one simple question: If I didn't go, would I regret it later?
Part of me wished for a different answer, but the rest of me knew better. If I wimped out and hung around drinking coffee, I'd feel better that day, but later on I would have regretted not making the journey.
In the end I did the right thing: I ordered the taxi, and we rode to the border over two-and-a-half hours of bad roads. There's not much you can say about driving along over bad roads - it's pretty much the same everywhere in the world.
The taxi had a DVD monitor installed, and I passed the drive watching a rousing set of low-budget Surinamese rap videos for about two hours. For the last half-hour, the driver threw in a bootleg Alicia Keys CD, for which I was grateful.
We made it to the border, and I walked up to the immigration shack to get my stamps along with a warning: if I didn't get the same set of stamps on the other side from French Guiana, I wouldn't be able to get back into Surinam. Of course, I would already be in Surinam by then, since the border shack is several blocks inland, but I would then be denied entry into the country and have a problem leaving from the airport back in Paramaribo the next day.
I got the first set of stamps, went back to the beach and paid the set rate of $5 (Dh18) to go across the water. On the other side I wandered to a container that serves as another makeshift border outpost. The French guys looked bored as they gave me two stamps - one entry, one exit. Apparently, I wasn't the first person to come over for the afternoon.
The bored officials told me they didn't care if I stayed around the border town for the rest of the day, as long as I left by nightfall. I hung around briefly, but there's even less happening in French Guiana as there is in Guyana.
I looked at the water for a while before getting in another pirogue. I paid $5 and went back across the water to where my driver was waiting. We ran a couple of errands around town for him, and one for me as I stopped back at the original border shack. I received yet another stamp that entitled me to officially leave the country from the airport in the morning.
We drove back to the city with more rap videos en route. I paid the $100, which, combined with the ferry rides of $5 each, made for a total of $110 (Dh405) for the day's adventure. Worth it? Perhaps not in a touristic interpretation of travel, but it was plenty authentic for me - it made for a good story, and it felt like the right choice.
Back in Paramaribo at 9pm, I had another surprise when I heard that the airport shuttle was coming to pick me up at the enticing hour of 2.30am. I knew it was an early flight (6.30am), but a 2.30am pickup was a record for me. Apparently, the shuttle makes a lot of stops; my hotel was the first. "You can sleep on the bus," the receptionist said cheerfully.
I didn't think that would happen, but it was OK because I had successfully finished an adventure in South America. After Haiti, Guyana and Surinam, I even made it to French Guiana for all of $110 - with a free lesson in advanced passport stamping included.
Lesson: never pass up a good country, or any new country, when it comes your way.
Chris Guillebeau, 33, is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity, published by Penguin. He is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world, and is currently on number 178. Next week: If you want to learn about a country, ask a taxi driver.