The Ecphorizer

Letter from Suriname V
Katharine Mitchell

Issue #30 (February 1984)

About the suffering of a tourist on Devil/s Island

The trip to French Guiana was very pleasant. There was a low mist preventing the sun from being in our eyes as we drove from Meerzorg (across the Suriname River from Paramaribo) to Albina. That is unusual, and we enjoyed the respite and the chance to ride along with the windows down for

...tiny cream puffs, filled with ice cream, or other things...

the coolish breeze. That stretch is about 140 kilometers, which we managed [quoteright]comfortably in a little more than an hour and a half. We were in good time for the 9:00 a.m. ferry to St. Laurent.

We made the 180 kilometers to Kourou in about two and a half hours, with only a short break to eat a sandwich and walk around a bit in Organoubo. We were afraid the road would be closed for the planned launch at the space center. There has been a lot of work done on the road between Sinnamary and Kourou, though part of it is still the worst stretch of the trip. You no longer go right through the space complex, but around it. They have also added triple rolls of barbed wire along the boundaries.

Saturday we spent most of the time shopping. Clothing was not as interesting as I had hoped. I hadn't shopped for clothes the time before, so didn't know what to expect. (I gather Brazil has some excellent values.) Of course, we got a lot of food; we had brought coolers to bring back cheese and fruit.

We had our dinner that night down in the older part of Kourou at an especially nice restaurant. Those in Bern will be amused to know that we were served a French (Alsacienne?) version of Rosti, which was wonderful. Not up to the Swiss style, but a treat in the circumstances. (That's something like a cross between hashed browns and a potato pancake.) We also had profiteroles for dessert, another of my favorites. (Tiny cream puffs, filled with ice cream, or other things like whipped cream or pastry cream, topped with semi-sweet hot chocolate sauce. Mmmmm.)

Sunday we were up early to have breakfast and get to the boat landing by 7:45. The roundtrip fare is 82 francs, about $10.00. The boat will take 35 people. Almost all the passengers were European, including a couple of American technical types there to work on the satellite they are trying to launch. (The launch had been delayed until October 18th at the earliest.) There were families with kids, babies, a dog, and a cat. The trip takes about an hour and a quarter, 20 minutes just to get to the ocean from the riverside dock. About half-way out, there is a change from the brown water to blue-green.

You land at Ile Royale, the largest of the three Iles du Salut. They were named for their salubrious climate compared to the swampy, insect-ridden coast. They are about 15 kilometers off shore. Ile Royale had the main prison establishment, Ile St. Joseph was where they put the incorrigibles and the insane. Ile du Diable (Devil's Island) was for the political deportees. The currents around and between them are fierce and the water is literally shark-infested. They didn't bother to try to bury prisoners on the stony islands; they simply slid them from boats in weighted sacks for the sharks to take care of.

Napoleon's original idea was to establish a penal colony. The prisoners were to be assisted to start farms which they were to then use independently. However, they had so much trouble finding reliable administrative personnel willing to take such an assignment, the whole thing degenerated into a miserable and notorious undertaking. The normal prison population would be about 6,000. Of these, some 2,000 were on the islands.

From the boat landing you walk up a nicely made stone road to the heights where most of the buildings are. It made us appreciate the hardship of doing hard labor there or of being imprisoned in small airless spaces. Though we went slowly and tried to stay in the shade, it took us twenty minutes to radiate our overheated blood when we got to the top. One of the major buildings there has been an inn for some time. The accommodations are spartan in the extreme, though they did have beds and some plumbing. There are signs all over prohibiting the hanging of hammocks or picnicking on the grounds. They serve a very decent lunch with the choice of two menus. It does, however, take a long time. They say they start serving at 12:15, but don't until a while after that. We were finished at 2:30.

People from the space center also maintain some facilities there. For the most part they are using the old buildings. In addition, there is a recent modification attached to the auberge. The whole complex faces Devil's Island, which looks like a little paradise. It catches a marvelous breeze, and is quite comfortable. The new structure is a little like motel rooms stretched along the hillside just below the old building.

We had only explored a little before lunch at the top of the hill. We didn't want to have to walk back up it. After lunch, we went down to the dock area and then around to the side facing Devil's Island on a road that followed the shore. There are no beaches, except for one artificially set up by the Foreign Legion on Ile. St. Joseph as a recreation facility. The shoreline is all big, smooth, black rocks. We found a shady place to descend, intending to at least wet our feet. It was easy to walk where the rocks are dry, but as soon as they are wet, they are slicker than you can imagine. We found a place to dangle our feet, but a large wave nearly carried Suanne out to the sharks. We gave up our plans to dabble.

The currents are so bad between Ile Royale and Ile du Diable that they set up a cable between them to transport provisions. There is no source of fresh water, so they collected rain water in huge cisterns. There is one near the auberge, with the yuckiest bright green scummy water I have yet seen. There were many signs warning that the water was not potable and a certificate that the place had been sprayed. There is malaria in French Guiana, but we were not out in the evening when the mosquitoes are worst, and there was always a breeze to keep them down. We were taking prophylaxes anyway (reminder to my potential visitors: since you'll be going to the interior here and to French Guiana, you should bring malaria-preventing medication. The Dept. of State recommends chloroquine and fansidar, one tablet of each once a week, beginning a week before and continuing for six weeks after any chance of exposure. You also need yellow fever shots, and our medical people recommend gamma globulin against hepatitis.)

The trip back Monday was easy; no traffic to speak of. We did a little more shopping in St. Laurent and were home by 4:30. My French had gotten pretty good again, and we needed it to get out. They were asking a lot of questions that Suanne couldn't answer when she went through immigration control. I had gone back to the car for a drink of water, but she called me back to help her. The Surinamers in Albina, on the other hand, were very cordial. 

Katharine Mitchell joined the Foreign Service after she acquired a taste for travel while wandering through Asia with George Towner and several other friends.  Now the government is rewarding her faithful service and love of exotic places by posting her to Washington, D.C.

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Katherine Mitchell

In 1977 Katherine Mitchell spent three months trekking by land across the Middle East from Cairo to Delhi. This experience suited her quite well and as a result, she joined the Foreign Service.