French Guiana - Out of this world

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Alain de Botton finds a corner of South America that is forever France, and where tropical jungle tangles with space exploration

The difficulties with French Guiana begin with trying to locate it on a map. Seldom has a place been as easily and as frequently confused with somewhere else: Ghana on the western coast of Africa, Guyana east of Venezuela, Guinea next to Senegal, Equatorial Guinea below Cameroon...

In fact, French Guiana (you can't call it a country, for reasons that are about to become clear) is located on the malarial northern coast of South America, between Surinam to the north-west and Brazil to the south. The added twist for this impoverished, malarial land is that it is technically part of France.

As with the scattered islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion, Guyane – as the French call it – is a Département d'Outre-Mer, having been absorbed by its former colonial master in 1946. As a result, French Guiana is now as much a part of the European Union as Berkshire or Bavaria; 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, the currency controlled by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. Indeed, if you look on the back of a euro note, right next to the Greek EYPO, you can see French Guiana in a square of its own. Looking quite chunky, too: French Guiana is the size of Portugal. Yet only 200,000 people live here. The country has no economy to speak of. There is hardly any tourism, not least because the sea is plagued by sharks and, inshore at least, is brown from river sediment. Nor, thanks to the poor quality of the soil, is there any agriculture. Roads down to Brazil are largely impassable, and the territory's sole reliable outlet to the world is the daily flight to Paris Orly from Rochambeau airport in the capital, Cayenne.

A layer of French bureaucracy and bourgeois ambition has been unevenly applied across this tropical kaleidoscope. In tin-roofed villages, terrains de boules abut voodoo temples. The country's only two main 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 17th-century, in search of rapid bounty. They did away with 10,000 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 century or two passed before a new plan for the territory was hatched, this one involving a penal colony that was intended to 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 100 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, 11km offshore.

The misery might have continued indefinitely, had it not been for the Algerian War of Independence. This eight-year conflict began in 1954, and obliged France to find a new site for the rocket test base it had only just established at Hammaguir in the Sahara Desert. With its proximity to the equator (important when you are sending things into orbit), its paucity of inhabitants, its political pliancy and its immunity from hurricanes, French Guiana was the obvious location from which to explore outer space. A high-tech space port was built on a strip of jungle north-west of the capital. A new town, Kourou, was constructed next door, designed to house workers and their families in functional concrete apartment blocks laid out along wide thoroughfares with grandiose names such as the Avenue de Gaulle and the Esplanade des Étoiles.

I travelled to French Guiana on a press trip to witness the launch of a Japanese satellite. The group was billeted together in the Atlantis Hotel 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 Chandigarh 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.

Beside the man-made lake, unshaded wooden benches rotted unused: they had been deployed to provide respite on the kind of afternoon stroll which it had not yet occurred to anyone in the tropics to take. 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 experience 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 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 rainforest 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.

At 8pm on the day of the launch, we were driven in the darkness, under armed guard, to an observational site in the jungle only 3km 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 Einsteinian ambition, something was preparing to leave the planet. All shipping and aircraft had been cleared from 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.

oThe scene brought to mind the moments of smoke and fire that were invoked by the Old Testament prophets to make their audiences shudder before the majesty of their lord. And yet this modern impression of divinity was being generated by the 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 than any plane could fly and reduced to a smudge of flame.

Just a few days earlier, I had been in a room with the satellite that, right now, was already reaching the upper atmosphere. The rocket boosters had been jettisoned somewhere in between and were parachuting their way down, halfway to Africa by now.

An odd quiet settled over us again. A nature-made wind could be heard through the trees, then the call of a monkey.

For the next few days, I wandered around French Guiana, marvelling at its combination of Gallic modernity and South American indolence. No one seemed to do much work; European social security went such a long way here that the fastest way to get rich was to give up one's job. I ate a number of goat-stew croissants: a local dish perfectly summing up the confused history of the country, but a not-untasty confection.

I ran into a bit of wildlife. One night, while watching TF1 beamed in by satellite from Paris, I was confronted by a muscular and implausibly furry tropical spider the size of the television standing stationary on the wall above the air-conditioning unit. The situation was resolved by a Creole maintenance man who dispatched the monster with a decisive slap of rolled-up newspaper, leaving nothing but a brown sediment to commemorate the presence, then tossed the corpse off the balcony and, with apparent sincerity, bade me a pleasant end to the evening.

I felt keenly the painful psychological adjustments required by life in French Guiana: 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 who, overly impressed by technological achievement, lose sight of how doggedly we will always be pursued by baser forms of error and absurdity.

ON MY last day in French Guiana, to kill time before my evening flight, I toured Cayenne, ending up in the nation's main museum. This is a traditional, tin-roofed Creole house in a poor state of repair, filled with pickled snakes and frogs collected by 19th-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 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 pair of guards standing outside a prison block. Finally, three times the size of the other images, in full and impressive colour, 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.

Science may not have turned French Guiana into a paradise, but the mixture of 21st-century technology, primitive jungle life and French bureaucracy in the tropics has made the country one of the world's more fascinating destinations.

This article was adapted from Alain de Botton's 'The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work' (Penguin, £14.99)

Getting there

The writer flew with Air France (0870 142 4343; airfrance.co.uk), which flies to Cayenne daily from London City via Paris Orly. Air Caraibes (00 33 820 835 835; aircaraibes.com) also flies from Paris Orly.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-3117 0500; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Staying there

Hotel Atlantis Kourou, Lieu dit Bois Diable (00 594 32 13 00; atlantiskourou.com). Doubles start at €121, room only.

Visiting there

Europe's Spaceport, Kourou (00 594 594334200; esa.int). The next launch is on 6 May; visitors must register to attend.

More information

French Guiana Tourist Office: 00 33 1 42 94 15 16; tourisme-guyane.com.

French Government Tourist Office: 09068 244 123 (calls charged at 60p/min); uk.franceguide.com

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