BASILE: Navigating South America proves challenging

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Frank Basile

Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana are connected to South America by land and little else. On our visit, we quickly learned that they are the only countries on the continent where Spanish or Portuguese is not the official language. Few people even speak those languages.

My wife, Katrina, and I had been told in advance that we should decide which of the three countries we most wanted to visit since there was no official transportation from one to another. At one time there had been air service, but even when it was operating, it was never very reliable.

The real challenge was going by vehicle over almost nonexistent roads and two river crossings from Guyana to Suriname and then to French Guiana. The easiest way to go from one country to another was a flight from several other cities, but not from a city in the adjoining country. It is far easier, for example, to fly from Paris to French Guiana than to go there from Suriname, which is next door. Our efforts to arrange ground transport, first from Guyana and then from Suriname, would make another travel column—or maybe a board game.

The primary reason for this lack of easy transport among these countries: Few people have any interest in traveling between any two of them.

Or to travel there at all—at least from the United States. We did not encounter any other stateside tourists in any of the three countries.

Guyana was settled by the English and has maintained its English customs, including the language. At the time of our visit, Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, was on the State Department’s “do not visit” list because of the high incidence of robberies and kidnapping. At the hotel, we were told what streets were safe to walk on and during what hours. But had we followed that advice to the letter, we would have missed the most interesting areas—including the place, about two hours from Georgetown, where the religious leader, Indiana native Jim Jones, led his followers to their deaths by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.

Suriname was settled by the Dutch and retains all the Dutch influence. In Paramaribo, capital of Suriname, the great old wooden structures reflecting traditional Dutch architecture were quite startling after we left Guyana with its predominantly English design. The city center was named a World Heritage Site in 2003. This is the only place we have ever seen a synagogue next to a mosque, both with stunning architecture.

Here, Dutch is the official language, most of the tourists are Dutch, and the food is predominantly Dutch. (And the pastries are irresistible.) The Dutch government has maintained close contact with the country since it became independent in 1975, and there are daily flights between the Dutch capital, Amsterdam, and Paramaribo.

While the English basically deserted Guyana in 1957, French Guiana is still part of France. French is the official language and very little English is spoken there. The city is as French as Paris and with food almost as good. Daily flights travel between Paris and Cayenne, the capital.

A highlight was our visit to Devil’s Island, which was like a paradise—lush and green with palm trees and a certain haunting beauty, with the remains of the once-feared colony where France shipped its worst prisoners. Katrina and I agreed it was as beautiful as any other Caribbean island we have seen. The prison was made famous by the movie “Papillon” and, in another touch of irony, the restaurant in the hotel at this former prison, Hotel Tour des Iles, served a wonderful French meal, which we enjoyed while gazing upon an amazingly scenic overlook.

On the flight from Miami to Georgetown, we sat next to a guy from Alaska who said he was returning to Guyana to visit his fiancé, who was from India. He met her when he worked at a gold mine in Georgetown, but she had been unable to obtain a visa to leave the country. He said the government was reluctant to issue visas for fear that most of their citizens would flee.

It was great being back in the United States after an exciting and rather edgy 10 days in the northernmost countries of South America. That first night in Miami we reflected on our adventure while drinking coffee at the outdoor News Café on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach and watching the parade of exhibitionists. What a contrast to the world we had just left.•


Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of the Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears whenever there’s a fifth Monday in the month. Basile can be reached at Frank_Basile@sbcglobal.net.


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