Riding in a "Traditional" Canoe
I recently went for a boat ride in a pirogue, which (according to Google) is a traditional long, narrow canoe make from a single tree trunk, especially in Central America and the Caribbean.
I went with another English teacher, Nathalie, and her daughter, Maëva, just for the morning. We left from Roura, which is a town on one of the main rivers draining to Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana.
Our pirogue, however, had some modern enhancements - a motor in the back propelled us forward, and no paddling was done at all. We were steered by our tour guide, who is an Amérindien - the French term for people who are native to South America. His mother is actually Chinese, but he lives in an amérindien village and works on the river. He was an awesome tour guide and showed us some amazing things.
I thought the river was huge, but that's coming from a Los Angeleno who rarely sees rain. Apparently the river separating French Guiana and Suriname is so wide, it feels like being at sea. There are many little towns by the river, including traditional amérindien villages.
We eventually came to a shallow part in the river where we got out for an hour-long swim. It was awesome! The river is nice and cool, in contrast to the heat and humidity of the day. Small fish dance around you as you wade, and though the water is brown due to a high suspended load (geology note: think of how much organic carbon it's transporting!!!), it was fresh and sweet tasting.
Our guide also showed us where chocolate comes from. Chocolate is the fermented product of cacao seeds (see more info here), which come from the cacao tree. First, the flower of the cacao tree is pollinated, and then the coca pod is formed.
Then, once the pod is fully grown, it is opened to harvest the seeds inside. These seeds are then fermented, dried and roasted to produce the chocolate flavor. (Learn more about the microbiology of chocolate fermentation here.) Our guide hacked pods open for us with a machete, and then we each tried the pulpy insides of a seed. The texture of the pulp was like that of a grapefruit, and the pulp was clear. To be honest, though, it didn't taste like anything to me.
After explaining the life cycle of a cacao tree to us, we headed back to the boat dock. But we made a pit stop on the way back on the side of the river, among the roots and in the shade. Why? To have a quick cocktail made of rum and sugarcane syrup, and to eat the raw insides of a sugarcane plant. It was a nice way to end the trip, and it explained the large cooler that our guide had brought along!
Finally, we headed back and I had an awesome lunch of wild boar meat. Hunting of them is restricted, according to my colleague Nathalie, so the meal was a little more expensive than expected but well worth the price. It had a gamier, more intense flavor than the typical pork dishes you would get in the United States. I also learned that the little red thing on the rice was not a tomato, but in fact an extremely hot pepper that left the right side of my tongue feeling numb.
Despite my tomato mistake, I had a really wonderful day. I'm really convinced to buy a boat in the future, now. Nathalie taking me on this trip also really demonstrated the hospitality of the French and the Créole people. I have been fortunate to receive a warm welcome to this country, and I'm glad that I chose to be a Teaching Assistant here instead of l'hexagone, which is what one calls the European France (since it looks like a hexagon) to distinguish it from all the overseas territories and departments that also make up France.
Until next time,
It's been a while since my last post since I am currently on vacation! In the French school system, there is a two week vacation after every ten weeks of instruction. (It's great.)
I recently went on a camping trip with other teachers in the Amazon jungle, at Le Sentier Savane Roche Virginie, which roughly translates to the Virgin Savannah Rock Hike. (This will make sense in a few pictures.) It's about a two-hour drive from where I'm currently staying.
I started camping and hiking in a serious manner when I was in high school, and at age 17 I did my first solo-camping trip for five days and four nights in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My love of the outdoors is a big reason why I decided to become a geologist. As a geologist, it feels amazing and empowering to be outside and understand what is going on around you.
But, back to the present - this was my first time hiking and camping in the Amazon Jungle, and boy it was hot. I don't think I've ever sweated so much during an hour-long hike before. The jungle floor is shaded and dark because all the plants are competing for every inch of sunlight they can get, but it's not much cooler in the shade. In fact, the heat and the humidity almost seem worse because you can't catch any passing winds.
But, there are all sorts of fascinating plants and animals to be found on the forest floor! Small pigs, pecarries, live in burrows and you can occasionally hear them sprinting away from you as you startle them along your path. Monkeys can be heard screeching as they swing from tree to tree. Cicadas give off their incessant, high-pitch whine. There are also plants of every kind - trees, mushrooms, ferns - and occasionally, rocks!
Large, allochthonous boulders can be seen as you near the top of mountain. Allochthonous just means that these rocks originated elsewhere before being moved by erosional forces (wind, water, ice, mud, etc.) to their current positions. Allochthonous boulders are normally indicative of incredible erosional forces - think of how much energy it takes to move that much mass! These rocks were granite, meaning that they crystallized slowly beneath the Earth's surface. And unlike the granite I've seen before, these rocks were weathered to the point where they were almost black. I almost mistook them for basalt at first, the rock type that Hawai'i is mainly composed of.
This extensive weathering becomes very clear once you reach the top of the mountain. There, plants have not yet been able to establish themselves on the rocks, so the expanse is bare and weathered. Because of this, it offers one of the best viewpoints for surveying the surrounding Amazon jungle, and this is likely why this spot was turned into a tourist attraction.
In addition, the shapes that the weathered rocks had taken on (their "geomorphology") were some of the wildest I have ever seen. It looked like lumpy waves of rocks cresting through the top of the Amazon jungle.
It reminded me of a Shel Silverstein poem about this guy who found out he has a wavy head instead of wavy hair. Walking up the mountain and peeling back the cover of the Amazon jungle revealed the fascinating, geologic surface that all these plants have grown on. It was a humbling reminder that before all these plants were here, this place was once barren rock. (These are the virgin rocks this place was named after!) But thanks to the work of tiny microbes eating away at the rock to create soil, climatic conditions, and the tenacity of plant life, here now exists the world's largest tropical rainforest.
But in addition to all the wonderful geology I saw, I also was able to share good fire-side meal with new friends & explore more of the wonders that French Guiana has to offer. Even if the rocks weren't there, my trip would have been worth it for that!
Thanks for reading, and until next time!
The French School System
As I mentioned earlier, I'm working as an English language assistant at the middle school level. I assist the six English language teachers at my school with their classes. Today I'll tell you more about my job and the French public school system, which is quite different than the American public school system!
First off, the grade levels and schools are divided differently in France. The main organizational differences are: 1) Schooling is not mandatory until age six (vs. age five in the US), 2) Middle school is four years, 3) High school is three years, and 4) Grade levels are not named in a consecutive order.
In addition, the French school system (and French government in general) is highly centralized and organized. There are 30 public school systems in France, and each is managed by an Académie. The schools in French Guiana are managed by L'Académie de la Guyane, and this where everyone's paycheck comes from. And yes - there is lots of paperwork and things that need to be done with them and your school. After all, they are part of the infamous French bureaucracy! Even absence requests by teachers must be submitted through them, even though the absence is only occurring at the school level. There is an upside to all this, though - everything is well documented, and a strong institutional support system exists for efficiently implementing changes on a large scale.
But what does this look like in a classroom setting? Well, for one thing, notebooks here are extremely neat! Students take notes in straight lines measured by a ruler (so students write with a ruler in hand!) even though gridlines already exist in their notebooks, and everything is color-coded. Hand-outs are also carefully pasted in with glue.
Everyone also writes in perfect cursive, and one of the English teachers here even noted to their class that Americans write in a special, "detached" font after I wrote on the board.
In addition, students must carry around a Carnet de Correspondance or Carnet de Cor for short. This does not exist in American public schools. This booklet contains a student's parent contact information, absence and late slips, and serves as the main communication tool between parents and teachers. If a teacher wants to tell a parent something, like setting up a meeting, they write their request in the Carnet de Cor, which is then shown to the parents by the student. Then, the parents must write their response in the book, and then this response is shown to the teacher by the student. The Carnet de Cor also has the student's picture on the front, and must be shown to a faculty member at the school entrance to enter, and even to leave, the school grounds.
In addition, students must line up outside the classroom in two lines before they are let into the room by the teacher. And once they enter, they must stand quietly behind their desks with their chairs pushed in before the teacher allows them to sit down. Then they have about one minute to take everything out of their backpacks and be ready for class! Everyone takes out their required pencil cases, notebooks, and textbooks. French teachers are also more strict about students facing forward in their seats, and not having anything on their laps.
Another big difference is the level of parental involvement at school. Parents are much less involved in day-to-day schooling, and it is rare to see a parent inside the school grounds. Parents do not come in to host art or math docents, like in the U.S., and largely contribute to their children's education outside of formal school hours.
The daily schedule is very different as well. The day starts at 7:30 am, and then adjourns for lunch at 12:30 pm. Lunch then lasts for two hours and all students leave campus. This school does not have a cafeteria, so the large majority of students go home for lunch. (Students here were shocked to hear that Americans only have 30 minutes to an hour for lunch, but they understood the schedule a little more once I told them school normally gets out at 3:30 pm.) Class starts up again at 2:30 pm, and then school finally finishes at 5:30 pm. They only have a ten-minute break in the mid-morning, and do not have a 30-minute morning recess like Americans.
So far, the students have been using their English to ask me questions about my life so that they can write a short essay on me. It is extremely interesting to see what they write about me! I have also gotten a lot of questions about American culture, and specifically about Los Angeles. Many students have asked me if I have "already" been in a film, and about how many celebrities I have seen. No one thinks of Los Angeles as just another American city full of non-celebrities with day jobs and bills. Even the teachers are surprised to hear that most Los Angelenos don't really think about Hollywood and movies in their daily lives. The myth of California, and Hollywood, is very strong. It is also interesting to see just how pervasive American pop culture is around the world, and to see which pop culture artifacts take a particular hold in a certain culture. When I traveled in China, people asked me a lot about the gangs of L.A., and most songs on the radio in French Guiana are American pop songs.
Besides that, I have also seen some very French punishments here, like where teachers make students write "I will not be late to class" 100 times. The teachers know that it's kind of silly, but they like it because they know that this sort of punishment actually does annoy the students. Detention exists here, but students go to detention during their free periods instead of after school, so even if they get detention, they still leave school at the same time every day.
However, kids are kids all over the world, and so I leave you with some classic classroom graffiti. At least this person was using his newly-learned English.
Until next time!
Greetings from French Guiana!
I've finally arrived in French Guiana and I've just finished my first week of teaching. My contract only requires me to work 12 hours a week (c'est bon, non?), so I work in the mornings Monday thru Thursday, and then I have Friday thru Sunday off. But before I tell you about my job, let's talk about the circuitous path I took to get here!
My original flight had a transfer through Brazil and Suriname. However, I did not realize that for Americans visiting Brazil, even just to transfer flights, one must have a valid tourist visa. I did not have that, so I got sent back to the United States! My passport was taken away and I was put in a hotel inside the airport so that I would not illegally Brazil. It was quite an experience... I think after the initial confusion, everyone just kind of felt sorry for me. Like, "Oh, you poor American idiot." It's ok - I thought it was absurdly funny, too.
So I went back to Los Angeles and stayed there for one night. Then I took a new flight to French Guiana, this time through Iceland and Paris. I had a 22-hour layover in Iceland, though, so I had some time to explore the country. And let me tell you - Iceland is cold. I guess that should not come as a huge surprise to me, but going from 90+ degree Fahrenheit weather in Los Angeles to below-freezing weather was a shock. But, I had time to go to a Viking museum, eat an Icelandic breakfast (or at least that's what I was told I was eating), and meet some very awesome people! The taxi drivers and shopkeepers there were some of the friendliest people I have ever met.
Then I went to Paris. I only had a six-hour layover, so I just rented a hotel room for two hours to take a shower and quick nap. I think I had been traveling for about 32 hours by that point, so that was a very welcome nap.
And then I finally boarded Air Caraïbes for French Guiana. I slept for most of the 9-hour flight, but I sat next to a very nice French woman on the plane who told me about French Guiana. (That was also when I realized that I could maybe understand 50% of what people say to me, here.) And before I even knew it, we were flying over the dense canopy of the Amazon rainforest and into French Guiana.
I was picked up from the airport by Madame Nathalie Balias-Constantin (pictured below on the left), who is an English teacher at La Collège de la Canopée, the middle school that I'm working at. (The French school system is quite different than the American school system, but the children at la Collège are of the same age range of American middle schoolers.) She and the other English teachers welcomed me with a huge French meal!
The three women above are all English teachers at la collège, and the woman on the right is who I am staying with. Her name is Madame Krys Gandriaux, and she has really lived all over the world. She first left France around my age to work as a tour guide in Scotland, then went back for university in France, and then lived in Mayotte (next to Madagascar) for about five years before moving here. She moved here a few years ago, and she lives with her son, Theo, and her daughter, Kim. They are pictured next to the "cocktail" portion of the meal, which does not really have a true American equivalent, but is similar to appetizers. I had a really good alcoholic drink made from worms (yes) and fruit, and a drink that is like beer mixed with lemonade. Nathalie also served olives, sausages, dried nuts and raisins, and these little fried balls of fish fillet.
We first ate a salad called crudités, which literally translates to raw food, but is really just a salad mix of carrots, beets, boiled eggs, corn, and lettuce / spinach. It's a very typical French salad eaten with most meals. Later, we had couscous and chicken, and then for dessert we had chocolate mousse. So - a "typical" North African, French, and French Guianese meal!
Afterwards, I went to Krys' house, which is where I will be staying until December. The American idea of indoor-outdoor living is laughable compared to how les Guyanais live here. It's quite hot and humid here, so doors are always open and most meals are taken outside on the terrace. The gallery above is of the house I'm staying in. Krys has a dining room inside, but it's rarely (if ever) used. There is air conditioning, but it's generally only used in your own room for sleeping. However, since doors are always open, most people just take advantage of the passing breezes to cool their house.
The day after moving in, we went on a hike at a popular jungle trail nearby. There, I saw the biggest bamboo I have ever seen in my entire life. It's crazy how huge plants can grow to in the jungle.
Finally, I'm struck by how "normal" things are here - I'm renting a room in the suburbs, with houses situated right next to each other, and I've also accompanied Krys as she's taken her kids to judo and rugby practice. The trail we were on was also full of other families just taking a stroll for the evening. It was almost like I was hiking in California. The only difference was the ever-present heat, and the all-enveloping Amazon jungle.
I started work on Monday this week. It's been really wonderful, and I'm surprised by how much I enjoy teaching. I mainly assist the other English teachers with their work, so sometimes I take the reins to do an exercise with the entire class, while other times I just sit with the students and listen. It is mainly British English that is taught here, so the teachers are keen to have an American teaching assistant so that the students can hear an American accent. The students are very very VERY curious about me and Los Angeles - whenever I say that I'm from Los Angeles, the children just quickly repeat "Los Angeles! Los Angeles!" to themselves with a French accent. I've been asked about the Hollywood Walk of Stars and about how many celebrities I've seen. I've also had some funny language mix-ups so far - I told the students that I am a geologist, but one student thought I said I was a professional juggler.
However, I will save talking about my job for another post, since this one is getting quite long! Thanks for reading this far, and stay tuned to hear more about my adventures in la Guyane! I'm looking forward to a wonderful stay here.
Goodbye, Los Angeles
I can't believe that I'll be leaving for French Guiana tomorrow.
I say that with a mix of fear and excitement. I'm actually a little apprehensive to go to French Guiana. It will be my first time living alone in a foreign country with a foreign language. And it feels strange to admit that I'm scared - I had always thought of myself as this tough, fearless girl who isn't afraid of anything. After all, I had left home for boarding school at age 14, and at age 17 I camped alone in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for five days and four nights.
But now, I'm okay with being scared. Yesterday, I read this amazing article on rural women in India moving to the city for economic opportunities. I use the adjective "amazing" because these women are far braver than I am, battling social attitudes and family members who are trying to hold them back. A few lines really resounded with me - they are about a man named Karuna, who defies his village's social expectations to send his two daughters, Prabhati and Shashi, to work in a city factory:
When word spread that he had agreed to send Prabhati and Shashi, the village elders convened emergency meetings to determine whether this violated 'purdah,' or the separation between the sexes, and whether this would damage the marriage prospects of their own daughters. Women stopped by to tease the girl's mother, Radha Rani, who wept inconsolably.
I have enjoyed the month that I've spend in LA, but like Karuna said to his daughters, "Ok - you're scared. That's ok. But now you have to move on."
I'm also glad that I'm taking a year off before graduate school. It's helped me realize that I proactively enjoy academic research, and it's something I'd like to be doing for a while. For example, I find myself reading papers & preparing for conferences even though I don't necessarily have to, now. Being back at USC for a month has also made me realize that I missed the academic environment - I missed the dynamism of a college campus and being friends with people across all age groups and professional levels. I also missed the camaraderie of being part of a lab group & running into others when I come in to work on the weekends. I'm not sure I would have had these insights if I had plunged directly into a PhD program right after undergraduate.
So tomorrow I am leaving on a jet plane... to embark on a two-day journey to French Guiana, mainly through a series of layovers in Brazil. One day I'll have enough money for a more direct flight, but tomorrow is not that day. I'll let you all know how the trip goes, though, and I'll see you all on the other side!