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Notes from an author: John Gimlette

The award-winning author takes a short, strange snapshot of this little-visited capital

Notes from an author: John Gimlette

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I spent four days in Cayenne. Most of the time, I felt like an onlooker at some strange, slightly manic party. It helped that all the houses were pink or orange, and had bright blue doors, rattly roofs and lace around the door. For ages nothing would happen, and then it would suddenly flicker into life. Feathered dancers would appear, and girls in sequins and masks. Somewhere, hundreds of bands would begin to play, and people would drive around with their music so loud it would set off the car alarms, and make all the glasses rattle. Large crowds would gather on Les Palmistes, smelling faintly of anxiety and rum. Then the clouds would burst, everyone would scatter, and huge rivers would appear, bringing with them branches and bottles and luxuriant waves of paper cups.

For a while, the party would fizzle on. The night would throb away, the lights would crackle, and the rain would guzzle down the streets. Cayenne could be fabulously flashy one moment, but then it would all vanish. This, I suppose, was partly because there was never much there to start with. The city was trying to have a superpower party with the population of a tiny, country town. Often, I’d rush out in the hope of a carnival, only to find the square all quiet, Le Roi des Frites packing up his stall, and the chair-o-planes whirring emptily overhead.

But what bothered me was not that there wasn’t a party, but that it was going on somewhere else. Everyone seemed to have spectacular hangovers, and yet I was never there when they got them. Obviously, Cayenne was not a town for outsiders. The real action seemed to happen deep inside or well out of sight.

As to what people were celebrating, I never really discovered. Half the town didn’t have a job, and les Métros (metropolitan French families) ran everything from the sewers to the police. They also owned all the bars, cut the grass, made the water taste like swimming pools and built all the roundabouts. Apart from roundabouts, old Cayenne hadn’t seen much new building for 200 years, and — with its wooden quartiers and chunks of fort — it looked much the same now as it did back then. Since the abolition of slavery, little, it seemed, had happened. Perhaps that in itself was a reason to party.

The festivities were continually starting and stopping. But it was the gaps in between that were surprising. In the heat of the day, les Cayennais could be crapulously strange. No-one would bat at an eyelid at the sight of voodoo charms or unauthorised body parts breaking cover. I remember once seeing a man taking a bath in the old marble fountain outside the préfecture. He was oblivious to the world around, and had even brought a piece of soap and a towel.

Perhaps strangest of all was the musée departemental, which was like a collection of all the weirdest moments in Cayenne’s past. Amongst the exhibits, there was a crucifixion scene etched on a skull; a mutant palm tree, with buttocks; and the plaster cast of a condemned man’s foot, made under torture.

But nothing was more of a surprise than when someone tried to put me on parade. It was the old seamstress next to my hotel. On my last day, I’d wandered into her workshop to see the costumes in progress. She immediately decided I was just what the carnival needed, and started measuring me up for a ballgown and wig. “Oh my God, man, you gonna be perfect. I gonna make a Touloulou!”

“I’m sorry,” I told her, “my journey’s come to an end…”

“Stay longer!”

“I’d like to,” I said, “but I have to go home.”

I think she was genuinely disappointed to see her plans fall apart, and so in a way was I. Since then, I’ve often wondered how I’d have fared as a carnival queen. A few days later I watched the parade on TV. The first dancers to enter the Place des Palmistes were tossing a young woman high in the air. As they passed the grandstand, they seemed to forget about the girl, and she tumbled through their outstretched arms, and landed flat on her face.

Extract from the award-winning Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge. RRP: £9.99 (Profile Books). johngimlette.com

Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)