French Guiana | Living in the Green Hell

Published: Apr 22, 2022 | Revised: Apr 25, 2024
Edited by: Marce Ferreira

French-Guiana | Living in the Green Hell

The Green Hell, or L’enfer vert, is the unfavorable name the French have given to French Guiana, their little South-American colony neighboring Suriname and Brazil.

The reasons for this derogatory “title” are quite simple: the overwhelming tropical climate (dense forest, humidity, insects, wild animals, and killer-diseases) and the fact that La Guyane (French Guiana) has been a notorious (often one-way, and no-return) French penalty-colony during many years.

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Most of us probably remember the legendary Papillon story (in the 1980s set on film, starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen) describing Henri Charrière’s prison and escape “adventures” in French Guiana i.e. from the infamous Devil’s Island.

Charrière tried nine times to get “the hell out of there,” but it took him as many round-trips Suriname, Trinidad, British Guiana (Guyana), Venezuela, Colombia, and back to French Guiana, before finally succeeding in a lasting escape getting asylum in Venezuela.

Today, fortunately, Le Bagne (The Prison) is not in function any longer, but French Guiana, of course, remains very — tropical. And for the French it still remains — the green hell. I long thought the latter as being quite an exaggeration, but after living almost a year in the jungle of French Guiana, I’m starting to get a better understanding, even a bit of appreciation for the slogan.

As I live in an open hut, closely surrounded by tropical forest, I daily (and nightly, for that matter) “enjoy the pleasures” of an abundant variety of humming insects and swarming wildlife, suffocating humidity, shattering rains and devastating heat, let’s say — the free play of the elements of tropical nature.

One needs “to love it not to hate it,” and to be honest, for the moment I’m still not sure if I don’t just hate it or maybe will actually start to love it.

But anyway, although I grew up in Suriname (which together with former British Guiana and French Guiana belongs to the Guyana region), and although I often went on the rivers and visited primary, Amazonian forests, there’s still a huge difference between visiting the forest and actually living in it.

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Coming to live in French Guiana after having left the tropics for almost thirty years, I think I underestimated this discrepancy gravely. I must admit it takes loads of energy, persistence, and stress-management to cope with this raw wild-west environment. And frankly — I don’t know if I will be able to keep on living in the forest for a substantial amount of time.

Yet, in some way it has become a kind of challenge “to survive,” but on the other hand one could ask why we should deliberately put ourselves in a difficult situation if there are so-called “better” alternatives.

Sometimes, I think I came here to learn humility or to build character, sometimes I think I just made a mistake. Sometimes it feels like I’m living in unspoiled paradise, and at other times I think: “Nice to say Hi, but also nice to say Goodbye!” I don’t know, I’m not sure yet.

On the other hand, many people who came to live here (temporarily or not) suggest that it takes at least a year to even get started to adapt. For the moment I keep that in mind, but well, we’ll see about it when I get there.

It’s sometimes said that extreme opposites are essentially the same. That extreme polarities are not so distant from each other as they seem. That, in some way, they even “touch” each other, “closing” the circle of life.

Things like high and low, or genius and insanity, very hot and very cold, or intense hate and endless love, things which, although opposed, bring about the same kind of emotions, understanding and experience. Moreover, things that need each other, need “the other side of the scale,” to even exist.

When I look at it in that way, this green hell could one day appear to be my green heaven. And that would mean I would have found home, home finally, at this remarkable place where there are no individual homes at all, but a shared habitat, welcoming an inconceivable number of living creatures and boasting an incredible vastness, diversity and intricate, delicate balance of Nature.

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