Wednesday, June 14, 2006

I first laid eyes on her at the Hotel Amazonia in downtown Cayenne. Her tanned, pint-sized breasts heaved towards the sky like the boosters of an Ariane rocket. The dingy excuse of a pool had become a catwalk of men, trying to catch her attention by pointing their speedos towards her, like wind socks on a launch pad. But it didn’t take a rocket scientist from the European Space Agency to discover the real identity of this mysterious brunette. I did.

Haggling with the concierge, I was told that the exhibionist was none other than the incredibly talented porn star known as Julia Channel. ‘It’s Julia. Le star du equis ’, whispered Francoise, as he arranged room keys at the reception. I had hardly touched down in this outpost of French colonialism in South America, and I was within striking distance of my introduction into the French film industry. Who needs Cannes I thought, when you can have Cayenne?.

It was evident from my arrival that French Guiane was an outpost for the misunderstood - rocket scientists, Legionnaires, a porn star on the literary trail of ‘Papillon’. I had watched back in my college days, many late night reruns of the movie ‘Papillon’ starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, so I was drawn to French Guiane, not out of lust for Julia, but wanderlust. This small territory of France, wedged between Suriname in the west and the northeast shoulder of Brazil, is home to another breed of outcasts made famous in the movies - the French Foreign Legion.

From my home in Bogotá – Colombia - the trip involved three time zones, a night in Caracas, and a milk run of stopovers in the French Caribbean islands. When the Air France shuttle finally touched down at the Rochambeau Airport, -a gleaming terminal just outside the capital Cayenne - my travelling companion and I entered into shock. We could not believe that we were still in South America. Instead of the mud huts, we have grown accustomed to seeing from foggy aircraft windows, we had arrived at ‘de Gaulle’ of the Amazon.

And French Guiana is a department of France stubbornly resisting assimilation with the rest of the continent. At customs, a brusque grammar-Nazi scrutinized my faulty French pronunciation, but ignored my luggage. There are no roads to Brazil, but passengers fly direct to Paris on Air France. The currency is the French franc and the TV is beamed in from the Old World. The centrepiece of our hotel was a polished porcelain bidet.

After doing the tourist walk through Cayenne’s palm-lined Place des Palmistes, I faced the daunting prospect of finding souvenirs to take back home. I knew that once I left this tin roofed city in search of the abandoned prison camps, I would be as Papillon said ‘out in the middle of the swamp 1,000 miles from nowhere’. But the local shops sold mostly boxed butterflies- giant blue monarchs- and expensive French lingerie. I settled on a winged bug.

With my dictionary in one hand, and my endangered species in the other, I headed to the state museum to stock up on my general culture of the Guiane. The Caribbean-style mansion of painted wooden beams which housed the Museum seemed to be one of the few buildings in Cayenne which was not shuttered up on a rainy afternoon. After paying the entry fee of 20 francs, I wandered around giant jars of jaundiced formaldehyde with the preserved remains of snakes and floating toads. But on the second floor of the old Musee, a small cabinet caught my attention.

The cabinet formed part of an exhibition called- Les Briques du Bagne- the bricks of the ‘Bagne’. Three clay bricks, engraved with the letters A.P. stood on display. The bricks seemed somehow special and important to occupy such a privileged corner of the Museum. I had grown accustomed to museums all over South America which display canon balls and Simon Bolivar’s extensive collection of swords. But these bricks obviously played an important part as building blocks in this territory’s history.

In my faulty French, I asked the curator why the bricks?. He looked dumbfounded. I was the only tourist in three hundred years to take the effort of visiting the museum in Cayenne, and I was thrust into linguistic gridlock. I tried again. ‘Why the bricks?’. Why would a museum display three - one hundred year old - bricks?. ‘These are the bricks made by the prisoners of the Bagne’, came the reply.

WhenI stepped out of the museum, I was culturally enriched, but felt scolded. I had been in the Bagne all along. Bagne being the word used to describe this mosquito infested swamp and the land used by the old penal system operating across the territory. It was then that an awful thought crossed my mind. I must find a brick. Who needs a butterfly carcass when you can have a brick?. My motive was set, all I needed to do was find one.

In the eighteenth century, France was at war, fighting for control of her newly conquered territories in Canada and Louisiana from her arch-rival, the British. France also wanted to snag a piece of the colonial action in South America and in 1642 claimed the dense rainforest of the Guiane, as theirs. But serving no real economic purpose to Versailles, an edict was passed in 1791, converting the Guiane as a deportation centre for a cumbersome prison population who would subsequently died of yellow fever and malaria. As the French colonial experience in South America failed, another idea took root in France. Three tiny islands perched 40 kilometres from the Guianese shore were to become an experimental Alcatraz in the Atlantic.

This leafy cluster of islands, ironically called the Iles du Salud -Islands of Health- housed its first political prisoners back in 1792. But the exercise in convict deployment was short lived. Domestic problems at home forced the French Government to abandon the prisons and for decades the inmates languished on a forgotten shore. Following the successful deployment of criminals from England to Australia in the nineteenth century, France decided to follow example and populate the Guiane as one giant concentration camp.
A decree in 1852, set the process of mass deportations and common criminals were carted off to serve their sentences overseas in the sunny Caribbean. During the first couple of years some 8000 criminals were shipped here, but only 3000 survived. Poor hygiene and raging epidemics wrecked havoc on the inmates and the islands became identified with death and despair, instead of good health.

As the penal system grew, so did its reputation. It was impossible for convicts to escape from these islands, due to the shark infested waters, rough currents and treacherous cliffs of wind beaten rock. Soon these remote islands earned the nickname the ‘Devil’s Islands’, because they housed the most dangerous criminals of the Republic. In order to populate the islands, the French penal administration set up camps on the mainland and put petty criminals to work clearing the rainforest and cultivating the land. This system of work labour became known as ‘doublage’, or double- time. For every year, a prisoner spent locked up in confinement, he had to do an equal amount of time in the swampy ‘Bagne’ cutting down trees and cooking clay bricks to build more prison cells.

As France rushed to populate the Guyane, many prisoners were, in fact innocent of their crimes. Hasty trails and false accusations resulted in a series of scandals for the French government, in which respectable men were deported to this tropical inferno and left to die. Such was the case of Alfred Dreyfus, who became the cause célebre of the French intellectual classes and who insisted on his innocence, despite the fact that a military tribunal had accused Dreyfus of high treason for supposedly selling military secrets to the Prussian army. As a high ranking coronel in the French Army, Alfred Dreyfus was deported to Devil’s Island and spent four years and three months trying to get an appeal. It was only after the influential author and human rights crusader, Emile Zola wrote a dissertation titled ‘J’accuse’ in defence of Dreyfus that the French people realized the real motives behind Dreyfus’ arrest and exile.

The son of a Jewish family, Dreyfus had been framed by anti-Semites in the French establishment. Although Dreyfus regained his freedom in 1889, his military career was over and his reputation damaged beyond repair. Even today, a century after Dreyfus’ release, the so-called Dreyfus Affair continues to haunt the French political scene.

Although much of the infamy of the Devil’s islands is attributed to this famous political prisoner, the fate of others here is largely forgotten. Only one documented escape was pulled off my Charles de Rudio, who was dispached to the islands for his assasination attempt against Emperor Napoleon III of France. A plaque in the old warden’s residence, commemorates the legacy of the less fortunate inmates.

Today, the islands are an attraction for curiosity seekers from Europe who endure the hour’s boat ride from Cayenne. The forty kilometers trip could be easily done, if the sea is calm, but the crossing is at best of times, rough. Passengers are warned from the start to find seats inside the catamaran built for hurricane force winds. But I wanted to be out on desk, with the typical French honeymooners and of course, Julia in her white tank tee and Gucci glasses. Julia was on a sabbatical from the big screen. Too much porn, I guess can drive you to French Guiane.

Yet despite the waves, and being exposed to the best wet t-shirt contest of my life, Julia and I disembarked at the largest of the islands of the ile Royale. It’s funny what a hundred years can do to a place like Devils’ Island - a porn star and a photographer strolling down the concrete pier where once emaciated prisoners did.

The ile Royale, was the main penal colony, and housed most of the criminals, including Dreyfus and ‘Papillon’. Coconuts lie strewn across narrow foot paths, leading up a crumbling cemetery and down to a lighthouse tower and some abandoned barracks. After fifty years, nature has taken over some of the buildings transforming the cell blocks into eerie heaps of rubble and twisted steel. The solitary confinement cells still remain, but the roofs have caved in by erosion and the permanent pounding of hurricanes and tropical storms. But traces of penal life are strewn everywhere, literally. The wooden doors which once were slammed shut in the face of a convict, hang on their rusty hinges and one can count the scratches on a walls where a prisoner counted his days in darkness.

I climbed into an abandoned cell and closed the thick wooden door on myself. The shrill of the chicaras and the crying of black crows in the trees faded with the solitary confinement. The world around me fell silent. I was in what Charriere called the ‘mangeuse d’hommes’- the eater of men. Meanwhile Julia was strolling down by the sea - scouting for locations for her upcoming epic, and dipping her feet in the sea.

Convicted in Paris in 1931, at the age of twenty-five, for a murder he supposedly did not commit, Henri Charriere’s legend haunts Devil’s Island. Forty two days after his arrival in the French penal colony, Charriere became known as ‘Papillon’ because of the giant blue butterfly tattooed on his chest. He managed to escape, traveling some 1500 miles on the open sea in a tiny boat, but was recaptured by the French authorities and sentenced to two years in solitary. After seven more daring yet unsuccessful escapes, he was banished to Devil’s Island, in this archipelago of the damned. Finally, after languishing on the same island where Alfred Dreyfus pondered his fate, Papillon tried escaping one last time, by calculating the ebb and flow of tides, wind currents and the presence of sharks. The butterfly then floated to freedom on a raft made out of abandoned coconuts shells.

However most ‘bagnards’ – convicts - were not as lucky as Papillon. Prison terms handed down to the deportees were no less than ten years, and subsequently the convicts had to remain in French Guiana at least twenty. With the great influx of convicts, towns flourished and were administered entirely by the A.P.- the Administration Penitentiare. In St. Laurent de Maroni, an Indian community was displaced to make way room for a sprawling prison compound and the notorious Camp de Transportation. Here, prisoners who had survived the two week transatlantic crossing were processed and housed until their legal situation was defined. Most were banished to the islands, others were forced into chain gangs, clearing the forest and dying of hunger and infection. However, the most famous inmate of the Camp de Transportation has still not been released.

Locked in a wooden crate, in a building dilapidated by hanging vines and shrubs, the guillotine which once served the A.P, has been forgotten by the passing of time. Hundreds of men were executed in St. Laurent de Maroni, as a public display of terror and their cadavers thrown into the forest nearby. Execution by guillotine continued until the camp’s closure in 1936. For the prisoners who did not die by the blow of the blade, a lifetime in the bagne did not prove any better. The bagne became known as the ‘guillotine seche’ or dry guillotine, because it led to a slow, certain death in the tropics. Of the 70,000 convicts sent to French Guiana only 20,000 men survived.

Often, the prisoners who were swiftly executed by the guillotine, were considered the lucky ones. Being banished to the bagne, meant that, you lost touch with your family, and you could spend your entire life, going in and out of solitary confinement, sometimes not seeing the light of day, for years at a time. After being locked up in total darkness and isolation, the psychological scars ran deep. When the Salvation Army stepped in to help repatriate thousands of prisoners from 1946 to 1953, many men had no where to go. France begrudgingly had to received the bagnards, but French society did not.

By the time, a freed man returned home, there was often no trace of the life he once lived. Entire families had moved on or loved ones perished in the world wars which ravaged Europe during the ‘bagne’s’ existence. Some prisoners, after only having known the world inside the cold, damp walls of their cells, stayed on in the Guiane after liberation. Most notably, prisoners from France’s other colonies, Algeria and Morocco, who never really considered France as their home, found themselves spending their final days to this remote corner of the world.

For many ex convicts, the process of reintegrating back into society was as traumatic as the life they led behind bars. For the men who had been educated in France as skilled labourers, carpenters and blacksmiths, the swamp lands of the Bagne offered new possibilities for work. Others with different training, attorneys and bankers, tried to find work in St. Laurent as clerks. The feared few, intellectuals and artists, who were branded as revolutionaries or traitors, ended up searching for work in the gold mines of the Amazon. The town of St. Laurent, however, couldn’t accommodate so many unemployed men. ‘The town’s folk used to throw stones, and rotten fruit at them’ recounts the daughter of a prominent council man in St. Laurent. ‘Many just slept in doorways and turned to drink’.

Today, St. Laurent is a forgotten border town on the Maroni river facing Suriname. Small wooden dug-outs shuttle back and forth across the muddy river laden with smuggled goods from the nearest trading post in Albina. Dutch goods are highly sought after in the town, especially cooking oil, diapers and cases of Heinecken beer.

After touring the islands with a handful of sea-sick French vacationers , I raced down the only highway in French Guiana from Cayenne to St. Laurent du Maroni in search of finding the last of the ‘bagnards’. St. Laurent had been home to many ex convicts, but no one could confirm if there were any still alive. I knew that if I could not find a survivor, I might, at least stumble across some good bricks. After asking around in my pigeon-french with the tourist office, the police and locals, I found myself at a dead end. I could not get a response to whether there were survivors of the Bagne, in this town. But then appeared Sparrow. A hefty sailor from Trinidad who sang calypso and spoke some English.

Sparrow took me at the hospital. A two story wooden edifice, built in the last century looming over the town, like an old shipyard in a Joseph Conrad novel. At the end of a long, dark corridor and flanked only by a wall of broken shutters, crouched an old man. His eyes fixed upon the floor boards, while mosquitoes swarmed overhead in the green, incandescent light. As the old man faded in and out of the night, the warden wandered, from room to room, checking in on the dying. At ninety eight, Mohammed Bashir has been an inmate at the St. Laurent de Maroni hospital for longer than he could remember. Deaf and senile, Bashir was sitting out his final days, just yards from the pier where he once disembarked, as a handsome young convict, from the steamship Le Marseillaise.

In 1924, Bashir, along with hundreds of thieves and crooks, was shipped from France’s port of Brest to this jungle outpost on the edge of the Amazon to serve a sentence resulting from a ‘family dispute’. He was the last known survivor of the colony of the damned. As he struggled to remember the names of his sons, his lips uttered some flash from the past. ‘There was some good’, he would mumble. ‘But a lot of bad’.

Upon his release in 1944, Bashir along with a other freed men, found jobs, got married and raised families in the same decaying town, only blocks away from the prison walls, which once housed them. Today, this weathered French Algerian spends his nights gazing out onto the banks of the Maroni river, where barges lie rusting in the weeds. As I leave the old man sitting alone in the desolate hospital of St. Laurent, I could not but help feel that Mohammed Bashir, was the last actor in a tragedy, which began over two hundred years ago, and is now finally drawing to an end. Like a cruel twist of fate, Bashir – a free man – was still a prisoner. A prisoner of time.

With the vision of the hospital and Bashir spinning in my mind, I strolled to the local watering hole to drench my thirst on a muggy night with a cold beer. It was then that the legend of Julia Channel came back to haunt me. ‘See the star of X’, advertised a poster which had been plastered on the bar’s window. ‘Xclusive engagement’ it screamed. It was a tempting proposition.

I had already seen Julia in her birthday suit by the pool and we ended up crossing part of the ocean together to our islands of health – the ile Royale. But there wasn’t much more to do in this tropical Klondike - crawling with smugglers and gold merchants - on a Saturday night, than go and see Julia again, swirling down a brass pole in her one act show at the Waikiki Club.

Sometime around midnight, St, Laurent was alive and kicking. Mopeds sped through the town while young men in gold chains honked at the mulatto girls standing in doorways in leopard-skin pants, plunging necklines and stilettos heels outside the club. Julia Channel must have really double-crossed someone to have ended up here,I thought. One can’t get much lower, on the porno totem pole than the Waikiki. But after debating the fourty dollar cover price at the door, I decided my money was better spent on baguettes and beer.

I don’t consider myself a collector of things, let alone a thief. But I had to do it. It was too tempting to give up and throw back into the ditch where it came from. But somewhere, someone I thought, might find this brick interesting enough to start a conversation. Or just appreciate it for all the trouble I went through trying to smuggle it out of the Bagne.

The brick in question, was not just any brick, except the fact it weighed a ton. It was a brick from a collapsed cell near to where ‘Papillon’ languished for years as one of the thousands of inmates at St. Laurent de Maroni detention camp. It was covered in layers of black mud, and abandoned since the last century when some prisoner probably threw it into a ditch on his way back to the Camp de Transportation - after toiling all day in the mosquito infested swamp - cutting down trees.

But there were many bricks. Most of them still supporting the colonial homes in St. Laurent de Maroni. Others so severely eroded by torrential rains, that they barely held up the garden walls of the old estates in this former colony. So why would anyone miss one ‘brique?’, I pondered to myself as I dug my knuckles deep into the mud, trying to pry loose this historical artifact.

Then suddenly, the only person in St. Laurent who had nothing better to do on a rainy Sunday morning than to keep an eye on bricks, stopped me in my tracks. “Monsieur, you cannot take this brique!’ stared down at me a cop in his blue uniform. ‘Why not?, I answered, pleading ignorance. “If everyone took a brick Monsieur, we wouldn’t have a town’ he scolded.

I managed to convince the Gendarme that I just wanted to take a picture of the brick, and that I would return it to the ditch first thing in morning. He smiled and left with a warning, ‘If you decide to take the brick from this town, you cannot not take it out of the country’, he warned. So as fast as I saw him disappear on his bicycle down the muddy street, the brick vanished into my knapsack, and there it stayed for two weeks.

As the day came to return home, I headed for the airport with my ‘brique’ wrapped neatly inside my clothes. As I recalled the words of the righteous copper in St. Laurent, I started having visions of a Midnight Express episode at the Air France counter. ‘Do you have anything to declare?’ asked airport security . ‘No. Nada. Rien’. I answered politely, digging my sweaty palms deep into my journalist’s vest. And brick smuggling is a heinous crime, I thought to myself –punishable by a US $ 2000.00 fine - as bricks fetch good money on the black market in Paris for antique collectors, a reliable scource told me. Bricks arriving in Paris from overseas flights are carted of to a warehouse and subsequently returned to this overseas territory as part of the historical repatriation program.

So I raced to the sign at the airport which spelled out the rules. ‘C’EST INTERDIT FIREARMS, DRUGS, FLAMMABLE LIQUIDS’. What about bricks?. Why wasn’t that on the list? . It must be a mistake, I thought to myself. And as I checked my baggage through to Caracas, my nerves began to crack. I swore the X-ray machine would find it and I would be carted off the plane to pay a heafty fine and face interrogation by the French grammar-police. Any square object that looks like well packed cocaine was suspicious. I was doomed to do more time in the Bagne.

Twenty minutes after the Airbus flight to Paris took off, we did too. I was a free man, like Charriere. The flight to Caracas seemed an eternity, so I dug myself in for a night of champagne, camembert and a warm blanket As I flew, my brick did too.

We touched down in Caracas at dawn, and much to my disgrace my luggage didn’t appear. My green backpack with my name and address on it was somewhere over the Atlantic or impounded in Cayenne by the French National Police. Air France hesitatingly took an inventory of all my personal belongings which had gone astray. Five boxers, three khaki pants, half a dozen cotton shirts and a guide book to the Guiane. ‘Anything else?’ asked the Air France lots baggage woman. “No nothing’, I replied thinking of my lost brick. Sure?. ‘Absolutement’ I replied in distress. So I headed home to my Bogota connection without any clothes and worst of all, my prized brick. Days of phonecalls and telexes between Caracas, Bogota, Paris and Cayenne passed without any sign of the luggage. Certainly, French Customs now had the brick firmly in their possession and were ready to auction it off or place it in a warehouse with hundreds of other wayward bricks.

Two weeks later, the phone rang at my home. It was Air France. ‘Señor Emblin, we believe you luggage is here’ said the airline offical. So I dashed out of the house -through Bogota’s drizzly streets - to El Dorado International airport. Sure enough, that green bag in the corner was mine, and almost unrecognizable by the bountiful red tape of French customs and a torn tags.

On a closing note, my brick went from Cayenne to Paris on the wrong flight, and on to Bangkok (someone at Air France confused Bangkok with Bogota). In Bangkok it was returned to Paris via Hong Kong, which seemed the fastest route. (It had all the United Airlines stickers). In Paris, Air France returned it to its point of origin Cayenne, as they thought I was from there. The brick went home again. But some rocket scientist in Rocambeau figured out that I had filled out the lost baggage form in Caracas, so it took off again to Caracas via Fort de France (Martinique). But in Caracas, the brick was too much of a problem, so they took the decision to return it to Paris on AF as they realized I could fill out a lost baggage form in Venezuela, but live next door. So, the brick was put on the next available flight to Colombia from Paris. Three entries into CDG (Charles de Gaulle) and no lost brick. “Your bag really flew” said Carlos, the baggage clerk in Bogota as he strained under the weight of the bag. ‘And my brick did too'.

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