(The title was inevitable - sorry!!)
You don't so much breathe in the air in French Guiana as gulp it down, like an unexpected mouthful of stale pool water. The sheer weight and lack of oxygen is a force to be reckoned with in its own right. And that's after only stepping off the plane!
The truth be told, there was a certain air of calm to this deployment in comparison to my previous tours. The previous experience of having to pack up all material possessions, deciding what to bring in order to remain operational for a prolonged period and what to leave behind in France does indeed make the next occasion progressively easier. Of course having the right materials for the job is only half the battle. Getting over the finish line - certainly here in a country of which almost 95% is covered in dense equatorial rainforest - isn't at all as straightforward as merely pulling the right rope or gadget from our backpack.
In a slight change from tradition, our detachment of legionnaires were not pointed in the direction of Kourou and the home of the Legion's very own 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment (3°REI - 3ème Regiment Étranger d'Infanterie). Instead, our home for the next four months was to be the region's capital - Cayenne. Cradling the French Army's 9th Marine Infantry Regiment along the Pacific coast, our own little heat stricken and humid quarters were to be found a slight truck ride from the the main base. Unfortunately for us, unlike the main base where air conditioning units pump obscenely cool air into every room, our dank and dilapidated "building" boasted one working ceiling fan for every three on display, no bed linen and scum-covered showers and sinks (soon to be rendered spotless by a few dozen eager legionnaires). Now I'm not one to whine but seemingly small creature comforts come to play a massive part in one's enjoyment of a four month tour here in French Guiana.
After just shy of a week with little-to-nothing where we simply rambled around our suffocating barracks, the experience slowly gathered some ear-pricking pace with the announcement that I'd be undergoing quad bike training. A slender yet action-packed thirty six hours, it at least afforded me my first real look at the terrain out around these parts. The verdict - muddy as hell!! Seriously, this particular corner of the globe enjoys a mere forty or so days of dry season, the rest of the year giving way to the kind of torrential rain that leaves one searching in the most profound manner for an appropriate word to describe all that was one previously considered "rain". On one occasion, I honestly believed that one of the (working) ceiling fans was about to detach itself in an apparent audition for the next installment of the "Final Destination" franchise. In any case, such climatic conditions only added to the fun as our little four wheeled friends brought us spinning and sliding through undergrowth, shallow rivers, up unfathomably steep hills and anywhere else our instructors decided to go. The idea is to have fully-trained Legionnaires capable of driving any seized quad bikes from illegal gold-digging sites back to the French bases where they can be either stripped for parts or reconditioned and used by the military on future patrols. All in all, a rather sweet function to carry through the coming months and missions, provided we get to the quads before the smugglers speed off into the forbidding jungle where chase is ill-advised. Hmmm, we'll see………
Before all the fun and games could begin however, a certain introductory training course needed to be completed. Five days, one backpack filled with the essentials to survive in the jungle, oh and a machete hanging off the hip (bien sûr!!). The key factor regarding sleeping out in there rainforest is to set up camp before nightfall. Why? Because nightfall = equals the need for lights which will, depending on the nature of the mission, most likely be forbidden but which will in any case attract the unwanted attention of malaria-carrying mosquitos (yep, good auld French Guiana is simply riddled with the immune-system-decimating disease). Another reason to set up camp early is the afore-mentioned rain. In our backpacks we each carry a plastic tub, slightly reminiscent of a beer keg. In it we place every possession we wish to stay dry for the duration of the mission. Apart from the impermeability of this little tubby lunch box is its service as a flotation device whenever we find ourselves faced with a forbidding river-crossing. Tying one's rifle on to the sack, and then clipping the sack on to oneself guarantees at least keep the threat of drowning at bay until the other side of the creek is reached.
Right so, the camping then. Once the rain sheet is in place (whether it be raining or not), the hammock is the next piece of kit to go up. Luckily only one or two cases arose of a hammocks coming undone in midnight downpours. As miserable at it sounds, it's still not as bad as the guy who failed to properly seal his tubby lunchbox before attempting to cross a river. Luckily a lifeguard and narrow boat were on hand to rescue the poor(ly prepared) legionnaire in question. With three days still to negotiate on the course, his chance of a dry night's sleep was well and truly flushed right down the river.
On top of pitching a hammock, other skills were on offer such as fashioning a table, shoe rack, clothes line and stool for keeping our backpacks dry all from the stem of a single palm leaf. Ah machete, my new best friend. Starting fires under biblical piss storms was another neat trick to eagerly add to the survival skills repertoire, as was learning to collect river water for drinking in the correct manner, so as to avoid all the crap that habitually floats and flows in amazonian waterways. The final day saw the entire platoon undertake the famous "Piste Mangrove" where one is asked no more than to march waist-deep in paralyzing mud and submerged tree roots (or "shin crackers", as they should probably be more appropriately known) for forty minutes or so. In between, naturally, the odd rope-and-tyre-based obstacle rears its unfathomably unwelcome head, before the end is reached in a cacophonous din of screaming, panting and mud slurping.
Arriving at the end, I plopped my unrecognizable shape down on my backpack (yet another fantastic aspect of the tubby lunchbox), stared out into the tangled undergrowth comprising vines, palm leaves, spider webs and more undefined and undesired and really, whole-heartedly and dead seriously thought to myself;
"What the FUCK am I doing here?"
The only answer I could scrape off the bottom of my semi-delirious, semi-empty and aching skull, throbbing from dehydration was, in the end, rather ingeniously simple and inconclusive all at the same time.
I have absolutely no idea, but oh how I fucking love it!
The adventure continues…….