The Wall Street Journal - Infinity and beyond
February 13, 2015

A fragment of France -- and space -- on South American soil.


Standing on the banks of the Maroni River, I look across the brown choppy waters from Suriname to French Guiana as ferrymen hustle for my business. It’s too far to make out St.-Laurent-du-Maroni in much detail, just a few mustard-colored buildings, a communication aerial and low-rise warehouses by a jetty.

I board the Psalm 23, one of the narrow motorized dugouts that dart across the river for a greasy €5. A dozen passengers cram between striped nylon holdalls, woven baskets of vegetables and yellow plastic canisters. This is a busy waterway for locals: The Surinamese head east to use European schools and hospitals, and the French travel west to buy cheaper groceries in Suriname dollars.

Up close, St.-Laurent is remarkably pretty. The Mediterranean-style mayor’s office wouldn’t look out of place in Antibes. On the same sleepy street are crumbling colonial facades of provincial government offices, evidence of over three centuries of French rule that continues today. France would be loath to pack its bags entirely; French Guiana hosts one of the country’s biggest investments.

Just down the coast in Kourou, the Guiana Space Centre launches more than half the world’s commercial satellites. Built in the 1960s, the site was partly chosen for its proximity to the equator—just 5° north—where the Earth spins more quickly and rockets benefit from a slingshot effect. New technology has improved matters further. Payloads at the start of operations were under two tons, but recent launches are carrying more than 10 times that.

On a three-hour tour of the center, the dryly narrated bus trip around the launch sites is rather uninspiring, but the life-size model of the Ariane 5 rocket gives me goose bumps, as does the Jupiter Room, the nerve center during countdown. I press my nose against the glass of the public viewing gallery and know I’m watching some of Europe’s brightest minds at work, sitting at this bank of desks surrounded by screens flashing angles inside Ariane’s hangar. I crane to see the scribbles on notepads; I cannot imagine what these men and women might be dreaming up.

Launch site & Jupiter Room

I had timed my trip to French Guiana to coincide with a live launch, though I was aware that the schedule can change up until the final countdown. I’m already in the region when the space center announces a delay. I rearrange my travel plans around the new date, but when the launch is postponed a second time—well beyond the date of my return flight home—I reluctantly give up on the idea.

Instead, I spend the last night of my trip visiting the public beach at Montjoly, one of the world’s few nesting sites for leatherback turtle. There’s a crowd gathering on the shore watching one of these half-ton creatures at work. Her back flippers dig into the sand, moving like rotor blades, carving out a deep narrow hole. She grunts and pants, raising up her head every few minutes to gasp for air. It’s an hour before she finally pauses. Her back leg movements halt and she begins laying her eggs. I’m close enough to see her eyes shimmer in the moonlight. “We say they cry because they never get to see their babies,” a local tells me.

It’s a primal spectacle watching this creature do what its species has done for millennia. Down the coast rockets blast off carrying powerful instruments, like the Herschel telescope, and hoping to discover more about the beginning of time and the origins of our universe. As I watch this turtle labor back down to the sea, on the same beach she herself had been born on, I feel like we might do as well to look into her wet eyes.

Other out-of-this-world experiences in French Guiana

Go Behind Bars // French Guiana was once a penal colony, with 80,000 convicts dispatched across the Atlantic over the course of a century. Take a trip through this haunting history with a visit to the Camp de la Transportation, where convicts were processed, or Îles du Salut, an archipelago that includes Devil’s Island, of “Papillon” fame.

Camp de la Transportation

Devil's Island

To Market // The Central Market in Cayenne is one of the best in the Guianas. Find fruit, vegetables and flowers on avenue du Président Monnerville, as well as a lively fish market on rue du vieux port de Cayenne. The atmosphere is best around dawn, when locals do their shopping and street buskers play lilting Caribbean music.

Get in Touch With Nature // The 94,700-hectare Marais de Kaw-Roura Nature Reserve is home to a prolific caiman population and the world’s only ruminant bird, the hoatzin.

Kaw-Roura Nature Reserve