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French Polynesia - Tropical islands with a Parisian touch (31 May)

Interesting Facts about French Polynesia

IF YOU HAVEN’T SET FOOT in French Polynesia, it’s hard to imagine why personalities as diverse as mutineer Fletcher Christian, actor Marlon Brando, painter Paul Gauguin, and singer Jacques Brel fell head-over-heels for these far-away tropical isles. But all it takes is a single stroll along a black-sand strand, a dive into a translucent lagoon, or a single session of sensuous local dance to see why islands like Tahiti and Bora-Bora are considered paradise.
Spread across an area as large as Western Europe, French Polynesia encompasses five large archipelagos—the Society Islands, Tuamotus, Marquesas, Gambier group, and Austral Islands. They range from volcanic “high islands” with mountainous backbones swathed in rain forest to astoundingly flat coral atolls that wrap around some of the world’s largest lagoons. Only 67 of the territory’s 118 islands are inhabited.
Tahiti is one of the largest and by far the most populated (pop. 184,000) of the Society Islands. It went from obscurity to instant world renown in 1789 when Fletcher Christian and his mates decided to hijack the English ship H.M.S. Bounty and remain in paradise with their Tahitian girlfriends rather than return to Europe with Captain William Bligh. Gauguin enhanced the island’s reputation with his alluring portraits of local beauties. Papeete, the territorial capital, offers a cosmopolitan mix of Parisian-style sidewalk cafés and Polynesian-style tattoo parlors. The string of Society Islands west of Tahiti are equally intriguing, a necklace of tropical pearls that includes Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, and Bora-Bora. Rather than homogeneous landfalls, the islands have distinct personalities. Raiatea is renowned for its ancient Polynesian ruins and religious sites, Tahaa for its vanilla plantations, Huahine for its “savage” wilderness terrain, Bora-Bora for its jagged volcanic peak and shark diving, and Moorea for its picture-postcard beauty.
An hour’s flight north from Tahiti, the Tuamotu Archipelago offers an opposite landscape of palm-shaded coral atolls like Rangiroa, Manihi, and Tikehau where scuba diving, sea kayaking, and shopping for locally harvested black pearls are among the ways to while away a day. Farther north, the Marquesas were the jumping-off point for Polynesian migration to Hawaii. Among the least visited of any South Pacific landfalls, the supersecluded Austral and Gambier Islands are slices of old Polynesia that remain refreshingly unfettered by modern life and in some cases are completely off the grid.

HISTORY
Twenty-nine archaeological sites in the Iwokrama rain forest in central Guyana indicate significant Archaic (7000–3500 B.C.E.) and Horticultural occupations. Although no evidence of Paleo-Indians has yet been found, it will likely come to light based on what seems to be a presence in Guyana and the Amazonian basin. Archaic period sites include petroglyphs (carvings or inscriptions in rocks), sharpening grooves, and a chipping station. The varied range of sites suggests that Archaic peoples both processed local products and manufactured stone tools. Other sites show permanency of occupation, the sort of stability typical of fisheries and horticultural activities.
Guiana’s petroglyphs commonly belong to the Enumerative and Fish Trap (2050–1600 B.C.E.) petroglyph traditions.
Enumerative petroglyphs, mainly found in the South Rupununi savannahs, as their name suggests, provide a count of the animals caught during a hunting or fishing trip.
Around 4,000 years ago Guiana’s major rivers were reduced to deep pools by a severe drought. The types of fish to be caught in the deep pools differed from one pool to the next. In order to tell other people which kind of trap to use, fish traps were drawn on rocks near specific pools so they would know the kind of fish available there. Hence the name, fish trap petroglyphs.
When Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) visited the country in 1498, he found the indigenous South American and Caribbean tribes. Columbus named the area Land of Pariahs.
By the mid-17th century, the Dutch, English, and French had all established colonies in the region.
In 1817 France took complete control of the region.
Sugar and timber production were carried out by the slaves imported from Africa. When slavery was abolished in 1848 the sugar industry in French Guiana almost collapsed. In 1850 following its abolition, the French tried bringing in boatloads of Indians, Malays, and Chinese to work the plantations. Most of these immigrants ended up opening shops in Cayenne and other towns.
In the 19th century, France used French Guiana as a penal colony to reduce the cost of maintaining prisons in France and to bring in more settlers. Between 1852 and 1939 about 70,000 prisoners were deported from France to the various prisons of French Guiana, the most notorious of these being the one on Devil’s Island. It remained a penal colony until just after the end of World War II.
In 1946 French Guiana became an overseas department of France. Paris granted the country autonomy (but not independence) in 1982, and since then the Parti Socialiste Guyanais (PSG) of French Guiana has run the country.
The people of French Guiana enjoy a high standard of living primarily because of the heavy subsidies provided by the French government. In 1968, the European Space Agency established a rocketlaunching base in the town of Kourou in French Guiana.

GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Located in the northern part of South America, French Guiana is bordered by the North Atlantic Ocean to the north, Suriname in the west, and Brazil in the south and east.
Low-lying plains, hills, and small mountains characterize French Guiana’s terrain. Bellevue de l’Inini, at 2,792 feet, is the highest point in French Guiana. Important rivers of French Guiana include the Maronia, Sinnamary, Mana, Oyapock, and Approuage.
French Guiana has a tropical climate with hot and humid weather conditions throughout the year.
The region is also prone to thunderstorms and heavy showers during the rainy season, which lasts from January to June. The temperature in the region varies from 75°F to 90°F.
The country is home to a wide variety of flora that includes trees such as grapefruit, apricots, cinnamon, sapodillas, avocados, and rosewood as well as spices like cayenne. It is also a popular destination for bird watchers, and is known for its uniquely healthy jaguar population.

ECONOMY
The economy of French Guiana is heavily dependent on France.
Forestry, fishing, and agriculture are the main economic activities of French Guiana.
Rice and cassava are the important crops. Export items include shrimp, gold, timber, clothing, and rosewood essence.
The European Space Agency, an organization that consists of the national space organizations of 16 European nations, has used the Guiana Space Center at Kourou since 1968. The Space Center is a major source of revenue, contributing about 25 percent to French Guiana’s gross domestic product (GDP).

CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
French Guiana is predominantly Roman Catholic.
French is the national language of French Guiana although French Creole (a dialect mixing the local languages with French) is also widely spoken in the region. In addition, ethnic tribes speak their own languages such as Oyapi, Carib, Macushi, Palicur, Wayana, Arawak, Hixkaryana, and Emerillon. The Boni Maroon are known for their intricate woodcarvings, which are popular among tourists.
In terms of ethnicity French Guiana is home to ethnic blacks, mulattoes (mixed European and African ancestry), Amerindians (descendants of the original inhabitants of the region), Maroons (descendants of escaped slaves who settled largely in the interior parts of French Guiana), whites (Europeans, mainly French), Indonesians, Vietnamese, and Chinese.
Caribbean music and dance are extremely popular in French Guiana, as are pop, rock, rap, and reggae. The biggest celebrations are the Carnivals that take place annually just before Lent. Other than Abolition Day on June 10, French Guiana’s national holidays are the same as those of France.

CUISINE
The cuisine of French Guiana is greatly influenced by Chinese, Creole, Indonesian, French, and Vietnamese cooking.
Cayenne pepper, also known as Capsicum frutescens, is the native spice of French Guiana and is found in abundance. It is made from the dried pods of chili peppers and has a strong and pungent smell.
Bouillon d’aoura, the favorite dish of French Guiana, consists of smoked fish, prawns, vegetables, chicken, and crab, served with aoura, a fruit of the savannah trees. Other traditional recipes include afada (a spicy dish made with ripe plantains), azowe (a sweet snack made with corn flour, peanut flour, and sugar), baba (ground unhusked rice), baka kasaba (pastries made from cassava flour), and saramakan chicken (chicken and cassava stew). Drinks made from sugarcane and wines are favorite beverages. A concoction of rum, lime juice, and sugarcane syrup served on ice is a popular cocktail called Ti Punch in French Guiana.

BIRTH
The birth of a child is greeted with celebrations among the Maroon tribes (such as the Aluku, also known as Boni Maroon) of French Guiana. The Boni Maroon believe in the theory of nenseki (transmigration of the soul), the idea that, if a soul has led a good life and dies, it returns to the world as another animal or, sometimes, as a human again.
The birth of twins, however, has traditionally evoked strong divergent reactions, depending on the tribe. While some groups deified twins, others saw them as evidence of evil forces and killed them at birth. In many cases even the mother of the twins was killed, since it was believed that evil spirits had possessed her.
In modern Guiana the vast majority of people have embraced Christianity, and children are baptized according to Christian tradition.

COMING OF AGE
Among the Amerindians of French Guiana a girl is thought to have come of age when she has her first menstrual period. These tribes believe that the menstrual blood can attract monstrous spirits by its smell, so girls are taught how to protect themselves from evil spirits during their menses. They are advised not to go to the river, the kitchen, or to the community center, meet villagers, or even participate in any community work.
When boys, on the other hand, reach puberty, they undergo a period of rigorous training and seclusion to become what the tribes call “faith healers,” or true tribesmen. They are trained to become breadwinners and also taught the ways of the governing council.

MARRIAGE
Earlier the Amerindians did not marry outside their community, but over time this has changed. Nowadays they marry freely outside their communities, and the tribes have mingled. When two Amerindian youth decide to get married, the boy’s family visits the girl’s home with the formal marriage proposal. If the marriage proposal is accepted by the girl’s family, both sides offer each other cigarettes. Before marriage both the boy and the girl are subjected to various tests to prove their competence for marriage and its responsibilities. The boy has to prove himself as a farmer, artisan, and hunter, whereas the girl has to prove herself to be an accomplished weaver, potter, and basket maker.

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