Friday, June 22

Where's Wally?

How exactly do you lose an whole Legionnaire? Not a piece, not a morsel, not a stray, frayed corner or loosely bound front cover, but an entire operational soldier. This land is not for the light hearted, nor the disorientated, that's for sure.

The missions over here in French Guiana consist mainly of taking a riverboat up/down stream to a debarkation site. From there, one marches several kilometers until we stumble across a pre-identified illegal gold extraction site where poverty-stricken clandestine Brazilians scrape manically at the earth's surface in search of that coveted yellowish metal. We silently remove our backpacks, load our rifles and then rush into the clearing screaming "Armée Française!! Armée Française!!", watching powerlessly as the gold smugglers scarper for the tree line. 

French Guiana being an actual department of France means that our hands are tied on many levels on operations over here. No chasing the gold diggers into the jungle (OK, well that's mainly a safety issue for us), no explosives (WTF!?), plus a plethora of other restrictive operating procedures that really only allow us to tie our shoelaces unattended and maybe relieve our bodily functions at pre-arranged intervals throughout the working day. Frustrating? - yes. But surely I should have long-since passed the frustration issue at this point.

Here in the tiny port of St.Jean de Maroni, a combination of soldiers and gendarmes undertake cooperative missions as described (ever so enthusiastically) above. In anticipation of our operational deployment in the jungle, we undergo a 5-day training course (as described in my last blog). The gendarmes' lasts 3 days. Attention must then be paid to the assessment of each individual's performance and a decision on their aptitude for the forest taken. Each individual beneath a certain rank, it would appear.

The patrol in question saw a group of legionnaires and a group of gendarmes head off in to the thick green mass in search of  another gold-digging site. The infiltration march was long, but the sacks had been lightened back at the boats with any non-essential items removed and left behind for collection later in the day. No problem ("normalement"). A bit of the way along the trail, an incomprehensibly overweight gendarme started to complain of breathing difficulties. Pulling up completely and demanding that a legionnaire be left behind for security while the others went on, there was initial hesitation. Our captain was reluctant to leave one of ours behind, seeing as it was one of theirs in trouble. Why not another one of theirs? Nope, we needed all the gendarmes we could carry, apparently, and this fat fucker was un-carry-able. So, GPS co-ordinates were taken and the rest moved off in search of the gold site while the crocked and the guard awaited their return.

Unfortunately, the crocked felt ten times better in one foul swoop and decided to lead the unwitting legionnaire on an ill-advised march to catch-up with the others. If the fat fucker genuinely felt up to speed, that would be one thing to consider. His lack of a GPS, however, was rather the over-riding issue that he himself failed to factor in before setting off on his quest. Needless to say our lads arrived back at the site several hours later to find the two culprits gone. Vanished. Uh oh!!

And so the panic began. Back at the base, the captain of the French army - together with our own CO - launched a full-scale search for two missing persons in the equatorial jungle. The chances weren't looking good. Average life-expectancy for a fully-equipped soldier in the jungle is 72 hours. Forget all illusions of improvised animal traps and refined hunting methods. A soldier, with as much water and food as his bag/back can carry, lasts 72 hours. Straight up. No-one knew anything, and so the minds raced and wandered. A snake bite necessitating movement/evacuation. Kidnapping by displaced gold-diggers. Everything was possible. Nothing was ruled out. Groups were mobilized back at base to head into the dense forest searching for the lost. What would they find? - no-one dared imagine. Rifle burst flared up into the tree canopy, helicopters passed overhead, the search went on and on and on. Where were they? What happened to them?

As it turned out - a wrong turn. Instead of going right on the path, the fat fucker of a GPS-less gendarme chose left. A left turn, a wrong turn that brought the terrible twosome almost fourteen kilometers away from their group who were forced to abandon their mission in the search for their comrades. The gendarme is question was a major. A major for whom the 3-day preparation course was deemed unnecessary. Indeed.

Let it be noted that - in general - the gendarmes are truly a top, professional bunch of lads. Their particular job-description is amongst the most wide-ranging and inconclusive of all the French security forces. Working hours determined by the job at hand, annual overseas tours guaranteeing heightened salaries and domestic tensions in equal measure. Heading into the jungle equipped with loaded side-arms and streamlined kits containing the BARE minimum, they truly are an admirable and formidable force to behold.

Except this one fat fucker. This one fat fucker, and the system failure that allowed him anywhere near an equatorial rainforest.

They found our guys eventually. 36 hours later. Relieved was not the word. Infuriated stole implicit precedence. Naturally the gendarmes have revised their tactics, their techniques, their deployment of physically questionable personnel into the heart of darkness. Fortunately, it wasn't a case of too little too late. But it very nearly was. Despite the irony given the heat and humidity, one long-standing mantra rings eternally true here in French Guiana.

Stay frosty, soldier.

Monday, June 4

Welcome to the Jungle

(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…….