I’ve had an adventurous life as the ‘trailing spouse’ of a pilot, following the handsome Norwegian bush pilot I met in Botswana around the world for the past 20 years and doing some odd jobs along the way.
Often, I’m asked when I’m going to write my memoirs, so, when one of our labour MPs, Mr Khalil Eideh, made the news recently for being denied entry to the US while on government business, it brought back memories of when I faced deportation from French Guiana, prompting me to write up one of my own interesting anecdotes.
Like this particular MP, I was also on government busines and working as an airborne geophysical survey operator for a Candian company in the mid 90s. I’d just finished a survey contract in Greenland, spent ten days at our apartment in Ottawa and had travelled on my own via Miama to the French Guianese capital, Cayenne, to join the rest of the Geoterrex (Fugro) Airborne Survey crew who were waiting for me.
Now it was midnight, the airport had emptied from the last flight that would enter or depart for twenty-four hours, and apparently there was a ‘problem’ with my paperwork, the junior official indicated. At the time I was not particularly worried. I knew my government working papers were in order so there must have been a mistake. The junior official, however, wasn’t so sanguine as he let me know, in French, that the head honcho Immigration Inspector was on his way to the airport to give his ruling.
This, it soon turned out, involved a lot of shouting in French as he spoke no English, and a lot of stabbing his finger at my chest and then at a document I refused to sign since it was written in French and I couldn’t understand a word of it.
Apparently, I was unlucky enough to get caught in the middle of political ructions caused by the then-recent French nuclear testing in the Pacific. In protest, the Australian government had introduced tourist visa requirements for the French, and the French had reciprocated. My employer, Fugro, had organized government working visas for the crew and, understandably, had overlooked the need for a tourist visa for me, their only Australian employee.
So, now, here I was in a French colony nestled between Suriname and Brazil, at midnight on a steamy hot night with no tourist visa, being confronted by a very agitated French Immigration official smelling strongly of sweat and garlic.
Our project manager, a French Canadian, arrived at the airport to plead my case and when that failed, to try and persuade the Immigration Inspector to simply confiscate my passport and let me sleep the night at the hotel in town before presenting myself for the next day’s flight out of the country.
The inspector was adamant. With more shouting and finger pointing he ordered me to sleep in a room in the deserted airport, ‘overseen’ by a 6’4” French Guyanese soldier shouldering an AK-47.
Fortunately, my husband’s best friend, and my fellow crew member, Jorn, intervened.
Concerned for my virtue at the hands of this lone French Guyanese guard, Jorn chivalrously offered to subject himself to the discomfort of also spending the night on a wooden bench in a deserted airport until my imminent deportation the next day.
The Inspector gave his permission and Jorn and I spent the night listening to the scratching and rustles of clawed nocturnal creatures while telling stories. I also must have done a great job talking up my sister Penny’s charms, too, since Jorn and Penny were married several years later. 😉 )
Anyway, I wasn’t deported. Through good fortune, the manager of the hotel where the crew was stationed happened to be a friend of the Minister for Immigration who’d been drinking at the bar with Jorn and the rest of the crew a few nights before. Fortuitously, he’d dropped his card on the counter, hardly expecting to get a phone call to ask for his help in a delicate diplomatic/deportation issue, I’m sure.
But that’s what he got and the next morning I was met by my now smiling nemesis, the Immigration head honcho from my previous night’s encounter who said the matter had been sorted out (no apology, mind you) and I was free to go. (Later, I got a personal apology from the French Guyanese Minister for Immigration.)
Thus began the most gruelling two-and-a-half months’ contract in all my four years of survey work, operating the computer in the back of a Cessna 404 over the jungle for 8 hours every day. We couldn’t use the air conditioning which interfered with the data acquisition equipment, and the 40 degree heat and high humidity caused perpetual turbulence so that I had to time my throwing-up very carefully for the few seconds between closing off and setting up new survey lines for the pilot to fly.
When my husband Eivind joined me seven weeks later, having finished the Greenland contract, he called me a walking skeleton for I’d lost 10kg. (Actually, he didn’t use those words because Eivind never says uncomplimentary things; but he was shocked at how much weight I had lost.)
Anyway, it was one of those incidents in life that you never forget but you’re always glad you’ve had as you become subsumed under life’s normalness because it’s nice to start a story with: “When I was locked up in French Guyana…”