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Chan Cham Perou

The country of the Touloulous —  Great news! This year, the Guiana Carnival, already one of the longest in the world, will be going on from January 6 to March 5th, which is Ash Wednesday. For two whole months, Guiana will experience the vibrant rhythm of the carnival, with parades that are very popular with families and kids and balls that attract the whole population and all ages to attend.

Throughout the whole carnival season in Cayenne, which is the capital of this French Department, costumed carnavalers parade every Sunday afternoon. However, the biggest attractions of the Carnival are undoubtedly the Saturday night balls, the famous “Touloulous Balls”!

Who are the Touloulous? 

The Touloulous are mythical and famous characters in the Guiana Carnival who wear costumes reminiscent of the bourgeois from the 18th and 19th centuries. They are women or young girls who are very elegantly dressed from head to toe and deploy great ingenuity in hiding every centimeter of skin under clothes and masks. Everything must be hidden!

The Touloulou is the mystery woman. No man should be able to discover her identity. Not a single woman will confide to a man, husband, lover, friend or relative that she will participate in the Touloulous’ Ball.

On the Saturday afternoon, a strange segregation characterizes Cayenne. The town seems to be inhabited only by single men. Not a couple in sight in the streets! Women have to be very creative to find an excuse to join other women and keep away from men. Those last ones have also made a great effort to dress for the ball but finally end up among themselves, without dance partners. In fact, men have to hold their own against one another since everybody will see them at the ball - they are not allowed any disguise - and they will have to be attractive to the Touloulous!

In full disguise!

In preparation for the ball, women gather at friends’ houses in small groups, hidden from the view of men, and start to dress in their Touloulous disguise. These costumes are often rented from specialized dressmakers who have sewn hundreds of fancy dresses throughout the year in preparation for this special event. The Touloulou costume is flamboyant and shimmering, but it is also required to wear opaque stockings, long gloves, and many layers of petticoats or a long flounced dress. In spite of an elegant hat, meant to totally hide the hair, the neck and the face, the addition of a hood and mask, often coupled with a veiled eye-mask, is unavoidable.

The Touloulou has the reputation of being extremely crafty. Some of them do not hesitate to wear colored contact lenses to change the color of their eyes, which is the only visible part of their body. She will wear another perfume and even use small cushions to modify her silhouette. Her biggest trickery will be to wear new shoes she bought without the knowledge of her family circle.

They even go as far as to rent a “limousine” for the night, shared with a few friends.

Strict rules at the Ball  

The dance of the cars bringing the participants to the ball is absolute. Boys and men, singles for a night, drive in while other cars carrying small groups of silent Touloulous in their magnificent costumes arrive at the ball. No mixing is allowed. Nobody remembers ever seeing a Touloulou coming to the ball accompanied by a male!

In the immense hall where the temperature is already high, men competing in elegance have to wait along the walls, like rivals in a competition. Slowly and very languorously, the Touloulous enter the room and choose a partner, taking his hand and, without a word, bring him on the dance floor for one of those “collé-collé” dances that adds to the hot ambiance. Believe me, it wouldn’t be possible to slide a cigarette paper between the two dancers! And no man has the right to refuse an invitation, nor initiate an invitation with a Touloulou.

The man knows nothing about his dance partner, her age – young or old – the color of her skin – white or black. It could be his mother, sister, girlfriend or a complete stranger. He will never know, neither tonight nor tomorrow. The Touloulou does not talk, or only a little. Her dance partner is not allowed to question her and if he attempts to make conversation, she will usually answer with a fake voice and always briefly.

Without a word, the Touloulou will change dance partners, unless she says the classic sentence: “The Touloulou is thirsty”. If so, the couple will get out of the room and the man will generously offer a drink served at one of the bars located outside the dance hall: a drink that the Touloulou will prudently sip with a straw, hiding her lips under her mask.

Once her thirst is quenched, the Touloulou will search for a new partner. Thanks to the great number of Touloulous, the poor neglected cavalier won’t have to wait long before being invited again. And if he is a wallflower for too long, he will quickly see his friends point out his “a bit too dry shirt”!

A real advantage!

Of course, the Touloulou knows every man present. All social barriers are broken and she can dance with her neighbor, her best friend’s husband, an office colleague or any stranger of interest: an innocent way to satisfy a few small fantasies.

We even heard that, as the night goes on, a few Touloulous, not always single, might not hesitate to enter into a one-night adventure with men who would not be their partner in real life. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that among those Touloulous many are singles, after all!

Men are proud to be invited by “strangers” whose bodies they embrace in torrid dances and they happily keep the memories of such ephemeral moments of mutual companionship, sometimes with the secret hope of finding this same dance partner at the next Saturday Ball. However, this is a huge challenge, since Touloulous change costumes for every ball, renting another one or swapping with their friends in order to cover their tracks.

Anonymity is the base of those balls. For one night, all women pretend to be single in a cheerful atmosphere without the fear of jealousy from a husband or lover, since no one would dare take off the mask of a Touloulou.

A woman without a costume is allowed to attend the ball but not to dance, leaving half the fun out! If one attempts to dance, the musicians would immediately stop playing and wait until she gets out of the dance floor before carrying on. For a woman wishing to participate… and dance, the Guiana Tourism Authority can provide contacts with specialized boutiques where a full Touloulou costume can be rented.

Those rules are followed scrupulously by everyone and ensures nights without fights or turmoil, even considering the large number of participants and the unfettered ambiance.

Whatever the hour, the Touloulous will leave the ball the same way they came in, masked and with a small group of friends.
The charm and attraction of those balls is due both to the warm welcome of the Guianese and to the tolerance authorized by the anonymity of the Touloulous.

In Cayenne: Chez Zaza or at Polina?

Cayenne offers two famous addresses to those wishing to participate in a Carnival Ball and to experience unforgettable memories: Chez Zaza, the oldest one, and at Polina, in a new, well-ventilated hall. The largest in town, the hall can accommodate up to 2,500 dancers. Even in such a huge room, we guarantee that you will never feel lost since it is a full house every Carnival night!

Lodging

In Guiana, you will find establishments for all budgets. No 5 stars here, but there are 4-star establishments such as the Novotel in Cayenne and the Hotel des Roches in Kourou.

And if you listen to connoisseurs, you will discover, almost as a secret, the Ker Alberte: an authentic Creole villa hidden between the market and the famous Place des Palmistes, in the old part of Cayenne. It is the best choice in Guiana and its only drawback that could also in fact be considered a positive feature is that it only offers 15 rooms.

Fine cuisine

In Guiana, the cuisine is mainly Creole and based on the use of fresh local products, vegetables, rice, giant local shrimps (finger-licking good) and smoked or stewed game, served with abundant spices.

The meal generally ends with a great variety of tropical fruits, bringing a necessary touch of freshness. And everywhere, both in the most humble and in the most sophisticated restaurants, you will find “ti-punchs” and rum cocktails, the best way to get a feel for Guiana.

A visit to the old covered market in Cayenne will give you a good taste of local products, spices, fruits, and vegetables, many of them probably still unknown to you. Stop to watch – and why not taste? – the multitude of punches and rum cocktails mixed on site. And if you feel peckish, do not hesitate to taste the simple but quite spicy cuisine served with huge smiles at one of the market tables.

Other faces of Guyana

Guiana’s charm fortunately is much more than its Carnival.

It is an immense territory covered by the Amazonian forest. Nature is therefore omnipresent. A massive virgin forest covers the country: a jungle crossed by a huge network of rivers housing extraordinary fauna.

There is no better way to discover the richness of such a territory than a one-day excursion in pirogue in the Kaw marshes 50 km from Cayenne with Stéphane, an experienced guide, looking for black caimans, cablais, anaconda and dozens of species of birds.

Another adventure near Kourou is one or two days in the heart of the jungle at the Cariacou Camp that can only be reached with a pirogue. It has the following itinerary: swimming, fishing, canoeing, discovering the forest and spending the night under a carbet (wooden roof without walls).

You would be sorry not to visit the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, where the Ariane spaceships as well as the Soyouz and the Vega are launched. It is Europe’s Cape Canaveral! The shuttle launching room and a fascinating museum retracing the conquest of space are included in the visit.

The Guiana Space Centre also holds the Iles du Salut, 15 km away from Kourou, once known as Devil’s Island, a former penal colony where thousands of people were imprisoned, among which at least one famous innocent person, Captain Dreyfus and one malandrin, Papillon, who became famous and rich after his memoirs were published.

The Auberge des Iles du Salut in where Angèle offers good Creole cuisine and a few rooms in an old building where officers of the prison lived. The collection of homemade cocktails is worth the detour. From there it is easy to see the infamous Devil’s Island, only a few cable lengths away.

Some practical facts

An excellent network of roads links the regions of Cayenne and Kourou. Allow one hour to travel between the two cities. But for those who would like to travel further into Guiana, a plane or a boat should be favored.

Being a French Department, you are officially in France when in Guiana. French is the spoken language, the Euro is the currency and all of the services - doctors, hospitals, drugstores, police, customs, mail, banks - are identical to those found in metropolitan France.

Frédéric de Poligny

www.tourisme-guyane.com
www.novotel.com
www.hoteldesroches.com.
www.hotelkeralberte.com
www.tigdilo.fr
www.cnes-csg.fr
www.ilesdusalut.com

A few Touloulous

Cayenne

Old covered market in Cayenne

For a touch of freshness

Delicacy in the jungle

In the jungle

Space Center in Kourou

 

Photos ©Frédéric de Poligny


  

 

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