Paramaribo: rolling in the deep

After strolling through the charming city of Paramaribo, Jonathan Ali takes on the Suriname River as it flows through the rainforest

Bergendal Eco Resort is a total change of sceneBergendal Eco Resort is a total change of scene. Photograph by Jonathan AliBergendal Eco Resort is a total change of scene. Photograph by Jonathan AliPemba doti are large balls of clay, used by the Maroons to paint their faces for religious rituals. Photograph by Jonathan AliPhotograph by Jonathan AliThe architecture in Paramaribo is typically Dutch and buildings are particularly well maintained. Photograph by Jonathan AliWater taxis are a popular form of transport. Photograph by Jonathan AliWilde bussen (wild buses) are moving works of art. Photograph by Jonathan Ali

The muscles in my upper arms were screaming, protesting at the workout they were being made to undergo, the likes of which they hadn’t experienced in an embarrassingly long time. I was in a kayak in the middle of the Suriname River and paddling furiously against the current. A little distance ahead, my guide, Donovan, was navigating his own kayak with annoying ease. For a moment I considered calling a halt to our journey upriver, and returning to base camp, the Adventure Centre at the Bergendal Eco & Cultural River Resort, before heading up to my lodge for a hot shower, and then down to the bar for a cold Parbo beer.

Just then Donovan stopped, and called out for me to do the same. We had arrived at a bend, and the strong push of the current and the swirling eddies told of rapids here. There would be, mercifully, no further progress. I laid my paddle down across my kayak and looked about. The broad, rippling river, glassy-surfaced, reflected the towering walls of verdure on either bank, while above, the sky stretched to infinity. I breathed in deeply the river and the rainforest, and the words that I had read a few days before, from the late Trefossa, Suriname’s national poet, came to me: “My blood longs for air. On the brink of that brook, I will dream of the ideal world…”

I had read those words in Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital, situated at the place on the northeastern shoulder of South America where the Suriname River empties into the Atlantic Ocean and where, for the visitor, the country begins.

Suriname – the emphasis is on the third syllable, as with Paramaribo – is the smallest independent nation in South America, with a landmass of around 165,000 square kilometres. Suriname officially speaks Dutch, a result of the country’s having been a possession of the Netherlands for over 300 years. Yet a startling number of other languages are also spoken by Suriname’s population of nearly half a million people, a litany of tongues that reflects the history and multi-ethnic makeup of the country. In addition to Dutch, one can hear the indigenous creole language Sranan Tongo, as well as Hindustani, English, Hakka, Cantonese, and Javanese. The more recent Chinese immigrants speak Mandarin, while a growing Brazilian population speaks Portuguese. And that’s just in the capital: head up-country and you also have various Maroon and Amerindian languages with which to contend.

Walking through downtown Paramaribo, however, the visual evidence convinces you of the heavy Dutch stamp on the place. There are the tree-lined streets, Domineestraat and Maagdenstraat, the shade welcome in the midday equatorial heat; the canals of the Palmentuin, the Palm Tree Garden, boasting, it is said, a thousand towering, straight-trunked palms; and, of course, the signs everywhere in Dutch.

But it is in its architecture that Paramaribo truly manifests its Dutchness. Much of the city comprises pretty two- and three-storey colonial buildings, wooden and white, with meticulously carved columns, balcony constructions, fretwork and ornaments. Many government buildings, meanwhile, such as the Court of Justice and the Ministry of Finance, are of handsome redbrick construction. Over 200 of Paramaribo’s historic buildings are listed as protected buildings, and more than half of these are in the city centre, which in 2002 was added to the Unesco World Heritage List.

Yet Paramaribo is more than its impressive built heritage. Home to half of Suriname’s population, it is a living, vibrant place that, though Dutch in its look and South American in its location, is very much a Caribbean city.

A good area to take the city’s pulse is the Waterkant, the Waterfront, and the place to start is the Centrale Markt. The market gets going early every morning and keeps buzzing for most of the day. Downstairs, the vendors trade in meat and fish – in addition to fresh sea and river fish, smoked fish, in charred piles, is popular – and of course fruit, vegetables and spices. On the labyrinthine upper floor, meanwhile, you can get everything from cooking pans to underwear to Indian film songs on cassette.

Next to the main building of the Centrale Markt is the market where Maroon and Amerindian vendors ply their wares.

To the uninitiated, almost nothing here appears to be of practical use: I had to think very hard about what I would do with a bunch of black feathers if I was persuaded to purchase them. Along with their other items, almost all the vendors sell fist-sized balls of kaolin or white clay, pemba doti, used by the Maroons to paint their faces for religious rituals.

Further along the Waterkant you come to one of the city’s minibus terminals. The minibuses – wilde bussen in Dutch, because they stop not at predetermined points but at the passengers’ fancy – are moving works of popular art. They are almost all brightly, idiosyncratically painted, and feature images either of Indian film stars or pop, hip hop or reggae singers, though the odd high-minded bus owner will instead have an image of Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela.

The minibus isn’t the only popular form of public transportation. For many people who live across the river at Nieuw Amsterdam, the water taxis are an essential part of daily life. You could also negotiate to be taken to the mouth of the Suriname River to enjoy a spot of dolphin-watching. Or you could spend no money at all and simply hang out with the taxi drivers, soaking up the atmosphere and watching the scooters and men carrying songbirds in cages pass by.

Bergendal:

The mountain and the valley

Several days of exploring Paramaribo made me quite ready for a change of scene. The Bergendal Eco & Cultural River Resort provided exactly that. A two-hour coach ride from Paramaribo, Bergendal is in the rainforest, on the banks of the Suriname River. The resort provides best-of-both-worlds experience: rest and relaxation in charming surroundings, as well as outdoor activities and tours.

My air-conditioned lodge was perched on stilts up among the trees, overlooking the river. Sybaritic is not a word I get to use often, but it amply suggested itself in these luxurious accommodations.

After a fine buffet lunch it was activity time. Inge, the cheerful activities co-ordinator, helped me choose from the various hiking, biking, kayaking, boating and fishing options. In the end I went with the kayaking and the historic walking tour, and (I swear) only a lack of time prevented me from experiencing the extreme canopy, which involves zip-lining along a 425-metre cable through the forest and across the river. That afternoon I did the kayaking.

Following a hearty dinner, we retired to the bar, where the cultural part of the Bergendal experience kicked in with a performance by a troupe of Maroon dancers and drummers. Then it was back up to my lodge, the electric lights that guided the way unable to conceal the fact of the great, hushed blackness of the surrounding forest.

The next day I went walking up the ambitiously named Blue Mountain, a hill in the middle of the resort. Bergendal was once a sugar plantation – Berg en Dal, Mountain and Valley – and on the way up the now re-afforested Blue Mountain, through the slave cemetery and, higher up, the cemetery of the European colonists, my convivial guide Edward gave me the chequered history of the place.

Finally we came to the top of the hill. Breaking through the trees, I beheld the magnificent view of the forest below, rolling out in all directions as far as the eye could see, the Suriname River slashing its way through the middle of the scene. Slowly we began to make our way back down, and I felt, for a moment and pace Trefossa, that there was no need to dream of the ideal world.

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