Paramaribo for pleasure

This August, Suriname’s capital will host Carifesta XI, the Caribbean’s biggest arts festival. Good excuse for a visit, writes Philip Sander

Paramaribo’s cuisine is extraordinarily varied, thanks to the city’s many ethnic groups. Photograph by Hedwig De La FuenteSuriname’s Javanese heritage makes it unique in the Caribbean. Photograph by Hedwig De La FuenteUntil the Jules Wijdenbosch Bridge opened in 2000, Paramaribo’s only link to the east bank of the Suriname River was via boat. Photograph by Hedwig De La Fuente

If you’ve never visited Paramaribo, here’s what you may know about the Surinamese capital: that it’s the only Dutch-speaking city in South America. That despite its geographical location, it is very much a Caribbean city. That its Dutch heritage includes hundreds of picturesque nineteenth-century buildings — most constructed from white-painted wood, with elaborately carved doors, columns, and balustrades — thanks to which the city’s historic centre is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Or that Suriname’s colonial history has bequeathed Paramaribo one of the New World’s most complicated ethnic mixes, with citizens tracing their roots to West Africa, Europe, India, Indonesia and China — not to mention indigenous Amerindians and the Maroons of the country’s interior, many of whom now reside in the city.

This is all true, of course, and all part of what makes Paramaribo so intriguing (and sometimes puzzling). What you may not know — and what I’m happy to tell you — is that somehow all of the above combines to make Paramaribo one of the region’s most straightforwardly charming cities, with both a friendly and laid-back vibe and a surprisingly cosmopolitan flair. Which will come in handy this August, when Suriname, for the second time, hosts the Caribbean’s biggest cultural event, the Caribbean Festival of Arts, better known as Carifesta.

The ten-day festival programme — which no doubt will have its share of both hits and misses — will bring the arts and culture of the region to venues across Paramaribo, from landmark buildings to makeshift outdoor spaces. It’s a chance to take the Caribbean’s cultural pulse, and get to know Suriname’s own lively arts scene. That’s one reason — the official one — why I’ll be there.

Of course, there are less official and more personal reasons too, and maybe those are the ones that really make me look forward to what will be my fourth visit to Paramaribo. Sometimes it’s hard to say exactly why a particular place takes your fancy. I could cut to the chase and just tell you that Paramaribo is one of my favourite places. Partly because of all the things I mentioned above: the postcard charm of its elegant old buildings, its fascinating aura of history, the sheer niceness of the average Surinamese. But there’s also something subtler and more evanescent: a series of overlapping memories of pleasant days, relaxed conversations, moments of contented solitude, and the happy accidents that befall an idle stroller.

Because Paramaribo, even if on a small scale, is very much a city for the flâneur, the connoisseur of street life, who strolls with no agenda but keeping his eyes open. I’d gladly spend a morning sauntering through the busy downtown district, a few bustling blocks along Domineestraat and Maagdenstraat, where shoppers pause from their quest for cheap and colourful Brazilian shoes to buy a schaafijs — “shaved ice,” with luridly coloured sweet syrup — from the man whose cart is decorated with hand-painted portraits of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.

Similar painted portraits — of Bollywood actors and Jamaican dancehall stars — decorate the minibuses that congregate round the corner, waiting for passengers to whisk to all corners of the city. You could write a whole thesis about the story the paintings on these wilde bussen tell about Suriname’s take on global popular culture. Meanwhile, stylish young people walk past, some in trendy Dutch streetwear, some of the women wearing traditional headties, for which there is a whole vocabulary of knotting styles, each communicating a wordless message.

A few steps away, the cavernous Central Market complicates the story, with stalls offering bootleg DVDs of Nigerian films, CDs of classic kaseko recordings (Suriname’s answer to calypso), every imaginable kind of cheap plastic ware imported from China, and odd forest produce — dried leaves, seed pods, balls of white clay — for use in religious rituals.

But my favourite Paramaribo stroll is at evening time, and along the Waterkant, the street that follows the western bank of the Suriname River. Impressive nineteenth-century buildings look over a terrace above the tea-coloured water. Small kiosks sell drinks and snacks, and after promenading for a few minutes, the sensible thing to do is buy a Parbo — the light, refreshing local beer, brewed from rice — find a bench, and watch the sky fade over the view. The heat of the day evaporates. Couples stroll past, children prance, old men argue politics, and on the far bank lights start to twinkle. On the other side of the river is a whole continent.

I probably have dinner plans. Maybe I’m meeting friends someplace trendy. Maybe I’m taking a taxi up to Blauwgrond, the Javanese suburb famous for its warungs, simple eating joints. But the night is still a newborn. The view from the Waterkant still holds my gaze. There’s time for another Parbo.

Festival time

In 2003, Suriname hosted Carifesta VIII, and for many of the Caribbean participants it was a first — and in some cases addictive — exposure to Paramaribo’s charms. Ten years later, Carifesta has fallen behind its supposedly biennial schedule (the last festival was five years ago), but the Surinamese festival team aims to get it back on track.

First staged in 1972 in Guyana, Carifesta was a product of the Caribbean’s post-Independence optimism and ideals: a celebration of all the region’s creative forms, bringing together artists, musicians, performers, writers, and craftspeople, and exposing ordinary people to the region’s cultural diversity. In the forty-one years since, the festival has been staged ten times, at irregular intervals, with a decade long gap between Carifesta IV in Barbados (in 1981) and Carifesta V in Trinidad and Tobago (in 1992).

The second Surinamese Carifesta runs from 16 to 25 August, and organisers promise that “Paramaribo is going to be a Festival City that week,” with additional events in towns and villages across Suriname. All fifteen CARICOM nations are expected to send official delegations, with participation from neighbouring Latin American states as well.

A last-minute announcement of the programme is practically a Carifesta tradition, and 2013 is shaping up much the same way, but it’s safe to expect a packed line-up of many dozens of concerts, performances, exhibitions, readings, discussions, and film screenings, featuring hundreds of delegates. If past festivals are anything to go by, a certain degree of cheerful chaos will be part of the mix, and for many visitors the highlights of the programme will actually be the chance to catch up with longtime colleagues and meet new ones, and the creative and intellectual cross-fertilisation that inevitably happens when you assemble so many makers, doers, and thinkers in one place.

Keep an eye on the Carifesta website, www.carifesta.net, for more specific information closer to the opening of the festival.