Suriname: one country, four continents

Imagine a country with a palm-fringed Atlantic coast and an interior of Amazon rainforest, where the cultures of West Africa, India, Java, and Europe meet and mingle, where it seems you can experience four continents in as many days. Come to Suriname and see the whole world

It may look like the heart of the Amazon rainforest, but this stretch of wilderness is on the outskirts of Suriname’s capital, Paramaribo. Photo by Ariadne Van ZandbergenCommunities like New Aurora, on the upper Suriname River, have preserved cultural links across the centuries with the West and Central African ancestors of Surinamese Maroons. The distinctive style of traditonal Maroon architecture is demonstrated by a wooden house in the village of PikinsleePhoto by Ariadne Van ZandbergenColourful murtis at a Hindu temple in Weg naar Zee, north-west of central Paramaribo. Photo by Ariadne Van ZandbergenSuriname’s Javanese cultural heritage includes traditional dance, music, shadow puppetry, and cuisine. Photo by The Suriname Tourism FoundationHistoric buildings along Paramaribo’s Mirandastraat are a touch of Dutch urban style in the tropics. Photo by Ariadne Van ZandbergenIt could be a beach anywhere in the Caribbean — but in this case it’s Galibi, near the mouth of the Marowijne River on Suriname’s Atlantic coast. Photo by Ariadne Van ZandbergenChildren in traditional indigenous dress celebrate the oldest of Suriname’s many cultures, in the village of Apura, near the Corantijn River. Photo by Ariadne Van ZandbergenEnjoying the rushing waters of Blanche Marie Falls on Suriname’s Nickerie River. Photo by Ariadne Van Zandbergen

It’s the kind of clichéd joke travel writers sometimes make, when they want to emphasise the obscurity of a place. Country X was so small/it was so far away/its name was so odd — I wasn’t even sure what continent it belonged to.

Except where some places are concerned, there’s some truth to the cliché. Picture this: a small city perched beside a river, with a seventeenth-century brick fort, neat neoclassical buildings lined up along streets with complicated Dutch names, and open-air cafés where citizens while away the hours. Is this Europe? But the city is dotted with the minarets of mosques and the polychrome murtis of Hindu mandirs; on a fine evening you might wander to a neighbourhood famous for its warungs, small family-run eateries serving spicy Javanese fare. Are we somewhere in Asia?

Then head out of the city — downriver to the coast, perhaps, with its palm-fringed beaches, or inland to the vast expanse of tropical rainforest — and you may well wonder now if this is the Caribbean, or somewhere in the Amazon. But look at the small villages in certain regions of the interior, with their traditional houses and canoes, where on special occasions people still dress in colourful fabric wraps, and those of a linguistic bent may detect what sound like a few words of Twi. So is this West Africa?

No; yes; all of the above. Welcome to Suriname.

Now, there’s no question what continent Suriname belongs to geographically. Squeezed between Guyana to the west, French Guiana to the east, the Atlantic to the north, and Brazil to the south, it is definitely South American — but with a Caribbean twist, and links to some far-flung corners of the globe.

Geography begets history, history begets culture, and Suriname’s geography, history, and culture make it one of the most fascinatingly diverse places in the world. Fought over by the English and the Dutch in past centuries, the plantation colony of Suriname was populated first via African slavery and then through Asian indentureship. Enslaved Africans who escaped bondage established autonomous Maroon communities in the remote interior, preserving elements of their West and Central African culture and adapting them through contact with indigenous Amerindians. After emancipation in the late nineteenth century, Dutch authorities shipped in indentured labourers from India and Java (the latter then a part of the Dutch East Indies); other immigrants came from China, the Middle East, and Portuguese Madeira. Nowadays, Brazilians slip across the border from one direction, French Guianese from another.

By the time of Independence in 1975, Dutch remained the official language, rivalled by both the lingua franca Sranan and English. But Hindi, Javanese, several Maroon and Amerindian languages, and Brazilian Portuguese are all in everyday use by their respective cultural groups. A random gathering of Surinamese might easily pass for a United Nations conference. And all this in a population of just half a million.

Locals take this diversity for granted. For visitors, Suriname is a fascinating microcosm, a place where cultures thrillingly rub shoulders. Every guidebook will point you to Keizerstraat in Paramaribo, where a mosque and a synagogue are polite neighbours. But in the surrounding streets you’ll also find an elaborate cathedral built entirely of wood; a riverside market where you can buy Nollywood DVDs, Indonesian spices, and the paraphernalia for indigenous Winti ceremonies; a broad town green where on Sunday mornings bird fanciers bring their caged pets to take the air; roti shops to rival anything Guyana or Trinidad might boast; and some of the friendliest, most hospitable people you’ll meet anywhere, most of them speaking two or three languages more than you.

If the tourist board ever runs out of slogans, they can fall back on this one: come to Suriname and see the world.

 

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Caribbean Airlines operates daily direct flights to Suriname’s Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport from Trinidad, with connections to other destinations