A Sip of Suriname

Mark Meredith goes on a whirlwind tour of BWIA’s newest Caribbean destination

Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul, Paramaribo. Photograph by Mark MeredithDutch colonial house, Paramaribo. Photograph by Reto KusterPhotograph by Mark MeredithRapids in the interior. Photograph by Reto KusterThe Jules Albert Wijdenbosch Bridge, spanning the Suriname River. Photograph by Mark MeredithThe ornate Arya Dewarker Hindu Temple, Paramaribo. Photograph by Mark Meredith

It’s one o’clock in the morning in Paramaribo. I’m in the back of a taxi piloted by a Guyanese man, flying through the puddles in deserted, unfamiliar streets to find somewhere to change money. And I’m beginning to wonder if it’s such a good idea.

I still have some Suriname guilders, but Robert doesn’t. The night is young by his standards and Paramaribo’s nocturnal attractions await. He wants to fund his research with local currency, not US, but everywhere is closed.

“So, where are we actually going, then?” I ask our driver, anxiously scanning the capital’s streets for a recognisable landmark along an increasingly gloomy, dilapidated route. There are none.

“To the cambio of course,” he grins, turning around in his seat to flash teeth at me in the dark. “Hey, this is Suriname, man. No worries.” I imagine a neon-lit kiosk around the next corner, air-conditioned with a security lock. A futile wish. We take a sudden left and draw up in a spray outside a sagging wooden house which needs paint. There’s a man sleeping next to a mangy dog in an adjacent doorway.

“The cambio,” says the taxi man proudly. He turns to Robert: “Just walk over to the house.” For the first time that night Robert looks uncertain.

There is a lighted window shining out into the dank street from the first floor. A fat man is sitting at it, stripped to the waist under a powerful desk lamp . . . counting, I figure.

“Good night,” calls Robert, craning his neck beneath the window. The man in the doorway stirs and the dog lopes off down an alley. The “banker” at the window leans out, belly sagging on the sill, and engages Robert in conversation. He disappears from view and returns with what looks like a tatty red sneaker. It’s lowered out of the window on a long piece of string and our taxi shakes with laughter. I can only guess at Robert’s expression.

The sneaker turns out to have a zip, like a purse. The US is stuffed inside and hauled in like a fish on a handline. And we wait while Robert walks around in circles beneath the window. The shoe shoots out again, plummeting at Robert who ducks, grabbing at it with flailing hands. The “banker” is wearing a smile as broad as his waistline. Robert is attempting a frantic tally of thousand-guilder notes, a solitary figure bathed in window-light, tied to a sneaker on a string.

We pull away, laughing, relieved. The taxi man says: “You see what I told you. This is Suriname.” I crane my neck to peer out of the back window as we complete the u-turn. The fat man is beneath his desk lamp again, counting, still smiling. Robert? He’s not saying anything.

 

We are in Suriname for two days attempting to get a feel for “the beating heartbeat of the Amazon”, the brand image given to this large, sparsely populated land. It is no easy task. A diverse and intriguing former Dutch colony, it is 32 times the size of Trinidad, our home.

The occasion is BWIA’s inaugural flight to Paramaribo from Port of Spain, connecting this north-east corner of the South American continent to  North America and Europe through Port of Spain. There’s a 4:30 a.m. departure out of Paramaribo to make those connections. If you’re on a tight schedule it’s best not to sleep beforehand. Find a taxi driver, go out on a nocturnal tour, make the most of it. But if you want to avoid the unofficial cambio, change your money in daylight hours.

Our Suriname sojourn begins with a 3 a.m. press conference at Johan Pengel International Airport, named after Suriname’s first prime minister — there is an imposing statue of the man near the Presidential Palace in Paramaribo. The plane, a Dash-8, has arrived filled with BWIA executives, including CEO Conrad Aleong, two Trinidadian travel agents, four journalists from Trinidad and two from Barbados.

As the bus pelts towards Paramaribo past scattered dwellings on a dead straight road, I’m reminded of home. Like much of urban Trinidad, this appears to be a functional if unaesthetic sprawl of small businesses, shops, fast-food outlets, homes, temples, mosques and Hindu prayer flags. But then, imperceptibly, entering Paramaribo, you become aware that, actually, this is far more attractive than Port of Spain. Even at night. We whizz past old white wooden buildings with ornate balcony railings and green shutters, grand Dutch colonial edifices overlooking squares with statues. I cannot wait to sleep, to see daylight, refreshed.

I join Trinidadian newspaper journalists Robert, Louis and Ian for breakfast at the Residence Inn after four and a half hours’ sleep. We have an itinerary. Today is a free day. Tomorrow,  “Tour of Suriname, 9 a.m–5 p.m.”. It includes a coach trip around Paramaribo. I cross the capital off a list of things we should do today. Robert and I vow to walk its streets at sunrise tomorrow. Two days to do Suriname. The others have stories to file. I do some reading up.

 

I’m in an officially Dutch-speaking country made up of Indo-Pakistanis, Creoles, “Bush Negroes” or Maroons, Javanese, Europeans, Chinese and Amerindians. And we won’t have to go far to get a flavour of this ethnic diversity. Suriname’s population numbers around 450,000 people, and about 275,000 of those live in Paramaribo.

Suriname is sandwiched between Guyana and French Guiana with Brazil to the south; 95 percent of it is covered by forest and it has 3,000 miles of rivers. Paramaribo isn’t actually on the coast, which is 12 kilometres away, but it feels like it. The rivers of Suriname are its highways, and the one which gives the country its name passes our hotel door. It’s muddy and massive, terribly impressive.

Modern history has not treated Suriname well. Five years after Independence in 1975, a military coup took place under Colonel Desi Bouterse. A state of emergency followed, along with two decades of political strife, assorted governments, civil war and hyper-inflation (370 percent in 1994). In 1999, annual GDP per capita was only US$880. Since then the economy has picked up and there’s a sense of stability in the air — Suriname is now a Caricom member — but it’s painfully obvious that for most in this beautiful country, life is still hard, money short. Which is why tourism is so important; which is why, I suppose, we’re here. The wild interior is Suriname’s biggest selling point, but what can you do in two days? Well, you can go on tours with a company like METS (Movement for Ecotourism in Suriname), or you can do what we did: find a taxi driver like Ram Kalloo and put your day in his hands.

So we are heading south to Wit Santie, or White Sands, on the advice of a hotel gardener. Ram says he knows all about Wit Santie.

We pass many beautiful colonial buildings on our way out of the city. Beautiful girls, too, pointed out by Ian and Louis, both 60-plus years old. It’s the Javanese influence, I think, admiringly, remembering the vision Robert and I sat next to on the plane — Miss Suriname no less. We are to follow the road we came in on the night before. On our left is the Jules Albert Wijdenbosch Bridge, a towering, incongruous structure dwarfing everything. It rises to a spectacular peak on massive concrete arches, disappearing on the far side of the river. 

We want to try the Parbo, Suriname’s beer. There are signs for it everywhere: “Parbo biri”. No one has any. Very strange. And very strange that you have to park your car on Paramaribo’s pavements, not the road.

We come across a tiny steam engine parked off the road on a plinth with a clock on its chimney. On the other side of the road is a graveyard of old steam trains and coaches, rusted, broken, covered in vines. Ram tells us they’ve been here since 1945. The railway became too expensive to run. There’s a pub next door. No Parbo.

The route is interspersed with clusters of open-style huts with roofs of carat palm leaves. Very South American. At Wit Santie, the earth is . . . a sandy white. It used to be a source for the glass industry. Ram was a chemical analyst for a glass factory. It closed because imported glass was cheaper. Ram says he now makes more in a week driving his cab than a month sifting through Wit Santie sand.

 

A left turn up a rutted track in light rain past a collection of palm-leaf huts brings us into open countryside of grasses and ponds. There’s a figure swimming in one of them. While Ian and Louis debate its gender, Robert strips to his underpants and plunges into the water. The figure, whose private communion with nature has been shattered with such suddenness, rises like a mythical warrior from the lake and strides from the water — an Amerindian of Amazonian stature in Nike shorts. He nods a greeting and melts into the bush.

At last, a Parbo sign at a bar with a motorbike on the roof — with real Parbo. But they only have it in litre bottles. Oh well. We are told the paucity of Parbo is because of a brewery strike. It’s fine stuff.

Near the airport we branch off down a road of red earth bordered by forest and stop at a clearing in an area called Third Bridge, where there are two Amerindian-style huts. An old woman is making cassava bread, watched by a little boy who hides behind her skirt. She sells the bread to occasional tourists like us and charges for photos too. She has a profitable afternoon.

Louis is a mine of information on Amerindian culture. He gives a detailed run-down on the process of making cassava bread. It’s part of the Amerindian staple diet, he says, and good with avocado or saltfish. The only added ingredient is salt. It can keep more than six months. It’s dry, crispy and quite pleasant, I find. He says that with the cassava she can also make farine, granular in texture, like a cereal. The water extracted from grated cassava and sieved is a starch which can be used for treating clothes.

“What she’s doing,” says Louis, “are old Amerindian practices. Nothing is wasted. The entire environment is in use here: the sieve knitted from palms, the hut itself, the wood for the fire, the brush she’s using. The only foreign element is the metal oven.”

A little further on at Blakawatra we come upon a park where an Amerindian community lives in traditional huts along a river of lilies. Louis says it’s clear to him these people are trying to retain 6,000 years of their civilisation, despite the running water and electricity. Five kilometres from the airport we visit Colakreek, a popular camping resort belonging to the tour operator METS. It’s set in woods on white sandy soil and named after the black colour of the water, which is strong in mineral content.

We have to return 75 km to Paramaribo, but we make one detour. Over that bridge on the Suriname River. It is two years old, an amazing structure given its surroundings, and it feels extremely high. The view of Paramaribo in evening sunlight, the flat hinterland beyond, and the surging muddy river is breathtaking. I want to stop at the apex to take a photo. “Not possible,” insists Ram. And that’s that. On the other side we park to observe Hindus performing a religious ceremony, sending flowers and lighted candles downstream on a foil tray.

 

The next morning, disaster. It rains from the moment I meet Robert for 6.30 a.m. breakfast until dusk. Not just rain, but rain. Endless torrents from a low, unyielding sky. Our early walk of Paramaribo is abandoned. Walking anywhere is abandoned. We see Paramaribo with METS from the inside of their coach with the BWee execs and travel agents.

You can’t do justice to a city like Paramaribo from a bus; it really should be walked or cycled and examined. Many of the colonial wooden buildings have been restored, but many are dilapidated. We are told the price of wood makes them difficult to restore. An air of beauty and decay abounds. The place is busy, filled with faces that truly reflect its history, and it is never less than absorbing.

Our stops include what is said to be the largest wooden structure in the Americas, the 19th-century Roman Catholic Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul; Fort Zeelandia on the river, which houses the Suriname Museum; the Arya Dewarker Hindu Temple, the most elaborate we have ever seen; and, uniquely, a magnificent mosque standing next to an elegant synagogue. We see glimpses of the Waterkant (Waterfront) area by the river, the Presidential Palace (being restored), and the Palmentuin, a park of towering Royal Palms. In the afternoon we cross the Suriname river to the Javanese district of Commewijne to see the remains of a fortress at Nieuw Amsterdam. The rain is relentless and the countryside as soggy as soggy gets.

At Fort Zeelandia I talk with METS sales and promotion representative Cathrin Judell, who is Jewish. We are standing next to an exhibit on the Anne Frank story, with pictures of the Holocaust. Many Jewish and gypsy refugees left Holland and Italy to come to Suriname but left after the war. Back in the19th century some 3,000 Jews lived here as plantation owners but left when the sugar industry collapsed. There are no “real” Jews left today according to orthodox laws, says Cathrin, anxious we move on from the war to “something about Suriname”. That evening, at Louis’ request, Cathrin makes special arrangements to take the two of us to the synagogue next to the mosque on Keizerstraat.

It is a week when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is raging. Cathrin says threats have been made against the synagogue. We must pass a security check. It is the beginning of the Sabbath and we can hear chanting floating across the night air.

The 19th-century building is one of only two synagogues in the world with a sand floor — the other is in Curaçao, where many Jews emigrated from Suriname in the 19th century. It feels like walking on the beach. Some say the sand is there as a reminder of 40 years in the desert; others, less romantically, that it is a fire precaution.

Cathrin must join the other women on the balcony. Louis and I take a pew downstairs with about 15 men and boys of all ages and colours. It’s an attractive building, dark carved wood contrasting with the white sand. Two men are chanting Hebrew scripture — they have no rabbi — reciting from scrolls on a wooden platform bearing the Star of David. The sparse congregation sits, stands, sits, and walks in, out, in. It’s very perplexing. Hearing evocative incantations that have been offered up since Old Testament times, looking at the Star of David, remembering the Anne Frank display and threats to this very building, I am suddenly moved by the terrible weight of history this small community shares.

We are invited to partake of the Sabbath meal in an adjacent building overlooked by the towering mosque. Jules Dunk, one of the men leading prayers, tells us there is no friction between the two communities here. He often visits the mosque. Over a tiny cup of sweet red wine, bread sprinkled with salt, and rolls of cheese with seasoned onions and pepper sauce, I concur with Louis. Tonight’s experience has, indeed, been a privilege.

The night has plenty more experiences to offer before our 4 a.m. flight home: an exploration with the Guyanese taxi man of Paramaribo nightlife: “From the ghetto up,” he terms it.

In fact, as experiences go, two days in Suriname can be truly memorable. We have seen an infinitesimal fraction, got nowhere near the interior, never heard the “heartbeat of the Amazon” — but we’ve certainly felt its pulse.

Suriname in brief

Language

Dutch, but English is widely spoken, not always terribly clearly. Lingua franca: Sranan-Tongo, a mix of English, Dutch, French and African (Yoruba, Bantu and Fon roots). Indian tribes have their own languages as well.

People

Indo-Pakistanis, or “Hindustanis”, 33%; Creoles (of European-African and other descent), 35%; Javanese, 16%; Bush Negroes or Maroons (descendants of 17th-century escaped slaves who retribalised in the deepest reaches of the interior and who you can visit on extended tours), 10%; plus Europeans, Chinese and Amerindians, 3% or less.

Suriname’s origins

• Early 1600s: Dutch trade along the “wild coast” of Guiana; Paramaribo’s beginnings.

• 1651: English settlers arrive to plant tobacco; small sugar plantations flourish.

• 1667: Colony seized for the states of Zeeland; Peace of Breda declares Suriname will remain Dutch, while Nieuw Amsterdam (New York) is given to England.

• 1799: Reconquered by Britain.

• 1814: Restored to Netherlands by Treaty of Paris.

• 1863: Formal abolition of slavery in Suriname; indentured labourers arrive from China and the East Indies.

• 1975: Becomes an independent republic.

What to do

A number of one-day tours out of Paramaribo and around the city are available. Or you can hire a bicycle (US$4 a day), walk, or arrange a taxi tour through your hotel. METS (Movement for Ecotourism in Suriname) is the most experienced tour operator, mostly owned by Suriname Airways (tel.: 00-597-472621/477088; email mets@sr.net). Visits to the interior are made by small plane or canoe.

One-day tours 

• Commewijne Plantation Tour: various plantations; fortress and museum at Nieuw Amsterdam; tilapia fishery; shrimping and fish smokery. 8 a.m.–4 p.m.

• Jodensavanne/Blakawatra Tour: Jodensavanne is a former Jewish settlement (1650); graves and ruins of oldest synagogue in North and South America. Blakawatra is a park with an Amerindian settlement. 8 a.m.–6 p.m.

• Brownsberg Tour: 2 1/2-hour drive to Brownsberg Naturepark plateau; great view, hiking, waterfalls. 8 a.m.–6 p.m.

• Santigron Tour: Maroon culture tour; guests of the “Bush Negroes”; travel by coach and dugout canoe. All day.

Two-day tours

• Brownsberg: visit the Mazaruni Plateau overlooking the Amazon rain forest.

• Galibi-Christiaankondre/Langamankondre tour: two Amerindian villages on Marowijne River; hiking; sea turtles; accommodation includes hammocks.

Tours of four to eight days are available to METS’ jungle retreats, campsites, Amerindian and Maroon villages. Accommodation is simple but comfortable. Prices range from US$325 (per person) for four days to Awarradam, to US$625 (per person) to Kasikasima.

Anti-malaria tablets are necessary for the interior. Check before travelling.

Briefs

Hotels: Krasnapolsky — long established; central location (597-475-050). Torarica, near Palmentuin — the best around; casino (597-471-500). Residence Inn, near Torarica — very comfortable (597-472-387). Variety of small hotels and guest houses, clubs and casinos.

Food: Plenty to choose from: Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Creole and international. Rice is a staple and shrimp especially plentiful.

Drink: Parbo beer; Borgoe Rum (very nice); Black Cat, a white rum.