Hello Suriname, which might appear to be just a tiny bucktoothed bite mark nibbled off the South American coast, yet boasts the largest tract of virgin rainforest in the world. With a population of not even a half million, this hidden destination is a true traveler’s paradise, although cocaine is unofficially the country’s most important export product.
I am sitting in the Dasiman family’s backyard in the Ranville neighborhood of Paramaribo. A 15-meter-high bamboo stand casts an easily anthropomorphized shadow, while the waterfall in a nearby rock garden creates a restful background trickle. Suddenly, conversation stops. The group around me looks up. Eating is forgotten. I see 20 faces before me: Javanese, Chinese, black, white. A good representation of the Suriname population breathlessly awaits my reaction to one of their favorite weekly traditions.
Each Sunday afternoon, family and friends enjoy an extensive meal with the best of what Suriname – or rather Evi Dasiman, Paramaribo’s ever-obliging, Javanese hostess – has to offer. I had met her son Frank while flying in from the jungle earlier in the day. “Is there anything to do in Paramaribo on a Sunday afternoon?” I had asked, expecting a negative answer. “Yes”, he said without hesitation. “My mother’s a great cook; consider yourself invited.”
Kids crawl under the table hunting lizards, while a feathery mass of songbirds dance in their cages, challenging one another with surly clucks and caws. “Here, taste my lovely Soto soup with hark and nek”, Evi utters excitedly as she hoists a steaming cauldron directly in front of my chin. “This is the best bit,” she amiably informs me while proudly presenting the hark – a skinny chicken leg with four bent, razor-sharp talons. The other guests gaze gingerly in my direction as I sit, hark in hand, with Evi hovering above. As instructed, I slowly bring the chicken leg to my mouth and take the first bite. I chew slowly and contemplatively, then I gnaw away with increasing voracity, as if it were the best thing I had ever tasted.
A roar of “bravos!” comes from the ever-growing crowd of anxious onlookers; apparently the Surinamese are just as forthcoming with their sense of humor as they are with the local cuisine. Jugs of beer are raised in Evi’s honor, and the rest of the afternoon is spent snacking on chicken legs while discussing politics and football.
There are two sides to every story.
On the surface, Suriname seems to be the setting of a storybook–a warm, sticky, tropical, exotic country on a far-off green continent. When asked how they’re doing, the Surinamese typically respond “Relaxed!” with their jovial accents. Their country is a land that smells of coffee, cinnamon, sweet mangos and fresh jungle rains; it’s a place where life just moves along on its merry tropical way.
Beneath its sentimental surface, however, Suriname tells a different story – a somber tale of political opponents dying in cold blood, corrupt politicians getting fat on bauxite and gold reserves, and a population submerging below the poverty line. Indeed, Suriname is not just an aromatic oasis but also an important link in the cocaine smuggling chain between Columbia to Europe.
As Truus Schaap-Sloot, my guide in Paramaribo, explains: “There are two sides to every story. Suriname is a beautiful country, yes, but also a third-world nation with all the associated problems. As a visitor you mustn’t lose sight of that or you miss the essence of the country.” We’re walking through the gorgeous inner city, hailed by Unesco as a world heritage site in 2002. It is a wooden world with every street corner, house, and paved stone dripping in colonial history. Keizerstraat runs parallel to Heerenstraat and finishes up on Waterkant. This is where the traders Dirck Claesz van Sanen and Nicolaes Baliestel established their business in 1613 before Abraham Crijnsen founded the Dutch colony. As I stand on the Knuffelgracht, it is easy to visualize the industrial boom of that past era. I see 17th-century Suriname before me – clipper ships, coaches, and an elegant parade of local gentry in from their rural plantations nearby. The décor hasn’t changed a bit.
Recognizing my reverie, Truus snaps me back to reality. “But look there: those wooden houses are about to collapse,” he says. “They’re empty shells. There’s no money to restore them. That’s just what I mean. If you want to understand Suriname you have to see it for what it is.” The message is clear: merely romanticizing Suriname does a disservice to the locals. Such narrow-mindedness is especially unfair given that these very locals are always so inviting to outsiders. At the end of the day I subtly try to break away from my guide, but Truus insists: “You haven’t eaten anything. Of course you’re coming to our place for dinner. I want to introduce you to my family.”
They believe in the ghosts of their ancestors
There are two distinct Surinames: the densely populated Paramaribo and the rest of the country, practically empty. Although it’s about the size of Florida, Suriname has but a half a million inhabitants. The nation is, however, covered by one of the most impenetrable and untouched jungles in the world. Only the wending riverbanks house sporadic settlements of Indians and maroons (descendants of run-away black slaves), who hunt, fish, and farm small bundles of fruits and vegetables. These locals are lean and muscled. They believe in the ghosts of their ancestors, and shun the evil spirits that dwell deep within the forest. The rules of Paramaribo do not apply here.
Accompanied by Frank, I visit Kumalu, a jungle resort on a tiny island on the Pikin Rio, a paradigm of ecological tourism. The inhabitants of the small villages on both banks of the river have grown accustomed to groups of curious tourists. Although natives occasionally try to sell simple craftwork, their original way of life has hardly changed. “We are trappers and hunters,” says Frank,who is big, strong, black and bald. For two days, he has offered nothing but insight and adventure. Every night, we’ve traveled up the river to fish with bows and arrows, immediately roasting our catch and washing them down with some kind of homemade moonshine.
In the morning, we get up before sunrise to find high ground. From here, we sit silently for hours as the river come to life. Thick white trails of mist slowly become wisps while a few women use the intimacy of dawn to wash themselves. Jungle birds proudly announce the dawn as fishermen cast their first nets from small canoes.
Suddenly, from the depths of the forest, the sinister thump of the tom-tom disrupts the quaking morning air. “A funeral,” says Frank. Leaving our high rock, we walk towards the drumming, becoming instantly engulfed in the maddening jungle shadows. As we follow a small path leading to the next village a few hours further on, the sound becomes increasingly threatening. “Don’t worry”, he assures me, “a funeral is for the whole community. But there is one thing you must know: you can’t take any photos.”
Gunshots blasts through the hazy sky
We arrive just in time to see a swaying group of men carrying the canoe-shaped casket to a shelter. It will rest there until the actual funeral later in the week. Meanwhile, a chief from another village approaches from the river surrounded by myriad decorated canoes. Then, from the banks of the river, a series of gunshots blasts through the hazy sky.
It is only on our return to the resort that Frank tells me of the unpredictability of local hospitality. He explains how some villages house spirits of revenge whom natives zealously honor since they purportedly freed blacks from slavery. “In these villages, whites are not welcome. Not out of hate, but out of a desire to protect them from these spirits. If a white man should enter one of these villages anything could happen...”
That night, by the campfire, Frank begins to tell his own story, revealing his love of the jungle and family. He has two wives who each have a child. Living in different villages, they have never met one another. He is not officially married to either of them. After all, such formality is reserved for the city folk; in the jungle, there are other laws.
The archetypical Suriname deep in our collective consciousness lies on the other side of the river, an area officially named after the Commewijne River, but popularly known as “Little Java” since its ambiance and landscape resemble those of the Indonesian island.
Pockets of faded glory remain
The tourist map of Commewijne has a refreshing clarity, revealing a wholly ordered landscape, carefully divided into hundreds of rectangular parcels of land in the best tradition of land consolidation. These slices represent the former East Indian Company plantations that farmed coffee, cocoa and sugar. Strange names such as ‘Einde Rust’ (Peace At Last), ‘Nijd en Spijt’ (Spite and Envy), ‘Nut en Schadelijk’ (Use and Misuse), and ‘Hecht en Sterk’ (Solidarity and Strength), evoke images of huge wooden villas and swaying palms. The appearance of order, however, is just as evanescent as the nostalgia it nourishes. Indeed, the parceled out plantations no longer exist. Rather, they have been subdivided into tiny land plots consisting of simple wooden abodes and juicy papaya trees.
Nonetheless, inspiring pockets of faded glory remain in this ramshackle region. The rundown sugar factory called ‘Mariënburg’, the system of irrigation canals, the old pumping engines, and the old city fortress of New Amsterdam (which has been rebuilt as a sort of open-air museum) are all bygone relics of a more productive era.
Intrigued by the name, I ask my guide if we can bike to the plantation of ‘De Eenzaamheid’ (Loneliness). Fittingly, he says no; it is too far removed. Yet my desire to remain in this area is soon obliged when I meet Ton Hagemeyer, an enterprising ex-military man, who has recognized and capitalized on tourists’ interest in Suriname’s plantation past. Ton has restored the historic plantation of Frederiksdorp, transforming it into a small hotel. Set on the Commewijne River, it is only accessible by boat. I jump at the opportunity to spend the night – the perfect antidote to the swimming pool, air conditioner and TV that await me at my could-be-anywhere hotel back in Paramaribo.
Throughout my expedition, I have visited Fort Zeelandia and toured the interior. I have quickly realized, however, that it is not the ‘must sees’ or ‘must dos’ but rather the ‘whos’ that are important to a trip. In Suriname, it is the people who have made a lasting impression on me. As I recount my journey, I remember Robin, my guide in the Commewijne, an expert in medicinal vegetation and a former snake catcher. He’s a fearless man, able to survive alone in the jungle; even navigate it at night. But he is also a sensitive soul with an equally powerful conscience – he stopped trapping when he learned that the animals he caught were being exported abroad. Indeed, every region explored on my trip has brought an array of equally engaging people. In Paramaribo, I met Hennah Draaibaar, who created the Suriname TV news station for children, and Arie Verkull, who designs beautiful tropical homes.
All the fish rise to the surface
Now, I am en route to Galibi, famous for the sea turtles that lay their eggs beneath the powder-white sand. At the gas station, I meet the local pump attendant, Eddy Lang- toon, only to learn that he was once President Desi Bouterse’s bodyguard. Eddy is honest and informative about his more glamorous former career. “It was an easy job ‘cos everyone knows that Bouterse has a tapoe.” A what? “A tapoe’s an amulet with magical powers that vibrates when there’s trouble around. That’s why he’s still alive. And do you know who he got his amulet from? From Ronnie Bruinswije’s dad, the medicine man.” Another day, another interesting chat.
Galibi lies at the mouth of the Marowijne, the river bordering French Guyana. It consists of two adjacent Indian villages, Langamakkondre and Christiaankondre, with fine white sand scalloping the bay for several kilometers. Simple wooden huts stand among thickets of mango trees. Only the Indians themselves know where one village ends and another begins. Dozens of fishing boats lie on the beach, picked clean after each catch by an army of black vultures. It is here that I meet Ricarde Pane, the chief of Christiaankondre, (named Captain in Suriname), who tells me about the endless battle to recognize the land rights of his people.
Later, one of the villagers, Hans Parana, shows me all the medicinal plants throughout the village. “The sap of this plant taught us how to catch fish! We saw how the tapir comes along and eats it, then defecates in the water. All the fish rise to the surface. It works by managing to constrict all the blood vessels in the fish”. Apparently the Surinamese are as eager to share the acquired knowledge of their surrounds as they are with their scrumptious soto soup.
For the rest of my visit I idly swing in a cotton hammock on the beach while reading a book and slurping milk from fallen coconuts. Periodically, I peer into the distance to the Marowijne on the other side of the river. I see French Guyana, where the film Papillon was set, though it’s hard to comprehend the inhospitable coast or hardships depicted in the book and the movie.
And the turtles? Well, they aren’t here this time of the year. Since I’ve missed them, I have to come back between February and August.