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Suriname: A Dutch-Chinese-Hindustani-Javanese-Amerindian-African Stew

January 16, 2016

Anna T., borrowed from Day Dreamer for our
South American voyage, raises the Suriname flag.
by Paula
Deshaies, Guadeloupe

Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana... most of us had not heard much of these countries a year ago. They sound like they should be in Africa and Asia. They are, of course, three tiny countries in South America, and they're the only ones other than Portuguese-speaking Brazil in which Spanish is not the national language.

English is the language of Guyana, once known as British Guyana. Unsurprisingly French is the language of French Guiana, which is actually not an independent country but a part of France. And then there's Suriname, formerly known as Dutch Guyana. It's official language is still Dutch. It felt odd to travel to South America and find people speaking Dutch. Suriname is a quirky little place that we found hard to leave. 

Happy smiles to be here, especially in a Dutch-style bakery.   

I sound like a broken record detailing Suriname's history because it's similar in many ways to so many other Caribbean countries. Originally inhabited by Arawaks, Arawaks conquered by the Caribs, subsequent colonization by European powers (the Dutch and the English), becoming part of a European state (Netherlands in 1948), and gaining independence (1975). The Dutch and English both set up plantation societies here in the 17th century, with a 1667 treaty sorting out that the Netherlands got to keep Suriname and the English got to keep the city of New Amsterdam, a quaint little spot that they renamed New York.

Not too much tension, though. Paramaribo is a place where
a Temple and a Mosque coexist peacefully side by side.

Like many of the Caribbean countries, Suriname has a terrible history of importing blacks from Africa as slaves for the plantations. After slavery was outlawed in 1863, contract laborers were brought in from Indonesia, India, China, and the Middle East.

This history has led Suriname to be one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse countries in the world today. It doesn't seem exactly like a melting pot; there are still tensions between ethnic groups. Its seems more like a stew really, with diverse groups maintaining their separate identities but getting along together.

Maroon village

While still a plantation society, many African slaves escaped to the jungle. There, they established settlements that
remain today, largely unchanged. The life in these Maroon villages is the most primitive we have seen, and we were told that they come closer to the old way of life in Africa than any place in Africa today.

Not many English-speaking
cruisers pass this way, so
the book exchange didn't
hold much for us.
Greg and our car-rental guy, Richi.
Transactions took place at his house,
and he picked some oranges from his
tree for us when we returned the
car (rented for $10/day).
Walking around the capital city of Paramaribo, we could see the diversity in all the different faces. We never got used to hearing them all speaking Dutch. In the city, English is spoken by many. We didn't have much trouble communicating, and everyone was very friendly and helpful. Over half the population, including those in the Maroon villages speak Sranan, also known as Taki Taki. This creole language is a fusion of English, Dutch, Portuguese and Central and West African languages. 

The Suriname River and its small tributaries
is the only transportation for many.
Back when we lived in Virginia, Greg was friends with a former US government official serving in Suriname. Before our venture to this country, Greg emailed him to invite him to visit us there. His response was a solid No. It turns out he spent much of his appointment trying to get a certain drug-dealing, murdering thug put in jail. The guy is now the President. He was pretty certain he'd end up in jail if he set foot in the country.

In 1980, the burgeoning independent government was overthrown in a coup. Unsuccessful counter-coups were attempted in the following years, with a military take-over by leader D├ęsi Bouterse in 1982. His rise to power included the blatant execution of 13 prominent citizens at Fort Zeelandia, an event called the December Murders. Conveniently, his Surinamese government granted him amnesty for these crimes.

The lovely Suriname was cool, calm, and foggy in the morning.

Bouterse continued a dictatorial reign, made easier by the "Telephone Coup," his dismissal of the government in 1990 by phone. Out of power for a period of time, Bouterse returned as president after the 2010 elections. We understand that the wheels of his recent re-election were greased by bringing half the population onto the government payroll. The resulting troubling economic situation has lead to recent devaluations of the currency.

River Breeze Marina - a nice little place run extremely well
by  Gabi, a former (and to-be-again) cruiser.
Political and economic troubles aside, Suriname is a delightful country. It was great to see the striking differences between the city, the small-town country-side, and the subsistence living in the Maroon villages. Unfortunately, although the people in the capital city are very friendly, the Torarica hotel at the only anchorage near Paramaribo was not at all friendly. They absolutely refused to let us use their dock even for an hour. And they were pretty rude about it. So if you're cruising, just skip Paramaribo and head eight miles upriver to Domburg, where the River Breeze Marina could not be more welcoming.

Forthcoming will be numerous posts highlighting much of our travel in the country. In the meantime, here's a general preview.

There's nothing remarkable about most of the blah cement buildings downtown, but the old Dutch buildings are quite charming.

There are lots of colorful mosques throughout the cities and towns.

One thing that struck us was the generous amounts of stuff available in Paramaribo, especially compared to Guyana and even many Caribbean islands. The guys at Beni's Christmas palace were quite taken with our cruising lifestyle, and gave us some free gifts.

The stores here, mostly run by Chinese or Hindustani folks, are either a mish-mash of any & everything or a bizarre combination of goods. Among our favorites were the backpack-flipflop store and the furniture & motorcycle parts store (left below). We couldn't get enough of Li Rong Mall, near our marina, with its friendly workers (below right).

One-stop shopping for your weapons and your gift-bags. We're not in Kansas anymore, given the proximity of these items (see the video).

No need for price tags when you can just write the price on a cabbage with a Sharpie. I guess presentation isn't everything when it comes to the vegetable display...

Not exactly the same standards here as in the US. The guy in this meat store was kind enough to tell us "you don't want those..." when we asked about the pork tenderloin. Just outside the view of the camera were two jaded-looking Asian guys chain-smoking behind the register.

Traffic was worse in Paramaribo than in another other place we have visited so far, and much to reminiscent of the DC area! Scooters just drive on sidewalk; it's so much easier.

In our tiny rented car, those of us in the back seat came to dread the far too frequent drempels.

The roads in the city were full of potholes. Outside of the city, roads were just as bad, if not worse. Some, like the road to the Brownsberg Nature Center were unpaved bauxite.

The buses all have crazy names like many in the Caribbean, but those in Suriname also have images of celebrities.

The people here use what they have on hand, and the forest is plentiful. Builders use cement forms held up by sticks.

Speaking of making due... good luck with those jury-rigged jumper cables, guys!! The shaved-ice man in Domburg square actually shaved his ice with a wood plane.

We'd probably seen just one or two escalators since leaving the US. Here, Nicole and Anna are in their "formal wear," which they could not wait to change out of (Anna had already chucked the sandals I loaned her in favor of flipflops). Checking-in to Suriname requires stops at three places, including the Maritime Authority Suriname. The guys at MAS will not let you in if you are too informally dressed. Men must be in pants and collared shirts. Women's skirts can't be above the knee and shoulders must be covered.

Food-shopping is hit or miss. Everything in the stores is dirt cheap, but the selection can be lacking. How can an entire country not have raisins? There were almost no US brands in any store, though we did one KFC and one McDonalds.

Most restaurants were local eateries. Our favorite lunch spot had fantastic rotis, and the neon-orange dessert turned out to be quite tasty.

Life on the Suriname River was good to us. Look for more posts to come on our trips to Nieuw Amsterdam, The Brownsberg Nature Preserve, and the Pikin Slee Resort in the jungle, upriver.
Suriname... it was hard to leave you.