Getting to the Heart of Suriname

04 January 2017 / By admin
Nelson Tiapoe pointed out two mature trees just a few feet apart amid the dense jungle vegetation. “When you see a mango tree and a cacao tree together, you know people used to live here,” he said. He was leading me and a 62-year-old Dutch man named Ton through the dense Amazonian rain forest of central Suriname just across the Upper Suriname River from his eco-resort, Knini Paati. Nelson himself didn’t need any such evidence. His grandparents had lived in this exact spot, as had many other relatives, all Saramaka-speaking Maroons, the descendants of slaves who fled from colonial plantations into the forest in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Nelson grew up in Paramaribo, the capital of the South American nation formerly known as Dutch Guiana, and created the fairly bare-bones resort largely with his own hands.   I was staying in a cabin at Knini Paati by sheer luck. It would normally have been beyond my budget — 3 days and 2 nights, including meals and transportation from Paramaribo by car and slender wooden boat called a korjaal, costs 199 euros (about $275; he charges in euros because most of his clients, like most visitors to Suriname, are from the Netherlands, the country’s former colonial ruler). Like those of its neighbors, Guyana and French Guiana, Suriname’s population of about 550,000 largely lives on the coast, making getting inland a challenge; many places can be reached only by boat or airplane. When I got to the affordable and elegant Hotel Palacio in Paramaribo — where I had arrived by bus and ferry from Guyana on my back-door route to the World Cup in Brazil — I asked at the desk if there was a way to get to the interior on the cheap.

Nelson Tiapoe on the Upper Suriname River near his eco-resort, Knini Paati. SETH KUGEL FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

The general manager, a young Indo-Surinamese man named Avinash Radjkoemar, somewhat astonishingly invited me to join him and some friends and family at a resort owned by his childhood friend Nelson. (He did not know I was a reporter.) He called Nelson and set the terms: two days, one night, 200 Surinamese dollars (about $63 at 3.19 Surinamese dollars to the U.S. dollar). The invitation, I would soon learn, was indicative of two Surinamese traits: a warm welcome to visitors and an interaction of cultures that creates close friendship among residents with different backgrounds, while groups still maintain separate identities many generations after their ancestors arrived. Nelson and Avinash, for example, grew up together and consider themselves brothers. The mixture of cultures in Suriname is intoxicating, in part because it’s a different sort of diversity than I’m used to, even in my home borough of Queens, a wildly diverse place. It’s been well over a century since Indians arrived in Suriname as indentured servants, yet at the resort the family spoke a derivation of the Hindustani language. Nelson’s people, living in villages near the resort, still speak Saramakan. And things only get more dizzying from there: In Suriname, the Indians, as well as the Javanese (as the descendants of Indonesian laborers are known), the Maroons and indigenous groups maintain their own languages. Yet they study in Dutch and communicate with other groups in a common creole officially named Sranan Tongo (or Surinamese tongue) but universally referred to as Taki Taki (from talkie-talkie). I haven’t even gotten into the blacks known as Creoles, the Chinese who seem to own all the supermarkets or the countless Brazilians who have come recently to mine gold, not to mention Dutch who are around for one reason or another, including a guy who sells oliebollen, Dutch doughnuts, for 1.75 Surinamese dollars near the waterfront in Paramaribo.

Nieuw Aurora, a Maroon village. SETH KUGEL FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Foods have mixed like a culinary Taki Taki. In a warung, or Javanese restaurant, in the Blauwgrond neighborhood of Paramaribo, I found a Creole man named Cliften Sno prepared me the Javanese chicken soup known locally as saoto. When I inquired how he knew the way to make it, he said, “In Suriname, everyone knows how to make saoto.” After I interviewed him for a video, he offered me a ride home, but stopped in a wealthy Hindu neighborhood when he spotted the streets shut off for what he somehow knew was an Indo-Surinamese bachelorette party. He said the wealthy Hindu neighborhood lit up every December with Christmas lights. “But they’re Hindu,” I said, confused. “This is Suriname,” he replied. It happened again and again. I won’t even get into Elionore, the Creole-indigenous university student I met in the central market caring for an Indian girl as she tended the stand of a Javanese woman she considers her mother. It’s too bad the Dutch dominate tourism in Suriname, which became independent in 1975 and recovered long ago from a bloody civil war in the 1980s. It’s a semi-polished tourist gem nestled between two diamonds very much in the rough: Guyana to the west and French Guiana to the east. But the disappointing North Atlantic coastline — largely free of the white sand and crystalline waters you find on Caribbean islands to the north — means it’s not a destination for beach worshipers, and it is inaccessible from the south, where the lush and largely impenetrable rain forest that occupies most of the country blends seamlessly with the Brazilian Amazon. Two days after the invitation from Avinash, Nelson had picked me up at the hotel. In the car already was the Dutch man, Ton Dubislav, and we drove much of the way past gold mines both illegal and blatantly obvious. Then we spent close to an hour gliding down the river on our korjaal to the resort, a few cabins and a cooking area set in an isolated stretch of the river.

Scenes from Paramaribo, Suriname's capital. SETH KUGEL FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Now, beggars can’t be choosers, and Avinash’s friends and family — at least 20 or so people, from young children to an 81-year-old grandmother — though quite friendly and generous with the feast they cooked up, were not the ideal companions. They were mainly there to enjoy one another’s company, and in their own language. The peaceful, isolated river setting became a noisy party, complete with pistols firing (the group included policemen) and a revving jet ski that seemed wholly out of place (though I did not turn down an offer to give it a spin). Some of the noise, though, I could tolerate: Avinash was playing upbeat Dominican merengue by Juan Luis Guerra, who is both my favorite artist and popular among Avinash’s generation of Surinamese. Nelson maintains good relations with the closest Maroon community, the side-by-side villages of Nieuw Aurora and Tjai Kondre — separated only by religion, the first practicing Christianity and the second the African-rooted Saramakan religion. The villages were bigger — and less modern — than I expected, with a population in the thousands and barely a sign of modernity beyond electric lines, a couple of little shops and the corrugated tin that replaced thatch on most of the tightly clustered wooden houses. There are no roads, so winding dirt paths connect everything. Nelson told us that Maroon villages come as close to maintaining their African way of life than anywhere else in the African diaspora, recounting visitors from Ghana who shed tears at how familiar the villages and scenes of naked children playing in the river alongside women hand-washing clothes seemed. He wants to begin attracting African-American travelers, which I thought was a very promising idea. Back in camp there was little to do but relax, read, jump in the river, listen to stories from Ton about his days in the Dutch Army serving in Suriname and his plans to create a more extreme eco-resort with Nelson way upriver — cooking only with what can be planted and hunted and fished, with jungle hikes navigated only by machete and GPS. My time on the river was the perfect contrast to two days in Paramaribo, a splendid city. Pleasant streets of whitewashed Dutch-influenced colonial buildings that house government offices and hotels and some businesses, are adjacent (and sometimes overlapping with) a bustling, commercial section with a very Latin American vibe. The only downside: attractions and businesses open early (about 7 a.m.) and close earlier (about 2 or 3), so late risers like me need to adjust their schedule. The Dutch seem to like to hang out on the waterfront and drink local Parbo beer, but I spent most of my time in that chaotic commercial section, with minivans lined up to take people to the interior and stores with weird English names (Foot Candy?), Chinese-owned variety stores (where I picked up a hammock for a later leg of my journey), people playing checkers and at least one stand selling sausages that the vendor said were Surinamese but sure looked Dutch to me. There are also some more standard attractions, like a 17th-century British fort improved and renamed Fort Zeelandia by the Dutch. It is well restored, with nice displays of Maroon and indigenous objects, though other displays — both historical exhibits and a recreation of a colonial-era pharmacy — are alas, only in Dutch. (Entrance is 15 Surinamese dollars; there’s a small booklet available in the gift shop for 2.50 dollars that provides basic guidance.) Oh, did I mention the soaring minarets of the Mosque Keizerstraat, built in 1984, next door to the stately Ionic columns of 18th-century Neve Shalom Synagogue, which serves a Jewish population that dates to the 17th century? No? Well, there’s only so much multiculturalism one article can take.  
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