ATIN AMERICA 2011
Suriname, South America’s Hidden Treasure
Tomas Munita for The New York Times
By SIMON ROMERO
Published: September 16, 2011
THE road to Atjoni got more interesting as the wind grew stronger, making the surrounding ceiba trees of the Surinamese jungle murmur with whispers of an impending storm. We were hours into the country’s interior when we came across a solitary hunter. He had a shotgun slung from his shoulder and a machete sheathed at his waist. We stopped to talk. After brief introductions, things became complicated.
Asked about his luck so far in stalking that day’s prey, he laughed and said a few words in Saramaka, the language of his Maroon people, who are descended from slaves who escaped into Suriname’s jungles. Sensing our inability to get by in Saramaka, he switched to Dutch, pointing at a nearby tree where he had just spotted some movement, laughed again and said, “boom kip,” which literally means “tree chicken.” Our blank stares prompted him to switch languages yet again, this time to Sranan Tongo, the extraordinarily playful Creole language that borrows from English, Dutch and Portuguese and is Suriname’s lingua franca. “Legwana,” he said, and finally we understood that he meant iguana. He then explained that he was after something a bit more satisfying, some “pingo” (wild boar), perhaps, or “hei,” a coveted forest rodent called paca in English. With a broad smile, he waved us on our way down that jungle road to Atjoni, a crossing at a bend of the Suriname River.
Just 500,000 people live in Suriname, a country on South America’s northeastern shoulder about the size of Florida, but the variety of cultures they represent rivals those of much larger countries. The official language is Dutch, in a nod to Suriname’s past as a colony of the Netherlands, but on the streets of Paramaribo, the capital, one hears, in addition to Sranan Tongo, languages like Hindi and Javanese. Chinese characters decorate signs on casinos and corner stores. Motorized rickshaws called tuk-tuks speed past mosques and Hindu temples, giving Suriname a vaguely Asian feel. (With a name that rhymes with Vietnam, Hollywood seems to prefer it this way: the movie “The Silence of the Lambs” seems to suggest that Suriname is in Asia.) Suriname’s obscurity and charm, in an age in which frontiers seem to melt away at the click of a mouse, proves that there are still corners of the world that can provide surprise and adventure, even a bit of awe.
Indeed, when I told friends where my wife, Carolina, and I were headed for a brief vacation, I received the oddest reactions. One related a tale from a London newsroom in which an esteemed news organization’s South America correspondent called his editor upon arriving in Paramaribo, only to hear a voice bark from the other end of the line, “What the hell are you doing in Africa?” Another recommended a book in preparation for my trip, “Bush Master: Into the Jungles of Dutch Guiana,” by the adventurer Nicol Smith (as if the title was not enough, the book’s preposterous jacket description reads, “An authentic hair-raising account of voodooism, wild adventure, three-fingered men and tropical terrors.”) Perhaps the best reaction came from Boris Muñoz, a friend fromCaracas with a highly cultivated sense of irony who is one of Venezuela’s most respected journalists. “Does Suriname actually exist?” he asked me. “I know of only one other person who has said he has been there.”
I can now safely report back that Suriname, splendid in its isolation, does indeed exist. For now, at least, the only foreign travelers who visit this remote corner of South America in big numbers are the Dutch. A direct flight from Amsterdam to the Paramaribo-Zanderij airport shuttles thousands of them into the country every year. But Suriname’s appeal should be broadening now that it has distanced itself from a wrenching civil war in the late 1980s and can capitalize on the allure of its huge tracts of rain forest. The opening of new guest houses and hotels suggests that perhaps it is ready.
Of course, neither Suriname nor its capital is a destination for celebrity sightings or thread-count hounds. Its hotels are more Graham Greene than Ian Schrager. The country’s appeal lies in its friendly, affordable and accessible exoticism, along with the novel sense one gets there of being in a place just recently shed of its colonial past. It also happens to have phenomenal food.
The obvious place to begin any visit to Suriname is in Paramaribo, a sleepy city between jungle and sea. With its white clapboard mansions and colonial brick buildings, it seems to belong to another continent, if not another era; it ranks as one of South America’s safest and tidiest capitals.
With only about 250,000 people, the city is small and accessible, and pleasantly good for walking and bicycling. We started our exploration at the markets along the elegant Waterkant, or Waterfront, where dozens of stalls offer a window into Suriname’s astonishing diversity. Maroons and Arawaks, one of the country’s indigenous tribes, sell nearly everything under the sun from the country’s interior at the Freedom Market — from bush meat to live monkeys and bottles of casiri, a brew made from cassava.
At the adjacent Central Market, there are a variety of stalls selling knickknacks, fresh produce and ready-made delights like curry egg and sardines with onions and peppers. At another stall, specializing in Javanese cuisine, we tried rice cubes stewed in coconut, brown sugar and spicy pepper and served in a banana leaf. Items picked up during a casual stroll could feed you for the day on pennies. The meal we assembled cost all of 3 Suriname dollars apiece, less than one American dollar.
Other vendors sold pirated Bollywood movies, and Rastafarians offered reggae CDs and tapestries of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.
While many Surinamese happily speak English, I took the opportunity to try to learn a few words in Sranan Tongo while wading through the markets; the language’s flexibility and playfulness never failed to surprise me. “Faya,” I learned, sounds like fire but can mean electricity or lightning, and “dagadaga” sounds like “dagger dagger” but means “machine gun.” (An appreciation of Sranan Tongo is provided in the writer John Gimlette’s excellent new travel book, “Wild Coast,” about Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana.) “Lobiwan,” literally “loved one,” is a commonly used term of address. Ordering a ginger beer from a market stall involved pronouncing the word, “dyindyabiri,” and to say many thanks, simply utter “Grantangi!”
Understanding how this cultural mash-up came to be in a remote part of the world with tongue-twisting street names like Noorderkerkstraat and Jaggernath Lachmonstraat curiously has to do with an island called Manhattan. I learned this on a short road trip out of Paramaribo with a friend, Ranu Abhelakh, a Surinamese writer and journalist, to some ruins at the confluence of the Suriname and Commewijne Rivers near the Atlantic coast — specifically at Fort Nieuw Amsterdam, built by the Dutch in the 18th century now housing a museum.
Exhibits at the complex, still surrounded by a dike to prevent flooding, explain how the Dutch traded New York for Suriname to the English in the 17th century.
For decades, it seemed as if the Dutch had gotten the better end of the deal. Soon, though, they were under attack from escaped slaves who had organized into a formidable opposition, mounting raids on plantations. The conflict resulted in a siege mentality that survives to this day in the language; Maroons still call Paramaribo “Foto,” or Fort. Built as a bastion to ward off Maroon attacks, Fort Nieuw Amsterdam now stands as testament to the resilience of the rebellious slaves and their descendants, with whom the Dutch were ultimately forced to sign peace treaties. After slavery was abolished in the 19th century, the Dutch brought in laborers from India, China and Indonesia, producing the unusual mix of cultures that now defines Suriname.
Back in Paramaribo, we decided to spend an evening exploring Blauwgrond, an ethnically mixed district famed for its great restaurants, and for the most part calmer than other areas favored by Dutch travelers. Starting out on foot, we slipped into a Hindu temple called Shri Radha Krishna Mandir. It was our good fortune to arrive at the start of Holi, a Hindu spring religious festival. Outside, a bonfire of bamboo shoots was set aflame in the humid night air, sounding like hundreds of firecrackers going off at once. Attendees at the ceremony warmly asked us where we were from. Together, we watched the flames dance and crackle. Then it was time to eat.
Blauwgrond is renowned for its Javanese restaurants called warungs. We wandered through the area’s narrow streets before finding one called Warung Felicia. A waitress handed us a delicious drink made of lemon grass, milk and coconut. The restaurant was Muslim-owned and did not serve alcohol, but when we asked about getting a tall bottle of locally brewed Parbo beer, the owner waved us across the street toward a Chinese food shop. After we returned, Parbo in hand, the owners gave us glasses. Then the real treat: saoto, a soup of fried potato, bean sprouts, egg, chicken and spices that astounded me with its potency.
A few days later, it was time to explore the interior. While Suriname has an Atlantic coastline, the country lacks the kind of beaches that lure travelers to the Caribbean. Instead, visitors often head inland for swimming, fishing, hiking and bird-watching, traveling along relatively well-maintained roads equipped with drempels (speed bumps). My aim was to go piranha fishing at a lodge called Anaula while getting a taste for the interior before flying back over the rain forest in a small Cessna. Tours are offered throughout hinterlands, as are private guides. An English-speaking driver with a Toyota with four-wheel drive, provided by a jungle outfitter recommended by a friend in Paramaribo, picked us up in the capital.
We soon found ourselves on that road cutting through Suriname’s vast interior. A few hours into the drive, I realized we were in gold rush country. Shops along the road were selling everything from spare parts for backhoes to salted beef and cases of Red Bull; inside, we could hear conversations among other customers in Portuguese, the language of Brazilian garimpeiros, or miners. They were on the hunt for Suriname’s gold in small mines carved out of the surrounding forest.
Once we arrived in Atjoni, a busy river crossing and departure point for canoe trips along the river was our first glimpse into Suriname’s wild frontier. A cellphone tower underscored this as a place of important commerce, as did a store in which a Chinese merchant sold unlocked BlackBerrys and bottles of Borgoe 82 rum.
A guide met us there in a motorized canoe for the short trip on the river to Anaula, a lodge replete with cabanas, bats flying in and out of the canteen and a swimming pool, where we dropped off our backpacks and immediately cast our lines for piranha. Our boat driver, Angelo Amimba, 21, proved the luckiest fisherman, catching several over a few minutes as we flailed around with our poles catching nothing.
Dinner that evening was a mellow affair in an open-air dining room frequented by Dutch travelers. A barman served Parbo and Cuba Libres. Civilization, or what passed for it, seemed to have gained a toehold in the forest. The magnificent rain that fell later that night over Anaula’s spartan cabins drowned out the symphony of sounds coming from insects and birds.
The next day we took a canoe to Nieuw Aurora, a Maroon village across the river. On one side of the village, a clinic and a church illustrated its links with other parts of Suriname and the outside world. Even cellphones worked. But exploring the dirt paths where Nieuw Aurora merged with another community, Tjaikondre, it was clear that this was a community that had won its independence from the Dutch long ago (indeed, Maroons have long called their lands kondres, a word reminiscent of countries) and felt at ease interacting with outsiders as equals. As the hot sun beat down on Nieuw Aurora, it dawned on me that its residents have much to teach those of us from so-called developed countries about rebellion, resilience, pacing life according to one’s surroundings and self-sufficiency.
Nieuw Aurora’s relaxed pace of life made Paramaribo seem like a bustling metropolis. Old men played checkers in the shade. Some villagers collected firewood or tended nearby farming plots. Others waited for the sun’s heat to abate before venturing to hunt in the forest. We found one such dreadlocked group sitting on the porch of a wooden store, sipping Parbo and strumming reggae tunes on a guitar. I asked one young man what he did for a living. “I’m a gunman and farmer,” he responded, explaining that by the former he meant to say that he was a skilled hunter. Then he and his friends invited us to stay in their village, in an empty hut reserved for travelers, and go on a hunt in the forest with them for pingos. “It will be the adventure of your life,” he said, as I tried to politely decline since a Cessna was to pick us up at the dirt airstrip that afternoon.
Though I had been in the country only a few days, I felt as if I had traversed several continents and only now — drinking beer, shaking hands and striking up conversation with these men — was I getting a taste of Suriname’s frontier.
But it was time to leave. As storm clouds threatened a downpour that never arrived, I realized there was just one thing I’d like to have changed on our trip. Next time, I promised myself, I would stay on this side of the river.
Suriname, with direct air connections to a few places, including Amsterdam, Aruba and Belém, Brazil, is splendidly isolated. Expect a stopover in one exotic locale or another. A recent online search found round-trip flights between Kennedy International Airport and Paramaribo starting at $790 on Caribbean Airlines, with a layover in Port of Spain,Trinidad.
To the Jungle and Beyond
WHERE TO EAT
Central Market on Paramaribo’s Waterkant (Waterfront) has dozens of stalls from which delicious meals can be assembled for about $1, at 3.29 Suriname dollars to the U.S. dollar.
Warung Felicia (J. Samson Greenstraat, Paramaribo; 597-453-257) has excellent Javanese food. Figure about 30 dollars a person for dinner.
Joke’s Crab House (108 Verlengde Gemenelandsweg, Paramaribo; 597-532-024) is a great place to hear live jazz. About 40 dollars for a meal of chicken roti and a Parbo beer.
Spice Quest (107 Nassylaan, Paramaribo; 597-520-747) serves excellent Surinamese fusion cuisine and Japanese food under the direction of the chef and owner Patrick Woei. A meal for two costs about 198 dollars.
WHERE TO GO
Access Suriname (37 Prinsessenstraat, Paramaribo; 597-424-533; surinametravel.com) arranges rain forest excursions largely for Dutch travelers into Suriname’s interior. The five-hour drive from Paramaribo to the river crossing at Atjoni, on paved and dirt roads cutting through the jungle in a chauffeured four-wheel drive, is an adventure in itself (343 Suriname dollars). From there, a guide takes visitors by canoe to the resort of Anaula on the Suriname River (doubles are about 360 dollars), replete with piranha fishing, a swimming pool and trails leading into the forest.
WHERE TO STAY
The Royal Torarica (10 KleineWaterstraat, Paramaribo; 597-473-500;royaltorarica.com) may be Suriname’s most comfortable hotel, and its location, within walking distance of the beer garden at ’t Vat and the colonial buildings of Independence Square, is excellent. Amenities include a pool and a casino. Doubles start at about 575 Suriname dollars.
Hotel Krasnapolsky (39 Domineestraat, Paramaribo; 597-475-050; krasnapolsky.sr) is located in the middle of the capital’s bustle with 84 guest rooms. It would be stretch to call the Kras, as it’s known to locals, luxurious, but with its circa-’70s décor, the hotel would be a fine candidate for the setting of a James Bond film. Doubles start at about 390 dollars.