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Published: August 13th 2007
. The voice was surprisingly pleasant. It belonged to a rough-looking immigration officer at the South Drain Ferry Terminal in Suriname. He had just 'helloed' us in the local language called 'Sranang Tongo' or 'Taki Taki' before stamping our passports. A few minutes ago we had departed from Guyana and crossed the Corentyne River. The ferry building looked the same like the one across the water and the customs clearance was the same lengthy, tedious drill just like the one across the water😞. Outside the terminal, there were only three buses and it was then that we'd understand why the passengers ran off the ferry and into the terminal. We ran in the middle of the pack because we did not know what was ahead or what was chasing us. Anyway, two big buses were going to Nickerie. We climbed into the backseat of the only bus to Paramaribo - a 15-seater - next to a smoking granny. Vibert asked granny to extinguish the cigarette but she chose instead to finish it up outside and then climb over the backseat to get back into position. As her 81-year-old leg passed perilously close to Vibert's face
, granny thought it fit to inform
us that she was "...old but still very flexible".
The five-hour drive to Paramaribo began. The road (read: 'trail') from South Drain to Nickerie would prove an interesting introduction to Suriname. The drizzling rain made the bumpy, unpaved, red-sand road (read: 'trail') even worse. The bus hydroplaned on mud as the young driver accelerated. At one point, we gasped as the bus slid close to edge of a trench before the driver managed to control it. We bumped, slid around and stared wide-eyed for exactly one-hour before reaching a paved, albeit cobblestone road. The driver pulled into the first gas station and we exited to buy water and pass the pent-up gas. The drive to town would take us along the north coast for more than 300 km and over some impressive fixed bridges especially the one over the Coppename river. The road turned into smooth asphalt and we sped thru Coronie and Friendship and cute little roadside villages. Massive rice fields, cow pastures, virgin rainforests and at least seven splattered, road-kill snakes passed in a blur. We were moving so fast that there was no room for driver error. And yet, with all the speed, Suriname was impressing
us. It was green, fresh and pure.
Small rural houses gave way to bigger, more ostentatious properties around 6 p.m. We were in the suburbs of Paramaribo and these 'burbs looked good. The bus dropped a few passengers off at their homes and then it was granny's turn. She couldn't quite remember where she had left her house and someone gave us 'proper' directions. "Turn right by where de 'tam'bron' tree used to be"
. It worked out well and then it was our turn. Oom James, Tante Wine (English pronunciation: 'Wee Nah") and her son, Greg, were waiting for us in the big, corner house in an upscale neighbourhood.
Oom James wasn't Shanna uncle by blood. He was a neighbour to her grandparents in Aruba and his wife was Shanna's mother's godmother (get it?). Oom James was a small man physically but he grew both in stature and respect with each passing minute. The 91-year-old 'youngster' still pushed around his lawn mower, built exquisite pieces of furniture and restored antique items. His days were spent putting the final touches on his mammoth home. As soon as he finished this one, he would head over the nearby
bus to P´bo
Suriname River to fix-up a bigger property he had in Commewijne. A young James had left Suriname as a young man lured to Aruba by advertisements of 'money-trees' in 'The New Paradise'
. What he found was a developing island flooded with other young men looking for work. He was an excellent carpenter and the quality of his work soon gained him proper recognition. He took great pride in his work and he loves to tell stories of how he restored a derelict piece of furniture for the white boss' wife and how she rewarded him with hugs and kisses - a 'no-no' in those days. 'De tweede wereld oorlog' (The 2nd world war) would afford him opportunities for much overtime pay even as missiles fired by German U-boats flew over tiny Aruba. Oom James invested well buying properties back home in Suriname and after retirement he returned even giving up some Aruba pension just to have his Surinamese nationality again. For his outstanding contributions to his community and church, he was honored with a national award (a decoration). This was the man we would stay by. How fortunate for us! Oh, and by the way, Oom James
was actually Oom Oom James Williams. This led to major discussions about whether he was related to Vibert. We found out though that some of his family had crossed over from Berbice in Guyana. Vibert's father, and the Williams name, was from Berbice. Investigations are continuing
. We talked way into the night and when we finally went to sleep, it was deep and relaxing.
Fortunately for us, downtown Paramaribo was only 15 minutes from home. With a pedometer clipped to one shoe, we headed out about 10 am the next morning. First up was Palmentuin (Palm Garden) - which used to be the backyard of the presidential residence. It was an attractive, sizeable space filled with tall, stately palm trees which provided decent shade and excellent ambiance. It was quiet and peaceful. A few vagrants made home under the thatched-covered benabs and the unmistakable smell of marijuana smoke drifted on the air. We didn't stay long enough to get a 'high'.
Paramaribo was busy but not in a chaotic kind of way. Luxury cars, not-so-luxurious cars, buses and bicycles competed for space with uniformed school children, workers, and idlers. Most streets could easily accommodate two-lane traffic although some
of the major ones
Pot hole road from South drain
were one-way only. The architecture was what really popped for us. The style was colonial with influences from the French, Dutch, English and American. Tall, exquisite wooden properties were impeccably restored and maintained and converted to modern use. Quite worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the town is a delight to stroll through. It was almost like, if we could remove the modern cars and masses of people, walking thru the 18th century. A stroke of genius was leaving lots of trees in the city for shade and as the perfect offset against the buildings. The 'Waterkant' - literally 'water side' in English - was most impressive. The architecture, we were told, was patterned after New Orleans in the US. The original wooden buildings were, sadly, destroyed in two separate fires years ago but these replacements were things of beauty. They stood, most with balconies, facing a broad, brown Suriname river which separated Paramaribo and Commewijne. The 'waterkant' was once a bustling port of call for trading ships. Today, eateries selling delectable local dishes and river-view benches dominated the waterside. To the right, in the distance, was a
true feat of engineering - a super-structure bridging the river.
Second stop close to Paramaribo
Over to the left was the old fort where hideous atrocities were committed against opposition members during the dark Bouterse years in Suriname. Recent history tells of tortures and mass killings of any- and everyone who dared challenge the dictator's regime. We wondered how such crimes against humanity can seemingly go unpunished and how Bouterse, still alive and well, could freely run for political office. Across from the fort turned museum was the bright white Government House looking out unto a well-kept grass lawn. At one end of the lawn/park was the statue of a rather large, pot-bellied man. The plaque named him J. Pengel - an ex- and late Prime Minister. Combined with what looked like flagstaffs and flags of the CARICOM countries, the square surely was one of the most picturesque in the Caribbean. We walked. As we moved towards the city center, the crush thickened. The major bus stops, stores, boutiques and 'smalls' (our word meaning ´small malls´) surrounded us. With the pedometer showing 13,000+ footsteps, we walked thru the doors of the central market - a plain, bluish metal enclosure. It
was a little dark and had the regular funky Caribbean market smell but otherwise it
Suburbs of Paramaribo
was neatly-laid out and fairly clean. We bought nothing but ogled some pretty good-looking fish, fruits and vegetables.
The people were another story altogether. A true 'melting pot' , Suriname had a diverse population. Dark-skinned descendants of Maroons/African slaves aka Bush Negroes , flat-faced Javanese, people of East Indian origin, entrepreneurial Chinese, Amerindians and the occasional Caucasian all mixed and meddled with a flavour that is uncommon. All Surinamese, they all spoke Sranang Tongo and then different languages and dialects. We'd hear Dutch, Sarnami - a form of Hindi, Chinese and English and then some indecipherable dialect that sounded African. Street vendors hawked their merchandise. There were money-changers, certainly a few marijuana dealers, knock-off salespeople and shady characters. One 'gentlemen' shook a small, black plastic container at Vibert asking him if he wanted to buy. Something rattled inside. When Vibert inquired about what the merchandise was, the entrepreneur swaggered over and which his lips almost touching Vibert's ear, he whispered, all clandestine-like "stone". And then, to ensure that the utility of his item was clearly understood, he gesticulated undercover with a
circle and a middle finger. And then he smiled bashfully at Shanna who was watching suspiciously a few
Night of arrival from left to right a younger version of oom James and an older version of Vibert feet away. Vibert politely refused. Generally, the intermix of languages, music, laughter, traffic and about 200 pigeons on the sidewalk all combined to give the city a cozy, welcoming atmosphere.
We ate at Roopram on the Zwartenhovenbroekstraat (yep, that same street). Annelies had recommended Roopram and we spared a thought for her thru mouthfuls of soft roti, potato curry, pumpkin and bora. She had recommended well. After lunch we 'interneted' and when we emerged, Paramaribo was a ghost town. The people had vanished and so had the music and laughter. The streets were bare. The odd, lonely vehicle crept down the road. It was the strangest and most unexpected thing. The transformation was so sudden and drastic and uncharacteristic that worse-case scenarios played out in our minds. "Was there a hurricane warning?" "Was there a general curfew and were we in violation"? "How many wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck would chuck wood?" "Where was the gunfight and why
didn't we see the tumbleweed roll thru Dodge?" Paramaribo was dead at 3:45 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. Nervously, we approached the only person in sight, a lady with mouse features. She had just pulled up and was
Our neigbours accross the streetabout to scamper from her car into her home.
"Goede middag Mevrouw", Shanna said. "What's going on? Where's everybody?"
"Oh, offices close at 3 and schools over earlier. Everybody gone home". And with that, she disappeared.
We stared at each other caught totally off guard by the Jekkyl and Hyde personality of Paramaribo. We walked. The bread shop was closed. The 'smalls' were closed. Most everything was closed. There was nothing left to do. The pedometer recorded 29,000 footsteps - over 6 miles of walking. We trudged over to the Dutch Embassy to mark its location and to verify that the visa fee could only be paid in Euros. Then it was home to Tante "Wee Nah's" tasty dinner, to relate all the day's happenings and to collapse into deep slumber.
"Passport?" 'Check' "Completed Schengen Visa Form?" 'Check'. It was 7:15 am and we were going thru the list of requirements for a Schengen Visa.
Vibert had an 8:20 am Embassy appointment. We had planned to start walking at 7:45. "Visa fee?" Silence. We had forgotten to change the SRD into Euros to pay the fee. Hurriedly, we departed in search of Euros. The various ATMs we checked only
Small house on the Anton Drachtenweg
dispensed SRD. 'Torarica' - Suriname's signature hotel changed money but they did not have so early in the morning. Most of the cambios would open at 8:30. We fussed as we cut across Palmentuin and back into town having already passed the turn-off to the embassy. 'De Surinaamse Bank' was open but, quite discriminatingly, only changed money for 'account holders'. Fatum - an insurance company didn't have. 8:00 am. Vibert had separated from Shanna when he ran into an open cambio two blocks away only to find that he did not have enough money to make the change. 8:05 a.m. We link up, ran back and got the Euros but now we couldn't find a taxi. 8:10 am A car stops for Shanna. It doesn't look like a taxi but we pile in anyway and urged the driver to speed. 8:15 am. The driver is still maneuvering between rush-hour traffic.
We got to the embassy at 8:18 am in time to hear the guard call out the names of the people with 8:20 appointments. The rest was a breeze. We submitted our paperwork and assured the gentleman that Vibert had no intention of leaving the warm, tropical Caribbean for the
cold, rainy Netherlands. We were told to pick up the visa on the next day, Wednesday.
Stuck in town for at least another day, we decided to explore more. In a side-street we came upon 'Farcos' - a laundry and bicycle-rental establishment housed in a converted 40-foot steel container. SRD 10 per bicycle per day was affordable and after some minor repairs, we headed out into traffic. Again, the diversity of the city and the tolerance of its people showed as beautiful mosques stood side by side with Jewish synagogues and Hindu temples. We rode to the 'waterkant' and, purely on instinct, jumped into the first boat that could take our bikes. We had no idea of the destination. In the covered vessel, which could easily carry 25 people, Vibert asked the lady opposite him: "Where are we going?" She replied, "I know where I am going
but I don't know where you are going". Ok, Miss Smarty Pants.
"Where is the boat going?"
And just like that, after 10 minutes or so powering across the Suriname River, we docked. The captain offered us some directions to the 'nearby' Pepperpot Plantation. Shanna handed the good man a
Daytime picture of nightlife district
Paramaribobook and pen and he proceeded to create a spaghetti chart with squiggles representing both sluices and schools. Not once did he mention a 'left' or a 'right'. The map stopped as soon as he had run out of space and so too did his explanation. He wished us luck and staggered off. It was then that we realized that our boat captain, and now cartographer extraordinaire, was stone cold drunk. Armed with our 'map' we pedalled off in search of 'Plantage Peperpot'. We found the sluice (well several sluices) and one school. After 30 minutes of riding in the blazing 2 p.m. sun, we reached a pot-holed red sand road and another sluice. On and on we went until at last we ran right into the estate. Back in the day, it was a sugar plantation. And it must have been a
good one. The 'massa's' house - a huge wooden house - now lay in ruins. A sizeable factory building was now abandoned as was what appeared to be a storage bond. Railroad tracks were barely visible between the grass and shrubs which covered most everything. We turned around and pedalled to civilization only (and, in hindsight, fortunately)
Our driver told us ´this is the place to get a lil flower for your sweetheartto have Vibert's back tire explode. We pushed to a nearby Chinese shop and bought an inner tube but the Chinese wouldn't lend us the air pump. They wanted us to buy it . So off we went further up the road and into a stranger's yard. The nice lady got out her pump and woke her son to assist us. Back at the docks, the captain was still drunk but apparently sober enough to triple-charge us for the return trip. Since it was after 3:30, it seemed like the frequent crossings had stopped. Somehow, we left feeling set-up and bamboozled by a boozed-up captain.
'Joosje's' late lunch of baras and vegetable roti was good but we thought Roopram was better. Tired, thirsty and sun-burnt,
we headed thru the quiet city streets. As nice as it was, we were tired of the city and we started to make plans to head into the interior of Suriname. Visions of a green, peaceful place with creeks and waterfalls - a place called 'Brownsberg - dominated our sleep.
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