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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Travel Writings - Suriname

I had been intending to visit Suriname for several years before I finally managed to go there, ostensibly for my cousin’s wedding, but really I was more excited about finally going to a place I’d been hearing about all of my life from my family. Almost every Trinidadian I know that visited the country has said it reminds them of how Trinidad used to be. I was curious to find out if my impression of the place would be the same. Despite having been hearing about Suriname sporadically for much of my life, only when I was actually on the flight did I realize how little I knew about the place.

I knew that Suriname is the smallest country on the South American continent and the only independent Dutch speaking nation in the Western Hemisphere.  With a population of only 600,000; more Surinamese live outside the country than in it. These facts led me to believe that the country would have more of a smaller, even island-like, culture. They are, after all, part of Caricom.

My assumption was completely wrong because Suriname is quite a large country, made up of such disparate regions and people of hugely varying backgrounds that it can feel like several countries at once. The country is easily as diverse as Trinidad and what makes the diversity even more apparent is that most migrant groups have retained their language. I sat on the waterfront, looking at the Suriname River which was the largest I’d ever seen at the time. In an hour I’d heard Dutch, French, Hindi, Bahasa, Portuguese, Chinese and the local language, Surinaams, being spoken.

The waterfront is an excellent spot to get the feel of Paramaribo, the capital and largest city, as well as to sample some of the amazing Surinamese food, which has a culinary fusion of all the cultures that comprise the nation. The bustle of activity can make the city of 250,000 feel much larger than it actually is. Really, it was the only place in all of Suriname that didn’t feel entirely laidback. Right in the heart of the city, next to the National Assembly (parliament), is the one calm spot in the capital, The Botanical Gardens. While the array of plants was impressive, the tranquility was what really made the place memorable to me. The garden itself is quite small and can be completely viewed in under an hour. Most of the visitors I saw seemed to be locals relaxing and I think I was the only tourist there.

The Historical Inner City of Paramaribo is a World Heritage site, notable for its gorgeous buildings which are a fusion of Dutch architecture and local materials, mostly wood. The Roman Catholic cathedral is built entirely of wood, quite a rarity for neo-Gothic architecture. When it comes to houses of worship, Suriname has one of the rarest sights in the world. On Keizerstraat, the Neveh Shalom Synagogue stands next to the National Mosque. The two buildings even shared a car park until recent renovation caused the car park to have to be moved. Considering all the tension that, unfortunately, can arise from differences in belief, seeing such an example of cooperation is uplifting.

Despite having a long shoreline on the Caribbean Sea, there are no sandy beaches in Suriname as the tremendous discharge from the giant South American rivers leave the coastline very muddy and the sea itself seems to be freshwater until further away from shore. These large rivers fill in for the beaches, with several places filled with sand and makeshift, freshwater beaches created. One of those places is called Cola Creek, so named because the water looks as dark as Coca Cola from the shore. In reality, the water is perfectly clear but the soil underneath is so dark that the whole creek seems to be dark as well. An amusing detail is that these river-beaches have been completely netted off from the rest of the river to prevent piranhas from entering where the bathers are.  Just another reminder of how much nature is ever-present in life in South America.

Another stunning body of water lies a few hours south of Paramaribo, only accessible by car along the newly built highways leading into the interior. The Brokopondo Reservoir is one of the largest in the world at 1560km2 and floods one percent of the country. The reservoir, with its expanse of water broken only by the trunks of now-dead trees which preceded its construction, feels very tranquil. It is a popular spot for fishing from the shores and there are even a few small boats which go out to fish.

 I was told that the reservoir isn’t popular with swimmers as they prefer the Anani river beach. The town of Brokopondo itself is very small and has a long history, as it has been primarily populated by the Maroons and examples of the Maroon craftwork such as calabash bowls and ornate pangi (a type of cloth) wraps can be obtained here. Wild meat is also popular in the interior and though I didn’t try any, just the sight of animals I’d never seen before being displayed for sale was an experience in itself.

The size of the country meant that there still is much more that I have to see. I’m glad my cousin got married so that I got to visit and I’m eagerly awaiting any news of more familial events so I can visit again and see even more of the place. Getting to observe and learn more about the various people and the diverse landscapes of the country was truly a great opportunity. I was able to find out so much about a country that I knew little about though I’d heard lots. Even before I left, I was already thinking about when next I could visit.

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