It’s quite amusing how strangers warn us every time we are about to enter a neighboring country.
This happens nearly everywhere you go. Back in Europe people in Montenegro told us we are going to be robbed in Albania. Once there the locals were certain that Macedonia is a really rough place to be. We really enjoyed all the Balkan countries and met great people whose last thought would be to harm us. Now, in South America, history repeats itself.
In French Guyana folks swore that by the time we reach Paramaribo the capital in Suriname, we will surely be kidnapped. Surinamese warned us about thieves in Guyana, ready to pull out knives in order to get our stuff. Only a few days ago we were told that there are cannibals all around Venezuela suffering hunger because of the financial crisis.
With a certain amount of distance, we listen to every piece of advice and react with an even bigger measure of common sense. We are attentive and focused. However, we do avoid prejudice and never assume the worst case before reaching a new country. So we did arrive in Suriname.
Avoiding the threat of kidnapping we’ve reached Paramaribo at the beginning of the New Year. The city’s architecture is a mixture of Dutch and British style. Wooden buildings with verandas, painted white with squeaky floors and undeniable charm are to be found everywhere. In front of many countryside houses, you can find little channels with bridges leading to properties. Some of them are built on high pillars in order to avoid flooding.
British colonization left the country with left-hand side traffic which, like in Guyana, didn’t change since then. It’s worth knowing that Suriname was colonized by Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands-with the biggest influence of the latter.
Suriname, so unknown and unpopular in Europe, is extremely rich in culture and history.
It’s home of 5 different religions and 5 different ethnicities. All live together, very surprisingly, in peace and harmony.
One of the ethnic groups are Maroons- descendants of African slaves brought to Suriname to work. Their ancestors escaped plantations and lived in the jungle for years cultivating their traditions and customs. Therefore Surinamese interior is often told to be the home of the best-preserved African culture outside of Africa. Creole people represent another ethnic group although they also are descendants of slaves. Their ancestors though were not the ones who fled to the interior. The line between them and the Maroons is not constant therefore the percentage of both ethnic groups varies from one survey to another.
The biggest groups are Hindustani Indians and the second-Indonesians, mainly Javanese, who were sent to work in former British Guyana right after slaves fled in huge numbers to the interior. One can notice their influence in the architecture, occurring in vivid colors and rich ornaments of houses.
The next group is the Amerindians living in the very south of the country in regions accessible only by plane or within days of the boat journey. The native inhabitants don’t have much in common with other Surinamese citizens. With time they opened slightly to the tourism inviting people to their villages but remain independent. Many of Amerindian tribes were discovered recently, the last of them only in 1967! It is possible that there are still unknown nomadic tribes living in the jungle without any influence of the western world- no phones, no plastic, no Chinese clothes. Sounds incredible and wonderful at the same time, right?
The next group is Europeans who came to Suriname during the colonization and Chinese who have overtaken entirely the food market and own almost all grocery shops in the country.
You can still observe a strong bond between the Netherlands and Suriname. In fact, after establishing independence in 1975, Surinamese who was born by that time could choose if they wanted to remain Dutch citizens. Nearly everyone in the country speaks fluent Dutch even though the lingua franca is Sranan Tongo (the same language is spoken by the Bushinengue- Maroon in French Guyana which is called there Taki-Taki). Many people from Holland come here to study and work and even more to spend here their retirement.
The four religions are Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Pagan believes of some Amerindians and Maroons. Hundreds of temples, often neighboring one another are built all over the country.
The modern history
of Suriname is very complicated and the political situation hard to understand. The country was divided by a civil war in the eighties. After establishing independence from the Netherlands, the new government lasted five years before the first military coup. The army led by Dési Bouterse took over the country. People of Suriname were at first happy with the events, because it seemed like the government appropriated all the money given to Suriname by Holland and the USA. The happiness didn’t last long, as people realized that the army’s leadership became a dictatorship.
The Dutch initially accepted the new government; however, relations between Suriname and the Netherlands collapsed when 15 members of the political opposition were killed by the army on December 8, 1982. This event is also known as the December murders. The Dutch and Americans cut off their aid in protest at the move. Dési Bouterse is believed to have killed personally two of his opponents himself.
1982 brought the Maroon rebellion. The guerilla army fought the government in Paramaribo accusing them of stealing citizens’ money. The revolt was strongly suppressed by Bouterse and many innocent Maroons were brutally killed. The leader of the jungle troupes is now one of the richest people in the country and has his own political party. He used to have a habit of throwing money on the streets to poor people.
Now, the most surprising and the craziest fact is that Dési Bouterse was elected a Surinamese president in 2010 and is most likely to win the next elections. Nobody was able to explain to us exactly why people voted for someone known to be a killer except the fact he is a charismatic spokesman. It can be difficult to fully understand the country without being born in it.
On our very first day, we got to know about fruits and plants of the country, cultivated in Surinamese gardens – if you also want to learn, click here.
The second day wasn’t any less exciting as there was dolphin spotting in the plan! Pink dolphins can be seen all over the Amazonia region and it’s a truly wonderful experience to meet them.
We did a city tour, have seen the most wonderful temples- the Basilica, Great Mosque, the biggest Hindu temple as well as the Synagogue and visited a former plantation called Pepperpot. Almost all the buildings remained there untouched so we could see how the masters and slaves were living, where they worked and stored their goods. Sugar cane, coffee, and cacao were the most popular plants to be cultivated. Did you know that coffee usually grows in the shade of a large tree planted to protect it from the strong sun? This tree is known under the wonderful name of Coffee Mama!
Talking about pepper-pot we can’t omit the topic of Surinamese food.
Pepper-pot is a special sauce made out of the juice of the bitter cassava and hot pepper. It is known as a Guyanese national dish but is popular and prepared all over the region. Pepperpot is used to marinate meat, it’s black and very thick. Now the interesting thing is that the juice of the bitter cassava is poisonous and if you would drink it, your hours are counted. To get rid of the toxicant it has to be boiled for hours or rather days.
The bitter cassava juice is a secondary product of cassava bread production. Women in villages grain the raw vegetable and put it into the long tube made out of straw called matapi. Then the tube is hanged high so the whole water can be squeezed out. Afterward, ladies stamp the drained cassava using tatti which looks like a huge baseball bat to finally get a dry powder- cassava flour. With that, they bake large round flatbreads which can be stored for weeks. We’ve seen the whole, long production during our stay in the interior.
The most popular and the cheapest food available in Paramaribo is the Javanese one. Everywhere you can eat Indonesian style noodles called bami or rice called nasi. It is usually served with chicken or in a vegetarian version with long beans. Indian curry and Roti are other low budget options which are always a good idea.
You haven’t seen Suriname if you haven’t seen its interior. That’s what we were told, so we cycled south to Pokigron to the point where the road ended and together with the tandem we took a boat further into the jungle. On our way there we spent some time in Berg en Dal where we zip-lined over the Suriname river and went for a short trip with a kayak –For more click here. Further south we took a boat ride around Ston Eiland- a one of its kind places where thousands of trees were flooded and died creating a unique landscape of naked trunks poking out all over the lake.
Finally, we’ve reached our destination- the village of Jaw Jaw.
There we’ve spent two wonderful days with Saamaka people- one of the Maroon tribes. Bele- our dear host, guide and a very (!) talented cook told us all about the daily life in his village. We cooked together in gangasa- and outdoor kitchen and slept in traditional wooden huts. Some of those houses had a very small door and the reason for that is the fear of evil spirits. It is believed that ghosts can’t get inside a home if the door isn’t big enough.
Together with Bele’s family and friends- his uncle, kids from the village (one of them was named Businessman- true story), a local hunter and Mr. Sweet Cake- the baskets manufacturer, we ate delicious food from the morning till the evening. The djanga futu (jungle deer) stew, green papaya and fried angooki (sort of a spiky cucumber) will remain in our memory for a long time. The recipe for coconut pancakes- boong coconoto is coming home with us and will be used to spoil our families and friends.
The Jaw Jaw family has one very peculiar member. His name is Binky and he is a sloth. Spoiled by everyone, he enjoys eating rice and drinking from the bottle. We also had a pleasure to meet him and feed him.
the village we have seen the banana plantation, local school, and the cultural center where all the ceremonies and important meetings are held. When a person dies in Jaw Jaw, the funeral becomes a reason to celebrate, meet up and laugh together. People share good memories of the one who passed away happy that he is now in a better place. Learn all about Jaw Jaw here.
Talking about a death we have to mention the center of living in the Maroon society. The Suriname River is the source of life for people in Jaw Jaw and all the other villages on both banks. Its a source of food, it functions as a highway, it is a place where folks bath, women clean the dishes and wash clothes and a spot where all the children meet up to play together.
One of the highlights and one of the most wonderful days in Suriname was the one we went for a quad trip. We drove through thick jungle and vast savannah, through muddy paths and sandy roads and it was simply amazing! Except for the part when Marta crashed into another quad (no casualties) we had the best time ever! It was a true adventure with a lot of action and beautiful landscapes.
It’s an undeniable fact that during traveling you gain new skills and knowledge. Today we can say that we’ve learned how to fish the Surinamese way. Going to the swamp area on a motorboat with Fritz, a Surinamese fisherman with Indonesian origins and very German name we caught over 50 of them! We put the net across the water and distanced ourselves from it for about 100 meters. Coming back in a zigzag we hit the water with sticks to scare the fish and make them swim right into the net. It turned out to be a very efficient technique. And nothing tastes better than success! Well, maybe except for a fresh fried fish. Check out our swamp adventure here.
After leaving Paramaribo we cycled in no time, supported almost all the way by a tailwind, to Nickerie- the second biggest city in Suriname located at the border with Guyana. We passed kilometers of rice fields and only a few small villages. Soon we’ve reached the ferry border crossing and the next country to explore.