The jungle city
When I stepped off the plane in Suriname at midnight 2 Saturdays ago, I was hit by the most intense jungle smell and warm, humid air I’ve ever experienced. And I hadn’t even taken my socks off yet.
The airport is an hour’s drive from the capital, Paramaribo, and set in thick Amazon jungle. Perhaps it was the transition from the barren Caribbean island of Curacao that made it such a powerful moment. But you can literally stick your tongue out and taste plants on the air. It’s a wonderful welcome to a truly stunning country.
I knew Suriname had a lot of green, but I hadn’t realised the country is 95% jungle and forest, with some land cleared here and there to make space for the small population of just half a million.
Even in the capital you get a sense that the jungle is keeping a watchful eye, with a staggering range of plants, trees and wildlife on every street. Several times I saw houses lacking a bit of gardening and rapidly being re-claimed by the creeping vines to the point where they would no longer be visible in a couple of weeks.
In a world where we worry about deforestation and man’s destructive impact on the environment, Suriname is an uplifting reminder that the earth is still very much alive and kicking in places.
One day I was chatting with a typically friendly taxi driver, and asked him what his favourite thing was about his country.
“The nature,” he replied without thinking twice.
“And what’s the worst thing?” I asked.
“There is no worst thing.”
I’m not sure I agree with him, because Suriname does have one or two serious problems (check out the news about the president and his son for a juicy example). Nevertheless, his patriotic and positive attitude brings me to another of my favourite things about the country.
The Surinamese people
Sometimes when travelling you find a hidden gem of a place where the locals aren’t yet jaded by endless streams of tourists and are genuinely happy that you’re visiting, curious about you and keen to ensure you leave with a good impression.
And other times you find places where the people are just genuinely friendly, welcoming and kind by nature. Suriname is one of the rare countries where the majority of the people seem to be both.
Everywhere I went people smiled, welcomed me, tried to help, wanted to know why I was there and if I liked it. To the point where random people who wouldn’t normally strike up conversation back home did so time and time again.
From casino security guards to hotel cleaning staff, restaurant owners to beggars on the street, everyone, it seems, enjoys the opportunity to talk to foreigners.
One of my favourite moments was passing a guy in the street one evening who looked more than a little bit dodgy – the type I usually do my best to avoid in South America, especially at night.
When I was a couple of meters away and doing my usual trick of looking like I knew where I was going, walking fast with my chest puffed out and a face that says “don’t *&%$ with me, mate…” he stopped walking, looked me in the eyes, smiled and made me feel like an idiot with one simple word:
And that was that.
James, George and the fairy-godmother
I’ve now spent a lot of time in Latin America over the last few years, and much as I enjoy talking to just about anyone who can tolerate chatting to a gringo who’s dripping in sweat, it’s another matter altogether to actually forge meaningful relationships with locals when you’re only there for a short while.
And once again, luck – or destiny as the Surinamese would believe – brought me together with some wonderful people. In the hotel I stayed at (I’d had enough of cheap hostels in Curacao and fancied something a bit nicer), I was adopted by a lady who was visiting her sisters and mum in Paramaribo.
I then spent the best part of 4 days with her family, being driven around sight-seeing, visiting the jungle, trying local food, generally hanging out as if I were part of the family, and spending a great Saturday night getting drunk for free while playing fruit machines in the casino.
All I had to do in return for this amazing kindness was occasionally speak like Hugh Grant – with an emphasis on using the word ‘darling’ – and agree to be called James or George. A fair trade I think.
It was decided at some point that she was in fact my fairy-godmother for making my wish to spend time with locals come true. And she, along with her brilliant sisters, ensured that my memory of Suriname will be a beautiful and happy one.
The mosque and the synagogue
After my first 24 hours in Suriname I declared it a crazy place. And even though I did start to understand it better over the 10 days I was there, I still think it’s a crazy place.
I mean, it’s a place where hundreds of young people line the streets with their cars at night at the weekend to drink and party out of their car boots, and later go race cars in the jungle.
It’s a place where the president is wanted for drug-trafficking and his son was arrested for terrorism and drug-trafficking last year.
It’s a place where you ask a taxi driver about the best bars in town and you get this reply:
“The best club is ______. It’s great there. The drinks aren’t too expensive. And they have beautiful girls from Brazil and Venezuela who come and take you upstairs for $30.”
But, on a more positive note it’s also one of the only places in the world where you’ll find this:
Religious hatred and intolerance is a huge source of conflict around the world, and has been for a very long time.
So when you see a mosque and a synagogue standing side-by-side you have to ask how that’s even possible. And not only that, but not far from this spot you’ll find a basilica and a Hindu temple.
Suriname has a fascinating mixture of ethnic groups, cultures, languages and religions. According to the 2004 census, the main groups were:
- 27.4% East Indian
- 17.7% Creole
- 14.7% Maroons
- 14.6% Javanese (Southeast Asians)
- 12.5% Mixed descent
- 3.7% Amerindian
- 3% Chinese
- 2% White
I think that’s probably changed over the years though, as there are a lot of Brazilians there now for example.
And in a country where planning permission doesn’t exist, you find buildings expressing the various cultures and religions standing side-by-side or in small clusters.
It’s definitely odd at times, but it’s undeniably fascinating to drive along and see mini mosques, temples and churches popping up everywhere.
Even as a devout atheist, I was impressed by the freedom of religious expression and the fact that on the whole, people just get along. It’s a refreshingly tolerant country which sets an example many other countries would do well to follow.
So there you have it – my 3 favourite things about Suriname: the stunning nature, the friendly people, and the tolerance on many levels.
Someone once told me they aren’t a fan of blog post lists. And whilst I also don’t find them massively attractive, being the only person I know who’s visited Suriname, there are a few more random details I feel are worth sharing.
So here’s a list:
- You can find amazing Chinese, Indonesian and Indian food. No MSG in sight.
- The Suriname river is immense and inhabited by dolphins. There’s a creek where the water is like coca-cola. There are, of course, many amazing things to see in the jungle with various tour agencies in the center offering excursions.
- You can eat and drink for free in the casinos. I played for 4 hours one night, losing 20 dollars, but made a net profit through drinking and eating 30 dollars.
- You can pay for anything in US dollars or Suriname Dollars, and often in Euros too. Just don’t expect the ATMs to give you US dollars.
- Most people speak Dutch and/or English as well as their ethnic Surinamese language.
- It’s a relatively cheap country for westerners to visit.
- Paramaribo, although you of course have to be careful at night, generally felt like one of the safest cities I’ve been to in South America.
- Having now met many people from all 3 Guyanas, the consensus is that French Guyana is OK to visit, but British Guyana is extremely dangerous; tourists aren’t safe to walk alone even during the day. Suriname is considered by all 3 peoples to be the best to visit.
- The local lager is called Parbo, and is great. Parbo Biri – dat na Biri!
- The weather is very hot and very humid, and when it’s rainy season (like now) the roads flood in minutes.
- The women are beautiful and dress very stylishly. The guys either look like gangsters or like they walked off the set of the Fast and the Furious.
- The Surinamese I met have a great sense of humour and can easily match the British sarcasm and love of language-based comedy.
So, the verdict on Suriname is a glowingly positive one. I would definitely recommend visiting, especially if you’re a nature fan. And I have it firmly in mind to go back one day and see my adopted Surinamese family.
I’ve now been in Belem for 2 days, soaking up the Brazilian life and rain. It wasn’t part of the plan to come to Brazil right now, but it was the only way I could get out of Suriname without going back to the Caribbean or US first and spending 24 hours travelling.
I’ll be here for another few days and then it’s further south to Sao Paolo for a few days, before entering the burning summer inferno of Paraguay.
Maybe I’ll manage that lap of South America after all…