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xEurasia Odyssey

A Week in Suriname

SURINAME | Monday, 21 August 2023 | Views [57]

A Week in Suriname                                     

Entering Suriname was supposed to be easy as long as one had proof of a yellow fever vaccine.  The website said that there was no visa necessary for EU or USA citizens, but that an entry form did need to be filled out. The website said this could be done either at the KLM airport before the flight or at the airport upon landing in Paramaribo.  As I couldn’t get the computer system to work for me prior to the flight, and no one knew what I was talking about in Amsterdam, I thought I’d just get it upon landing. Wrong. There was no one at the desk, just a sign where a person should have been with a QR code that sent me to a visa application website. This naturally, also didn’t work.  After waiting for a while in the lengthy passport control line, I decided to go to the back of the line and see if I couldn’t find anyone in any of the back offices.  I couldn’t, but finally an MP came by, and I was able to explain the situation to him.  He then took me into one of the offices and filled out some paperwork and gave me the address of a place I was to go to on Tuesday after I had received an email from the visa folks. I was then able to simply walk through passport control avoiding the rest of the long line to the baggage claim area. The email never did arrive, but I duly went to the place I was told to go, only to be told that I first had to go to the Foreign Ministry office, then to the Central Bank, then back to the Foreign Ministry with the proof I had paid the $25 Entry Free, and only after I’d gotten the stamp from the Foreign Ministry could I go back to where I started for the passport stamp. I really don’t know why the system didn’t work for me – the airlines systems aren’t working for me either – because most of the other passengers had a printout with the voucher form. I guess I was just supposed to get a tour of various agencies in Paramaribo that I would normally not have sought out.

 The history of Suriname is fascinating. The first settlement was in 1651 when about 100 Englishmen from Barbados came to establish plantation settlements along the coast. The Dutch came a while afterwards and the two countries agreed on an exchange, the Netherlands would give up New Amsterdam in the colonies (i.e., New York) to the British, and the British would give up Suriname to the Dutch. The colonial legacy remains alive and well in the country as is evidenced in Paramaribo and the attitude and life-styles of the people in the interior.

Luckily, the time taken running around didn’t impact any sightseeing in Paramaribo as on the city center side of the river there are only two tourist attractions, the old Dutch Colonial buildings, which I had to walk by on my way to the various agencies, and Fort Zeelandia, with Suriname’s very small museum.  The museum briefly showcases the history of the country and has a few ethnographic exhibits.  It also has perhaps the nicest café in the city, right behind the old wall overlooking the river. One doesn’t come to Suriname for the capital city, however, but for its extensive rainforest, and I was lucky to have been able to visit two very different sites, Fredberg near the Saramacca Creek and Anaula on the Upper Suriname River.

 I booked the trip to Fredberg while still in Austria with All Suriname Tours. I chose the two day one night option as I had originally planned on flying to Guyana on Tuesday, but that was cancelled due to the entry fee issue as well as flight problems. It turned out this was the better option for me anyway. The tour started at 6:45 am from the Fredberg agency office, which was about a 25-minute walk from my hotel. There were two young couples going in the van with me. Two Dutch sisters, who had family in Suriname, and their boyfriends. This was my first introduction to what turned out to be a social phenomenon – it seems everyone in Suriname has relatives in the Netherlands, and everyone I met I on the two tours was either Dutch with Surinamese roots and relatives or was Surinamese.  & while everyone could speak English, we were in a Dutch speaking country, and they were going to speak their language.

 The way to Fredberg entailed first a van ride, with a stop for a toilet break after about two and a half hours, and a pickup of other visitors from a van coming from Brownsberg, then a change of vehicles as the van would never make it through the jeep tracks.  The 4x4 vehicles were also vans and not real jeeps and this proved to be their downfall on the return the next day. The monsoons had stopped around 10 days before, but the road was still filled with very deep mud holes that the ‘jeeps’ had massive trouble getting through. After about 4 hours we reached basecamp at Zintete on the Saramacca Creek. This section is a sidearm of the Saramacca River, and is above where the goldmining is taking place and polluting the river downstream.  Guests were swimming and tubing in the muddy brown water and were clearly enjoying themselves. We were only in basecamp for lunch, which was rice, chicken, fish, beans and watermelon. This turned out to be the basic meal both at Fredberg and at Anaula. After lunch, we climbed back into the jeepvans for about a 30 + minute ride to where the trail to Fred’s hill began.  We were now a group of ca. 20 people, who were happy to be there and were talking amongst each other (all in Dutch) in fairly loud voices.  As I couldn’t participate in the conversation and had come to the region to listen to the sounds and sights of the forest, I hiked ahead, waiting for directions at the forks, then continuing on alone. The path followed two jeep tracks to begin with, then entered the forest on a foot path.  During lunch, I had asked the guide if there were indigenous people living in the area and was told that people hadn’t inhabited this area in known memory.  I had also asked if we needed to bushwack during the hike and was informed that we would be following a well-trodden path. Given this information, I figured I could simply go ahead and follow the path at my rate and immerse myself in the flora and fauna of central Suriname. Fredberg is only 280m high and the path is only 4km, but the guides said the hike would take between 3-4 hours. Somehow this didn’t make sense to me, but it did take the others that long to make it up.  There were a couple of steep places with ropes for assistance and one short ladder, and one river crossing on logs (I didn’t trust my balance on the log and decided to wade across instead), but otherwise it was a regular easy to follow path through the forest. The vegetation was so dense that it was impossible to spot the birds who were singing all around me. The songs were like vibrations massaging the way uphill away from the noise of the city and airports of the previous few days.  It was very hot and sticky, but the mosquitoes weren’t too bad. At the creek crossing, a lone figure appeared behind me. It turned out he was the cook and spoke excellent English. I now had a private guide for the rest of the path. We walked in silence until he saw something of interest and only then did we speak in whispers. He was able to point out the howler and spider monkeys that I had heard but hadn’t been able to locate. He also alerted me to a toxic leaf frog that was right in the middle of the path. When we arrived at the top, I found that sleeping in hammocks under the stars as advertised meant sleeping in hammocks strung side by side in a large tent. The shower consisted of a very welcomed bucket filled with rainwater.

     The top of the hill is a rock slap, with a fairly steep angle. The staff have made a couple of benches for sitting and there was evidence of a firepit, although we didn’t use it. The view from the top is worth the climb. It seems like the rainforest goes on forever. The sunsets and sunrises from here are spectacular and are accompanied with a chorus of howler, spider, squirrel monkeys and infinite bird and insect melodies. Suriname is over 90% forest and most of that untouched. The government, which is notably incredibly corrupt, gives out logging permits to foreign investors, mostly Chinese, but officially they are only allowed to harvest for a three-year period and only 10% of the land they have contracted for.  It doesn’t seem that anyone is controlling this, however.

After breakfast the next day, one family of guests headed down early as they had a connection to another tour that they needed to make.  I waited a little bit, sitting on top of the rock slab enjoying the stillness, before I headed down on my own as I was concerned that I might now hold up the others as my knees aren’t the greatest going downhill and the rest of the group was no older than 35 with good knees. This turned out to be another delightful silent walk in woods, and I am so glad that Fredberg staff were not concerned about my taking off on my own. I waited for the others and the jeepvan at the pickup point and waited and waited. I heard a scurrying sound in the leaves just off to where I was sitting and thought it was just another of the many lizards, but when I looked at it, it was a brown snake – I don’t know what kind – we looked at each other, and he turned around to slither off and I grabbed my bag and went to the other side of the road. The van finally arrived with the husband of one of the guests and his ornithologist guide, who was functioning also as the driver. While we waited, he pointed out a beautiful green backed trogon, that contrary to its name really has a blue back and yellow front. When the group finally arrived, we loaded up the van and headed back to basecamp. After lunch and a wade in the Creek, the group going back to Paramaribo loaded into a jeepvan, again driven by the Sean, the ornithologist and not a Fredberg staff member. It turns out one van broke down the day before, and the one carrying the group ahead of us on the mountain had also broken down and they now didn’t have enough staff to handle the situation. This problem was compounded by the fact that there was no cell reception at basecamp, only at the very top of the mountain. The two sites couldn’t communicate with each other and there was no way to talk to basecamp. IF someone had been hurt, this could have led to a disaster. Sean did an excellent job negotiating the van through the swampy muddy gooey sinkhole-like sections of the ‘road’ but the vehicle was clearly struggling through them. For safety’s sake, he did make us get out and walk across a dilapidated bridge that we had crossed in the vehicle the day before. We made it to the asphalted main road before the car really started to overheat.  We stopped twice to let the engine cool down, but by the third time, it was clear the vehicle was not going anywhere, and we were still a good two- two and half hours away from Paramaribo. Sean called a number of people before finally finding someone who could come and pick us up. He would then stay with the van for the tow truck.  This went well beyond the call of duty, as he now had to upfront the costs for the towing etc. and he was only driving as a favor to the company as they were short staffed. The company was now down three vehicles in the height of the tourist season with little back up. I don’t know how they handled it. We finally arrived back in the city ca. 10pm. The two-day trip to Fredberg turned out to be a real adventure.

The next inland tour I took was to Anaula Nature Resort.  I chose it simply because it was the only one that still had space, so had no clue what to expect and after Fredberg, my expectations were suitably low. What a delight to have the guide and manager be able to explain everything to me in a language I could understand. The pickup was directly from the hotel in a van where there were individual air conditioning vents so that they could be regulated according to personal preference. This may seem like a complete luxury, but it was very welcomed as some people like it much colder than others. It took about three hours to get to Ajoni, where we boarded a motorized canoe for about an hour’s ride on the Upper Suriname River to the resort. The river was quite calm and there were only a few ripples that would have been rapids had the water been higher. As it was the dry season, the river was more than a couple of meters below the settlements. According to our guide, Umberto, we were lucky that we weren’t there in April when a major storm came through devastating the shoreline and raising the water level over seven meters thereby flooding many of settlements. No one had ever seen the river that high before; another toll from the changing climate patterns.

After checking into the cabanas, each group had their own, and lunch, we got back into the dugout canoes for a very quick, just around the corner, ride to the Sula for a water massage. The sula is a series of rocks in the river and as the water migrates around them if forms a place where when one sits just right, it massages the back and neck. There is also a place that acts as a natural waterslide and Umberto was at the end waiting to catch everyone who went through it so that they didn’t get pulled further downriver. The kids – and the adults- thoroughly enjoyed the time there.  After the Sula, there was a snack back at the resort and then an evening caiman spotting excursion, again on the boat. Umberto was a trained tracker and could locate them through their eyes even across the river. The first day ended with dinner and a discussion of the events planned for the next day. 

 Day two started after breakfast with a boat trip to one of the local villages. The village had a traditional section and a Christian section. There was to me no discernable difference in the construction of the houses, other than some had the traditional roofs and others had the newer metal ones, but there were sacred spaces in the traditional village, and a church in the Christian section. The meeting house was for all the people.  The villages along this section of the river belong to the maroon tribes. The ancestors of the maroons escaped from plantations in the 1700 and early 1800s. In 1762, the maroons along the Upper Suriname River negotiated their freedom, two years after some of the clans along the Saramacca River. There was a catch to their freedom, however. Only those who were in the villages at that time were permitted to be free. Any runaway slave who sought sanctuary with them had to be turned back and the village would get paid for the returned slave. A fairly nefarious arrangement. Slavery was officially abolished in Suriname in 1863, but those still on the plantations had to remain there for another ten years working for a pittance, and so that the plantation owners weren’t negatively affected, the government gave the owners the equivalent of $3,500 per freed slave – while the workers were still working, and they received nothing from the government. It was about this time that the first Indian workers came to replace the maroons, followed by the Javanese. Chinese workers were brought over in the 1860s. There are six maroon tribes, comprising different clans and each clan has a number of villages. The social structure is matriarchal, i.e., the mother’s brother teaches her son a trade not the father, and the women live together, the father elsewhere. The grandmother -or great-grandmother- is the focal point for the family. There is a chieftain for all the tribes, and he is supported by clan captains and secretaries. Decisions are made by a council of these individuals, with the final say resting with the chieftain. The positions are held for life. The local traditional religion is called Wirti, which is a combination of African spirit religions and ancestor worship. Some scholars say that Wirti is only on the coast, but Umberto said that this religion is also practiced on the Upper Suriname River along with Christianity. It was an educational tour through the village. Photography wasn’t permitted other than for the boys holding various species of parrots wanting their picture taken with the bird so that they could then charge for it. They also had parrots in cages for sale.  That this latter is completely illegal didn’t seem to bother them.

 After lunch, there was a break in the scheduled activities until 16:30, so I headed down to a corner of the property with a staircase down to the river where there was a small inlet.  It was a perfect swimming hole in the middle of the rainforest. The afternoon concluded with a forest walk during which Umberto explained about the traditional uses of some of the plants along the path and pointed out some of the squirrel monkeys swinging in the canopy. The day ended with a cultural show with modified traditional dances performed by people from the village we’d been at in the morning.  The last day included another trip to the sula prior to departing after lunch for the trip back to Paramaribo. The schedule makes this stay sound like a holiday camp, but it wasn’t like that. It was completely refreshing. The river was beautiful, and the forest filled with nature’s sounds. It was a very good trip.

In the end, I had two very different experiences with the tours, and each offered insights into the land and people that complemented each other. At first I was sorry I didn’t get to Guyana, but in the end, the week in Suriname was perfect the way it was.




Tags: hiking, rainforest

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