Ask anyone to find Suriname on a map and they’ll most likely give you the “deer in headlights” look. Force them to try, and their finger usually heads to the continents of Africa, or Asia; as the name Suriname surely doesn’t “sound” South American.
Visiting Suriname, for me, was half goal-setting (to see all of the Americas by the age of 40), and the other half was the desire to seek out such a mysterious, downright bizarre land; a land that no one I know has ever visited, much less even heard of.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my initial intrigue with Suriname (and its surrounding “Guyanas”) was a seed deeply planted decades ago; for when a professor passes out a blank map for you to fill in names of South American countries, and a few of those countries are simply “grayed out,” with no answer required, you start to wonder.
Why, for example, in Mrs. Houston’s community college Spanish class, did we have to know where Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay were located, while straight up ignoring Suriname; pretending it didn’t even exist?! Of course, the answer is because we were learning about Spanish speaking countries, and they speak Dutch in Suriname; but nonetheless it’s apparent that a small seed of curiosity and intrigue was planted way back then, to be left deep in the soil, not to germinate for over a decade.
It wasn’t until many years later, that I decided to venture into Suriname. I crafted a goal to see every country in the Americas before I turned 40 and this included Suriname. Initially I wasn’t too excited at all about seeing this “grayed-out” country. I knew absolutely nothing about the country. Not a thing. I’d never heard it mentioned in school, nor on TV or in the movies. My friends had no idea Suriname even “existed.” This would be my first taste of traveling into off-the-beaten path territory, and the beginnings of an insatiable desire to see the places normal people don’t go. The more I studied Suriname, the more interested I became of this mysterious place.
I’d start my travels in the northeastern state of Brasil called Pernambuco, where I’d actually lived for a few years and still own an apartment in the seaside city of Recife. Geographically, Recife was not too far away from Suriname, which was northwest of me. I’d first fly domestically, from Recife to Belem, in the state of Pará. From there, I’d hop a Suriname Airways jet to the capital of Paramaribo, to begin my journey through the Guyanas. Well, that was the plan. Sadly, this first trip was not in the cards.
I arrived in Belem late on a Tuesday night in March of 2013, only to take a cab to the Ibis Hotel and sleep for a couple hours before my 6:30AM flight to Paramaribo. The next morning I awoke, eyes burning from the little sleep I got, and stumbled into a cab that took me back to the airport. I didn’t get to see Belem, even from the car window, as it was still dark. When I arrived at the airport, something didn’t seem right.
Details were sketchy at first, but I soon found out that the flight in from Paramaribo never came in to Belem, so we didn’t even have a plane to board. There were rumors of a bird strike. The airline predicted the plane would be in later that day, or the next morning, and sent us all to a hotel in downtown Belem while things got sorted out. My travel to Suriname was already super tight, with just a couple days to see the country before moving on to French Guyana, so this did not sit well with me. I had come so far to turn around now.
I headed to the hotel and took a nap, before heading out to explore the town. On the bright side, I never expected I’d get to see Belem, so this was another city and (Brasilian) state checked off my list. I must have walked the entire city; there wasn’t anything too memorable, except a line of shops and restaurants situated on the riverfront called Estação das Docas, which means “Station of the Docks.” I met some locals and practiced my Portuguése over a plate of Brasilian food and some beers from the brewery there. It was quite good!
After returning to my hotel and contacting the airline, I was crushed to find out that it may be two or three more days before a flight to Suriname was available, and this ruined everything! In true Ramblin’ Randy fashion, I had booked my multi-country visits way too close to each other for an upset like this to happen. I simply didn’t have two or three days extra to wait in Brasil; by the time I would’ve arrived in Paramaribo, I would have already missed my next flight from Paramaribo to French Guyana, and then the flight after that to Guyana. The trip was like dozens of very carefully placed dominoes, and unfortunately this one delay had caused the entire week-long trip through the Guyanas to collapse. I was so heartbroken! I jumped on a place back to Recife the next day and attempted to salvage the remainder of my vacation back home in Brasil.
I had not given up though. This bump in the road only made me more determined to see Suriname. Now I really really wanted to go. This next time, I’d get into the country differently though…
Sure enough, before the year ended, I was back at it again. This time risking an excruciatingly tight connection through Port of Spain, Trinidad, to reach Paramaribo, Suriname. The route this time was: San Diego to Houston to Port of Spain on United Airlines, and then I had to find some way to quickly slip on the Surinam Airways flight with only about a half-hour to spare.
As airport officials were herding the passengers off the plane and in the direction of immigration in Trinidad, I slipped under a stanchion and over to my next departure gate. Minutes later I was in my seat and off we went…I breathed a huge sigh of relief as we lifted off and the wheels went up. God willing, I was going to be in Suriname in a few hours.
My first taste of the bizzare-ness that is Suriname, was the flight there. The flight attendants wore maroon and orange dresses and vests, reminiscent of Burger King uniforms from 1978. Really retro and really weird. They served tuna fish sandwiches and spoke Dutch. It felt like the beginning of a Twilight Zone episode and I was loving every minute.
After arriving safely in Paramaribo, I grabbed a cab from the airport to the city, about an hour ride. I remember it was the first time hearing Pharrell’s Happy on the radio. I was dead-tired, but the song put me in a great mood. We cruised down the dark highway for what seemed like forever, listening to American music with Dutch-speaking DJs on the radio, before finally arriving into civilization. I remember the town looking like some strange fantasy land at an amusement park–the empty streets lined with old Dutch clapboard houses and light bulbs strung across the road. It looked like the set of a movie: some kind of weird, Western town, but on another planet. I stumbled into my room at the Albergo Alberga Guesthouse at 4AM and spent the next 40 minutes killing mosquitoes before finally falling asleep to MacGyver. I was convinced I’d contracted malaria by now.
I spent the next day wandering the streets of Paramaribo, trying to make sense of it all. I was so glad I read up on Suriname. The history is amazing and explains the mix of colors, languages, food and people.
In brief, you should know that the Dutch colonized the area, but were unable to stand the intense heat and disease. Many slaves brought to Suriname said “I’m out!” and fled into the bush and started their own villages and a new ethnic group still around today, known as the “Maroons.” They fared much better than their slave owners, who weren’t used to the extreme heat and conditions. Later, when anti-slave laws changed the game, the Dutch brought in indentured servants from Indonesia and India and a handful from China. Of course we can’t forget the indigenous people of the region, who were there long before the Europeans arrived.
That complex history and dynamic and random mix of people is what makes Suriname so fascinating today. Imagine, a South American country, with black, brown, yellow and white folks; all speaking Dutch. Say what?! Add in some natives and Brasilians looking for gold, and you’ve got one of the most unique lands on the planet. It was an overload to the senses. My mind was working overtime to process everything.
Here are some pictures of what I saw during my long walks…
I walked a ton that first day, eyes wide open, just taking everything in. I loved that I didn’t see many tourists; a few backpackers from Europe, but not even one American. I was in a big city, yet in the middle of nowhere, and I was loving it. While I enjoyed exploring on my own, I wanted to see some traditional villages outside of town, and learn as much as I could. I booked a boat tour for the following day.
The tour was awesome, and I was the only American (and English speaking) person on the boat. It was a small tour, with only about a half-dozen people. We cruised the Commewijne River and into small villages, parks and had lunch at Frederiksdorp, a former coffee and cocoa plantation built in 1747.
It was a long day, but filled with fantastic sites, great company and a lot of learning. I highly recommend taking a tour like this if you go to Paramaribo. You’ll see things few will ever.
My last day in Suriname, I ventured over to ABC Radio, and took a tour with the station manager. They were very kind to me, and one of the highlights of the entire trip was meeting Quintis Ristie–a very famous Dutch radio and TV personality, who seemed delighted to see me and talk about radio. So much fun!
Probably the sweetest ending to this trip, was the fact that the folks at ABC Radio agreed to air my radio show! My Sunday Night Slow Jams radio program can now be heard in Suriname–how cool is that?!
My final night in Paramaribo was spent having beers at a local bar where the Brasilian garimpeiros (gold miners) congregate. I was intrigued that thousands of Brasilians live in gold mining camps in the Surinamese jungles…I got a kick out of infiltrating their Saturday night spot. I just sipped my beer and observed, doing my best to eavesdrop on the Portuguése which seemed so out of place, but indeed was part of the way of life in small pockets of this land.
My trip to Suriname was quick, but I packed a lot in. From the city, to the rivers and trails, fancy restaurants and little bars; I really feel I got a great taste of the country, although I’d love to go back and spend more time in the outskirts of Parbo one day.
A couple closing notes: I felt pretty safe here, and walked all over town. The people weren’t overly friendly, but I didn’t run into any problems either. I read somewhere that Suriname is the safest country in South America.
If you go, read The Wild Coast by John Gimlette. I can’t tell you how much more enriching my trip was because of that book. It gives a wonderful summary of the region’s history while documenting John’s crazy (and sometimes harrowing travels through Suriname and the Guyanas. I was so enamored with John’s book, I stayed at the same guesthouse he did, just to try and relive some of his experiences. Also, try and spend at least four of five days here, so you can see more than I did. My trip was just too quick. Happy travels.