Saturday, 16 April 2011

Shipping out to 'Name

My next stop on my exploration of the mysterious and completely-unknown-to-almost-anyone Guianas was the former Dutch colony of Suriname and in particular its multicultural capital, Paramaribo. Interestingly, Suriname used to belong to the British until the Dutch came along and swapped it for a little place called ‘New Amsterdam’ or ‘New York’ as it’s now known. The question I set out to answer is “Who got the better deal?”

Well for starters, the Surinamese tell me Paramaribo is the third safest country in the world. This is supposed to be due to the Surinamese police, who sound like the best police in the world. Let me explain: it is alleged that the police are more than willing – or maybe lazy enough – to turn a blind eye to minor offences, such as speeding or littering. They are also reputed to be incredibly friendly… if you stay in their good books. Where they really concentrate their efforts - and the reason you’d want to avoid their bad books like a Dan Brown novel - is on coming down like several tons of bricks on serious offenders. You know the type: murderers and violent offenders. Now of course Suriname and Paramaribo aren’t perfect: the drug and robbery hotspot of the town is actually a pleasant garden full of palm trees, perhaps the size of one city block, i.e. a hundred square metres. It was one of the nicest-looking crime hotspots I’ve ever been to. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I were to be murdered, I’d prefer it to be in Paramaribo’s Palmentuin. 

New York on the other hand is a cesspool of crime, full to the brim with major criminals and not a place most outsiders would feel completely comfortable in on their own. The crime hotspots there aren’t likely to feature on any postcards and I’ve heard all the police there are of Italian or Irish descent, all with hilarious stereotypical accents. I haven’t had much contact at all with New York police officers, but I imagine that is exactly how they are.

Suriname 1 New York 0

Next, the people. Suriname is renowned for its multiculturalism, as well as the social harmony which it accompanies. This is beautifully illustrated by the Caribbean’s largest mosque sitting two houses down from the enormous Neveh Shalom synagogue. It may not sound especially spectacular, but it is quite a bizarre sight. In New York, they deal with different religions by flying planes into tall buildings and locking people up in Cuba.  

 Religious harmony?

Furthermore, I found one of Paramaribo’s best qualities to be its lack of Brits. I was there for four days and didn’t meet one person from the UK. It was like some sort of wonderful dream where The Sun, political correctness and Big Brother didn’t exist. Paramaribo was, however, packed full of Dutch. I was slightly concerned that with so many of them in Suriname, there would be no one to look after the Netherlands while they were gone. Everywhere I turned all I could here was a phlegmy noise created by the speaking of Dutch. In their defence, they were all impeccably behaved and the Dutch don’t have many places in the world where their native language is spoken, so they were probably just taking advantage of one of their few former colonies. I also happened to be lucky enough to spend an evening in my guesthouse’s bar with two lovely Dutch girls (both predictably with perfect English), so there were also those who behaved a bit like Brits.  

New York is full of Brits gawking at ghastly modern architecture and being asked if they know the Queen. The architecture in Paramaribo is colonial building at its best: with a bit of TLC, these black and white wooden, colonial houses could be simply beautiful. As it is, they are still a fantastic sight, especially along the UNESCO-listed Waterkant (saying that in a Dutch accent is something of which I could never get tired, especially when talking about a former boss of mine). 

Top architecture

Suriname 2 New York 0

So how about the culture? Paramaribo has a vast array of eateries, serving cuisine ranging from Chinese to Créole, some of them better than others. Also, like most of the Caribbean, Suriname only really has one genre of music: reggae. You may think reggae in itself is fairly ordinary and nothing special. This soon changes when you hear reggae in Dutch. It is one of the most unnatural combinations I’ve ever heard. To put it bluntly, the first time I heard some Surinamese reggae, and the singing began, I thought it was just Bob Marley clearing his throat before he began with his lyrics. Truth be told, I didn’t much care for it. One incident of note regarding the Surinamese and music was driving along dirt roads to French Guiana at about 70 mph in a fairly knackered old people carrier. As I was praying for survival, the driver and other passengers were all singing along (in broken English) to Wham’s hit Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. Had we crashed, I would hate for that to have been the thing I was listening to as we turned over again and again.

Art musea and the like are nowhere to be found, which struck me as being disappointing for a country which has so many Amerindian threads woven into its cultural fabric.

The musical and culinary offerings available on the banks of the Hudson River are immense, as one would expect from such an enormous city. The city can include itself in the list of culinary capitals of the world and there are musea and art galleries in abundance. 

Suriname 2 New York 1

Where Paramaribo and New York are similar is in the fact that both have major waterways surrounding them. Paramaribo is neighbours with 2 enormous Amazonian rivers; the Suriname and the Commewijne. There are plenty of others in this part of the world as well, all of which head down to the mighty Amazon Basin. I was fortunate enough to take a boat tour along the Commewijne , which is home to a great deal of wildlife, including dolphins, caimans and various fish species to name but a few. Along the banks it is also possible (if you get incredibly lucky) to see jaguars, howler monkeys and boa constrictors. During the course of this tour – the primary aims of which were to watch dolphins and the sunset – we were witnesses to the incredible sight of dolphins swimming alongside our boat. It was just incredible and no amount of flowery language and adjectives could ever do justice to one of the greatest sights in nature. This isn’t to say it was like in the movies where the dolphins leapt out of the water constantly alongside the boat, but they would jump out every now and then alongside, before submerging again and popping up again a few seconds later. Some even stuck their heads out right next to the boat as if to say ‘hello’ or to see these strange, pasty, flabby, phlegm-regurgitating creatures. I would happily recommend this experience to anyone, Dutch or otherwise.

    It just popped up to say 'hello', now it's gone back down below. Sadly my photography skills weren't good enough to get any 'in air' dolphin shots.

We also stopped for a snack at an Amerindian village by the banks of the Commewijne. At the risk of turning into a character from the hilarious Gap Yah Youtube hits (I believe youngsters would say they went ‘viral’ about a year ago), the simplicity of their existence was startling. It was the sort of place where the owner of a decrepit moped was seen as the town’s playboy, or where the sight of white people was a day of great excitement. 
 Postcard bliss

New York also… has a river, which is nice I suppose. Good for them. Sadly, the only wildlife of note to be found there is the occasional dead body, or some sort of three-headed fish created by years of unchecked pollution.Obviously it’s a no-brainer.
Final score: Suriname 3 New York 1
So there you have it: the Dutch got a substantially better deal than the British back in 1674. Their possession belonged to them a lot longer than ours as well. A great deal if ever I saw one.
Suriname then: safe, cosmopolitan, Brit-free and naturally breathtakingly beautiful. Just don’t turn on the radio.
Next time I shall be reporting from one of the few remaining European colonies left in the world: French Guiana (I obviously arrived safely enough in case you hadn’t worked that one out by now).
Until then and please, don’t have nightmares. 

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