Paramaribo, Suriname

Paramaribo has always been a place I’ve aspired to visit ever since I became interested in languages. It’s the only city and general population centre of sparsely-populated Suriname (pop. 550000), the only official Dutch-speaking independent nation in the Americas, but one that speaks a bunch of everything else.

With a population even more mixed up than Guyana, while all signage is in Dutch, Sranan Tongo (Surinamese) is the general lingua franca of the country, their confounding creole of English, Portuguese, Dutch, and various West African languages. It’s so weird to see Chinese people speaking amongst themselves in Sranan! Speaking of which, other languages I’ve heard commonly are Cantonese, Mandarin, Javanese, Hindi, Portuguese, and of course English, passably spoken by most of the population. Add in the beautiful Caribbean Dutch architecture, and my heart’s already stolen. This place is almost criminally underlooked — the only other tourists I see are all Dutch, and there are few English resources about places to visit in the country!

But speaking of criminal… There’s some sort of nefarious current here. You don’t need to know any of these myriad languages to feel it, but it sure makes it more obvious.

Minutes after crossing the country, the Indian-Surinamese driver of my shared taxi from the border to Parbo wordlessly slipped a SR$50 note (US$6.70) to a police officer. At a police roadblock after that, manned by three policemen, I overheard him talking to the one Indian cop in a mix of Sranan and Hindi, asking if he could pay his way to drive around it. (The cop said he didn’t want to get in trouble with his colleagues.)

The passenger sitting next to me was an American of Guyanese origin. At first, we got along, him mentioning some years in Hamilton, and his need for a break in Suriname due to his distaste for Guyana. Then he asked me to set up his phone for him without entering his own name. Then he started talking to the driver, who responded to him in Guyanese creole, and his story came flying right out: 17 years of jail time in Canada for smuggling heroin from New York City and…maybe killing a guy. Shot 6 times. $30000 a month income, selling kilos for $80000 each. Starts bragging and complaining about having to spend $3000 a week on his current girlfriend in New York. Looking for a place to stay for at least a month in Suriname. Driver casually mentions the recent 2300 kilo, largest-ever yet rumoured to be underreported drug bust, and specifically the carelessness that resulted in it.

Hmm. Glad I got out of that minivan. Oh yes, the Surinamese president, Dési Bouterse, is a democratically-elected former dictator wanted internationally for smuggling drugs. (Apparently he’s preferable to the opposition, who were not human rights-abusing murderers of Maroon people but were too timid to enact anything substantial while they were in power, according to one local I talked to. It’s a young independent country.) I’ve also overheard conversations in Sranan that have enough English words to suggest that the drugs trade is very much in current events. Should I be surprised then?

Parbo’s historic city centre is UNESCO-listed and spectacularly elegant. Unfortunately, being the 7th-resource-richest country in the world hasn’t exactly paid off in terms of preservation: not only are many of the buildings in disrepair, but the streets there are eerily devoid of pedestrians most of the day. While Parbo seems more built-up than Georgetown, it feels more run down. I guess there are more pressing issues to address; many conversations I had with locals alluded to the plummeting currency, slow economy, and poor budgetary planning. I still wandered around mouth agape, enjoying the unique character and unlikely scenes, and spent a portion of every evening at the Waterkant, overlooking the almost comically tall Jules Wijdenbosch Bridge.

While the city as a whole has a lovely mixed character, the Central Market seems like the prime example, with Indonesian warungs, Chinese barbecue stalls, Indian clothing shops, Amerindian vegetable sellers, and African herb sellers hobnobbing side by side in close quarters. Indonesian food in particular seems to have become the national fast food. And I don’t know who started the trend of carrying around songbirds in their cages, but I’ve seen everyone do it.

Food is a delight. There’s a vast variety not usually found in other parts of the world: Indonesian, Chinese, Dutch, creole, Indian-Caribbean (roti), Surinamese, which just seems like a fusion of all of the above, and probably more. These restaurants are often staffed by people not of the same ethnicity: not every day that you see Indonesians serving up pannenkoeken and poffertjes (Dutch mini-pancakes), or Africans serving up nasi (Indonesian fried rice) and bami (fried noodle)! There are also ethnic neighbourhoods, like a visible Chinatown, and what seems to be multiple Indonesian areas.

One of these was a (very rainy) bike ride and boat ride away, Nieuw Amsterdam. (Not to be confused with New Amsterdam in Guyana, or the New Amsterdam that became New York City!) There’s a scenic abandoned fort there, now overgrown into a park.

There’s also Fort Zeelandia in the centre of Parbo. I wish I could have read the exhibits, all explaining the origin stories of each major ethnic group, but alas, everything’s written only in Dutch.

The Dutch were notoriously cruel to their population of contract and indentured workers sustaining their plantations, importing them from West Africa, Dutch Indonesia, China, and the Middle East, which forms the population of today. Even then, full independence only received lukewarm support when granted in 1974, with a third of the population immigrating to the Netherlands as a result. Relations among the public now still seem mixed, with Dutch people I encountered at times reconciliatory and guilty in their country’s past complicity, looking to fix the problems they caused; while some were outright ignorant, treating the country like an exotic zoo, and a few even racist. Locals see all this: some feel resentment to varying degrees of extremity, but most recognise the continuing amount of aid and support provided by the Dutch government to make things right. Plenty of Surinamese I met held Dutch citizenship, giving up their Surinamese one, shuttling between both countries.

Despite all the problems, despite the other citizenship, this is still home. And it’s one the local Africans, the local Indians, the local Chinese, the local Indonesians… it’s one they all call home too. Even moreso for the segment of the population who are so mixed now that it’s hard to trace their origins. They’re all Surinamese.

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