“Hey, I got Chinese takeout! Have some!”
–“Thanks! Where’s it from?”
“Just around the corner from here.”
The next day, I walk around the bend. The restaurant’s name? Fortune House, the same name (in English, but not in Chinese) as my dad’s former restaurant. It may have only been day one of my trip, but it made me immediately homesick.
It’s been absolutely mind-boggling to see the constant presence of Chinese people in the three Guianas. We’re members of the same diaspora, but we just ended up on opposite sides of the globe. Our daily language, the ones we live in, are completely different, mutually unintelligible, and yet the immediate knowing glances when I walk into the door of a Chinese business immediately leads to a conversation in the one thing we share.
Jaw Jaw, Suriname
Aside from the languages, there’s one other thing that inspired me to visit Suriname: the connection to West Africa. Suriname has a large Maroon population — that is, escaped slaves who fled further inland into the forest on foot, establishing their own communities with their own customs, using what they remembered of their home traditions. The largest of the Maroon groups is the Saramacca (Saamaka), and I wanted to take the time to visit at least one community. Having spent a memorable month in West Africa a few years ago, seeing everything from the big city to more rural areas, I felt a strong pull to compare the lives of those on both sides of the Atlantic. Same ancestors, different geography, hundreds of years of separation.
Past the end of the road, the Saramacca have established their villages along the shores of the Upper Suriname River (Dutch: Boven Suriname). Some of these villages are visited by group tours passing through and staying at isolated resorts, but I chose to visit Jaw Jaw (pronounced “yao-yao”), where returned former expat Bele has started a guesthouse in the centre of his village. Eschewing over 20 years of the hectic rat-race life in the UK and the Netherlands for a return to something simpler, he’s grown proud of his roots and was eager to share.
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.