“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.
Kourou and Cayenne, French Guiana
Another day, another aquatic border crossing. Just taking one of those small rickety pirogues to the other side, that’s all — that’s a little step down from the ferry between Guyana and Suriname. Wait, why is everybody speaking French now? Why is my phone welcoming me to… Martinique? And now my phone’s stuck in the wrong time zone, one hour behind the local time.
This town looks a little run down. The road out to Kourou seems quite empty, and huh… hello corrugated steel shacks. Haven’t really seen them that much this trip until now.
Oh look, there’s a freakin’ space rocket.
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.
Prior to arriving in Guyana, that’s the most common response I’ve gotten when asked about this trip. The Ecuadorians sitting next to me on one of my flights had never even heard of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, let alone known that they exist on their continent, just a hop and skip away. (“It’s next to Venezuela.” “Colombia?” “Other side.” “Brazil?” “No, east.” “…Brazil?”) My mom thought I was going to Peru. My Couchsurfing host, Gordon, mentions people mistaking Guyana for Ghana. No one at the airports, not even me until I asked my host for once and for all, seems to know how to pronounce it right. Ghee-ana? Gooey-ana? Guay-ana? I heard all three. (It’s guy-ana, the “guy” as in “you guys”. I only heard that for the first time in Guyana.)
To make matters worse, Guyana doesn’t really have a reputation of its own internationally. It certainly has a reputation though, just not of its own making. Take Jonestown, the incident that literally invented the phrase “drinking the Kool-aid”, after an American cult leader brought his followers to establish their own “utopia” in the Guyanese hinterlands, then ordered them to all commit suicide by kool-aid after he went crazy. Or take the mini refugee crisis, or the territorial dispute extending to half of Guyana, or the recent offshore oil dispute, all courtesy of neighbouring Venezuela.
So arriving in Guyana, having no mental picture of what the place looked like, what have I found?