Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Suriname

AM's history lesson del dia

Suriname? Where’s that? No it's not in Africa (although it sounds like it should be), it’s to the north of Brazil between French Guiana and Guyana. It used to be a Dutch colony until 1975 when it gained independence. As such, Dutch is the main language although a bunch of other local languages can also be heard, especially if you get out of Paramaribo.




Suriname has an interesting history which I am going to summarise for you cos that's what I'm into at the moment. First it was invaded by the British who started the plantations (coffee, cacao, bananas, sugar, etc.) and kicked off slavery here. Suriname and New York (or New Amsterdam as it was also known) then got swapped around between the British and Dutch a couple of times during various Anglo-Dutch wars. They apparently liked to fight each other a lot. Finally New York was returned to the Brits and Suriname to the Dutch. I meet a lot of Dutch people while travelling who are still annoyed about that. And that the Germans stole all their bikes in WWII. Anyway, after the last swap, the party really started and the Dutch imported more slaves to work on even more plantations in Suriname. Some escaped to the jungle (now known as the Maroons) helped by the Indigenous people (the Amerindians). Then before slavery was abolished, the Dutch started bringing in contract workers (who were basically slaves but got paid a shit income as opposed to no income) from China. When slavery was fully abolished (the Dutch were the last ones to stop slavery in these parts by the way), all the slaves left the plantations, so more contract workers on shit incomes were brought in from Java and India. 


That is the end of today's history lesson and now I have set the scene for the rest of this blog. 


Crossing the border from French Guiana

I left around 7am from my hotel in Saint Laurent to go to the border. I read online it can take a while to get through immigration and then find a colectivo taxi that's ready leave for Paramaribo. Then the journey itself takes like three hours.

Immigration is walking distance from the centre of town so I start walking. Half way down, some boat guy approaches me. He says he’ll take me to immigration on the French Guiana side, then across the river for €4. I already knew the price was €3 from my hitch hiking so he agreed to €3. Then some taxi driver gets in the boat wanting to take me Paramaribo. He offers me a colectivo ride for €15. Then he starts asking if I was was staying in Hotel Star last night. Umm, stalker much? I’m guessing that yesterday I was the only white chick walking through town with a backpack! And scarily, he wasn’t the only one watching me. Some other dude pulled up in his car yesterday afternoon and started talking to me while I was just walking around. He also knew where I was staying. Clearly there’s nothing to do in this town on a Saturday afternoon except stalk tourists!

So immigration on the French Guiana side took all of about 10 seconds since there was no line. Then I get back in the boat and we wait about 15 mins for some other people to get in so we can cross over to Suriname. I should point out for the people reading this for information, there were a bunch of colectivo vans outside the French Guiana immigration going to Cayenne (and maybe Kourou since it's on the way). So if you turn up from Suriname, you can get a ride from Saint Laurent without having to hitch hike.

Back to my story. 

Meanwhile while I was waiting on the boat, they were loading a coffin into the boat next to me to take back to Suriname. Apparently a lot of people from Suriname and Brazil come to French Guiana for medical care, since it’s basically run by Europeans and therefore of a very high standard compared to most of South America. But I guess when your time’s up, your time’s up. Plus a boat is the only way to get across the river.

Anyway, enough people got in my boat so over we go to Suriname. Immigration on this side seemed fairly disorganised and not well laid out at all, but you can work it out. The most important thing is to have your tourist card or visa ready. Otherwise, it's back to French Guiana you go. Once this is done, the vultures came. Taxi drivers everywhere offering me a lift. Most of them wanted €20. I got them down to €12. I don't know what happened to the €15 guy. The key to a speedy exit from Albina (which is dodgy according to other people's blogs so you don't want to stay there) is finding a taxi that only needs one more person to go. Otherwise you can be waiting around for ages. A French family had arrived a few minutes before me, so I was the 'one person' needed to leave. Hooray.

Then we started on our merry way to Paramaribo, treated to a Michael Bolton concert on dvd. Glad I have an iPod! With the exception of about 10km of road they are still working on, this road is excellent. It looks pretty new and took 1.5 hours (doing 100-120km per hour) to get there. This was half the travel time I was expecting.

Paramaribo Accommodation

Ok this section is for people looking for info backpacking info. When I was looking for accommodation here, I didn't find much on the internet or in blogs. So I will list a bunch of places for the budget traveller since there are no hostels and the internet isn't very helpful.

The first couple of nights I stayed at Zus & Zo. It was pretty comfortable and the restaurant/  bar is where lots of foreigners hang out. It's pretty good. They have another guesthouse nearby called Twenty4 which also looked good. Both offer private rooms starting at €15, which is the cheapest I could find in Paramaribo. 


I then stayed at Un Pied a Terre for the rest of the time since you can sleep in a hammock for €10. I also liked it here. Not surprisingly this place was mostly full of French speaking people from French Guiana.


None of these guesthouses have pools and Suriname is really hot. However, they are all within 10 minutes walk of each other and this place, Zin Guesthouse. It does have a pool but I think rooms start at around €25. But if you don't want to spend that much, Zin will sell you a pool day pass for $15SRD, which is a good deal compared to the hotels (which are at least $25SRD). You can come and go as you please between 8am and midnight. The pool is mostly filled with Dutch tourists lying around trying to get a tan and/ or skin cancer. I went a couple of times and didn't see much sunblock being applied. Silly Europeans.


Paramaribo


Paramaribo is the capital of Suriname and the only place I stayed. This is pretty much the first thing I saw when we arrived. Funny. All I could think of was this song.





I turned up the guesthouse and the first question I was asked is "are you here for Carifesta?". "Um no, what is Carifesta?" Basically it's a big Caribbean arts festival that is on every couple of years. I turned up at just the right time to see the whole thing. And it's free!

I made a Dutch friend (Saskia) at the guesthouse and we went to a couple of things until she left. 


This appeared to be a religious band since they were waving bibles about, but they weren't singing in English (or Dutch) so it didn't hurt our non-Christian ears.




There were lots of stalls and food set up in this park. Normally it is quite unsafe at night but during Carifesta it was all good.




Some of the Carifesta stuff was really good. Other stuff not so good. One thing we heard just sounded like bad karaoke. However, the atmosphere in Paramaribo was awesome since the place was full of Caribbean tourists (as opposed to just Dutch tourists and a handful of backpackers). Every night there was something going on and loads of people were out and about.




The Presidential Palace was the main events area.



This was the closing ceremony. I had to lift my camera above a temporary fence to get any photos, which is why they are shit.








Because of Carifesta I saw Paramaribo at its best. Saskia told me they rounded up all the homeless people and sent them on a 'holiday' outside of the city so there would be no beggars. They also employed a bunch of people to clean the streets all the time so it was really clean, and there was a strong police presence everywhere, particularly at night, so it felt really safe. I don’t know what this city is usually like, but during my visit it was really good.

I like the Dutch inspired architecture here, although many places could do with a new coat of paint.






Fort Zeelandia.




Paramaribo must be the only place on earth where there is Muslim Mosque right next to a Jewish Synagogue. Apparently everyone here gets along fine.




Paramaribo does not have any dedicated vegetarian restaurants that I’m aware of. Given the significant Indian population here, your best bet is Roti restaurants. If you're vegan and you can look past the fact that roti bread might have ghee in it then the vegetarian roti is a cheap lunch at $8SRD. Roti places are everywhere. Plus the veggie menu varies between Indian style potato, green beans, eggplant and pumpkin, depending on the day and the restaurant. I had roti a few times and it was always really good. Interestingly, it always comes out on a sheet of plastic. It makes sense I guess since the plates are all plastic and could stain, but it is kinda weird.



As a vegan, you are pretty much out of luck on most menus. But like the Dutch, most people in Paramaribo speak very good English so you could probably get them to substitute the vegetarian options without too many problems. I didn't try any restaurants because I like roti a lot, and self catered to save some money.


If you don't want roti then Power Smoothie has a few vegetarian/ vegan options at reasonable prices. I tried the Garden Veggie Burger and some of their juices and it was pretty good. Alternatively, there’s also lots of Chinese restaurants around. I had some veggies and rice in one place when I arrived since I couldn’t find anything else open (being Sunday), but like most Chinese food (in my opinion) it was pretty average and tasted like MSG.


There’s a good central market open Monday to Saturday that sells fresh fruit and veg quite cheaply. However, unlike every other market I’ve been in they have a weird system in Suriname where you have to buy minimum amounts of things. For example, I saw a guy selling mangos in the market. This is how the conversation went:


Me: how much for a mango?
Fruiterer: you can’t buy one, you have to buy 10.
Me: but I only want one.
Fruiterer: no you have to buy 10. Which 10 would you like?
Me: um, I'm going over there now. (Walks away disappointed).

I have no idea why they can’t just sell stuff based on weight, or in this case, per mango.


Leaving the market I had to walk past the colectivo taxis going to Albina to get back to the guesthouse. They can see me walking with say a quarter of a watermelon in one hand and a bag of five oranges (since oranges are sold in multiples of five) in the other. I have no luggage but they're still like "taxi, Albina?". Fuck! Do I look like someone who wants to go French Guiana right now? No. Idiots. Grr.

Ok, clearly it's time for a rant. 

Supermarkets here are pretty shit. They remind me of Venezuela. I have not seen one Western style supermarket, instead they are all of the Chinese variety, which are mix between $2 shops and shit brands you’ve never heard of. Also, unlike French Guiana which is full of delicious French bread and chocolate, the bread here is rubbish and there is no chocolate anywhere. They also seem to LOVE sausages in jars. There are literally rows of them. I asked Saskia if this was a Dutch thing but she assured me the Surinamese came up with this little gem all by themselves. 



Also, the biggest supermarket near pied-a-terre has the most inefficient check out process I've ever seen. They ring up your items using an old school cash register which is basically a glorified adding machine. There’s no barcode scanning so your receipt just has a list of prices on it. However, you can’t start packing your items into a bag until they’ve all been rung up. Then another woman comes over and checks the prices on the receipt against the prices on the items. Once she is happy the bagging person can then bag your groceries. This means three people are basically watching you so you can’t slip any extra items into your pile. Plus that’s THREE people employed at each checkout. Talk about unnecessary overheads! If you have a week’s worth of groceries, I’m not sure how they check all them off given nothing is actually listed. It’s so stupid and inefficient. Thankfully not every supermarket is like this otherwise you’d just go insane.

I’ve also decided that Suriname has the worst behaving men in South America (so far). They are SO sleazy! They make this kissy kissy sucking noise when you walk past. Then they back it up with a mix of English and Dutch words like 'honey' or 'baby' or 'lollipop' and a bunch of words which I assume are the Dutch equivalent. As if you’d respond to that! It is so gross, especially the noise. Urgh! I pretty much wanted to punch every local man I saw in the balls and tell him to fuck off and stop being a pig. However, if I did this I would have no time left for doing anything else. Plus being banged up in a South American jail for multiple accounts of assault isn’t really on my list of things to do. Seriously though, I can’t imagine that local women like it. Do they?? I’m pretty sure all the European women here hate it since they are used to normal men. I don’t know what is wrong with these local men but it makes me miss French Guiana, which is full of European expats who know how to behave appropriately.

Grr. End of rant.

In other supermarket related news, I like how all the advertising is painted on walls.





My favourite was for Stayfree sanitary pads but when I rode around to take a photo of it, I couldn't find the street. Annoying.

I also like the personalised artwork on buses here!





Brownsberg

There are bunch of places you can go in Suriname including the interior. Like French Guiana, all the tours are in euros and expensive. Since I have already had several Amazon experiences in Ecuador, Brazil and French Guiana (to a lesser extent), Suriname's interior didn't really offer me anything new.


One thing I did do was a day trip to Brownsberg Nature Park. We drove through a bunch of Maroon villages on the way. 




Basically 5,000 people were displaced from their homes in the 1960s to make way for the Brokopondo Reservoir. This dam was created for Alcoa’s alumina refinery. All the people who had to move now live in villages created by the government. However, the dam is pretty much an engineering failure. According to the World Bank (yes I'm a nerd so I looked this up) this dam requires significantly more hectares of land per megawatt generated than any other large hydro energy project. Basically they flooded 1,500km2 of Amazon rainforest for sub-standard electricity generation. Fail.


But if you ignore the environmental impacts and just look at the lake it looks quite nice.



You can visit to Brownsberg Nature Park on a day trip. You can do overnights as well, but it costs a lot more. In our tour we walked through the rainforest to two waterfalls. These are nice and you can stand under them and cool off, but the creeks are too shallow for swimming. 














I don't know what this fruit is, but it looks like onions.




You could do this tour on your own and save some money since the walks are fairly well signposted. However, to get there the last 10km of road is mud/ dirt (depending on whether it's wet/ dry season) so you need a 4WD. My friend Saskia did this on a bike. Crazy. But it's another option.




I asked the guide if they’d considered sealing it. He said yes, but then they decided not to cos this was better for tourists. What? This is crazy talk! The road floods massively in the wet season and they would spend much more time and money on maintaining a dirt road than a sealed one. I've done work on road costs, so I know what I'm talking about. Plus never mind the environmental impacts from soil erosion (and digging up dirt from somewhere else to bring here) and dust pollution.

Cycling around

Like the Netherlands, Suriname is pretty flat meaning you can rent a bike and do cycling tours from Paramaribo to various plantations. The difference between cycling here and the Netherlands is about 30C. 

Thanks to the British occupation, Suriname drives on the left. This was an unexpected bonus for me since I was much less likely to ride on the wrong side of the road and get hit by a car. Hooray for the British!

To cross the river you ride through Leonsberg, arguably the richest area in Paramaribo. A lot of the embassies/ consulates are here, as well as expensive hotels and rich people's houses.






You even get to ride past the President's house. I tried to take some photos close to the gate but his goons made me delete them for 'security reasons'. So I took these from the main road.




Bikes are no problem on the boats that cross the river. It either costs $25SRD or $10SRD depending on the boat. I have no explanation for the price difference (and it's not a rip off tourist thing).



Lots of roads here follow canals. The Dutch obviously decided that Suriname needed a canal network but this didn't really work. Now they just attract rubbish and provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes.



Nieuw Amsterdam

The first cycling tour I did was a paid one in a group. We went to Nieuw Amsterdam on the other side of the river; and Peperpot, an old coffee and cacao plantation. Also, why does the Dutch spelling of 'new' need that many letters? Seems unnecessary.

Fort Nieuw Amsterdam was one of three strategic forts set up to keep the English and French (mostly) away from the plantations; back when all the Europeans hated each other and fought a lot.


There is an open air museum that you can pay to get into. It provides a very good overview of Suriname's (slave) history.








This is a big sugar bowl. Slave women had to continuously stir hot liquid sugarcane to stop it hardening. Or something. It sounded horrible and difficult whatever the guide said. They were even forced to work under extreme conditions while heavily pregnant.



In the town of Nieuw Amsterdam you can ride around and see a bunch of stuff for free.




Interestingly, these cannons were put here by the Americans during WWII. Not to keep the people safe, but to protect Alcoa's bauxite mine.



Er, the police might need some boating lessons...



An old plantation house.



This is some kind of independence square and statue (I think).




I have no words for this but you cycle past it to get the boat back to Paramaribo.



Peperpot

The cycle out to Peperpot is quite nice through the countryside. The Dutch people in our group struggled a bit in the heat.



When you get there, the working/ processing factories etc. are abandoned but people (mostly relatives of the contract workers) still live here.


 



The plantation house is beautiful (despite it's dubious past).



There is also a nature reserve on the plantation. It is second generation rainforest and really nice to cycle through. You can see animals and birds here if you're lucky.




Marienburg

After two days of lying by Zin's pool doing fuck-all, I decided I should do something touristy again and rented a bike for the day to go to Marienburg. Before it was abandoned it was a sugar plantation which provided sugar for Marienburg Rum. It has a sad but interesting history resulting in a massacre (summarised here).

The upside of doing a paid cycling tour first is you get to know the route from Paramaribo to Nieuw Amsterdam. Once across the river getting to Marienburg is easy. Follow the sign and stay on the sealed road until you need to turn (also signposted).



Marienburg is mostly full of abandoned buildings now. There's usually guys sitting around offering to be tour guides if you want one.









This is nearby.



It is worth cycling out there for a half day trip I think. You could also include Frederiksdorp plantation easily in the same day since the boat crossing is near Marienburg. I didn't go here though since two plantations were enough for me. At the end of the day they aren't that different.

So that was my Suriname experience. Like French Guiana, it was completely different to the rest of South America and for that alone it was worth visiting. I probably spent a bit too long in Suriname considering I didn't go to the interior, but several pool days were a nice change compared to being constantly on the move. I really like being in pools.

Next stop: South America's only English speaking country - Guyana.

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