Suriname is the tiniest state in South America, but its indiginous peoples and mysterious jungles help it punch above its weight
By flickering orange firelight under a black night sky, the women began to dance. About 50 of them, some bare-breasted and all wearing skirts of homespun cloth wound round their waists, formed a semi-circle and bent over till their hands dangled to the ground. As drums beat out a hypnotic African rhythm, the women clapped in unison and wailed laments.
The beat quickened. The dancers stood up straight, the younger ones oscillating their hips and pouting provocatively. Men joined in, and gourd-cups of kasiri – rough, low-strength beer brewed from manioc – were passed around. The funeral party, for a man who had died three months earlier, was in swing at Asidonopo.
This village of wooden huts roofed with strips of plaited palm is one of several scattered around the Gran Rio headwaters, deep in the equatorial rainforest of Suriname. Some 300 years ago, rebellions swept through the newly established cotton and sugar plantations on Suriname’s coast. Escaped African slaves legged it into the interior,climbing, and eventually finding safety, above the rapids beyond which no white men dared venture.
Four tribes of their so-called ‘Bush Negro’ descendents survive today, among them the Saramaccan people of Asidonopo. They speak a hybrid language of various West African dialects, smattered with Dutch, English and Portuguese words learnt on the plantation.
My Surinamese guide, Sean (pronounced ‘scene’) Dilrosun, presented me to an elderly, snaggle-toothed woman who was sharing a bench with us to watch the dancing. With Sean translating, Missie Kelle – once a renowned Saramaccan dancer herself – explained what we were watching: “In our dances, we go back to the times of captivity, and even further, to our ancestors in Africa. The women bent over double are planting sugar cane. The erotic wiggling was to distract the slave-masters, so others could escape. The dances untie the knots in our memories.”
In common with the people of Ghana, from where their ancestors hailed, the Saramaccans believe that a dead person’s soul stays with the body for a few months, after which it moves on to the land of the dead, an event to be celebrated with an all-night party. Hours later, as I lay awake beneath my mosquito net in a hut on a river island half a mile away, I could still hear the low thrumming of African drums.
By coincidence, a few weeks previously I had visited Ghana and had been invited to an uncannily similar funeral bash. The dances which told stories, the black faces and wide, white eyes of the dancers, the drums...
Suriname is the former Dutch Guiana, South America’s smallest, least populated and most obscure republic. It has been independent since 1975 and retains close ties with the Netherlands, where there are sizeable Surinamese communities, and which supplies most of the country’s tourists.
Nine-tenths of the population of 400,000 live in the coastal towns strung along the loamy mud flats between the mouths of the Corantijn and Marowijne rivers, which are the borders with, respectively, Guyana and French Guiana. I began my journey in Paramaribo, the capital, a small city of faded and peeling colonial wooden buildings built on a grid.
Paramaribo, known more commonly as Parbo, struck me as rather lifeless, despite its extraordinary ethnic diversity. The Surinamese are the descendants of Dutch settlers, East Indians (known as Hindustanis), Africans, Javanese, Chinese, Creoles, Portuguese-speaking Jews from Brazil and indigenous Amerindians. And yet the ethnic tensions which exist in Trinidad or neighbouring Guyana, for example, seem to be absent here.
The museum, in the old Dutch Fort Zeelandia, is a modest affair reminiscent of a sixth-form prize day exhibition, although with an interesting selection of old photographs. The central market is more lively; the aroma of spices brought by the sackful from India and sold by sari-draped women, mingle with the smells of African fishermen’s fresh shrimps.
The synagogue stands fraternally next to the mosque; and down the road is the wooden St Peter and Paul Cathedral. The cathedral is being restored, as is the modest presidential palace. In sleepy squares there are statues of Simon Bolivar and Mahatma Gandhi. Home-grown heroes are apparently in short supply.
I found little more to detain me anywhere else on the coast. Despite the tropical location, there is no palm-fringed powdery sand or limpid waters. Instead, the narrow coastal belt is mainly reclaimed swamps, marshland and river deltas; rice, cotton and bananas are cultivated in the rich alluvial soil and the area is excellent for birdwatching. These flatlands are protected from the sea by a system of dams and dikes, the construction of which was a particular skill of the Dutch settlers.
On a day trip from Parbo, I crossed the Suriname river by ferry to the Dutch fort of Nieuw Amsterdam, and drove eastwards along the coast, through the old Jewish settlement of Jodensavanne and the bauxite-mining town of Moengo.
Both had one-horse-town atmospheres to them, as did Albina, on the Marowijne river border with French Guiana. Another road, going westwards, passes through the village of Totness, curious only for its name which dates back to a Scottish settlement long since dispersed.
Back in Parbo, I asked on my city sightseeing tour: “What are those derelict wooden buildings over there?” I guessed they might be old merchants’ houses, awaiting restoration. “They are the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Transport, Communications and Tourism,” answered my guide.
The latter ministry is behind a scheme, engagingly dubbed ‘Operation Grasshopper’, under which a few airstrips have been hacked away in the rainforest, allowing the Movement for Eco-Tourism in Suriname (METS) to run tours to a trio of remote jungle lodges. In a single-engine Cessna, I hopped south, first across a belt of sandy savannah, then for more than an hour over a landscape filled to a 360° horizon with deep green, interrupted only by glinting threads of water.
On to a strip of grass next to the Rio Gran, then headed upriver in a dug-out, its whining motor struggling against the cola-coloured river. We meandered through dense, dark forest up to the impassable Awarradam rapids where, on an island reached via a massive fallen tree trunk, and hidden amid pendulous roots and tangled loops of liana, we found our collection of thatched wooden huts, each with a hammock slung across its porch.
The air hung heavy and moist. Insects droned and trilled, while from the forest came the incessant, double wolf-whistles of screaming pihas and a cacophony of anonymous cack-cack-cacks, croaks, cawaows and the occasional scrofulous growl of a howler monkey. After dark, I imagined all kinds of weird jungle creatures watching the strange interlopers in their world, who swung in hammocks, sipped rum, anointed their insect bites and watched spangles of starlight dancing on the black river.
We knew there were jaguars, pumas, ocelots and peccaries out there, because Sean had shown us their footprints, some of them just a few yards from the lodge.
On hikes along trails cut through the undergrowth, we met scary tarantulas, enormous brown toads, blue morpho butterflies and leaf-cutter ants nearly an inch long. We glimpsed monkeys, thumping high up in the forest canopy, and the occasional colourful flash of a toucan or macaw.
Despite these sightings, some of the 14 tourists at the lodge felt a touch disappointed over the next couple of days not to see the bountiful wildlife as they might on safari in Africa, for example. They hadn’t realised that rainforests are simply not like that. They are dark, eerie places of invisible noises, dank smells and spooky spirits.
We did see scores of black caiman – Amazonian reptiles, up to six feet long. After dark, we floated down a seeping creek upstream from the lodge, in a wooden canoe. In the total darkness, the hustling of rushes on the bank sounded exaggerated. A grassy aroma wafted off the water. I raised my hand to within a few centimetres of my face, but still saw only blackness, immeasurably deep.
Then somebody flicked on a torch and skimmed the beam along the water’s edge a few metres away, catching the glint of a pair of bright red jewels on the surface amid the blooms of white nocturnal water lilies. Apparently transfixed by the light, the caiman’s huge, unblinking eyes stared back as it floated along beside us, motionless to the tip of its tail. Then, suddenly, the clouds opened. Within moments we were drenched, the caiman was gone and the outboard motor was whizzing us back to the lodge.
The only peccary we came across was on a plate. Having been shot or trapped in the forest, it was roasted on an open fire by the camp’s Bush Negro staff, and served for supper with manioc flour. Piranha was also on the menu. I caught some on a line baited with a cube of meat. A couple of times the fish chewed right through the hook, but on the whole they were surprisingly easy to catch. Surprisingly tasteless, too. It took a dollop of chilli sauce to give them bite.
Our next stop was another island lodge, this one on Kavalu, a day’s canoe journey downstream at the confluence of the Rio Gran and the Pikin. Wooden landing stages leading to small slash-and-burn clearings, and the to-ing and fro-ing of canoes piled with maize or manioc, announced our arrival in Bush Negro country.
As we discovered that night at the funeral party in Asidonopo, which faces Kavalu island, the Saramaccan people are welcoming with a back-slapping zest for life. The village chief, or ‘Kapiteni’ celebrated our arrival by cracking open a bottle of rum. Villagers sang as they spun cotton or grated manioc outside their huts. Naked children laughed and pulled faces.
The atmosphere could not have been more different at Palumeu, the Amerindian village near the third and final lodge I visited. Another grasshopper leap took me there, 100km short of Brazil on the upper reaches of the Tapanahony river. Although billed by METS as an opportunity to experience the ‘traditional lifestyle of Amerindian tribes’, Palumeu is, in truth, nothing of the kind.
Superficially, the village is very like Asidonopo – wooden huts, roofs of plaited palm, hammocks, beaten earth and women grinding manioc and brewing kasiri. But these peoples’ gourd cups were half empty, not half full. Their light-brown faces and almond-shaped eyes looked sad and deep. They were camera-shy but, desperate for cash, would pose for a dollar a snap. At a craft shop next to the Christian mission and European Union-funded health clinic, they offered us crudely fashioned copies of the spears and bows and arrows they no longer hunt with.
Palumeu is, however, the most stunningly located of all the lodges, on a broad hillside clearing with sweeping views up and down the river. Hummingbirds sucked from yellow cotton flowers. A tame green parrot called Budweiser joined guests at the dinner table. There were jungle walks, a hill to climb for expansive views over the canopy roof, and an island with a safe swimming beach.
Before we left, we were led to the village for a meeting with Kuyali, the elderly Indian chief. Wearing nothing but a strip of cloth round his waist, he invited us to ask him questions. His answers were laconic and may have lost much in translation, but he told us this: “As a child, I knew nothing of the outside world. My tribe, the Trio, were nomadic hunters who moved through the forest. Then the missionaries came here. Now my people stay in just one place, by the airstrip, chapel, clinic and tourist lodge".
I wondered what knots might unravel in his memory if, like the Africans, he were to get up and dance away the tribulations of his people.