Thursday, October 15, 2009

Surinam & French Guiana

Welcome to the place in South America where everybody speaks Dutch.
The Fatman’s Surinamese associate had come over on the ferry to meet me. My bag was already stowed in his minivan and I was at the end of a long single file being processed into the country. Finally my passport was stamped and I was on the bus. It was 1 pm and I was heading towards Paramaribo (pronounced ParaMARibo).
The road across Guyana had basically been a strip development of cane fields and stilt houses surrounded by forest. Here in Surinam it was pretty much uninhabited bush. As with the Amazon basin next door there was actually absolutely nothing inspiring about this ‘rainforest’. It was just endless, rather spindly and boring trees (and I generally really like trees) growing upon rather poor soil. When you consider it, the Dutch were colonizing here in 1650. If there were any natural resources to exploit, they would have done so. And today the place would be populated and rich.
Around 5:30 we had made it into the country’s only city. It was substantively cleaner and better off than Georgetown, although still simple and poor. Surprisingly there were few blacks, although there was every kind of brown, from Indonesian to Indian to Amerindian, with a fair chunk of Chinese thrown in. When we got to the small, cute, old Dutch colonial center of town, the driver dropped me off at my guesthouse.
But when I got inside, exhausted after over twelve hours of traveling, I found that they had lost my reservation. And were full up. The girl was, however, nice enough to call around and find me another place. And then called a taxi to take me the few blocks so that I didn’t get lost in the darkening city.
I had gained an hour, so it was after eight when I finally had my stuff in the room. And I hadn’t eaten all day. So my guesthouse people told me where I could find a place around a twenty minute walk away. Off I went.
When I got to the area I was shocked to see white people walking around. Guyana’s official population profile has less than 200 native born white people. And I had just been bouncing through the almost trackless jungle. But here I was, exhausted and famished, sitting at a restaurant surrounded by pasty, clueless middle aged people who looked like they had just gotten off the plane from Amsterdam.
They had. It turned out that Surinam had become a semi-trendy eco-destination for Europeans, and this here was what passed for the fancy hotel district. Such as it was. At least the food, when it finally arrived, was pretty good.
Back to the guesthouse. Just checked in was Rick, another 100 country backpacker type whom I had briefly met on the ferry from Guyana. Looked like this was the only place in town not fully booked. By now it was after ten, and I turned in for the evening.
Since the country was totally flat and completely forested outside of town, and therefore nothing else to independently do in Surinam, Thursday had been set aside for touring Paramaribo. There wasn’t all that much to tour, here, either, but Rick came along as we walked around the colonial part with the strange Dutch wooden buildings, passed the few government buildings, and entered the old fort/museum. And to stretch the time out we regaled each other with our travel stories.
By early afternoon I was pretty hungry, and we both were reliving the common travel story of not being able to find anywhere to eat. An Indian guy took us for block after block to find an ‘Indian restaurant’, but when we entered the grungy snack bar they were just closing up. Aggh! I was about to get a severe headache.
What to do? Where to go? Then we turned a corner, and there, very incongruously, was a Burger King. With BK Veggies! Not that I’m very likely to go there when I’m home, but anyone familiar with trying to find edible food in the Third World will understand the paroxysms of joy that I experienced.
Satiated, we wandered back to the guesthouse, still trading travel stories. Not much else to do in Paramaribo.
Friday was the day for my mad dash to French Guiana and back. I had thought that I would have to leave at four in the morning, but Yayo, my guesthouse host, also had a restaurant in St. Laurent, the French side’s border town. And he reassured me that it was only a two and a half hour ride. Nor did I have to worry about catching no stinkin’ ferry.
So I was at the Albina (Surinam’s border town) taxi/bus depot area a little before 8, and immediately I was the final passenger in a share taxi. Soon we were jolting crazily along a poorly maintained road on the 120 mile journey. It was a long 120 miles.
Yayo had pointed out that most people in the area didn’t bother with no stinkin’ border formalities, either. But being an old, conservative guy who didn’t want to entertain the possibility of spending days in a Surinamese jail, I had the cab take me the little distance upriver where I could legally exit. Passport stamped, I quickly found a pirogue--a long, canoe-ish outboard motor boat--to take me on the five minute journey across one more wide, brown river. Then I was legally stamped into French Guiana.
The population surrounding me had become overwhelmingly black again. Even though I was once again in an integral part of France, this was about as poor as France could get. Although that was still a bit richer than Surinam and a hell of a lot better off than Guyana.
Still, pretty funky. I walked for about a mile on the main drag parallel the river, the town straggling along with myriads of groceries and other small businesses.
When I got to a small, distinctively worn out and decayed Colonial era wooden church I turned left. And then a few hundred meters along, right before the river, was the prison camp that had been the processing center for the prisoners going to Devil’s Island off shore. I don’t know if they used these very buildings for the Papillon movie, but if they didn’t, then they copied them exactly. As it was, even with cars parked nearby, the grungy beat up buildings evoked the era perfectly. I walked around to my heart’s content, then meandered down to the river and sat and contemplated it all briefly.
So far the climate in the Guianas hadn’t seemed nearly as bad as I had feared. In fact I had been thinking that Steve McQueen was a total wuss. Then the full sun came out for a few minutes. It gets real intense when you’re smack dab on the equator. Now as I was walking back through town there was the first actual burst of rain on my entire trip. Thundering drops on tin roofs. I stood under one of them until the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started. Then I strolled down to the tiny French immigration booth and had myself stamped out. I went over to the river bank. It almost felt like Africa, with pirogue guys yelling good naturedly, ’Hey! Big Man! Over here!’
I got in one pirogue, but it was pretty small and dicey. And I didn’t fancy flailing around in the muddy water. So I got off and chose another, more substantial one. In a few minutes I was legally back in Surinam.
I liked being back in Surinam. The people were all very nice. And honest. After being such an object of commerce in the Caribbean, and then having made it through somewhat dangerous Guyana, it was calm and refreshing to be in a simple, safe haven.
But it was slow in the mid afternoon, and it took about an hour before there was a full taxi load for Paramaribo. On the way back I was reminded of how stupid I am to continue doing this. My driver was careening along doing 80 passing some other guy who wasn’t paying attention to anything. And who swerved towards us and came close enough to collapse my guy’s side view mirror. With me just on the other side. Fortunately, though, once again it was just a close call.
I was back in Paramaribo before 5, and was dropped off at the Burger King. But the line there was about forty minutes long, so I walked back to the guesthouse, found Rick, and went over to the restaurant I had gone to on Wednesday.
Since I had thought that French Guiana would be a lot more grueling than it was, I had slotted Saturday for rest and recovery. Just as well, since I was feeling old and tired and like everything was difficult. Rick and I wandered around a little more, took a taxi to an actual Indian restaurant in somebody’s home, and got ridiculously overfed.
Back to the guesthouse. Pack for tomorrow. Ponder this strange, flat area of the world, this appendage to nowhere. I hadn’t thought of the place as all that humid. But my passport was curled up like a wet, dead leaf. My American dollars were so thin and limp that they could have been turned into spitballs. I re-thought my position.
And concluded that in actuality I was one incredible, tough dude.

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