Showing posts with label Suriname RIver. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Suriname RIver. Show all posts

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Travelling in Suriname and Guyana; the perfect Turf and Surf combination

It is hard to know where to start really, when describing the Guyanas. Most folks don’t know where they are, and those that do have only a fleeting memory of school geography, or perhaps collecting stamps.

The three “Guyanas” lie on the northeast coast of South America. They are politically different, two independent (Guyana of Great Britain and Suriname of Holland), and French Guyana remains an integral part of France.

A Saramaccan boy
They are a part of the giant Amazon basin, and are characterized by massive rivers flowing out to the ocean through vast jungles. They are home to a wide variety of people, a reflection of the countries’ harsh history and importation of slaves and indentured labour from Africa, India, China and Indonesia. Added to these poor folks, were the settlers from France, Holland and the Britain, and a few displaced Brazilian Jews, some Venezuelans and, of course, the completely bewildered Amerindians to whom these lands had been home and peaceful for centuries.

The cocktail was poisonous; the lands violent and difficult, and by the end of the nineteenth century most of the plantations had died out to be swallowed whole by the jungle, and the French left to develop their ghastly penal settlements in peace.

The Camp de Transportation in St. Laurent, French Guyana

For contemporary tourists, however, this toxic history, now settled, offers an extraordinary opportunity to see fascinating and friendly communities, deep jungle, rich savannas, quirky cities and beyond all, friendly and welcoming people.

The Rupununi Savannah
The Rupununi Savannah of southern Guyana, where I spent such a splendid time at the Manari Ranch, is the complete opposite of the jungles of central Suriname. So by the simple expedient of three plane rides (Lethem/Georgetown, Georgetown/Zoorg en Hoop, Zoorg en Hoop/Kajana), I leaped from turf to surf.

The Surinamese jungle is a wonderful place; in particular, I love the Upper Suriname river, and the rich African culture that it embraces. Twenty-three settlements, established by the Saramaccan tribe of “Maroons”,  escaped slaves of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, lie along this gorgeous river. They are miles beyond the road system, and for many years lived as a predominantly self-administering region. Their government had a single leader, with captains for clusters of five or so villages each of which had their own captain and vice-captain. This structure kept order, maintained their culture and language, and lived their lives.

The School Boat - The Upper Suriname River

Village Houses
Traditional to this day, African anthropologist come to study the language and culture of Benin and Dahomey, lost to contemporary Africa, but preserved here in the Surinamese jungle. The villages are neat, clearly structured and the people along the river busy and alive. Their societies have, for all intents and purposes been cashless for centuries, as they have grown and caught their food, and built houses, boats and furniture from the myriad of available resources; life is slow, and iguanas plod gently through the communities.

A local house
The need for cash, however, has gradually encroached; one cannot pay a cell-phone bill with coconuts, and Facebook is as prevalent here as it is in London. As is the way of the world, young men have gone away in search of money, there being little cash in the jungle, and quickly, centuries of carefully structured societies are being changed. One answer to this has been to develop some tourism, and to this end there are now over twenty “lodges”, of varying sophistication and comfort, spread along the river. This, of course, is too many, and soon enough some will fail, and slowly disintegrate into the water. 

Now, however, visitors are spoiled for choice, and they offer a truly authentic and unpasteurized experience of the deep jungle. The creatures, great and small, are there; the forests deep, riding into the river system between high canopies of massive trees one is simply in awe of the environment. Huge walls of vegetables; villages made of leaves; trees offering a myriad of wonderful medical benefits; food scuttling and swimming all around and not a snowflake to shovel.

The Upper Suriname River is astonishing; only from the air can one realize that it is significantly populated; the villages spread along the ribbon of water from the Brokopondo Lake to the junction with the Pikin and Gran Rios. Communities of fascinating, knowledgeable, friendly people trying their best to keep their culture and spirit alive.

As a visitor, one feels like a voyeur; we are there to learn and to appreciate, and to do so one must observe and inquire. It can be awkward; some want their photos to be taken, some believe that by listening to stories we are stealing their words. Women work at the river’s edge cleaning and scrubbing paying little heed to contemporary clothing conventions, but too many wanderers observing have made them self-conscious, and they are changing their ways.

Waiting to take supplies to the mourners
Traditional lives are lived; following the death of an elder, the men of the community will take the body to a sacred place in the forest for three weeks; women will bring some supplies, but other than this brief contact, they are alone with the spirits of the people and the environment; these traditions, such a vital part of the fabric of the Saramaccan society are slowly being nibbled away.

It is, perhaps inevitable, but it makes the privilege of being welcomed into these communities even more precious.

Boat Building
Now is the time to visit; combining the Savannah of southern Guyana with the Maroon villages of the Upper Suriname river is an extraordinary combination; the “turf and surf” of the Guyanas, the yin and yang of the northern Amazon. A prefect journey for those seeking an understanding of the environment, the people whose lives are so intimately woven with their lands and the cultures of this remote region before they are gone.

The Guyanas offer a fabulous experience for some travelers; those with an inquiring personality, a liking for a little discomfort, an appreciation of the delicious meat of the Tapir and a desire to escape the relentless homogenization of the world.

The Guyanas are no theme park; they are the real thing. 

Transportation on the Upper Suriname River

Friday, July 3, 2015

MaxGlobetrotter's Ten Favourite Countries - Numbers 1 to 3

Publishing lists seems to be the craze right now, and indeed the new owner of The Great Canadian Travel Company, the redoubtable Ian Kalinowsky, has asked me to pen my top ten “new destinations for 2016”, which in due course I shall.

However, for now I am going simply to answer one of the most common questions that I am posed, “Which is your favourite  place in the world?”.

It is not a simple question, and there really are no straightforward answers, and so I am picking my Top Ten, and, in no particular order, am posting them on a daily basis on my new Facebook page, a page that I would strongly urge you to visit and “like”!! I am also marching blindly into the world of Twitter, and taking this most peculiar communication more seriously; I don’t quite get it yet, but am advised that with perseverance, its logic structure and  will become apparent.

We shall see.

In the meantime, however, I have given a great deal of thought to my favourite destinations, and felt the need to lead the pack with Portugal, and more specifically, the slice of the country that lies from Lisbon south to, but not including the Algarve, and inland to the Spanish border.

Portinho d'Arrabida
It is a land that holds many, many memories. I was introduced to travel when I was young, and from the time that I was seven-years old my parents rented an apartment for the month of August. I learned Portuguese, although my accent and vocabulary was limited to the in-shore fishermen with whom I passed many happy daysgutting fish. My particular linguistic skills, of which I was 
inordinately proud, had shortcomings that only became apparent at a Christmas gathering of my (then) girlfriend’s family; they were senior Portuguese diplomats, and surprised to hear the frothy vernacular of the sea in their rather particular salons.

I have continued to travel to Portugal, and love this special area of coastline, the Costa Azul, the plains of Alentejo, the plaintiff sounds of Fado music from its heart in Lisbon. The region has been good to me, and I am sure that I will continue to visit for as long as I am able.

My second choice is Suriname. I have been fortunate to visit four times in the past couple of years and each time gain a deeper admiration for the people of this fine country. For visitors, Suriname offers the frisson of excitement that travelling to “new “destinations brings; it has exquisite birdlife, and the expanse of the Amazon rain forest can only make Costa Rica weep.

There arejungle lodges (fly-in only) that offer the flora and fauna of the jungle on an “up close and personal” basis, and there are any number of simple resorts along the Suriname River. There are communities whose lifestyles have changed little in the three hundred years since their ancestors ran from slavery and founded the Maroon villages, and there welcome is genuine and open. For those who love to fish, the rivers are full of fine sport, and for those whose outdoor pursuits are more gentle, the butterflies that dart into and out of the canopy in true visions of colour.

Amazing Butterflies! 

Rural Suriname

And then there is the capital, Paramaribo; built apparently from the leftover bits of Amsterdam in the mid nineteenth century, it houses wonderful period houses, fine public buildings, and then tumbles into the contemporary suburbs of any growing city. Nationalities and religions coincide with mosques adjacent to synagogues and all celebrating each other’s’ High Days and holidays.  The river is magnificent, as are all of the massive waterways of The Guyanas, and to sit in the evening at the marvellous Baka Foto restaurant lying within the walls of Fort Zeelandia, built in the 1650s by the Dutch.

What a fine country Suriname is!

And so is Uruguay; not a hot destination among travellers to South America, it is really a very fine place to visit. I have been there several times, and love the balance between the cosmopolitan nature of Punta del Este, one of the world’s preeminent beach destinations, and the rather rakish nature of Montevideo; the steamy colonial towns of the western regions and the frontier nature of the inland communities of Trienta e Tres and Tacuarembo are dusty, unvisited and quite delightful.

It is also the home of Corned Beef, that disgraceful staple of English school food in the 1960s, and the massive and now fortunately dilapidated factory at Fray Bentos is a testament to just how much of the stuff was made. The office, closed in the late 1970s remains as it was on that final day, looks for all the world like a relic of the Victorian era, it is hard to imagine it at work only forty years ago.

There are lovely ranches, horse riding tours, music, street markets, wine and fine food; there are good roads, a sixteenth century town, the massive Rio de la Plata, and for any travellers venturing south to Argentina, I would urge a few days in Uruguay be added to the journey. It is a terrific place, and will not disappoint.

And so these are the first three; seven more to come, and frankly I have yet to determine just who will make the list. There are destinations that I visited decades ago whose charms and idiosyncrasies have stayed with me, and there are countries that I have visited only in the past year or two that have enchanted me.

We will indeed see. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Suriname: Resorts of the Suriname River

The Suriname River is fascinating, and for tourists travelling to Suriname, the communities along its bank offer a spectacular experience. Surinamese jungle lodges are great, and really offer visitors a wide range of standards, accessibility and activity.

Some time ago I wrote about Kabalebo, a lodge deep in the rain forest, and accessible only by air; it is a rather odd place, and worth considering on any trip to the country. The Surinamese government built some decades ago, several air strips in the jungle to assist the development of minerals, hydro power and other economic opportunities. Some worked out, and others failed; one such failure was Kabalebo, but the idea of a runway in the pristine rain forest was too much for some developers to ignore, and they took advantage of the strip to build the lodge.

The Lodges
The Suriname River, though, is quite different. There are twenty-two lodges, each associated to some degree or another with a local village, and developed as a part of an economic development project. One may think that 22 might be a touch over the top, but there they are, and they are waiting.

They range in standards from moderate, offering fairly basic but clean, en-suite accommodation, to “back to basic” huts, offering a roof to keep the rain away and a hammock. One can mix and match, and indeed one of the most interesting packages that exists is a five-night program that offers three nights in one of the better resorts, Dan Paati, and one each in a primitive resort and a Back-to-Basic camp.

Dan Paati Resort

Waiting for the canoes in Atjuna
Travelling upstream is fun; once one leaves the bus, agility is required to get into the canoe for the three-hour journey, but once is the route is sound and the boatmen steady.  It is truly eye-opening to see the amount of traffic on the river; freight canoes carrying anything and everything to the villages, passenger “buses”, school buses, family outings, some tourist traffic, but little compared to the constant stream of canoes that were making their way up and down the river. Ponchos are provided in case the rain comes down, and away one goes, past quintessentially African communities until we reach Dan Paati.

Originally built by a Dutch insurance company as a part of an aid project, a year or so ago they donated the resort to a tour company who work closely with the village of Dan. It has a significant economic impact on the community, as over thirty villagers are employed by Dan Paati in the operation of the resort. It was great; a place to relax (no wi-fi), to swim in either their pool or in the river, and a great place to meet fellow travellers in the evening in the open lounge area.

I then headed further upstream and downmarket to the village of Pingpe, and their jungle lodge. This was a treat on many fronts, and although the accommodation was basic, it was absolutely fine, and the couple who ran the resort, Chapeau and his sister, were both from the local village, and fantastic hosts. Descended from escaped slaves in the 1760s, their family had lived in Pingpe for hundreds of years.

They explained the basic history of the river, and noted that periodic visitors from Africa, particularly those from Benin, recognise the village life, their customs and beliefs, and indeed one river-community is called Diumi, a variant on ”Dahomey”, the capital of Benin. Diumi is a special village, and the only one that white visitors are prohibited from entering, as it houses the tribe’s sacred place for the spirit that protects the community from any further slavery.

Chapeau Siesa

And slavery is an open subject; minimised somewhat by Chapeau saying “It was all about money; it is what they did in those days”, and seemingly a part of history that has been successfully shrugged away as the Maroons developed their social structures and lives in the forest, reflecting the African lives that they had left behind.

It was a fascinating stay; Chapeau was an excellent companion, and as we walked through the forest explained so many elements of life away from “civilisation” that I was left bewildered and quite astonished by their prowess. “We were river people”, he said, “The Amerindians were the people of the forest”; it is a distinction that I would like to find out for myself, and I am already planning a trip to the very south of the country in 2016.

A Tarantula Spider's nest

Within the past ten years, archaeologists have discovered hundreds of petroglyphs in caves near the Brazilian border, and beautifully carved obelisks; these finds, added to linguists bewilderment as to why the local Amerindian tribes have a language with the grammatical and structural complexity of modern-day languages all hint to the existence of a massive and powerful nation dating back millennia. The petroglyphs have already been dated to before 3,000BC, predating the Aztec and Inca societies by many years.

To travel south, stay in the Amerindian villages and have the opportunity to visit these extraordinary places will have to wait for a year!

And so, the river behind me, the resorts of Pingpe and Dan Paati sliding away, I headed west to one of the more peculiar places that it has ever been my privilege to visit.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Suriname: The Suriname River

Apart from geography geeks, stamp collectors and cartophiles, Suriname is a country that has escaped most peoples’ awareness. And this is a great pity, because as a destination, Suriname offers interest travellers a peak into any number of worlds.

It lies, along with Guyana and French Guyana on the north-est coast of South America, tucked in between Venezuela and Brazil. Access is patchy but straightforward; from North America, there are flights into the capital of Paramaribo directly from Miami, or with connections in Port of Spain or Curacao. From Europe, non-stop flights from Amsterdam, recognising the old historical connection between the Netherlands and this remote region, operate daily.

And so it was that I found myself boarding the KLM flight at Schipol, shivering because I had jettisoned my warm clothes in anticipation of two months or warmth, for the nine-hour flight south to Suriname.

It is my fourth visit to the region, and I have to say that I really enjoy coming down to the Guyanas. They offer travellers many options, from fabulous fly-in lodges in the rain forest, fascinating canoe trips, expeditions to see the recently-discovered 5000 year-old petroglyphs in the southern forest, and interesting glimpses into contemporary river life, a one travels the Suriname River.

Suriname’s history is bloody. It is a brutal tale of slavery, plantation, disease and constant bickering and fighting with the British and French. It is a history of injustice on an industrial scale, disease and deceit, purgatory and finally salvation.

In the late 1760s, slaves escaped from the plantations, and headed for the river, safe in the assumption that the wussy Dutch would not chase them there. Eventually, they settled into six tribes in different regions, and to this day, live lives in the upper reaches of the rivers that remain traditionally African.

Pingpe Village
Pingpe Village

There is, of course, contemporary turmoil; the transition from centuries of a cashless society to one that cash is needed is painful. The requirement for money (Digicel can’t be paid with local fruit), has forced many to leave their traditional villages to go to Paramaribo to seek work, leaving a social imbalance within the villages. The elderly, formerly looked after by the next generations are being left alone, and the young children are losing the traditional skills and their mentors are away in The City.

It is a familiar story.

What is less familiar is the way that they are working to try and stem the tide.

The Saramacca people, the tribe that live along the Saramacca and Suriname Rivers, have a strong and established social order. Led by an hereditary king who lived in Asidonhopo until his death a year ago, local government is kept by a council of ten “captains” representing five to ten communities, with each community having their own captain and assistant captain.

The role of the assistant captain is ultimately local; they ensure that their communities are kept clean and tidy, they assign village jobs and ensure that daily activities are completed; simple, but very effective.

The new king will be crowned in another year or so, the work of the pervious monarch must first be completed, and the hereditary role is drawn from the maternal line, as are all Saramaccan family structures.

Interestingly, one major movement within the communities is the development of tourism infrastructure to support the communities and create a source of cash; keen and fervent in their desire to welcome visitors and explain their unique history, the Maroon people have flung themselves headlong into the tourism business.

There are now twenty-two such community-owned resorts along this single 100 km stretch of river; this may, of course, prove to be a degree of overkill, but in the meantime that offer visitors a fabulous combination of options. From the primitive facilities that  offer “back to basics” camps, to the more sophisticated resorts like Dan Paati, there are many options and alternatives.

Atjuna, Suriname
They all start, however, in Atjuna, the freight hub of the river. Lying three-hours south of Paramaribo, it is the end of the road, and the place where people, freight and everything else is transferred to the 40’ river canoes that provide the heartbeat of the River.

From Atjuna, the journey heads south into the rain forest; the river, wide at the beginning gradually tapers over the next hundred kilometres  until it reaches the point that it splits into two smaller streams, the Gran Rio and the Pikin Rio that take you to the very centre of the country. Here the villages are simply traditional African communities, little changed in the past three hundred years; they are home to people from Benin, the Luongo and Ashanti and offer a glimpse of rural life, and all of the spiritual and social beliefs that were brought from Africa so many centuries ago at the height of the plantation era.

And so it was, that I headed upstream to the confluence of the rivers and found a simply wonderful village, Pingpe, and stayed at its cosy and welcoming Pingpe Jungle Resort.