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The Country Nobody Knew

surinameAuthor of Culture Shock & Canapés, Pamela O’Cuneen recalls testing her powers of cultural adaptation as a diplomatic spouse during a 1994 posting to Suriname

Diplomatic families become used to receiving a posting and reaching for the atlas to find out where it is and how to get there.

Suriname was one of those places. We were posted there in 1994. “Oh good,” I thought, “isn’t that one of the islands north of Australia?” No, sorry, that was Sulawesi. The Internet was not widely used in the mid-1990s. I searched all the biggest bookshops in London –  Dillons, Foyles, Waterstones – they’d never heard of it.  No airline flew there from the UK. There was no embassy or consulate to be found. Was this a mystery country from Gulliver’s Travels?  Finally I tracked down an embassy in Belgium and received a small sheaf of typed information in the post. One of the recommendations stood out. “If tourists are intending to visit the rainforest,” they said  ‘it is recommended that they should bring their own hammocks.’ Whatever were we in for?

Nestled between British Guyana and French Guyana, Suriname (formerly Dutch Guyana) lived up to all its promises of mystery.

Even the journey there by plane was challenging. It involved a departure for Heathrow at 3.30am, to catch the first flight out to Amsterdam, followed by a cultural bath at Schiphol airport, since Suriname started at the airport gate.  The waiting area was crowded with people of every race, shape and size. There were elegant Indian women in saris and gold jewellery, government ministers in business suits, people in ragged jeans and what looked like cast-off clothes, families of Chinese origin. Most of the passengers were staggering under the weight of airport purchases – massive TVs, audio equipment, tools and hoes and rakes. I half expected to see someone holding a goat or a couple of chickens.

The flight was chaotic, too beyond any expectations. The entire plane was like a reunion of friends.  Passengers ran up and down the aisle, hugging and greeting each other, large parcels of spicy food were produced and the flight was one long party. And this was only the beginning.

In Suriname itself we found ourselves in the ‘Land of Seven Cultures.’  The original Amerindian inhabitants of the rainforest had been successively invaded for more than 400 years, by the Dutch, the English and the French, leaving behind a society where Amerindians, Maroons  (the descendants of African refugees that escaped slavery), Creoles, Javanese, ‘Hindustanis’ from East India, Chinese and Dutch coexisted peacefully. Each group celebrated its own festivals, cooked its own food and played its own music. Judging by the wonderful racially mixed crowds thronging the central market on a Saturday morning, intercultural partnerships had been happening for a very long time.

Suriname is 90 per cent rainforest, and the small, inhabited coastal strip is fertile but soggy, rendered habitable only by the expertise of the Dutch with canals, and sluices and very deep storm drains. Despite being theoretically on the coast of South America, there is no permanent beach, but an area of shifting mangrove swamps inhabited by manatees, turtles and millions of mosquitoes.

The town of Paramaribo was built by early Dutch settlers with fond memories of the architecture of Amsterdam – street after street of Dutch gabled houses, all constructed in the local hardwoods. Unpainted and decrepit, leaning at crazy angles, there was a feel of fairy tale about the place, as though Hansel and Gretel had been the town planners.

On Saturday mornings, we drove through the Central Market to buy flowers, sold by Javanese flower-sellers outside the Torarica Hotel, and bread from a Chinese bakery so small that the ovens seemed to be hewn out of rock. The colour of Suriname surged around us. There were piles of ripe watermelons and jackfruit, mountains of pineapples, fish hanging on wooden frames, Macaws in cages and tiny chained monkeys for sale.

What was there to do in Paramaribo?  The usual expat activities took place – albeit with some difficulties, since shops were largely on a sort of Eastern European model, with goods being kept behind bars, and only issued on presentation of innumerable mysterious chits. Other small supermarkets were reminiscent of the old trading stores of a pioneer colony, where fishing tackle, tents, wheelbarrows and Dutch cheese elbowed for room with exotic fruits, dried meats and jars and bottles with mysteriously rubbed out dates. And all of them had a smell of old cheese, ancient disinfectant and drains.

Otherwise, there were trips into the rainforest by small plane and canoe. And we discovered how powerfully the rainforest influenced the people of Suriname. It marched like an invading army at the edge of human habitation – it was said that a house left for three months would be so overgrown it would never be found again.  All seven cultures had learned to relate to the forest. Every group had its rainforest remedies and medications.  Mabel, our Guyanese housekeeper would bring along the fruit of the cashew tree to chew if we had sore throats, or the leaves of the soursop tree to put under the pillow for sleeplessness. Sarinah, the Javanese cook, brought along leaves in a plastic bag with instructions to make tea.  Shankar the Hindustani driver, ever scornful of the ministrations of Mabel and Sarinah, brought along an Ayurvedic powder to sprinkle on food.

Ancient wisdom abounded. In the rainforest shamans held trance and drumming sessions and practised as rainforest healers. They emerged into the town bearing paper bags of roots and leaves to heal all ills. Everyone had their own ‘cure.’

It was impossible to live in Suriname and be detached from nature. Every morning there was a fugue of birdsong in the garden – Suriname has more than 600 species of birds, and all of them seemed to sing at dawn. The flowers and fruit, too were life-affirming. There were tall parrot’s beak Heliconias growing wild in the forest and in gardens flaunting their red and green teeth, pink Brazilian lilies like wax roses, orchids and anthuriums in profusion and everywhere hedges of red or pink or yellow Ixora, known to Surinamers as Faya Lobi – or passionate love.

Fruit abounded, much of it in shapes and sizes rarely seen in Europe, and all of it warm from the tree.  Mabel, friend and domestic helper, would arrive on her bicycle every morning with bananas, pineapples, pamplemousse, chickens and fish hanging from the handlebars. She loved to pile up the produce on the kitchen table for admiration. She introduced us to local lore and names – the fish were particularly striking – we had ‘Dogo Tootie’ (Dog’s tooth),  ‘Queery Man’ and a long narrow fellow called ‘Candra Tiki’ (candlestick).

Mabel spoke English, Nederlands and Taki Taki (or Sranaan Tongo),  frequently all in the same sentence. The country’s mixture of languages, like the people, told the history of Suriname, a country where slaves had been forced to evolve a patois since, robbed of their own culture and languages, they needed urgently to communicate in order to survive.  Successive waves of slaves and indentured labourers had taken root in this rainforest enclave and had formed a new and unique society. The Javanese population could no longer communicate if they returned to Java, since they spoke the old Javanese language of their ancestors. The ‘Hindustani’ population no longer had a ‘Hindustan’ to return to and found that in India their language sounded quaint, their food and dances archaic. They were marooned in this culture of shamans, anacondas and piranhas.  As were we.


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