TRAVEL DIARY | 5 Life Lessons From My Trip To Suriname

Suriname Fort Nieuw Amsterdam

After a much needed “blogging break” of one month, I can finally give you lovely people a full update about my trip to my birth place of Suriname. I spent the last 26 days of November 2016 in Suriname, which wasn’t planned at all. This trip was one of those spontaneous travels, which came about at the right time in my life: I don’t have any obligations and the tickets to Suriname (from the Netherlands) have never been this low before. Plus, I was on a verge of a breakdown and needed a new temporary and sunny environment to put everything in perspective. Also, not to forget, my aunt from Suriname was visiting us in the Netherlands and she basically convinced me to stay at her place for as long as I wanted. So I thought why not?!

With that said, in my last post I wrote about how I hadn’t been to Suriname in 25 years, so you can imagine how much of a culture shock it was for me to revisit my place of birth. I never ever thought I was going to visit Suriname anytime soon, but life happened and I went.Suriname Amazone river KLMSo in case you haven’t heard of Suriname, here’s a little FYI: Suriname is a former Dutch colony(previously known as Dutch Guyana), which got its independence from the Netherlands on November 25th, 1975.  Suriname is situated in the northern part of South America, in between Guyana and French Guiana and is the only Dutch-speaking country in South America. Not only is Suriname one of the greenest countries in the world(with over 90% of tropical rainforest), but shares the Amazon rainforest with its neighbor Brazil. The capital of Suriname is Paramaribo, and that’s where most of its less than half a million people live. Besides being one of the greenest countries in the world, Suriname is also one of the few countries that has a population with such an ethnic and cultural diversity that represents almost all ethnicities of the world: From descendants of African (escaped) slaves, indigenous Amerindians and Dutch/British colonialists to immigrants of Indian, Indonesian, Lebanese, Brazilian and Chinese origin.

Just like with any other country I visit, I always take some lessons with me and here’s what I’ve learned from my trip to my birth place of Suriname:Suriname flag paramaribo city

“The Secret Of Change Is To Focus All Af Your Energy, Not On Fighting The Old, But On Building The New” – Socrates

I’ve been living for the most part of my life in the Netherlands, and been raised in two cultures, both the Dutch as well as the Surinamese one. Although I had not return to my birth place since I moved to the Netherlands at the age of 7, I was hoping to see some change.

Downtown Paramaribo City Suriname
Downtown Paramaribo City

The only significant change that caught my eye were the number of newer, somewhat modern buildings and roads, but other than that, I couldn’t see the change in the Surinamese mentality. In my opinion, most Surinamese people have a backwards way of thinking. It’s like they’re stuck somewhere between 1675(during the time of slavery) and 1975(when the country got its independence from the Netherlands). I have not an exact idea of where things went wrong, and obviously it’s easy to blame the government that has put the country in an unstable economic and political situation, which in the years resulted in the bad rep Suriname has created for itself across the globe. Mind you, Suriname is in fact one of the poorest and least developed (corrupt) countries in South America.

One thing I do know, is that most Surinamese people are not a big fan of change! Anything foreign, anything that’s not in alignment with the way they think is often considered as “weird”. And my question is: How do you want to take the country forwards when you have a backwards way of thinking?

presidential palace in suriname
Presidential Palace of Suriname

I have to be honest and say that in the beginning I didn’t feel comfortable at all being there, because it was just all one big culture shock that I had to go through. Even though I look Surinamese, but in their eyes and mind I don’t think, I don’t act and I don’t sound Surinamese (because of my 2016 modern Dutch accent and not that one from 1675-using old Dutch words and what not). Also, as soon as I started talking, people in shops and in the market places started to raise the price of their merchandise, because all they saw(when looking at me) were “EURO SIGNS”.

Not only in the way people approached me, but also in shops and in government institutions you can see that things are still being done the old fashion way. Lots of things are still being done by hand, which surprised me, and some even use typewriters..like, for real? Yes, for real! [In case you were born in the 90s or early 2000s and don’t know what a typewriter is, click here]

And Shops for instance, sell a bunch of old crap at a high price, and every time you walk into a shop you have to leave your shopping bags at the counter, which was a bit annoying. This in my eyes shows that the country has serious trust issues!

As days went by, I started to care less of what they thought of me, because I know that it’s not me, it’s the country, it’s the people who have a backwards mentality, but at the same time they want to move forward. Now, tell me, how is that going to happen?

I personally believe that if you want change for your country then you need to start with yourself, start changing your mindset, be open to new things and focus all your energy into looking forwards. Because, in all honesty, no man has ever gone forward by thinking backwards. And I know there are people in Suriname (mostly the young generation )that want that change, but it looks like it’s going to take a long time. Then again, how much time does one need to build a nation? Another 300 years?

Dutch Colonial style buildings Suriname
The historical inner city of Paramaribo is a UNESCO World Heritage site and features 17th and 18th century white timbered Dutch colonial style buildings.

A Melting Pot Of Cultures And Ethnicities Doesn’t Always Mean A Unified Nation

Suriname is a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, but during my time there I soon noticed that the different ethnic groups don’t get along in a way you would assume when you talk about a multicultural society. On some Surinamese city buses you would come across a sign with the slogan: Suriname, One Nation, One People (see photo below).

Suriname city bus
Suriname city bus with the slogan : One Nation, One People
Suriname city bus
Paramaribo, Suriname city buses

I think the people of Suriname have to rethink this slogan, because from what I’ve seen, there’s no union whatsoever. Instead, there are many divisions where each ethnic group lives in their own “comfortable” area or district without really interfering much with one another. For example, you can find most Creoles living in the district of Paramaribo or Coronie, the Indians in Nickerie , the Javanese in Commewijne, the Chinese and Amerindians in Wanica and the Maroons(descendents of runaway African slaves) in the rainforest of Suriname, and so on and so on.  Obviously the capital of Paramaribo is also quite divided, where each ethnic group lives in their “own” neighborhood. And when it comes to the labor market it’s pretty much the same; The Chinese have their supermarkets, the Creoles work in administration or service oriented jobs, the Indians are the wealthiest and own most of the country’s major businesses and the Javanese own restaurants etc.

mosque and synagogue in suriname
Interesting fact: Suriname is the only country in the world where a synagogue and a mosque are sitting right beside each other. See here the ‘Mosque Keizerstraat’ and the ‘Neveh Shalom Synagogue’.

The different ethnic groups respect each other, and might work with one other, but it’s rare to see mixed raced or mixed ethnic couples.  During my time there I could seriously count on one hand the amount of mixed couples on the streets of Paramaribo. And if I saw one, they were often tourists from the Netherlands. This has a lot to do with the colonial history of the country, but most importantly the MINDSET of people. I personally think it’s just sad to see that in 2016 these things still exist, and especially in a country like Suriname with so many colorful and diverse ethnic groups.

Suriname Flag Mural Meaning
Mural of the Flag of Surinam, which I photographed in the district of Wanica : The Surinamese flag was adopted on November 25, 1975 when the country got its independence from the Netherlands. The green stands for hope, fertility, the jungle and the agricultural lands of Suriname. The white for peace, freedom and justice. The red stands for progress and love. The yellow star represents the unity of all ethnic groups and a golden future for all of them and the spirit of sacrifice needed from the Surinamese to achieve that goal. Source: Facts.co

Nonetheless, what my time there has thought me is that if a country like Suriname seriously wants to progress, they(the people) need to become more unified as humans first by REALLY ACCEPTING each other’s cultural differences and start to look each other in the eye as human beings. At the end of the day, isn’t being different that makes us beautiful as humans?Suriname Flag Mural

Beauty Can Be Found In Your Own Backyard If You Just Find A Way To Appreciate It

Once you put all the political BS and socioeconomic issues of Suriname aside, (which mainly happens in the capital city of Paramaribo) you get to see a country of outstanding natural beauty. The farther you travel away from Paramaribo, the more you discover the true beauty of Suriname, and that is the ‘Surinamese rainforest‘.  The Surinamese rainforest is probably one of nature’s finest on earth, but at the same time it saddens me, because most Surinamese people have never ever been to the rainforest before or never will(due to either lack of money, they just don’t care or for whatever personal reasons).

Part of the Surinamese rainforest is the ‘Central Suriname Nature Reserve‘(made of 1.6 million ha tropical rainforest) which is not only one of the largest in the world, but also listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Suriname River
The Suriname River
Bakaaboto resort Suriname river
 At Bakaaboto resort (in Pokigron village) overlooking the Suriname River
Suriname River Swim
Chilling in the Suriname River

The enormous tropical rainforest of Suriname is a delight for nature lovers, like myself. I never thought I would come to like Suriname as much as I do now, and that’s mainly because of the beautiful natural areas that bring joy to my soul and peace to my mind. Well, EXCEPT FOR THOSE TERRIBLE MOSQUITOES that bit me the second I set foot in Suriname! I think they might have missed me after being away for that long! 🙂

That aside, I personally believe that if you are really open to discover new things, people and places, you can do so by starting with your own backyard, which will cost you less than traveling to another country.

What I’ve come to know is that most Surinamese people love to party, eat, drink, make babies, buy nice fancy stuff etc., which is all good, but then again, they just don’t know how to appreciate the beauty of their own country. Obviously not everyone can afford to make a trip into jungle of Suriname, but for those who can, I would say: Have a little appreciation for your backyard and explore its beauty, because it’s beyond words! Then again, not everyone is a lover of nature and appreciates its existence, but come on, the tropical rainforest of Suriname isn’t that hard to miss and it’s just too beautiful to ignore!

Bergendal Eco Resort Suriname
Bergendal Eco and Cultural Resort, Suriname

There’s just lots to see and to do: From bathing in the Suriname river and adventurous jungle safaris to exploring the remote rainforest villages of the descendants of African runaway slaves and indigenous Amerindians, who till this day live an authentic life according to old customs and traditions.

The tropical rainforest of Suriname has so much to offer that even I didn’t have enough time to explore all of Suriname’s natural beauty! So once again: You don’t have to travel far to explore new places, people and things!!

You Don’t Need To Be On An Island To Live On “Island Time”

Suriname is obviously located in South America, which doesn’t make it an island, but the way of life feels just like you’re on an (Caribbean) island. If you’ve traveled to an island before, you know things go slow, people walk slow, talk slow and time just doesn’t seem to exist. Obviously the tropical climate along with the constant hot weather plays a role in the slowness of things as well: Unlike in colder climates, in Suriname you start your day at 6am(when the sun goes up) and by the time it’s 1pm-2pm(when the sun is at its high) you’re in desperate need of a siesta.palmtrees-suriname

pineapples market suriname
Shopping for pineapples!

In the beginning I found the slowness of things a bit frustrating of course, because I’m used to things going fast and on time, but things don’t work like that in Suriname. The more I started to get accustomed to the climate and the way of life there(which was almost at the end of my vaca btw), the more I actually started to appreciate “island time”.

Nieuw Amsterdam - Commewijne District - Suriname
Fort Nieuw Amsterdam – Commewijne District – Suriname

In Europe we think we can control time, but I’ve come to realize that the more we think we can control time, the faster it seems to go. I actually like living on “island time” to some extent though, because it makes me appreciate my time on earth more and also allows me to live life more spontaneously. Then again, if I have an appointment at 3pm, and you arrive at 6pm, I hope you have a logical explanation too! Haha!

 “Do What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are” – Theodore Roosevelt

I grew up in the late 80s in Suriname where I used to live in a simple wooden house that was built by my late grandfather. That house had just only 3 bedrooms and we use to live there with over 10 people at times and different generations. There was no normal running water and there was an outside toilet which I remember, I really dreaded(at the age of 4 or something), but looking back, we made the best of it! And those were actually great memories! Eventually we went from a wooden house to a brick one with a normal toilet and a bathroom.Suriname ParamariboSo, during my recent trip to Suriname, I couldn’t believe that there are people till this day, who still live in these type of conditions. There’s an enormous gap between the rich and the poor in Suriname, it’s like a continuous cycle that’s hard to break. On one side of the country you would see shanty wooden houses in poor conditions and on the other side, you would literally see Beverly Hills’ style mansions. It’s just unbelievable!

Nonetheless, the people who live in poor conditions, somehow still try to make the best of life and try to survive day after day: They just do what they can, with what they have, where they are, and really hope for the best. And like Andy from The Shawshank Redemption said to Red: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, because no good thing ever dies.”

shanty wooden house suriname
A guy named Steven lives here. He put together his own shelter/house.

 And these are the 5 lessons I’ve learned from my trip to my birth country of Suriname. All in all, my trip to Suriname was a great experience and I had a wonderful time, after I got past the culture shock and the terrible mosquito bites! I know a lot of people would’ve sugarcoated their opinion about Suriname(or would be afraid to speak out about it), but I chose not to. Simply because this was my reality, my experience and this is how I feel about Suriname. No country is perfect, but I seriously doubt if I’d ever live to see the change I would love to see for Suriname.

Suriname has so much potential to become a better developed country, but one cannot do it alone: It takes great people with the right mindset to build a great and prosperous nation.

Nonetheless, there’s so much more to discover about the beautiful natural areas and tropical rainforest of Suriname, including its indigenous people and villages, which I personally find more interesting than dealing with politics and such. Also, I really hope the country will do much more of an effort to promote tourism, because South America is more than Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Peru alone. Not to mention, behind the beautiful Amazon rainforest lies a country that still needs to make its mark in this world. I look forward to return to Suriname in the future and hopefully it won’t take me another 25 years to revisit.I LOVE SU SURINAME

Have you ever been to or even heard of Suriname? Let me know your thoughts about Suriname in the comment section below. xo, Jey.

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