Suriname & French Guiana: Would you exchange Manhattan for Suriname?
From Georgetown, I flew to Paramaribo, capital of Suriname, the Dutch-speaking country which was once Dutch Guiana. Paramaribo, Paramaribo, Paramaribo – what gets more exotic than this? Like Timbuktu and Ouagadougou, Paramaribo is one of those places in the world you should visit even if it is just for the name. It was once attractive enough for the Dutch to exchange that tiny cold island of Manhattan for with the British in one of the worst real estate deals ever done in history. The deal had its logic – Manhattan was a miserably cold island besieged by vicious Indian tribes but Suriname was a land of green gold – sugar plantations that fetch wealth and glory to build beautiful merchant palaces in Amsterdam and Utrecht. Everything is easier with the benefit of hind sight.
Paramaribo is today the capital of Suriname, an even more sparsely populated country than Guyana. Suriname has only 500,000 inhabitants and an émigré population of 400,000 living in the Netherlands. Graceful Dutch civic buildings and traders' houses next to venerable ancient trees that lined the roads and venerable straats of this UNESCO World Heritage city. Paramaribo certainly looked more beautiful and wealthier than Guyana. There were more shops, and they were better stocked than those in Guyana. Neither were there potholes and uncovered manholes on sidewalks.
Suriname is one of the world's ethnically most diverse countries. Indians (brought here as indentured workers in the 19th century) and Creoles (descendants of African slaves, with some European mix) each account for about 30% of the population, Indonesians (brought here by the Dutch), Maroons (descendants of escaped African slaves who intermarried with Amerindians), Amerindians and Chinese make up the remaining. Upon arrival, I had my passport checked by a Creole officer, money changed by a Dutch bank officer, driven to the city by a Javanese, bought a bottle of mineral water from a Chinese shop, had Indonesian mee-goreng Surinamese style cooked by a Javanese and a strange nice white herbal drink made by Amerindians to ease digestion. The sugar I had for my breakfast coffee probably came from an Indian-run sugar plantation.
The Chinese, in Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname as well as French Guiana, run almost all the supermarkets and general stores, and a large proportion of retail business of any sort. Like anywhere else, there are two major categories of Chinese: the descendants of 19th century indentured workers, and the new immigrants from Mainland China who came in the last two decades. With the rise of China as an economic power, it is increasingly the second category of Chinese, i.e. the new comers, that play a greater role in the economies of these countries.
In Suriname, I was told, the Chinese built many of the good roads in the last decade. Tired of the many demands and conditions made by the Dutch for developmental loans, the Suriname government told the Dutch to keep their cash. The Surinamese went to the Chinese instead and got multibillion dollar interest-free loans with ten years repayment terms. And more importantly, no political or social conditions attached. "We are glad that there is now competition with the Europeans. The Chinese now have the biggest embassy in Suriname, even larger than the Dutch and American embassies, and we are happy about that," said a Surinamese businessman.
Even then, not everything had gone smoothly for the Chinese. I was told about a Chinese plan to turn a patch of rainforest into palm oil plantations. The timber chopped down in the clearing of the jungle would be sold to China and thousands of Surinamese would find employment in the oil palm plantations. However, environmentalists rallied against the proposal and the Maroons, who lived in those parts, said their sacred places would be desecrated by the plantations. Don't you dare mess with the Maroons. Descendants of escaped slaves who intermarried with Amerindians, they are a hardy lot who set up self governing chieftains and fought off many Dutch attacks. Even as late as the 1980s, a Maroon guerrilla force brought the country's economy and development to a standstill. Needless to say, the plan was torpedoed.
One of Suriname's biggest obstacles to development is the lack of a credible population size for industrial development. A second proposal has to do with bringing in 30,000 Chinese immigrants who would revive dozens of abandoned or disused plantations, and also indirectly set up a whole infrastructure to export the produces of the revived plantations. Sounds like an excellent plan to exploit the business acumen and "invisible hand" of the entrepreneurial Chinese, Adam Smith style. Furthermore, it is about the revival of old plantations, not the establishment of new ones that could potentially damage the environment Not surprisingly, there is also a lot of opposition too. "There is a lot of drug interest in this country who are against having so many newcomers poking into remote areas and discovering the drug smuggling that is going on," said a Surinamese I met.
Suriname, like many Central and South American countries, has become conduit for drug trafficking, either to the US or to Europe via Netherlands where there is a huge Surinamese émigré community. The many casinos along the waterfront, I was told, served as money laundering venues for drug money. While having breakfast at a downtown café, a sneaky mestizo-looking man with crumpled dirty-green shirt joined me at my table and asked where I was from. When told I was from Singapore, he said he once had a good Singaporean friend while living in Amsterdam. He then whispered into my ear, "Henry used to bring me bai-fen from Thailand, and he gave me some as a friend, plus excellent roast pork slices from Singapore." Bai-fen is the Mandarin word for cocaine. He went on and on about how he like the friendlier Singapore Chinese and dislike China Chinese whom he described as cunning. And he asked me to buy him a glass of orange juice, "it's not expensive, can you? Henry bought me drinks all the time." By then, I had finished my nasi goreng and coffee, and made my move. "Sorry sir, I'm not Henry and I've got to go."
While making enquiries about transit to French Guiana, I met Wilfred, friendly owner of transportation, bus and travel businesses. I showed him my website and told him about my travels round the world. He treated me to a great Surinamese lunch and drove me around, showing me the sights of this beautiful city and its many diverse architectural styles. "This is a great country with so much to offer. But the infrastructure has to be built. More hotels, good ones, and better roads." As he spoke, Dutch tourists were frolicking in the pool of Torarica, the best hotel in town where we had mee soto Indonesian style and Creole fried rice topped with chicken and tapioca paste, and a few Mainland Chinese in their 30's – the sort who looked like professionals or consultants rather than the typical plump middle-age official type - were tanning on the sun decks next to the pool. "But we also need more sensible policies, like getting rid of visas for the 400,000 Dutch of Surinamese origin," he said.
My counterpoint to that would be, Suriname should abolish visas for those countries who have a higher per capita GDP and unlikely to overstay in the country. I know of Australians who want to come to Suriname but have no way of getting a visa because there is no Surinamese embassy in Australia or most places for that matter. Countries that are more interested in developing the tourism industry and economy in general should put aside their nationalist pride and traditional insistence on reciprocity for visa waiver. Only with higher income and the international respectability that follows growing wealth will a country's citizens enjoy visa waivers across the world.
From Suriname, along near-deserted roads through rainforests, I moved on to Cayenne, capital of French Guiana (in French, Guyane Francaise). French Guiana is the last vestige of European colonialism in Mainland South America. In fact, it is constitutionally part of Metro France – not a colony - and part of European Union. It uses the Euro as currency and its map is featured on all Euro banknotes, at the bottom of each reverse side.
It took me 7 hours to get here from Paramaribo. Not so much the time that matters, but the anxiety that was involved. Firstly, it had not occurred to me that the authorities in French Guiana officially requires a Yellow Certificate from visitors and I only learned about it while reading my guidebook in greater detail while in Suriname. My new Surinamese friend, Wilfred, warned me that people have been disallowed entry into French Guiana when found that they did not have the certificate.
I have left at home my Yellow Fever certificate, which I had earlier obtained for the purpose of the African journey rather than for French Guiana. I contemplated getting another certificate in Paramaribo but that would only be available on Wednesday mornings (it was Thursday when I realized this), and I have to get to Cayenne to catch a flight to Martinique on Monday. With the hope that I could persuade French border officials that I had taken the Yellow Fever vaccination, I printed a copy of my September 2007 blog entry in which I mentioned the vaccinations I had to take. The blog also contained photos of the cover of the vaccination booklets.
Fortunately, the friendly French border officials did not ask for the vaccination certificate and instead stamped my passport without any fuss. Hurrah! Given the tight schedule I have, my trip would have been in a mess if they didn't allow me to enter Guiana.
Secondly, even before getting my passport stamped by the French, I was really nervous of the mess that prevailed at the Suriname-French border, which is basically a wide river full of small canoes bringing people across. I arrived at this riverbank after a 2 hour journey in a cramped-up shared taxi where I was squeezed between a fat Surinamese man carrying in his lap a huge cage with a noisy black bird and a petite Colombian hairdresser with dyed blonde locks, only to be mobbed by half a dozen aggressive black men soliciting for passengers for their cross-river canoes - two of whom were already having a tug of war over my luggage. I had to shout for them to stop (while secretly trembling with fear) as I had to get my passport stamped "exit" by Suriname Immigration.
This river might be full of people crossing the international border, but 99.9% of them did so without bothering about passport stamps. Some of these Surinamese have dual Dutch nationality and so as EU citizens have every right of entering French territory without formalities. The rest of the Surinamese and all sorts of South American nationalities I saw at the border simply crossed over to work at the French side illegally.
The French doesn't give a damn because firstly, French Guiana, half as big as France in surface area, is very thinly populated with only 250,000 inhabitants, and so illegals doing dirty work is unofficially tolerated. Secondly, French Guiana is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on its northern side, and by the deep jungles of poor Suriname and Brazil on the other three sides. So anyone who gets into French Guiana is stuck there. No danger of them moving on to France proper or Europe.
I had to ensure that I get a proper Suriname exit stamp so that the French Immigration would stamp entry on my passport. The problem was, because few people had ever bothered about getting the Suriname stamp, the Suriname Immigration was located some distance away from the river-side where action took place. I had to beg the taxi driver to bring me to the Immigration, which was something he didn't have to do for the other passengers. We drove so far away from the riverbank that I half suspected I was about to get robbed. When we reached Suriname Immigration, the lazy, sleepy officials there had to be pleaded to put on their uniform and stamp my passport.
Back to the riverbank, I got into a canoe full of passengers who had no Suriname exit stamp and had no intention of getting a French entry stamp. The boatman, also a tall loud black man who spoke a strange Creole-English mix, was also not overly enthusiastic in bringing me to the French Immigration quay. He disembarked the passengers at a part of French riverbank full of waiting taxi drivers and took his own sweet time chatting to other boatmen.
Even as he returned to the boat with another black man supposedly to bring me to French Immigration 200 meters away, it occurred to me that these aggressive, scruffy people looked perfectly capable of rowing the boat somewhere and then chopping me into pieces. I had my dark glasses on and tried to look fierce and impatient. Fortunately, all they did was to steer the boat to the French Immigration where I got my passport duly stamped. The only negative thing was he demanded twice as much boat fare as earlier agreed, I supposed for the additional journey he had to make for my passport stamping. I was relieved when I finally got into the shared taxi for Cayenne.
What a day!
I stayed two nights in Cayenne before heading for Martinique, another French overseas department in the Caribbean. After settling my stuff at Central Hotel, I walked around Cayenne briefly. It was a very wet day with intermittent showers. Most of the shops and restaurants are, like those in Guyana and Suriname, run by Chinese. I had late lunch at a Chinese café and chatted to their Hangzhou-born owners. Since I did not speak French and had difficulty understanding the hotel staff, the local Chinese have provided me with some useful local tips. Increasingly during my travels, I have found the new Chinese immigrants, now found even in the most remote towns in exotic lands, a useful connection in navigating new places.
Kourou, some fifty kilometers away, is where the Arianne rocket of the European Space Agency is launched. The Guiana Space Centre was established because of its proximity to the Equator which would minimize substantially the fuel load required to launch rockets. However, I only have one full Sunday here and the museum and launch centre are all closed.
I also contemplated visiting the infamous Devil Island near Kourou, where prominent prisoners of the French state were once imprisoned in very harsh conditions, but decided against the idea as the weather was really awful and my kneecap, which now seemed to stir whenever it rained (could it be rheumatism?), had begun to hurt again.
In any case, it was a good decision to stay put in Cayenne, as I had unexpectedly come across the first weekend of the multiple weeks-Cayenne Carnival. Cayenne's citizens were all out on the streets celebrating with the masqueraded marchers who were in the most colourful exuberant costumes. The local resident Brazilian and Haitian contingents were among the most joyous contingents and I had a field time photographing them all.
From Cayenne, I flew Air Caraibes to Fort de France, capital of Martinique, another French overseas department. Here I am in my room at Hotel LeLafayette, I have a wonderful view of the towers of Fort St Louis, with a huge Tricolour fluttering above. I would be here for 2 days, and then on to Guadeloupe and the rest of Eastern Caribbean.