Sunday, December 4, 2011

Saramaccan Homecoming

Jill's Peace Corps Response position was not due to start until December 1st, so we had a few days to spend in the original village that she lived in for 2 years, Drepada. Drepada is a small Saramaccan village located close to Brokopondo. There are usually about 100 mainly women and children living there at any given time.

(Welcome back to Drepada, in front of one of the new houses being built)

She had not been in much contact with the village since she left in 2006, but was able to get a message out to the village that Mike and her would be there, arranging a house to stay in. The road used to be unpaved and took several hours on a bumpy, red road. It has been paved recently (Chinese interests) and the drive only takes about an hour or so, but the wagi makes several stops along the way, so the ride ends up taking longer.  (we had already stored the TA in a secure garage, given that the village where we will live is only accessed by river, so public transportation it is)

Jill was excited to see everyone again and for Mike to see the place that she talks about so often. She was also anxious to see if she still remembered the language (she does).

We spent 4 full days in Drepada. Stenda, the woman who runs the only store in town and was one of Jill's good friends, kept us eating well the entire time. As is typical with new people to Saramaccan villages, the kids were at our house all the time. They loved using Mike as a jungle gym, trying to braid Jill's short hair, etc. It was a good reminder of how life will be for the next 6 months here in Suriname.

(Jill with Stenda - she was helping me use her sewing machine to sew kousus, the traditional skirt that all the women wear)

Jill had a few friends from Guyana who work gold in Brokopondo, so we went to Brokopondo one night to see them. Marlon now owns 2 pontoons and is the boss of an 8 man operation. He is doing very well with 2 kids and a new house. It was great to catch up with them again over some djugos (1 liter Parbo beers) at Jack's, what used to be the only store in Brokopondo.

(Jill with Marlon in front of his pontoons. The crew works by having one man go to the bottom of the river with a dive mask attached to a tube with oxygen, and sucking the bottom of the river with a long vaccuum like pipe. One pontoon sucks up the gold, which is heavy and sticks to the bottom of the filter on the pontoon. The other pontoon sucks up the gravel on the bottom of the river and is sold to a buyer in Brokopondo. The gravel makes enough to break even. The gold is pure profit.)

(The men live on the pontoon)

Some things have changed in the area, like the addition of several supermarkets, nicer houses, and lots of new kids, but in reality, most has stayed pretty much the same.

(Jill's name in the village was Lobimai. The girl sitting next to her was named after her when she was born. Last time Jill saw her she was just able to stand on her own. This time she followed Jill everywhere. Jill was very honored that her parents call her Lobimai in the village and that her school name is Jill.)

(kids, kids, kids)

(at the river, where everyone used to have to wash dishes, clothes, bathe and drink. Thanks to the Rotary Club in Higginsville (Jill's hometown), Jill was able to do a water project that is functional and supplies clean drinking water to the village. People still go to the river to wash dishes and clothes, but they don't have to drink the polluted water anymore.)

(Mike as the human jungle gym)

(soccer and slagball are played every afternoon)

(Jill with some buddies)

(this little critter is not to be touched)

(Jill with her former counterpart, Percy)

(walking around the village)

(talking to Edith in front of my old house)

The visit to Drepada was a whirlwind, and provided some insight into what our stay in Tutubuka will be like.  It will be interesting, fun, challenging, hot, rewarding, and certainly a lot more...

The Guided Paramaribo Tour

Since Jill was back in her old stomping grounds of Paramaribo (or Foto) and we had a couple of days to kill in the city, she took Mike on a guided tour of the city, complete with megaphone and a safari hat.

Starting at Stadtz, the hostel where we stay, we walked towards Saramaccastraat, where we saw the tallest building in Foto, Hakrinbank.

Then over to Saramaccastraat for some kousu (the traditional skirt worn by women in the interior of Suriname) shopping at Jerusalem Bazaar.

From there we checked out the market.

Heading over toward Waterkant we stop at the Ghandi statue to reflect.

At Waterkant we checked out the Dutch colonial houses that are still really nice. Waterkant is an area right next to the river that has several permanent food stands that stay open 24/7.

And not so nice.

Past the Presidential Palace to Fort Zeelandia.

And the new I heart SU statue.

Then across to the Palm Gardens where over 1,000 palm trees are planted, and on to the statue representing the Indonesian population in Suriname that were brought over as endentured servants, mainly from Java.

Following the river brings us to the tourist part of town where the Torarica and EcoLodge hotels are, as well as fancy places to eat. Then we walk back past the presidential palace, up Henck Arronstraat to the largest wooden cathedral in the world, recently renovated.

And then over to the Muslim mosque located right next to the Jewish synagoge. The Surinamese are very proud of their diversity and tolerance for all cultures and this personifies it for many people.

That rounded out our guided tour of the most touristed spots in Suriname. On the tour Jill discovered that she knows a lot about a very small area of Foto.

We also happened to be in town for Srefidensi, Independence Day, on November 25th. Suriname declared independence from the Dutch in 1975 and apparantly have been celebrating ever since. There were lots of festivities near the presidential palace, on waterkant, and in the Palm Gardens. Not as many people were dressed up in traditional dress as in the past, but it was a party nonetheless. We spent most of our time on Waterkant, watching people and drinking djugos (liters of beer.  Parbo is about the only option, but its good and tastes like beer, more flavor than most light latin options). And trying to stay out of the rain.

Let's go to Suriname!

After spending about 5 days in Georgetown, we were ready to go and Jill was anxious to get to Suriname. The drive to the border takes a few hours through several coastal towns. We were again traveling on a Sunday, so hoped that both the ferry and the borders were operating. You must take a ferry at the Guyana/Suriname border to legally enter Suriname. Lots of people illegally enter (backtrack) by taking smaller boats across. The ferry used to only run once a day, but now it runs at both 9:00am and 1:00pm. We lucked out because the ferry runs on Saturday and Sunday now too. It does not run on holidays. We arrived at the ferry at 12:00 with no Guyanese dollars left, just US, hoping to board.

There were already several people and vehicles waiting for the ferry. We would recommend getting to the ferry no later than 1 hour before it is scheduled to depart. When you arrive, first you park with the other vehicles, then buy a ticket. Tickets cost $10 per person and $10 per bike, but must be paid in either US dollars or Guyanese dollars.  (NOTE:  you must show both your Suriname visa and proof of Suriname moto insurance to purchase the ticket.)  There are plenty of money changers outside the gates, but their rate is not very good for Surinamese dollars.  Once you have your ticket, do not lose it and wait for the Immigration to start working. There must have been some kind of silent signal because everyone got up at the same time and approached immigration in mass. Checking ourselves and the bike out of Guyana was straightforward and handled at the same place you buy tickets. Once you are checked out you go to a waiting area that has food and restrooms.

The ferry is about a 35 minute ride across the Corentyne river.

Once to land, the vehicles drive off the ferry and everyone gets in the immigration line for Suriname. After passing immigration, the customs line is right beside it. Unfortunately for us, the maximum time you are allowed into Suriname at that border is 1 month.

The closest town is about 30 km away, New Nickerie. It is the 3rd largest city in the country with almost 15,000 people. We stopped at a halal food shop and Jill got to eat her favorite, Saoto soup, again. We were also able to get directions to a really nice hotel that cost us $25. We learned that the cheap hotel in town had burned down about 3 days prior.

We walked around town trying to find a place to eat. We happened upon Nancy Land, which we thought was great. It was set up for kids, but had lots of booze too. The food was not bad.

New Nickerie also has a large market you can check out. In all, it is a decent place to spend a night or two, but not much more time.

Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname is about 200 km from New Nickerie. The 2 lane road has been redone recently, is well signed, and it was a smooth and quick trip to the city.

(crop duster plane next to us)

(we quickly learned that drempel is Dutch for speed bump - there were lots along the way)

(despite driving through many small towns, there were not many food options until we got to Coronie, where we found this typical warung with delicious food)

As seems to be a recent tradition for us, we got rained on again for the last hour or two of the ride. We rode through the suburbs of Paramaribo for some time in search of downtown. Once Jill found some familiar landmarks we were able to find the hostel she stayed in frequently. Unfortunately, it was completely booked, so we had to stay across the street, which cost us about $27 a night, for a very small room with shared bath.

We were both excited to be in Paramaribo.  The timing was perfect.  We needed to be here before December 1, Jill's official start date for her Peace Corps Response position.  We hoped to be here before Thanksgiving, as that evening the US ambassador hosts a dinner for all PC volunteers, which would be a great opportunity for Jill to meet some of the people she'll be working with, without having to travel hours to meet them at their site.  And we made it on Sunday, with 3 days to spare!

Manatee calling in Georgetown

We had lined up couchsurfing in Linden with a Peace Corps volunteer and were able to find his house easily with his directions.  But, when we got there, he was nowhere to be found.  A nice neighbor let us use his phone to call and we found out that our host had come down with a nasty dengue or malaria like bug that had him in pretty bad shape and in Georgetown unexpectedly.  The neighbor recommended a place called George Bat to stay, which we unsuccessfully looked for.  We were able to find a few other hotel options, all of which were pretty crappy but costing $30 or more, or decently nice and more than that (Massive Inn at 16,000 for suite).  Eventually we tracked down the neighbor again, got the directions again, and found this George Bat place.  It ended up having lots of character, which we liked.  It was a pay by the hour type, but only for half of the hotel.  The other rooms were for the all night type of visitor (4000 = US$20).  The ladies working were wonderful and very friendly, even giving us ice out of their personal freezer for the much needed rum we drank in our room.

(The Bat Cave, in all of its blacklit glory)

From Linden, it is only about 60 miles to the city, where we had couchsurfing lined up with our host, Navin.  We ended up getting about half way before hunger caused us to stop for some great food - eggplant roti, eggball (a hard boiled egg inside fried cassava), and curried chicken.  Then it started rainingy really, really hard.  Luckily, there was an internet cafe across the street, so we waited out the rain checking email.  After a few hours the rain had finally slowed down enough for us to get to Georgetown where we met Navin at his house in the Kitty region of the city.

Jill had spent a week in Georgetown in 2005 and at that time it was known for being extremely dangerous and not recommended that you walk anywhere at night.  Her group had walked at night and been menacingly followed by a couple of guys.  They had also been pulled over while riding in a car that had to go to the police station where we learned that our driver was packing a pistol in his pants with the explaination that everyone has to carry a gun here.  She had heard Peace Corps Volunteers' stories of seeing all-out machete fights in the streets.  She was a little nervous to be back in Georgetown.

This time around, though, it seemed like Georgetown had cleaned up quite a bit.  We walked around the area a lot and did not feel threatened at night when we would go get something to eat.  We looked around the historic downtown area some and it also seemed relatively safe.  On our first day in town, Jill needed to go to the Peace Corps office as they had her new passport and visa to get into Suriname.  We met a couple of volunteers who invited us to come to a quiz night at a nicer hotel in town.  We didn't have anything else to do, so thanks to the smarts of a couple people in our group, we won a bottle of El Dorado rum, one of the smoothest rums we have tasted, with its own claims of being the world's best. 

Navin gave us the keys to his house right away and gave us free reign.  He stays with his girlfriend most of the time, so we rarely saw him.  When we did, he took us to his favorite restaurants, including one ran by a Rasta out of his wagi.

(Navin is on the far right)

The one bad thing about the house was that it had lots and lots of mosquitos.  It didn't help that all our riding gear was wet and stinky and a strong attractant for them.  We did have a mosquito net, but it hung very low and any body part that touched the net while we slept was covered in bites in the morning.  Jill got the worst of it after taking an uncovered afternoon nap one day. 

We also needed to get Mike's visa for Suriname so we went to the embassy one day and were able to pick up the 5 year visa the next.  You can only get the visa Monday, Wednesday and Friday and have to come early in the morning and then come back between 2-2:30 in the afternoon to get it.  We were also able to get necessary insurance for the bike for Suriname at the GTM Insurance head office at 27-29 Robb and Hincks Streets, which cost about $15 per month. 

After an oil change and bath to rinse the bauxite off the TA, all our necessary tasks were done, and we were able to explore the city a bit.

(there are a lot of dilapidated wooden homes built by the Dutch and English during their colonization)

(streets are very narrow with no sidewalks to speak of)

(there is open sewage canals everywhere in the city, causing a pungent smell and the need to watch where you step at all times)

The highlight of Georgetown, though, was going to the Botanical Gardens next to the Zoo (we hear the Zoo is sad, even more so than most, so we didn't go).  It is free to enter the gardens and we had heard that manatees lived in the water. 

We found the lake where they live and after some time they came to the surface across the water.  Jill had heard that you can hit the water with a stick and they will come, so she started doing that.  A group of East Indian children soon joined her and showed her the correct way to call them, by waving foliage in the water.  Manatees eat a massive amount of greenery everyday and the smell of the leaves draws them.  We were lucky enough to see 3 manatees up close, feed and pet them.  They are very docile, intelligent creatures that act and feel a lot like water elephants.

(calling the manatees)