Saramaccans

10 03 2009

 

Before I travel, I generally conduct some background reading to ensure that I not only get the most from my visit but also that I don’t miss anything special while there. The research doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but I would be upset if I only discovered too late that around the corner from my hotel was the delicatessen in which Neil Armstrong first tasted green cheese or the shop where Betsy Ross bought her sewing machine. But even with that basic research you can still be completely surprised…and that’s one of the great pleasures of travel.saramaccan1-mw

 

My knowledge of Suriname was fairly limited before I landed at Paramaribo Airport late one evening. I knew it was on the northern coast of South America and was predominately jungle. I had learned it had been a Dutch colony that Holland had acquired from Britain after trading a small island further north in the Americas called New Amsterdam…later re-named Manhattan. And I knew that some of Holland’s greatest footballers came from there. I was actually quite proud of myself…but over the coming days I realised I didn’t know much at all.

 

After we were seemingly abandoned on a burnt-grass airstrip in the middle of the jungle, we were led to motorised canoes and taken downriver to our camp. Along the way we passed isolated villages and were greeted by waving and shouting children playing along the river’s edge. After a hearty dinner we were told that the following day we would go for a jungle hike that would include a visit to a Saramaccan village, which I assumed was one of the many Amerindian tribes in the area.

 

The next morning we set off on our trek and along the way learned more about the Saramaccan people. They were not Amerindian as we had thought, but were actually runaway slaves who had settled in the jungle centuries earlier and remained ever since. Originally from West Africa, the Saramaccans were Maroons who had risen up against their captors and fled deep into the jungle not only defying all attempts at recapture but actually continuing to raid the plantations to take tools and weapons and liberate other slaves. This had happened throughout the New World including Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti, but Suriname was one of the few places in which large populations of Maroons had managed to retain their own traditions and culture and continued to live in relative isolation.

 

saramaccan2mwMany of the original Saramaccans had been born into freedom in Africa before being captured and shipped across the Atlantic in the brutal slave ships. After escaping from the plantations, they took their African traditions and languages with them into the jungle to start their new life and had thrived. Before we entered the village, we had to walk through a curtain that swept away the evil spirits of the jungle and kept the villagers safe. Just beyond the curtain was an altar on which sacrifices were made to their animist gods. 

 

The village was tidy and orderly with the ground around the huts carefully swept and a great deal of pride evident. Unlike nomadic people who continually move and whose settlements are often purely functional rather than homely, the Saramaccans were clearly settled and their homes were simple but comfortable. We were greeted warmly with drums, singing and dancing and offered a tasty lunch of manioc and catfish.

 

Although more than happy to share their lifestyle and culture with us, there was no sense that they would ever be threatened by outside influences as has happened with so many indigenous people. Some Saramaccans had moved to Paramaribo and other centres, but the jungle communities seemed strong and contented in what was undoubtedly a hard life. As we headed off back into the jungle, we all felt as though we had been given a privileged glimpse into a unique culture and a very special people.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan

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The Chicken Plane

2 03 2009

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            “Wait, which way is it to Duty Free?!”         (Somewhere in the Amazon)

 

In many parts of the world there are what are affectionately called ‘chicken buses’. Affectionately, that is, to anyone who has never had to use one. These rickety old school buses have no suspension, air conditioning or leg room, are filled to bursting with people and packages, travel on unpaved roads…and often also carry produce, like live chickens. Travellers who use chicken buses rave about the experience, then silently mutter that next time they’ll walk.

 

I once had the pleasure of using the aeronautical equivalent – the chicken plane.

 

There are few options when it comes to reaching the interior of a country almost entirely covered with thick jungle. Roads rarely stretch beyond the coast or major cities and waterways are often not big enough to allow large vessels. Unless you fancy dodging anacondas on foot, that leaves only flying.

 

The domestic airport was nestled in a residential neighbourhood and buzzed with the sound of propellers. We carried our own bags from the small terminal building and clambered up the three steps into the rear of the unbearably hot Twin Otter.

 

Half the seats had been removed and in their place were strapped boxes of food, supplies and engine parts, an outboard motor…and yes, a crate of live chickens. The pilot – his white epauletted shirt as transparent from perspiration as a wet t-shirt contestant at an aviation convention – told us where to stow our small packs and where to sit to properly distribute the weight evenly around the compact cabin. Mopping his brow with a towel, he pulled shut the door and headed for the cockpit. The engines roared into life and we bounced down the runway and into the hot sky.

 

Despite the loud throb of the engines, the chickens could be heard squawking their protest at their extraordinary rendition to an unknown dinner table deep in the Amazonian jungle.

 

For over an hour we watched an impenetrable carpet of jungle slip by through the windows…and through a rather large hole at the base of door! We flew over a few winding rivers and were thrown around by violent thermals. Finally, with ears popping, we descended towards the green canopy. Unable to see directly ahead, we had no idea of our destination. We dropped lower and lower until our wheels licked the tree tops. A loud claxon screamed the stall-warning as we cleared the edge of the tree line and suddenly thumped onto a rough grass strip of burned stalks.

 

The engines were thrown into reverse as we raced over the rough ground before performing a U-turn at the end of the runway and stopping. The pilot walked quickly down the aisle and opened the back door. Shouting over the roar of the engines, he asked us to help unload as he couldn’t turn the engines off in case they didn’t start again.

 

Obediently, we hurriedly unloaded. Backpacks, boxes, engines, spare parts…and yes, the chickens. We carried them off the strip and over to the edge of the trees, all the while being showered by bits of burned grass in the prop-wash. The pilot pulled the door closed with a bang, revved the engines and in the blink of an eye was gone.

 

We looked around. There was nothing but a small shack and a handful of locals returning to their unseen villages with the cargo we’d unloaded. The hum of the plane quickly disappeared replaced by the rush of a river and the sound of the jungle which pressed in on all sides. We looked at each other wondering if it was too late to light a signal fire and have the aircraft return.  

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Jungley Bits

19 02 2009

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          “So why’s it called a rainforest?”  (Tapanahoni River, Suriname)

 

The jungles of Suriname are about as jungley as jungles get. Nearly 80% of the South American country is still rainforest covered, stretching from the mangroves of the Caribbean all the way to Brazil. This is serious Amazonian jungle interrupted by only the odd winding river and the occasional village. From above, it is a rolling carpet of green as far as the eye can see, but from ground level it is a dark and verdant world that prevents the eye from seeing very far at all.

 

To the uninitiated, it’s a hostile place of deadly snakes, poisonous insects and piranha-filled rivers where jaguars lurk behind every bush. Step in and you are completely disoriented and lost forever…unless you have a local guide and a little timeless knowledge.

 

We were staying in thatched huts along the Tapanahoni River deep in the interior. From the clearing around the huts, the jungle looked magical but intimidating. Certainly not the sort of place you would venture alone. For the local villagers, the jungle was everything from garden to hunting ground. One morning the men headed off armed with bows, arrows, spears and hunting dogs no larger than Jack Russells. They returned with a string of monkeys, wild pigs and satisfied smiles.

 

Leading us through the green curtain and into the rainforest beyond, one of the Arowak men led us down almost indistinguishable paths. Barefooted, he walked effortlessly while the rest of us struggled with fallen branches and clinging vines. Monkeys screamed overhead while our guide eyed them eagerly, clearly disappointed that he’d left his arrows at home.

 

We stopped at a small plant and were each handed a green leaf to chew. The extreme bitterness turned our mouths inside out and puckered our faces as though we’d swallowed working vacuum cleaners.

 

“For diarrhoea.” the guide explained while the rest of us wondered if the cure was worse than the ailment. Further along we tried cures for sore throats and fever, an antiseptic the colour of iodine and a clear fruit that became a dark ink when applied to our skin. It seemed that everything could be eaten or used and that the jungle was not only a grocery store but also a drug store…only without the loyalty points and express checkouts.

 

In a sun-dappled clearing created by a fallen tree, we sat on tree stumps and ate manioc and cold catfish using large green leaves as plates. Our guide grabbed a large vine perhaps two inches thick and withdrew his machete. Holding the bottom of the green cylinder, he gave it a mighty whack and removed a section with a diagonal cut. He held it up, tilted back his head and opened his mouth. Water began to trickle from the vine and into his mouth. He passed it around. The water was cool, fresh and sweet and certainly enough to relieve a thirst. With lunch over, our trek continued.

 

Our guide picked up a thick stick and banged the gigantic buttresses of an enormous tree, explaining that if ever we were lost in the rainforest, this was the best way to attract attention. The sound reverberated through the jungle.

 

Finally, we emerged back into the clearing by our huts. We stopped and squinted in the harsh light before gazing at the clear blue sky that we’d barely seen all day. We turned and looked back at the jungle. It was no longer intimidating or frightening: it was a wonderland of greens laced with shafts of light and colourful birds and stocked better than any corner store. Our guide waved farewell as he headed back to his village to collect his bow and arrow and return to try and find the monkeys.

 

 

Photograph and post by: Simon Vaughan





A to Z of Adventure Travel: A is for Amazon

12 01 2009

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“Garden looks a bit over-grown, luv.”                               (Suriname)

 

The Amazon is the largest river in the world. Starting high in the Andes and continuing for more than 6,000 kilometres, it eventually reaches the Atlantic Ocean having drained almost 40% of South America along the way. In the rainy season it can be almost 45 kilometres wide and has the distinction of being one of the few major rivers in the world not spanned by a single bridge. For most people however, the Amazon is synonymous as much for the dense jungle which sweeps down to its banks as for the body of water itself.

 

The Amazon rainforest is not just the area around the great river, but also that which lines its many tributaries. This vast basin covers not only Brazil and Peru, but also Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Suriname and Guyana and is home to more than one third of all the species on earth and one of the richest eco-systems in the world.

 

For adventure travellers, the Amazon is a wonderland of exploration and discovery that offers something for everyone. Luxurious ships serve as waterborne hotels and cruise its wide expanses with smaller craft employed to explore the narrow tributaries. For the more intrepid, there are classic wooden riverboats that offer mosquito nets, ceiling fans and oodles of character. For those happier on terra firma, there are luxury lodges hidden in the jungle, lit by oil lamps and serenaded by the sounds of the bush. There are camps with minimal facilities but maximum experience and rustic lodges that combine comfort with unforgettable adventure.

 

Regardless of the country in which you choose to explore the magnificence of the rainforest, there are always plenty of people eager to share their verdant paradise. Whether guides, biologists, geologists or enthusiastic locals, you can choose between hiking the thick undergrowth, following easier jungle tracks or strolling wooden walkways with access available for every level of fitness and every appetite.

 

While some people stay for a week or more, most are satisfied with a few days spent watching for monkeys and parrots, dolphins and caimans and learning of the indigenous people and the threats to the environment. A trip to the Amazon can be made by aircraft and boat from most major cities in the area and combined with a beach stay, a week exploring cities, towns and markets, or a trek to Machu Picchu.

 

Regardless of your budget, choice of accommodation or style of travel, the Amazon will reward you with spectacular wilderness, an almost-overwhelming verdancy and magnificent – if sometimes elusive – wildlife.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





I Can’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me…

25 08 2008

Victim number one, come on down…                       (Maroon village, Suriname)

At age 10 I was evicted from the school choir because my voice was breaking. In fact, my spoken voice was still an exquisite falsetto that would have been the envy of the most successful of boy sopranos, but my singing voice was then, as it remains now, an instrument of abject aural torture. My choirmaster, in a gallant effort to save my feelings from the inexorable truth, simply stated that vocal manhood was coming early to my diminutive frame and showed me to the door to save her professional reputation and the eardrums of my colleagues.

 

Sadly, my dancing skills are similarly blighted. My abilities tend to be limited to subtle head-nodding and, when excited, foot-tapping. Any greater participation risks serious public embarrassment for me and possible injury for those nearby as could be witnessed at a Gipsy Kings’ amphitheatre concert some years ago. As the fiery music got the better of my commonsense, my legs became entangled with each other causing me to fall flat on the grass and roll downhill towards the stage. Fortunately, no one was killed and as it was dark I wasn’t asked to leave.

 

My rhythmic shortcomings haven’t prevented me from enjoying those more musically blessed, especially when travelling – although whenever there’s a hint of audience participation I usually seek safety in the furthest reaches of darkness.

 

In a roof-top nightclub in an Istanbul back street, a talented belly-dancer was wiggling her wares with time-honoured skill. I was captivated by her riveting rotations and tinkling jewellery…until she grabbed the first innocent victim from the watching masses. I immediately began to retreat to the corner, the familiar cold sweat beading on my forehead. One by one she drew participants forward with relentless enthusiasm and I edged closer to the edge of the roof. I stared skyward at the stars, out over the city to the minarets of the Blue Mosque and hid my face behind my beer glass all in the quest for invisibility…but still she came closer. Just as I was about to plunge onto the street below, she twirled away and returned to the dance floor leaving me and my pounding heart to order another, stiffer drink.

 

In Madrid, I was contentedly pinned behind a table in a tiny tapas bar and able to enjoy a hypnotic display of flamenco free from fear. In Buenos Aires, I was equally comfortable watching a tango show, correctly confident that the establishment was too refined and the Argentine clientele too discerning to tolerate audience participation. Less secure in Cuba however, I hid behind a shadowy pillar to avoid participating in a sensuous spectacle of rumba.

 

Occasionally though, participation can’t be avoided and the terror is justified. One such occasion came deep in the Amazonian jungles of Suriname.

 

One evening we were invited to travel downstream to a small village. The jungle was pitch-black and our able pilot navigated the rapids and shallows by memory rather than flashlight. Eventually, over the din of our outboard motor drifted the sounds of singing and music and we arrived at a small sandy beach, dragged our motorised canoes ashore and walked up to the village clearing.

 

Once greeted by the chief, we were directed to a hut and asked to change into more traditional attire which consisted of loose cotton tops, neckerchiefs and loin cloths and self-consciously returned to the village’s main hut to the hoots and giggles of the villagers.

 

After a feast of cassava and fish, the entertainment began. Our small group sat on benches around the inside perimeter and watched impressive traditional dancing that re-enacted the village’s age-old legends and tales of hunts, gods and jungle beasts all to pounding drum beats and singing. Then, my worst nightmare came true. As if sitting cross-legged all night to protect my modesty wasn’t enough, I was dragged onto centre-stage to shake my booty with the best.

 

My sunburned skin hid my blushes and the intense jungle heat disguised my cold sweat, but there was no hiding my two left-feet before the assembled masses. As self-conscious as a lobster in the tank of a seafood restaurant, I earnestly tried to follow the lead of my partner and instructor, moving in time to the music and attempting to control my flailing limbs so as not to hurt anyone and cause an international incident. I secretly longed for an overhead beam to fall on me or for a jaguar to leap through the open door and drag me into the darkness, but sadly there was no escape. My time as the centre of attention seemed to last forever before my companions came forth and the entire village and guests boogied the evening away to a cacophony of laughs and shouts.

 

After all-around hugs, we changed back into our own clothes, waved good-bye to our new friends and headed off back upstream to our camp. A million stars illuminated the swathe cut through the jungle by the viscous river, and moonlight reflected in the eyes of lurking caimans and unidentified beasties.

 

Thankfully, no one commented on my spectacle. Perhaps they’d all been entranced by the magical surroundings and the unforgettable hospitality of the isolated village and hadn’t noticed…or perhaps they’d been scared into silence by the erratic uncoordinated nocturnal spasms of the campmate with whom they were now spending the night alone!

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 95

11 07 2008

 

Always check local pronunciations before going swimming.


We were flying over the endless Amazonian jungles of
Suriname in a small turbo-prop aircraft. Despite the air flooding in through a small hole at the bottom of the door, the heat was so intense that the pilot’s shirt was transparent with moisture and perspiration cascaded from his brow.  Amid boxes of food and drums of fuel I turned to our guide who was sitting in front of me:

 

“Are there many piranha here?” I shouted over the din of the engines, nodding towards the window.

 

He surveyed me quizzically.

 

“No,” he paused, “…not here.”

 

The next day we were relaxing in a crystal clear river after a long jungle hike. Huge trees hung languidly from the banks providing shade from the relentless sun while glorious birds flitted from one side to the other. We lounged on pristine sand flecked with fool’s gold, the shallow cool water reaching to our shoulders and lapping at our necks. Colourful fish swam around our legs and midrifts: magnificent blues, reds and silvers. We watched them idly while revelling in our beautiful surroundings.

 

“What fish are those?” someone casually asked our guide.

 

“Peee-ran-ya.” he replied.

 

“Pirr-arna?” we all exclaimed in unison, sitting bolt upright and staring at our piscine friends.

 

“Yes, peee-ran-ya. But don’t worry, they only bite if you’re bleeding.” he explained.

 

“None of you have any cuts, do you?” he suddenly asked quite concerned.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008





Fear Is The Key

15 05 2008

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The Island of Unmentionable Horrors – Suriname

Many years ago I read a fascinating book on cryptozoology, the study of species that may or may not exist. Things like Bigfoot, Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster and helpful tax collectors. I tend to keep an open mind on such matters, whether through wishful thinking or because I used too many toxic felt-tip pens as a child, I’m not sure. However, for all my optimism, there is one thing that I don’t think will ever be found – a man-eating frog.

 

Everyone has their own fears. I’ve known people who will happily pay top dollar to devour gelatinous raw fish in fancy restaurants, yet run a mile from a bowl of jiggling Jello. Others who faint at the thought of a paper cut yet spend their Saturday evenings glued to the most graphic slasher movie ever.

 

Different things evidently bother different people.

 

I once met a woman who seemed to be utterly fearless. We had spent several days together in the jungle and nothing perturbed her in the slightest. We’d seen scorpions and giant cockroaches and she never batted an eyelid. On our first evening we were advised to ensure that our mosquito nets weren’t pressed against our skin at night, lest vampire bats snuggle up and suck our blood. Still not so much as an eye twitch. When one morning we found the dog fast asleep surrounded by two bloated vampire bats so gorged on its blood that they were struggling to crawl away never mind fly, she gazed on with rapt fascination.

 

So imagine our panic when her blood-curdling screams filled the camp just after dawn. We volted from our sleep and ran towards the deafening sound. Had she been bitten by a snake? Cornered by a jaguar?  Was there a piranha in her water bottle? We found her standing in a clearing in front of the showers. She was holding her face in her hands, crying and shaking. She stammered unintelligibly and gestured frantically.

 

We grabbed long sticks and like the unruly mob of village-goers in Frankenstein, advanced towards the shower. We swung open the door and jumped back…and there was the cause of the commotion: on the floor of the shower, sitting by the drain in all its evilness, riled-up and ready to pounce.

 

It glared at us with cold, malefic eyes.

 

A frog.

 

Granted it was the biggest frog I’d ever seen, but it was still only a frog. Actually, a nice pretty green one.

 

“I really hate frogs”, sobbed our fellow traveller, unnecessarily.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008