I recently returned from spending two weeks researching eco-tourism and the indigenous people in Suriname. It’s a small country located above Brazil next to French Guyana. Suriname is a former Dutch colony, which they acquired in a swap with Britain for New Amsterdam, now known as New York. The country itself has a population of less than half a million and most of them live in the capital city of Paramaribo. The people are a mixture of African descendents of the slave trade, East Indians, Indonesians and descendents of Dutch colonists. The official language is Dutch and everyone speaks “S’rnan Tango,” a sort of Creole language from the slave period. Because of the popularity of American television, most people also speak a little English.
It’s a truly wonderful country, with all flavours and all colours and very friendly people. My second day there I was hit by a moped as I tried to cross the road (like the British, they drive on the left side of the road). The driver made sure that I was okay before driving off, then the owner of a store came out and motioned me inside where he cleaned my wounds with rum and smothered an incredibly healing cream all over them. He even kept away the nosy onlookers. From there I wandered down the street into a gallery, which is located in the “Waaggebouw,” or “weigh station.” During colonial times, everything that came into or left the country had to go through the weigh station, even the slaves. There is a myth in Suriname that the slaves were weighed upon arrival, but I was told that wasn’t true. Now it is a gallery run by a man named Bode (Bodie) who makes beautiful wood sculptures from mahogany and wengi wood. He has made benches, chairs, tables and many curvaceous women figures. He is known for patting them on the bottom when he is done! The gallery triples as a lounge/dance club on the weekends, where it is known as “the” place to go dance, and also runs a tourist outfit which offers tours to different parts of the country.
There are many beautiful places to visit in Suriname. Almost all of them are located in the interior, where a plane or a boat (or both) is required to get there. I went to the one tourist place located on the east coast of the country, that borders French Guyana. A two-hour boat ride away, it’s called Galibi, which actually refers to the two Carib villages located on the coast. The Carib are one of five nations of Indigenous peoples in Suriname. They are well organized, actively involved in eco-tourism and have preserved their culture and language. There were many character and physical similarities with the Cree and Ojibway. I was lucky enough to spend two days in the villages, sleeping in a hammock in a “tourist lodge.” I met with the Chief, called the Captain, of the village as well as his grandfather, who is the head shaman of all the Indigenous in Suriname.
Alphonse began his training for Shamanism when he was still a young boy. Now he is a slight man of 82 years with failing health. He doesn’t receive visitors or patients anymore but was happy to meet with an “indiaana” (Indian) from Canada. He only speaks his native tongue, Calinga, but when he found out I spoke French, he said we should try to speak in French. (Since the villages are a 20-minute boat ride across from French Guyana, there are Carib villages on both sides of the river. Many Carib, through intermarriage, move from one side to the other and conduct many ceremonies and feasts together. Alphonse grew up on the French side.) He laughed after 20 minutes of talking, saying that my French was not very good! He told me of this one man who had come from Europe and had been to all the best doctors in Europe and none could cure him of an unknown illness. Finally he happened to meet Alphonse, who located the area and source of the pain, then had his son, a shaman in training, cut through the man’s chest, where Alphonse put his fingers in and pulled something out. The man was cured! These days he is concerned with passing on all his knowledge because he knows he is getting weaker and weaker.
It was with a very heavy heart that I left the Carib to go 30 minutes upriver to the eco-tourist location, called Babunsanti. It is a nature reserve and turtle-nesting area for five species of turtles, most notably the leatherbacks. It is a tiny place with four buildings for the tourists, researchers and employees. The first night as we strolled the beach we came across two leatherbacks nesting and I was in awe! These massive scary looking creatures are at least five feet long and weigh 600 kilos! They are a dark blue that almost looks like polished marble. They feel like marble too when you touch their shells or flippers. They move ever so slowly on land as they are carrying their own weight and only have flippers to move with. They push with their wide short back flippers and pull with their longer, thinner front flippers. When they find a place to nest they use their back flippers like shovels and dig a deep hole, then they drop between 80-100 eggs and cover it all up with such skill that you would think they have hands instead of flippers. Every 30 seconds they pause and gasp for air, emitting these eerie noises that sound as though it could be that of a dinosaur. After nesting they begin the slow descent back to the water, without even so much as a look back and disappear into the ocean. They repeat the whole process about seven or eight times a season’, never seeing the hatchlings, of which maybe one of a thousand will survive into adulthood.
I witnessed eight leatherbacks nesting while I was there. It never failed to utterly amaze me. The size mixed with the skill and gentleness of their maneuvering, was simply humbling. The last night there, a curious turtle approached me slowly as I stood motionless watching it. It eyed me and moved closer until it touched my shoe with its front flipper. She then stopped, looked up at me and made her way back to the water. Later on I heard the sound of drums coming from the Carib on the French Guyana side. I looked up into a sky undisturbed by light pollution where thousands of stars were sparkling and could only sigh, at a loss for words.