“It’s as though the inhabitants of Suriname were all thrown together in one place as the result of some game of chance. The country was created by the Dutch colonizers, who have since largely disappeared and certainly do not play their traditional, culturally dominant role. But what kind of country has a population which is 27% Indian, 18% Creole Black, 15% Maroon black, 15% Javanese, 13% mixed race, 4% Native American, 3% Chinese, and 2% white?
The former Dutch colony, though undoubtedly more tolerant than other South American colonies, was built like them on slavery, and thus on institutionalized racism. Moreover, after the liberation of the slaves, Dutch Javanese, Indian, and Chinese contract workers were brought into the colony, adding more diversity to the already variegated picture of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and animists with their Muslim, Hindu, or Confucian faith. Then the country became independent, and although there have been a few coups and massacres since then, a viable and relatively peaceful country has been created from the incredible ethno-cultural mix known as Suriname.
All my Paramaribo days started in the market, slaloming between Javanese greengrocers, Indian bus drivers, and Maroon amulet vendors. This place, where all the colors and flavors of Southeast Asia, Africa and South America meet, is just as interesting as it sounds: I couldn’t get enough of staring at the unknown vegetables, seeds, spices, fish, and sauces.
In addition to the market, of course, there are many other attractions in Paramaribo. The city center is a UNESCO world heritage site, and not undeservedly: the Dutch heritage of the country can best be felt here. There is a 17th-century brick fortress, Fort Zeelandia, and a bunch of surprisingly elegant wooden buildings, all painted snow-white. Here you will find the largest wooden structure on the American continent, the Catholic Cathedrals of Sts. Peter and Paul, as well as a Confucian and Hindu temple, a synagogue, a mosque, and who knows what other shrines. For three days I was a tourist in this rather small city, and not once was I at all bored: there is plenty to discover here.
There were, of course, some unpleasant moments. For instance, once near the market, I got conned out of twenty Suriname dollars by the old sunglass-dropping trick. The way this worked was that a guy walking in front of me suddenly turned around as if he had remembered something, and dropped the sunglasses as if I had knocked them out of his hand. Then he started loudly complaining that they were broken, even though only the lens had come out, and I would have to pay him a hundred Suriname dollars. I refused to do that, but the man was quite aggressive, so I pulled him into a Chinese business and started to say out loud that I was innocent. Seeing the disapproving glances of the people in the store, the guy with the glasses quickly started to lower the price to fifty, then to thirty. I finally gave him a twenty, which he snatched from my hand, and on leaving he swore at me in a way that sounded pretty heavy, but fortunately, I didn’t understand because he spoke in Suriname Creole.
But it was no big deal – I lost double that amount at roulette the same night. A significant proportion of tourists (also) visit Paramaribo for gambling, so there is a lot of competition between the casinos and they try to attract guests with all sorts of extra services.” (2017)