The Isuzu mini bus approaching the stop is lime green and purple, pinstriped and airbrushed with an Asian comic-book heroine, and elaborate lettering in English, "The Thrill is Back." The driver's personal collection of digital/disco/reggae/rap music is so amplified that you feel the boom of the bass before you see the bus coming. How fares are accounted for is a mystery; the driver casually throws the paper currency of Suriname guilders into a pile onto the sun-heated dashboard. This is the public transportation system in Paramaribo, the capital of the Republic of Suriname, South America.
"This is a country of tremendous variety," says a former American Ambassador to Suriname, Dennis Hays. "A country with a future. It has a small, well-educated population."
In 1667 the English traded Suriname with the Dutch for the island of New York (the Dutch are still kicking themselves for what they see in retrospect as a bad trade). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Suriname flourished as a plantation colony, exporting sugar, coffee and hardwoods to Europe via the Netherlands. When slavery was abolished in 1863, indentured workers were imported from India, and later from Indonesia.
Today, the predominant culture is East Indian/Hindustani, with smaller percentages of Dutch, Javanese, native Amerindians and Maroons, the descendents of African slaves. Most people live in the coastal capital of Paramaribo. A small city of only a few hundred thousand people, the population prides itself on the fact that the synagogue is so close to the mosque that the two share a parking lot.
In the heyday of Dutch colonialism, the streets were paved with crushed shells and lined with fragrant orange and tamarind trees. Today, streets are a mixture of cobblestones, tiles, and cement broken by the roots of towering, hundred-year-old mahogany trees. They are protected because of the Maroon belief that if one old, nearly-dead tree is cut down, its spirit will go about in the night creating bad luck. Unfortunately this same belief doesn't seem to apply to commercial logging in the rainforest - even tree spirits have their price.
The open air Centrale Markt sells sweet potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, garlic, peppers, potatoes, avocados, bananas, plantain, pineapples, and pumpkin. Pamplemoes, a football-sized pink grapefruit, is my favorite. Easy to peel, its big buds of sweet juice are fun to pick apart. Local vegetables people eat are amsoi, bitawiri, sopropo, and kowsbanti, a green bean that grows to two feet. A lot of chicken is sold in the capital, but in the interior people eat tapir, caiman, bush pig, paca, deer, monkeys and toucans.
The Suriname infrastructure, badly damaged in the interior wars of the mid-80s, has never fully recovered. Its signs are everywhere: rural power lines that no longer function, rusted generators, paved roads that disappear into the jungle. A local businessman tells me that the per capita income was $4,000 annually before independence in 1975, and approximately $800 annually today.
"In many ways Suriname is frozen in time, but that's part of its charm," says Ambassador Hays.
Vast tracts of rainforest wilderness veined with large, pristine river systems attract adventure travelers, birdwatchers, and scientists from all over the world. Popular destinations are the Brownsberg Nature Park, Central Suriname Nature Reserve and Galibi Nature Reserve, all managed by STINASU, the Foundation for Nature Conservation in Suriname.
Visitors to Brownsberg, a plateau overlooking the Van Blommenstein lake created by the construction of the hydro-electric Afobaka dam, are often awakened by the eerie "hooooos" of howler monkeys. Even though you know they're monkeys, the sound can be so deafening if they are close that it will raise the hair on the back of your neck.
Fungu Island, in the middle of the Coppename River - best reached by a twin-engine bush plane - is headquarters to the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, designated a Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000. The island, surrounded by the Raleigh waterfalls complex, is known as the largest bird bonanza of South America. Dr. Jim Thorsell (who has reviewed World Heritage Natural Site nominations for IUCN since 1985 and has visited 600 parks in over 100 countries), describes the CSNR as "the most pristine tropical protected area in the world."
The beach at Galibi Nature Reserve, a rich coastal habitat, is a nesting ground for five species of endangered sea turtles. Environmentalists and marine turtle biologists frequently visit the research station at Babunsanti. Luckily - for the turtles - this beautiful Atlantic beach is only accessible by boat and too far from the capital to be a viable vacation spot.
In the mid-1700s, local political upheaval and the decrease in value of cane sugar caused Jodensavanne's decline and eventual abandonment. Two overgrown cemeteries remain, each containing hundreds of European-made bluestone marble grave markers, some elaborately illustrated despite prohibition by Jewish law. A third "freeholder's cemetery" of hand-crafted wood with African sankofa symbols and concrete grave markers is rapidly decaying.
In the past four years, Jodensavanne has joined such notable locations as Machu Picchu on the World Heritage list of "One Hundred Most Endangered Sites."
Yes, there are malarial mosquitoes in the interior (not in Paramaribo), but long-sleeved shirts, bug repellent and a good malaria prophylactic will provide protection. There are exceptionally few reported cases of malaria among visitors to Suriname.
Suriname is located on the coast of South America between Guyana and French Guiana, and above Brazil. On the edge of the vast Amazon basin, Suriname is a country with a combination of remoteness, history, and relative inaccessibility that has left this nation with both the highest percentage of rainforest cover and one of the lowest population densities on Earth. Diverse culture, historic attractions, pristine rainforest, and a spicy, Asian-influenced cuisine will delight the traveler who makes the effort to visit Suriname. - Read the Jetsetters Magazine feature on Guyana Ecotourism. - Read the Jetsetters Magazine Feature on Guyana's new jungle preserve.
A steady stream of leaf-cutter ants crosses our path as we climb steps carved into the side of the hill from the Suriname River to Jodensavanne. We are in the broad savanna that separates the northeast corner of the Amazon basin from the coastal plain of the Guyana Shield..
The Suriname River snakes through the rainforest of Suriname to the Atlantic Ocean. Several kilometers upriver from the capital of Paramaribo lie the ruins of Jodensavanne, near the Cassipoera Creek. For years, the voracious jungle has crowded the brick ruins of Jodensavanne's Jewish synagogue, Bracha veShalom (Blessing and Peace), constructed in 1685. In 1999 Jodensavanne was added to the world monuments list of "100 Most Endangered Sites" by World Monuments Watch, a global program launched four years earlier to call attention to critically imperiled cultural heritage sites and direct financial support to their preservation. Other notable sites on the list are Peru's Machu Picchu and Ancient Pompeii in Naples, Italy.
Jodensavanne, a village of Jewish plantations, was established in 1652 when the Englishman Lord Willoughby invited Jews from the Dutch Brazilian colonies of Cayenne and Recife to settle there. Charged with developing the new British land of Suriname, Willoughby welcomed the Jewish planters, with their wealth and proven knowledge of sugar cane production.
The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions had forced many Jews around 1500 to flee to Holland. Later conflicts with their co-religionists in Amsterdam, as well as the chilly climate itself, caused them to depart for the Dutch colonies. For a small fee, the Dutch government had allowed them to immigrate to Brazil, where in Recife they established themselves as merchants and sugar cane planters.
Compared to other settlements in Suriname, Jodensavanne was a prospering township. Two natural wells nearby provided fresh water, and one of them, though the water was brown with humic matter, was believed to have medical properties.
Here was the first time and place where New World Jews had an opportunity to design in a virgin wilderness an ideal living place according to their needs and beliefs. In Europe at the time, new cities based on principles of spatial organization were just beginning to emerge. Places where European Jews traditionally lived were often cramped, and in some cases, walled cities, where permission to build a synagogue or a cemetery was difficult to obtain, with no choice of the site. "No wonder they saw opportunity at Jodensavanne," says Visser.
By 1694, 570 Jewish people occupied forty plantations which were also home to 9,000 African slaves. Visser explains that in a grand plaza surrounding the synagogue Congregationalists gathered from their neighboring plantations. She describes how the synagogue's location and plaza were built at the center of an idealized geometrical town plan, "very Dutch", a rectilinear village square met by four cross streets with large houses built at each corner.
The location of the Synagogue was selected and built in accordance with Talmudic interpretation, placing the synagogue on a hill so that it would be the tallest building in the town. It was also adjacent to the Suriname River, convenient for accessing naturally flowing water for purification rituals. The town was designed as if in peace, with open roads and wide access to the synagogue from all four sides, surprising in a time of peril from rival European powers, runaway slaves and native Amerindians.
"The sanctuary of Bracha veShalom had no separate auxiliary buildings buffering it. Instead, all of the functions of the synagogue, including its Hall of Justice and schoolroom, were combined in one building," says Visser. The lower front part of the synagogue was used as a court of justice, where minor civil cases and anything that involved up to 10,000 pounds of sugar were tried.
Sand on the floor of the temple is thought to recollect the need to mask the sounds of the footsteps of the men who gathered to read Torah in places where the Inquisition was feared. Built into Bracha veShalom was also an annex that served as the women's gallery, unusual at the time.
In the mid-1700s, local political upheaval and the decrease in value of cane sugar in Europe caused Jodensavanne's decline and eventual abandonment. On October 12, 1785 Bracha veShalom celebrated its hundredth anniversary. Sixteen hundred persons, including Suriname's Governor General, Jan Gerhard Wichers, the Council of Policy, and wealthy politicians and planters from Paramaribo were in attendance. Tables laden with over three hundred dishes were illuminated by a thousand Chinese lanterns. Jews of both European and African descent ate and drank with their Gentile neighbors. There were speeches, Hebrew prayers, recited poems, and a ball at midnight that lasted until dawn.
A dark period for Jodensavanne during World War II resulted in maps that are of great historic value today. Both America and Holland had an interest in protecting the bauxite mines of Suriname (then Dutch Guiana), and the Dutch government used Jodensavanne as a concentration camp for persons thought to be collaborating with the Germans. The allegations were never proven, yet 146 men, mostly of Dutch and Indonesian descent, remained at Jodensavanne from 1942 until 1946. They cleaned the cemetery and synagogue of overgrown jungle, and made an early map of the bluestone and marble grave markers. They also made beautiful black and white line drawings of the site, altogether a great contribution.
Thanks to the efforts of Jewish-American architect Rachel Frankel and Surinamese historian Adriana van Alen-Koenraadt, 452 graves have been numbered and documented in the past few years. Paramaribo photographer Patrick Burnings has photographed each one atop an unstable board resting on two ladders. Each gravestone was photographed dry, then sprayed with water and shot again.
Regular baking flour was used to dust the stones. Then they were brushed and the remaining white powder in the indentations made it easier to decipher the inscriptions. The smaller tombstone of a child, David Rodrigues Monsanto, records that he was slain by rebellious slaves. The tombstone of a young mother who died during childbirth is inscribed, "Pain instead of song I brought." After the inscriptions were recorded, the flour was carefully cleaned away, so that there would be no residue to cause further deterioration.
Passing the cemetery of Beth Haim, Visser and Tojo lead me to a third "freeholder's cemetery", where artistically-crafted wood and concrete grave markers are rapidly decaying. This predominantly Creole cemetery was used until the middle of the twentieth century.
Tojo, a Maroon descendent of African slaves, explains: "The upside-down heart shape at the top of the wooden monument is a sankofa, the African symbol of wisdom learned from the past that can be used to build for the future."
In the moist tropical jungle climate, these wooden grave markers will not last much longer. The bricks of Bracha veShalom and the marble and bluestone grave markers of Beth Haim may yet be further preserved.
Suriname feature and most photos by Carolyn Proctor, Las Vegas Jetsetters Magazine Adventure Editor. Carolyn has served in the Peace Corp in Suriname.