I got back recently from Suriname (nope, not in Africa – it’s in the NE corner of South America), where I was part of a small educational tour of six students and a professor of archeology who had done research there before. The main city, Paramaribo, was pleasant – only 200,000 people, which is about half of the population. The entire population of Suriname is only 450,000 – half the size of Portland, OR, where I am based. The air and water were clean, both the water in the forest and the city was potable and the air smelled like river and fresh dirt. No one in the group got sick and the roads were driveable, for the most part. Very little Latino culture – it was really more of a Caribbean based, multi-ethnic society, composed mainly of Creoles, Maroons (descendants of escaped slaves)and East Indians (some Indonesians, Chinese and Indigenous people as well) and almost no white people.
After a long and bumpy ride down a never-ending dirt road from the city, we arrived at the river. When we got in the long, wooden motorized canoe and headed onto the Tutu river, winding our way through the northern reaches of the Amazon rainforest, I felt like I was coming home. I have wanted all my life to experience the jungle and venture into the bush and it turned out to be more beautiful and serene and soul nourishing than I ever even imagined. I felt healthier and more humanly whole than I have for much of my memory.
The people in the forest villages, the Maroons, were infused with a crackling sense of joy and laughter and jumping beans. The villagers came one night to our area of the village and made the world happy. Four men created a thunder of absolutely synchronized drumbeat and we all danced forbidden dances (which centered, of course, around the hips), broken only by infrequent yet vengeful rainstorms that sent us all packing to huddle en masse under the eaves of the tiny houses. During one of these episodes, having drunk a bit too much Parbo, I began to fiddle lightly with the strap of the AK 47 which was sitting solemnly an inch from my face on the back of a soldier. The soldier was gigantic, sweaty, drunk and had taken a shine to me, which was not a good combo. The minute I touched the gun, many hands came suddenly from behind me, pulling me away from the weapon so quietly that my suitor didn’t realize I’d left the vicinity. The villagers were to stay all night (unstoppable) but one of the drummers had Malaria (!) and had to go to bed early (midnight). They hung out for hours during those days, teaching me some of their language and making me fall in love with every inch of all of it.
We hiked through the jungle one morning with Adjasie and Simo, two of the Maroons who traveled with us, stopping every so often to examine a jumping spider hole the size of a tennis ball or to machete open some wonderful fruit for a snack. I put everything they offered into my mouth, filling my body with sensations of the awe-inspiring flesh of Jah’s own food, the mango, or numbing my tongue with clove leaves. We saw a tree that had a deadly fur of porcupine quills and listened to our Maroon friends perfectly imitate the twirps of the jungle birds. They could harvest anything in the forest, flora or fauna, with a sling shot or a machete, and knew how to build a sound house in a half-day. They were by far the most capable people I have ever met – they will survive the nuclear holocaust when their more “educated” counterparts in the West finally do the world in with their rage and their hunger. The Maroon people survived the brutality of slavery in sugar mills and were the strongest of the enslaved peoples – they refused to be owned. Family by family, they escaped deep into a virtually impenetrable Amazonian world, making a life for themselves with their bare hands and staging raids on the plantations, burning and slashing their former agricultural prisons. They consider themselves to come from true heroes and fighters, unlike the Creoles who stayed on the plantations and were eventually freed when slavery was abolished. The Maroons are among the strongest and most beautiful of the world’s peoples – I know in my heart this is true.
The majority of the American group I traveled with was a fucking nightmare, to say the least, and was maybe some of the weakest and least interesting of the world’s peoples. This I also know to be true. I tried my best to get past their petty complaints about bugs and food and lack of amenities and just relished my time there. I spent a lot of time with the local people, learning as much as I could about their lives, culture, language, food. They all love Kofi, the archeologist who led our group, and see him as a father figure coming from Ghana, especially since he has done so much to bring international recognition to their people. We were given his welcome.
I realized upon return that I need to change my life – The US is royally FUCKED up and the lifestyle and system here are unhealthy and destructive. So many people here are stressed, obese and lonely. I had forgotten how crushing the pace can be here and how it can slowly kill your spirit if you let it. I want and need a slowing of lifestyle, some time to smell the bougainvillea, a chance to learn a new African drum beat, or a language, and remember what human beings are actually capable of if given confidence, rice and a machete. I want to eat soul food of boiled bananas and sharp-teethed fish and drink warm Parbo beer in someone’s grandpa’s backyard, surrounded by a gaggle of 10 kids of varying sizes and temperaments. I want to sit on a stoop for an entire afternoon, under an overhang, hiding from the torrents of water pounding down around me, accompanied only by the banana leaves hanging from the roof and the tarantulas nestled in the eaves. I dream of the slow cradling of a mildewed hammock and the steamy smell of the beginning of the world rising out of the jungle.
Suriname is forgotten by much of the rest of the planet – a place known only to a few companies of global exploitation and the occasional adventurous Dutch traveler who doesn’t care that there are no beaches. I want only that it stay that way and that I may somehow be blessed again with the opportunity to be part of its quiet, rhythmic refuge where there is nothing to do but sit and watch and breathe.
The immigration officer upon arrival in Suriname was convinced I was a soldier, on a mission from the US. He could see no other reason why I would be coming to Suriname on vacation unless I was CIA…Americans are not frequent faces there – I met only a couple Peace Corps volunteers who hailed from the Pacific NW. If I looked like a “soldja” upon arrival, I looked like a monk upon departure. My roommate on the trip told me that I had physically changed somehow during my stay there – she could not place what was different besides the color of my skin, but she swore I looked like a different person. I felt like a different person – my body had adjusted to the time patterns of the developing world. Before leaving Portland, I had a three week long headache and my muscles felt like a wrapped-up elastic band, ready to spring across the room. Once I got to Suriname, my headaches disappeared, my skin glowed and I felt energetic and strong, even on little sleep and food. We spent so much time sitting and talking and playing music and watching the world float by…
It’s taking some real adjusting for me to get used to the severe lack of time, listening skills, and community in the American people. The re-adjustment will happen, to my chagrin, I know, and I will become again a cog in the McMachine, but I am concentrating on finding a way to get back to the jungle first.