Paramaribo, Suriname – October 8, 2012
The driver dropped me at Ogle International Airport in Georgetown, Guyana this morning to catch a flight to Paramaribo, Suriname. It was at about 07:00. At the ticket counter, they weighed my bag. One is only allowed 33 pounds in one bag on Gum Air, also known as Trans Guyana Airways. My bag was 30 pounds. Much to my surprise, they weighed me too, 1/8 of a ton!
At about 07:30 the customs and immigration area opened. I stood in line to get the exit stamp on my passport. Other residents and visitors must then pay GD2,500 (US$12.26) as an exit tax. As a diplomat on official business, I did not have to pay the fee.
After stamping my passport, I went to an area behind customs and immigration where the x-ray machine and the metal detector are. I did not have to put my bag through the x-ray machine. Additionally, I was ushered around the metal detector. I can only assume all of that happened because of my diplomatic passport. The other side of the machines opened up into an air-conditioned waiting area.
In the waiting area, there were about 20 people. At 08:00, about eight of those people boarded a plane for Letham, Guyana. From the windows, I could see the lone runway numbered as 7/25. The wind was out of the northeast. I saw a Canadian King Air taxi onto the runway. That plane taxied to the end of the runway, turned around, and took off using runway 7, into the wind. As a former pilot, I know that is how it is supposed to work. Much to my surprise, the Letham plane taxied to the runway and took off on 25, downwind! I guess it is OK if the aircraft made it safely!
My plane boarded at 08:25 for an 08:30 departure. The seating on the small Cessna Caravan was two seats for the pilot and co-pilot (although we did not have a co-pilot), three single seats on one side and four bench seats across the small aisle that was for two people each. At the very rear of the airplane was one seat by itself. I was the first on the plane, so I took that single seat. It had more legroom than I have ever seen on a plane before. There was plenty of room on the floor beside my seat for my bag.
As it turned out, there were 11 people on the 12 seat airplane. Once everyone was seated, the pilot turned around and had the following words for us:
“This plane is headed to Paramaribo, Suriname.”
“Our flight time is one hour, 20 minutes.”
“Does everyone have their seat belts on?”
“Are there any questions?”
It was not exactly a United Airlines type briefing.
With no questions forthcoming, he turned to his left and closed his door. As soon as the door closed, he started the engine, and we began to taxi. It was precisely 08:30. We took off using runway 7, thankfully!
Shortly after we were airborne, the plane turned toward the southeast. That had us paralleling the Guyana coast. We gradually climbed above the scattered clouds. If I had to guess I would say we leveled off at about 10,000 feet. Overall the flight was incredibly smooth.
At about 09:05, we crossed into Suriname airspace. I found it interesting to watch the color variations in the Atlantic along both coasts. It ranged from a chocolaty brown to a blue-green in the far distance. The very muddy water along this part of South America is due to the silt carried by the Amazon River and the many other rivers that drain the rain forests.
At about 09:50 (10:50 Suriname time) we landed. In addition to being first on the plane, I was also first off of the flight. That meant I was the first through customs and immigration. From there, I walked out into the general terminal area, where the management officer from the embassy met me.
After stopping by his home for a little while, he and his wife took me to lunch. We went to an Indonesian restaurant, Sarinah, located at Verl. Gemenelandsweg 187. It is the very first time I have ever had Indonesian food. The atmosphere was very visually stimulating, including two fish ponds. The restaurant is open-air; however, a roof does cover the space.
We ordered three different entrees and shared them family style. One was deep-fried tofu with shredded chicken and rice squares. The second entree was fried but not battered jumbo shrimp. Lastly, we had a spicy (not too hot) chicken dish that served in a dark broth. Also in the soup were slivers of pickles, tomatoes, and other assorted vegetables served with steamed rice. It was all delicious. My first try at Indonesian food was a huge success!
The management officer pronounced the name of the town as something like Pamarbo. That is different than the Spanish pronunciation which audibles each vowel, and one ends up with Paramaribo. Regardless, he says the locals say Pamarbo.
Later that night, after dinner, I went to my hotel room. From the fifth floor, I looked out the window down to the parking lot. I could see hundreds of insects swarming around the parking lot lights. Periodically I would also see several bats fly through the “all-night buffet.”
The view from the Marriott Courtyard.
For dinner, I had stayed at the hotel. I had a fillet Mignon, garlic mashed potatoes, and vegetables. It was fantastic. I think it was the best meal I have had since I left the U.S. Before the meal I was served some whole-grain bread with herb butter. That was also wonderful even though I was one of only two people in the restaurant.
My usual breakfast at the hotel was a starter plate of pineapple cubes and grapefruit wedges with black coffee. Then I would get a made-to-order omelet with cheese, ham, and mushrooms. To accompany the eggs, I had a couple of strips of bacon and some spiced potatoes. Always amazing!
After breakfast I had a taxi take me to the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. I arrived at about 08:30 to find it closed. A security guard informed me it would open at 11:00.
From the cathedral, I strolled to the Presidential Palace. It is undergoing a complete restoration. The coat of arms above the main entrance was very ornate.
I walked across to the flag square. It is an area in a park that had nearly 30 flags from around the world. I do not know why they used those particular flags.
After a little more walking, I found myself in the area of Fort Zeelandia, also the location of the “I Love Suriname” sculpture. Not far away was a sculpture of a toucan bird in front of the Nola Hatterman Art Academy. The art academy was very near the old fort. The fort had been established in 1667, right on the Suriname River. I was not able to go in because it was closed for a local holiday.
Leaving the fort area, I walked along the river for a couple of hundred meters toward old town Paramaribo. This area is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, known as the Historic Inner City of Paramaribo. Dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, the UNESCO site notes that Paramaribo’s “original and highly characteristic street plan of the historic center remains intact. Its buildings illustrate the gradual fusion of Dutch architectural influence with traditional local techniques and materials.”
As I continued along, I ultimately found myself at the entrance to Palmetuin (the Palmtree Garden). The Palmetuin has hundreds of enormous palm trees throughout the garden. It was a beautiful setting. Several people were preparing for a festival celebrating Maroon Day. The booths set up when I arrived were selling food and drinks. I thought for sure there would be some artists or craftspeople there, but I did not see one. I did discover later that there were in fact crafts at the festival; however, by that time, I was back at my hotel, out of the rain. Now that I know what happens, maybe I can do a better job of catching the action next year.
Maroon Day celebrates the signing of the first treaty between the Dutch colonists and the Maroon peoples on October 10, 1760. The Maroons were made up of six nations of peoples indigenous to Suriname.
After sitting on a bench for a while and watching the people, I began my trek back to the cathedral. When I arrived, it was still not open. Shortly a man did come and open the doors and windows of the cathedral. I walked in and found myself in awe. According to the Suriname people, this is the largest wooden structure in the Caribbean, maybe even the tallest wooden structure in all of South America. I think the people of Guyana would take exception to these statements. I have heard similar descriptions of St. George’s Cathedral in Georgetown. I have not yet been to that cathedral so I cannot offer my own opinion.
There has been a cathedral (or church) at this site since 1824. The cathedral in its current form has been around since 1883. A full restoration of the interior of the cathedral was recently completed.
The twin towers at the front of the cathedral are about 40 meters tall. I am not yet sure how that compares to the one in Georgetown. One thing I am sure of is the color. The cathedral in Georgetown is white, very common in the Caribbean. The cathedral in Paramaribo is a yellowish color, really quite appealing.
Above the central aisle from the entrance to the altar were eight large chandeliers. Along the sides were another 20 smaller chandeliers. Those were all hanging from the cedar wood which is everywhere inside the cathedral. The unfinished cedar wood planks and the nail stains make for some interesting and eye-pleasing designs. Each of the planks has its unique color, obtained over the last 225 or so years of naturally curing in place.
The interior of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.
There was a multitude of hand-carved designs throughout the cathedral, mostly at the top of columns and along the many arches. Each was very intricate and beautiful.
The stations of the cross are also wooden, and also hand-painted. The three-dimensional quality and the color bring on an almost life-like appearance to the story.
Just as impressive and colorful is the large crucifix hanging above the altar. I estimate it is about 10 feet by 15 feet in size. It dominates the open air space above the altar. It is suspended from the ceiling by large cables.
There were just a few items in the cathedral that were not wood; one was a marble Pieta, and the other was a mosaic depicting the Madonna and Child. While these were very beautiful in their own right, they were almost out of place.
After walking through the cathedral, I sat in the back pew for a long time just soaking in all of the sights. That also gave me time to sketch the hand-carved design that was at the top of each column.
We saw a lot of churches and cathedrals while we lived in Europe, but this cathedral is by far one of the most amazing I have ever seen.
While I was sitting at the rear of the cathedral, it began to rain. It was one of those Caribbean drenchers. It was raining so hard that I could feel the spray carried in on the breeze from the main door at the rear of the cathedral.
After sitting there for some time, I asked the man that had opened if he would be so kind as to call a taxi for me. He did so. I arrived back at the hotel in time to take a nap.
My final day in Paramaribo was a little hectic. At about 13:30, while I was at the embassy, I received an e-mail from Georgetown. It was somewhat cryptic to someone that did not know the back-story (like me), saying something to the effect that if employees felt uncomfortable staying at the embassy (in Georgetown), they could be released by their supervisor to go home. I read that and was both concerned and confused. I responded with an e-mail trying to determine what was going on. The response I received was that there was concern over riots that were sparked by the police shooting a young man. The next thing I knew, I was being asked to get the next flight out of Paramaribo.
By the time I got confirmation that I had a ticket on the 16:00 flight from Paramaribo it was already 14:40. The ambassador’s driver took me back to my hotel. I had not yet packed. I planned to pack that night for my scheduled Saturday morning departure. I quickly threw my things in my bag and dashed down to the lobby to check out. That whole process took much longer than I could have imagined. Part of the reason for that was because the hotel wanted to give me a partial refund of US$88 because of my early check-out.
Finally, at about 15:10, the driver and I departed the hotel for the Zorg and Hoop International Airport. Traffic was against us. Since it was Friday, the government offices closed at 15:00. That meant we were fighting all of that traffic trying to get out of downtown.
We arrived at the airport at about 15:35. The lady we spoke to said that they had closed the flight at 15:30. Even though a seat was available and the departure was not until 16:00, she said she was unable to check me in for the flight. The next best thing was to book me on a 07:30 flight the next day. I asked her to go ahead and do that. She did so and then asked me for US$151 to buy the ticket. I suggested she could use the funding from the ticket for the Friday flight. She said that I forfeited the ticket because I missed the flight. So, I asked if she would take a credit card. She could not. I ended up giving her the US$88 refund I had received and another SRD210 to buy my ticket for Saturday.
When that transaction was complete, the driver took me back to the Marriott. I checked in again for one night. I ended up exactly one floor above where I had been earlier, 614 versus 514.
At 06:00 the next day, the driver took me back to the airport. I made it on the flight and back to Georgetown with zero problems.