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February 10, 2003 - SURINAME

As I write this, I'm munching on a dinner of curried armadillo (with some onion , garlic, and cassava root ) over a slightly bitter leaf that I made like spinach. This is probably not one of those recipes that you are going to beg me to send you…..wisely.

First off, let me say that people in the city do not eat armadillo. Like possum and squirrel in the US, armadillo is a food of country folk. In this case, the bush people in the interior. I spent the last four days in the interior……….not long enough and not deep enough (I think I have to come back), but finally, I got my river with piranhas (hearsay, I never did see any, but the Suriname River is one of the places where the Amazon flows and empties into the Atlantic, and my friend Jenny insists there are piranhas there…..and people do catch and eat them.). Apparently they stay in the deep water, in the middle, and don’t swim into the part of the river where we bathed every day.

OK. Back to armadillos. From where we were, it was about 1/2hour in a boat and 4 hours in a bus back to the city. About 15 minutes into the trip home, the bus driver stopped and talked to some men who were standing by the side of the road with some strange looking blobs on a table.

The driver bought a blob. So did the guy sitting next to him. Then my friend Jenny bought some. No one knew the English name of what they were buying (the local name was "kapasi"), but I joined them anyway. For about two dollars I bought a bloody hunk. When I got it home, I found a tan-colored 8" x 8" hard curved shell, with segments that moved in and out like a hand fan and a little lizard-like foot with four small claws. I cut off the shell and the foot, washed the blood off the meat, and threw the hunk into some fried onions and garlic. Then I sprinkled it with massala, tumeric, lemon juice, a little soy sauce, and salt and pepper. Then I covered the whole thing with water and cooked it forever. It tastes….well…the texture is a moderately tender beef, the taste, gamey chicken, I guess. Not one of those dishes I plan to add to my menus. I am about to feed Prince the dog, the hunk of meat that is left on my plate. There’s still more in the pot. I’ll put that in the refrigerator for now. Prince will probably get that tomorrow.

OK. Back to the bush trip.

My friend, Jenny, a Surinamese who frequently goes into the interior to cook for groups of American Baptist missionaries, invited me way back in December, to join them on their January trip. They would probably be staying for a week, I wouldn’t have to pay for the transportation, and I could stay a few days more if I wanted to. Tim, the head of the group, was in the U. S. and I said I would wait. For me it was a chance to observe the work of missionaries while visiting the tribes in the bush.

When Tim came back, I met with him and the date had changed from January to February and from a week to five days and finally to four days. And by then I didn’t have very many days left, so I settled for the four days. I was disappointed but I tend to roll with changes. I was sorry that I had held off the trip until the end of my stay…..I did it to see what missionaries do….and because my expenses would be minimal if I traveled with them.

The day before I was to meet Tim and Jenny at Tim’s house at 8 AM, Jenny called me. "Did Tim call you?" He hadn’t. "They can’t go until next week." When I couldn’t. I never did hear from Tim.

So, Jenny, her friend Rudy (a Surinamese from Holland who is here on a visit), and I set off to catch a bus. With the change, I would be responsible now for Jenny’s transport as well as mine.

They picked me up in a taxi at 6:30 AM to get to the bus at 7. Turned out the bus didn’t leave until 8:30……so we put our stuff in and wandered around the market which is where the bus was.

Four hours on a bumpy washboard dirt road and less than one hour in a boat brought us to the village of Jaw Jaw (pronounced yow yow). There are lots of villages further in, but the water is more than a meter down and there are rocks and sand islands where there is usually water. At the moment, the trip is dangerous, so we settled into Jaw Jaw with our hammocks and our mosquito netting in a thatched roof house built for tourists. Another disappointment. I was using a hammock I borrowed from Freddy….it was all one piece, hammock and mosquito netting. I’d never seen something like that before. The hammock was not as wide as I like them but I managed to sleep without mosquitoes. And I love rocking, so Rudy helped me rig up a rope for rocking.

Everyone in this, and all the villages along this part of the river, are descendants of runaway slaves. They settled in the bush and set up African villages, far from the plantation and slave owners.. The village of Jaw Jaw is actually fairly new, set up when several villages were moved to make way for a man-made lake. But the residents, like all the people along here, are what they call Maroons, or Bush Negroes. They are a deep dark brown color….no racial mixing here. Among themselves they speak Saramaccan, a tribal language. Today there is a village phone, two generators that turn off at 10, and small huts some thatched others corrugated metal.

My frustration was that I couldn’t talk to anyone. Jenny and Rudy did all the talking. Even when Jenny and the teacher translated two of my books for two classes in the school, I just observed.

The part that I loved most was the dynamic river culture. From seven to eight every morning, the river came alive. Picture a river, low because of the draught, filled with massive boulders and rocks and ledges and pools. And dozens of naked lithe black bodies running on the rocks, laughing, shouting, jumping in the water. And women washing clothes and kitchen things, leaning over from the waist, their breasts hanging down (actually just a few were topless while they washed), and girls bathing in sarongs, and boats trying to get through the passages to go out fishing, and other women tossing out lines attached to poles. They were catching small, 4,5 inch fish with balls of rice packed together. It was glorious.

Jenny cooked salt fish and rice……….only one vegetable (bitter melon) which she brought with her. We bought some canned corn (for the rice), picked a few leaves and managed fine. Jenny brought biscuits and peanut butter and homemade jelly and hot, corn meal cereal. And we both brought oranges.

It wasn’t long enough……..and if I get back some day, I will study the language and perhaps go alone.

Some unconnected thoughts that have come to me in Suriname. I am going to make no effort to flow from one to the other. That’s too much like writing a book……..and that’s not what I’m doing.

  • I have discovered that I’m getting lazy. I’ve taken a lot of taxis rather than buses. I am not checking any of the spelling in this document. I’m sure I’ve got some proper nouns incorrect. I gave up on languages (Dutch and Taki Taki , which is supposed to be called Sranan Tongo, which I shall do from now on). Every time I tried to use my new words, people answered me in English.
  • I still do not like cold showers. FYI You start with your feet and work your way up letting each part of your body get used to the cold before moving on. Sometimes I never get to my back.
  • My friend Theresa Kim in NY made an introduction to the Deputy Chief of the American Embassy down here and Rob Faucher invited me to lunch at his home, with his wife, Noraly and his two daughters, Stephanie and Melissa. It was a feast; they were warm and welcoming; and it was a privilege to get to know them. I’ve never socialized with embassy people before. They are a great family and I have new respect for the foreign service.
  • Dogs all over the world, including Prince who lives in my yard, eat chicken bones. I’ve never seen one of them choke.
  • I didn’t expect the people down here, even in the city, to be as worldly as they are. Nearly everyone has family in the Netherlands (the Surinamese in Holland are about the same number as the Surinamese in Suriname…around 400,000.) Most people I’ve met have visited family in Holland.
  • Things are expensive……..nearly everything is imported.
  • There is gold in the bush and fertile land waiting to be dug up and planted; not much in crafts; an apparently declining economy. Schools are lacking in the bare essentials (kids share seats and desks, school libraries are bare, textbooks are torn and ancient). Everyone blames the corruption in the government for just about everything. "You could take away 50% of the government jobs and the departments would still be overstaffed. "
  • When I first came I found my basic assumptions horrifying and verging on racism. We would go from a poor neighborhood to one with big beautiful homes and I expected to see white people walking out the doors! There are barely any white people here……….I turned that prejudice around pretty fast.
  • I’ve spent a lot of time doing some real writing (kids’ book), answering e-mails, reading (I got yet another library card!), and talking. There were days when I never left my apartment. But I’ve never been unhappy…just waiting for things to happen.
  • I’ve had new friends over for dinner, including a pot luck party for Servas hosts. And Friday, before I take off, I’m having a party for everyone I know……….around 45 people. From my landlady’s family (15 of them) and my taxi driver to writers of children’s books to an owner of a bookstore…to a Chinese poet who appeared on a radio interview show with me yesterday and invited several of us to have lunch at his favorite Chinese restaurant.
  • After my goodbye party, I will go to the airport to catch a 4:30 AM plane to Georgetown (Guyana) and Miami and Paris. I will fly to Nantes to visit Lars and Nirin. They have written that "the pots are trembling in anticipation of your arrival." I wrote back that my cholesterol was panting to be elevated." They are the ones who cooked me that fabulous birthday dinner in Seattle. I still dream about the food we ate the last time I visited them in Nantes. I’ll be with them just over a week and then I go to New Delhi at the invitation of the American Embassy School where I will talk for a week about writing, books, my life, etc. I’m looking forward to my visit to India………..I will stay for nearly three months.
  • I am very sad to be leaving Suriname. I love the people, the pace, the mix of cultures and my friends. I may have to come back.

Goodbye until Nantes when I will do a food column from the kitchen of Lars and Nirin. I told Lars the Chef that after reading our menus, my readers may want to fly him all over the world to cook for them. I think he can be bought!



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Practicalities - Physical Challenges



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