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December 27, 2002 - SURINAME
Well, I finally made it to Suriname after about a two-month detour in St. Croix and Trinidad. I arrived eleven days ago; it was a quick settling in. Iíll get to that in a minute. Let me finish up Trinidad first.
As I mentioned in my last entry, I spent most of the last month of my stay in Trinidad living in a home (paying a lot for the privilegeÖ.I had forgotten my cardinal rule: set up the financial stuff before you move in) and getting to know the area around the town of Sangre Grande in the east. I debated going to Tobago (the other part of the country of Trinidad and Tobago); itís resorty and beachy and itís supposed to be beautiful. Itís where Trinidadians go on vacation, and most visitors to "Trinidad" end up. But something told me to stay in Trinidad, and when a friend of a new friend turned out to have a sister (Carol) in the village of Manzanilla. I moved into her sonís roomÖ..heís moved to New York.
(Almost everyone I met in Trinidad has a relative in the U.S. or Canada or the UKÖ..and around Christmas time, there were tons of deals on airlines that wanted to fly people to their kids.)
As I discussed earlier (Nov. 22nd entry), Carol is a great cook and watching her in the kitchen was a privilege. She and her husband, Kazim, come from big East Indian families (11 and 12 siblings) and I met tons of them along with their kids. We had a big celebration at the house for Eid Fitr (the end of Ramadan). Kazimís family are Muslim, though there wasnít a lot of daily praying or fasting that I noticed. (I did go to a mosque at one point, but I stayed with the women who were fixing a meal and never went into the praying room.) The party at the house was more like the Christmases we celebrated at my house when I was growing up: my fatherís store was closed and everyone was on vacation, so we made it a day when the extended family got together, even thought we didnít celebrate Christmas religiously.
There were tons of family and neighbors helping out at the end-of-Ramadan party, loaning pots and burners, chairs and benches, chopping chickens (raw) and mangos (is there an "e," Dan Quayle? I donít think so.). Six huge chickens and unripe mangos in two separate massive pots.
Burners attached to gas were set up outside and the chickens went into one pot (big enough for a three-year-old to play in) with onions, garlic, scallions, celery, peppers, shadow benny (a kind of cilantro), and lots of pepper and salt and curry spices. The chicken turned brown when it was fried in oil with burnt sugar. It cooked a long time.
A giant bag of mangos was cut up with a machete, seeds and all and then cleaned up and put into another massive pot Ö..for a mango chutney which needed nearly ten pounds of sugar because the mangos were too young and very sour. More pepper and garlic and massala and cumin (called geera). The mangos cooked longer than the chicken.
There was a liquidy noodle dish that was sweet (I think it was called sawine)Ö..tasted a lot like rice pudding made with sweet condensed milk from a canÖ.. that the guests received when they arrived. You sprinkled nuts and raisins on top. And lots of other dishes. A couple of dozen neighborhood children were invited also. Each of them had a meal and they each went home with a bag of sweets. The family dribbled in all dayÖ..my kind of fun.
My last few days in Trinidad were spent with the Servas family I had visited earlier. I went to the Pentecostal church again and to a baptism, my first ever. It was at the water and as each of the participants walked into the Caribbean Sea and went through the process of committing herself (all women) to Jesus, a chorus on shore sang hymns. It was touching and very spiritual. Trinidad is a very religious country.
Let me conclude Trinidad with some non-sequential observations.
Carolís living room and gallery (thatís what they call the covered porch) were loaded with artificial flower arrangements, mostly roses, none less than three feet in diameter. Silk and plastic. There were twelve in the living room and eleven in the gallery, and a few more in the bathroom. She loved them. As a part of her Christmas housecleaning, every arrangement was washed and rearranged! The house got the same treatment, ceiling to floor. And new curtains all the way around as well.
My earlier attempt at Creole on this site may have been less than accurate. Here are some lines from people I overheard and from Paul Keans Douglas, a poet, columnist who writes in dialect. Heís very funny. If you can get hold of "Lal Shop", I highly recommend it. I laughed out loud. His other books are funny too. He is self-published so Iím not sure the books are available in the rest of the world. These days Creole is considered a language, with structure and grammar, etc. It is not mangled English. They no longer refer to British English as "proper English"ÖÖitís called Standard English, no more "proper" than Creole..
She donít like me to tell she nuting.
Me mudder does do it and me.
De man nearly lose he future.
Tell she to bring she own food.
Someting does come when all o we tinking good at de same time.
Da bes ting for we to doÖ
It make all a we laugh.
(My spell and grammar check are going crazy!)
I had been in the house for three weeks when I decided to make myself a fried egg. I asked for a spatula. There was none. A fork? Not a fork either. Then Carol dug around and found one. For three weeks Iíd been eating with a spoon and never missed the fork.
My only complaint is mosquitosÖ.and sand flies. Itís the rainy season and the little monsters are rampant. I have a very high level of pain toleranceÖÖbut my itch tolerance is non-existent. I hate to itch.
I liked Trinidad and the people there, and from the time I moved into Manzanilla until I went to the northeast just before I left, I never saw another white person. I was aware of it for a while, then almost not at all. In spite of everyone (the locals) warning me about crime and telling me to be careful, I never felt threatened at all. While I was there I had a chance to visit a lot of schools and a couple of libraries to read my books and talk about writing to groups of kids. Great kids.
Just before I left I went back to the northwest, where the Servas family (they are of African descent) livesÖÖ.that baptism was with them in the Chaguaramas area and I saw quite a few white people in the supermarket and the mall. I guess thatís where they all live. It seemed strange as I had gotten used to being a minority of one.
OK. Now on to Suriname where I have been for nearly two weeks and plan to be for another six weeks. Suriname is the reason I went to TrinidadÖ.they (Suriname) have an embassy there where I was able to get a visa ($40 US and two months).
Before arriving in Suriname I had exchanged several e-mails with Henna, a Servas host here. By the time I arrived, she had already scouted an apartment for me. I had been here for less than six hours and I had an apartment with a phone, the ground floor of a one family house. The next day I signed up with a local internet provider and liberated myself from cyber cafes.
I have met quite a few members of my landladyís family, including two grandkids. 6 and 3. They invited me to eat with them on Christmas day. (I went online and Googled "banana bread recipe" and made two, one to keep around and one to bring to Christmas dinner. The food was delicious but not exciting or terribly ethnicÖ..chicken, pork, rice, saladsÖÖÖDutch influenced, I guess.
Yesterday I had a Servas host and her two sisters over (I visited her for two days last week.) I have been to a birthday party and two churches (one in English that meets in a house, and the other was a special service for an American missionary (Tracy) who is leaving soon to go back to the US.) She worked with youth groups for a number of years and the people obviously loved her. There were a lot of heartfelt speeches which I didnít understand, but the feeling was clear. The pastor, Freddie, spoke in Taki Taki (he is part of my landladyís family) and he told me that usually he speaks in Dutch, but there were a lot of Guyanese people (refugees from unrest) there and they do better in Taki Taki than in Dutch. English is their first language.
There is a synagogue in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, where Iím living, and I made arrangements with a taxi driver to take me last Friday. But he never showed. There I was all dressed up with nowhere to go. There was once a huge Jewish population here, many from Portugal, going back to the 1600ís. There were also some Dutch Jews. Apparently, the Passover service was not uppermost in their minds when they became plantationÖ.and slaveÖ.owners, along with the colonizing Dutch. Today there are only a few Jews (200)Ö..but they do hold services the first and third Friday of every month, so I will try again in a week. Iím hoping someone there will talk to me about the history of Jews here. The guidebooks write about the ruins of the first synagogue in the New World, a couple of hours from the city. The existing renovated synagogue, the one in the city, is beautiful from the outside. It sits next to a Mosque in the center of Paramaribo. (I have gotten myself a library card so I can catch up on the history of the country, but most of the histories are in Dutch. I found a couple of ethnographies in English.)
Dutch is the official language of the country. Schools, offices, banks operate in Dutch. And many of the families speak Dutch at home. But everyone knows Taki Taki (also known as Sranan Tongo). Itís the language the slaves developed so the Dutch overlords couldnít understand their conversations. Iím trying to learn a little of each, but Iím forgetting more than Iím remembering. "Swietie Krisnetie" is Merry Christmas. "Mi denki so" is I think so. "Wang bung nyung yari" is Happy New Year. I learned "Fawaka" for how are you and then was told by someone else that itís coarse talk to say Fawaka. "Fa yu tang" or "Fa fiu" is a more polite. The answer is "Mi bung." Taki Taki is a language that was strictly oral and only recently has it become a written language. Iím spelling things as they sound. Anyone interested in more Taki Taki can have a look at the official Suriname site on the internet. Just put Suriname into www.google.com and go to the government site and click on languages.
Iím hoping to go into the bush for a week and visit a village of "bush Negroes," also called Maroons. They are the descendents of runaway slaves who ran away from the plantations and set up villages in the jungle very much like the ones they had in Africa. There are also some Amerindians in there. The rest of the population lives along the coast and is descended from freed slaves and indentured servants brought over after the slaves were freed (1863). Indonesians, East Indians, and Chinese. Many of the Dutch were gone by the time of independence (1975) and many more left after a bloody coup in 1980. Every family Iíve met here has relatives in the Netherlands. There are about 430,000 people in Suriname and over 300,000 Surinamese in the Netherlands.
Iím working on a childrenís book at the moment, when Iím not playing games on my computer with the landladyís grandchildren, Raissa and Gianni. The other day, after Iíd been playing with her for a week, I greeted Raissa in Dutch. Thinking I was asking How are you, I asked, Whatís your name? She must have thought I was really stupid. Ran off to her mother and came back and said, Raissa.
Continued on January 4th.