Friday, January 30, 2009


Humans crawl through the ashes of a forgotten world, living in the ruins and going about their business as if nothing had even happened. What did happen anyway? Who knows? Who built the original structures, magnificent and pretentious at one and the same time, the stuff of dreams and the stuff of nightmares? Official government history says it was an evil empire, bent on domination. They sucked human blood for sustenance and reduced the populace to slavery to sustain their extravagant lifestyles. Other legends say no, that it was a time of plenty and opportunity was open to all, only limited by your time and imagination… and faith. If you believe in an expanding universe, then that universe will expand, and so will the economy, getting bigger and better continually. Belief is crucial. Once you stop believing, then the castles crumble. Sound like science fiction? Welcome to Cuba.

If you’ve never been to a Communist country, you should go. But hurry; they’re a dying breed. There’s nothing like it, the cold gray architecture, the suspicious glances, and the general lack of… anything. The hard part is timing. You want to see the “real thing”, i.e. real Soviet/Bolshevik-style communism, but you don’t want to suffer (too much) from lack of facilities. You want to see them on the cusp of their coming out. Frankly I was surprised- even shocked- to see Cuba in the backward state it’s in. We’ve all seen the pictures and heard the stories of the old 50’s cars, like stepping right into a Hollywood movie, but experiencing it is another thing. It’s a trip, pure time travel. Hey, they’ve even got horse-drawn carts here, and not just for tourists. Cuba’s been getting travel press for so long now that I assumed that the time-warp was all long past. It’s not. Cuba is crawling into the future on all fours, and I don’t think anything Obama has to say will change that any time soon. Tourism is way up for sure, but that’s all out at Varadero, destination of almost half the tourists flying in, most of whom will get only a day tour of the “real thing.”

When I check the Lonely Planet web site before visiting a place, then actually go there, sometimes I wonder if we’re talking about the same place. Maybe their local experts have little experience elsewhere so are without a point of reference. Regardless, LP talks about the ‘increasing congestion’ of Havana traffic. That’s a joke. This is like Communist SE Asia c.1995, maybe Phnom Penh or Vientiane, vacant streets and people camping in the ruins. That’s all changed there now. Laos is almost a little mini-Thailand now, and Phnom Penh is re-inventing itself (with Chinese help) as fast as it can. To be honest, so is Cuba, but oh so painfully slow. My first feeling is one of shock, then sadness. Then as I slowly readjust my point of reference to the reality here rather than the reality I come from, my mood starts improving. There IS life here, and lots of it, however subdued and tentative.

And then there are the underlying economics for me as a traveler. You have to book a hotel first for them to even let you in, so that’s not so expensive, but hardly indicative. When I first walked the streets looking at prices for street grub, I was shocked. Then I realized those were prices in local currency (mn), not the convertible currency (cuc) I was holding. Judging by price differentials for similar items I figured one cuc must be worth about six or seven mn. It’s actually twenty-four. At first I thought they might not sell the local stuff to me, but no problem. Shit’s dirt cheap here, at least street food. How about a glass of fresh fruit or sugar cane juice for… better sit down… a nickel? I haven’t seen prices like this since the late seventies. You remember that kid making smoothies for a quarter down on the strip in Puerto Escondido, right? He’s probably the president of Jumex now, what with his experience and all.

How about a sandwich here for a quarter, or maybe your own personal pizza? Sound good? The pizza is no great shakes of course. Nobody in Napoli is going to roll over in his grave but hey, it’s fresh pan caliente. That’s worth plenty. The trick is that you gotta’ get the local currency, or otherwise you’re de facto segregated from the populace by currency and cuisine. Some things only come in cuc of course, like filete Cubano of something or other. Prices in cuc are usually not bad either, just not dirt cheap, and mostly limited to the tourist places, and grocery stores. How about Uruguayan steak for $6? I don’t remember it that cheap in Uruguay, not that I spent any time looking. Harder to find is good espresso, notwithstanding all the little jiggers of café Cubano being sold on the streets, but the street stuff is sweeter and not fresh pressed, though still not bad for a nickel a swallow. I’ve found it as cheap as a penny. I also found a couple places with good espresso and nothing illustrates the pricing dilemma better. One charges one mn, the other one cuc, a nickel or a buck, take your pick. I’d be willing to bet some tourists don’t know the difference and happily lay down the buck instead of the nickel at the mn place, not even knowing the difference.

Still there can be money problems for the independent traveler. For one thing, your ATM card won’t work, or at least mine won’t, though a European one might. My Thai card doesn’t work either. European credit cards are supposed to work, but that’s good only if you can find places that accept them, not likely budget accommodation, certainly not private houses. If I stay the full three weeks I booked this could be problematic. I think I have enough Euros, but it could be tight. I better change an AmEx traveler’s cheque just to make sure I’m covered. Cambios won’t take them but a bank should. They don’t, but send me to some place that should. They don’t, but gave me a list of locations of the bank that does. Being my first day in town, none of these locations looks familiar, so I decide to put it on hold, being something I shouldn’t really need anyway. This is not a problem limited to Cuba either, for that matter. Fortunately I have no problem with money, just cash. Even in thoroughly modern Argentina, many ATM’s only give the equivalent of $100 US. That doesn’t last long. Fortunately I’m carrying traveler’s cheques for the first time in a decade, so the only problem is finding the bank that cashes them.

I decide to take a long walk to find the bus station and accidentally find one of the bank branches I’m looking for. With minimum hassle they indeed cash me one, so that little spot of bother should be mitigated. There’s only one problem remaining- Internet (sound of needle scratching long and hard against an old vinyl LP). The hotel I’m staying in has no wi-fi and charges $6-7 PER HOUR to use the rental box downstairs. They all do. This apparently is the standard, and gringos queue up for the privilege. It’s barbaric, not a cyber café to be had on the streets. What do the locals do? I’m moving to a casa particular to save a few bucks, but it looks like any savings will quickly get squandered in Internet charges, if I stay, that is. I doubt that Cubana de Aviacion will let me change the date of my return will such a cheap flight, but that doesn’t mean I can’t buy another one-way. I can hardly travel without Internet now, booking for the next stop a few days in advance. Otherwise I might get stuck with no place to stay or only at an outrageous price, with no useable credit card even. Usually I don’t worry about such things. In the high season in the Caribbean I do, especially here. Chill, Hardie, chill.

I don’t mind paying a few bucks extra for a place with Internet, but that’s per day, not per hour! Cuba is in the dark ages with respect to Internet, not a wi-fi signal anywhere. Other ‘Communist’ countries are replete with them. Other commodities are similarly lacking. What passes for groceries here is pretty pathetic. Ever bought a box of cookies from a jewelry showcase? Fortunately the street is ahead of the shops. They learn capitalism from the ground up, flea enterprise, buy two sell one buy two more ad infintum until rich. Bamako in Mali is no different. That’s the difference between Marxism and village Communism. The main breakthrough here is with food. Half the city walks around with a sandwich in hand in the mornings and a pizza in the afternoon, all sold from tiny home-based outlets and restaurants selling on the streets as well as inside to compete. Now that’s my kind of communism.

Everything is weighed and measured here, from bread to espresso, or at least advertised as such, one of the lasting legacies of communism apparently. I saw the same thing in Romania only a few years ago. Business is swift and the lines are usually orderly. The legend of Commie queues always emphasized the shortages, not the orderliness. That’s like talking about suicide bombers and focusing only on the bombs, never the suicide. There are no plastic bags though, or only available for sale in markets, never just handed out. My great point of pride is that I intuited this, and brought along my growing plastic bag collection rather than trash it, as I caught myself almost doing. Thus Communism has common cause with environmentalism. They act like they have common cause with Palestine, but obviously that’s only a case ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Remember Soviet Afghanistan.

Monday, January 26, 2009


“Full soft” means “ripe” in Caribbean English and I find myself using it frequently since I first heard it, as if softness were the natural state to mark the passage of time, certainly as opposed to hardness. And so should travel be as well as your chosen destination(s), soft and fluffy to break your inevitable fall(s). It’s become my metaphor of choice. And so as I sit at home in Montego Bay waiting to catch a flight in a few days (always leave yourself snafu time), it’s probably a good time to pause and reflect on my recent trip to the South Caribbean and Guyana coast, arguably a continuity of culture with the possible exception of Suriname, it not being an English-speaking former colony.

So here’s how the score stacks up. For beauty I’d rate Suriname highest easily, but I’m not a beach guy. The colonial architecture of Paramaribo is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else in the world and is truly something of world heritage. Gold shops line the streets like something right out of SE Asia. For cheap thrills there are casinos that’d rival Winemucca. Outside the capital Hindu temples dot the landscape. Then there’s the sparsely populated Amazon outback; I’d love to go there. The beach isn’t of pure white sand, but IS site of one of the largest tortoise migrations in the world. Trinidad has some nice spots but the mix of heavy industry in the city center is a bit of an eyesore, and the country is densely populated compared to the others. I hear the beaches are okay. Barbados is classic Caribbean, gingerbread houses and fancy resorts, blue skies and sandy beaches, not like the muddy ones you find on the northern coast of the continent. When I’m feeling beachy, this is what I dream of. Georgetown and Guyana also has some nice spots but the overall plan (or lack thereof) renders any beauty lost in the chaos.

For food Suriname probably ranks lowest, not that it’s bad, but the others are better. There’s really not much difference between the Indonesian warungs, Chinese wok spots, and so-called ‘snack bars’ there; i.e. they all have pretty much the same things, mostly rice and noodles and a few other egg-roll-like items, in addition to some bread rolls and cakes, ho hum. The ‘creole cuisine’ that exists throughout much of the Caribbean and into the US Deep South is entirely absent in Suriname. Even the roti is pretty lame compared to Trinidad, and prices are no cheaper. Gastronomically Trinidad takes the cake, literally, with good bakeries in addition to killer rotis and Chinese and Indian food that goes beyond the most basic of basics, all at reasonable prices, though Guyana is not bad. There they’ve even got something called ‘cook-up’ (I like that name) in the Halal eateries (huh?) that consists of black-eyed peas in goopy rice, not to be confused with sticky or glutinous rice, a different breed entirely. Growing up in the Deep South I never knew I was part of the Caribbean culture; now I know.

Being a major tourist resort Barbados may indeed have the best food of the lot, and the local stuff doesn’t look bad, but the prices and the fact that I had a kitchen mostly kept me away. Interestingly they all get their apples from New York. The situation with coffee is similar, plenty of espresso in Barbados but London prices. Trinidad’s better with its Rituals chain and reasonable prices. Paramaribo in Suriname has got a branch of Rituals also and another espresso joint conveniently located right next door, but that’s it. Georgetown, Guyana doesn’t even have that. I was reduced to Nescafe there, reduced and rendered helpless. Ditto for entertainment, Trinidad is on top with a lively street scene and many bars and clubs that seem attractive and inviting, not to mention a world-class Carnaval. Paramaribo has potential with its attractive historic district, but it’s largely untapped. The lead-up to New Year was great fun, though, lively and rambunctious. I haven’t been to the Sheriff Street party district in Georgetown, but it doesn’t sound too compelling. Downtown certainly isn’t, what with its dark murky streets. Barbados might rock out, but it wasn’t obvious from my vantage point. John Barleycorn and I have a deal that I don’t drink unless there’s something else in the offer, so my observations are mostly just that, and from a distance.

For transportation Trinidad wins hands-down with a terminal and buses with signs, real civilized, not that I actually went anywhere. The two Guyanas are still in the dark ages of vans and hustlers. Barbados isn’t bad, especially since it’s so small, with frequent terminals in the populated center. I heard there’s even a Sunday bus that loops the island with on-and-off privileges, great for the picknicking locals. For hotels Paramaribo probably ranks highest with a decent selection reasonably priced and easy to find. You’d do okay without a reservation in Paramaribo, but not so the other three. You might even have to pay a small fortune to find last-minute accommodation in Barbados. Ironically that’s where I had probably my best deal, private entry and kitchenette for less than U$50, so almost like an apartment. The music scene parallels that of entertainment in general. Trinidad’s got it definitely, steel ‘pans’ (drums) and soca, the others only so-so, though there is potential there.

For security Barbados and Suriname probably rate equally, Barbados too comfy for crime and Suriname too busy gambling. Guyana’s got a bad rep and so does Trinidad. Though murder rates don’t tell the entire story, they don’t lie either. Paramaribo has ATM’s right on the sidewalk, so that says something. That’s not something you see often outside the US or Europe. For Immigration and Customs formalities, they’re all about equal. I’ve seen worse, but I’ve seen better, too. I don’t know what it is about English-speaking countries that make them think they need to interview every single tourist. Aren’t there impersonal standards that apply across the board? Are they testing your English proficiency? What can’t they just stamp you in like most of Asia or Europe? Trinidad was definitely nicer to me coming in from Jamaica than coming back from Suriname, where I got scrutinized three times in the course of as many hours.

If it weren’t for the snafu’ed ferry business, I’d rate Suriname and Trinidad a toss-up, depends on what you want. As it is I’d rate Trinidad highest overall, probably cheapest to get to also. It even has a ferry to Venezuela and flights all over. The Guyanas have real problems of connectivity with glitched border crossings all around. One traveler on the ferry from Guyana to Suriname was not allowed because his stamp at the other land border with Brazil wasn’t right. He had to go all the way back and that road is notoriously bad. The ferry of course depends on a terrible road on the Suriname side, so that remains to be improved. Passengers could cross without it in small boats of course, if Immigration and Customs were willing, so the problem is as much one of will and motivation as logistics and money. They seem oblivious to the problem even though passengers like me are inconvenienced to the tune of $300 and I was lucky. I could’ve been stuck there for days or weeks. It’s not surprising considering the laborious entry even on a good day, as if only one Customs lady is qualified to search dirty underwear, and that only when she feels like it.

Language department again depends on what you want. If you want to be the English-only bozo then Suriname scores lowest, though many people speak quite well. I think there are quite a few native speakers from other places going there to fill the gaps. For me the opportunity to study and use some Dutch is a treat. There aren’t many places you can do that, and the similarities to English are profound. For exotic ethnicity Suriname probably also ranks highest, though I would hesitate to overrate it. Most of their ethnic groups drop their affectations on arrival and blend into a more generic ethnicity, though I didn’t get a chance to visit the so-called ‘Bush Negroes’. They might offer an invaluable glimpse into the African past. Trinidad &Tobago has an overt ‘African consciousness’ related to dress and culture but I suspect that’s an aspect of its economic and educational ascendancy, in addition to the cultural competition from the local Hindus. Still it’s nice to see Nigerian fancy dress on the racks in Port-of-Spain.

What else? If you want to watch TV once again Barbados and Trinidad are most modern, with many cable selections and US broadcast stuff from the US Virgin Islands, while the Guyanas are pretty bad, local only, with whatever international shows they can get on the cheap. You’ll be watching stuff you’d never watch ‘back home’. That’s not important, you say? Not if you’re on vacation, no, it probably isn’t. For those of us with nomadic lifestyles approaching serial residence, it can be certainly. Looking for girlie action? That’s not my game, but I assume they’ve all got their share of pragmatists, though none too overly overt. For simple friendliness from the locals I’d probably rate Barbados on top and Trinidad lowest, with something of an attitude problem sometimes, possibly racial. Barbados seems genuinely friendly, but that could be due to my vantage point in an apartment-like close proximity to many of them, and/or the fact that I didn’t stay long enough to get tired of it. Though small, Trinidad has the highest population, while all the others are sparsely populated enough that Sarah Palin could probably govern while juggling a baby. Overall I’d probably recommend Trinidad the most with honorable mention to Suriname and Barbados. Thus Guyana is probably the most problematic of the lot with little to commend it, to be honest. Sal si puedes.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


For all the pyrotechnics of the classic movie Apocalypse Now, the scene I remember most was the opening scene with the Martin Sheen character’s stream-of-consciousness… and that ceiling fan. Fans like that have followed me throughout my life, silent stalkers of the memory. That ceiling fan symbolizes more than tropical climes, hot and muggy, Spanish moss watching like dirty old men from Mississippi out beyond the window. Those ceiling fans symbolize something existential, flickering consciousness, thoughts and images struggling to maintain a speed of thirty frames per second so as to imply continuity. In these hot humid climes you’re lucky to maintain anything, including yourself erect. A short walk in the midday sun can mean a drenched shirt and a decreased will to live and an excuse for an unscheduled nap. A cloudy day might offer some cooling shade or it might offer something else. In the south Caribbean it doesn’t just rain… it precipitates. Expecting storms maybe? The air thickens until it reaches 100% humidity and then water just seems to ooze out from everywhere like someone squeezing a sponge. And that ceiling fan just keeps slapping air around as if to keep the mosquitoes honest. I lie here exhausted, finally succumbing to a higher power, that fan turning in my mind’s eye.

The book says the rainy season should be over by now and the dry season beginning. Tell it to the Equator, which is more than just some imaginary belt holding in the Earth’s midriff bulge. The same forces that widen the belly and flatten the poles also dump torrents of rain in the center and create desserts along the tropics, gravity and inertia and Coriolis forces spinning off. It’s no accident that the Amazon and Congo Rivers and the Sumatran rain forest lie smack on the line. Air currents suck humidity off the flanks and dump it on the center in a pattern that defines our existence, extending through the atmosphere almost to the stratosphere. Flight attendants will ask you to fasten your seat belts when flying over the Equator without even consulting Mr. Doppler. It comes with the territory. Talking about a ‘dry season’ along the equator is probably a whole lot like talking about a ‘rainy season’ in the desert. It’s all relative. That’s all behind me now anyway, the sweat and the constant rains and the swamps.

Barbados is the Caribbean proper again, a pleasant change after all the rough edges and inconsistencies of the Guyanas and Trinidad, itself geologically if not geographically part of the South American mainland. The beaches are sandy not muddy, and the air is fairly dry at this time of year. It seems fairly clean and serene, a bedroom community of mostly middle-class residents, without the grinding poverty and crushing crime of some of its ‘edgier’ neighbors. It’s also a country of religion, the Christian sort, though whether that’s cause or effect of its overall liveability I couldn’t say. Gospel music here rates equally with reggae and soca and hiphop in popularity and is commonly heard in places where you wouldn’t expect it in, say, Mississippi, arguably the home of such with its Malaco recording studios among others. There is a genuine friendliness in the people, not fawning like Jamaica or aggressive like Dakar, but just a genuine connectability that doesn’t necessarily include or exclude you on the basis of race. There’s even a standard line in Jamaica where the hustler approaches you because ‘you’re obviously not a racist’. This itself is racism of course, just like Thailand’s over-friendliness to ‘Farangs’, usually more meretricious than meritorious. The very existence of a slang term for a people is the best proof of racism towards them, however benign or even superficially friendly it might appear.

Barbados is prime Leeward Islands acreage, clear turquoise waters as far as the eye can see. You can take the bus from Black Rock to Speightstown and see nothing but sandy beach on one side and grassy lawns on the other. Much of the beach is public, too, but that seems endangered with luxury beach homes literally on the rise all over. They haven’t totally displaced the locals, however. Small gingerbread cottages line the other side of the road and locals congregate at a myriad of local pubs without resentment nor rancor towards the half million tourists that find their way to the island every year, notable considering the locals themselves only number a quarter million.

There are only a couple problems. For one thing Barbados is pricey, not just US pricey, but more like Manhattan pricey. Ironically I’ve got my best deal of the trip here- room with kitchenette for under $50. So regardless that meals are Buenos Aires café prices, I don’t care. I cook at home. Cable TV’s decent here too. Then there’s another problem- I don’t know if they want me here. Package tourists, yeah sure, I’m sure they’re welcome, as long as they’ve been bought and sold like slave-ship chattel being led to auction, but independent travelers like me, dropping in and hanging out, and then moving on as the mood strikes, well I’m not sure. Maybe they’re scared that if they let people in on their own, they just may not leave, as is a major problem in Thailand right now. Here’s the story:

On my walk through downtown Bridegetown, the capital, yesterday my first full day here, I just happened- quite accidentally btw- to pass by the office of Air Jamaica, the airline I return to Jamaica on. On a whim I decide to drop in.

“I’m flying to Montego Bay on the 12th. Do I need to re-confirm?” I haven’t re-confirmed a flight in years, though frequently change return dates to Asia, so similar in effect.

“Yes you do,” the nice man said almost condescendingly. “The 12th of this month?” He looks up at my dumb nodding stare. “That flight’s been cancelled. You’ve been put on the flight for the 11th. They tried to contact you.”

“Not by e-mail they didn’t. I checked yesterday.” Isn’t it logical that a flight booked by Internet would notify of changes by e-mail? Where would they call anyway?

“Is the 11th okay?”

“Do I have any choice?”

“Not unless you want to go on the 15th.”

“No, that won’t work.” I’m supposed to be flying from Jamaica to Cuba on the 15th, and anyway, I don’t know if Barbados Immigration gave me enough days for that. Later I decide to check. After searching for about an hour, I finally found the stamp. If I’m reading it correctly, they gave me one day. Huh? I had asked for five and had a pleasant enough chat with the nice lady, so assumed everything was fine. Did she make a mistake? I knew I only got one day coming through, but I only needed one day then, so didn’t think much about it. Maybe it’s a good thing my trip got cut a day shorter, since at worst, now I’ve just got a two-day overstay to account for, hardly the stuff of police action. Hell, for all the hassle Trinidad just gave me in transit- as if somehow they KNEW I was winging it (luckily I booked an onward flight by Internet the day before), checking my itinerary twice at la migra going and coming, once at the airline counter- at least they gave two days in the country JUST TO MAKE AN ONWARD CONNECTION THE SAME DAY. I remain optimistic, just like I was at the ferry crossing from Suriname to Guyana, what, some four days ago? It seems like four months. By analogy to Einstein’s theory, I guess time slows down when you travel at the speed of light.

So I sit in my room eating corn pone, I born in the Caribbean periphery some fifty-odd years ago and not even knowing it, eating the food and talking the talk. Annie’s soul food kitchen in downtown Brandon, MS would be right at home here, as would Big Daddy’s catfish parlor along San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. Those old connections, however far-flung, are dying of course as Afro-Americans enter the mainstream more and more. No one talks about the ‘Ebonics’ language any more, nor should they. Though Northerners and Southerners, including Blacks, may still accuse each other of ‘talking funny’, any problems of mutual intelligibility are long gone. TV and rising education levels will do that to you.

Regardless of Immigration’s final disposition toward me I like Barbados and feel cheated at only getting a few days. It’s better for your visit to be a couple days too long like Guayana and Suriname was for me than too short like Barbados. That way there are no regrets. Maybe I’m right and they don’t want you to think of their azure waters as your waters. A country of a quarter million people could get overrun by foreign bozos quickly. The irony is that two of the three countries in the world where you can buy citizenship outright and legally are here in the Caribbean, Dominica and St. Kitts/Nevis. Can’t guess the other? How about Austria? Cambodia’s another story, subject to negotiation, and they’re probably not alone. As always it’s the people who make the place, and they seem genuinely nice here. It whets my appetite to see more of the Caribbean, especially the Leeward Islands, and see what I’m missing. Maybe I WILL buy citizenship somewhere. What’ll Immigration tell me then? Si se puede.

So I pass through Immigration bpam bpam bpam (that’s Thai) without a word, so who knows: do they not know that maybe I overstayed? Do they not care? I didn’t want to ask for fear of getting the wrong result, so the mystery will remain so, at least until the next time. Still it’s bothersome. The last thing a traveler wants to worry about is his Immigration stamp. But that’s okay, since otherwise I’d feel pampered. If I admit to having AC, can I still keep my street cred? Without it that ceiling fan would have to be a Havilland Dash-8 turboprop to keep the air moving, like the one that kept the air moving beneath me last Thursday on the flight back to Barbados. Hell, I haven’t been without AC since Christmas in Guyana. Most of the places have cold showers, though, I swear, at least not very hot anyway. The TV really sucked, honest. Sometimes I disgust myself.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

SATORI IN PARAMARIBO- part 2, the Stranger's Nausea

So I blew off French Guyane all together, given the fact that it’s not a real country anyway- merely an overseas department of France- complete with French prices. Add to that the fact that every mile traveled out means another mile I must travel back- the motto after all IS ‘backpack, don’t backtrack’- since interior roads are few and far between in this undeveloped wilderness. So I decided I’d maybe just go to the border and make an unofficial crossing, withdraw enough Euros from the French ATM’s at a savings good enough to pay for the trip- I need Euros for Cuba- then come back. But that’s still extra miles and Lonely Planet says the best thing to do in the border town of Albina is leave, which is very uncharacteristic of the usually overly optimistic crew there. So when the US dollar suddenly gained against the Euro and I realized that I could withdraw fairly large amounts of local currency from the Paramaribo ATM’s and buy enough Euros right there in the local cambios, then why make a butt-busting trip just to save a few bucks and cover my future Kountry Kount in the unlikely event that Guyane Francaise might one day secede from the union? France is not likely to give up the Ariane launchpad at Kourou any time soon I don’t reckon, and more important than a slight exchange advantage is the fact that my E-trade bank- since it has no ATM’s of its own- charges you no service charge when you use those of others, even when they’re halfway around the world. Yes! You heard it here first. Don’t abuse it.

Actually if you have a multiple-entry Brazilian visa and don’t mind some travel uncertainties, you can now loop through the Guyanas overland without backtracking (too bad you don’t get five-year Brazil visas- like Suriname- along with your ‘reciprocity charge’). For now there’s a bridge from northeast Brazil into Guyane Francaise and after the overland route through Suriname you can exit (British) Guyana overland back into Brazil at Lethem going to Boa Vista on the road from Manaus. From there you could even enter Venezuela- impossible directly from Guyana itself- and continue on through the Venezuelan Amazon, maybe even finding the legendary waters which link the Orinoco with the Amazon River. Imagine the travel opportunities there for someone with a canoe and no life. Otherwise you’d have a long loop through Colombia or even further down the line to re-enter the Amazon and Brazil. Such are the things backpackers daydream of, not seeing every sight listed on the tourist brochures. For the traveler with more time than budget, the broad sweeps are more important than instant thrills and a list of ‘sights’. Traveling becomes a Zen-like experience full of the ‘suchness’ against which life occurs, an end in itself, rather than a thing to be consumed, digested, and… filed away.

While many backpackers may find their little epiphanies in encounters with other like-minded travelers, that’s not the only emotional sustenance available. While encounters with the local population may by definition be short, especially where language is an issue, that doesn’t mean they have to be shallow. We all speak the universal language of smiles after all, and that can go a long way sometimes. Even in large Muslim populations we’re all people of the Book, remember, and even with Hindus and Buddhists we’re all people of religion, even the so-called ‘atheists’ among us. Like a vaccination spreading in the surrounding population whether you actually got the jab, we’re all Christians whether baptized or not. If Jerry Garcia said nothing else prophetic (he didn’t write the lyrics remember), at least he said that. Still the market ladies probably felt a sigh of relief when I finally bought something this morning, proof that I wasn’t just up to no good, stalking them or something. Like the difference between wolves in the wild and dogs that have been tamed, we’ve all been transformed by the power of love, likely to trust a stranger in our midst until given a reason not to. It not only works emotionally, but it’s good for business, and crucial to an expanding universe. A universe reduced to contracting will eventually crash in upon itself.

Personally I like playing (carefully) with the dogs I find enroute, many of them homeless and living off market scraps. It’s not exactly ‘Dancing with Wolves’ or ‘Dog Whisperer”, but certainly better than ‘Sleeping with Dogs’, an unpublished screenplay I have yet to write. We’re a crucial part of their evolution. They need us. So I’m stuck in Nieuw Nickerie waiting for the ferry. Fortunately I allowed an extra day of snafu time so I should be okay. If I hadn’t stayed an extra day to change one last batch of SRD into Euros I might be there already, but that would mean three nights in Georgetown, hardly a thrill, and almost certainly costlier than where I am now. A hundred here and a hundred there can add up quickly, especially in a region that’s not especially cheap to begin with. All’s well that ends well, so I’m optimistic that there’ll be a ferry tomorrow as promised. If not, I’m royally f%$#@d, and hundreds of dollars of travel plans are at risk. I’m not surprised, having been stuck on the other side for three days- but that was Xmas and Boxing Day- still I might’ve planned differently had I even THOUGHT the ferry might take the day off. I persevere; it’s a Zen thing remember and this is a sesshin. The Chinese will build a bridge soon; mark my word.

Nieuw Nickerie is a nice enough place, but there’s not a lot to do here, just wander the market and nibble the local snacks and play with the dogs. The crappers here are the same as in Indonesia, presumably Dutch, but a strange design. They don’t drain from the rear, which seems logical, nor continually downward, but from the front with a shelf-like platform level for most of the area not so far under you. This means that as you take a crap the fruit of your labors is continually piling up under you, and when you finally flush, the water must actually lift the entire mess up and move it forward enough to plop it down the hole. Does that sound complicated enough? It’ll definitely leave enough of a smear to give my wife a hissie fit also. Maybe Europeans are stool watchers; I don’t know. If that’s the case, then Dutch toilets are just the thing for you. As you inspect the details of your internal life and digestion process you can even hum along the lyrics to the old 60’s dittie ‘I’m a Stool Watcher’ (“here comes one now, da dah da dah”). Anyone need a life besides me?

Then the bad news comes. The boat isn’t going tomorrow, and the next day… well, who knows? How can you really predict these things? I’m pissed, and I’m not even British… or drunk. Turns out the boat isn’t even the problem; it’s the road, a twenty-five mile stretch of pea gravel and sweat, a monument to uncertain ambitions and inherent reticence, as a bastard country enters the modern world walking backwards. How can a country be so lame and inefficient and incompetent that they can’t even keep a 40km. stretch of road- one of the country’s only two overland links to the outside world mind you- open and navigable? I could take one of the small boats that shuttle locals back and forth illegally, but there’s no guarantee I could get stamped into Guyana. The nice ladies at the Guyanese consulate suggest I get Suriname immigration to stamp me out and have them contact Guyana about stamping me in. I get a sick feeling like when a condom broke and shriveled up into a rubber band much faster than its over-zealous sponsor. It’s time to scramble, so I contact a travel agent and plan a tentative escape route. The best laid plans gang aft agley… sounds Dutch.

So that’s what I do, drop back and punt, changing travel plans as fast as I can. Fortunately the Christmas season is over or I’d be screwed. As it is I get my life back for under $300, so it could be worse. I go back to Paramaribo to catch a flight out, wanting nothing so much as to just leave, and never come back. I’ve seen some sloppy operations in my life but this is a cake-taker to be sure. To make it worse the mini-van driver has 80’s pop-schlock greatest hits playing at a full gigabel all the way back, over and over, grinning like some mongrel cretin from an Asian prison camp, eating noodles while barreling down the road at 130 clicks, dodging potholes the whole way. It figures, after watching the Indonesian crap MVDO’s that filter over here to nourish the Javanese diaspora. It’s not as bad as the bus driver in Tierra del Fuego a couple months ago, though. I swear he played some song by Marco Antonio Solis approximately twenty-seven times in succession until I almost memorized the words, though I still don’t know the title, something about ‘Poema de Amor’.

So I wake up in the middle of the night to go to piss and go to the airport, alternately angry and glad, check in and pass la migra like ringin’ a bell, then settle in here to check my e-mail. Then in a little while the damndest thing happens. The plane takes off a half hour early! And I thought I’d seen everything. So it’s not that the people are slow or uncaring; they’re just imprecise! Now I get it. I feel better.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


When I’m speechless (fortunately that doesn’t happen very often now, does it?) I’m forced to borrow lines from my favorite writers, praying to the gods of plagiarism and all clichés to forgive my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me (debts are another story). But Paramaribo is a traveler’s dream- one of those little unwashed gems tucked away in the farthest recesses of the globe’s folds and hidden faults. I stress the term ‘traveler’, as in ‘adventurer’, as opposed to the typical ‘tourist’, who might find Suriname’s offerings lacking in cache’. For all the world’s amazing cultural heritage sites and assorted architectonic treasures, most tourists are just looking for a sunny beach and some multi-colored cocktails at sunset, maybe a show or two to spice things up. True adventurers are looking for the ‘real thing’, life as lived by locals, though preferably in a state of exalted bliss. Suriname is one of those great unknowns, a question mark on the map, like Madagascar or Ethiopia or Cambodia or Yemen or maybe even Tunisia, awaiting discovery. With the exception of Tunisia, these places are not particularly easy to get to, nor necessarily easy even once you get there. Their pleasures are more subtle and you need some time.

I’ve been daydreaming about Suriname for years, enticed by the ethnic mix, but put off by the presence of a local dialect called ‘taki-taki’, which I assumed- wrongly, it turns out- to be some sort of pidgin (i.e. bad) English, destined to follow me around like some fart that just won’t go away. Mea culpa mea culpa mea culpa mea culpa hail Mary hail Mary hail Mary hail Mary. While Taki-taki, aka ‘Sranan Tongo’, is technically considered to be an English Creole, it goes back to the earliest days of colonialism and, unlike Jamaican or other Caribbean creoles which usually can be partially deciphered, is a complete mystery to me even when written. Unlike many other bilingual countries where languages fall within vertical lines separating different ethnic groups, the line between Dutch and Sranan Tongo is a horizontal one separating at least educational, if not social levels. In a country comprised of large percentages of Africans, Javanese, East Indians, and even some Amerindians, Taki-taki is the language of no single one, but of all. Still Dutch is the language of government, education and commerce, and educated native-born Guyanese, many of whom have been to the Netherlands, will speak it amongst themselves.

The big linguistic surprise in Suriname is that touts and hawkers will bark at me in Dutch and not English. This is especially surprising considering that English is widely studied and known, though outside of the rather small ‘tourist zone’ not likely to be used at you, unless you stand there at the cashier dumbfounded for more than about ten seconds. It’s also testament to the very low level of tourism here and the high percentage of those who are Dutch. I know this because for about the first three days I used nothing but the international lingua franca. That’s about my limit. Interestingly, though any counter help can take your money in English, those who actually speak it tend to speak fairly well, and this does NOT necessarily follow class lines. Now I’m studying Dutch, since I like the place and have a five-year visa. This is interesting, since I’ve never studied a Germanic language (except English) and, except for Frisian, it’s the major European language closest to English. The goal is to have a conversation in Dutch before the week is out. Whatever, I’ll survive. I can always try Bahasa with the warung people or Mandarin with the Chinese if I get desperate. Hunger speaks every language.

Oh yeah, then there’s the Chinese. Their presence here is out of all proportion to their numbers, as it is elsewhere also. I don’t remember the phenomenon of the ‘Chinese grocery’ in my early years of travel in Latin America, but that could be my fault of memory, or it could be that they’re multiplying in exponential proportion with China’s new economic clout. They were certainly mentioned in the book ‘The Mosquito Coast’ and they certainly like keeping business in the family as much as possible, so new realities ‘back home’ could have a huge ripple effect (interestingly Koreans will even go places that give the Chinese pause, like Guatemala City and South LA). But here the Chinese influence is even greater than normal. There’s a huge Chinese ‘Tong’ association occupying a prominent corner in town, as large as any in Thailand btw, and they seem to own almost ALL the businesses, not just the grocery stores and trinket shops. They may very well have come in originally with the Indonesians (though usually referred to as ‘Javanese’), given that rice and noodle dishes are universally known as ‘nasi’ and ‘bamie’, whether warung or Chinese or ‘roti shop’ and the steamed buns are ‘saw paw’, same as Indonesia if I remember correctly.

The old waterfront of Paramaribo has been declared a UN world heritage site and justifiably so. It’s strikingly beautiful and unique, truly one-of-a-kind, suggesting nothing so much as… maybe… grab a beer and have a seat… antebellum Mississippi? Huh? If the buildings had yards, they’d be almost identical. As it is they front the street in continental style. The tall white Greek columns are there. The red brick, white shiplap, and green shutters are there, like the tri-color flag for unrealistic expectations and broken dreams. The derelict ‘servants’ quarters are not far away, fallen into ruin, fallen into the footnotes of history. If this suggests a sleepy backwater, the modern reality is a bit different. Hotels and casinos dot the landscape like a little mini Las Vegas, presumably to amuse the Chinese, gamblers from way back who apparently invented playing cards as well as paper money, likely the same thing originally. I can’t imagine high-rollers rolling in here to get lucky. It’s still a backwater, even if not so sleepy anymore.

Then there’s New Year. New Year here is pretty wild. My first three days in Paramaribo I stayed in a great little place a half hour’s walk from downtown called Guest House Amice that had everything you could ever want for the price of a U$ Grant- Internet, full breakfast, AC, in–room coffee & tea, and as spic-and-span as my German grandmother would have it. If anything it was just TOO nice. I was afraid of losing street cred with you, my readers. You don’t want to hear about what’s happening ‘in there’; you want to hear what’s happening ‘out there’, right? So I reluctantly moved into the center of town yesterday 30 Jan., even lying to the inn keepers that I was going on to Guyane Francaise so as not to hurt their feelings. Can you believe that? But I was right. There was a huge street party last night and today was even crazier, crowds in the street by mid-morning drinking and dancing and partying to the local music, much of it quite good. Lyrics are all in taki-taki.

Then there’s the Chinese again. Somewhere sometime along the way they brought their fireworks with them, not elaborate sky-high displays mind you, but reams and reams of firecracker ‘rounds’, ready to unroll and be set off like gunfire in Palestine, leaving burnt red paper and a few near-deafened ears in the literal wake. You’d think they just invented gunpowder or something. The noise is deafening. Car alarms routinely go off from the percussion waves unleashed. Traffic stops mid-street like when the national anthem plays in Thailand. There you have to go to Chinese cemeteries on Ching Ming Day to see displays like this. But it’s moved way beyond the Chinese community in Suriname now, though they still profit from sales of the red devils in their stores. Everybody’s doing it now, from official functions on down. It seems as if everything must be blessed and christened by the purifying noise. It seems as if the mentality is ‘just one more’ or maybe ‘mine is bigger than yours’…

New Year’s Eve is actually an anti-climax. By sunset the party’s largely dissipated and has degenerated into roaming bands of teens indiscriminately lighting firecrackers. I go back to my crib. Outside the noise crescendos until what must be midnight, then finally dies out… until daybreak, when it starts up again. New Year’s Day is like death itself, nothing open but the biggest hotels and a few stalls that normally cater to tourists. So I sit and study Dutch while watching BBC and al-Jazeera in my cheap hotel, where I’ve got a fridge and a water kettle and even a kitchen sink complete with dishes, almost like home, except no wi-fi and no wifey. Fortunately I stocked up on groceries already, instant noodles and eggs and onions and papayas and mangoes and a couple of smoked fish at a buck each. You can do a lot with a water kettle. You should see me with a microwave. Finally Tang calls on my emergency world phone to wish me a Happy New Year while she waits for the Gold Line train to go to Pasadena. She and her immigrant Thai friends heard there’s a party there so decided to check it out, something about a football game. Life’s weird.

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