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Tiny Suriname a world of diverse cultures

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Paramaribo may be the only city in the world where you'll find a mosque next to a synagogue.

The spectacle that is this city's Central Market could be a metaphor for the cultural melange that is Suriname.

In stalls outside under the blazing equatorial sun, an ethnic mix of vendors offered fresh and smoked fish, fruits and vegetables, fish eggs, Barbie as Rapunzel-themed shopping bags. There was a slot for a barber, and there's Ping's Restaurant.

Inside, the air was heavy and had a vaguely unpleasant smell. Fish mongers chopped away at their vacant-eyed, 2-foot-long catches. A gutted armadillo lay on its back, awaiting a customer. In another huge room, prepared food was for sale. A pharmacy offered conventional fare along with folk potions and herbal remedies.

And throughout there was the din of languages: Dutch (the official language), Sranan Tongo (the local Creole dialect), Hindi, Javanese and the languages of the Maroon and Amerindian natives.

Our guide for the day, Njoek (sounds like Nuke), effortlessly shifted from English to Dutch to whatever as she sweet-talked vendors into letting my girlfriend and me photograph them. And she sweet-talked us into trying peanuts, ginger beer, a coffee cake-like delicacy called viado and pastei, a meat pie of chicken, carrots and peas.

Suriname, which was Dutch Guiana until 1954, sits on South America's northeast coast, with French Guiana to the east, Guyana to the west and Brazil to the south. For a country of only about half a million, it has an amazing diversity of cultures. The Dutch colonized it in the 1600s and used slave labor from Africa to grow coffee, sugar cane and cotton on plantations. They abolished slavery in the mid-1800s and turned to indentured workers from Indonesia, China and India.

Today this amalgam of cultures exists amicably. Paramaribo may be the only city in the world where you'll find a mosque next to a synagogue and the intersection of Indira Gandhi/JFK Highway with MLK Highway.

In late March, we spent 11 days exploring this mix of cultures, history and the Amazon jungle through the Complete Suriname, a package put together by the Great Canadian Travel Co.

Late in the afternoon of our first day in Paramaribo (pronounced Par-uh-MAR-ih-bo), culture and nature combined on the Suriname River as we watched pink dolphins swim amid a cluster of fishermen in small boats. Snowy egrets perched here and there on the boats, hoping to snatch a fish when nets were pulled in.

A bit later our guide Landi motored up a narrow channel to a small village on land that had been a plantation. In the mangroves that lined the waterway, an orange howler monkey jumped through the foliage just above our heads.

The next day, "oooohs" and "ahhhhhs" erupted as large blue morpho butterflies occasionally flitted ahead of our narrow motorized canoes on tiny Warappa Creek. We were staying overnight in modest (but air-conditioned) lodgings at the nearby small settlement of Bakkie. Sampling another culture, our dinner was roti, an Indian dish of chicken and potatoes with a curry sauce, eaten by wrapping it in chunks of flatbread.

Most of the land in this area once was plantations, and it is crisscrossed by footpaths and small canals that irrigated the crops. While walking a path the next morning, our guide Yves chatted with a local farmer sitting on his front porch, sorting through beans he had harvested. In a day's time, he said, he would pick through about 65 pounds of beans, discarding the bad ones.

The country's Maroon culture began to develop in the 1600s, when African slaves escaped the plantations, fleeing into the jungle to set up their own societies. Today they may venture into Paramaribo to sell their produce or find work, but villages such as Santigron, south of the capital, remain insular and primitive. On the day we visited there were few people out, and our guide Juergen warned that our cameras weren't welcome, at least not until he greased a few palms.

A Maroon woman grudgingly consented to be photographed as she washed clothes in a bucket while her toddler solemnly watched from the porch, thumb firmly planted in mouth.

A plane ride away, a more modern culture mixes with nature at Kabalebo, an eco-resort in the wilds of the Amazon rain forest in west-central Suriname. From our single-engine plane, the rain forest canopy stretched to the horizon, unbroken save for the occasional snaking river. People and supplies get there only by plane, and the nearest village is 90 miles away.

Nature doesn't give up its secrets here as readily as in a National Geographic film. A toucan teasingly flew into a tree on the resort grounds, then as quickly disappeared. On a jungle path, macaws flitted through the treetops, cackling mockingly. The occasional spider monkey swung high above.

But on two nights we watched in fascination as two ocelots warily chowed down on meat that had been placed out for them at the edge of the resort.

That adventure is worth the trip.

After our days in the rain forest, what else was there to do but be on top of the rain forest? Fishing for piranha and peacock bass was ostensibly the reason for our visit to Brokopondo Reservoir, but the landscape is what really attracted us.

This is one of the world's largest reservoirs, and it covers more than 600 square miles of what used to be villages and vast areas of rain forest. Just the rain forest's ghosts remain. At times the depth finder on our boat showed the water to be 130 feet deep, yet the remnants of thousands of trees still jutted toward the sky, creating a wonderfully surreal picture.

No fish to take home that day. Just memories.

If you go

Getting there: Surinam Airways and Insel Air fly to Paramaribo from Miami. Round-trip fares are apt to be in the $700 range, including taxes and fees.

The trip: The Complete Suriname package from the Great Canadian Travel Co. is priced from $2,345 per person double occupancy for 10 days/nine nights. We extended our trip by one day/night so we could go to Brokopondo Reservoir. The package price includes lodging in Paramaribo, Bakkie and Kabalebo; various guided tours; round-trip air to/from Kabalebo; activities in Kabalebo and all meals there. 800-661-3830, tinyurl.com/kjtopwl

The essentials: In addition to routine vaccines, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov) recommends travelers to Suriname be inoculated for hepatitis A, typhoid and yellow fever. Malaria medication is also a good idea.

The Surinamese dollar (worth about 30 cents U.S.) is the official currency, though some prices are quoted in euros or U.S. dollars.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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