Tuesday, January 17, 2012


So what better way for a world traveler to start a new year than on a new continent?

Oh, sorry, let me start with, this is Savannah making a short interruption in Ammon’s wonderful stories. I haven’t written in so long and thought I’d share our (Kees + SV) Surinam trip...I feel slightly guilty having not written more because I have done lots of travelling since the end of the big family trip. I’ve been lucky enough, living so central, to visit an additional 20 or so European countries, Turkey and Jamaica as well as an exceptional road trip in Canada after Sky’s Las Vegas wedding.

As we are both what you could consider world travellers, or world citizens, depending on which you prefer, we have put Surinam on the top of our lists. I must admit, truly and genuinely, that I did find myself slightly unsettled with this quick conclusion. We went on what Id’ call a paradise tour of Suriname which strangely enough was the reason for the feeling. Now, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely enjoyed every second of being pampering and spoiled, but mentally there was something wrong. “Betrayal” and “guilt” were filling me. Yes, that is exactly it! I realized.

Is Suriname really as great as it seems or is it only the comforts of fancy hotels, a/c and getting taken care of like drooling babies that made it so nice? Would I have thought differently about countries such as Egypt if I’d done it in this same fashion? Am I truly getting the real feel for Surinam? And most of all, Am I cheating and not really here at all? But all I could do was observe and take note of the things I saw and experienced. And what I saw and experienced was wonderful!

We found ourselves on a ten hour journey crossing the Atlantic to Suriname, a first for both of us. The humidity swallowed us the second we stepped out of the airplane and climbed down to the pavement, the sun setting behind us.

One of those guys was waiting, holding up a sign, the kind that I would have thought a hundred times before would never have MY name on it. But there it was, “Ms. Watkins and Mr. Kleef” being held up right outside of arrivals waiting for me! That’s how it all started.

We had already pre-booked everything at an agency at home choosing whichever tour we pleased. I have to admit it was lucky we had because we were actually more clueless than any man has the right to be. We literally stepped on the plane in Amsterdam with no thought of what to expect which is perhaps what made my packing job so difficult the night before. The only thing we had to worry about was being on time, which for us (living part time “in the clouds”) is more of a challenge than the average person/couple. Perhaps we both never truly overcame “African time”... but we did catch our plane, and the next one, and the next and the next and the next and even the one after that, and all of the tours in between! That in itself made it more than a success.

The luggage was rolled (yes ROLLED, not carried) in to Best Western the first of four hotels we’d visit in the capital. We were shown to our very luxurious room where Kees promptly realized he’d forgotten the battery charger for the camera... “I told you the only important things were passport, money and camera!” “I didn’t forget it. I gave it to you.” “no you didn’t” “yes I did” “why would you give it to me instead of just packing it?” so, just barely escaping an argument, we went hand in hand to explore the streets of Paramaribo by night. Late New Years fireworks burst into the air, as if to welcome us to South America, our fifth continent together.

The next morning, bright and early we were picked up and driven to a little domestic airport. We were escorted past the entryway overcrowded with shouting locals and taxis, through the first waiting room and into the isolated air conditioned room where we could sit peacefully away from any chaos. I couldn’t believe it was me getting “protected from the outside world”. I couldn’t decide if I was pleased, embarrassed or guilty. This would be one of many times I’d think; this is totally cheating, right? But I didn’t need to ask, I knew.

I was neither surprised nor comforted by the 20 passenger twin otter plane we were taking into the jungle. Having just barely survived the last, I convinced myself that the domestic flights yet to come were less scary because at 9,500 ft you don’t need cabin pressure, one less switch to forget (one of my many fears involving flying).

I had to force myself to watch as we took off. Knowing the landing wasn’t going to be an improvement only made my heart pound and my stomach was full of hopping grasshoppers. The capital city all short and spread out disappeared within minutes and there was nothing below but dense green and meandering chocolate rivers for the next solid hour. Even during our short decent there was nothing, nothing, nothing but a tangle of green. As we came lower and lower I began to see the details of vines and leaves and branches but at the very last split second a tiny piece of grass gave us mercy and we arrived safely in Palumeu. This was Kees’ choice for the Amerindian village located in the tropical rainforest a short walk from our resort which consisted of a straw covered open hut with a small bar, few wooden tables, chairs and hammocks, and then about five wooden guest cabins overlooking the river. All in all I’d say there were 30 people on the resort including staff. It was like the jungle version of our family’s Maldives trip. It had a very relaxed, trusting atmosphere where even the doors of the cabins had no locks.

They provided us with as much comfort as was possible and considering how “out in the middle of nowhere” it was, I was impressed by the luxury of running water and electricity (although there were no plugs in the rooms and we had to charge batteries in the main hut...oh wait, we didn’t have a battery to charge...). Had I been under Ammon’s rule, we’d have had to walk one week through the jungle sleeping under logs, building fires and making gourmet meal out of worms and monkey brains before getting there in the first place.

The water in the rooms came straight from the river. Some might think that showering with murky brown water (you’d never realize unless you looked at it pooling around your feet) wouldn’t be considered getting proper clean, but in comparison to the wetwipe showers I’d be getting on Ammon’s straggly shoestrings I was more than grateful. The icy cold was a familiar feeling that brought me back to the old life and I can say I made do with a lot less “eeeh aahhh arooooohaa” screaming than Kees.

Our guide, Nootje, (The best I can do phonetically for that name is note-cha) was very friendly and quite a character. Every night he would sit our group of 19 down and explain what the following day would consist of along with a list of what to bring/wear. Everyday breakfast was at 7:30, lunch around 1:00, dinner at 7:00 pm and pretty much everything in between was booked with jungle walks, boat tours and swimming. This holiday was less relaxing than my usual life at home and it was the first time in years I have been on a schedule and it felt great...why do I always feel I’m living backwards?

Swimming with piranhas was something I was able to tick off my bucket list but it was much more anticlimactic than I’d expected, probably because I didn’t have to work up the courage to get in the water (no more than the usual needed to swim with fish)...I didn’t even know I was swimming with piranhas until they pulled one in on a hook and line and I realized it wasn’t by coincidence when they pulled a new one in on every fourth cast. I swam and I survived, so I knew I’d swim and I’d survive again. But we got our fill (literally) swimming, fishing and eating them.

Kees was underwhelmed by the piranhas because he thinks there are just aggressive kinds (implying these were the non-aggressive kind) and even then it’s very unlikely they’d eat you. I think they are dangerous and if they decide to eat you, you’re hooped because they have honker sharp teeth and swim in schools and from the size they were pulling out of the river...I would not want to go in with a wound, as the locals did warn they would be attracted to blood. Eeps! Not a good place to miscalculate your time of the month! They did explain to us, after much questioning from Kees, that the river rises and then when it lowers again they can get stuck in shallow pools where there is no access to food and begin to starve, in that case, yes the horror movies would most likely become a reality.

I loved walking back to our room at night when all the big toads came out, sitting underneath the dimly lit torches along the dirt path. I really couldn’t keep my hands off all the little creatures we found, frogs, crabs, fish, a dead bird and I think Kees was relieved we didn’t find the anaconda otherwise I’d have tried to pick that up too.

Our rooms had such dim lighting that it forced us to sleep early. Every morning our alarm went at 5:30am, and we’d snooze for an hour.

The beaches were so beautiful with the most fine, smooth sand with no rocks or twigs or growth in the river. Nootje, our friendly guide, was very informative and talked about the plants and animals. One of the most fascinating parts was the medicine tour where we discovered all kinds of hidden treasures mother earth has to offer.

Vines, out of the hundreds I don’t know how you’d tell which is which, had many more uses than I ever thought. One was the equivalent of garlic in smell and medicinal purposes. He cut off a piece and it smelled so strong, spicy with a real bite but tasted herbier and better than garlic. Another smelled like almond, a leaf like anise, if you just closed your eyes you would never know the differences. Certain leaves if crushed could be used for purple dye, a particular red bark could be crushed to powder to heal wounds. Another bark could be pealed into perfect strips for bandaids or smoking papers. Another was a very bitter, bitter, BITTER tree that if used can prevent and even cure malaria!

I was more than taken aback when Nootje explained that since the Amerindian villages were converted to Christianity, the church has forbidden the people from using these wonderful gifts god has given us.

Even more surprised was I when he said the medicinal companies make drugs that sometimes make you sick with all the fake chemicals but then they just change the name, dye it another color and split the dose in half, making them twice as much profit. You cannot patent these natural herbs and therefore cannot make as much money. Okay, sounds like a conspiracy coming up but I don’t want to get sidetracked. Instead, I will tell you that again we thought it was no big deal going into a malaria zone for such a short time without prevention...until we learned that everyone else was taking some...oops! I was almost cutting out a chunk of bark for myself. Hopefully neither of us gets sick and dies.

The most fascinating thing for me was all of the different kinds of mushrooms. There were hardly any bugs or flies bothering us, as we’d expected and I wondered if the tour included paying them off. How did they know we were on a GGT?

The nights were filled with rustling of bats in our roof, frogs croaking, crickets singing and big rats creeping out of the walls to investigate our luggage. One night Kees woke me to ask “Do you hear them?! Do you hear the rats?” obviously he was struggling to sleep through their antics and I didn’t appreciate the little gifts they left behind in the morning. Day broke with another cacophony of parrots, cicadas, the occasional howler monkey and other squawking birds. I couldn’t decide if the noises were soothing or annoying, especially when trying to sleep.

With five days ahead of us we used the camera very sparingly but still managed to get away with lots of beautiful pictures, which wasn’t hard in a place as beautiful and peaceful as Palumeu.

The flight out of there was the worst of all six, for whatever reason (possibly the whole table talking about planes and skydiving and crashes at lunch) and I just broke down and cried like a pathetic baby. Luckily I have a big, strong, most loving man who just tucked me under his arm and kept me safe the whole way. And he had the sense not to laugh at me, as he would have in most other cases.

So this leads me to one of my main questions...does this trip count for a line? Yes, flying doesn’t count, I know, but in my defence, didn’t I earn it by facing one of my biggest fears and being so brave? I mean, I would have much preferred to have driven.

Picked up and dropped off at the Krasnapolsky Hotel which was so unbelievably glossy and we got escorted up the elevator to our room and treated like some kind of important people. After repacking stinky, moldy, sour clothes for fresh ones (we were only allowed 7kg each on the airplanes so had to leave one of our suitcases in the capital) we went out to buy a new camera and sunscreen. We both managed to get fried the first day and made a really cute little lobster couple but luckily Pam, an American visiting with her parents and Surinam husband, rescued us with her 40spf sunscreen.

Paramaribo, surprisingly, was a really great city. I, again, was struggling to decide if it was the style in which we were travelling (or should I say holidaying) that gave me the good feeling or was it truly as nice as it seemed. But I could not deny the local people were exceptionally friendly and helpful. The women were all so giggly and sweet. I thought it was a really interesting city because it is made up of many cultures. Surinam is one of few Dutch speaking countries, which was very strange for Kees who found it confusing and even difficult to speak his mother tongue and have them understand. For me, nothing in that department changed, I still had to try and understand the Dutch or tell them “sorry, ik spreek engels” or “mijn nederlands niet zo goed is!” but surprisingly, despite what Kees may tell you, I think I’m picking it up pretty well.

Hindustanen 37%, 19th century contract workers who immigrated as well as the 15% Javanese (Indonesian background) and Surinamese Creoles 31% (West African origins) who were mainly brought over as slaves.

Slave forts could be seen on a short walk along the coast but we didn’t have time to stop and look. I was just researching some stuff and found out that “In 1788, slaves numbered fifty thousand out of a total population of fifty-five thousand, yet there were not many slave rebellions” crazy!!

What I loved most was how they were still expressing those cultures. The Hindis have kept their bindhis, nose rings, gold bands and jewellery. The Surinamese Creoles often had long dreadlocks and huge, huge round melon butts. The Asian group was so pale and soft.

It was fun to spot all of the different religious buildings (Hindu temples, Christian churches, Islamic Mosques etc), and was a nice way of refreshing both our memories.

We were not subjected to any staring but Kees was hit on more than me for a change. I found myself being used as a human shield against the girls licking their lips and wiggling their bottoms at him, lol. A very relaxed, easy going place with what looked like really good shopping. The houses were mostly made of wood which Kees always loves to see in comparison to the brick homes in Holland. But I found it interesting that there were so many decrepit wood houses with ruffled tin fences, rusted and falling apart in comparison to the big mansions.

It was a relief to feel comfortable wearing shorts or little dresses. There were no restrictions and anyone could wear what they wanted. There are so many hot tropical countries that are conservative which no offense, kind of ruin the privilege of living in a warm location.

Our flight to Kabalebo which is an hour South West, was taken in a tiny, 12 passenger Caravan (Canadian built which made me feel a bit better). My whining over the one propeller on the nose instead of two under the wings, had Kees telling me that the Caravan was more stable and has a bigger engine. I would have thought he was lying to comfort me had the pilot not confirmed it. With my head squeezed in his armpit I didn’t want to hear or feel or know anything and especially didn’t want to watch as we approached big black clouds.

As soon as we arrived at the resort, hidden amongst the dense jungle, we learned that the guide had the exact same camera as our first and to our dismay realized we’d left that camera in the suitcase in Paramaribo. DOH! But we were grateful to have one at all, even if it was poorer quality.

We were welcomed with a little note on our bed “Watkins S. And Kleef C.” Kabalebo was much more set up than Palumeu with better lighting, hot water, a swimming pool etc. but was less atmospheric and we found ourselves quickly missing Nootje and his expertise.

One of the coolest things was an airplane overgrown and being eaten by the trees that had to make a crash landing in the 1950’s/ 1960’s. It was straight out of an Indiana Jones movie or a set on Universal Studios and was just a few steps into the jungle from our room.

There, between dugout canoe rides on the river, nature walks and a 8 hr. hike to the top of Misty Mountain we found a few caimans, one giant hamster thing called capybara, possum, many beautiful big macaw parrots, toucans, frogs, vivid green and blue lizards, more mushrooms J and freshly caught piranhas for dinner.

I got my first ever tick, and was pleased to find one on my pillow, along with a giant mosquito...and wondered who was more likely to kill me.

On one night drive with the golf cart on the grass runway we spotted one of many tarantula holes. Tarantulas, from what I know, live their whole lives on a very small perimeter and only come out at night to hunt, but again, they don’t go far. So that is another Hollywood monster that doesn’t seem so threatening after all. As soon as we drove up it ran back in its hole. Kees promptly set up his camera and flashlight next to it and we drove off again in hopes of catching the ugly hairy creature on film. We were very satisfied with the results!

On the way back to the Paramaribo Kees was our co-pilot and got some great footage out the front windshield. After a quick sleep we were on the road in a rented car driving 3-4 hrs west to Nieuwe Nickerie with only the occasional “Kees! You’re on the wrong side of the road!” We also were persistent on finding off roading roads, which only lead us to an expensive car washing fee at the end of the trip. Having driven all the way west we came within 20 minutes of Guyana’s border and were on our way to the ferry crossing when some locals informed us that the last one had already left. Shucks! With our flight leaving to Amsterdam the following day, we decided that was one appointment we better not take risk. We stayed the night in Nickerie and went on another motorized dugout canoe to Bigipan and saw vivid flocks of red ibises and had our agent sort us a meal with caiman. Having both tried alligator...maybe it was crocodile... we were surprised at how very different caiman tasted. In contrast to the fatty, fishy taste of crocodile this was exactly how they say, “water chicken”/ “water kip”. I’m still in question whether it was really caiman or if they just gave us some giant bush rat to shut us up. We drove back to Paramaribo and stayed in a very nice hotel, had a very fancy last dinner before packing up and leaving the next day.

I forgot to mention we somehow fit in going to the zoo in all that. Wild monkeys climbing on the bars of caged monkeys and funnily enough I saw my very first wild sloth hanging above in a tree.

We will definitely be making another trip to Surinam someday, probably sooner than later :)



At 10:59 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ammon, Savannah and Kees!!!!
Finally got my head above water after the move, and look to see if the blog is up, and it is like Christmas. Crap that reminds me I have to write your Mom, I completely forgot. Sorry Maggie!!! Anyways totally enjoyed the bloggs they are great. What a contrast between Savannah's and Ammon's. I think Ammon should be in S.America enjoying the travell, africa sound bleary actually.
Anyways, I rejoice at the return of the bloggs!!!

Love and Big Bear Hugs
The Bear

At 8:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oho! I have some writing competition now!
Loved reading the blog and really wish you'd kept up with it all along...

At 6:23 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Savannah, Thanks for deciding to post the much longer version of your trip. I really enjoyed the interesting info! Hey, I thought you two went to Greece too!


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