With a little help we reach Suriname. It’s lovely people, amazing wildlife, rich history, and cultural diversity make our stay truly stunning.

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Ilha dos Lençois (BRA) – Paramaribo (SUR)

“Palm trees in sight, we’re almost there!” Ivar shouts to wake up Floris. We are on passage from Brazil to Suriname and have planned a stopover at the Îles du Salut off the coast of French Guiana. But when we start the engine to approach the anchorage, something strange happens. A loud, sharp sound permeates the cockpit, followed by the smell of burnt rubber. Shocked, Floris immediately turns off the engine. “We’ll have to drop anchor without the engine”, Ivar quickly decides. That’s easier said than done. In the sheltered bay between the islands the wind subsides, while a strong current pushes the boat away from the shore.

“Here will do”, Floris says as he drops the anchor. It’s not the most sheltered spot but the best we can achieve. As soon as the anchor is set, Floris lowers the mainsail and Ivar inspects the engine. He doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary but when he turns the ignition key, the same terrible noise and smell of burnt rubber follow. “I think the cooling water pump is broken, which causes the V-belt to slip and overheat”, is his preliminary conclusion. He disassembles the pump to find it no longer turning. Unfortunately, we cannot open the pump to inspect its interior, and we don’t have a spare pump. Without cooling water, the hot exhaust fumes will damage our exhaust hose in no-time. There’s no way we can use the engine. Yet our next destination, Suriname, calls for quite some engine hours, as the marina is far upriver. How will we possibly navigate the Suriname River without engine?

Longboat Sandwich

“Let’s try to sail”, Ivar suggests. Floris is skeptical but suppresses his worries while we explore our surroundings. The islands are a historian’s paradise, as they still boast buildings from when the islands served as France’s penal colony. They once hosted France’s most famous political prisoner Alfred Dreyfus. We also get up close with monkeys, agoutis, and iguanas – we are clearly in the tropics! We set sail again when the wind picks up, enabling us to leave without using the engine.

A few days of pleasant sailing later, the low-lying coast of Suriname appears on the horizon. A strong breeze blows, so we can sail up the river mouth, as Ivar had hoped. Still, we have to fight for each mile as the wind steadily drops and a strong current runs against us. Just before darkness falls, we must admit defeat. We have made it as far Nieuw Amsterdam, just south of the capital Paramaribo, and anchor next to the old fort. “Let’s try again tomorrow”, Ivar sighs. Yet, the next morning there is not a breath of wind. “Maybe a fisherman can tow us to Marina Waterland?” Ivar hopes. “We can’t count on that”, Floris rebuts. “It’s thirty miles upriver. We cannot rely on another sailboat either. The first cruisers we know won’t arrive for another five days.”

We decide to ask the Marina Waterland’s harbour master Noël for help. He immediately arranges for two longboats to assist around low tide. Their skippers attach their slender wooden ships firmly on either side of Luci. In sandwich formation they tow us upstream. We follow the river’s winding course past Paramaribo, under the gigantic Wijdenbosch Bridge, and into a lush, green landscape. Thick vegetation along the river’s banks conceals former plantations with Dutch names like Peperpot, De Hoop, Vreeland and Domburg.

Helping Hands

When we finally arrive at the floating jetty of Marina Waterland, the current is still quite strong. “How do we get Luci into a berth without damage to the boats or pontoons?” Ivar worries. Fortunately, the longboat skippers know what they’re doing. They maneuver the entire sandwich into the berth. Noël is observing the spectacle, flanked by Jacqueline and Jeroen, the Dutch crew of the only other boat in the marina, SY Lonna. With their assistance, we moor Luci without any problems. What a relief to have made it!

Over welcome drinks in the resort-style surroundings, Noël tells us that he has arranged transport to Paramaribo so we can rapport to the maritime authorities. The marina’s Wi-Fi is down, but our newest friends Jacqueline and Jeroen generously make their Starlink internet connection available to us. We instantly feel at home at the marina and are grateful for all those helping hands.

Misery and Hope

After a brief visit to the maritime authorities, it’s time to explore Suriname. Across the river from Paramaribo, our first destination is Peperpot, the former plantation. It is now a nature reserve where monkeys roam free, and trees and plants have taken over. At the reserve’s small but insightful museum, we learn more about the area’s miserable colonial history. From the 17th century onwards hundreds of thousands of enslaved people were shipped from Africa to be exploited here, often by Dutch plantation owners. Before a plantation produced coffee or sugar, years had to be spent deforesting the land and digging ditches, all by hand. We try to imagine how incredibly hard the work must have been. Add to that the sweltering heat, biting insects, and harsh living conditions and it’s understandable why many enslaved people tried to escape this misery, despite the threat of cruel punishments. Those who made it – the Maroons – moved into the rainforest and founded villages there.

Our next stop is the open-air museum of Fort Nieuw Amsterdam. Here, too, we learn about the former Dutch colony’s past, as displayed by tools of the sugar cane production, a plantation mansion, and former jail. The cells have been transformed into exhibition spaces, each dedicated to an ethnic group of Surinamese people, such as the indigenous, the Dutch colonizers, and the African slaves. But there are many more. When slavery in the Dutch colonies was abolished in 1863, and another ten years had passed before the enslaved were truly free, the plantation owners needed new laborers. Many former slaves did not want to work for their old masters. As a result, people were recruited overseas, mainly in Asia. Indians, Javanese, and Chinese came to Suriname to try their luck as indentured labourers. They all contributed to the mix of cultures that is still present today. Many speak their own language at home, while Dutch (the country’s official language) and Sranan Tongo (the lingua franca) are used to communicate between people of different ethnic backgrounds.

When we walk through Paramaribo, we still see the cultural diversity. Wooden buildings from the colonial period, elaborate Hindu temples, and modern Chinese shops are the principal eye-catchers. A synagogue and mosque stand side by side, without security guards. We see Maroons, Creoles, Indians, Chinese, and Javan people in the streets, even a few indigenous. As we enjoy the tastiest roti we have ever eaten, we realize how special and monumental the abolition of slavery was, not just for Suriname’s demographics. The abolition was possible because our collective sense of humanity was stronger than the economic interests of the ruling elite. This realization strengthens our belief that humanity can also solve today’s sustainability crises.

Family of Friends

Although Suriname became an independent republic in 1975, the country’s ties with the Netherlands are still strong. Many inhabitants are Dutch citizens or have family in the Netherlands. Such is the case for Ben, Astrid and Chantal. They are family of our Dutch friends Erwin and Caroll. To our delight they invite us to Julia’s, a lovely restaurant in downtown Paramaribo. More of these lovely occasions would follow over the course of our stay. From them we learn a lot about the history, day-to-day life, and contemporary challenges of this fascinating country. We cannot thank them enough for their great hospitality!

Long Live the Rainforest

Meanwhile, we have received good news from the Netherlands: our friend Herbert has found a new cooling water pump for the engine. Helping hand Noël arranges the transport. While we wait for the shipment, we can explore Suriname’s interior. We join an organized tour that takes us to a base camp in the forest. From there, the trip continues on foot with Fabian, our guide. Along the way he tells us about the trees and plants we encounter, including their medicinal or cultural uses. The last bit is an uphill climb to the top of the Fredberg, named after its discoverer Fred, Fabian’s brother. From the summit we admire the sunset over the endless green of the Surinamese rainforest. Despite a recent increase in logging, more than 90% of Suriname still has forest cover, and it shows. The light above the green splendor changes from warm yellow to deep orange, while a pair of macaws fly past. Through Fabian’s telescope we can admire nature op close. With his sharp eye and fabulous knowledge of the natural world, he shows us the most iconic birds, including the rare cock of the rock. He also takes us on an evening hike. Along the way we not only see millions of flying insects, a sight that has become rare in urban environments, but also various snakes, spiders, scorpions and even a caiman. The immense biodiversity dazzles us.

No Rush

After the rainforest expedition we head to Jaw Jaw, a remote village where descendants of escaped enslaved people live. To get there, we travel to the end of the road. The small town of Atjoni is a transport hub, where hundreds of people are changing from road transport to longboats that travel up and down the Suriname River. We, too, get into one of the longboats and are amazed at how fast those things can go if they don’t have to tow a heavy steel sailboat! Ivar admires the skipper, who skillfully avoids unmarked rocks and shallows while slaloming upriver. We get off at Jaw Jaw and realize that the river is the only connection between the villages along its banks and the rest of the country.

On shore our host Bele takes us to a beautiful little cabin, our home for the next two nights. He explains that he lived in the Netherlands for a long time but returned to his native village, where people live in many ways like they have always done. Thanks to him and his brother we get to know several villagers from the small, hospitable community. We celebrate a birthday with them and go for a walk through the village. A woman bakes bread from cassava root flour and explains that the cassava comes from her own vegetable garden. The villagers are close to self-sustaining. They catch fresh fish in the river, hunt for bushmeat, and pick bananas, coconuts and papayas from the trees. Life is simple here and no one is in a rush. It’s a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the urbanized world.

Sloth Rescue

Back in the urbanized world, we learn which effects urbanization has on Suriname’s wildlife when we visit the “Sloth Wellness Center”. It was set up by the NGO Green Heritage Fund Suriname (GHFS), whose founder Monique Pool is locally known as the “sloth lady.” She and her team rescue these iconic animals from the effects of deforestation and urbanisation. “We try to help sloth with this Wellness Center!” Monique beams as she leads us around the facility just outside the village Groningen. “Rescued sloths can catch their breath here, eat in peace and receive any necessary medical care before we release them back into the wild.” She stresses the importance of wildlife for the forest. “Sloths are not only beautiful, but also useful animals. They play an important role in Suriname’s ecosystem because they disperse tree seeds. If sloths do well, the forest does well,” she explains. “And vice versa. Sloths and other wildlife need a healthy forest to thrive. In other words, to rescue wild animals we are foremost committed to preserving the forest.”

Monique says that although Suriname is a country with a very high percentage of forest cover, the forest is under threat from urbanization and exploitation for timber and minerals. Indeed, some value the forest only in economic terms and disregard its ecological benefits. “People don’t realize sufficiently how dependent we humans are on nature. We cannot live without nature, but nature can live without us”, she stresses. She views it as an important part of her work to shift people’s perspective and let them see how we benefit from a healthy ecosystem.

Pink Bellies

Monique’s commitment to nature extends beyond sloths and the forest, as we witness a few days later on a boat trip on the Suriname River. “Pollution and dredging are serious threats for the Guiana dolphins, so we do scientific research. Since 2005 we have been taking samples to measure the water quality and temperature. We also observe where the dolphins are and how they behave. We take guests on the boat trips to teach them about dolphins and the importance of the ecosystems of the Suriname River estuary. They also provide the funds to pay the skippers”, Monique explains while her colleague takes water samples and writes down the test results in a notebook. Almost on cue, dolphins appear close to the boat. They happily jump out of the river showing off their pink bellies, causing everyone on board to cheer.

Monique reminds us that rescuing wild animals is about much more than the survival of the animals concerned. Just as the sloth depends on a tree to live in, and the dolphin on clean river water, we humans depend on healthy ecosystems for our basic needs. We need clean water to drink and clean air to breathe. We need healthy soil and a clean sea for healthy food. We need a stable climate for our well-being. We share this unique planet with countless other life forms, all of which play an important role in our ecosystem and all of which have as much right to life as we do. Read our in-depth article about this exciting sustainable solution here!

Cooling Water

A few days after we’re back on board, Noël arrives with a box. Could it be…? Yes, it’s our new cooling water pump! Ivar immediately disappears into the engine room. Within twenty minutes he has installed the new pump, which fits perfectly. We turn on the engine and hear and smell nothing out of the ordinary. Outside, we see the cooling water flowing stronger than ever. To celebrate, we dive into the warm river water. It may not cool us like it does the engine, but at least we rinse off the sweat.

With our engine back in working order, we check the weather forecast and make plans to sail to the Caribbean. We heavy hearts, we say goodbye to Stunning Suriname and its hospitable people, beautiful nature, and delicious food. It has certainly stolen our hearts!

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