From GT to Paramaribo
Since arriving in Guyana, I’ve been curious about learning more about other South American and Caribbean countries, especially the countries that are in close proximity. Other than a quick stop over in Trinidad on my way into Guyana, I’ve never experienced any countries in this part of the world. I’ve had a specific curiosity about Suriname, Guyana’s immediate neighbor to the east. It’s the only other country other than Guyana that identifies itself as a “Caribbean Nation” despite not being located in the Caribbean. Also, similar to Guyana, it’s a nation that doesn’t speak Portuguese or Spanish, it was ruled by the Dutch before becoming independent, so I was curious to see what similarities it would have to Guyana.
Guyana has three immediate continental neighbors, Venezuela to the west, Brazil to the south and southwest and Suriname to the east. Venezuela isn’t the safest country to travel to for Americans. Brazil is a 14 hour drive away from the coast and costs $200US just for a visa to get into the country. This left me with one option that didn’t involve getting on an airplane…Suriname. And so, I made my plan, applied for my tourist card at the Surinamese Embassy down the street, found a driver, and was off to visit my 10th country.
My original plan for getting to Suriname was to take a bus to the far eastern edge of Guyana and then taxi my way to the Corentyne River where I would catch the ferry across the water (the only legal point of entry into Suriname via Guyana). I figured once I got across the river, I’d be able to find a bus on the other side and then make my way to the capital of Paramaribo from there. Fortunately, the day before I was to depart, I ran into a Canadian acquaintance of mine on the street and he told me he had the number of a driver who makes the trip to Suriname on a daily basis. I took the number, called the driver, and was booked a seat on his next trip to Suriname.
This is how I found myself sitting outside of my house at 3:30 in the morning last Sunday morning, waiting for a driver I had only spoken to on the phone for a total of two minutes to pick me up and whisk me away to another country. This being Guyana, I was well aware of the fact that I could be waiting a while, so it came as no surprise that a car didn’t pull up to my door until 4:30. It was a painful hour waiting (since I would have much preferred to still be in my bed) but I’ve gotten really good at “going with the flow.” The person who picked me up was not the person I had talked to on the phone. It was a heavily set man who slurred his words together and arrived and swept me into his car all in one motion. He told me that the other driver had a full van so I would have to ride with him. Again, this may sound completely sketchy, having a stranger pick you up in their car in the middle of the night, but my senses told me all was well. I get this country now. In September, I may have had a few more questions for this driver, but now, no questions asked.
I sat in the backseat of the car as the driver screeched around corners and revved the engine down the empty straightaway night streets of Georgetown. There was another passenger sitting in the front seat, asleep. We raced around the city for a few minutes, failing to achieve whatever it is we were supposed to be doing, before we eventually found our way to the coast and began speeding east. About twenty minutes up the coast, we stopped to collect two more passengers, which made the back seat of this little car slightly cramped, but nothing compared to about a hundred other driving situations that I’ve been in while living in this country the past year.
It was kind of a fun ride from that point forward. The driver never took his foot off of the gas pedal and I got to watch the sun slowly cast its light over a piece of Guyana that I’ve only seen once before. It really is a beautiful country. Now that I’ve headed west, east and south into the interior, I can see that the only major flaw that Guyana has is Georgetown, and the only REAL problem with Georgetown is just that it’s messy. The East Coast was perfect at sunrise, the open fields, the silhouettes of palm trees, the people of the little towns and villages getting their days started from their homes and meandering around on the sides of the street. It was nice to be a part of.
We reached Corriverton, which is positioned at the mouth of the Corentyne, where it meets the Atlantic, around 8:00am. There, I exchanged 10,000 Guyana dollars for 160 Suriname dollars. If my math was right, I wasn’t ripped off at all. I was nervous about having the new money though, I wanted to make sure I didn’t spent too much too soon. I was also hoping that I had enough money to make it through my three planned days in Suriname. After the exchange, I was brought the last two miles or so down the road to where the ferry is. There, I bought a round-trip ticket on the ferry (though at the time, I thought it was a one-way ticket—no one tells you anything in this country) and went through the immigration and customs lines. I was warned ahead of time that the ferry is “a disaster”. I wasn’t surprised to hear this and I was equally unsurprised to experience the unorganized process of moving people from one South American country to another via ferry. I think, when everything was said and done, the ferry left one hour late. It could have been much worse.
I was stoked when the ferry actually pushed off from the shore and I was sailing across this massive river to another country. This is something that I’ve only done once before. I’ve traveled solo plenty of times, but to go from one country to another on my own, that’s something I’ve only done twice now. It’s an exhilarating feeling. When I was in Kenya (the reason this blog exists!) three years ago, I traveled on my own into the country and set myself up at WWB orphanage for about a week before my companion joined me later in October. I remember having an enormous feeling of accomplishment during this short period of time. Traveling solo changes a person, especially in extreme places like Nairobi and rural Kenya. So, as the ferry cruised, I was able to appreciate the moment for what it was.
The stretch of the world between these two countries is breathtaking. If you turn around 360 degrees, all you can see is a pristine river, immaculate sky, two bright green shorelines with no flaws, and the great Atlantic to the north, which the river opens up into. Even once the dock for the ferry in Suriname comes into view, it just looks like a simple, well put together station for moving people from one nation to another. Everything was perfect for the thirty-minute ride, except for the sun, that was pretty brutal, but what else is new?
Customs and immigration in Suriname was just as messy as it was on the other side. We were all held in a long line, and not nearly enough people were working to make the process efficient. I think we waited about an hour or so for everyone to get through the line. When it was my turn, the man stamped my tourist card and proclaimed, “you have one month,” in a slightly angry voice. I mumbled “okay,” but was well aware that the card was supposed to be good for three months. It didn’t matter. I was only going to be in the country for four days. When I stepped through the gate, I was immediately hounded by a half dozen bus drivers, but I found the bus I was already booked on and boarded it. Eventually, it filled up the rest of the way and we took off, on the left side of the road, into the wilds of Suriname.
It was exhilarating to be in a new country after nearly 11 months in Guyana. I was particularly jazzed about the fact that I was surrounded by Dutch-speaking people. They all appeared to know English, and the driver communicated with me in English quite easily since he deals with both sides of the border on a daily basis, but to just be submersed in “it” was so cool. Dutch is a really interesting language to listen to. I understood a grand total of ZERO words spoken to and around me in Dutch while I was in Suriname. Other than the woman man-spreading (taking up way too much room with her legs and having no regard for personal space) next to me for the whole ride, I quite enjoyed the three-hour trek from the border to Paramaribo. By this time, the sun was high in the sky and the day was well underway in Suriname. Suriname is also one hour ahead of Guyana, so I found myself in a time-zone I had never been in before. For most of the ride, we cruised on a simple, two-lane paved road through green fields with large, clean canals on either side of the road the whole way. They seem to take the fact that they sit below sea level very seriously in Suriname.
I was sleep-deprived, but excited for the whole journey. Each town we passed through, each field we would find ourselves in the middle of, I wanted to take a picture of, but much like in Guyana, the driver felt the need to make the journey as quickly as possible. On the ride, it rained three times. Each time, it poured. I was upset about the rain initially, but then I thought about it. The theme of the trip was “cleansing“, so a little rain was the perfect metaphor to begin the trip. And, like I said, each time it rained, it came down hard, which is the best way to clean up anything—the bus, the roads, your life. It was refreshing. By the time we reached Paramaribo, the rain was a thing of the past.
I think what I liked most about the trip from Guyana to Paramaribo was how simple the countryside seemed to be. For the most part, we traveled in open fields and through tropical, palm tree infested forests. Once in a while we would pass through a simple town with a few buildings, some homes, maybe a school, and then the road would open back up into nature. There were very few signs of human existence outside of the towns. There wasn’t extra garbage or dilapidated buildings around every bend. It was just nature, just green. Paramaribo is also a very compact city, so there weren’t poor suburbs and surrounding communities stretching for miles in each direction around city-center. The capital just sort of popped up, much like the other towns on the coastal road. I so appreciated the smooth, well maintained road too. I must point out that the lack of potholes was refreshing.
This particular bus service was tremendous. They dropped me off right in front of the guesthouse I was going to be staying at and then handed me their card so I could call them to take me back to Guyana a few days later.
Monetary Logistics for traveling overland from GT to Paramaribo:
Bus Service: 6000 GYD ($30 USD) from GT to Paramaribo
Ferry: 4180 GYD ($21 USD) Round Trip (so save your ticket).
Suriname Tourist Card: $25 USD (must be paid in US dollars and be obtained ahead of time).
Coming Soon: A closer look at Paramaribo…