Suriname: Going Where
No One Goes
By John Sampinato
Suriname - I suppose the irresistible lure enticing me there was the chance, an off chance at that, to be dropped off by a small plane in the middle of its tangled jungles and left to my own devices. Or maybe it was the country’s almost total obscurity.
One ticketing agent -- supposedly a South American ‘specialist’ -- wanted to know where exactly Suriname was. I promised to send her a map and continued making calls. I’ve always been drawn to the obscure because it’s a primary requisite for exploration, not that I had any grandiose notions of making any significant discoveries, except perhaps about myself.
The series of flights that would eventually terminate at the capital, Paramaribo, started off predictably enough. I’d been through Miami International so many times I practically knew every carpet stain. But the second stopover in Haiti proved sobering, decades of neglect and despair obvious even from miles up. Whole mountains had been denuded from base to peak.
Carpet of Darkness
I wondered how a place picked so clean could actually support life, and once down at ground level it became even more evident that its recently deposed dictators and all their corrupt cronies hadn’t left enough behind to keep a refugee camp going, let alone something approximating a country.
I’d never seen anything so hopeless, so completely non-recoverable. It haunted me until the northern edge of South America drifted in to view later that night, distracting and consuming me with what might lay ahead -- the landmass below a carpet of darkness well beyond the coastline implying a total absence of habitation. Then a disciplined row of lights revealed an airport in the distance, like what an aircraft carrier must look like to pilots on night maneuvers.
The half-full plane emptied quickly, as if squeezed out by the humidity. I’ve never quite pinpointed what it is that’s so exhilarating about arriving late in unfamiliar regions of the tropics, but I’ve done it all over theworld and it’s never failed to intoxicate even when I’m hammered with jet lag.
I suspect part of it is the stark contrasts that confirm the pungent visceral essences of the exotic as all of the senses are hit full force reminding one on no uncertain terms how close to the bone the rest of the world lives. Incredible how much more tangible, if not more tenuous, life suddenly seems.
I was the only one disembarking without family waiting, and drew much attention once outside the shabby termina'ls peeling walls. It only took a few minutes before a couple of the competing taxi drivers broke into a fistfight over who would take me the forty miles into town. I was just getting ready to place a bet on the outcome when a bus driver tapped my shoulder to advise he was heading that way at about a tenth their asking price.
Peering through the cracked windshield the world that passed by outside remained hidden along the dim potholed highway into town revealed only by crooked headlight beams or an occasional lit storefront. At first I strained to see beyond, but there would be time for that later. Deposited in front of a cheap inn I was assured despite the very late hour that pounding the door repeatedly would eventually arouse someone sympathetic to my needs. Thankfully it did.
"Para's" Unpretentious Charm
In the morning ‘Para’, as the locals call their capital, revealed an unpretentious charm. Stately wooden government buildings sat proudly behind manicured lawns giving the towns’ center a turn-of-the-century flavor that lacked only horse-drawn carriages.
Para's outer periphery, well, that was something else. I spent the better part of the first day trying to figure out where to obtain the services of a bush pilot. It wasn’t until late afternoon that the manager of the small local airport was able to put me in touch with a freelancer who came to the phone half soused.
As I attempted to assess his piloting experience a sultry female voice in the background offered her own testimonial to his other talents - the kinds of things best left off a resume. Undeterred, I went on to explain to him that I wanted to be dropped off half way down to the Brazilian border at a location that looked promising on my tactical pilotage chart- - probably the finest map in the country at the time.
We haggled a little about costs, but he finally relented. “You bring de money to de airport at ten tomorrow. We go”, which at first sounded great except that on Sundays the stores don’t open until ten, and I had yet to provision for a week of total self-sufficiency.
To the Market
My taxi driver could have done without the chaotic scramble around town the next morning, but I made it worth his tire wear.
Finally finding a market open, I loaded up on everything from its sparse shelves that even remotely suggested organic composition. Having not quite made the ten o’clock meeting time myself, my pilot, Maurice, casually showed up an hour later none the worse for the previous night’s wear.
Affectionately introducing himself with “You got de cash?” we proceeded to push a forlorn Cessna out of its hangar and out onto the middle of the dirt runway. Once out in the daylight it was apparent that the little plane had suffered an abused childhood.
Maurice’s idea of pre-flight inspection was to carefully count the wad of bills I had just handed him, holding a few up to the sun to check for watermarks. I finally took it upon myself to walk around the plane looking for, I don’t know -- fuel leaks, propeller cracks, broken struts, chickens nesting under the cowling.
Then a young local showed up who turned out to be a student pilot in training. Maurice was apparently giving flying instructions in addition to fleecing the gringo. I’m sure the student would have to pay extra for extortion lessons.
Falling briefly asleep not long after take off, soon all that could be seen was horizon-to-horizon rain forest interrupted by the random river or stream. We had become just an insignificant little noise buzzing above it all. After about an hour of trying to take all this in and gathering the courage for what I was letting myself in for, I mentioned that if we happen to develop engine trouble do us all a favor and just point this thing straight into the ground, because even if we survived a crash there’d certainly be no getting out of here. At least Maurice didn’t caution me that that would cost extra.
A Clearing Emerges in the Jungle
Not much later to my joy and amazement a rectangular clearing materialized on one end of a mesa situated between two raging rivers. This had to be ‘my’ landing strip. Maurice cinched down his belt and began a series of radically disorienting approach loops, so sharp the horizon eventually went parallel with the side windows. My breakfast was soon threatening to alter the cabin’s décor. We eventually leveled off as Maurice focused intensely on the upcoming cliff face where the landing field began.
Just clearing it we set down leaving a neatly cut swath in the tall over growth with the prop. Coming to a stop I unloaded the idling plane and as an incentive reminded Maurice that he gets the other half of the payment upon his return next week.
Taking in the remoteness of the surroundings and one last uncomprehending look at me, he shook his head, taxied around and was soon off, just clearing the farthest trees. The plane’s hum tapered off, and soon the little dot in the sky disappeared. I was ‘here’ now, at a place where the term was all but irrelevant. And I was truly on my own.
Sitting down on my pack, I lit one of the cigars I had brought along for just such occasions and began to take in the scene, the whole self-induced predicament, and all the promise of fulfilling the boyhood dreams it held, thinking about how this might play back home--assuming I made it back home. And the inevitable “what if something would have happened?”
OK, so something happens. Deal with it. Sure, more so than most of my other journeys this was possibly the riskiest. We can’t expect our experiences to change us unless we’re willing to see how we’ll respond or what we’ll do with the unexpected.
I guess that’s actually what I really came here to discover – not some new species or evidence of some lost civilization. Anyway, I don’t think exhilaration adequately describes the upwelling that came over me about then. I hadn’t felt that good and life hadn’t had that much purpose in a long, long time.
Leering vultures formed a reception committee on the edge of the landing field. I spotted what appeared to be a crude lean-to on the top of a knoll and headed straight for it knowing how changeable the weather is in the tropics. I figured I might as well have a roof over my head if one was available. But its legitimacy deteriorated sharply the closer I got.
A sad excuse for a bench sagged warily as I eased myself down on it. Then while bending to tie a loose bootlace it buckled to earth landing me on my ass and almost taking one of the walls down with it. After dusting off the debris I went around and tested every pole, plank and palm leaf, finding lots of termites and few promises of reliability.
Two opposing corner posts offered the firmest attachment points I only reluctantly slung my hammock to. Their inherent flexing under load lent an air of uncertainty to my attempts at sleep that night.
A hearty breakfast of coffee with rum, cookies, beans and a banana was followed by a hike to the other side of a hill where stood the island's tallest trees, and beyond, down to the rivers edge. Here the currents dared anyone or anything to cross at the risk of being swept all the way to the coast scraping along razor edge outcroppings.
A clearing sky instigated an upswing in the heat by mid morning. Behind nearby boulders I found a perfect bathing spot, and so to proceeded, with songs by special request – mine - that drew in a large and curious, if not appreciative avian audience.
I theorized that with the surrounding torrent no large mammals occupied this mesa, and therefore there would be few large, aggressive reptilian carnivores, minimizing my risks during baths and swimming.
After my soak I laid out on a flat rock, and given the Zen state I by then attained, became part of it at some subconscious level. While getting unpacked and organized, low flying Toucans’ reminded me what I had come here for, and it certainly wasn’t to fuss over gear. I had plenty of daylight left in which to get organized, and if I had forgotten anything, or something vital had broken, I’d simply have to do without or tax that bottomless repository of resourcefulness I took great pains to delude myself with. But the hell with that right now.
I made off on my first foray, starting toward the landing field’s edge that we would have slammed into had Maurice’s judgment been off by ten feet. During the flight in he had advised that this strip had been carved out during Suriname ’s civil war five years earlier but hadn’t been used much since and confided that even if we found it he couldn’t guarantee its condition would allow a landing. And the jungle was definitely threatening to reclaim it.
Tarzan Comes to Life
Reaching the bluffs edge I couldn’t believe what lie before me – truly a Johnny Weismueller movie come to life. The two rivers wrapped around the mesa at obtuse angles and formed a single, more turbulent one heading north, pinched by strata of granite. The far banks were steep inclines of jungle, the waters edges were punctuated by huge boulders, some strewn out into the middle of the current, most worn by the constant erosion into other-worldly shapes.
And this was another world, no doubt about it – it’s the one I think of as the real world, the one friends back home constantly question my preoccupation with. Monkeys far above tested the strength of high branches as a Scarlet Macaw screeched parrot profanities.
I envisioned jumping naked into the many protected pools, fishing for God-knows-what in the gentle eddys, or swinging out on one of the long dangling lianas. Or maybe, just like in those old movies, I could befriend and command vast herds of cooperative creatures and man-eating beasts who would intuitively obey the new absolute master of this domain. But first, a shot of rum.
Chorus of the Concealed
That night, and all those to follow, was an integration with the cosmos. The stars seemed to hover just above the treetops. I was serenaded by the chorus of the concealed. Tiny hovering intruders lusted after my earlobes and nostrils while across the river melancholy howls spoke of the universal need to be heard, to be found, to be validated.
The precariously dipping hammock eventually lulled me to sleep. Morning began peacefully enough, just lying there planning my day, then realizing this was no place for planning anything other than breakfast. But even that proved too ambitious; swinging out to get up a profound pain pierced through my left ankle. A reflex kick catapulted whatever it was off before I could even look down, but the unmistakable shape of a tarantula became obvious as it shot into the scrub.
I immediately began to swell up, so I donned my socks and stuffed the inflated foot into my boot, followed immediately by the other. Never took them off again except to swim. This was a long, long way from anywhere, but especially from a childhood spent in soulless Los Angeles, a place that conspired to remove its inhabitants as far as possible from any semblance of nature.
With no parks anywhere near any of the neighborhoods I ever lived in, vacant lots transformed into exotic destinations of my fertile young imagination.
I’d like to think that it was the adventure stories I’d read as kid that forged my desires to integrate with the natural world, but never being much of a reader it was movies that held me captive and inspired future ambitions, specifically the Saturday matinee fictional features so prolific back then. However fabricated, these were my window to a bigger world that beckoned to be experienced and explored. And by dint and design that’s exactly where I found myself now. To be continued...
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This article is reprinted from Escape from America.