Suriname is a relatively isolated destination, busy opening its doors to travelers to experience its unique and diverse ethnicities, life in the rainforest and Dutch colonial history.
00:58 Suriname. Who has been there?
02:02 Author Diana Plater live in the studio
04:30 The history of the Maroons
09:37 Opening Suriname up to travelers
11:09 Why Suriname is unique
14:44 You could be in Africa
17:39 the odd things people travel with
22:30 How Diane ended up in Suriname
29:27 Why Milton Kam left his home country and what made him return
33:35 Ten years after leaving
39:10 Next week
“Well, it's an amazin mix of people for one thing. There's the former Dutch, there's the Amerindians, who are the indigenous people of the country. There are the Maroons, who are the descendants of escaped slaves, African slaves. Then they brought Indonesian workers, mainly from Java, to work the plantations after slavery was abolished. And then there's all sorts of other mixes.” – Diana Plater
“I think tourism is a big chance for us to preserve nature, to develop and enhance culture, to share art and to keep things sustainable.” – Sirano Zalman
“We found just getting to know local people made a huge difference to our experience. and a really big difference to our understanding of what was happening around us. There's an authenticity to it, it's not dressed up for tourists.” – Diane Selkirk
“You'll find such an amazing multicultural variety, that is phenomenal for a place in South America. But also, do go visit the beautiful Amazonian rainforest that we have. There is so much to see there.” – Milton Kam
Who is in the episode
Diana Plater an Australian journalist, author, and travel writer who loves getting off the beaten track. Her latest book is Whale Rock, which has been awarded Gold for Popular Literary Fiction in the 2019 Global eBook Awards.
After spending much of the past decade circumnavigating the globe with her husband, daughter and Charlie the boat cat aboard a 40’ sailboat, Diane Selkirk is now based in Vancouver, Canada. Her writing has appeared publications including BBC Travel, National Geographic Travel, Outside, Men’s Journal and The Guardian.
In 1993 Sirano Zalman started his travel company ‘Wild Coast Expeditions’; adventurous boat trips in pristine mangrove coastal areas. Since then the company has moved on as 'Access Suriname Travel', offering customers a wider range of tours and daring expeditions. Access Suriname Travel has become the leading tour operator and Suriname's first destination management company believing tourism should be well balanced in terms of people, planet and profit.
Follow this link to the Danpaati River Lodge.
Milton Kam is a cinematographer born in Suriname. His work has taken him to almost every continent, shooting documentaries in Vietnam, Rwanda, Japan and Argentina; features in Great Britain, Sri Lanka, and Suriname; and television in New Zealand, Colombia, and the US.
Points of Recognition: Suriname’s Indigenous Peoples in the 21st Century is available to order.
Scholarships Newsletter: Sign up for scholarships news and see what opportunities are live here.
Want to know more about Suriname? Heleen Westerman lived in Suriname for several years, check out her website Kapelka Travel which is full of stories and great tips about Suriname.
Myrysji Tours Suriname is one of the operators Milton suggested in the podcast.
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Next Episode: Sustainable and Ethical Travel
About World Nomads & the Podcast
Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Hosted by Podcast Producer Kim Napier and World Nomads Phil Sylvester, each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.
World Nomads is a fast-growing online travel company that provides inspiration, advice, safety tips and specialized travel insurance for independent, volunteer and student travelers traveling and studying most anywhere in the world. Our online global travel insurance covers travelers from more than 135 countries and allows you to buy and claim online, 24/7, even while already traveling.
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Phil: Don't hit skip. This episode of the World Nomads podcast is about Suriname. Kim, what's in it?
Kim: Well, Milton Kam was born and raised in Suriname and explains why he left and went back. Sirano Zalman runs Access Suriname Travel and they're committed to ethical and sustainable travel. And Diane who ended up in Suriname unexpectedly.
Speaker 3: Welcome to the World Nomads podcast delivered by World Nomads, the travel, lifestyle and insurance brand. It's not your usual travel podcast. It's everything for the adventurous, independent traveler.
Kim: Open book here. This episode of the podcast almost did not happen. With all our contacts, writers, bloggers, experts, et cetera. I could not find anyone that had been to Suriname. I even said to you, "Why are we doing this episode?" But we persisted and we can now share this incredible sounding country with you.
Phil: And the fact that you can't find anybody who's been there, it's encouragement, incentive for me to go.
Kim: I know.
Phil: [crosstalk 00:01:02] going to be fantastic.
Kim: Well, once you've listened to it, you will want to go.
Phil: Yeah, sure. Look, it's the smallest country in South America and it's also the least populous one. Between 1667 and 1954 it was a Dutch colony. Okay, so in a country which is split between Portuguese, Brazil and Spanish, here's a tiny little speck where they speak Dutch. It stopped being a colony in 1975 when they became an independent state. And it's the only territory outside Europe where Dutch is spoken by most of the people.
Kim: So hashtag random?
Kim: Well, despite Suriname's low population, it is extremely diverse, with people from various ethnicities. I knew I wouldn't be able to say that. I'll say it again. Various ethnicities and religions. And our first guest is Diana Plater, an Australian journalist, author and travel writer. Who loves getting off the beaten track, so this is a perfect destination. And she's here in the studio with us. Welcome.
Diana Plater: Thanks very much.
Kim: Why is it such a mysterious place?
Diana Plater: I think partly because it's Dutch speaking. It's not really seen as... It is part of Latin America, but it's not. It's part of South America, it's the top part of South America, but it's not seen as one of the Latin countries because it's a former Dutch colony, that speaks Dutch. And so it's very well known in the Netherlands. There's lots and lots of tourists come direct from Amsterdam, or whatever to-
Kim: So a direct flight?
Diana Plater: There's direct flights, so that's one way of getting there, if you wanted to go there. Or you have to go through the States and go via Miami and through the Caribbean. And otherwise you can go over land from Brazil, I think. I mean, it's pretty tricky going over land.
Kim: Okay. So it's hard to get there?
Diana Plater: Yeah. Exactly.
Kim: Yeah. And then is there-
Phil: I'm liking the sound of that by the way. I like that it's hard to get to.
Diana Plater: It's fabulous country. Yeah. It's just cool.
Diana Plater: Well, it's an amazing mix of people for one thing. There's the former Dutch, there's the Amerindians, who are the indigenous people of the country. There are the Maroons, who are the descendants of escaped slaves, African slaves. Then they brought Indonesian workers, mainly from Java, to work the plantations after slavery was abolished. And then there's all sorts of other mixes. So can you imagine what the music's like?
Kim: Oh, you'd have an incredible music scene and does it?
Diana Plater: Yeah, it does. Yeah. Yeah. From reggae to Caribbean music, to some African beats, all sorts of things. Yeah. And some really good jazz musicians have come out of there as well.
Kim: You had an amazing experience though, which for me, it feels like almost a once in a lifetime opportunity, to meet the villages. On what river?
Diana Plater: On the Upper Suriname River. So they're flood waters of the Amazon, and you're basically going into full-on jungle. So when you think of the Amazon, you think of jungle. If you fly over it, that's all you see for miles, and miles, and miles. But when you actually go there, you're going down in canoes with outboard motors. So you fit about 12 people.
Phil: Like long boat ones?
Diana Plater: Yeah, yeah. They finally built a road about 30 years ago, and that goes for about three hours from the capital. And then you get off and you get in one of those boats, one of the canoes. And then you sort of going down, down, down, and there's some points where you're shooting rapids and it's the most clearest, beautiful water, gorgeous to swim in. It's also got the kind of Rasta feel. Well, the villages we went to where those of the Maroons, or that's what they're known as generally, or Sura Markin's.
Diana Plater: They were the slaves who escaped and rebelled in the 17th century, and made their way down the jungle, down the rivers, learned how to grow crops, and the main crop is cassava, from the Amerindians, and more or less displaced them took, over their villages in a way. The Ameridians moved further down, more and more into the Amazon. And then they just had this closed society for 300 years. And it was an oral society, an oracle oral culture. So their memories are incredible and they memorize, what they call the leaders or the chiefs of the villages are known as captains because they're thinking of the captains that were on the slave ships. And they memorize their names from the ones that first came, to the ones to 300 years later, to today.
Kim: Tell me that story that you mentioned, where you thought this guy was affirmative listening basically.
Diana Plater: Yeah. Yeah. I was with a group of Australian... Actually European travel agents, they weren't Australians. Who were invited there to talk about tourism possibilities, and how they can improve tourism in the country. So they invited us to a village meeting and while I'm there I could see this guy just sort of going, "Hmm, Hm, yeah, yeah." Nodding his head. And I'm going, "Who is that guy?" So I asked the guide at the end, "Who was he?" And he said, "Well, he's the secretary. He's the one who takes the notes in his head and remembers the whole meeting from beginning to end. And if there's any dispute or any problem, you go to him and you don't dispute him because he does have that memory. And he can tell you who said this and who said that and when it was said."
Kim: That is remarkable really, isn't it?
Diana Plater: It is. I love it.
Phil: I think my wife's one of those.
Kim: Really? Remembers everything?
Phil: Five years ago you said.
Kim: So you can see with a group of travel agents, you said to explore possibilities for tourism. This sounds worrying.
Phil: We don't want mass tourism in a place like that.
Kim: But who is it, is it the agents that want it or is that the Maroons?
Diana Plater: They want it. They don't want the place to be destroyed, they want it controlled. So we stayed at lodges, which are either owned by Maroon communities or leased to others who run them for them. So the main one we stayed at was a place called Danpaati. And that had been set up. There was a shocking civil war in the 1980s, and after that they needed development help, and health help, and so on. And so it was set up as a way to try and raise some money to improve the conditions in the villages, and for example, improving the water situation, the health, a kindergarten because the women go out and work in the fields, it's somewhere for the kids to go to.
Diana Plater: So things like that. So they just see it as a way of bringing in money that they wouldn't normally get. So yeah, they say, "Yeah, we want it. Just hurry up. You're too slow, get moving."
Kim: Now you've mentioned the music there being so fantastic. What's the dancing like and art?
Diana Plater: The dancing by the women is fabulous. And they wear these sorts of appliqued skirts called panis. It's a matriarchal society, actually, I'm talking about the Maroons. I'm talking about the Maroons here. So the women get handed down these skirts by them mothers and grandmothers, and then they're the ones that more or less choose the husband. And the husband has to show that he's got enough pots, and pans, and whatever to be a good husband and then they decide on it.
Diana Plater: So they came and did this dancing for us, and you can imagine these gorgeous, strong African bodies, and they're very feisty, and quite cheeky and rude. And apparently in the days when the rebellions were going on, when they were fighting against the Dutch, the women would be dancing for the Dutch and the men would be escaping. So the women would be helping them get out and get off the plantations. Because the thing about Suriname also, is that it was considered the worst place for a slave to be sent to. So if you were a bit rebellious or trouble in the Caribbean or somewhere else, you got sent to Suriname. So it was really, really cruel.
Kim: Just incredible. It's whet my appetite to know more about this place. Suriname.
Diana Plater: Thank you [crosstalk 00:09:00].
Kim: Thank you Diana. And her latest book by the way, is Whale Rock, which has been awarded gold for popular literary fiction in the 2019 global ebook awards, so congrats for that. Now we did feature details on the book in our Facebook page, which we'd love you to join, just search for the World Nomads podcast, join in the conversation about travel, get some behind the scene stuff and even give aways.
Phil: Yeah, we're working on even more of those. Diana mentioned the Danpaati River Lodge, so let's find out more about it from Sirano Zalman, who runs Access Suriname Travel. and is one of the driving forces behind the push to open Suriname up to travelers as a destination, as he explains why.
Sirano Zalman: Yeah, I think we realize now that Suriname has a huge amount of unspoiled nature. We are one of the few countries in the world with 92% tropical rain forest coverage, which is fairly unique in the world. An undiscovered gem.
Phil: Well, you could say that again.
Kim: We can't find anyone that's been there. Its been very difficult.
Sirano Zalman: Even if I go through Miami, which is fairly close. And I was with sports competition with my daughter in Wisconsin, in the US. People didn't know where Suriname was. So it's really unknown in the world.
Kim: But it's so culturally rich because you've got so many indigenous groups and then there's also a Jewish community. So walk us through that.
Sirano Zalman: Yes, there are many countries and cities that are multicultural. I mean if you look at New York, I think New York has 52 ethnic groups or nationalities. Suriname is less, but the strong point of Suriname is every group is equal. So the experience that you're in a multicultural country, that everybody is very warm and everybody is very proud, and everyone is equal. All these groups, the Japanese, the Chinese, the East Indian people, the European people, the black people, the indigenous red Indian, the Amerindian people, they all feel alike, Suriname, Suriname people. And that makes it unique and enhances the experience that you're in a multicultural country.
Sirano Zalman: Another thing is that due to history, all of these groups, they live together very well. Suriname is the only country in the world we are a mosque is standing besides the synagogue. And where the groups use each other’s parking lot, when the ones parking is full, fully parked. So that that is unique. And we ass Suriname people, we didn't realize this because we've grown up like this. And now with some people, and the tourism is starting, all these people saying, "Wow, it's so nice that everybody marries everybody. That Pakistani marries Japanese, that black people marry Chinese. How is this possible?" While it is.
Sirano Zalman: And now together with the awareness on the ecological value that we have, with this amazing Amazon forest that we have. In which we have several traditional tribes living. Of which the Maroons, who our descendants from the slaves. They are living in this Amazon forest for 300 years now, still the way they left Africa. I mean the tradition that you have, the African tradition that you have in our Amazon forest, is long forgotten in Africa because the development there went, it developed, and here they stayed in the forest.
Sirano Zalman: So Suriname has many different worlds. We have the part where we have this lodge, Frederiksdorp, which is in the old plantation region. And you won't believe me, but in this area it's approximately 400 square kilometers. It's an island in the coastal area, there are only Asian people living. I mean there is no other ethnic group than Asian. And everybody at the same time feels very Surinamese. And that is the strange twist in Suriname. Yeah, it's a special country.
Kim: Well it sounds like a utopia-
Phil: It sounds like utopia.
Kim: Yeah. Why would you want to open that up? Keep it a secret.
Sirano Zalman: Oh, I don't know. We like to share it because when people come, they love Suriname. So it's a small only country, but the experience of the tourists that come, the few that come, they are not much, they love it. They give very high ratings. So I think tourism is a big chance for us to preserve nature, to develop and enhance culture, to share art and to keep things sustainable.
Kim: You believe that tourism should be well balanced in terms of people, planet and profit. So how are you hoping to achieve that?
Sirano Zalman: We have the resort, Danpaati River Lodge, and it's in the region of the maroon people. When you're in the region, you think you're in Africa. You'd swear you were in Africa. I mean there is nothing that is not African there. The people, the way they live, they're traditions, everything. 25,000 people in the region in the Amazon. What we do with these people, we took over the lodge. We have a huge project for 12 villages surrounding the lodge. Doing educational things for the youths, we do health care for the elderly people, and we have this lodge totally managed by local people.
Sirano Zalman: I mean from the cook, the person that makes the bread, the guides, the hospitality crew, the manager, everybody on location is locally trained and they do a fantastic job. What do we do with preserving nature is we try an awareness among the villages that we work with, these 12 villages, on waste management. Everything is shipped back to Paramaribo. We do reuse of everything. Plastics, only reusable things, or we do buy everything from the local people, everything. So in every aspect that we can maintain nature and strengthen the local people, we do it.
Kim: Well, fingers crossed that you can balance both. Opening it up to travelers, tourists, but remaining so unique. And would you welcome us Sirano?
Phil: Can we come and do a podcast from there?
Kim: Yeah, we'd like to do a podcast from the Danpaati Lodge.
Sirano Zalman: Yeah. You are more than welcome. More than welcome. As soon as you get here, you're our guests.
Kim: Just be very careful because that's on tape.
Kim: You may laugh Sirano, you may laugh and great to hear they embrace, support and encourage ecotourism. By the way, we have a special episode, Phil, coming up on sustainable and ethical travel, so make sure you subscribe to the World Nomads podcast from wherever you get your favorite podcasts, so you don't miss that. But what's news?
Phil: Okay. Dust off your cameras and start shooting. The next World Nomads photography scholarship is about to be launched. This is at the time when we recorded this in mid-October. Visit worldnomads.com/create for details. Last year's winner won a photography trip to Morocco. Where will it be this year?
Kim: Ooh, the anticipation.
Phil: Okay. Do you take anything odd are unusual with you when you travel Kim?
Phil: Several of them.
Phil: I'll ask you this because I heard from somebody who's a freelance writer for the Washington Post, and they were preparing a piece to submit to the Post. We're a travel company, so I thought it's a good thing to get a collection of responses from the people in the business. And also that's one of the things we did on the World Nomads Facebook group as well. So here are a few that we got. Emily, who's a boss here, she takes a sketchpad with her because she likes to do some drawing.
Kim: She's arty.
Phil: She's very arty. This is an oldie but a goodie from World Nomads. Take a doorstop because if you're staying in a hostel, sometimes they've got really dodgy locks on them, so doorstops stops people breaking in. Kate says she packs a smoke detector for the same reason. Dodgy hotels and hostels where they don't have their own fire detectors.
Kim: That's a ripper one really.
Phil: I don't stay places like that.
Kim: Oh, I did.
Phil: Well, I have. With rats running over the place as well. That was a terrible night's sleep. But that is one of the things that you look at and you go, "There's actually no smoke detectors in here. What sort of place am I staying at? Am I got a better option somewhere?"
Kim: Yeah, well I booked a place in Canterbury recently, and it was the first thing I checked for. And they had one, but they didn't have things like a mattress protector on the bed.
Kim: I know, I just chose to have a few drinks and forget about that.
Phil: Well, that was one of the other things that I spotted... The results from asking people this is still rolling in. And somebody said that they always take a sleeping bag liner.
Kim: Yeah, good idea.
Phil: For exactly that reason, which is a good one.
Kim: And they're silk and honestly they just fold up to nothing.
Phil: Yep. Totally. Matthew says he carries four pegs because he needs a lot of darkness at night to sleep. So he uses the pegs to shut the gap that always shows up in the curtains.
Kim: Sensational idea.
Phil: I actually was staying in Helsinki in mid summer, so of course it never gets properly dark there. And sometimes when you've been at the vodka ice bar, you need a dark room. So I actually went out and bought bulldog clips. I actually had to find a stationary office or a newsagent and buy bulldog clips when I was in Helsinki.
Kim: Well, I was surprised in Japan because the land of the rising sun, does rise at about three in the morning.
Phil: Is that right?
Kim: Yeah, it was crazy. It was crazy. So I spent a lot of time awake in Japan.
Phil: Christina in our Oakland office takes chopsticks because they hold down blankets and sarongs, for on the beach, for lying on them, and rig that up for a privacy curtain in your hostel using those. And you can use them as clean utensils when you're doing street food, which is really nice. Christy McCarthy packs gaffer type. She says she's repaired ripped backpacks in Southeast Asia, and helped bind bits of her four wheel drive back together, after it's fallen apart after thousands of Ks of travel on corrugated roads.
Phil: A few years ago a friend who's a good Catholic gave Natalia, one of our Facebook friends, a Saint Christopher medal and told her to keep it in a suitcase. Of course Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, and she says it's been in her suitcase ever since and she's still traveling, so it must be working.
Kim: Yeah. Nice gift. Anything else to wrap up travel news?
Phil: Yeah, look, can I just say, I've just read this as well. And you know train street that goes through Hanoi?
Phil: The vendors have to move all the food off while the train comes through everyday. Just recently there's been a number of illegal cafes have been opening up, and they've been advertising, "Come and sit here and have a drink and wait for the train to come through. You can get really good photos of it." But people taking selfies haven't been getting out of the way of the train and it's had to slam on the emergency brakes a couple of times. So they're shutting down some of the cafes.
Kim: Why do it? We've mentioned it quite a few times in travel news in the podcast. People are crazy, go to crazy lengths to get the perfect photo, don't they?
Phil: Yeah, I know. And We were just talking about, you should get a message that comes up that says, "Objects behind you may be closer than they appear." Like you get on mirrors.
Kim: I like that. I like that.
Phil: That'll do me.
Kim: Cheers for that. Back to Suriname and still to come Milton Kam. By the way, Milton's a bit of a get. He works as a cinematographer, including over 20 feature films. And his television credits include Amazon Prime's American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, Netflix's Roman Empire: Reign of blood, Nat Geo's American Genius, and the History Channel's Kingpin. From Suriname, from Suriname sorry. But it's his story of growing up, leaving the country and returning that we'll hear about. But let's get to Diane's story first. Where she kind of ended up in Suriname by default.
Diane: It was actually a somewhat mostly conscious decision. We were actually sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. So we had come from Saint Helena and then Ascension Island. It was my husband, my daughter, and our pussy cat on our own boat. And we were trying to choose our landfall. Just Suriname seemed the most interesting of the countries we had to choose from out of The Guianas.
Kim: So what was interesting about it?
Diane: I tend to be intrigued by off the beaten path places and places that I can't find any information about. So we all know about the Amazon and that's sort of well known. But I was intrigued to be on another sort of jungle river in the jungle.
Kim: What's it like on the ground? Does it feel like a melting pot of cultures?
Diane: It really does. It's probably one of the more uniquely diverse countries that we spent time in, in that everybody looked like they could be from anywhere else in the world, but most people were very distinctly Surinamese. I'm not actually sure what you call somebody who was native to the area. So it's very colorful in that the people wear really colorful clothing, but not the same colorful clothing. There'll be people who will look African, and people who look Caribbean, and people who look Central American. And they're all speaking a language that was difficult. There was some Dutch in there, but it's definitely its own language. But a lot of people also speak English. So it felt like kind of a celebratory culture, and a melting pot. It just kind of has a very, very warm feel to it. When you walk down the streets and people are quite friendly.
Kim: So at this point you're loving your Suriname experience, and then what happens with your husband?
Diane: We are a loving our Suriname experience. At this point we've made our way up the river to a small town called Domburg, which is right on the river and it's sort of the access point if you want to go deeper into the jungle. And we were working with some local people to plan this deeper excursion. And he actually was alone on the boat, I was at shore. There's lots of little restaurants that are quite friendly. They're kind of some ex-pats, but they just kind of go hang out. And I was there using their wifi and got a call from the boat, that he was not well. And he actually thought he was having some sort of heart attack. He's not old enough for a heart attack, but he was having chest pain.
Diane: So locals helped me get him. Ambulance service is not something that you rely on there. So he was loaded up into a local's pickup truck, and taken to the hospital, and taken to the emergency ward, where we joined the line with everybody else. And when he was seen, they did feel that there was something going on with his heart. So he was admitted to the cardiac care unit. And at this point, we discovered that... We had known that there was a deep recession happening, but we didn't realize to the degree that currency crisis affected your ability to do things that cost a lot of money. So at the hospital they were requiring everything to be paid in US dollars in advance, which meant visiting a number of banks and trying to do that. And knowing he was in the hospital needing care.
Diane: So we did that and had a number of people who helped out to sort of bring the pile of cash up to what was required for the deposit. And he was thoroughly checked out, and ended up having some heart issues that they managed to stabilize. And the care there was not pretty, in that the hospitals are run down, but the doctors were all trained in the Netherlands, and they all spoke English and Dutch, and it was very comfortable care, in that they were able to reassure about what was going on and explain everything, and all the machinery was what you would expect in a hospital. He recovered there, but it was four days in the hospital there.
Kim: Did you continue on your Suriname journey or head back to the boat?
Diane: We didn't want to go too far from medical care, so we just sort of immersed in our local community a little bit more, rather than going way up the river. We went to local celebrations, we went to the songbird competitions, which are a fascinating Caribbean cultural thing, that I'd never heard of before. Where the songbirds, they see how long they can sing for uninterrupted and it's quite neat and everybody seems to carry their birds around. And Juneteenth occurred while we were there. So that's kind of a recognition as well as the celebration of the end of slavery. So that that was a pretty moving experience.
Kim: What would your advice be to somebody thinking of traveling to Suriname? And I'm sensing, I don't want to answer the question for you, but the longer you're there, the better to really immerse yourself in what seems to be a whole lot of different cultures.
Diane: I think so. And I think because there's just not that much known or written about it. To do trips into the jungle, which is what we'd really hoped to do. And we have friends who did go on and do so. Those aren't through great big companies and that kind of thing. So doing that kind of trip is really about sort of spending time in a community, and finding out who does those kind of trips, and feeling comfortable with the person you're going with because the interior of the country is definitely not a place that they recommend you go wander on your own. It's encouraged to go with somebody who has a good sense of it.
Diane: We found just getting to know local people made a huge difference to our experience. and a really big difference to our understanding of what was happening around us. There's an authenticity to it, it's not dressed up for tourists. There's some neat museums, and there's some beautiful heritage buildings to see. But for the most part, what you're there for is just to sort of immerse in a culture that's really doing its own thing. It's not trying to be anything other than what it is.
Kim: And it does sound pretty spectacular. Thank you for that Diane. In 1997 Milton Kam lest Suriname. Only to find his way back home with a camera taking photos for his books or for his book actually, Points of Recognition: Suriname's Indigenous Peoples in the 21st Century, which we've heard so much about on this podcast. So I think we'll just let Milton pick up the story.
Milton Kam: Well, I was born and raised in Suriname. I went to school there. I didn't finish my high school because at the time there was some struggles in the country, political struggles, that amounted to a guerrilla war. Suriname had been independent for about five years, from 1975 to 1980. And in 1980 a military takeover introduced a dictatorship period that lasted for, I believe anywhere between, depending on who you speak to, anywhere between eight to 10, 12 years. And at the time that I was about to finish high school, the war between the military and rebels was intensifying. And for me it became clear that I was going to possibly be drafted into the army and therefore having to fight a war that I was not inclined to take part in. And I decided pretty early on when the signs came that I was going to leave Suriname.
Milton Kam: And the choice to me was to either go to the Netherlands, which I think would be the very obvious thing for most of Surinamese people to do, would leave the country. Or I had the choice also of going to New York, which I much preferred because I felt that to me, New York was much more a bigger world than the Netherlands, where I felt that if I were to go to the Netherlands, I would just go into a small Surinamese community and probably never leave. That was my thought at the moment. So I went to New York instead. And I left Suriname in 1987, went to school in New York, did fine arts and film. And eventually became a US citizen. But as a friend had told me once, every seven or eight years, a person is going to find themselves getting quite homesick or missing something of their past.
Milton Kam: And that sort of happened to me as well in a way, because after seven, or eight years I began to think about Suriname and about going back there. But I didn't really have the means to go back and visit because I was still struggling, trying to make it work, trying to pay the bills, trying to get through school. So that episode kind of passed. It was about 20 years after arriving for the first time in New York, that I really began to feel like I was missing Suriname quite heavily. And I think it came partially with having at that time already a career in cinematography. I was shooting narratives, documentaries, things like that.
Milton Kam: And there was one documentary that I was in involved with, which took me all the way to New Mexico, to film pow wow of Native Americans, which is where Native American dancers from many different tribes in the US, as well as in Canada, would come together to celebrate their culture, that I was so moved by that event because it's the first time I actually really saw, and met, and heard Americans, real Americans, not Americans who are from a past in Europe or elsewhere, but Americans who were native to the country. And that really moved me.
Milton Kam: And while seeing this event and filming it, I began to really think about Suriname. And about how I would have liked to have had a similar experience in Suriname, which I never had. So the idea of going back to Suriname began to take a real form during that event. So the urge to go back really did take a hold of me, and I decided to go back that same year, in 2007. Not knowing what kind of impact that would have had on me. When I flew back from New York to Suriname, as many Surinamese will tell you when they come back to the country after a long absence, the moment the airplane opens, the door opens and you go out on the tarmac, you smell the warm, moist air of the rainforest around and the concrete of the tarmac, of the airport. And that smell really just comes right back at you and really fills you with a sense of I've arrived.
Milton Kam: So for me that was the same thing. And coming back to Suriname in 2007, to the city of Paramaribo, where I grew up, was akin to being I guess you could say in love. And being a kid in a toy store, seeing things that are very familiar, but at the same time still very fresh because I was coming back after 20 years, not having seen anything of Suriname in this period of time.
Kim: So at this point then, tell us about the project that led to the book, and the beautiful photographs that you took.
Milton Kam: I took a camera back with me to Suriname, a proper camera. And I really indulged in taking pictures of everything I could. Records in the city, getting reintroduced to the mosaic of different ethnic and cultural groups that you'll find there, as well as the rainforest, the beautiful expansive rainforest that Suriname has. And I was taking pictures of everything and anything, whether it was the rain, or whether it was funerals, or events that are happening among the different cultures. I really wanted to explore Suriname through my camera. And that kind of brought me to the idea of perhaps doing a series of photo books, each of which would detail one of the five or more ethnic groups in Suriname.
Milton Kam: And it was obvious for me that I needed to start with the, the group that was there the longest, which are the indigenous people of Suriname. So I decided to come back the next year, in 2008, and began work on that. And the first thing I did to start my investigation of this little known population group, is to go and meet with the organization that represents them. In this case, it's the foremost organization I can think of in Suriname, the Association of Indigenous Chiefs in Suriname. And this organization represents all the indigenous chiefs, of all the different on villages in Suriname. And with their guidance I began to.
Milton Kam: The work involved to start with, really getting to know the lay of the land, knowing what tribes are where, how these communities have persisted and existed for as long as they have, but also to understand what indigenous people who are now part of the city fabric, how have they live their lives. People in Paramaribo. And there's a whole range of experiences from the traditional lifestyle in the rainforest, to urban life in Suriname's capital.
Kim: You must be so thrilled and pleased with yourself that you've reconnected?
Milton Kam: Yes, and I should be clear that the work I've done for my book has been so far with the indigenous people, not with the Maroons, that's a whole different chapter so to speak. That would require a lot more time and attention I feel.
Kim: If you were to say to somebody, "Yes, go to Suriname." How would you fill in the dots? "Go to Suriname, but..."
Milton Kam: I would say go to Suriname, explore both what is available in the city of Paramaribo, which is a really amazing multicultural mosaic. People from of Creole and Maroon descent. People of African.... As well as people from Indian and Indonesian and, Chinese heritage. You'll find even some Lebanese shops in Suriname that sell textile, or you'll find a little Brazil, so to speak. Brazilians who have come to Suriname, especially for the gold mining, who have now got their own neighborhoods. You'll find such an amazing multicultural variety, that is phenomenal for a place in South America. But also, do go visit the beautiful Amazonian rainforest that we have. There is so much to see there.
Milton Kam: Not just the Maroon, but also the indigenous villages that are open to visitors. Indigenous operators who can take you to indigenous villages that are available to stay in for several days. And you can go and see them on the coast, which is where you'll find sea turtles nesting at certain times of the year. Or you can go way into the south, in the rainforest, where you'll find aspects of culture among the indigenous that still exists. Whether it's planting, and fishing, and hunting or other aspects.
Kim: Fabulous Milton. And he has given us stacks of links to Suriname and his book, which we'll share in show notes, along with ways to get in touch with us for story ideas or even feedback on the podcast.
Phil: Next week, our special episode on sustainable and ethical travel. See you then.
Kim: I'm off to Suriname. Bye.
Find out about crime areas to avoid, how to safely cross borders between Guyana and Suriname, and local laws to know before you go.