Suriname

Kabalebo

7 December 2008

 

Mike and I fly on a small Cessna to visit Karel Dawson, a Jewish hunter-turned-environmentalist who owns a jungle retreat on the Kabalebo River. There’s barely any sign of human habitation below during the entire flight deep into the interior. Only snaking waterways break the monotony of the undulating green and plateaus of cloud forest. Karel greets us on the grass airstrip. He tells me a few minutes later: “I am part Jewish, but don’t follow Jewish ways. I practice no religion. Nature and the wild are in me.” Wildness and nature surround him, too. Howler monkeys screech eerily in treetops. An electric blue and green grasshopper the size of my hand eyes me from a cashew tree. A black anaconda, nearly twenty feet long, curls in a patch of sun near the dock.

 

Karel has leading-man good looks, graying hair, muscular forearms, and pronounced crow’s-feet from years of squinting into the sun. His movements, somehow both rushed and deliberate, possess the subdued intensity of someone who knows his work is never done. For years, Karel lived in Amsterdam but grew sick of “bricks and pavement,” so he returned to his native Suriname. His wife, Joyce Smits, who claims to be a distant relative of actor Jimmy Smits, has a Jewish grandfather, and a sister in Holland who converted and became “very orthodox.” Joyce identifies as Roman Catholic, but to me she’s something of a Jewish mother, continually bringing me food—crepes with raisins, peanut soup, pom—because I look too thin. She is round-faced, brown-skinned, gracious, and quick to offer a playful laugh or flash a theatrical scowl when I don’t clean my plate. An attractive woman, she walks with her shoulders thrust back in a military posture. Joyce explains that Surinamese people living abroad always talk about returning: “In their heart they want to, but they know they won’t.” Sounds like the Israelis I know.

 

I ask them if Suriname could have been a good home for the Jews. Karel’s eyes narrow and he replies with a sweep of his hand at the rainforest beyond. “This is home,” he explains. Jews are so integral to Suriname’s history and social fabric, he tells me, that my question is meaningless. For Karel, Surname is a homeland for Jews precisely because most have disappeared into its ethnic and religious stew. 

 

Paramaribo

10 December 2008

 

Mike and I meet Ray—not his real name—at Paramaribo’s only remaining synagogue, Neve Shalom. A twenty-something bachelor, Ray is happy to show two visiting American Jews around Paramaribo. He picks us up in his gleaming black SUV and drives us to a Javanese neighborhood for Indonesian food. Ray has short, dark hair and thick eyebrows that loom over watery eyes. His full cheeks and stocky frame suggest he’ll run to fat, but for now he’s muscular and wears a cut-off T-shirt that reveals his biceps. His swagger makes me think of a henchman from Miami Vice. Chris de Burgh’s cheesy synth-hit from the 1980s, “Lady in Red,” blasts from the stereo and completes the image. Ray belts out the lyrics and when he doesn’t know the words, he bites down on his lower lip and then nods a pantomime of soulfulness.

 

        “Do you feel like you’re the last generation of Jews here?” I ask.

      “They always say the Jews disappear, but we always come back, man.” Ray turns to me and speaks with intensity. “You know, I put on tefillin every morning because I want many blessings.” He takes his hands off the steering wheel and makes a motion of grabbing whatever beast he thinks life is by the horns. “I want to live a long life and have many successes!”

But what about the next generation? What about a Jewish girlfriend?

      “My last girlfriend was Muslim. No problem.” He winks at me. “In the morning, her mother made me coffee.”

I wonder what his girlfriend’s mother thought seeing him wrapped in tefillin.

 

We pull up—and almost into—the courtyard of the restaurant, Mirosso. The tires bite into the dirt and kick up dust. A startled dog scrambles away, its head bent low. Twinkling lights illuminate the interior. The Dutch brought tens of thousands of Javanese to Suriname in the early twentieth century as indentured servants. Now you can find nasi goreng at truck stops. I order a spicy shrimp dish; Ray tells me he won’t touch shellfish because it’s not kosher. He orders chicken satay, which I point out isn’t likely to be kosher either. Ray scoffs. Mike concentrates on his beef, bored by Ray’s fuzzy theology. Our slender waitress brings more rice. I mention to Ray how pretty the Javanese women are.

        “And also,” he says, leaning across the table conspiratorially, “they love to fuck!”

        “Can I quote you on that?”

        “Yeah, man. You can quote the hell out of me.”

 

Ray orders another round of satay, twirls the meat from the skewers into his mouth, and regales us with tales of hunting hei, a kind of large agouti he claims is delicious. We don’t discuss whether the jumbo rodent is kosher.

 

 

Paramaribo

14 December 2008

 

We walk towards Independence Square across from the Presidential Palace. A breeze blows in off the river and birdsong swirls around us. But these birds are in cages dangling from nearby posts. Mike and I have found ourselves in the middle of the grand finale of Suriname’s national pastime. There’s no stadium, no gyrating touchdown dances, and no performance enhancers. Instead, men train large-billed seed finches—twa-twas—to sing as loud and as often as they can. Noise and commotion helps train the twa-twas for grueling early morning competitions where they are pitted against one another in all-out twa-twa battles. We’ve seen men carrying the birds in delicate cages throughout the city, holding them on their laps in cars, propping them on restaurant tables during dinner dates, and hanging them around their necks while bicycling down city streets.

 

The contest is simple: whichever bird sings most often in a designated time period, wins. This year, the vice president’s son boasts the victorious twa-twa. His hair is slicked back into a ponytail, oversized sunglasses hide his eyes, but his self-satisfied grin breaks through his cool when he receives his trophy in front of the T.V. cameras and crowds of well-wishers. There’s something charming about a country where men dote on songbirds and coach them with whistles from the sidelines.

 

After the competition, we walk toward the Suriname River along an unshaded path. While we’re lost in conversation, we hear barking. Nothing unusual in Paramaribo. Then two dogs appear about a 150 yards away. They charge us, teeth bared, snarling. One dog races faster than the other. She’s about knee-high with coarse brown-black fur. I can see her pink tongue lapping up against mossy canines as she closes in on me and lunges. The dog muffles her angry growl with my right calf. I feel her bite through my skin and I kick out to shake my leg loose from her jaws. The other dog reaches me, paws skidding to a halt. I turn to run but trip when my bloodied leg gives out. Before I know it, Mike is at my side swinging his backpack and distracting the dogs who jump and snap at the bag. I stumble to my feet and we sprint toward the main street with the dogs giving half-hearted chase. There’s at least six ugly puncture wounds, maybe more. We hail a cab and drive to the hospital while I staunch the bleeding with some tissues.

 

I hobble to the ER and am greeted by a dark-skinned woman wearing a starched white uniform, her hair coiled in a bun. I tell her I’ve been bitten and ask for the rabies vaccine, but she tells me they don’t have the serum because it’s too expensive. I yell, demanding to see a doctor; she tells me she is one. Not my finest moment.

 

An unsmiling nurse with a gold tooth pushes me into an exam room, cleans my wound, gives me an injection and snaps questions at me: “Why you come here?” and “Why you can’t speak Dutch?” She’s the first unfriendly person I’ve met in more than two weeks in Suriname. I manage to formulate a few sentences in Yiddish that I figure might sound like Dutch. She’s unimpressed and shoos me to an outdoor waiting room partially protected from the elements. A sheet-shrouded corpse is rolled by on a clattering gurney. Two stray dogs skulk nearby and I imagine they’re mocking me, forcing me to head north for rabies treatment with my tail between my legs.