A Highlight of Suriname: Visiting a Maroon Village in the Deep Jungle
As I sit propped upright in bed, recovering from a long battle with entamoeba histolytica (or Petey the Parasite as we’ve come to call it) acquired in the jungle, I can’t help but think that now may not be the time to write more about Suriname. But when it comes to travel, it’s always a caveat emptor type of situation, and I really can’t blame the rainforest for my parasite. And despite my deep personal fear of the rainforest, we had a wonderful time visiting the traditional Maroon village of Nieuw Aurora, deep in the heart of the Surinamese interior rainforest.
A Maroon village visit is part of any canned visit to the Surinamese interior, and Nieuw Aurora (sorry, Dutch only) is the village most often visited by tourists staying in the five kilometer stretch of the Suriname River most densely populated by jungle eco-lodges. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – let’s start with a primer on the Maroon people, and how they ended up in this part of the world.
Maroon Villages: Born from Flights to Freedom
Well, duh – colonialism, am I right? The rarely visited stretch of land west of Amapá state in Brazil (formerly Portugese Guiana) and east of Venezuela (formerly Spanish Guiana) was, much like the rest of the continent, a hotbed of colonial activity until Guyana and Suriname achieved independence in 1966 and 1975, respectively. (Side note: French Guiana remains an overseas department of France, and apparently has little desire for independence)
Hand in hand with colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries was slavery, and the British, French, and Dutch colonizers of the various Guianas were no exception. Slaves were kidnapped from Africa and brought to work plantations in the northern parts of the country where Europeans were able to tame the flora and fauna for their purposes of growing sugar cane, coffee, cocoa, and cotton. But as the region is covered in dense, virgin rainforest, escaping undetected was easier in the Guianas than in, say, the United States. This combined with the presence of indigenous peoples sympathetic to the slaves’ plight helped slave escapees to settle down and form roots in the more remote parts of the territory. This is how Maroon culture was born – from escaped slaves venturing into the rainforest, mingling with indigenous peoples, and developing a cultural identity distinct from both original groups of people. The word “Maroon” describes this group of people, present across colonized parts of South America and the Caribbean.
Our Visit to Nieuw Aurora, a Maroon Metropolis
It was with this somber knowledge that we embarked on our day tour to the Maroon village of Nieuw Aurora. We were staying at the Knini Paati Eco-Resort, and Ivan (a Maroon man, Russian name notwithstanding) was the riverboat captain assigned to ferry us from place to place. Ivan deftly ferried us along with the only three other folks staying at our resort (all local Surinamese, as it happens) upriver for about ten minutes through impressive rapids and shallow waters to the docks of the town.
Wim, a frequent guest at Knini Paati who would become our surrogate father figure during our stay in Suriname, acted as our informal guide to the Maroon village. He seemed to know everything and everyone, and shuttled us from place to place while providing rich descriptions of different aspects of daily life in the dense Surinamese jungle. Our casual walk started with a tour of the medical center, staffed primarily by Dutch doctors and nurses, and the village’s “airstrip.” I use quotes here not in a demeaning way, but rather because the overgrowth of flora pointed to the strip not being used in recent history.
With that, we made our way to the first of two culturally independent villages. The first was that which maintained traditional African animist practices – including the practice of polygamy and burial of dead far from the village. The villagers were clearly used to seeing foreigners – again, Nieuw Aurora is the showcase village of the area – and enjoyed making small talk with us, asking for their pictures to be taken, etc. Tradition in the village dictates that while men are able to have multiple wives, they can only do so if they are able to build houses for each wife. Thus, the number of wives a man has is directly correlated to his wealth and standing in the village.
The second village begins just past the hundred year old mango tree (the place where women from each village come to spill the tea on local goings on) and bank. This second village practices Christianity, forbids polygamy, and buries their dead adjacent to the church. Other than these differences, the two villages are indistiguishable. Despite religious differences, the villagers mix and mingle and get along without issue – something that always surprised me coming from the USA, where it seems nothing is as charged as differences in religious beliefs.
At this junction between villages, we passed another tour group, with a completely different demographic makeup than our own. Perhaps twenty Dutch tourists, some still clad in ratty life jackets from their river journey, walked past us, eyes cast downward so as to avoid any potential interaction. David and I commiserated with our Knini Paati compatriots about how fortunate we were to be experiencing the Maroon village free from the tribe of stoic Germanic peoples.
For the consummate consumer, the Maipafolo craft shop (right near to the village’s south jetty) has a wide range of locally crafted goods on offer, from hand carved canoe paddles to traditional pangi (for women) and kamisa (for men). The only issue? The shop sat open with no one manning it. No problem, just leave your money at the desk and make your own change from the rattan envelope cum cash register. This was another surprise for the jaded Americans, where such an honor system (especially in an amount that could comprise a whole day’s earnings) would be unheard of.
We also took a walk through the town school, where I was particularly taken with the world map mural painted on an exterior wall. As it turns out, the Peace Corps sent many young intrepid Americans to Suriname until the program’s end in 2013. The world map painting program was popular, as evidenced by each village school’s map visible from the Suriname river during the trip to and from Atjoni, where the road quite literally transforms from tarmac to murky water. Always a fan of a good map coma, I spent a few too many minutes looking at and internally criticizing national borders before ambling to Ivan and our dugout canoe, ready to negotiate the river back to our lodge.
Despite the numerous Dutch groups trundling through Nieuw Aurora (and the thought that maybe it might not be the most authentic of the villages dotting the banks of the Suriname River), we absolutely loved the insight the village gave us into real life in the jungle and the people that live there. Logistically, if you join in any tour to the interior, a Maroon village tour will undoubtedly be on offer, along with nature walks, river swimming, and nighttime caiman spotting. For any lover of human culture and development, this will be a highlight of your time in Suriname. And for other folks, like myself, who have a healthy fear of the supreme Earth Goddess Gaia, a taste of civilization in the deep green abyss will provide comfort that yes, it is absolutely possible to survive in the jungle – despite any parasites that may end up joining you for the ride.