The Modernist Architecture Nerd’s Guide to Suriname and Guyana

Architecture is always top of mind when planning our travels.  We will often make detours to out of the way locations if we find out a building or monument of particular interest is located there (looking at you, Pleven, Bulgaria).  For die hard modernism and brutalism fans, planning an itinerary based on hopping from modernist relic to relic is easy in places like the Balkans, Baltics, or Central Asia.  When venturing off the beaten path in the Americas, to places like Guyana and Suriname, for instance, the game becomes a little more difficult.  

David and I hadn’t done any pre-planning in terms of architecture tourism for our recent trip to Guyana and Suriname – in that way, it resembled our trip to Southeast Asia last year, where we happened upon beauties of the New Khmer style designed by Vann Molyvann.  But Guyana and Suriname lacked the direct colonial influence of the French that allowed for an easier transfer of modernist styles and forms from Le Corbusier to architects in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.  Suriname and Guyana, on the other hand, are better known for wooden colonial architecture from the British and the Dutch – the likes of which in Paramaribo are listed under UNESCO World Heritage.  That said, while walking among British and Dutch colonial structures in various states of (dis)repair crowding the streets in Georgetown and Paramaribo, we found a great number of modernist examples worth going out of the way for (if you happen to be a concrete fetishist, that is).
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Big Skies in the High Kyrgyz Pamir

For whatever reason, it’s often the places where I have the most transformative experiences that get the least amount of screen time on this blog.  I think it’s because I can never really find the right words to do a place or experience I really love justice.  It’s happened in the past – there’s a reason why you don’t see any posts about things to do and see in Tbilisi or Seoul here.  But, having just written an account about nature that terrified me, I thought it would be best to get my thoughts down about our time in the high Kyrgyz Pamir, where we were fortunate enough to take a three-day trek last September while we were in Kyrgyzstan.

The Pamirs, or, more specifically, the Trans Alay range, in Kyrgyzstan don’t have much in common with the dense jungle rainforest of Suriname on paper, but to me the two represent similar types of experiences.  The uniting thread is that of dominance of the natural over the man-made.  Our time in the Pamirs of Kyrgyzstan, between Turpal Kol, Peak Lenin Base Camp, and Tuyuk Valley, wasn’t as daunting as in the dense jungle, I think due to the vast expanses of land visible from every vantage point.  This isn’t to say that obstacles didn’t exist – just in this case the antagonist was altitude over 12,000 feet, whereas in Suriname it was the hypothetical threat of creepy crawlies in every nook and cranny. Read more

The Massive Green: A Primer on Travel to the Suriname Interior

Far and away the number one source of tourism in Suriname is that of the eco-variety.  With over 90% of its land mass blanketed in primeval rainforest, it’s one of the best and most convenient places to get in touch with your inner Tarzan.  There are numerous eco-resorts dotting the Suriname interior, but those that get the most traffic are a convenient (relative term, I realize) three to four hour bus and an additional hour in a motorized canoe up the Suriname river.  Many are in quite close proximity to one another.  Despite this, the scale and density of the jungle makes you feel miles apart.untitled-2433jpg_32719525563_o

We had decided to stay at Knini Paati, one of the eco-resorts most conveniently located to Paramaribo.  Convenience, again, is relative.  I must also admit that selecting Knini Paati was in no small part due to Seth Kugel’s writeup on it in the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler column, way back in 2014. Read more

A Love Letter to Paramaribo, Suriname

95% of the time, David and I travel fast.  Because we’re constrained in time off from our jobs, we try to see as much as possible in a very condensed amount of time.  This typically results in us spending a couple nights here, and a couple nights there; never spending much time in a single place before jetting off to our next destination.  However, Paramaribo, Suriname was a game changer for us.  The city grabbed hold of us hard as soon as our tiny prop plane sputtered into Zorg en Hoop, Paramaribo’s domestic terminal.  On our short cab ride from the airstrip (it is an international airport by technicality – it has two flights a day to and from Georgetown, Guyana – most of its traffic is to and from Suriname’s dense jungle interior) we saw places of worship from no fewer than four world religions, dense jungle flora the likes of which we hadn’t seen previously, and wonderfully intact examples of Dutch colonial architecture.

There’s a long list of cities David and I have grown to love over the course of our travels: Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sofia, Bulgaria, Riga, Latvia, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan come to mind.  But we didn’t linger in any of these as long as we did in Paramaribo.  Reflecting on our time in Parbo, as it is known affectionately, there wasn’t one single thing that made us fall in love with the city.  But rather, we fell for the sum of its parts. Read more

A Day Trip to Kaieteur Falls, Guyana

Though Suriname came to be the real star of our recent trip to South America, we actually started our trip in the country of Guyana, just to the west of Suriname.  We were there as flights were more convenient to Georgetown than to Paramaribo from Miami – and as an excuse to check another country off our list.  There isn’t much information on traveling in Guyana in the blogosphere, but the one place we knew we needed to visit in the country was Kaieteur Falls – the highest single drop waterfall in the world.

The falls were first discovered by non indigenous peoples in 1970, when a British surveyor and geologist assigned to the territory stumbled across it on a routine interior scouting mission. Since then, the falls have been featured in several mainstream media, from the Werner Herzog film, “The White Diamond,” to the less intellectually stimulating Animal Planet program, “River Monsters.”  To be completely fair, I was more familiar with the latter prior to our visit. Read more

A Walking Tour through Soviet Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

One of the things that most excited us for our trip to Central Asia was the number of well preserved buildings from the Soviet Era. Bishkek, in particular, had a great concentration of the buildings, ranging from Stalinist to Socialist Modernist, all within easy walking distance from one another.  As you know by the title of my blog, I am a big fan of concrete architecture, and this post is for all of those wishing to see the greatest examples of the medium in the shortest amount of walking time.  I did a great amount of research before our trip to ensure our two days in the Kyrgyz capital wouldn’t be spent idling about.  We had an itinerary, and we stuck to it.

To start, here’s the route we’ll cover:

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A Shvitz in the Steppe: Almaty, Kazakhstan’s Arasan Baths

In a past life (circa 2009), David managed the local Russian bath here in Seattle.  It was there that he met our friend Helmut, who happened to be traveling with us in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan this past September.  So it made perfect sense that we spend an afternoon in Almaty’s Arasan Baths, famous for being the largest and most opulent of all public baths in Central Asia.

The combination of David’s history with the banya and my living experiences in bath-intensive places like Japan and Korea make us avid bath and hot springs travelers.  We seek them out nearly every place we go, from traditional Turkish hammams in Istanbul, to traditional Northern European spas in the Baltics.  Public baths are a great place to get to know a culture, as they are frequently social hubs, where people gather to not only soak away the aches of the day, but also to gossip about the neighborhood’s goings on. Read more

The ABC’s of African Modernism: A is for Asmara

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In this edition of concrete and kitsch, I am bringing you the latest in architecture-related wanderlust about a place to which I have never traveled: Africa!  A few months ago, a random google rabbit hole led me to the overlapping portion of the “Africa” and “Modernist Architecture” Venn diagram, and I haven’t turned back since.  I strongly believe in a sort of modern, traveler-angst type of manifest destiny, and believe that the longer the staying power of a travel-related obsession, the more likely I’ll be to travel there in the near future.

So with that let’s take a little trip to the little known and little visited Asmara, Eritrea – the former jewel of Italy’s Imperial Crown!

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Balkan Kismet: Bosnia Transport (Mis)Adventures

Our day had started much like a typical one on the road for us.  We had woken early (it happened to be New Year’s Day) in Mostar, done a bit of perfunctory sightseeing, and were anxious to get back to Sarajevo.  We had only stayed overnight in Sarajevo previously, and were eager to explore the city more thoroughly.  We were thrilled to get dropped off at the bus station just as a bus for Sarajevo was departing.  We threw crumpled bills at the ticket kiosk and boarded the bus to see a group of passengers none-to-thrilled by our shenanigans, costing them time that could be spent going home.

Our transportation in the Balkans previous to this had been smooth, easy, and relatively on-time.  Save the fact that the Sarajevo Airport had been closed for the three previous weeks due to heavy fog in the city.  Apparently this happens every year – a fact that clearly eluded our outdated travel guide.  Luckily for us, however, the skies parted in Sarajevo the day before we arrived.  Until this point, our transportation luck felt like kismet. Read more

Osh, Kyrgyzstan: Not So Large, but Contains Multitudes

Boo yeah, that is a Walt Whitman reference in the title!  Literary self-congratulations aside, the description fits our impressions of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city.  Often referred to as Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital, Osh feels completely different from Bishkek – less modern, more steeped in tradition, and more Islamic.  As we ventured even further south, to Sary Mogul and deeper into Kyrgyzstan’s Islamic heartland, stores even stopped selling alcohol and cigarettes.  Despite how Islam is portrayed by American media and, sadly, the incoming presidential cabinet, we found that as places became more majority Islamic, so too did their people become more friendly.stans-2016-292_29912580065_o

Though, to be fair, the comparison is mostly Islamic versus Russified.  And in comparisons of friendliness, I’m afraid Russians will typically not make the podium. Read more