Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review


Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review


Article excerpt

Suriname is a country. That's the first thing. It isn't lost in the jungles of darkest Africa, hidden like a mischievous dwarf between two Asian supergiants, or nestled below Mexico. It's not an island in the Caribbean or Indonesia, the Antilles or Oceania. It's not an island at all. Take a look at a world map. Find South America and then point to Brazil. Trace your finger up its immense Atlantic coastline-Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Fortaleza, Belém. At some point you reach French Guiana, a kind of overseas private club for wealthy Parisians. Continue along the arc of the Atlantic coastline, and you come to a spot that's smaller than your fingertip. Suriname is the size of the state of Georgia. But it's not a state; it's a country. There's plenty of evidence to prove it. There's the Suriname River, Suriname Airways, the Suriname Soccer Federation, the Bank of Suriname, the map of Suriname at your fingertip, and a sanitation expert from the University of Suriname with dark skin and unkempt hair who at the moment is telling me, "Suriname is a beautiful country, but nobody knows about Suriname." Not even the Surinamese.

She's the first one I've ever met.

We're in the renovated airport of Maiquetía, Venezuela, sitting in one corner of Gate 17 next to picture windows overlooking the runways. It's nighttime. Outside only the outline of mountains and the white lights of aircraft. Inside the blare from multiple television sets is unbearable: a popular reggaeton, Shakira's latest hit, the Caribbean twang of President Hugo Chavez intoning: These are my achievements-vote for me! To make herself heard over the racket Audrey must speak at the top of her voice. In English. She tells me not all Surinamese speak English, and almost none speak Spanish. "We're part of South America, but, I'm sorry, we don't seem South American," she says.

Audrey arrived from an environmental conference in Lima, Peru, over ten hours ago and ever since has been awaiting her flight home, first to Port of Spain (on the island of Trinidad and Tobago) and then to Paramaribo, her country's capital. It's absurd that to fly from South America to South America you have to leave South America, but in a world where distances are measured from airport to airport, proximity on a map is mere coincidence. Only an expanse of ocean separates Suriname from the south coast of Miami, but there's no flight from there, so its geographical immediacy is meaningless. And that's the trouble with Suriname; you can't fly there from much of anywhere. From Port of Spain, where Audrey is headed. Or from Belém in Brazil. Or from Amsterdam, the capital of the tiny European nation that claimed Suriname as one of its holdings until 1975. But be warned, once and for all, that you need a visa and a passport to enter Suriname, because it is not part of the Netherlands. Suriname is a country.

"Why are you going?" Audrey asks.

Her question is reasonable. Nobody goes to Suriname. Well, nobody may be a statistical exaggeration, but compare its hundred thousand visitors per year to neighboring Brazil's six million. There are no famous Surinamese singers or movie stars, no Nobel laureates or best-selling authors. Not even a Miss World or a beach to show off on postcards. John Paul II, nicknamed the Traveling Pope, never traveled to Suriname. Even the Surinamese don't go to Suriname; some three hundred fifty thousand-more than a quarter of the total population-spend their days in the Netherlands. And more wish they could leave.

I'm about to answer Audrey, when an employee of Aeropostal-the Venezuelan airline sadly renowned for its delays-interrupts our conversation by shouting that the flight to Port of Spain is running behind. In Spanish. Audrey doesn't speak Spanish but suspects she catches the drift of what's happening and, in a strange and unintelligible language, translates what she didn't understand to a woman friend, a Surinamese waste-management specialist who looks at her in a daze. …

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