Today begins a new chapter for “It’s Always Sunny in Suriname.” My brother and closest friend Mac visited me in Suriname in August 2012 and graciously accepted my offer to serve as the first guest writer. Mac was a warrior, traveling from the concrete jungle of Manhattan to its natural cousin in Suriname and back in 9 days while enjoying every bend in the journey. He translated his adventure into a wonderful blog post, gracing us all with another perspective on life in the jungle. Enjoy as you read “I’m Always Sweaty in Suriname” by Mac Williams.
“This past August, I went to visit my more adventurous and now way more infamous brother John, in his village in Suriname. It was pretty amazing that within 36 hours of leaving Manhattan, I was sleeping in a hammock in his “house” (think log cabin, but with 2×4’s and a tin roof) way way waaaaaay up the Suriname River, in the village of Ligolio. In fact, his village is basically the “last stop on the train” and is one of the last villages along the Suriname River as it winds up into the Amazon rainforest. You might think to yourself – “wow, just like that and you’re in another world!” And maybe that’s true when you fly direct to South America, Africa, etc., etc., hop out of the plane, and next thing you know you’re on a safari or some other cool adventure. But this place, Ligolio, was a WHOLE OTHER world beyond that one. Those 36 travel hours consisted of: NYC – Miami – Paramaribo (capital city of Suriname) – sleep 4 hrs – 4 hr van ride out of Paramaribo – 8 to 10 hour ride on a motorized canoe up the Suriname River to his village. Yes, 8+ hours in a canoe! And that’s on a good day – sometimes it’s an overnight trip! So needless to say, the hammock felt pretty good that first night. John was an incredibly gracious host, as were the people of Ligolio. Over the next 5 days, I spent a day or two in his village meeting many of his fellow villagers, we spent two days on an overnight camping trip further up the river (deeper into the jungle), and spent another day or so visiting some of the neighboring villages, catching up, and seeing what his daily routines and projects consisted of.
Taking the canoe to John’s Village
Pushing the canoe up some rapids
I kept a quasi-journal while I was there and promised John that I’d write a blog post about it – to try and give an outsider’s perspective of what Suriname, his village, and his Peace Corps experience seemed like, at least to me. At first I thought I would give a “trip report” and focus mainly on events and our comings-and-goings. But on second thought, I think perhaps what’s even more interesting is the general impressions and highlights that I’m left with, even now, almost 6 months later.
The first thing that struck me when I got to his village was the incredible heat. Maybe its that you’re closer to the Equator, maybe it’s that you’re in the extremely humid jungle, and maybe it was just the time of year I was visiting; most likely it’s a combination of all those things. But regardless, I’d say that pretty much every day from 10am – 5pm, if you’re going out of the shade, you better be wearing something you don’t mind getting wet… Frankly, I can’t imagine how the kids in school are able to concentrate and learn when you’re wearing uniforms and sweating all day. Maybe they’re just accustomed to it, but I sure know that this frustrated the heck out of me when I was in school. I’m pretty sure that if I lived here, I would never, not once, wear long pants. It also made me think about how much more difficult this must make it for people to be productive during the day, particularly in a place where much of the daily routine involves manual labor of some sort (whether clearing ones farming grounds, making rice, etc.). As John once described to me, it’s the kind of heat that makes you want to just sit and try to cool down. So it made it all the more impressive to me that he’s been able to self-motivate, create projects and initiatives for himself and his village, and actually see them through.
Intermixed with the heat and humidity came intense spouts of rain. This created quite an interesting situation for us when we were travelling up the river on that first day. For some reason which I couldn’t figure out, no one has ever decided to put overhead covers on the canoe-boats that serve as your taxi up the river (think large/long canoe with a motor on the back). I didn’t think anything of this at first. But after a while (and certainly after the full 8 hrs), I started to wish the covers existed, because every so often you’d see a dark cloud ahead and you’d sit there watching it approach, knowing full well you were about to get drenched. The first time it was funny and hilariously ridiculous, particularly as a welcome reprieve from the scorching sun. But after the 7th or 8th time, we were all just kind of shivering, wishing the rain would stop. That said, riding in the canoe upriver, pushing it up the rapids, and having to portage our belongings through parts of the jungle in the dark, was actually a lot of fun (and certainly a very authentic experience)!
Here we’re starting to get rained on
Probably the part of the trip that I enjoyed the most, though, was our two-day trip past his village and further up the Suriname River. It’s always neat to have that feeling of ‘getting away’ when you’re on a camping trip. But when I thought about the fact that there was literally NO ONE living back here this far into the jungle (at least to our knowledge), it took ‘getting away’ to another level. It was amazing to see the river get narrower and narrower and the dense foliage of the jungle form increasingly impenetrable walls on either side of us. Plus, we got to see some pretty incredible wildlife! The last time John had done this, he’d been lucky enough to see a jaguar on the other side of the river drinking water (there’s a picture in one of his earlier posts). This was definitely top-of-mind for me when I walked into the jungle with our two guides in search of a fishing stick… here I was, some strange looking white guy wearing bright colored running shoes, green shorts, and a tie-die t-shirt, walking between two locals wearing camo and carrying rifles… Who do YOU think the jaguar would have attacked?? Oddly enough, the jaguar was the last of my worries. As I was walking along, I was so focused on looking far off in all directions that I didn’t notice the patch of enormous red ants I walked right into. A few swollen bites and a lot of spastic dancing and cursing later, everything was alright.
In search of a fishing stick
The place where we camped out was also really neat because it was right along the river next to some rapids where we could fish for piranha and other strange things I can’t remember the name of.
Our camping spot
Fabio trying to fish
Either the fish weren’t biting for me, or I just wasn’t very good at fishing with a stick (…literally a stick with a string, hook and worm…). Either way, there wasn’t a lot of fish for dinner. Fortunately, one of our guides spotted some enormous wild-turkey-looking-bird in the jungle and managed to hunt it down. Actually, when this took place, I nearly jumped out of my skin, because at first, the only thing I saw was the guide come sprinting out of the woods, grab his rifle, and then take off back into the jungle again. At this point I was thinking to myself, “oh man, its probably that leopard coming to eat us! I better run down to the canoe in case I need to shove off into the water!” And then I heard the gun shots from somewhere in the jungle! Frightened, I was starting to creep back to the river and boats when Toni (our guide) came walking out of the jungle with this big bird in his arms. I breathed a pretty big sigh of relief. Watching him skin, clean, and cook it was pretty fascinating as well – like an adult version of those 8th grade science labs.
Here’s our dinner before…
and these little guys were lunch
One last bit of wildlife we saw on this trip upriver – we were lucky enough to see not one, but TWO anacondas “hanging out” along the side of the river sunning themselves. These things were over 10ft! They looked like huge piles of scales and nastiness – I feel like this picture doesn’t quite do it justice. When we turned to leave, one of them actually slipped down into the water. John and I were standing up taking photos at this point, and we both kind of jumped a little bit off balance. I remember thinking how terrifying that would have been to fall in the water…. This jungle was no joke!
Throughout my time in Ligolio, I was also impressed by John’s somehow newly learned cooking abilities. John and I never really learned how to cook at all growing up (thanks Mom for all our meals! You spoiled us). Nevertheless, John has managed to somehow become a gourmand jungle-chef. He took care of all of our meals, and I have to admit, they were awesome! Spaghetti with meatballs; home-made pizza; peanut butter oatmeal; some local fish. I think we even had some sort of Indian-style curry dish at one point. I was amazed how he was able to make so much with only provisions that came out of jars, cans, and other strange looking industrial-sized containers (there’s a bunch of pictures in an earlier post called The Jungle Cookbook). What’s more, he cooked all of it over a small gas-lit burner. I got the sense that fresh vegetables for him were very few-and-far-between. He just hasn’t really had the time or wherewithal to setup much of a farming operation, so he has to rely on the generosity of his fellow villagers or his occasional trips to the city.
One last impression I was left with – One of the funny things about visiting John’s village, and probably about visiting any place similarly remote, is that most of the people have very little concept of where John comes from or what his day-to-day life was like ‘back home’. I feel like as Americans, we often travel around with the assumption that other people have at least some basic understanding for this – the types of towns and cities we live in, the kinds of cars we drive, the kind of schools we go to and jobs we pursue. Maybe we just assume that this sort of information disseminates through media, press, news, etc. But here in the village, I feel like I could have said I was from Australia, Europe, or even Russia, and I would have gotten the same reaction. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s some lack of geographical knowledge. I’m only trying to describe a feeling I got which was that America, along with all of these places, is somehow amalgamated into a mental bucket which is “not here”, and there’s not necessarily a deep understanding for how different these places all are from one another, or, for example, how the experience of someone growing up in the U.S. – the things we focus on, worry about, plan for – are so very different from someone growing up in Ligolio.
So why did this strike me? Because what I noticed was that there was very little concept of what John was “giving up”, or the magnitude of his commitment, by spending 2 years in Ligolio. Not that people didn’t appreciate him being around. Quite the opposite – I felt like he was a very welcomed and appreciated member of their village (which btw is ~150 people). But no one really understands what he might otherwise be doing back home, had he not chosen to join the Peace Corps. And so when times are tough, when a project he’s working on isn’t moving forward, or when he’s feeling particularly lonely and just wants some of the creature comforts from back home, there’s no one there who truly understands what he’s “missing”, aside from his other Peace Corps Volunteers (who, by the way, are fairly well scattered throughout the country and are mostly inaccessible). This isn’t something John complains about. But it was something I noticed, and it struck me as kind of a ‘hidden’ challenge about the whole experience. It’s one thing to go through a mentally or emotionally taxing experience with other people. It’s quite another to go through it more-or-less alone.
One time before I went down to visit John we had a conversation on the phone about what he was thinking of doing when he got home. Being the older brother, naturally I was suggesting different things to consider, all of which amounted to planning ahead and thinking about ‘What’s next?”. But having been down there and spent a week in his shoes, I definitely gained a newfound appreciation for what he said – “I think I’m just going to focus on getting through this, and then I’ll think about what’s next.” I don’t know if this is a sentiment shared by every Peace Corps Volunteer, but it certainly struck me as perhaps valid for many – the projects you work on and impact you make on your community gives you something to focus your time and efforts around while you are “on site”, but it is really only half the challenge of the experience (if not less). Simply making it through the 2 years is a pretty big accomplishment, in and of itself.
All-in-all, it was a fantastic trip, and it was awesome seeing John in his element in the village. I highly highly recommend that if anyone out there is thinking about going, or has been debating it, DO IT! It’ll be quite the experience.”
John and Baba napping
Last but not least, John, Baba and I at his house