Surinamese Memoir: Visiting Kourou, Cayenne, and Devil’s Island

Saramaka drum from Surinam

I enjoyed Paramaribo (the capital of Surinam), a very laid-back place, during my visit around the time Richard Nixon resigned his presidency, in August of 1974. I had recently turned 20. Dad was serving there as US Consul-General, prior to, and during the transition of Surinam, a former Dutch colony, to it’s full independence.

Dad and Mom lived in a grand residence, with a small decorative pond on the first floor outside glass patio doors. The house was built in a modern style, and very open, though as was common back then, there was no air conditioning in the common areas, relying instead on the tropical breezes, high ceilings, and ceiling fans.

The bedrooms upstairs were paneled in teak, and had dedicated air-conditioners. A very comfortable getaway from the equatorial heat. One day I was sitting by the pond outside when what looked like a housefly landed nearby, but it was ten times the size. This house was right on the edge of the jungle. We rented and rode horses through our neighborhood once. I wasn’t comfortable outside the wall around the house after dark, because packs of wild dogs would emerge from the jungle and roam the streets.

During my stay, my brother Bill and I with my parents visited Devil’s Island in neighboring French Guiana. We first drove east along the coast to the ferry at the border between Surinam and French Guiana, and took it across to St. Laurent [du Maroni], a town that was until 1953 the transshipment point for prisoners from France, destined for the three islands about five miles offshore that comprised the Devil’s Island prison complex.

There used to be a large prison in St. Laurent too, and the walls and buildings were still there. We stopped for lunch in town and I remember seeing some old white men walking around, and my dad said that they were old freed prisoners. It had been about twenty years since Devil’s Island closed and France considered it a national embarrassment.

We drove further on a two-lane paved road in good shape, though there were some graded dirt sections too. It ran near the coast, with mostly jungle on either side. After several hours of travel past the wild scrub and trees, we suddenly came upon huge rocket gantries emerging vertically from the vegetation, signaling the Guiana Space Centre, near Kourou. Many commercial rocket launches occur there, mostly to place satellites into orbit, due to its proximity to the equator and the resulting boost to the launch from the earth’s rotation.

We stopped and speaking fractured French, procured Cokes and ham sandwiches. There were a lot of white golf carts cruising efficiently about, with men in white lab coats and hardhats driving them. James Bond-ish, in the middle of the Amazon. I remember seeing a house-cat on the grounds, except with Ocelot markings.

After leaving Kourou, we continued on until reaching Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana and as hot as the spice it is named for. This small city is on the coast and the way to reach Devil’s Island. We stayed overnight in a guest house in Cayenne, and the next day took a launch out to the Devil’s Island complex. There was just one island open at the time for the few interested tourists, and a very low-key operation. The French had abandoned it, and had no interest in popularizing this ‘attraction’.

On the island everything made of wood was rotting in the heat and damp, though many of the buildings had some of their structure intact. In the dispensary, a large mural of medical care had been painted in black paint, on a remaining hospital green wall. Further back, up a dilapidated staircase, I saw rotting white towels left hanging on hooks. We also walked through an open air corridor, between two blocks of stone and brick cells, the iron rings for chains still embedded in the walls. Each cell had an iron bar door, and a vent hole high above, letting in rain. The cells were small, about five by six feet, with dirt floors. Brutal.

The waters surrounding the islands are said to be full of sharks, conditioned by a previous diet of corpses. The other two islands are visible and close by, though were overgrown with jungle. Though just a narrow channel of about 20 feet separated them from the main island, it was impossible to bridge the gap without a boat.

After we took the launch back to Cayenne, Bill and I decided as an adventure to be dropped off in Sinnamary, a small town in the jungle, about halfway from Cayenne to the Surinamese border. We’d spend the night there and make our own way back. We found a small pension, just two rooms over a store, and paid for one. We bought an unlabeled bottle of rum there, but it was undrinkable – smelled like olives and looked/tasted like diesel fuel.

Near the equator the sun sets quickly, and we were soon in our room, lying on cots under mosquito nets, and slathered with bug spray. I felt the mosquitoes pinging off my body during the night, but few bites that time. We walked around the town in the morning, and then caught a bus for the border. We traveled through deep jungle, further in the interior than on the way out, over deeply rutted clay roads.

Not long after returning to Paramaribo, Bill and I again set off on another independent escapade, first flying out on an F-27 Otter, a twin propeller aircraft with wings over the fuselage, carrying about 30 passengers, to an airstrip deep in the Amazon interior. Both flying in and out of the jungle basin was an amazing experience, traveling not very far above an unbroken canopy of trees, each 80 to 100 feet tall in all directions, with no signs at all of human habitation.

After about an hour’s flight, we landed in a small town clearing, near Saramaka villages. Formerly called ‘Bush Negroes’ , the Saramaka are descendants of slaves imported from Africa to work on the plantations, who promptly escaped into the South American jungle and began living in independent communities.

Bill and I found our way upstream with some locals in a motorized outrigger, far up a tributary of the Amazon, seeing occasional birds along the river. The air was wet and the sun blazing hot as usual. We stopped at several Saramaka villages, with about a hundred inhabitants each, located on islands in the river. The dwellings were wooden, with a triangular shape, with elaborate carvings flanking the entrances. People were matter of fact, and friendly – my brother and I were the only tourists there.

As fascinating as the Amazon jungle was, we returned after three days to Dad’s place in Paramaribo, and it was like heaven; A/C and cold Cokes! I had sustained quite a few bug bites during the last trip, and the comforts of home were very soothing.

Published by Jim Flanegin

it shows up in the pictures...I am a US citizen (born in California), though spent my childhood through high school living primarily in SE Asia, giving me a deep view of both East and West. I began TM at 21 and the TM-Sidhis at 26. I was visited by Guru Dev at 39. The rest is history. :-)

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