It is out first night in the interior of Suriname and I am exhausted but promises must be kept and so here I offer a few notes from the day.
We started the day in the Capital City of Paramaribo. With less than half a million inhabitants, most of them living along the coast, the country of Suriname is largely uninhabited. Paramaribo is a super cool tropical city, with its old colonial neighborhoods and mosques and synagogues made of wood, sharing real estate, on the same block….just down the street from the cathedral, which is the tallest building made of wood in all of South America. With its bright yellow paint, the cathedral screams “tropical architecture” or Ethan Allan furniture…..it is very pretty and the fact that it shares the street with other major temples makes me hopeful that one day all religions will be able to get along as they do here in Suriname.
It takes an hour and a half to fly from Paramaribo to Kwamalasamutu. This village of Trio Indians is one of the largest indigenous dwellings I have ever been to. The Trio are part of the Carib culture….closely related to the Wai Wai, and yet they speak a different language and have different traditions. This is the third time I have been here, and although everyone dresses now in Western clothes and even my old friend Amasina is dressed like a highschooler from Detroit (last time I saw him in 1998 he was the last Trio to wear traditional clothing), the village is still pretty impressive.
Once the plane leaves Paramaribo, it takes only five minutes for us to be flying over unbroken rain forest. It makes my heart happy to know that there is a place in this world that will never be ruined my man’s greed. In the 1990s a huge chunk of land (1.6 millions hectares) was declared the Central Suriname Nature Reserve and is now protected in perpetuity. Had it not been protected it would already be the site of yet another sad tale of tropical logging and rampant deforestation, forest fires, etc. Its protection was possible thanks to the vision of the President of Suriname and the work of many amazing people, including Ambassador Wim Udenhout and my own husband, but also thanks to the generous gift of 1 million dollars given by Jeff Harbers; a Seattle resident and former executive with Microsoft. His gift was outside of the comfort level for his family but he saw the opportunity to do something remarkable and he took it! Sadly, Jeff died in a plane crash before ever having a chance to see this amazing place, and today it is a pleasure to bring his beautiful young widow, photographer Renee Harbers here. Renee has always known about Jeff’s generous gift, but today is the first time she gets a chance to see it first hand and to meet some of the people who live here and who, thanks to Jeff, will be able to maintain a traditional way of life (with or without western clothes) for as long as they want.
We walked all afternoon in the village, talking to the women, the warriors and the elders. We went on canoes on the Sipaliwini River and we marveled at the giant trees that still line its shores. There are not many places like this left in the world and today I feel really lucky to be able to go for a walk in the woods in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, one of the most untouched wilderness left on the planet. Thanks Jeff Harbers, wherever you are.