Caribbean-ish: A Tale of Two Nations.

Reflections on recent travels to Cuba and Suriname.

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Before these two recent excursions disappear over the horizon of recent memory, I thought I would get a few thoughts down. Apart from a day trip to the Gulf of Mexico coast, during a family holiday to Florida when I was about fourteen, I’d never visited this part of the Americas before. However, this year, as part of our overall plan to see as much of this part of the world as we can before our time here is up, we made two visits in just over two months, first heading over to the fascinating island of Cuba in May and then capping off a super-eventful July with a trip to the more obscure Suriname, en route home to Lima, after going back to the U.K to get wed.

Now, Cuba in many ways is both unique, whilst being a quintessential Caribbean island, whereas Suriname, in spite of its position on the north-east Atlantic coast of South America is, along with its sibling Guyanas either side of it, considered a kind of honorary Caribbean land (more of which below), hence the title of this blog post. Both of these islands are not typical ‘luxury’ destinations (although they both pleasantly surprised us in this respect) and their relative mystery was a big part of the draw.

I’ve tried to organise my observations on both nations below using a few sub-headings that categorise some of the most distinctive and/or interesting things about these two nations, or at least what could be gleaned from a week’s trip to either and then a bunch of secondary reading before and after staying there.

  1. Government

Pretty much the first thing people think about when they hear the word Cuba is its revolutionary history. Much of modern-day Cuba’s identity is bound up in the events of the Castro revolution and the military fatigues, cigars, beards, ‘that’ Che Guevara picture etc still enjoy pride of place. This was even pretty evident in our hotel, where a large, rather expressionistic portrait of Fidel was hung up to one side in the lobby. Curiously enough, there was a small statute of what appeared to be one of the ‘rough riders’ from the late-nineteenth century U.S intervention in the Cuban-Spanish war of independence, I would even speculate it was Teddy Roosevelt himself, but the old retired University of Havana professor running the guided tour of our hotel claimed (or feigned) not to know who it was (I didn’t believe her).

Whilst a final thaw in the long-winter of US-Cuban relations appeared to be on the horizon even as we were there, it was still obviously a somewhat touchy subject. To reinforce the sense of the cold-war era siege mentality that once prevailed on the island, we were taken to see as part of the same guided tour the pill box bunkers that were kept as a reminder/tourist attraction in the grounds of our hotel (the famous Nacional), facing out on to the malecon and beyond that the mere 90 km separating Havana from the Florida Keys. As for my own personal opinion, I think its important for neighbours to get on-especially when there is so much shared blood and history. If the U.S can trade happily enough with China and Vietnam, I’m pretty certain a mutual rapprochement with Cuba can’t be a bad thing.

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       Political poster at the rum distillery we visited.

As for Suriname, their own recent history runs a little like the following: fought over as part of a three-way struggle between the British, French and Dutch which saw them each end up with a piece of the Guyanas, eventually traded with the British in exchange for what became New York (there’s even a fort, Nieuw Amsterdam which carries the name of the old Dutch colony around Manhattan Island). Attained independence 1975, over a third of the nation’s population decided that it wasn’t going to work and upped sticks for the Netherlands (leading to the much more multi-cultural blend of races living in the present-day NL), whilst the remainder who elected to stay were treated to, after a brief post-independence interlude of democracy, the establishment of a military coup led by a group of NCOs headed by Sergeant Desi Boutere.

Herein lies Suriname’s own darker chapter of recent history (not the darkest hour of all Surinamese history of course-that dubious honour belongs to the slightly earlier horrors of the transatlantic slave trade). We were taken to see one such historical site that was linked to this period of Suriname’s history when we visited Fort Zeelandia, the old colonial fortress guarding the approach to Paramaribo from the river, now a charming museum but for a brief period during the dictatorship the HQ of the new regime and the spot where, in 1981, a group of dissident-ranging from academics and school teachers through to students, business leaders and union leaders-were taken out on the most westerly facing rampart and shot dead. there was a monument to those who were killed (as well as bullet holes in the battlements) on the spot, but in a bizarre twist, after the eventual restoration of democracy, a few presidents later and we now have the restoration of Boutere as president, albeit with an amnesty which grants him freedom from prosecution. At any rate, Suriname is now a very peaceful country on the surface, although not without its underlying issues.

2. Transport and Infrastructure

Havana airport is, inevitably, the first thing you encounter when you arrive in the country (unless you’ve rolled in on a cruise ship) and it’s not the best introduction-more of a test of how much you’re willing to take the rough with the smooth (that should be Cuba’s motto-take the rough with the smooth, it pretty much epitomises the place). If you pass the test, you’ll have a great time, if you’re finicky, it’s not for you. We were grilled as three gringos (we shared a flight with a work colleague on her own trip to the island) coming in from Peru-were we from an NGO? Thanks to some ace on-the-spot improvisational Spanish from my wife Ellie we seemed to pass the ‘safe’ test and were allowed on our way, to be treated with general friendliness thereon in.

On the roads into and around Havana, we saw a whole plethora of different vehicles-the classic 50s chevys and cadillacs were very much in evidence, but were so were a lot of the dorkier, square john-type cars of that era, the Ford Edsels and so on. Add on to that decades worth of Eastern-European cars from behind the iron curtain and some brand-new motors which presumably have come from some friendly nation that can circumnavigate the blockade (China? Venezuela?) and you have a real mish-mash of vehicles on the road-with a decided slant towards the old and the classic. I would imagine that this will start to change-especially as American classic car and hot rod enthusiasts are already looking forward to the easing of trade restrictions to start buying up a lot of the old cars on the island and ship them back stateside (I have my Dad, who’s well into that scene to thank for the intel). However, for the time being, Cuban mechanics still pride themselves on being the self-proclaimed ‘best in the world’-able to keep anything running and improvise solutions to keep the famous antiquated cars of the island on the road.

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Typical mix of cars in Havana: the classic and the not-so.

Paramaribo airport is a similarly humid fortress of tropical heat to its Cuban counterpart. Another similarity with the one in Havana is that your dining options are severely limited. We arrived so early for our return flight back to Peru…imagine the very worst of the four-in-the-morning dregs of U.K town and city centre kebab shops. However, once the airport-proper opened, we (or at any rate, I) could avail ourselves of a cheese sandwich and a brew (can’t remember if it was tea or coffee) and if you really want to, you can have a wander around the tat stalls in the airport.

The roads in both countries are in pretty good repair from what we saw-Suriname does not have the same embargo issues as Cuba so the vehicles on the road were pretty modern. Another interesting thing to note for us, flying in from a trip home to the U.K as we were, was the fact that the cars all drove on the left-hand side of the road. Apparently, in the early days of motoring, this was pretty common and the shift to right-hand lane driving has come about due to U.S hegemony and their eventual domination of the car-making industry. At any rate, it made us feel a bit more at home!
One thing our guide apologised for when we took a day-trip around Paramaribo was the ‘traffic jams-a new phenomenon in our country’. These were no worse than what you might expect from your average U.K town centre at teatime on a working day, but if the place was traditionally quiet and humdrum on the roads, probably do seem like an unwelcome addition to your daily rounds. One can only hope it doesn’t get to Lima levels of traffic-highly unlikely-although one thing I did spot that was akin to our adopted home city was the use of ‘combi’ buses-small vehicles packed with people plying self-created routes around the capital. Apparently this is a relatively new development-not necessarily a welcome one either, hard to say whether this is just a way-station to something more developed or if it is here to stay, hopefully the former, although only time will tell.

3. Food and Drink

Prior to travelling to Cuba, I’d not heard much in the way of good things about the state of cuisine in the island primarily as the impact of food shortages due to the on-going U.S trade blockade/embargo. However, I have to say, although not a culinary riot, there was nonetheless enough to tickle our tastebuds in both the hotel and on our trips to old Havana. Essentially, the complaint one could make about the food is not so much the taste (which I’d been led to believe), but the perhaps lack of distinctiveness which the more foodie-minded traveller might be looking out for. Cuba however,is rightly famous for its rum-we were lucky enough to visit the actual Havana Club on a trip round the old city in a landau. Here we were treated to a blast of fine live salsa music whilst sipping on one of the umpteen mojitos I must have had over the course of the holiday. We also visited a rum distillery in the town of Piña del Rio en route to Viñales. Whilst the trip was a thinly-disguised ploy to get us to buy the local brand (we’d already stocked up on some fine Legendario back in Havana), it was nonetheless really interesting to see the inner workings of the factory, the vats, machinery etc, not to mention trying the beans that eventually turn into the beverage. There was also a fine line in propaganda posters, too (see the pics in the politics section!).

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Barrels of grog lined up at the rum distillery.

In Suriname, the diverse array of cultures has led to a rather tasty mix, with a primarily Javanese influence. We stopped off at the town of Tamanredjo, famous for its Indonesian flavours and enjoyed a gorgeous plate of nasi, washed down with a glass of dawet. Surinamese food is not just renowned in its own backyard the diaspora have taken the flavours of Suriname to Europe with them. In David Winner’s excellent book on Dutch football and culture, Brilliant Orange, he chronicles the near strike Holland’s black players undertook in Euro ’96, and how the issue of access to decent Surinamese food was one of the factors in play.

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     Javanese-derived food: big in Suriname.

As for drinking, much as with Cuba, the climate lends itself very much to the production of rum and we were treated to some fine local grog whilst sailing downriver back to Paramaribo. There is also a popular local beer, Parbo, so-called after the local nickname for the capital, a typically Dutch-style lager which sails down the hatch without much of a problem in the warm climate.

4. Music and Culture

Cuba, the homeland of salsa (although New York and Columbia might argue over that distinction, too). We certainly got our fill during our time over there. For the tourists, at any rate, two styles are played predominantly by the buskers and bands that frequent the hotels and bars: salsa and canciones tradicionales (traditional folk songs). However, I am led to believe that Cuba is awash with myriad musical stylings-hip-hop, jazz etc. I’m not entirely sure what the deal is with Buena Vista Social Club-but on three separate occasions now I’ve seen artists associated with/drawn from their ranks. The first such occasion was at an Afrocubism gig at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in 2012 (a memorable-and sleepless-night, as it flowed straight into a stag do to Poland the following day via a pub lock-in and a curry). However, whilst actually in Cuba we were taken to the famous Havana Club as part of a trip around the town in a landau. Here we were serenaded by a pretty great house band that featured one of the veterans of the BVSC-who, perhaps forgivably, seemed the band member least bothered to be there. cracking tunes though-we bought two of their albums. Even more impressively, we then got to see a whole host of the stars of Buena Vista (with the obligatory fresh blood in their ranks, as well) when we bought tickets for a concert ’n’ meal combo being offered by our hotel. Great music and dancing-a real spectacle to behold!

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           Music is everywhere in Havana.
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                  Buena Vista brass section.

Surinamese music is, once again, like so many other factors within the country primarily influenced by two things: the diverse ethnic groups who have found a home there and the strong links that exist between the country’s population and their kinsmen who have found a new home in the Netherlands over the last 30-40 years or so. I wish I could give a more in-depth run-down of the music of the nation-however, we heard little (the band playing in the hotel aside), but I did read a fascinating article on the flight out of Paramaribo to our stop-off of Aruba, talking about how clued-up Dutch music fans are working their way back to and discovering compilations of Surinamese music. Unhelpfully, I’ve forgotten a lot of the names of artists, local genres etc but apparently many of the big name artists from the 60s emigrated to the NL and found themselves having to start from the beginning all over again, some attaining a decent level of success. One to delve into in more detail, I think.

5. Geography and Landscape

As mentioned above, when I was growing up we visited Florida (several times in fact, they were my first foreign holidays from about the age of ten onwards) and I remember us driving through the everglades in Florida en route to the space station in Cape Canaveral (or Cape Kennedy, no such tributes to him in Cuba, though!). I also recall driving through the forested, swampy landscape and thinking this must just peter out into the sea at the Florida keys, with nothing but islands of tropical bog lands further south. I can now here gladly report that this is in fact not the case, not entirely anyway.

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                       Viñales valley, Cuba.

Cuba is a fascinating country to fly in over and then travel around-we were lucky enough to get out of Havana one day to visit the quite beautiful Viñales valley, home of many tobacco plantations and a good few hours from the capital. The valle is famous for its distinctive ‘sugarloaf’-type mountains, which rise, sometimes in clumps but often on their lonesome, from the flat, plantation-strewn valley floor. The Cuban interior is deeply rural in appearance and quite lovely and green-if we had had more time I think we would have almost certainly tried to get around the whole island, certainly the mountains where the revolution was launched in the 50s and cities such as Santiago over in the east side of the island would have been fascinating.

Suriname’s geography and landscape both needs putting into context and then describing. Prior to going out there, I had no idea about the existence of the so-called ‘Guyana shield’ a land mass that occupies all three of the historical Guyanas (British, French and Dutch), but also neighbouring tracts of Venezuela and Brazil, too. This area forms a plateau of tropical jungle which, in the case of Suriname, equates to a mountainous south-eastern border country (glimpsed from the plane when we were flying out, but otherwise a country largely made up of vast miles of flat, tropical rainforests-a dense and tangled landscape of supreme beauty, glimpsed from the afore-mentioned plane, the vast arching bridge over the river Suriname at Paramaribo or when sailing down the river or one of its other counterparts, all racing from the mountains to the ocean.

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Two faces of Suriname’s riverine culture: the modern…
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             …and the more traditional!

Suriname in some ways resembles a tropical, more heavily-forested equivalent of its old colonial ruler, the Netherlands, another culture and society that fascinates me in some respects. There is the preponderance of vast flat terrain, the same look outward towards the ocean and the dependence upon it for succour and inspiration coming in from the outside. Whilst I’m no fan of imperialism, the romantic in me likes to think of another life, a century or two back, where I could have been a Dutch sailor, plying my way from Amsterdam, Rotterdam or one of the other Low Countries ports to Paramaribo and back again, feeling equally at home in either quayside, spending weeks on the ocean only for the familiar shoreline and docks, the sights, smells and sounds to heave into view.

6. Colonial Legacy/identity

In reality, Cuba has had two colonial masters-one, the Spanish, formed the culture as we know it today through a mixture of invasion, immigration and slavery and the other, the United States aided the Cubans in getting rid of the Spanish in the late nineteenth century in return for the role of the power behind the throne. The Cubans appear to be very proud of the fact that they are in the thrall to no other nation-at least this is the image that is presented through murals etc. If there is a lingering influence from these afore-mentioned two nations, then it is the Spanish language and the music of the island (although this is just as heavily influenced, if not more so, by the Afro-Cuban community), and the legacy cars and the games of well-organised baseball (with uniforms, stands etc) that we saw as we were driven about on the island’s roads. Interestingly, in terms of sheer mass participation, football seems to be hugely popular on the island-we saw a lot of street footy taking place in plazas and playing fields and possibly is the game of the people. In terms of prestige, however, I would say baseball appears to still be king.

Suriname looks and feels like a Caribbean nation, but the Dutch element runs throughout-through to the language, the accent and the sense of laid-back efficiency which evokes a best-of-both-worlds feeling in the foreign observer (or at any rate, this one). According to our Javanese-Surinamese guide around Paramaribo, most people have at least some family in the Netherlands due to mass emigration, and in the country itself there is a seemingly harmonious melting-pot of different cultures-particularly the Afro-Surinamese and the Javanese, which appear to be the most visible.

7. People

A few observations to add to the section above. In both nations, people were quite friendly and welcoming-Cuba is a bit rawer, there was a general friendliness and the fact that everyone seemed to have a decent working knowledge of English (both on the street, as well as in the hotels), coupled with our own basic levels of Spanish ensured that situations which might not have gone as smoothly didn’t cause us any real grief.

Suriname appeared a very friendly place-relaxed and with a live-and-let-live attitude towards things like race and religion perhaps best exemplified by the co-existence of a synagogue and a mosque next door to each other in Paramaribo’s old town. Where else would you see that!

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Mosque and synagogue (with graveyard) peacefully co-existing side-by-side, Paramaribo.