Paramaribo to Georgetown: Easter Day, 23rd March 2008

I wanted to write for the benefit of others about my journey, in the north-east of South America, from Paramaribo to Georgetown because the little information I found on the internet did not prepare me well. I have lived in Africa and used public transport there so I had some idea what to expect, but I nevertheless made the mistake of thinking that when it said “bus”, it meant a bus.

Suriname is an ex-Dutch colony – that is, they were the last ones there before independence. Suriname used to refer to a bigger area (see below). We Brits used to call it Dutch Guiana in colonial times. As well as Dutch as a lingua franca, they speak Sranan Tongo which developed from a fusion of many languages, English, Dutch, Portuguese, Bantu West African languages and Amerindian languages. Fascinating if you are interested in languages as I am. Also spoken are Amerindian languages, plus Indian and Chinese languages – by the descendants of post-slavery indentured workers.

The “bus” on the Suriname side is usually a large minibus/midibus/maxi-taxi with about 20 seats, including the ones filled with luggage. On the Guyana side it is usually a standard 12-15 seat minibus – Toyota Hiace or similar. Yes, you noticed ­– the bus does not usually go over the border, which is a river crossed by a ferry.

Most hotels or guest houses in Paramaribo will know one or more of the small companies transporting to the border. They will usually be able to collect you from where you are staying. Because the ferry only goes once a day, the transport is timed early enough to get to the ferry in time. I was told they would collect me any time between 4 and 6 am (the latter being the time for actually leaving Paramaribo city), because they may have to travel around quite a bit to collect people. In fact they came at 5 am in a minibus and took me to where the midibus was, which was already half full. If you are white, people tend to assume you are Dutch, but quite a lot of people know English too and will happily speak it. We left almost immediately and collected several more people before getting out of town.

It was soon getting light and we were in the countryside and passing small towns. On the way in from the airport the night before I had noticed that most people’s houses are on stilts and that there were bicycle lanes at the side of the road which I guessed was a Dutch influence. As dawn came and went I saw lots of drainage canals and realised we were on marshland. I wondered if they had been salt-marshes originally, and later found out this was indeed the case, Dutch technology being used to remove the salt. There are canals everywhere, and therefore bridges too. The roads were mostly decent tarmac, except the last bit which was very bumpy dirt/murram/piste, but it was being worked on. We had a 20 minute refreshment stop at a fuel station which sold snacks as well.

In Paramaribo most shops and traders will take Euros (then at €1:SRD$4) and give change in Suriname Dollars (SRD); but not the “bus” drivers. But fear not, if like me you didn’t get the chance (I flew in the night before), you can change it at the fuel station. Also there you might get asked to move to another “bus” so that they can take an empty one around the local villages to collect more people who want to cross to Guyana. By then you will already have paid the SRD$45 from Paramaribo to the border. This leg (to the ferry) will have taken 4-5 hours.

On arrival at the border we were off-loaded with our luggage, which we then had to keep with us until getting in the minibus on the other side. Nobody actually told me that the bus did not get on the ferry, I had to work it out for myself. First we queued with passports for a ferry ticket, payable in Euros, USD, SRD or Guyanese dollars (G$). I paid SRD$38 for a single journey. That was about $13 USD. The clerk writes the ticket details by hand then puts it in a pile, with passport, for registration by another clerk who, in our case, was out of the room for quite some time, so a big heap of passports and tickets was waiting when she came back and a lot of impatient people crowded outside the window. Somehow, I was reminded of East Africa … Eventually we all got them back, then we sailed through customs and immigration, and on to the waiting area which was ok, but would have been uncomfortable if there was heavy rain. There is a sizeable duty free shop for those interested, but I don’t know how the prices compare.

About 20 minutes after the last people came through from the immigration desk, they started loading the ferry, vehicles and foot passengers moving along the same road at the same time. Onboard, there was a lot of shifting and nudging of vehicles up as close as possible in order to get the last one on. Then we set off. I guess it took 20 minutes for the actual crossing. The water was muddy. In fact the rivers and seas of Suriname and Guyana are generally pretty muddy and uninviting – coming, like the Amazon further south, down from the rain forests. So I’m glad I also went to Tobago where the sea was blue and clear!

Guyana time is one hour earlier than Suriname, being a step further west. Disembarkation was followed by another slow queue for immigration – no visa needed in advance for Guyana (or Trinidad and Tobago) for people from UK or most Commonwealth countries. This was followed by a wander through customs, then off to the minibus. Quite some time was spent loading luggage behind and under the back seat, and then we were off.

Two miles down the road we stopped. The driver pointed to two of us and told us to get into another minibus. “It’s ok” said the kind lady who had already pointed me in the right direction a couple of times at the ferry terminal. So, more intricate luggage loading, and then we were off again. Or were we? No, we sat for half and hour then went back in the wrong direction for a couple of miles to pick up some more passengers. Finally, off to Gtown (as familiarly known), via New Amsterdam.

Apparently, this whole region of north-eastern South America was known as Suriname prior to colonial times, which derives from an Amerindian word (broad term that). During colonial times different parts of it changed hands a number of times between the British, Dutch, French and Spanish. So it is no surprise that New Amsterdam is in Guyana, the former British Guiana. Also it wasn’t the Brits who built Georgetown 1.8 metres below sea level!

In this minibus was a woman travelling with her teenage daughters who had something to say about absolutely everything in both English and French and loud enough for us all to hear. She was not unpleasant but definitely she was under the impression that we all needed to know her opinions. We arrived at the river ferry in New Amsterdam just too late for a departure so had to wait for an hour. Hunger overcame my reluctance to do anything but sit and look, so I had to change some money. I only had to ask the driver if I could do so and two minutes later there was a guy offering me the rate I had already been told for my USD. He could change $400 he assured me, but $50 was enough for me since I would be staying for only two nights at a friend’s house (before moving on to Trinidad & Tobago) and all I really wanted was some lunch. There wasn’t a whole lot of choice around, but I got a very nice piece of spicy roast fish in a (plain boring white) bread roll. Quite inexpensive, and filled the gap, together with the usual juice-derivative drink.

The ferry journey took about 20 minutes, supplying interesting views. We had to stay in the vehicle but since I was next to an opening window I sat with my legs in thru the window and the rest of me outside. Otherwise it would have been stifling inside. They are building a bridge across the mouth of the river, apparently part of a continental plan to make a driveable road from the south of South America right up to the USA.

Onwards to Georgetown. A shifting around of passengers meant I was now sitting next to a pretty 15 year old Indian girl who decided to adopt me for the duration. She was travelling with her Aunt and Uncle – who is a bird fancier and was travelling with a cage containing (not surprisingly) tropical birds. In her lilting Guyanese accent she told me a little about life there, the marshes, the rice fields, and how Indian languages were not being used so much – she hardly speaks any of her family’s original language. Behind me was a man holding a young toddler who kept stroking my back over the top of the seat, fortunately not unpleasantly.

The other person who had been transferred with me had a disagreement with the driver about paying for her luggage which, together with mine and that of another woman who had got off earlier, was occupying a seat. The issue was that, in the first vehicle, none of our luggage was on a seat. The driver said he told her when they loaded that she would have to pay extra, she said he didn’t. I had asked someone at the ferry terminal how much we would pay from there to Gtown, and was told G$2000 (USD$10). Later I asked someone else and they told me G$1500 and I confirmed this with the man behind me. So I figured it was likely G$1500 without luggage on the seat and I should pay G$500 for a third share of the extra seat. I was right: when I got out in Gtown I didn’t wait to be told, I just gave him G$2000 and he was happy. Stupidly, in the process of getting my luggage out and paying, I forgot to say good-bye to the girl. The main terminal is Stabroek market although the minivan went on after that. At Stabroek you can get taxis, which I did. The guy had a little problem finding my friend’s house exactly but we got there; it cost G500 though I’m not sure how far it was – it took about 20 minutes. So I arrived at about 6.30 pm. More about Gtown’s streets, sea wall and kites in the next post.

© Nicholas Robert Jewitt and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Robert Jewitt and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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