This past weekend was our final weekend to conduct training on the Upper Suriname River. But first was Thanksgiving!
I had heard rumors that the ambassador regularly invites a bunch of people from the embassy and from Peace Corps to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. As it turns out, the rumors were true, and although it was mainly Peace Corps Volunteers (and a few people from the military), it was nice to have the opportunity to have a nice meal (and to see his house!). I had my hair braided, wore a nice dress, and took a taxi with another Response Volunteer. Soon others were arriving and we had a nice visit, then a nice dinner. In fact, I ate more that afternoon than I had in quite a while, and even went back for seconds.
Friday 4:15 a.m. came soon though, and we were off to the interior for our last weekend conducting entrepreneurship/business training. My counterpart and I had to go on ahead, as we were attending a ceremony related to another one of the organization’s projects in another small village. We gave specific instructions on Wednesday, Thursday, and again on Friday morning: pick us up at the landing near the village AT 12:30 p.m. so we would have time to get to the training village with time to breathe a little bit. I repeated a number of times: arrive there AT 12:3o. So I thought we were fine.
We were greeted in the first village by people singing and hugging, shaking hands (this was mostly because the Minister of Social Affairs was in attendance as well). Because everything started late, my counterpart and I were not sure if we would be able to eat before we had to go, so she made sure we got food immediately after the minister, then we hustled down to the landing, arriving there at 12:30.
There was no boat. So we sat down and waited, figuring the boat would be there soon. Then came 12:45, then 1:00. We started becoming concerned and joked that the entourage we had left behind, telling them we were going to leave at 12:30 would come down and find us there, so we discussed hiding places. At 1:10 I called the PCV who had been the go-between with us and the boat driver. He told me they were “making up lost time”. I asked what time they had left. He said 12:40.
Wait, they did not even LEAVE until ten minutes after they were supposed to be at the landing to pick us up?? And it was a 40 minute (at the shortest) ride to get to us? Say WHAT??
So we sighed and worried some more about being caught out in what would seem to be a mistruth. We came up with the following ideas: hide in the jungle, hide behind pangis, hide under one of the boats, take a boat down the next village (we would have had to borrow one to do so), and my favorite, write “no access to the beach – piranhas and sharks” in the sand at the top of the stairs. We laughed plenty about this but under the laughing was the worry that indeed, we would look foolish. Under my laughter was also worry that we would not make it to the training village in time to start the afternoon’s session on time.
At long last our boat arrived, and off we went. Of course, because we were behind schedule, we also stopped at a couple of other villages and had to get out of the boat an extra time when it got stuck on a sandbar (the water level of the river is still low. Paramaribo is now getting rain but the interior is not). We arrived at 3:55, and training was to start at 4:00. Suffice it to say, we did not start on time. We arrived and I hustled off to change; we did not start TOO late, though – 4:15. Could have been worse…and the group of people who usually leave quickly had a boat so they could stay a few extra minutes.
I still don’t know why the PCV was not able to get the boat driver to get to us on time, given all of the advance notice he had…
Negative part of the weekend: the bugs. Oh, my, how they were biting! I resolved to use the bug repellent lotion the next day, but the damage was done, and I was scratching madly all weekend (still am, though now my bug bite welts are bloody too). Ah well, it could have been worse; I mean, the bugs were not horrible the first two weekends.
Another unexpected for us was that when we arrived at the guesthouse, we found it dark. As in, there was no electricity and they lit a few kerosene lanterns for us. We joked about how romantic our dinner was, eating by candlelight and kerosene lantern light. We chatted for a while, but with little else to do and exhausted from the day, we both made an early night of it.
The final training day went well, mostly review and the fun part: the certificate ceremony, photos, and more photos. We had the opportunity to visit some of the training attendees at their homes and workplaces and see what they do and under what conditions they work. I also met a young girl, daughter of one of the participants, whose name is also Karin. I made sure to get a photo of us together!
We had another surprise that evening when a few of the women came to visit with us. They said they felt bad that they had not done so sooner, since they live just up the hill from the guesthouse where we stayed. Then they asked me if I have a man, and when I said no, offered to find me one. They said they would be happy to do so because then I could stay in the village. And if I stayed in the village, I could continue to conduct trainings and enhance their way of life. I thought it interesting how practically they look at things. In the U.S., if a person says that s/he is marrying for a reason other than love, we look at her/him askance and wonder what is wrong with the person (at best – at worst we engage in name-calling). But they were honest: my staying would make things better for everyone.
But alas, I declined their kind offer and we left the following morning after yet another surprise when one of them brought us a parting gift of cassava bread and some strange fruit I did not like (and I like most fruits). It tasted a bit like wood. We thought we were going to be riding nearly alone to the jumping-off point, and then be met by a driver I know, but of course, nothing ever goes the way we think it will. We ended up switching boats at one of the “portage” areas and getting into one that was much more crowded (and a bit cramped). Ah well, so much for traveling in style!
Upon arriving at the jumping off point, I texted the person I was expecting to be there. He called 40 minutes later to tell me that he was not going to be able to bring us back to the city. Um, this is not something you could have done when you realized it, like four hours prior to this? Hmm. My counterpart is very resourceful and is Surinamese, so she immediately secured us a place and pointed to a vehicle – actually two vehicles parked next to each other – so we were set in any case, not to be stranded (there is always the bus too). As it turns out, it was not in fact the van I thought it was but the work truck next to it, and we sat in relatively cramped conditions in the back…more surprises! But we got back to the city in fine shape.
So after three weekends spent in one village in the interior, what did I learn? I mean, we were there to conduct training, but there is always, it seems, more to be learned than taught through such an experience.
I learned that the people who participated in our training were bright, creative, and full of ideas – they just needed some guidance on implementing their ideas, as well as a few other basic business learnings.
I learned that many people in the interior are incredibly hard-working, balancing family and multiple business pursuits.
I learned that though we were told that Saramaccans were a bit shy to participate, this group was very vocal and not shy to stand up and talk.
I learned how beautiful the interior of Suriname is, and wish I had had more time to photograph its beauty. But I also learned that if you don’t know a local or the language, you are significantly more challenged in doing anything in the interior.
And I learned how quickly I can become attached to these people who committed to, and showed up to, training for three weekends. While it was exhausting to do this for three weekends, I am sorry it is over and I won’t see them again.