Paramaribo, Suriname

Kindly contributed by John Gimlette, author of Wild Coast, Travel's on South America's Untamed Edge.


"If I were to design the perfect city, it would be white and have a river running through it. There’d be plantations and fruit trees all around, and little canals would come seeping through the center. There’d be no business district or overbearing banks, and nothing would be taller than a church. At the heart of it all would be a little purple fortress, like a hat full of mansions. There’d be no trains or tubes or public toilets. This would be one of the greatest cities of the eighteenth century. Everything would be built from wood and handmade bricks, and next to the fort there’d be a huge palm garden, where once an army planted beans. By day the presidential palace would glow like a wedding cake, and then by night it would turn green and flare like a planet. As for embassies, there’d be only nine, including a tiny bungalow for the entire United States. Temples, however, would spring up out of the foliage, along with stupas, pagodas and funeral ghats. There’d also be a mosque and a synagogue, huddled so close that they’d share a car park. This would not be a city of ghettos or new ideas. Over half the country would live here, and between them they’d speak over twenty different languages. Without parental consent no one could marry until the age of thirty, and it would be quite common to have giant rallies protesting at obesity. Meanwhile, the police would be called the korps politie, and would wear white gloves and ride around on bicycles. There’d also be an alligator living in the city’s pond, eating all the strays.

That, broadly speaking, describes Paramaribo. So what went wrong? How did it get forgotten?"

John Gimlette's travels have taken him from Laos to Eritrea and through almost every country in Latin America. Along the way, he's worked as a ranch hand, taught English, and manned a frontier-post for Bolivian customs. He's the author of four terrific books: At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, Travels in Paraguay; Theatre of Fish, Travels in Newfoundland and Labrador; Panther Soup, A European Journey in War and Peace; and now Wild Coast, Travels on South America's Untamed Edge. For this latest outing the adventurous Englishman sets out for the watery wilds of northeast South America, taking in colonial Georgetown "(...a city of stilts and clapboard, brilliant whites, fretwork, spindles and louvers."), French-inflected Paramaribo in Suriname and, most significantly, out into the claggy, overgrown hinterlands of the 900-mile coast of Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana . "It's curious," he writes, "life in the stilt. Most of the houses have legs, and every town is built on a grid of velvety green canals. "