There is a lot of patriotism in Suriname, which is, perhaps, surprising, bearing in mind the amazing blend of cultures involved. The national flag flies everywhere. The ‘I heart Su’ slogan is emblazoned on t-shirts and bags. There are even songs blasting out of car radios, celebrating the claims of Paramaribo as one of the world’s cool cities. But few people here recognize that it is a bona fide world leader in something.
No, not mining, although that is a key industry. Not installing security fences and razor wire, although for better or worse there is plenty of that. But where this country shows the rest of the world how it’s done is in the art of car washing.
All over Paramaribo there are people offering to rinse the grime off your four-wheeled darling for a small amount of money. There are little one-man operations and more sophisticated-looking places with three or four berths, and the good news for motorists who care about their delicate paintwork is that, for reasons of lack of finance, the washing methods here are gentle.
Elsewhere, car wash technology has developed to the extent that in some countries it is completely automated, with whirling bars flailing plastic strips moving on rails forwards and backwards, lashing the panels so hard it’s surprising the metallic bits in the paint don’t jump out. You certainly wouldn’t want to see a human being washed by one of these – and we’re self-healing.
So despite its unwanted limitations, Suriname finds itself at the forefront of an industry because in this case less really is more and less efficient is also less damaging. This is the land of buckets and sponges, with the slicker operators using high-pressure hoses to separate dirt from paintwork. It’s a good thing it rains so much around here, though, because in a country concerned with water conservation – and there are plenty of them, from the deserts to climate-changing Europe – you’d never get away with sending 100 litres of nature’s essential supply down the drain.
This admiration for an industry dawns on me as I sit on a plastic patio chair on a street corner halfway along busy, grimy, unfashionable Franchepanestraat, relaxing for half an hour while a highly industrious woman of Chinese ancestry takes a break from badgering her teenage son into doing his homework (I couldn’t understand a word of the conversation, of course, but the sound of a scolding mother is universal) to do a vehicle makeover.
She’s a hard worker, this woman, running an internet café and a carwash business from her sun-baked shack. I had seen her before as I walked past her premises during the long weeks while a bank and a garage went through their interminable bureaucratic procedures. Now, finally, it is my turn to occupy the waiting area and watch her in action.
It’s not a glamorous job for a woman. You get hot, you get dirty and you get wet. Which makes me wonder why she is wearing flip flops. Wouldn’t something waterproof on her feet be a better idea?
She opens all the doors and cleans the windows on the inside, spraying some supermarket glass cleaner and wiping/polishing with a crumpled sheet of newspaper. Then she drags a small vacuum cleaner out of the shack and does the business with that, after removing the mats and spanking them on a wooden pillar that holds the roof up.
Next she gets out the water jet gun and shoots the dirt off the exterior of the car, powering the water into the wheel arches to get rid of the caked mud.
The car looks fine to me, and the sun will dry it in five minutes, so I imagine that’s it. But no. She shouts for junior, who emerges from his reluctant studies with a bucket, fills it with soapy water and proceeds to lather my pampered Toyota, giving his mother a kiss before she applies some chemical or other to the wheels. Then the water lance comes out again and I’m grateful for the occasional accidental cooling spray as the Queen of Clean brandishes her weapon.
The soap now on the ground, floating on water two inches deep, I guess this really is it.
Wrong again, as she comes back with a cloth and proceeds to wipe the panels. To get at the roof she has to open doors and stand on the sills, which she has just cleaned. How is she going to do that with her muddy footwear?
I watch in humbled admiration as she lets the flip flops slide from her feet with practised ease to stand on there with her bare soles. She may be no ballerina, but this place is the Bolshoi of its own world.
More newspaper, more squeaky windows. She quoted me 20SRD last week ($2.50 US), but surely that was for the basic job, rather than this de luxe treatment.
The quote stands. 20 SRD and a smile. This woman is a star. An unknown, unsung, unpretentious heroine in her tiny, obscure part of the planet.