Confessions of an expat – You’re listening to Radio Expat

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Who’s the guy on stage? Oh, I thought I recognised him

There have been times when, in my capacity as a freelance journalist, I have found myself in press conferences where I knew nothing and nobody. Not long after we arrived in Suriname, there was just such an instance.

Picture the scene: a dark room like a small theatre, with rows of seats filled with local journos. The photographers and TV cameramen, for whom seats are not appropriate, are setting themselves up around the sides and at the back. Presumably they have been banned from the front, because otherwise that’s where they would be, hogging the spectacle at the expense of everyone else. You can hear them thinking, “You pen and notebook people can use your ears, but this camera needs to be fed.”

We are here because one of the political parties that made up the coalition has been ditched, accused of making trouble in the ranks. It leaves the government with a tiny majority with which to push through matters that come to a vote.

That is as much as I know as I go into the conference, and it’s as much as I know when I come out too, because, although I recently gained a diploma in Dutch at beginner  level, that means I know slightly more than someone who knows nothing at all. And since the proceedings are, understandably, conducted in the official language of Suriname, I am effectively deaf. What I do know is that my presence has been noted. Because I look different and he hasn’t seen me before, the MC glances at me as he welcomes the “international press”.

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TV reporters in the Caribbean (and elsewhere) tend to be female and pointedly, deliberately attractive. While the technicians and producers labour to keep up with technology, it is true of every small community that its visual presenters’ minimum requirement is to talk when prompted and not fall over. That’s how it is back home in the Channel Islands and it’s how it is here. You even find it on the less conspicuous parts of the BBC, CNN and so forth. The best people get the high-profile positions at home, while the others are parked in front of cameras  of departments transmitting to the rest of the world.

That means that enthusiastic young people who started off in the local media before getting lucky at an interview and being fast-tracked to the world stage  are doing their chirpy stuff out of context. It’s all very well being bright and breezy, emphasising every word to make the annual village flower festival sound interesting, but when you apply the same approach to more serious matters, it makes you look and sound like an airhead.

A  print journalist such as myself can get away with youthful incompetence because there is a barrage of people between your raw words and the finished article. There is probably a sub-editor, whose job is to make sure it reads okay, and perhaps a proofreader, whose obsession is with weeding out grammatical and spelling errors. Your 200 lamentable words don’t immediately find themselves exposed to the general public.

Radio is much the same everywhere: you can either do it or you can’t, “it” being to keep talking for as long as necessary. That might sound easy but in practice it quickly sorts out the men from the boys, the parrots from the budgies. The life and soul type who is loud and hearty in social situations can find himself powerless, like Samson after a haircut, when it is just him and a microphone, with no one to bounce off. He may end up as a newsreader – still a broadcaster and doing a worthy job,  but not one requiring much spontaneity or joie de vivre.

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Hi, you’re listening to Radio Expat. And now… let’s go back in time with a bit of Donna Summer

All over the world the jingles, links and station ‘idents’ all sound like they were recorded in the same studio in Miami and issued like off-the-peg suits, with just the station name different. Radio ‘insert your name here’, such-and-such a number FM, the voice of ‘……’

It is important for the expat to catch a bit of local media in order to keep abreast with what’s going on in his or her new home, but radio is a hard way of doing it, even if they broadcast in English. Most stations have regular news bulletins, but what comes between them are inane pop songs, the same current ones over and over again or easy-listening blasts from the past, and home-made attempts at entertainment. On a Saturday afternoon in Paramaribo as you trail from shop to shop in one of the two malls, the radio that constitutes the aural ambience is occupied by a deep-voiced, intense man who covers every aspect of personal relationships, from awkward courtship and infidelity to divorce, but without any of the happy bits.

What qualifies him to pontificate in this way? To find that out I would have to concentrate, and quite frankly I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

Small media operations, particularly the broadcast variety, don’t have the luxury of specialists. Nor do they have the luxury of a big budget, which makes the viewer aware of how good the real pros are. The recent local coverage of the European football championships made me pine for the big broadcasters, with their privileged studios overlooking the pitch and their batteries of well-known experts, while the local boys seem to have been allocated a broom cupboard with some shiny plastic to hang as a backdrop that reflects the lights. In place of the high-profile ex-professional giving his expert opinions, the less fortunate outfits wheel out a guy who used to play at a reasonable level in their small part of the world and is now a taxi driver but has managed to get the afternoon off to be a pundit.

You’ve got to start somewhere, though, and there are obviously plenty of good, competent and talented people  at small stations working their way up or happy where they are. There’s a guy on CNN, now a respected business correspondent, who I remember hearing on BBC Guernsey in 1996, filling an afternoon with bits and pieces about the snow that had brought the island to a standstill (it doesn’t snow there often and always catches people out – oh, wot larks!) And there’s a female presenter on BBC Radio Four’s influential early-morning Today programme, who gritted her teeth through an apprenticeship that included  Channel Television, where she was regularly obliged to have a bit of banter with the station mascot, a soft toy called Oscar Puffin. If anything were ever needed to get her out of bed at two in the morning to go to work, that thought must surely do it.


Confessions of an expat – Salute to an unsung heroine

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.

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This was a charity event

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.

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And this is how they do it in the less sophisticated areas

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.





Confessions of an expat – The terminator

In times of austerity it makes sense to do things for ourselves, rather than call in an “expert”. That, of course, deprives the expert of the money, but, you know, people are doing the same to us, so it’s dog-eat-dog.

That was the line of thinking when my wife noticed a wasps’ nest under the eaves.

This is in one of those Surinamese houses where the living goes on upstairs, while the ground floor is all fresh air and cars. There is a balcony and the bit of roof that keeps the rain off it, the underside of which is called the eaves, apparently. And that is where these wasps have built their nest.

But how do we know it’s wasps and not bees, I wonder aloud. And I don’t know how long this nest has been there, but not even a solitary flying hazard has been seen in the house itself. Clearly they’re not interested in looking at the paintings, admiring the settee suite or even checking out the fridge. But such arguments fall on deaf ears. As the official jack-of-all trades, this is my responsibility.

This sort of thing, but stuck to the ceiling

The first resort in this day and age is to look it up online. All the advice I find is based on the hazards, not of having a nest under the eaves, but of getting rid of it. Cover up, long sleeves, a hat, gloves and goggles. If it’s in an inaccessible place that you can’t reach, don’t use a ladder because when they come after you, you’re going to panic and fall off. Better to call an expert. Yes, but that’s probably written by an expert, looking for business. And we’re on an economy drive.

More advice. Smoke the wasps out first. What with, a disposable barbecue? Held out on a shovel because it’s somewhere that doesn’t have a handy shelf underneath? It’s surprising what goes through your mind when you’re tackling a problem you’ve never considered before.

Do it in the evening when the wasps have settled down. At last a sensible suggestion.

So, the options: take a broom and knock it off, then make a run for it back into the house and slam the sliding door shut. Poke mothballs in through the entrance? A local chancer once tried to talk me into letting him put mothballs around the edges of the garden to keep out the snakes, charging me a lot of money per ball. But he also told me the woman across the road had just died of malaria and all in all I didn’t believe a word he said.

One online bright-ideas merchant suggests spraying glue in the nest, but there are problems with that. The entrance is on the outside, so even if it was closer, you’d be working on something you couldn’t see. And spray glue? I haven’t seen that for years.

Then the brainwave hits the shore. Downstairs there is a hose for watering the garden or washing the car. Upstairs at the back is the shower, where there is a tap similar to the one downstairs, which you can screw an attachment to. Measure the distance from shower to balcony; check hose. It should reach.

I feel like an RAF boffin during the Second World War, plotting an attack on a German munitions factory. By golly, George, a hose! That just might do it – and it’s the last thing they’ll be expecting.

Trial run. It is just about long enough. I leave it there – they’ll never notice – and will do it at sundown.

As the shadows fall across the patch of weeds and the odd flower at the front, I lure the dog into a room at the back so he doesn’t get in the way. Turn the tap on and tiptoe out onto the balcony. Shoes on but no protective gear because after all, it’s hot around here.

Pull the hose as much as I dare without dislodging it from the clip attached to the tap. The water pressure’s not too good, so I can spray the nest but can’t blast if off. How do they attach it there upside down, anyway? Must be wax. I give it a good soaking and there is a mass exit, but they fly away from the water and therefore from me. After a while the bottom of the nest breaks off, soaked and heavy. We turn the bomber around and head back to Blighty.

Next day there is great activity up there. They don’t know when they’re beaten. Trying to rebuild it. We’ll have to go back tonight, George, and do it all over again. Meanwhile, let’s chuck some buckets of soapy water at it.

As dusk falls once more, day two of the campaign follows the same routine. Get as close as you can but this time keep adjusting thumb position to get a good solid stream. Keep it up for longer than yesterday until parts of the nest are hanging down. The tenants have dispersed, so I slide the broom along and flick the thing off.

Hero? Heartless villain? Bully? In a foreign land you never know what you’re up against. Just doing my job.


Confessions of an expat – making friends and being welcome

Some people are better at making friends than others. Some have jobs that make it easier. Whatever your particular circumstances, we all like to have some friends, and when we’re living many miles from home, if we want friends we have to go out and find them.

That is not to say that a family or a couple will be miserable if they have only each other, but humans are a sociable species and besides, if travel broadens the mind, so does meeting new people.

When we lived in Grand Turk, there was a sizeable expat population and we got to know lots of people simply by dint of the fact that we all went to the same bar. The island is seven miles long and 1.5 miles wide, with a population of less than 5,000, so bumping into people is easy.

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Grand Turk cruise center. There’s a beach one minute’s walk away, but many visitors don’t bother to leave the concrete

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to meet local people, just that by and large we didn’t mix in the same circles. Anyway, isn’t it in some way patronizing to want to get to know people just because they are local? On the other hand it takes guts to walk into a locals-only bar and impose yourself on them. There are friendly people all over the world, but there are also those who resent your presence in their country. As a middle-aged white man  in a community of black people, I stick out like a sore thumb. I’m assumed to be privileged, soft and rich, and if I say that none of those are true, well, I would, wouldn’t I?

I saw something on Facebook recently, one of those anti-racist posts by white people complaining about their own sort. It said “I’m sick of hearing white men talking to white men about other white men”. Well excuse me, but I can’t help my ethnicity or my gender, and if being brought up in a family where money was often very tight but getting a good education free of charge is a bad thing, then it doesn’t seem so to me. My education, which of course I didn’t appreciate at the time, came about because of a scholarship system that gave opportunities to those from relatively poor families. In many respects it made me, set me up for life. And now I am who I am and if you judge me on those criteria, you’re prejudiced yourself.

The group of mainly white, mainly middle-aged, mainly British characters we became part of in the Caribbean paradise of Grand Turk was just a bunch of people far from home and grateful for good company.

A little later, before moving to Suriname, we did some research on the country because, like many people, we didn’t know anything about it. We came across an international organization called Internations, which has a presence in many countries and organizes events where expats can meet. It’s nice to find different people to talk to, to share stories of where you’ve been and glean a bit of what they have learned about where you are now. You can swap experiences about where to shop, places to eat, builders, mechanics and doctors to seek out or avoid.

The meetings in Paramaribo, capital of Suriname, take place in bars, restaurants and on one occasion a small café attached to a bakery run by two Chinese-Canadian-Surinamese sisters. As a journalist I thought these women were interesting, so I interviewed them for a Surinamese English-language online news site, and got to know them quite well. I also met several ambassadors and a consul, again through work, and they became friends.

Through Internations we got to know a few Brits, a German couple and plenty of Dutch people, since Suriname is a former Dutch colony and they still speak the language here. Most imports are from the Netherlands and as a form of exchange, Suriname provided many of the black footballers who have graced the Dutch team in recent decades, from Ruud Gullit to Clarence Seedorf.

Why do I stress that they are black? Because they are, and for the purpose of indentification, not to mention that would amount to withholding useful information. This population is primarily of African descent, with other significant numbers of Indians (known as Hindustanis) and more recently Chinese. The famous footballers were from the African contingent.

But of course at an expat gathering  you’re only meeting other expats, apart from the organisers and a few people who may be there for networking purposes (nothing wrong with that – I do it too; I’m always on the lookout for potential interviewees and people to teach English to).

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There’s this sort of thing…
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And there’s this. Which one makes assumptions about you?

Although the Internations events are pretty informal and the expenses run to no more than a few glasses of wine, there is another organization, which I won’t name, that operates in the same area, but seems dedicated to separating us from our money. Pretentious events at fancy hotels, with vastly overpriced drinks, as if that’s what we are there for: to spread our “wealth” around. That is, unfortunately, a not uncommon experience in the general population in many countries, and I don’t appreciate being fleeced in the same way by an organization, in the name of charity or not. Maybe it’s because to some people I look rich, although I’m not, and that’s why it bothers me.

But that’s how the world is nowadays, isn’t it? If you have loads of money, come in and make merry and spend it with us. But if you have very little, go away and get sick and die somewhere else.




Confessions of an expat – the land of no signposts

It seemed like a simple enough task. There was something held up in Customs at the Johan Adolf Pengel (that’s pronounced something like pen-hell) airport in Suriname, and I had to go and get it. What could be easier than driving to the airport?

Well I’ll tell you what would be easier: driving to an airport with the benefit of signs, that’s what. Call me an old traditionalist. Call me unadventurous. But I’d been here less than six months and been to the airport twice, including the early-hours, pitch-dark arrival which can’t really be counted. We are not homing pigeons. We are not animals that can find their way home through some sixth sense. We are human beings, equipped only with maps, and in the second decade of the 21st century, maps on mobile phones.

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Grass grass grass grass trees supermarket, grass grass grass – airport! That little gateway back there.

We’re not doing it by the stars, or by scenting traces of aviation fuel on the breeze. We’re not native trackers, with our ears to the ground to detect the vibrations of landing jetliners. We’re jumping into our cars, heading in the right general direction and relying on road signs, simple pieces of painted metal or wood mounted on poles on the side of the road, pointing to the places named on them.

If it’s a question of expense, I’ll pay for it myself: one sign just on the edge of Paramaribo, pointing towards the JFK highway, saying ‘Airport’.

But no. We’re left to our own devices. Extensive consultation of the phone map shows that you follow the traffic past Nieuw Haven to the junction with Lachmonstraat, then over some sort of bridge, left at a junction and look for the roundabout. Take the last exit and that’s it.

But what if you don’t take the left turn you’re supposed to? What if you’re geographically challenged? I went looking for Nieuw Haven once and found myself an hour later looking at the cathedral – the opposite direction. How long can a man survive in extreme heat, in a hostile environment, with just a small bottle of water and half a tank of petrol?

The airport is at the village of Zanderij, in an area known colloquially as the middle of nowhere. It was originally a Pan-Am stop, and legend has it that in the 1930s, when flying was a kind of sport for the wealthy,  a male-female pair of pilots made an emergency landing at Nieuw Haven because they couldn’t find Zanderij. The US Air Force developed the property during the Second World War, and nowadays it is rarely glimpsed in daylight, because the vast majority of flights arrive and depart extremely early in the morning or late at night, so that their connections at bigger airports are at reasonably civilized times.

The good news today for the driver leaving Paramaribo is that (and this is not very scientific)  if you head out on the main drag and straight through the intersection where you see Roopram, a Surinamese fast food place, on the right, you very quickly find the small bridge, a modest little thing not to be confused with the towering landmark that is the Jules Wijdenbosch (which you passed five minutes earlier). Keep going for a few minutes. They’ve thrown in a small airport along the way, just to plant seeds of doubt in your mind, but I only noticed that on the way back.

Make a left turn, find the roundabout, take the last exit. Signs at the roundabout? Nope.

But yes, it feels like a substantial road out of town, so we may be in business. Now, in preparation for the return trip, assuming I’m not heading into the heart of darkness, never to see civilization again, I start deliberately noticing things. A Chinese supermarket (there are literally hundreds of them In Paramaribo), a mosque with a police station sign right outside, a stretch where there is a little side-road alongside, separated by concrete lumps you could easily drive over.

And then – whoops of celebration – a sort of roadside bus garage, as featured on the map, which I must have subconsciously registered during the planning sessions.

Now, according to what I did consciously see on the map, the highway should split at some point and I have to be on the fork that goes left.

It’s getting quieter. Fewer cars. Huge lorries going too slowly. No shops, no petrol stations. No fork in the highway. No road signs. Is this even the correct highway? I’m going to be stopped soon by a peasant with one tooth in his mouth. I’ll be kidnapped, whacked over the head, barbecued and eaten by his cackling family.

Just one sign, that’s all I want. One ‘Don’t panic, stranger,  you’re almost there’. But no, there’s nothing.

And then… what’s this? Such-and-such a hotel wishes you a good flight. Other signs saying similar things. Call off the barbecue, old villager, I’m going to make it.

Can’t find the way into the airport, of course, because there isn’t a sign saying This is The Airport. And when I do, the place is almost deserted. Never mind. The natives are friendly, even the Customs people. Sign this, pay that (ah, we are still in the civilized world). Then back on the road.

The middle-of-nowhere section. The bus garage. The Muslim police station. Thirty-five Chinese supermarkets. The roundabout. I’ve been to Pengel and back and lived to tell the tale.

A dog-eat-dog  junction, the little bridge. Lachmonstraat.

Paramaribo, I take it all back. You’re a beacon of sophistication in a cruel world. Who’d have thought I would be so pleased to see you?




Confessions of an expat – the art of paying the bills

For those who don’t know where Suriname is, that’s it in the middle, the white shape. French Guiana to the right, Guyana to the left. The mall where you pay for water in the north of Paramaribo is somewhere in that star

Paying the bills is probably nobody’s favourite pastime, but it has to be done. However, it helps if you understand the system. Many citizens of the world are accustomed to either paying by Direct Debit or getting the bill through the mail.

And that is why it was a shock when I was first in Suriname to find a man on a small motorbike waiting at my garden gate, saying he had come to disconnect the water because we hadn’t paid the bill for three months. Now, apart from anything else, we haven’t been living in that house for three months – we only moved in six weeks earlier. And for another thing, I had been checking the mailbox every day with the intention of paying the bills as they arrived.

Obviously I misunderstood when people told me I could pay at the mall. I didn’t realize you had to go there uninvited, find out how much you owed and pay there and then.

There followed the standard conversation between the customer and the man who has been sent to do the deed. (By the way, congratulations to this man for his knowledge of idiomatic English.)

“See? I didn’t understand. I’ll go and pay it immediately.”

“I’ll still have to cut you off.”

“Can’t you just tell your boss I didn’t understand but I do now and I’ll rectify the situation right away?”

“Why should I do that? I’ll cut it off and come back at three o’clock to put it back on.”

“But you’re a reasonable man and you can see I’m not trying to avoid paying it.”

“You’re putting me in a very awkward position.”

He came into the garden, looked at the meter, wrote something down and got back on his bike, obviously fearful of the consequences if his boss, Meneer or Mevrouw Inflexible, hadn’t been fed recently and was in a bad mood.

As for me, I filled the kettle and used the toilet, just in case, then headed for one of the rare ATMs that accept Visa (because Suriname is in love with Mastercard) and went up to Maretraite Mall.

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There were two kassas. One for water and one for electricity. Which means, as I would soon discover, that you queue for 20 minutes for one and then a further 20 minutes for the other.

Here’s a wild idea: how about enabling both of the cashiers to do both water and electricity?

No? Too radical? Of course: I should shut up and mind my own business. Who the hell do I think I am, anyway?

However, paying a bill you have not received is not the best story in the litany of cash settlements. Many years ago in the UK, in a time before mobile phones (so younger readers may find this far-fetched) I was having a dispute with the Income Tax department, who suddenly claimed I owed them this much from a previous year and that much for the year before that. I employed an accountant but he couldn’t prove I didn’t owe it.

Eventually I decided to go along with it. Having phoned them several times and been quoted various figures, I went to the office to find out once and for all and to write them a cheque.

The girl behind the counter said she couldn’t give me a final figure. I said “People do when I phone up,” and she agreed. So I went downstairs, into the phone box across the street and called them. A perfectly pleasant young woman gave me the settlement figure, so I went back in and paid them.

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Suriname has two rainy seasons – a short one and a long one – so you can’t say there is not enough water

Bureaucracy is an international phenomenon. I once had trouble cashing a cheque in Tobago when the young man in the bank said “Why is it made out to Chris when on your driving licence it says your name is Christopher?” Smart kid – he’ll go far. I just hope that when he dies and goes to heaven he’s got his papers in order. I hear St Peter can be very strict about that sort of thing. And with all the scams, electronic and otherwise, that go on down here on earth, there is bound to be someone between here and heaven selling false credentials and hacking the ever-changing code of the electronic pearly gates.

But of course that bank clerk will. He’s the kind of person who wakes up in the middle of the night to make sure he’s asleep. Heaven must be full of administrators, because they’ve spent their lives doing things by the book.

But what if St Peter is Surinamese? A big, burly man in a khaki uniform with a pistol in his holster, a rifle slung over his shoulder and the weary look of someone who has to work all hours of the day and night. He won’t let you in unless you pay $50 for a tourist visa.





Confessions of an expat – the buskers of Glasgow

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Cold, tired but still smiling. How could anyone not cross her palm with silver?

Glasgow is a musical community, with more than its fair share of good music shops, gigs, open mic nights and recording studios, but that doesn’t necessarily account for the number of people taking it to the streets.

So what is it about the place? Perhaps it has something to do with that tedious 21st century word, logistics: meaning in this case plenty of suitable places to set up. What you need is a space to stand where there is a bit of elbow room, possibly some shelter from the elements and – a big plus – no traffic. And what do they have there? The broad sweeps of Buchanan Street, much of Argyle Street and a large part of Sauchiehall Street with little more than the drone of a distant engine.

The year I was there, until early November there was an accordionist who smiled her Romanian-looking way melodically and skilfully through the day halfway up Buchanan Street, her green anorak keeping her warm as autumn engulfed us. Then she apparently flew  south for the winter – and the middle-aged female accordionist slot was taken over by a lady who, through no fault of her own, didn’t  bear comparison with the original. She didn’t use her left hand much to operate her instrument’s inbuilt backing mechanism – rows of buttons for playing a bass part in a sort of oompah style. The two women shared a general style, however: a repertoire of 1960s film tunes such as Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago. And with their apparent ethnicity, there was something appropriate about the ladies conjuring up the spirit of a mysterious Europe.

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Multiculturalism at its peak

Although the accordion is a favoured instrument among buskers – light, portable and capable of producing a full sound (if you do the left-hand thing), there are all sorts of alternatives around the place. The guitar, of course, is similarly handy and versatile, and while there are those who bash out acoustic versions of pop, rock and folk, modern amplification means you can plug in an electric guitar and a microphone, and even an elaborate backing track if you’ve got the cheek.

Thus we had the Hank Marvin impressionist, giving us Apache, FBI and more from The Shadows’ back catalogue, while in Sauchiehall Street a reggae  player filled in the gaps on guitarless Bob Marley backing tracks.

Native Americans, not generally known for their music, could sometimes be found right in the middle of the pedestrian throughfare, their Sitting Bull headdresses doing little to dispel the impression of commercialism made by a substantial PA system powered by a generator and pumping out their latest professionally-recorded CD while one of them played some sort of pan pipes in what came across as a token gesture.

buskers 3
And the English came over the hill but by gum we gave ’em a fright

This being Scotland, naturally the bagpipes were strongly represented, sometimes solo and sometimes backed by ferocious drumming from characters who looked like they had been hiding in the hills since Culloden, learning how to deal with the lack of barbers  by developing a hairstyle called dreadlochs.

And the Salvation Army, no strangers to giving it some in the open air, added their smartly turned out brass sounds to the mix.

Why do the ordinary buskers do it? Well, it’s not money for old rope. I’ve done it myself and let me tell you: it’s hard work. Even in a quiet place, without amplification you’re hitting the strings harder and singing more loudly than you ever would normally, and to make it worth your while you’ve got to stick at it for hours on end before trudging off, hoarse, sore-fingered and lopsided with a pocketful of small change (if you’re lucky). Certainly there is more self-respect to be clung onto than in straightforward begging, but you’re never going to get rich.

buskers 4
Playing the cute card: was this his idea or his parents’?

The Christmas shopping season brought out some oddities including a sweet old lady for whom the expression ‘smiling gamely’ might have been coined, as she held a cheap, strapless nylon-string guitar by the neck where it meets the body and, without making chords, fluttered her right hand across the strings inaudibly and sang quietly to herself. The next day she had refined her act, raking the strings with a wooden coffee-stirrer.  It’s called ‘having a bash’.

Even she, though, doesn’t represent the peak of unskilled initiative. That accolade has to go to the brass-necked opportunist I saw in Leicester Square, London. With no money and no instrument, he merely sat against a wall with a traffic cone to his lips and  went brrr brrr brrr down it like a kazoo. All together now:  ‘I’m a one man band; nobody knows or understands…’






Confessions of an expat – automotive madness

Too many cars in the world? Errm, yes, actually

There was a small black Toyota driving around Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, for a few months last year that was highly distinctive. From the back it looked perfectly normal. It was a bit dirty, but when you looked at the front you could see why no one had bothered to wash it lately.

It had been restyled. By a bus. You know: one of those smallish buses with pictures and slogans all over it that performs a public service. And owns the road. Took the front layer off the car in the middle of the automotive madhouse that is central Paramaribo. He did it so neatly that the front was all pushed up and he ripped the number plate off, but no one was hurt (traumatized, yes, but not physically harmed) and it still goes.

It’s a strange feeling driving a visibly damaged vehicle. People can’t help looking at it, and then at the driver, to see if he or she looks like the kind of maniac who could be expected to have crashes, or perhaps the sort of person who can afford to have them. So you get either a flash of pity and sympathy or a look that says “You had it coming to you. How dare you drive around in a nice, fairly new car, when I can’t afford one?”

This scrutiny happened every day down by the central market, where the traffic is always at a standstill and the pedestrians are as arrogant as the motorists. One of the many things I don’t understand is why, in some countries including this one, crossing zones for pedestrians are marked with white stripes for all to see, yet the person walking has no rights. When you step onto one, the traffic doesn’t stop and let you cross, so what is the point? It’s a waste of paint. And it results in people crossing the street wherever they like, because one place is no less dangerous than another.

Maybe in the distant past the painted crossings did have to be observed, but more and more people ignored them until the power of the steel box versus tender flesh and bones won the day and it became advisable to forget the whole thing. As it is, the crossings are at best unworkable and at worst misleading and hazardous.

That in turn creates antagonism between pedestrian and motorist, but along with the nervousness of many pedestrians comes, in others, a certain arrogance. There is a growing trend for people to walk in front of you and point at you in a way that combines recommending that you don’t kill them with commanding you to stop. Maybe they get it from the front seat passengers who do it when their macho driver is pushing his way into the traffic. It’s a dangerous environment when common sense and skill are challenged by battles of will and ego. You have to wonder about the mental state of some people out there. What it says to me is “Let me do this, because I’m not a rational person and you’ll have to be extra sensible to compensate.”

A prime example of this was the long-limbed, dreadlocked, carefree cyclist I saw going round in wobbly circles in the middle of the traffic in one of the very busiest areas. If someone knocks him off his bike, who gets in trouble?

To many people the car is a status symbol, and Suriname is no exception. Those of us who just want something of reasonable quality, comfortable and okay-looking are outnumbered by those who feel the need to have their ego boosted by a big vehicular statement.

On the other hand, the macho culture around here can make it a good idea to drive a bit of a beast. I have a friend, a 30-something Dutch girl, fair-haired and feminine but not glamorous, and she drives a big, black, diesel-engined pickup truck. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect a pest-controller to turn up in if you lived in the jungle.

And why does my friend drive this monster? Because she was tired of being pushed around on the roads by ugly, aggressive men. While a gentleman might treat a young lady in her cute car with courtesy, the sort of ape who has to prove his masculinity by driving in a tough manner just sees her as an easy target.

So she got this inappropriate pickup. It’s not even shiny and trimmed with chrome. It’s matt black with no frills. And it has tinted windows, so the morons can’t see who they’re dealing with. They just assume it’s someone like them, not to be messed with.

And the heavens opened, for it was the Long Rainy Season (there is also a short one) and a deluge descended onto the streets of Paramaribo, and guess what – they don’t have proper drains

The mean-looking pickup does have practical advantages, though. In a city where the roads are patchy at the best of times, all it takes is half an hour of rain and you’re driving through a river, and the macho pickup keeps you above it.


Confessions of an expat: The Foreigner’s Fear of the Hairdresser

Getting a haircut is not a major consideration in most men’s lives. It gets too long, you have it cut: simple.

But when you have recently moved to a country with a different ethnic mix, different fashions etc, you have to be just a little bit cautious. Often a hairdresser will send you away looking how he or she thinks you should look, rather than how you want to look.

Suriname is a cultural melting pot of people of African heritage, Indians (they call them Hindustanis), Chinese, Indonesians and Brazilians. And because it is a former Dutch colony, there are a few white people too.

I’ve been barbered on Caribbean islands where they had never worked on a head of straightish European hair before; I’ve tried to explain what I wanted in Spanish; I’ve had it done in women’s salons – and all with varying degrees of success.

Haircut 1
Fifties slickback, 70s length. Timelessly tasteless

There have been instances where I came out shorn, slicked back and dripping with hair oil, looking like a Cuban drug lord. I don’t like wearing hats or caps, but sometimes you have to take refuge there for a few days while it grows a fraction and settles down. A new country is a new challenge and you have to be careful.

And so it is that I am roaming around the capital, Paramaribo, weighing up the options. There are kapsalons (I think that means hairdressing) all over the place, just like there are car washes and supermarkets where you would least expect to find them, with people working from home to save on rent and trying to maximize their profits in a country where no one seems to be able to charge much money for whatever it is they do.

I’m wary of some of these side-street places. I don’t know anything about the people running them. They might be skilful, respectable folk providing a professional service. But without recommendations, you don’t know, do you?

However, you’ve got to do something, you’ve got to trust someone. Finally I come across a place in a small group of shops, with a professional frontage and a proper sign above the door.

I feel guilty about choosing this operation just because it can afford to have its name painted by a professional signwriter, but I can’t keep looking forever, so that’s it. This will be the one.

Haircut 2
Something like this suit you? You’re a distinguished lookng gentleman…

There are four chairs and the place looks like it is for women only. A young Chinese girl greets me, her breath reeking of cigarettes. She would like to be helpful but doesn’t understand my question, “Do you do men’s hair?”

A slightly older Chinese young man appears and takes over – he’s been on the Marlboros too. He understands me and ushers me into one of the chairs. At this point communication becomes visual only. I would like the back and sides done with the electric clippers but the top with scissors. He doesn’t have anything as crude as scissors.

The girl puts the towel on the back of my neck but he doesn’t like the way she does it, so he takes it off and repositions it. She retreats to the back of the shop for a smoke. The young man is keen to get started.

Haircut 3
Something more flamboyant, perhaps. With your bone structure this could really work

It pays to disregard a hairdresser’s own haircut. This guy has it shaved at the back and sides, and the top is long, dyed blond and swept forward. As I try to describe what I want, I have to fight the urge to tell him that whatever he does, I don’t want my hair to look like his. If he wants to look like a plonker, that’s up to him.

When he starts, he is all action, whizzing the clippers up and down my neck, contours on the sides and a reassuringly light touch on top. He seems to know what he is doing, and if it is all going to go horribly wrong, it is going to go horribly wrong quickly.

Haircut 4
I’ll get you. I’ll be back and I’ll ****in’ have you, pal

It’s all over in five minutes and my hair looks okay at a glance. He can’t understand why I don’t want some ‘product’ in it – wax or gel or putty or something – but lets me off eventually, grinning and waving the internationally-accepted thumbs-up sign.

“Another satisfied customer,” he seems to be thinking. “I’m too good for this place. One day I’ll have a salon on Fifth Avenue in New York and when I tell my life story, I will very briefly refer to the little business where I started, next to a rice-packaging plant in the south of Paramaribo. You should have seen this English guy I did once. Got it done in five minutes and he couldn’t believe it. Feeling round the back with his fingers even though I had just shown it to him in the mirror. He didn’t trust me, thought I was going be an idiot.”

Well I’m sorry. Yes, I was apprehensive. But I was wrong. Five minutes, 25SRD – about £5. Everyone’s a winner.