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 – Homesick

Homesickness can be a serious problem for some people. Longing for familiar surroundings, sights and sounds can make them restless and unable to settle anywhere other than where they come from.
Miss this? It’s nice, but you can arrange it almost anywhere

This is less of a problem for the expat whose career is what takes him or her to a different place than for what is termed the “trailing spouse”, the partner who goes along because it’s either that or effectively not have a significant other at all. The spouse doesn’t have new challenges to keep him or her busy and that can lead to having too much time to think, with the thoughts being negative ones.

I’ve never suffered from this affliction. Coming from an island with a population of 60,000 (nowadays, but considerably less in the past), one might be expected to miss home more than someone from a big city, but for me that just isn’t true.

My first venture away from Guernsey was to college in Portsmouth. Geographically that’s not far, but it is across the water and it is a city rather than an island. But for a student aged 19, it also represented freedom. There was more to do, more to see. There were rock bands playing on South Parade Pier; big names who would never go to Guernsey because it didn’t make economic sense.

I got lonely at first, because it took a while to make friends, and that’s not a nice feeling, but is not to be confused with homesickness. I grabbed the first people who would talk to me and made a little group with them, but being with the wrong people, with whom you feel no bond, is worse than nothing at all. I had to let them go and gradually find some kindred spirits.

From my new base on the south coast there was also the possibility of exploring the rest of Great Britain. Many of my friends were at colleges and universities from Bristol and London to Birmingham and Glasgow. In those rather safer (or certainly more innocent) times, it was a common practice to save on travel expenses by hitch-hiking: standing on the outskirts with a bored but optimistic thumb dangling in the hope that some kind soul would take me at least part of the way to my destination. It meant long days out in the elements with no guarantee of reaching shelter before nightfall, but youth doesn’t worry about that so much. You will get there in the end.

And along the way you meet people whom you otherwise wouldn’t. You see towns you didn’t intend to visit and learn about human nature.

I was once given a meal and a settee for the night in a small town in the west country by a couple who thought I was absent without leave from the nearby Army base.

In this day and age you can’t recommend young people  putting themselves at the mercy of strangers, but many of us did it regularly and came to no harm.

So that was a bit of travelling , going around the UK when I should have been studying.

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Miss this? Sure, but there are beaches in places other than Guernsey

Later came trips around Europe, again by thumb, with pea-brained ideas about working in Gibraltar because it was British, only to be turned away at the border because we had no money. “But that’s the whole point,” we argued with the official. “We’re here to work and earn some money.”  These people, these stupid grownups with their blinkered ideas and inflexible attitudes. Hadn’t they ever heard that line from The Beatles’ Abbey Road album: “But oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go.” It made perfect sense to me at the time.

And the night I slept in a graveyard in a small French town, I wasn’t pining for my bedroom back home. Quite the contrary. I was the one living the life of Riley, while the rest were stuck back there with their homes and jobs. I saw nothing positive in that.

Later in life, with a career and a marriage behind me I was once more back on the road, this time with a wife from South America, so we had two homelands to consider. Fortunately she thinks as I do about where is the right place to be. Home is where we are, both of us. It helps if that is somewhere enjoyable, safe and where you can have a good lifestyle. It is hard to be homesick when you’re lying on a Caribbean beach with a decent place to live and (just about) enough money in your pocket.

We bounced around the Caribbean region and ended up in Suriname. And before the economic crisis hit the country, that was okay. No beaches, but many of the other Caribbean characteristics. Heat, humidity, mango trees, banana trees…

There’s been a lot going on in the UK recently, with Brexit and changes in leadership and even a heatwave, but the pang of homesickness that hit me last week had nothing to do with those things.

I was sitting on the balcony (which sounds more glamorous than it is) and it was a hot as hell as usual. And it wasn’t the butterflies that were doing their fluttering art installation. It wasn’t the sudden realization that bananas grow upwards, not curving down as we usually see them. It wasn’t the BBC news I was reading on my phone.

See? They curl upwards as they grow

But there was a cricket match going on in Manchester, England vs Pakistan. And reading about it was fine – I’m a cricket fan and was a pretty decent player when I was young. But I read about it all the time and it’s enjoyable but no more than that. But then I came to the part that said “Listen online abroad”. With most British broadcasts, legal restrictions mean you can’t tune in, and the satellite TV reception in this house makes it impossible.

I clicked on the three magic words and suddenly they were talking to me from the Second Test Match at Old Trafford. England were doing fine – batting well and making piles of runs. And I wanted to be there. As a kid I used to take a radio to the beach and listen to the test match between swims, so maybe it’s that. Whatever it was, I wanted to be listening to it in the UK. Not necessarily at the ground, but listening to it or watching it on TV on home soil.

Miss this? Absolutely. It’s England’s current star batsman, Joe Root, and I’ve never really watched him play.

Bloody homesick. At my age. Yes, maybe age has something to do with it. I wanted to get back there and follow it while Joe Root is at his peak, and before test matches cease to exist – which is a sad possibility in the not-too-distant future.

The feeling passed, but I’m about to stop writing and go and do it again.

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 – You think YOU’VE got troubles

Every country appears to be struggling at the moment. It seems that nobody has any money, and yet there are guests in the expensive hotels and customers in the restaurants, so somebody must be doing all right.

As a Brit abroad, and currently in a country where things are really taking a dive, it is interesting to hear friends in the UK talking about how bad things are there.

Not open for business: things look grim in the UK

When I lived in England six years ago it was apparent that things were on the slide, not least with the number of charity shops, pound shops and boarded-up shops up and down the High Streets.

Now from those parts all we hear about is political trouble, with the Brexit vote having had an unexpected effect on the major political parties. David Cameron resigns, but doesn’t leave immediately, just as the country has resigned from the EU but has yet to start packing its bags.

Then the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, faces a mutiny and a vote of no confidence by his fellow Labour politicians, although the public apparently doesn’t agree and wants to give him and his left wing idealism a chance against the reviled Tory party.

A British politician is gunned down in the street and the nation is shocked; and quite rightly so, as people of every political stripe can agree. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in the UK. Even in trigger-happy USA, politicians seem to be safer than schoolchildren in that respect.

And yet both those countries are like Utopia compared with two in which I have a vested interested: Venezuela and Suriname. Venezuela because that is where my wife is from, where her family still lives, and Suriname because that is where she and I are. And what we are living through is very much like the decline of her homeland.

Both countries have large oil reserves. Venezuela’s are huge, and they have been harvesting and selling it for many years, so they can’t just blame the slump in oil prices for the downturn in their fortunes. The rot had set in long before that. And this is a country that not so long ago was arguably the most sophisticated in South America.

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Boxing Day sale? No, just a queue for basic household items in Venezuela

Suriname’s oil bonanza happened relatively recently, so it is tempting to think it is something the country has up its sleeve for when the market improves. But what if it doesn’t improve?

In Venezuela the electricity, internet and water are on and off, and there are shortages of even the most basic of commodities, from toilet paper and sanitary towels to the corn flour used to make the staple dish, the arepa. The problem is that so many things are imported, and that means paying for them in a currency that is far stronger than the bolivar.

In Suriname the writing has been on the wall for years, but this year it finally happened: the exchange rate went crazy in a bad way. So if you’re paid in the local currency, Surinamese dollars (SRD), the number of US dollars you can get in exchange is much lower and getting lower literally every day.

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The rainy season in Suriname has been getting rainier

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the whole business here is that it has happened before, and those who have seen it before will calmly tell you that this is nothing: it’s going to get worse.

Meanwhile, as income falls, so prices rise. A couple of heads of broccoli that used to cost perhaps 12 SRD has been up as far as almost 30 in some places, as supermarkets see what they can get away with and reluctantly bring it back down when the customers put it back on the shelf rather than in their basket.

A bottle of nothing-special  wine that six months ago was around 20SRD is now pushing 40.

You find yourself hunting for bargains. You spot something in one shop that is either a kind gesture by the management, or more likely a token  good deal to get you to spread the word that this place can save you some money. Or perhaps whoever did the pricing has got it wrong – and can get it wrong on other things too.

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The price of water in Suriname has gone up faster than the flooding level in the capital, Paramaribo

You don’t go out for dinner anymore. Most of the locals never did anyway, and now you, with your fancy foreign income and your decadent foreign ways, have been given a dose of reality.

And what do the restaurateurs do? They raise their prices. They have to, because if they were operating at only a respectable profit before, the increased cost of the food and drink and everything else would mean they would be running at a loss.

Electricity, gas and water prices all doubled at a stroke, and all government departments with the ability to get money from the public jumped on the bandwagon.

You would do it yourself – any of us would. It is simple economics.

And outside, to add insult to injury, the rainy season dumped an extra-big deluge on the whole country.

It’s a spiral that has dragged countries down before and it will happen again.

The pound fell dramatically after the Brexit result, but everyone is hoping that was a knee-jerk reaction and that normal service will be resumed in due course.

We all think our problems are  legitimate causes for concern, and of course it doesn’t actually help to know there are people wore off than ourselves. But there are, UK people, there most certainly are.




Confessions of an expat – French Guiana a la plage

So here we are in Cayenne, capital of French Guiana, for a weekend away from Suriname.

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Antoine, the fastidious, eccentric owner of the little gite into which three of us are crammed, has a small swimming pool in his garden and we are welcome to use it. But – there is always a but with Antoine – he doesn’t use chemicals to keep it sterile; he uses salt. With his limited command of English and reluctance to use the French that I might understand, he makes the pool sound like a bad idea.

There is a beach, though. This area is called Rémire Montjoly and on the map it shows several beaches. Having been around here before, I ask him if the sand is white. No. Is it black? Not black, no. Somewhere in between.

Wherever you go in the world, people are proud of their beaches, and if they can’t be proud, they’re defensive. Beaches=paradise and theirs  are no exception.

My wife goes shopping and the niece and I head for the sea, which is reached via an area of big, expensive-looking houses including one that doubles as a performing arts academy. Classical piano music drifts through the gate as we make our way down the lane and through a little rough jungle path to the sand.

No, it’s not white and it’s not black. If you’re feeling generous it’s sort of golden. Maybe a bit red.

It is hot down here and the sea is warm but cool in that complex area regarding body temperature. There are people swimming, so we wade in and get wet.

The overall effect is of going for a swim in a builder’s yard after a monsoon and the funny thing is, the water doesn’t taste salty. It doesn’t smell like the sea either, come to think of it. It doesn’t smell bad, it just lacks something. Refreshing, though, and it gives us the energy to walk along to the end, where small buildings on the edge of the sand could be cafes or bars.

Sea, sand, sun… and sweat

There are fish here. They punctuate the high tide mark, dead and rotting. The cafes and bars turn out to be private houses, so we walk back and play in the sand: baseball with bent driftwood sticks and some sort of hard, almost round fruits or seeds that disintegrate when you hit them. It’s midday in the tropics and it’s hot, so eventually we leave the beach, sweat our way back through the lanes to the gite and shower the building-site sand off. Not having planned for a day such as we have had, I brought no sun screen and no after-sun, but I feel okay. When you grew up with beaches all around and spent every possible hour on them, you have an innate immunity to the sun, or think you do.

She’s getting a bit old for this, but thank God for simple pleasures

My wife returns with treasure from the streets of the town centre and we check out the barbecue. It’s brick-built, attached to the wall and is out there in all weathers. Filthy is probably the wrong word. Rusty, dusty, grimy are all true and we hatch a plan to buy some aluminium foil and wrap each bar that will touch the food.

We hit the supermarket and return with half a ton of supplies, including some French wine which looks good and you just have to hope it wasn’t boiled in a container on the way across the ocean.

Knock up a potato salad and throw oil and vinegar at some leaves. Light the barbecue, which, with a charcoal one, is an art. Put a firelighter brick down, lay a few little lumps around it, poke a lit match through and build a pyramid of the black stuff over the flame without starving it of oxygen in the process. I build three small pyramids and  it heats up co-operatively.

The steaks were a mistake. Too big, too thick and a butcher probably could have told me they would be tough however you cooked them, but the chicken and the sausages are fine. And so is the wine.

My skin begins to feel cooked too, though, and it’s just as well we invested in some after-sun cream on the food trip.

Next day, Antoine comes round, ostensibly to see that everything is all right, but really to check for breakages and any way he can reduce the amount of deposit he refunds. There is a stick lying next to an ant hole in the lawn and he wants to know what has happened. He knows as well as I do that either I or my niece (it was ‘er wot done it, actually) have been poking around. Well, mon vieux, who knows? Mystérieux, n’est-ce pas? Somebody must have thrown it over the wall.

He looks at my raging skin and goes “Wow!”

Wow indeed. In the coming days the soreness became a rash and the rash became a snowfall of dead skin.

So remember, French Guiana is a nice place in many ways, and they do have proper beaches, or so I’m told, but not around Montjoly. And the sun is hot.

Confessions of an expat – Return to French Guiana

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Don’t worry monsieur, mon oncle take you across ze reeverre

French Guiana made a big impression on my first visit, so a return trip was inevitable. As a bona fide part of France, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic, it has things going for it that the other countries in the region – Guyana and Suriname – don’t.

The first is sophistication, and it is hard to use that word without sounding snobbish, but the sophistication is not so much to do with the people as what is available. You can buy things in a supermarket in the capital, Cayenne, that you can only dream of in neighbouring Suriname or the British of the three Guianas, Guyana. (The French also use one word, Guyane, for theirs, just to complicate matters.)

However, it’s the people that make a country and this départment has as wide a range of personalities as any other.

We cross the river from Albina, Suriname, to S. Laurent du Maroni on one of the long, thin, wobbly boats that manage to look indigenous in spite of the Yamaha outboard engine at the back. We have booked a rental car online from a global company, so we head for their office.

The room smells of armpits. It’s a hot country, but so are they all around here, and the supermarkets I have just praised sell deodorant and its high-powered ally, antiperspirant, but some people in this room clearly don’t waste their money on such fripperies.

The pale-skinned, burnt-nosed expat Frenchman behind the counter is unimpressed with our tale of online booking. That was the American website, he says. You’re in Guyane now. Don’t come in here with your fancy Yankee ideas.

He mutters to his sexy black-skinned, short-skirted colleague and she snorts in empathy.

He doesn’t like my wife’s Venezuelan driving licence – “We don’t accept them” – and points to mine where it says UK. “What’s that, Ukraine?”

“L’Angleterre!” I almost shout, but he has just talked himself out of our doing business with him and we go back to the river, where people tell us there are taxis. We asked them for the bus to Cayenne but they seem to think buses and taxis are the same thing.

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It’s got everything: grass, trees, wind…

It’s a minibus with 10 seats and everything broken that doesn’t actually stop it from moving. The paint on the inside of the door exists only as small, shiny islands in a sea of wear and tear. But it’s cheap and they’re about to leave, so we climb in and an uneventful two and a half hours later we’re in Cayenne, where we have booked a gite, which translates as something like holiday cottage.

It is up a lane near the big supermarket we enjoyed last time we were here, and is run by a fastidious middle-aged man with a knobbly, swollen nose that looks as if it was once a red, veiny, boozer’s appendage that has had the colour removed.

The gite is in his garden. His house looks as if it was until recently a small restaurant, and it has a well-stocked bar, but he says it’s only for his friends. I’m enjoying being in France because I learned the language at school and it comes naturally, whereas my recent struggles with Dutch are slow and frustrating.

Antoine (not his real name) shows us to our quarters. There are three small buildings in the garden, each divided into two living units, with a shared kitchen in the middle. My wife and I are accompanied on this trip by our 14-year-old niece, but we chose this place because we’re saving money.

Pushing his luck: a frog had taken up residence in a bucket under a barbecue in a garden in a French territory

The bedroom is small but adequate, a single bed jammed across the foot of the double.  There is a nicely tiled shower cubicle of indescribable shape, but at the back, in the narrow corner of a v-shaped space, sits the throne room, separated from the rest just by a curtain. It is no ordinary curtain, though. The room is 12 feet tall and the ornate crepe screen hangs from the cathedralesque ceiling like Maria Sharapova’s grandmother’s ball gown. What the place lacks in practicality it makes up for in quirky French charm. If you found a set-up like this in England you would report it on the grounds of decency and hygiene, but this is France and they do things differently.

Is there wifi? Yes, says Antoine. Can you give me the code? No, says Antoine. I don’t tell anyone the code but I will put it in your phone for you. All three of us? No, only two, says Antoine, and our niece finds herself staring into the abyss of a Facebookless, Instagram-deprived weekend, squeezed out by the adults’ work-related needs.

Antoine identifies the small, barely visible dark rectangle high up one wall as a television.

There is airconditioning and there is a remote control, but you can’t adjust the temperature. He has  ordained that 21C is the ideal setting and that is that.

In the garden there is a brick-built barbecue, every metal part of it rusty and a frog shacked up in a bucket underneath.

We hit the supermarket and stock up on paté and wine and bread and cheese, and the women go out for sushi with a friend who is living in Cayenne, while yours truly succumbs to the early morning, the travel and the heat. A couple of glasses of Beaujolais and I’m asleep.


Next Tuesday: sun, sand, sea and strolls.