Diary, Friday 14th February 1997: Paramaribo was a shock at first. Largely due to the contingencies of time and situation in the place. The whole group, 18 students and 2 lecturers arrived at the airport late at night and were subjected to an unbearable bureaucratic ritual, full of senseless visas and nonsense. We were received very kindly by the Director of Culture of the Ministry of Culture and Education, Mr. James Ramlal, an Indian whose confining paterlaism we eventually learnt to deal with. We were shown our hotel at four o’clock in the morning, a mercenary concrete jungle with horrid orange and disgusting browns in an interior which had remained untouched since the seventies. Miss Havisham would have felt very comfortable. The rooms smelt musty and disused. 18 students were expected to share two showers. A huge notice just outside the toilet forbade guests imperiously to deposit used toilet paper in the toilet. A special bin had been provided. Drains were a bit of a problem. We were all rather depressed. And the next two days were largely spent in solving group problems and dealing with the owner of the hotel. Even so the city began to do its magic.  Wonderful pockets such as the dense and pungent central market. The edge of the city called Blauwgrond with all its informal little restaurants. The colonial buildings were beautiful and impressive. When delapidated the exuded an extraordinarily sombre mood, when well kept they ranged from the brilliant to showy and arrogant. Large generouis volumes with a slender scaffolding of galleries resting on finely profiled brick bases. As intriguing as the large wooden houses in the old centre are the humble little dwellings predominantly owned by the African Surinamese. Gabled houses with gambrel or saddle-backed roofs, cut away by the straight walls of a second storey. The gable become vestigal but are determinedly kept as a echo of Ruskin’s idea that architecture it that which is useless on a building, serving only the mind. The useless as a prerequisite of mental health.

The city is involved in a dance of monuments. Monuments marking time in space, monuments marking men and events. The more important the event the more important the place it is given to mark. The axis onto the presidential palace for example is a VIP a very important place, for a very important person. But as powers absorb each other successively so are the monuments subject to a centrifugal force to insignificance. To becoming urban litter. Queen Wilhelmina, the queen of Holland before independence, once graced the very centre. She now stands forgotten looking over the water near the fort, awaiting the next arrival. Some huge fat man now stands in front of the Ministry of Finance, a historical figure who is, by sheer force of propriety a natural emblem of abundance. A previous prime-minister, a first indigenous and independent minister of Finance where erstwhile a Dutchman stood with a fine nineteenth century moustache. He too now stand in a corner of the urban fabric. One comes uponn him by surprise, believing oneself to have uncovered one of the city’s secrets. This formalised rebellion, whereby statues are given deliberately kept and put in places to talk of the country’s changes, to make a point rhetorically can also be seen in Paramaribo’s postcards. Paramaribo is a city of wood, it is still full of the signs of colonial occupation with all its emphasis on comfort, upon the facades of socio-economic arrival. And yet the most prevalent postcards, although they show buildings, do not show these charming buildings made of wood. You can get them. They tend to be the newest cards. The most ubiquitous postcards, however, probably photographed during the seventies, show the cigarette factory, the high-rise buildings with their horizontal bands and their wholly inappropriate glass curtain walls; a government ministry, where the glass walls, cause of terrible heat gain, have been systematically punctured by a regiment of air-conditioning units, obviously not planned for in the original building. The disease has become the physical support for the cure.


The hindu temples are wonderful. Under the influence of the other two important congregational religions, Christianity and Islam, they too have become congregational and have adopted the basilikal configuration of a church.


Diary, Wednesday 12th February 1997: Walking around the city non-stop. A series of large generous grids, crumpled together around a long series of parallel streets, which form the core of the old centre. The central market is dense, everything smells, oranges, tangerines, tomatoes are stacked like columns, making a hypostyle hall of each table. I loved the fish section, with everything ordered in a Linnaean system avant-la lettre. When I emerged from the market I was moving through a dense crowd, a poor crumpled man came up to me without drawing any attention to me and kissed my trousers, he then made a symbolic sign vaguely reminiscent of a cross and walked on bent over. I was stunned. I looked where he went, but he quickly disappeared in the crowd. I wouldn’t be able to recognise him now.

Later, an hour or two, I suppose, not very far from the market in a beautiful wooden church, I was waiting for a lady who had gone to search for a candle. I wanted to burn one for Victoria and the children. I missed them. It was a large wooden gothic revival church with two silver spires mounted on the western towers, flanking the entrance. An echo of the large cathedral in the Gravenstraat. Anyway, there I was, standing in front of St Francis of Assisi holding baby Jesus, when the lady, returned that she could not sell me a candle. At that moment another poor confused and half-naked if much younger man came up to me. He smelt awful. He begged me some money, which I did not want to give him. I shook my head and walked on. The people working within the church, the lady among others, saw what was happening and also tried to discourage me from giving the man money. He was a known figure in the church. They had already tried to remove him earlier. They shook their heads at me and wagged their fingers and made all manner of gestures. Then the man bent over and let out a loud wail and spat on my back as he unfolded himself again and danced down the aisle, touching the relief sculptures hanging on the wall, depicting Christ’s seven stations of the cross, with both hands.