Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Adventuresome Traveler: Suriname

Interested in taking a vacation to a Jewish Heritage spot off the beaten track? Try Suriname! This former Dutch colony used to be the Las Vegas of the colonial world, and was once an important sugar plantation community. Merchants from as far away as Newport, Rhode Island came to the colony to revel and make their fortunes. It was also the home of many important early American Jewish families who lived both on sugar plantations and in the main city of Paramaribo. They built synagogues in the typical Dutch Caribbean style with rich mahogany and sand floors. One of these exquisite synagogues is still in use in Paramaribo: the synagogue complex includes a museum, one of the earliest still-functioning mikvaot in the Americas as well as elaborately-carved gravestones transferred from one of the early cemeteries.

Looking for a place to stay? The Krasnapolsky is located in a safe neighborhood a block and a half from the Neve Shalom Synagogue. It has internet access and a helpful staff. The airport is quite a ways outside of Paramaribo, so you will want to arrange ahead of time with the hotel for transportation. Across the street from Krasnapolsky is a wonderful bookshop that has a wide range of English titles. Take a look at Cynthia McLeod's novel The High Price of Sugar: it's about the Jewish colonist families in Suriname.

If you keep kosher, you may want to inquire with the synagogue about renting the Shabbos apartment that has a kitchen. You'll also want to bring lots of packaged goods with you: fresh fruits and vegetables are easy to get, but many of the imported items at the local stores are from Asia, not the United States, and items with hechshers aren't as easy to buy here as in other parts of the Caribbean.

If you stay in Paramaribo, you will want plan to spend a day to traveling downriver by boat to the ruins of Jodensavanne, or "Jew's Savannah." This was the location of one of the earliest Jewish settlements in the Americas and was once a thriving plantation community. The site has been excavated by the Jodensavanne Foundation and the cemetery and synagogue ruins are easily accessible. The travel agency on the first floor of the Krasnapolsky can help you arrange a trip with a reliable guide.

Getting to Suriname isn't easy: flights are infrequent from the United States, and if you haven't traveled recently in the tropics you will need to get vaccinated (particularly if you plan to go to Jodensavanne). Suriname also requires a visa, even for Americans. The application form has a few surprises. Also be careful if you plan to change planes in Trinidad/Tobago: they are very strict about the amount of time they require for transfers and have no problems with keeping visitors an extra day as a penalty for "illegal transfers."

All of these hurdles are worth it: the Jewish community of Suriname is friendly and the trip to Jodensavanne is haunting. Read more about the Jewish community of Suriname in their own words.


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