Essay: Spicy Tamarind Balls and Scarlet Ibises
A journey through past and present in a South American ghost town
Another run-down house. “Pole 1, pole 2, pole 3”. These poles represent the passing of different kilometres on the road. My father and I sat in the car avidly searching for and pointing them out. Some were visible, some had fallen while others were simply degraded and gone.
We were in Coronie.
My father sat in the passenger seat in the front while my mother drove as were had gone on an impromptu road trip.
I felt like a child again as I sat in the backseat of the car. No one to my left or right. It was an uncomfortable position.
We were 3 hours out of the capital city of Paramaribo to explore and get a glimpse of the sea. Upon entering the city, rather the district, though I don’t think it can qualify for either of those definitions — more like a village. If that. We found something that was profoundly unexpected.
Kilometre marker by Kilometre marker. Pole by Pole. There was nothing but desolation followed by more desolation. It felt almost like a ghost town. The last remains of a bygone era.
Once in a while, we see some street vendors selling produce at the side of the road, and I ask myself,
“To whom do they sell? There’s no one here”.
We pass house by house. Land lot by land lot. Most are downtrodden, with overgrown grass, unkempt bushes, and trees growing wherever they please.
Coronie is a district in Suriname, around 150 kilometre drive west from Paramaribo. It started out as a district (you may call the same thing a state or province where you reside) around the year 1800. At this time, the Scottish were in charge of the district as Britain had colonised the country, Cotton and sugar were the prime crops for the plantation owners at that time. Many of the Scottish came to Coronie from Grenada bringing slaves along with them. They left the district of Nickerie, due to attacks from the Marrons. The slaves who ran away from the plantations (?). Between 1801 and 1873, there were 16 plantations all under the control of the English and the Scottish. Plantations within the district are named Totness (the centre of life in the district), Burnside, and Bantaskine. Also, the citizens of Coronie — those with a history in the district often have last names like MacDonald, MacAndrew, and MacLean.
At the end of slavery in Suriname in 1873, many of the former slaves bought the plantations off of their former masters as most of them left the country. These are mostly the identical houses and land lots that I was passing. We stopped at one land lot to meet a friend of my father; in doing so saw one of the few remaining lots being utilised.
Agriculture is the main economic industry in Suriname you see. As a consequence, a lot of farms would spur economic growth within the country. However, as we stood on this one particular plot of land. Everything around it was simply an endless amount of greenery. Mostly not for agricultural purposes, however, just nature at work.
I recalled when I landed in the country and saw a banner at the airport, “94% greenery” or forest, or something of the sort it said. After doing some Google searches, I have found it to be 93% and the most forested country in the world. Suriname shares that top 10 list with countries like Panama, Colombia, Belize, and Guyana.
All are considered the Lungs of the Earth, or something like that, and all are also considered by many in the economic community to be some of the poorest countries in the world.
On our drive, we continued to see barren land often with no sign of life. Here and there, there was the odd collection of huts with a few families standing outside. However, then we arrived at a Catholic church. What immediately struck me about the church was it was far too big for Coronie. The church’s halls could easily fit 300 people and were decorated with splendid paintings on all of the walls telling the story of Jesus. As we entered, we heard rap music before we met a man. Unfortunately, I couldn’t catch his name.
He was a carpenter who was doing some routine work in the church fixing up some furniture. Some of the benches from what I can recall. Intrigued, we asked how many people came to the church. He himself did not come to church, but he was told it was not many. My father told him that this church was built prior to the building of the cathedral, now basilica in Paramaribo.
Sort of like a practice round. I mean if something goes wrong, it’s just Coronie.
The man had no idea, and honestly, he told me earlier in the car. I was also none the wiser. My mother did, however, remembered the church from a prior visit. And had had fond memories of the last time she’d been here.
We tried to find the plaque of the church, to find out some history behind it, but we found nothing besides a statue of Jesus that stood in between the church and rectory. Of the many things we saw, these two may have been the best kept of the bunch.
When we got back in the car, continuing down the main road, we got to the lodge. The lodge used to function as a hotel for people that would come to visit the district for business or just for vacation but it was clearly in ruins.
My mother asks my father if he can remember when last they stayed here. He doesn’t at first. Guess the memory is going. A long time ago, my family had come to Coronie (prior to my being born). My cousin was a young boy at the time. And once while playing in the water saw a specific fish in the waters. She doesn’t remember the exact fish but remembers how he kept them up all night due to his being afraid of night terrors. All that remains of the lodge now, is empty broken-down rubble. I stand in front of the lodge dreaming of what it used to be.
Many many years earlier. The parties the building saw. The epic conversations. The many many rotating guests. How proud the people of Coronie must’ve been of themselves and what they made of themselves. They had literally pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
And now, it’s just gone. An empty husk simply filled with memories. On the verge of falling apart. Next to the lodge is the “EBG kerk”. The Moravian church as it were. As we stood in front of the church, a woman approached us. She told us about how the church had come to the state it was in.
The church was completely dilapidated, with shutters on the many windows. Paint was peeling off of the window sills as well as the paint of the walls which were painted white. But clearly had seen some better years. There were black spots all over the building, and the door was also in the process of falling apart.
The woman described how there was no money to renovate so what were they to do? No money to give it a simple paint job. She tells of how one of the pastors who used to teach at the church, one day took the money from the church and ran. Never to be seen again.
Presumably to the city. All of the money stays in the city, while the churches on the outskirts of the city struggle to even receive a simple paint job. This is a problem throughout the entire country. There is no proper division of wealth or resources by the government. What are people supposed to do? At some point, she tells us she fundraised money to do simple maintenance work.
As a lifelong Coroniaan, she has lived in the city her whole life and has in that time only seen people leave. To the city, to the Netherlands, to America. Never to be seen in Coronie again. However, in a manner of paradox, they refuse to sell their land. Wherever they are unless exorbitant prices are offered. They live their lives elsewhere but prevent the growth of a city. Preventing lives from being lived here. Yet, they’ll never return. Most leave, knowing they’ll never return only to tell their new friends wherever they may be, about their history in Coronie. Most likely just to seem interesting.
As we look across from the lodge, there’s the supermarket. The only one I’ve seen so far. A sign displays “Totness”. The Cultural Centre of the district. The only culture left was a supermarket and some street vendors. The first vendor we go to like most vendors was a master saleswoman. You have to be right? If that’s how you are making you’re living. She had all things coconut. Coconut cakes. Coconut cookies. Coconut oil. Coconut water. It’s overtaken cotton, rice, and sugar as the crop of the district nowadays. She also had tamarind balls.
Spicy tamarind balls. So spicy my parents could barely even eat them. They later remarked that she must have a pepper tree right next to her tamarind tree for them to get that spicy.
I used to eat tamarind pulp daily. I used to go to a school where we had a plethora of tamarind trees. So every school break, we would eat our own lunch and then eat tamarind pulp. Sometimes we’d even skip our lunch.
We had finally made it to the reason why we’d come to Coronie in the first place. The ocean. Ironically I’d never been to the ocean in my own country before. The ocean in Coronie is muddier and there is not really a beach, more of a collection of marshland and swamps, but I wanted to see it anyway.
In the past, they never built harbours or ports because the ocean floor was far too muddy for big ships to come in to dock. However, smaller boats would still come in and out of Coronie by way of the creeks that run-up to the various plantations to deliver and pick up products from the plantations. Back then it was also used to transport slaves to the plantations and ironically, the slaves used those same creeks to escape those same plantations. Now, there was a deck, still not big enough for big ships but something nonetheless. There was also a dam. Made to protect the rice fields of the district from the rising water levels. A few months before we had come, a part of the dam had broken which had caused water to overwhelm much of the district’s houses and land lots. However, the situation seemed now to be under control. But an everchanging climate change landscape exists here in an old Scottish colony.
In the distance, I spotted a bird in the marshlands. As my parents explored the specifics of fish prices and their origins with some fish vendors, I walked over to the bird. It was a scarlet ibis. The national bird of Trinidad. As I examined the bird from afar. I remembered the short story by James Hurst, “The Scarlet Ibis”. And I thought about how just like Doodle had died in the pouring rain, how Coronie had come to become a ghost town. How many had died to build it up, only to now see it from the grave in complete desolation?
I thought about how hopeful they must’ve been. About the future. About their kid’s futures and the kids kids’ futures. How bleak it now all seemed.
As we sauntered to the seaside, I thought about the past and the future. Still hopeful about what could be. How the dam was protecting Coronie from the natural elements that could take it apart in seconds probably if anything went awry. Water ripped the sides of the small dock, as a group of young adults gathered at the base of it. Playing music and having a picnic, like one does at a “regular” beach. To most of them, this was all they knew and would ever know. I have a love-hate relationship with the ocean. I love it for its vastness but am afraid of it for the same reason. The ocean is a place of wonder and mystery, and for most of history if anyone was “lost at sea”, they were never to be seen again.
As we started to leave Coronie, we had one final stop. An acquaintance of my parents. One that grew up in Coronie, left and then came back years later. He was now in the business of coconuts. He recalled what the district was back when he left and how even then he saw the demise in its future. However, it has become far worse. And has completely disintegrated. There is a complete lack of jobs which has led to a lack of will to work. There is also no land nor houses for them to work on or live in, so most are forced into leaving the district. The district has so many opportunities in agriculture if there was only some investment. The government is by far the biggest employer in the country. Employing around 50% of the workforce, yet there is no investment in people or education but only job offers. Job offers often don’t help the country move forward. Job offers that don’t provide a liveable wage for many. But what do you do when that is your only option? Where to go? We walk his land and see its vastness. Coconut trees, cherry trees, and orange trees all around us.
As we drive out of the district, I think about the vibrant and harsh lives that people lived in the bygone eras. How proud they must’ve been to buy their land from their masters only for their district to descend into a ghost town.
I eat a tamarind ball and remain hopeful for a better future.