The tongue caught me by surprise

The man in the van didn’t seem to like what I was telling him. Then again, I didn’t like having to say it.

“Ja, zeker dat ik graag naar de hotel zou gaan, maar ik heb geen geld, ik kan je niet betalen!”


Travel underlines the privilege of being a native English speaker. Our marvelous collection of haphazard rules, speckled with exceptions like buttons trying to hold together the shreds and shrapnel of hundreds of years of linguistic recombination, adaptation, and contamination, yes English is a beautiful thing. (Even when you abuse it with sentences like that last one.) I am deeply grateful that it’s the world’s de facto second language. Sure, in Montenegro I needed charades and fragments of Italian, and at times I’ve wondered if Spanish was the only thing that got me through, but I never expected to be saved by the last of my linguistic flounderings.

Suriname Ministerie van justitie en politie

When I walked out of the adorably named Zorg en Hoop (Care and Hope) Airport in Paramaribo, Suriname, I told the four taxis waiting there, in English, “No thank you, my hotel is sending a shuttle.” They lingered a moment but soon left the tiny regional airfield to seek their fares elsewhere.


Miraculous modernity, my phone received email, which was good when the hotel sent me “Hello Mr. Tim, do you still need a pick-up at the airport?” I replied enthusiastically that yes please, I certainly still did. Thus began two hours without the shuttle arriving, calls that wouldn’t connect, emails that were never returned, and a growing desperation as I faced the fact that I was stranded in a reputedly dangerous country with no money, no phone, no taxis, and no one who knew my name or where I was, just the growing suspicion that I might be spending the night in the muddy parking lot.


Travel is fun. Plus: mosquitoes.Suriname license plate


But travel IS fun. Even when it sucks. I could hear a cluster of people speaking not a word of English, but something much more interesting. Thick Caribbean rhythms like toes in warm sand and a cool drink held in the hand, with the boisterous audacity of creole intonation bouncing around the walls. But it was even better than the accents made familiar by Jamaican and Bahamian voices.


Suriname is a former Dutch colony, so instead of English, this was the carefully structured language I associate with tidy canals, clean brick, and a glass of beer on the terrace, now frolicking through the expressive pauses, emotive sprints, and bombastic amplitude of Caribbean speech patterns. It was beautiful.


Suriname weird Dutch

Okay, but “and a gewoon goed new year” doesn’t make much sense in either language.

And it came in handy with the man in the van, after I told him, in suddenly crucial Dutch vocabulary, that I’d gladly go to the hotel but I didn’t have any money to pay him. He answered “Ik kan je eerste naar een cambio meenemen, dan naar de hotel.”


Oh, there’s a currency exchange on the way to the hotel? Let’s go then. But can I ask one more favor? Can we speak Surinamese Dutch the whole time? Because it’s making this utter klotezooi of a travel mishap moment wonderfully worthwhile.


Happy travels!