The first time you see these animals," said the Dutch hunter, "you will run, not shoot. You must hold your dogs, or they will be killed."
"This snake is most bod," said the Bush Negro. "If you are shooting at him, he do not go away, but he come at you. He follow your boat to eat you."
"These nasty insects cover the floor of the jungle like a carpet," said the government geologist, "and they consume everything in their path. They can turn a dead horse into a pile of bones in a few hours." '
The Dutch hunter was talking about wild boars, the Bush Negro about water snakes and the government geologist about army ants. But all of them were talking about Surinam, formerly Dutch Guiana, a postage-stamp country on the northeast coast of South America and a new hunting-and-fishing frontier for those with plenty of cash and vast reserves of raw courage. Going there is like seeing Mondo Cane and suddenly finding oneself in the middle of the screen looking out at the audience. One is surrounded by terrors, hardly any of which one will ever see. Thus, like the burglar who never comes in the night, the terrors are made more real than life.
The good people of Surinam are fond of telling about the Great White Hunter from the United States who arrived with his .357 Magnum and his 12-gauge Remington for an orgy of hunting. Sitting around the lobby of the Palace Hotel in Paramaribo, Surinam's capital city, the American was told about the scorpions and tarantulas, boa constrictors and anacondas, fer-de-lances and rattlesnakes, piranhas and crocodiles, and he suddenly lost all zest for the outdoors. Instead, he spent his two weeks in the hotel's casino playing the red while the black came up and casting nervous glances over his shoulder.
Henk van der Voet, a merchant of Paramaribo and an avid outdoorsman, tells of a fisherman who was trolling for the 200-pound tarpon in the Coesewijne River and, for personal and confidential reasons, asked to be put ashore. "We put him off on a log," the jolly Van der Voet recalls with gusto, "and immediately he began shouting, "Red ants! Red ants!' So we took him back on and looked for another tree. This time we put him ashore on a hive of bees, and we all had to go over the side."
The gay vacationland that abounds in such antic phenomena lies just north of the equator between pepper and rum: French Guiana, or Cayenne, to the east, and British Guiana, or Demerara, to the west. Offshore to the east is Devils Island, Ile du Diable, the infamous penal colony that France has shut down and would like to forget. At one time or another Surinam has belonged to the British (who gave it up in the deal for another dangerous place, New York), the Spaniards (who left little imprint), the French (whose mark may be seen in streets bearing such names as Divertissement and creeks called Marechal and Compagnie) and, eventually, the Dutch, who only recently granted the country full autonomy.
As a melting pot, there are few countries that rival it. Surinam has its own native Amerindians, dark and reddish in color except for some mysterious tribes said to be light and blue-eyed. It has Bush Negroes, or Djukas, descendants of African slaves who fled into the jungles from their Dutch masters. It has tens of thousands of Javanese and Hindus, brought in as contract laborers after the slaves took it on the lam. It has a large Chinese population and a nucleus of Europeans. The country glories in happy miscegenation; the Surinam flag has five stars, each denoting a different racial color: red for Amerindians, white for whites, black for Negroes, brown for Creoles and yellow for Asiatics, with an elliptical band tying them all together. The colors have bred and interbred, and the result of all this vigorous hybridization is a handsome group of people. One sees tall, lithe men with coppery skin, neatly cropped black hair and the slightest trace of a slant to their blue eyes, and caf�-au-lait women with long black hair, heavily accented Asian eyes and the provocative hip-wiggle of Piccadilly Circus: Suzie Wongs in their wild state. All of them speak Dutch ("Put a hot potato in your mouth and talk fast and you will be talking Dutch," says Government Official Herman van Eyck). All of them also speak Takitaki, a conglomerate native language made up of English, African, Spanish, Dutch, Hindi and imagination. And most of them speak English.
For the sporting visitor from North America the lure of Surinam is the interior, a wondrously unexplored region of jungle, rivers and open savannahs so receptive to life that there is hardly a type of flora or fauna that does not abound there. In temperate and arctic zones an animal's main problem is finding food, but in a torrid area like Surinam the problem is not to find food but to avoid becoming food. There are no homes for elderly tapirs in Surinam; death by old age is all but unknown in the jungle. The interior is full of animals that have to do impressions to stay alive. There is a frog that looks like a dead leaf, an insect that resembles a stick, a coral snake that is deadly and a cheap imitator that is nontoxic but enjoys wide respect because of its masquerade. There also are vampire bats and six-inch caterpillars covered with spines which secrete a fluid that can lay a man up for days. There are grasshoppers five inches long, toads the size of dinner plates, beetles as big as saucers and huge butterflies with metallic blue wings that flash in the sunlight. At dawn the army ants arise from their bivouacs and move across the forest floor like a corps of rapacious soldiers. Ahead of them, creeping and flying insects flutter and jump in useless attempts at escape. Inevitably, they are going to be caught and ripped asunder, and not even the defenses of such sinister creatures as the tarantula, the scorpion and the wolf spider are of any use against the creeping scourge. The naturalist Marston Bates recalled an invasion of army ants against a tropical laboratory. "We tried everything we could think of to stop them or at least to make them change their course," Bates wrote, "but to no avail. The ants poured on in their tens of thousands, swept through our snake pit and left us with a collection of bare skeletons."
In Surinam life crawls upon life. Termites build large bulb-shaped housing units in trees. The seed of a strangler fig comes to rest high in a tree, puts roots all the way down to the ground and takes over like a grasping mother-in-law. At last the host tree is smothered to death, and the strangler fig stands alone. Patches of water hyacinth float down rivers, reverse themselves and come upstream on the steep incoming tide, and by this yo-yo process slowly inch their way to the sea, where they join the other greenstuffs rotting offshore in a giant vegetable soup, making the coastline of Surinam totally uninviting except at the mouths of the biggest rivers. Bits of humus break off the river banks and begin the same march to the sea, picking up flowers and grasses en route, and slowly sink deeper into the water until they resemble floating gardens. Crocodiles lurk around them, and giant tarpon bask in their shade.