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Deep in the jungle of Suriname.

The high-winged, twin-engine aircraft took off from Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, a tropical country located on the northeast shoulder of South America.

A few miles south of Paramaribo the roads sputtered out and the rain forest began. Tracts of unbroken jungle rolled on and on like a dense, leafy sea, cut by the paper-thin edge of an occasional tawny-colored river.

If we went down, I thought--looking out the window at the solid green carpet--they'd never find us. And even if they did find us, how would they pull us out of that ferocious jungle?

The flight took us across a bank of towering white clouds toward a cluster of shadowy mountains in the heart of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve--"the most pristine, tropical, protected area in the world," according to wilderness parks expert Jim Thorsell. The park was dedicated in December 2000, and is on the World Heritage list of cultural and natural treasures.

An hour later, the plane drifted down toward a tiny slit gouged out of the trees. And then we were below the top of the jungle canopy, still descending, the wingtips practically brushing the branches and leaves.

The wheels touched, bounced up and touched down again. The pilot reversed the props. The engines howled in protest. With an audible shifting of passengers and boxes of supplies, we jolted to a stop.

I was with a party of eight Dutch tourists, mostly middle-aged, eager to experience the taste of an authentic, world-class rain forest in Suriname, a country that is 63,000 square miles, four times the landmass of the Netherlands, which ruled it as a colony from 1650 to 1975.

The group was a jolly lot, full of laughter and curiosity. We slept in bunks under gauzy veils of mosquito netting in an open-air cabana amid a medley of soothing jungle sounds punctuated by piercing shrieks.

Our first morning a mild breeze wafted through the cabana. Red howler monkeys roared in the distance. Their high-volume vocalizations, which sound like a steady cataract of rushing water, can carry a half-mile or more through the forest.

Two hours later, we trailed single file through the forest under the watchful eye of Donovan Waterberg, the young, articulate, personable guide for the Foundation for Nature Conservation in Suriname. It was dark and gloomy at the bottom of the deep tropical forest; splintered shafts of sunlight drizzled down through the muffling foliage to light up the leaf duff littering the dank, humid floor.

We were immured in the depths of one of the world's great jungles. The silence this far down, maybe a hundred feet below the canopy, was mesmerizing.

We passed the opening to the lair of a giant armadillo that yawned between the buttress-like roots of a stately ficus tree. A troop of squirrel monkeys chattered through the trees; squabbles between males over the favors of certain females often result in nasty disfigurements--scars, missing toes and tails.

Four miles later we paused at the foot of the Voltzburg sugar loaf, a monolith that rises 1,000 feet out of the Guyana Shield, a dark, gritty expanse of granite rock, the oldest (over a billion years) geological formation in South America. The climb was steep, along a path of loose stones and then across a series of bare rock slabs baked by the midday sun.

The view from the summit over the rippling tree canopy was impressive. The upper parts of the canopy were drenched in sunlight; it's here where the foliage is thickest that the majority of birds and animals range, not down on the floor where the sun rarely penetrates and the air seems to hold its breath like a whale at the bottom of the sea.

We arrived back at our camp on Foengoe Island around 5. Everyone was exhausted; several of us struggled into swimsuits and immersed ourselves in the Coppename River. It was the end of the dry season, and the water was down; big boulders, broken off from the Guyana Shield, lay exposed like the backs of basking hippos.

A flock of black vultures landed on the nearby rocks and gazed mournfully at us. The water was dark from the tannic that leaches out from the heavy carpet of leaves covering the jungle floor.

The dip was refreshing. Little fish nibbled at our flesh. I had heard something about fresh-water piranha, but nobody told us not to, so into the water with the wide-eyed innocence of children we went.

That evening, Jolly Schuringa, a Dutch visitor, said to me: "It's difficult even when placed in this wilderness for us civilized types to let the real thing in. Especially those of us who were first exposed to nature by Walt Disney films. And yet we're still basically animals, and we ought to be able to revert back to what we once were. But it seems to be getting harder and harder."

By 6:30 it was totally dark. There's virtually no evening in these leafy depths. The light drains from the sky like water through a sieve.

Three days later, after a trip lasting six hours, we reached the nearest road, riding down the Coppename River in gaudily painted, 20-foot plank-board pirogues powered by outboard motors. The riverbanks were solidly massed with dense green trees and creepers.

We saw herons, fish hawks, white egrets, caracaras, alligators and the phlegmatic black vulture. No sign of human habitation, not a hint, till we reached the village of Witagron and the bridge spanning the river.

English planters from Barbados first settled in Suriname in the 1650s. The Dutch declared an interest in the region and sent out a military expedition to salvage what they could. A treaty was eventually signed in which the Dutch swapped their colony in New Amsterdam (New York) with the English in return for an interest in a stretch of hot, flat, malarial lowland on the northeast slope of the South American coast.

The Dutch constructed dikes, slips, locks and irrigation canals, and soon were the proprietors of booming sugar cane and coconut plantations. At the peak of the colonial economy in the 18th century, there were nearly 600 plantations in Suriname.

I arrived by bicycle at the Fredericksdorp Hotel early in the afternoon after taking a ferry from Paramaribo across the Suriname River to a nearby landing site and pedaling the rest of the way. The population of Suriname is made up of a polyglot mass of ethnic enclaves--Creole, Bush Negro, Maroon, Amerindian, Muslim, Hindustani, Chinese and Javanese (from Indonesia).

I passed the thatched-roof cottages of a Javanese farm settlement and sat out a drenching rainstorm under the canopy of a storefront run by a Hindu family. The Atlantic Ocean slapped and purled against the coastline a few miles away; between rainsqualls, the sun beat down like a mallet.

At one point, my bike slipped off the muddy tracks and I did a header over the handlebars, landing at the edge of an irrigation ditch. A kindly Javanese man walking barefoot through the muck helped pick me up and clean the mud off the bicycle. With nothing damaged but my pride, I swung back on the machine and rode off.

Fredericksdorp, a former plantation site, consisted of several white frame buildings mounted on stilts with wide balconies, dormer windows, and steeply pitched roofs. The food was good. The beer was cold. Parties of Dutch people came and went through the long, slow afternoon between downpours of rain.

That evening I stood on the landing site of the old plantation, watching the huge, wide sky over the Cottica River flush through a spectrum of pastel colors.

The curious four-eyed fish I'd seen everywhere in Suriname flopped against the mangrove-dotted bank. The fish was equipped with two pairs of eyes, upper and lower, one pair for the water, the other for the air.

This close to the coastline, the air and water seemed to be siphoned from equal parts of the same solution. The river frothed and bubbled on the sweep of an outgoing tide.

My perch on the jetty sticking out from the steep bank made me feel detached from earthly concerns. Flatlands by their minimalist profiles suggest a hint of the infinite, and nowhere more than on this low, brooding coastline, where the arterial flow from a host of sluggish rivers rising in the interior merges a mile or two from this spot with the majesty of the ocean.

[Conger Beasley Jr. is a novelist and travel writer who lives in St. Joseph, Mo.]
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Title Annotation:DESTINATIONS
Author:Beasley, Conger
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:3SURI
Date:Apr 15, 2005
Words:1423
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