Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Suriname
Mail typically takes three weeks to a month to travel between the United States and Suriname by air. A package sent by surface mail can take up to six months to arrive.
Mail for Peace Corps/Suriname is received at a post office box in Paramaribo. During pre-service training, your mail will be picked up and delivered by staff to your training site once a week. Once training is completed, mail is picked up by Peace Corps staff at the central post office and distributed to Volunteers’ mailboxes in the Peace Corps office in Paramaribo. Volunteers are encouraged to establish networks in their communities to facilitate receiving mail directly at their sites. This may involve making arrangements with a teacher, counterpart, colleague, missionary, medical worker, or villager who travels to the capital regularly and agrees to pick up your mail for you. The alternative is to retrieve your mail from the Peace Corps office yourself.
Your mailing address will be:
“Your Name” itant is so very inmport
P.O. Box 9500
Mail can be sent from the central post office (Surpost) in Paramaribo, satellite post offices in districts, or a few stores in the capital. Packages to the United States can only be mailed from one post office located two kilometers from the Peace Corps office in Paramaribo.
Peace Corps regulations prohibit Volunteers from accepting gifts of property, money, or voluntary services directly. Such gifts can cause confusion about the role of the Volunteer, who might be perceived as a facilitator of goods and funds, rather than as a person who is working to build a community’s capacity to identify local resources. You are not permitted to solicit materials or funds for your community during your first six months at site so that you have time to integrate into the community and help members identify possible projects. To ensure that any request for funding or donations is appropriate for your project and your community, you must have prior authorization from your program manager and the country director.
Public telephones are available in the capital city and surrounding suburbs. To make a call from a land-line phone, you will need to purchase a telephone card. Telephone cards are readily available in small corner stores, at gas stations, and at any of the Telesur offices in Paramaribo. It is possible to place international calls using these cards.
Some villages in the interior of the country have telephone service, usually one phone at a local store that serves the entire village. Other villages have only high-frequency radios for communication. Because the possibilities of making calls from the interior are so limited, most Volunteers call home when they are in the capital!
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Three computers are available for Volunteers’ project-related work at the Peace Corps office in Paramaribo. Volunteers have initiated a sign-up system to ensure that those who wish to use the computers have equal access.
Internet connections in Suriname are not as fast as what you may be used to in the United States. Connections are typically slower in the afternoon, when people leave work or school and head for one of the many Internet cafés in Paramaribo. Prices are reasonable ($1.50 to $2 per half-hour). Funds for Internet fees are included in your living allowance. Most Volunteers do not have Internet or e-mail access in their communities. Some Volunteers bring a laptop (or have it sent to them), however, it is not encouraged since not all sites in the interior have reliable electricity.
Housing and Site Location
Trainees are placed with a host family for most of pre-service training. After swearing-in as Volunteers, they typically live in their own homes within their communities. Volunteers are located at sites in the interior, in districts or in the capital.
The sites in the interior are along the Suriname and Marowijne rivers or in the savanna region. Interior villages often do not have running water or electricity, or have those services for a limited number of hours each day. Houses are rustic, consisting of a thatch or tin roof and wood-plank walls.
Because villages are asked to furnish housing for Volunteers, the size, condition, and style of housing can vary widely. A few sites are located in the southern part of the country. The houses in the far south generally have zinc roofs, running water, and electricity.
Some Volunteers are placed in District sites best characterized as small towns; or they may work in the capital city, Paramaribo. Volunteers living in these areas generally have access to running water and electricity day and night and other conveniences.
Living Allowance and Money Management
Volunteers receive a living allowance in the local currency (Suriname Dollars—SRD), which is deposited into a bank account in Paramaribo once every three months. Volunteers based outside of Paramaribo receive a transportation allowance, which pays for one trip to the capital per quarter. This allowance is also deposited into the bank account and is intended to cover one trip per quarter for Volunteers to come to the capital to take care of banking and other needs. Volunteers are responsible for the cost of additional trips. Volunteers who need to pay rent also receive a housing allowance.
It is important to manage your money so that it lasts for the entire three months. Setting up a system of budgeting will be important. The living allowance is determined by annual market surveys to ensure the amount is sufficient to meet basic expenses. In the interior, there is little to spend money on other than food and beverages. However, things tend to be more expensive in the interior, so most Volunteers buy a supply of food to take to their sites when they are visiting the capital. Transportation between interior sites can be expensive. All Volunteers receive three additional allowances: a monthly vacation allowance; a one-time settling-in allowance to cover the initial expenses of furnishing a house or room and purchasing basic supplies; and a readjustment allowance of $225 set aside by the U.S. government for each month of service. Available to Volunteers upon completion of service, this allowance permits returning Volunteers to resettle in the United States without undue burden.
Volunteers are expected to live within the means of the living allowance. Peace Corps discourages use of outside funds brought or sent from home as it prevents you from living at the same level as the people in your community. You may, however, want to bring a small amount of money for travel in Suriname and surrounding countries during your vacation time. Very few places in Suriname accept credit cards, and those that do only accept American Express, MasterCard or Visa; likewise, a few ATMs accept major credit cards. Bank fees between 1 percent and 5 percent are not uncommon when using a credit card in Suriname.
Food and Diet
Because of the diversity of cultures represented in Suriname, there is a variety of food options. In rural villages, rice is a staple of the diet. Meals usually consist of a large quantity of rice served with a small piece of meat and a small serving of vegetables. Most people in the interior also grow their own cassavas and other vegetables to sell at markets. Volunteers are encouraged to plant their own gardens for a steady supply of fresh vegetables.
Vegetarians can maintain a healthy diet in Suriname. Adequate levels of protein are available locally in texturized vegetable protein products, and in a variety of beans, lentils, and nuts. Many vegetarians find that the greatest difficulty lies in explaining vegetarianism to members of their community, where meat is highly valued and served at many social gatherings.
Learning to prepare local cuisine can be rewarding. Suriname has many of the spices and ingredients needed to prepare the foods you are accustomed to in the United States. Chinese, Indonesian, Creole, Indian, and American food is available at restaurants in the capital.
Most Surinamese in the city and district use public transportation, usually small buses that accommodate 15 to 26 people. These buses run on regular routes and are regulated by the government. Each route has a name or number and an established fare (generally 1 SRD to 2 SRD). After 9 p.m., fares increase and some routes are not available. Most Volunteers rely on buses. There are also several reputable taxi companies.
Roads to the interior are dirt and bauxite and receive little maintenance. During the rainy seasons, mud holes and erosion are common. In the dry seasons, roads become dusty washboards. Travel on rural roads can be rough, to say the least.
Most Volunteers make a portion of the journey to their sites in mini-vans or “DAF trucks.” DAF trucks are essentially semitrailers filled with old airline seats or wooden benches. The ride is rarely comfortable, and the trucks are typically filled to capacity with people and their cargo. Some Volunteers must then transfer to a dugout canoe or a small airplane from the DAF truck to reach their site. The average travel time from the capital to a Volunteer’s site is about six hours. For some, travel time may be twice that.
Peace Corps Volunteers are not permitted to operate any motorized vehicles or ride on the back of motorcycles or mopeds.
Part of the Volunteer settling-in allowance may be used to buy a locally appropriate form of transportation, whether that be a bicycle or a dugout canoe. Volunteers who purchase bicycles are given funds to buy bicycle helmets. Life vests are issued to those using boats for transportation. Helmets must be worn when riding a bicycle; a life vest must be worn whenever traveling on any waterway.
Geography and Climate
Suriname is in the tropics, and much of the country is covered in rainforest. Sites located in the savanna region are drier, but still experience high humidity. The average temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit with 80 percent humidity. During the dry seasons, temperatures climb higher and rain may not fall for up to three months. The rainy seasons provide a brief respite from the heat and bring a lot of moisture. Clothing is subject to mildew in the rainy seasons. The country’s red clay soil and mud from the roads will stain clothes.
Establishing relationships with members of your community is vital for almost every aspect of life as a Volunteer. Not only will you feel more connected, but the more community contact you have, the easier it will be to access information and resources to develop projects. Birthdays and local holidays are celebrated with food, dancing, and sometimes fireworks. Work parties provide social interaction, as does involvement in the daily activities of life. Men hunt and fish in small groups and work together on their farms. Women may share daily chores and wash together at the river.
In the capital, Volunteers enjoy spending time with their counterparts or fellow Volunteers at restaurants, pubs, or one of the few dance clubs. Nightlife is generally safe in groups.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
It is important for Volunteers to maintain a professional image within their communities and in the capital. The behavior of Volunteers reflects not only on the Peace Corps program and other Volunteers in Suriname but also on North Americans in general. Each Volunteer’s interaction with the public has an effect on current and future Volunteers in Suriname and helps to shape perceptions of North Americans. Professional attire is also required when coming to the Peace Corps office.
- Attire for men: In the capital at the work place, men dress in casual business attire: short-sleeved collared shirts, trousers, and closed-toe shoes. Male Volunteers are not permitted to wear earrings, nose rings, or other apparent piercings, even though some Surinamese men do. Nor are they permitted to display tattoos or wear long hair (including ponytails).
- Attire for women: Women’s attire tends to vary more, but skirts or slacks with a T-shirt or blouse and nice sandals or closed-toe shoes are common. Women rarely wear their hair loose, so bring some hair ties or clips. Some Volunteers spend most of their time in a village setting where attire may follow norms specific to that community. However, you should bring clothing appropriate for professional meetings and to wear while in the city. It is necessary to wear proper business attire when doing business in the capital city. Keep Suriname’s hot climate in mind when selecting business attire.
- Attire during training: Pre-service training will feature guest speakers and government officials. All trainees are expected to adhere to a professional dress code. Men should wear cotton trousers, a collared shirt and close-toed shoes. Women should wear skirts, dresses or cotton slacks (no jeans) with blouses or T-shirts. In all cases, clothes must be clean and well-maintained. Trainees should also bring one outfit appropriate for their formal swearing-in ceremony. (See the suggested packing list later in this book.)
The people of Suriname are generally friendly. Greetings are very important. Handshakes are appropriate for both men and women. In some settings, one is expected to greet each person at the gathering. When meeting someone for the first time, handshakes and names are exchanged, surname first. You will receive more information on Surinamese cultural norms during training.
Information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter. These issues cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as rich or well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Suriname. At the same time, you are expected to take primary responsibility for your own safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
The lack of infrastructure in Suriname, as in many developing countries, can cause frustration with travel, communications, and Volunteers’ ability to help their community complete tasks quickly. The pace of life in Suriname is slower than what you may be used to in the U.S. People do not follow strict times for meetings or gatherings. Functions may be canceled because of rain or some other seemingly minor reason. In Maroon communities, where people live close together, privacy is not a strong value. People here have a different sense of personal space and think nothing of touching what you may consider your personal belongings. In Amerindian villages, you may have more personal space and privacy, but you may also experience feelings of isolation. Houses are farther apart, and there is less emphasis on visiting daily with other members of the community. Members of both cultures are quick to observe physical characteristics and comment on them. Volunteers sometimes are the subject of comments such as, “You got fat!” or “You have a big butt!” In most cases, these comments are meant as a complement! Overall, Americans are well-received, but they are automatically viewed as wealthy. It is not uncommon to be asked for one’s possessions. All of these things can take a physical and emotional toll on Volunteers. On the other hand, Peace Corps Volunteers learn more about the local cultures than most other outsiders do. They also learn about themselves and their own culture. Being accepted into a community and culture, learning about differences, discovering commonalities, and sharing your knowledge while you learn from them make the frustrations worth it.
Peace Corps service offers you opportunities you may never find elsewhere. You are likely to leave the Peace Corps a stronger person than you ever thought you could be.