Photo: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

Taking More Notes, Fewer Photos

Suriname Travel
by Eileen Smith Jan 2, 2012
Step away from the tech.

THOUSANDS OF PICTURES, gone for now. As I’m waiting for my tech friend to try to save my Suriname pictures off my crashed hard drive, I feel like I can’t write. Photos sell (or at least accompany) a story, and at the moment, I’ve got no photos at all.

But during my trip, I spent a couple of days in a Maroon (escaped slave culture) village up the river from Atjoni, where I was frequently warned against photographing anything or anyone, without permission or at all. And during that time I took the best field notes I’ve ever taken, shutter button finger converted into pen-holding hand, digital media traded for an off-white steno notebook I had bought in Port of Spain, Trinidad. While I wait for my photos to (hopefully) be saved, I have to focus on those notes, and on what I saw, not what I snapped, in the village, and beyond.

I did not take a picture of the following in Pikin Slee:

A woman making cassava bread outside her home in the village, by sieving dried cassava pieces through a series of screens. She wanted 25 SRD (US $8) to take a picture of her. Though I carried my heavy DSLR, I didn’t take her purchased picture, thinking of how if a stranger came into my house and wanted to take a photo of me in my kitchen, I’d charge a lot more than $8. I later ate some cassava bread that someone brought over to the house where I was staying, and wondered if it was what she’d made. It was chewy and dry.

Kids in matching green plaid uniform shirts at the local school, drawing pictures in the dirt with the edge of a yardstick, and calling out the names in Dutch of what I’d drawn with a stick I found. I had to limit it to things I know how to say in Dutch, so when I drew a butterfly and they cheered “vlinder” I could exclaim back “soooooooo” (yes, like that!).

A group of three girls sitting on the stairs of a building while one of them used a large nail to punch strips of dark blue and green cotton cloth through a rectangular piece of plastic “burlap” sack. She tied them off, and showed us the front side. She was making a small rug.

A nineteen year old woman, braiding the hair of the guy who worked at the museum garden, after embarrassing him by asking how long it had been since he’d had his hair braided. Specifically, I did not take a picture of the moment when he lifted his long-fingered hand to the side of his head in the fuzzy generator-fed light on the porch as if to say, oh, it’s been a long time.

The pantsless 5-and-unders chewing on crayola-colored yellow-orange awarra (or tucuma, as they are known locally) palm nuts as a man cradled a nursling-aged-baby against his chest. The waxy fruit catches on the kids’ skin, in their gums above and below their teeth, and they stand there silently as I say “i weki no” as I’ve been instructed, the morning greeting in Saramaccans. In return, they say “bakala,” or “white person/foreigner,” as if I might have forgotten.

Not taking pictures on the road, in Nickerie and Paramaribo

Two men, each kneeling on a flip flop from their own bare foot, looking under a truck in need of repair, on a red earth road, while a man holds a baby wearing a disposable diaper, her hair pulled into four tufts around her head.

The hand of the Amerindian girl that fell onto my thigh as she dozed, fingers holding a sticky red lollipop on the bus to Atjoni, as she sat in the lap of the Maroon woman who seemed to be in charge of her. We were every age, from 7 to 70, and every color from milky peach to dark cocoa brown.

The bat crawling on the ground near where I stood in Nickerie, neither before nor after someone stomped on it, saying there are two things you must always kill in Suriname, mosquitoes and the fer-de-lance (a poisonous snake). Which did not explain why he stomped on the bat, and made me regret having pointed it out.

A Hindu crematorium with the stains of four different pyres along the seadike, in Nickerie, just several hundred meters before a smoldering junkyard and then a few km more before some of the most productive rice fields in the country.

A tall woman of Indian descent walking in a bright sari in purples and yellows holding an blue and green umbrella over her head as protection from the sun as she walked across the kirkplein (church plaza) and into the RBTT bank on the other side.

Taking a picture in my head

A quarter of a monkey (head, and half of the chest) that sat under a rounded dripping chunk of ice with air bubbles in it in the Maroon market in Paramaribo, to be sold as bush meat. Also not snapped: the leg of a deer-like animal, hoof still attached, laying in a metal pan beside the monkey fraction, nor the woman who sat selling them, looking at me to see if I’d take out my camera and shoot. She didn’t know I was taking a picture with my mind.

I took copious, handwritten notes on these and other things I saw, at times when taking out a camera would have been obtrusive, unwelcome, would have made me feel more other than even five-year-old, crayola-teethed children calling me “bakala” could. For years I have used the camera as a shortcut. It’s faster than writing things down, I tell myself. It will help me remember. Where I was, what I saw. But it can’t capture anything like this, written in Paramaribo after an afternoon cloudburst.

Rainstorm that comes with heat que atonta (that stupefies), lack of wind, grey skies, one cold fat drop and then shhhhh, like 1,000 TVs all on static. And it rained a stripey grey rain that pooled in the awnings and formed puddles we’d later hop over and the rain trapped the heat into our own awning cover and we sweated.

I won’t give up my camera. But I will take way more notes, and live secure in the bitless truth of writing, pen on paper. No backups, no snaps, no alienation. Just my scribblings and the pictures I have in my head.

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