I have always been a bit of a geography nut—especially since in my senior year of high school, rather than taking the dreaded Spanish literature class, which would have gone a long way towards my understanding of Latin America, which is now stunted and incomplete—I took French. French, I tell you. With freshmen. Who’d never seen a six-part chart with verb endings on it in their life. And I sat next to this cool Hatian kid who spoke Kreyol and whose French accent beat the pants off of my teacher’s. French came pretty easily to me, and so I spent a ton of time reading and memorizing the map of the continent of Africa which hung at the front of the room, complete with political namings and renamings. To be honest, this has served me not particularly well, having never been anywhere in Africa, though on a couple of occasions I’ve met people from X country and known where it is, or have been able to say, oh, I used to have a student from there or Y neighboring country. Which strangely made the guy from Rwanda happy, because I think he was shocked that I knew it was near Burundi.
So what’s this about Surinam? Well unlike Marite, and millions of others who I have no way of getting in touch with, I don’t live in Africa, I live in South America. Which is much more petite and manageable, all things considered. (Mostly) unifying language, much smaller, fewer armed conflicts at the moment, etc. Plus, you know, I live here. It feels like home. Though there is no “typical” Latin American place, and even if there were, Santiago wouldn’t be it, Latin America feels homey. And I like the idea that no matter where I go I could basically walk back if I needed to.
Santiago is quite big, sprawling over more than 641 km sq (248 m sq) and with a population of six million, which is more than triple what it had in 1960. The city is continually growing up and out, limited by geographic features such as the Andes, and the provision of water and other utilities in the outer reaches. There are streets upon streets, and even neighborhoods where names have been eschewed, in favor of numbers (which are often not sequential). In tooling around the city by bike, foot and bus in recent years, I’ve noticed that many streets are named after countries. There’s Estados Unidos, right beside Parque Forestal where the jugglers and people shimmying up long strips of cloth into the trees share space with spaced out drummers and street vendors on Sundays. There’s a street called Chile, and another one called Chile-España, an Argentina, a Mexico, a Bolivia and a whole neighborhood with a quirky plaza named after Brazil (where I happen to live). Soon enough, the idea developed to build a day around snapping photos of the street signs for the South American countries, or if that proved too easy, all of the Americas.
I had a minor stumbling block with Guyana and French Guyana, as there’s just one street called Guyanas, which seemed wholly unfair. But I thought it was tenable, and would not be stopped. I was going strong, listing the streets, indexing the maps in my trusty city guide or finding them online when I hit a major stumbling block. The alphabetical listings of street names go straight from Sur oriente to Surire. There is no Surinam. How could there be no Surinam? It’s not far-flung, we could get there by bus (though it would take a while). Who do I complain to about this?
And also, who do I thank? Because some of the places I was going to have to go to take the pictures are one-block-long, one-way, dead-end streets in the middle of neighborhoods where a girl on her bike with a camera have no business, no business at all. So no Surinam. Also no photo projects. Rats. Think I’ll drink more coffee, product of Brazil.