As those following this blog may have deduced, I’m not exactly a party animal. I like the occasional night out, dinner with friends, etc. But a lot of my free time is spent doing quiet, pajamas-are-appropriate-attire kinds of pursuits: reading, writing, painting.
But if anybody knows how to party, it’s the Surinamese. At no time is this more evident than around the New Year. Tradition here has it that the lighting of firecrackers (particularly long–and I do mean loooong–strings of crackers called pagara) will scare off evil spirits. Practicing this tactic at the turn of the year allows for the new calendar to begin on a zen-like note.
For us, this has meant a week of our neighbors firing off firecrackers at all hours of the night and day, in literal rain and shine alike. Ex-pats’ dogs, unused to the auditory barrage, are losing their minds. The percussion of these blasts is forceful enough to set off security alarms. And there’s always this thought: was that more fireworks? Or a gunshot?
Suriname’s concept of fireworks takes some adjusting to, at least for the American anticipating July 4th-style pageantry. Although some of our neighbors launched gloriously lovely fireworks as the clock struck midnight on December 31–big cascades of pink and green, gold and scarlet–most of the week’s pyrotechnics were of the pagara variety. These produce much smoke, paper shrapnel, and bang, but not much in the way of visual spectacle.
But what can be a bit jarring when conducted non-stop through a work week is loads more fun when it happens at Suriname’s New Year (or Owru Yari, in Surinamese) Festival. Starting at midnight on December 30th, police officers begin cordoning off streets, turning downtown Paramaribo into a pedestrian’s paradise. But this is just the beginning.
The day of the event, ice cream vendors peddle along the streets, offering tropical fruit ice creams alongside more traditional flavors like chocolate. A Parbo Bier–far and away the alcoholic drink of choice here in Suriname–can be purchased on any corner. The occasional dance/drum troupe winds their way throughout, putting on an incredible performance despite the blazing heat. Shredded red paper, the remnants of pagaras past, carpet the streets and sidewalks. Sooty firecracker smoke catches in hair, eyes, lungs. Infectious, rhythmic Caribbean tunes pound loud enough to re-calibrate your heart’s beat. Seemingly all of Paramaribo crowds onto these streets. Along with their uniforms of Owru Yari- and Suriname-themed finery, almost all attendants sport earplugs. Between the pagaras being constantly lit and the chest-rattlingly loud DJ-ed music, ear protection becomes the necessary accessory du jour.
A strange combination of club/party atmosphere and casual porch-sitting with friends, owru yari blends the relaxed and celebratory in a cocktail uniquely Surinamese. It’s easy to get caught up swaying to the music, to revel in the happy ease of it all. But there’s not much to do in a conventionally American-sense; so much of the pleasure of the event is in wandering the streets, people-watching and sipping a beer, celebrating with friends and soaking up the joyous atmosphere.
There’s something invigorating, though, in the way the Surinamese grab hold of all this celebration of the new year–the raucous bursting of the pagara, the flinging of red-ribbons of firecracker. Suriname doesn’t exactly share America’s safety-conscious culture. No one is legislating that fireworks be set off x-distance from residential buildings. No one is being forced back more than a few feet from the fizzing pagara, despite the many fragments flung (including the piece of unknown substance that wound up down the back of my dress).
Instead, it’s more of a no-holds-barred joy, an exuberant embracing of the upcoming year with wide-stretched arms. With a giddy, un-self-conscious excitement for what may come.
As someone who’s all-too-prone to let one year slide into another without much remarking–to see it as simply one more work week rolling into another, Owru Yari served as a reminder to stand still for an instant. To make that moment to appreciate it all: the importance of the year coming to a close, and the mysterious promise of the year now unfurling.
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