Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Travel Diary ~ Cruising Around Curacao

Curacao is an island with a lot of blonds. Dutch blonds. I’ll bet you don’t even know where it is. There are a string of Dutch connected islands down through the Caribbean ending with Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire in a row just 30 some miles off the Venezuelan coast. I was in Aruba last year and it was wholly dedicated to the American tourist industry, large hotels and a mass of North American clientele.

Curacao is quite different. Similar in shape to Aruba… long, skinny; some 37 miles by eight… but tourism is not its principal business. Its large harbor destined it to become an oil refinery center where Shell Oil brought Venezuelan oil to be refined and then shipped to other countries. Tourism is fourth in importance in the islands business scheme.

This has left Willemstad, the capital, relatively untouched. There is one perhaps eight-story hotel in the middle of the old fort and that is it for height. All other hotels are in old buildings and only a few stories high. Willemstad retains its many different colored buildings along the wide channel that leads to the bay. All of them built several hundred years ago; this is the traditional Holland of “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates” except that the channel is never going to freeze over. It is mucho hot in Curacao.

I arrived on Curacao about 3:00 p.m.; a short two hour and a half flight from Miami, The same length flight as the one to New York. Mr. C. had arrived via Panama about noon. Driving in from the airport we soared high over Willemstad and the entry channel to the bay on a very high bridge. Built very high to let the gigantic tankers passing into the bay clear beneath. Down below I could see the peaked gables and bright pastels of the houses lining the channel. Really charming, really “another time”, nothing like any other Caribbean island I had seen.

Arriving at the Hotel Avila I found an old yellow mansion, the former Governor’s residence. Larger additions stand on either side but the old mansion remains intact. This is where Simon Bolivar, the great South American liberator, stayed when in exile.
This part of Willemstad is where the city first pushed outside the old protected walls. Onto a slip of land that stood between the Caribbean and the bay. On the sea side the hotel built a promontory and a long pier crossing it like a ‘T.” This created two small semi-circle bays, which have been filled with sand to create beaches. On the end of the promontory is a nightclub called The Blues. The two beaches, quite small, are filled with Dutch burgers.
The other guests were almost 100% from Holland. Upper middle class people divided between honeymooners and young couples with small children and an older group of 50 to 60 year olds. The women wore not revealing two-piece bikinis. The men wore the quite brief trunks we all wore some fifty years ago. Only some of the really young boys wore long, flappy trunks that are now always worn on American beaches by men.
The Dutch have better bodies than Americans. None of the older men were very overweight; the younger men were all very trim. Again in the style of the 1950’s. No gym built bodies here. There were a couple of married men showing off good-looking athletic bodies but it made me wonder, “Who for?” Everyone at Hotel Avila was going to sleep with the person they came with. Looking about me I wondered, “Is there an upper class in Holland, or is this it?” It’s hard to imagine the Dutch as big-spending, country-hopping, nightclub-dwelling people. I had another thought looking at, for the most part, good-looking women. “English women never know what to do with their hair. Dutch women know but think it would be in bad taste to do it.” A very conservative culture. Everyone there could easily have been at a hotel in the 1950’s.

I was struck by how young some of the honeymooners were. Very early 20’s, perhaps younger. When my oldest brother married immediately out of the Naval Academy he was 22 and his bride was 19. No one lived together before they were married. These young people seemed similar. For the first time I realized how slightly embarrassing it might be to be a very young newlywed bride and everyone looking at you and thinking you have just lost your virginity. Here in Curacao one thought of these things. Thoughts that would never come up back in the United States where people marry AFTER they have had several children.

Our first night we ate at the hotel. The next day we ventured forth into the capital, Willemstad. The greeter at the hotel said it was about a ten-minute walk into the heart of town. As we sauntered along it certainly took more than half an hour.

Lining the way along Perstraat were many charming small tile-roofed houses in the varying states of decay. Directly across from the hotel was one I wanted to buy immediately. “Charm!” it screamed.
Along the way were many other houses in various stages of renovation and redecoration. The small Dutch buildings were being repainted in turquoise, with white trim, bright yellow, baby blue, lavender, you name it.

The light in Curacao is very brilliant. The trees are vividly green, the sea a sharp and strong blue. The sidewalks, a disaster of narrow and broken tiles, made walking difficult. Watch your step!

Between two buildings down a narrow alley I suddenly saw the ocean. Waves were breaking right at the end of the little passage. Really, Truly amazing. At the end of the little walkway the waves were cresting and tossing their foam. We walked down and saw that the houses on each side were built right to the edge of the rocky reef. No beach, no slope, no gradient. This was the edge of land. In stormy weather the waves must rise and break right into the walled courtyards behind each building. It was something I had never seen before, surrealistic and great.

In town we walked through a number of streets lined with cafes. In one were two older men looking like two rugged and ravaged sea captains. Large faces, rocky profiles, as though carved out of stone. It was impossible to imagine how they might have looked when they were young. These were faces one would never see in the United States.

At the end of the street we came upon an entrance to the bridge that crosses the channel to the other side of Willemstad. This side of the channel in Willemstad is called Punda, or point. Across the bridge is Otrobanda or other side. The bridge is called the Queen Emma Bridge and is supported by boats, leading it to rise and fall and move as one walks across it. At the Punda end a small attached house contains a bridge attendant who can detach the bridge and motor it out of the way for passing ships. We saw only smaller yachts being passed through but it must be amazing when it swings completely open, lines up with the other side of the channel and allows some giant ship through. Seen from a distance, the ships are taller than the buildings on either side.

This bridge is an amazing construction, another somewhat surreal aspect of Willemstad and Curacao. In a photo I saw later in a museum, cars were once allowed to cross. We crossed on foot with many others to the other side. We stopped for a snack at an outdoor restaurant and then proceeded to the Kura Hulanda museum, just up the short street going uphill. Kura Hulanda houses a collection of African sculpture and art collected by a wealthy Dutch businessman and placed here, as well as many artifacts left behind by slavery. The museum broke my heart. It has to be the saddest museum in the world. Curacao was a landing depot when slaves were brought from Africa. The Dutch were major importers of slaves and here in Curacao they were restored to health after a hellish sea voyage and then resold to Brazil and the United States who used slaves to a large degree, as well as other countries.

The museum is a circle of one-story buildings, the bulk of them with the artifact collection. They surround a large open courtyard where the slaves were assembled for sale. One building contains old engravings, slave irons and below floor level a reproduction of the hold of a slave ship. People were forced into spaces three feet high and sat with someone between their legs. They were unable to stand up or fully lie down. At no point is there an explanation of how they were fed or how they went to the toilet. Many died. They were handled as not even being as important as sheep or horses.

Human beings’ inability to consider other humans, let’s even say “living beings”, is horrifying. You keep asking yourself “How could they?” But they did, and they were Dutch.

In the engravings, too, one sees the cruel punishments of hangings, whippings, and slashings. An American soldier who joined forces in Surinam to control slave uprisings wrote about his experiences and there are engravings and quotes from his diaries in the museum. He wrote at one point “This awful treatment is necessary for the overall good.” The Catholic Church condoned slavery and many slave dealers quoted the Bible to justify their actions. So much for biblical quotations. I wonder what people who quote the Bible to confront gay rights would make of all this?

I, of course, have known of slavery and read about it at some length but when you come up against it with this physicality it’s staggering. Something like the German death camps in World War II. “How could they? How could they?”

After the museum we wandered down and through the Rif Fort on the point where this side of the channel meets the sea. From the fort there is another street leading to the waterfront where the tour ships come in. This street is lined with all the name shops from all over the world: Hilfiger, Swarovski, The Gap, shoes, clothes, jewelry, even a Starbucks--everything to entice that Yankee dollar. This is the international face one finds everywhere in the world. It was particularly strange and a little spooky here in this very unusual world.

We returned across the floating bridge, leaping to get aboard just as it was swinging out to let a boat through. Mr. C. tried to restrain me but I leapt across the gap and then he had to also. We shopped a bit on the narrow streets on the Punda side of the bridge. Narrow rectangular streets where we found the Ralph Lauren shop closed for Roshashana.

Back at the hotel we called the real estate agent whose number was on the “For Sale” sign on the small house across the way. It is part of a larger parcel of land with a second house on it and it was 1,700,000 gulders (or florins, you can use either name for local money), which is about $700,000. That’s a lot of moola! Curacao is already heading towards boomtown island status.

The agent had another small house for sale down the street so after eating at a nearby restaurant we set out to look for it. The desk at the hotel said it was about five minutes away. Oh, that Curacao sense of time. We walked for half an hour through a rather perilous neighborhood then asked a young man if we were headed in the right direction or not. He said it was about another half hour and offered to accompany us. We declined and returned to the hotel. It was dark and late and the streets were badly lit.

Saturday we walked into Willemstad to cross the little Wilhelmina bridge to the district of Scharlooweg (the great soaring bridge above the channel is called the Juliana Bridge. Bridges named for the last three queens of Holland. They have not had a king for three generations but now they do.) The Scharlooweg district was the Jewish quarter. Merchants were here very early on and they built large and beautiful homes now being restored. We were here to visit the Maritime Museum.

This too, is a very well done museum that recounts largely the period when Curacao was the base for Dutch “privateers.” Really pirates empowered by other nations to prey upon their enemies. Spain never allowed privateers under their governing system but hired ships from other countries to do their dirty work in the Caribbean. Unfortunately for them, other countries like England did too. Dutch privateers attacked the Spanish silver fleet one year, and captured it entirely to the tune of millions and millions of whatever they were carrying. The entire annual income of Spain coming from Mexico and the New World fell into their hands. England also had it’s own privateers such as Sir Francis Drake. He was ennobled by Queen Elizabeth and sailed the globe but was still a feared pirate to many.

The Dutch pirates were dramatic and dangerous beyond what we can imagine and here in Curacao they come alive. All this was at the same time the Dutch occupied that part of the Northern Hemisphere now New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York City. It was called New Amsterdam then. A period of great cruelty and killing on the part of the pirates as much testified to in the art and engravings in the Maritime Museum. Again, that side of the gentlemanly, calm Dutch never talked about but I suspect is still there.

Sobered again (these Dutch museums are tough) we returned across the little bridge to shop a bit. We passed by the Floating Market along the way. Here many boats are tied up selling fish, and, fruit, and vegetables. We stopped by Ralph Lauren, which was now open, and made some purchases. After this we took a taxi to buy some fishing equipment for Mr. C., his passion.

The taxi took us up into deep country, high over the Juliana Bridge and into the countryside. I suggested to Mr. C. that perhaps we were being kidnapped as we ventured further and further into the fields and narrow roads that finally led us to a distant country store. In the back was a low counter and endless arrays of fishing equipment. Mr. C. was in heaven.

Many gulders later we were returned to our hotel. Curacao is only 37 miles long and eight miles wide, true, but with it’s many lakes and lagoons, and bays it is complicated to get around. Our driver did know where he was going. After that we went to the gym, swam, ate an elaborate buffet at the hotel, and collapsed.

On Sunday Mr. C. tried out his fishing equipment on the piers in front of the hotel. We checked out places to fish and it turns out that the Avila and a sister hotel in town are the best seafront places for this kind of fishing. Mr. C. is quite content to stay here.

I lay supine in a beach chair all afternoon and Mr. C. flailed about on the piers manfully. Looking about I thought again how much like the 1950’s all these guests were in their general slenderness but not overly exercised looks. The woman also had waistlines and were curvier than women are in the United States. Those workouts tend to take away your curves. There was only one really fat person out there, a youngish man who was there with who I assumed was his mother. His thighs were gigantic.

Monday we manfully strode back into Willemstad. It was hot and we got pretty damp. We whirled through what must have been the outer wall of the original fort, now lined with restaurants. Surely to cater to the cruise ships when they come in and tie up in the nearby channel. The current governor’s mansion also here, was a big yellow and white edifice. Even though it was a small island and far flung, Curacao has some very impressive buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. When ships put in from other countries it must’ve been important to look large and authoritative.

Mr. C. wanted to revisit the floating market that lines the smaller channel leading to the eastward lagoon. By the time we got there most of the fish were sold and the markets were closing down.

Confirming my feeling that we were back in the 1950’s we discovered most of the stores had been closed the day before on Sunday, as well as the museums. We had done well to hang out at the hotel. We pursued and found some more fishing supply sources and did some shopping. I discovered that Mr. C. does not like sports shirts with broad horizontal stripes. (Perhaps he feels they make his broad shoulders look too broad?)

We ate on high stools on an outdoor terrace trying to catch the fitful breeze. It was very hot! We walked back to the hotel, went to the gym (I seem to be stronger and less given to fatigue here despite the heat.), swam and then there was some additional fishing out on the piers. Mr. C. continued to fish as the sunset and it got dark. A large tanker entered the channel in the distance. It passed dramatically in front of the sun as it set. Later storms brewed out to sea and there were flashes of lightning in the dark distance. The seas had been building all day and now waves were breaking over the piers and dripping into the lagoons on the other side. We were late getting to dinner in the really excellent restaurant down the street and then returned to pack.

Departure day Mr. C. began it early with another gym workout while I slept. We breakfasted and away to the airport. Mr. C. then departed for Panama on his way homeward. I returned a bit later to Miami.

A strange, beautiful place, Curacao. Beautiful in it’s bright light and heat and yet with the feeling of it’s past violence, a past that has not left entirely. A Dutch thing. Correctness on display everywhere, but underneath, what?

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