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The International Writers Magazine: Travel - Comment- Lifestyles - Fiction

Bon Bini Curacao
• Fred C Wilson 111

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
- Mark Twain.

Curacao, a constituent country since 2010, is the main island that comprise the autonomous three island chain known and the Netherlands Antilles; the ABC Island grouping of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. The Antilles is unique in many ways. I can’t think of few places where residents must be quad-lingual to get by. Years ago I thought of retiring there but was told I would have to acquire a working knowledge of Dutch, Spanish and Papiamento. For a guy who flunked high school English I don’t think so. The ABC Islands are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands but autonomous and governed from Willemstad the capitol city.

Decades before best selling book/television series ‘Roots’ seized the country I decided to research my roots. I wanted to discover who my father’s ancestors were. I had no idea that I had family in the Netherlands Antilles until 1975. I enquired through an Antillean government office that dealt with missing persons. In true Dutch tradition their reply was prompt, encouraging and thorough.

Flying to Curacao, the happy islands, was like visiting Hawaii; it's pretty but bring money; lots of it. Most essentials are imported from mainland South America; so stuff costs. Being in close proximity to the Caribbean Sea fish is the main staple and affordable; one lunch I had shark fin soup ordinarily an expensive delicacy but in Willemstad only $.50 a cup!

I deplaned at Hato International Airport a few days before Christmas in the height of the Holiday Season. If you’re from a warm country you already know holidays in the tropics are different from those in the northern United States. I freaked when I saw colored Christmas lights and tinsel decorating palm trees for the first time. The brightly painted buildings lit up for the Holidays added to the novelty of the place. Picture Disney World as an entire country instead of a theme part; this describes colorful Curacao.

Curacao and huge part of our planet was exploited by Spain. Spain slaughtered the native inhabitants the Arawak ‘Indians.’ Holland seized the islands from Spain in 1634 who turned the islands into a major hub for the African slave trade. In quick time the thrifty workaholic Dutch transformed the islands into the economic powerhouse. Curacao plays host to a number of religious traditions with Roman Catholicism predominating. Antillean streets are clean, schools free, educational quality excellent, government efficient, crime minimal though there was a brief spike during the Columbian cartel years with Curacao a few hundred miles from Columbia serving as a gateway for the illegal drug ‘industry.’ There is no United States Advisory on the Netherlands Antilles; the country is a safe bet; however when visiting use common sense and avoid deserted areas.

One evening after touring Willemstad on foot I decided to take in a movie. It was an American movie with Papiamento subtitles. The theater reminded me of shows when I was a kid growing up on the south side (Chicago). Hardly anybody listened to the movie and everybody talked. Patrons brought food from home though there was a concession stand. Cans of beer and bottles of spirits was passed around. Some folks smoked marijuana. I smoked a cigar, drank a can of Amstel that delicious local brew made from distilled seawater the best beer I’ve ever tasted and talked with other movie goers. Oddly enough the place didn’t have a roof. Birds and bats flew low overhead. I momentarily closed my eyes and pretended I was back on the block; I felt at home and had a great time!

My extended family was heavy into Santeria, an Afro-Indigenous religion a rich blend of West African, voodoo with Catholic ceremony. When I went to visit my sister-in-law I attended one of their rituals. During the service my priestess sister-in-law puffed cigar smoke on the participants to bless them. She used live doves as an additional blessing to drive off evil spirits. Her huge altar was strewn with colored candles, burning incense, statues and pictures of Catholic saints, Indian chiefs with a few indigenous heroes thrown in. There were loud chanting, hand clapping and odd incantations that mentally transported me to Africa. My take on all this; whatever floats your boat. Aside from religious worship during the days, evening activities were of a more erotic nature and took place in my sister-in-law’s beauty salon.

Papiamento is a Creole language; a mixture of several West African languages, Arawak, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, English and very hard to learn. If you want to impress the locals speak a few words in the local language. Go to: ‘Useful phrases in Papiamento-Omiglot-the online…’ and give it a go. Like they say in Curacao ‘un idioma nunka ta sufisiente’ one language is never enough.

Gambling is legal in Curacao. The island has a few small casinos for gamblers. I never gamble but I enjoy watching other people try their hand with Lady Luck. After seeing my relatives loose their shirts we went to the Hotel Intercontinental for a predawn breakfast. A friendly budget conscious waiter suggested certain menu items to avoid. It was the first time I dined off gold plates! Beats the plastic I had gotten used to in Chicago. After dining we took an early morning stroll along the seashore.

Whenever I visit a place I make it my special point to blend in with the locals. I avoid pricy touristy areas aforementioned in other articles. An accurate description of Curacao is hard for me; you just gotta’ be there. Willemstad is so laid back I don’t think there’s a single case of high blood pressure or clinical depression on the entire island. Back in the day I used to walk everywhere. One fine day when I wasn’t visiting relatives my father and I went for a long walk up one of the main streets. The air was filled with clouds of marijuana smoke. I got a contact high after half a block. People offered my father and I some ganja along the way; naturally I declined. Whatever you do don’t break the law especially in foreign countries where some locals consider it their patriotic duties to set Americans up. During our walk there were some people who needed to use restroom facilities but couldn’t wait so they relieved themselves in the streets in broad open day light! Though I find public peeing comical all I can say is when ya’ gotta’ go ya’ gotta’ go. Several times I had to use the Men’s room but held it until regular washroom facilities were available. I just couldn’t bring myself to…well…you know.

Curacao wasn’t all pristine beaches, pretty girls and gorgeous scenery; if you scratch beneath the surface you’ll experience neo-colonialism close up. Point—the white Dutch control the government, schools, businesses, banks and the Catholic clergy. Mulattos occupy middle management positions but the black majority work at low paying jobs as security guards, cab drivers, busboys and other menial positions. South Americans are among the first to chide North Americans for being racist yet they violently suppress all attempts by blacks and aboriginal peoples to advance themselves.

Fireworks are legal in Curacao. Revelers shoot off rockets on New Years Day. During my last visit I went to a store that specialized in rockets. The solid fuel models ranged in size from pencil thick to a hand held missile. If I had more time and didn’t have to have to been home before New Years I would have purchased the largest one! The projectile stood nearly four feet on its fins and was over two inches wide. That thing was capable of reaching the South American mainland 40 miles away in mere minutes! Glad they don’t sell them in Chicago; imagine the carnage those things would cause if our street gangs had them!

Curacao has a very influential and close knit Antillean-Asian community. Influential because the Chinese appear to own most of the stores or at least the ones I shopped in. The primary snack food on the island is fried lumpia a Filipino delicacy. There’s only one restaurant where this delicious treat was sold; lines are long. Here’s how you make it:

Fried Lumpia Ingredients:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 pound ground pork
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup minced carrots
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup thinly sliced green cabbage
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon soy sauce
30 lumpia wrappers
2 cups vegetable oil for frying
Place a wok or large skillet over high heat then pour in 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Cook pork and stir frequently until no pink is showing. Poorly prepared pork can make you sick. Remove pork from pan and set aside. Drain grease from pan but leave a thin coating. Cook garlic and onion in the same pan for 2 minutes. Stir in the cooked pork, carrots, green onions, and cabbage; season with pepper, salt, garlic powder and soy sauce. Remove from heat and set aside until cool enough to handle.

Place three heaping tablespoons of filling diagonally near one corner of each wrapper. Leave a 1 ½ inch space at both ends. Fold the side along the length of the filling but over the filling, tuck in both ends and roll neatly. Pretend you’re rolling a thick cigar. Keep the roll tight as you assemble. Moisten the other side of the wrapper with water to seal the edge. Cover the rolls with plastic wrap to retain moisture.

·Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat, add ½ inch of oil then heat for 5 minutes. Slide 3 or 4 lumpias into the oil. Fry the rolls for 1 to 2 minutes until all sides are golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.
The only negative twist to the Antillean-Asian scenario is that many Asians appear to hold the majority black islanders in distain and treat them accordingly; maybe that has changed.

Willemstad is separated in two sections Punda and Otrobanda. Both are divided by the aforementioned Santa (Sint) Anna Bay by the Queen Emma pontoon bridge and the Queen Juliana Bridge that arches high over the bay. UNESCO designated Willemstad as a world heritage site.

Curacao is comfortable. Transportation is easy and cheap. There are two major bus terminals in Willemstad. One is in Punda near the post office and the other in Otrobanda near the underpass. Nearly all major tourist attractions can be reached by public transportation. I rode the bus whenever I went outside the city, cabs for inner city travel but mostly walked.

Willemstad is divided in two halves by shark infested Santa Anna Bay. These critters stalk people; one misstep you fall in the water you’re shark food. Point—my son was walking near water’s edge I sensed something wasn’t right. I warned him not to lean over the embankment; he listened and drew back. A medium sized shark leapt out the water a few feet from where he stood, flipped over and swam away. A metallic shark net separate public beaches from shark invested areas. I kept well within the netted area when I swam. Curacao is pretty, yet dangerous. Again it’s a relatively safe place but use common sense.

Don’t touch those funny looking humongous yet highly toxic ‘pea pods,’ apples Diablo’s (get their juice in your eyes blind for life!) and watch out for falling coconuts which sound like bombs dropping when they splatter on sidewalks!

I’m a big baseball fan. I’m not alone in my love of the game; of all the many Little League teams around the world competing for top honors Curacao’s kids topped the globe when they captured the Little League World Series crown in 2004! They were runner-ups the following year loosing 7-6 to a California team. Soccer and baseball are played with equal fervor as I found out when I played the former during a trip to the islands.

Curacao has contributed a fair number of players to MLB. If you ever saw a Caribbean baseball game; it's an experience you won’t forget. My wife and I went to an all island championship game during a visit. Festivities started with the singing of the national anthem. The contest got underway promptly at 7 PM. This game was raw emotion at its best. Lots of arguments, fights, plenty extra base hits, mucho errors, bad calls, umpires verbally harassed, players on their knees who tossed up infield dirt in disgust after called out on steals and pick-offs, drums that beat to chants from frenzied fans, bells ringing but when this guy smacked a three run homer pandemonium seized the stadium. Members of the local press ran the bases along with the players. Too exhausted to finish the game we left after midnight. We heard about the winner in next morning’s news.

Willemstad has the oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere. The Snoga Synagogue was built by Sephardic Portuguese Jews from Amsterdam and Recife, Brazil. Originally modeled on the Esnoga Synagogue in Amsterdam, the one in Curacao was built in 1692. This building has a very unique feature no other house of Jewish worship I’ve seen has; the floor is covered with layers of fine sand. When I was there you removed your shoes before the guard let you in. I felt that I was in a desert instead of a building which I assume was the intention of the builders who wanted worshipers to remember the sands of Sinai during the Exodus.

The Dutch have a flair for authenticity. Point—the buildings in the central business district resemble those old 16th century building in Holland around the time of the Reformation. The lone Islamic mosque looked like it was transported directly from Cairo tall minaret in all and the old but still lived in slave quarters reminded tourists of life during the nefarious African slave trade.

Touring Curacao on foot is the preferred mode of travel; however after a few days of hoofing it can get tiresome. My brother-in-law and I took the bus to Christoffel National Park. If you’re a serious hiker Christoffel park can’t be beat. The jewel of this national park is the 1,227 foot Mt. Christoffel (Christofflberg) the highest point on the island.

Hiking up this small mountain makes one think of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire. That mountain, like Christoffel, is small but the most deadliest mountain in the United States. Many people die annually from avalanches, car trips gone wrong on the ‘Death Road,’ hikers being frozen to death due to sudden storms and a variety of other nasty mishaps; don’t let its’ smallness fool you.

Curacao is a few hundred miles north of the Equator; it's hot. We arrived at the park around 6 AM. We immediately started our trek up the mountain. The park is a smaller version of one of the islands that make up Palawan back home except it’s in a desert.

If you’ve seen those old adventure movies with tall vines, twisting foot paths, odd wildlife scurrying about, dangerous plant life yet a place of incredible beauty that’s Mt. Christoffel. When I was a kid I used to watch those old Tarzan and Jane movies. I especially enjoyed it when Tarzan used to swing from those long hanging vines; since then I’ve always wanted to do that. I grabbed a long vine and swung from it. With my loud Tarzan yell I was in business; problem was I had contacted a skin ‘rash’ that left large dark brown and white patches on both arms! It took me months for the patches to disappear.

The view from the summit was splendiferous. The entire island was visible including snatches of the South American mainland. To celebrate we had a picnic lunch. I took out a bottle of warm wine and fried chicken. We had an uninvited luncheon guest; a large black lizard. As I raised a chicken leg to my mouth the critter snatched it out of my hand. I was hungry; it was hungry; we fought over the chicken leg. It was fast but I was faster; after I snatched the leg from the creature it went away but not before it stood up, turned it's head towards me and let out a loud screech. The animal scurried down the mountain side in search of another climber to mooch off of. Never come between a hungry man and his food!

After spending most of the morning hiking up Christoffel we started our decent. It was high Noon when we reached ground level. The desert heat started to get to us. The sun stood straight up in the sky. Sweat soaked our bodies. The hot sun on sand almost melted my sneakers. Sun bleached skeletons of various sizes lay scattered on the ground but it was the ‘caw-caw’ sound of the big birds that circled overhead that scared me. We wandered around the park for hours yet couldn’t find the way out. My brother-in-law lied when I asked him if he was familiar with the park; like me it was his first visit.

Around 8 o’clock that night we stumbled our way back to the Visitor’s center. A park ranger informed me they thought about sending in a search party to rescue us after they feared the worst. After a few ice cold beers at the concession stand we were back to our old selves. We took a bus back home. I was in bed sore all over; he went dancing.

If you want to visit the Netherlands Antilles please go to the following sites for additional information:
Curacao Tourism

God bless; see you in Curacao!
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