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The Savonet Museum

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The former Savonet Plantation is found within the bounds of Curaçao’s Christoffel National Park. In 2010, the landhuis (manor) was converted into a museum which touches on the history of the island and life on a colonial-era Dutch plantation.

Savonet Museum

The museum starts off at the very beginning of Curaçao’s history, with artifacts left by the Arowak Indians: the people who inhabited the island before the arrival of the Europeans. But the majority of exhibits at the Savonet concentrate on the story of the plantation itself, and what life was like for both landowners and slaves.

The Savonet Plantation’s landhuis was built in 1662, at a time when the Dutch were heavily invested in the slave trade. Hundreds of men and women kidnapped from West Africa were purchased in Willemstad for work on this plantation, which was one of Curaçao’s largest. Even after the 1863 abolition, most of the Savonet’s former slaves stayed on, working for pennies on parcels of land which they now owned.

Savonet Museum

The museum introduces the culture of the Savonet’s slaves and, by extension, those across the Caribbean. We learned about the religion santería, which is a blend of Catholicism and various West African faiths, as well as some of the more curious customs. For example, after birth, newborn babies were safeguarded for eight days to protect them from falling victim to a vampire-like creature known as the “èdze.” Another custom was that, after marriage, the mother of the groom would visit the bridal suite. If she found the sheets stained with “Virgin Tears,” she would bring them in celebration to the mother of the bride. The two old biddies would then wash the sheets and hang them out to dry in the front yard, making sure that every passerby knew about the bride’s chastity. We also learned that many Dutch women would give their babies to a “Yaya,” or nursemaid, for milking. The Yaya was responsible for the child’s upbringing, and would often follow them into adulthood, eventually watching over their children as well.

Savonet Museum

The museum is rounded out with portraits from the plantation days, tools, clothes, a crib, a coffin… and a few real live bats. I almost screamed the first time one whizzed by me through an open door. I might have been afraid that it was an “èdze.”

Perhaps the best part of this museum is its location. While you’re reading about the Savonet’s history, you’re standing in the very spot it occurred. Amazingly, we were the only people there, and this was on a Sunday. I’m guessing that most visitors come to the Christoffel Park to hike up the mountain, and then leave again right away. But if you have any interest in the history of Curaçao, don’t overlook the Savonet Museum.

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December 22, 2015 at 9:58 pm Comments (0)

Grote Knip – Our First Beach in Curaçao

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We pulled our car into the parking lot and, for a few stunned seconds, sat in silence. We had found the perfect beach. The one which your optimistic mind envisions whenever you set off for the ocean. But Grote Knip was the very first beach we were visiting in Curaçao! Was it just luck we had already found the best one? Or… we allowed ourselves to hope… would all the island’s beaches be this spectacular?

Grote Knip Curacao

Grote Knip is found on the northwestern tip of Curaçao, near the Knip Landhuis and a smaller beach called Kleine Knip. It’s one of Curaçao’s most popular places, and we were visiting on a sunny Saturday afternoon, but even so, it wasn’t very crowded. We grabbed lounge chairs, set ourselves up in the shade of a tree, and leaned back to appreciate the Caribbean beauty.

There was an appealing mix of people around us, most of them locals. Dozens of crazy teenagers were crammed onto a floating dock in the middle of the bay, and were hard at work singing, dancing, laughing and throwing each other into the water. The foreigners at the beach, like the foreigners all over Curaçao, were almost entirely Dutch. I got the sense that a lot of them live here at least on a semi-permanent basis, as most of them were grilling. Tourists generally aren’t equipped to grill.

Grote Knip Curacao

Grote Knip is set within a cove, protected by rocky cliffs from which the more daring kids will occasionally leap. I considered joining in, but was spooked by how shallow the water seemed. It was probably an illusion, because of the water’s astounding clarity, but I wasn’t about to risk my life on that theory.

There’s a small snack shop on the beach, which serves basic grub like hamburgers and fries, and you have to rent the chairs for a reasonable price, but otherwise the beach is free to use. Our original plan was to just stay for an hour, and then check out Kleine Knip… but we soon decided that Kleine Knip could wait for another day. We were in no hurry to leave the perfect beach.

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December 21, 2015 at 9:26 pm Comments (0)

The Floating Market

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Along the banks of the Waaigat, a fleet of small, wooden ships is stationed, each carrying a load of fruits and vegetables from nearby Venezuela. This is Willemstad’s Floating Market, where Curaçaoans have been purchasing their produce for a hundred years.

Floating Market Willemstad

Curaçao is a beautiful island, but its arid climate isn’t conducive to fruit orchards or fields of vegetables. Luckily, the harvests of the mainland are not far-off. Sailors from Venezuela’s coastal towns long ago recognized the potential of their neighbor to the north, and have set up an enduring, mutually-beneficial trade; Venezuelans provide the produce, Curaçaoans provide the cash.

We noticed right away that the market itself doesn’t actually float. The stands are set up on solid ground in front of each ship. At the end of each day, everything is packed back onto the boats, and the vendors sleep on-board as well. When they make the trip to Curaçao, they tend to stay for a long time. One guy told us about his shifts; he spends two months in Curaçao and two back home in Venezuela. His merchandise is replenished every day with fresh goods from the mainland.

Floating Market Willemstad

Times have changed and, today, most Curaçaoans shop in regular supermarkets, but the Floating Market still does a brisk business. Both locals buying their weekly produce, and tourists looking for a healthy snack will stop by. And we occasionally saw shoppers drive slowly down Caprileskade and pause to yell out their order, which the sellers would rush over in a hurry.

The prices don’t seem to be any cheaper than at a supermarket, and if you look like a sucker, the Floating Market might be more expensive. Our first time there, we were easy marks; Jürgen was taking pictures and I was sporting the oafish grin that emerges whenever I’m encountering something new. The guy charged way more than what we would have paid in a supermarket, and the avocado had a rotten side which he had cleverly concealed until it was in the bag.

But it was hard to begrudge him. It’s not an easy job these guys have. The villages they come from are poor, and this lifestyle barely allows them to support their families, whom they don’t see for months. If you want a glimpse into their situation, check out the 2003 documentary called Floating Market, directed by by Joan Kaufman. After having watched this, I wanted to return to the market with an even goofier grin, and allow myself to be scammed even more blatantly.

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December 20, 2015 at 7:51 pm Comments (0)

The Queen Emma Bridge

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Two bridges connect Punda to Otrobanda. For cars, there’s the towering Queen Juliana Bridge, which reaches a height of 56 meters above the Saint Anna Bay, and is the tallest in the Caribbean. And for pedestrians, there’s the Queen Emma Bridge, which rises zero meters over the water. The Queen Emma, you see, is a floating bridge.

Queen Emma Bridge Curacao

On first learning about Willemstad’s floating bridge, my first thought was, “Well, that makes sense. There’s no reason to force traffic up and over the water. I wonder why more bridges don’t simply float?” I needed a few seconds to remember that things usually have to pass under a bridge, as well. With the huge oil refinery in Willemstad’s harbor, a lot of big ships need to get past the Queen Emma — and none of them are submarines.

Queen Emma Bridge Curacao

So, whenever a ship needs in or out, the bridge must open. But this one doesn’t raise and lower — it just moves to the side. The Queen Emma rests atop of a set of pontoons. The final pontoon, connecting the bridge to the Punda side, has a motor and a driver. And when a ship arrives, the entire bridge opens on a hinge, just like a door. For small ships, the bridge only needs to open a crack, but for larger vessels like oil tankers, it will swing all the way over to the Otrobanda side.

It’s a strange sensation to be on the bridge as it opens. First, the operator will close the gates on either side, and anyone still on the bridge has to wait. Usually, it’s just a couple minutes, but occasionally it takes fifteen to twenty. In the meantime, anyone who isn’t stuck on the bridge can cross between Otrobanda and Punda using a free ferry.

And even when the bridge isn’t opening, it’s never stationary. As you might expect, a floating bridge undulates with the water and, on a choppy day, everyone walking across appears to be totally drunk. And if you are totally drunk, well, good luck. At night, on our way home from Pietermaai’s bars, we saw a few stumblers nearly fall into the water.

The Queen Emma was built in 1888, but renovated in 2006. It’s really unique and, at first, the idea of a hinged bridge is amusing. However, it becomes less amusing, the longer you live in Willemstad. We used it almost every day and I’d estimate that 30-40% of the time we wanted to cross to Punda, we had to wait. It didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off, and for us to join the locals in sighing with frustration, when the bell started to ring.

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Queen Emma Bridge Curacao
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December 19, 2015 at 9:45 pm Comments (0)

The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel: The Oldest Synagogue in the Americas

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When you think of “Curaçao,” you’re likely to think of things like “scuba diving,” “liquor,” “beaches,” “cruise ships” and “historic Jewish community.” Wait… what was that last one?! It’s unexpected, but this little island has the oldest Jewish congregation in the Western Hemisphere, with a history that dates to 1651. And Willemstad’s Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is the New World’s oldest synagogue.

The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel

The Netherlands has a long history of religious tolerance. In the 17th century, when most European countries were persecuting and forcing their Jewish populations into ghettos, Dutch Jews had been accepted as skilled members of society, and were flourishing. In fact, they were among the founding members of the Dutch West India Company. In 1651, the firm sent twelve Jewish families to Curaçao, establishing a small but strong presence which has endured into the present day.

Dedicated in 1732, the synagogue is located in Willemstad’s historic Punda district, near the Floating Market. After passing through the gate, which welcomes visitors with a Hebrew sign that says, “Blessed May You Be in Your Coming,” you arrive in a small courtyard with access to a gift shop, a two-story museum and the synagogue, which is referred to as the “Snoa.”

I’d bet money that the first thing everyone notices on entering the Snoa aren’t the walls, the doors or the furnishings… but the sand-covered floor. This is done as a tribute to the Tabernacle; the holy structure which wandering Jews once carried through the Sinai desert. It’s also a nod to the days of the Spanish Inquisition, when worshipers would cover the floors of their synagogues in sand to muffle the sounds from outsiders. Here in Curaçao, the sand made us think of the beach… and I can imagine we’ve shared this association with many frustrated kids whose parents have yet again dragged them to worship.

The interior decoration in the Snoa is mostly carved from red mahogany, and there’s a nice breeze which runs through the room. We stayed for awhile, wanting to get our money’s worth (entrance to the Mikvé-Emanuel is $10 per person), and then moved on to the museum, housed in the former Rabbi’s residence. Here, we found shofars (horns which were used to call people to prayer), ancient scrolls and haggadah, dishes and plates, and a silver hanukkiah dating from 1716, which is still in use.

If you’re Jewish, the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is a must-see, but it’s fascinating for others, too. Jürgen and I barely know a bar mitzvah from a brit milah, but we enjoyed our visit. It’s amazing that the oldest community of Jewish people anywhere on this half of the planet is on this tiny island in the Caribbean. I think they picked a good home.

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Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue – Website

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December 15, 2015 at 11:13 pm Comments (2)

A Local Lunch at Plasa Bieu

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There’s no getting around the fact: Willemstad is a cruise ship city. Nearly every day, another massive ship is in port, and thousands of visitors cram into the old town. It’s a financial windfall for many businesses, but it comes with downsides for locals and local-wannabes like us. For example, there’s an over-abundance of restaurants aimed at tourists, with kitschy decor and high prices. Luckily, other options exist, and we found a great one at Plasa Bieu.

Plasa Bieu Willemstad

Plasa Bieu, or the “Old Market,” borders the Waaigat harbor near the central post office and the Round Market. It looks like a small, rundown factory… and I suppose that’s what it is. A little factory which has been manufacturing delicious, affordable Curaçaoan cuisine for decades. From the looks of things, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that nothing has changed in fifty years; not the stands, the pots, nor the people ladling out stew or frying up fish.

Plasa Bieu Willemstad

There are half a dozen stalls in Plasa Bieu, and we would eventually be sampling them all. For our initial visit, we tried out Grasia di Dios — third, I think, from the entrance. I ordered fried grouper with mashed potatoes and salad, Jürgen got stewed beef, and we both tried a cold glass of a spicy ginger drink. While eating, we were also staring at the delicious plates others had ordered, and already talking about a return trip.

Plasa Bieu welcomes a good mix of locals and tourists for lunch. Our waiter was friendly and, like everyone on Curaçao, apparently able to speak five languages, and we quizzed him about the other plates we saw being served up. A popular dish seems to be cactus soup, and you can also ask for iguana stew. Neither of those sounded the slightest bit appetizing to us, but if you’re feeling bold, be our guest. Iguana awaits.

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December 14, 2015 at 10:17 pm Comments (0)

Fort Amsterdam and the Fortkerk

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Colonial-era Willemstad was protected from marauding pirates and enemy navies with an extensive set of eight forts, six of which have survived intact into the present day. The oldest and most important is Fort Amsterdam, found at the entrance to Saint Anna Bay.

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The Dutch West India Company constructed Fort Amsterdam in 1635, immediately after the Netherlands had taken Curaçao from the Spanish. The territory’s colonial masters lived safely within its confines and, throughout the centuries, Fort Amsterdam has remained the seat of Curaçaoan power. Today, the governor lives here, and there are also a number of government offices.

Within the grounds of the fort, you’ll find the United Protestant Church of Curaçao, built in 1769. The Fortkerk, or Fort Church, was built to withstand siege and has survived in remarkable shape. The only visible bit of damage is a small cannonball embedded halfway into the facade. It was fired by the Captain John Bligh of England, who was attacking Curaçao from his famous ship, The Bounty.

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The church is of modest size, but quite pretty. The roof, painted a deep blue, has a clock right in the middle of it. There are simple stained glass windows on the eastern and western walls. The windward, eastern windows are slightly smaller, which allows a cooling draft to circulate. Another curiosity is the Fortkerk’s cistern, found between the church and an alcove that houses a small museum. In the days of siege, a large supply of water was vital, so the church was built in such a way that rainwater would filter through the walls, and collect here.

The church’s adjoining museum is alright, mostly old maps and portraits. The best piece is the antique clockwork, dating from 1788, which ran the original clock tower.

History is palpable in Curaçao, and no more so than when you’re standing in Fort Amsterdam. Here, it’s easy to imagine invading pirates stationed at the mouth of Saint Anna Bay, laying siege to the island, while from the fort, the Dutch defended themselves and their valuable new American property.

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December 12, 2015 at 9:48 pm Comments (0)

First Impressions of Willemstad

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Willemstad is the capital of Curaçao and by far its largest city, with about 98% of the island’s total population. In many respects, Willemstad is Curaçao. And for 91 days, it would also be our home.

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Willemstad was founded by the Dutch West India Company in 1634, immediately after the Netherlands took over Curaçao from Spain. The city has preserved much of its colonial architecture and style, prompting UNESCO to name it a world heritage site in 1997.

The location for Willemstad was chosen because of the Schottegat, a large natural port which connects to the Caribbean by way of the Saint Anna Bay. It was ideal geography for the sea-faring Dutch, who settled down on the bay’s eastern side, and began constructing a neighborhood that wouldn’t look out of place in Amsterdam. This eastern section, known as Punda, is the oldest of Willemstad’s four historic districts.

Once Punda became overcrowded, in the early 19th century, people started to populate the western side of the bay. This new neighborhood was called Otrobanda, literally “other side,” and presents a slightly different style of architecture to that of Punda. Today, Otrobanda is considered to be Willemstad’s cultural heart, where locals come to shop, eat and party.

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The other two historical districts are smaller, but still of interest. To the east of Punda, Pietermaai is where the Dutch ship captains and officers settled. This neighborhood is notable for its proximity to the sea, old theaters, and neoclassical architecture. Finally, there’s the Scharloo, just north of Punda, across the Waaigat Bay. This was home to the upper-crust of Curaçaoan society, and still preserves many of its colonial mansions.

We spent our first day in Curaçao walking around the capital city. The first thing I noticed was the city’s outrageous color scheme. Almost every building in Willemstad is a different shade of blue, yellow, green or red. This rainbow array is actually mandated by law in Curaçao — before 1837, when sunglasses were not yet in widespread use, the buildings had been completely white, and the glaring sun caused headaches and eye problems. The colors helped, and the law has stuck around into the present day. Curaçaoans seem to take great pride in their buildings; we often saw homeowners at work repainting their houses.

After the color, the next thing I noticed was the music. Our first excursion into Willemstad was on a Saturday afternoon, and cumbia, samba and salsa were blasting out of houses, booming from the windows of passing cars, and being played by bands at touristy restaurants. We even saw a DJ who had set up on a regular street corner in Otrobanda. Curaçaoans apparently enjoy living with a constant soundtrack of feel-good rhythms.

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Other random first impressions: there seem to be as many tourists as locals, but this surely waxes and wanes whether a cruise ship is in port. The family across the street from us owns a rooster. Policeman are rare, though there are a lot of security guards protecting higher-end shops. Also, there are plenty of dogs but we hardly saw cats. And there’s all types of income-levels: During our first week in Willemstad, Microsoft founder Paul Allen’s yacht, the Tatoosh, was docked in the bay (this is a boat which comes equipped with multiple other boats and a helicopter). I was admiring it, when a crazy-eyed guy with a yellow beard and an apparent drug habit came up to me. “What a boat! Hey man, you have a guilder?”

With all the music, the people randomly dancing, the bars spilling out onto the streets, the festive atmosphere, the sun’s warmth, and the brightly-colored houses, Willemstad is certainly not a city for those who enjoy being dour. There’s nothing gray about it, and it would be difficult to stay in a bad mood once you’re outside and mixed up in the happy-go-lucky vibe. In fact, during the extent of our stay in Willemstad, I don’t think I had a single grumpy day. That can’t possibly be true, but it’s how I remember it… and I guess that’s all that matters, now.

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December 10, 2015 at 9:09 pm Comments (0)

Bon Bini, Curaçao

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Our new 91 day adventure had begun, and this time we were turning our attention to Curaçao, a Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela. I could pretend that we were drawn by the island’s history or its enchanting culture… but, really, we wanted something that was going to be low-key and a lot of fun. And for that, we could have hardly chosen a better destination than Curaçao.

Curaçao is the largest of the ABC Islands, which also include Aruba to the west, and Bonaire to the east. It was a member state of the Dutch Antilles, but has been independent since 2010, although it’s still a constituent of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. So although the island elects its own prime minister and parliament, and enjoys full autonomy in managing its local affairs, it depends on Amsterdam for things like defense and foreign policy.

But during the next three months, we wouldn’t be thinking so much about things like defense and foreign policy. Nope, our concerns were going to be more like, which beach should we go to? Did I forget my sunglasses? What’s the name of that awesome cumbia song our neighbor keeps blasting? Am I getting too tan? How are the conditions today for scuba diving? Things like that.

Well, we’d touch on Curaçao’s politics a little. It wouldn’t be just about beaches for 91 days. We made an effort to learn about Curaçao’s history, which has been darkened by the specter of slavery and subjugation. We picked up a little Papamiento, a curious kind of Afro-Portuguese creole, which is music to the ears and the island’s most widely-spoken language (Dutch and English are also official languages, and Spanish is heard frequently). And we explored some landhuizen: the manors in which Curaçao’s Dutch landowners once lived.

And then, after each 40-minute session of culture or history, we’d scurry back outdoors. Curaçao is blessed with incredible nature. There are a ton of beaches, ranging from the clubby variety with bars and music and crowds, to smaller ones which are tucked away in secretive coves and visited mainly by locals and those in the know. Offshore, the snorkeling and diving opportunities are nearly endless, with sunlight filtering through the crystal clear Caribbean water to shine on coral reefs, submerged caves, ancient shipwrecks and hundreds of colorful fish. And inland, there’s the Christoffel Park, centered around the island’s only mountain, Mt. Christoffel, with a variety of hiking trails.

Our house for the next 91 days in Curaçao – see it on AirBnb

Six months ago, I had never even heard of Curaçao. I mean, I knew about the liquor Blue Curaçao, but it hadn’t occurred to me that this was an actual place — I suppose I had assumed “Curaçao” was Portuguese for “delicious.” So when I heard a podcast about the island (from Radio Nacional Española’s excellent program Nómadas), I was enthralled. I consider myself pretty well-traveled… but there are still entire countries I’ve never heard of?! That filled me with excitement, and by the time the program had concluded, I knew that Curaçao would be the next place we’d be visiting. I ran over to Jürgen and enthusiastically argued the case. He let me babble for a long time, but later confessed that he was convinced within the first couple sentences.

Whether you know nothing about Curaçao, or have been here multiple times, this book should prove helpful. Curaçao is smaller than the Ohio county in which I grew up, and we explored it thoroughly. Within three months, we were able to do just about everything Curaçao has to offer… and if not, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

For our stay in Curaçao, we rented a beautiful house in the historic Otrobanda district of Willemstad. Check it out on AirBnb
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December 8, 2015 at 9:04 pm Comments (3)

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The Savonet Museum The former Savonet Plantation is found within the bounds of Curaçao's Christoffel National Park. In 2010, the landhuis (manor) was converted into a museum which touches on the history of the island and life on a colonial-era Dutch plantation.
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