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The Curaçao Museum

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Found in the former military hospital, the Curaçao Museum opened its doors in 1948, making it the oldest museum on the island. Its exhibits include world-class works of art, and period furnishings that pay tribute to the opulent past of the island’s richest days.

Curacao Museum

The museum’s furniture is absolutely beautiful, with many pieces hand-carved from mahogany, including the island’s oldest dining-room table, a phonograph and a grand master bed. But even better is the artwork. An entire room is dedicated to renowned Dutch artists such as Johannes Vermeer and Charley Toorop. You’ll also find paintings by some of Curaçao’s home-grown talent, including Charles Corsen, whose Black Madonna a minor controversy when it was painted in 1950. Also noteworthy is wall-sized map of the Caribbean, made of stained glass and created for the 1939 World Exhibition in New York.

One of the most interesting pieces in the museum is the carillon, a type of organ which uses bells instead of pipes. A series of levers and strings connect the instrument, found on the ground floor of the house, to 47 bells which can be seen outside on the roof. This is called the “Four Princesses Carillon”; the four biggest bells were named individually for each of the Dutch princesses, and the other 43 are named for Curaçaoan dignitaries.

Curacao Museum

Also part of the museum is the Snip Haus, where you can see the nose and cockpit of the KLM Fokker F.XVIII which, in 1932, made the very first transatlantic journey between Holland and Curaçao. Known popularly as the Snip, the plane needed 55 hours for the crossing, but arrived in time for Christmas with sacks of letters and presents from relatives in the Netherlands. It was greeted euphorically by the people of the island, whose previous connections to Europe had been restricted to ship.

We enjoyed the Curaçao Museum; it looks larger and more daunting than it really is, and a visit doesn’t require more than an hour. If you don’t have a car, it’s a little out of the way, about a twenty minute walk from Otrabanda’s Brionplein, but worth the effort.

Location on our Map
The Curaçao Museum – Website

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February 25, 2016 at 10:48 pm Comment (1)

Mi Ta Siña Papiamento!

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One of Curaçao’s best traits is its delirious language situation. Curaçaoans speak seemingly anything and everything, often all at once. We’ve had people switch from Dutch to Spanish to English on the turn of a dime, as they try and guess our nationality. But the language we most love to hear from Curaçaoans is Papiamento — a creole mix of West African, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, and even some Arwak.

Papiamento is the language of the ABC Islands: Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. On Curaçao and Aruba, it has been recognized officially since 2007, but its history is much older than that. This is a creole language which developed in the Caribbean as a way for Africans from various regions to communicate both with each other, and with the Europeans. Today, it has around 300,000 speakers, which places it right alongside Icelandic (another crazy language we have some experience with.)

Learning Papiamento isn’t strictly necessary for a visitor to Curaçao, since almost everyone here speaks English, but I picked up a book and have taught myself some phrases. They love it when you make an effort, and whooping laughter have greeted my halting attempts to say things like “Good day. Where is the store? This is a book. This is a red book.” Of course, as soon as they start testing my knowledge, I can’t keep up. It’s alright; no Curaçaoan would expect a foreigner to really speak Papiamento, but they appreciate even the most token of efforts.

My learning has been helped by two useful aspects of the language. (1) It’s very close to Spanish, and if you don’t know a word, the Spanish is often close enough to suffice. Agua = Awa, Amigo = Amigu, Hombre = Homber. And usually the words which aren’t of Latin derivation come from the Dutch/Germanic: Boek (Book) = Buki, Vork (Fork) = Forki.

(2) There is almost no conjugation. For example, the verb for “to be” is “ta”, and it stays the same regardless of the subject.

I am Mi ta We are Nos ta
You are Bo ta You are Boso ta
He is É ta They are Nan ta

In other words: Dushi Papiamento ta fásil!

Of course, there’s a lot more to any language than first meets the eye, and regardless of its relative simplicity, when Curaçaoan gets going in Papiamento, I don’t understand a word. But it doesn’t bother me at all… disregard my confusion and continue speaking, señor! Because I could listen to Papiamento all day long.

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February 1, 2016 at 9:16 pm Comments (0)

The Infamous Isla Refinery of Curaçao

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In the early 20th century, oil was discovered off the coast of Venezuela. And Curaçao was the perfect location for Royal Dutch Shell to capitalize on the new black gold, thanks to the Schottegat: a large natural harbor capable of handling massive barges and tankers. After the 1915 opening of the Isla Refinery, life on the island would never be the same.

La Isla Refinery Curacao

The number one complaint tourists make about Curaçao is the existence of the refinery, which belches smoke into the sky on a non-stop basis, and can be smelled all across Willemstad. Smelled and seen. During our first night in Curaçao, we were sitting outside at a bar along the Sint Anna Bay, and noticed what looked to be a raging fire on the horizon. Soon enough, we realized the flames were emanating from the refinery. It was kind of a shock.

The refinery is an ecological nightmare. It’s been cranking out poison for decades, way before people started to care about things like climate change and pollution. One by-product of the refinery is the so-called “Asphalt Lake”: an entire section of the Schottegat where the water has become so polluted with waste, that it’s congealed into asphalt.

In 1985, Shell realized that, sooner or later, people were going to start demanding a clean-up. So, the company sold off the entire refinery to the government of Curaçao for the symbolic price of one guilder. It looked like an act of benevolence, but explicit in the terms of the sale was a clause releasing Shell of all future responsibility.

La Isla Refinery Curacao

Nowadays, it’s easy to heap scorn upon the refinery. It’s ugly and loud, it stinks, and it’s killing the environment. And that’s all true! But as always, there’s another side to the story.

Before the arrival of Shell, Curaçao was an economic backwater, an arid island where produce barely grew and people struggled mightily to get by. The discovery of oil and the establishment of the refinery improved life on the island in a million different ways. Suddenly, there were jobs — a lot of them, and they payed well. Slavery had been abolished for 50 years, but black people were still toiling under a stubbornly racist labor system. Now, though, they didn’t need the plantations. There was a new kind of life possible, living in the city and working at the refinery.

After 1915, regular Curaçaoans found themselves with real money. Coastal towns in Venezuela began to look at Curaçao as their “rich” neighbor to the north, and the Floating Market was established. And Shell did a lot of good work for the country, sharing the wealth by building schools and roads. Without the big, ugly, death-spewing refinery, life in Curaçao wouldn’t be nearly the same as it is today.

But Shell is long gone, and among the Curaçaoans we’ve spoken to, there’s a feeling among most (though not all) of them that it’s time to bid the refinery adieu. The plant is not nearly as lucrative for the island as it once was, and tourism — which has become a more profitable industry — suffers because of it. The most prominent anti-refinery group is Stichting SMOC, which has been fighting for its closure for years.

La Isla Refinery Curacao

While we appreciate the history of the refinery, and understand that it’s done a lot of good, we think that the sooner Curaçao shuts it down, the better. Just for the air quality, alone! And when you consider all the space it would free up for the city, to say nothing of the Schottegat — an incredible natural resource which could be truly beautiful — it’s baffling that the government hasn’t already set plans into motion. They’ll have a chance soon; the current lease on the refinery runs out in 2019. It will be interesting to see what happens.

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January 31, 2016 at 9:54 pm Comment (1)

Beth Haim Cemetery

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While we were at the Mikvé Israel-Emmanuel Synagogue in Punda, we read about Curaçao’s oldest Jewish cemetery, the Beth Haim. It sounds macabre, but we always enjoy visiting cemeteries, and what really caught our eye about the Beth Haim was its location: right on top of the island’s oil refinery. Only employees are allowed onto the grounds of the refinery, so for the rest of us, the Beth Haim is as close it gets.

Beth Haim Cemetery Curacao

We appreciate sandy beaches with crystal blue water as much as anyone, but places like the Beth Haim Cemetery really capture our fascination. Hundreds of indistinguishable concrete graves against the background of a noisy oil factory’s complicated, poison-spewing machinery spewing. The contrast is startling and, to some eyes at least, weirdly captivating.

Beth Haim Cemetery Curacao

The Beth Haim is Curaçao’s original Jewish cemetery, and one of the first of any denomination on the island. The oldest identifiable tombstone is dated to the year 5428. It took me a few confused seconds to realize that many of the inscriptions use the Hebrew calendar; converted to Gregorian, 5428 is the year 1668.

Most of the tombstones are so old and weathered that it’s nearly impossible to read the names or dates. There aren’t any newer graves, because Beth Haim hasn’t been in use for a long time. It would be difficult to have a proper ceremony with the constant noise and pollution of the oil refinery fouling everything up.

Beth Haim Cemetery Curacao

Guided tours of the Beth Haim Cemetery can be organized; inquire at the gift shop in the Punda Synagogue. Or you can visit on your own, like we did. If you enjoy sightseeing with a heavy dose of the surreal, you’ll have a good time. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve never seen a place quite like the Beth Haim.

Location on our Map

Framed Photos Curacao

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January 31, 2016 at 3:41 pm Comments (0)

Fort Beekenburg

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Built in 1705 on the small Caracasbaai Peninsula, Fort Beekenburg once protected the natural harbor of Spanish Waters from attacks by pirates and foreign nations. The fort has remained in excellent condition, and makes for a fun excursion.

Fort Beekenburg Cruacao

Perhaps we have oil to thank for Fort Beekenburg’s current state of preservation. When Shell came to Curaçao in the early 1900s, the Caracasbaai Peninsula was made part of its property. The company had no major interest in the fort, and left it alone. Regular people weren’t allowed to visit Fort Beekenburg until 2005, when Shell sold the refinery to the government, and Caracasbaai was reopened to the public.

A perfectly circular tower with a number of evenly-spaced notches for cannons, Fort Beekenburg looks exactly how you might imagine a defensive bastion, like a rook from chess. This is a site completely open to exploration; there’s no entry cost, nor signs explicitly prohibiting or allowing access. You can walk up a rounded set of stone stairs onto the first story, and then climb a ladder to the top of the tower.

This was a real surprise for us; we didn’t expect to find Fort Beekenburg in such good condition, and appreciated the fact that we could freely climb around at our leisure. This was the first thing we did during our visit to the Caracasbaai Peninsula, an area of Curaçao which turned out to be full of fun experiences.

Location on our Map

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January 24, 2016 at 3:47 pm Comment (1)

Landhuis Dokterstuin and the Kas di Pal’i Maishi

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For a contrast between how the different social classes of colonial-era Curaçao lived, visit first the thatch-roofed Kas di Pal’i Maishi, and then head over to the nearby Landhuis Dokterstuin. Set high on a hill, and today home to a popular restaurant, this 18th century mansion is as grand as its neighbor is humble.

Kas di Pali Maishi

The Kas di Pal’i Maishi is a beautifully-preserved adobe house, of the type which used to be found all across Curaçao. These “kunuku houses” were typical dwellings for the island’s inhabitants, and although they’ve mostly been replaced by modern homes, they can still occasionally be seen. There’s nothing fancy to them, but their cool white walls and open windows are perfectly designed to deal with the island’s heat.

Today, the Kas di Pal’i Maisha is a museum dedicated to the bygone way-of-life of the kunuku house, containing some tools and artifacts from the olden days. The exhibits aren’t terribly engaging, but the house itself is interesting, and it’s worth the small entrance fee to get inside it.

Perhaps the family who lived in this house worked at the nearby Landhuis Dokterstuin. This plantation house dates from the 18th century and, like most of Curaçao’s landhuizen, sits proudly atop a hill, with a view over the surrounding countryside.

We visited on a Sunday around lunchtime, and almost didn’t find a place to park. But the people streaming into the plantation house weren’t there to admire its architecture or the elegance of its interior furnishings. They were hungry. Today, the Landhuis Dokterstuin is the home of Komedor Krioyo, one of the island’s best-loved restaurants.

It took a long time for us to get a table, and even longer before our meals arrived, but the wait was worth it. The food was excellent; I had goat meat with tutu, a sweetened mix of cornmeal and black-eyed peas, while Jürgen had stewed beef. But the true highlight of Komedor Krioyo was its rollicking atmosphere. Every table in the large dining hall was occupied by another huge family, and it was the best kind of friendly, fun chaos.

Locations on our Map: Kas di Pal’i Maisha | Landhuis Dokterstuin (Komedor Krioyo)

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January 23, 2016 at 7:40 pm Comments (0)

The Kura Hulanda Museum

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Found in the heart of Otrobanda, the Kura Hulanda is both a resort and an anthropological museum. Fifteen buildings house hundreds of cultural artifacts, with a focus on Africa and the Atlantic slave trade. It’s an impressive collection… especially when you learn that it’s privately owned by a single man.

Kura Hulanda Museum

The museum takes visitors on a journey from the earliest days of man, with exhibits on evolution and the lands of Abraham, through the horrors of slavery, and into the present day and modern African culture. There are archaeological artifacts from the Middle East, paintings and prints from the days of colonialism, bizarre wooden death masks from the Dogon Culture, and much more.

Kura Hulanda Museum

We spent most of our time in the rooms dedicated to the slave trade, reading harrowing tales of the transatlantic journey suffered by the people who had been kidnapped from countries like Benin and Ghana. The basement of one building has been transformed to resemble the hold of a slaving ship, where hundreds of men and women were packed in and chained up. It’s sickening to learn how the sick would simply be tossed overboard, or how they were given almost no nourishment or water for the three-month journey, or how families were torn apart. Ah, humanity… what the hell is wrong with us?

Kura Hulanda Museum

There’s a lot to see in this museum, and nearly all of it is worthwhile. I could have spent an hour in the room dedicated to great African kingdoms of the past, such as the ancient Ghana Empire and the powerful Mali with their great center of learning at Timbuktu. There are further halls dedicated to the bronze art of Benin, the former Dutch colony of Suriname and the rise of Islam across Africa.

After finishing up at the museum, we checked out the rest of the Kura Hulanda Lodge, which is a large and evidently expensive tourist resort, and we came away conflicted. This lodge occupies an entire block of Otrobanda, giving its guests a central, authentically Curaçaoan place to spend their holidays. The old, residential buildings are beautiful, and it’s great that they’ve been renovated and given new purpose; looking at photos, it’s shocking how they had been left to deteriorate.

Kura Hulanda Museum

But these streets had been an once important part of Otrobanda, parallel to the main thoroughfare of Breedestraat, and a stone’s throw from the harbor. This had been a neighborhood where everyday folks lived and worked. Yes, it’s been renovated, but now it’s closed off to local traffic; an entire section of the most important zone in Otrobanda privately-owned and dedicated to tourism. We’d feel a lot better about the project, if the restored buildings had been sold back to regular folks. But I don’t suppose there would have been a lot of money in that.

Regardless of our feelings toward the lodge, we were impressed by the museum. It’s an astounding collection which manages to toe the line between entertaining and educational, and is worth the time and effort of visiting.

Location on our Map
Kura Hulanda Museum – Website

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January 20, 2016 at 8:46 pm Comments (0)

Fort St. Michiel and Boka Sami

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After visiting Boka Sami and the dilapidated Fort St. Michiel, we found a trail which led up the hill and along the cliffs to Vaersenbaai, home to Kokomo Beach. A short, mildly strenuous walk through the woods, followed by views over the Caribbean, and then cooling off in clear blue waters? Sigh, if only all our hikes were like this!

The trail begins at Boka Sami, where you crossing a small footbridge spanning the inlet which feeds into St. Michiel’s Bay. There’s an excellent hike which leads around this lagoon, where you can almost always see flamingos, but that would be for another day; today we were going up into the hills.

The great majority of the trail is uphill through a dense forest. The path is well-worn, so there’s no need to worry about getting lost, but it feels almost forgotten. The only other living being we saw on the trail was a white-tailed deer, far up ahead of us; it spotted us immediately and darted off into the woods before we could get a picture.

Soon enough, the trail reached the coast, giving us a view from the clifftops over the Caribbean’s crystalline waters. We walked along the rocks, discovering the paltry remains of Fort Vaersenbaai, which once protected the bay, and rested at a picnic table which has been set up for people to enjoy the panorama.

We now descended to the beach, where we spent the rest of the day swimming, snorkeling, laying out and eating at Kokomo Beach’s restaurant. On the advice of Anton from Scubaçao, we ordered the nachos. It was a huge plate, for an incredible price. As we were eating, a pair of fearless iguanas inched along the railing, ever closer to our table, before finally walking straight onto it. Who knew iguanas craved nachos?

We had left our car at Boka Sami, so after lazing about and stuffing ourselves, we had to hike back on the same path we’d come by. No problem; it’s just a couple kilometers long, and helped us digest all those nachos. Overall, this had been an easy, trouble-free excursion, perfect for anyone who likes to combine beach days with a little exercise and nature.

Locations on our Map: Fort St. Michiel | Boka Sami

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January 7, 2016 at 7:55 pm Comment (1)

The Tula Museum at Landhuis Knip

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In the late 18th century, a slave named Tula lived and worked at the Knip Plantation, on the northern tip of the island. Angered by the injustice of his situation, he freed himself and led a revolt across Curaçao. Today, his legacy is remembered in the Tula Museum at the Landhuis Knip.

Tula Museum Landhuis Knip

It’s deeply satisfying that, today, the primary purpose of the Knip Plantation is to pay tribute to a man who was once enslaved here. Sorry Mr. Landowner, I’m sure you considered yourself to be pretty important, and I’m sure that back in the 1700s, you were. But history doesn’t remember your ilk too kindly. There’s nothing to honor you at your former mansion. Instead, it’s dedicated to a man you bought, abused and dehumanized: Tula, the slave who eventually said “enough.”

Inspired by the successful 1791 revolution in Haiti, Tula organized the slaves of the Knip Plantation, then informed the plantation master that they now considered themselves to be free men and women. They marched from Knip to Lagun, freeing more slaves and growing their force along the way. By the time they reached Porto Mari, Tula had a group large enough to be of true concern to the Dutch. And if they weren’t concerned yet, they soon would be. On August 19th, 1975, the Dutch army attacked the rebels and were roundly defeated.

Tula Museum Landhuis Knip

But the rebellion didn’t last much longer than that. Chastened, the Dutch organized a serious response, gave orders to kill any armed slave, and dealt a crushing defeat to the rebels. Tula was among those who escaped, and continued a short-lived guerrilla campaign against the Dutch, until his location was betrayed by a slave. He was captured, and then publicly tortured and executed as an example to any others who might get ideas of independence.

Given the compelling history, the Tula Museum in Landhuis Knip is unfortunately a disappointment. The landhuis is nice, but the exhibits don’t go nearly far enough in telling the story. There are some artifacts and implements from the days of slaving, but not much about Tula nor his revolt. And what little information there is, is only in Dutch. It’s a missed opportunity.

Still, the Tula Museum provides the chance to remember this man who has achieved hero status across Curaçao, and makes for a nice cultural stopover between the nearby beaches of Grote and Kleine Knip. But if you want to learn about Tula, it might be better to hunt down the 2013 film about his struggle, starring Danny Glover.

Location on our Map

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January 3, 2016 at 9:56 pm Comments (0)

A Concise History of Curaçao

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Little is known about life on Curaçao prior to the arrival of the Europeans in 1499. But since then, it’s been a wild ride for the small Caribbean island. Here’s a short rundown of the major happenings in the history of Curaçao.

2900 BC Hunting tools and implements from the Archaic period are the earliest evidence yet discovered of human life on Curaçao.
1500 BC – 1499 AD The Arawak tribe settle across the Caribbean islands, including Curaçao. Their pottery has been found at sites across the island.
1499 Spaniard Alonso de Ojeda is the first European to discover Curaçao, and promptly subjugates the Arawak people he finds there, drafting them into his labor force and removing them from the island.
1632 Newly independent from Spanish rule, the Netherlands occupy Curaçao, and Willemstad is founded soon thereafter by the Dutch West India Company.
1662 The Dutch get in on the lucrative slave trade, and turn Curaçao into their primary trading center. Tens of thousands of Africans are brought here, to be sold throughout the New World.
1795 Slaves on Curaçao don’t just meekly accept their fate. Years after the first, short-lived Hato Uprising of 1750, up to 1000 slaves follow Tula in a major revolt. It doesn’t end well for the rebels, and after being betrayed by another slave, Tula is publicly tortured and executed.
1800 For years, control of Curaçao alternates between the English and the Dutch, with the former finally taking permanent possession in 1815.
1863 In the same year as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Netherlands finally abolish slavery in the Antilles. The freed slaves mostly continue to work on their former plantations, but are provided with land of their own, and paid a nominal wage.
1915 The Royal Dutch Shell Company establishes a major presence in Curaçao after the discovery of oil off the coast of Venezuela. Shell becomes by far the island’s largest employer and Curaçao’s fortunes become inextricably linked to the oil industry.
1969 Frustrated by the enduring economic and political inequality between blacks and whites, workers stage a labor strike that swiftly develops into a riot. Two die during the Trinta di Mei, as the riot is known in Papiamento.
Image: nrc.nl
1954 The Netherlands Antilles comes into being as an autonomous country under the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Willemstad is the capital of this collection of Caribbean islands, which also includes Aruba, Bonaire, Saint Maarten, Saba and Sint Eustatius.
2010 Curaçao leaves the Netherlands Antilles, and becomes a country in its own right, although still under the crown of the Netherlands.
2015 and beyond A major Caribbean cruise port, Curaçao has seen its primary economic focus shift from oil to tourism. With pristine nature, a stable economy and political landscape, and a friendly, ethnically-diverse population, Curaçao is looking to the future with optimism as it begins to plot its own course in the world.
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December 23, 2015 at 7:25 pm Comments (0)

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The Curaao Museum Found in the former military hospital, the Curaçao Museum opened its doors in 1948, making it the oldest museum on the island. Its exhibits include world-class works of art, and period furnishings that pay tribute to the opulent past of the island's richest days.
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