When I was getting ready for my recent trip to Curaçao, most of my friends and family asked: “Where’s that?” Or they said: “Oh, as in blue curaçao, the liqueur?”
Since it is a largely unknown destination, thought I’d write a few highlights from my four-day visit to this island in the southern Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Venezuela.
You may not know that Curaçao is among the world’s youngest countries. In October 2010, the Netherlands Antilles (comprised of Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten) were dissolved and Curaçao became a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, with Willemstad as its capital.
What I loved the most about this newborn country was its diversity of languages and cultural influences. I couldn’t get enough of the sound of papiamentu, Curaçao’s official language. This funky fusion is a blend of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English, with influences from African and Arawak native languages.
Then there’s the island’s ethnic diversity. On this relatively small island, there are no less than 70 nationalities living together! The majority is of Afro-Caribbean descent, with sizeable Dutch, South American, French, South Asian, East Asian, and Portuguese communities.
Jewish people came to Curaçao in several waves, including the Sephardic Jews in the 17th century and the Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe right before and after World War II. One of the island’s highlights is the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the western hemisphere.
Don’t miss the synagogue’s famous sand floor, which has been interpreted in many different ways. Some say that the sand symbolizes the 40 years the Jewish people spent wandering the Sinai Desert after they were exiled from Egypt. Other theory links the sand floor back to the Inquisition, when synagogues in Spain and Portugal were covered with sand to silence the footsteps of those Jews who worshipped in secret.
I was particularly moved by Museum Kurá Hulanda. Even though this small anthropological museum chronicles a few dominant cultures and historical periods of Curaçao, its most stirring section is the slavery exhibit.
Curaçao was turned into slavery central for the Atlantic slave trade in 1662 by the Dutch West India Company. From here, African slaves were sold and shipped off to various places in South America and the Caribbean. As an important reminder of what these people went through, you can descend into a recreation of a slave ship’s hull, a dark stuffy space where the slaves sat in shackles for weeks at a time during the Middle Passage.
Don’t skip a filling lunch at Willemstad’s Marshe Bieuw, the city’s old market. I loved the buzzy atmosphere, families gathered for lunch, and a taste of real-deal local food. The island’s complex cultural tapestry showed itself clearly when I saw fungi on the menu. I’ve had this polenta-type corn dish at many an Angolan meal prepared by my husband’s family and friends. In Angola, it’s made of corn and/or manioc and spelled funge. Otherwise, it’s pretty much one and the same thing!
African traditions are also alive and kicking at Dinah’s Botanic & Historic Garden. The lovely and dynamic Dinah is a treasure trove of ancient stories, healing tips and songs, passed down orally over many generations. She walked us through Den Paradera, her peaceful botanic garden with over 300 wild curative plants.
Respected island-wide as a healer, Dinah says: “”These plants tell the story of our culture. My mission is to elevate the knowledge of herbal remedies. I want people to know and understand that the knowledge of our slave elders was not stupid — they knew a lot.”
This is what I loved about Curaçao, the fact that the island managed to hold on to its traditions and history. Many of the Caribbean islands have pushed their own cultures aside in order to please the sun & sand-seeking vacationers. While Curaçao certainly caters to tourism, which is one of its main industries, this island — now a country — looks back to its past with sensitivity, pride and respect.
Disclaimer: My four-day trip to Curaçao was sponsored by Continental Airlines Vacations and the Curaçao Tourist Board.