Curacao, July-December 2007 (photos)
 
We spent almost four months in Curacao, first coming there to avoid the Caribbean hurricanes (we came south to the island in late August when Hurricane Dean threatened) then staying until December because it's a nice place and was a convenient protected (and free) anchorage in which to leave Akka when we traveled to the US and, later, Brazil. Here are some of our impressions of our life there.

Curacao is one of the so-called "ABC" islands: Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. They're located about 20 miles from the Venezuelan coast, at 12 degrees latitude. They're low-lying and dry; all island water is provided by huge reverse-osmosis plants.

Willemstad, the capital of Curacao, is also the capital of the Netherlands Antilles, which, in addition to Curacao and Bonaire, consist of Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius, and Saba. The Netherlands Antilles were given autonomous status in the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1954, and Aruba, originally part of the conglomerate, seceded in 1986. Given that Bonaire and Curacao are separated from the rest of the Netherlands Antilles by about 500 nautical miles of Caribbean, and that they have virtually nothing in common in the way of climate (the northern islands are in "hurricane alley" and the southern ones are not), resources (gold and oil in the south, nothing much in the north), and economy (Curacao has oil refineries and Bonaire has diving, while St. Maarten depends on cruise ships and duty-free shops), it's amazing that they've stayed together this long. They're due to break up completely sometime soon, but exactly how soon is an open question. We read that the date was December 2008, but later we talked to a TV video crew that was taping some advertisements in favor of autonomy -- so we guess the issue is still open.

Willemstad is divided into two towns, Punda and Otrabanda, by a large canal; during the whole time we were in Curacao we never heard anybody refer to Willemstad by name, only Punda or Otrabanda. Punda is the original settlement, and the waterfront buildings are all classical Dutch, with those curly clock roof lines They're painted in intense pastels -- gold and yellow, aqua to royal blues, greens and corals. The effect is quite charming, especially when viewed from across the canal in Otrabanda or from the pedestrian swing-pontoon bridge, said to be the longest such bridge in the west (in the world?). The bridge opens for ship traffic by swinging to one side, and while it's open, a free ferry service carries people between Punda and Otrabanda. Otrabanda was a run-down neighborhood until the 90's, when a local foundation began renovation of some of the fine old buildings. The neighborhood also benefits from the presence of the beautiful 5-star Kura-Hulanda Hotel, with its associated Slavery Museum, which we visited and recommend highly.

Along the Punda waterfront is the Floating Market, a fish and produce market that's been a part of the local scene for hundreds of years. The vendors are fishermen and farmers from Venezuela, who sail over to sell their goods from their boats. There are now stalls on the sidewalk by the boats, so most of the market isn't literally floating, but the Venezuelans live on their boats for the time they're there. The canal opens into a huge lagoon or "gut," a highly industrialized area inland from Punda and Otrabanda, where the oil refineries are located. (The refineries, by the way, appear not to follow EPA standards, but fortunately the tradewinds blow the pollution away. Open flames brighten the nights, and the pollution makes for lovely sunsets.)

Like all of the Caribbean islands, Curacao has an "indigenous" Creole language that comes out of slavery, combining words and features of African languages blended with the languages of European countries that owned the islands. Unlike the rest of the islands, however, the Curacao argot, called Papiamento, is a respected, if not official, language. While other islands try to repress their Creole vernaculars (Antigua, for example, forbids the use of "dialect" in public schools), or at the very least relegate them to use by the lower classes, in Curacao there are public schools in which the teaching language is Papiamento, speeches are given in Papiamento by members of the Government, and some radio and TV stations use it exclusively. Signs are variously in Papiamento, Dutch, and English. The use of Papiamento is somewhat racially determined -- every black person we know speaks it (at least as a second language), but some of the white Dutch residents speak almost none. One of our Dutch friends said "I think it's crazy that they continue to speak Papiamento. Nobody else in the world speaks this language -- so why learn it?" Considering the role of the Dutch language in world affairs, there's some irony there.

We were fascinated by Papiamento (especially Andi, with her background in linguistics). The vocabulary derives mainly from African, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and of course for modern technology, English. Other than words for "hello", "please" and "thank you", we couldn't understand any spoken Papiamento. But the written language is phonetic, using essentially English phonetic constructs. The result looks amusingly like a novelist's rendition of illiterate spelling, as in the roadside danger sign: "Obstakels!" By pronouncing out written Papiamento we could generally get the sense of it. One of our favorite examples is a church we saw every time we took the bus, with a big sign saying "Resurekshon i Bida". Resurekshon is easy enough, but Bida? For that, one has to remember the Spanish pronunciation of "V" as a sort of fricative "B": Bida is the way a Spanish speaker pronounces "Vida", or life. Similarly, "Bo" means "you" (consider the Spanish stem "vo" in vos, vosotros, etc.), and "Bon Bini" means "Welcome". But you can't get too comfortable with just transliterating Spanish. The morning greeting is "Bon dia", and by afternoon, it's "Bon tarde"; but in the evening, it becomes "Bon aben." After the fact, you can figure it out, but you can't predict it.

Much of our Curacao experience is related to the anchorage we were in, a large lagoon called Spanish Water (Spaanse Water). This lagoon is placid, provided excellent holding for our anchors, and hosts a large cruising community (about 50-80 boats) during the hurricane season (June-December). A waterside bar called Sarifundy's, half on land and half floating, caters to the cruising crowd, with Happy Hours every Monday and Thursday and free busses to big supermarkets (and the chandlery, Budget Marine) once a day except Sundays; but other than that, the lagoon is quite isolated from the population and commerce of Curacao. A public bus does run into Willemstad, but a round-trip into Willemstad by bus generally took us about 1-1/2 hours, 2-1/2 if we had any business to conduct away from the area of the bus station. Also, the last bus from Punda was at 9:30 PM, making it impractical to go into town for dinner or a movie. And if we missed the last bus, the taxi fare -- around $15 US -- was punitive.

The net effect of this circumstance is that we (like the rest of the cruisers) tended to take the free busses to the supermarkets and chandlery in preference to the public bus to town, and as a result we got less involved with Curacao and its culture than we might have otherwise. Our activities were directed more locally, and tended to feature, in one way or another, our fellow cruisers -- either as participants on the Morning Radio Net, companions on the bus rides, or drinking companions at happy hour. This was enjoyable and comfortable, and of course we made new friends whom we'll no doubt see again, but it gave us little to write home about.

For us, the most delightful feature of Spanish Waters is that it is a hotbed of small boat sailing. There's a Sea Scout facility and 2-3 sailing schools with active training fleets. Through Rob's judging activities, we knew Cor Van Aanholt, a Dutch-born Curacaon with a home on Spanish Water who is an International Judge and also the 1980 World Sunfish Champion. Cor and his wife and their 4 kids are all avid sailors -- one of their 2 sons was at the US Atlantic Coast Optimist Championships in Norfolk, Virginia this fall. In September, Curacao held its Sunfish Championship over 2 weekends, and with Cor's encouragement, Rob rented a Sunfish from a local marina and managed to place 8th in the fleet of 19. Cor, of course, won, going away. At the awards ceremony, Andi got the job of presenting trophies and kissing the winners. Actually, acknowledgment was given to practically everyone, and since the Dutch custom is 3 kisses, she got in a lot of kisses!

After Rob told his racing story at happy hour, the cruisers' community became interested in Sunfish sailing, arranged a deal with the rental company, and held a cruisers' Sunfish regatta. Ond Dutch cruiser asked, "We know we can cross oceans in our 'houses', but who can race a tiny boat?" Nineteen sailors signed up, and we held a 3-race regatta. Everyone had a ball, and naturally, Rob won, going away. There was such enthusiasm that this may become a regular event!

The Van Aanholts were the driving force behind the establishment of a Youth Sailing Center in Spanish Waters, and almost every afternoon there were a dozen or more Optimists out sailing and practicing through the anchorage. On Sundays, there were sometimes over 90 of them! The kids all looked and sounded so happy, chattering back and forth as they tacked around us. In addition to the Optis, the older kids sail a dinghy called a Splash -- it's sort of a scaled down Laser that provides a nice transition between the Opti and Laser.

The lagoon also featured a very active sailboard center. Every afternoon as the wind came up, the boardsailors came out, zipping from the shore to the anchorage, doing amazing tacks and jibes, then zipping back again. Kids also enjoyed the boards. It was amazing to see spindly 10-12 year olds with mini-sails, screeching along on the boards.

The Yngling fleet was also active. Well, only 5 boats, but they raced 3 nights a week, at around 5:30 until dark. (At 12 degrees latitude, the days and nights were about equal, with sunup and sundown around 6:45.) They raced around set buoys, the first of which was some 100' to leeward of Akka's anchoring spot. So, they'd come around the mark and harden up and have to decide if they could weather us. There were lots of close calls but nobody ran into us, and we had a lot of conversations with them as we critiqued their decision-making while sipping our sundowners.

Surprisingly, despite our long stay in Curacao we never got to sample much of the features for which it's famous -- its diving, rugged and secluded northern and southern ends, or Punda's cosmopolitan nightlife and the island's casinos. On the other hand, we did get to enjoy life in a fascinating multicultural island that's thriving and interesting. We'd certainly recommend Spanish Water as a place for cruisers to hide from hurricanes, and the whole island as a place to spend some vacation time.