Wowed by Curacao
"Where am I?"
The question ricocheted around my brain as I surveyed Omundo, a sleek piano lounge just outside Willemstad packed with a diverse throng of revelers. Tall blonde men in slacks and women in sundresses puffed on cigarettes; black men in tailored European button-downs lounged; and curly-haired, brown-skinned women sipped martinis. Balmy air mingled with the air-conditioned chill while the soundtrack veered from live Cuban jazz to merengue to techno to throbbing reggaeton. Through the din, I could hardly discern the chatter by the bar or even the languages, for that matter. Dutch? Spanish? Spanglish?
I'd been in Curaçao for five hours, and my disorientation was complete. It kicked in the moment I arrived and met my driver, Chernov, a portly Curaçao native with a name straight out of Dostoyevsky, features that could have been South American, West Indian or European, and an accent that might be taken for Puerto Rican. On the 40-minute ride to my hotel, I had caught a sunset glimpse of a landscape that was blatantly bewildering: cactuses and sand dunes that looked more like the American Southwest than the Caribbean. Choosing to get my beach fix for a couple of nights in "the country" (the island's rural west end, 35 minutes from the capital of Willemstad) before devoting the rest of my time to adventures in the historic city, I'd booked into Lodge Kura Hulanda, a beachfront resort with a pan-African aesthetic. I was checked in by a woman from Amsterdam and escorted to my room by Herbert, from Venezuela. Along the way, he called out to a bellman.
"That doesn't sound like Spanish," I remarked.
"That's because it's Dutch," he said.
Not that I hadn't expected Curaçao to be, as it advertises itself, "real different." The 171-square-mile island that hugs Venezuela (the "C" in the Dutch "ABC Islands" chain, including Aruba and Bonaire) is known as a cosmopolitan cook-up: a multicultural mélange of the Netherlands, the Antilles and South America. Claimed by the Dutch West Indies Company in 1634, Curaçao became a prosperous salt producer and bustling slave port. During the 17th century, Jews from Spain and Portugal took up residence there, and in the early 1900s a new oil refinery brought even more foreign nationals into the mix. Consequently, Curaçao natives speak four languages: Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiamento, a Creole that fuses all of the above with African dialects and Portuguese.
While I knew the history and was drawn by Curaçao's reputation, nothing had prepared me to feel quite so dazed and confused. Drifting into dreamland after my first night out, I wondered if five days would be enough to situate myself in this pleasantly perplexing place.
The next morning I surveyed strange surroundings: On one side was a classic Caribbean vista of shimmering sea and white-sand beach, but on the other was a panorama straight out of the South African veldt. Having coffee with Delno Tromp, the hotel's charismatic general manager, began as many of my encounters here would.
"Where are you from?" I asked. Amid Curaçao's blur of accents and skin colors, categorization both racial and geographical I was confounded.
"Guess," came the reply.
"Venezuela?" I ventured. He shook his head.
"Holland?" Tromp's smirk grew.
"Germany?" Wrong again.
I tried the obvious. "Here?" I said, sheepishly.
"I'm from Bonaire," Tromp finally revealed. I was fast discovering that for most residents of Curaçao, "well-traveled" is an understatement. They milk their language skills, proximity to South America and European passports for all they're worth.
Reproduced with permission from Bonnier Corporation. All rights reserved.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication