Day 13 ~ Monday, 16th January 2012 ~ sunrise: 7.02am ~ sunset: 6.30pm ~ wind: SE 4, moderate breeze ~ weather: partly cloudy, rain showers ~ temperature: 26°C ~ distance travelled since St Lucia: 486 NM ~ in total: 4,461 NM
By five o’clock I conclude that there is no point trying to capture sleep while it flees me and get up to haunt the top deck. In the darkness, a large, illuminated ship can be seen passing in the distance, and far ahead the lights of Curacao indicate land. I brought a few biscuits to nibble and take care to put their empty wrappers securely in my pocket.
(*Cruiser’s tip: For ecological and security reasons, it is forbidden to throw anything over board. Bottles with or without a message, sweets wrappers, food, or even a cigarette end, flicked into the sea but sucked by a draft into the open cabin window below – each one could be your ticket to disembarkation at the next stop.)
Almost alone in the restaurant for my early breakfast, I sit by the window front and watch as another dawn breaks and Aurora approaches a new harbour. With a cup of green tea in one hand and a croissant in the other I survey the landscape as it unfolds slowly in the distance. Really, this has to be the most relaxing way to travel!
The morning is cloudy, warm and humid. When we get ready to go ashore a heavy shower of rain lashes down, but by the time we are boarding our coaches the sun breaks through once more. We have a pretty young lady driver today, who is shy and quiet but handles the large coach like a man. Our tour guide Carla, by contrast, is a maternal, exuberant woman. She clearly loves her job and welcomes us to Curacao with great joy and pride. From her we learn much about the island’s colonial past as a part of the Dutch Antilles.
Our first stop is at a neat little museum, housed in a colonial family mansion with wonderfully crafted baroque wooden door frames. There are many different household items, maps and pictures from colonial times on display, as well as a large and unusual instrument called a carillion.
The main exhibit, however, is housed in an outbuilding. It is the front part of the first Dutch aeroplane to cross the Atlantic in 1934 – a tiny, frail-looking piece of engineering. The account of this nerve-racking adventure can be read on panels along the walls. It is hard to imagine how the tiny plane could survive that long flight in one piece, since weather conditions were grim by all accounts.
Driving onwards through Willemstad and out into the countryside, we stop for a while by a salt lake to admire a flock of flamingos. The birds came over from Venezuela and settled in these former Salinas. “They tired of Mr Chavez, you know,” Carla remarks with a mischievous smile.
But the highlight of our tour are the Hato Caves, carved into the coral rock of the former sea bed that rose in the course of geological time to form this island. Tiny bats, hanging upside-down, cluster above our heads in groups. A few of them flutter about, disturbed by the torch and our presence. These coral rock caves are very porous. Water trickles and drips through many fissures as another subtropical rain shower pours down outside. Though this cave system is comparatively small, it contains good specimens of stalactites and stalagmites, as well as rock formations in the shape of giant jellyfish.
Our local guide points out a series of rounded domes in the ceiling. These are the signature of a sea cave, he explains, hollowed out by an endless succession of waves as they lapped against the cave’s roof for thousands of years.
In the outer cave, this roof has been blackened by smoke … smoke from the torches and fires once lit by runaway slaves who sought refuge here, some two hundred and sixty years ago. But even this hiding place underground could not save them from being captured and put to death.
As we leave the cave and its reminder of a dark chapter in the island’s history behind, we get a good view over the wooded hillside that slopes down to the sea. At first glance the treetops look inconspicuous, but after a while, and with some prompting from our guide, we are amazed to notice several large iguanas. They are sunning themselves lazily on the top branches and look very much like miniature dragons. For Europeans, this is a strange and fascinating sight.
And on we go, to the Chobolobo Liqueur Factory, where we are shown how the famous Curacao is made from bitter orange peel. We learn that the early Dutch colonists were disappointed and frustrated when their imported orange trees would not produce sweet fruit in the perpetual heat. But they soon found a use for their harvest of bitterness, and the result was this potent liqueur. We are shown how heaps of orange peel are sliced, dried, boiled, fermented and distilled to a liquid as clear as water, but containing over 30% of alcohol. Food colouring is added later for those well-known jewel colours and, apparently, all colours taste the same.
After this comparatively short excursion I spend a few hours wandering the streets of Willemstad by myself. An interesting feature is the Queen Emma pontoon bridge, also known as the ‘Swinging Old Lady’ because she swings aside every once in a while to let ships pass in and out of the inner harbour. Crossing over from Otrobanda – ‘the other side’ – I study the colourful rows of buildings and the high arc of the Queen Juliana Bridge, all very picturesque and photographed hundreds of times a day.
Because of the political changeover going on at the time of writing, the island does not have proper stamps yet, only white stickers with a bar code. This is disappointing after the colourful, appealing stamps of St Lucia, but hey – you cannot hurry the political process, especially in the Caribbean. I also learn that one may pay with US dollars on the island, but that change is given in the local currency only. So, what to do with my fistful of guilders? I begin to look around for likely items, but nearly all the shops in the area sell trashy clothes and shoes at fairly steep prices. There is not much else of interest, but in the end I find a lovely card that shows an antique map of the island.
Returning to the ship, I pass the stalls that line the quayside once more and buy a small, decorative metal gecko, painted in iridescent colours, from a dour-looking black woman. My efforts to begin a little chat are blocked by her deadpan expression. Only when I offer her my remaining coins on top of the asking price does her face break into a smile at last. She clasps my hand warmly with both of hers and nods wordlessly.
(*Cruiser’s tip: As a rule, prices for items of the same kind will drop progressively as their distance to the dock area increases. When going ashore, don’t buy at the first stall, but check out its prices and compare them to other stalls you will see along the way. That first stall will still be there when you return to the ship.)
Wandering towards Aurora, I am hailed by a grey-bearded Rasta musician who has taken post in one of the stalls with two companions and their instruments to sell CDs and pass the time of day. He calls out to me. “Hello, lady! I was admiring you when you walked by earlier. Where you from?”
I reveal my origins, upon which he promptly bursts into music and improvises a flattering reggae song about my person. The wonky rhymes of his lyrics make me laugh. Well, what would you rhyme with Switzerland, off the top of your head? This is not a bad way to attract buyers, I think, and am pleased to detect some Caribbean spirit on this neat and sober Dutch island at last …
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