If Arizona were an island, it would be Curaçao. That was my absurdly confident conclusion after just a few days on the largest of the Netherlands Antilles. Exploring there at first was like wandering through the landscape of memory. It’s a place where cactus grows thick as a pine forest, where hordes of goats graze voraciously, where iguanas and lizards camouflage themselves on rocks in the sun while wise humans seek shade. Every sunset brings not only a light show of skies with the exuberance of religious paintings but also a soundtrack of birds chirping insistently from perches in all those cacti.
Curaçao, in short, has the same kind of lunar beauty as the Arizona of my childhood in the 1950s, when the few houses were far between and far off the roads, when steel windmills kept spinning to pump water from deep below the parched ground. Even the local language, Papiamentu, faintly echoed the Spanish of my hometown: When we asked for water at a roadside snackbar we got a blank look; agua brought a cold bottle. Every detail — the countless pastel churches, the brown foothills, the towering palm trees, the Jesus light at sunup and sundown — was so much like my birthplace it was unsettling. It felt like going home.
And then I left what one Curaçaon described as “the backside of God’s little acre,” the rural west end of the island, an idyllically underdeveloped area known by the lyrical name Banda Abou. I shifted my base into the city, into Willemstad, a busy town with rush-hour traffic and a bustling deep-water port and a massive arched bridge and a waterfront that looks like a slice of Amsterdam in Caribbean Technicolor. In no time I found myself speeding over that bridge, chasing an architect in a Mazda convertible with the top down on the way to a tour of a revitalized neighborhood one evening, and next morning hurtling over hills in an off-road Jeep Explorer with a fifth-generation Curaçaoan whose family owns no less than one-ninth of the entire island, acreage the size of Sint Maarten. Not only did I come to understand that the island has two clear faces, rural and cosmopolitan. But I also realized that on Curaçao, as in Arizona, there is more than one kind of homecoming.
As I learned over and over — from the architect Anke van der Woude and the landowner Willy Maal and from Antillean after Antillean — all of Curaçao’s history has been about roots and transience. Spaniards discovered the 36-mile-long island just off Venezuela exactly 500 years ago this year. The Dutch took control in 1634 and capitalized on its strategic location, deep-water port and easily developed salt industry; they also established the West India Company to move 500,000 African slaves through. That changed the character of Curaçao, but quite possibly not as much as the massive Royal Dutch Shell refinery that opened in 1918 in the heart of Willemstad, drawing immigrants eager for lucrative work. Today Curaçao today is the ultimate melting pot, a rich stew of nearly 50 nationalities who interact and intermarry, and who move away and come back.
Virtually everyone I met on Curaçao, however briefly, had a tale of heritage and homecoming. On my first ride around Banda Abou, in a 1956 Dodge bus, Jurgen Arvelo outlined his family tree: “My father is Venezuelan, my mother is from Surinam and I was born here. We eat Surinam food at home and speak Surinam, but on the street we all speak Papiamentu.” (Even the language is a stew, of African, Dutch, Spanish, English and Portuguese influences.)
Like most Antilleans, Arvelo attended college in the Netherlands and returned to make his living here. His boss had a similar story: Raised on the neighboring island of Bonaire, she attended high school on Curaçao, then went off to the Netherlands and dreamed of coming back until her father on Sint Eustatius spotted a want ad that led her to a job as a hotel manager.
Even the new rabbi at the Mikve Israel-Emmanuel Synagogue in Willemstad, the oldest Jewish temple in the Western Hemisphere, evokes the notion of homecoming. When I stopped in to chat with him one morning as workers polished the solid brass chandeliers for high holy days, Michael Tayvah, a fast-talking New Yorker recently hired by way of Portland, Ore., was clearly awed by his surroundings. “This place just drips with history,” he said. “Most synagogues in the United States, they’re old if they’re 50, because most members came out of the Holocaust. This is a place where the same community still has its children’s children — 10 to 12 generations have been praying in this space.” Its founding dates to 1730, when Sephardic Jews originally from Spain and Portugal came to Curaao via Amsterdam and created a temple with sand on the floor to commemorate their history as “secret Jews” who had to hide their religious beliefs and muffle any sounds of their ceremonies.
It was a different tale of homecoming a couple of nights later when we met Boy Dap, a 65-year-old who looked 20 years younger in his tropical shirt, white Bermudas and black shoes and socks. The singer/musician has traveled all over the world to perform in the last 49 years, but he always returns to the island where he has been crowned King of Tumba at carnival no fewer than 11 times. “Tumba is the typical rhythm of Curaçao,” Dap said in his slow, melodic candence. “All islands have their own rhythm — calypso, soca, salsa — Curaao has tumba.” Originating as tambu, a slave method of communicating by beating a drum and a hoe, the music now is performed at carnival because “it has a rhythm you can dance and walk at the same time,” perfect for parades.
Dap said he has played in seven or eight countries but has difficulty getting gigs at home. “The youth, you know, they like American music. It’s all they hear on the radio all day; they get accustomed to the rhythm and they dance to it. But tumba is the rhythm of Curaao.”
Unfortunately, out of carnival season, the only way we could hear his version was on a CD. Local music can be heard live more at staged events like the one we stumbled into one evening at Dinah Veeris’ herb garden, Den Paradera, in Banda Ariba. The former schoolteacher, who claims African, Indian and Jewish lineage, created the preserve seven years ago to keep alive the island’s centuries-old custom of healing with herbs, but she also enthusiastically celebrates slave traditions. On a Saturday night a troupe of dancers in period costumes arrives just after sundown; two men position themselves on a bench under the trees and proceed to bang out a very primitive but powerful rhythm on drum and hoe. The couples in their flouncy pastel dresses and shirts high-step and twirl in ever changing formations in the paths under the trees, but the dancing is not as stunning as the tambu rhythms. Hearing it there in the dark gives a creepy sense of what a Dutch slaveholder must have felt, sitting in his great house while the slaves pounded out those haunting rhythms with farm tools.
And yet those great houses — 90 of them still in existence — are the enduring images of Curaçao. Although the land could never lucratively support cattle or agriculture, wealthy Dutchmen built country estates for show and for refuges from the city. They vary somewhat in style, but always they’re constructed to capitalize on the cooling trade winds through breezeways in the centuries before air conditioning.
Landhouses also represent two more faces of Curaçao. A few are still owned by families and maintained as private homes, but only a very few — the cost of maintaining oversized and decaying buildings is prohibitive. But the historic preservation movement in Curaao originated in 1954 with the restoration of some of these landhouses, and today they can be visited in any number of guises. At Landhuis Santa Martha in Banda Abou, run by the government, I saw crews of handicapped Curaçaons sewing rag dolls, caning chairs, refinishing furniture and throwing vases and pots. At Landhuis Daniel, converted into a restaurant outside Willemstad, we had a very French lunch outside in an amazingly cool breezeway on a punishingly hot day.
But by far the most evocative landhouse was the one Jurgen Arvelo escorted us to, Landhuis Kenepa, in Banda Abou, a museum that gives a whole history lesson in one stop. He pointed out that the walls were made with manure (although he didn’t call it manure) and as thick as possible to keep the house cool. Galleries to keep the sun off stretched across the front and back sides of the house, and both floors were open to the breeze. Display cases in the former parlor held relics of Dutch and slave life in the 1600s.
Out back is the yard where slaves were displayed and sold. And there Arvelo tells horrific stories in an offhand manner — the leader of a revolt was captured and killed, he says, and I ask innocently: How? “They beat him to death,” he responds. And maybe that’s a reason the house conjures much more of a sense of the slaves who served it than the Dutch family who owned it.
The respect given there to the darkest aspect of Curaçao’s history seems staggeringly enlightened to me out in the countryside. But when I move to the city, I learn that it did not evolve in a vacuum. Conversation after conversation cites “May 30, 1969.” Others simply mention “the revolution.” What both refer to is the day 30 years ago this spring when a strike at the oil refinery spilled over into a major rights rebellion, with riots that tore up Willemstad. The outcome was the beginning of a new society and the end of European (read white) dominance of the island.
Even more of a sea change on Curaçao has been the preservation movement, which came clear the first day we met up with Anke van der Woude in his sleek office in a former mansion in Willemstad. Born and raised in a Dutch family in Curaao, he says he went off to college in the Netherlands and met a professor in Delft who knew more about his island’s history than he did. He and about 10 other Antillean students were inspired to come home in 1984 and start salvaging that heritage. Today he is restoration architect for Action Willemstad, the movement that in 1997 culminated in the designation of the entire city as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the largest in the Caribbean outside Havana. Fully 50 percent of its buildings are now protected as monuments.
Even before that victory, van der Woude says, the city was showing signs of the benefit of inexpensive money designated for restoration, particularly in Otrabanda, the residential area across the harbor from the original business district in Punda. At one point this was a neighborhood known for its middle-class serenity. “Who lived in Otrabanda? A civil servant — the joke was that his routine was to head east in the morning and west in the afternoon, so his jacket only faded on one side.” In the last few decades it was also hurt by the building of the huge Queen Juliana Bridge, arching 165 feet at its peak, that carries car traffic across the harbor (pedestrians take the 1887 Emma pontoon bridge, unless it is moved aside for a ship, in which case ferries convey them for tree from one neighborhood to the other).
Van der Woude leads architectural walking tours of Otrabanda — “a hobby that got out of hand,” he says — and his expertise shows the day he shows me restoration highlights at a New York pace (he has to meet his wife for a wedding anniversary dinner). Willemstad’s houses were once mostly white, he says, “because chalk or whitewash was the cheapest color, but then in 1816 the governor said he was getting headaches from the white houses and the sun reflecting off them. People had two weeks to change to indigo and red and yellow.” Houses in Willemstad are built mainly in two styles, Rococo, with gables, and Scharloo, more classic, he says, but always of coral stone and mud.
Van der Woude strides down a dusty street, pointing out a blue single-family house, now an antique shop, next to the tiny Cafe Klein Kwartier that on a Friday night draws a crowd that would be at home in Soho: businessboys in suspenders and ties and even fedoras; mothers with strollers; fashionably dresssed skinny girls; cell phones with bodies attached. An open area has been fitted with planters and a sandbox and swings for children, black and white. Roosters strut in the dirt, and a poor family plays in the street, but what Anke admits are Yuppies are drinking their designer beer and wine out in the street. Overlooking the whole area is a large mural an artist painted of the neighborhood’s denizens before the restoration: drug addicts and prostitutes and poor families. (As someone else says, none of these people ever talked with each other, but the rendering has made them all friends today.) Five years ago the area was overrun with prostitutes; today professionals are moving into the sleekly restored buildings. At one courtyard van der Woude leads us in to see a single-family house that has been converted to apartments for nine, of mixed income. It’s gentrification Curaao style, certainly when he says prices have doubled and tripled since the restoration work began. And yet vestiges of the old world remain: Van der Woude points out El Diamante, La Moda de Paris, the shop where the rich would go for fabric, unchanged since he was a child, and he escorts us into Netto Bar, a little South American tavern that time appears not to have touched.
On another afternoon van der Woude introduces us to a couple of friends who represent the restoration movement at its most vital: They both have come back to revitalize their childhood homes. One lived in the Netherlands for 19 years, where she owned pharmacies, but returned to Curaao and located the house in Otrabanda where she lived from ages 8 to 13. “It was a big, big mess, but the moment I entered I knew I had to have it,” she says. With plans drawn up by van der Woude, whom she had met while on holiday in Curaçao, she renovated the house into a serene green oasis, an homage to urban living.
Down the street van der Woude takes us into the huge 1870 house reclaimed by his childhood friend Randolph van Epps. “My father rented the front of the house, but on May 30, 1969, the lady who owned it got so scared she said, ~You wanna buy it? I’m leaving,'” van Epps says. “He got it for five guilders (less than $10). I came back 16 years ago and I bought it from my father for 10 guilders — he wanted to make a profit.”
He says his hobby is restoring the sprawling house, but he is also involved in a lawsuit to prevent a high-rise from being built, and he successfully stopped a restaurateur from operating several bars directly across the street that would have meant music blaring all night.
A battle of an entirely different type is being waged on the other end of the island, where I tracked down Willy Maal, one of the few owners of a landhouse still occupied by a private family. After a few coaxing conversations, he agrees to give me a tour, but only after warning me that Klein Sint Joris “is not a museum.”
Maal is right on that count, and he is very definitely not a docent. Younger than he sounds, at 36 he is big, burly and packing a pistol when we meet after driving the dirt roads around his property for half an hour looking for any entrance that is not forbiddingly posted against trespassing. His sprawling homestead is a little bit “Bonanza” and a very big echo of Arizona; in fact Maal says that when he shows Curaçaoans photos he took while attending the University of New Mexico, they swear they were taken on his island.
Inside, in the breezy main gallery, Maal points out photos and busts of his ancestors. “I’m Willy, my dad was Boy, his father was Willy, his father was Josef and his father was Willy. We’re stingy on names.” His house, he says, was built in 1635 as one of the first landhouses of the West India Company; he shows us “the newer part” and adds, “I’m talking 1870.” The furniture is a mix of West Indian pieces (“certain families had cabinetmakers working for them”) and imported: a Flemish writing cabinet dates from the 1700s. “Maals got here toward the end of the 1700s; they were military officers who were in and out and first settled in Colon, Panama,” he explains. His grandfather really made the family prosperous, though, by getting involved in phosphate mining on the island.
Upstairs, in a another breezy open room stretching the length of the house, Maal steers us to a window and shows the extent of the family land: “From the mountain to the bay.” What’s unique is that “on average, every plantation has been sold 50 to 60 times,” but this one has been in the Maal family for generations.
Setting out in his showroom-fresh Jeep, Maal swaggers a bit, referring repeatedly to how “I don’t like you on my property without my permission — I have a reputation of shoot-and-bury if you get on my land.” For more than three hours he drives us over roads and through thornbush, and we never leave the property, from the lighthouse at the easternmost end of the island to the abandoned Landhuis Fuik decaying high on a hill overlooking water in three directions. “It had two floors, but the top was blown off in a hurricane,” Maal says wistfully. “Until the 1970s there were 200 to 250 cattle here; it was my grandfather’s hobby, but it got too expensive.” He points out an old cistern that “we called the fridge — the water was always cold in it.” “It’s my dream to restore this and live here, but it would cost two million guilders.”
Maal refers constantly to his battle with the local government over the plan he and his late father worked out to develop the land they had protected for so many decades and convert it into a eco-friendly resort. “We always wanted to develop this land, but we never wanted to do anything detrimental. We had an offer to put a dump here for the whole Caribbean, but I can’t do that to my heritage.” Instead he gave up his job as a personnel manager for an import-export company five years ago to devote himself to the development. “Contrary to impressions,” he admits, “we have a lot of property, but not a lot of money.” Yet the government has tried to block the development, insisting the land be held as a nature preserve.
“Our property is larger than Sint Maarten,” he says, standing on a hill overlooking Maal land as far as the eye can squint. “Sint Maarten has 15,000 hotel rooms. We want to put in 2,500 rooms.” And it’s hard not to agree with him when he asks: “What’s the problem?”
But it’s also hard not to wonder if maybe the land doesn’t actually own Willy Maal. In the end, I believe he and Anko van der Woude represent yet two more faces of Curaao: a hankering for a future and an urge to preserve the past. And both those visions met on our last day when we dropped into another van der Woude project in Otrabanda, a shop owned by Antje Bink, another Dutch returnee to the island. Two private houses and a former toko (fruit shop) have been joined to make an ideal showroom for Antillean antiques that are restored on island time and then sold when the shop opens twice a year. In one room is a typical Curaçaoan mahogany bed; in another a mahogany armoire painted white to keep the ants away; in another a clothes closet with a curtain instead a door because the humidity would be bad for the material.
Who buys these beautiful old things, I wondered. And the answer should not have been surprising: “People 30 to 40 years old whose parents didn’t like the old furniture and sold it off. They come in to buy it because they want to own something of Curaçao.”
As always on this island, it’s heritage and it’s homecoming.