Upon returning from the island of Curacao I was left thinking about how my travel style has changed over the past decade and longer. I am still a geek junky for a detailed museum, some inspiring ruins, a decent hike and anything which can provide with a little more insight to a previous or better yet pre-existing culture to that imposed by a colonizing nation (I’m looking at you England, France, Spain, Portugal and latterly the United States!). But the priorities are now different.
In the Caribbean of course, finding in-depth and historically correct data pertinent to a pre-Hispanic aboriginal culture is akin to achieving the impossible. Just look at the complete annihilation of any real record regarding the history of the Colombian island of San Andres. So, in the end one has to make do with superficial commentary about the indigenous people of the region and then a slew of exciting and emotionally driven “facts” about the piracy and imperial designs.
But of course things change, not every site can be visited and times and schedules must be adapted to consider our seven month old son James. This is not his first overseas adventure, we did manage a brief escape to Miami a couple of months ago, but now he is more aware of his surroundings and indeed his alimentary needs. This is not a moment for roughing it and charging up and down the steps with an unwieldy stroller on Curacao’s desperately infrequent bus service.
When Alba and I visited Aruba a couple of years ago, we stayed in a decent hotel a close walk to a variety of restaurants, shops, different beaches and so on. Buses were not an issue for us either. Now, for what may be the first time since I was a child, we found ourselves seeking out a destination and a digs more befitting of a small family with an additionally small and new member in the ranks. No, we did not sign up for an all-inclusive, but it could well have been. The private beach and the selection of two swimming pools to choose from made the Santa Barbara particularly appropriate for a family. What’s more the staff was head over heels for James. Perhaps they are for every family with a small child, but, it felt good to be appreciated.
Curacao’s downtown is a curious mix of some well-maintained colourful Dutch colonial buildings so often used as the backdrop for the island’s tourism campaign, there’s a museum or two, a whole host of beaches – though smaller than and arguably not as breathtaking as those in Aruba – and diving sites to appeal to the seasoned specialist.
It’s a curious situation being felt in Curacao right now. With the US dollar so strong there was a notable absence of Brazilian, Colombian and Venezuelan tourists in town. And in the long shadow cast by the breathtaking Queen Juliana Bridge (reaching a height of 56.4m or185 feet) connecting the two sides of Willemstad from Punda to Otrabanda, there was an ambiance of hopelessness. Despair was tangible as the ubiquitous cruise ships left port, motoring incongruously beneath the bridge and out of the bay. Where would the next buyers come from? Every shop we entered tried to strike a deal it seemed, if only, with a desire to shift inventory.
One street away from the main tourist drag store fronts display peeling facades and makeshift announcements of ongoing sales and bargains.
No one is buying in this Caribbean paradise.
Away from Willemstad things are even more rustic and permit you a glimpse into island life. Chinese immigrants run the local food stores, and according to locals speaking the creole Papiamento who appear to remain concerned, these “newcomers” have learnt just enough to make a sale and nothing more.
The shit bucket Toyota four-door rented to us by Budget (no hub caps, overwhelming stench of cigarette residue and missing a headlight) did the trick and in fact, in its state of disrepair was a metaphor for Curacao herself. Yes, tourists will arrive and visit and the Dutch will continue to flock to a distant outpost, but Curacao needs a transfusion not just a simple face lift. Downtown Willemstad needs to be polished and improved, not just hand the baton of responsibility over to the glitzy designer shops and eateries at the Renaissance village and hotel area at the cruise ship terminal.
Will I return to Curacao, enjoy the white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, the colonial charm of Willemstad, visit the Curacao Synagogue (in continual use since 1732) and the curiosities of Westpunt and enjoy an ice-cold mini Brion beer as the sun sets?
Probably not, nay, perhaps I’ll sup another Brion and plan our trip to Bonaire.