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 the island 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 other lizards camouflage themselves on rocks in the sun while wise humans seek shade. Every sunset brings not only a celestial light show 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 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, Papiamento, echoed the Spanish of my hometown: When I asked for water at an island roadside snackbar I got a blank look; but 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 Curaçaoan described as “the backside of God’s little acre,” the rural west end of the island, an idyllic underdeveloped area known by the lyrical name Band’abou. I shifted my base to Willemstad, a busy town with rush-hour traffic, a bustling deepwater port with a massive arched bridge, and a waterfront that looks like a slice of Amsterdam in Caribbean Technicolor. In no time I found myself operating at an urban pace – speeding after an architect in a Mazda convertible through a revitalized neighborhood one evening; next morning hurtling over hills in a Jeep with a sixth-generation Curaçaoan whose family owns no less than one-ninth of the entire island.
I came to understand that the island has two clear faces, rural and cosmopolitan, and I also realized that on Curaçao there is more than one kind of homecoming.
I learned over and over, not just from the architect and the landowner but also from islander after islander, about Curaçao’s history – a story of both roots and transience: Spaniards discovered the 36-mile-long island exactly 500 years ago this year. The Dutch took control in 1634 and capitalized on its strategic location just off Venezuela, its harbor, and its salt resources; they also used Curaçao as a port through which to transport some of the 500,000 African slaves that were moved through the region.
If the presence of slaves shaped the early history of Curaçao, its character in modern times owes much to the massive Royal Dutch Shell refinery that opened in 1918 in the heart of Willemstad, drawing immigrants eager for lucrative work.
The result? Curaçao today is the ultimate melting pot, a rich stew of nearly 50 nationalities who interact and intermarry, who move away – and who come back.
Virtually everyone that I met on Curaçao, however briefly, had a tale of heritage and homecoming. When Jurgen Arvelo, a 20-something tour guide, took me on my first ride around Band’abou in a 1955 Dodge bus, he outlined his family tree.
“My father is Venezuelan,” he told me. “My mother is from Surinam, and I was born here. We eat Surinamese food at home and speak Surina-mese and Dutch, as well as Papiamento.” (The language is a blend of African, Dutch, Spanish, English, and Portuguese influences.)
Like many Antilleans, Arvelo attended college in the Netherlands and returned to make his living here. A colleague had a similar story: Raised on the neighboring island of Bonaire, she attended high school on Curaçao, then went off to the Netherlands and only dreamed of coming back – until her father, on Sint Eustatius, spotted a want ad that led her to a job as a hotel manager back on Curaçao.
Even Michael Tayvah, the new rabbi at the Mikv¿ Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Willemstad, the oldest Jewish temple in continual use in the Western Hemisphere, acknowledged the ever-present notion of homecoming. When I stopped in to chat with him one morning, the fast-talking New Yorker (recently hired by way of Oregon), was clearly awed by his surroundings.
“This place just drips with history,” he said, as workers polished solid brass chandeliers for the high holy days. “Most synagogues in the United States are old if they’re 50. Here 10 to 12 generations have been praying in the very same space.”
The synagogue was founded in 1732 by Sephardic Jews, originally from Spain and Portugal, who had come to Curaçao via Amsterdam. They built a place of worship and put sand on the floor, perhaps to commemorate their history as “secret Jews,” who, to hide their religious beliefs from the Inquisition, muffled all sounds of their ceremonies.
A couple of nights later I heard a different tale of homecoming when I met singer/musician Boy Dap, a 65-year-old who looked 20 years younger in his tropical shirt and white bermuda shorts. In the last 49 years Dap has traveled all over the world to perform, but he always returns to his home island, where he has been crowned Carnival’s King of Tumba no fewer than 11 times.
“Tumba is the typical rhythm of Curaçao,” Dap told me in his slow, melodic cadence, as we chatted in his family’s hotel. “All islands have their own rhythm – calypso, soca, salsa. Curaçao has tumba.” The music is performed mainly at carnival. “It’s perfect for parades,” said Dap. “It has a rhythm you can dance and walk at the same time.”
Unfortunately, out of carnival season, the only way I could hear Dap’s tumba was on a CD. But I did stumble onto a performance of another kind of Curaçaoan music at Den Paradera, Dinah Veeris’s herb garden in Band’ariba, the eastern end of the island whose name literally translates as upwind (from the refinery). There, Veeris, a former schoolteacher who claims African, Indian, and Jewish lineage, created her garden preserve to keep alive the island’s centuries-old custom of healing with herbs. She also enthusiastically celebrates musical traditions such as tamb¿, a way slaves communicated by rhythmically beating drums and hoes.
On this Saturday night a troupe of dancers in period costumes arrived at Den Paradera just after sundown for a special performance. Two men positioned themselves on a bench under the trees and proceeded to bang out a very primitive but powerful cadence with drum and hoe. Couples in colorful costumes – flouncy dresses and peasant shirts – high-stepped and twirled in ever-changing formations along the paths under the trees. But their dancing was nowhere as stunning as the sounds of tamb¿. Hearing it there in the dark gave me a creepy sense of what a Dutch slaveholder must have felt, sitting in his landhuis while the slaves pounded out those haunting rhythms with their crude farm tools.
Those “landhouses” – 90 of them still in existence – make up the enduring image of Curaçao. Although their land could never lucratively support cattle or agriculture, wealthy Dutchmen built country estates as refuges from the city and to show off. The houses vary in style but were always constructed with breezeways to capitalize on the cooling trade winds in the age before air-conditioning.
A few of these great houses are still owned by families and maintained as private homes, but only a very few. The cost of maintaining oversize and decaying buildings is prohibitive. But it was the restoration of some of these houses that helped fuel the historic preservation movement in Curaçao in 1954, and today a number of them are open to the public.
At the government-run Landhuis Santa Martha in Band’abou, I saw crews of handicapped Curaçaoans sewing rag dolls, caning chairs, refinishing furniture, and throwing vases and pots. At Landhuis Daniel, which has been converted into a guest house and restaurant outside Willemstad, I sat on an amazingly cool breezeway and enjoyed a very French lunch on a punishingly hot day.
By far the most evocative was Landhuis Kenepa in Band’abou, now a public museum that evokes the island’s dark past. Jurgen Arvelo had walked me through, pointing out that the walls were made with limestone, clay, and manure and as thick as possible to keep the house cool. Galleries shaded the house front and back, and both floors were open to the breeze. In the former parlor, display cases held relics of daily life in the 1600s – both of the Dutch and of their slaves.
In fact, the slaves’ perspective was so powerfully represented at Landhuis Kenepa that the house conjured up more of their lives for me than those of the family who owned it. That was puzzling. On an island dominated by the Dutch, it seemed odd to also showcase the views of the oppressed. Eventually I came to understand that the reason for this attitude lay in Curaçao’s recent history.
In conversation after conversation, I heard one phrase: “May 30, 1969.” Other people simply mentioned “the revolution.” They were all referring to the day 30 years ago when a strike at the oil refinery spilled over into a major rights rebellion, with riots that wreaked havoc in Willemstad. The outcome was the beginning of a new society here and the end of European dominance of the island.
Another huge change on Curaçao has been the preser-vation movement, whose success became clear the first day I met architect Anko van der Woude in his sleek office in a former mansion in Willemstad. Born to a Dutch family in Curaçao, van der Woude went off to college in the Netherlands, where he met a professor who knew more about the island’s history than he himself did.
Since 1984 he and some ten other Antillean students have been inspired to come home and help save that heritage. Today at 44, van der Woude is a restoration architect whose work dots the city, which was designated in 1997 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fully half the buildings in Willemstad are now protected as monuments in the site, the largest in the Caribbean outside Havana.
Even before that victory, van der Woude said, the city had begun to benefit from funds for restoration, particularly in Otrabanda, the residential area that lies across the harbor from Punda, the original business district. A neighborhood once known for its middle-class tranquillity, Otra- banda turned into slums after the huge Queen Juliana Bridge cut through the historic neighborhood and younger generations began to move away.
Van der Woude often leads architectural walking tours of Otrabanda (“a hobby that got out of hand”), and his expertise was evident as he showed me some restoration highlights. Willemstad’s houses were once mostly white, he said, “because chalk or whitewash was the cheapest color. But in 1816 the governor said he was getting headaches from sun reflecting off the white houses. People had two weeks to change to indigo, red, or yellow.” Regardless of color, the city’s houses were built of coral blocks and plastered with lime stucco in two main styles: rococo, with gables, and neoclassical, with details like Tuscan pillars.
Van der Woude strode down a dusty street, pointing out a blue single-family house, now an antique shop, next to the Caf¿ Klein Kwartier. On a Friday night the tiny spot drew a crowd that would have been at home in Manhattan’s Soho: businessboys in suspenders, ties, and even fedoras; mothers with strollers; fashionably dressed skinny girls; cell phones with bodies attached. An open area had been fitted with planters and a sandbox and swings for children. Roosters strutted nearby in the dirt, but Curaçao’s yuppies were drinking their designer beer and wine in the street.
Overlooking the area was a large mural depicting the neighborhood’s earlier poor residents. Today professionals are moving into the elegantly restored buildings here, and prices have doubled since restoration work began. Van der Woude showed me a house that had been converted to nine apartments, for families of mixed income levels – an example of gentrification Curaçao style. Yet vestiges of the older world remain: for example, in El Diamante, the packed-to-the ceiling fabric shop where the rich once shopped and which van der Woude claims has not changed since he was a child. And not far away he pointed out Netto Bar, which appeared to be a little Venezuelan tavern untouched by time.
On another afternoon van der Woude introduced me to a couple of friends who represented the restoration movement at its most vital: Angelique Schoop had owned pharmacies in the Netherlands for 19 years, but she returned to Curaçao and located the house in Otrabanda where she had lived as an adolescent.
“It was a big, big mess,” Schoop remembered, “but the moment I entered, I knew I had to have it.” With plans drawn up by van der Woude, she raised the kitchen ceiling and expanded the walls to make an open space for a couch and a television and a huge center island; a veranda under the trees in back comes complete with a hammock. The result is a serene green oasis.
Down the street van der Woude took me into the huge 1870 house owned by a childhood friend.
“My father used to rent the front of the house,” Randolph van Eps recalled. “But on May 30, 1969, the lady who owned it got so scared she said, ¿You wanna buy it? I’m leaving!’ My father got it for a nickel. I came back 16 years ago, and I bought it from him for a dime – he wanted to make a profit.”
Van Eps said maintaining the sprawling house is his hobby, but it is a consuming one. He has sued to prevent a high-rise from being built nearby and has stopped a restaurateur from operating several bars directly across the street, which would have meant music blaring all night.
On the other end of the island, I tracked down Willy Maal, one of the few owners of a landhouse still occupied by a private family. After some coaxing, he agreed to give me a tour, but only after sternly warning that his home, Klein Sint Joris, “is not a museum.”
Maal was right on that count, and he was very definitely not a docent. He turned out to be big, burly, and, at 36, younger than he sounded. He was also packing a pistol when we finally met.
His sprawling homestead, posted with no-trespassing signs, was a little reminiscent of Bonanza and a very big echo of Arizona; in fact, Maal said, when he shows Curaçaoans photos he took while attending the University of New Mexico 20 years ago, they swear they were taken on this island. Inside the house, built in 1662 as one of the first landhouses of the West India Company, he pointed out photos and busts of his ancestors along the breezy main gallery.
“I’m Willem Pieter Maal – Willy,” he said. “My dad was also Willem Pieter – ‘Boy.’ His father was Willem Pieter – another Willy; his father was Josef, and his father was Willem Pieter Maal: We may not be too creative with names, even stingy, but I guess it saves money on family silverware.”
The furniture was a mix of West Indian pieces (“certain families had cabinetmakers working for them”) and imported ones, like a Flemish writing cabinet dating to the 1700s.
“Maals got here toward the end of the 1700s,” he added. “The first was a military officer; the next lived some of the time in Panama.” It was the latter, Willy’s great-great grandfather, who really made the family prosperous by getting involved in phosphate mining on the island.
Upstairs, Maal steered me to a window and showed off the extent of the family land – “from the mountain to the bay.” It was unique, though, for more than its size: “On average, every plantation has been sold 50 to 60 times,” he said, but this one has been in the Maal family for generations.
For a closer look, we set out in Maal’s showroom-fresh Jeep. For more than three hours we drove over roads and through thornbush and never left 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 said wistfully. “Until the 1970s there were 200 to 250 cattle here; it was my grandfather’s hobby, but it got too expensive, especially in drought periods when you had to import feed and hay.” He pointed 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, about $1.2 million.”
Maal referred constantly to his battles with the local government over the plan he and his late father worked out to convert a portion of the land they had protected for so many decades into an ecofriendly resort.
“We always wanted to develop part of this land, but we have never wanted to do anything detrimental,” he insisted. “We had an offer to put a dump for the whole Caribbean here, but I can’t do that to my heritage.” Instead, five years ago, he gave up his job as personnel manager for an import-export company to devote himself to the project.
“Contrary to impressions,” he said, “we have a lot of property but not a lot of money.” Yet the government has insisted the land be held as a nature preserve.
“Our property is larger than Sint Maarten,” he says, surveying Maal land as far as the eye can squint. “We want to put in a responsible and sensible development. What’s the problem?”
The answer depended on whom I was talking to. Certainly, Willy Maal owned the land, but it was hard not to wonder if perhaps the land didn’t actually own him. In the end, I came to believe that both he and Anko van der Woude represented two faces of Curaçao: a desire for a future and an urge to preserve the past.
Both those visions converged on my last day, when I stopped in Otrabanda at a renovated shop owned by another Dutch returnee to the island. Two private houses and a former toko (fruit shop) had been joined to make a showroom for restored Antillean antiques that are put up for sale at a special show twice a year. In one room was a typical Curaçaoan mahogany bed; in another stood a mahogany armoire painted white to keep the ants away.
Who buys these beautiful old things? I wondered out loud. The answer should not have surprised me: “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, what I heard was a story of heritage and homecoming.