An American Abroad

Willemstad Public Art

When I first saw these words painted on the side of a two-story building, I thought it was an ad for something. Maybe a local beer – although the “decolonized minds” caption didn’t quite fit with that. Come to find out that Tula is a local Curaçaoan hero, an enslaved African man who liberated himself and went on to lead a slave revolt here in 1795. He was eventually captured by the Dutch and tortured to death. Today he is revered as one of the most important figures in Curaçao’s history. Unknown to me until recently, there was a movie made about him in 2013 called Tula: The Revolt which featured Danny Glover in a supporting role.

These four striking paintings below were done by Alex da Silva, an artist who was born in Angola, studied in the Netherlands, and spent considerable time in Cape Verde. I was surprised to learn that there are strong linguistic and cultural ties between Cape Verde and Curaçao. Papiamento, the language of the Netherlands Antilles, is very similar to Cape Verdean Portuguese creole.

I liked this fish/submarine installation that’s situated in a small public playground in a quiet part of town. The medium is the message: the sculpture is constructed from objects the artist found washed up on the beaches here.

Across from the playground was this amazing whole-building mural, which picks up the color scheme of the fish/submarine.

Also nearby was this Miro-influenced work by Junius Isen, entitled Together As One. The 2011 mural is now in need of restoration.

The mural below is my favorite. It was created by Curacao artist Garrick Marchena. The text is in Papiamento and a translation of it reads:

They are coming.
They are close.
They take.
They don’t ask.
And we let them.

When I first posted this image to Facebook, my friends interpreted it as a referring to colonialism or to child rape. But according to local artist Avantia Damberg, it’s actually about how public access to the sea is being curtailed by hotel and condominium developments that illegally restrict beaches to their guests and residents. It’s about how Curaçaoan children’s future is being sold to the highest bidders. But though that may be the original intent, one way I assess the greatness of art is whether it’s susceptible of multiple interpretations. This mural clearly is.

While other cities treat “love locks” as a nuisance, Willemstad has embraced them. This installation by the waterfront seems to be a very popular spot for tourist pix.

There are a lot of walls in Willemstad with images or text on them that don’t seem like “art” until you put a frame around them. Like these:

The three photos below were taken less than a kilometer from where I am staying in a district of Willemstad called Pietermaai. Until just a few years ago, this district was known for its abandoned buildings, drug dens, and crime. But an aggressive restoration plan led to its rebirth as (in the words of one travel website) “the Latin Quarter of Willemstad.” Today it has boutique hotels, delicious restaurants, sophisticated music bars, and high-zoot apartments. The photos below show both what the whole district used to look like and how art is used to blunt the grimness of decaying, disused buildings that remain.

This mural on a wall in downtown Willemstad is also by Garrick Marchena. I think the illustration of the hawk is kind of anodyne, but the font for the text is wonderful. According to the artist’s website, it was “inspired by the Indian cave paintings of our ABC [Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao] islands and combined with the California Cholo style letters of the 50’s.” In Papiamento, the text by poet Hemayel Martina reads:

Avochinan preokupá mi ta invoká
boso pa eskoltá i yuda nos emansipá
sin odio ni vengansa ma ku amor
ya e presiosidat di hoya akí
por resaltá i mundu henter
skucha ora kriaturanan
dje paraiso akí ku
orguyo grita:
Ami ta Kòrsou.

In English, that translates as:

Worried ancestors, I invoke you to escort us
and help lift us into the sky of emancipation
abundantly devoid of hatred, but devoted with love and compassion
so the preciousness of this rock
may shine and the whole world
hear when voices from
this paradise reverberate
with a fervent cry:
I am Curaçao.

To my surprise, Marchena also painted the two murals below. He’s clearly comfortable working in very different styles and media.

One of my most delightful finds, though, was a whole row of whimsical spontaneous street art like this:

What’s cool about the Curaçao art scene is that the island is small enough so that most of the artists seem to know each other. I was introduced to the scene here by Avantia Damberg, a visual artist who conducts tours of the public art in Willemstad. When I was with her, it was impossible for us to walk down any given street without her meeting another artist she knew. Something about the climate here – both the beautiful Caribbean weather and the island’s reputation for tolerance – makes this place a good place for artists and those who enjoy their works.

By Scooter from Willemstad to Westpunt

On Saturday, I picked up a little no-name Vespa-style scooter from NR1 Scooter Rental to bomb around on for a few days.

And so on Sunday, I took advantage of being mobile to get out of Willemstad and see more of Curaçao. I planned a trip to Westpunt, a place locally known for its sea turtles and its laid-back atmosphere. My hotelier told me that it was quite the hippie hangout back in the day. It sounded like my kind of place.

Curaçao is shaped like a bent, misshapen cigar that’s angled northwest to southeast. Willemstad is in the southeastern fifth, while Westpunt is (as its name suggests) at the extreme northwestern end, a distance of about 48 kilometers.

I had traveled about a third of that distance before it started to rain. I’d been in Curaçao for 13 days and hadn’t seen a drop of rain before then. But now the roadway was wet and I was anxiously trying to keep the scooter off the oil stripe that marked the center of my lane.

By the time I got to Westpunt, the front of my shirt and pants was thoroughly soaked. I locked the scooter to a signpost and headed toward a beach called Playa Grandi (big beach) by the mapmakers and Playa Piscado (fish beach) by the locals. I was here:

I followed the sign and walked through some tropical woods toward the sea.

As I approached, I heard jazz echoing from the beach, standards like “Satin Doll” and “One Note Samba.” Until this point, my experience of the Curaçao beach scene was limited to Mambo Beach, a man-made stretch of sand and restaurants about four kilometers east of my hostel in Willemstad. They don’t play jazz there. It’s a very nice place, with lots of mid- to upscale eateries and bars, a Starbucks and a Subway, and little shops selling higher end T-shirts and clothing.

Playa Piscado, however, was not only about as far from Mambo Beach geographically as one can get on Curaçao, but was also as different in terms of atmosphere as one could imagine. It isn’t a beach where the Beautiful People go to see and be seen. It’s a local place, definitely down-home. I fell in love with it immediately.

The big attraction on Playa Piscado are the sea turtles, which swim in the clear waters just a few meters offshore. I walked out on the dock and took a look.

Sure enough, after a few minutes, I saw my first-ever sea turtle in the wild. My girlfriend Lori Seubert, my go-to with all questions about plants and animals, identified it via photos I sent her as a Green Sea Turtle.

I wasn’t the only one looking for turtles.

Then as I was scanning the waters, this unusual bird alighted on the dock beside me. Lori thinks it’s a juvenile Green Heron.

The turtles and the birds are attracted by the bits of fish guts the fishermen throw into the water after cleaning their day’s catch.

Playa Piscado isn’t very sandy; it’s a bed of coral fragments. And there are no fancy restaurants, just local hole-in-the-wall places. Literally: this place was recessed into a shallow cave.

The Beautiful People don’t hang out here. The people who were there on that rainy Sunday came to see the animals and just hang out. That was just fine by me.

Everything I saw–the boats on the clear sea, the relatively modest houses lining the cliffs by the beach, and the chickens bustling about the wreck of an old wooden boat–spoke to me of a calm, unpretentious life here on the less-traveled end of a relatively obscure southern Caribbean island.

By the time my clothes had dried out, it was time to head home. I walked the path back to my scooter, noting the rather alarming signs along the way.

Where the trail joins the road, I was greeted by this installation. Perhaps a remnant of the beach’s hippie heritage?

Since the rain had stopped, more cars were pulling off the road to park. An ice cream truck was just pulling up. I caught a glimpse of its dashboard and decided it would take an entire team of semioticians and pop culture historians at least a decade to work out all the references there.

My scooter was just where I’d left it–and hard to miss with the big blue and white arrow pointing it out.

I hopped on and rode back to Willemstad, singing jazz standards into my helmet as I drove.

Mundo Bizarro

It was the name that caught my eye first. It’s a bizarre world indeed.

The name seemed to sum up the last six weeks of my life during which I moved from Toledo, Ohio to San Juan, Puerto Rico, took a spur-of-the-moment trip to the Dominican Republic, rode out Hurricane Irma, and then decamped to Willemstad, Curaçao to get out of the way of Hurricane Maria.

Once I walked in, I knew I was in the right place. It was just the right environment for bizarre characters like me. Nothing matches, but somehow everything comes together.

The wall where this mirror hangs is in the first room I walked into once I passed through the main entrance.

Going straight on through, I walked into the bar – which is best viewed from the second-floor balcony above it.

Elsewhere on the second floor, the Early Hodgepodge decor continued in a parlor there.

Back at ground level, the restaurant owners have filled every window frame with odds and ends, creating rich tableaux everywhere I looked.

By the time I exited these doors, I was ready to pronounce Mundo Bizarro the most beautiful, most visually interesting restaurant I’d ever been in.

The Oldest Synagogue in Continuous Use in the Americas

On the day before Yom Kippur, I skipped lunch and walked over to the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue here in Willemstad, a temple which holds the distinction of being the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas. It dates from 1732 and is actually the second synagogue to be consecrated on the same site. The first temple there was built in 1674.

The congregation dates from the 1650s and originally consisted of Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the Netherlands and Brazil. As the brochure I was given proudly claims, “Although Curaçao may now seem like a remote outpost of the Jewish world, Mikvé Israel is still known as ‘The Mother Congregation of the Americas.'”

The first thing I noticed when I entered the temple was that I needed to don a kippot (yarmulke). During my travels, I’ve had to put on white sarong to enter Buddhist temples and female friends of mine have been asked to cover their heads when entering Islamic mosques. Different strokes for different folks; this was no big deal to me.

The next thing I noticed was that the floor of the temple was covered with sand. According to the brochure, there are three reasons for this:

The first is that our synagogue, like many traditional Spanish/Portuguese synagogues, is modeled after the encampment, which our forefathers established in the Sinai desert during their forty years of wandering from Egypt to the Promised Land. Our tebah in the middle is the Tabernacle and the congregants are like the twelve tribes surrounding it for its protection.

The second reason relates to the origins of our congregants whose ancestors were, for the most part, ‘secret’ Jews or ‘Conversos’ living in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition until their emigration to the Netherlands and other countries. After settling in Curaçao, our ancestors remembered how their forefathers put sand on the floor of the secret rooms in which they worshipped to help muffle the sounds during their services. If discovered they would have suffered lifelong imprisonment, loss of all property and often burning at the stake. The sand on the floor serves thus as a reminder of the remarkable faith and courage of these Spanish-Portuguese Jews in the face of such terror.

The third reason is to symbolize that God said unto Abraham: ‘I will multiply your seeds as the sands of the seashore and the stars in the heavens’ (Genesis 13:16).”

The third thing I noticed was a stately pipe organ situated up in the balcony over the entrance. Though I’ve spent much of my life in the company of Jewish people, I have only been in a synagogue once before, so I can’t say whether this is typical – but it surprised me. The pipe organ was installed in 1866 and is in need of repair now, so it probably will not be used for Yom Kippur services.

And the final thing I noticed was that despite the Middle Eastern origins of Judaism, this old synagogue is at heart a very Caribbean building, with multiple windows on each floor that let the cooling sea breezes. The windows have blue-tinted half-rounds above them and the colored light makes the sanctuary look cooler than it probably is.

In preparations for the high holy day, the bulbs in most of the chandeliers and sconces had been replaced with tapers. This is done just once a year, I was told. I thought it would be nice to see this chamber lit by flickering candles.

The synagogue is just one of several buildings inside the walled compound. The others include a museum and a gift shop.

This was another first for me: I don’t recall the other places of worship I’ve visited as having gift shops. But then Mikvé Israel is more than a temple – it’s a tourist attraction of historical interest. The non-Jewish people in Curacao I’ve talked to about it seem very proud of it, almost sentimental. Curaçaoans, I have learned, are a very tolerant people who take pride in their heritage as a refuge for the oppressed.

The last thing I saw as I left the temple grounds was a brass plaque fixed to the exterior walls documenting a 1992 visit by Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus, “commemorating the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and expressing gratitude to the House of Orange for granting them four centuries of religious freedom.”

That’s a legacy to be proud of.

Nine Views of a Green Curaçao Building

I probably won’t get hired by the Curaçao tourist board as the photographer for their next brochure. After eight days here, I have taken exactly one photo of the beach and something like 300 photos of the sometimes-grittier side of Willemstad.

I don’t mean these photos to be interpreted as representative of the island as a whole, or even of all of Willemstad. But then, neither are the glossy beachy photos of Beautiful People Doing Fun Things that the authorities love to publish.

I found this building last Saturday when I joined a bicycle art tour organized by the Bed & Bike Hostel. At one point toward the end of the tour, everyone was very hot. We stopped off at a small handicraft shop that sold souvenirs and organic things that smelled nice. I wasn’t particularly interested in that kind of thing, so I wandered off down a side street.

When I looked up and saw this building, I was reminded of a room in the old Fun House at Cedar Point where everything was slanted and askew.

I prowled around the outside, snapping photos liberally. Though the building seemed closed, I got the sense that at least parts of it were inhabited.

I love the way the different angles of sunlight bring out different colors in the building.

If the Curaçao tourist board wants to feature an Abandoned & Urbex tour of Willemstad, they can contact me.

Curaçao Colors

Curaçao is a Dutch island about 50 miles off the Venezuelan coast. About 160,000 people live on this island, of whom more than 90% live in the capital city, Willemstad. It was here I flew on Monday, September 18 to avoid the wrath of Hurricane Maria as it bore down on Puerto Rico.

The first thing you notice as you approach the city is color. There are traditional Dutch colors of red, white, blue and orange mixed with electric Caribbean shades of green, yellow, purple, and pink.

Even some of the city’s vehicles have adopted the color scheme.

The same colors were on display at the market by the waterfront.

A little further up the street, I saw a fruit truck being unloaded by a colorful game of catch.

There were also some odd birds whose plumage was as vivid as the walls of the old Dutch colonial buildings.