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.

The Ancient Town of San Germán: Puerto Rico 72 Hours Before Hurricane Maria

Concluding my account of the circumnavigation of Puerto Rico just three days before Hurricane Maria struck . . . .

After a brief stop in Salinas and a foray into the jungle in search of the Doña Juana waterfall, I headed west by northwest on Route 2. This had not been my original plan, but on the morning before I left, I was reading through a guidebook and found a description of an ancient town that seemed too enticing to ignore. I decided to save the beaches of Cabo Rojo for another trip and instead headed inland to San Germán.

As I pulled into town, the first sight that greeted me was the Porta Coeli convent, a church building erected by the Dominicans in 1606. I climbed the 24 steps to the front door and turned around. The town square spread out before me as perfect and unpopulated as a movie set.

I was here:

There was a grand Victorian-style house on the nearest corner whose windows had been boarded over as protection against Hurricane Irma, which had grazed the island two weeks earlier.

I turned around and went into the convent. The building was now owned by the government of Puerto Rico and operated as a museum. There was an historian stationed there who seemed starved for visitors to share her stories with. I told her what I was most interested in seeing at that moment was a bathroom. She looked disappointed, but pointed me the way.

As I came back through the sanctuary, I was surrounded by the iconography of anguish, despair, and torture.

In such an environment, it was easy for me to understand the streak of melancholy that seems to pervade so much of the Latin American world.

The historian eagerly informed me that in her view, San Germán, and not San Juan, was the oldest European city in Puerto Rico. It seems that there was a Spanish settlement by that name in the region as early as 1511, but it was attacked by the French several times and had to relocate inland, putting down roots in its present location in 1573. San Juan was founded in 1521. So what makes a city, its people or its buildings? If it’s people, then San Germán can legitimately claim to be older than San Juan. If it’s buildings, then San Juan is older.

It got the idea that the historian had a chip on her shoulder about this. She believed that San Germán would be more famous (and more touristed) if it could clearly lay claim to being the oldest European city in Puerto Rico. As for me, I was glad not to see tourist hoards invading this quiet, beautiful town. I’ve been to Old San Juan. There’s a god damn Marshall’s there. Need I say more? San Germán seemed perfect to me as is.

After walking around town for a couple hours, I was tired, hot, and a little queasy from all the mountain roads. I cranked up the Allman Brothers on my iPod and headed to the west coast of the island. There I turned north and hugged the shore all the way on the two and a half hour drive back to San Juan. I felt happy and very satisfied with my day trip. Yosuke, my new Toyota 4Runner, had performed admirably under even the most adverse conditions. I looked forward to visiting many more places around the island in the months to come.

Little did I know that just 24 hours later I would be hastily making flight plans, securing my apartment, and packing a small bag to take with me as I fled to Curaçao early the next morning.

As I write this a week later from the comfort of a hostel bedroom in Willemstad, I wonder the current condition the places I visited last weekend. I wonder about the old man I saw sunning himself in the park in Salinas. I wonder about the people who live on the mountainside I mistakenly drove up and how treacherous the drive was even in the best of weather. And I wonder about the stately, harmonious architecture of San Germán and whether those buildings that have seen so much have withstood this century’s most devastating storm.

The Doña Juana Waterfall: Puerto Rico 72 Hours Before Hurricane Maria

Continuing my story of what Puerto Rico was like just before it was ravaged by Hurricane Maria . . .

After my quick stop in Salinas, I continued west. Midway between Santa Isabel and Ponce, I swung north on Route 149 and back up into the mountains again. The road changed from four lanes of pavement to two lanes to something more like one and a half lanes of dirt.

Signage was bad and the GPS on my mobile phone was going wonky, so somewhere I made a wrong turn. In a few kilometers, I found myself on a dirt track so narrow that the jungle reached in and brushed Yosuke (my Toyota 4Runner) on both sides. The road got incredibly steep, steeper than any incline I have ever driven. I watched nervously as my dashboard temperature gauge started to climb along with me. I’d left my inclinometer at home, but I estimate I was on a 40% slope. My windshield was filled with palm fronds and blue sky.

I turned gingerly through several sharp switchbacks, U-turns so tight and so steep I had to crank the steering wheel all the way to the right just to make it. Two times Yosuke broke traction on the incline and I had a terrifying vision of sliding backward off the road and down the mountain. I had no choice but to go forward, though, since there were few places wide enough to turn around. It seemed to take forever, but after about 1.5 kilometers, I found a little house with a turnout just wide enough for Yosuke to navigate. Back down the mountainside I went, worrying now about how well my brakes would hold me on the gravel trail.

I figured out where I’d made my navigation error and headed north again on the correct route. This road was only a little better than the one I’d just left, but it was paved for the most part and wasn’t quite as steep. Occasionally I passed by the sobering wrecks of vehicles that had slid off the road and rolled down the steep embankment.

My goal was to find the Doña Juana waterfall, which my guidebook said was the highest waterfall on the island. Puerto Rico is not exactly noted for its waterfalls, and at only about 200 feet, Doña Juana was not exactly world-class, but it was my goal nonetheless. Having an objective, no matter how slight or silly, motivates me to keep on traveling. I began to pass over small mountain streams and occasionally got a peek at the valley below.

Finally, I passed by the Doña Juana falls, but since the site is hardly a tourist attraction, there was no place to park. The road was so narrow that I couldn’t just stop and get out without blocking traffic, so I continued another kilometer down the road, found a place turn turn around, headed back, pulled over where the road was slightly wider, and walked the rest of the way. Next to my parking spot was an impenetrable wall of jungle.

The waterfall was refreshingly uncommercialized. There wasn’t even so much as a marker or a plaque, much less anything like a gift shop or souvenir stand. This pleased me.

I was here:

I took a few photos, got back into the truck, and continued back down the mountain to the coast, where I continued my travels west.

Salinas: Puerto Rico 72 Hours Before Hurricane Maria

September 16, 2017 was the last day before news of the approach of Hurricane Maria drastically altered my course. I had bought a used Toyota 4Runner four days earlier. That Saturday was the first free day I’d had since then to get out of the San Juan metro area and explore the rest of Puerto Rico. And so I did.

The next day, I was making plans to evacuate. Two days after that, Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

As I look at these photos, safe on the island of Curaçao and far from Maria’s swath of destruction, they take on a different meaning than they’d had when I took them. They now seem like a documentary of the last full day I had before Maria forced me to flee my new home.

Even though this was just a day trip, I spent a lot of time dithering about what to pack. I was a little nervous. I hadn’t driven much since I moved to China in mid-2013. I was out of practice at solo road trips. And the prospect of driving in a foreign land is always a little daunting. I could understand the road signs well enough, but the unwritten folkways and mores of Puerto Rican traffic were still known to me only by observation. But part of being brave about travel is feeing those pre-departure jitters and being just brave enough to grab your bags and walk out the door.

I was on the road by 6:20. I like early starts. And Yosuke’s air conditioner doesn’t work, so I wanted to make the most of the the morning cool. Yosuke ia a boy’s name which means something like “helping hand” or “to give help” in Japanese. It’s what I named my truck to honor his Japanese ancestry and remind me of how grateful I was to have him.

Once on the road, I turned the radio to WIPR 91.3 FM, San Juan’s public radio station. It was blasting opera, which seemed somehow appropriate to my journey that day. Not that circumnavigating Puerto Rico (an island about the size of Connecticut) counts as an epic voyage, but after five weeks of being cooped up in San Juan and its environs, it felt that way to me.

South of Cauguas, the urban sprawl of San Juan disappeared and I began to climb the mountains that cut the island in half on an east/west axis. Instead of zooming through a land of billboards and cinderblock buildings, I was on a stretch of road where all I could see was trees on both sides of the highway. Yosuke labored mightily to get up the mountain roads; for all its many virtues, my truck is massively underpowered. Still, the temperature gauge remained admirably on low despite the heat of the morning and despite the way I was flogging the little four-banger engine.

Once over the mountain range, I descended to the Caribbean coast and made my first stop, almost randomly, in Salinas. I was here:

I parked in the town square and walked around to stretch my legs. It was a nice public space, lined by a mix of Spanish colonial and more contemporary buildings, including a public library that looked like aliens were queued up outside it, waiting to check out some good reads.

The park in the center of the square was planted with gnarly trees that seemed to my untrained eye distinctly tropical.

There were also several of these odd-looking structures in the middle of the square. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what they were. I first thought they were some kind of ventilation shafts for an underground parking garage, but there was no underground installation there. Maybe they’re some kind of greenhouses or structures for protecting plants?

I didn’t stay in Salinas long. Instead I turned west and hugged the Caribbean coast. With the calm blue waters winking in and out to my left, it felt like a great day to be alive and on the road.

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.

Santo Domingo: The Zona Colonial

My visit to the Dominican Republic was all too short. So as not to spread myself too thin or spend too much of my time in transit, I concentrated on the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was the first permanent European city in the New World and the only such city founded before 1500. It’s certainly a tourist spot, but it’s also a very real neighborhood that houses the rich, the poor, and those in between.

Since this part of the city was built by the Spanish colonists, it’s not surprising to find monuments and street names honoring Christopher Columbus. Columbus has fallen out of favor in the more developed world for being a plunderer, a colonizer, an initiator of genocide, and an all-around disagreeable person. So it’s ironic that he is still quite popular in the land where he committed the depredations he is so stridently accused of.

One of the things the Spaniards did in pretty quick order was to build fortifications around city to protect it — not from the native population, but from other colonial powers that might try to muscle in on their good thing. This watchtower overlooks the approach to the Santo Domingo harbor. On the day I was there, the watch was kept by a dog enjoying the relative cool of the shade.

The Spanish also brought Catholicism to Santo Domingo, a legacy that lives in the faith of its people and in the ancient churches that dot the Zona Colonial.

Where else could you see Job: The Musical but in a seriously religious country?

Even comparatively recent residential buildings bear a strong Spanish influence.