An American Abroad

Living Next Door to Roberto Durán

I was taught that if your last name isn’t Windsor, you have no business having stone lions in front of your house. Unless, of course, your name is Roberto Durán. He’s got lions plus Roman statues of women with perfectly hemispherical breasts. I just found out he lives right next to the hotel I’m at. That’s an Excalbur replicar in the garage.

My Old Weird French (Rental) Car

Back when I lived in Tunisia, I became fascinated with old, weird French cars. I rode in them every day back then and saw scores on the roadways. What struck me is that, for good or ill, French car manufacturers go their own way when it comes to design. That’s true of Citroëns in particular. No one could mistake an older car that came out of their design shop for anything else on the road.

Here’s one of the Tunisian Citroën 2CVs I spotted on the streets of Sousse and blogged about two and a half years ago:

So when I got the chance to rent an almost identical 2CV here on Curaçao and drive it around the island for four days, I jumped at the opportunity. The company that provides them here, Ducks United, takes its name from the popular nickname that these beloved, stalwart cars earned: the Duck. Here’s one explanation of how that name came to be: it comes

from the Ugly Duckling, a Hans Andersen fairy story. Before World War II, Citroën had a logo with a beautiful swan on it representing the floating motor (Le Moteur Flottant). At the 1948 Paris Car Show, the 2CV was likened to being an ugly duckling amongst the other handsome Citroën swans on show. Another version is that the beautiful Citroën swans had given birth to the 2CV ugly duckling. This nickname appears in many languages.

The car was delivered to the Bed & Bike Hostel where I’m staying in Willemstad. After some quick and easy paperwork formalities, the owner of the company, Geert Net, showed me how to operate the two (!) convertible roofs, the keyless ignition (a toggle switch and a push-button), the horn (a stalk protruding from the right of the steering column), the flip-up windows, and the shift. And then he left me to learn the car’s many quirks on my own.

My ride was a 1981 2CV 6 Club, one of the many 2CV variants that Citroën built its 42 years of production (1948- 1990). It had a two-cylinder air-cooled engine mated to a four-speed manual transmission. The shift lever poked out of the firewall, ran under the rudimentary dashboard, and then at its very end turned up and was topped with a satisfyingly-large shift knob that felt good in the hand. Because the car is so underpowered, the transmission got a good workout, even on the very moderate hills of Curaçao.

I soon came to appreciate my ugly duckling’s many virtues. Its long wheelbase gives it a much smoother ride than most cars its size. Its shift pattern is intuitive and easy to learn. And its distinctive design incorporates many complex curves, giving the body something like an Art Nouveau look.

Other parts of the car were, frankly, not so beautiful. The one-piece instrument cluster and dashboard looked like 80s plastic. And indeed, they were.

But overall, the 2CV delighted me. It seemed to have that effect on other people too. I got a lot of honks, waves, thumbs-ups, and smiles on the roads, at gas stations, and in parking lots.

The word “jaunty” comes to mind whenever I look at it. And while it’s probably not a good vehicle for high-speed highways and long-distance journeys, it was ideal for exploring this 171 square mile island.

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.

Every Moto Tells A Story, Don’t It?

Some of the battered motos of Santo Domingo have been stripped naked of all fairings and upholstery and now are little more than frames with 50cc motors and wheels. Some have suffered the indignity of serving as pack mules. And some still wear their manufacturer’s clothes, even if they’re going thin at the knees and elbows.

It’s tempting to shoot for a big metaphor here, and if I knew the Dominican people better, I might try. But only three days in the DR doesn’t give me much ground to stand on. So I’ll only say that for each bike, there is a story to be told about what it was like when it was new, who all its owners have been, and what its unique circumstances are.

Old Weird French Cars

I shot most of these in Sousse, Tunisia.

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Cambodia: Siem Reap

Siem Reap was a pleasant surprise. Since it’s the town closest to Angkor, I expected a ticky-tacky tourist town, just a place for people to stay en route to the ruins. It is a tourist town, but as the genre goes, it’s a nice one. It’s here:

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The first thing I did upon getting to town was to get a haircut at the Fine Day Barber Shop. There is a certain frisson about not being able to communicate well with your barber.

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And as he put the straight razor to my neck, I wondered if the tens of thousands of tons of bombs that America “secretly” dropped on his country 45 years ago killed many of his relatives.

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I also found that the Angkor National Museum does a good job of showcasing and explaining Angkor civilization and putting the area’s ruins in historical context.

The town has a lovely and well-tended park that runs along the Siem Reap River, which cuts through the middle of the town.

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For those whose tastes run more toward the vehicular, Cambodia’s climate does a good job of preserving the classics.

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There are many shops, ranging from the tony to the homespun — and even the latter are neat and tidy.

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After living in Yuxi for ten months, I found myself craving non-Chinese food. Especially enjoyed the beef stew at Molly Malone’s, an Irish pub run by a half-French half-Cameroonian man and his Irish wife. I swapped lies with him while holding down the Bullshit Corner at the bar.

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On another night, as I wandered around town, I caught sight of Boston Red Sox posters hanging above the bar at Belmiro’s Pizza & Subs. Being a former Bostonian, I wandered in for the first pizza I’ve had since Christmas. It’s a great establishment, run by Belmiro Barros, a self-described “kid from Marion, Massachusetts” who got sick of a career in international finance and decided to open a restaurant in Siem Reap. Pizza and conversation were both very good.

There were posters up in the coffee shops and guesthouses advertising jazz concerts, dance recitals, a circus, and art gallery openings. After a few days there, I left thinking that even if Angkor was not just a tuk tuk ride away, Siem Reap would be a fine place to visit or to live.

Surprising Message on a Chevrolet

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Three-Wheeled Addendum

When I was describing the three-wheeled vehicles of Yuxi recently, I forgot about this beauty:
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Wheels: Two and Three

Half the vehicles on the roads of Yuxi have two or three wheels. The vast majority of the two-wheeled variety are scooters and small motorcycles. Bicycles may have reigned supreme on Chinese streets forty years ago, but they are a tiny minority today in Yuxi.

Most of the scooters are electric. They whir by so quietly that they often take me by surprise.
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By law, motorcycles can have an engine displacement of no more than 150cc. That’s tiny. The first photo below is of a mototaxi. They hang out at almost every intersection in town and will take you wherever you want to go in town for ¥5 (about $0.80). Note the two helmets: one for the driver, one for his passenger.
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The most interesting and unusual vehicles here are the three-wheeled mini-trucks. These have a motorcycle front end and engine married to a flatbed. Some of them are electric. The carry everything from furniture to flowers. Some have coal-fired cookstoves on their backs and function as food carts.
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There are still some of their pedal-powered forebears on the roads. They’re built to last. Note the three downtubes on this first one.
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