Thursday, February 9, 2017

The ABC Islands – Aruba and Curaçao, But No Bonaire

8 February 2017 - posted 9 February in Port of Spain, Trinidad

We’re having another at-sea day as we sail (or actually motor) from Aruba to Trinidad.  Richard and I are excited about our upcoming visit to Trinidad and Tobago, having never been there before.

On Monday we had a good long day (8 AM to 10 PM) docked in Willemstad, Curaçao, and then a shorter day (8 AM to 5 PM) in Oranjestad, Aruba.  As you can tell by the names, these islands, along with Bonaire, are part of the Netherland Antilles. 

This group of islands, along with all of the Caribbean and actually pretty much all of both the North American and South American continents, has a long and sad history of human exploitation.  There were indigenous people living on the islands.  Then the explorers came from Spain, England, Portugal, the Netherlands, and claimed the land in the name of their king or queen.  Once the explorers established colonies, people came to build towns, using the land to farm, mine, trap fur, cut down trees, all the usual things.  And since not everyone wanted to do the manual labor, Africans were captured and brought to the “New World” to work for the increasingly wealthier Europeans. 


This information comes from the “Historical Walking Tour” signs that Curaçao has put up along the path from the dock to downtown:

“When the Dutch took over Curaçao from the Spaniards in 1634, they converted the island into a trading post and with its excellent harbor and strategic geo-political location it soon became a slave trading post.  The West Indian Trading Company transported the captive Africans from the West African coast to Curaçao.  Here they remained in camps for about two years where they were taught new skills to increase their market value.  Most of them were then sold to the continent, while the rest were put to work in the fields or as house slaves.

“The inhabitants of Curaçao are multilingual.  The Curaçao people in general understand and speak Dutch, English, Spanish, and Papiamento.  The official languages are Papiamento and Dutch, of which Papiamento is the native language.  It gradually developed during the 17th and 18th centuries as a means of communication in a multi-ethnic community dominated by the Africans imported as slaves whose Western African languages maintained the structures and sound laws, and borrowed words from all the other languages: Amerindian, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, and adapted them to create this unique native language.

“The population of Curaçao comprises more than 40 different nationalities.  The approximately 142,000 inhabitants are 80% of Dutch Caribbean origin, made up of a multi-colored tapestry of races and cultures, hailing from Africa, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Middle East.  Most of them are Dutch citizens.  The other nationalities come from all the nations on the American continents, many from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Australia.  “Homo Caribines” may well be the prototype of the developing global population.”

Given that mix of people as well as the history of exploitation, these are surprisingly cheerful and friendly islands.  I realize that the people we meet are used to helping tourists, but really, everyone was happy to chat, and was absolutely friendly. 

I wanted to walk through town and see some of the wonderful architecture – Curaçao is known for the very Dutch style buildings with ornate gables on the front of the edifices.  The buildings are also in bright colors, each one different from the neighbor.

The two parts of the town, Willemstad, are split by a canal.  I think this canal is mostly natural, possibly an inlet or a river.  But it leads from the sea to an inland harbor, and is referred to as a canal.  The island map says that centuries ago, a chain was pulled across the mouth of the canal to “lock” the harbor, from Rif Fort to a smaller facility on the other side.  (Rif Fort was built in 1828, which is why I think it may be a natural canal.)

There are boats and ferries that go up and down the canal, as well as a huge bridge for cars.  But most people simply walk across the pontoon bridge.  Really, this bridge floats on pontoons, and is hinged at one end.  The other end has a little engine house and, I’m guessing, underwater propellers.  When a ship or two needs to navigate up or down the canal, they signal the captain?  driver?  pilot? in the engine house, and he rings an alarm bell that signals to pedestrians that the bridge is about to open.  Gates are closed at both ends of the walkway, and the pilot guy tries to hurry people off the bridge before it opens.

I asked him if I could “ride the bridge.”  He said sure, and would I like to stand by the pilot house.  I told him I’d just stand and hold the railing.

So I rode the bridge!  It really was pretty funny, there were a few other tourists who took advantage of this opportunity.  The propellers push the pilot house end of the bridge out into the water, and the bridge moves across the canal until it’s parallel and nearly abutting the opposite shore, attached only by one hinge!  It works like a giant door that opens and closes across the canal.  Really a brilliant idea, and the only one like this that we’ve ever seen!

A barge and tug went by in one direction, and then we started to close.  As we approached the far end, I could see a slot where the bridge would hook into place.  A ferry darted in and barely made it past the end of the bridge – which, as you can see, doesn’t have any kind of barrier.  They assume people are smart enough to not walk off the end into the water.  Anyway, I figured we’d slide smoothly into that slot, but most likely stop abruptly when whatever extension hit the end of the slot – so I held onto the rail and bam, we jolted into place.

It was a little crazy, but definitely fun to ride the bridge!

So then I headed over to the synagogue.  The directions I received from the lovely lady at the information counter – “Walk direct on this road, just through town.  You will know where to turn left because there is always music on that street.  That is where you turn, and you will see the synagogue.”

My kind of directions!

I managed to find the synagogue, Mikve Israel-Emanual.  This congregation was founded in 1651, mostly by Jews whose families had escaped the Spanish (and Portuguese) Inquisition about 150 years earlier, and settled in the Netherlands and eventually came to the New World.  So this is a Sephardic synagogue, meaning the traditions, liturgy, and melodies have origins in Spain and Portugal.  (The word comes from “Sepherad,” which I think means “west” in Hebrew.  Jews from central and eastern Europe are referred to as Ashkenazi, which is the tradition in which Richard and I both raised.)

Anyway, part of the Spanish/Portuguese style is that the synagogue is often built almost like theatre in the round.  The ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept, is on the eastern side of the building, toward Jerusalem.  The bimah, where the rabbi stands, is on the west, although here it’s almost in the center.  Benches run parallel to the north and south walls, for the congregation to be able to see both the ark and the rabbi.  And because this is an Orthodox synagogue, the women sit upstairs rather than mixed in with the men.  (The upstairs is closed to visitors, except during worship services.  I thought it would be a great place for photos, but it’s closed to the public.)

This is a gorgeous synagogue, and our second time to visit.  The outside has the very Dutch curving gables, and the building is a cheerful sunny yellow.  Inside, everything is cool white pillars and walls, dark mahogany wood, gleaming brass fixtures, and cobalt blue half-moon windows adding to the serenity.  The central ceiling is a barrel vault, which feels somehow like the inside of a ship.  Brass multi-armed chandeliers hang down with crystal chimneys, to be filled with lit candles during evening services.

Mikve Israel-Emanuel is the model used for our synagogue in St. Thomas, at least in part.  The St. Thomas synagogue is smaller and square, while this is rectangular.  And St. Thomas doesn’t have those blue half-moon windows, which I really liked.

Both have sand on the floor, an unusual kind of floor for any house of worship.  I’ve heard that there are only four synagogues in the world with sand on the floor, and both Curaçao and St. Thomas are half of them.  People always ask why, and the answers in both synagogues are the same.  During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced to convert or be put to death.  Many Jews became “conversos,” meaning they pretended to convert to Catholicism but secretely practiced Judaism.  They worshipped in secrecy in secret rooms with sand on the floor, to muffle the sounds of their steps and chanting – and when their descendants came to the Caribbean, they put sand on the floor to remember their forefathers.  This also remembers the forty years in the desert, the Exodus from Egypt.  And, a third and more poetic reason, is the Biblical passage when Abraham is told “I will multiply your seed as the sands of the seashore and the stars in the heavens.”

I always enjoy houses of worship, of any and every religion, especially when they’re empty.  There’s a peace and tranquility there, maybe spiritual or maybe the spirit of the humans who built the beautiful building to honor their deity.  So I relaxed in the synagogue, absorbing the beauty and the peace, away from the crowds and the shopping of the rest of town.

There’s also a museum, with religious objects and descriptions of the four hundred years of Jewish culture here in the Caribbean. 

And then, because it was late afternoon, I headed back to the ship.

I should add that we started the morning with free wifi at the port, and then lunch on the ship.  In keeping with our plan of slow travel, we don’t want to rush around each port and try to see everything we possibly can.  We’d rather relax and enjoy an island or town, absorbing the feel of the culture, the community, the people, the environment.  But because we don’t have wifi on the ship, we also need to do a quick catch up, taking care of whatever business needs to be done (you know, like download our info for doing our taxes, stuff like that).  So that gives us a nice long afternoon to explore each stop.  At least that’s the way we’ve handled our first few ports of call.

Some large photos:



We arrived at Oranjested, Aruba, and only had a short day. Aruba is best known for the beaches, but it was a super windy day.  The past few days we’ve been sailing through 60 knots per hour winds, which is pretty strong.  Even if the winds were down to half of that, it still meant that the sand would be flying on the beach.  Flying sand getting into our eyes, our mouths, and stinging our skin.  Also, this is winter north of the equator, so the water is cold.  Okay, not FREEZING cold, but cold to anyone living in the Caribbean. 

So we opted out of a beach visit.

We did our quick internet catch up, and then wandered around town.  It was pretty commercial, and not very exciting.  (Though I did try on a $20,000 diamond necklace, LOL – it was gorgeous

but there was absolutely no way we’d ever buy anything that pricey.  I kept trying to explain to the
saleswoman that we wouldn’t buy it, but she insisted I try it on.  We spend our money on experiences, not objects – so while yes, it was fabulous, I’d rather spend a year travelling than own that necklace.)

Anyway, Aruba was crazily colorful!  I loved it! 

First, there were these adorable and colorful little houses along the walk from the dock into town.  They mostly had advertising on the outside, though a few opened later in the day and were selling various knick-knacks.  I liked the colors with the white edging, looking like little elf cottages or something.  I was taking photos of the wonderful colors, and this man decided I needed the map of Aruba in there too!  He was pretty funny, and wouldn’t smile.  But, well, he also wouldn’t move so he’s in the photo of the pretty blue and aqua buildings.

Next, there were the buses.  I don’t know if these were tourist buses, or party buses, or is this is just an Aruban tradition.  But they were painted in all kinds of bright colors, with crazy designs and all kinds of sayings.  Flowers, dancing people, dancing fruit, and multi-colored marbling – just wonderful buses!  We saw people getting on the buses for tours, but don’t really know where they were headed.

And then, finally, there was this absolutely wonderful display of Carnival costumes!  Almost every island nation throughout the Caribbean has Carnival, though some at varying times of the year.  Many, including Curaçao, celebrate Carnival at the traditional time, just before Lent, at the end of February.  Here in Aruba, Carnival comes a little earlier, as in next week.  But the costumes!  Full of sequins and feathers and faux jewels and bling!

Richard and I love Carnival, so I had to take photos of absolutely everything in this display!  It was so beautiful, all the color and usual craziness and exuberance that makes up Carnival.  Wild and crazy and colorful! 

So, more photos - And I think the mannequins don't have heads because then the elaborate headpieces would hit the ceiling!

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