Diego, The Ocean Blue and What’s an Alcázar?

Palace of ColumbusThose of us who are a “certain age” grew up with the rhyme, “In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”  We learned of Christopher Columbus (now the subject of a hot debate but we’ll pass on that story) and his voyage west, bumping into the “New World” along the way.  But we never heard about his family. His eldest son, Diego, for example, spent much of his adult life trying to regain the titles and perquisites bestowed upon his explorer father that were stripped from Christopher in 1500. Being a clever fellow like his padre, Diego married a woman with family ties to King Ferdinand. Recently, we became aware of the younger Colombo during our visit to the Alcázar de Colón in the historic central district of Santo Domingo, the Zona Colonial, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

renovation in Santo DomingoOur road trip to the capital city of the Dominican Republic began smoothly enough as well-marked and maintained toll roads run between Punta Cana and Santo Domingo. Upon reaching the sprawling city, however, the carefully thought out route to the hotel that our friends had downloaded to their iPad went awry.  Roads in the center of town were completely blocked off by piles of bricks, paving stones and mounds of dirt with huge gaping holes where the streets had once been.  A massive project of renovation and utility improvements within the old city was underway.renovation - historical zone

And there we were, driving down a one way-street the wrong way, four pairs of eyes looking frantically for a street sign to hint at our location.  A stern-looking representative of the Nacional Policia motioned us to stop with an imperious wave of his hand, allowed us to turn around and then led us along an unimaginably complex route to the destination where we were quartered for the evening. The officer finally smiled as profuse thanks were offered by all of us and we lugged our bags into the Boutique Hotel Palacio.  A few minutes later one of the hotel staff informed us that the policeman was still outside and we, somewhat gingerly, inquired of the officer if it was permissible to offer a “propina” (a gratuity) for such exemplary service. “Only,” he gravely and courteously replied, “If we wished to do so…”

sideview of Alcázar de Colón

side view of Alcázar de Colón

But, we digress.  Back to Diego and the Alcázar de Colón, the most visited museum in Santo Domingo. The royal palace was commissioned by Diego who became the Viceroy of Hispaniola in 1509 assuming the post his father had previously held. Construction initially began between 1510 and 1512 and, when it was finally completed, it encompassed fifty-five rooms and was the Viceroy’s residence as well as the administrative center of the New World for much of the 16th century.

Alcázar de Colón

Alcázar de Colón

Today only twenty-two rooms survive and we’re fortunate to have them.  Our old friend, whose dastardly deeds we’d first run into in Panama and then Colombia, the English Admiral Sir Francis Drake, sacked the Alcázar, or Palace, in 1586.  As the importance of Santo Domingo waned in the New World, the Alcazar was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Finally, in 1955, renovation began to preserve what remains.

Picture a square with a central courtyard populated by a fewinside Alcázar de Colón strutting peacocks and rooms leading like railroad cars to other rooms.  Weaving our way between tour groups of school children we tried hard to stay ahead or behind them as we went from one display to another admiring the period pieces of furniture, paintings, tapestries, armaments, clothing and other accoutrements of life among the royal families.  As an aside, it’s an unnerving feeling to be contemplating a royal dignitary’s bedroom, with its itsy-bitsy little bed, trunks, chairs and bureau (for they truly were small people) and look out the open-shuttered window and view a cruise ship docked not two hundred yards distant alongside the quay in the old city dwarfing the Alcázar.courtyard  cruise ship

apothecaryEntirely unique to our experiences in Latin America was a room containing what once must have been a fully stocked apothecary. A wall of individually labeled bottles, rather resembling Delft pottery in appearance, stored the herbs, spices, ground potions and liniments which an eminent physician would naturally have had at his disposal, especially when his clientele included the ruling masters of the New World.  Another wall contained shelves loaded with beakers, flasks, mortars and pestles, even a small copper distillery for producing the extracts and essences of the medicinal products. The Alcázar’s medical practitioner also possessed a handsome cabinet which, behind the screened front, revealed eighty-one individual drawers, each painted in exquisite detail, identifying its contents. While no plaques attested to the physician’s prowess in the healing arts this stupendous collection should, at the least, have assuaged some of the qualms of Diego Colón.apothecary

Much of our time in Santa Domingo was spent on the Calle da las Damas, the first cobblestoned street in the Americas and the heart of the New World back in the day. It lies parallel to the waterfront on the Caribbean Sea and the Ozama River and nearly abuts the Parque Colon and La Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor also known as La Catedral Primada de America, the first church of the Americas.

La Catedral

La Catedral – building began in 1514

This venue houses the Museo de las Casas de Reales (Museum of the Royal Families) which was initially the Royal Court, the first court of law in the New World.  Also on the Calle de las Damas is the Panteón Nacional, originally a Jesuit church which, after many iterations, became the resting place of many of the leading revolutionary figures and national leaders. A single sentry stands a silent vigil over the crypts.

There’s more to see in the venerable old city of Santo Domingo, first established in 1496, than we anticipated.  We returned to Punta Cana with the feeling that we could have spent another day exploring and learning more about the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Zona Colonial and the first and oldest Spanish colonial city in the Americas.

19th century statue honoring Christopher Columbus in Parque Colon - La Catedral in background

19th century statue of Christopher Columbus in Parque Colon – La Catedral in background

By Richard and Anita

 

“Long Time No See” and Island Hopping to the DR

We left Curacao on a lovely warm day flying in a small passenger Airbus over the teal blue Caribbean above puffy, white cumulus clouds.  We were headed north towards the island of Hispaniola and Santa Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, where we would meet our friends.

A funny story about our friends. We first met B & C in January, 2013, in Merida, a good-sized colonial city (population approximately one million) in the Mexican state of Yucatan.

Paseo de Montejo Intersection, Merida

Paseo de Montejo Intersection, Merida

We spent our month-long visit walking miles around the city, locating various parks and neighborhood churches, visiting museums, wandering down the lovely wide avenue Paseo Montejo, waiting in the bus station to hop buses to the near-by ruins of Uxmal and Chichen Itza’, the seaside city of Progresso, the yellow city of Izamal, among other places.  And we kept bumping into the same couple, strolling about sight-seeing.  We’d nod, exchange a few words and a laugh and go on our way.  One night we ran into them again at dinner on Avenida Reforma and carried on a lively conversation, filling in our backgrounds and exchanging travel stories.  At the end of our stay in Merida we moved on to further travels throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and  Chiapas and then on to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and…

Nicaragua. Late December of 2013 found us in Granada strolling the streets when we heard a familiar voice say, “Long time no see.”

La Catedral, Granada, Nicaragua

La Catedral, Granada, Nicaragua

And there they were. What were they, stalkers? This time we met for a lunch, exchanged email addresses and actually arranged to meet again for a short jaunt to San Juan del Sur in January of 2014.  Again, we went our separate ways but this time we stayed in touch updating each other on our plans and travels until …

Ecuador.  There we were, contemplating a 7-week housesit in Curacao for January/February of 2015, deciding where to go in December (Colombia) and figuring out what to do with the several weeks we had in March/April until we departed for Europe.  A note from B & C said “We’re in the DR for four months – feel welcome to come and visit …” And so we did and here we are in …

Punta Cana on Map dominican_republicPunta Cana, Dominican Republic. After a week of staying with B & C we found an airy condo unit on the second floor of the same complex – because, after all, we’d like to cultivate our friendship not smother it!  We split the cost of a month-long car rental which makes getting around the spread-out, ill-defined area that offers stores, restaurants and other services much easier. The car rental has the additional advantage of simplifying navigating around this island nation to visit other towns and cities, historic landmarks and the rural countryside and coasts.

walled cityAlthough the coastal town of Punta Cana is written on a map it’s hard to encapsulate its location in precise terms since there’s no such thing as city limits for the sprawl.  Large cement letters lining a wide road and spelling out D-O-W-N-T-O-W-N Punta Cana lead to … nothing.  Poorly regulated growth has spawned these place holders for the all-inclusive end-destination resorts that blanket the eastern end of the island. These resorts tend to keep the vacationing guests and their money inside the gated walls and exclude the “others”, be they ex-pats or Dominicans, from the mix. Approaching the resorts from the land side is not an option due to the high walls and sentries at the gates which offer tantalizing glimpses of vast pools and lounges for reclining sun worshippers.

resort map

resort map

Access from the beach is ill-advised as well since the public area is small and the resort areas with their vast stretches of beach, while not roped off per se, hurry to shoo away folks who might decide that their beach stroll would be improved with a cold beverage or a bit of sit on a lounge in front of any particular resort compound.  Colored wrist bracelets clearly identify those who belong versus those who don’t.

For those not ensconced in the all-inclusive resorts, the people who actually live in Punta Cana or long-term visitors like our friends (who won’t return) escaping from harsh northern winters, the area presents a clean, modernized face with many amenities on its soulless interior. Certainly this is a vacation paradise where the living is easy but the city lacks any authenticity. “There’s no there, there.” aptly describes this urban area. For the sun worshiper it’s a vacation paradise. However, for someone seeking to learn about another country, Punta Cana is an unfair and unflattering representation of the Dominican Republic that is packaged and presented in this pasteurized, homogenized tip of the island.

By Anita and Richard

 

 

Housesitting: Parallel Lives in an Alternate Universe

Jokes houseIt’s rather strange to be house and pet sitters when you think about it.  We walk into a stranger’s house and make ourselves at home among their possessions and four-legged family.  We care for their treasures like we would our own, pamper and fuss over the pets, water plants and bring in the mail, converse with the neighbors and sometimes even add some of their friends as our own.  In short, we have a chance to sample and experience an alternative life in a new and unfamiliar city or country without a permanent commitment. How cool is that?

Joke's HouseAt the beginning of our stay in Curacao the security guard at the entrance recognized the vehicle we were driving but not us, and each new guard required the same explanation about who we were and where we were staying.  Shortly, however, a wave and nod and we’d be let back into the gated community with little fuss and a warm smile.  We learned some of the idiosyncrasies of the house:  the lighting system controlled by a remote, the combination stove/oven with the temperature in Centigrade that cooked with either gas or electricity, the washer with controls labeled in Dutch and the on-demand hot water heater.  We never did quite figure out the electronic gate of the fence that enclosed the small property and, if any neighbors watched our comings and Ninagoings we must have provided a small amount of amusement.  One of us would dance around with the control waving our arms trying to activate the “trigger” or light that powered the finicky beast. The gates would part halfway then slam shut and all the time the driver would be gunning the engine waiting to dart through whenever the gate god decided we’d been toyed with long enough.

And there were, of course, the three reasons our presence as house/pet sitters was required:  Grietje, Nina and Simba.  Simba, the big neutered Tom called our competence into question right away when he took off the second day of our stay for some nomadic traveling of his own that lasted Simbaabout two weeks.  He slunk back home thinner, wearing some battle scars and slowly insinuated himself back into the household as though he’d never left.  Nina, a feminine calico, had one eye (the other lost to an infection before her adoption as a small kitten) and loved watching us from her lofty heights on the refrigerator or the top shelf of the bookcases.  She also pounced on unsuspecting toes moving under the sheet early in the morning which was a rude awakening. And Grietja, a tortoiseshell, shed her hair in tufts and was ever mindful of her next meal, falling upon her bowl with famished enthusiasm.  All became our adopted family.

Grietje claimed one of our suitcases as her new bed

Grietje claimed one of our suitcases as her new bed

Instead of a parallel experience during our stay in Curacao we had a rather bifurcated house sitting gig. hikingOne half of our duo, “Immersed”, entered upon a social calendar which included yoga, a charity walk-a-thon, weekly walking/hiking jaunts with a group up and down hills and along the coast and tea or coffee sessions following the outings. The less mobile one, suffering from a twisted knee right before our departure from Cartagena deplaned in hikingWillemstad appearing something like a reincarnated Quasimodo: upper body canting forward and to the right, back and hip in open revolt and the left leg a reluctant appendage at best.  “Twisted” spent the first several days of our stay semi-reclined, leg propped up, alternating the reading of historic tomes with fast-paced best-sellers.  When rest didn’t work we explored medical tourism in phases: a doctor, physical therapist and finally an orthopedic doctor with a magic serum dispensed weekly by a wickedly long needle.  In fact, the orthopedist complimented “Twisted” by casually mentioning that the x-rays showed the knees of a 45-year old patient – Blush! Blush!

And so, in between semi-reclusion and endeavors, the few house sitting activities and the care of our three feline charges we interspersed swimming, sightseeing jaunts by car exploring the island and ultimately on-foot wanderings around the barrios of Willemstad.  With the offending knee working as it should “Twisted” was upright and mobile, ready for future rambles.  In fact, the big downside to our house and pet sit in Curacao was ….

Leaving!Simba in the birdbath

By Richard and Anita

The Two Queens of Curacao: One Swings, One Soars

Queen Emma Brdge

Queen Emma Brdge

Step onto the Queen Emma Bridge and you feel a moment of vertigo as it shifts slightly beneath your feet.  You’ll sway a bit and it takes a moment to realize that what appears to be a simple, conventional bridge with fixed points on either end is actually floating upon pontoons, sixteen to be exact.  Nicknamed the “Swinging Old Lady” this permanent floating bridge spans the Sint Anna Bay and connects the two sections of Willemstad: Otra Banda and Punta districts.Queen Emma Brdge

The city of Willemstad dates back to 1634 and the shoreline of the older section of the city, Punta, had structures crammed cheek to jowl by the time a bridge between the two parts of the city was contemplated.  To have constructed a conventional bridge would have required the expropriation and destruction of a significant portion of the old colonial city. Entrepreneur and US Consul Leonard B. Smith came up with an elegantly simple solution that allowed the existing buildings to remain by designing a hinged bridge that swings out laterally from the Otra Banda side.  The original bridge, completed in 1888,  opens several times a day to allow passage of watercraft of varying sizes (up to and including the modern mega-sized cruise ships) from sea to the port and vice versa.a portion opens

partially open for small boat

partially open for small boat

When a ship wants to enter or exit the natural harbor, known as Schottegat, a flag either orange (for a short duration) or blue (for a longer duration) is hoisted alerting people.  A bell sounds shortly thereafter and an operator sitting in a small cabin operates the controls for two diesel engines that allow the bridge to swing on its Otra Banda axis in an arc parallel to the shore, a process that takes a surprisingly short amount of time.  During the time the bridge is open two ferries (ponchis) shuttle back and forth between Punta and Otra Banda transporting passengers for free.

bridge opening completely - pedestrians barred

bridge  preparing to open completely – pedestrians barred

opening

opening

open completely and now parallel to the Otra Banda shoreline

open completely and now parallel to the Otra Banda shoreline

Named after Queen Emma of the Netherlands, the bridge was originally a toll bridge; two guilders were charged for pedestrians wearing shoes, ten guilders for horses and, in the 20th century, 25 guilders for cars.  Since the poor citizens without shoes were allowed to cross for free many people would remove their shoes and walk across barefoot to avoid the toll.  Others considered free transit a form of charity and would save both their shoes and their money for the special occasion of crossing the bridge, proudly paying the fee.  After 1934 the toll was abolished and the issue of shoes became moot.

cruise ship moored for a day of sightseeing

cruise ship moored for a day of sightseeing

Over the years the bridge was renovated and enlarged but increased shipping traffic through Sint Anna Bay to the Schottegat harbor resulted in longer and longer waits for cars wishing to cross.  Construction began on the second bridge to be named after a Netherland’s queen, Queen Juliana Bridge, which is now the highest bridge in the Caribbean.  Built to provide passage for the enormous ships entering the harbor, at its apex its height is 56.4 meters (185 feet) above the sea water which also makes it one of the highest bridges in the world.  After the opening of the Queen Julianna Bridge on Oueen’s Day in 1974 which replaced the original structure, vehicular traffic on the Queen Emma Bridge ceased.

Queen Juliana Bridge- view from the Queen Emma Bridge

Queen Juliana Bridge view from the Queen Emma Bridge

Queen Juliana  Queen Emma

Queen Juliana and Queen Emma

The view of both bridges from the commanding summit of Fort Nassau emphasizes the dramatic difference in the relative heights of these two complementary structures and underscores the important role these bridges have played in unifying the city of Willemstad. For the very practical Netherlanders the bridges they’ve built reflect radically different personalities. The old lady, Queen Emma, undulates slowly while pedestrians cross from one side of Willemstad to another then swing dances open to allow the passage of the harbor traffic.  And the regal Queen Juliana from her lofty height is the soaring beauty of the urban island skyline. crossing Queen Emma

By Anita and Richard

 

A Past Gone With the Wind: The Landhuizen of Curacao

Rif St. Marie Landhuis

Rif St. Marie Landhuis – 1680

Our imaginations and interest were immediately piqued on our first full day upon the island when our hostess casually mentioned the plantation houses of Curacao and pointed out a couple of these “kas grandi”  (great houses) during our introductory tour of the northwestern half of the island.  Architecturally unique to the Dutch Antilles, the landhuizen provided a backdoor to the culture and history of Curacao neglected in the discussions of the UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassed in the districts of Willemstad.

Landhuis Habaii now houses the Gallery Alma Blou

Landhuis Habaii houses the Gallery Alma Blou –  ciirca 1752

Landhuis Papaya houses a treatment center for drug and alcohol addiction

Landhuis Papaya is a halfway house for those with drug and alcohol dependencies – 1850

Landhuis Dokterstuin - now a restaurant serving local food

Landhuis Dokterstuin is a restaurant serving local food – 18th century

It was our good fortune that the first plantation we visited was the marvelously preserved Landhuis Kenepa, in Knip. Moreover, it was a museum dedicated not to the aristocrats who owned the plantation but to the slaves who built and toiled in the homes or under the glaring sun in the fields and salt flats of the owners. This intriguing structure highlighted the role of Sula (also known as Tula whose iconic image is seen throughout the island today) one of the leaders of a widespread, but ultimately unsuccessful, slave rebellion in 1795 which was brutally suppressed.

Landhuis Knip is now Museo Tula - also called Kenepa

Landhuis Knip is now Museum Tula – also called Kenepa – 17th century

Our knowledgeable guide, Michalyn, sang soulfully in Papiamento, a pidgin tongue originated by the slaves and now one of the two official languages of Curacao.  The songs, passed down through the generations, spoke of a far-away homeland, day-to day cares, faith and future dreams and were sung by the slaves while washing clothing, grinding corn and other required labors. The foreignness of the tunes and language coupled with that of the isolation of the plantation lent an ethereal quality to the restored house now furnished with a mix of artifacts of the master’s costly possessions and the slave’s scant belongings, work tools and handmade musical instruments.

Landhuis Savonet Museum

Landhuis Savonet Museum – 1662

The first mansions were built in the 17th century as the focal point of the plantation, surrounded by outbuildings and warehouses and, at their zenith, there were over one-hundred landhuizen on the island. They were built upon large foundations which provided a platform, or veranda, at the front and rear of the house and were usually built on hill tops so that the manor overlooked the plantation.  From this lofty vantage point the home was cooled by the sea breezes flowing through the open doors and windows on both levels. This location also allowed the plantation owner, the shon, to observe the workings of slaves and the overseers from the verandas and the elevated location provided a direct line-of-sight with at least one other landhuis to allow for signaling in the event of an emergency – say a slave uprising.

Landhuis San Juan neglected and in need of restoration

Landhuis San Juan neglected and in need of restoration – 1662

Landhuis Morgenster shuttered and vacant

Landhuis Morgenster shuttered and vacant – 1786

Landhuis Kas Abou is uninhabited

Landhuis Kas Abou is uninhabited – circa 17th century

The abolition of slavery in 1863 signaled the end of this period of domination. The system died a slow death, hanging on through a familiar pattern of share cropping, where the former slaves, for lack of other options, exchanged their labor to maintain the plantation for plots of land to tend for their personal use and erect the now historic Kunuku houses. However, the times and the markets gradually gave way to the arrival of Royal Dutch Shell and employment in its refineries and the related service sector in the early 20th century.  The whole landhuis edifice began to crumble with the owners and the workers moving into the city of Willemstad, to the Punda, Otra Banda or Scharloo districts depending upon their circumstances.  They began to build a social order free of the colonial plantation system.

Landhuis Zorgvlied

Landhuis Zorgvlied – destroyed during a 1775 slave rebellion

Landhuis Fontein ruins

Landhuis Fontein ruins

The manors themselves began to fall into disrepair. The intercession of the Heritage Foundation, a national governmental organization, and private individuals has managed to conserve about half of the original larger plantations; roughly 55 are still extant. Others, scattered around the island, are in various stages of disrepair, neglect and destitution with little hint of their former grandeur while nature moves to reclaim her own.

Landhuis Jan Kok - houses the Nena Sanchez Gallery - 1704

Landhuis Jan Kok – houses the Nena Sanchez Gallery – 1704

Landhuis Groot Santa Marta employs the physically and mentally handicapped

Landhuis Groot Santa Marta houses Fundashon Tayer Soshal which employs the physically and mentally handicapped – circa 1675

Landhuis Ascension open for tours and owned by the Dutch Navy - 1672

Landhuis Ascension open for tours and owned by the Dutch Navy – 1672

Our visits to several of the landhuizen expanded our understanding of both the history of slavery and the plantation system but also exposed us to the wonderful utility of which these remarkable relics have been converted.  While some are still private homes many have been transformed into museums, art galleries, restaurants, small hotels and commercial business interests, including at least one distillery.   These plantation houses with a brutal history mired in slavery, presented us with a unique opportunity to augment our perception of colonial Curacao and the living history of the landhuizen.

Landhuis Zeelandia now occupied by private businesses

Landhuis Zeelandia now occupied by private businesses – 18th century

By Richard and Anita

 

Shake Your Booty & Cover Your Ears: Carnival Parades in Curacao

Children's Carnival ParadeA couple of things are certainties at Curacao’s Carnival parades. First, you will wait way longer for them to commence with the activities than you had anticipated and second, when they do get around to the parade to-do the initial order of business is to dispense earplugs along the length of the route.

Banda Bou Parade

So it went at the Children’s Carnival Parade one Sunday afternoon. It was an event requiring patience waiting in the scorching sun while being pressed up against a metal retaining rail as Banda Bou Paradelatecomers crowded in. We rationed our water from newly purchased and sweating bottles (because, after all, neither of us wanted to lose our places while searching for a porta-potty.) After a truncated eternity the street began to clear and there appeared, in dazzling canary yellow uniforms with the requisite short skirts, the Insel Air girls with their smiles and ear plugs for the masses. Children's Carnival Parade  All the schools, youth organizations and numerous companies, it seemed, had a presence at the children’s parade. And the theme of the parade was geared to the age; cartoon characters from past and present, including many that we recognized and remembered well. Passing before us were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, The Flintstones, Mickey and Minnie Mouse and other, new characters that were completely unknown.

Banda Bou Parade

Children's Carnival ParadeWe discovered quickly enough the reason for the ear plugs. Even before the first child was in sight we noted that spaced generously throughout the parade were Banda Bou Parade large mobile sound systems. Multi-tiered, ginormous woofers, tweeters, mid-ranges and bass blasted out live performances of Tumba, Curacao’s unique music, and Calypso or D.J. inspired audio mayhem of rhythm based “shake that thang baby” music.  But whether live or Memorex the volume was deafening. Shouting to each other was impossible. We could feel the vibration deep in our ribs and sternum from the bass rattling your bones, maximum decibel, blaring volume.

Banda Bou Parade Banda Bou ParadeCuracao has its own unique twist on the pre-Lenten celebrations that originated with the plantation owners and wealthy merchants who threw extravagant and stately balls complete with masks and wigs reflecting the heritage of their homelands. The slaves mimicked the upper crust behavior in their own homes with their songs, folklore and customs. After the abolition of slavery, with Banda Bou Paradethe enhanced freedom of expression and the rise of a freer, urban working class, the celebrations grew more elaborate and moved from the homes to the streets. Here developed the tradition of today’s Carnival with beauty pageants, Tumba dance competitions, street parties (the jump-ups), private in-door affairs (the jump-ins) and parades that encompassed all the island.Banda Bou Parade

Banda Bou parade routeHaving enjoyed ourselves with the children’s parade we ventured to the Banda Bou Parade in the town of Barber the following Saturday.  We were instructed to get there a couple of hours early as it was heavily attended since the Carnival frenzy continued to build as the countdown to sobriety and atonement, Ash Wednesday, was nearing. We arrived at our destination and drove the parade route from the end point towards Banda Bou parade routethe beginning and were politely, but emphatically, advised with head shakes that various parking spots we eyeballed were reserved as evidenced by a chalk mark, a cinder block or a folding chair. Near the front of the route we found a spot on the side of the road.  It was 1:00 PM; the parade, we’d been informed, started around 3:00 PM.  And so we sat and watched traffic ebb and flow, watched the Harley scooter contingent rumble through for a few passes, watched the vendors come and go, watched families with excited children, watched the sun cross a cloudless sky, watched the plates of food and Amstel beer and the locally distilled rum concoctions disappear.Banda Bou Parade

Sometime near 4:30, the police finally halted traffic and we waited with sorely tested anticipation. And then, the vivid canary yellow uniforms of the Insel Air beauties were among us again distributing foam hearing protectors with dazzling white-toothed smiles.  Shortly afterwards the parade was underway this time with children, teens and adults.  The bands and Tumba dancers, all elaborately costumed, strutted, shimmied and shook as they passed. Behemoth sound trucks, enough to justify the ear plugs, floats and cars with dignitaries and well-wishers rolled past us. And when it was done, we were among the first to lead the trek back down the island in the direction of Willemstad, deafened and carrying on a conversation at much louder levels than usual, happy that we had endured the wait and experienced another Carnival parade.Banda Bou Parade

Banda Bou ParadeThe next day, Sunday was the finale,  the Grandi Marcha Parade, a wild, riotous event for the adults celebrating what we were told was the island’s version of the New Orlean’s Mardi Gras festival that would eclipse all the previous parades.  Beginning in the late afternoon and extending well into the night it’s the city’s big blow out with the dancing, drinking and raucous partying so excessive that the day after is a national holiday, a day of recovery if you will.

Call us weenies with no sense of adventure but … we skipped it!Banda Bou Parade

By Richard and Anita

The Kunuku Homes of Curacao

kunuku houseWe’ve always been collectors.  However, as long-term travelers we carry all our possessions with us and our collections are now confined to friends and experiences, memories and digital pictures. And what fun we have as we find the things that make each place we visit unique.  On Curacao, we’ve explored many roads around the island and we’ve noticed simple homes with slanted sides scattered about the countryside.  As we’ve hopped out of the car for a better look and perchance a photograph we’ve occasionally been met by the family dog, for the most part in good humor, or occasionally by the proprietor perhaps curious as to the workings of the foreign mind.  And we’ve been counting, notating and reading about these houses as collectors are wont to do.Kunuku Museum

To our great delight we saw that one of these structures, called Kunuku houses, has been lovingly restored and is now a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Kas di Pal’i Maishi (Sorghum Stalk House) has been turned into a small museum dedicated to educating people about the lives of the slaves following their emancipation on July 1, 1863 and the homes in which they dwelt. During our tour of the grounds and house our guide was extremely patient and answered all of our questions as we struggled to assimilate this intriguing information.Kunuku house

Prior to gaining their freedom the slaves lived in makeshift shelters on the land near the plantation manors using native materials for their crude dwellings. Posts, poles and stalks provided the walls while a hipped roof covered with thatch provided protection from the scorching sun and torrential downpours during the rainy season. After the abolition of slavery some of the 7,000 people previously held in bondage were given plots of land upon which they could build a permanent home and raise a few staple crops.  For many of the former slaves, emancipation was just a word; a sharecropper system soon developed which tied them to the land and left them indebted to their previous owners. However, from these private holdings grew the Kunuku homes, some of which survive and are still in use throughout the island.Kunuku house

The permanent homes retained the same basic style as the improvised shelters. They were symmetrically rectangular with a centered doorway, a style recalling dwellings in West Africa from which many of the slaves had been abducted. Windows on each side and the high hipped roof took advantage of the frequent island winds to cool the home. The measurements were not exact but homes commonly would provide roughly 500 square feet of living space. The daub and wattle walls were tapered on the outside to provide greater stability. The interior of the walls were filled with compacted rubble and covered with a plaster made of clay, crushed coral rock and aloe vera which gave it a whitened and durable finish. The dirt floors were treated with a mixture of cow dung and clay which, over time, developed a reliably sealed surface. The peaked roof with rafters and supports provided a stable platform for the thatched roof composed of five layers of sorghum leaves.inside the home

The cooking was performed in a separate small building to reduce the chance of fire and the homes were divided into two rooms.  The larger room was used by all the family for their daily gatherings, meals and, at night, by the children.  The parents slept in the much smaller room which many times contained a bed with sloping sides and a patchwork quilt.master bedroom in Kunuku house

Outside might be an open aired privy screened by a cactus hedge and the house could also be surrounded by a pillar cactus fence of two to three rows to keep out roaming animals and define the property boundaries.Pillar cactus fence

Many of the Kunuku homes still in existence are occupied although, of course, in the 21st century the floors are tiled or finished concrete and modern amenities have been installed. The roofs, while still steeply pitched, are no longer made of hand-hewn logs with covered thatch but are corrugated metal or synthetic roof tiles. Some of the dwellings have additions or have been joined together but the original tapered walls and distinct symmetrical shape remains.Kunuku houses joined

Kunuku houseHere and there throughout the countryside are crumbling ruins and abandoned or damaged houses and these allowed us to view the interior of the walls showing the compacted rubble that lent strength to these structures.ruin of Kunuku houseThe history of Curacao is not solely in the Dutch architecture of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or its centuries old, imposing plantation houses.  The simple and time-tested Kunuku homes with traces of their African roots have also been recognized, reclaimed and preserved as part of the rich heritage of the island and give an additional depth of character to the people who live here.

pride in Kunuku heritage

pride of placeBy Richard and Anita

 

 

 

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