Monthly Archives: March 2015

“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

Captivated by Curasao’s Colors

PPunda District - WillemstadAmazed! Bedazzled! Captivated!  We could continue to run through the alphabet of words to describe our reaction from the moment we stepped off the plane through the weeks we spent driving about, swimming, strolling and hiking our way through this little island nation.  But there’s no doubt about it – Curacao is all about c-o-l-o-r.Scharloo District - Willemstad

floating market in PundaHowever, it wasn’t always that way.  Curacao’s origins date all the way back to 1634 and the original buildings were constructed from island stones and coral or bricks from incoming ships that had been used as ballast.  These structures were then coated with a lime plaster made from crushed coral and shells and the sticky paste from the aloe vera plant.  The white facades reflected the rays of the intense Caribbean sun and the sight of these white stucco edifices against the vivid blue sky must have been quite dazzling.PPunda District - Willemstad

Otra Banda District - WillemstadAnd here’s where the legend of Curacao’s love affair with color begins. There are many variations to the story (and the locals will be delighted to tell you them!) but it seems that the early 19th century Governor-General, Albert Kikkert, suffered from killer headaches. Thought to have been migraines, he believed that his severe headaches were exacerbated by the glare of the sun reflecting off the brilliant white buildings.  In the grand tradition of a ruling pooh-bah he issued an edict in 1817 that the buildings of Curacao be painted in a color other than white.    All the government buildings including the governor’s home were painted a deep yellow which still seems to be a favorite color throughout the island today.  And to take the story a few steps further and uncover a mercenary motive, we’ve heard it told that the governor had an interest in the local paint business, hence the mandate.   Another variant of the story was that paint colors were priced differently and yellow was the cheapest.  People painted their homes with more costly colors and even used two or more accent colors to reflect their status and boast about their wealth.  Some things never change…Punda

Google Curacao and one of the first pictures that appears is the historical waterfront, Handelskade, on the Punda side of Sint Anna Bay with its Dutch colonial houses painted in a kaleidoscope of colors.  Named number eight on Tripadvisor’s 2012 “Top 10: Fantastically colorful places,” the blocks and blocks of colorful homes and businesses in Willemstad’s Punda, Otra Banda and Scharloo historic districts will wow even the most travel weary.  And no one will dispute any of the reasons that Willemstad was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.Willemstad Punda waterfront

Otra Banda District - WillemstadBut the colors of Curacao are far greater than just the picturesque painted houses and businesses found ubiquitously throughout the island.   Everywhere one looks there’s a color that pops.  Overhead is the brilliant, bright blue sky with soft white cumulous clouds and the vivid orange troupials flying by or parakeets and parrots.  The Caribbean Sea shimmers, undulates, waves and roils in shades from a clear shimmering turquoise to a deep blue.  During rainy season green hues are underfoot and overhead. The largest park in Curacao, Christoffel, is filled with the deep greens of the many species of cactus, flowering in season, orchids and trees like the divi-divi or the highly poisonous, lime-green manchineel tree with its small and sweet but very toxic little apples.  And did we mention the corals and colorful fish below the water’s surface or the flamingoes wading through the Jan Kok salt pans?Caribbean hiking

Curacao could almost be compared to an onion with many layers.  For those who visit Willemstad for a day of sightseeing from one of the numerous cruise ships, the medley of Caribbean colored architecture with its curlicues and shuttered windows found throughout the winding city streets are the first few tiers.  But, if time allows and you have a few weeks or longer the island won’t disappoint you.  There are myriad opportunities for the eyes to behold the variety of hues existing with each new layer that is peeled back. It’s impossible to leave Curacao without a belief that you have witnessed something unique.license plate

By Anita and Richard

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