Travels & Traditions: Curaçao - #202

The island of Curaçao. It was formed ninety million years ago in the Pacific Ocean near Peru, got pushed into the Caribbean Sea to a point just off the coast of Venezuela and ended up as part of the Dutch Kingdom of the Netherlands. And I thought my life was confusing. The capital city of Willemstad is like a mini-Amsterdam transported to a tropical climate. The coral reefs that surround the island have made it an important destination for divers. The beaches have made it an important destination for vacationers. Only 150,000 people live on the island, but they came here from over fifty different nations -- an extraordinary ethnic mix with everyone making a contribution to the local traditions. It’s a fascinating place. So join me, Burt Wolf, for TRAVELS & TRADITIONS in Curaçao.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The first Europeans to set foot on Curaçao were Spanish explorers who showed up in 1499.  When they realized that there was no gold on the island, they set up a few cattle farms as a future source of food, and shoved off.  Then in 1634 the Dutch arrived and took control of the island. The Spanish surrendered without much resistance, but the cattle put up an extraordinary fight, though they were eventually forced to surrender.

The Dutch influence is still very strong in Curaçao.  Besides the political relationship between Curaçao and Holland there is an ongoing cultural relationship and a shared history of more than 350 years. The historic center of Willemstad is called Punda, which means “the point,” and its architecture is classic Dutch Colonial from the 16 and 1700s. The Dutch colonists, like colonists all around the world, tried to recreate their homeland.

ANKO VAN DER WOUDE:  So we’re in the middle of Otrabanda.  Otrabanda was built since 1708, 18th Century...

Anko Van Der Woude is one of Curaçao’s leading architects and an authority on the island’s architectural history.

ANKO VAN DER WOUDE:  Okay, this is the Penha Building, built in 1708, and it represents the Rococo or Renaissance, the Renaissance style.

BURT WOLF:   All the 1700s was that Renaissance.

ANKO VAN DER WOUDE:  All the 1700s, yes, yes, the whole of the 18th Century.  You can tell by the curls.  And if you would go to Amsterdam in the same period, you would find the same kind of architecture.  The building used to stop here, and this was the addition of about two yards which was added --

BURT WOLF:  Yes, you can see where it ended --


BURT WOLF:   -- and then suddenly they built it out.

ANKO VAN DER WOUDE:  Yes.  And also, you can see the color.  The first houses were made with bricks.  They glued them together with mud, and the outside you had to plaster, thus making it a closed wall.  If you plaster, you paint it.  And they were mostly painted white.

BURT WOLF:   Whitewashed.

ANKO VAN DER WOUDE:  Whitewashed.  It was the cheapest color they could get. 

BURT WOLF:   And how did they get to be so colorful?

ANKO VAN DER WOUDE:  Well, there was a governor in 1816, and you can imagine most of the houses being white, when the sun reflects off the houses... he said, “Whenever I walk through town, I get a terrible headache because of the sun.  I want them to be painted another color within two weeks.”  And all the houses were painted other colors, except white.

BURT WOLF:   Did his headaches go away?

ANKO VAN DER WOUDE:  Uhhhh... that doesn’t say.  The history doesn’t tell.

BURT WOLF:   Well, they certainly are beautiful.

The districts of Punda and Otrobanda are connected by the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge. This is quite a piece of work.  The entire bridge is set on a series of floats. The Otrobanda end sits on wheels that are locked onto a circular track. The Punda end has a set of diesel engines attached to propellers. When they want to open the bridge, the engines are started and the bridge swings out from Punda allowing the harbor traffic to pass.

The Jewish community in Curaçao built the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, which opened for Passover services in 1732 and has been in use since then, which makes it the oldest synagogue in continuous operation in the New World. The floor of the synagogue is covered with sand as a reminder of the forty days and nights that the Jews wandered in the desert after escaping from bondage in Egypt. But the sand is also a reminder of the time of the Spanish Inquisition when Jews were forced to practice their religion in secret rooms. The sand muffled the sound of their movements and their voices. The synagogue also has a museum with objects drawn from its 350-year history.

Willemstad is a “walking city”…street front shops with friendly staff, and shaded places to relax and get something to eat and drink. It’s also the only place I know of that took their ancient forts and prisons and instead of turning them into monuments turned them into restaurants. The historic area of Willemstad, the inner city and the harbor, have been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

The old buildings in Willemstad are grand structures... but like so many glorious things they contain the seeds of their own destruction. Coral and quarry stone were used for the walls and held together with a mortar that contained sand from the beaches and seawater. Eventually the salt in the coral, beach sand and seawater began leaching out and eating away at the buildings, which began to crumble.  Fortunately there is an aggressive rehabilitation program, and many of the most important buildings will be saved.

But sand and seawater are not always negative elements. As a matter of fact, great beaches and water sports are two of the main reasons people visit Curaçao.  The island has many public and private beaches. Some have snack bars, showers, and an assortment of seaside services. Others are secluded and offer visitors a private moment away from it all.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The constant 13-knot trade winds that powered the Spanish treasure galleons, the Dutch, French and English pirate ships during the 1500s, are still around, and available to windsurfers. The water temperature is a constant 75 to 81 degrees all year round, and there is approximately one hundred feet of visibility underneath the surface, which allowed me to see this.

Curaçao has been rated as one of the best Caribbean islands for shore diving and snorkeling, with most dive sites easily accessible because the reefs are near the water’s edge. The lack of rain on Curaçao may be bad for farmers but it’s great for divers. It sets up the high salt content in the nearby waters, which is just the environment for the development of coral reefs.

If you’re not quite in the Cousteau class but interested in having an animal encounter of the nautical kind, you can stop into the Curaçao Sea Aquarium. A natural tidal pool near the edge of the Seaquarium is home to hundreds of tropical fish, including a group of sharks that live behind a wire fence fitted with a Plexiglas window. Visitors can take a short diving lesson, go below and feed the sharks and the other fish through small holes in the Plexiglas.

ERWIN CURIAL:  We have air in the tank for one and a half hour.  We’re gonna be underwater for forty minutes.  Before we go in, I’m gonna have you put the equipment on, inflate it for you, what you have to do, put your mask on your face, regulator in your mouth, and you walk slowly forward down the stairs.  Because your face is in the water, the added exhale comes out as bubbles.  And the bubbles always go up, yeah?  And they go alongside your ears.  Those bubbles, they make a lot of noise.  Yeah?  That noise is good.  That means you’re breathing.  Okay?

BURT WOLF:   I’ll remember that.

ERWIN CURIAL:  Just imagine if you have your mask on like this.  That looks very stupid to me.  Yeah?  And it’s gonna fall off.  So it doesn’t work like that.  Always on top of your head --

BURT WOLF:   -- above the ears --

ERWIN CURIAL:  -- like this, so it’s not going anywhere.  Okay?

BURT WOLF:   Yeah.

ERWIN CURIAL:  Maybe looking around you see a big stingray sit on my head.  That looks funny to you, and you start smiling.  No problem.  You’re mask’s gonna fill up with water.

BURT WOLF:   No smiling.

ERWIN CURIAL:  Yeah, you can smile.  But you’re gonna have water in your mask.  Okay?  When the water reaches your eye level, you will stop smiling.  And we got stingrays in here.  Don’t you worry, the stingrays, they don’t bite, they don’t sting.  But what they do --

BURT WOLF:   Why do they call them “stingrays...?”

ERWIN CURIAL:  Because they can sting.

BURT WOLF:   Oh.  But they know that I’m friendly.  They wouldn’t sting me on television.  Be the end of their career in television.  They’ll never be on television again.

ERWIN CURIAL:  Never.  Questions so far?

BURT WOLF:   Never Let The Regulator Out Of My Mouth.


BURT WOLF:   That’s it.

ERWIN CURIAL:  Let’s do it?

BURT WOLF:   Let’s do it.

I would like to point out, without animosity or envy, that my beloved producer Emily Aronson stayed dry and comfortable, observing the situation from a stationary submarine that sits next to the tidal pool. And to add insult to injury, she was eating M&Ms through the entire experience, including my portion.

By the middle of the 1600s, Curaçao had become the center of the Dutch trading empire in the New World. Unfortunately a major part of that trade was conducted in slaves. The Kura Hulanda Museum in Willemstad tells the story of this appalling business, a business that went on for over four hundred years -- from 1441 to 1863. There’s a reconstruction of the hold of a slave ship…visitors can get inside and see what the space felt like. A trader’s home with furniture made by the slaves.  A portrait of a Dutch trader by Frans Hals.  Reproductions of slave ships.  After they delivered the slaves to Curaçao they turned into pirate ships… stealing pre-Columbian gold from the Spanish who had just stolen it from the Aztecs. There’s a building filled with African art from the areas from which the slaves were taken. A collection of over two hundred historic prints and other artifacts relating to the history of slavery in the Caribbean. Africans were brought to Curaçao and then resold to plantations throughout the New World. The island became the largest transport center for slaves with over 500,000 Africans passing through the port.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): It’s hard to believe, but slavery still exists, and it exists all over the world. Sometimes the slaves are illegal aliens forced to work for the people who snuck them into the United States or Canada, or indentured workers in a clothing factory, or a child bride sold off by her family. It’s all slavery and it’s all about money.  And a visit to a museum like this will quickly remind you that the fight against slavery is far from over.

The entire museum was funded by Jacob Gelt Dekker, who is devoting his life and his wealth to the education of the children of this island. In addition to the material on the slave trade, Dekker has put together a collection of traditional arts and crafts in order to create a greater knowledge and pride in African ancestry. It’s a sign of Curaçao’s integrity that they present and honor this part of their past.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Today, the descendents of the African slaves represent a majority of the population. They hold important positions in government and business, but beneath their sophisticated and modern lifestyle is a deep appreciation for the traditions that held their community together during the difficult times. One of the interesting aspects of their cultural history is in the area of healing. Now, doctors were very rarely available to African slaves. And so the responsibility for medicine fell to women who understood the healing properties of plants.

They were of great importance to the community, and practiced an art that was brought from Africa and adapted to the plant life of the island. Herbal medicine is still a significant form in Curaçao, and its leading practitioner is Dinah Veeris.

BURT WOLF:   Researchers in the United States tell me that there are three subjects that Americans are really interested in in terms of medicine.  They’re always looking for something that will help them lose weight, something that will prevent baldness, or something that will increase their sexual energies.  You, um, have anything in those areas?

DINAH VEERIS:  Yes, we have a lot of that in Curaçao!  Yes.  You know, to lose weight, people use garlic.  You take three pieces of this garlic and you put it in water overnight.  And then you will drink it for forty days, you will drink the water, you know, every day one glass of water.  It will help you reduce the weight.

BURT WOLF:   It’s not gonna do a lot for my sex life, but okay.

DINAH VEERIS:  (laughing)  No, you won’t.

BURT WOLF:   Now we’re gonna deal with my bald spot.

DINAH VEERIS:  One of the best things for hair loss is the calabash.  This is the calabash.  You take this out, you squeeze it, and then you get a black mash.  You cook it, you take off the seeds, otherwise your hair will stay with all the seeds.  And then you wash the hair with it.  Or you can make a shampoo out of it.

BURT WOLF:   Calabash shampoo.


BURT WOLF:   Is this a big enough portion for me?  Will that work there?

DINAH VEERIS:  Yes, it’s very good!  It will work very good.

BURT WOLF:   Okay.  We’re up to sexual energy?

DINAH VEERIS:  Yes, we are -- with the chuchuguasa.

BURT WOLF:   Chuchuguasa?

DINAH VEERIS:  Chuchuguasa, yes.

BURT WOLF:   And the bark of the chuchuguasa tree, and you make tea from it.

DINAH VEERIS:  No, you don’t make tea.

BURT WOLF:   Don’t make tea.

DINAH VEERIS:  No, you then take the cocuy -- cucuy they take from the agave -- and then you put the chuchuguasa in it.

BURT WOLF:   Okay.

DINAH VEERIS:  And then it becomes red.  So that’s what the people -- they drink it once a week, twice a week --

BURT WOLF:   How much?

DINAH VEERIS:  Just one shot.  Like this.  You can use it from the calabash.

BURT WOLF:   Little calabash shot?  Okay.  “Nature’s Viagra.” 


BURT WOLF:   This is a great day for me.  I’m gonna lose weight, my bald spot’s gonna fill in, and my sex life is gonna improve.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Let’s go walk in the garden.

Modern scientists are discovering the value of herbal medicine, but it’s important to remember that the operative word here is medicine. I suggest you check with your doctor before you use any herbal remedy.

Almost everyone on Curaçao speaks at least four languages... standard Dutch, English, Spanish and the local language, which is Papiamentu. It’s a Creole dialect spoken at all levels of society.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): If you listen carefully it’s pretty easy to pick up some of the key phrases.  Bon dia means “good day.”  Bon nochi  means “good night.” Danki means “thank you.”  Masha danki means “thanks a lot.” And the first phrase I learned to use when I arrived on the island… Ban Kome… which means, “let’s go eat!”

So what’s cooking on Curaçao? Almost everything eaten on the island has been caught in the surrounding ocean, or imported. The nearest sources are the Venezuelan farms on the coast of South America. Every morning boats from Venezuela tie up along the docks of Willemstad and offer fruit, vegetables and fish. This floating market has been a traditional shopping area for well over a hundred years.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): At the same time that the Dutch West Indies Company was doing business in the Caribbean, the Dutch East Indies Company was doing business in the Pacific. A major center of their activities was Indonesia, and the internal business between the West Indies Company and the East Indies Company led to a major Indonesian influence in Curaçao -- and to some great Indonesian cooking.

The Rysttafel Restaurant in Willemstad takes its name from the fact that at both lunch and dinner it serves a traditional Indonesian Rijst-Tafel -- which means “rice table.” It was the phrase used by Dutch colonists to describe a meal at which a bowl of rice was surrounded by twenty or more dishes.

AGNES ROEKINI:  It’s grilled chicken with garlic sauce... fried coconut...

BURT WOLF:   ...chicken with sweet-and-sour sauce... salad with peanut sauce and a little tofu...

AGNES ROEKINI:  ...fried eggplant...

BURT WOLF:   ...pork with soy sauce...

AGNES ROEKINI:  ...tomato in spicy sauce...

BURT WOLF:   I recognize that...

AGNES ROEKINI:  ... beef tender with coconut... and fried bean sprouts...

BURT WOLF:   ...bananas with honey sauce...

AGNES ROEKINI:  ...and meatballs.

BURT WOLF:   Meatballs!  All right -- I think we’re close enough to eat.

During the three hundred years of contact between the Dutch and the Indonesians, the Rijst-Tafel became an extravagant institution with servants carrying in one dish after another. In essence it’s an extension of the basic Indonesian family dinner, which always consisted of rice and five or six additional dishes.

When we were in the western part of the island, checking out the dive sites, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Jaanchie’s in the town of West Point. Locals love this place but it also has a big following among the tourists. Jaanchie is the third generation of his family to own the restaurant and he personally informs you of the day’s menu. 

JAANCHIE:  Well, for today -- a nice fresh fish!  And it’s the wahoo.  For sure.  After having this wahoo fish, after eating this wahoo fish, sir, you will say “Wa-hoooooooooo!”

We had the fish but we didn’t say “Wahoooooo” because it was snapper. Tender pieces of goat in a well-seasoned stew with salad, carrots and peas. Rice and beans and lots of picka, the local onion and vinegar sauce. This is just the kind of place I love. Down-home, easy, relaxed, friendly people and good food.

Curaçao also has a gastronomic form known as truk’i pan . Originally the phrase was truck di pan, which means “the truck of bread.” Eventually it shortened to truk’i pan.

BURT WOLF:   Well, there’s an enormous selection of really good food on Curaçao, but the one thing you are not going to find is a sushi bar, because in the local language of Papiamentu the word sushi means “garbage.”

In the interest of seeing the authentic and the traditional, we stayed at the Avila Beach Hotel. The original structure dates back to 1776, when it was the residence of the colonial governor. It was also the place where the great liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar, lived during his years of exile. For a while it was a private school. Then a private hospital. And finally, it was totally renovated into a beachfront hotel with two private cove beaches. The property has a quite, elegant and unpretentious style and many of the guests are families and businessmen from Holland. There’s a pier with a restaurant and live jazz -- the Dutch have been lovers of American jazz since the Twenties.

Over the years, the Avila has become a venue for local musicians, painters and sculptors for the presentation of their work. The hotel has such a respected position in the community that the government issued three Avila Beach Hotel stamps to help celebrate its 50th birthday.  I asked Tone Moller, the general manager and daughter of the owner, to introduce me to some of her favorite dishes.

TONE MOLLER:  Keshi yená dates back to the arrival of the Dutch and the Jews in Curaçao, and it’s an Edam cheese, hollowed out, filled with a stuffing.  The stuffing is made out of prunes, it’s made out of olives, it’s made out of either tuna or chicken, and capers and peppers.  People love to eat lobster in Curaçao; we’ve snazzied it up, made it a little Caribbean with a coconut sauce, and it’s very flavorful.  Bolo di kashu pette -- it’s a local cake, it’s made out of cashew nuts, it’s a layer cake covered with a coating of mashed cashew nuts -- and it’s calories, calories, calories.

BURT WOLF:   But taste, taste, taste.

TONE MOLLER:  It’s taste, taste, taste.

Another aspect of Curaçao’s culture that has been strongly influenced by the African community is its music and dance. Curaçao’s music is a blend of European, Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. influences, but for me the most interesting part of its heritage is African… particularly in a form called tambu. It was born in the slave communities as a release from the debilitating oppression.

The basic instrument is the drum known as the tambu. The other instrument is the chapi, a type of field hoe. Each is played against the other in a complicated rhythmic pattern.  The singing is a series of set calls and responses. Both the music and the dance are clearly part of an ancient African tradition.

The social comment inherent in the lyrics -- and the erotic tension of the dance -- were more than the government and the Catholic church could stand, and for years they mounted an aggressive campaign to surpress tambu. Even today, a government ordinance limits public tambu parties to a few weeks at the end and the beginning of each year.

Which also brings us to the end of this show. I hope you have enjoyed this visit to Curaçao and I hope you will join me next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS.  I’m Burt Wolf.