black fish territories inside the school of yellow-orange fish
Monday, December 23 2013
location: Room 208, Royal Sea Aquarium Resort, Curaçao
We all got up early and met up in the Sea Aquarium parking lot with a local tour guide, who would be taking us on a tour of the Jewish points of interest on the island. This sort of thing isn't of much interest to me, and these days it's of less interest to Gretchen, but the Jewish points of interest are probably what attracted Gretchen's parents to Curaçao in the first place, and so we'd agreed to come along.
After nearly filling our smallish bus, we headed directly to the Curaçao Liquor Factory, the place where Blue Curaçao was invented by a Jewish merchant looking for a way to profitably dispose of a mountain of unpalatable oranges. These days most Blue Curaçao is actually made in Holland, but there was a beautiful old still in the front and someone was operating a fork lift nearby, indicating something still gets made there. Our tour group was treated to a generous supply of tiny samples of various forms of Curaçao liquor. I drank several of these and had a good mid-morning buzz going there in the gift shop, though there was nothing of any interest there except the liquor itself, which wasn't cheap.
Our next stop was a old plantation owned by another famous Jewish family. The house itself is now a museum, and adjacent to it, a fancy modern library has been constructed to house a collection of Jewish and Antillean books.
From there, we continued into the harbor at the center of Willemstad to the old Jewish graveyard just downwind from a large cluster of oil refineries (which process crude oil from nearby Venezuela). The graveyard is an overstuffed, sunbaked expanse of gravestones. Most of these stones are made of rock quarried in Holland, but after weathering in the sulfur dioxide belching from the nearby smokestacks, the stone looks exactly like concrete. None of the gravestones are particularly new, though some date back to the 1700s and even these are still vaguely legible despite the pollution-accelerated erosion. Though none of the stones gave a direct indication of the age of the deceased, it was usually implied by various imagery. A tree being felled by an axe indicated the deceased had died before age 50. A flower being cut by a knife indicated the death of a baby. The tour of the graveyard was perhaps the least comfortable and most unnecessary part of the tour. I hadn't had a chance yet to apply sunblock, and the graveyard afforded no shade. So I protected the back of my neck with my hands or (in one case) ducked low beside a particularly-tall stone (one that had been erroneously engraved with a five-pointed star instead of the Star of David). Still, Gretchen and I held out in that dismal graveyard longer than some of the others.
I should mention that the two kids in our group were demonstrating amazing tolerance for what must have been, for them, soul-crushing levels of boredom. On our way to pick up the last of the people who would be joining our tour, Sadie had quietly asked me if the tour had started yet, and that so far it was "really boring." "No, it hasn't started yet," I'd replied, adding, "but it's going to be really boring. But this afternoon we're all going to go snorkeling again and that will be fun." Our apparent solidarity on this issue lent an unusually mature and nuanced flavor to our interactions for the rest of the tour.
The last stop on our tour was the one still-functioning synagogue on the island, in downtown Willemstad. It's a mid-sized building with a pipe organ and a strangely sand-covered floor (the sand supposedly being helpful to obscure the sounds of congregants during the Spanish period, when the Jews had to stay one step ahead of the Inquisition, though that all probably happened well before the building of this synagogue). For the most part, though, Jews had it fairly good in Curaçao. The Dutch tolerated religious diversity, allowing Jews to worship openly and participate in trade. Eventually, according to our guide, the Jews on Curaçao were the majority of the island's merchants and comprised nearly all of the island's traders. Their problems mostly came from Spanish pirates, who delighted in taking Jews back to Spain to face the Inquisition. This would would mean a burning at the stake unless a large ransom could be raised. (Because that's the way a merciful God likes it.) I learned most of these things from our tour guide's nearly nonstop monologue, delivered in a sort of coma-inducing Papiamentu-inflected sing-song no matter the material. She also went into the minutia of how the synagogue became egalitarian and reconstructionist, a topic that fascinated Gretchen a lot more than it did me.
The tour took nearly four hours, but eventually we were back at our resort. During the library phase of this morning's tour, Gretchen had asked a nice Dutch gentleman for recommendations of other areas to snorkel, and he'd made some notations on a map of Curaçao. This afternoon, we all piled into the van and drove out to one of these places, Jan Thiel Beach just beyond a large bay also called Jan Thiel. Jan Thiel cost us $20 to enter and then more money for furniture to lie on. But the first thing Gretchen and I did was go snorkeling. We jumped into the water and swam west, along the rocks of a seawall and then out to a floating platform (12.075894N, 68.880171W) dominated mostly by teenagers who flirted with each other in ways that would have drowned me. For parts of this swim, I was in water that was too deep for me to stand up in and too far from shore for me to be able to swim to should my snorkel fail me. But I put faith in that thing and managed to tough it out. Still, I was a bit overwhelmed by my adventurousness and needed to haul myself out onto the platform to rest, defog my mask, and collect my thoughts before continuing with the swim. (Gretchen continued on and I didn't see her again for another hour or so.)
From the platform, I swam northwestward to a curving seawall protecting a spit of land containing a shallow salt-water pond and a few clumps of mangroves. Along the way, I saw a few spectacular sights, including a two-foot-long eel snaking along the sea floor and a massive school of bright yellow-orange fish, each several inches long but all multi-thousand of them acting in unison. Punctuating this school were little voids, the territories of a solitary (but similar-sized) black fish which jealously policed their real estate to keep out all interlopers.
I hauled myself out onto the spit and snorkeled in among the roots of the mangroves (12.076484N, 68.881576W) until nature called, causing me to defecate on the shore, concealed from some nearby snorkelers by some low bushes. Flies immediately materialized out of nowhere to take advantage of the windfall. But I wasn't done; my guts were acting up and eager to get rid of material a bit prematurely. Judging by its appearance, I'd say I'd been relying a bit too heavily on mixed nuts for the past 24 hours.
Back on the beach where we'd started out, I found the kids playing in the sand (under the hawklike gaze of their mother, who hails from the helicopter school of motherhood). Gretchen and some of the others were out snorkeling along a nearby seawall, and later I would do the same. But for awhile I just napped beneath a towel, the only shade I could arrange for myself.
As the sun dipped down near the oceanic horizon, we packed up and headed back, stopping along the way at the supermarket (Vreugdenhil) we'd visited yesterday. We needed vegan mayonnaise and I needed something better than Cholula hot sauce. I searched the whole store before finally coming upon a perfect jar of pickeled jalapeño peppers in the Hispanic section of the store (which was, for some reason, many aisles away from the other "ethnic" sections).
Back at the resort, the people running the place were hosting some sort of sundown activity that involved beanbag tossing and free beer. Free beer is always a good thing, even if it's only being provided eight ounces at a time (in this case, in aluminum cans of Polar Pilsner). I ended up drinking three of them, which felt like a lot of beer by the standards of the environment I was in. (Gretchen's family is almost Mormon in their drinking habits.)
Tonight was my turn to cook dinner, so I prepared six vegan BLTs, all of which contained mushrooms and onions and some of which also contained jalapeño peppers. Normally Gretchen wouldn't eat a BLT (she claims to not like the flavor of fake bacon), but tonight she decided to see what all the fuss was about and eat one, and she didn't regret that choice. She even had hers with jalapeños. My sister-in-law didn't have hers, so that one got cut up five ways.
For linking purposes this article's URL is:feedback
previous | next