Friday, September 6, 2013

Curacao Has Heart, Part One: Willemstad and Okra

From Asia, I jumped to the Caribbean. Or, rather, I should say “we,” as it was for my honeymoon with my new husband, Erik.  It feels very strange to say that, and the thought of having a lifetime partner with whom to go on adventures is even stranger. In a good way.

I should also say that this was our “mini-moon,” the bourgeois new term for the brief vacation couples take after getting married, either because they can’t afford something more extravagant (because weddings are so effing expensive) or because they can’t afford the time.  In our case, it was a bit of both… but also because we are aiming to go to Bhutan for our “real” honeymoon in the next year.

So we looked around for nearby options, preferably something with a beach.  It’s low season in the Caribbean, so hotels were moderately more affordable. We wanted to go somewhere fewer Americans go…and ended up in gorgeous little Curacao.

Curacao, off the coast of Venezuela and part of the “ABC Islands” (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao), is an independent country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  The island’s inhabitants are a remarkable mix of indigenous Indians, Dutch, descendants of slaves, and now Chinese (our taxi driver said, “too many Chinese, probably.”). Oh, and there many people from mainland Latin America, and descendants of the Portuguese era (“Curacao” means “heart” in Portuguese)… and increasingly Haitians and Jamaicans who have come looking for work.  Other than the tourism industry, the largest employer appears to be the oil refinery, which dominates the bay in the capital, Willemstad. It’s almost startling to see the bright colored buildings with traditional Dutch facades of downtown Willemstad, and then see something akin to Tolkien’s Mordor rising behind it. Every building is a different bright color—and every building looks freshly painted, in hues of yellow, blue, pink, green, with white piping and beautiful red terracotta roofs. 

Punda from the Pontoon Bridge

Willemstad was, and continues to be, a port town.  The front area of the port is relatively narrow; on one side, Punda, was the old city, with the Dutch Governor’s mansion; the town expanded to the other side in the early 1700s to “Otrobanda,” (aptly named “other side”). Now, it is host to the Renaissance Hotel and seems to be more frequented by locals than tourists, giving the area a more authentic flavor than Punda. There were forts on either side of the entrance to the harbor. The Rif Fort, on the Otrobanda side, still stands, but the Renaissance Hotel took it over and converted it to an outdoor mall. The interior of the fort was a lot of fun to explore (you can still climb the old stairs and get a fabulous view of the town), and the exterior looked like Rodeo Drive, complete with luxury stores found nowhere else on the island.

The Old Lady, when she's not Swingin

To cross from Punda to Otrobanda requires using a bridge.  There are a number of footbridges, but none are as well known as the Old Swingin’ Lady (also known as the “Pontoon Bridge”).  This bridge, which is relatively close to the water, has a lovely wooden boardwalk, and affords some of the best views of the harbor.  It does not, however, permit the many ferries, sailboats, and, most importantly, the tankers, from entering the harbor.  To allow them passage, the boats approach the shallow bridge and wait for the bridge operators to… swing the bridge open. As in, the bridge is a floating structure, and instead of opening in the middle, like a drawbridge, it swings open, like a door. It doesn’t matter that there are people still walking on it—granted, there are some precautions at the ends of the bridge so you don’t accidentally fall into the water—and in fact, it affords those pedestrians a fun ride. The bridge opens with surprising frequency.

I had heard that one of the best things to do in Curacao was to visit the Plasa Bieuw, or “Old Plaza.” (It had also been called the “Old Market.”) It was a pretty nondescript, eggshell blue building not far from the Round Market (probably so named because… it’s a cylinder).  It’s an open air building with rows of picnic tables and several charcoal stalls—basically, six different restaurants offering different cuisines.  I had heard that some of the specialties of the Plasa Bieuw were stewed iguana and cadushi, or cactus soup.  But by the time we arrived at 3 p.m., most of the stalls were closed and people were cleaning up their enormous stew pots.  “Iguana only on Mondays,” one woman said to me, and when I asked if there was absolutely anywhere else in the city where we could find it, she only shook her head no.  “Any cadushi?” I asked, but she said no, only Fridays. Okay, so two strikeouts. We made our way to the other stall where staff were cleaning up, and asked if they still had food. They did—and we asked for recommendations. The only menu they had was hand-scrawled on a piece of cardboard, and was all in local language. My Papiamentu was nonexistent, and I barely recognized anything from the miniscule Dutch I knew (which only came from my knowing Bahasa Indonesia). Papiamentu, as far as I can tell, is a creole of Dutch, Portuguese, and African languages.

Stoba, stoba,” one man repeated. Stoba, it turns out, is stew. And in our case, it was goat meat stew, which was delicious and very tender. It had hints of vinegar, probably to soften the meat, and an assortment of spices—tomatoes, onions, and lots of oil. It was served with a suspect-looking salad with sad lettuce leaves, a large pile of rice, and a sweet plantain.  I saw a flyer on another table introducing guests to Curacao traditional cuisine, and one of the items was Yambo—okra soup.  Yambo, frankly, is the local term for gumbo, and it makes me laugh to think that so many cultures have their own version of this exact dish—whether it’s in West Africa, Belize, Darfur, Louisiana…or here, off the coast of Venezuela. We ordered some, much to Erik’s chagrin. Okra soup, of course, is slimy. And not just a little slimy, but a whole bowl of slime.  However, I decided to give it the old college try, because the last time I had had it, it totally blew me away.  It was at a Darfuri household in Doha, Qatar--where the slime was deliciously seasoned and served with something akin to Ethiopian injera.

Slimy Yambo

True to form, the yambo appeared and was extremely gooey. It’s sort of unnatural to eat something of that texture, but I took a big spoonful.  The man who had given us food recommendations stood over me, expectantly—probably not expecting a tourist to like it (it would not surprise me if many a tourist took one look and pushed it away). It was a struggle to manage the strands of slime that stretched off the spoon like cobwebs.  But it was truly delicious—a little salty, and not at all slimy in my mouth. It was like a barley soup, very hearty with big pieces of okra, some stewed goat bones, and, surprisingly, little bits of seafood, like mussels and baby octopus. It was served with funchi, which is the local term for polenta. It was not unlike the kind of starches that are served with this dish in West Africa (think “fufu,” which is served with the okra dish called “to.”) It always makes me happy to see how small the world really can be if you trace the cuisine. Of course, in this case, as with many West African dishes that have made their way across the Atlantic, the recipes came with the slave trade, which was, sadly, a major commercial enterprise in Curacao.

When we finished up, Erik and I took a stroll to the Floating Venezuelan Market, which was a few steps away.  Along the edge of the water were a number of colorful boats. Their owners set up fruit and vegetable shops in front of them, and remain in Curacao until they have sold all of their goods.  At that point, they sail back to Venezuela to load up on new produce to sell in Willemstad.  They sold enormous avocadoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, papayas, watermelon, honey in reused bottles, cooking oil, and tamarind candy.

The Floating Market

As sunset began to approach, we made our way to the “Waterfront” on the Punda side of the bay, which is a strip of about six or seven different restaurants with decks built just over the tidepools, facing the ocean.  There, we had blue cocktails and watched the sun set, turning the sky a brilliant vermillion, as tankers were led into the harbor by tugboats.  It was a perfect day in Willemstad.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. We've posted a similar Cayman Islands profile here: