I’m back from a week’s vacation on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, and it’s a colorful island full of even more colorful stories.
Here are a few you might enjoy.
May I Have a Word?
The locals speak a Creole language called Papiamento, and the word they love the most is “dushi.”
It can mean “sweet,” “delicious,” “sexy,” and much more, and you see signs and ads with the word everywhere.
The “dushi” brand and Curaçao’s are one and the same. Kudos to them for summing up their identity in a single word. Can you do the same for your brand, your company, or your clients?
If you’re in an English-speaking country, I’d pick a different word than “dushi” for yours. But it works perfectly for Curaçao.
Drinking the Blues
If you’ve ever had authentic Blue Curaçao, you had it with Senior & Co.’s liqueur.
Touring Senior & Co.’s distillery is a highlight during a visit to the island. They’ve been in business since 1896, and their products are delicious. I got to sample their tamarind flavor and wound up taking home a bottle.
Senior & Co. gets to call its product “genuine” because it’s made from Curaçao-grown lahara oranges that have been the main ingredient of this liqueur since the 16th century.
The lahara oranges, descended from a variety brought over from Spain in 1527, are too bitter to eat. As Senior & Co. tells it, “Not even our infamous goats would touch them.”
Some enterprising Dutch later discovered that the peels could be dried and used as the base for a much more flavorful product. Centuries later, Senior & Co. popularized it and helped ensure that the island’s name and liqueur’s name would be intertwined indefinitely.
If you have lemons, make lemonade. If you have bitter oranges, toss the fruit and make booze out of the peels. That beats getting bitter over bitter oranges.
Useless Is as Useless Does
The story of the lahara oranges is fitting for Curaçao. We now know Curaçao as one of the ABC Islands with Aruba and Bonaire. The Spanish initially called the trio “Las Islas Inutiles” because they were useless, as they didn’t produce enough gold or silver.
The initial name for Curaçao itself offered by the Spanish was “Isla de los Gigantes.” When the Spanish arrived in 1499, they were greeted by the exceptionally tall members of the Arawak tribe. Clearly, the island had a lot to offer if it could sustain such a healthful population.
Don’t give the Dutch too much credit for their more optimistic view of what the island could offer. The main appeal for the Dutch was using Curaçao as a local base for the slave trade. While the Dutch have proved far more enlightened since then, including many Dutch who helped Jews flee Europe before and during World War II, it’s unlikely the Dutch would have stayed so long if the slave trade wasn’t so profitable.
Should you make it to Curaçao, be sure to check out the Kura Hulanda Museum for one of the most thorough exhibits on the history of slavery I’ve come across anywhere. It also houses a wide-ranging collection of African art spanning millennia.
Location, Location, Location
Curaçao has some of the most fascinating Jewish history in the Americas. It boasts the oldest continually used synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, Mikve Israel.
Where you have enough Jews for a synagogue, you’ll probably have enough for a cemetery. The oldest Jewish cemetery in the hemisphere is there too, Beth Haim (which, wonderfully, translates to “House of Life”).
The original Jewish settlement on the island dates to 1651, and Beth Haim is a short walk. That settlement is long gone; gentrification is hardly a new phenomenon. The immigrants later settled on a nicer neighborhood and established a new cemetery closer to them.
More than a century ago, when there was interest in developing an oil refinery business that would later become the main economic engine for the island, the Jewish families sold the land and just hung on to the cemetery.
This might have provided some short-term gain, but the refinery complex today is blamed for a range of environmental and health issues. The gravestones, many of which were carved with intricate designs and poetic inscriptions in several languages, are now almost illegible. Al Jazeera wrote last year, “The faded tombstones at the Sephardic Jewish cemetery adjacent to the refinery –the oldest in the Americas — are a testament to what pollution can do, even to rock surfaces.”
There are no villains in this story. It’s a case of unknown unknowns. It’s unlikely anyone could have predicted that the new neighbors would hasten the graves’ demise. What’s more striking is how often we currently make these short-term tradeoffs today even knowing exactly the kind of damage we’re doing.
Today, there’s no excuse, especially when we’re not just disturbing the dead but more quickly escorting the living to their final resting places.
People of the Book
I can’t resist sharing a few book recommendations related to the island.
Patricia Selbert spent much of her youth growing up on Curaçao and then emigrated with her mother and older sister to the United States in the 1970s. She wrote what she calls an “autobiographical novel,” The House of Six Doors. It’s a maddening, frustrating character study of her mother and a touching ode to her memories of the island.
Another beautiful but challenging read is Manfred Wolf’s Survival in Paradise: Sketches from a Refugee Life in Curacao. Wolf was a schoolboy when his family fled Europe during World War II and made it to the island. His essays describe the life of an immigrant family that was better off than many but that constantly confronted the ghosts who traveled with them.
Finally, there’s The Caribbean by Jacob Gelt Dekker who founded the Kura Hulanda Museum. I only discovered this book after I returned home, but I will get to it soon. Dekker seems like one of these larger than life figures. He sold his One Hour Super Photo business to Kodak and expanded Budget Rent a Car in the Netherlands from 20 cars to more than 25,000. He cracked the list of the top 100 richest Dutch citizens in 2006. His eclectic interests are evident in his museum, and he became known as a philanthropist later in life. His books on sale in the museum were all in Dutch, but this one is at least in English, and I’m looking forward to savoring the island’s stories for a while longer.
I will, of course, need to sip my genuine tamarind Curaçao while reading it.
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