A Toast to Curacao
by Russ Gooding
I’m an outsider to your island, and I admit that freely. I am a tourist when I share the uncommon ground of Curacao with you. But, along with my wife, I am a repeater. We keep returning to Curacao. If we get down this year, it will be our fourth trip. Next summer we plan to bring our daughters as their high school graduation gift. Your island has gotten under our skin and, of all the places we’ve travelled, separately and together, Curacao is the one place that my wife & I agree is the best place in our world. We feel at home – guests, yes, but welcome guests – whether we’re standing on the Swinging Old Lady or watching another splendid sunset sinking over the bay at Cas Abou. Of course there are troubles – there are troubles everywhere. I don’t mean that Curacao is a perfected paradise in some naive, idealistic sense, only that it has become the ideal place of rest for us. And I do mean this in a terribly final sense, which I hope will convey our sincerest appreciation for your island. My wife and I told our children that, upon our demise, we expect them to hike our ashes to the top rock of Mt. Christoffel and scatter our dust to the persistent breeze. If our ghosts can linger together, we want to anchor them in Curacao. Before then, if our working life goes as planned, we would love nothing so much as to purchase a tiny home on your island so we can stay for extended spans during retirement. We want, for a too-brief window of our older years, to say that we’re ‘from’ Curacao when folks ask where we live. That would be an honor.
These are dark & stormy times. Not just in Curacao. We’ve got challenges here in the United States, as a country, and personally. The whole world does – in this sense, no-one is unique. We don’t focus on the negatives, but work through the challenges as we look ahead to better times. For us, that means looking ahead to the place where you already are: Curacao. Just as moving to Curacao is our long-term goal, we echo that desire with a near-term goal: a next visit to our favorite island so we can catch up with you. We discuss our next trip as though it’s a sure thing. We read the Curacao Chronicle to stay abreast of events on-island. Before the virus, we talked about about the need to travel at different times of the year so we can experience your rainy season, your Carnival, and your longest run. That last would be only my wife participating; she’s already claimed her little drop of fame as the second fastest old lady (“Dame,” said the trophy) on Curacao at one year’s Schottegatloop race and she wants to run the Curacao Marathon as her first international Marathon. That was then. Now we fret about your economy, while struggling with our own. We wonder, when, and under what lingering restrictions, will Curacao re-open for you insiders, and – eventually – for us outsiders. We are all plagued by this damnable virus, but also by government and societal reactions to the virus which may be necessary, but which might also be over-reactions that do more harm – irredeemable economic & societal harm – than the virus alone would ever manage. We’ll never know, because the lock-downs, more or less restrictive from locale to locale, are in place and we’re all struggling inside certain cages we never envisioned for this 2020 year. We will recover and we will be stronger and more independent than before. Strong individuals, tested by adversity, make for strong, resilient, communities. Good neighbors following the golden rule, rebuilding their communities, will carry each of our countries further toward a positive future. Curacao is populated with good people and with good people, motivated toward recovering their lives, their economy, their free society, anything is possible.
People – even more than the ineffable place you inhabit – define your island. My wife and I, after only three trips totaling roughly a month of time, are on a first name basis with about a dozen islanders. I use this term, islanders, broadly because the folks we associate with Curacao are themselves a mixed lot of ex-pats, mainland Dutch now resident, and island-borne natives to Kòrsou. Our usual host, ‘Our Man on Curacao’ as we call him, is an ex-pat American who may be your island’s greatest advocate to fellow Americans. He doesn’t sugar-coat the island or its domestic issues, but he loves it, and he shares his passion for the place with travelers. His kindest friend, who leads hiking & snorkeling adventures along the coast with her Dutch Shepherd pacing patiently beside her, is a Netherlander. Then there’s the zesty Italian ex-pat, purveying Brazilian bikinis and fabulous hats – she took my side in an argument ‘against’ my wife, helping me to convince a beautiful woman that the suits suited her figure, even at age 48. Beauty is not the exclusive domain of the young. Yet there are the two beautiful young ladies working Henry’s gin bar; one made the most sublime G&T…I had several, and the other served each drink my wife & I ordered with panache! Then there’s the naturalist & park ranger we stumbled onto by happenstance at the peak of Christoffel, who, a year later, guided us on a birding safari. This fellow is a national treasure, the Tom Brown (a famous U.S. tracker & naturalist) of Curacao. He taught us much about the island’s inhabitants, plus a tiny fraction of your island’s native tongue: Papiamento. These individuals in particular, their names and faces, stand in for all the kind people who we’ve encountered in our Curacao times. We’ve chatted with store owners, rescue operators (of dogs, and of children), and a myriad of restaurant staff – from waitresses to the chefs who stopped by our table to check on our meals. We’ve spoken at length with other hikers and other diners. One boy amazed us for being merely representative of the Curacao school children. At a food festival in Pieter Mai, where he was bussing tables, he approached us in Dutch…evidently my fair wife looks the part. We shook our heads and replied to him in English whereupon he dropped seamlessly into nearly flawless English. In our brief conversation with him, he explained that he spoke four languages fluently, putting both of us, with only two languages each, to shame. We learned that your schools are encouraging all students to learn four or more languages – the most important of skills for navigating the waters of international life. So impressive! And yet so common. I believe every person we know in Curacao speaks at least three languages. We stateside Americans have much to learn. We can learn by socializing with people in – from our limited perspective – unusual places. Places like your desert island.
What, to outsiders like us, makes your island so unutterably beautiful? As one disgruntled traveler in our social circle said of Curacao, “Ugh – it’s just a hot, hot island; so dry, and nothing to do.” That says so much about the person, not the place. Curacao is rugged, austere, and has its thorny patches – I learned the hard way how critical sandals can be. It’s also vast, for such a limited space, reminding me of Shakespeare’s Hamlet who could be bound in a nutshell and count himself king of infinite space. Taken ten days at a time, there is so much to see and do that we crave only more hours to take advantage of the opportunities. Mornings at the cottage we rent, we savor coffee and commune with the iguanas, the posturing anoles, the troupials, the bananaquits, the chuchubi. Every day is an adventure. We always climb Mt. Christoffel – what a view from the top! – and we’ll do this once each trip until we’re so old that the hike becomes impossible. We swim daily, we snorkel, too; if the reefs are imperfect in our current age, they are far better than most of what we’ve witnessed offshore of the other islands we’ve visited. We hike at Shete Boka. We hike to the Blue Room, jump, and swim within. Lunches might be at some fancy establishment in Pieter Mai, or simply the nearest Toko. We visit postcard-perfect beaches – I’ll find a shady umbrella and read while my wife toasts herself on Curacao’s bright sands. We wander through museums. We buy fruit and fresh-caught fish from roadside stands. Many nights we explore the culinary options across the island and already have so many favorites – a Landhuis restaurant one night, waterfront dining the next – that we must avoid a portion of the best in order to explore those we’ve yet to savor. Before or after dinner, we enjoy drinks at Henry’s or Mundo Bizarro – these are our hot spots, and we don’t intend to give them up. Yes, we are spoiled during our stay, but this is our reward for a year of work. And you know what’s interesting? As we – tourists, travelers, guests – are enjoying any of these adventures, we always meet islanders who are spending a free moment doing the same things we are…hiking, snorkeling, dining, drinking, running, or enjoying a picnic on a remote beach. Sure, you work here, live your lives here and perhaps vacation elsewhere, but it seems you know that you live in the rarest of places, and you don’t take this for granted. You revel in the abundance of your island. You – enough of you – have embraced us as visitors that we can name your island, like no other we have traveled to, as our home away from home. We come to recharge, to enjoy the peace at dawn, to challenge ourselves with experiential education and exercise during the day, but also to socialize.
Socializing is vastly important, even now, at a six foot distance. That’s a smidge closer, by the way, than the two meters advocated by most of the world’s governments. Here in the U.S., we’re still products of our British heritage, relying on English, or Imperial, Measure long after the Brits have advanced far beyond us towards metrification. In my day job, I make fishing tackle components – agate stripping guides for bamboo fly rods – and these parts are nominally sized and sold by the outside diameter of the agate ring, in millimeters. Yet if you want to know the overall length and height of the agate guide, those figures are always supplied in thousandths of an inch. These sorts of convolutions in our histories make us more interesting as peoples of various nominal nationalities. We see and appreciate this in Curacao where one ‘single’ national group is comprised of so many individuals representing different ethnic groups, so many countries of origin, so many religions, so very many languages, and all the attendant variety of choice…food, music, art, habits, and values. Yet, with very rare exception (and exceptions we’ve only heard about, not experienced), the people of Curacao manifest one value that is not as well shared in any other country we’ve visited, and certainly not our own: inclusiveness. Nowhere on earth have my wife and I stood and talked, individual to individual, with so many people of obviously different heritage, yet not felt any inkling of tension. Rather, what I’ve felt – certainly within myself, and I believe I’ve noticed the same in my conversational counterparts – is curiosity. What is it like to be from here, or there; to be raised this way, or that; to experience the world through so many languages and the variant conceptions that attend those languages?
How will your island, your fellow islanders, thrive and grow both as an island entire of itself, and as this little spec, this minute point of contact, in a world of travelers who drift in and out, on the tides and upon the aery currents? Truthfully, I don’t know, but I suspect you’ll do well as a nation because the individuals who have come together under your banner are well and broadly educated, overwhelmingly decent, and infinitely curious. In order to sate curiosities, and thus to become better educated, it is imperative that we all socialize, intermingle, share our different perspectives and opinions – not ever with an end goal of homogenization, of destroying real diversity for the sake of some hive-mind singularity named “Diversity.” We must appreciate each other’s different talents in order to expand our selves. To give specific examples, my wife and I are both better, more experienced people for having partaken of the craft, the skills, of the best mixologist on Curacao, and the supreme backwoods naturalist of your entire country. Smallish islands are rare in this sense – one person, unselfishly devoted to their own cause, can, unquestionably, stand above all others in their field of excellence. Individuals, seeking their own heights, can raise the stature of the entire nation and visitors wandering through are treated, hourly, to peak experiences such as unimaginably good drinks, or a flight of rare parrots chattering through the brush.
By this point in my extended Toast to Curacao, I hope you will nod and say, “yes, this fellow has glimpsed something of our island, discerned something of a shared character, witnessed something of the deeper beauty in this rugged place.” If I can see you, now I’d like you to see me. Watch as I raise a glass to you – each of you reading this – and to your island, if you’re a Curaçaoan by any measure, and no matter where on earth you sit as you read this. Because the Corona virus has all of us under duress, because these are particularly trying times, I want to toast your vibrant future with the zingiest island drink I know, a Particularly Dark & Stormy. This is a great drink for an island-wide toast, because it’s delicious when prepared with rum for the adult drinkers, but equally as tasty as a virgin for the teetotalers and the youth if the rum is skipped. Sip one, sip all!
Here I’ll offer a strong variant of the traditional Dark & Stormy, a recipe which will make easy the crafting of the cocktail once the ingredients are gathered. Done right, this drink can be so much better than a jigger of second-tier rum splashed into insipid ginger ale. The usual D&S is anything but stormy and it’s no wonder I didn’t fully appreciate the drink when first introduced to it on another island. We’ll fix that. And, metricians, please pardon, I’m using English Measure, because that’s how I build my drinks, a tip of my hat to America’s heritage and my training. Any glass, about 16 ounces in capacity, will do. That said, barkeeps take note: if you are able, use a tulip – a stemmed and delicate ‘beer’ tulip – so that you’ll honor your Dutch heritage, the tulpenmanie. For peak experiences, always choose your glassware wisely. Fill the tulip 2/3 full of cubed ice. Over the ice, pour a measured ounce of ginger syrup. I use Morris Kitchen Ginger Syrup, but if you don’t have access to this fiery nectar, you can prepare your own with ginger roots and raw sugar. Squeeze a good sized lime, both halves, over the syrup; an ounce of bottled lime juice will work, but only if you don’t have fresh fruit. Next, if you’re of age, add two ounces of your favorite rum…two shots are sufficient, because you’ll want a second glass of the Particularly Dark & Stormy, maybe a third. Now, vigorously stir the ice and the three other ingredients you’ve added to the glass to get them chill and dilute them just a little. Retrieve a cold bottle of the strongest ginger beer you have in your refrigerator (I prefer Fever Tree) and top up the glass. Stir, gently, to mix the ingredients, without fluffing off the carbonation that is essential to the texture of this heady drink. Add a colorful paper straw if you’re passing the drink to a lady.
Ladies first. Bottom’s up! Without our most esteemed women, there would be no future, for your island, or for our entire world. Now the men can enjoy their share. This potent drink, if the ginger nectar is fierce enough, exudes the sense of drinking liquid fire, sweet molten sunshine in a glass. So here’s to better days, sunny days. For those in Curacao, and for those yearning to return, here’s to socializing, mingling on tropic beaches, lining up at tropic bars – free of our cages, our cares, and ready to share the happy daze of paradise on the finest island in the sun.
In imparting sweetness amidst our sorrows, I might also add a final few words to this rambling toast: Stay Safe & Be Healthy! The Particularly Dark & Stormy will help with that. I can’t offer the drink as medicine without this hubris running afoul of God or government, but it is possible to suggest that this drink is the perfect charm against disease. Certainly the more the merrier. It’s a concoction that Asclepius would approve! The ginger, renowned for both increasing vigor and warding off sickness, might not be the cure-all for what ails you, but couple that ginger heat with a salubrious dose of fresh-squeezed lime and a double shot of rum. Ahhh, now that combination might keep devilish sickness away. If you partake of the drink beneath a brilliant, nearly equatorial, sun, then the UV rays will lighten your viral load. Sea breezes will sweep in fresh air to fill your lungs. A salt water swim will purify you, body and soul. And a second Particularly Dark & Stormy after your exertions will refresh you even more. Two a day may, or may not, keep the doctor at bay, but they’ll certainly prepare you to socialize with your most loved one. And that’s where freedom is, not locked in solitary confinement, but each with our best loved better half, the paramour who completes the kingdom in our confining nutshell. After their inclusion, then we’ll reach out for dear family and worthy friends, enfold them all inside the circle that governments’ once scribed to keep them out of bounds. Before long we’ll rejoin in common society. This year or next, we’ll get there. Until then, lift a glass at any social distance and shout “Hurrah!” for the day freedom – life lived well and on our own terms – reigns again.
Here’s a pic of my inamorata wearing the above-mentioned, hand-woven, Fabulous Hat, while sipping something luscious from the hands of the ladies at Henry’s Gin Bar in Willemstad, Curacao.