MM 7 — Day 5: Exploring Curaçao’s African Heritage and Checking out a Virtual Big Cat

There is something special about the early morning light in the Caribbean, and I was glad to wake up early yet again, and well in time to observe our docking maneuver in Willemstad on the island of Curaçao.

And also in time to see another spectacular cloud formation in the sky.

Dramatic coulds over Willemstad

Today’s shore excursion started quite a bit earlier than I had planned: instead of 1:00pm, the “African Heritage” tour departed from the pier at 8:30am, as I was informed last night. The excursion brochure listed both times, and I am sure they were combined into one. We were barely enough people to fill every seat of our minibus — there don’t seem to be too many people eager to learn about the gloomy history of the slave trade while on a cruise in the Caribbean. And a gloomy topic it was, indeed, as witnessed by the exhibits at the Kura Hulanda museum.

Once a neglected and decaying neighborhood of the Otrabanda part of Willemstad, a Dutch entrepreneur started investing in, and rebuilding the area in 1995. Today, dozens of houses in this part of town have been restored to splendid condition, and the cheerful colors, gorgeous architectural details and numerous works of art make for an amazing site, deservedly earning it place Unesco World Heritage Site status.

The

The central hub of the Kura Hulanda neighborhood, which means “Dutch Courtyard”1, is a resort hotel and a museum. This museum not only tells the history of the Western Passage slave trade, but also puts into focus the diverse cultural heritage of peoples of the Western Africa, who were abducted to serve as “human resources” in the worst possible sense of that phrase.

The inner courtyard inside the museum grounds is graced by a sculpture of Mother Africa, showing her face when viewed head-on (no pun intended…), and the outline of the African continent when viewed from the side. Just a few steps away from this piece of art, the museum confronts its visitors with the barbaric cruelty that was at the core of the slave trade.

Mother Africa

The exhibits encompass old etches, photographs, and documents, as well as original “tools of the trade” like chains, shackles, and whips. The part of the museum I found most disturbing — if you can actually sort such a place’s exhibits by “disturbingness” — was a recreation of the lower decks of a slave ship that you could climb down into, and which demonstrated how their “masters” viewed the black people they had kidnapped: as wares which would have to be stowed away in as little room as possible to maximize the profit of each ship’s load. Never mind that a not-so-small percentage of the product did not make it to the destination in usable condition…

After leaving this section of the museum we went over to some other buildings that housed innumerable art and crafts objects from the Western African nations, and the richness and variety of these objects is a great source of inspiration and admiration. I wish we would have had a bit more time to browse this collection, as you don’t often get a chance to see such a large collection of African artifacts in one place.

The second major destination on this tour was a former plantation-turned-special-education-school called Groot Santa Martha. On our way there, we stopped by a little slave hut, which looked rather idyllic, reminding me a bit of those cozy cottages found in English villages.

And yet, the thought that the former inhabitants were bereft of most every personal freedom we take for granted nowadays, made for an odd contrast between what one saw, and the image in front of one’s inner eye of what it must have been like for those who lived in it a few centuries ago. And yet, it was lightyears away from the miserable “lodgings” we had seen at the Kura Hulanda earlier.

The entrance the Groot Santa Martha plantation's main mansion

After a quick stop, we continued on our way to Groot Santa Martha. Here’s an excerpt from their info brochure:

In 1696 the Groot Santa Martha Plantation was already famous for its cattle, sugar mill, indigo, distillery and fresh-water wells. Dividivi pods were also exported and in 1797 there was still one working sugar mill.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the sale of fruit and cattle for slaughter turned a handsome profit, while Santa Martha also produced 90% of the island’s salt which was then shipped to the United States and the Netherlands.

The heavy work in and around the landhouse and in the saltpans was done by slaves who lived in huts on the land. At that time, the plantation consisted of 554 hectares, now reduced to only 17 hectares.

Today there is still an orchard, nursery garden, vegetable and herbs garden, and a farm with cows, goats, sheep and horses. In all these departments handicapped people work under supervision.

The plantation’s gorgeous, serene location is embedded in lush green surroundings and close to a saltwater lake, nicely setting off the cheerfully bright-yellow main houses. In some of the buildings on the site, mentally handicapped people were being trained in arts and crafts, e.g., in a furniture restoration workshop, with the aim to prepare them for an independent life once they have completed their education here.

The way the place was presented to us, however, felt somehow awkward and inappropriate, as our group was led to some of the buildings and allowed to freely look around. Although the director of the place, who led us around and explained each building’s purpose and the overall concept behind the Santa Martha foundation, assured us that “meeting” other people this way was part of the training they provided to their students, I couldn’t help but compare the image of watching these people and taking photos of them, to images from circus freak shows from the early 20th century.

And I was glad to find out that I wasn’t the only one who had reservations about this, as I talked to another person from our group, who also shied away from entering every building and basically disrespecting the students’ privacy, and he shared the exact same feelings about this visit.

The salt lake right behind Groot Santa Martha

It’s not that I object to visiting places like Santa Martha per se — far from it. But, generally speaking, if the expression on another person’s face indicates to me that they feel uncomfortable when observed in tactless touron2 fashion, I respectfully retreat and leave them alone. Grabbing your camera and taking a close-up shot of that person instead, should not be an option in these situations.

During the drive back to the ship, our guide provided us with some insights into what life on Curaçao is like today, bringing our thoughts back into our modern times: how the housing market develops, what the school system is like, how the island is debating independence from the Netherlands, and many more interesting tidbits.

Before being taken back to the pier, we took a little detour to the Tula memorial. In 1795, a slave named Tula organized a revolt against a plantation owner, and even though the revolt was violently put to an end and Tula executed, he is still revered as a hero, and that reverence is also expressed in the monument which shows Tula breaking the chains of two other slaves with a hammer and chisel.

Monument in honor of Tula

In a way, today’s excursion was the opposite of yesterday’s fun off-road ride: more serious, deeper, and thought-provoking, and I returned to my cabin tired, mellow, and even a bit emotional. But that’s exactly what makes an excursion worthwhile.

Being shown a close-up of such a disgraceful phenomenon in our “civilized” nations’ history is not a carefree ride, but it can, and should, give us pause to reflect on which values define us as human and humane beings — both through confronting us with events and actions that we don’t want to ever occur again, but also through inspiring and empowering stories like that of the slave Tula who was brave enough to put his own life at stake to stand up against his and his fellow-men’s oppressors.

The Volendam left Curaçao at 6 in the evening, so there was only time for one class today: part one of David Pogue’s two-part mini-series “Inside Mac OS X ‘Leopard'” in the ship’s Wajang Theater, promising to cover all 300 of the new features found in this release of the OS. Well, that didn’t “quite” work out as promised, but, given David’s entertaining presentation style, it was well worth attending despite the “somewhat” less comprehensive coverage.

David’s first topic — after pointing out the “halucinogenic box” that Leopard ships in — was Time Machine. When asked who could rightfully claim to have a complete backup of all the files on their Mac “right now,” only three people in the room raised their hands (thanks to SuperDuper! and a bus-powered Iomega FireWire drive, I could rightfully claim membership in this exclusive club). Which, according to David, was in line with what Apple claimed, namely that only 4% of their user base have a system in place that creates automatic, regular, and complete backups.

To demonstrate the importance of backups, Pogue used the one example that I think is guaranteed to work every time: pictures of your family, especially of your kids. The very idea of losing any photos that document moments in peoples’ lives that they can never ever re-live or re-create usually gets even those to consider implementing a reliable backup system who never cared about backups before. Which makes it all the more surprising that David himself admitted to not backing up!

Despite having three kids, a massive supply of cool camera gear (and not just way-cool review loaners, either, I’m sure), and, thus, tons of media files portraying his children, he says he has not backed up by making backup copies on DVDs, or somesuch. Why not? Because he just does not have enough time to do so. Or, rather, did not have enough time, because, with Time Machine, backing up becomes a no-brainer.

Other topics covered in this session was slightly less important, yet useful faire, including Spaces, QuickLook, Cover Flow, etc. Watching David showing off these new-to-Leopard features was especially fun to me, because I have not yet installed my own copy of Leopard, which I had received just a few days before leaving for the cruise, and now my “Me Want!”-levels are at a new high.

To round off this session, David presented five of his ten “Dave’s Faves:” 1. The “Mosaic”-style photo screen saver; 2. Data detectors in Mail.app; 3. searching for menu commands via the search box in an application’s Help menu. With addressing data detectors for adding events to iCal and addresses to the Address Book, as well as using the Help menu search to also find bookmarks in Safari’s history, that does make five faves total.

The other five will be covered in the second part of “Inside Leopard” tomorrow night. For now, though, I’ll focus my thoughts away from the feature menu Apple has created for their latest Big Cat to the menu that lists what’s for dinner tonight. Aye!


  1. Curaçao is a former Dutch colony and, as one of the Netherlands Antilles islands, still part of the [Kingdom of the Netherlands][]. 

  2. touron = tourist moron 

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