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I met Patrick Lauria and his fellow divers from Cleveland on my very first day of diving, the lot of us drumming out to a spot called Snake Bay, along the south-central coast, with Ocean Encounters. There is a Moorish proverb that states, He who does not travel does not know the value of men. Wherever I travel, I make it a point to get to know my fellow man. I have rarely been disappointed.
The boys from Cleveland were no exception. I liked them instantly. For one thing, they weren’t whiners. Cleveland, as you might imagine, is short on coral reefs. The boys dove quarries: cold, dark and green. They didn’t mind. “Great place to learn navigation,” shrugged Mike Butzback. “You can’t cheat.” After some 150 quarry dives, Butzback still remembered his first ocean dive vividly. “The water tasted funny,” Butzback told me, “but there was a lot more to see.”
We jounced across blue-green waters, the happy buildings of Otrabanda scrolling past. I turned to Lauria, making a mental note to be on my best behavior. Big and square with close-cropped blond hair, he looked like a cop. Turns out he was a cop, although he had been forced to retire.
“Got run over by a semi,” he said. Now he stood swaying and smiling. “I never cherished life,” he said. “It was just work, work, work.” His grin broadened. “Now I kind of like life a little bit.”
When we plunged beneath the water, I saw that Lauria peered out at the undersea realm through a bright-yellow mask. Yellow, I decided, is the color of both joy and illumination.
Snake Bay (named for the resident garden eels) and Blue Bay Gardens were lovely spots, with walls sloping down into the blue, and floods of creole wrasse like black ink spilled, and green morays and southern stingrays that wafted off into the void like wings carrying a dream and, well, frankly too many other fish I couldn’t identify.
Lauria had a different take on fish ID. Back on the boat he said, “Being from Cleveland, if I see a colored fish, it’s a winner.”
I know white isn’t a color, but another installment of my color-endowed education was provided by the light of Lauria’s mile-wide smile.
Curaçao might be one of the few places on Earth where the colors above the water are more vibrant than those below. I’m not just talking about the buildings, although it’s true that these colors are the most obvious — the curled gables, limestone walls and plantation shutters of Willemstad, Curaçao’s capital city, appearing to be painted by enthusiastic kindergartners.
Willemstad isn’t really a city; it’s more a small, pedestrian-friendly town. I loved walking its streets and cobbled alleys, ordering from bistros where a single chalkboard menu contained multinational food items (croquet-monsieur/appeltaart/pizza slice), and sitting at a patio table listening to the singsong jingle of many languages.
It was fun too, standing on the famed floating pontoon bridge as it swung open for ships entering and leaving the deepwater harbor that made Curaçao first a center of the slave trade and later headquarters for Big Oil — both profitable ventures that grounded the island in a prosperity it maintains to this day. But Willemstad is a city on other fronts, with fine entertainment, dining, museums and culture that earned it UNESCO status as a World Heritage City. “There’s real stuff here,” one young resident puts it. “There’s no island fever. You can go places and do things. My wife puts on a suit and tie for work.”
In downtown Willemstad, I saw these suited executives hustling to work. I also saw Sephardic Jews heading to worship, Venezuelan fishermen hawking their wares, Senegalese restaurateurs brandishing their menus, and a man with dreadlocks that swung inches above the ground. Depending on whom I talked to, the island’s 150,000 residents comprised 50, 60, 70 different nationalities, and nearly as many shades of color. And newcomers keep arriving.
When I asked Clarina Gomez, an upright matron born and raised on Curaçao, if this immigration influx was hard to adjust to, she raised an eyebrow, bestowing yet another lesson in color.
“Why should it be hard?” she asked. “We don’t mind who is coming in, what they are doing, what their religion is.” She gave this a moment’s thought and nodded. “I suppose it is unique.”
One Sunday afternoon I ate at Zus Di Plaso, a bustling open-air market of restaurants where food — Chinese, Senegalese, and local dishes like Kabritu (goat stew) and Sopi Piska (fish soup) — is cooked over hot coals and served at long picnic tables where strangers sit together amid a bouillabaisse of knee-buckling smells. Across the table, an Indian mother and young daughter heartily forked up their lunches, carrying on a conversation in their native tongue.
When I complimented the daughter on her necklace, she thanked me in flawless English, turned and said something to an adjacent table in Dutch, then slipped into Papiamentu to place a second order. All around us, people ate and laughed.
Mi ta kontentu. I am happy.
In the mornings, I dived with Ocean Encounters and the Cleveland boys. With four locations on the island, Ocean Encounters hits all of Curaçao’s signature dive sites — Klein Curaçao, the Superior Producer, Blue Grotto — and pretty much every other site too. Each morning I hopped aboard the boat, the lot of us leaping in happily at a procession of sloping reef walls smeared with staghorn, brain, black and star corals, their nooks and crannies populated with a multitude of colorful fish and other Jackson Pollock-like creations, including flamingo-tongue snails and cleaner shrimp, neon blue fingernails patiently waiting for something to scour. At Barracuda Point we saw barracuda. At Bullenbaai, one of my favorites, we finned along a wall that wove in and out, limestone waves standing on end, while fat schools of brown chromis loitered against the blue. “I love that dive,” said one of the guides, after we clambered back on board. “You never know what’s around the bend.”
In the afternoons I explored the island, often with Gomez, who besides being open-minded about immigration was also my tour guide. A retired school teacher, Gomez took me not just to the standard tourist stops like the floating fruit market along Waiigat Canal — with its smells of tropical fruits and fish — the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, and Museum Kurá Hulanda — the former slave yards now a collection of colorful art, and a reminder of the darkness of the slave trade — but to surprises as well.
One afternoon in Otrobanda — Willemstad is split by water into two parts: Otrobanda and Punda — we stepped into the dusky-cool confines of Netto’s Bar. Netto’s Bar isn’t much to look at; a narrow room with a chipped bar, a half-dozen tables and walls (and ceilings) smothered with soccer pennants and old photos, but the Prince of the Netherlands has pulled up a stool here. Why?
In Curaçao, even the rum possesses bewitching color. Netto’s green rum, with its hint of licorice taste, is deservedly famous.
Maybe it was the heat, the extra rum the bartender poured into my glass, or the happy buzz of conversation echoing off the walls but, rising above the noise, I heard Lauria’s voice — I’m lucky to be here — and I lifted my glass, green as the Caribbean shallows, and gave a silent toast of agreement.
On the second-to-last day of my trip, I decided to dive Curaçao’s west end with Go West Diving. I like cities well enough, but I favor open spaces, and driving out to Westpunt, citified trappings quickly fell away. Locals refer to it as “the country,” and country it is: miles of scrub and indigenous kadushi cactuses interrupted sporadically by tiny communities — loamy soccer fields, snack shops, grazing goats, bushalte (bus) stops and the occasional roadside barbecue.
It had rained for several nights, and here and there the hillsides had suddenly exploded in color, peppered with what looked like lollipop trees, their yellow flowers even brighter than Lauria’s mask. The flowering trees are called Kaebra Haetcha, translating roughly to “hawk breakers,” their wood so hard it has been known to get the best of an axe. Yellow might be a happy color, but it is also true that happy colors can be affixed to enduring things.
Boarding the sleek and nearly empty Sea Lion, we headed for Mushroom Forest. Although, in truth, we could have just jumped off Lodge Kura Hulanda’s dock and finned out to Alice in Wonderland, one of the west end’s premier spots. Everywhere you drive on Curaçao, signs point to small cusps of beach with some glory just offshore. Plenty of these spots are great for snorkeling too. On Curaçao, even the waters are egalitarian.
But we boated out to dive Mushroom Forest and Santa Cruz, and I was glad we did. Mushroom Forest — with its phantasmagoric star coral formations — has suffered a bit from pressure, but the foundations of the enormous corals are still there, rising up like great Gandalf hats. Santa Cruz is another stellar dive, with healthy corals and, when I peered close, a juvenile spotted drum, the elegant curve of its dorsal and tail fin like poetry itself.
My favorite stop, though, was between dives. Yanking on masks and snorkels, we finned be- neath a limestone overhang in the cliffs and into aptly named Blue Cave. Tucked away from the bright world outside but still benefiting from its refracted light, the baby-blue waters radiated an ethereal, sloshing light, and water dripped from the overhangs like silver rain. Blue is the color of serenity, and we divers are graced to have it.
That afternoon, I visited Shete Boka National Park, on Curaçao’s northern windward shore, standing at land’s edge and watching large waves dash themselves against sheer cliffs. It was a place of thunder, seething waters and life. It was also one of the few places on Curaçao bereft of color. Everywhere, the open ground was sun-baked and black. And then, a huge wave thundered against the cliff, throwing a hissing plume of mist into the bright sunlight of the afternoon, and the world was filled with colors: gauzy reds, oranges, yellows, greens and blues.
They hung for a moment in the air before imparting a last lesson. Watch closely as a misty saltwater rainbow dissolves and you’ll see, at the end, how all the colors blend into one.
Special thanks to Hilton Curaçao, Ocean Encounters Curaçao, Go West Diving, and the wonderful Clarina Gomez, tour-guide extraordinaire.