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Trip 28 -- Curaçao Walk

Friday, November 5, 2021

Things were starting to pick up in the music world after 20 months of pandemic: For the first time since March 2020 I had a regular session of casting-agent-hired auditions to play, followed by a service at Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, where I'd become the interim Friday-night pianist while their usual guy was out of town for half a year.

Curaçao happens to be just the right size and distance from New York to be reached, walked around, and returned from between two consecutive Friday services. It's also the largest of the "ABC Islands" -- Aruba and Bonaire are the other bits of land just off the northwest coast of Venezuela -- and considering the abecedarian nature of this 26-island walking project, having walked the A, I found it fitting to head for the B and the C and make comparisons. (Bonaire is planned for next year.)

About that cedilla, the little beard under the second "C" in the island's name: Yes, it's what makes the letter sound like an "S," but what is it doing in the name of a land first occupied by Spaniards and then administered by the Dutch? "Curaçao" appears to be a Portuguese word for healing, and a widespread story is that Portuguese sailors stranded on the island recovered from scurvy. But the 15th-century Europeans on Curaçao were from Spain. The Spanish language of 500 years ago also used the cedilla, and Curaçao was a Spanish approximation of the term used by the indigenous population to call themselves, the Curassow people, whose name is related to a pheasant-like bird, the great curassow, perhaps used by them as a totem.

Curaçaoans are proud of their cedilla: A 2013 article in the Curaçao Chronicle promoted the little dangler as a unique selling point of the island, a centerpiece of the tourist board's new logo that would make the country stand apart from its neighbors.

Drinkers know the place as the origin of blue Curaçao, which isn't naturally blue at all but rather made from the peel of the Laraha orange, which evolved from a type brought from Valencia in 1527. Not all Curaçao liqueur is blue; it may be given different hues or even made clear. Only Senior & Co., based in Curaçao's capital of Willemstad, still uses the Laraha orange; technically it's the only pure Curaçao liqueur.

Many of the Spaniards who came to Curaçao in the 1500s were conversos -- Jews who were forced to adopt Christianity at the end of the 15th century. Perhaps Willemstad's best-known site is the Americas' oldest continuously operating synagogue, consecrated in 1732. Its sand floor, which made footsteps inaudible, is a reminder of how the conversos continued to practice their religion in secret.

David and Cheryl Monahan's novel "The Navigator's Treasure" is based on the hypothetical account of a converso whose diary is found by an archeologist (the daughter of a woman from Ghana and a man from the little town of Doolin, Ireland, where my dad and I just happened to be less than two weeks ago) and inspires a search for legendary gold stolen from an indigenous tribe by Christopher Columbus's team of explorers and bequeathed to the Jewish community. There is a suggestion, with some not-so-far-fetched plausibility, that Columbus himself was a converso.

My copy of the book arrived with an inscription by the authors: "Hope you enjoy this...and someday our dushi isle." "Dushi" is a catch-all word in the local Papiamento language that means sweet, beautiful, and dear. I've fulfilled half their wishes; now it's time to take in the island.

Go on to day 1