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Happy Birthday, Dushi.

January 25, 2013 — 6 Comments

A few months ago, we moved several minutes away from where we used to live, so we don’t see Alice very often anymore. As I wrote in my last post about her,  Alice’s mom is in Curacao illegally from Jamaica, and doesn’t work. Her mother’s boyfriend is also illegal, and works in construction. My boyfriend and I remembered that Alice was celebrating her 9th birthday this week, and we wanted to try to do something nice for her. Since my boyfriend had to work that evening, I decided to drive to our old apartment to surprise Alice and say hello.

“No esta aki,” our old land lady said. She told me in half papiamento and half spanish that Alice had gone out for dinner for her birthday. I said I would come back another time, and turned around to drive away. Down the road, I saw Alice and her mom walking up the road. I honked and hopped out of the car. Once Alice recognized me, and with a long squeal she started running down the road to give me a hug. Well, half a hug anyway, since Alice had a white cast on her right arm.

“Happy Birthday Alice, I’ve missed you!” I said,  “Um, what happened to your arm??”

“Oh, a kid at school pushed me and then I fell–like this, and then my bone went like—this!!” I winced as she basically demonstrated a pretty nasty wrist break. She asked me where my boyfriend was, and begged me to go see him at work at the hotel restaurant. I obliged, but only if her mother would allow it. Her mother said yes, but not before asking, “Do you think your boyfriend could have clean job for me?, I need money, yuh know.”  I knew that without papers, my boyfriend’s job couldn’t hire her. I said I would ask anyway.

“Alice! You look so pretty,” I said. “And your feet have grown!”

“Don’t you think she’s getting fat?” Her mother said. “She eat tooooo much.”

“No,” I said, while inside I wondered why this woman never had anything nice to say about her kid.  “I think she’s 9 years old and growing.”

As we were driving, Alice was updating me on her life since we left. She said that now, she has absolutely no one to play with. She said her grandmother from Jamaica was also living with them in their tiny 3 room apartment.

“Everyday, I wake up and I ask if you guys will come for me,” Alice said in the car.

That broke my heart. “Everyday? Really?” I said.

“Yeah, ehh–vverryday”, she said with her green eyes sparkling. “You guys told me that you would teach me diving in your pool!” We did promise that. “Just get that cast of yours off,” I said.

Alice also told me that that day wasn’t her real birthday. “I was really born on the 3rd, but my mom said to tell people today was my birthday.” My heart broke again. I was reminded of the fact that she is undocumented.

When my boyfriend Alice her when we arrived, he gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He surprised both of us with ice cream, smoothies, and grilled cheese sandwiches. We sang “Happy Birthday” in English and Dutch. Alice told everyone at the restaurant that we were her stepparents. I let her play Disney games on my computer. Honestly, I was dead tired from working and running errands all that day, and I wouldn’t have minded calling it a night, but my boyfriend said, “Let her stay as long as she can. She probably hasn’t had something nice for herself in a long time.”

Sure enough, Alice told me later, “I didn’t get anything for my birthday, except for McDonald’s from my mom, and now ice cream and a day with my stepparents,” she told me in between games at the restaurant table. I had to sit next to her to help her with some of the games, as her English reading was so poor, she struggled with a lot of the simplest words.

A few hours later, I dropped Alice back off at her house. Later that night when my boyfriend and I got home, he seemed really quiet.

“Do you think we could adopt her?” He seemed really serious.

“Babe,” I said. “Alice has a mom. And plus how would that work? She technically does not exist. How do you adopt an unregistered 9 year old? Also, ummm…never mind the fact that we are absolutely not ready to be parents!” I hated to sound so defeatist, but really, what could we do? We aren’t her saviors. We can’t be.

“Well,” he said slowly, “Its just, with everything she’s gone through, she’s such an amazing person. I just wish I could help, to help surround her with people who love her and will spend time with her, to help her to read. Seeing her today, I just want to help give her a better life, a life a person like her deserves.”

And my heart broke for the third time that day.

I knew we should have put our phones in Ziploc bags that morning.

Yesterday was Fuik Dag on the island of Curacao. For those who don’t know what Fuik Dag is, it is perhaps one of the most anticipated days of the entire year for many people on the island. Hundreds of people take their boats to Fuik Baai, or Fuik Bay, near the old salt mines. The bay is pretty much only accessible by boat, and chances are that nearly every boat on the island will be chartered for the day. The boat owners and operators arrange themselves in various circles of sorts in the water, and around 2,000 people spend the day drinking, barbecuing, while dancing to live music from barges sponsored by Heineken, Polar, or some other beer company. I heard tales of hundreds of people of brightly colored inflatable inner tubes, rafts, and other makeshift flotation devices drifting from boat to boat under the Caribbean sky.

I really wanted to see all of this for myself. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but we didn’t reserve a boat on time. Luckily we found a way to hitch a ride with a water taxi to the bay. The boat was small, perhaps about 8 feet long with a tiny little motor, operated by a local Curacaoan. When it came to pick us the five of us up from the dock, I was a bit surprised at its little size, but hey, whatever it took to get to Fuik, I was down.

We started through the Spanish water which was not too bad. We passed by the former Hyatt (now Santa Barbara Resort) Resort where a number of Curacao Coast Guard boats were checking smaller boats passing to Fuik to make sure they had life jackets before heading out to the open water. I asked my boyfriend if we needed to be checked.

“Nah, I think we can pass through, its not a big deal,” he said.

We passed out of the Spanish Water Bay into the open ocean. This is when I started to get nervous. The water started feeling way more tempestuous for our aquatic hoopty.  There were numerous larger boats passing us creating wakes that spilled into the back of the boat. Soon enough, the water on the bottom of the boat went from being a puddle, to being ankle deep and rising. In a matter of minutes, the engine was under the surface and the back of the boat was tipping down under the weight of the water rushing in.

Amidst the Dutch flying around, all I could understand was “Get out!!” One of the ladies in the boat that we picked up was given a life vest. I don’t know what happened to her, but I think she got out alright. The rest of us were hanging on to our water coolers packed with the drinks and sandwiches we had prepared. At that moment, well, it was pure adrenaline. All I knew to do was to just hang on to our little cooler and to stay as close as possible to the group and resist panicking.

We were picked up within a few minutes by the Curacao Coast Guard patrol and brought back to the Santa Barbara resort. I did a quick inventory of our stuff. Our food was gone. Our phones–flooded. Brand new camera—probably done. ( I KNEW we should have put the phones in additional plastic bags that morning. But how do you )  Then as the adrenaline started to wear off I started shaking a little when I realized whatthehellhadjusthappened. The small little boat would have fully sunk if it was not for the Coast Guard being there. I might have started panicking if we were further out in the ocean with no life jackets. (Why didn’t we get life jackets??) Over the course of the day all the “It could have been way worse if it wasn’t for (fill in the blank)” thoughts filled my head.

I decided to continue to Fuik and hitchhiked on a bigger boat with some Dutch Good Samaritans. I tried to enjoy myself and have a good time. Yes, Fuik Dag was all that people had said it was, full of people of all cultures and races enjoying the start of the New Year. But I found to it hard to concentrate on having a good time. No amount of alcohol could override my desire to be away from water and boats, and the potential for more irresponsible behavior in the water. Plus, the only food we brought that survived the boat sinking was our potato chips, and the smell of other people’s barbecue meals was making me miserably hungry and irritated. So we packed up what was left of our stuff, got on a much better water taxi (with life jackets!) and went for Burger King and went home to just listen to music on dry land.

There ends the tale of my first Fuik Dag. Next time, we are getting the 150 guilder all inclusive boats, for sure.


My year in photographs. Each signifies a representation of significant events in my 2012. 

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2013, you have a tough act to follow.

As the year comes to a close, I thought I would share with you guys some of my favorite photographs that I have taken since arriving in Curacao. I consider myself an amateur photographer, so I am still learning the tricks of the trade. But on the coldest night of the year, I thought some of these colorful shots of the Caribbean would brighten your day. Cheers!

First up, here are some beach images.

Santa Cruz Beach, Westpunt, Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Santa Cruz Beach, Westpunt, Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Santa Cruz Beach, Westpunt, Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Santa Cruz Beach, Westpunt, Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Playa Jeremi. One of the "black sand" beaches in Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Playa Jeremi. One of the “black sand” beaches in Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Here are some of my favorite shots of places on the island:

Downtown Willemstad, along the harbor

Downtown Willemstad, along the harbor

Food stand at the Plasa Bieu Pavillion

Food stand at the Plasa Bieu Pavillion

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The buildings along Willemstad’s famous harbor.

The infinity pool at the Scuba Lodge and Suites at Sundown.

The infinity pool at the Scuba Lodge and Suites at sundown. No editing, these were the natural colors.

And shots of some of the people I’ve met along the way.

A Haitian boy attends church in Curacao.

A Haitian boy attends church in Curacao.

Haitian Churchgoers

Haitian Churchgoers

The members of one of Willemstad's little league baseball teams get ready to start their evening practice.

The members of one of Willemstad’s little league baseball teams get ready to start their evening practice.

Former Prime Minister of Curacao Gerrit Schotte emerges from his self imposed lockdown Sept. 28

Former Prime Minister of Curacao Gerrit Schotte emerges from his self imposed lockdown Sept. 28

Dancers on Stilts Perform for Sinterklaas in Curacao

Dancers on Stilts Perform for Sinterklaas in Curacao 

A Dutch surf instructor
A Dutch surf instructor

And I cant end the post without mentioning Curacao’s lizards. From the dragon-like iguanas to the beautiful blau-blaus, don’t be surprised when these Antillean reptilians end up chilling near your pool, on your window, or even in your bedroom.

This iguana found its way poolside.

This iguana found its way poolside.

An iguana outside my window

An iguana outside my window

Handpainted turtles for sale at the plaza in Punda.

Handpainted turtles for sale at the plaza in Punda.

A Thanksgiving Note

November 22, 2012 — 3 Comments

This week marked my second month in Curacao…two months since I decided to pack my Manhattan life into two oversized bags and come down to a small island in the Caribbean with 150,000 people. I have a lot to be grateful for for the past year. I finished graduate school in May. I had an amazing opportunity this summer to work in New York city working in journalism. I met some of the most amazing individuals I’ve ever encountered in the last year, not the least of which includes the man I am very much in love with.

But rather than engage in the typical “Top Ten Things To Be Thankful For” laundry-list, itemized style of reminiscing over the things and the people that have made me happy in the last year, I wonder if there is another, deeper way to look at this time of the year. Especially as I spend Thanksgiving away from my family for only the second time ever in my life.

How do you define being “thankful”? Like what is thankfulness? Who can tell me what a “thank” anyway? If we don’t know what it is, how can we be full of it? Or how can we give it away every fourth Thursday of November?

I find myself right now looking up the definition of gratitude, or the “readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Thankfulness means “expressing gratitude and relief”. Other words synonymous to gratitude (according to my Mac’s Oxford Dictionary) include “recognition”, “acknowledgement”, and “credit.”

My mind keeps focusing on the word “acknowledgement”. To me acknowledgement is slightly above “being aware” of something, but rather is a  public expression an awareness of a kind action, of support, or of a good deed.

I think we can do better than mere acknowledgment. We can go beyond the blanket Facebook and Twitter declarations of thanks for friends and family.

There are the big things like, the man who offers you his umbrella when you’re stranded in the rain. Your classmate that offers to help you study for the next exam when you were sick for lectures that week. Maybe we are more thankful when strangers who have no ties to us offer to help us.

But what about the people close to us? The parents who dutifully call you a few times a week “just to check up on you”? The girlfriend who still loves you despite  your oddities and quirks? The close pals you can count on to be with you through thick and thin, relationships and break ups, and who are always down for happy hours and karaoke? Do we recognize kindnesses that we see on a day to day basis?

Take the time this Thanksgiving to tell your friends and family, individually if you can, not just that you are thankful for them, but why you are thankful for them. What is it about who they are and what they do that has impacted your life so much? Write to a friend and tell her how much her support and good humor over the last few months while you were going through rough times helped you. Write to your mentor and tell them how much you appreciate their time, and their wisdom, and their willingness to invest in your future success. Tell your employees how much you value their hard work. And of course, most of us can never thank our parents enough for giving us life, but today, you can try.

Lastly, we should all strive to be someone that others would be thankful to have in their lives. As we give thanks for what others have been to us, or done for us, we should continuously aim to do for others, and to be for others, the best we can. Beyond being thankful for what we have achieved, or the material things we have acquired in the past calendar year, let us remember that the people who seem to have the most in their lives are the ones who are the most freely giving of themselves, their time, their energy and their love to others.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

My friends and I at my going away party in September in New York. So thankful to have amazing people in my life.

Here are some more photos from the November 17th Sinterklaas celebrations in Curacao.

A local Curacao girl dresses up as Zwarte Piet

Crowds in Willemstad watching the Sinterklaas Celebrations

A year ago, I remember reading for the first time about the Dutch holiday tradition of Sinterklaas. I happened across the Slate article written by Jessica Olien, an American new to the Netherlands at the time, where she described her first encounter with Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piet celebrations, which she calls “Holland’s favorite racist Christmastime tradition. She puts it pretty bluntly,

In Holland, Santa doesn’t have elves. He has slaves.

For those who do not know, Sinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa Claus. But According to the background story, Sinterklaas is a Turkish bishop who arrives in Netherlands via steamship from Spain every late November. He is assisted by Zwarte Piet, or literally, “Black Pete”. Every year, hundreds of people dress up as Sinterklaas’ helpers by painting their faces black, coloring large red lips on their faces, and donning curly black afro wigs and gold hoop earrings.

Sinterklaas Arrives in Curacao in 2012. Photo by Karen Attiah

When I first heard about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, I was 2 parts shocked, 1 part disgusted, 1 part angry, and a dash of saddened to learn that such a stereotypical image of black people was not only allowed, but celebrated. Even the word “celebrated” doesn’t do it justice. Since coming to live in Curacao, I’ve learned just how ingrained Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is to the collective Dutch culture. It is a huge children’s event. My Dutch friends tell me that growing up, most children believe Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are real. There is a Sinterklaas news channel that documents his journey into the Netherlands. Famous Dutch national actors play the different Zwarte Piets. Every year Sinterklaas parades into a different city, greeted by thousands of families with eleborate ceremonies. Its like Santa Claus on steroids. All for the kids.

A toddler in a Zwarte Piet hat waits for Sinterklaas to arrive in Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Even more peculiar to me, is the fact that here in Curacao, a former Dutch colony of mostly African descendants here in the Caribbean, celebrates Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet as well. I went to the Sinterklaas arrival this past weekend in Willemstad, and when I saw local black Curacaoans painting their own skin darker, their own lips redder and bigger and donning the Zwarte Piet costumes, I was equal parts surprised and confused.

Sinterklaas parades into Wilemstad Curacao, flanked by a helper playing “Zwarte Piet” dressed in blackface. Photo by Karen Attiah

The parade was HUGE. Well, as huge as a parade can get for a small island. Okay, the parade was island-sized huge. Hundreds of parents brought their young children out early Saturday morning to wait for Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piets to arrive to Curacao. Kids were dressed up in Zwarte Piet hats.  And arrive he did. Curacao’s Sinterklaas was not on a white horse, but a pony led cart in the Brionplein area of Otrobanda, on the edge of Curacao’s famous harbor. The celebration was a bit like Christmas meets Carribean carnival. I have to admit, if I was a child, the celebration is a blast. Drumming Zwarte Piets performed on drums, while dancing Zwarte Piets entertained the crowd with acrobatics and choreography. Other Zwarte Piets toss out candy for the children, while Sinterklaas sits on his big throne on the stage and watches the show entertained by the Zwarte Piets and their acrobatic skills.  Young performers danced and sang to welcome Sinterklaas to Curacao. Here in Curacao, Sinterklaas is greeted by a mayor, and addresses the crowd in Papiamento.

Local Curacaoans don black facepaint and curly afro-wigs to play “Zwarte Piet” Photo by Karen Attiah

But how can an island that boasts a population of 85% African descendants celebrate a character that for many is reminiscent of the offensive minstrel shows of Black Sambo? How can parents line up every year to watch community play Sinterklaas’ goofy, mischievous helpers, who always screws up something with the presents, and requires an overseer Piet to to supervise the rest of them? How can Curacao, an island where many locals blame Dutch neo-colonialism and slavery for the island’s problems, still celebrate what many think to be one of the most racially insensitive traditions out there? It was eerie to feel like I was watching a 2012 Holiday Minstrel Show, in the Caribbean. Watching Zwarte Piets dance and be goofy while Sinterklaas runs the show reminds me of this clip from the Cotton and Chick Watts Blackface Comedy Routine from 1951. (Forward to the 2:45 mark)

I’ve had conversations with Dutch people here on the island about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, and many of them cannot find anything wrong with it. In fact many have gotten downright angry and defensive at the suggestion that Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature for black people. Common responses:

There’s nothing offensive about it. Zwarte Piet isn’t black, he’s Moorish! ( Okay, that makes it all better if Zwarte Piet is a North African Muslim.)

Children love Zwarte Piet! It’s not like we hate him or looked down upon. All the kids want to be like Zwarte Piet. They are a little more afraid of Sinterklaas. Do you want to ruin the children’s fun? (Using children to justify maintaining Zwarte Piet is the most common. But it is the adults who create the tradition and perpetuate it, right?)

Zwarte Piet isn’t a slave, he’s a helper! It is not a race thing. (If he is just a helper, does it matter what color he is? Why is he black? *Note* Holland tried to introduce non-black Piets in the past, using other colors. People did not receive it too well and that was the first and last time they used colored Piets)

Zwarte Piet is black because he got dirty from falling down the chimney, not because he is black! (Then why aren’t his clothes dirty? And why is Zwarte Piete’s hair always a black and curly Afro wig? Did the chimney change Zwarte Piet’s hair? Did it make his lips bigger and redder too?)

It can’t be racist. Black people and locals here in Curacao paint their faces blacker too. And they sometimes they paint their skin whiter to play Sinterklaas! (Doesn’t make it okay.

Americans are just too sensitive! You have no right as an outsider to judge our traditions if you don’t know the story. And if 95% of the Dutch population sees that there is nothing wrong with Zwarte Piet, then who cares what the other 5% say. Don’t Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and the slaughter of Indians? That’s worse than Zwarte Piet! (Usually if the conversation has come to this point,  it signifies the end of the hope of a productive dialogue.)

Zwarte Piet Enthusiasts in Curacao for the arrival of Sinterklaas. Photo by Karen Attiah

Zwarte Piet would never happen in the States, my friends say. Others ask how it is possible for Curacaoans to also celebrate a character that is so demeaning to black people, while at the same time claiming that they desire to be free of Holland and its neo-colonial attitudes towards its former colonies.

I asked a local Curacaoan blogger Jermain Ostiana, about the Sinterklaas celebrations. He been quite vocal on Twitter about what he calls the “coonfest” that is the Zwarte Piet celebration here in Curacao. He told me that last year, the only form of protest against Zwarte Piet was a banner hung on the walls of Fort Amsterdam. “Nobody is going to risk sticking their necks out here, its sad but true here.”

Curacao is the same island where the controversial Dutch comedy “Only Decent People” that depicts Surinamese women, as loud, fat, oversexed, ghetto welfare queens opened to crowds. The producer of the film offered free tickets to large dark skinned women here in Curacao. And people bought in. This is also the same island where little media attention has been paid to the fact that a major motion picture about Tula, the slave who led Curacao’s biggest revolt in 1795 is currently being filmed here. This is also the same island where on the 2 year anniversary of Curacao’s autonomy from Holland on October 10th, which was a national holiday (Dia di Pais), there were basically no celebrations.

Could it be that social, political and cultural apathy has allowed the Zwarte Piet caricature to thrive here in Curacao? I hope that is not the case.

Yes, Zwarte Piet is colored black. But it is more than just the skin color. The black curly hair, oversized red lips, and goofy character is not unique to “Dutch tradition”, but rather were/are common mockingly stereotypical images for dark skinned people that have appeared in various narratives for children, from Herge’s The Adventures of TinTin comic books in Belgium in the 1930s, “Black Sambo” in Britain in the late 1800s, and Jim Crow and the various minstrel shows in the Americas. The reason why Zwarte Piet resonates with “outsiders” or alloctoons is because they have seen Zwarte Piet before. We have seen the exact same character to represent non-white people in other historical narratives. Zwarte Piet actually is nothing new. In most other places, that character has been recognized to be a relic of a racist time long gone by (or so we think) and is no longer in use in public. Why Zwarte has been fiercely guarded and protected by people living in the Kingdom of the Netherlands to this day in the name of “tradition” baffles many people.

A Zwarte Piet In Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

 

, I spotted this costumed bike rider around Fort Amsterdam. I couldn’t see his face, as it was covered by a mask under an elaborate headress, but he had protest flags adorning his bike. My friends tell me “he” or at least his character, has been around for years. Who is he and what is he doing? Anyone know?

Hey Everyone!

Here are the links to the stories that I have done so far in Curacao for Associated Press and Haitian Times:

Curacao’s Former Prime Minister Seeks to Lead Coalition in Crowded Parliament Elections (AP)

Pro-Independence Party Tops Curacao Elections (AP)

In Curacao, Haitians Organize Against Discrimination (Haitian Times)

Watch this space for more stories!