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Goodbye Curacao…

August 19, 2013 — 7 Comments

Well my friends, after 11 months of Caribbean adventure, I have decided to return to the United States.

As I hope you could tell from my blog, I had my share of amazing and challenging experiences that I would trade for nothing. Many of those experiences, musings, and observations are still in my head and my heart. As I write now, I am back home in my hometown of Dallas, processing my experiences and preparing for my next moves. I have unpublished stories from the island that I’m excited to share in time. So while my physical self is back enjoying the Texas weather, my mind is still very much on Dushi Korsou.

I believe in there’s being a time, a season for all things. As I have written before, beneath the exterior of beautiful beaches, colorful buildings, and amazing weather, Curacao is a small island with increasingly big problems, politically, economically, and culturally. While I appreciated the laid back lifestyle, to be honest I never quite felt…at ease accepted quite at home. Maybe it was cultural differences, maybe it was moving from the hustle and bustle of New York to a small island community or just….maybe it was just my  time.

Sometimes things don’t always work the way we want, but things always seem to work for the best. At the risk of sounding cliche, I met a lot of amazing people along the way, and there are a special few that are in my heart and I will miss teribbly. When I stepped on my outbound flight last week from Curacao’s Hato airport, I knew I was returning a completely different person than the person who left everything behind in September of last year to chase her dreams.

Thank you to everyone who followed my adventures here, I really appreciated your comments, support and emails. I hope you continue to follow on my next adventures!

xoxo Karen

 

 

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This is my second week here in Curacao, and I’m glad to report that things have been going pretty well so far. This go-round is actually my fourth time to come to the island this year. In the beginning, for the first few days, I was definitely in vacation mode. Sleeping, eating, playing with my 8 year old neighbor, and some beaching were all I wanted to do in order to de-tox the New York from my system. After a few days, however, it began to set in that I needed to switch off from vacation mode and turn to “I-actually-live-here-and-need-to-get-a-job” mode. And living here has been, and will prove to be, an interesting experience.

By the Fisherman’s Wharf in Wllemstad

I come to Curacao as an outsider in so many ways. Linguistically, I don’t speak much Dutch and I don’t speak Papamiento (the local language of Curacao, which is a mix of Dutch, Spanish, English and Portuguese). I can definitely get by in English here, but my inability to speak Dutch and Papiamento makes me feel like I have to contend with a double language barrier here. Despite the assurances of both Dutch and locals that English is sufficient to survive and get a job on the island, I suppose I’m looking to do more than just “survive” here. Most Dutch people speak English, and many are kind enough to switch their conversations to English when I am around, but I do admit I’m conscious of the fact that they are switching to accommodate me. But I am lucky that my Dutch boyfriend and his circle of friends have done an amazing job of making me feel welcome and have agreed to speak “Dinglish” to me so that I can start speaking nederlands little by little.

Culturally, I admit I had never really met a Dutch person before coming to Curacao this year. My experience with the Netherlands had be limited to countless KLM layovers at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport en-route to Ghana. I have probably been to Amsterdam   Schipol near a dozen times by now, but I was never adventurous enough to go explore the city. So oddly enough, my time in Curacao has been my introduction to Dutch culture, Caribbean-style. They love potatoes, mayonnaise on their french fries, being tall, efficiency, honesty, being VERY punctual, and cheese. Not necessarily in that order, of course. It is clear though, that there is a separation between the Dutch community and the local community. More on that later.

Curacao does not have a huge diaspora to the United States, so being here is the first time that I have been introduced to their culture. This is my first time really learning about Caribbean culture in general. That week long Carnival Cruise my family and I took to the Carribean when I was about 10 or so hardly counts as real “experience” in the Caribbean. I find the Caribbean to be under-reported in America, and even more so the Dutch Caribbean.

Now, there is of course the question of how I interact with the local people here. Even the words “local” vs. “native” is tricky. There are Dutch Europeans whose families have been here for generations. There are people from Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, and Jamaica. The question of who is a yu di Korsou, (literally means a “child of Curacao” in Papamiento), or a true Curacaoan, is a bit of tricky question of identity.  Because really, the way I see it, whether they are the descendants of the African slaves brought by the Dutch, recent migrants from South America or other Caribbean islands, everyone here is from somewhere else. (The actual native Amerindian tribes that were on Curacao either migrated out, or were subdued by Europeans). For the most part, I see “local” as referring to non-white European inhabitants of the island. Despite my dark skin, people can immediately tell I’m foreign. Most people assume that I’m Jamaican. I don’t know why. It is true that not as many Americans visit the island. Maybe for people here, “English-speaking black foreigner” = Jamaican.

It’s difficult for me move between local and Dutch worlds here in Curacao. Despite the incredible diversity of peoples here in Curacao, there is a serious lack of interaction between the Dutch communities and non-white locals in my opinion. Lack of interaction contributes to a near absence of integration. The capital city of Willemstad is divided into two parts separated by the large natural harbor. One side is the Dutch side, of Punda, and Otrobanda, (which literally means “other side”) is where the locals live. There are Dutch friends of mine who have been here for years and cannot speak Papamiento, and who can count the number of local friends they have on one hand. I hear Dutch people saying that the locals are lazy, not professional, never on time, aren’t educated, and are ignorant of the world outside tiny Curacao. There is also a sentiment that anti-Dutch sentiment has increased on the island in last few years, and some say they are even afraid, as a white person, to go to certain areas. (Granted, I normally ask what they are afraid of, exactly. Well, of being attacked! “Really? Have there been reports of racially motivated attacks on Dutch people or something?” No. Not really. So then where is the fear coming from? I don’t know, that’s just what people say! The locals don’t like us and don’t want us here!) I’ve heard too many times, “They (locals) and their culture is just too different from ours. We cannot mix well, so we stay apart.”

Talking with some locals, of course there is the perspective that the Dutch people are arrogant, condescending, and racist. Locals here are accurately aware that numbers of Dutch people (as well as politicians in the Netherlands) see Curacao as a backwards banana republic headed by incompetent and corrupt politicians. Of course, not every Dutch person feels that way, and many live here and love the way of life and the culture. But locals seem to feel that the Dutch come here to make their money and live their island paradise lives without making any attempt to contribute to the long term human development of the locals on the island. There is a sense among locals that the Dutch refuse to acknowledge or recognize the economic and human exploitation of the past, and that those past exploitations and dependencies were, and still are, systemic. But there is a sense of increasing nationalism and an attempt to assert a Curacaoan identity apart from the Dutch that is here.

“Stop Dutch Apartheid” stickers in Willemstad.

Being black outsider isn’t such a bad thing.  As an outsider to both the locals and the Dutch, I suppose I take a bit of an observer role. But its almost like I can physically feel a deep rooted mistrust and tension between Dutch and local populations here. To me, it is obvious that there is a lack of cultural and physical spaces for meaningful discourse and dialogue between the Dutch and local people. It’s incredible, and a bit tragic that such hostilities and resentment can exist on such a small island, and judging from the impending elections here in Curacao, it is possible that things could get worse.

I will say, that many people find me to be interesting. Again, not many Americans come here, and I think that people, both local and Dutch, appreciate that I took such a risk to come here and learn about the island and about cultures totally different from mine. Plenty have told me that they are interested in my perspective as a non-Dutch and a non-local. I will definitely continue to share my thoughts here so, watch this space!

So far, so good in Curacao!

Setting Sail Again

September 11, 2012 — 9 Comments

The time has come for for me to set sail again.

After two years in New York City, and three years stateside since my last stint abroad in Ghana, I will be setting my sights on a temporary stay in the Caribbean. I will be making a move to the Dutch Antilles in a little over a week. Idyllic choice of location, yes, but I am personally compelled to take myself out of the NYC/DC environment for some time to gain some personal clarity on many aspects of my life and purpose. In order to prepare for life’s next steps, one must take some time to decide what shoes to put on first.

I am also compelled by the untold stories of the Caribbean, the under-reported stories of the black diaspora that are just as much a part of the  of the fabric popular discourse on African migration as the U.S.-Africa connection. Little do people know that the largest collection of African history/slavery artifacts in the Caribbean is in Curacao. Little do people know that people from West Africa come to the Dutch Antilles and find that they can understand the local language, Papiamentu. Little do people know that the issues of belonging, identity, and globalization that I have wrestled with as a member of the African diaspora in the United States, feature prominently with Curacaoans as well. I want to tell these stories, and hopefully stories from other parts of the Caribbean. My hope is that I can find ears that will listen.

I know it is not the traditional path many would have thought I would have taken after graduate school. But after graduate school, I realized that a burning curiosity about the world has been driving me and the best way for me to satisfy that is to gain first-hand experience. I’m not rich, and who knows if I ever will be, but I decided to save up my M&Ms and Skittles in the bank so that I can take this chance, so that I can bet on myself. I’ve always have tried the best I could to follow my heart, and to this day, though I may have made mistakes, I have no regrets, only lessons.  I need to do what is best for myself, so that I can move to serve others in this life.

To those who think I am leaving my work Africa…never fear! Africa is in my heart and my blood. I am looking to make my return to the continent soon, when the time is right.

I will undoubtedly miss my wonderful family, as well as all fantastic friends in New York, DC, and Dallas, and everywhere else in this world I have been fortunate enough to spend some time in. But hey, keeping in touch is what Facebook, smartphones, Twitter, Skype, Gchat, WhatsApp, smoke signals and Morse Code are for, right?

To all those who have supported, encouraged and helped me to work through this process, I thank you. To those who have questioned and criticized, I hear you, but know I still respect you.

Until next time, Ayo, United States!