Living in Paradise



New Year’s Day in Curacao. A lot of smoke and mirrors. Sometimes just smoke (photo by me).

With my relocation to the Caribbean two years ago, it’s been difficult explaining to my New England brethren that living here is different than visiting here. My complaint that it’s hot, hotter than the center of the sun hot, seems gloating, whiny, pithy compared to their ice storms, high taxes, 4:00 p.m. sunsets. I confess, the view from my balcony was unmatched, life is slow, and I’m a writer with a lot of free time and endless sunshine. Paradise, or so I’ve been informed by those left behind, is comprised of such elements. And I live there. To my thick Yankee blood, however, I feel like there’s bunker fuel running through my veins, and with a dysfunctional oil refinery nearby, it’s quite possibly true. There’s lots to love in the Caribbean (proximity to South America, warm water, island insouciance) and loathe (half-assed carpentry, pollution, bad drivers, island insouciance)and to scuba divers, Dutch interns, and international businessmen, there’s no better place to be.

One night my husband and I awoke to an explosion and saw out our bedroom window a car afire in an empty parking lot across the street. Later that evening I observed two men stealing usable parts from its metal carcass. Then, for the next several weeks, people simply parked around the blackened debris. We used to live happily in Oakland, California, no stranger to burning vehicles and slow police response, however we thought and hoped we’d live there forever. But distance is the great equalizer and the East Bay, with its wall-eyed culinary fetish, ludicrous property taxes, and political righteousness, can be insufferable too. So where, I wondered as I watched the two plunderers casually liberate auto parts, is the perfect place to live, if not what most consider paradise itself?

We move a lot. My husband’s job demands it, and we don’t get to choose where we live. Every few years we pack up our cat and Cuisinart, beer making supplies, cookbooks and cough syrup, and alight unto new environs. Once settled we soon figure out the silly customs and sad truths, myths and mores, dos and don’ts, eating and exercise routines, real estate prices, languages and accents, people and plants of our new homeland. We manage to fit in, make more friends, find our way around supermarkets, Internet providers. And thusfar, we’ve evaded malaria, bombs, scorpions, sharks, children, cancer. Each move necessitates new jobs, clothes, weather, acquisitions and airports, neighbors. Subsequently, our wants and needs and thus our perfect place to live becomes revised. In Maine we met, got married, built fires, swatted mosquitos, wondered what it would be like to live elsewhere. In Sweden we stocked up on sweaters, candles, free education, Hans Wegner chairs, bought a Volvo. In Virginia we re-learned American history, watched hurricanes, ate ham biscuits, drove. In California we bought surfboards, ate locally, felt earthquakes, made friends. The only constant in our mobile life is that we are constantly mobile and my husband’s assignments, while not perfect, are usually determined by a perfect stranger.

And now, our collection of maps and brochures are almost as random and comprehensive as my Curriculum Vitae, which would be thinner if we were not dispatched hither and yon. But along the way we’ve met diplomats and terrorists, presidents and homeless people, hunters and World Cup skiers, authors and boors in train stations, caves, runways, refugee camps, boats, bars and consider our woes luxury problems. Meanwhile, the cold weather citizenry scoff at our prickliness at being summarily displaced to tropical climes, but in reality, this gig was a short time on a small steamy island bookended by monumental to do lists, endless trips to the hardware store, suspicious foodstuffs, and the fact that we never envisioned ourselves so close to retirement surrounded by car fires in a country we had to Google to locate. As my husband and I are sent across the world and back, I can’t stop fantasizing about the perfect place to live, a scattered and schizophrenic hobby that may be incurable. I am like the soldier who returns from combat, adrenalized by the roiling tenor of gunfire then lands a job at Lowe’s. Simply said, I now require more than just a roof over my head…wherever that may be.

For four more days, we live on the Caribbean sea with a 240 degree view of the sea itself. What’s great about living here, I suppose, is the opportunity to do so, a small consolation for almost losing my mind in the process.

On Saturday, we’ll pack up our cache of coral, scuba gear, air-conditioners, bathing suits, juicer, Cuban cigars, and leftover rum and be faced with another move for maybe one, maybe four years. But before long, when location is no longer decided for us by a young man in a uniform who knows absolutely nothing about us, we will be faced with the terrifying and insoluble dilemma of choice.

Lingua Franca


(The only honkers I understand)

When one moves to another country, it takes awhile to learn the ins and outs, the myths and truths, and the language and lore of the land. While I’m no genius at foreign languages, I can order food, say hello, and indulge in generic pleasantries in no less than ten, (probably more) languages. But in Curacao, my new residence, there exists a special language, an unbreakable coded vernacular that leaves me mystified, and my reactions to it are becoming dulled, as dulled at the roof paint on my old K-car. It’s a honking culture here, one where the ceaseless tooting of one’s horn is a right, a puzzling nuance, an exasperating jolt to a quiet stroll. I’ve been jotting down notes, hither and yon, considering to myself, what could so much honking be about? My few tentative conclusions:

Hi sexy lady!
I see you!
You have the same car as me!
Let’s meet for a drink later!
Damn you, traffic jam!
Damn you, world!
Don’t walk across the road while I am driving!
I don’t like the way you drive!
I like the way you drive!
I am honking out of habit and for no reason whatsoever!
Oops, I just dropped my cel phone in my lap!
You are walking too slow for my aggressive driving!
You are driving too slow for my aggressive driving!
Watch out giant iguana!
Get off the road pedestrian!

Add to this honking culture some badly maintained and oily roads, bald tires, untrained auto mechanics, hot weather, broken car air conditioners, one lane roads, minimum police presence, light fingered car inspections, and what looks like an overabundance of male drivers between the ages of 18-24 and you get Caribbean chaos. As well, stop signs are ignored, street signs and streetlights are hard to locate, un-helmeted motorcyclists cruise the sidewalks when there’s no room on the road, and wall-eyed tourists abound. I confess, it’s almost like driving in Boston.

I caught my husband honking the horn the other day for no reason I could discern. I glowered. He giggled. And we squealed with delight around the very next corner.

On Colonization–-Ants and Chávez, both of which I can see from my balcony.

Foreign Policy, War

Look, our rental agent pointed over the balcony. You can see Venezuela from here on a clear day. I felt smug, as smug as Sarah Palin in a Nieman Marcus suit as I looked over the Caribbean Sea toward Venezuela, from a balcony in Curaçao. We’ll take it! I shouted.

Not long after we move in, ants colonize the apartment. I blame my husband for bringing them home from work (he did). I blame our landlord because we have no hot water (we don’t). I blame the windows being open (we will suffocate if we close them). I blame the stagnant water in the shower, the sink, the puddles after a thunderstorm. I blame the garbage, my husband for generating the garbage, the cat litter, the cat. I Windex the ants in their endless armies, wiping up thousands in one sheet of Bounty. But still they come. They come no matter how much Windex I squirt, no matter how much I drown them, trap them, squish them with paper towels, my fingertips. They come and they keep on coming, marching straight from the balcony to the cool gray tiles of our new apartment.

Meanwhile, Hugo Chávez is rumored to be boosting his reserve army. Is he anticipating the October dissolution of the Netherland Antilles when Curaçao becomes independent from the Netherlands, and planning to march right on in? Or is the gossip just part of the oral scare tactics lobbed at the American presence there? Where there is change there is uncertainty, and where there is uncertainty, there is usually a tyrant.

The nebulously forming governance of Curaçao is likely to be uneventful, as it will be under the Mothership’s genteel directive for some time. However, with the handover less than one week away, it is still unclear what Curaçao will even use for a monetary unit, never mind how to handle unhinged South American blowhards.

Curaçao is about 40 miles from Venezuela’s coast, contains a natural and large deep water port, and hosts a massive oil refinery, ISLA, which is owned by the Dutch government and leased to the Venezuelan state oil company, PdVSA. The adjacent tank depot holds somewhere around 16 million barrels of crude and is Venezuela’s central staging platform for oil shipments to China. For years, Chávez has been saber rattling, convinced the American Air Force installation (FOL – Forward Operation Location) in Curaçao is planning an invasion on his country, or at a minimum, spying on him. The FOL, presumably, is there to assist with counter-drug trafficking efforts in the region. In an endless cycle of threats and buffoonery, Chávez often states he will stop refinery operations if the FOL isn’t kicked off the island. The tenuous threat, unlikely to unglue the NATO bond between the Netherlands and America, feeds into local fears, to the point that a political opposition party formed around the desire to gain complete independence from the Netherlands, and even agrees with Chávez’s anti-FOL sentiment. In addition, political sources here say opposition parties receive significant funds from Venezuelan sources. Add to the hotpot, the Build, Own, and Operate plant (BOO) that produces electricity for the refinery (and the country), is often unable to supply ISLA with enough power to operate. From what I understand, the refinery workers, frustrated, go on strike and island rumors whip around faster than a hurricane heading toward Florida; people hear and believe that Chávez has closed the refinery. Before the end of the day, gas stations have run out of fuel and people are buying candles by the dozen. Of course Chávez does nothing to dispel the rumors.

Ah, but will Chávez bite off his nose to spite his face? The refinery is one of few that can contend with the oil that Venezuela’s Maracaibou Basin produces. And, with its close proximity to Venezuela, deep port, oil rig and ship repair capacity, access to markets afar, is Curaçao an asset Chávez can afford to give up? In the past, the refinery was a prodigious employer, but recently, hampered by an aging facility that is largely unprofitable and damaging public health and the environment, it is becoming a liability for the tourist-seeking island. So why not just get rid of him and his haphazard oil diplomacy?

Tyrants are usually not predictable. He could possibly blow up the refinery, in a “if I can’t have it then you can’t” fashion, like Saddam did in Kuwait years ago. He could start a war, convinced that the small Dutch military stationed here and the American FOL would be caught by surprise. Or, perhaps while the newly formed government is learning to tie its shoes, Chávez, like my ants, will try to find the smallest crack, the weak link, in which to slip through, unencumbered by the powers that menace him. If he can throw enough money to opposition parties, create enough fear, and make the refinery a necessity, rather than a liability to the island, he just may forge an unimpeded passage through these vast waters. With proximity on his side, fuzzy governance, and an American administration that would rather avert a fight, it’s the perfect trifecta for a victor seeking enemies of convenience, targets for despotism, anti-Western rhetoric, and unhampered transit for a deluded vision.

While Chávez watches Curaçao, I’m watching him (or at least the mountains of Venezuela) while I zap row upon row of ants, marching along the grout lines. I am slowly killing them all because they are so busy with their own priorities, they don’t see my Windex nozzle staring them down. Meanwhile, if the power goes out because it is being usurped by ISLA, I will consider buying a windmill to generate my own electricity and use it to blow the pesky ants into the sea and the smoke from the refinery along with them.