Curacao — Slaves and Salt — my hike to the sea

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PROLOGUE:

Curacao was originally scouted by the Spanish, who didn’t find enough gold or fresh water to interest them. The Dutch eventually took it over in the 17th century. Their first governor was the same Peter Stuyvesant who bought Manhattan from the Indians for $24 of beads. (Those must have been really nice beads!)  Curacao became a very important trading center, because it was blessed with a central location in the Western Hemisphere and many deep-water ports.  Lots of merchandise changed hands, but two types were central to the economy: Slaves and Salt. 

The slaves endured the horrendous “Middle Passage” from Africa to Curacao and then were exported all over, to Europe, the Americas, etc.  People in the Slave Trade got very, very rich, including some New England shipping families.

The Salt Trade here was apparently more benign although it, too, depended on slaves to build and work the salt pans in unremitting sun for long hours.  The salt pans are actually salt evaporation ponds, which are shallow artificial empoundments of sea water (which we’ve got plenty of on this island!).  The rectangular ponds were separated by levees built of rock, which made an efficient grid, and can still be seen today.  The water evaporated under the hot sun, which allowed the salt to be harvested. 

Today, the salt trade has been abandoned, but the ponds provide a productive resting and feeding ground for many species of water birds: here they are celebrated for their wild flamingos, although there are also many other types of wading birds, like herons, egrets, sandpipers, etc.  (BTW, the salt pans are really close to where I live. Tourists always park there to photograph the flamingos; but do they really see them?)

MARCH 10, 2014:

Today I had a beautiful hike.  I had long wanted to know how the salty water in the salt pans was fed by the sea. Where was the connection or opening to the sea?

In February my Significant Buddy John had taken a marvelous 3-hour hike with our friend Jaap, starting at 6am to avoid the heat.  After leaving the island, he emailed me about a path from the Flamingo area along the east side of the salt pans, which sounded good, although he warned me it might be muddy. I tried to get up early the next day so I could try it, thinking I’d just see how far as I could get before surrendering to the heat, or to my various leg injuries (bad knee and a wound).

Instead, I didn’t get going until 9am, really late.  I was very pleased, however, with the path, which had been made by countless trucks and cars, so it was easy and flat, and because it’s been so dry lately it was not muddy at all.  I made very good time, walking really fast, full of energy.  I walked and walked and walked and walked, thinking “Where in the world is this opening to the sea?  Why am I not there yet?”

As I walked, I found where the flamingos were “hiding”: in water deep enough to come up to their bellies.  (For a week or so, you hadn’t been able to see them in the normal places near the road since the drought made the water too shallow.)  (My great regret was that I hadn’t brought my camera.  Next time. . . .)  I also saw 3 Black-Necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus), and a large light brown-spotted sandpiper with a very long black bill, probably a Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus), beginning to get breeding plumage.  I also saw a piece of black stone wall and the remains of a round structure (unidentified) from colonial days.

So I walk and trek and trudge on and on – – – when will I ever get there?  I’m thinking “Diana, you should turn around and go back, it’s getting late, maybe 10am already; the sun will be awful.”

And that’s when I meet some people coming the other way: 2 “elderly” (maybe my age???!!!) Dutch ladies with a local guide.  They are using trekking poles, which I have at home and love, because it gives you upper body exercise while you walk.  I ask them where the opening to the sea is, and they say that it’s just 5-10 minutes away.  But their guide tells me it’s not safe to go there alone.  I mention that the place seems deserted, but he says people can be hiding in the bush.  And there’s certainly plenty of bush everywhere.  But I’ve come so far, I can’t have gone all this way and then turn back.  Plus I didn’t feel like walking back with them, because I was enjoying my solitude.  So what the heck?  And I walk on.

Sure enough, my goal is really only 5″ away, and it’s both beautiful and interesting.  The beautiful wide ocean and its rivulets leading into the salt pans.  Remains of an old concrete and steel pier which may have been where the salt ships loaded their cargo.

And that’s where I make my big mistake.  I sit down on a rock and drink (for the first time!) some water.  Rest my feet for no more than 2 minutes and then get up to head back. Ouch!  Every joint in my body has stiffened up, just in those 2 minutes of sitting.  It’s outrageous that these pains have set in, in my hips especially, when I hadn’t felt a thing on the way out. 

I had no choice but to set out for home and, whereas on the way to the ocean I’d been almost prancing, now I was walking very, very slowly.  Will I collapse before getting there?  Fortunately not. I just soldiered on, and was very grateful for the fantastic breeze, especially when I reached the long slog across “the barren waste” nearer the road, where there was absolutely no shade. 

Moral of the story:  I really loved it all the way and want to do it again before I leave. 

EPILOGUE:

March 13, 2014 — Decided to do the walk again today because it was so beautiful the first time.  This time I did take my camera and will try to send some photos when I get them organized.  I also saw some new birds in addition to the flamingos, i.e., Great Egret, many Ospreys, Little Blue Heron.  The most common land bird was the cute little Rufous-collared Sparrow.

Cheers, Diana

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About Diana's Curacao

Architect, art historian and naturalist guiding individualized tours of Curacao. Blending architecture, nature, gastronomy and shopping according to the interests of my tour guests (no more than 4 at a time). More about me, and even better, more about this beautiful island and the tours I do, at my website: www.curacaowithdiana.com.

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