On the Road to Curacao
October 1999

Standing on the tarmac in Caracas looking up into the short mountains that run along one side of the airport I could see a dark column of birds of prey. Ancient Roman augers would have interpreted this as a bad omen. As a warning, it came a bit late.

So, how was the diving in Curacao?
I'm getting to that. As soon as I get to Curacao.

But first, a small public service announcement: Don't travel with Scott during hurricane season. Right. That said, Hurricane Irene dumped a bathtub on Miami. Miami responded by canceling some flights into and out of MIA. The last such flights cancelled were our flights from Newark and on to Curacao.

The agent in Newark gave us the choice of going to Miami on a slightly later flight, but the odds of getting to Curacao were 50/50. We had to get to LaGuardia to try it though. We took a loathsome shuttle to Queens. "Did they tell you that? They just don't want to work over there, do they?"

So, no go. Best not to go to Miami and be stuck there in the post Hurricane mess. Better to try connecting thru San Juan, Puerto Rico. Yes, now we're getting somewhere. Flight to San Juan at 6am Sunday, and connect to Curacao at 11am. And as a "bonus" we'd hit the airport trifecta for the weekend, leaving out of … JFK! Bingo!

Except that the connecting flight was on United (via ALM). And it was cancelled. But, in one of those melodramatic cheap-fiction-like twists, we were actually booked on the next flight, not the cancelled one. And despite a confirmed seat, they would not let us on the plane. An agent with the ironic name of Mr. Vera told us we could and then claimed to have made a mistake. Oh, and no one knows where your bags are. Welcome to Puerto Rico. We were seriously considering breaking out the musical instruments and torturing the agents until they put us on the flight.

Doh! Ok, back to American and a very nice agent who put us on a TACA (Take A Chance Airways) flight to … Caracas. I felt like a lab mouse enticed further and further from my goal by seeming shortcuts.

Our bags finally appeared (just in time) for us to sprint thru the airport and board the plane. But we were carrying our checked luggage, which had dive knives. A nice security guard actually took the knife down to the gate and the pilot held it for the flight!

Once in Caracas, we were supposed to get our luggage from the hold directly and proceed to the connecting gate. But I wasn't allowed to get my bag and thus we had to go thru Immigration (with a very reluctant mother and a nearly-killed-line-jumper) to get the bag. And then, we didn't fully understand that we shouldn't go thru Customs, because we'd be "entering" the country. As it was, we had filled out our forms with nothing to declare. The exit from the baggage claim was a long line. Each person leaving was required to push a button on the wall. If the large overhead light flashed green, they were free to go. A red flash meant diversion to a more full-featured search and inquiry. Scott simply walked thru and I followed suit. We were not stopped.

But we were accosted in the airport by various people in scam mode. We waded through them and headed to the ALM counter (did I not mention the connection to Curacao in Caracas was on ALM? Sorry.) The agents there frantically motioned for us to proceed to the gate. But the military guard wanted our departure tax. You know, the one on the form we weren't issued because we hadn't meant to enter the country? Our hearts sank, but one of the ALM reps ran over and convinced the guard to let us go. He didn't look happy, but didn't shoot us.

The ALM people held the plane for us. They delayed a 45-min flight almost 10 minutes for us. They are good people.

Curacao was a warm embrace after all this. It felt like a small town. Albeit a well serviced small town. As capital of the Netherlands Antilles, it is enjoying a second economic boom. Gone was the over dependence on oil. Tourism and offshore banking rounded out a better-diversified economy. Five hundred years after being "discovered" by a Spaniard named Alonso de Ojeda (whose name won me a baseball hat), things are looking up. By curious coincidence, the first Dutch governor of Curacao was none other than Peter Stuyvesant, later of New Amsterdam fame.

Shaped like a parenthesis that's fallen over, it runs 36 miles east to west. Only a couple miles wide in the middle, the two halves are quite different. The east has Willemstad, an urban center of nightlife and commerce. The west has Christoffel Park and iguanas. I wouldn't be surprised if 80% of the 160 thousand inhabitants lived in the east.

As John Travolta's character in Pulp Fiction notes about traveling, "It's the little things." Like the language problem. Dutch was widespread, but there was lots of Spanish. And then there is Papiamentu. A mélange of Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and African tongues, in it's written form it looks like someone bought a few too many vowels.

Habitat Curacao is nearly in the middle of the leeward (south) side of the island, and is reached via a maze of twisty roads through countryside choked with ambitious green foliage and cacti (never did get used to seeing those things together). Once there, however, one needn't leave to have a good time. Dive-centric to the n-th degree, everything facilitates nitrogen diffusion.

Habitat requires an orientation briefing before you dive, so we contented ourselves with a sunset snorkel trip in the shallows just off the pier. There were cool fish I'd never seen right up next to the pier. Now, I'm not much of a reef and fish guy. I like wrecks. When I go on about submerged man-made attractions, Scott will poke fun by seeming to agree that it's interesting. Because it's underwater. But he's not far off. I make up for this by diving with naturalists. They clue me in to things I'd ordinarily miss. And I get to keep thinking about wrecks.

To make a long story not-too-much shorter we saw a bunch of fish. And coral. Cathy and Diane even saw (and photographed) a frogfish and a seahorse (in perfect position). While the latter got ruined by a developing accident, the former was a first for Diane.

A word about Cathy and Diane. Divers of 20+ years experience and buddies since 83, they were a howl to hang around with. Cathy with the mischievous personality and Diane with the nonstop anecdotes (ask about the old Cuban and the cave). They were supposed to be 3, but Pam couldn't come because of a sudden medical condition. So Cathy and Diane were taking Pam on a virtual dive trip. They took photos like Pam would. Signed Pam's name to all the bills (but paid themselves-they are real friends!). They would make a book upon their return and present it to her. A real contrast with guy divers. My friends would probably send me a "Wish you were here" postcard.

We could have used some helpful translation of the divemaster lingo. So, take note. "You may see stingrays, seahorses and even nurse sharks" really means, "you won't see any of these things". "This will be a drift dive" almost invariably means "you will swim from one place to another with a live boat following".

We had dinner at the restaurant, which is serviceable, and noted with passing surprise that the Mets were still alive. Our waiter was named Trainee. At least that's what his nametag said. We had some fun with this for a couple days, and one morning he appeared with a piece of tape on the corner of the tag and the name "Gilmar" penned in. Scott and I were Gilmar's trial by fire. He'll do fine now.

For my birthday we dove the Superior Producer. No one actually knew it was my birthday. I was just lucky. A 210 foot long freighter, it sunk just outside the harbor fully laden with, of all things, Christmas gifts. A full-scale underwater riot ensued resulting in the ship being stripped bare and many people making trips to the recompression chamber. At 110 ft there's not a lot of bottom time, but the ship is unnaturally upright and has a couple nice swim throughs.

That afternoon we rented a minitruck from Habitat and headed west. All the way west to the tip of the island, to a shore dive site known as Alice in Wonderland. This was the real mushroom forest. The coral was mondo impressive, huge and wildly shaped. The dive ended at twilight and we set out to find a place to eat. Our first choice was out of business, but we stumbled on a fine place called Jaanchi's. The old man who served us was quite a showman and before we knew it we'd ordered Wahoo and Iguana. I'm allergic to fish (* sympathy *) so I had chicken and a share of the reptile. "Tastes like fish" was Scott's assessment. And it was certainly as bony as fish. We found out later that Iguana is protected and it's illegal to sell for food. That didn't seem to matter way out west.

During an evening drink with Cathy and Diane, Albert Romijn and Mike Stafford, the General Manager and Dive Manager respectively, ran a short contest at the bar. At stake were some Habitat branded merchandise. A hat (won by me, see above), and a handbag, won by Cathy (for knowing the Bonaire Habitat's logo) and then, the nice polo shirt (not Habitat branded). The question was a stumper. Everyone knows we get dolphins here off the Habitat reef. We get bottlenose and spinner. But what kind of dolphin is here on this shirt? I'm straining to look: is it a porpoise, and thus a trick question? Is it the rare Ghanges River dolphin? "Embroidered dolphin!" Scott yells from the back, for a goof.

Mike and Albert stare at one another and look terribly dejected. "Well, yes. That's it." They sound defeated. Indeed, they had planned on milking this one for several minutes. Too funny!

Night dives were very pleasant. Big lobsters and even a Slipper lobster. Scott found an octopus that stayed out for quite a while, despite our lights, furiously changing color and markings trying to match the coral. The puffer fish were fun to play with in the lights.

Last day (granted us by gracious people at Habitat and American Airlines) the seas were quite rough. They had been calm enough all week to float a plate of food on and eat off, but Saturday they were 4+ feet. Scott and I went out in blue water off the reef and were enveloped by schools of flying fish and Horse-eyed Jacks. On the second dive ("Cas Abouw") I found a flying fish cleaning station and later, after we had checked out a sea slug, Scott began banging furiously on his tank. I turned quickly and saw a shadow above us. It was a Manta Ray with a 6 ft wingspan. Just gorgeous. It circled near the surface and then returned to blue water beyond a school of flying fish.

Back at the dock we found out someone had died. Details are sketchy, but it was believed to be a heart attack. One story put the victim as part of a 4+ group of divers, in other words, without a buddy. Two's company, three's a crowd, but 4 or more can be a funeral.

And we never got up the courage to visit the "Gato Snack" shop.