A few months ago, I was cleaning out a cabinet in my dining room. I came across an old liqueur bottle of Blue Curaçao. I bought it years ago for some kind of martini recipe but never used it again. Its flavour, as I recall, is pretty lip-pursingly bitter and its colour is not far off windshield-wash blue. Even though I'm not particularly fond of the drink, the island of Curaçao has always held a certain allure for me. It's not as popular a getaway as other islands in the Caribbean and maybe that's the appeal. I haven't been there yet but I've had a preview from fellow Newfoundlander, Ruth Palmer, who has spent time there. In fact, she's been to a factory where they make Blue Curaçao.
You see, I've been tracking down Newfoundlanders and Labradorians living and working in interesting places around the world. It's a chance to learn and write about a new place through the eyes of an expat. Ruth's sister, back here in St. John's, heard about what I was up to and volunteered her adventurous sibling to give me a kind of virtual tour of the island.
Ruth Palmer was born on Topsail Road, not far away from where her father's Volkswagen dealership operated near Kmart back in the day. Ruth says her father was a gregarious salesman who "seemed to know everyone in the province."
After years in marketing on the mainland, Ruth followed in her father's footsteps. She got into sales too; selling vacation properties in the sunny south. The former townie now lives in St. Maarten but she just spent a year and a half working in Curaçao. She says of all the travel she's done, Curaçao reminds her of home more than any other place.
"Ahh, the people are amazing. They work hard, they love to have fun. They love music, they love dancing and they're an awful lot like Newfoundlanders," said Ruth.
Imagine, if we had our very own territory in the Caribbean. A place to get away from the RDF and soak up a little Vitamin D. There's got to be some unclaimed tropical island where we could raise our flag? Sadly, we missed the chance long ago in Curaçao.
Curaçao is Dutch - an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Ruth Palmer says it's the island's maritime history, that for her, gives it a Newfoundland feel.
"It's a very colourful island like Newfoundland, there's blue houses and pink houses and green houses... because they were owned by marine merchants and they wanted to recognize their house from the boat," said Ruth.
Fresh seafood is abundant in Curaçao and red snapper is recognized as one of the national dishes. A filet is often served with a corn-meal mush known as Funchi.
Curaçao's marine life makes it a paradise for scuba divers and it's a popular destination for cruise ships but tourism isn't the driving force for the island's economy. Ruth says a lot of people are involved in international banking and many work at a Venezuelan owned oil refinery. Ruth says the population is highly educated and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean.
Curaçao also has a major shipping port, a port that made the island a crucial link in the 17th century slave trade. More than half a million African slaves moved through the island and it was home to a slave depot. It's a history that Ruth Palmer found both fascinating and emotional.
"When they came all the way across the ocean and they finally landed there and they were skinny and sick from the long journey, they put them in this compound to get them fattened up and healthy so they could sell them all over South America. It was quite moving to walk through there and see that. They could have taken all of that history and maybe be very bitter about it but they're passionate about their history and they're proud of the things that they've accomplished."
Ruth thinks says it might be the painful history that makes people in Curaçao so down to earth.
She describes them as genuine with a true interest in other cultures. "They want to know more about who you are than what you have."
She believes honest curiosity is another trait Newfoundlanders and Labradorians share with Curaçaoans. As well as their love of a good party in the great outdoors.
"A typical Friday night local people go to the beach. They bring their food, they bring their music and they have a lobster boil like you would in Newfoundland."
And as for Blue Curaçao, Ruth gave me the story on that too. The Spaniards who came to Curaçao back in the 15th century brought with them the "Valencia" orange. But the desert-like climate on the island changed the sweet, juicy oranges to a bitter, almost inedible fruit. Over time, the Valencias evolved into a smaller citrus fruit called a laraha. Even though the flesh is bitter, the peels are aromatic and flavourful. When dried and soaked with alcohol, the skins produce an orange-like liqueur.
Ruth Palmer says she's very happy living in St. Maarten but she does miss all the colour of Curaçao, including that bright blue drink. She has considered returning to the colour of Newfoundland and Labrador to retire some day. In the meantime, when she gets homesick, she's happy to know there's a comparable Carribean replacement on an island not too far away.
Until next time,