Curacao. It's a little postage stamp on the map of the Caribbean, not too far off the coast of Venezuela. A literal desert island, it's a relatively tiny chunk of volcanic rock with very little arable land or soil of any kind. Curacao blue is a shade of pale sky blue, which comes from the color that the orange liqueur which is distilled on the island is dyed.
My mother's wacky New Age pseudo-religious group was having some kind of a convention on Curacao. I was coming. No way I was staying home, not after What Happenned To The House Last Time. There are worse punishments in this world than a free vacation to the Caribbean. People go on game shows to win that kind of shit, and I had gotten just because a few people puked on the carpet. It did mean a week spent with blank-eyed mantra-chanters, but I'd been dragged along to enough past-life regression seminars to know how to fake the walk. If you're young and don't talk much, they think you're an "old soul". Whatever.
A six hour flight. Spend enough time in passenger jets and you learn how to not even notice it; blink your eyes once and you're on a runway at BWI, blink twice and you're leaving de-planing in a landscape that seems more appropriate in the American Southwest than an island in the Caribbean, all cactii and red rock and dust. Our American passports got us waved through customs, to the chaotic airport, where we found the hotel shuttle-bus.
The bus wound its way through the incomprehensible tangle of the local roads. At first glance, driving out from the airport, the island of Curacao appeared to be one vast shanty-town, all corrugated aluminum and cinderblock. Every flat surface was to be covered with advertisements for competing brands of American soft drinks. The roads were crowded with beaten-up Toyotas and half-width looking little Daihatsus (not road-legal Stateside).
We eventually arrived at our destination, the fabulous Hotel Sonesta. The Sonesta was the most expensive hotel on the island, with a clientele that appeared to be about half American and half rich Venezeulans. Nobody that got rich in Venezuela ever did it through building orphanages, or, for that matter, building a legitimate up without the aid of rampant corruption. The Americans, of course, weren't any better, particularly since the presence a plump little man from India with a habit of speaking in aphorisms on the island meant that every acid-burnt refugee from an ashram with a high enough credit limit had descended on the hotel like a pack of really sincere lemmings. Of course, my mother knew all of them from previous expensive spiritual junkets to previous luxurious places.
I had my own room, at least, and I contrived to get there as soon as I could. Once I was away from my mother and her friends, I made a reconnaisance of the hotel. There was a casino, of course, as every hotel in the Caribbean which caters to Americans must have. A little chunk of beach, with a bunch of Venezualan families splashing around hapilly in the water, and one American sitting in the sand in the lotus position with his eyes closed. The beach was surrounded with high cyclone fence on both sides, presumably to keep the riff-raff off. There was a little hotel shop which carried almost nothing but alcohol, overpriced American snack food, and porno mags.
I spent the rest of the day sitting in my room drinking domestic Amstel and watching TV, until my mother dragged me to some kind of gathering in the casino's bar. The only distinct memory I have of it is being introduced to a pleasant-looking middle-aged couple and being told that "they maintained the Guru's website until the Murdoch papers hounded them out of England".
Days passed. I spent most of my time lounging on the beach, reading, and watching American TV, the last something I almost never did in America. I began to grow restless. Long periods with no stimulus make me unpleasantly introspective, and everything was starting to grate on me: the expensive hotel full of expensive people, the perfect blue sky, my mother's breathless descriptions over dinner of the spiritual enlightenment she had recieved each day. I began to cast a speculative eye to the cyclone fence around the beach. It was maybe fifteen feet high, and extended well out into the water. Off in the distance to one side I could see some families of what for all the world appeared to be honest-to-God Curacaons swimming around. On about the fourth day, I decided to swim around the fence.
I wore a pair of swimming trunks and a non-descript T-shirt, and a pair of walking sandals that could deal with being wet. Nobody in the hotel appeared to take any notice of my swimming out around the fence, and there wasn't anybody in view on the other side. I found a little paved walking path going along the beach on the other side, and lit out for the side I had seen the swimmers on. As I passed out of view of the expensive hotel, I entered what might as well have been another world. The beach was built up with dilapited houses and bars, some with piers jutting out into the water. Being obviously American, and soaked in water up to my chest, I got a lot of weird looks. I felt like I'd left my hotel and wandered into a Lucius Shepherd story.
As I walked along the beach, fascinated by the whole world that had existed just out of sight of my little enclave of plastic money and plastic people, it began to grow dark. By the time night had fallen, I had walked past the town entirely, and was alongside some kind of industrial plant. Looking through the barbed wire fence, I could see rusting chemical barrels, mysterious fires, idle heavy-lifting equipment, and no clear sign of what it was that was done inside. Eventually, the barbed wire fence made a cut across the beach, and was adorned with a giant, well-lit yellow sign, labelled "Warning: Danger of Death" in four languages, with an iconic skull-and-crossbones beneath it, just in case. I decided to turn back.
Back through the shanty-town, back past little bars teetering out on piers over the ocean, back past people who nodded at me even though I was manifestly not one of them, back back, to the hotel, where the people didn't nod at me, because they knew I was one of them, down to my bones. I got really drunk that night, but it didn't help. Nothing really does, once you get that feeling down inside you.
I'm not sure what most Americans hope to find when they travel abroad. When the only language you speak is English, and the only places you stay are full of Americans or other tourists, all you end up doing is seeing a little chunk of America dropped someplace else and dabbed with unconvincing touches of "local color". I'm also not sure if what I got out of my trip to Curacao was any better than what the people who spent the whole time there aligning their chakras did, either. What I saw was more real, but what I took from it probably wasn't. Seeing one town and what was probably a desalination plant doesn't make my experiences authentic.
Still, when I hear about people's exotic vacations to Bali or Tunisia these days, I just laugh. Going somewhere doesn't mean you understand it, and without understanding where you are, you might as well stay home.
A tip of the noder's cap goes out to Yurei, whose excellent writeups of his own time in faraway lands was what got me to thinking about this in the first place.