Sunset at Marichi Beach in Willemstad’s Punda district is my evening ritual. A fifteen minute walk from my rental apartment in Otrobanda takes me across the Queen Emma Bridge and past the colorful historic buildings to this urban oasis, just a small patch of sand between a couple of parking lots fronting an equally small inlet of the Caribbean formed by a protective man made jetty. I sit on my normal bench and gaze through my normal palm trees at the yellowing and oranging of the sky, an experience that, to my wonder, has also become normal here in Curacao. A few local children splash in the water. A yoga class shares the sand with my feet. There is only one word that can sum up this moment – dushi.
It’s not what you’re thinking. Dushi is a Papiamento word that is sort of a catch-all, as aloha is in Hawaiian. It literally means sweet. As a noun it can be used as a term of endearment, similar to sweetheart or darling. As an adjective, it expresses pleasure, of good food, of good company, of beauty or wonder. It has become the unofficial slogan of Curacao, and sits in giant letters next to the “official” Curacao Instagram spot. And it sums up the experience you’ll have here more beautifully than any other word can.
Just walking around Willemstad is a dushi experience. “Bon dia!” The normal daytime greeting in Papiamento (one uses “bon tardi” or “bon nochi” for afternoon or evening, respectively) echoes constantly. Each person I pass on the street here smiles, a quick “bon dia” on his/her lips. Servers at restaurants or cashiers at shops, almost to a person, ask where I’m from, and if I like their island. They then do the same to others, in Papiamento, Dutch, English, or Spanish. It seems every person in Curacao speaks all four languages, with some adding another in just for fun. The friendliness takes me aback at the start; it is just so different than my experience walking around most cities in the world. But in time I come to rely on it, and take pride in my ability to be part of it. “Bon dia,” I say to all I pass, local or tourist. Strangers here are just friends I haven’t yet made, not people to be cautious around. It is, in a word, dushi.
Upon my return to the US after three weeks in Curacao, I was asked what my favorite part of the trip was. Was it the food? Was it the beaches? How about the beautiful architecture or the sea turtles I could swim with? Those things are all incredible, but it is this warmth from the average person that touched me more than anything else. The people here are perhaps the friendliest I’ve ever encountered, in a region (Central America and the Caribbean) known for that quality. It was a rough process to reacclimatize to a society where one doesn’t just greet strangers as friends, and only a short time back in California, I miss it desperately.
Lunch of iguana stew at Jannchie’s in Westpunt is a necessity for visitors to Curacao. And it’s great! But the food isn’t the best part. Jaanchie himself attends my table, and I am a bit surprised when he pulls up a chair and sits down to explain the menu. It is a touch so out of place from my personal American experience, but so characteristic of the warmth of the people here. He smiles, jokes about the aphrodisiac qualities of iguana, laughs when I ask for the extra spicy pika (a condiment of onions and hot peppers), and in only a few minutes becomes part of my experience, before moving to another table where he repeats the process. So touched am I that I refuse to leave the restaurant without saying goodbye, and he responds to my gesture with another of his own, giving me a small embroidered pouch that locals use to carry their lottery winnings. (Lotteries are everywhere here.) He adds his email on a piece of paper to it, though his admission that he rarely uses it has so far borne true, as I haven’t been able to reach him. His smile widens as I thank him. Dushi, indeed.
So many people like Jaanchie are etched in my mind. There is John, who helped me rent a car to explore the island, who effortlessly switched between the five languages he spoke as he greeted every person who passed without ever once making me feel ignored. Tito, who drove me to and from the airport, shared his experiences living here so effortlessly, and taught me some basic Papiamento phrases, belied the “normal” experience one has with drivers who don’t want to engage. Other names are forgotten or never learned, but the experiences stand out all the same: the wonderful lady at Ivonne Di Plaza, a food stand in the Plasa Bieu (old market), laughing and smiling so hard she neared tears as I, the obvious tourist, piled on the pika to my goat stew; the server at lionfish specialist Bario who talked with me about his identity – Curacaoan or Dutch – in three minute intervals throughout my meal; the recent immigrant from the Netherlands who shared her snorkel mask so that I could see the sea turtles and then offered recommendations on what to see and where to eat to me, a total stranger. I could go on and on.
Evening at Netto Bar in Otrobanda. The crowd tonight is small, but lively, a mixture of locals – many of whom seem to be regulars – and tourists eager to try the signature green rum from this iconic locale. It’s my first time here, and the bartender offers me a free shot of the stuff to see if I like it. (I do!) I order a drink, and turn to observe the crowd. The 80s song for African relief “We Are the World” comes on over the sound system, and the video plays on the tv hanging in the corner. As one, the entire bar – the ENTIRE bar – joins in as one of the regulars names each star performer as he/she comes on. It’s infectious, and the words for the song must exist somewhere in my subconscious since I sing the chorus at the top of my lungs with everyone else. My drink comes and I alternate singing and sipping, my gaze moving between the tv and my new friends, all smiling, sipping, and singing along. In a world full of judgment, of suspicion, of avoidance, this experience reaffirms the goodness of humanity, as odd as it may sound. Together we sing, we drink bright green goodness, and we bask in the glow of what it means to be completely accepting of those around us. This, my friends, is dushi.
Curacao may not be on everyone’s travel radar. There may be nicer beaches on another island, or better food, or more impressive museums. But there is no place – NO PLACE – where the people and location come together in a way that has ever made me feel as accepted, as wanted, as appreciated, and as loved by complete strangers. Though I didn’t know it when I booked my trip, this is what I needed, and why Curacao, dushi Curacao, will always be in my heart.
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