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Come Waste Some Time in the Looniverse!

Harrie Verstappen

Skeptical Briefs Volume 11.1, March 2001

Just north of the Venezuelan coast, Curaçao’s Willemstad is the government seat of the Netherlands Antilles, an autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The 450 km2 (180 square-mile) island has 150,000 inhabitants, which makes it more densely populated than Japan.

The tropical desert climate is one of the most agreeable in the world.

The main thing wrong in this paradise is political: We just can’t seem to come up with the people we need. Most voters appear to be government servants, in an incredible bureaucracy with reputedly one official for every three workers. One of the larger political parties actually is an offshoot of the government workers’ trade union. Government pretty much has its own way. The colonial past (when Curaçao was an important trading post for slaves) perpetuates a mentality where people keep their criticism to themselves (but are great at passive obstruction while pretending to cooperate). In the 1940s Curaçao was one of the largest harbors in the world with a surprisingly metropolitan outlook; since then, it has steadily deteriorated into Hillbilly Island.

This in a highly developed country, among the fifty richest in the world, with, for example, the highest number of computers per capita in the Americas outside the USA and Canada. After riots erupted thirty years ago and Holland sent in the marines, our government steadily became more independent and, simultaneously, a downhill slide accelerated. Some years ago this culminated in a referendum where the population overwhelmingly opted for a continued relations with the Netherlands, much to the chagrin of the political leaders who heavily pushed total independence-no doubt for very good reasons of their own. But they need not have worried, as nothing much has changed since.

In this atmosphere where everybody thinks he knows everybody, there’s a pronounced tendency not to make waves. There has been no protest from the medical world against the deluge of alternative medicine doctors who have settled here. Worse, the largest hospital recently declared that it would gladly work with alternative therapies-and this did not sound like a mere political statement. Still worse, hospital surgeon Dr. George Lo-N-Joe quite recently organized a seminar with Dr. Terrel Hass, an American “specialist in Chelation Hydrogen Peroxide and Hyperbaric Therapy.” It’s a moot point whether this is more harmful than a recent two-day “symposium” on vitamins and cancer to push food supplements, along with other dubious subjects like shark cartilage thrown in. Shortly afterwards, a planned factory was announced for herbs, food supplements and vitamins for the US market, where it can compete because the N.A. has “favored” nation status with the USA-meaning low import duties.

More bad news is that the alternative medicine supporters are now contacting the government to get official recognition, thus presumably becoming part of the public health plan. Without any protest from the medical world, it looks like they will get what they want from a minister of health who doesn't even have medical qualifications. Finding somebody in a position like that is not unusual. A former deputy, at public expense, visited a convention to look into Zero Point Energy (ZPE). Thanks to Barry Karr, Milton Rothman, and Béla Scheiber, I distributed some information on ZPE, after which thankfully nothing more has been heard about it.

Small wonder that there is heavy government propaganda on the Power of Positive Thinking. Curaçao posters with an inspiring “Positivo!” message over it are all over the place; there’s even a “Positief” postage stamp-the design of which made it never look stuck on straight.

We seem to be coming back to politics. This is an island where Scientology is not only still very welcome but also has political contacts. When their cruise ship Freewinds was renovated here, crew officers lived in a house rented from the Prime Minister. Scientology routinely invites local big shots on free cruises. That same Prime Minister tried to introduce Transcendental Meditation (TM) teaching methods in public schools when she was minister of education. The University of the Netherlands Antilles seems a veritable hotbed of TM, which may be why people are starting to refer to it as OONA, a pun on the Dutch word oenen, fools. At school, you still learn there is a “long” and “short” rainy season; in reality, the short season does not exist.

All this gets a strong helping hand from religion, which is predominantly Roman Catholic with a heady dash of African superstition. A few random examples: We have a weekly TV program on the Yugoslavia madonna. Furthermore, Maria has appeared locally; but some people believe it was a regular goat.

The bowler-hatted and mustached image of saint Dr. Don Ignacio Sanchez, patron saint of Venezuela, can be found in our cathedral but as far as I know he is not officially sanctioned by Rome. Neither is the patron saint of the merchant class, angel-winged San Expedito, whose picture gets stuck up behind shop counters, with coins glued on the front.

A piece of bread nailed to many walls guarantees you’ll never go hungry. There is a lot of brua-magic around (Spanish bruja is a witch) and a cross painted on a wall to ward off evil is not at all an unusual sight. Not only in the supermarkets, but even in the botikas (drugstores where prescriptions get filled) you can buy bottles with magic potions like Bini-bini ("Come hither”). They are available mostly in recycled Heineken beer bottles but in these high-tech days they are also available in ozone-safe spray cans. Among the things that have disappeared is the amulet many of my schoolmates wore on a string around their necks-a small bag the main ingredient of which was a bluing agent, judging from the way it colored their skins. When we moved into this house, we were considered downright reckless for sleeping with our windows open where the ground was notoriously “vibrating with zumbis,” locally, ghosts. (There exists a well-documented, inverse relationship between street lights and zumbi pests.)

Our seven newspapers are full of horoscopes, self-promoting articles, and ads from soothsayers, psychics, and witches in Haiti and even Georgia and Texas. More ads are for alternative clinics in Columbia and Venezuela, but our own clinics claim to get many foreign patients too.

Our government-owned TV station (we have two local ones and the rest make do with the fare Venezuela has to offer) enthusiastically jumped on the New Age bandwagon. Worse, in a short-lived popular medical magazine, the first issue was taken up mostly part by an article by the same acupuncturist who fills half a page of the weekend supplement of our largest newspaper-which happens to be one of the few that do not carry horoscopes. I must add that the doctors often seem to ask for it. In my family, they have prescribed antibiotics for viral infections. Building up a stock in your body, as far as I know, can’t be of any more use than having your spine manipulated, or smelling flowers. I’d rather smell flowers.

Nobody either seems to care that Dinah Veeris’ subsidized book Remedii kustumber di nos biewnan ("Medicines and Customs of Our Old People”) merely uncritically repeats the advice of old herb doctors. She suggests the use of carcinogenic plants like welisali (Croton flavens), but nevertheless there are serious references to her book in scientific literature like botany books. (After all, she had it checked by a homeopath.) The redu is a grapevine system much aided and abetted by telephone poles and wires; in fact, it’s essential and at peak redu times just gets jammed. Redu can be quite creative. Two or three years ago, when our water supply turned murky, it was fascinating to watch the legends grow. It climaxed in the story that a bum’s corpse had somehow found its way into the main water pipes.

What can you do about all this except shoot off an occasional letter to the editor? There just seems to be no interest and you run a real danger of becoming the village fool when you overdo it. As I well remember what a relief it was to discover, via CSICOP, that there were more skeptics around, I mainly try to reassure people that it is legitimate and even healthy to cultivate your doubts. My hope is that, with communications improving all the time, we will eventually be freed from our isolation. But that may take some time as phone rates, and therefore the Internet, are prohibitive. They earn money for the government, who needs it to pay the officials, who keep it in power. Politics again. Our short-sightedness gives us bad “leaders, who invite pseudononsense in all 57 varieties, which makes us more myopic yet. It’s a vicious circle!

Harrie Verstappen

Harrie Verstappen is a photographer and filmmaker, now working on a virtual reality simulation of Curaçao island upon discovery in 1499. No known relation to Jos the car racer or Sjeng the pugilist. Web site: