Sandy Shul and Sloth Sanctuary Highlight Caribbean Cruise

Curacao Shul with sandy floor
Photos by Masada Siegel
Curacao Shul with sandy floor

By Masada Siegel

Published August 28, 2014, issue of August 28, 2014.

The night was aglow with candles and the silky white sand found its way between my toes. I grinned, as it only added to the spiritualism of the experience. Then the chanting began.

No, it was not an Ashram or yoga retreat, I was experiencing Shabbat services in the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas, Mikve Israel-Emanuel in Willemstad, Curacao.

Settlers from Amsterdam established the Jewish community in Curacao in 1651. Many were of Spanish and Portuguese descent and they brought their ancestors’ traditions, one of which was placing sand on the synagogue floor.

During the Spanish Inquisition, secret ‘Jews’ or ‘Conversos’ had to put sand on the floor of secret rooms where they worshipped. The sand helped to muffle the sound during their services, and to avoid certain death if discovered. As a way to honor their forefathers and to remind people of the past, sand was placed on the floor of the synagogue.

Our Holland America adventure took us from the majestic Mikve Israel to the thatched roof homes of the Emberá tribe who live in the Panamanian rainforest.

Panamanian musicians
Panamanian musicians

We disembarked and journeyed via bus and then on motorized canoes back in time over 600 years on the Chagres River in Chagres National Park to meet a tribe that maintains traditions and lifestyles from before the Spaniards colonized Panama.

Children singing and ornately decorated ladies with flowers in their hair greeted us upon our arrival into the jungle. The women were topless but mostly covered in intricately designed non-permanent drawings while wearing brightly colored sarongs as skirts. The men were all in loincloths.

I tend to wander off from crowds seeking an even more authentic experience. I found myself photographing a young lady and we started to communicate via pencil and paper, mostly laughing.

As the rain started to pelt down from the sky, she invited me to stand under her house, which was on stilts, and to meet her two dogs. She was celebrating her birthday the next day and was excited. She motioned for me to come with her to meet some of her friends.

Eventually I found my way to the center of the village, which had a covered area where families were selling their brightly covered creations. Each family had a table with their wares, and one man explained to me, selling their artwork was a way of earning cash that would be used for necessities when they spent time out of the jungle.

The woven baskets were exquisite and a few found their way home with me, not to mention sculptures, a wooden slingshot and brightly colored necklaces carved out of wood. Truth be told, the works were so stunning, I spent every penny I had with me.

The ladies prepared food to serve and used large leaves, which they folded, as the plates. Soon after, they were performing ritual dances. It was a window into a world of yesterday where nature and mankind worked with one another in wondrous ways.

The rain came cascading down as we found our visit over and made our way back to the river and canoes.

From man living within the confines of what nature offers, to man helping nature to survive, I soon found myself in the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica.

Baby sloth in Costa Rica
Baby sloth in Costa Rica

Sloths are extremely slow-moving mammals found in the rainforest canopies of Central and South America. There are two species of sloths: two-toed and three-toed. Most sloths are about the size of a small dog.

Alaskan Judy Avey-Arroyo and her Costa Rican husband, Luis Arroyo, started the Sloth Sanctuary. After they built a small hotel, three young neighbor girls brought them an orphaned three-fingered baby sloth.

They called the San José Zoo and a rescue center for help, but soon realized they were on their own if they wished to save the sloth. They named her Buttercup and 21 years later, she greets visitors at a sanctuary that has saved hundreds of the cute creatures and releases as many as possible back into the wild.

The Sloth Sanctuary is a family run operation where the love of the furry creatures is obvious. It led me to reflect on all aspects of my journey, from the dedication of the people who created the synagogue hundreds of years ago to the world of yesterday in the Panamanian jungle.

Every place and space visited showed love, respect for heritage, nature and working together to build a better world. Perhaps that is why we travel, to see the beauty, the goodness from other worlds and to take a piece of it home, to make our own worlds brighter, happier and more meaningful.

Masada Siegel can be reached at

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