Photographs by Scott Wintrow
Photo: The tranquil shores of Playa Jeremi
In the early morning calm and from a white-walled medical examination room, past the blue steel door and tucked away from the aquatic wonderland flanking the perimeter, the young Dutch boy sits with widened eyes and rapt interest. His therapist walks him through a series of exercises designed to unlock sensory reflexes and muscle reaction. All the while, the boy and his therapist are indirectly (by design, not by accident) engaged in a speech-therapy session. The boy reacts to instructions from the therapist regarding an arm movement or a neck turn, and the therapist strategically delivers her directions and questions so as to elicit responses beyond a simple yes or no answer. Some pretty significant therapy at 6 a.m.
Yet Stijn Recourt is focused. The 13-year-old from Rotterdam, Netherlands, hones in on Astrid Schrama’s every word and move. The concept is rather Pavlovian: If Stijn complies with Astrid’s instructions and makes a concerted effort to contradict the “don’t move” messages his brain sends to his muscles, he will be rewarded 30 minutes from now.
For in half an hour, at the conclusion of this cognitive and behavioral therapy session, a special friend awaits Stijn’s arrival. Outside that white-walled medical exam room, past the blue steel door and all along the wonderland perimeter of the Royal Sea Aquarium Resort, lie the fresh seawater lagoons of the Curaçao Dolphin Therapy & Research Center.
While the grains of sand slide through the hourglass inside the building, on the outside, Mariëtte and Dirk-Jan Recourt sip Venezuelan coffee from atop a park bench. Their other son, 9-year-old Pim, frolics to and fro before finally taking his place on the bench beside his parents as he gazes thoughtfully over the azure Caribbean Sea.
Photo: A swim with the dolphins at the Royal Sea Aquarium Resort
Don’t wander off too far,” Mariëtte says in Dutch. “Stay where I can see you.”
From around the corner of the giant salt-splashed, sun-washed orange boulders, Stijn, Astrid and a crew of personnel emerge from the CDTRC and head toward a giant natural lagoon, flanked on three sides by untrammeled ocean and on one side by the giant boulders. Members of this entourage, which includes a dolphin trainer, a psychiatrist and an EMT, take their places on a floating therapy station and give Stijn some last-minute smiles and spirit. Here is the reward for the early morning hours of therapy.
Stijn, afflicted with the very rare 49, XXXXY Syndrome, is, for the next hour, Neptune. The moment he gently eases into the water — ignoring his phobia of water when it’s splashed in his face — is a gift to the entire family. For while Stijn prepares to meet his new aquatic friend, Mariëtte, Dirk-Jan and Pim will explore the reef and engage in a relaxing family vacation of their own. This moment encapsulates the very essence of making the most of an unfortunate condition. And as the dolphins and Stijn come face to face in the seawater lagoon, a smile penetrates Stijn’s naturally stoic exterior.
This moment is the essence of Curaçao.
The most common question one is asked after he announces that he’s going to Curaçao is, “Where’s that?” At least, it’s the most common question that Americans ask. Not out of ignorance, nor out of geographic ineptitude. Many in the United States don’t know about this island paradise because it is under-promoted. One-third of the ABC islands (Aruba and Bonaire being the A and B), Curaçao routinely plays second fiddle to the very well-promoted island of Aruba. But America’s loss, at least in this case, has been Europe’s gain.