Monthly Archives: November 2015

sinterklaas is coming

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Today is the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I looked out my bedroom window this morning to find my neighbor precariously perched up on a ladder trimming the coconut trees. He just kind of pops up outside whenever he sees something in the yard that needs tending because he is a gardener by trade and these are the things he cares about in life.  On my way out the door to run errands, I left two boxes of Christmas lights on the front porch and asked if he could string them around the trees. He agreed to do so when he finished what he deemed to be a rather urgent matter, lecturing me sternly as I rushed off, “The trees need water to stay alive!”

I’m really behind schedule decorating for the holidays. The whole island started celebrating the season with lights and festive displays back in October, maybe even September in some parts. They start early here because the Dutch Sinterklaas arrives in November. Sinterklaas landed days ago at the Aruba Ports Authority, and now he travels around every night dispensing candies in children’s shoes left out all over the island. He does this for three weeks and then quietly disappears out to sea after December 5th, en route back to Spain where he lives. I was there when he landed in Aruba, and it was a  peculiar event indeed. It seems odd  to greet  the original Santa Claus under the blazing heat of the tropical sun; there are tiny beads of perspiration all along your forehead, but it is the Christmas season nevertheless.  Apparently, he rides a white horse through the cold  streets of Amsterdam when he travels to the Netherlands. In Aruba, he is pulled down the street by a monster pickup truck on a makeshift float while dancers and a drum corps stir up the crowd in front of him.

One of the ways they decorate for Christmas here is by creating a seasonal scene on every roundabout, pleasantly distracting drivers and passengers as they zip around. From what I have observed, the local community comes together to plan out a design, sponsored in part by an organization or business. The designs vary from place to place. I drive past a giant bird built from sticks and tinsel every morning on my way to work. Another popular display is the cunucu houses, which are the original houses built in Aruba.Tanki Flip just went to work building cunucu houses on the roundabout nearby. After work is complete, there is a huge fiesta to celebrate with music and camaraderie. We passed by one such celebration the other night on our way into Wayaca. The holiday seasons may fluctuate, but the sense of community and celebration in Aruba is as constant as the year round warm weather.

I always worry about leaving my neighbor, otherwise known as Poor John for this is how he introduces himself, with a yard project while I am away because he can become so easily transfixed with every passing whimsy to totally transform his surroundings. This time he decided that no one would be able to see the lights in the trees I had in mind; instead, the lights would be better placed along a garden arbor that he would build with whatever he could find in his own little Santa’s workshop of sorts adjacent to his house. I came home just when he decided to take a break. The yard was a mess. There was a wheel barrow filled with debris, and the ladder was left out under the coconut tree. Underneath and all around were heaps of piping, cords, scraps of all kinds, and various tools from his trade strewn about, including a machete, screwdriver, tape, and a paintbrush.  His sunglasses and telltale gardeners hat were left in front of my door. It also seemed to have rained coconuts all afternoon while I was away because there were plenty of those all over the ground. And somehow Aloe Vera had magically sprouted all around the property line just after the rain.  I eventually found out he strategically planted it all to ward off evil spirits.

None of this phased me whatsoever. This is just how he operates, and to a certain extent, it is how the whole island operates. As I was unlocking the door, he began to yell across the field between our houses. He wanted me to know he was making soup and would be back to clean up the mess. “I respect you, Jennifer. I bring you dinner.” His words echoed across the distance. Poor John always calls me Jennifer. He also always brings me food. Dinner usually involves a hotplate serving up fish, beets and some kind of starch, that or a plastic bag with the catch of the day fresh from the sea. It is a kind gesture, but everything eventually just becomes trash or is stuffed away in my freezer. I think about eating it, but I don’t like beets, and I usually lose my appetite when I see eyeballs staring back at me.

So I thought to myself I have to go over there and put an end to this madness in dinner delivery. I collected the towering stack of dishes built as the result of many meals wasted, along with Guilders to pay him for his work. Then I walked down the long dirt road all the way over to Poor John’s house so that I could explain to him that he need not bring me dinner tonight, or ever again. Meanwhile his three vicious barking dogs were clearly annoyed with my bad manners. If they could break free from the chains and jump over the gate, I would surely pay for this lack of gratitude with my life.

The lights look lovely and suit the neighborhood of Tanki Flip rather well, sort of like a glowing green octopus. Stringing lights around outside trees just doesn’t work here anyway. When whole communities come together to transform a small round plot of earth, you don’t just string some lights around the two trees outside your house. I’m certain every passerby would scoff at the wasted opportunity and simple mindedness of that kind of lackluster display. It all worked out for everyone in the end. Poor John made some money and entertained his creative pursuits. And now Sinterclaas can easily find his way under the illuminated arch to my front door, only I’m not sure how much candy you can stuff inside flip flops.

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struisvogel

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I made an appointment with my dentist on a recent trip home to Texas. I had some sensitivity around dental work he did back in May, so I wanted him to check it out and make sure it wasn’t something more serious. Upon arriving, I explained to him that I had moved to Aruba over the summer; still caught up in the red tape of obtaining my work permit, I had not yet been assigned an Aruban doctor and dentist. Chair back, mouth agape, oral hygienist ready to retrieve tools on command, he began to inspect the indentations of the surface of my tooth with his tiny steel instrument. Why is that always the time to strike up conversation? It’s always the case with these doctors and dentists. Basically, once the probing begins, that is some kind of green light to ask you about work, weather, or the upcoming holiday season. “Aruba,” he began to query,“That must have taken a leap of faith.” “Uh huh,” I responded as I nodded my head because this was all I could manage. I was in and out of his office in a matter of moments. Nothing was wrong with my tooth, but the short visit made me realize that it had required much more than faith to pack up everything and leave the country.

Boarding that plane back in July was the crossing of a threshold for me. The ambiguity amplified in that moment is one that most people would never choose to experience, unless it was forced upon them, which it had been for me over and over again as I moved through one uncertain moment after another in 2014. The year gave me plenty of practice dealing with situations beyond my control. Some of those very difficult moments didn’t even phase me. Coming home to a broken window and anxiously assessing that many things had been stolen or destroyed by scary thieves, you gain a lot of practice dealing with uncertainty when you come home from work to find something like that. Scoping out the crime scene all alone as I walked from room to room, I remember thinking, eh, it’s just stuff. Who cares? Other moments were much more profound. Hearing the ticking of the clock while holding my grandmother’s hand as we waited for her to cross her own threshold to the most uncertain moment of all, now that will change you forever. Americans do not talk much about death, which is why I never knew that a single tiny teardrop will fall when the moment arrives; the hospice nurse told me to look for it and that was when I would know. I will never forget that moment, Hippest Cat in Hollywood by Horace Silver was playing on the jazz station we were streaming because jazz was her favorite music. Watching that teardrop fall across my grandmother’s cheek clearly illustrated for me all that I needed to map out my journey forward.

When it came time to assess what I would keep and what I would sell, the only stuff worth keeping in my mind were the things that belonged to my grandmother. We loved all the same things in life. Her paintings and books remind me of what really matters. The only things of my own that seemed worth keeping were nostalgic items, pictures, books and my winter wardrobe. That was it. That was all I wanted. I sold everything else or gave it away to Goodwill. I wouldn’t need the jackets and scarves in Aruba, but maybe I might need them someday someplace on Earth. I don’t miss any of what I sold and donated whatsoever. I have somehow managed to fill an empty home with what I need to live here in under four months after arriving to this island with only six suitcases. There is a simple joy one experiences living with less, and finding what you need on a limited budget and with limited resources ignites the creative process.

I finally found my last major furniture purchase, a dining room table and chairs, at an antique store down the street from my house. The place is like a palace one might come across in a distant land. There are all kinds of nooks and crannies to explore inside. A petite woman rules over this expansive space, and she likes to haggle and then bark orders at you on how to maneuver heavy, cumbersome objects through tight corridors and down treacherous, steep stairwells. My Dutch friend joined me and convinced me that I should buy a table in the attic space because the quality was good and the price was right. After purchasing the table, we both risked our lives transporting it down a winding staircase, but none of us more so than the shopkeeper who would have certainly been killed if we had taken one misstep since she was solitarily supporting the table from below as we precariously made our descent. She insisted we turn the table upside down and slide the top along the incline of the stairs so as to mar the surface even more so than it already had been while crossing the Atlantic from Europe a hundred years ago. “Oil and a rag will smooth the scratches right out,” she insisted.

In addition to a house full of furniture, I also finally have a dentist and doctor here in Aruba which brings me to the finish line of a very long process in international paperwork that began back in March: Many hours spent sitting in government offices in the United States and in Aruba. Costly Fed Ex shipments across both country and sea. The Apostille required from any state where you lived out a chapter in your life story. A series of identical passport photos which I had to retake because my ears weren’t exposed. Turnaround day trips to and from Austin during visits home to Texas to acquire more Apostille authorization. The whole process seemed never-ending, and it took nearly one year to complete.

Near the end, there was even more paperwork to take to the Aruban hospital to clear me of every scary disease known to man. Only this time I would really be missing that polite, small talk conversation about the weather as the doctors pricked, poked and probed me. After being ordered into a closet of sorts between two doors, another threshold I suppose, I was told to strip down to the waist as the door slammed shut. Moments later, the door flung open on the other side, and a lab technician gruffly order me around in Papiamento. I followed orders as best as I could, sheepishly covering myself and tiptoeing across the cold, sterile room until I found myself standing spread eagle in front of an X-Ray machine. You know you’ve reached your most vulnerable moment when your are standing cold and naked with your arms above your head in a foreign country.

Thankfully, all the international paperwork is behind me and I finally have the much coveted stamp in my passport so that I can live and work in Aruba and fly to and from the island hassle-free. My home is finally ready for guests; my first guest arrives Monday. I am ready to just relax, enjoy, and focus on finding new adventures when I am not working hard during the week. Today I meet the ostrich, otherwise known as Struisvogel in Dutch, and then off to the beach because this is the stuff that really matters in life – meeting big bird and taking a dip in the cool Caribbean Sea.