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. Racing 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 will travel around the island to dispense candies inside the shoes of children left outside their front door. 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 nonetheless. 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 one after the other. From what I have observed, the local community nearby each roundabout on the island 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. 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 because 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, which is adjacent to his house.
I came home just when he decided to take a break. The yard was a mess. There was a wheelbarrow filled with debris, and the ladder was left out under the coconut tree. Underneath the trees and all around the house 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 gardener 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 along 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. I tried to correct him once or twice, and it just didn’t stick. He also always brings me food. Dinner usually involves a hotplate serving up fish, beets and some kind of unidentifiable 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. The freezer has become something of a joke amongst friends.
One evening, 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. He was happy to receive the dishes back and the money, but not so keen to stop making dinners. “Jennifer, I respect you.” It’s a line he uses often when I put my foot down.
The lights look lovely and suit the neighborhood of Tanki Flip rather well, appearing somewhat like a glowing green octopus. Stringing lights around outside trees 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 worked out for everyone in the end. Poor John made some money and entertained his creative pursuits. And now Sinterklaas 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.