Last year around this time I wrote about what it feels like to settle into a daily routine living in another country. I was excited to report about the shift in mind that took place once I realized I was no longer a tourist. Spend enough time in another country and this shift becomes even more pronounced. It begins to feel as if life has always been this way. Sunday afternoon at the beach year-round. Sipping on soursop smoothies. Following yoga instructions in Dutch and Papiamento. Chasing lizards out of your kitchen. Listening exclusively to Caribbean rhythm on your car stereo. There are days when it seems like I have always done these things. The mind can play tricks on you when you slip away across borders.
That is the only way I know how to describe what happened: One hot summer day I serendipitously slipped out of my country. I didn’t plan far in advance. I didn’t plot out a course of action years ahead of my departure date. I never thought that someday soon I would board a plane and fly away from home. Looking back, I realize now that all of it was quite arbitrary. So it feels odd to begin to feel rooted here after such a chance landing on this island, some 20 months ago. It’s the kind of experience that will make you forever question Where is home? Is it always defined by a plot of soil on earth? Could it also be a state of mind? And if place is inextricably meshed with identity, could it be the case that some of us are more inclined to put pieces of places together so as to best, most authentically, shape our sense of self, especially the wanderlust types?
Texas is where I was born. I grew up in the grit of a concrete and glass city. I moved to New Mexico when I was 17, at my first opportunity to live life out from under the roof of my parents. I spent six years there; those mountains are a part of me now. My dreams take me to other places that feel like home because they are in sync with my spirit. These are cities, countries and regions that I have traveled to again and again. Some where I have a stayed weeks, maybe a month or longer. Others where I have spent entire summers. These are the places that speak to me through books and call me to come home and stay awhile: Mexico, the Redwoods, New York City, the Andes, Big Bend, Italy, San Francisco and so on. Now I pay taxes on a desert island in the Dutch Caribbean. I have a doctor and a dentist assigned to me here as a result. Aruba is home for now.
Home for me then has become a patchwork of places more so than an actual structure or dot on a map. Some of these pieces are bigger than others, but all have shaped who I am. And in doing so, my mind is definitively more open and my soul has stepped far beyond what was possible staying put in just one place. I’m hoping Aruba will be a rather large piece of this work in progress because, simply put, it is paradise here, and I want this piece of paradise to be with me forever.
It’s not just the white sand and turquoise sea that make it paradise. I think it also has something to do with island geography because island life is not like life lived on any other landscape. There is something about being completely surrounded by sea that changes everything people once told you about how you should live your life. Perhaps it is because islands are solitary specs on the map, far-flung from the continents and their conventions. Who knows? What I do know is that less emphasis is placed overall on living life according to rules. Life here is always about living in the moment.
Loitering? What’s that? There are few rules about loitering here as far as I can tell. Community ties are important, and men meet at the corner store after a hard day at work to drink Balashi. The store clerk opened the bottle of beer for them on the way out the door. Then they stand in a circle or take a seat on the curbside next to their buddies. No tickets to worry about for parking in the wrong space or in the wrong direction. Celebration is an essential part of life, and you can park anywhere you want in order to get to the parade on time.
Apart from the freedom that comes with a bit of lawlessness, it is the people I have met here who truly make this place paradise. The people of Aruba are always happy, and there is a reason the license plates read One Happy Island. Just yesterday, we stopped for a drink late afternoon at the White Hill Bar in San Nicolaas. It is family owned and operated, like most businesses here. After ordering drinks and taking music requests, the daughter, who was busy making tamales in the kitchen, brought out Carnaval costumes for us to wear while we sipped our beers on the breezy outdoor patio. Eventually she came outside to join us, only this time disguised as an old man in a latex mask. Celebration here is a state of mind. It is part of the everyday, so it is to be expected everywhere you go. At any moment, a waitress might change into an old man and dance around the table, and you better be ready to get up and dance too. Basically, be ready to do anything on a whim because there are no excuses for not living in the moment.
Of course this wouldn’t be the first time I have danced around in costumes on a Saturday afternoon. But there is something here that I never could find in the United States. It can only be found through making friends with people from around the world when you are the one who is the immigrant with a working visa, immersed in a crisscross land of cultural traditions that mix and mingle.
It is a borrowed mindset that becomes your own after repeated experiences living amongst other cultures, after long conversations about the meaning of life with someone from another part of the world. So much of what has brought me joy – and relief – living life here is the notion that I can completely forget what I was programmed to believe about happiness in the United States.
There is nothing like Dutch directness to slap away neurotic American assumptions about what is truly important. It’s like throwing out a long list of ingredients to a recipe that doesn’t work and replacing everything with a few quality staples to always keep in mind. Excessive consumerism and media consumption, toss all of it. Ditch the Botox, Dysport, and Juvederm. You can throw out the teeth whitener while you are at it (you won’t find any of that here anyway). Focus on collecting experience over stuff, that is one of the staples. Get outside, move, relax, enjoy, and just be you are other essential ingredients. And above all else, don’t do anything because everyone does it that way according to age, gender, etc. Finally, add a heaping spoonful of Caribbean celebration and a dash of Dutch quirky humor and pragmatic thinking, and you are well on your way to discovering the taste of freedom.
I’m certainly not here to knock the United States, although I do worry a great deal when I tune in to the evening news for the five minutes I allow myself to stay informed, but not go insane. I guess I left at a convenient time because it has become clear to me that I have far more in common with the values people bring to this island (from all over the world I might add) than those shared by a large portion of people living in the United States. Someday I will slip back across the border much the same way I left, perhaps four years later than I had planned. My hope is that I can carry this giant piece of home from Aruba back with me. I can easily hold on to the Caribbean rhythm. I may be able to find imported soursop somewhere. As for everything else from my Aruba home that I will eventually miss, I can always return during the winter months with a flock of American tourists.