Monthly Archives: June 2017

10 truths I’ve learned living in aruba

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The school year just ended, along with a two-year commitment I signed up for when I agreed to move to Aruba back in March of 2015. I remember telling friends around that time that I just needed to go live on a Caribbean island for a couple of years and clear my head. I’d dealt with a lot of loss in 2014. It’s all part of life I know, but 2014 really delivered punch after punch. I knew I needed to focus on all the things in life I could do instead of those things in life I had lost or would never have. Moving to Aruba with that mindset turned out to be a powerful formula for pushing myself forward to survive many challenges that could have knocked me out completely. Here I am on the other side of it all, and I have decided to stick around on this island a little longer because I feel like I still have so much to discover and learn, not only about Aruba and all the nearby places to travel in South America and the Caribbean, but I also still need to figure out where it is I go from here. I’m not certain what the next step will be, but here are a few truths that I know for sure now after living here:

1. Keep a machete under your kitchen sink. It’s useful for gardening, especially whacking the palm leaves of coconut trees. But it also can be used to protect yourself, or so explained my neighbor when he gave it to me.

2. Books are disappearing. Or maybe it just feels that way when you live on an island because books in English are rare and people here tend to hold on to them until the musty brown pages fall apart. Living life with these relics makes you feel like books have already vanished from our world. Something about all of this has me reading more now than ever, as if I am in a race to read up all the books I can before they are gone forever.

3. Travel really is the best form of therapy. Nothing compares to travel when you are trying to figure out the deeper meaning of life. It puts everything into perspective. The world is beautiful and disastrous at the same time. It isn’t a perfect system, but travel always makes life seem more like an amusement park than anything else. And it inevitably lets you see everything through the same lens you used as a child.

4. If you are moving to a desert island, be sure to bring a supply of bedsheets. You won’t find any with the thread count available in the States. It is probably a good idea to bring towels as well.

5. Plastic has got to go, along with American consumption. You will see the devastation up close anytime you walk along a shoreline that isn’t in the tourist areas, obscene amounts of plastic swallowing up every pebble of sand. What are we doing to our planet? We only think we need this stuff. After living without all the things you used to buy as an American consumer because these things are hard to come by on an island, you realize you never needed all that stuff in the first place. 

6. My life is different from what my mother experienced. And even more so than the life my grandmother lived. As a daughter of the Women’s Movement, I was taught to get an education and build a career before anything else so that I could be financially independent. Only it can be a challenge to make the marriage and family pieces fall together in the few, short years you have left after you have done all of the above. I could blame myself for not reaching each major milestone on time, or I could give myself some slack because I was born to the first generation of women navigating our way across this new and unchartered sociocultural landscape. Regardless, I’m learning that there are more women than I realized who are walking in my how did I get here shoes. I also found out that the Dutch tend to skip the marriage part altogether, especially the big expensive wedding. Maybe American women could use a little less pressure and a lot more flexibility when it comes to putting all the pieces together.

7. You can’t get away with wearing anything less than SPF 50 on your décolletage. Repeat after me, you can’t get away with anything less than SPF 50. Don’t even try. And don’t forget to put sunscreen there because you routinely put SPF 30 everywhere else, so you skip that part of your body out of habit until you can dig around in your beach bag to find SPF 50, but then someone asks you a question or offers you a Balashi and the applying sunscreen thing never happens. Ouch! Which brings me to truth number 8.

8. Aloe Vera is a miracle plant. It is a cure-all for all that ails your epidermis and can be taken internally to strengthen immunity and fight inflammation. And coconut oil could receive an honorary award behind aloe. After that, a trip to the beach can cure just about anything, but you won’t be able to go if you do not follow truth number 7 above. I’m grounded from the beach today as a result.

9. Normal is boring. This is what I tell myself anyway when dealing with my family. I know everyone says that their family is nuts, but mine is the extreme kind of eccentric, as in certain behaviors border on seeking out answers to question such as, is this safe, is this legal, and when do I consult an expert or an authority? I’m pretty much upfront and honest with all of my friends about my dysFUNctional family, and I depend on my friends quite a bit for support since I am an only child. Friends in Aruba tell me again and again that having a normal family would be boring. It is such a relief to give up on normalcy. And at least I know I will always have a story to tell even if I am stuck in the middle of Kansas somewhere. My family and upbringing have certainly provided an endless amount of material.

10. Develop island time patience. You have no other choice; otherwise, you may experience a rise in blood pressure or some other stress related symptom. Nothing runs on time here. A store may or may not be open when they say they will. You will wait for hours in government offices, and they always shut down early on Fridays, as in they will be closed even though you left work early to rush and arrive thirty minutes before closing. I just went to pick up laundry a few minutes ago, and the laundromat was completely shut down at 11:30 when the sign posted clearly states that they are open from 8:00 – 2.00. My frustration becomes a little less so every time something like this happens. Daily life on an island is like some kind of ongoing zen practice. You have to learn to expect delays and respond with calmness and then, depending on the situation, you may need to utilize some creative thinking skills. As of now, I have no clothes, but maybe that means I get to go shopping for a truly original piece at one of Aruba’s many boutiques. Perhaps some kind of synthetic off the shoulder number in pink or yellow neon.

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poor john

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Lately, I find myself looking back to those first few weeks when I arrived here in Tanki Flip. I remember the first night I moved into this house. The space was totally empty except for a bed that had just been delivered that afternoon and six suitcases, suitcases that I had stayed up all night packing in Dallas before an early morning flight to Aruba. I had tucked away some nostalgic items in my luggage for the new place: a framed picture of my mother as child with pigtails and on horseback, a coffee mug that belonged to my grandmother, a tin retablo of the Virgen de Guadalupe from Chimayo in New Mexico, a Graciela Iturbide print of Our Lady of the Iguanas, an oven mitt a friend brought back from Germany, and other such items as these. Anyone planning a move abroad should make space for these kinds of things while they are packing. They really helped me to cope those first few months, months that can leave you feeling both extremely euphoric and helplessly marooned on to another planet in a faraway galaxy.

That other planet faraway galaxy feeling came in waves, but especially whenever I would answer the knock at my front door. It was always my neighbor, Poor John. He is a native islander whose grandpapa once owned all of the cul-de-sac where my house stands, or so he claims. At first, he would bring me home cooked meals, usually involving some kind of fish that he had caught earlier in the day and a heaping slimy mound of an unidentifiable carbohydrate. This was before I bought a trashcan for the kitchen. And way before I had set up service to haul  trash away to the garbage burning dump (Aruba burns its trash several times a week, and the first time I saw the blazing inferno I was certain a plane had crashed). There would be a knock on the door most evening, and I would open the door to yet another piping hot dinner plate. What am I going to do with this? No garbage disposal. No garbage can. No garbage service. I’m certainly not going to eat it. It smells like feet inside the shoes of a very old man. In addition to his culinary masterpieces, he might bring multiple loaves of stale, sometimes molded, bread or a fish with eyeballs looking at me through a plastic bag. “Put it in your freezer and fry it up for dinner,” were his instructions. Eventually, my freezer just filled up with so much fish that I couldn’t fit anything else inside.

He also brought lots of gifts. Once he brought a bag of miniature combs, each individually wrapped, the kind you might receive if your were going to have your portrait taken at Olan Mills, circa 1976. His gifts were always really random that way. He would give me things for the kitchen like a wooden spoon or a single pepper shaker. Once he even brought a mini coffee press. A calendar of scantily clad women posing with sports cars. A machete. Then the gifts became more sentimental. A mug with a Hallmark style romantic message painted around and around. Or a stuffed teddy bear. Maybe a shiny bracelet. These types of gifts were beginning to make me uncomfortable. “I want to marry you, Jennifer.” he would profess. “I respect you.”  I corrected him about my name many times, but he never remembered and insisted on calling me Jennifer. Finally, I thought that Jennifer was close enough, both Tiffany and Jennifer were cliché American names for girls born in the 70s and 80s. The gifts abruptly came to an end after I repeatedly declined invitations to his house for dinner. Then I began to ignore knocks at the door. Eventually, Poor John stopped coming around altogether.

Months and months passed and then he was suddenly back out of nowhere. My friend and I watched as we backed out of my driveway while Poor John seemed to be working on one of his many projects in front of my house. He had already spray painted red circles on each side of the property line. Then he drove a wooden post into each circle. Now he was working on tying a rope around one post and pulling it taut to the other end as we were driving away. “What is he doing?” my friend asked. “I have no idea, it could be either a ritual to curse me or protect me. I’m hoping for the latter.” Whatever it was it seemed to cure him of his love sickness and the proposals of marriage stopped. He started watering all the plants again and asked if I wanted him to trim the coconut trees. Thankfully, things now operate much the way it should between neighbors.

These days we seem to have a mutual understanding, and we have developed a coexisting cul-de-sac respect for one another. He knows I will never marry him, but that he can usually get about $25 Florin from me on a regular basis—along with all the coconuts and mangos that he can shake from the treetops—in exchange for weekly watering and occasional weed whacking. I know that I need the help around the house. I appreciate his creative talents and problems solving skills. Whether it is a pipe that he has rigged up so the shower water does not drain out into the side yard or a garden archway that he has designed for the front gate entrance, these things bring function and aesthetic to my little home here. And I am also intrigued by the history that he has experienced here on the island. I asked him yesterday if he would be our guide this fall on an archaeological tour of Tanki Flip to show us all the native trails and sites.

I’m really thankful Poor John is around to help out with things. In the beginning I didn’t know if it was going to work out between us, but he has turned out to be a very good neighbor. This house in Tanki Flip could easily be my favorite place that I have ever lived. It is feeling less and less like another planet these days and a lot more like home.

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