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.