Monthly Archives: October 2017

mannequins and a music box

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Tending the garden takes on a whole new meaning on the island of Aruba. Many islanders completely transform their front yard all over this rock to depict fanciful scenes spawned from imagination. My neighbor’s yard is one like this. A canoe with paddles is affixed to the roof directly above his door. He recently started decorating for the holidays by placing a Christmas tree inside the canoe, as if it were a person paddling down roaring rapids. The Christmas tree is even wearing sunglasses. Near the canoe, there is a wheelbarrow, brimming with Aloe Vera, jutting out from the exterior of the house. And the whole place is lit up with Christmas lights like a rocket ship.

Take the winding road up to the chapel of Alto Vista, and you will come across the home of mannequins. It’s the most famous of these yards on the island. There are about ten mannequins displayed year-round in front of a 100-year-old cunucu house, and they always seem to be attending a celebration for one of the many holidays here. Their outfits change with the season. Clad in blue, red, white and yellow for Flag Day, they cheer on the birthday of the Aruban flag. Come Christmas time, they are dressed to the hilt in red velvet and silver sequins. All of them wear orange for Koningsdag in April. Aruba may only have one summer season, but you would never know passing by this house since the mannequins change their colors much like the leaves on autumn trees or flowers blooming in the spring.

Various other objects can be found in the mix. Toy trucks are perched high in the treetops, alongside other items tucked inside the branches: a garden rake or a license plate. A display case of sunglasses is precariously perched on a patio chair. Large imperfect figurines are haphazardly placed all about the ground where the mannequins stand. A dwarf that could have jumped out from the pages of the fairy tale Snow White. Something resembling a Maya god holding an ear of maize. Another statue looks like the White Rabbit coaxing Alice down the hole. There are large containers interspersed amongst the figurines.  A cornucopia of fruit. And plenty of pots filled with fabric flowers. Behind the mannequins are freestanding shelves that display more of the same.  Amorous geese, a laughing Buddha, leaping dolphins, a croaking toad, all living in perfect harmony amongst an extensive collection of Delft blue Dutch ceramic figures of milkmaids and dairy cows. Creatures from the pages of books, the heavens, and planet Earth, all coexisting together in this yard menagerie.

What was this place? We’ve admired this house for two years now and wondered how it all came to be whenever we would stop to take photographs of the changing themes. We had so many questions. Who was the caretaker? Where did all this stuff come from? Why was it here? We’d asked around the island, but nobody seemed to have the answer. We couldn’t find anything on the Internet either. There was always someone sitting outside on the porch at the house. We knew that much. Maybe we could just walk up to the house one day and ask.

The day finally arrived when we worked up the nerve to do just that. We were told to come back again and again. There was always someone who wasn’t there that day who could tell us more about the mysterious yard arrangement. Each time we got closer and closer to solving the riddle. Until one day when someone was finally there who could sit and chat with us. We sat with two fabulous women who served up delicious slices of pistachio cake and answered all of our questions. And a story unfolded that was more incredible than anything we could have imagined. 

The women introduced themselves as sisters and explained that their father started all of this some 45 years ago. It all began when he would bring home discarded items from work that people deemed useless. An advertising sign selling beer, or shoes perhaps. Apparently, he thought all of this stuff was too special to be tossed into the trash bin. Tossing something into the trash bin in Aruba means that it will eventually end up in a giant inferno since the island of Aruba manages all of its waste by setting it on fire. Arubans refer to this place with two simple words: the dump.

Eventually, he started making trips to the dump to rescue more precious pieces from the pit of despair, including mannequins. Most of the mannequins had cosmetic issues–a broken hand or a chipped nose–that kept them from working windows any longer. But some of the mannequins were still in boxes. And, of course, how could you walk away from a brand new mannequin that is still in a box. How could you let a perfectly good mannequin go up in flames? Why wouldn’t you take it home and prop it up in your yard and dress it up for the holidays? And why stop with mannequins? If there was a tarnished frog or an angel with broken wings that needed to be rescued from the dump, surely they would be coming back to the yard of misfit figurines as well. They all found their forever home in this sanctuary where they would be cared for with love.

And cared for with love they were and still are to this day. The whole family tends to this whimsical garden. They protect the mannequins from thieves who will sometimes come and carry a mannequin away. They have a rotation schedule so that a family member is always there to stand guard and protect all of the garden inhabitants from possible abductions. They also work together to dress the mannequins for the next holiday, which the daughters explained can be more challenging than one would think, as mannequins are not always cooperative when it comes to changing their clothes. They do all of this to pay homage to their father because that was what he would want.

Their father always kept a watchful eye over his garden from the front porch. He spent evenings there playing instruments, the accordion, or the viola, or the guitar. He was a versatile and talented musician. But most importantly, he played the ka’i di orgel, which is an instrument that is unique to Aruba and Curacao. It’s typically paired with the wiri, a traditional African instrument. that looks like something you might use to grate cheese. The sound these instruments produce when played together sounds a lot like what you might hear as you unravel cotton candy at the circus or if you could time travel and walk along a cobblestone street in old-world Europe, circa the 1700s. It’s hard to describe with words, but it is most definitely the perfect other-worldly soundtrack for the scene on display here.

The women brought out picture albums showing their father playing at the musical festival of dande. Aruba is the only Caribbean island that celebrates dande. Traditionally, musical groups traveled from door to door to wish families well and to cheer in a new year after midnight. Now the tradition is kept alive with an annual festival. After flipping through the photographs, we were invited inside the house to play the ka’i di orgel. We took turns winding away while one of the daughters played the wiri. I looked to the corner of the living room to find yet another mannequin. This one was dressed in a suit belonging to their father, the man who brought this wonderful world to their lives. And it appears that it his loving family who keeps this world very much alive for the rest of the island to enjoy.

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dogs, flip, and pottery sherds

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Tanki and Flip, the two words that make up the name of my neighborhood, just seem to complement one another in a happy-go-lucky way. All kinds of sunbeam images come to mind. A friend of mine mentioned tank tops and flip-flops when I told everyone back home where I would soon be living: both items are useful when headed to the nearby beach. Tanki Flip sounds like someone is inviting you to jump off the high dive into a swimming pool on a sunny day. Come tanki flip with us today. Let’s go tanki flipping this weekend. 

The actual origin of the words are more grim and gloomy. It is a haunting story of sorts. A tragedy really, albeit one that takes place in paradise. There are two versions. The first story tells about a man, Flip Kelly, who was dejected by his girlfriend and plummeted to his death by jumping into a tank of water. Another story tells us that Flip’s death was accidental, not a suicide. Rather he was riding his horse when the poor creature took a tumble in the mud, plunging head on into the water. Poor Flip was all tangled up and drowned in the water, alongside his horse. Regardless of which story you adhere to, Flip flipped into a tank of water and drowned to death. Hence the name Tanki Flip. So much for sunshine, cool breeze, and blue water.

I’d found this story on the Internet before moving to Aruba, and we all know you can’t believe everything you read there. But I’m starting to accept that there is some truth to this tale, especially after our tour earlier this week with the village elder, Poor John.

I’d stopped by his house on Sunday afternoon to feed his dogs, which I have made a regular habit of lately after a close inspection of their well-being while driving slowly past his house. Two of the dogs are chained up during the day while the third one—that Poor John calls Tromp and is clearly his favorite—runs about the neighborhood feisty and free. Tromp seems fat and happy, but I noticed protruding ribs on the other two dogs. Because I worry that Tromp would get all the food if I were to just give it to Poor John, I stop and feed the dogs myself to make sure the emaciated two get properly fed. It’s a scary scenario upon first approach, as they always seem like they are going to rip me apart until they smell the food. Then they quickly change their demeanor from barking and growling with bared teeth to wagging tails and faint whimpers. 

It was during one of these stops that I asked Poor John about the nearby tank that is the origin of our neighborhood’s name. “We go see it now,” he insisted in his broken English. We weren’t prepared for a tour of the Aruban wilderness that day. We were wearing flip-flops and pencil skirts. But how could we resist? This was a man with more knowledge about Tanki Flip than most. We were not going to let this opportunity pass us by. And so off we went, arriving to a giant tank of water in less than two minutes. Who knew this was just right across the street?

“Flip fell in and drowned,” Poor John informed us as we took in the scenery around the large body of water.

“I read about that story. Is it true?” I asked.

“SuUURRRe,” Poor John answered in his sing-song way. Then he explained that the drowning Dutch man is where the name Tanki Flip comes from. “Come and I show you where the angels lived. I’m a professional. I’m a shy pelican.”  And off we were on an archaeological adventure with my eccentric neighbor.

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Another two-minute drive around the corner, and we were on the side of a narrow dirt road, looking into a thicket of prickly desert brush that marked the beginning of our indigenous Aruba tour. I don’t think this place gets many tourists, I quietly thought. Poor John dove in and shouted back for us to follow. “Aquí,” he coaxed us on and on as he disappeared before us into a forest of spikes. We precariously followed suit, stepping on thorn laden branches covering the ground while balancing ourselves between vertical cacti jutting up all around the soft flesh of our exposed limbs. Carefully reaching for a few bare branches to steady our gait as we crouched under sharp spines that caught a hold of our hair, we finally made our way out of the barbed maze and into a cool open space where we could once again stand up straight. It was sort of like exploring caves that way.

Broken pottery pieces and shells littered the ground all around our flip-flopped feet. Some fully intact conch shells could be found interspersed in the rubble. I peered inside the shell and imagined the snotty feast. We picked up the pottery sherds and closely examined them, running our fingers over the smooth surface and jagged edges. What is this place? I wondered. Is it even real? It seems like something you would stumble upon in the pages of a book. But we weren’t in a book. We were right around the corner from my house stepping on remnants left behind in some kind of timeworn trash heap. This was one of many such sites he showed us as we made our way through the desert brush that day. 

The way the people tell the history here, the Caquetio were the original inhabitants to build villages at Savaneta, Santa Cruz, and Tanki Flip. Then the Spanish came along and forced all the them to leave the Islas Inútiles (Useless Islands) and relocate to Hispaniola to work mines, only to return some back to the island a few years later. Most indigenous peole in the Caribbean were wiped out completely, so the fact that many people here have AmerIndian roots makes Aruba unique. Aruba has late 19th century Dutch accounts of native life operating much the same way it had for centuries. Life at Tanki Flip is one of those accounts; I’d love to read it one day.

The best source to learn more about the indigenous cultures in Aruba is the National Archaeological Museum of Aruba, which has been closed since we tried to visit last Spring. Something about a faulty air system that needs repairing is what they tell us. So we are patiently waiting for that to reopen. Meanwhile, we have the name of an archaeologist living here on the island and plan to schedule some time to meet and speak with him about Tanki Flip. I have so many questions left unanswered. Apparently, the archaeological site of Tanki Flip is vast and Poor John tells us that is why no one is allowed to build there.

Yesterday, I went back around to feed the dogs. As I was leaning over and pouring dog food for the skinniest of the group, Tromp jumped up on to me from behind and nearly knocked me over. He left a dusty print on the back pocket of my pants from his dirty paws (the association between this dog and the US president has not escaped me). I offered him a little bit of food since he was clearly perturbed by my helping his starving clan. Me first would be his words if he could speak. He took a snobby sniff of the crunchy bits and was no longer interested. “He won’t eat off the ground.” Poor John explained.

Meanwhile, the two others from his pack were devouring the food along with clumps of sand most likely. “What is his name?” I asked as I was feeding one of the hungry dogs. “Flip,” Poor John responded. “He’s named after the Dutch man from the tank.”

Perhaps there is something to your destiny being intertwined with your name. Poor Flip never stood a chance with that name. How can I save him from his fate-locked misfortune? Or at least convince Tromp that he clearly has the advantage in this situation and teach him how to share with others in need. 

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