dogs, flip, and pottery sherds

archaeology 2

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.


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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