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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