island time standing still

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Island life can sometimes feel a lot like living in a time warp. After enough time living day to day life on an island, time begins to seem as if it is has been suspended. The clock on an island ticks slower than most. As a result, some kind of time lapse seems to occur when island time is measured against the fast moving pace of time in big cities. Eventually, it feels like you are living in another age entirely as if the little rock where you reside has made fewer trips around the sun than the rest of the planet. It becomes a small sliver of space completely removed in time from the metropolis you left almost three years ago. And it takes about three years to get the full effect.

Some places you find on an island really stick out in their time-warped appearance. These are places where you find relics left from the past: a wrecked boat washed ashore, an abandoned building on the street corner or an old truck swallowed up by climbing vines. In the city made of mirrors from where I originally hail, those structures are quickly demolished or carted off. Ruins are treated as wreckage and swiftly eradicated as if they might carry disease. Everything must be shiny and new.

On the island of Aruba, there are entire neighborhoods in ruin. There’s a lost colony on the east side in a place called Seroe Colorado. It was once home to hundreds of people years ago when the Lago Oil and Transport Company was in full operation. You can stroll through on a self-guided faded glory tour along the streets where there is this eerie sensation that an entire community just got up and walked away, circa 1966. They left behind many signs of their affluent status, including tennis courts near the beach. Once luxurious and quite impressive, hundreds of dilapidated homes are battered and broken down, another world away from the status and prestige they once represented. Peering through the jagged glass of broken windows, it’s impossible not to imagine what life was once like inside and wonder what became of the people who lived there.

There are, however, plenty of old buildings open for business in Aruba where front doors act as portals to another era, perhaps even as far back to the era when the colony once thrived. One such place is the first department store to open in Aruba: La Linda is located in downtown Oranjestad at the end of the main shopping drag. It has that time standing still quality about it, which is immediately felt upon entering and being greeted by a little old man. Dapper and vigilant, he is dressed to impress in a red–sometimes purple–three-piece suit. He will quickly ask you to check your bag and store it in a wall of towering candy-colored lockers. La Linda has strict rules about the size of bags they will let customers carry past the front entrance into their happy hunting ground. This is one of the few regulations the store enforces because it is around the bend to bonkers from that point forward.

The first thing you will see as you survey the first floor of the expansive four-story space is a never-ending display of men’s underwear; to the left is an army of mannequin trunks sheathed in an assortment of boxer briefs. Standing in front of all of this, as if he is the commander of this underpants force, is a full-body mannequin clad head to toe in camouflage. This is what makes La Linda a place like no other place on Earth, a rather large and distinctly vintage collection of mannequins–there are more mannequins in this place than customers. These mannequins are fossils from another era. Past their prime, but hanging on to the grandeur of those sublime decades that once gave them life and fully painted eyebrows, they give the whole place a surreal quality unlike any other.

An unproportionate square footage of the first floor at La Linda is dedicated to men’s underwear. I’m not sure why this is. Like many things in Aruba, it remains a mystery until you ask someone who knows. According to the label inside one of two elevators (maximum capacity of 13), the first floor includes the following departments: men’s suits, casual wear, beachwear, and shoes. It probably needs to be updated because customers can also find a pharmacy on the first floor if they walk towards the shoes in the far corner. It can’t be called a beauty section like the kind found in most department stores because the shelves are haphazardly stocked with items like Colgate toothpaste and Absorin Comfort Slip Ultra, which is a Dutch brand of adult diapers.

After making your way around the first floor and perhaps purchasing briefs and a box of Bandaids, each creaky step of the original grand wooden staircase will take you up to the second floor where you will find ladies wear, shoes, and bags, along with infant and toddler wear. The infant and toddler section includes an endless supply of nostalgic Winnie-the-Pooh characters, suffocating inside cellophane that has been twisted and tied at the top above their heads since 1974 it seems, or at least that is when I remember these friends being a big part of my life. Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, and Tiger are all perched on top of clothing racks as far as the eye can see, all of them staring down and pleading with you to rescue them. Winnie-the-Pooh will pop up again and again in other parts of the store, perhaps affixed around and around up a pole to give the place some color. Next to that is a cascading assortment of upside down umbrellas. Two things are clear here: There is an overstock of stuffed Winnie-the-Poohs and employees working here are clearly empowered with an anything-goes creative license.

Keep moving to the top to explore the third floor and find a world of columns wrapped in fabric. This is the floor to come to if you are one of the few people who still know how to sew, which is a lost art form in the rest of the world, but on an island where Carnival comes every February, it is a much-coveted skill. You will have to take the elevator to the fourth and final floor, which is fitting since it is most otherworldly at the very top. This is where all rules are thrown out the window. It’s best to visit during Halloween or Carnival season to witness the extravaganza of this free for all floor. There is a pyramid of artificial flames that can’t be missed when you step off the elevator. An assortment of mannequins is arranged in dangerous fashion a little too close to the flames. Toddlers wear creepy clown masks. Some are dressed like Snow White. Female mannequins seductively expose their midriff in Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader costumes. During Carnival, all of them put on masks and beads and a plethora of sequined accessories. Most shopkeepers could never get away with these kinds of choices in the United States. But, then again, the mannequins are all on display in front of a cafe that serves employees only, so clearly the employees have a lot of choice in the matter.

Of course, La Linda is not unique. Many places of business all over the island operate in this fashion. Time passes in a peculiar way everywhere here and life can feel surreal at any moment. Ask for a check while sitting on the outdoor patio at a local restaurant and time will slow down to a very faint pulse while the band plays smooth jazz style elevator music to a sea of empty seats. Then a stray cat zig zags between your legs and jumps on top of the table to parade between your dinner plates of leftovers that still haven’t been cleared. You might wait an hour for the check and then another hour to pay the bill. By the time it is finally done, you’ve bonded with the cat and are considering taking her home.

Other experiences are born from daily routines but present the same kind of time gap. It’s always summer here as you go about checking off whatever is on the to-do list, so you will need to crank the AC in the car everyday for any errands there are to run. Casey Kasem enthusiastically announces that Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy has dropped to number 2 today on the radio station while you are driving down an empty road with cacti towering on either side. You remember that tap dance routine to the hit song. How old were you? What year was that? Was it 1984? How could you even be alive that long ago? Today is most certainly not 1984. Chores around the house will take you even further back in time. Hand washing dishes comes to mind, as does hanging clothes on the line to dry. These chores take forever; it’s best to break them up into stages. How did housewives ever live with these mundanities? No wonder they rebelled.

Two or three times a year you might slip between the two worlds and take a trip to the other side. If it is the holiday season, be prepared for a major jolt upon return back to the accelerated ticking away of the clock in a major metropolitan U.S. city. Count ten, maybe 20, buildings that have been erected on your old stomping grounds since you last visited six months ago, maybe a new skyscraper or two. Cars will honk at you while you try to drive 40 mph everywhere you go. Friends and family will tell you that you are going to cause an accident if you do not speed up. Go into one of the 600 Targets in the city that has been remodeled since the last time you were there and get lost trying to find socks and a sports bra. Watch on the way out as people file hastily into the store in Lemming-like fashion. All wearing essentially the exact same outfit, they synchronize their movements one after the other by flinging their designer handbag into the shopping cart, taking a sip from a cup of Starbucks coffee, and then pushing the cart ahead into a systemized mecca. They are off and racing down the aisle to participate in the single most important activity in American culture: shopping.

Meanwhile on an island 2,197 miles away, in a store where the employees outnumber the customers, so much that the cafe on the fourth floor serves employees only, one of the 20 employees scheduled for the afternoon shift at La Linda carefully places a sequined top hat on the chipped yellow locks of a decrepit mannequin as she quietly anticipates the upcoming celebration of Carnival.

 

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