Author Archives: arubatlewis

Bogotá, bus rides, and a cobblestone plaza

 

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It was back to Colombia again over Spring Break. The city of Bogotá was our destination. We avoided Avior Airlines through Valencia this time since it was recently added to the EU ban list. Instead, we booked tickets with Panamanian Copa Airlines and enjoyed a relaxing journey from Aruba to Colombia, except for the sprint to catch our connecting flight at the airport in Panama City. The best thing about flying in South America is its retro effect, as in they serve you an in-flight hot meal and free booze. It feels as if you have been transported back to the 1960’s, back when they did this full-service kind of thing on airlines in the United States. I was waiting for a stylish flight attendant to offer me slippers and tuck me in under a blanket after dinner was served. Avianca, by the way, has the most glamorous flight crew throughout all of the Americas, quite possibly the entire planet: the flight attendants actually wear red capes and Bowler hats.

We landed in Bogotá that evening and hailed a taxi outside the airport. After an inquisition about cab fare forced upon our taxi driver by my Dutch travel mate while I haphazardly translated numbers from Spanish to English in rapid-fire succession, we held on tight for the roller coaster ride that we clearly were not paying more money for just because we were tourists. After twenty minutes of gripping the grab handle, we watched with anticipation as the stick shift choked up a steep street to our final destination in the Candelaria sector of the city. At the top of the hill, we were catapulted out from the back seat on to the narrow cobblestone sidewalk, weighted down by heavy backpacks and travel fatigue. Finding our footing after wobbling about in front of the hotel for a moment, we realized we had the right place but that the door clearly didn’t fit us. It was a door from a period long ago when people were a few inches shorter than they are today and the city didn’t regularly welcome visitors from a country that breeds the tallest people in the world.

My Spanish speaking skills have improved somewhat since our last trip to Colombia when we toured Medellín and its outskirts. It’s a work in progress, albeit progress that moves at the same pace it would take an ant colony to build a hill the size of a haystack. Checking into the hotel was my first test. Last time we survived on the twigs of Spanish words and phrases that I could comprehend and toss back out to get us from point A to B or safely checked into a hotel room at night. This time I actually understood everything one could ever want to know about Hotel Muisca as we checked into our room that evening. My face expression didn’t go blank every time the lady behind the counter started speaking. I listened attentively as she gave instructions and then answered her questions without pause, realizing shortly thereafter that progress had been made in the language learning endeavor.

We climbed upstairs to our room, changed clothes, and broke the first rule for women traveling in Bogotá: Don’t walk the city streets late at night. Actually, I’m the only one who tries to follow these rules. My Dutch friend shrugs them off as American created and spawned from ignorance and paranoia. What does your country know about this place? I agree with her for the most part, but there are times when I feel vulnerable, not as a result of my nationality, more so because of my gender. She got to the point where she just stopped responding to my comments. “I don’t think we are supposed to hail a cab on the city streets after dark in Bogota,” I would inform her, anxiously pleading a case to preserve my life as we walked along the side of a busy street under a shared umbrella while it was raining buckets. I heard nothing in response to my comment, just colossal drops pounding down all around us while cars rolled along splashing puddles of water. These are the moments when I ask myself silently: Am I really just a hysterical American or does my friend have some kind of a Dutch deathwish? That was the night we broke rule number two. Tonight it was time to break the first rule. We were walking to Plaza Churro de Quevedo. Who cares that it was almost eleven? It was time to venture out into the nightlife of Bogotá.

As is the case with most of the rules I break in life, I’m glad we did it or we would have missed out on a magical night. We both agreed Churro de Quevedo felt like a plaza in Rome. People were sitting on the steps all around us. How special it is it that you can find something like this in the Americas? No need to travel to another hemisphere to visit the Old World. Here century-old homes had become taverns, and so we stepped inside one to order a drink, climbing a narrow staircase that felt more like clambering up a ladder, which eventually led us up above to a cozy room. Dressed in layers and jackets, we were bundled up for a chilly evening outside, and the whole scene inside was quite gezellig, providing a much-needed contrast to the tropical Aruban heat where our day began. The room had an A framed roof and endless windows with wooden shutters opened up so we could take in the view of the plaza below. People were nestled into sofas all around us. This was somebody’s bedroom once.  And now here we were, hundreds of years later, arriving that evening on a jet plane and enjoying our first cocktail in beautiful Bogotá.

Arriving anywhere in Colombia at night is the only way to go because the morning sun brings a bit of magic as you step out to take your first blissful glimpse of where ever it is you have landed. And Colombia never disappoints. That first step outside is a gift in sight that will make your heart skip a beat, leaving behind a visual moment in your memory that will last forever. We discovered that we were high up on a hill with a breathtaking view of all of Bogotá beneath us. A never-ending expanse of buildings hemmed in by lofty mountains, all under a canopy of immense silvery clouds. It was Good Friday and we were headed to Plaza Bolivar, the largest in Bogotá. Nothing compares to finding your way to a plaza in a Latin America country on any given Catholic holiday, and this weekend just happened to mark a really important one on the calendar.

After taking in the ceremony, we were ready to visit Centro Cultura Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We made our way down the bustling street where crowds gathered around artists spray painting portraits of Christ on to the pavement while vendors sold fruits I could not identify. Once we reached the cultural center, I promptly went into the bookstore and bought a hardcover copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish.

Later that afternoon, we walked across the city to Monserrate and bought a ticket to take the cable car up to the top. We never did get in line because we never found the end of it. The whole city of Bogotá seemed to be waiting in line to go to the top since it was Good Friday and the cable car tickets were cheaper today because Jesus would want everyone to be able to go to the top of Monserrate, not just the wealthy. Giving up on that particular agenda item, we went back to the hotel and collapsed. We decided we were running low on fuel because we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so we made our way out the door and walked all around looking for a dinner spot that was open. We finally found a place and I compensated for our failed attempt to ride the cable car up a mountain by ordering a tamale that was as big as my head.

The next day we had 10 AM tour scheduled with Bogotá Graffiti Tour. These were my favorite few hours spent in the city and a definite must do for anyone planning a visit. The crowd was larger than expected, a group of about thirty to forty turned out under our meeting spot at the statue of Símon Bolívar in Parque de los Periodistas. Our tour guide took us all over the city and stopped frequently to deliver museum style lectures for the most famous of the city’s collection. The tour ended downtown in front of a classic piece by DJ Lu. Each iconographic detail from the city block length mural was deciphered by our expert guide so as to piece together the artist’s collective commentary on corrupt politics and social injustice for the tour group. From there, we went to Museo del Oro and Museo Botero, a full day soaking in all of the art that makes Bogotá such a special place.

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The next day was Easter Sunday. We packed up our bags and were on our way to the colonial town of Villa de Leyva with a stop at the Mercado de Las Pulgas de Usaquen en route to the bus station. Mercado de Las Pulgas de Usaquen is a Sunday flea market where we spent most of the afternoon perusing the maze of vendors selling artisan handicrafts and tasty food products and everything else imaginable. From there, we took a taxi to the bus terminal north of the city. Taking a bus in Colombia is an experience in and of itself. I’ve never seen another tourist on the many bus rides we’ve taken in Colombia. It’s my favorite way to travel because you can sit back and stare out the window, hypnotized by the beauty of the land. Once we boarded the bus, it began pouring down rain and so since I could not see beautiful land out the window, I became more interested in our bus driver.

We were sitting directly behind her, which gave me a clear view of her cell phone mounted next to the steering wheel. I had never seen a female bus driver in this machista society, especially one chatting on WhatsApp while piloting a behemoth bus down slick winding roads through the Andes in a torrential storm well after dark. I was completely transfixed by this character. She was a vivacious type, beautiful and flirtatious, who joked around with all the handsome men working for Expreso Gaviota, the name of the company painted on the side of the bus. She was in complete command over this machine and all the men who kept things churning along for this bus line. I had so many questions. Who was this woman? And how did she end up behind the wheel of a bus in this country?

My questions were eventually answered over the course of four hours during which I would steal random glances from her cell phone screen. At first, she used her phone to scroll through her playlist and select songs the same way anyone would as they set out on the first 100 miles of a road trip. That was when it was still daylight. Every once in a while she would chat with a friend via text or talking. Once we got closer to Villa de Leyva, the cars were at a standstill on the other side of this two-lane highway as thousands of people were returning to Bogotá from Villa de Leyva where they had spent Easter weekend. Then she began taking pictures of all the oncoming traffic and sending them off to others on WhatsApp. Eventually, as the sun set and darkness enveloped the land all around while the rain kept pounding down, she began to obsessively dial a number over and over and over again. Maybe women really shouldn’t be driving buses.  

My eyelids were heavy, but this compulsive act caught my attention and kept me awake. I noticed the name she kept dialing ended with Gaviota, so I assumed she was calling el jefe. But then I thought the behavior was indicative of a mind that was unstable enough to get one fired from a job as the only female bus driver between Bogotá and Villa de Leyva. I certainly would not be able to keep a job if I called my boss 15 times in a row. Now in addition to the question I had about how she got a job as a bus driver, I now had more questions about how she kept it. Eventually, someone picked up on the other end. “Papa,” she exclaimed. The mystery was solved just minutes before we arrived at our destination. She must be the heiress to the Gaviota fleet.  

We arrived late in the Boyocá town of Villa de Leyva and walked about 30 minutes to our hotel from the drop zone where the bus deposited us. Built in 1568, La Mesopotemia Hotel Colonial was once an old flour mill and staying inside this 450-year-old colonial house definitely transported us back to another era in time. I may have to add it to my list of top ten favorite places that I have ever stayed in Latin America. It even had a swimming hole on the grounds. Actually, all of Villa de Leyva has been declared a National Monument, and the entire town feels like a time capsule.

There are five details about Villa de Leyva that I find fascinating. First, the cobblestone square is the largest in all of South America. Second, there are fossils nudged inside random structures all over town. Its location is some kind of mecca for paleontologists and the earliest stonemasons thought the ammonites strewn about the environs of town could serve both decorative and structural purposes. They, therefore, embedded them into archways and cornerstones all over the place. Third, it is home to the lake where, according to Muisca legend, humankind emerged in the form of a woman holding a baby. The two carried forth from there and populated the entire planet and then turned into snakes, disappearing back into the water. Fourth, it is located near an archaeological site where the Muisca erected phallic stone monuments, which the Spanish named el infiernito (little hell) since they were horrified by these salacious stelae. Fifth, a bridge leading into the city was the site of a decisive legendary battle won by Simón Bolivar and his army of Patriots.

Our last day in Colombia was spent racing to take a wild tour of the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral and Andres restaurant in Chía en route back to Bogotá. In order to fit it all in, we had to make some insane bus transfers in the middle of nowhere. It just also happened to be pouring down rain yet again. It was another bumpy roller coaster ride along slippery mountain roads. Forget hailing a cab at night in the big city, the bus rides really are the most dangerous moments we’ve experienced throughout our travels in South America.

The first transfer occurred in Briceno, which was just an intersection where two roads met and a yellow bus was waiting for us on a street that we had to make a mad dash across in a torrential downpour. Zipaquira was quite the adventure, a salt mine cathedral that feels like traveling to a holy site in space, another world entirely and just one stop on the agenda for the day. After touring Zipaquira for a couple of hours, the sun was beginning to set. We still had two more cities to get to before our plane took off in six hours. Time was of the essence, but it would be better spent drinking a beer inside a restaurant and graciously accepting any kind of help the waiter who flagged us off the street could offer in order to get us into a cab before the sun dropped below the horizon.

After a bit of a buzz and just a sliver of sunlight left, we climbed into a cab and were on our way to the bus station. The cab driver insisted we would never find a bus to Chía, but we knew that wasn’t the case based on our past experience of stopping in every town from one destination to another when riding buses in Colombia. We boarded an empty bus to Bogotå at the station, and I sat up front so I could keep the lines of communication open with the bus driver and his cohort, who would jump out the bus at every intersection and shout out a long list of cities. I was in charge of Spanish, and my Dutch friend put her explorer genes to work by playing the role of navigator, periodically opening Google maps on her phone to make sure we were on the right route. We were extra vigilant on this particular stretch because we couldn’t miss our stop. There was the problem of being stranded in some strange city in the middle of the night, but then we also had a plane to catch before breakfast.

We made it to the restaurant, one that friends who have visited and lived in Bogotá all recommended. It was as strange and bizarre as the salt cathedral in Zipaquira. Two otherworldly experiences within 4 hours and two wild bus rides in between. It was one of those days where I felt like I am fully doing this living life thing. Like I’ve got it all figured out and it just doesn’t get better than this. Traveling anywhere in Latin American typically makes me feel this way, and we’ve gained a lot of practice over the past few years. With two trips to Colombia and a summer in Peru and Bolivia in the books, we are headed to Chile and Argentina for the summer in just a few weeks.

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bohemian roots and leaving genes

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There is always a story behind moving to an island. That’s the thing you soon realize after meeting enough people who live on one. There is a story about the mainland they left behind. A tale to tell about what brought them out to sea in the middle of nowhere. Most are not always forthcoming with their narrative, as in they won’t just come out and tell you the whole story, but there is always something to it. They might confide in you after a while, maybe after a few drinks. Or you may never find out what it was exactly. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure. I haven’t been able to pinpoint an exact moment from my own narrative. But it doesn’t stop me from asking. How did I get here? Which exactly was it from a series of events?

Maybe it simply started with a job offer. I remember asking for the weekend to decide on that Friday when I was expected to answer yes or no. I would have a decision by Monday. I just needed 48 hours. The next day I was looking around my house for a photograph. After searching that Saturday afternoon through the designated boxes for photo storage to no avail, I pulled down a vintage suitcase perched high on a shelf in the spare bedroom closet. It was stuffed full of letters and cards, the kind delivered to mailboxes before the Internet came along. I never did find the picture, but my then boyfriend randomly pulled a piece of newspaper from the suitcase, which had been left open on the sofa. “What is this?” he asked. It was an advertisement for the placement agency that had helped me to get the job I was now deciding whether or not to accept. The copy enticed teachers: Make the world your classroom. I’d clipped it in 2005 and here it was being passed from his hand to mine in 2015, ten years later. Some kind of sign I guess. We both thought so anyway. “It seems this is something you have always wanted to do,” he said, selflessly encouraging me to do so. 

Or maybe it started on October 30th, 2014, five months before that weekend. My grandmother was moments away from her own departure, and there I was sitting next to her, eyes filled with tears, holding her fragile hand and saying a long goodbye as if we were standing on a platform waiting for her to board a train. I remember telling her that she hadn’t danced in years and now was the time to go and dance again. “Go to Paris and dance,” I whispered so as to guide her to courageously climb aboard. “You’ve never been to Paris, and you worked for years to master the French language,” I told her these things while I thought to myself that today was the day she had to leave. Tomorrow would not be a good day for dying. Tomorrow would be October 31st, Halloween. I worried about her getting mixed up in the cross traffic of ghosts and goblins. I didn’t want her on the roads between here and wherever she was headed with all those vampires and witches. Yes, she definitely needed to leave today. Her body could not hold on until November 1st. Halloween is definitely not a day for dying. It would be a better day for me to spend at the Greenwood Funeral Home planning her burial.

I sat in the director’s office at that funeral home on Halloween day for a surreal span of time, shocked and grief-stricken while trick-or-treaters began to file out late that afternoon on to the streets outside. The doors swung open and closed as eccentric funeral home types stepped in and out to introduce themselves and ask my family a million questions. They seemed to me like real Halloween ghouls who had come to snatch my grandmother and steal her away, carry her off in a polished wooden box to their eternal lair. An old woman with layer upon layer of mascara and wispy orange hair came in to ask about makeup. My aunt, clearly baffled, asked, “Who needs makeup for a closed casket funeral?” A tall pale gangly man dressed head to toe in black came in to ask questions about religion. It was a question that made my family uncomfortable, so they promptly put me in charge of all that stuff, abandoning me to meet with this man of God all alone the next day. My grandmother never specified much about the religious nature of the service, but only wrote in her instructions that we read an excerpt from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, something about how death was like a dance. Although she did not adhere to any one system of belief, she knew more than most people about religion all around the world. I read the book front to back on Sunday and wrote the eulogy late into the evening before the funeral on Monday. Who knew I would be packing that book in one of six suitcases, six months later, moving to an island in the Caribbean of all places.

I would have never moved to this place if my grandmother was still here with me on this crazy planet. So, yes, her departure had everything to do with mine. But then what is it exactly that makes it so that someone can just leave everything behind? Not everyone does this leaving thing. I have friends who admit to me they could never do it and then promptly ask why would anyone want to. Some people have no desire to leave everything they know and move to a foreign world. Other people are terrified of it. And it really is absolutely terrifying. Until you do it. And then leaving becomes incredibly simple. It becomes the most liberating thing in the world. You find out leaving is so exhilarating that you want to leave and leave again. Perhaps then these things are genetic. Maybe these always wanting to leave genes are passed along from one generation to the next.

Maybe it all started with my grandmother years ago. She left everything behind and moved to Texas in the 1950s, on her own and with two young daughters in tow. She told me it was the big sky that brought her to Texas. She first saw this sky while driving across the country, from Georgia to New Mexico when she went to visit her father on his deathbed in Santa Fe. She left a whole life behind soon after, nearly 30 years worth. We knew nothing about this life, none of us did: her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She never talked about it. But clues were uncovered of wealthy relatives and a lucrative family business and emotionally charged memories and an ancestral grave site, the kind where the whole family is buried together on a plot of land reserved for distinguished clans. We eventually learned that she came from a family of Czech immigrants who left their Bohemian homeland to cross the Atlantic and start a new life in a new world at the end of the 19th Century. So maybe this leaving thing started with them. It worked out well for the ones who crossed over. They truly lived the American dream, arriving penniless and later building a fortune after the patriarch of the family created some kind of pump patent.

On rare occasions, she would recall her earliest memories. They lived in a lavish apartment in the sky with majestic views of downtown Atlanta. She remembered decadent parties where everyone was dressed to the hilt. She looked up above from her toddler vantage point to see ice sculptures and hired help holding trays of champagne. Times were good; it was the Roaring Twenties. Her father was the art director at Fox Theater–an architectural gem, perfectly preserved to this day. His brother wrote everything for the theater that went to press. Those were the days when a movie theater symbolized status for American cities, a sign the city had made it. But then something went terribly wrong after the stock market crashed. How it is that history can turn and spin everything in another direction. Eventually, years later, I pieced most of the story together with the help of Google and newspaper archives, following a timeline that zigzagged back and forth between cities from one coast to the other. Another story for another time. It’s much too convoluted and dramatic for a silly blog about island life. But maybe it is with this story that the inclination to leave truly originated.

What I found out was that I have an unbelievable family history. I imagine it was a history that my grandmother undoubtedly tried to escape, although the newspapers never did let her do so. I discovered that there was more to her leaving Georgia than the allure of the Texas sky. There is always more to the leaving. Though it filled her with joy to tell it that way, this sky story, I heard it so many times, as if this were the one and only reason she moved to Texas. She would make grandiose gestures, sweeping her arms above her head for added emphasis. But we all knew there was something else that drove her out, and we never did hear much about that part. There were subtle hints in the jazz lyrics she would recite as if they were guiding mantras. “Smile though your fear and sorrow. Smile and maybe tomorrow.” These are the pieces of her that I have left. I hear her song lyrics in my mind. I hear her playing the melody on her piano. Music evokes powerful memories. But I also packed away pieces from her life in my luggage before I left Texas for Aruba. I had just lost her a few months before. I desperately wanted to hold on to what I had left. So there are many things that belonged to her strewn about my living space here on this tiny island. They are small things, whatever I could fit along with all the other stuff I would need.

I couldn’t bring her paintings, but I zipped away matted printmaking works inside the flat exterior pockets of my luggage. Around the edge of each suitcase, I tucked away books, narrowly escaping the fifty-pound overage fee for each piece of luggage as I haphazardly checked them all curbside at the airport. There was a Spanish novel with all of her annotations written in the margins. I packed The Prophet, and others like it, taking care to make sure that all the pages she had marked with tiny pieces of paper remained so. I placed in my wallet University of Texas at Arlington identification cards from her time there as a student, and later as a teacher of Spanish and French. I folded a framed picture of her ballroom dancing days between my clothes. I tossed in anything I could find simply because we shared the same appreciation for aesthetics in design and print: pillowcases, coffee mugs, wind chimes, dinner napkins, clothing she had sewn. A butterfly motif emerged. There are a lot of butterflies here in my house on this island.

She and I are inextricably linked. We love all the same things in life. How do you choose a verb tense when one is left and the other is gone? I choose to write in the present because I’m still here loving all the things she loved, actively pursuing to immerse my life with this stuff. And it is after losing her that I truly learned to fill life with all the things that make the moments seem as if you are opening a treasure chest each and every day. To never take for granted that there are so many treasures in life. My grandmother always scheduled the full moon on her calendar. If I happened to be over visiting, which I did most weekends in those final years, she would take me by the hand and lead me outside to show me the moon. “Look at it! Can you believe it? See how it just hangs there in the sky.” The moon is magic. Life is filled with magic. Never forget this is what she seemed to be telling me.

It’s impossible to select just one event that brought me here. Maybe there were some things that drove me out as well. But mostly there were the impulses within me that constantly sought out the beauty in the world. Parts of me that refused to accept anything else less than that. There is so much of it to be found in life. There was a career I built that made it all possible. But if anyone is bold enough to ask how I landed here, I have a simple answer. It was the sea. Yes, that was definitely it. The blue and green of the Caribbean sea.

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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.

 

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.

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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the dutch tour texas

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Whenever people I meet here ask me what Texas is like, I proudly tell them everything I love. I start with the sky, how it seems to go on forever and is just as expansive as the landscape below. Then I might give a detailed description of BBQ, or the wildflowers in the spring, or Big Bend National Park, or the Cypress trees along the river banks, or Willie Nelson and Lefty Frizzell, or cities made of mirrors, or Hill Country swimming holes, or whatever Texas star falls into my mind at that specific moment in time. It’s especially entertaining to talk to Europeans about Texas, mostly because they do not even have words for some of the things that come up in conversation, like armadillos for example. Have you ever tried to explain what an armadillo is to someone who has no clue? It’s like a large rodent wearing armor. It’s like an anteater with bony plates. Eventually, you just give up and Google the image so that they can see what you are talking about. Then you bring an armadillo magnet back for your Dutch friend after a trip home for the holidays.

The armadillo is clearly a captivating creature because shortly after all of this talk about Texas and armadillos, two of my Dutch friends bought plane tickets and insisted I take them on tour of the Lone Star State. My plane left for Texas from Aruba one week after they arrived in New Orleans, so my advice to them was to take a bus from New Orleans to San Antonio where they could rent a car and loop around the Hill Country until I arrived. They’d bought a guide-book in Amsterdam about San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country, so I knew they would be fine without me for a few days. With its German influences and abundance of biergartens, I imagined they would feel a calm sense of European familiarity and be able to better ease into this Texas thing. Be sure to visit some swimming holes, I texted again and again from Aruba. They found their way to Blue Hole and Krause Springs. They even found Texas’ oldest honky-tonk, Gruene Hall.

My plane arrived in Dallas late Thursday evening after a full day of travel from Aruba through Florida. The next morning I drove down to Austin. The Dutch were in good spirits when I finally found them downtown. Our plan was to spend a weekend with my friends in Austin and then we would take off for West Texas. I’m grateful to my friends in Austin who took the lead there and planned a fabulous Friday and Saturday night out, along with a day spent at Barton Springs. Saturday night was a lot of fun, and we ended the evening dancing to “All my Exes Live in Texas” at the White Horse Saloon. Austin is the one city in Texas that is on everyone’s bucket list; people from all over the world want to see this music mecca. If all else failed on our tour of Texas, at least we’d made it to Austin.

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Once we left on Sunday afternoon, I was totally on my own for the rest of the week, the sole native amongst two foreign tourists. There was a reversal of roles happening to what I was accustomed to living amongst the Dutch in Aruba. I was no longer the outlander on a Dutch island. The Dutch were my passengers now as we drove all over Texas, my home state.   

We arrived in the west Texas town of Alpine late Sunday evening, which meant nothing would be open for dinner in this desert city with a population size of 5,988. The Dutch were optimistic, but I knew the pickings would be slim. We drove around for a while and checked every restaurant on the main street. As we were driving, I spotted a Sonic and filed it away in my mind as a last resort.

“We can always eat at Sonic if we can’t find anything that is open,” I said, reassuring myself more than anything that my friends would not go hungry.

“Sonic?” “What’s Sonic?” The Dutch asked after hearing this word for the very first time. It was like the armadillos all over again.

This was the precise moment when I realized the cultural differences between us were as big as the state of Texas. Amsterdam was another world away, and no matter how much my friends and I have in common—and we have a good deal in common— we were still born and raised in two different countries that seemed like two separate planets now. They would never understand Sonic. I laughed to myself even before I could explain what it was because I knew exactly where this was headed.

“Sonic is a place where you can park your car and eat,” I dutifully explained. They are all over the United States.  

“Why would you want to eat dinner in your car?” The Dutch shot back. They were clearly baffled.

Europeans already think Americans spend too much time in their cars. They also think many Americans are fat and lazy. Sonic was not helping me to combat any of these stereotypes, not one bit. All of this came up quickly in dialogue back and forth between the three of us. I defended my land and people, “Look maybe some people who eat at Sonic are lazy,” I explained. “But most of the people who eat at Sonic are busy. Sometimes I stop at Sonic to get a grilled cheese when I am on my way from point A to point B with no time for dinner. It’s very convenient when you are rushing from one place to the next. Besides that, there is a nostalgic piece to this place,” I continued as we were already pulling up next to the car side speaker and menu. “Have you ever seen the movie American Graffiti?”

They had no idea what I was talking about and had never seen the movie. I told them about car hops on roller-skates and burgers and milkshakes. I told them about hot rods and hot dogs. None of it rung a bell. It was like I was speaking another language. And they did not believe my bit about convenience either. I’d never imagined my American culture being scrutinized this way at a Sonic of all places. I felt like an insect under a magnifying glass. It’s one thing to feel like an alien in another country, but it is a peculiar feeling indeed to feel like an alien in your native land. That was how it was at that precise moment. As much as I wanted to focus on the nostalgia in defense of it all, the truth was right in front of me as I looked around. There was no Ford Thunderbird or Coca Cola served in a glass bottle in sight. All I could see were giant white Suburbans and styrofoam cups, cups shoveled into and eventually thrown out of car windows. These were people eating dinner with their families inside cars while the engine was still running. 

We woke up that morning and enjoyed the cool dry desert air, a drastic change from the Tropical Zone where we live. We plotted out our course of action over breakfast, which is the way my friends prefer to travel, never knowing what the next day will bring. They wanted to stay the night in Balmorhea and had already selected a motel. They had me call the number to the motel over breakfast in Alpine because there was no way to confirm the room online with a credit card number. The next thing I knew I was talking to a woman with a raspy Texan twang who confirmed they had a room available, but warned that she only accepted cash. “We can’t stay at this place,” I urged. They don’t even take credit cards. There isn’t a website. Have your read any of the reviews online?” Yes, the place had some mixed reviews, or so they explained, but they really liked the location because it was next to a river. River? What river?

In the European country of Norway, not far from the Netherlands, Texas is slang for crazy, as in lawless and out of control. I knew more so than my travel companions that we were about to see helt Texas, or completely crazy, as the Norwegians call it. There was no changing course now.  

We stopped in Ft. Davis for coffee and pie on our way to Balmorhea, and I downloaded old country songs onto my iphone for the road, including a request for “All My Exes Live in Texas.” The scenery started to change as we entered the Ft. Davis Mountains. We spent the day at Balmorhea State Park, home to the world’s largest spring fed swimming pool, and I struck up a conversation with a guy while kicking around in the springs. He said he was here with his sister and pointed to a middle-aged woman with bright red hair who was snorkeling around us in a circle, much like a shark. I have no idea what was under the water, but it must have been mesmerizing because she never lifted her head up the entire time we were talking. The guy invited us back to his RV for lunch, but my friend was overwhelmed with this random familiar gab back and forth and hesitant to accept the invitation. “This is how we do it in Texas,” I explained. “Everyone is friendly here. You are going to get a lot of offers like this over the next few days.”We followed the man and his sister back to their RV and sat down to lunch at an adjacent picnic table. The sister served up ham sandwiches on white bread, tortilla chips with queso, and a box of chilled white wine. We soon found out this guy was a cop and had spent most of his career in South America, Narcos style. I guess you never know who you will meet in the Texas desert. 

After lunch and another dip in the springs, we decided to go see this motel. Should we stay in Balmorhea, The Oasis of West Texas? Or would we hit the road to find better accommodations? The condition of the room would determine our fate. But when you are traveling with girls who are in the habit of choosing adventure over comfort, you know the answer before you even walk through the door of the motel lobby. I was traveling with the Dutch, and these people have a long history of traveling all over the world, a world that is mostly defined by third-world conditions. Wayward accommodations are like some weird challenge amongst seasoned travelers. Not even the Cactus Motel in Balmorhea could deter them.

I knocked on the lobby. A little old lady with cropped white hair opened the door and invited me inside to a room that looked exactly like a scene you might see on the TLC channel if you were tuned into an episode of “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” It smelled like cigarette smoke, and there was an ice cold open can of Miller Lite sitting on the counter. I asked if we could see where we would be sleeping before we paid, and we were led a few doors down from the lobby into a room that quickly passed the Dutch inspection, it was clean and just the right amount of whatever kind of quirky they were seeking to experience. We followed our Texan hostess back to the lobby, and I invited my friends to come inside with me so that I could pay for the room in cash while they took a look at the lobby, just in case it might change their minds.

With true Texas hospitality, our hostess invited us to come and watch her feed the turtles in the river out back after we settled in. After unloading our car and dropping the bags inside our room, we walked around the motel in complete awe as we inspected all of the junk on display, including a giant sign: We Don’t Dial 911 in Texas. The Dutch stopped to take a photo when the motel owner passed by holding a paper plate covered with aluminum foil. She crossed a little bridge built over a stream–clearly not a river– and called out to us from the other side, “Come watch me feed these turtles.” This seemed to somehow be the highlight of the day around here.

How could we resist? The turtles turned out to be the behemoth snapping kind, hideous monsters that were much too large for the murky creek where they resided. There was a clan of about 10 – 15 in the narrow shallow stream, and they were very active, spinning about one on top of the other—mating, or so answered the lady to the child standing next to her when the little girl asked what the turtles were doing. She tossed out one fried chicken drumstick after another and the turtles snapped their beaks upwards out from the water like crocodiles in the Niger River.

“Can they eat fried chicken?” I dubiously asked.

“Chinese food, burgers, pizza, they’ll eat whatever I bring ‘em,” she assured me.

I did all the talking. The Dutch seemed too stunned to speak; they just stood there with their mouths agape watching the helt Texas turtle orgy. They may have traveled all over the world, but they have never been to the Oasis of West Texas. I don’t think the small town of 479 gets too many European visitors. We had ventured far from the beaten path, and I felt fortunate to have found this lady. “She is quintessentially Texan,” I emphatically stated. “She reminds me of many Texan women I have known over the years.” She may have a lightbulb or two burned out on her string, but she lives by her own rules. You’ve got to admire that. She does not give a damn. No one tells her what to do. There are no rules to follow here in her world. Snapping turtles can eat fried chicken wings. The garbage does not need to go out today or even tomorrow, maybe some of this so-called garbage is not really garbage at all. Day drinking is acceptable, and cigarettes are still doctor recommended. She is the queen of her motel kingdom.

My friends wanted to go to the Balmorhea Lake to watch the sunset. We sat on a picnic table and laughed about the old lady and her turtles. We watched as three guys pulled up in their big white pickup truck, which is like the modern stage-coach in Texas. They eventually carried all of their fishing gear down to the lakeshore. We glanced over at them from time to time and made up stories about their lives, most likely escaping domesticity, we all agreed. After sunset, we decided that we needed to find a place to get dinner.

As we were headed back to our car, we heard one of the guys shout from across the way, “You girls want to have a beer with us?”

The Dutch looked to me for guidance. “Why not?” I answered. “You will learn a lot about this part of the world. Just think of it as a study in anthropology and be prepared to be offended,” I warned. “This is Trump country after all.” We’ve driven far away from the blue cities. 

They offered us a Coors Lite and then asked if we wanted to see baby quails that they’d just rescued. One of the guys darted to the pickup bed and brought back an empty case of Dr. Pepper, which served as a makeshift home for the baby birds. The Dutch doted over the baby quails. I told them that quail would most likely show up on their dinner menu soon. After drinking a beer and a playing a guessing game as to the whereabouts of these strange accents from the mouth of these foreign girls, we remembered that we needed to eat dinner.

“You are never going to find anything open at this time,” one of the self-proclaimed country boys stated.

“Why don’t you call your friend at that place over off Interstate 10 and ask her to keep the kitchen open,” asked one of the other.

After a cell phone call on the side of the road, we were off to Saddleback Steakhouse for dinner. The Dutch loved the place because of the western ambiance, and the food was really tasty as well. We ordered up burgers and fried pickles, which really hit the spot since we were starving. We listened to stories about guns and hunting. We investigated cell phone pictures of deer with their brains blown out. The Dutch asked a lot of questions. They were authentically interested in hearing about the everyday lives of  these men, especially their work on oil rigs. I was on edge the whole time once gender roles and homosexuality came up in conversation, but I guess neither group was too terribly offended, because after a few tense moments of heated debate–when these two girls from Amsterdam were clearly not going to put up with any bullshit about denying gay rights–we were all off to the Circle Bar next door for another Shiner and a game of shuffleboard.

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Early the next morning, we were headed south to Presidio to take the River Road, or FM 170, to Terlingua. We drove down Highway 67 until we saw the Mexican flag across the border in the Mexican city of Ojinaga. “We had lunch in Mexico the last time I was here, but it is too dangerous along the border these days to cross over” I explained. From there, we filled up the tank and headed east. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that no one else was on that road but the three of us. It’s like no one in America knows that road exists. It’s one of the most scenic drives in the country, and I’ve never seen anyone else driving on it the two times I’ve taken it. The water flows between two worlds the same way it has for generations. A river that is home to history as epic as the rugged scenery on either side of it. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and it is completely abandoned. “How is Trump ever going to build a wall here?” the Dutch asked as they took the wheel to drive the roller coaster road.

We arrived to Big Bend that afternoon around 3:00 PM and hiked up the Lost Mine Trail and then  headed back to Terlingua in time for dinner at Starlight Theatre, Restaurant, and Saloon. My friends  ordered the mixed grill: venison, wild boar sausage, grilled quail, and 7 oz filet. After a delicious dinner and unforgettable ambiance, we headed back to the hotel to get some sleep since our tour the next morning was scheduled for 11:00 AM in a neighboring town about the driving distance of the state of Delaware. 

I was getting dressed for bed when I heard a loud shriek and then turned around to watch as a giant scorpion scurried in our room through the front door. This scorpion was as big as the lizards that dart about sporadically in my yard back in Aruba, and we all froze in fear, giving the tiny beast time to hide inside our luggage. I knew I had to protect my friends from the West Texas predator. None of us would be falling asleep until he was dead. I spotted a pair of platform shoes and grabbed one to use as my weapon. Shaking every last article of clothing from the luggage, I jumped as the scorpion finally dropped to the floor. I hovered above it just long enough to channel my innate Texan valor, took a deep breath, and then clobbered the creature against the concrete. He was still alive when I lifted the shoe–writhing about in agony. His size made him more difficult to kill, but the wide sole of this stylish shoe had easily made its target. I took another smack at the beast and he was flat dead, the poison shot in a stream across the floor.

 

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The next day, I drove faster than double struck lightning all the way to Marfa. Even so, we still did not make our tour on time. There is just too much space to cover when driving from one town to another in West Texas. Luckily, there was another tour in an hour, so we went to Hotel St. George for a cup of coffee to kill time before the tour began. After we were back to Chinati and on tour, we had just finished the part with the bunkers that house the Dan Flavin lights when our docent stopped to tell us that we would all be going to our cars and following her downtown for the second part of our tour. “You Americans and your cars,” my friend nudged me. “What is with your country and cars?” “You drive in your cars on museum tours,” they both laughed. I really had no answer for this question except that much of life in Texas is unpredictable and unexpected, and I reckon’ I like it that way. That and there is too much distance between places in a state the size of the country of Spain. 

We ate lunch at The Food Shark after touring Chinati and splurged on a nice hotel in Marfa, The Hotel Paisano. The rest of the day was spent walking around town. Sunset was spent at the Lost Horse Saloon and then off to see the Marfa Lights, which were very active that evening.  We took off the next morning for a long drive back to Dallas through Midland, or Mansland as the Dutch called it. I stopped in Sweetwater, Texas so that my foreign friends could sample authentic BBQ. Then I made my way through the bright light city maze that is downtown Dallas and to my childhood home on Goliad Street. I told my friends about the Battle of Goliad, otherwise known as the other Alamo, as we drove down my street. My dad stayed up late to welcome us.

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The next few days were a whirlwind of activities in Dallas. There were tours of the Dallas Museum of Art and the Modern Art Museum of Ft. Worth, along with the Ft. Worth Stockyards. We went to the Continental Avenue Bridge, and Reunion Arena, and Gilley’s, and Deep Ellum, and out to eat for Tex Mex, and chicken fried steak. My friends sampled the John Wayne at our staple neighborhood restaurant, Gold Rush Cafe. One of the last things the Dutch requested was a trip to WalMart. It was their last night in town, and we had just seen a movie at the Angelika. It was over a late night conversation drinking coffee and eating dessert after the movie that they pleaded with us to take them to Walmart. And so my dad and I realized we could still fit Walmart in on the itinerary. “There is a 24 hour Walmart near our neighborhood on I30. You are guaranteed to find what you are looking for there.” I assured them. 

“What was your favorite thing about Wal-Mart?” I asked as we were driving home well after midnight.

They answered right away without a second thought,“The lady pushing the cart with several giant rolls of carpet jutting out of it in every direction.”

“Why was she your favorite?” I asked.

“Why does she need to buy all that carpet right now? It’s 11:53 PM at night. What is she doing in there? Why isn’t she asleep?” They had never-ending questions about American consumerism and culture. 

“You can find anything you want anytime of the day in the United States, guns, carpet, humidifiers.” I boasted. Welcome to America. I hope you have enjoyed your stay.

 

Wal-Mart was a weird and wacky ending to a wild tour.

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