Author Archives: arubatlewis

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, 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 poured 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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10 truths I’ve learned living in aruba

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The school year just ended, along with a two-year commitment I signed up for when I agreed to move to Aruba back in March of 2015. I remember telling friends around that time that I just needed to go live on a Caribbean island for a couple of years and clear my head. I’d dealt with a lot of loss in 2014. It’s all part of life I know, but 2014 really delivered punch after punch. I knew I needed to focus on all the things in life I could do instead of those things in life I had lost or would never have. Moving to Aruba with that mindset turned out to be a powerful formula for pushing myself forward to survive many challenges that could have knocked me out completely. Here I am on the other side of it all, and I have decided to stick around on this island a little longer because I feel like I still have so much to discover and learn, not only about Aruba and all the nearby places to travel in South America and the Caribbean, but I also still need to figure out where it is I go from here. I’m not certain what the next step will be, but here are a few truths that I know for sure now after living here:

1. Keep a machete under your kitchen sink. It’s useful for gardening, especially whacking the palm leaves of coconut trees. But it also can be used to protect yourself, or so explained my neighbor when he gave it to me.

2. Books are disappearing. Or maybe it just feels that way when you live on an island because books in English are rare and people here tend to hold on to them until the musty brown pages fall apart. Living life with these relics makes you feel like books have already vanished from our world. Something about all of this has me reading more now than ever, as if I am in a race to read up all the books I can before they are gone forever.

3. Travel really is the best form of therapy. Nothing compares to travel when you are trying to figure out the deeper meaning of life. It puts everything into perspective. The world is beautiful and disastrous at the same time. It isn’t a perfect system, but travel always makes life seem more like an amusement park than anything else. And it inevitably lets you see everything through the same lens you used as a child.

4. If you are moving to a desert island, be sure to bring a supply of bedsheets. You won’t find any with the thread count available in the States. It is probably a good idea to bring towels as well.

5. Plastic has got to go, along with American consumption. You will see the devastation up close anytime you walk along a shoreline that isn’t in the tourist areas, obscene amounts of plastic swallowing up every pebble of sand. What are we doing to our planet? We only think we need this stuff. After living without all the things you used to buy as an American consumer because these things are hard to come by on an island, you realize you never needed all that stuff in the first place. 

6. My life is different from what my mother experienced. And even more so than the life my grandmother lived. As a daughter of the Women’s Movement, I was taught to get an education and build a career before anything else so that I could be financially independent. Only it can be a challenge to make the marriage and family pieces fall together in the few, short years you have left after you have done all of the above. I could blame myself for not reaching each major milestone on time, or I could give myself some slack because I was born to the first generation of women navigating our way across this new and unchartered sociocultural landscape. Regardless, I’m learning that there are more women than I realized who are walking in my how did I get here shoes. I also found out that the Dutch tend to skip the marriage part altogether, especially the big expensive wedding. Maybe American women could use a little less pressure and a lot more flexibility when it comes to putting all the pieces together.

7. You can’t get away with wearing anything less than SPF 50 on your décolletage. Repeat after me, you can’t get away with anything less than SPF 50. Don’t even try. And don’t forget to put sunscreen there because you routinely put SPF 30 everywhere else, so you skip that part of your body out of habit until you can dig around in your beach bag to find SPF 50, but then someone asks you a question or offers you a Balashi and the applying sunscreen thing never happens. Ouch! Which brings me to truth number 8.

8. Aloe Vera is a miracle plant. It is a cure-all for all that ails your epidermis and can be taken internally to strengthen immunity and fight inflammation. And coconut oil could receive an honorary award behind aloe. After that, a trip to the beach can cure just about anything, but you won’t be able to go if you do not follow truth number 7 above. I’m grounded from the beach today as a result.

9. Normal is boring. This is what I tell myself anyway when dealing with my family. I know everyone says that their family is nuts, but mine is the extreme kind of eccentric, as in certain behaviors border on seeking out answers to question such as, is this safe, is this legal, and when do I consult an expert or an authority? I’m pretty much upfront and honest with all of my friends about my dysFUNctional family, and I depend on my friends quite a bit for support since I am an only child. Friends in Aruba tell me again and again that having a normal family would be boring. It is such a relief to give up on normalcy. And at least I know I will always have a story to tell even if I am stuck in the middle of Kansas somewhere. My family and upbringing have certainly provided an endless amount of material.

10. Develop island time patience. You have no other choice; otherwise, you may experience a rise in blood pressure or some other stress related symptom. Nothing runs on time here. A store may or may not be open when they say they will. You will wait for hours in government offices, and they always shut down early on Fridays, as in they will be closed even though you left work early to rush and arrive thirty minutes before closing. I just went to pick up laundry a few minutes ago, and the laundromat was completely shut down at 11:30 when the sign posted clearly states that they are open from 8:00 – 2.00. My frustration becomes a little less so every time something like this happens. Daily life on an island is like some kind of ongoing zen practice. You have to learn to expect delays and respond with calmness and, then, depending on the situation, utilize some creative thinking skills. As of now, I have no clothes, but maybe that means I get to go shopping for a truly original piece at one of Aruba’s many boutiques. Perhaps some kind of synthetic off the shoulder number in pink or yellow neon.

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poor john

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Lately, I find myself looking back to those first few weeks when I arrived here in Tanki Flip. I remember the first night I moved into this house. The space was totally empty except for a bed that had just been delivered that afternoon and six suitcases, suitcases that I had stayed up all night packing in Dallas before an early morning flight to Aruba. I had tucked away some nostalgic items in my luggage for the new place: a framed picture of my mother as child with pigtails and on horseback, a coffee mug that belonged to my grandmother, a tin retablo of the Virgen de Guadalupe from Chimayo in New Mexico, a Graciela Iturbide print of Our Lady of the Iguanas, an oven mitt a friend brought back from Germany, and other such items as these. Anyone planning a move abroad should make space for these kinds of things while they are packing. They really helped me to cope those first few months, months that can leave you feeling both extremely euphoric and helplessly marooned on to another planet in a faraway galaxy.

That other planet faraway galaxy feeling came in waves, but especially whenever I would answer the knock at my front door. It was always my neighbor, Poor John. He is a native islander whose grandpapa once owned all of the cul-de-sac where my house stands, or so he claims. At first, he would bring me home cooked meals, usually involving some kind of fish that he had caught earlier in the day and a heaping slimy mound of an unidentifiable carbohydrate. This was before I bought a trashcan for the kitchen. And way before I had set up service to haul  trash away to the garbage burning dump (Aruba burns its trash several times a week, and the first time I saw the blazing inferno I was certain a plane had crashed). There would be a knock on the door most evening, and I would open the door to yet another piping hot dinner plate. What am I going to do with this? No garbage disposal. No garbage can. No garbage service. I’m certainly not going to eat it. It smells like feet inside the shoes of a very old man. In addition to his culinary masterpieces, he might bring multiple loaves of stale, sometimes molded, bread or a fish with eyeballs looking at me through a plastic bag. “Put it in your freezer and fry it up for dinner,” were his instructions. Eventually, my freezer just filled up with so much fish that I couldn’t fit anything else inside.

He also brought lots of gifts. Once he brought a bag of miniature combs, each individually wrapped, the kind you might receive if your were going to have your portrait taken at Olan Mills, circa 1976. His gifts were always really random that way. He would give me things for the kitchen like a wooden spoon or a single pepper shaker. Once he even brought a mini coffee press. A calendar of scantily clad women posing with sports cars. A machete. Then the gifts became more sentimental. A mug with a Hallmark style romantic message painted around and around. Or a stuffed teddy bear. Maybe a shiny bracelet. These types of gifts were beginning to make me uncomfortable. “I want to marry you, Jennifer.” he would profess. “I respect you.”  I corrected him about my name many times, but he never remembered and insisted on calling me Jennifer. Finally, I thought that Jennifer was close enough, both Tiffany and Jennifer were cliché American names for girls born in the 70s and 80s. The gifts abruptly came to an end after I repeatedly declined invitations to his house for dinner. Then I began to ignore knocks at the door. Eventually, Poor John stopped coming around altogether.

Months and months passed and then he was suddenly back out of nowhere. My friend and I watched as we backed out of my driveway while Poor John seemed to be working on one of his many projects in front of my house. He had already spray painted red circles on each side of the property line. Then he drove a wooden post into each circle. Now he was working on tying a rope around one post and pulling it taut to the other end as we were driving away. “What is he doing?” my friend asked. “I have no idea, it could be either a ritual to curse me or protect me. I’m hoping for the latter.” Whatever it was it seemed to cure him of his love sickness and the proposals of marriage stopped. He started watering all the plants again and asked if I wanted him to trim the coconut trees. Thankfully, things now operate much the way it should between neighbors.

These days we seem to have a mutual understanding, and we have developed a coexisting cul-de-sac respect for one another. He knows I will never marry him, but that he can usually get about $25 Florin from me on a regular basis—along with all the coconuts and mangos that he can shake from the treetops—in exchange for weekly watering and occasional weed whacking. I know that I need the help around the house. I appreciate his creative talents and problems solving skills. Whether it is a pipe that he has rigged up so the shower water does not drain out into the side yard or a garden archway that he has designed for the front gate entrance, these things bring function and aesthetic to my little home here. And I am also intrigued by the history that he has experienced here on the island. I asked him yesterday if he would be our guide this fall on an archaeological tour of Tanki Flip to show us all the native trails and sites.

I’m really thankful Poor John is around to help out with things. In the beginning I didn’t know if it was going to work out between us, but he has turned out to be a very good neighbor. This house in Tanki Flip could easily be my favorite place that I have ever lived. It is feeling less and less like another planet these days and a lot more like home.

 

city remedy for island fever

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Live on an island long enough and you begin to plan your vacation time around an escape to the nearest big city. It’s one of the only ways to combat island fever. The biggest city around this particular island is Caracas, Venezuela. Not a city to travel to nowadays since it has been at the top of the list of most dangerous cities in the world for the past few years. Talk to anyone who has been around here long enough, and they will tell you that Venezuela was once a vacation destination for Aruban residents. Back then Colombia was the country to avoid. Time has a way of turning things around. After enough time passes in Latin America, the list of dangerous places changes: cities move up or down the list, or fall off it altogether, as drug cartels are dismantled or dictators dissolve democracies to swallow a country whole. Nowadays, Medellín, once the most dangerous city in the world for most of my youth, is a popular choice for nearby places to vacation when you live in the south Caribbean Sea. And so Isabel and I decided we would flee island fever with a trip to the city of Medellín over Spring Break.

We started scouting out cheap tickets for Colombia back in January and found a roundtrip for $212 from Aruba to Medellín via Valencia, Venezuela on Avior Airlines. Avior is one of several Venezuelan airlines that flies in and out of Aruba. Go to the non U.S. side of the airport here, and you will see one ticket booth after another selling flights to nearby South American countries.The prices vary from counter to counter as you inquire about airline tickets by speaking through aluminum grills to representatives behind glass windows. A flight on a Colombian airline will cost you twice the price of one on a Venezuelan airline. Needless to say, what you save in money will be paid for with a spike in blood pressure and some beads of perspiration across your forehead while you wait in a crowded room without air conditioning for your connecting flight in Venezuela.

We waited in Valencia for about two hours for the connecting flight from Aruba to Medellín. The instability of the country outside could clearly be felt inside the small building that we were shuffled into shortly after our flight landed, a place that felt more like a bus station than an airport. As we surveyed the scene outside the window, we could see that there were three planes in the near distance lined up in the order of what we assumed to be final destinations: Bogotá, Medellín, and Panama City. But it was hard to be certain of anything since there wasn’t any flight information posted about departure cities and time, and we found only one digital clock that was forever stuck at 4:12—a metaphor perhaps for the country. According to my phone, the boarding time on our tickets was inching uncomfortably close considering there had not been any announcements for as long as we had been sitting on the floor waiting, and so I went to ask someone in uniform when the flight to Medellín would depart. From what I could understand with my basic survivalist Spanish, the plane was going to be late, but we could go upstairs where there was air conditioning. We decided to sweat it out downstairs and keep our eyes fixed on the exit door that would take us out of there.

Eventually we did make it out the door—one hour after our scheduled departure time because that is when our pilot arrived. On our way out, we were patted down before we walked single file to board a sweltering hot plane. We arrived in Medellín well after sunset. We decided ahead of time to splurge on a boutique hotel since we had risked our lives saving so much on the plane ticket, which meant that we could rest easy upon landing knowing that there would be a driver waiting for us outside baggage claim. Our driver was warm and welcoming and eager to chat and practice his English on the 45 minute drive as we descended down into the city situated in the Aburrá Valley.

He told us how much he loved Medellín and how he had moved around a lot since his dad was in the military, so he felt confident in his conclusion that it was one of the best cities in South America. He spoke about other places in South America, mostly about Brazil and Argentina and how all of the Brazilians go to Argentina to study. He went on to tell us about his studies and struggles to finish school while working a job as a driver. About how he lived with his family of six and how they were depending on him to make it because the youngest has serious health problems. About how much everything has changed since the days of Pablo Escobar, but also about how the memories of the violence and carnage are still fresh for the people living in Medellín: Some will tell you they could never leave the house as kids. Others are still mourning the loss of family members. He recommended places to visit around Medellín. When asked about his impression of tourists he meets everyday, he clearly preferred Europeans and had a dream to move to Europe one day with his German girlfriend. He had no plans to go to the United States. The only thing to see in America, he stated without a doubt, was guns. Then he added maybe he could also drink beer and meet easy women.

We arrived at the hotel and fell into a deep sleep. I woke up the next morning and went downstairs to the hotel lobby searching for coffee. Our hotel was a fully renovated downtown industrial building and a testament to the transition Medellín has undergone from one of the world’s most dangerous cities to one of the world’s most innovative. The guy behind the counter in the lobby apologized that the coffee machine was broken and sent me up six stories where I could find coffee at the restaurant on the roof terrace of our hotel. I took the stairs, not realizing yet where the elevator was located. But it was the best way to get to where I was going because in South America every climb up seems to take you someplace magical, and that was indeed the case this morning. As soon as I stepped up and onto the roof, I caught my first glimpse of the city. It was an unforgettable moment as I turned in every direction to see staggered skyscrapers jutting up along the hillsides all around me while morning mist moved through the cityscape, sliding between buildings and clinging to others, or sometimes enveloping the whole structure entirely. It seemed that the city too was waking up and throwing off its blanket to rise for the day.

And so it was at that moment that I realized just how otherworldly the place was where I had landed the night before. The thing about this trip to Colombia is that I never imagined what it would be like before arriving the way I have so many other places I’ve traveled. It was never a place that I put on my bucket list, which means I hadn’t pored over books and scoured the Internet looking at countless pictures of all the places I would eventually see. Honestly, I hadn’t had much time to even think about the trip because I had been so busy at work. I bought an overpriced Lonely Planet travel guide at a bookstore in Aruba and clicked to save a few sites to a Colombia album I had made on Pinterest. I knew a little bit about the history and geography. I knew that it was the birthplace of magical realism. I’d read everything by Gabriel García Márquez years ago in college. I appreciated the works of Fernando Botero. I’d sampled Paisa Bandeja living in Aruba. In fact, so much of what I have learned about Colombia has been because I live in Aruba, and that is the case for many countries I never expected to understand the way I do now

Those first few days in Medellín were a spellbinding tour as we soaked up every aspect of city life that we missed living amongst dirt roads and donkeys on a desert island. We routinely ate breakfast on the hotel terrace at sunrise and headed back up for mojitos at sunset because we couldn’t get enough of the downtown skyline that surrounded us. There were dizzying cab rides on congested streets that felt more like a rollercoaster ride, as an equal number of cars and motorbikes veered in and out of lanes vying for space to zoom ahead. We lingered for hours in museums. Museo de Antioquia housed four stories of art, from Pre-Colombian on the first floor to modern at the top. We lounged outside at cafes, watching people walk down the street or witnessing haphazard scenes of vendors going every which way on city plazas, maneuvering giant cart holding oranges and apples.  We walked the city aimlessly and stumbled across all types of shops, boutiques, restaurants. No two restaurants are exactly the same, but all offer outdoor seating in the land of eternal spring. We sampled traditional dishes, such as arepa chocolo, or maize dough with chocolate and cheese.

Besides the bustle of the big city, another aspect from our previous life that has disappeared since moving to a barren landscape is most forms of plant life, and as one of the most biodiverse nations on the planet, the canvas that is the country of Colombia is densely covered with every shade of green imaginable. We couldn’t get enough of it and planned for as much of this lush landscape as we could fit in during the week we had in Medellín. We stopped in astonishment while walking through the city to admire dense jungle growing on street medians or behind bridge guardrails. We gathered our loose change to jump on the metro that connected us from a train to a cable car that took us high above the favelas and up the hillside across a forest to Parque Arvi. We even took a bus out of town into the surrounding mountains to the tiny village of Guatapé.

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In Guatapé, after walking along narrow cobblestone streets flanked by brightly colored buildings, we scaled a giant rock for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding landscape just before a thunderstorm hit. We clambered down stairs in the pouring rain and took shelter under a tent ordering up a michelada, Colombian style. Convinced we needed to see more of Colombia’s magical landscape, we boarded a bus later that afternoon for Santa Fe de Antioquia. Arriving late that evening, we almost missed our stop until the driver told us it was time to get off the bus. Discombobulated by the sudden stop and darkness outside, we stepped off to a swarm of chaos and confusion as about twenty men offered us rides on the back of their moto taxis. Our frenzied arrival was followed by a leisurely day exploring the perfectly preserved colonial city, once the capital of Antioquia. We seemed to be the only tourist in the whole town, and a group of school children followed us around a museum and then outside and down the street to practice their English.

These kids were as excited to practice English as I was to practice Spanish throughout my time in Colombia. Most people in Colombia were friendly and accommodating with any language barrier I faced. But everyone I met launched full speed ahead into speaking Spanish first, and so I had no other choice but to push myself out of my comfort zone and just speak the language without worrying about making mistakes. Puede repetir despacio, por favor was a helpful phrase that I used often to understand what people were saying. Although I’m certain I sounded like a caveman, I responded clearly enough to communicate what we needed to survive as we navigated our way through the labyrinth of the city streets and surrounding landscape.

Learn Spanish you fucking tourist was the message painted in rather large letters across the side of a building on our early morning ride out of the valley and to the airport to return home. Ah, rude graffiti and goodbye to the big city. I will miss this place. Yes, I thought, I do need to learn more Spanish beyond the basics before my next trip to Colombia. The country has too much to offer to not delve deeper. I will be better prepared the next time I see you Medellín. And so I enrolled in a conversation class the day after I arrived home in Aruba, as well as salsa dancing on Monday evenings for good measure.

working on island time

IMG_7285There is this assumption amongst friends and family back home that my life is paradise since moving to a tropical island. I often read comments on Facebook that sound something like these: Aruba looks like heaven, or you packed and moved to paradise, or you’re living the dream, or the ever popular jealous. Their words are on mark when it comes to many moments in my life, but I hate to break it to everyone that the reality is my alarm still goes off at 5 every morning, and I’m out the door on my way to work everyday before 7. And even though there are many days when my work is enjoyable and rewarding, I would hardly call it paradise.

The truth is I spend 9 to 10 hours five days a week working and additional time away from work attending events or working at home to meet deadlines. I’m clearly not lounging under the sun, scrunching white sand beneath my toes, and sipping rum punch most days. I’m usually drinking cup after cup of coffee and a much coveted club soda during the 30 minute break I have to scarf down a cafeteria lunch, which always consists of a plate of rice with a side slab of mystery meat. Depending on the day, I get 60 to 90 sacred silent moments to do all the work it takes to teach class after class of teenagers in English and history. And this teaching of teenagers, according to my all time favorite quote on the profession by Franklin Habit, “seems to require the sort of skills one would need to pilot a bus full of live chickens backwards, with no brakes, down a rocky road through the Andes while simultaneously providing colorful and informative commentary on the scenery.” So, yes, I am on that bus for 7 hours everyday—it’s a far cry from the beach.

Beginning with the sound of my alarm, my morning routine hasn’t changed much from that of my previous life. Really the only difference I can think of is that my breakfast now consists of one banana. I vaguely remember making oatmeal on cold, drizzly mornings in another place and time. Some days, if I didn’t have time to make breakfast, I would grab a banana nut bread on my daily stop at Starbucks. I no longer make frequent stops at the Starbucks drive thru en route to work, which usually had a line of cars that wrapped around the building and onto the street because apparently every other American had the same morning routine.There are days in Aruba, however, when I do stop at the Tur Dia (I think this is Papiamento for everyday) for a cheese pastechi. This is usually on Friday mornings, after the last of the bananas have turned a dark spotted brown because fruit ripens quickly in the tropics.

I still drive an old car, a Hyundai instead of a Honda. Only my commute in a jalopy does not shorten my telomeres as it once did on a heavily congested freeway—one that is always under construction in the city where I come from—where if your car were to break down, a helicopter would soon be flying overhead to report the mile-long traffic jam caused as result of your modest teacher salary. If my car breaks down here, I could just veer off on to the open space of dirt along the side of the one lane road, and someone would probably even stop to help me. The combination of sun, sand, and sea in the air can wreak havoc on a vehicle however; two of my door handles have fallen off and my windshield wipers just stopped working last week. But I’m not complaining because it seldom rains on a desert island and no one here judges me for not having door handles. And any commute where one routinely sees chickens and goats on their way to work is worth the price of not being able to open a car door or sometimes see clearly through the windshield.    

Once I get to my classroom, I drop my bag and turn on the airco; it’s like an oven in there every single morning of the year. I plop down at my desk and open up my laptop to check email. Checking email when I first arrive at work is something I would do in my old life, but earlier this week on Monday morning, a little bird was flying around the room above me while I sat and surveyed my inbox. Actually, a bird flying about indoors is unusual here as well because it is much more common to find creepy crawlies slithering on the ground. And on that same day, during my second period class, a student spotted a scorpion and everyone hysterically jumped to their feet. Luckily, the scorpion was already dead, which I discovered after evacuating the classroom since my students were already trying to kill it. I’m preparing for the day that I come across a boa constrictor or a centipede. I have watched in awe as other teachers have clobbered centipedes with rocks or captured boa constrictors coiled around toilets. I only hope I can be so brave!

The working part of my life here seems more familiar to me than anything else on this island. The school runs very much like the schools I have worked at in the States. I have fewer students overall, but I make up for it by teaching multiple subjects across several grade levels. I never teach the same lesson twice, which is great if the lesson was a complete flop, but not so much if there is room for improvement the next go around. And I’m always flying by the seat of my pants as far as content goes because there isn’t much time to read ahead. Thursday morning I reviewed students through Hamilton vs. Jefferson, and then moved on to another class about vague pronoun references mid-morning, followed by a class covering the French Revolution before lunch, and then an afternoon of character analysis covering a book I haven’t read in years. 

Teenagers are pretty much the same all around the world. The typical traits for the adolescent stage of development are fairly predictable. Teens are by nature impulsive, gregarious, argumentative, rebellious, moody, hilarious, and extremely energetic. Inevitably, when someone asks what it is I do for a living, they always respond with you couldn’t pay me enough or that isn’t a job I would want. Usually, I piece together a quick defense of the profession and of teenagers in general. “They’re just developing their independence,” I explain. “It’s totally normal for them to question authority. It means they are thinking critically.” “Maybe we as adults could benefit from recovering some of these traits instead of blindly accepting the status quo.” This is also what I tell myself on the really challenging days, which are usually the days when I have left my sense of humor at home. When all else fails, I just remind myself that their full frontal lobe is not fully developed.

I still come home from work exhausted. How can you not after arriving at sunrise to spend all day piloting a bus full of chickens backwards down a rocky road in the Andes? Nowadays, I let myself take a siesta when I get home from work, which is an instinct I always fought in the United States because it felt lazy. But I’m in the land of hammocks now, not a place for guilt when it comes to relaxation. I eat a snack when I get home from work and then I am out like a light. It’s the strangest kind of sleep ever, knocked out and dead to the world for all of 15 minutes. After I wake up, I carry forward with my evening by trying to create a semblance of some kind of life away from work. I am more than my job, I remind myself. I have interests and hobbies; at the very least, I must exercise and eat a healthy dinner. Most of the time I can pull together an evening that reflects all of this somewhat, maybe an evening yoga class or dinner out with friends, except on Fridays. On Fridays I wave the white flag, order take out, and watch a movie on Netflix. As long as I have something on schedule for Saturday night, I never worry about a Friday night with Netflix.

I wish I could say that the island has cured my Friday fatigue or that feeling that there is never enough time to do it all. The irony is my job is harder than ever since moving to paradise. It takes every bit of the many years of experience I have to handle it, but here is the thing—I wouldn’t be able to handle it if I weren’t living in paradise. I would have already lost my mind trying to do what I do here in Dallas. Americans could learn a lot from this because I have never been more productive than I am now that I live on island time. My work load is heavier than ever, my schedule is nuts, and whenever I turn around I am greeting new students with varying degrees of English proficiency. But something about island mentality melts away all the stress, and without the added stress, all of it seems doable. On an island, the collective mindset is that everything will eventually get done and there is always a beach to go to when the work is over. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you follow this formula.

The best part about living on a rock surrounded by beaches is there is never a need to take a vacation to a beach to get away from it all, which leaves space to explore another kind of landscape when you finally make it to vacation time. We leave for Colombia in one week. It’s been a long stretch until Spring Break this year, and I have never been more ready to turn off the alarm clock and throw out the schedule.

dushi island home

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Last year around this time I wrote about what it feels like to settle into a daily routine living in another country. I was excited to report about the shift in mind that took place once I realized I was no longer a tourist. Spend enough time in another country and this shift becomes even more pronounced. It begins to feel as if life has always been this way. Sunday afternoon at the beach year-round. Sipping on soursop smoothies. Following yoga instructions in Dutch and Papiamento. Chasing lizards out of your kitchen. Listening exclusively to Caribbean rhythm on your car stereo. There are days when it seems like I have always done these things. The mind can play tricks on you when you slip away across borders.  

That is the only way I know how to describe what happened: One hot summer day I serendipitously slipped out of my country. I didn’t plan far in advance. I didn’t plot out a course of action years ahead of my departure date. I never thought that someday soon I would board a plane and fly away from home. Looking back, I realize now that all of it was quite arbitrary. So it feels odd to begin to feel rooted here after such a chance landing on this island, some 20 months ago. It’s the kind of experience that will make you forever question Where is home? Is it always defined by a plot of soil on earth? Could it also be a state of mind? And if place is inextricably meshed with identity, could it be the case that some of us are more inclined to put pieces of places together so as to best, most authentically, shape our sense of self, especially the wanderlust types?

Texas is where I was born. I grew up in the grit of a concrete and glass city. I moved to New Mexico when I was 17, at my first opportunity to live life out from under the roof of my parents. I spent six years there; those mountains are a part of me now. My dreams take me to other places that feel like home because they are in sync with my spirit. These are cities, countries and regions that I have traveled to again and again. Some where I have a stayed weeks, maybe a month or longer. Others where I have spent entire summers. These are the places that speak to me through books and call me to come home and stay awhile: Mexico, the Redwoods, New York City, the Andes, Big Bend, Italy, San Francisco and so on. Now I pay taxes on a desert island in the Dutch Caribbean. I have a doctor and a dentist assigned to me here as a result. Aruba is home for now.

Home for me then has become a patchwork of places more so than an actual structure or dot on a map. Some of these pieces are bigger than others, but all have shaped who I am. And in doing so, my mind is definitively more open and my soul has stepped far beyond what was possible staying put in just one place. I’m hoping Aruba will be a rather large piece of this work in progress because, simply put, it is paradise here, and I want this piece of paradise to be with me forever.

It’s not just the white sand and turquoise sea that make it paradise. I think it also has something to do with island geography because island life is not like life lived on any other landscape. There is something about being completely surrounded by sea that changes everything people once told you about how you should live your life. Perhaps it is because islands are solitary specs on the map, far-flung from the continents and their conventions. Who knows? What I do know is that less emphasis is placed overall on living life according to rules. Life here is always about living in the moment.

Loitering? What’s that? There are few rules about loitering here as far as I can tell. Community ties are important, and men meet at the corner store after a hard day at work to drink Balashi. The store clerk opened the bottle of beer for them on the way out the door. Then they stand in a circle or take a seat on the curbside next to their buddies. No tickets to worry about for parking in the wrong space or in the wrong direction. Celebration is an essential part of life, and you can park anywhere you want in order to get to the parade on time. 

Apart from the freedom that comes with a bit of lawlessness, it is the people I have met here who truly make this place paradise. The people of Aruba are always happy, and there is a reason the license plates read One Happy Island. Just yesterday, we stopped for a drink late afternoon at the White Hill Bar in San Nicolaas. It is family owned and operated, like most businesses here. After ordering drinks and taking music requests, the daughter, who was busy making tamales in the kitchen, brought out Carnaval costumes for us to wear while we sipped our beers on the breezy outdoor patio. Eventually she came outside to join us, only this time disguised as an old man in a latex mask. Celebration here is a state of mind. It is part of the everyday, so it is to be expected everywhere you go. At any moment, a waitress might change into an old man and dance around the table, and you better be ready to get up and dance too. Basically, be ready to do anything on a whim because there are no excuses for not living in the moment. 

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Of course this wouldn’t be the first time I have danced around in costumes on a Saturday afternoon. But there is something here that I never could find in the United States. It can only be found through making friends with people from around the world when you are the one who is the immigrant with a working visa, immersed in a crisscross land of cultural traditions that mix and mingle.

It is a borrowed mindset that becomes your own after repeated experiences living amongst other cultures, after long conversations about the meaning of life with someone from another part of the world. So much of what has brought me joy – and relief – living life here is the notion that I can completely forget what I was programmed to believe about happiness in the United States.

There is nothing like Dutch directness to slap away neurotic American assumptions about what is truly important. It’s like throwing out a long list of ingredients to a recipe that doesn’t work and replacing everything with a few quality staples to always keep in mind. Excessive consumerism and media consumption, toss all of it. Ditch the Botox, Dysport, and Juvederm. You can throw out the teeth whitener while you are at it (you won’t find any of that here anyway). Focus on collecting experience over stuff, that is one of the staples. Get outside, move, relax, enjoy, and just be you are other essential ingredients. And above all else, don’t do anything because everyone does it that way according to age, gender, etc. Finally, add a heaping spoonful of Caribbean celebration and a dash of Dutch quirky humor and pragmatic thinking, and you are well on your way to discovering the taste of freedom. 

I’m certainly not here to knock the United States, although I do worry a great deal when I tune in to the evening news for the five minutes I allow myself to stay informed, but not go insane. I guess I left at a convenient time because it has become clear to me that I have far more in common with the values people bring to this island (from all over the world I might add) than those shared by a large portion of people living in the United States. Someday I will slip back across the border much the same way I left, perhaps four years later than I had planned. My hope is that I can carry this giant piece of home from Aruba back with me. I can easily hold on to the Caribbean rhythm. I may be able to find imported soursop somewhere. As for everything else from my Aruba home that I will eventually miss, I can always return during the winter months with a flock of American tourists.

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