Category Archives: daily life

bedridden on koningsdag

I’m lying flat back on my bed with ice under my lower back. This isn’t one of those soft and pliable ice packs that could double as a pillow. It is a ziplock bag filled with actual ice, small chunky blocks of ice with jagged edges that relentlessly jab me for about an hour before melting away into a small puddle of water, seeping into sheets past the mattress pad. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s all I’ve got, and the ice is much colder and works better than the bag of broccoli I pulled from the freezer on Monday when all of this began.

Monday started like any other day of the week. The alarm went off at 5:15 AM. I pushed snooze once and then staggered into the kitchen to make coffee. I drank 2, maybe 3 cups, and started to get ready for work. I washed my face, brushed my teeth, dusted my chin and cheeks with powder, swiped each eyelash with a wand of mascara, and made my way into the guest bedroom that doubles as my closet. Still half asleep, I contemplated what I would wear to work. I decided on a navy blue shift dress since it would be a long day of classes. I began to get dressed for the day by placing one leg inside said dress, an innocuous movement that I routinely repeat day after day. On this day, however, in the midst of dressing myself, something just sort of shifted ever so slightly in my spine, and that was the end of a normal range in human movement for me, at least for the rest of the week.

I’m not sure what the hell happened exactly. All I knew at that moment was that I could not move, and I also quickly realized that it was going to really hurt whenever I finally had to move. I needed to be as still as possible to avoid agony. Slowly, I sloped downward towards the bed and tried calming myself by focusing on my breathing, yoga style. A million thoughts raced through my mind. What do I do now? Can I move? What will happen when I try to stand up? I need to call work. Kids will be in my room by 7:30 AM. I need to cover my classes. How do I get help? I’m in another country. Do I go to the hospital? That seems so extreme and dramatic. How much will that cost? Didn’t this country assign me a doctor? How do I find this doctor? Why am I living in this house all alone? I think the last question is the toughest one to grapple with, not just when you are suddenly unable to walk or stand as an alien resident in a foreign country, but just living out your life in general.

I pay for minutes and data on my iphone by buying these stupid Setar scratch-off cards at the gas station. I inevitably run out of minutes when I need them most. This was the case for me on Monday. I had no minutes left, leaving me with no way to call anyone for help. Thankfully, I had WiFi at home, so I sent many messages via WhatsApp to anyone I thought should know that I was flat on my back and unable to stand. The whole morning is a blur, but I was also somehow able to send an email to work that I wouldn’t be going.

Next, I called my dad on my laptop to ask for advice. He does that well, and he knows a good deal about back problems, after undergoing several back surgeries over the years. I guess mysteries that afflict the lumbar region run in the family. “Just lie on ice for two hours and take ibuprofen,” he calmly suggested. So that is what I did. I walked into the kitchen, hobbling and hunched over like a large ape. I grabbed doorknobs and furniture along the way for support. I opened up the freezer to find a bag of broccoli and somehow made it into my bedroom. Who knew frozen broccoli would ever provide that kind of pain relief?

Everyone I know at home has some form of prescription pain medication; it’s just part of everyday life in the United States. Life at home moves at a frenetic pace and is perpetually demanding. There is never time to slow down for an injury, so everyone has a magic little bottle of something for aches and pains that flare up, or just to take the edge off after a stressful day. It seems to be how people keep going and going in the States. Pharmaceutical drugs are a part of life for professional people. If I were home, someone would bring me something to get me out of this raw, hard pain I am in right now. That was my first realization. Who knows how long I will be in this state without painkillers?  That was my second.

These are the times living abroad when you think there is a reason many people do not move to other parts of the planet. There are plenty of people who live to avoid moments like this. They are rational, reasoning humans who are successfully able to avoid making their lives even more complicated. I so envied these people that morning. Being immobilized was far worse than the giant centipede that crawled past my feet while doing laundry a few months earlier.

I thought I could handle all the creepy crawlies on the island: snakes, lizards, spiders, and even scorpions. I am a 5th generation Texan; these things do not scare me. That was until I met the Amazonian giant centipede. That hideous creature did something to me psychologically. It was vile enough to make me doubt my status as an independent, adventurous woman. Being flat out on my back was similar, it plagued me with fear and doubt. What am I doing? How did I get here? How do I get out of here?  

Eventually, I made it out of the house into my friend’s jerky stick shift with no air conditioning. I was still in excruciating pain, but this is a good friend, and I felt comfortable enough around him to scream out curse words if need be or just contort my face in anguish. The hardest part was standing up. Standing up clearly delivered a jolt of pain, unlike anything I had ever felt before. I could manage walking as long as I pressed both my thumbs into my lower back. These physical sensations were the things I assessed on the way out the door as we drove to find my doctor. Of course, the only indication of a doctor we ever found was a house with a sign outside the door, Keito Medical Center. The door was open wide, but the place was empty inside, except for 12 patio chairs configured in a U shape. “Hello, is anyone here?” Our voices echoed all around. We gave up and left the building after no one answered.

We stopped at the Valero Gas Station on the way back to my house so that I could buy the pay as you go phone card. Once I was back home, I called my doctor several times but never did get an answer, just a voicemail in Dutch. Finally, I decided to call AZV, the Aruban healthcare organization that runs the socialized system of medicine here. They transferred each of my calls over and over to a never-ending ring. By the third or fourth transfer, someone finally answered on the other end to tell me that my doctor wasn’t in Aruba; therefore, I would need to call my stand-in doctor, Dr. Van Ool. Dr. Van Ool never answered either. All I ever got on the other end was another harsh voice mail in Dutch. I listened to the entire recording even though I didn’t understand a word of it, and, in the end, I finally heard a few words of English—message box is full. I called AZV again, but they had all already left work for the day, 45 minutes before closing.

I’d had enough of the missing Dutch doctors and Aruban healthcare system altogether and decided to just pay money out of my own pocket with a trip to Urgent Care Aruba, the only private healthcare service on the island. When we arrived at the 24/7 emergency care center, the parking lot was empty and all the lights were out. The place was closed and no one was there. This was urgent care Aruba style. The sun hadn’t even completely set yet. There was still a little bit of daylight left in the sky. Besides that, the place clearly advertised 24/7. I pressed a button next to the front door and cringed as I heard yet another phone ring again and again. Only this time someone miraculously answered over a loudspeaker outside the building. An angel with an amplified voice told me she could be there to help me in 20 minutes for the starting price of $150 Florin.

The young doctor eventually sped up in her white Volkswagen. She was personable and funny. She asked for a recap of the events that morning, along with a few more diagnostic type questions. “I don’t even need to examine you. I already know what’s wrong with you. But jump up on the table anyway, so I can say we did this.”  She rambled off a long string of medical terms as my diagnosis. Back spasm was the plain English version for whatever she described. I’d hiked along the coast from Alto Vista to the Lighthouse the day before, so most likely that is what triggered it according to this expert. I have never felt such a sense of relief as I did when I watched her scrawl out a signature for two much-needed prescriptions for painkillers and muscle relaxers. “Don’t forget to stretch and hydrate when you hike,” she reminded me on my way out the door.

Today is King’s Day or Koningsdag, and I am feeling better. King’s Day is this national Dutch holiday where they celebrate the King’s birthday. The Dutch have an interesting way of throwing a birthday party. They wear and drink/eat a lot of orange things. Some wear orange wigs and others may wear orange sneakers. They eat orange sprinkles on baked goods and drink orange alcoholic beverages. They also drag out the junk they don’t want from inside their home and sell it on the street. Kids play musical instruments and everyone plays odd traditional games like Spijkerpoepen. This is a game where they tie a nail to a string on the back of their pants and then squat while the nail dangles over an empty beer or wine bottle. The first one to get the nail in the bottle wins. I’m assuming you probably need to drink the bottle of booze first before you begin playing this game. I’ve also seen video of children hurling eggs at faces perched atop caricatures painted on wooden slabs. My friend tells me the potato sack race was a Dutch invention. I believe her and will never ever even Google to fact check. Only the Dutch could invent potato sack racing; they are an original bunch and my new favorite culture. I secretly wish I could be at least part Dutch.

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother always had a quote taped to her refrigerator door. “Inside every older person is a younger person wondering: What the hell happened?” I have no idea who the genius is behind these words. All I know is that it sums up exactly how I am feeling this week. I also have no idea how King’s Day plays out on the island of Aruba. I’m just thankful it is a holiday and I have one more day to recover before going back to work tomorrow. My curiosity about King’s Day may propel me into an upright walking position and outside my door to see what this holiday is all about.

It’s just too bad my back spasm will put me on the sidelines when it is time for a game of Spijkerpoepen.

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daily life in tanki flip

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There is definitely a daily life shift that happens after leaving the United States to live and work in another country. Somewhere around the six-month mark I eventually fell into a routine, and it seems somewhat familiar, but in this parallel reality kind of way. Shopping for groceries, doing laundry, paying bills, these are activities habitually embedded in my mind and muscle memory, yet there is this twist to everyday life when you live in another country that feels a little bit like magic. There is nothing that can compare to moving overseas because it is like moving to another world altogether, and some days it can feel like another planet. It wipes away the humdrum of daily routine and makes the errands you run feel otherworldly, like something from a great adventure, or sometimes like a challenging problem to overcome. Everything is just a little bit different; some things are vastly different. Your brain fires up synapses while solving problems dealing with household inconveniences, or converting numbers to military time and the metric system, or deciphering what you owe and why when reading a utility bill in Dutch. Luckily, there is always a beach to escape to after the daily grind.

Life in every room of the house plays out differently than it did before. I watch TV from time to time, but I only watch BBC for news because it is one of three choices, the others being CNN or the local news in Miami. Then I usually tune into about 10 minutes of Spanish TV. When doing laundry, it is best to do it in the morning and coordinate my effort with the rising and setting of the sun so that the clothes will thoroughly dry, but I must not leave them out on the line too long because then the colors start to fade or there is a sudden downpour. It is better to cook anything that takes time in the morning before it gets too hot. So I routinely find myself cooking dinner after scrambling eggs for breakfast. Island living is a bit mixed up that way. I take a shower between 16:00 and 17:00 because that is when the water is tepid, not ice-cold. If I have to take a shower at any other time of day, it will only be for a few military-style minutes to lather and rinse. Most of the time I just turn the nozzle and let the water trickle out on to the shower tile when shampooing or shaving. It just too cold to stand under the water like I’ve done my entire life. Some chores are gone from my life completely. I don’t iron anymore. You do not really need to iron when your entire wardrobe consists of one season. Getting dressed in the morning for work in a place that is summer all year-long really simplifies things.

When it comes to buying food and household products, I can find items from home at the grocery store if I am willing to pay extra for U.S. brands.  But sometimes I will search forever for a brand that cannot be found anywhere on the island. So I’ve had to learn to let go. I’ve said goodbye to brand loyalty and many of the logos and slogans from home and am experimenting with new brands from other countries. They are considerably cheaper, and they have logos and slogans too, only I can’t understand any of it. I have no idea most of the time what I am buying because everything is in Dutch, but I trust the ingenuity of the Dutch people and am always pleasantly surprised with the high quality for such a low price. It helps that there are familiar characters from American products in disguise outside of America, like Mr. Clean who is called Mr. Proper in the Netherlands.

The lesson in letting go holds true for restaurants as well. You can find a few American restaurants here, but the food will not taste like you remember. And mayonnaise is used in place of ketchup everywhere. There is something about living abroad on an island that accentuates all that is missing because the only way back to any of the stuff you want is by boarding an airplane and flying all day long. This realization will sometimes bring about strange pregnancy style cravings for foods that were never on your shopping list before. For me it is breakfast cereal, especially sugary breakfast cereal like Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops, really anything with a cartoon character on the box will do. I never ate it before, but I now have this sudden desire to eat bowl after bowl.

Shopping for all of these items in stores is quite amusing. Chinese stores are erratically placed all over the map here, family owned and operated and each unique from the other. In America, there is this banality of shopping place that has spread like a plague throughout cities and small towns all over the country, thanks to the development of the strip mall and urban/ suburban sprawl. Everything about stores is the same in every American city: the locations, the exterior, the parking lots, the inside layout, and the products for sale. The chain retailer doesn’t really exist on this island. This brings me great joy. All the stores in Aruba have different names and different products for sale. The Wai Fat sells Ajax, but you will have to go to the Hueng Shin for Tampax.

One thing they all have in common is that the shelves are arbitrarily overstocked, teeming and towering with mismatched items. On the ground are boxes filled with cartons of eggs. On the bottom shelf above the eggs are cash rent receipts. The next shelf is overstocked with an assortment of Winnie the Poo pens and glitter glue. Above these are hundreds of Otis Spunkmeyer muffins and several large boxes of Splenda for sale in bulk. At the prized position of eye level product placement, you will find baby food and Quaker Oats. Just above your head, there seems to be an endless supply of electric calculators. Perched at the very top, painfully out of reach for the small boy who covets it, is an Enlighten firefighter kit of Chinese Legos. How does this stuff all go together?

The locations where all these stores can be found on the island are equally incongruous. You will find stores unexpectedly around every residential corner. Also, people just seem to sell whatever they want whenever they want wherever they want in makeshift stores outside their homes all over this country. Many homes double as businesses. It can feel a bit like falling down the rabbit hole when you drive down the streets.

The roads easily lead you to the next unexpected place in Aruba because there are no street signs or apparent zoning rules. The streets loop around in a haphazard fashion alongside never-ending homes and snack stands and pet stores and party supply shops and cigar factories and chicken fighting arenas. Then all of a sudden you will see a throwaway tower of automobiles stacked on top of one another. It’s easy to get lost and equally easy to stumble across some whimsical place that reminds you just how fantastically far away you are from the right angles and grid pattern of urban planning. We experimented with this one weekend after a trip to the Aloe Vera Factory. “Let’s do that thing where we just let the road take us wherever,” I suggested. Yes, that is a thing we do here. It’s a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Three hours later, we’d visited 10 random places we never knew existed before we began.

The first stop we happened upon was Nos Aventura Snack, colorfully painted with a rainbow of colors pouring out of a giant-sized bag of Skittles all over the side of the building. We each ordered up a pastechi, savory pastries stuffed with cheese and meat, a classic Aruban snack food. Around the corner, we found a clothing boutique on a neighborhood street, L’Amethyst Boutique. The door was locked and so we rang the bell and patiently waited. We were invited inside to peruse an assortment of synthetic summer wear, all of it incredibly overpriced. I just can’t bring myself to spend 180 Florin on a polyester dress when I live on a humid, hot island. Our next stop was a smoothie stand in front of someone’s home. The lady who runs the stand is no amateur. Her equipment is high-end and in mint condition. She will add wheatgrass and chia seeds, or anything else that may give you that extra boost to go kite surf, or mountain bike, or whatever high-octane activity you have planned for the day. From there, we were on a search for Fantastic Gardens after seeing the sign, 1,200 Meters to the right. Our next stop was a corner bar; these are also everywhere you turn in Aruba. We stepped inside to find a bar filled mostly with old men playing dominoes, watching soccer, and drinking Balashi. We ordered up two Balashi and took a seat outside. After that, we stumbled upon a cigar factory and a new Papiamento restaurant that had just opened for business (Cos Bon So Nos Cas Crioyo) and chatted with the owners of both places. We ended the day hiking a trail and bought Aruban flags on the way back to Tanki Flip.

All of this has made me realize something I already knew about myself. I never want to live in another world with a Walgreens on every corner. Sure, I guess some people like the predictability of going into one of the 8,173 Walgreens in 50 states. They probably like that all the stores look exactly alike because it’s easier to spot one when you need it. They are always guaranteed that Walgreens will carry their brand of Vicks NyQuil Cold and Flu Relief or Cascade Dish Detergent. And they know exactly where to find the products they need when they walk through the door. I’m sure they appreciate that every other store in America operates like Walgreens.

Then there are people like me. I thrive in the Aruba world of discovery shopping. There is a price to pay for it though. Walgreens is currently running a special on Frosted Flakes, $1.99 a box. It will cost me six to seven times that amount at the corner store here in Aruba if they even sell it. The outrageous price is a grrreat deterrent since Frosted Flakes really doesn’t need to be a part of my daily life here in Tanki Flip.