Category Archives: happiness

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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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.