Category Archives: island beasties

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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aruba adventures

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Dedicated to friends arriving soon from Texas – a short list of big adventures. It would be even better if I listed directions for each, but that is way beyond my capabilities.  Maybe this map will help. Hopefully, you will get lost at some point because doing so will delightfully lead you on your own island adventure.  I certainly do not claim to be an expert on all that one can experience here. After all, I have only been here for six months. I work all the time, but when I’m not at work, I’m exploring the island—albeit, on a shoestring budget. So here are a few discoveries made. 

Sand  – You will want to spend the majority of your time at beaches. Our favorite is Baby Beach. Drive to the southern part of the island to get to Baby Beach and stop at Charlie’s Bar in San Nicholaas. It closes early because it is in the Red Light District. Also, stop at Zeerovers for dinner on the way home, but only on the weekend, because only then will they remove all the shells, skin, bones, and eyeballs from the heaping baskets of seafood you are about to devour. Many Sundays here have been spent at Baby Beach followed by a delicious catch-of-the-day dinner at Zeerovers. Eagle Beach is named one of the best in the world. Its powdery white beaches and turquoise blue waters will not disappoint, especially during sunrise and sunset. We also frequent Arashi beach. There are more locals there and a drive up to the California Lighthouse after is a nice way to end the day. Another great place for sunset is the Alto Vista Chapel. One more beach worth mentioning is Andicuri Beach. We just had a barbecue there last Wednesday.

Sea – Definitely do some kind of water activity while you are here as well. Snorkeling is the simple, go-to activity if funds and experience are lacking. There are plenty of snorkel spots throughout the island and you can buy gear inexpensively at stores all over the place. There are a plethora of other water activities as well, from kite surfing to kayaking. Also, get out on the water if at all possible. I haven’t been out on a water tour yet, but I heard the Catamaran “Dolphin” tour is the best.

Off-road – There is plenty of activity on land as well. Rent some type of all-terrain vehicle and explore Arikok Park. Be sure you find your way to Conchi, or natural pool. Take the plunge. Just make sure you have on your stylish water shoes.  Spelunk one of the many caves while exploring the park. Quadiriki is my favorite and the setting of an Arawakan legend. There is also a bar/ restaurant in the park called Boca Prins. It’s fun to sit and relax there while enjoying a tall tropical drink and a fantastic view. If you have the time, keep driving along the coast to the California Lighthouse.

Get lost – Somewhere along the way during your time in Aruba it is essential to get off the beaten path and just get lost so that you can experience authentic island life. This will inevitably happen if you turn off any main road because street signs are nonexistent in this country. Don’t worry about it. You are on an island, so how lost can you really get? Eventually, the road will take you to water. Stop any place that looks fun. Explore the aisles of a Chinese supermarket or grab a Balashi paired with a pastechi at one of the many roadside eateries.

Beasties – Designate a day to spend some quality time with animals and insects while you are in Aruba because there are so many sanctuaries that provide serene shelter to a large variety of species, from Howler monkeys to camels. My favorite places are the Donkey Sanctuary and the Ostrich Farm. The Butterfly Farm is also worth a visit. There is a tour guide to educate you on all of the life science moments in case you have forgotten them since 7th grade. We listened attentively as our tour guide described the transformation from caterpillar to cocoon. I was so transfixed that I watched YouTube videos of this process for at least an hour after my visit. I’ve discovered these videos will put you in the exact same meditative state as the Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting series.

Chow down – Sample Suriname food while you are here; order the roti. We like Yanti, Indo, and Swetie. Colombian food is a must as well. There are several restaurants serving authentic dishes. I have only been to Don Jacinto where my friend, who had just returned from a visit to Colombia, emphatically recommended the bandeja paisa. Savory Colombian empanadas can be found at snack stands and food trucks all over the island. Go for Dutch pancakes and order something you don’t typically have with your pancakes. Linda’s Dutch Pancakes is good. There is also a fabulous Dutch bakery in Paradera called Huchada. Sample Peruvian at El Chalan. Finally, we are always on a budget because we are poor school teachers, so if you are looking to splurge, here is a complete list of all the restaurants.

Party – Arubaville, Bugaloe, and Salt and Pepper all have excellent mojitos. All three also have delicious tapas to choose from on their menus.  Arubaville and Bugaloe are waterside spots. Moomba is right on the beach, as in the legs of your chair will sink into the sand. 080 and Chaos are fun Dutch bars to visit where you can strike up a conversation with anyone. I was just at Chaos last night and it appears to be the party headquarters for all the Carnival parades. Order bitterballen somewhere along the way when you are out for the night. Another great location to grab a drink is Casibari Cafe and climb the Casibari Rock Formations.

City streets – Also, I haven’t done much of this because I moved here to get away from the city, but visit downtown Oranjestad. Walk around. Go shopping. Take the trolley. Talk to people. Everyone is incredibly friendly in Aruba. You will meet people from all over the world. This is the best part of living here.

62nd Carnival – Finally, Carnival is scheduled for Sunday when you arrive. I went to the lighting parade last night as a sort of run through for next weekend. I am thrilled to soon be experiencing something new here with all of you.

island logistics

 

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Travel tips for friends arriving soon…

1. Learn a few Papiamento phrases. My favorites are bon nochi and drumi dushi, which mean good night and sweet dreams. Learn some Dutch words as well. My favorite is the very useful ik houd van katten, or I love cats.  Spanish is also helpful, which most of you already know as Texans. Expect everyone you meet to speak all of the above, including English.

2. One Florin equals 0.56 U.S. Dollars. You may want to use a conversion app on your phone if you are mathematically challenged because sometimes you will pay in one currency and receive change in another. You can also study ahead with this currency converter.

3. Tip the teenagers who bag your groceries at the store. One to two Florins is customary. My friends tell me that I tip too much in restaurants. They say 10% is all I need to leave because it is not like America where the tip is basically the wage. Regardless of this advice, I always tip 20%. It is ingrained in me after working as a waitress throughout my entire time in college.

4. You will pay twice the amount for American brands at the supermarket. Shop for Dutch brands instead—they are much cheaper. Everything is lekker, only you won’t really know exactly what it is you are about to eat until you take a bite. Also, pack a collapsible cooler for the beach. You will pay a fortune for one here, or anything else made to save human beings time and bring about convenience. I thought I might like to buy a toaster yesterday until I looked at the price: 84 Florins. Now you can practice a bit with currency conversion to clearly see why I chose not to buy it. The toaster is a luxury I cannot afford.

5. Prepare ahead for holidays. Arubans—unlike Americans—understand the full meaning of the holiday, as in businesses do not open because no one goes to work. You are home or on the beach celebrating life with your community of people. This means places that you had in mind to eat and visit will most likely be closed, including the grocery store and even the gas station. Burnout Monday is a national holiday the day after Carnival. Maybe go to the beach on Monday.

6. Pack over the counter drugs. I don’t take any prescription medications. I don’t even take over the counter medications. But I found myself in need of something to bring relief when I was sick the weekend before last. Regardless of its classification as OTC or RX, any pill you swallow can only be bought at the Botica, and the Botica has limited hours. Most importantly, the Botica is closed on Sundays. Plan ahead!

7. Beer is sold in 8 oz bottles, which I was told at the Balashi Brewery has more to do with tradition than heat. The local beers are Balashi and Chill. Some other popular beers are Polar (Venezuela) and Amstel Bright. Don’t be alarmed when the 8-year old bagging your groceries asks you if you want the bottle of beer opened on your way out the door. He will most likely already be prying off the cap with a bottle opener in hand by the time you tell him that you do not need one for the road.

8. Go ahead, you can park your car on the sidewalk. It is favorable to blocking traffic in the narrow street. It is best to have 4WD in Aruba because you will need to go over curbs and drive on dirt roads. Also, you will want to tour Arikok Park to Conchi, natural pool. After that, be sure to drive the coast to the California Lighthouse.

9. Everyone in my neighborhood carries a stick while walking to deter dogs. I’m not sure what they would do with it if a vicious dog were to charge forward. I hope they wouldn’t use the stick to beat the poor pup. Maybe they would just make themselves big and roar like a bear. Then, perhaps, they would swing it around until the dog hopefully ran away. You might consider something to protect yourself as well if you venture off the beaten path. You may also want a machete to lop off the head of any boa constrictor you might come across

10. Bring Sunscreen. Buy the biggest bottle. Get SPF 100 if you can find it. You are going to need it!

donkey sanctuary

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Yesterday we went to the Donkey Sanctuary Aruba. It was established in 1997 to care for the many neglected donkeys roaming the island. They arrived 500 years ago and carried people around until cars replaced them. Eventually, some terrible affliction reduced the donkey population to only 20 in 1970. Then their numbers began to slowly increase simultaneously along with the number of people and cars on the island. After that, donkeys became a serious hazard to people behind the wheel of the many automobiles on Aruban roadways. It was far worse for the donkey, however. Injured people could recover inside the hospital, while donkeys were just left to die on the side of the road. The Donkey Sanctuary Aruba was founded to save these unfortunate creatures from needless suffering.

Before I moved to Aruba I assumed all the donkeys lived in the Donkey Sanctuary Aruba. Indeed many donkeys do live there, but some still roam the island, along with the traveling herds of goats and an occasional vicious pack of wild dogs. I have had so many encounters with animals in just a short span of six weeks. Animals are just part of daily life here. I don’t even flinch anymore when a lizard darts between the bottles of shampoo and conditioner while I’m showering. I calmly step on the brakes to watch a peep of chickens waddle in front of my car to cross the road on my morning commute to work. My favorite animals are the goats. I always abruptly pull off the side of the road to try to snap a photo. It’s pointless though to try and capture that kind of experience inside a frame. It is one of those things you just have to be here to see, like so many other things I love about living in Aruba. Besides the goats quickly disappear into the desert brush to graze on all the trash that blows about. Other encounters aren’t so easy to spot. Rather, you have to look closely to find some of the camouflaged creatures because they blend in with the landscape. Iguanas hide out in the tall green grass and bop their head up and down when you walk nearby. One magical evening, I was lucky enough to see a moonlit silhouette of donkey ears: a drove of dozens of donkey ears juxtaposed amidst hundreds of cacti. It was truly a magical site.

Most animals travel in groups and I am as fascinated with the odd names for these groups as I am the actual animals. You do find some solitary types as well, mostly reptiles and dogs. One Friday a baby boa constrictor was found dangling from a pipe outside of my classroom. The next Friday another was found slithering across the playground. Apparently, boas have invaded the island. Once upon a time, some twenty years ago, boas didn’t live here in Aruba. The first one was found in 1999; people say someone carelessly released pet snakes. Whatever happened, the boa quickly multiplied and easily adapted to the scrubby, desert terrain, spreading out all across the island by hitching rides under car hoods. Along with the solitary snakes, most dogs haughtily zigzag their way down the roads and in-between buildings. They fascinate me with their individual morning habits and routines; they are so oddly similar to us as when it comes to predictable behavior. Every morning I see the same dog asleep at 6:45 on the side of Route 4, just before the Valero gas station. There is another odd breed with Yoda ears that is always standing, attentive and alert, at the corner on Caya G. F. Betico Croes, nearby the roundabout before Banco di Caribe.

I love all animals, which is why I agreed to volunteer at the Donkey Sanctuary Aruba. Training starts Saturday.

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