Category Archives: island Christmas

A Green Christmas in Aruba

WRITTEN BY: TIFFANY LEWIS

It’s hot and sticky outside and my neighbor, Poor John, is blasting “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” from his house, which seems surreal since the island is turning green… definitively not white. Sinterklaas visits homes tomorrow evening with his Zwarte Piet, and all the children will place their shoes next to the front door in hopes that he will leave behind a bright orange carrot inside one of their shoes instead of beating them with his twig broom. It’s the rainy season here now, so it’s best to always carry a large, strong umbrella. Sunny days are deceptive this time of year because storms surge in suddenly out of nowhere and bring a torrential downpour for all of two minutes and then leave as quickly as they came. Welcome to December in the Dutch Caribbean.

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Who knows if Sinterklaas is even on the island. The typical two-minute torrential downpour lasted all morning two weeks ago when Sinterklaas was scheduled to arrive by boat at 10am. He may have drowned out at sea in the storm since his boat never made it to the port that day, leaving thousands of children on the island terribly disappointed. We had planned to welcome him as well; instead, I spent all day trapped inside my house watching the dirt roads in Tanki Flip turn into rivers.

The rain had been pounding down on the rooftop all morning that day, but my reaction was flat after Hurricane Mathew passed by in late September. It seems as if it hasn’t stopped raining since Matthew. I stayed in bed enjoying the rain, lost inside a book while my phone pinged again and again. Finally, sensing something wasn’t quite right with a barrage of Sunday text messages, I took time to scroll through countless texts about rising water around the island. Some colleagues had posted alarming pictures, so alarming that I sprung up out of bed to look outside my window and survey the water level.

My patio chairs were already under water, and they would have been floating around the backyard if they were made from wicker instead of wood. I rushed about the house pulling the curtains back at every window. The empty garbage bin was madly swirling around in the side yard playing bumper cars with everything in its path. Looking out the front of the house, neighbors were wading in water up to their thighs while transporting giant slabs of plywood board from one house to another as they screamed words I could not understand in Papiamento. Their actions, however, communicated to me that the situation was serious. They seemed to know exactly what to do and clearly benefitted from being natives, already busy dropping sandbags in front of their doors.

Within moment of realizing I should probably follow their lead, my electricity was out and my dreamy Sunday morning had turned into a nightmare. The toilet began mocking me for my septic tank ignorance as it loudly gurgled out over and over. I closed the bathroom door and tried to ignore the sound. When was the last time I had that thing serviced? I looked outside at an elevated platform that marked the septic spot and all its nefarious wickedness lurking below ground. Water was already starting to lap up over the top of it. I noticed that a rock precariously covered the hole at the center. Is that normal? Shouldn’t it be tightly sealed shut?

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Needless to say, I was not prepared for a flood. There were days and days of weather tracking and nail biting anticipation before Hurricane Matthew, but I was busy living my life this particular weekend and had no clue dangerous weather was even on the radar. My main concern was just how high the water would rise. When would it start to come inside the house? And how long would the toilet continue to chide me before the septic system caused real harm?

I looked outside again and spotted a Cocker Spaniel swimming down the street. The water was now seeping in under my front door. I began throwing any absorbent material I could find in the pathway of the water flowing inside under the door: old towels, sheets, mattress covers, and a suitcase of winter clothing for safe measure. Then I  started moving things in every room to higher ground, stacking stuff on top of beds, dressers and the dining room table. I packed a backpack of items that I would not want to lose or have destroyed including my passport and international documents, souvenirs from South America, and pictures of my friends and family back home.

And then, just as steadily as it had risen, the waist-high water began to slowly recede. The rain had finally stopped. It took a very long time and I wasn’t able to open the front door until the sun was setting that evening, but I have never been so thankful to turn a knob and push a door open.

The clean-up is still in progress two weeks later, and Poor John has been a big help, although he isn’t always the most reliable. I have learned that as soon as I pay him, he will quickly drop the rake, machete, or whatever is in his hand at the moment to race to the store and buy a bottle of rum. Then he comes back a few days later and usually points to a large knot on the top of his head caused by, he claims, a falling coconut. “It’s not healing, Jennifer. I need medicine. I work now. You pay me 200 Florin. I respect you.”

In the aftermath of each and every storm that has hit the island this season, construction on a cunucu house continues at a roundabout I pass through everyday to and from work. Decorating roundabouts by building some sort of festive structure strung to the hilt with lights is all part of a holiday tradition on the island. This particular roundabout also gets a lot of traffic because a herd of goats gathers there during rush hours most days. Something about that roundabout and those goats and the cunucu house makes me incredibly happy.

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Maybe it is in the way the island goats take over and block traffic, doing whatever they damn well please in spite of all of these humans and their moving machines. Or perhaps it is also how Arubans just patiently wait for the goats to move along without honking horns or running them over. Once the goats are gone, you can amuse yourself by driving around and around to check out the progress on the house. On Monday, they have carved designs onto the outside columns, by Friday they have painted the whole thing blue, and the next week the inside is completely furnished with tables and chairs and such. There is even a Christmas tree inside. They built a house from the ground up in the middle of a busy intersection where four lanes of  traffic constantly merge around and around in every direction. Why? Because it is Christmas in Aruba and nothing is going to stand in the way of that, no matter how much rain falls from the sky. 

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sinterklaas is coming

 

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Today is the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I looked out my bedroom window this morning to find my neighbor precariously perched up on a ladder trimming the coconut trees. He just kind of pops up outside whenever he sees something in the yard that needs tending because he is a gardener by trade, and these are the things he cares about in life. Racing out the door to run errands, I left two boxes of Christmas lights on the front porch and asked if he could string them around the trees. He agreed to do so when he finished what he deemed to be a rather urgent matter, lecturing me sternly as I rushed off, “The trees need water to stay alive!”

I’m really behind schedule decorating for the holidays. The whole island started celebrating the season with lights and festive displays back in October, maybe even September in some parts. They start early here because the Dutch Sinterklaas arrives in November. Sinterklaas landed days ago at the Aruba Ports Authority, and now he will travel around the island to dispense candies inside the shoes of children left outside their front door. Then quietly disappears out to sea after December 5th, en route back to Spain where he lives.

I was there when he landed in Aruba, and it was a peculiar event indeed. It seems odd to greet the original Santa Claus under the blazing heat of the tropical sun; there are tiny beads of perspiration all along your forehead, but it is the Christmas season nonetheless.  Apparently, he rides a white horse through the cold streets of Amsterdam when he travels to the Netherlands. In Aruba, he is pulled down the street by a monster pickup truck on a makeshift float while dancers and a drum corps stir up the crowd in front of him.

One of the ways they decorate for Christmas here is by creating a seasonal scene on every roundabout, pleasantly distracting drivers and passengers as they zip around one after the other. From what I have observed, the local community nearby each roundabout on the island comes together to plan out a design, sponsored in part by an organization or business. The designs vary from place to place. I drive past a giant bird built from sticks and tinsel every morning on my way to work. Another popular display is the cunucu houses, which are the original houses built in Aruba. Tanki Flip just went to work building cunucu houses on the roundabout nearby. After work is complete, there is a huge fiesta to celebrate with music and camaraderie. The holiday seasons may fluctuate, but the sense of community and celebration in Aruba is as constant as the year-round warm weather.

I always worry about leaving my neighbor–otherwise known as Poor John because this is how he introduces himself–with a yard project while I am away because he can become so easily transfixed with every passing whimsy to totally transform his surroundings. This time he decided that no one would be able to see the lights in the trees I had in mind; instead, the lights would be better placed along a garden arbor that he would build with whatever he could find in his own little Santa’s workshop of sorts, which is adjacent to his house.

I came home just when he decided to take a break. The yard was a mess. There was a wheelbarrow filled with debris, and the ladder was left out under the coconut tree. Underneath the trees and all around the house were heaps of piping, cords, scraps of all kinds, and various tools from his trade strewn about, including a machete, screwdriver, tape, and a paintbrush.  His sunglasses and telltale gardener hat were left in front of my door. It also seemed to have rained coconuts all afternoon while I was away because there were plenty of those all over the ground. And somehow Aloe Vera had magically sprouted all along the property line just after the rain.  I eventually found out he strategically planted it all to ward off evil spirits.

None of this phased me whatsoever. This is just how he operates, and to a certain extent, it is how the whole island operates. As I was unlocking the door, he began to yell across the field between our houses. He wanted me to know he was making soup and would be back to clean up the mess. “I respect you, Jennifer. I bring you dinner.” his words echoed across the distance. Poor John always calls me Jennifer. I tried to correct him once or twice, and it just didn’t stick. He also always brings me food. Dinner usually involves a hotplate serving up fish, beets and some kind of unidentifiable starch, that or a plastic bag with the catch of the day fresh from the sea. It is a kind gesture, but everything eventually just becomes trash or is stuffed away in my freezer. The freezer has become something of a joke amongst friends.

One evening, I thought to myself I have to go over there and put an end to this madness in dinner delivery. I collected the towering stack of dishes built as the result of many meals wasted, along with Guilders to pay him for his work. Then I walked down the long dirt road all the way over to Poor John’s house so that I could explain to him that he need not bring me dinner tonight, or ever again. Meanwhile, his three vicious barking dogs were clearly annoyed with my bad manners. If they could break free from the chains and jump over the gate, I would surely pay for this lack of gratitude with my life. He was happy to receive the dishes back and the money, but not so keen to stop making dinners. “Jennifer, I respect you.” It’s a line he uses often when I put my foot down.

The lights look lovely and suit the neighborhood of Tanki Flip rather well, appearing somewhat like a glowing green octopus. Stringing lights around outside trees doesn’t work here anyway. When whole communities come together to transform a small round plot of earth, you don’t just string some lights around the two trees outside your house. I’m certain every passerby would scoff at the wasted opportunity and simple-mindedness of that kind of lackluster display.

It worked out for everyone in the end. Poor John made some money and entertained his creative pursuits. And now Sinterklaas can easily find his way under the illuminated arch to my front door, only I’m not sure how much candy you can stuff inside flip-flops.