Category Archives: island customs

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.

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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!

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.