Category Archives: travel

bolivia bound without a plan

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I am a firm believer in traveling without a plan. There is so much to be gained from throwing out the itinerary. Of course, there are times where you absolutely must have a detailed course of action mapped out in advance, trekking the Andes is an example. That took a good deal of planning months before our departure date. Actually, so much planning went into it that we were burned out on planning and decided it would be best to just fill in the blanks as we made our way southward from Cuzco. But it does take a certain sense of adventure and badass mentality to just let things unfold spontaneously in a foreign country. So, in many ways, you have to take a deep breath and just jump. We had a basic idea of where we would go when we left Cuzco. We knew we would take a bus south to Lake Titicaca. I had always wanted to see the floating islands. Isabel wanted to see the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. At some point, we would need to cross the border around Lake Titicaca into Bolivia and make our way across the country without a plan.

The day before we left for Bolivia we were headed back to Puno after a 2 day overnight tour of several islands on Lake Titicaca, which was not something we even knew you could do before we left on the trip. We actually found out about it during our last night in Cuzco. We were eating dinner out and made friends with a couple from New York who were dining at the table next to us. They told us their story. They met through a gay hiking group (proof that there truly is something for everyone) and were in Peru to trek the Andes. The younger half explained that hiking had completely transformed him because he was overweight before he took it up. His partner agreed and pulled up a picture on his phone to prove the story. “Can you believe this is the same guy?” He pointed and boasted.

They had just returned from Lake Titicaca, and we were headed there the next day, so they gave us valuable tips. One such tip was that we had to do the overnight stay with a local family on the island of Amantani. They also suggested we order the Guinea pig on the menu for dinner that evening. “You have to try it!”  They insisted. It was the most expensive item on the menu, but we were here to experience Peruvian land and culture, and this rodent was part of that. Guinea pig, or cuy, has a 5,000 year history as a major protein source throughout the Andes, and it is still eaten today on special occasions. After a long wait and two pisco sours, it was presented to us fully intact on a giant platter, dressed for the celebration and festooned with colorful accessories, including a miniature party hat. Our dinner was wearing a hat! I took one sliver of a bite from the pencil thin leg, ate the potato lodged inside the poor creature’s jaws instead, and promptly ordered another pisco sour.

After arriving in Puno the next day, we found out you really could spend the night on one of the islands. We were checking into our hostel, and the guy behind the counter handed us a brochure of the available tours. The overnight seemed to be a tour that was second to none. “We have to do it,” I insisted.  “It will be a great adventure.” I went on to describe for Isabel what I envisioned was ahead for us. Our host family will speak Quechua, living lives much the same way as their ancient ancestors. It will be a such a special place, completely frozen in time. They will cook authentic soups, made with potatoes and quinoa, in homes without heat and electricity. It will be freezing cold, but we can put everything we have on when we go to bed. When will we ever have another chance to sleep on an island that doesn’t allow machines? We both agreed that we had the flexibility to add an extra day because we were traveling without having to worry about rooms that were already booked. And so off we went to time travel to another place from long ago across the highest navigable lake in the world. It would be like a fantasy, or at least as close as you can get to one nowadays.

And it was indeed like some kind of mythical odyssey. We spent the morning bouncing around on reed islands made by the Uro people who taught us how they built their floating islands from reeds. They also built their homes and all the furniture inside from reeds. They built the boats that took them from island to island from reeds as well. They even ate the stuff. They would eat the interior part of the stalk, which they unpeeled and offered to us as if it were a banana. They went on to explain the medicinal benefits of using reeds to cure everything, from minor abrasions to headaches. Just place the cool inner substance of the plant directly on to the wound or forehead. They even used it to cure hangovers. Was there a fermented reed drink? Their entire life centered around this plant. We sailed on from there for 2 hours and landed that afternoon on the island of Amantani. Our hostess, Inez, met us at the dock and we followed her midway up a mountain to her house. She was short and stout and dressed in traditional clothing. She made us a delicious quinoa soup, and then we were off to climb farther up the mountain to watch the sunset and see the ancient ruins dedicated to Pachamama.

After dinner, Inez’s mother, giddy with delight, asked us if we would like to wear traditional clothing to a party scheduled that evening. The next thing we knew we were dutifully following instructions as this elderly woman dressed us in layer after layer. She was so thoroughly amused by the whole process, laughing slyly with every new article of clothing she put on us. The next thing we knew we were dancing with strangers, all holding hands and going around and around in a cyclonic frenzy while a group of musicians played panpipes and drums. As the party winded down, I noticed Inez sitting down on a bench, legs crossed, smacking her chewing gum, and scrolling through her cell phone.  She seemed like any other young woman anywhere in the world. She told us her sister had left the island years ago and was living in Puno. She hadn’t seen her since. She, however, had never left the island of Amantani. Inez was married with a baby, but we never did see any men except the musicians who played at the dance that night. We wondered where all the men were on the island of Amantani. Thankfully, we burned enough energy that day to fall fast asleep on stiff beds covered with Santa Claus sheets. We put on every article of clothing we had and fell asleep in a room without electricity and heat. We might as well have been back in our tent in the Andes.

The next day we headed back to Puno after a day on the island of Taquille. We spent the night in Puno, and then woke up early in the morning to cross the border. Getting into Bolivia as an American is difficult. All Americans are required to apply for a tourist visa. I hadn’t been able to obtain a visa ahead of time as an American living in Aruba. It’s really challenging to do many things as an American living in Aruba. I visited a website online one evening after a long day at work to start the application process, but I didn’t have much success. The system shut me out forever the next morning after the 12 hours I was given to scan and submit a long list of documents wasn’t met. I sent an email to explain my situation and finally received a curt reply a few weeks before the trip, strongly advising me to apply for the permit before I boarded my plane for South America. I found information online about applying and obtaining the visa at the border. I was out of choices, so I packed a special folder that contained the mind numbing list of items required by Bolivian immigration: official copies of my bank statements, copy of hotel reservations, copy of flight information, Yellow Fever vaccinations, passport, copy of passport, separate official passport photo and $160 U.S. dollars. Would they let me through once I reached the border? It was a lot of extra baggage to carry.

Headed for the border that morning, we gazed out the window for hours and hours, taking in a rugged landscape of natural beauty and never-ending poverty.  At one point, the bus abruptly stopped while army tanks rolled by and we made our way through some kind of check point. There seemed to be a strong military presence all around us, and I had no idea what was taking place. Thankfully, I was sitting next to a handsome tour guide (tour guides are treated like rock stars in the Andes) from Lima who led a small group of American tourists, the only other Americans on the bus. He provided much-needed running commentary for me as he fielded questions from his inquisitive group about what they were seeing out the window and also what paperwork they needed to pull together for immigration. “Southern Peru is more dangerous than other parts because of  protests,” he explained to his curious group. “Do you have a copy of your passport? You are going to need that. Start getting your documents together and have them ready to go. Don’t forget to be friendly and smile.” I was happy they were on board because I had no idea what to expect, and at least I could ask this guy who seemed to be the expert.

It was snowing by the time we arrived at the border. Crossing a border in South America by bus is a convoluted and confusing process. Everyone on the bus is ushered off and then in and out of buildings on both sides of the border. After being processed out of Peru, we crossed the border into Bolivia by climbing up a hill on foot to the back of a long line outside a small white building. An immigration officer walked along the line and plucked out all the Americans, pointing to the building and directing us to go inside. I said goodbye to my friend who held a much prized Dutch passport.

Once inside, I found myself behind the counter and facing a man who was rapidly firing questions across the counter, one after another in Spanish. I had emptied out a quarter-inch thick folder of paperwork and he didn’t seemed satisfied. He sifted and shuffled through my documents, sorting them all out in categories to file away. He asked the whereabouts of my application, and I explained that I read I could fill it out at the border. He didn’t seem pleased with that answer. Finally, after a few nail-biting moments, I knew I had the green light once he asked me for $160. But then he didn’t like the $100  bill I gave him and passed it back to me. I asked if I could find my friend in line outside because she had more American money. Thankfully, she had some twenties stashed away, and I took $100 worth back into the building and handed them over to the officer who carefully examined the edges and passed most of them back at me once again. Nothing was good enough for this guy. Back and forth I went in this manner, inside and out, retrieving twenty-dollar bills and taking them back into the building only to have my money rejected over and over again, carefully keeping count in my head so as not lose any of it. Eventually, he told me to go back and get the $100 dollar bill I originally gave him. I gave him even more money in Bolivianos, filled out my whole life story on the application, and received a sticker that let’s me plan my next vacation to Bolivia until 2026.

We took off in the bus and seemed to drive around the lake for hours. Eventually, we made our way into the city of La Paz and moments before we would arrive at the station, our bus just suddenly stopped. The bus driver stepped off and disappeared, leaving all of us wondering what was next. 15 minutes later he appeared again to tell us there was a strike — we would have to walk with all of our luggage the rest of the way. We filed down an empty highway, littered with large boulders and barrels. Along the way, smoldering ash sporadically appeared on the embankments on either side. The scene was eerie, and I had no idea where it would end. Eventually, we stopped at a bridge where police stood in formation on top across it from one side to another. We decided to climb our way to the top of the bridge since we were told that we would be walking into the heat of the demonstration if we continued along the highway.

From what we gathered, it was a transportation strike held in front of the bus station, which just happened to be our destination. We climbed to the top of the bridge and said our goodbyes to the other stranded passenger, some were Bolivians and others ducked into taxis and zoomed off for the airport to catch flights back to Europe. They were glad to get out of there, but we were left in the thick of this turbulent scene for the rest of the day because we were catching an overnight bus to Uyuni from the station where the strike was happening. I asked one of the policemen which way we should go; in every direction there were chanting crowds and chaos. He told us to walk across the bridge to the other side. We scoped out the scene ahead while we crossed, flinching from time to time as we heard pop pop pop in the background. Eventually, we found another way into the bus station, and after checking the status of our overnight bus and dropping our luggage, we decided the best thing to do would be to escape into a restaurant and sample some Bolivian cuisine, along with a beer, or two, maybe three, so as to calm our rattled nerves. We ate some mystery dish that we never clearly identified. Then we wandered as far away as possible and visited two museums. a quaint coffee shop, several art galleries, and a local bar.

We made a point of getting back to the bus station before dark. And then off we went into the night, leaving La Paz and headed across this landlocked remote landscape on an overnight bus. I tried to sleep, but it was useless. It was freezing on the bus. And splurging on a luxury sleeping chair may have not been the best option since the Swiss girl in front of me reclined her seat all the way back, pinning my legs in a precarious position: I was locked into this rollercoaster for a long ride. And it really was a little bit like a rollercoaster. There were so many unexpected swerves and rattles and jolts along the way. The bus broke down twice that night, once around 3 o’clock and another time right before we arrived at our destination. Each time we waited for about an hour in the pitch black  darkness as the driver/ makeshift mechanic tinkered around under the hood and then tried to start the bus over and over again. The bus would sputter forever and then choke each time in defiance while the passengers inside snored sound asleep. How could anyone sleep through this? How long would we be stranded here? This could go on for hours! Transportation in Bolivia seemed very unreliable to me in those middle of the night moments, or basically any time I boarded a bus in the country.

Somehow we made it to Uyuni shortly after sunrise to a below zero chill when we stepped off the bus. It took us a while, but we finally found a taxi to take us to our hostel. The cold was so shocking for two girls who live in the tropical zone that we could barely function as a result. Once we found our hostel, I did my best to speak Spanish on no sleep through chattering teeth with an eccentric man who was working the night shift, but there were definitely some gaps in communication happening. He assured us someone could meet us in the lobby at 10 o’clock to take us on a day tour of the Salt Flats. Then we found our way to the best breakfast scene I have ever experienced at any hostel anywhere ever. And it wasn’t because we had just arrived after a sleepless night on an overnight bus.

As we made our way in exhausted and famished, Lou Reed was playing, and there was a giant spread of fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, an assortment of Quiche, roasted potatoes, Greek yogurt, and, most importantly, very strong coffee. During breakfast we found out that our 10 o’clock tour would be a private tour, meaning it would be very costly. Neither of us wanted to spend that kind of money, so we opted to just walk out into this frontier land on an impossible quest to find a jeep and a tour guide. But, first, we needed a shower. We walked out the front door of the hostel around 9:30 or so, down the street, and into a the first door we found that advertised tours: Tito Tours. Tito did not speak any English, but we were able to find a last-minute spot on a tour leaving in 10 minutes. We boarded a jeep with a Bolivian family and a single girl from La Paz. We drove miles and miles across a never-ending expanse of  bright white world and listened to our tour guide, emphatically sharing all of his wisdom in a language that wasn’t our own. Eventually, we stopped, and he told us we were going to have lunch as he prepared chicken and rice in the back of the jeep. We sat down on the hard frozen white ground for a picnic lunch and made a new friend with the single girl from La Paz. We all collaborated the rest of day while taking pictures, playing around with perspective by making ourselves into giants who stomped on one another’s heads and climbed inside boots.

We were lucky everything went somewhat smoothly up until that point since we were traveling impromptu. We booked the overnight bus to Uyuni in Copacabana from two women who were sitting at a table outside the bar where we had just had drinks. Based on my experience, it is safer to buy bus tickets buzzed rather than sleepy because after our Salt Flat tour that day, we thought we had booked a return ticket from Uyuni to La Paz that left at 7 AM in the morning. We were at 36 hours without sleep, and apparently this AM or PM detail escaped us. So we headed back to our hostel and had a delicious pizza dinner, reminiscing about our adventure that day. Meanwhile, our bus was departing for La Paz while we ate.

Groggy and sleepy-eyed, we arrived at the bus station early the next morning after setting our alarm for 5:30 AM. Actually, bus station is a bit misleading because bus stations in this part of the world aren’t really bus stations, rather just a street where the bus will pick you up. So there we stood in the middle of the street. No buses. No people.  It was just the two of us, standing in the freezing cold with a big problem to solve. We couldn’t stay in Uyuni another night because our flight home left soon from La Paz. Plus we had splurged by booking an expensive hotel in La Paz and didn’t want to miss one of our two nights there. Luckily, we talked to enough locals to discover there was a company with a new line that had recently opened up from Uyuni to La Paz during the day. The buses departed everyday at noon. We found the bus company and bought a ticket. It was a line that none of the tourists knew about, so everyone on the bus was local except for us. We were happy to be able to see Bolivia during the day and pass through towns that most tourist never see. We arrived in La Paz around midnight and took a taxi to our hotel.

The next morning began a whirlwind 48 hour tour of the city. We had two days in the city and we packed in as much as we could since we live on a desert island. We stepped out our hotel to walk the streets and discover as we went. We stumbled across an art festival that stretched across at least a dozen city blocks. Artist sold their works. There were professional dancers and musicians performing. All along the way, there were carts selling everything from ceviche to candied apples. We found the contemporary art museum we wanted to visit. The next day we saw another protest of handicapped people, obstructing the streets by taking over the lanes  and rolling down the streets in their wheelchairs. Then we found the coca museum and witchcraft market. Around the corner from there, we had delicious lattes and sampled the best tiramisu I have ever tasted. Later, we found the main center of the city, which was heavily guarded and gated in every direction, but we made our way past the guards and found a plaza with pigeons and ice cream vendors. We did some shopping and dined out on Mexican food at a place that could have been located in Austin instead of La Paz. We created our own city tour, and it was both messy and brilliant, but uniquely our own and unlike any other.

Traveling without a plan is just like that: messy and brilliant. You don’t know what you are going to get. There are no guarantees. You may not make it to all the big sites. It’s not for the fearful of missing out crowd. There will be missteps and mishaps, and you will just have to roll with it. But you will also see things that aren’t in the guide-book. And there is something so refreshing about not reading any of the guide books. You have no idea what to expect. Everything is unfolding in front of you and you are experiencing it without any kind of preconceived notion of what it might be like. In the end, the best benefit is spontaneously creating your own journey because there is no other version quite like it. It’s your story to tell exactly the same way you stumbled upon it.

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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.

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!