Island life can sometimes feel a lot like living in a time warp. After enough time living day to day life on an island, time begins to seem as if it is has been suspended. The clock on an island ticks slower than most. As a result, some kind of time lapse seems to occur when island time is measured against the fast moving pace of time in big cities. Eventually, it feels like you are living in another age entirely as if the little rock where you reside has made fewer trips around the sun than the rest of the planet. It becomes a small sliver of space completely removed in time from the metropolis you left almost three years ago. And it takes about three years to get the full effect.
Some places you find on an island really stick out in their time-warped appearance. These are places where you find relics left from the past: a wrecked boat washed ashore, an abandoned building on the street corner or an old truck swallowed up by climbing vines. In the city made of mirrors from where I originally hail, those structures are quickly demolished or carted off. Ruins are treated as wreckage and swiftly eradicated as if they might carry disease. Everything must be shiny and new.
On the island of Aruba, there are entire neighborhoods in ruin. There’s a lost colony on the east side in a place called Seroe Colorado. It was once home to hundreds of people years ago when the Lago Oil and Transport Company was in full operation. You can stroll through on a self-guided faded glory tour along the streets where there is this eerie sensation that an entire community just got up and walked away, circa 1966. They left behind many signs of their affluent status, including tennis courts near the beach. Once luxurious and quite impressive, hundreds of dilapidated homes are battered and broken down, another world away from the status and prestige they once represented. Peering through the jagged glass of broken windows, it’s impossible not to imagine what life was once like inside and wonder what became of the people who lived there.
There are, however, plenty of old buildings open for business in Aruba where front doors act as portals to another era, perhaps even as far back to the era when the colony once thrived. One such place is the first department store to open in Aruba: La Linda is located in downtown Oranjestad at the end of the main shopping drag. It has that time standing still quality about it, which is immediately felt upon entering and being greeted by a little old man. Dapper and vigilant, he is dressed to impress in a red–sometimes purple–three-piece suit. He will quickly ask you to check your bag and store it in a wall of towering candy-colored lockers. La Linda has strict rules about the size of bags they will let customers carry past the front entrance into their happy hunting ground. This is one of the few regulations the store enforces because it is around the bend to bonkers from that point forward.
The first thing you will see as you survey the first floor of the expansive four-story space is a never-ending display of men’s underwear; to the left is an army of mannequin trunks sheathed in an assortment of boxer briefs. Standing in front of all of this, as if he is the commander of this underpants force, is a full-body mannequin clad head to toe in camouflage. This is what makes La Linda a place like no other place on Earth, a rather large and distinctly vintage collection of mannequins–there are more mannequins in this place than customers. These mannequins are fossils from another era. Past their prime, but hanging on to the grandeur of those sublime decades that once gave them life and fully painted eyebrows, they give the whole place a surreal quality unlike any other.
An unproportionate square footage of the first floor at La Linda is dedicated to men’s underwear. I’m not sure why this is. Like many things in Aruba, it remains a mystery until you ask someone who knows. According to the label inside one of two elevators (maximum capacity of 13), the first floor includes the following departments: men’s suits, casual wear, beachwear, and shoes. It probably needs to be updated because customers can also find a pharmacy on the first floor if they walk towards the shoes in the far corner. It can’t be called a beauty section like the kind found in most department stores because the shelves are haphazardly stocked with items like Colgate toothpaste and Absorin Comfort Slip Ultra, which is a Dutch brand of adult diapers.
After making your way around the first floor and perhaps purchasing briefs and a box of Bandaids, each creaky step of the original grand wooden staircase will take you up to the second floor where you will find ladies wear, shoes, and bags, along with infant and toddler wear. The infant and toddler section includes an endless supply of nostalgic Winnie-the-Pooh characters, suffocating inside cellophane that has been twisted and tied at the top above their heads since 1974 it seems, or at least that is when I remember these friends being a big part of my life. Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, and Tiger are all perched on top of clothing racks as far as the eye can see, all of them staring down and pleading with you to rescue them. Winnie-the-Pooh will pop up again and again in other parts of the store, perhaps affixed around and around up a pole to give the place some color. Next to that is a cascading assortment of upside down umbrellas. Two things are clear here: There is an overstock of stuffed Winnie-the-Poohs and employees working here are clearly empowered with an anything-goes creative license.
Keep moving to the top to explore the third floor and find a world of columns wrapped in fabric. This is the floor to come to if you are one of the few people who still know how to sew, which is a lost art form in the rest of the world, but on an island where Carnival comes every February, it is a much-coveted skill. You will have to take the elevator to the fourth and final floor, which is fitting since it is most otherworldly at the very top. This is where all rules are thrown out the window. It’s best to visit during Halloween or Carnival season to witness the extravaganza of this free for all floor. There is a pyramid of artificial flames that can’t be missed when you step off the elevator. An assortment of mannequins is arranged in dangerous fashion a little too close to the flames. Toddlers wear creepy clown masks. Some are dressed like Snow White. Female mannequins seductively expose their midriff in Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader costumes. During Carnival, all of them put on masks and beads and a plethora of sequined accessories. Most shopkeepers could never get away with these kinds of choices in the United States. But, then again, the mannequins are all on display in front of a cafe that serves employees only, so clearly the employees have a lot of choice in the matter.
Of course, La Linda is not unique. Many places of business all over the island operate in this fashion. Time passes in a peculiar way everywhere here and life can feel surreal at any moment. Ask for a check while sitting on the outdoor patio at a local restaurant and time will slow down to a very faint pulse while the band plays smooth jazz style elevator music to a sea of empty seats. Then a stray cat zig zags between your legs and jumps on top of the table to parade between your dinner plates of leftovers that still haven’t been cleared. You might wait an hour for the check and then another hour to pay the bill. By the time it is finally done, you’ve bonded with the cat and are considering taking her home.
Other experiences are born from daily routines but present the same kind of time gap. It’s always summer here as you go about checking off whatever is on the to-do list, so you will need to crank the AC in the car everyday for any errands there are to run. Casey Kasem enthusiastically announces that Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy has dropped to number 2 today on the radio station while you are driving down an empty road with cacti towering on either side. You remember that tap dance routine to the hit song. How old were you? What year was that? Was it 1984? How could you even be alive that long ago? Today is most certainly not 1984. Chores around the house will take you even further back in time. Hand washing dishes comes to mind, as does hanging clothes on the line to dry. These chores take forever; it’s best to break them up into stages. How did housewives ever live with these mundanities? No wonder they rebelled.
Two or three times a year you might slip between the two worlds and take a trip to the other side. If it is the holiday season, be prepared for a major jolt upon return back to the accelerated ticking away of the clock in a major metropolitan U.S. city. Count ten, maybe 20, buildings that have been erected on your old stomping grounds since you last visited six months ago, maybe a new skyscraper or two. Cars will honk at you while you try to drive 40 mph everywhere you go. Friends and family will tell you that you are going to cause an accident if you do not speed up. Go into one of the 600 Targets in the city that has been remodeled since the last time you were there and get lost trying to find socks and a sports bra. Watch on the way out as people file hastily into the store in Lemming-like fashion. All wearing essentially the exact same outfit, they synchronize their movements one after the other by flinging their designer handbag into the shopping cart, taking a sip from a cup of Starbucks coffee, and then pushing the cart ahead into a systemized mecca. They are off and racing down the aisle to participate in the single most important activity in American culture: shopping.
Meanwhile on an island 2,197 miles away, in a store where the employees outnumber the customers, so much that the cafe on the fourth floor serves employees only, one of the 20 employees scheduled for the afternoon shift at La Linda carefully places a sequined top hat on the chipped yellow locks of a decrepit mannequin as she quietly anticipates the upcoming celebration of Carnival.
Tending the garden takes on a whole new meaning on the island of Aruba. Many islanders completely transform their front yard all over this rock to depict fanciful scenes spawned from imagination. My neighbor’s yard is one like this. A canoe with paddles is affixed to the roof directly above his door. He recently started decorating for the holidays by placing a Christmas tree inside the canoe, as if it were a person paddling down roaring rapids. The Christmas tree is even wearing sunglasses. Near the canoe, there is a wheelbarrow, brimming with Aloe Vera, jutting out from the exterior of the house. And the whole place is lit up with Christmas lights like a rocket ship.
Take the winding road up to the chapel of Alto Vista, and you will come across the home of mannequins. It’s the most famous of these yards on the island. There are about ten mannequins displayed year-round in front of a 100-year-old cunucu house, and they always seem to be attending a celebration for one of the many holidays here. Their outfits change with the season. Clad in blue, red, white and yellow for Flag Day, they cheer on the birthday of the Aruban flag. Come Christmas time, they are dressed to the hilt in red velvet and silver sequins. All of them wear orange for Koningsdag in April. Aruba may only have one summer season, but you would never know passing by this house since the mannequins change their colors much like the leaves on autumn trees or flowers blooming in the spring.
Various other objects can be found in the mix. Toy trucks are perched high in the treetops, alongside other items tucked inside the branches: a garden rake or a license plate. A display case of sunglasses is precariously perched on a patio chair. Large imperfect figurines are haphazardly placed all about the ground where the mannequins stand. A dwarf that could have jumped out from the pages of the fairy tale Snow White. Something resembling a Maya god holding an ear of maize. Another statue looks like the White Rabbit coaxing Alice down the hole. There are large containers interspersed amongst the figurines. A cornucopia of fruit. And plenty of pots filled with fabric flowers. Behind the mannequins are freestanding shelves that display more of the same. Amorous geese, a laughing Buddha, leaping dolphins, a croaking toad, all living in perfect harmony amongst an extensive collection of Delft blue Dutch ceramic figures of milkmaids and dairy cows. Creatures from the pages of books, the heavens, and planet Earth, all coexisting together in this yard menagerie.
What was this place? We’ve admired this house for two years now and wondered how it all came to be whenever we would stop to take photographs of the changing themes. We had so many questions. Who was the caretaker? Where did all this stuff come from? Why was it here? We’d asked around the island, but nobody seemed to have the answer. We couldn’t find anything on the Internet either. There was always someone sitting outside on the porch at the house. We knew that much. Maybe we could just walk up to the house one day and ask.
The day finally arrived when we worked up the nerve to do just that. We were told to come back again and again. There was always someone who wasn’t there that day who could tell us more about the mysterious yard arrangement. Each time we got closer and closer to solving the riddle. Until one day when someone was finally there who could sit and chat with us. We sat with two fabulous women who served up delicious slices of pistachio cake and answered all of our questions. And a story unfolded that was more incredible than anything we could have imagined.
The women introduced themselves as sisters and explained that their father started all of this some 45 years ago. It all began when he would bring home discarded items from work that people deemed useless. An advertising sign selling beer, or shoes perhaps. Apparently, he thought all of this stuff was too special to be tossed into the trash bin. Tossing something into the trash bin in Aruba means that it will eventually end up in a giant inferno since the island of Aruba manages all of its waste by setting it on fire. Arubans refer to this place with two simple words: the dump.
Eventually, he started making trips to the dump to rescue more precious pieces from the pit of despair, including mannequins. Most of the mannequins had cosmetic issues–a broken hand or a chipped nose–that kept them from working windows any longer. But some of the mannequins were still in boxes. And, of course, how could you walk away from a brand new mannequin that is still in a box. How could you let a perfectly good mannequin go up in flames? Why wouldn’t you take it home and prop it up in your yard and dress it up for the holidays? And why stop with mannequins? If there was a tarnished frog or an angel with broken wings that needed to be rescued from the dump, surely they would be coming back to the yard of misfit figurines as well. They all found their forever home in this sanctuary where they would be cared for with love.
And cared for with love they were and still are to this day. The whole family tends to this whimsical garden. They protect the mannequins from thieves who will sometimes come and carry a mannequin away. They have a rotation schedule so that a family member is always there to stand guard and protect all of the garden inhabitants from possible abductions. They also work together to dress the mannequins for the next holiday, which the daughters explained can be more challenging than one would think, as mannequins are not always cooperative when it comes to changing their clothes. They do all of this to pay homage to their father because that was what he would want.
Their father always kept a watchful eye over his garden from the front porch. He spent evenings there playing instruments, the accordion, or the viola, or the guitar. He was a versatile and talented musician. But most importantly, he played the ka’i di orgel, which is an instrument that is unique to Aruba and Curacao. It’s typically paired with the wiri, a traditional African instrument. that looks like something you might use to grate cheese. The sound these instruments produce when played together sounds a lot like what you might hear as you unravel cotton candy at the circus or if you could time travel and walk along a cobblestone street in old-world Europe, circa the 1700s. It’s hard to describe with words, but it is most definitely the perfect other-worldly soundtrack for the scene on display here.
The women brought out picture albums showing their father playing at the musical festival of dande. Aruba is the only Caribbean island that celebrates dande. Traditionally, musical groups traveled from door to door to wish families well and to cheer in a new year after midnight. Now the tradition is kept alive with an annual festival. After flipping through the photographs, we were invited inside the house to play the ka’i di orgel. We took turns winding away while one of the daughters played the wiri. I looked to the corner of the living room to find yet another mannequin. This one was dressed in a suit belonging to their father, the man who brought this wonderful world to their lives. And it appears that it his loving family who keeps this world very much alive for the rest of the island to enjoy.
Tanki and Flip, the two words that make up the name of my neighborhood, just seem to complement one another in a happy-go-lucky way. All kinds of sunbeam images come to mind. A friend of mine mentioned tank tops and flip-flops when I told everyone back home where I would soon be living: both items are useful when headed to the nearby beach. Tanki Flip sounds like someone is inviting you to jump off the high dive into a swimming pool on a sunny day. Come tanki flip with us today. Let’s go tanki flipping this weekend.
The actual origin of the words are more grim and gloomy. It is a haunting story of sorts. A tragedy really, albeit one that takes place in paradise. There are two versions. The first story tells about a man, Flip Kelly, who was dejected by his girlfriend and plummeted to his death by jumping into a tank of water. Another story tells us that Flip’s death was accidental, not a suicide. Rather he was riding his horse when the poor creature took a tumble in the mud, plunging head on into the water. Poor Flip was all tangled up and drowned in the water, alongside his horse. Regardless of which story you adhere to, Flip flipped into a tank of water and drowned to death. Hence the name Tanki Flip. So much for sunshine, cool breeze, and blue water.
I’d found this story on the Internet before moving to Aruba, and we all know you can’t believe everything you read there. But I’m starting to accept that there is some truth to this tale, especially after our tour earlier this week with the village elder, Poor John.
I’d stopped by his house on Sunday afternoon to feed his dogs, which I have made a regular habit of lately after a close inspection of their well-being while driving slowly past his house. Two of the dogs are chained up during the day while the third one—that Poor John calls Tromp and is clearly his favorite—runs about the neighborhood feisty and free. Tromp seems fat and happy, but I noticed protruding ribs on the other two dogs. Because I worry that Tromp would get all the food if I were to just give it to Poor John, I stop and feed the dogs myself to make sure the emaciated two get properly fed. It’s a scary scenario upon first approach, as they always seem like they are going to rip me apart until they smell the food. Then they quickly change their demeanor from barking and growling with bared teeth to wagging tails and faint whimpers.
It was during one of these stops that I asked Poor John about the nearby tank that is the origin of our neighborhood’s name. “We go see it now,” he insisted in his broken English. We weren’t prepared for a tour of the Aruban wilderness that day. We were wearing flip-flops and pencil skirts. But how could we resist? This was a man with more knowledge about Tanki Flip than most. We were not going to let this opportunity pass us by. And so off we went, arriving to a giant tank of water in less than two minutes. Who knew this was just right across the street?
“Flip fell in and drowned,” Poor John informed us as we took in the scenery around the large body of water.
“I read about that story. Is it true?” I asked.
“SuUURRRe,” Poor John answered in his sing-song way. Then he explained that the drowning Dutch man is where the name Tanki Flip comes from. “Come and I show you where the angels lived. I’m a professional. I’m a shy pelican.” And off we were on an archaeological adventure with my eccentric neighbor.
Another two-minute drive around the corner, and we were on the side of a narrow dirt road, looking into a thicket of prickly desert brush that marked the beginning of our indigenous Aruba tour. I don’t think this place gets many tourists, I quietly thought. Poor John dove in and shouted back for us to follow. “Aquí,” he coaxed us on and on as he disappeared before us into a forest of spikes. We precariously followed suit, stepping on thorn laden branches covering the ground while balancing ourselves between vertical cacti jutting up all around the soft flesh of our exposed limbs. Carefully reaching for a few bare branches to steady our gait as we crouched under sharp spines that caught a hold of our hair, we finally made our way out of the barbed maze and into a cool open space where we could once again stand up straight. It was sort of like exploring caves that way.
Broken pottery pieces and shells littered the ground all around our flip-flopped feet. Some fully intact conch shells could be found interspersed in the rubble. I peered inside the shell and imagined the snotty feast. We picked up the pottery sherds and closely examined them, running our fingers over the smooth surface and jagged edges. What is this place? I wondered. Is it even real? It seems like something you would stumble upon in the pages of a book. But we weren’t in a book. We were right around the corner from my house stepping on remnants left behind in some kind of timeworn trash heap. This was one of many such sites he showed us as we made our way through the desert brush that day.
The way the people tell the history here, the Caquetio were the original inhabitants to build villages at Savaneta, Santa Cruz, and Tanki Flip. Then the Spanish came along and forced all the them to leave the Islas Inútiles (Useless Islands) and relocate to Hispaniola to work mines, only to return some back to the island a few years later. Most indigenous peole in the Caribbean were wiped out completely, so the fact that many people here have AmerIndian roots makes Aruba unique. Aruba has late 19th century Dutch accounts of native life operating much the same way it had for centuries. Life at Tanki Flip is one of those accounts; I’d love to read it one day.
The best source to learn more about the indigenous cultures in Aruba is the National Archaeological Museum of Aruba, which has been closed since we tried to visit last Spring. Something about a faulty air system that needs repairing is what they tell us. So we are patiently waiting for that to reopen. Meanwhile, we have the name of an archaeologist living here on the island and plan to schedule some time to meet and speak with him about Tanki Flip. I have so many questions left unanswered. Apparently, the archaeological site of Tanki Flip is vast and Poor John tells us that is why no one is allowed to build there.
Yesterday, I went back around to feed the dogs. As I was leaning over and pouring dog food for the skinniest of the group, Tromp jumped up on to me from behind and nearly knocked me over. He left a dusty print on the back pocket of my pants from his dirty paws (the association between this dog and the US president has not escaped me). I offered him a little bit of food since he was clearly perturbed by my helping his starving clan. Me first would be his words if he could speak. He took a snobby sniff of the crunchy bits and was no longer interested. “He won’t eat off the ground.” Poor John explained.
Meanwhile, the two others from his pack were devouring the food along with clumps of sand most likely. “What is his name?” I asked as I was feeding one of the hungry dogs. “Flip,” Poor John responded. “He’s named after the Dutch man from the tank.”
Perhaps there is something to your destiny being intertwined with your name. Poor Flip never stood a chance with that name. How can I save him from his fate-locked misfortune? Or at least convince Tromp that he clearly has the advantage in this situation and teach him how to share with others in need.
Whenever people I meet here ask me what Texas is like, I proudly tell them everything I love. I start with the sky, how it seems to go on forever and is just as expansive as the landscape below. Then I might give a detailed description of BBQ, or the wildflowers in the spring, or Big Bend National Park, or the Cypress trees along the river banks, or Willie Nelson and Lefty Frizzell, or cities made of mirrors, or Hill Country swimming holes, or whatever Texas star falls into my mind at that specific moment in time. It’s especially entertaining to talk to Europeans about Texas, mostly because they do not even have words for some of the things that come up in conversation, like armadillos for example. Have you ever tried to explain what an armadillo is to someone who has no clue? It’s like a large rodent wearing armor. It’s like an anteater with bony plates. Eventually, you just give up and Google the image so that they can see what you are talking about. Then you bring an armadillo magnet back for your Dutch friend after a trip home for the holidays.
The armadillo is clearly a captivating creature because shortly after all of this talk about Texas and armadillos, two of my Dutch friends bought plane tickets and insisted I take them on tour of the Lone Star State. My plane left for Texas from Aruba one week after they arrived in New Orleans, so my advice to them was to take a bus from New Orleans to San Antonio where they could rent a car and loop around the Hill Country until I arrived. They’d bought a guide-book in Amsterdam about San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country, so I knew they would be fine without me for a few days. With its German influences and abundance of biergartens, I imagined they would feel a calm sense of European familiarity and be able to better ease into this Texas thing. Be sure to visit some swimming holes, I texted again and again from Aruba. They found their way to Blue Hole and Krause Springs. They even found Texas’ oldest honky-tonk, Gruene Hall.
My plane arrived in Dallas late Thursday evening after a full day of travel from Aruba through Florida. The next morning I drove down to Austin. The Dutch were in good spirits when I finally found them downtown. Our plan was to spend a weekend with my friends in Austin and then we would take off for West Texas. I’m grateful to my friends in Austin who took the lead there and planned a fabulous Friday and Saturday night out, along with a day spent at Barton Springs. Saturday night was a lot of fun, and we ended the evening dancing to “All my Exes Live in Texas” at the White Horse Saloon. Austin is the one city in Texas that is on everyone’s bucket list; people from all over the world want to see this music mecca. If all else failed on our tour of Texas, at least we’d made it to Austin.
Once we left on Sunday afternoon, I was totally on my own for the rest of the week, the sole native amongst two foreign tourists. There was a reversal of roles happening to what I was accustomed to living amongst the Dutch in Aruba. I was no longer the outlander on a Dutch island. The Dutch were my passengers now as we drove all over Texas, my home state.
We arrived in the west Texas town of Alpine late Sunday evening, which meant nothing would be open for dinner in this desert city with a population size of 5,988. The Dutch were optimistic, but I knew the pickings would be slim. We drove around for a while and checked every restaurant on the main street. As we were driving, I spotted a Sonic and filed it away in my mind as a last resort.
“We can always eat at Sonic if we can’t find anything that is open,” I said, reassuring myself more than anything that my friends would not go hungry.
“Sonic?” “What’s Sonic?” The Dutch asked after hearing this word for the very first time. It was like the armadillos all over again.
This was the precise moment when I realized the cultural differences between us were as big as the state of Texas. Amsterdam was another world away, and no matter how much my friends and I have in common—and we have a good deal in common— we were still born and raised in two different countries that seemed like two separate planets now. They would never understand Sonic. I laughed to myself even before I could explain what it was because I knew exactly where this was headed.
“Sonic is a place where you can park your car and eat,” I dutifully explained. They are all over the United States.
“Why would you want to eat dinner in your car?” The Dutch shot back. They were clearly baffled.
Europeans already think Americans spend too much time in their cars. They also think many Americans are fat and lazy. Sonic was not helping me to combat any of these stereotypes, not one bit. All of this came up quickly in dialogue back and forth between the three of us. I defended my land and people, “Look maybe some people who eat at Sonic are lazy,” I explained. “But most of the people who eat at Sonic are busy. Sometimes I stop at Sonic to get a grilled cheese when I am on my way from point A to point B with no time for dinner. It’s very convenient when you are rushing from one place to the next. Besides that, there is a nostalgic piece to this place,” I continued as we were already pulling up next to the car side speaker and menu. “Have you ever seen the movie American Graffiti?”
They had no idea what I was talking about and had never seen the movie. I told them about car hops on roller-skates and burgers and milkshakes. I told them about hot rods and hot dogs. None of it rung a bell. It was like I was speaking another language. And they did not believe my bit about convenience either. I’d never imagined my American culture being scrutinized this way at a Sonic of all places. I felt like an insect under a magnifying glass. It’s one thing to feel like an alien in another country, but it is a peculiar feeling indeed to feel like an alien in your native land. That was how it was at that precise moment. As much as I wanted to focus on the nostalgia in defense of it all, the truth was right in front of me as I looked around. There was no Ford Thunderbird or Coca Cola served in a glass bottle in sight. All I could see were giant white Suburbans and styrofoam cups, cups shoveled into and eventually thrown out of car windows. These were people eating dinner with their families inside cars while the engine was still running.
We woke up that morning and enjoyed the cool dry desert air, a drastic change from the Tropical Zone where we live. We plotted out our course of action over breakfast, which is the way my friends prefer to travel, never knowing what the next day will bring. They wanted to stay the night in Balmorhea and had already selected a motel. They had me call the number to the motel over breakfast in Alpine because there was no way to confirm the room online with a credit card number. The next thing I knew I was talking to a woman with a raspy Texan twang who confirmed they had a room available, but warned that she only accepted cash. “We can’t stay at this place,” I urged. They don’t even take credit cards. There isn’t a website. Have your read any of the reviews online?” Yes, the place had some mixed reviews, or so they explained, but they really liked the location because it was next to a river. River? What river?
In the European country of Norway, not far from the Netherlands, Texas is slang for crazy, as in lawless and out of control. I knew more so than my travel companions that we were about to see helt Texas, or completely crazy, as the Norwegians call it. There was no changing course now.
We stopped in Ft. Davis for coffee and pie on our way to Balmorhea, and I downloaded old country songs onto my iphone for the road, including a request for “All My Exes Live in Texas.” The scenery started to change as we entered the Ft. Davis Mountains. We spent the day at Balmorhea State Park, home to the world’s largest spring fed swimming pool, and I struck up a conversation with a guy while kicking around in the springs. He said he was here with his sister and pointed to a middle-aged woman with bright red hair who was snorkeling around us in a circle, much like a shark. I have no idea what was under the water, but it must have been mesmerizing because she never lifted her head up the entire time we were talking. The guy invited us back to his RV for lunch, but my friend was overwhelmed with this random familiar gab back and forth and hesitant to accept the invitation. “This is how we do it in Texas,” I explained. “Everyone is friendly here. You are going to get a lot of offers like this over the next few days.”We followed the man and his sister back to their RV and sat down to lunch at an adjacent picnic table. The sister served up ham sandwiches on white bread, tortilla chips with queso, and a box of chilled white wine. We soon found out this guy was a cop and had spent most of his career in South America, Narcos style. I guess you never know who you will meet in the Texas desert.
After lunch and another dip in the springs, we decided to go see this motel. Should we stay in Balmorhea, The Oasis of West Texas? Or would we hit the road to find better accommodations? The condition of the room would determine our fate. But when you are traveling with girls who are in the habit of choosing adventure over comfort, you know the answer before you even walk through the door of the motel lobby. I was traveling with the Dutch, and these people have a long history of traveling all over the world, a world that is mostly defined by third-world conditions. Wayward accommodations are like some weird challenge amongst seasoned travelers. Not even the Cactus Motel in Balmorhea could deter them.
I knocked on the lobby. A little old lady with cropped white hair opened the door and invited me inside to a room that looked exactly like a scene you might see on the TLC channel if you were tuned into an episode of “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” It smelled like cigarette smoke, and there was an ice cold open can of Miller Lite sitting on the counter. I asked if we could see where we would be sleeping before we paid, and we were led a few doors down from the lobby into a room that quickly passed the Dutch inspection, it was clean and just the right amount of whatever kind of quirky they were seeking to experience. We followed our Texan hostess back to the lobby, and I invited my friends to come inside with me so that I could pay for the room in cash while they took a look at the lobby, just in case it might change their minds.
With true Texas hospitality, our hostess invited us to come and watch her feed the turtles in the river out back after we settled in. After unloading our car and dropping the bags inside our room, we walked around the motel in complete awe as we inspected all of the junk on display, including a giant sign: We Don’t Dial 911 in Texas. The Dutch stopped to take a photo when the motel owner passed by holding a paper plate covered with aluminum foil. She crossed a little bridge built over a stream–clearly not a river– and called out to us from the other side, “Come watch me feed these turtles.” This seemed to somehow be the highlight of the day around here.
How could we resist? The turtles turned out to be the behemoth snapping kind, hideous monsters that were much too large for the murky creek where they resided. There was a clan of about 10 – 15 in the narrow shallow stream, and they were very active, spinning about one on top of the other—mating, or so answered the lady to the child standing next to her when the little girl asked what the turtles were doing. She tossed out one fried chicken drumstick after another and the turtles snapped their beaks upwards out from the water like crocodiles in the Niger River.
“Can they eat fried chicken?” I dubiously asked.
“Chinese food, burgers, pizza, they’ll eat whatever I bring ‘em,” she assured me.
I did all the talking. The Dutch seemed too stunned to speak; they just stood there with their mouths agape watching the helt Texas turtle orgy. They may have traveled all over the world, but they have never been to the Oasis of West Texas. I don’t think the small town of 479 gets too many European visitors. We had ventured far from the beaten path, and I felt fortunate to have found this lady. “She is quintessentially Texan,” I emphatically stated. “She reminds me of many Texan women I have known over the years.” She may have a lightbulb or two burned out on her string, but she lives by her own rules. You’ve got to admire that. She does not give a damn. No one tells her what to do. There are no rules to follow here in her world. Snapping turtles can eat fried chicken wings. The garbage does not need to go out today or even tomorrow, maybe some of this so-called garbage is not really garbage at all. Day drinking is acceptable, and cigarettes are still doctor recommended. She is the queen of her motel kingdom.
My friends wanted to go to the Balmorhea Lake to watch the sunset. We sat on a picnic table and laughed about the old lady and her turtles. We watched as three guys pulled up in their big white pickup truck, which is like the modern stage-coach in Texas. They eventually carried all of their fishing gear down to the lakeshore. We glanced over at them from time to time and made up stories about their lives, most likely escaping domesticity, we all agreed. After sunset, we decided that we needed to find a place to get dinner.
As we were headed back to our car, we heard one of the guys shout from across the way, “You girls want to have a beer with us?”
The Dutch looked to me for guidance. “Why not?” I answered. “You will learn a lot about this part of the world. Just think of it as a study in anthropology and be prepared to be offended,” I warned. “This is Trump country after all.” We’ve driven far away from the blue cities.
They offered us a Coors Lite and then asked if we wanted to see baby quails that they’d just rescued. One of the guys darted to the pickup bed and brought back an empty case of Dr. Pepper, which served as a makeshift home for the baby birds. The Dutch doted over the baby quails. I told them that quail would most likely show up on their dinner menu soon. After drinking a beer and a playing a guessing game as to the whereabouts of these strange accents from the mouth of these foreign girls, we remembered that we needed to eat dinner.
“You are never going to find anything open at this time,” one of the self-proclaimed country boys stated.
“Why don’t you call your friend at that place over off Interstate 10 and ask her to keep the kitchen open,” asked one of the other.
After a cell phone call on the side of the road, we were off to Saddleback Steakhouse for dinner. The Dutch loved the place because of the western ambiance, and the food was really tasty as well. We ordered up burgers and fried pickles, which really hit the spot since we were starving. We listened to stories about guns and hunting. We investigated cell phone pictures of deer with their brains blown out. The Dutch asked a lot of questions. They were authentically interested in hearing about the everyday lives of these men, especially their work on oil rigs. I was on edge the whole time once gender roles and homosexuality came up in conversation, but I guess neither group was too terribly offended, because after a few tense moments of heated debate–when these two girls from Amsterdam were clearly not going to put up with any bullshit about denying gay rights–we were all off to the Circle Bar next door for another Shiner and a game of shuffleboard.
Early the next morning, we were headed south to Presidio to take the River Road, or FM 170, to Terlingua. We drove down Highway 67 until we saw the Mexican flag across the border in the Mexican city of Ojinaga. “We had lunch in Mexico the last time I was here, but it is too dangerous along the border these days to cross over” I explained. From there, we filled up the tank and headed east. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that no one else was on that road but the three of us. It’s like no one in America knows that road exists. It’s one of the most scenic drives in the country, and I’ve never seen anyone else driving on it the two times I’ve taken it. The water flows between two worlds the same way it has for generations. A river that is home to history as epic as the rugged scenery on either side of it. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and it is completely abandoned. “How is Trump ever going to build a wall here?” the Dutch asked as they took the wheel to drive the roller coaster road.
We arrived to Big Bend that afternoon around 3:00 PM and hiked up the Lost Mine Trail and then headed back to Terlingua in time for dinner at Starlight Theatre, Restaurant, and Saloon. My friends ordered the mixed grill: venison, wild boar sausage, grilled quail, and 7 oz filet. After a delicious dinner and unforgettable ambiance, we headed back to the hotel to get some sleep since our tour the next morning was scheduled for 11:00 AM in a neighboring town about the driving distance of the state of Delaware.
I was getting dressed for bed when I heard a loud shriek and then turned around to watch as a giant scorpion scurried in our room through the front door. This scorpion was as big as the lizards that dart about sporadically in my yard back in Aruba, and we all froze in fear, giving the tiny beast time to hide inside our luggage. I knew I had to protect my friends from the West Texas predator. None of us would be falling asleep until he was dead. I spotted a pair of platform shoes and grabbed one to use as my weapon. Shaking every last article of clothing from the luggage, I jumped as the scorpion finally dropped to the floor. I hovered above it just long enough to channel my innate Texan valor, took a deep breath, and then clobbered the creature against the concrete. He was still alive when I lifted the shoe–writhing about in agony. His size made him more difficult to kill, but the wide sole of this stylish shoe had easily made its target. I took another smack at the beast and he was flat dead, the poison shot in a stream across the floor.
The next day, I drove faster than double struck lightning all the way to Marfa. Even so, we still did not make our tour on time. There is just too much space to cover when driving from one town to another in West Texas. Luckily, there was another tour in an hour, so we went to Hotel St. George for a cup of coffee to kill time before the tour began. After we were back to Chinati and on tour, we had just finished the part with the bunkers that house the Dan Flavin lights when our docent stopped to tell us that we would all be going to our cars and following her downtown for the second part of our tour. “You Americans and your cars,” my friend nudged me. “What is with your country and cars?” “You drive in your cars on museum tours,” they both laughed. I really had no answer for this question except that much of life in Texas is unpredictable and unexpected, and I reckon’ I like it that way. That and there is too much distance between places in a state the size of the country of Spain.
We ate lunch at The Food Shark after touring Chinati and splurged on a nice hotel in Marfa, The Hotel Paisano. The rest of the day was spent walking around town. Sunset was spent at the Lost Horse Saloon and then off to see the Marfa Lights, which were very active that evening. We took off the next morning for a long drive back to Dallas through Midland, or Mansland as the Dutch called it. I stopped in Sweetwater, Texas so that my foreign friends could sample authentic BBQ. Then I made my way through the bright light city maze that is downtown Dallas and to my childhood home on Goliad Street. I told my friends about the Battle of Goliad, otherwise known as the other Alamo, as we drove down my street. My dad stayed up late to welcome us.
The next few days were a whirlwind of activities in Dallas. There were tours of the Dallas Museum of Art and the Modern Art Museum of Ft. Worth, along with the Ft. Worth Stockyards. We went to the Continental Avenue Bridge, and Reunion Arena, and Gilley’s, and Deep Ellum, and out to eat for Tex Mex, and chicken fried steak. My friends sampled the John Wayne at our staple neighborhood restaurant, Gold Rush Cafe. One of the last things the Dutch requested was a trip to WalMart. It was their last night in town, and we had just seen a movie at the Angelika. It was over a late night conversation drinking coffee and eating dessert after the movie that they pleaded with us to take them to Walmart. And so my dad and I realized we could still fit Walmart in on the itinerary. “There is a 24 hour Walmart near our neighborhood on I30. You are guaranteed to find what you are looking for there.” I assured them.
“What was your favorite thing about Wal-Mart?” I asked as we were driving home well after midnight.
They answered right away without a second thought,“The lady pushing the cart with several giant rolls of carpet jutting out of it in every direction.”
“Why was she your favorite?” I asked.
“Why does she need to buy all that carpet right now? It’s 11:53 PM at night. What is she doing in there? Why isn’t she asleep?” They had never-ending questions about American consumerism and culture.
“You can find anything you want anytime of the day in the United States, guns, carpet, humidifiers.” I boasted. Welcome to America. I hope you have enjoyed your stay.
Wal-Mart was a weird and wacky ending to a wild tour.
The school year just ended, along with a two-year commitment I signed up for when I agreed to move to Aruba back in March of 2015. I remember telling friends around that time that I just needed to go live on a Caribbean island for a couple of years and clear my head. I’d dealt with a lot of loss in 2014. It’s all part of life I know, but 2014 really delivered punch after punch. I knew I needed to focus on all the things in life I could do instead of those things in life I had lost or would never have. Moving to Aruba with that mindset turned out to be a powerful formula for pushing myself forward to survive many challenges that could have knocked me out completely. Here I am on the other side of it all, and I have decided to stick around on this island a little longer because I feel like I still have so much to discover and learn, not only about Aruba and all the nearby places to travel in South America and the Caribbean, but I also still need to figure out where it is I go from here. I’m not certain what the next step will be, but here are a few truths that I know for sure now after living here:
1. Keep a machete under your kitchen sink. It’s useful for gardening, especially whacking the palm leaves of coconut trees. But it also can be used to protect yourself, or so explained my neighbor when he gave it to me.
2. Books are disappearing. Or maybe it just feels that way when you live on an island because books in English are rare and people here tend to hold on to them until the musty brown pages fall apart. Living life with these relics makes you feel like books have already vanished from our world. Something about all of this has me reading more now than ever, as if I am in a race to read up all the books I can before they are gone forever.
3. Travel really is the best form of therapy. Nothing compares to travel when you are trying to figure out the deeper meaning of life. It puts everything into perspective. The world is beautiful and disastrous at the same time. It isn’t a perfect system, but travel always makes life seem more like an amusement park than anything else. And it inevitably lets you see everything through the same lens you used as a child.
4. If you are moving to a desert island, be sure to bring a supply of bedsheets. You won’t find any with the thread count available in the States. It is probably a good idea to bring towels as well.
5. Plastic has got to go, along with American consumption. You will see the devastation up close anytime you walk along a shoreline that isn’t in the tourist areas, obscene amounts of plastic swallowing up every pebble of sand. What are we doing to our planet? We only think we need this stuff. After living without all the things you used to buy as an American consumer because these things are hard to come by on an island, you realize you never needed all that stuff in the first place.
6. My life is different from what my mother experienced. And even more so than the life my grandmother lived. As a daughter of the Women’s Movement, I was taught to get an education and build a career before anything else so that I could be financially independent. Only it can be a challenge to make the marriage and family pieces fall together in the few, short years you have left after you have done all of the above. I could blame myself for not reaching each major milestone on time, or I could give myself some slack because I was born to the first generation of women navigating our way across this new and unchartered sociocultural landscape. Regardless, I’m learning that there are more women than I realized who are walking in my how did I get here shoes. I also found out that the Dutch tend to skip the marriage part altogether, especially the big expensive wedding. Maybe American women could use a little less pressure and a lot more flexibility when it comes to putting all the pieces together.
7. You can’t get away with wearing anything less than SPF 50 on your décolletage. Repeat after me, you can’t get away with anything less than SPF 50. Don’t even try. And don’t forget to put sunscreen there because you routinely put SPF 30 everywhere else, so you skip that part of your body out of habit until you can dig around in your beach bag to find SPF 50, but then someone asks you a question or offers you a Balashi and the applying sunscreen thing never happens. Ouch! Which brings me to truth number 8.
8. Aloe Vera is a miracle plant. It is a cure-all for all that ails your epidermis and can be taken internally to strengthen immunity and fight inflammation. And coconut oil could receive an honorary award behind aloe. After that, a trip to the beach can cure just about anything, but you won’t be able to go if you do not follow truth number 7 above. I’m grounded from the beach today as a result.
9. Normal is boring. This is what I tell myself anyway when dealing with my family. I know everyone says that their family is nuts, but mine is the extreme kind of eccentric, as in certain behaviors border on seeking out answers to question such as, is this safe, is this legal, and when do I consult an expert or an authority? I’m pretty much upfront and honest with all of my friends about my dysFUNctional family, and I depend on my friends quite a bit for support since I am an only child. Friends in Aruba tell me again and again that having a normal family would be boring. It is such a relief to give up on normalcy. And at least I know I will always have a story to tell even if I am stuck in the middle of Kansas somewhere. My family and upbringing have certainly provided an endless amount of material.
10. Develop island time patience. You have no other choice; otherwise, you may experience a rise in blood pressure or some other stress related symptom. Nothing runs on time here. A store may or may not be open when they say they will. You will wait for hours in government offices, and they always shut down early on Fridays, as in they will be closed even though you left work early to rush and arrive thirty minutes before closing. I just went to pick up laundry a few minutes ago, and the laundromat was completely shut down at 11:30 when the sign posted clearly states that they are open from 8:00 – 2.00. My frustration becomes a little less so every time something like this happens. Daily life on an island is like some kind of ongoing zen practice. You have to learn to expect delays and respond with calmness and, then, depending on the situation, utilize some creative thinking skills. As of now, I have no clothes, but maybe that means I get to go shopping for a truly original piece at one of Aruba’s many boutiques. Perhaps some kind of synthetic off the shoulder number in pink or yellow neon.
Lately, I find myself looking back to those first few weeks when I arrived here in Tanki Flip. I remember the first night I moved into this house. The space was totally empty except for a bed that had just been delivered that afternoon and six suitcases, suitcases that I had stayed up all night packing in Dallas before an early morning flight to Aruba. I had tucked away some nostalgic items in my luggage for the new place: a framed picture of my mother as child with pigtails and on horseback, a coffee mug that belonged to my grandmother, a tin retablo of the Virgen de Guadalupe from Chimayo in New Mexico, a Graciela Iturbide print of Our Lady of the Iguanas, an oven mitt a friend brought back from Germany, and other such items as these. Anyone planning a move abroad should make space for these kinds of things while they are packing. They really helped me to cope those first few months, months that can leave you feeling both extremely euphoric and helplessly marooned on to another planet in a faraway galaxy.
That other planet faraway galaxy feeling came in waves, but especially whenever I would answer the knock at my front door. It was always my neighbor, Poor John. He is a native islander whose grandpapa once owned all of the cul-de-sac where my house stands, or so he claims. At first, he would bring me home cooked meals, usually involving some kind of fish that he had caught earlier in the day and a heaping slimy mound of an unidentifiable carbohydrate. This was before I bought a trashcan for the kitchen. And way before I had set up service to haul trash away to the garbage burning dump (Aruba burns its trash several times a week, and the first time I saw the blazing inferno I was certain a plane had crashed). There would be a knock on the door most evening, and I would open the door to yet another piping hot dinner plate. What am I going to do with this? No garbage disposal. No garbage can. No garbage service. I’m certainly not going to eat it. It smells like feet inside the shoes of a very old man. In addition to his culinary masterpieces, he might bring multiple loaves of stale, sometimes molded, bread or a fish with eyeballs looking at me through a plastic bag. “Put it in your freezer and fry it up for dinner,” were his instructions. Eventually, my freezer just filled up with so much fish that I couldn’t fit anything else inside.
He also brought lots of gifts. Once he brought a bag of miniature combs, each individually wrapped, the kind you might receive if your were going to have your portrait taken at Olan Mills, circa 1976. His gifts were always really random that way. He would give me things for the kitchen like a wooden spoon or a single pepper shaker. Once he even brought a mini coffee press. A calendar of scantily clad women posing with sports cars. A machete. Then the gifts became more sentimental. A mug with a Hallmark style romantic message painted around and around. Or a stuffed teddy bear. Maybe a shiny bracelet. These types of gifts were beginning to make me uncomfortable. “I want to marry you, Jennifer.” he would profess. “I respect you.” I corrected him about my name many times, but he never remembered and insisted on calling me Jennifer. Finally, I thought that Jennifer was close enough, both Tiffany and Jennifer were cliché American names for girls born in the 70s and 80s. The gifts abruptly came to an end after I repeatedly declined invitations to his house for dinner. Then I began to ignore knocks at the door. Eventually, Poor John stopped coming around altogether.
Months and months passed and then he was suddenly back out of nowhere. My friend and I watched as we backed out of my driveway while Poor John seemed to be working on one of his many projects in front of my house. He had already spray painted red circles on each side of the property line. Then he drove a wooden post into each circle. Now he was working on tying a rope around one post and pulling it taut to the other end as we were driving away. “What is he doing?” my friend asked. “I have no idea, it could be either a ritual to curse me or protect me. I’m hoping for the latter.” Whatever it was it seemed to cure him of his love sickness and the proposals of marriage stopped. He started watering all the plants again and asked if I wanted him to trim the coconut trees. Thankfully, things now operate much the way it should between neighbors.
These days we seem to have a mutual understanding, and we have developed a coexisting cul-de-sac respect for one another. He knows I will never marry him, but that he can usually get about $25 Florin from me on a regular basis—along with all the coconuts and mangos that he can shake from the treetops—in exchange for weekly watering and occasional weed whacking. I know that I need the help around the house. I appreciate his creative talents and problems solving skills. Whether it is a pipe that he has rigged up so the shower water does not drain out into the side yard or a garden archway that he has designed for the front gate entrance, these things bring function and aesthetic to my little home here. And I am also intrigued by the history that he has experienced here on the island. I asked him yesterday if he would be our guide this fall on an archaeological tour of Tanki Flip to show us all the native trails and sites.
I’m really thankful Poor John is around to help out with things. In the beginning I didn’t know if it was going to work out between us, but he has turned out to be a very good neighbor. This house in Tanki Flip could easily be my favorite place that I have ever lived. It is feeling less and less like another planet these days and a lot more like home.