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talk to strangers in another language

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Typically, these travel posts recount every detail, but I’m not sure that is the best formula for this trip since some moments felt like someone was driving an ice pick into my knee. No one needs to read about that kind of anguish; the world is full of enough suffering as it is. Efforts instead will be focused on peculiar twists and turns that make traveling worth the hardships. Moments that were made possible because of adherence to a travel philosophy of sorts, one that is irrepressible and cannot be thwarted by an injury. Mapping out so many unforgettable quirks stumbled upon during our journey this summer, it’s easy to link each of these experiences back to some basic ground rules we follow each time our plane touches down.

A drink is in order once you’ve crossed a border – Arrival time is not a factor here. Crossing an international border is always exhilarating. Everything changes with one arbitrary line. Keep that momentum going to the closest bar and order whatever drink it is that sets this country apart from the rest. A pisco sour will do the trick in Chile. An inky Malbec makes sense in Argentina. In Santiago, where our plane landed well after midnight, we ended up in the only place left open near our hotel. We noticed it was packed out with 20 somethings as we entered into an expansive space the size of a concert hall. The air was thick and hazy with cigarette smoke. The music was loud enough to make everything shake much the same way an earthquake tremor might in this part of the world. People were doing drugs on the table next to us. We followed the lead of the locals huddled in groups all around and ordered beer served in 40-ounce bottles. We’d been dropped from the tropics that morning into this seedy winter scene late at night. It was all kinds of insane in there, and we are both entirely too old for all that unfolded, but I will look back fondly on those first few moments in Chile. It sure beats climbing under the covers and going to sleep in our hotel room.

Attend a foreign film festival on the plane – It goes without saying that you should probably learn some of the history and culture as it relates to where it is you are about to set foot. Learning the language is also helpful. I do, however, realize that we are all busy people trying to cram too much into the mere 24 hours that make up each turn of the axis. And I also know the world is vast and infinite, and once you get out into it, it is clear that we as humans are small in comparison and incapable in our mortal existence of knowing everything there is to know. If all else fails, at the very least take time to watch a movie inflight and en route to your destination. A six-hour plane ride gives more than enough time for a double feature, ideally back to back films made in the country where the flight is headed. After boarding our flight on Latam Airlines from Santiago to Easter Island, I perused the movie selection for Neruda. Since that film was not on the menu, I lined up two others that I wanted to see from the choices presented, which included Fantastic Woman (Chile) and El Presidente (Argentina), both countries on our itinerary.  

Forge your own adventure on a foreign land  – I’m not a fan of tour groups. I hate all inclusive resorts. Adventure is rarely found in such slated scenarios. Sometimes it is necessary to travel following the expert lead of a tour guide. Trekking through the Atacama Desert comes to mind; It would be stupid to go the driest spot on Earth alone. Or stargazing in the Elqui Valley, I could never find the llama in the night sky unless a professional was there to point it out to me. But, generally speaking, when it comes to travel, the best experiences are usually had when you forge your own path.

Even better, rent a car and take off into the unknown behind the driver’s wheel. Driving in another country is an adventure in and of itself. Driving all over Easter Island even more so, and renting a car there is a piece of cake. Just step inside any tourist shop and after a swift exchange of a few Spanish words and penciling in of a short form, the car keys will be handed over to you within minutes. The caveat here is that there is no such thing as insurance on the island so any damage to the vehicle will have to be paid in full before leaving. But no need to worry because once you get out of town the island is pure nature in its raw form: untouched, untainted, and unspoiled. The only hazards to be found out there are wild horses. They will block the road from time to time, so either find a way off road and around or patiently wait for them to move.

If you do forgo the tour guide and group, don’t skip reading up on the history. I bought A Companion to Easter Island: A Concise Guide to the History, Culture, and Individual Archeological Sites of Rapa Nui, and it was worth every Chilean Peso. Some of my favorite nuggets on Pascua de Isla that are stranger than fiction can be found in this book. Here are six of the best in a nutshell, and chronological sequence, of course.

1) The first people (around 20) to arrive on Easter Island did so after a 2,000-mile journey by boat from another Polynesian island, packing up all the provisions they would need to begin a new life there. 2) The moai are actually carved in the likeness of recently deceased ancestors to stand erect forever, looking out over the village where their descendants reside. 3) Much of what we know about Easter Island comes from the accounts of European explorers: The first being a Dutch explorer who named the island because he landed there on Easter Sunday, the second a Spaniard who claimed the whole island for Spain but then never returned, and the third was James Cook who found a deplorable scene of devastation and fighting amongst the islanders, leaving many moai toppled and destroyed. 4) Each year rivaling tribes on Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, would send their fittest and finest athletes to compete in a birdman competition, one that required the men to plummet from a cliff top into the tumultuous Pacific Ocean and swim to a distant islet where they would scale up trees, frantically searching bird nests for the first sooty tern egg of the season. The first athlete to make it back to the island and climb the rocky cliff back up top to the village of Oranago with the egg fully intact and safely secure inside a reed basket attached to the top of his head won the much-coveted title of birdman or tangata manu. Then those drab Christian missionaries came along and put an end to all this birdbrained nonsense. 5) The Spanish raided the islands for slaves to work guano mines along the coast of Peru. Eventually, Tahiti put pressure on the Peruvians to return the islanders to their homeland, and of the thousands of islanders snatched, only a dozen returned safely back to Rapa Nui. 6) And finally, during the 20th century, the entire island was a sheep ranch where 70,000 sheep roamed. The natives were confined to Hanga Roa, the main town, while the sheep had the run of the place.  

Eat where the locals go –  The best places are found by simply asking people who live there. It’s also helpful to have done a bit of research on local dishes to sample before ordering anything off the menu. I had a rough list typed into notes on my iPhone for both countries that included: pastel de choclo, empanada, cazuela, porotos granados, ceviche, humista, chorillana, chacarero, asado, and alfajores. One of our best meals in Santiago was at Galindas in the Bella Vista district. It was recommended to us by a German adventurer who used to lead groups on treks through the Andes but has since settled down and opened a hostel, which became our home away from home since we stayed there multiple times after arriving at the airport in Santiago on three separate occasions. Upon entering the front door, Galinda was elbow to elbow without a seat left in the house and not one tourist in sight, all good signs. We ordered humitas (sort of like tamales) and porotos granados, which is a bean stew with mashed corn, pumpkin, basil, and red pepper and pork sausage. Sabroso!

Tune into the soundtrack of your trip – Inevitably, there is a soundtrack that separates each travel from the next. If it isn’t clear if one exists or not, set out to make one by infusing music with your travel experience whenever possible. Find a festival to attend. Walk into a place where live music is playing. Follow the music and let it lead the way. The soundtrack for Valparaiso, a chaotic kaleidoscope of a city, was extraordinary and enduring. The screeching seagulls while walking the city streets late at night reminded me of a Hitchcock film. Blaring commentary and intermittent cheers filled the city because the World Cup was in full effect. Our most memorable of these experiences took place in Bar Ingles, a place filled to the brim with enthusiastic fans. Argentina was up against France that afternoon and the passion was palatable. Another spot, La Playa Bar, was like a time machine with an old Victorian bar that seemed to extend an entire city block, complete with an equally expansive mirror behind it. Bo Diddley turned up as part of the rhythm and blues line up they were playing that evening. Wes Montgomery belted out Satin Doll when jazz dominated the playlist another night. Hearing both of those tunes was surreal for me, as it presented an unforgettable juxtaposition of two worlds.

Visit a city that wasn’t part of the plan – La Serena was that city for us this go around. We wanted to avoid a 24-hour bus trip from Valparaiso to San Pedro de Atacama. Texting with a friend from Amsterdam, messages were sent advising a stop in La Serena to explore the nearby Elqui Valley. We experienced a good deal of Chile that would have been missed otherwise. Without stopping in La Sirena, we would have never seen the llama in the glittering night sky, one of many dark constellations pointed out to us on a stargazing tour. And since the Elqui Valley is a premier destination for stargazing, due to its high altitude and very dry air, we saw more of space than we will probably ever see again in our lifetime. There would have also been no tour of the pisco distillery if we did not add La Serena to our itinerary. Pisco is an integral part of the landscape and culture in Chile, so definitely worth learning about if on tour there. We also met a new friend from Belgium on the pisco tour who popped up serendipitously throughout the rest of our travels.

It’s always worth waking up early – Some people spring up and shoot out from the bed as the first ray of sunshine beams through the window. I will never miraculously become one of those people. Admittedly, I am a danger to myself and others upon rising due to a condition which I have Internet diagnosed as sleep inertia. A condition that manifests itself by robbing victims of the necessary cognitive and motor skills to operate as a fully functioning human person for at least 15 minutes after waking. This affliction can only be cured with exactly five sips of strong coffee. Unfortunately, we were not in Colombia and any coffee to be found in this part of South America was of the instant variety. With that, it is really important while traveling to fight these not a morning person tendencies with every fiber of willpower you can muster up because sleeping in will put you at risk for missing out on spectacular moments. One such moment on this trip was the Tatio Geyser Field. This marvel of earth science only occurs at sunrise so you have to board the bus at a highly unreasonable 5:00 AM. It will also be well below freezing where you are headed, but that biting chill will be what eventually wakes you up without coffee. Rest assured that the geysers are worth every uncomfortable moment.

Talk to strangers in another language – I am big on talking to strangers. I find people fascinating, even more so when they are from another culture. One of my favorite evenings on this trip began with a spontaneous moment stepping inside a random shop while walking down the street in Salta, Argentina. After making our way along a musty interior corridor inside said shop, which led us to a maze of vast open spaces, one after the other, each filled to the brim with Spanish colonial antiques, a tall and oddly handsome man greeted us out of nowhere–perhaps he stepped out from inside one of the many giant antique relics. He could easily be a persnickety butler from a macabre tale. His Spanish was incoherent and garbled, and not for a lack of comprehension on my part. Something seemed to be impairing his speech, something stowed away inside his cheek much like a chipmunk’s stores a surplus food supply in its pouch. At first, I thought he had a deformity, and then I realized his cheek was stuffed with coca leaves. After a few steps to backtrack where it was we entered this strange world, his enthusiastic friends waved from a tiny room just to the right of the front entrance. They were holding a makeshift party to celebrate Argentina Independence Day. The mottled crowd quickly ushered us in with an invitation to join the party, offering each of us a glass of Malbec, a handful of coca leaves, and lapel pins of the Argentinian flag to attach to our jackets.

We had fun with this cast of characters, and speaking the language truly served as a gateway to a world we would have never had access to otherwise. We were introduced to the polite and intelligent lawyer. Another friendly type with an ear to ear grin claimed to be an actor, admitting that he only landed roles in Chilean B movies. His friend was from Bolivia and worked as a facilitator in the mining business. There was even a poet in the mix, a man of words who sang the praises of Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Chipmunk man was a chef, but also the sole heir to this deep-rooted family business in antiques. After taking an inventory around the cozy room where we were now seated, the business also seemed to be selling fine wine, handwoven textiles, and various artisan works that included small sculptures of Jesus and duende dolls. But the one item that seemed to really drum up business was coca.

We talked until the twilight street outside, busy with traffic and pedestrians shuffling back and forth, turned dark. At one point Chipmunk left the room to make a homemade pizza from scratch and proudly presented it to all of us to enjoy, complete with gourmet toppings. It hit the spot because everyone was starving. Eventually, we stepped out on to the town to a nightspot our new friends wanted us to visit.

Plan for an opulent escape in accommodations – Traveling for five weeks, it’s important to mix up the accommodations somewhat. A few hostels early on can be tolerated, and are economically practical when traveling to popular destinations where nightly rates can be upwards to $200. A boutique hotel here and there should be strategically booked after that. Add a bed and breakfast to the mix as well just to round it all out. At some point, a luxury hotel is in order. They usually work well after the 2-week mark. By the time we reached Argentina, we’d been traveling thousands of miles well over two weeks without much of a plan. That type of travel begins to take a toll. We couldn’t bring ourselves to slum it in wine country, so we booked a room at a wine resort in Cafayate. The room was luxurious, the kind with high thread count sheets and numerous fat fluffy pillows. A view out the window of majestic mountains, endless vineyards, and Spanish ruins. And a breakfast spread for a king.

Don’t pack your cultural comforts and customs – Part of the beauty of crossing a border into another country is leaving your own cultural baggage behind. All those parts and pieces of habitual routines should definitely be thrown out for the time being, and perhaps reevaluated upon returning home. You will be much better off as a result. Open your mind to all that a new culture has to teach about the way a day on Earth can unfold from sunup to sundown. Everything about daily life is different. What you eat. What you drink. When you do so. How you get there. How you pay. What you say. The list goes on.

In Argentina, people sit for hours in the park at siesta sipping mate. Dinner isn’t served until 9:30 or 10. One evening we found ourselves eating a heavy asado meal at 10:30 at night. Afterward, we went for gelato next door. It was well after 11 PM and the gelato shop was jam-packed with Argentinians satiating their sweet tooth just before midnight, which is just after dinner in Argentina. The good news is blowing up your daily routine also give you a license to splurge. I don’t eat much sugar in my everyday life. I never keep ice cream in the freezer at home. Just look what ice cream did to Marlon Brando. Why take the risk? Who needs to resist that kind of temptation on a daily basis? But I do allow myself to indulge in desserts when traveling. I eat all the ice cream I want on the road. That evening I ordered a decadent scoop of Malbec and savored every bit of it.

Final deep thoughts on finding a Eucalyptus forest – One of my favorite moments driving Easter Island was through the Eucalyptus forest where cattle peacefully grazed on either side of the road as sunlight filtered in through the soaring branches all around us. The whole scene felt like something from a dream. There was no way to fully capture the moment inside a frame, so I didn’t even bother with the camera. Instead, I filed it away inside my mind as an image that will be easy to keep for the rest of my life, aided by the powerful sensory experience of the Eucalyptus scent, which I deeply inhaled after rolling down all the windows. It’s the kind of imagery that ensures you had a life fully lived without regret. Memories conjured up in those later years when you quietly assure yourself, I may have stumbled at times in this life with a few mistakes along the way, but at least I made it to the Eucalyptus forest on Easter Island.

 

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Texas is a Bridge

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The Wittliff is home to the largest collection of one of my favorite photographers: Graciela Iturbide. I found this gem of knowledge out at a SFMOMA exhibit, Photography in Mexico, on a trip to San Francisco years ago. The Wittliff is located at Texas State University in San Marcos and is worth a visit the next time you are driving between Austin and San Antonio. The curator there is exceptionally hospitable and generous with her time. If you notify her in advance, she will have a tower of oversized boxes stacked up on a table waiting for blissful contemplation. Then she will methodically open each box, conjuring up one enchanting image after another with her pristine white magician gloves.

I remember reading a book purchased at the Wittliff, one of those overpriced coffee table books with a plethora of glossy images, a book displayed on the coffee table in my previous life when I bought books to serve such purposes. Flipping through the book one afternoon, I read about how Graciela Iturbide chose the location in San Marcos to care for her life’s work because Texas represented a bridge for her between two worlds: Mexico and the United States.

That thought has always stuck with me. I like the idea of Texas being a bridge, and it makes me incredibly happy to call Texas home, knowing that so much Mexican tradition is woven in with everyday life here. Some of my favorite things about Texas are cultural traditions that have their roots in an undeniably spellbinding history, a time when Texas was once part of Spain and later Mexico. Texans may have thrown out Santa Anna, but Mexico still resonates here. The two worlds have always meshed and mingled on this Texas bridge, creating a unique culture that sets Texas apart from many other states, states that, quite frankly, are lacking such a riveting story to tell.

Texas is on my mind lately because I am stuck here a little longer than planned on a recent trip home. A ten-day trip turned into four long weeks. I had to have unexpected surgery on a knee that was injured while trekking through Chile and Argentina this summer. The silver lining here is that I have had ample time to catch up with friends and family over Tex-Mex, one of the many sublime effects produced in this land from the intermingling of worlds. Some people talk of a reverse culture shock that happens when traveling back to your home country. But a deep appreciation is brought about as well after a prolonged absence, as you start to see everything through the same lens you would use to explore any other place on the globe. After living in another country for a few years, you examine your hometown, or in my case ever growing and sprawling metropolis, through the eyes of a traveler.

I had lunch today at El Taquito, a place I frequent because they serve up an authentic plate of chilaquiles. It’s located on East Grand, one of my favorite streets in Dallas because my grandfather used to take me to a diner there when I was kid, but also because there is so much joy hidden behind the urban grit of the storefront windows all along that street. And a trip to El Taquito would not be the same without stopping in at the La Dulceria de las Americas to peruse the homemade piñata section. Each one truly is a work of art.

A few years ago, you had to walk all the way back, along dark corridors, to the very rear of the shop in order to find the artist’s workshop. The daughter of the store owner was usually there to turn on a series of lights, each switch illuminating a new masterpiece. I found out today that La Dulceria de las Americas recently moved one block south of El Taquito. The piñatas are still kept in a clandestine corner, actually a separate room altogether, and you still have to ask with a hushed tone to see them. This piñata making business is top secret and buying one often feels a little like participating in an illicit drug deal. Nowadays, the pinatas at La Dulceria de las Americas are piled up one on top of the other from floor to ceiling (business must be good), almost like hundreds of discarded toys thrown carelessly into a toy box. It’s a strange sight indeed, it’s tough to decipher what is what in there. And it feels as if the box is off limits somewhat, a restricted area if you will, so you have to just ask for whatever it is you want. I’ll take a unicorn if you have it. I am looking for a green flying dragon. Got any pink princesses? If they don’t have what you are looking for, I’m fairly certain it can be commissioned to be made.

It’s difficult to control over spending in that place. It’s custom to bring piñatas to any celebratory occasion in Texas, but I admit sometimes I bought them even without an occasion in mind, purchased purely for the master craftsmanship. I once bought a giant robot for my classroom along with a few tin foil covered red and gold seven-point star to hang from the ceiling. On another visit, I bought a very green witch. She was a Kermit the frog shade of green. Her sorceress attributes are hidden in the grainy black and white world I placed her in the photo below. I remember she was standing right next to a vampire inside the dulceria, whom the teenage daughter of the shop owner/ piñata master extraordinaire sullenly labeled a “wannabe” vampire. Eventually, I went back for the “wannabe” vampire because I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I thought grainy witch could use a companion; they seemed perfect for one another. I tied them side by side and they swung together in harmony, affixed to the branch of a tree. They were on display in the front yard in the weeks leading up to Hallow’s Eve, and then later in the backyard for months and months until the spring storms took them out.

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Legend has it that Marco Polo witnessed the first piñata in China (usually a clay oxen filled with seeds) and brought a few back for the Italians to recreate and acclimate into their Lent tradition. They quickly named it pignatta, something roughly translated to mean clay pot or fragile pot: linked to the Latin word pigna for pine cones or pineapples or something like that. The Spanish brought the tradition to the New World, but the Mesoamericans already had their own version that looked very similar. The Aztec honored their war/ sun god, Huitzilopochtli, by busting apart a clay pot filled with offerings of precious stones, beads, and berries. And the Maya had a game they played where blindfolded participants took turns hitting suspended clay pots with some sort of club. Like so many aspects of Mexico’s culture, the two traditions mixed to give us the colorful donkey that you whack with a stick while teetering unstably from side to side because someone has just blindfolded you and spun you around and around a hundred times. It’s great fun!

Another thing about Texas that I revere as much as the piñata is the mariachi band. An experience that is guaranteed to move your emotions. Mariachi originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which also happens to be the birthplace of tequila, as well as home to a variety of Mexican dog effigy vessels, among other things. So the next time you find yourself drinking tequila alongside a mariachi group because you can’t have one without another, take time to consider the mystery behind the origin of both of these words.

Tequila is said to be a Nahuatl word that describes the place of harvesting plants or perhaps the place of wild herbs or maybe even the place of tricks. Some say it means the place of ceremony since it describes the region where the sacred maguey plant was grown, which the Aztec fermented to make pulque. The maguey plant even had its own goddess, Mayahuel. Another story tells us tequila can be translated to mean the rock that cuts because tequila is located at the base of a volcano, Tequillan. Apparently, the path to Tequillan was littered with sharp obsidian that cut the feet of Indians.

The origin of the word mariachi is equally disputed. Historians have argued for years, but most believe the word has native roots, most likely the wooden platform that performers used. And like so many cultural traditions in Mexico, the Mariachi sound, referred to as son, was created from both native and Spanish traditions. Music was embedded in daily life in the ancient world of the Aztec, clay rattles and conch shells eventually gave way to Spanish guitars and brass horns. Bands were originally accompanied by dances, which varied by region, but all involving intricate footwork that kept syncopated rhythm with the musical instruments.

Today, the mariachi band shows up for those big moments in life, and as well at your table while eating Tex-Mex. The best spot on the Texas map to experience the latter is on the RiverWalk in San Antonio, which is where the picture at the top of this post was taken after my first visit to the Alamo. The next best place to experience the mariachi is at El Ranchito. It’s a restaurant on Jefferson Street in Oak Cliff, known for its fiestas, mariachis, and cabrito. And it brings in some of the best mariachi bands throughout the Southwest on a daily basis.

So there you have it, a bunch of useless information that you probably won’t remember, although I do hope you never forget that tequila has its very own god. And also that Texas is home to many Mexican traditions that some may argue never crossed the border because there was a time not too long ago when there wasn’t a border to cross. And as a fifth-generation Texan, the type in possession of a very worn 100 dollar bill from the Republic of Texas, passed along from ancestors who once lived in a state that was its very own country, I am forever grateful for our Mexican heritage. These traditions were created as well from intermingling cultures, native and Spanish, some of the best cultural traits usually are the result of two worlds meeting. Texas wouldn’t be the same place without them; it certainly would not be near as fun. I’ve always said the United States has so much to learn from Mexico when it comes to community and celebration. And if Texas is a bridge between both worlds, then it’s the perfect place to teach it.

Bogotá, bus rides, and a cobblestone plaza

 

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It was back to Colombia again over Spring Break. The city of Bogotá was our destination. We avoided Avior Airlines through Valencia this time since it was recently added to the EU ban list. Instead, we booked tickets with Panamanian Copa Airlines and enjoyed a relaxing journey from Aruba to Colombia, except for the sprint to catch our connecting flight at the airport in Panama City. The best thing about flying in South America is its retro effect, as in they serve you an in-flight hot meal and free booze. It feels as if you have been transported back to the 1960’s, back when they did this full-service kind of thing on airlines in the United States. I was waiting for a stylish flight attendant to offer me slippers and tuck me in under a blanket after dinner was served. Avianca, by the way, has the most glamorous flight crew throughout all of the Americas, quite possibly the entire planet: the flight attendants actually wear red capes and Bowler hats.

We landed in Bogotá that evening and hailed a taxi outside the airport. After an inquisition about cab fare forced upon our taxi driver by my Dutch travel mate while I haphazardly translated numbers from Spanish to English in rapid-fire succession, we held on tight for the roller coaster ride that we clearly were not paying more money for just because we were tourists. After twenty minutes of gripping the grab handle, we watched with anticipation as the stick shift choked up a steep street to our final destination in the Candelaria sector of the city. At the top of the hill, we were catapulted out from the back seat on to the narrow cobblestone sidewalk, weighted down by heavy backpacks and travel fatigue. Finding our footing after wobbling about in front of the hotel for a moment, we realized we had the right place but that the door clearly didn’t fit us. It was a door from a period long ago when people were a few inches shorter than they are today and the city didn’t regularly welcome visitors from a country that breeds the tallest people in the world.

My Spanish speaking skills have improved somewhat since our last trip to Colombia when we toured Medellín and its outskirts. It’s a work in progress, albeit progress that moves at the same pace it would take an ant colony to build a hill the size of a haystack. Checking into the hotel was my first test. Last time we survived on the twigs of Spanish words and phrases that I could comprehend and toss back out to get us from point A to B or safely checked into a hotel room at night. This time I actually understood everything one could ever want to know about Hotel Muisca as we checked into our room that evening. My face expression didn’t go blank every time the lady behind the counter started speaking. I listened attentively as she gave instructions and then answered her questions without pause, realizing shortly thereafter that progress had been made in the language learning endeavor.

We climbed upstairs to our room, changed clothes, and broke the first rule for women traveling in Bogotá: Don’t walk the city streets late at night. Actually, I’m the only one who tries to follow these rules. My Dutch friend shrugs them off as American created and spawned from ignorance and paranoia. What does your country know about this place? I agree with her for the most part, but there are times when I feel vulnerable, not as a result of my nationality, more so because of my gender. She got to the point where she just stopped responding to my comments. “I don’t think we are supposed to hail a cab on the city streets after dark in Bogota,” I would inform her, anxiously pleading a case to preserve my life as we walked along the side of a busy street under a shared umbrella while it was raining buckets. I heard nothing in response to my comment, just colossal drops pounding down all around us while cars rolled along splashing puddles of water. These are the moments when I ask myself silently: Am I really just a hysterical American or does my friend have some kind of a Dutch deathwish? That was the night we broke rule number two. Tonight it was time to break the first rule. We were walking to Plaza Churro de Quevedo. Who cares that it was almost eleven? It was time to venture out into the nightlife of Bogotá.

As is the case with most of the rules I break in life, I’m glad we did it or we would have missed out on a magical night. We both agreed Churro de Quevedo felt like a plaza in Rome. People were sitting on the steps all around us. How special it is it that you can find something like this in the Americas? No need to travel to another hemisphere to visit the Old World. Here century-old homes had become taverns, and so we stepped inside one to order a drink, climbing a narrow staircase that felt more like clambering up a ladder, which eventually led us up above to a cozy room. Dressed in layers and jackets, we were bundled up for a chilly evening outside, and the whole scene inside was quite gezellig, providing a much-needed contrast to the tropical Aruban heat where our day began. The room had an A framed roof and endless windows with wooden shutters opened up so we could take in the view of the plaza below. People were nestled into sofas all around us. This was somebody’s bedroom once.  And now here we were, hundreds of years later, arriving that evening on a jet plane and enjoying our first cocktail in beautiful Bogotá.

Arriving anywhere in Colombia at night is the only way to go because the morning sun brings a bit of magic as you step out to take your first blissful glimpse of where ever it is you have landed. And Colombia never disappoints. That first step outside is a gift in sight that will make your heart skip a beat, leaving behind a visual moment in your memory that will last forever. We discovered that we were high up on a hill with a breathtaking view of all of Bogotá beneath us. A never-ending expanse of buildings hemmed in by lofty mountains, all under a canopy of immense silvery clouds. It was Good Friday and we were headed to Plaza Bolivar, the largest in Bogotá. Nothing compares to finding your way to a plaza in a Latin America country on any given Catholic holiday, and this weekend just happened to mark a really important one on the calendar.

After taking in the ceremony, we were ready to visit Centro Cultura Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We made our way down the bustling street where crowds gathered around artists spray painting portraits of Christ on to the pavement while vendors sold fruits I could not identify. Once we reached the cultural center, I promptly went into the bookstore and bought a hardcover copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish.

Later that afternoon, we walked across the city to Monserrate and bought a ticket to take the cable car up to the top. We never did get in line because we never found the end of it. The whole city of Bogotá seemed to be waiting in line to go to the top since it was Good Friday and the cable car tickets were cheaper today because Jesus would want everyone to be able to go to the top of Monserrate, not just the wealthy. Giving up on that particular agenda item, we went back to the hotel and collapsed. We decided we were running low on fuel because we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so we made our way out the door and walked all around looking for a dinner spot that was open. We finally found a place and I compensated for our failed attempt to ride the cable car up a mountain by ordering a tamale that was as big as my head.

The next day we had 10 AM tour scheduled with Bogotá Graffiti Tour. These were my favorite few hours spent in the city and a definite must do for anyone planning a visit. The crowd was larger than expected, a group of about thirty to forty turned out under our meeting spot at the statue of Símon Bolívar in Parque de los Periodistas. Our tour guide took us all over the city and stopped frequently to deliver museum style lectures for the most famous of the city’s collection. The tour ended downtown in front of a classic piece by DJ Lu. Each iconographic detail from the city block length mural was deciphered by our expert guide so as to piece together the artist’s collective commentary on corrupt politics and social injustice for the tour group. From there, we went to Museo del Oro and Museo Botero, a full day soaking in all of the art that makes Bogotá such a special place.

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The next day was Easter Sunday. We packed up our bags and were on our way to the colonial town of Villa de Leyva with a stop at the Mercado de Las Pulgas de Usaquen en route to the bus station. Mercado de Las Pulgas de Usaquen is a Sunday flea market where we spent most of the afternoon perusing the maze of vendors selling artisan handicrafts and tasty food products and everything else imaginable. From there, we took a taxi to the bus terminal north of the city. Taking a bus in Colombia is an experience in and of itself. I’ve never seen another tourist on the many bus rides we’ve taken in Colombia. It’s my favorite way to travel because you can sit back and stare out the window, hypnotized by the beauty of the land. Once we boarded the bus, it began pouring down rain and so since I could not see beautiful land out the window, I became more interested in our bus driver.

We were sitting directly behind her, which gave me a clear view of her cell phone mounted next to the steering wheel. I had never seen a female bus driver in this machista society, especially one chatting on WhatsApp while piloting a behemoth bus down slick winding roads through the Andes in a torrential storm well after dark. I was completely transfixed by this character. She was a vivacious type, beautiful and flirtatious, who joked around with all the handsome men working for Expreso Gaviota, the name of the company painted on the side of the bus. She was in complete command over this machine and all the men who kept things churning along for this bus line. I had so many questions. Who was this woman? And how did she end up behind the wheel of a bus in this country?

My questions were eventually answered over the course of four hours during which I would steal random glances from her cell phone screen. At first, she used her phone to scroll through her playlist and select songs the same way anyone would as they set out on the first 100 miles of a road trip. That was when it was still daylight. Every once in a while she would chat with a friend via text or talking. Once we got closer to Villa de Leyva, the cars were at a standstill on the other side of this two-lane highway as thousands of people were returning to Bogotá from Villa de Leyva where they had spent Easter weekend. Then she began taking pictures of all the oncoming traffic and sending them off to others on WhatsApp. Eventually, as the sun set and darkness enveloped the land all around while the rain kept pounding down, she began to obsessively dial a number over and over and over again. Maybe women really shouldn’t be driving buses.  

My eyelids were heavy, but this compulsive act caught my attention and kept me awake. I noticed the name she kept dialing ended with Gaviota, so I assumed she was calling el jefe. But then I thought the behavior was indicative of a mind that was unstable enough to get one fired from a job as the only female bus driver between Bogotá and Villa de Leyva. I certainly would not be able to keep a job if I called my boss 15 times in a row. Now in addition to the question I had about how she got a job as a bus driver, I now had more questions about how she kept it. Eventually, someone picked up on the other end. “Papa,” she exclaimed. The mystery was solved just minutes before we arrived at our destination. She must be the heiress to the Gaviota fleet.  

We arrived late in the Boyocá town of Villa de Leyva and walked about 30 minutes to our hotel from the drop zone where the bus deposited us. Built in 1568, La Mesopotemia Hotel Colonial was once an old flour mill and staying inside this 450-year-old colonial house definitely transported us back to another era in time. I may have to add it to my list of top ten favorite places that I have ever stayed in Latin America. It even had a swimming hole on the grounds. Actually, all of Villa de Leyva has been declared a National Monument, and the entire town feels like a time capsule.

There are five details about Villa de Leyva that I find fascinating. First, the cobblestone square is the largest in all of South America. Second, there are fossils nudged inside random structures all over town. Its location is some kind of mecca for paleontologists and the earliest stonemasons thought the ammonites strewn about the environs of town could serve both decorative and structural purposes. They, therefore, embedded them into archways and cornerstones all over the place. Third, it is home to the lake where, according to Muisca legend, humankind emerged in the form of a woman holding a baby. The two carried forth from there and populated the entire planet and then turned into snakes, disappearing back into the water. Fourth, it is located near an archaeological site where the Muisca erected phallic stone monuments, which the Spanish named el infiernito (little hell) since they were horrified by these salacious stelae. Fifth, a bridge leading into the city was the site of a decisive legendary battle won by Simón Bolivar and his army of Patriots.

Our last day in Colombia was spent racing to take a wild tour of the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral and Andres restaurant in Chía en route back to Bogotá. In order to fit it all in, we had to make some insane bus transfers in the middle of nowhere. It just also happened to be pouring down rain yet again. It was another bumpy roller coaster ride along slippery mountain roads. Forget hailing a cab at night in the big city, the bus rides really are the most dangerous moments we’ve experienced throughout our travels in South America.

The first transfer occurred in Briceno, which was just an intersection where two roads met and a yellow bus was waiting for us on a street that we had to make a mad dash across in a torrential downpour. Zipaquira was quite the adventure, a salt mine cathedral that feels like traveling to a holy site in space, another world entirely and just one stop on the agenda for the day. After touring Zipaquira for a couple of hours, the sun was beginning to set. We still had two more cities to get to before our plane took off in six hours. Time was of the essence, but it would be better spent drinking a beer inside a restaurant and graciously accepting any kind of help the waiter who flagged us off the street could offer in order to get us into a cab before the sun dropped below the horizon.

After a bit of a buzz and just a sliver of sunlight left, we climbed into a cab and were on our way to the bus station. The cab driver insisted we would never find a bus to Chía, but we knew that wasn’t the case based on our past experience of stopping in every town from one destination to another when riding buses in Colombia. We boarded an empty bus to Bogotå at the station, and I sat up front so I could keep the lines of communication open with the bus driver and his cohort, who would jump out the bus at every intersection and shout out a long list of cities. I was in charge of Spanish, and my Dutch friend put her explorer genes to work by playing the role of navigator, periodically opening Google maps on her phone to make sure we were on the right route. We were extra vigilant on this particular stretch because we couldn’t miss our stop. There was the problem of being stranded in some strange city in the middle of the night, but then we also had a plane to catch before breakfast.

We made it to the restaurant, one that friends who have visited and lived in Bogotá all recommended. It was as strange and bizarre as the salt cathedral in Zipaquira. Two otherworldly experiences within 4 hours and two wild bus rides in between. It was one of those days where I felt like I am fully doing this living life thing. Like I’ve got it all figured out and it just doesn’t get better than this. Traveling anywhere in Latin American typically makes me feel this way, and we’ve gained a lot of practice over the past few years. With two trips to Colombia and a summer in Peru and Bolivia in the books, we are headed to Chile and Argentina for the summer in just a few weeks.

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bohemian roots and leaving genes

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There is always a story behind moving to an island. That’s the thing you soon realize after meeting enough people who live on one. There is a story about the mainland they left behind. A tale to tell about what brought them out to sea in the middle of nowhere. Most are not always forthcoming with their narrative, as in they won’t just come out and tell you the whole story, but there is always something to it. They might confide in you after a while, maybe after a few drinks. Or you may never find out what it was exactly. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure. I haven’t been able to pinpoint an exact moment from my own narrative. But it doesn’t stop me from asking. How did I get here? Which exactly was it from a series of events?

Maybe it simply started with a job offer. I remember asking for the weekend to decide on that Friday when I was expected to answer yes or no. I would have a decision by Monday. I just needed 48 hours. The next day I was looking around my house for a photograph. After searching that Saturday afternoon through the designated boxes for photo storage to no avail, I pulled down a vintage suitcase perched high on a shelf in the spare bedroom closet. It was stuffed full of letters and cards, the kind delivered to mailboxes before the Internet came along. I never did find the picture, but my then boyfriend randomly pulled a piece of newspaper from the suitcase, which had been left open on the sofa. “What is this?” he asked. It was an advertisement for the placement agency that had helped me to get the job I was now deciding whether or not to accept. The copy enticed teachers: Make the world your classroom. I’d clipped it in 2005 and here it was being passed from his hand to mine in 2015, ten years later. Some kind of sign I guess. We both thought so anyway. “It seems this is something you have always wanted to do,” he said, selflessly encouraging me to do so. 

Or maybe it started on October 30th, 2014, five months before that weekend. My grandmother was moments away from her own departure, and there I was sitting next to her, eyes filled with tears, holding her fragile hand and saying a long goodbye as if we were standing on a platform waiting for her to board a train. I remember telling her that she hadn’t danced in years and now was the time to go and dance again. “Go to Paris and dance,” I whispered so as to guide her to courageously climb aboard. “You’ve never been to Paris, and you worked for years to master the French language,” I told her these things while I thought to myself that today was the day she had to leave. Tomorrow would not be a good day for dying. Tomorrow would be October 31st, Halloween. I worried about her getting mixed up in the cross traffic of ghosts and goblins. I didn’t want her on the roads between here and wherever she was headed with all those vampires and witches. Yes, she definitely needed to leave today. Her body could not hold on until November 1st. Halloween is definitely not a day for dying. It would be a better day for me to spend at the Greenwood Funeral Home planning her burial.

I sat in the director’s office at that funeral home on Halloween day for a surreal span of time, shocked and grief-stricken while trick-or-treaters began to file out late that afternoon on to the streets outside. The doors swung open and closed as eccentric funeral home types stepped in and out to introduce themselves and ask my family a million questions. They seemed to me like real Halloween ghouls who had come to snatch my grandmother and steal her away, carry her off in a polished wooden box to their eternal lair. An old woman with layer upon layer of mascara and wispy orange hair came in to ask about makeup. My aunt, clearly baffled, asked, “Who needs makeup for a closed casket funeral?” A tall pale gangly man dressed head to toe in black came in to ask questions about religion. It was a question that made my family uncomfortable, so they promptly put me in charge of all that stuff, abandoning me to meet with this man of God all alone the next day. My grandmother never specified much about the religious nature of the service, but only wrote in her instructions that we read an excerpt from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, something about how death was like a dance. Although she did not adhere to any one system of belief, she knew more than most people about religion all around the world. I read the book front to back on Sunday and wrote the eulogy late into the evening before the funeral on Monday. Who knew I would be packing that book in one of six suitcases, six months later, moving to an island in the Caribbean of all places.

I would have never moved to this place if my grandmother was still here with me on this crazy planet. So, yes, her departure had everything to do with mine. But then what is it exactly that makes it so that someone can just leave everything behind? Not everyone does this leaving thing. I have friends who admit to me they could never do it and then promptly ask why would anyone want to. Some people have no desire to leave everything they know and move to a foreign world. Other people are terrified of it. And it really is absolutely terrifying. Until you do it. And then leaving becomes incredibly simple. It becomes the most liberating thing in the world. You find out leaving is so exhilarating that you want to leave and leave again. Perhaps then these things are genetic. Maybe these always wanting to leave genes are passed along from one generation to the next.

Maybe it all started with my grandmother years ago. She left everything behind and moved to Texas in the 1950s, on her own and with two young daughters in tow. She told me it was the big sky that brought her to Texas. She first saw this sky while driving across the country, from Georgia to New Mexico when she went to visit her father on his deathbed in Santa Fe. She left a whole life behind soon after, nearly 30 years worth. We knew nothing about this life, none of us did: her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She never talked about it. But clues were uncovered of wealthy relatives and a lucrative family business and emotionally charged memories and an ancestral grave site, the kind where the whole family is buried together on a plot of land reserved for distinguished clans. We eventually learned that she came from a family of Czech immigrants who left their Bohemian homeland to cross the Atlantic and start a new life in a new world at the end of the 19th Century. So maybe this leaving thing started with them. It worked out well for the ones who crossed over. They truly lived the American dream, arriving penniless and later building a fortune after the patriarch of the family created some kind of pump patent.

On rare occasions, she would recall her earliest memories. They lived in a lavish apartment in the sky with majestic views of downtown Atlanta. She remembered decadent parties where everyone was dressed to the hilt. She looked up above from her toddler vantage point to see ice sculptures and hired help holding trays of champagne. Times were good; it was the Roaring Twenties. Her father was the art director at Fox Theater–an architectural gem, perfectly preserved to this day. His brother wrote everything for the theater that went to press. Those were the days when a movie theater symbolized status for American cities, a sign the city had made it. But then something went terribly wrong after the stock market crashed. How it is that history can turn and spin everything in another direction. Eventually, years later, I pieced most of the story together with the help of Google and newspaper archives, following a timeline that zigzagged back and forth between cities from one coast to the other. Another story for another time. It’s much too convoluted and dramatic for a silly blog about island life. But maybe it is with this story that the inclination to leave truly originated.

What I found out was that I have an unbelievable family history. I imagine it was a history that my grandmother undoubtedly tried to escape, although the newspapers never did let her do so. I discovered that there was more to her leaving Georgia than the allure of the Texas sky. There is always more to the leaving. Though it filled her with joy to tell it that way, this sky story, I heard it so many times, as if this were the one and only reason she moved to Texas. She would make grandiose gestures, sweeping her arms above her head for added emphasis. But we all knew there was something else that drove her out, and we never did hear much about that part. There were subtle hints in the jazz lyrics she would recite as if they were guiding mantras. “Smile though your fear and sorrow. Smile and maybe tomorrow.” These are the pieces of her that I have left. I hear her song lyrics in my mind. I hear her playing the melody on her piano. Music evokes powerful memories. But I also packed away pieces from her life in my luggage before I left Texas for Aruba. I had just lost her a few months before. I desperately wanted to hold on to what I had left. So there are many things that belonged to her strewn about my living space here on this tiny island. They are small things, whatever I could fit along with all the other stuff I would need.

I couldn’t bring her paintings, but I zipped away matted printmaking works inside the flat exterior pockets of my luggage. Around the edge of each suitcase, I tucked away books, narrowly escaping the fifty-pound overage fee for each piece of luggage as I haphazardly checked them all curbside at the airport. There was a Spanish novel with all of her annotations written in the margins. I packed The Prophet, and others like it, taking care to make sure that all the pages she had marked with tiny pieces of paper remained so. I placed in my wallet University of Texas at Arlington identification cards from her time there as a student, and later as a teacher of Spanish and French. I folded a framed picture of her ballroom dancing days between my clothes. I tossed in anything I could find simply because we shared the same appreciation for aesthetics in design and print: pillowcases, coffee mugs, wind chimes, dinner napkins, clothing she had sewn. A butterfly motif emerged. There are a lot of butterflies here in my house on this island.

She and I are inextricably linked. We love all the same things in life. How do you choose a verb tense when one is left and the other is gone? I choose to write in the present because I’m still here loving all the things she loved, actively pursuing to immerse my life with this stuff. And it is after losing her that I truly learned to fill life with all the things that make the moments seem as if you are opening a treasure chest each and every day. To never take for granted that there are so many treasures in life. My grandmother always scheduled the full moon on her calendar. If I happened to be over visiting, which I did most weekends in those final years, she would take me by the hand and lead me outside to show me the moon. “Look at it! Can you believe it? See how it just hangs there in the sky.” The moon is magic. Life is filled with magic. Never forget this is what she seemed to be telling me.

It’s impossible to select just one event that brought me here. Maybe there were some things that drove me out as well. But mostly there were the impulses within me that constantly sought out the beauty in the world. Parts of me that refused to accept anything else less than that. There is so much of it to be found in life. There was a career I built that made it all possible. But if anyone is bold enough to ask how I landed here, I have a simple answer. It was the sea. Yes, that was definitely it. The blue and green of the Caribbean sea.

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island time standing still

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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.

 

mannequins and a music box

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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.