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10 truths I’ve learned living in aruba

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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, you may need to 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.

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poor john

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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.

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city remedy for island fever

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Live on an island long enough and you begin to plan your vacation time around an escape to the nearest big city. It’s one of the only ways to combat island fever. The biggest city around this particular island is Caracas, Venezuela. Not a city to travel to nowadays since it has been at the top of the list of most dangerous cities in the world for the past few years. Talk to anyone who has been around here long enough, and they will tell you that Venezuela was once a vacation destination for Aruban residents. Back then Colombia was the country to avoid. Time has a way of turning things around. After enough time passes in Latin America, the list of dangerous places changes: cities move up or down the list, or fall off it altogether, as drug cartels are dismantled or dictators dissolve democracies to swallow a country whole. Nowadays, Medellín, once the most dangerous city in the world for most of my youth, is a popular choice for nearby places to vacation when you live in the south Caribbean Sea. And so Isabel and I decided we would flee island fever with a trip to the city of Medellín over Spring Break.

We started scouting out cheap tickets for Colombia back in January and found a roundtrip for $212 from Aruba to Medellín via Valencia, Venezuela on Avior Airlines. Avior is one of several Venezuelan airlines that flies in and out of Aruba. Go to the non U.S. side of the airport here, and you will see one ticket booth after another selling flights to nearby South American countries.The prices vary from counter to counter as you inquire about airline tickets by speaking through aluminum grills to representatives behind glass windows. A flight on a Colombian airline will cost you twice the price of one on a Venezuelan airline. Needless to say, what you save in money will be paid for with a spike in blood pressure and some beads of perspiration across your forehead while you wait in a crowded room without air conditioning for your connecting flight in Venezuela.

We waited in Valencia for about two hours for the connecting flight from Aruba to Medellín. The instability of the country outside could clearly be felt inside the small building that we were shuffled into shortly after our flight landed, a place that felt more like a bus station than an airport. As we surveyed the scene outside the window, we could see that there were three planes in the near distance lined up in the order of what we assumed to be final destinations: Bogotá, Medellín, and Panama City. But it was hard to be certain of anything since there wasn’t any flight information posted about departure cities and time, and we found only one digital clock that was forever stuck at 4:12—a metaphor perhaps for the country. According to my phone, the boarding time on our tickets was inching uncomfortably close considering there had not been any announcements for as long as we had been sitting on the floor waiting, and so I went to ask someone in uniform when the flight to Medellín would depart. From what I could understand with my basic survivalist Spanish, the plane was going to be late, but we could go upstairs where there was air conditioning. We decided to sweat it out downstairs and keep our eyes fixed on the exit door that would take us out of there.

Eventually we did make it out the door—one hour after our scheduled departure time because that is when our pilot arrived. On our way out, we were patted down before we walked single file to board a sweltering hot plane. We arrived in Medellín well after sunset. We decided ahead of time to splurge on a boutique hotel since we had risked our lives saving so much on the plane ticket, which meant that we could rest easy upon landing knowing that there would be a driver waiting for us outside baggage claim. Our driver was warm and welcoming and eager to chat and practice his English on the 45 minute drive as we descended down into the city situated in the Aburrá Valley.

He told us how much he loved Medellín and how he had moved around a lot since his dad was in the military, so he felt confident in his conclusion that it was one of the best cities in South America. He spoke about other places in South America, mostly about Brazil and Argentina and how all of the Brazilians go to Argentina to study. He went on to tell us about his studies and struggles to finish school while working a job as a driver. About how he lived with his family of six and how they were depending on him to make it because the youngest has serious health problems. About how much everything has changed since the days of Pablo Escobar, but also about how the memories of the violence and carnage are still fresh for the people living in Medellín: Some will tell you they could never leave the house as kids. Others are still mourning the loss of family members. He recommended places to visit around Medellín. When asked about his impression of tourists he meets everyday, he clearly preferred Europeans and had a dream to move to Europe one day with his German girlfriend. He had no plans to go to the United States. The only thing to see in America, he stated without a doubt, was guns. Then he added maybe he could also drink beer and meet easy women.

We arrived at the hotel and fell into a deep sleep. I woke up the next morning and went downstairs to the hotel lobby searching for coffee. Our hotel was a fully renovated downtown industrial building and a testament to the transition Medellín has undergone from one of the world’s most dangerous cities to one of the world’s most innovative. The guy behind the counter in the lobby apologized that the coffee machine was broken and sent me up six stories where I could find coffee at the restaurant on the roof terrace of our hotel. I took the stairs, not realizing yet where the elevator was located. But it was the best way to get to where I was going because in South America every climb up seems to take you someplace magical, and that was indeed the case this morning. As soon as I stepped up and onto the roof, I caught my first glimpse of the city. It was an unforgettable moment as I turned in every direction to see staggered skyscrapers jutting up along the hillsides all around me while morning mist moved through the cityscape, sliding between buildings and clinging to others, or sometimes enveloping the whole structure entirely. It seemed that the city too was waking up and throwing off its blanket to rise for the day.

And so it was at that moment that I realized just how otherworldly the place was where I had landed the night before. The thing about this trip to Colombia is that I never imagined what it would be like before arriving the way I have so many other places I’ve traveled. It was never a place that I put on my bucket list, which means I hadn’t pored over books and scoured the Internet looking at countless pictures of all the places I would eventually see. Honestly, I hadn’t had much time to even think about the trip because I had been so busy at work. I bought an overpriced Lonely Planet travel guide at a bookstore in Aruba and clicked to save a few sites to a Colombia album I had made on Pinterest. I knew a little bit about the history and geography. I knew that it was the birthplace of magical realism. I’d read everything by Gabriel García Márquez years ago in college. I appreciated the works of Fernando Botero. I’d sampled Paisa Bandeja living in Aruba. In fact, so much of what I have learned about Colombia has been because I live in Aruba, and that is the case for many countries I never expected to understand the way I do now

Those first few days in Medellín were a spellbinding tour as we soaked up every aspect of city life that we missed living amongst dirt roads and donkeys on a desert island. We routinely ate breakfast on the hotel terrace at sunrise and headed back up for mojitos at sunset because we couldn’t get enough of the downtown skyline that surrounded us. There were dizzying cab rides on congested streets that felt more like a rollercoaster ride, as an equal number of cars and motorbikes veered in and out of lanes vying for space to zoom ahead. We lingered for hours in museums. Museo de Antioquia housed four stories of art, from Pre-Colombian on the first floor to modern at the top. We lounged outside at cafes, watching people walk down the street or witnessing haphazard scenes of vendors going every which way on city plazas, maneuvering giant cart holding oranges and apples.  We walked the city aimlessly and stumbled across all types of shops, boutiques, restaurants. No two restaurants are exactly the same, but all offer outdoor seating in the land of eternal spring. We sampled traditional dishes, such as arepa chocolo, or maize dough with chocolate and cheese.

Besides the bustle of the big city, another aspect from our previous life that has disappeared since moving to a barren landscape is most forms of plant life, and as one of the most biodiverse nations on the planet, the canvas that is the country of Colombia is densely covered with every shade of green imaginable. We couldn’t get enough of it and planned for as much of this lush landscape as we could fit in during the week we had in Medellín. We stopped in astonishment while walking through the city to admire dense jungle growing on street medians or behind bridge guardrails. We gathered our loose change to jump on the metro that connected us from a train to a cable car that took us high above the favelas and up the hillside across a forest to Parque Arvi. We even took a bus out of town into the surrounding mountains to the tiny village of Guatapé.

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In Guatapé, after walking along narrow cobblestone streets flanked by brightly colored buildings, we scaled a giant rock for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding landscape just before a thunderstorm hit. We clambered down stairs in the pouring rain and took shelter under a tent ordering up a michelada, Colombian style. Convinced we needed to see more of Colombia’s magical landscape, we boarded a bus later that afternoon for Santa Fe de Antioquia. Arriving late that evening, we almost missed our stop until the driver told us it was time to get off the bus. Discombobulated by the sudden stop and darkness outside, we stepped off to a swarm of chaos and confusion as about twenty men offered us rides on the back of their moto taxis. Our frenzied arrival was followed by a leisurely day exploring the perfectly preserved colonial city, once the capital of Antioquia. We seemed to be the only tourist in the whole town, and a group of school children followed us around a museum and then outside and down the street to practice their English.

These kids were as excited to practice English as I was to practice Spanish throughout my time in Colombia. Most people in Colombia were friendly and accommodating with any language barrier I faced. But everyone I met launched full speed ahead into speaking Spanish first, and so I had no other choice but to push myself out of my comfort zone and just speak the language without worrying about making mistakes. Puede repetir despacio, por favor was a helpful phrase that I used often to understand what people were saying. Although I’m certain I sounded like a caveman, I responded clearly enough to communicate what we needed to survive as we navigated our way through the labyrinth of the city streets and surrounding landscape.

Learn Spanish you fucking tourist was the message painted in rather large letters across the side of a building on our early morning ride out of the valley and to the airport to return home. Ah, rude graffiti and goodbye to the big city. I will miss this place. Yes, I thought, I do need to learn more Spanish beyond the basics before my next trip to Colombia. The country has too much to offer to not delve deeper. I will be better prepared the next time I see you Medellín. And so I enrolled in a conversation class the day after I arrived home in Aruba, as well as salsa dancing on Monday evenings for good measure.

working on island time

IMG_7285There is this assumption amongst friends and family back home that my life is paradise since moving to a tropical island. I often read comments on Facebook that sound something like these: Aruba looks like heaven, or you packed and moved to paradise, or you’re living the dream, or the ever popular jealous. Their words are on mark when it comes to many moments in my life, but I hate to break it to everyone that the reality is my alarm still goes off at 5 every morning, and I’m out the door on my way to work everyday before 7. And even though there are many days when my work is enjoyable and rewarding, I would hardly call it paradise.

The truth is I spend 9 to 10 hours five days a week working and additional time away from work attending events or working at home to meet deadlines. I’m clearly not lounging under the sun, scrunching white sand beneath my toes, and sipping rum punch most days. I’m usually drinking cup after cup of coffee and a much coveted club soda during the 30 minute break I have to scarf down a cafeteria lunch, which always consists of a plate of rice with a side slab of mystery meat. Depending on the day, I get 60 to 90 sacred silent moments to do all the work it takes to teach class after class of teenagers in English and history. And this teaching of teenagers, according to my all time favorite quote on the profession by Franklin Habit, “seems to require the sort of skills one would need to pilot a bus full of live chickens backwards, with no brakes, down a rocky road through the Andes while simultaneously providing colorful and informative commentary on the scenery.” So, yes, I am on that bus for 7 hours everyday—it’s a far cry from the beach.

Beginning with the sound of my alarm, my morning routine hasn’t changed much from that of my previous life. Really the only difference I can think of is that my breakfast now consists of one banana. I vaguely remember making oatmeal on cold, drizzly mornings in another place and time. Some days, if I didn’t have time to make breakfast, I would grab a banana nut bread on my daily stop at Starbucks. I no longer make frequent stops at the Starbucks drive thru en route to work, which usually had a line of cars that wrapped around the building and onto the street because apparently every other American had the same morning routine.There are days in Aruba, however, when I do stop at the Tur Dia (I think this is Papiamento for everyday) for a cheese pastechi. This is usually on Friday mornings, after the last of the bananas have turned a dark spotted brown because fruit ripens quickly in the tropics.

I still drive an old car, a Hyundai instead of a Honda. Only my commute in a jalopy does not shorten my telomeres as it once did on a heavily congested freeway—one that is always under construction in the city where I come from—where if your car were to break down, a helicopter would soon be flying overhead to report the mile-long traffic jam caused as result of your modest teacher salary. If my car breaks down here, I could just veer off on to the open space of dirt along the side of the one lane road, and someone would probably even stop to help me. The combination of sun, sand, and sea in the air can wreak havoc on a vehicle however; two of my door handles have fallen off and my windshield wipers just stopped working last week. But I’m not complaining because it seldom rains on a desert island and no one here judges me for not having door handles. And any commute where one routinely sees chickens and goats on their way to work is worth the price of not being able to open a car door or sometimes see clearly through the windshield.    

Once I get to my classroom, I drop my bag and turn on the airco; it’s like an oven in there every single morning of the year. I plop down at my desk and open up my laptop to check email. Checking email when I first arrive at work is something I would do in my old life, but earlier this week on Monday morning, a little bird was flying around the room above me while I sat and surveyed my inbox. Actually, a bird flying about indoors is unusual here as well because it is much more common to find creepy crawlies slithering on the ground. And on that same day, during my second period class, a student spotted a scorpion and everyone hysterically jumped to their feet. Luckily, the scorpion was already dead, which I discovered after evacuating the classroom since my students were already trying to kill it. I’m preparing for the day that I come across a boa constrictor or a centipede. I have watched in awe as other teachers have clobbered centipedes with rocks or captured boa constrictors coiled around toilets. I only hope I can be so brave!

The working part of my life here seems more familiar to me than anything else on this island. The school runs very much like the schools I have worked at in the States. I have fewer students overall, but I make up for it by teaching multiple subjects across several grade levels. I never teach the same lesson twice, which is great if the lesson was a complete flop, but not so much if there is room for improvement the next go around. And I’m always flying by the seat of my pants as far as content goes because there isn’t much time to read ahead. Thursday morning I reviewed students through Hamilton vs. Jefferson, and then moved on to another class about vague pronoun references mid-morning, followed by a class covering the French Revolution before lunch, and then an afternoon of character analysis covering a book I haven’t read in years. 

Teenagers are pretty much the same all around the world. The typical traits for the adolescent stage of development are fairly predictable. Teens are by nature impulsive, gregarious, argumentative, rebellious, moody, hilarious, and extremely energetic. Inevitably, when someone asks what it is I do for a living, they always respond with you couldn’t pay me enough or that isn’t a job I would want. Usually, I piece together a quick defense of the profession and of teenagers in general. “They’re just developing their independence,” I explain. “It’s totally normal for them to question authority. It means they are thinking critically.” “Maybe we as adults could benefit from recovering some of these traits instead of blindly accepting the status quo.” This is also what I tell myself on the really challenging days, which are usually the days when I have left my sense of humor at home. When all else fails, I just remind myself that their full frontal lobe is not fully developed.

I still come home from work exhausted. How can you not after arriving at sunrise to spend all day piloting a bus full of chickens backwards down a rocky road in the Andes? Nowadays, I let myself take a siesta when I get home from work, which is an instinct I always fought in the United States because it felt lazy. But I’m in the land of hammocks now, not a place for guilt when it comes to relaxation. I eat a snack when I get home from work and then I am out like a light. It’s the strangest kind of sleep ever, knocked out and dead to the world for all of 15 minutes. After I wake up, I carry forward with my evening by trying to create a semblance of some kind of life away from work. I am more than my job, I remind myself. I have interests and hobbies; at the very least, I must exercise and eat a healthy dinner. Most of the time I can pull together an evening that reflects all of this somewhat, maybe an evening yoga class or dinner out with friends, except on Fridays. On Fridays I wave the white flag, order take out, and watch a movie on Netflix. As long as I have something on schedule for Saturday night, I never worry about a Friday night with Netflix.

I wish I could say that the island has cured my Friday fatigue or that feeling that there is never enough time to do it all. The irony is my job is harder than ever since moving to paradise. It takes every bit of the many years of experience I have to handle it, but here is the thing—I wouldn’t be able to handle it if I weren’t living in paradise. I would have already lost my mind trying to do what I do here in Dallas. Americans could learn a lot from this because I have never been more productive than I am now that I live on island time. My work load is heavier than ever, my schedule is nuts, and whenever I turn around I am greeting new students with varying degrees of English proficiency. But something about island mentality melts away all the stress, and without the added stress, all of it seems doable. On an island, the collective mindset is that everything will eventually get done and there is always a beach to go to when the work is over. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you follow this formula.

The best part about living on a rock surrounded by beaches is there is never a need to take a vacation to a beach to get away from it all, which leaves space to explore another kind of landscape when you finally make it to vacation time. We leave for Colombia in one week. It’s been a long stretch until Spring Break this year, and I have never been more ready to turn off the alarm clock and throw out the schedule.

A Green Christmas in Aruba

WRITTEN BY: TIFFANY LEWIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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7 Island Trade-offs To Treasures

Originally published on 10/24/16 on Women who Live on Rocks

WRITTEN BY: TIFFANY LEWIS

I am learning to live on a shoestring budget after taking a walloping salary cut when I moved to Aruba. Even though my modest teacher salary was almost cut in half, my income here is actually comparable to the average income for most Arubans, so I aptly adapted and am living like the locals. In so doing, I quickly shed my American consumer mentality in order to survive. I said goodbye to a myriad of products and brands and services that were once part of my everyday life. There are things I simply cannot afford to indulge in while living in paradise. My kitchen is not equipped with every major appliance. I never did buy a toaster. I don’t read magazines anymore. And at nearly $10 a box, cereal for breakfast in the morning is no longer an option. I will admit that the hardest thing to give up has been shopping for clothes. And if flip flops do not count as real footwear, then I haven’t bought a new pair of shoes since moving here 15 months ago – now that may easily be my greatest sacrifice.

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It all sounds a bit gloomy and bleak, but that is not the case at all. There is this delightful game of bartering that takes place when it comes to island living. And if you engage in the shuffling of one thing for another with creative enthusiasm, the island will lead you to discover a gleaming treasure in exchange for everything you are forced to relinquish. Since some things here are astronomically expensive, they are swapped out for other things that are surprisingly cheap. And most of the time a far more amusing, and sometimes superior, substitute is uncovered. That, or you learn that you never needed what you gave up in the first place.

Here are 7 of the trade-offs for treasures that I have discovered in my island life:

1. Seafood and take away snacks are what’s for dinner.

Buying food on an island is expensive. If it is in a glossy package with a cartoon character and catchy caption, then you are going to have to quit cold turkey because it will cost 3 to 4 times the amount that it does in the states. I’ve had to shorten my itemized grocery list significantly to make it on this new budget. Luckily, living on an island brings a fresh daily supply of seafood for next to nothing. I pay about $3-4 USD for the catch of the day, which would cost me a fortune in the landlocked city where I previously lived. When it comes to finding other staple grocery items, it pays to shop around. Some of the best deals can be found in small corner stores that advertise imported products from countries in South America. I walked to one like this around the corner from my house early this morning. I went in for eggs and left with a dozen in a simple paper carton stamped Aruba. I also bought a bag of purple Peruvian potatoes, a bunch of bananas, and a handful of chicha moradacandies. All of this cost around 10 Florin, which is the equivalent of $5.59 USD.

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Arubans love their snacks, and culinary influences from all over the planet merge here. At every turn, there is a take away located next to homes that doubles as a business. It’s as if mom is cooking in her kitchen for the entire island and everyone is invited to sample recipes passed down from one generation to another. She opens up the Dutch door and invites all who pass by to order up an Aruban pastechi, or a Colombian emapanada, or a Dutch croquette, or Surinamese roti, or Peruvian ceviche. And the good news is that all of these savory snacks are filling and served generously enough to double as a meal when you are on a budget. Essentially, dinner can be bought for the price of a snack, which is about 3-6 Florin, or roughly $2-3 USD.

2. Movies are cheap if you can’t afford the book.

Buying books and magazines here is costly. I’ve had to give up magazines altogether. I will sometimes stop in front of the magazine aisle at the grocery store or bookstore to casually flip through and mourn this loss. Recently, I signed up for a library card to make my way around the book dilemma. Still, it is not a perfect solution, and it can be impossible to find some authors. I’m currently looking for Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It’s like trying to find sap to harvest from a maple tree in the dense desert island thicket. The worst is reading the name of an author perched high on a shelf, only to open it up and find the book is written in Dutch. But if you can’t find the book, the next best thing is finding out that it will be released as a movie because going to the movies here is surprisingly cheap. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, tickets are 2 for 1. And buying popcorn and soda isn’t a luxury here like it is in the states. No need to sneak a candy bar in your handbag. Basically, you can go to the movies and have the popcorn for around 12 Florin, which is about $6.70 USD.

3. Remember to ask for the local discount.

Once I officially became a working resident and obtained the much coveted AZV card, I found out that there are all kinds of discounts if you remember to ask. Any tourist destination will let you pay the USD amount with Aruban Florins, which is basically slashing the price in half. We take advantage of this hiking Arikok Park most Sundays. My favorite Florin for Dollar deal is at a luxury resort on the island, Tierra del Sol, where you can go on Sundays and pay 90 Florin (around $50 USD) for a one hour massage and gain access to the pool and other facilities for the remainder of the day. And other retail businesses often offer a decent discount on products sold to island residents. Aruba Aloe offers discounts on all of their aloe body products, so I buy all of my body lotion there. It feels good to support local businesses too.

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4. Laundry service is one of the best deals around.

There are laundry services on every corner all over the island where you can plop down a bag of dirty laundry and just walk away. They will wash it, dry it, and then professionally fold everything and pack it up for pick up. It always feels and smells like angels have cleaned your laundry. All of this for 12 Florin a load. It may sound like a hefty amount, but when you factor in that you live on an island and only wear one summer season wardrobe and that laundry detergent could easily cost you almost the same amount since it is one of those ridiculously expensive items, then paying for laundry service just makes economic sense. Throughout my first year, I stubbornly insisted on doing laundry at home and hanging it on the line to dry while lizards darted between my feet. The novelty soon wore off, and after my washing machine quit working, I realized I was just wasting my time with the line and lizards. Now I take two bags every two weeks and pay about $24 USD a month. And nothing compares to not having to do laundry. I remind myself of this everyday while routinely washing a never-ending stack of dishes by hand.

5. Let go of brand loyalty and look for the Dutch equivalent.

Aruba is part of the Dutch Caribbean, so the influence from the Netherlands is felt all over the island. I discovered early on that the Dutch stuff is cheaper than the American product next to it on the shelf, yet the quality is always the same, or sometimes even better. So when I am out shopping for just about anything, I veer my cart towards the Dutch products. I have no idea what any of the stuff is since I don’t speak the language and can’t read the labels. I decipher what I am buying through the picture on the package. Some American products are sold in disguise in the Netherlands, like Mr. Clean who is Mr. Proper. One of the best things about buying Dutch is that there is always some new quirky discovery to make. I sometimes take my native friend shopping with me and have her introduce me to new products at the grocery store. “Show me something that you would buy,” I dramatically plead. A few weeks ago, she taught me about hagelslag. These are sprinkles like the kind on top of donuts and cupcakes that cause kids to squeal and clap their hands simultaneously, but in the Netherlands, adults pour them over bread and butter. Who needs breakfast cereal when you have hagelslag? Another perk to living under the Dutch influence is the ubiquitous, inexpensive, never-ending supply of gourmet cheese. They sell it in bulk, giant blocks of it are on the shelves in every store, including the gas station.

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6. The best beaches in life are free.

Most of the things I do here that bring joy are absolutely free. Going to the beach tops the list. It is the go-to replacement for anything that seems to be missing. I have also taken up hiking because I can’t get enough of the natural setting here after living in a cement city for so long. And the water that fills my bottle to keep me hydrated is some of the best water in the world. It is delicious and also costs next to nothing because of the superior desalination system here in Aruba: it flows right out of the tap. Most entertainment on the island is free of cost as well since entertainment here consists of one festival after another, month after month. The islanders do like to celebrate. The biggest celebration on the island takes place during the season of Carnival; it doesn’t cost a dime and all of the events held for over a month leading up to it are also free of charge. Basically, you bring your own chair, take a seat on the street, mix yourself a drink, and enjoy the show.

7. Say goodbye to a grueling commute.

The best kind of trade offs are the things from your previous life that needed to go. Cold weather comes to mind. Grueling commutes are another. Nearly two years ago when I was considering the move to Aruba, I remember thinking I could never make it if my salary was nearly cut in half. But so much of my hard-earned money was spent just maintaining life working in the city. One of the biggest expenses was my commute to work. Sometimes my trip home would take over an hour because of gridlock traffic on freeways. Nothing eased the pain of that daily back and forth, no amount of audiobooks, or NPR, or Spanish language lessons. I no longer drive on freeways. Nowadays, my commute is ten minutes on winding roads, lined with towering cacti. If there is a traffic jam, it is usually because the goats have gathered for a meeting in the roundabout. And like the beach, my new commute to work more than makes up for any sacrifices I have made – it may even be a fair trade off for all the shoes I haven’t bought since moving to this rock. Of course, if you ask any island girl, flip-flops do count as actual footwear.

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What are some trade-offs you’ve made on your rock that have ended up being a surprising benefit of island living?

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10 more simple proofs that I have landed in some magical place

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I recently discovered hagelslag. To my English ears, the word sounds like it might describe something hideous, like a troll living under a bridge or rotten coleslaw. Hagleslag are actually sprinkles, like the kind you put on top of donuts and cupcakes, magical colorful confetti sprinkled on baked goods that make little kids lose it, letting out a high-pitched squeal and maniacally jumping up and down while clapping their hands. Here in Aruba under the influence of the Dutch, grown-ass adults copiously sprinkle this stuff all over plain bread and butter, it’s usually eaten for breakfast. Who needs Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms when you have hagelslag to pour over your toast in the morning.

Snorkeling is the best way to go on an adventure without any hassle. Just put on your mask and dive into another world.

Laundry service is at the top of the list when it comes to island trade-offs. I have to wash all of my dishes by hand, but I no longer do laundry because there is a laundry service on just about every corner, and for 12 Florin per load, you can drop off your clothes and just walk away from this tedious, time-consuming, task altogether. When you go to pick up clean laundry, all of your clothes and towels will be meticulously folded and smell as if an actual angel from above did this chore for you. These people are professionals. Trust me, you can’t get these results at home.

On the way into the grocery store, you can choose from a rather large collection of smoothies. They are already prepared and ready to go, and you can sip on them while you push the cart along the aisle. My favorite is the pineapple-coconut.

We’ve recently discovered many homes that dot the coastlines along the rough side of the island where the waves crash on to the rocks. Anyone can take up temporary residence for an afternoon cookout, and it’s a great place to watch the sunset.

All of the artistic souls who call this island their home came together recently to put together the first annual Aruba Art Fair in San Nicolas. Just a few steps down from the red light district, abandoned buildings along the street were transformed into gallery spaces for the evening where artist displayed their works. Meanwhile, on the outside of these buildings, painters could be found high up on scaffolding putting their finishing touches on spectacular murals. Some were even spray painting the police station. Dancers and musicians performed over a course of three days, and people flocked to this event from all over the island.  The weekend after that we attended the Caribbean Jazz Festival. More live performance. More food and drink. And lots of fun.

The catch-of-the day is often what’s for dinner because it is so incredibly cheap.

People open up their homes as businesses all over the island. Most of these businesses serve up traditional snacks prepared from recipes passed down from one generation to another. My house is a few steps from a home that serves up savory Aruban pastechi. At another home around the corner, you can find Surinamese roti. Walk a little farther down the street, and you come across a Colombian home that offers homemade empanadas and arepas. Culinary influences merge from all over the world here, and mom is cooking something delicious up in a kitchen nearby.

Aside from the hurricane that passed by last weekend, it is summer year round here in Aruba. The sun always shines, and the sky is blue every single day of the week.

My commute to work is like a dream. I drive down winding roads lined with towering cacti, and the only traffic I have to deal with is when the goats decide to hold council inside the roundabout.