friendly but possibly fake

IMG_8582I moved to Aruba to learn about other cultures, so it’s odd to me that I’ve learned a good deal about my own culture since leaving it all behind. I often find myself identifying in a strange and unexpected way with my American status. Where are you from is the first question people ask here. Telling people I am American is a weird thing to have to say all the time because it’s not really anything I ever said much before. Most of the time I just introduce myself as Texan. I’ve discovered that there are very few Americans actually living in Aruba. There are, however, plenty of American tourists who flock here, week after week. I see them all over the place. They disembark from a huge bus in a giant mob on these crazy tours that go all over the island. They randomly stop to go have a drink during happy hour at a local bar or feed the donkeys for 15 minutes at the Donkey Sanctuary. Then they zoom off to the next location. It’s a bit of jolt when they arrive because they basically travel in an inebriated mass, and you are forced to confront your own culture as a drunk crowd that could easily fill one side of a small stadium, making every stereotype about Americans seem overly exaggerated. Inevitably, my friends and I always laugh and strike up conversations about how others view Americans when we see the bus. Here are a few things I have learned about what others think of Americans, not only from these conversations, but also living as an alien in another culture and country.

1. Americans are loud mouths– I had read before moving overseas about the obnoxious American tourist, but nothing prepares you for routine encounters with this particular breed through the lens of living life in another country. Whether it is waiting in line for 3 hours through customs at the airport, or pushing my cart down the grocery store aisle, there is no denying the fact that Americans are extremely loud. For the longest time, I would just put my head in my hands, completely mortified while dining out with friends as we listened to Americans destroy the ambiance with their boisterous conversation a few tables over. Nowadays, after going months without any kind of live connection to my land and people, I find myself wanting to talk to these tourists when I see them. I think to myself, there are my people, wouldn’t it be nice to say hello. Then I realize after sitting next to them for a while, why bother? I’ve already heard amplified answers to anything I may have wanted to know as they hoot, howl, and holler clear across the room, broadcasting every detail of their life story to everyone around them.

2. We are friendly, but also possibly fake – This is the one I hear the most. It’s a difficult one for me to understand. I am an animated version of this stereotype since I hail from the friendly state of Texas. I am told again and again that Americans are extremely polite and welcoming. We are complimented often by people from all over for this trait. Mostly, it is a good thing, but people also explain to me that there is a specific American cadence in our tone and an overuse of positive adjectives that leave other cultures suspicious of our motives. It’s as if we are all television talk show hosts. Apparently, people from other countries detect an upward inflection at the end of our words and sentences. That and the actual English words we choose to use are also somewhat suspect, words like great and awesome. Is everything really that great and awesome? Aren’t some things just good or maybe only alright? People, mostly Europeans, describe this especially with first encounters. It is seen as being a bit superficial, as if we aren’t really honest about what is happening inside, maybe kind of like we are always smiling for the camera. Like is another word we overuse. I’ve used it twice in the last several sentences.

3. We are poorly traveled – I can trace my family history back to every major epoch in American history.  The Lewis name is derived from Welsh ancestors who arrived in the mid 17th century. My father’s great grandfather married a woman whose family can be traced back to some of the first settlers at Jamestown. My great great great grandfather was orphaned after losing his Cherokee parents on the Trail of Tears. Then there were the French Huguenots on my mother’s side who fled Normandy and moved to North Carolina at the turn of the 18th century. My maternal grandmother’s Czech ancestors came with the late 19th century wave of Eastern European immigrants; they arrived penniless and built a fortune in ironworks. These are compelling, epic stories of brave men and women leaving everything they knew behind to take the journey of a lifetime, some voluntarily and others with no other choice. But it seems that our ancestors were the first and last adventure seekers and trailblazers; their descendants are far too comfortable living out sedentary lives within America’s borders, or even only one American state. Maybe it is the cost of travel, or, perhaps, it’s the shear size of the nation and expanse of the land from sea to sea. Maybe Americans simply think the best places to visit are all in the United States. Who knows? If we lived in a smaller country, maybe we would be more likely to cross international boundaries. Whatever the reason, most people believe Americans do not travel enough. They believe Americans do not really know or want to learn about the rest of the world.

4. English is our only language – This one is obvious once you leave the United States. Everyone I meet in Aruba speaks several languages. I routinely receive language instruction from the gas station attendant where I fill up the tank in my Hyundai. Every week I throw out a new word and he can give me the translation in Spanish, Papiamento and Dutch. I meet people like him all around this place. I’m waiting in line at the grocery store to check out and the cashier speaks to the family in front of me in Dutch, then she greets me in English, and I listen while bagging my groceries as she talks to the couple behind me in Papiamento. As Americans, we aren’t really forced to learn another language because so many people speak English. There is something rather sad and limiting about only experiencing the world through one language. There is so much joy to be felt when discovering a new word for something you have no translation for in your native tongue. Words work a little bit like magic that way. I may never master French, which was the first language I ever studied. But at least I know I can buy a train ticket in Italy and talk my way through a mordida when driving across the country of Mexico. One important thing I can do abroad is to continue to study and practice using another language everyday, mostly because It is a way of building connections and showing love and respect for other cultures.

5. We sleep with a gun under our pillow – Here is another stereotype I have to contend with all the times as a Texan. I’ve never owned a gun, nor do I ever want to own a gun. Actually, I’ve never felt safer than I have these last 9 months living in Aruba even though there is a makeshift outdoor bar around the corner from my front porch where men from all over the neighborhood start drinking everyday at 2 PM. They have a couple of chairs, a sofa, a pull-a-part car, and a wrecked boat, littering the ground all around are countless bottles of beer and rum. During the evenings my neighbor across the way routinely gesticulates up at the night sky and screams at the canopy of stars above. Do I feel my life is in danger? Should I worry for my safety? No, not at all, I sleep easier at night knowing my chances of getting shot tomorrow have significantly decreased since leaving my country. Close friends at home have been held up at gun point. My family members have been shot while walking to their car after dinner out on the town. They were all lucky to make it out alive. As far as I am concerned, the gun violence at home is rampant and evident even from where I sit perched on this rock far away. Recently, I was the only American in a jam packed room waiting to pay my my electric bill at Elmar while CNN covered breaking news of another mass shooting in the United States. I looked around the room at all the Aruban faces watching the screen and thought to myself: People around the world must think we are nuts.

6. Americans have lost their minds – Actually, people around the world do think we are nuts. How else could a xenophobic, misogynist become a serious contender for the White House? I remember a friend’s comment before I left last summer. “Aren’t you so relieved to be leaving the country before this circus gets started?” They were just setting up the tents at that point. I thought I could  bury my head in the sand and by the time I had cable TV (a 3 month waiting period in Aruba) America would come to its senses. When cable was finally connected in January, he was still there on the screen pointing his finger and shouting out loud about his penis size across my living room during a debate. I thought to myself – Eek, what did he just say? How is this happening? What did we do to deserve this? My friend was spot on with her remark. Yes, I was happy to escape the circus, but that circus has now turned into a terrifying carnival, the kind with distorted mirrors and scary clowns and creepy music, the kind where freak shows are still permissible. People around the world are either pointing and laughing or recoiling in terror at the freak show. Mostly, they are just asking – What are they thinking? 

7. Everything is big – I hear this one all the time, about as often as I hear overly-friendly.  There is an impression that everything in America is bigger. The size of the country is big. American patriotism is super sized. Not only do they love their country, Americans also really love themselves because I often hear about big American egos. The stores they shop in are colossal warehouses filled with an endless supply of tons of stuff to buy in bulk. They are voracious consumers; their appetite can never be satisfied. We consume things constantly, especially food and beverages in supersize quantities. They like to eat big burgers and steaks and pizzas and hot dogs and wash it all down with extra large sodas. They drive big trucks, especially big white Doge Ram pickup trucks. Americans are physically big in size and stature and carry around extra pounds of fat. The list goes on. Some big descriptions are positive. Americans are big tippers and give their money generously to charity. But then they can’t understand why we would give away our money.

8.Fend for yourself – There is this glorified American wild west myth of horses and cowboys that still exists to this day. Our American landscape is romanticized by the rest of the world. I remember hearing that one back in 1989 during my first trip to Paris. “Do you ride horses?” I was asked again and again. We were just kids at the time, so we answered, “Sure, we ride horses to school everyday and wear cowboy boots most days as well.” It was easier to play along. This wild west story lends itself well to the idealism of American ruggedness and individualism. There is this notion that the untamed landscape shaped the American identity. We are seen by others as fiercely independent. You fend for yourself in America. Enter at your own risk and be sure to take some risks along the way, or you may never get ahead. Hopefully, it all works out for you because if it doesn’t, well – it’s the wild west and you’re on your own.

Is any of this true? Who knows? Maybe some of it is true of some but not everyone. Maybe some of it is true in some places but not everywhere. Maybe Americans just need to travel more so others can see how diverse we are as people. People from other countries need to visit America and see how diverse the land is as well. I’m doing my best living on this multicultural island to tell others what a great place The United States is to visit. I make suggestions all the time. I usually throw out something from this list:

Drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. Spend a week in San Francisco. Camp in the Redwoods. Drive the sand dunes in Oregon. Visit Fisherman’s Wharf in Seattle. Go to Mesa Verde and climb inside ruins built by ancient Puebloan people. Hike Moab. Ski Taos. Say a prayer for someone you love inside Chimayo. Spelunk Carlsbad Caverns. Drive the River Road from Presidio to Lajitas. See the mystery lights in Marfa.  Swim Hamilton Pool outside of Austin. Eat tacos and then eat more tacos. Eat some enchiladas too. Smother them in chile. Snowshoe Minnesota. Go to a juke joint in St. Louis. Visit Chicago. Eat beignets in New Orleans. Drive east across the south to the Carolinas and sample comfort food, Southern style. Spend an entire day inside a museum in Washington D.C. Stay a summer in Brooklyn and go get lost in Manhattan everyday.

I tell them this is the America I want to share with you. These are only some of my favorite places. Go see for yourself. It truly is a great country. The people really are very warm and welcoming. It’s authentic. It’s real. You will make many new friends. And a road trip is the best way to travel.

bedridden on koningsdag

I’m lying flat back on my bed with ice under my lower back. This isn’t one of those soft and pliable ice packs that could double as a pillow. It is a ziplock bag filled with actual ice, small chunky blocks of ice with jagged edges that relentlessly jab me for about an hour before melting away into a small puddle of water, making it looks as if I wet my bed. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s all I’ve got, and the ice is much colder and works better than the bag of broccoli I pulled from the freezer on Monday when all of this began.

Monday started like any other day of the week. The alarm went off at 5:15. I pushed snooze once and then was in the kitchen making coffee by 5:30. I drank 2, maybe 3, cups and started to get ready for work. I washed my face, brushed my teeth, dusted my chin and cheeks with powder, swiped each eyelash with a wand of mascara, and made my way into the guest bedroom that doubles as my closet. Still half asleep, I contemplated what I would wear to work. I decided on a navy blue shift dress since it would be a long day of classes. I began to get dressed for the day by placing one leg inside said dress, an innocuous movement that I routinely repeat day after day. Suddenly, something just sort of shifted ever so slightly in my spine, and that was the end of normal range in human movement for me, at least for the rest of the week.

I’m not sure what the hell happened exactly. All I knew at that moment was that I could not move, and I also quickly realized that it was going to really hurt whenever I finally had to move. I needed to be as still as possible to avoid agony. Slowly, I sloped downward towards the bed and tried calming myself by focusing on my breathing, yoga style. A million thoughts raced through my mind. What do I do now? Can I move? What will happen when I try to stand up? I need to call work. Kids will be in my room by 7:30. I need to cover my classes. How do I get help? I’m in another country. Do I go to the hospital? That seems so extreme and dramatic. How much will that cost? Didn’t this country assign me a doctor? How do I find this doctor? Why am I living in this house all alone? I think the last question is the toughest one to grapple with, not just when you are suddenly unable to walk or stand as an alien resident in a foreign country, but just living out your life in general.

I pay for minutes and data on my iphone by buying these stupid Setar scratch off cards at the gas station. I inevitably run out of minutes when I need them most. This was the case for me on Monday. I had no minutes left, leaving me with no way to call anyone for help. Thankfully, I had WiFi at home, so I sent many messages via WhatsApp to anyone I thought should know that I was flat on my back and unable to stand. The whole morning is a blur, but I was also somehow able to send an email to work that I wouldn’t be going. Next, I called my dad on my laptop to ask for advice. He does that well, and he knows a good deal about back problems, after undergoing several back surgeries over the years. I guess mysteries that ail the back run in the family. “Just lie on ice for two hours and take ibuprofen,” he calmly suggested. So that is what I did. I walked into the kitchen, hobbling and hunched over like a large ape, grabbing doorknobs and furniture along the way for support. I opened up the freezer to find a bag of broccoli and somehow made it into my bedroom. Who knew frozen broccoli would ever provide that kind of pain relief?

Everyone I know at home has some form of prescription pain medication; it’s just part of everyday life in the United States. Life at home moves at a frenetic pace and is perpetually demanding. There is never time to slow down for an injury, so everyone has a magic little bottle of something for aches and pains that flair up, or just to take the edge off after a stressful day. It seems to be how everyone keeps going in the States. Pharmaceutical drugs are a part of life for professional people. If I were home, someone would bring me something to get me out of this raw, hard pain I am in right now. That was my first realization. Who knows how long I will be in this state without pain killers?  That was my second.

These are the times overseas when you think there is a reason many people do not move to other parts of the planet. There are plenty of people who live to avoid moments like this. They are rational, reasoning humans who are successfully able to avoid making their lives even more complicated. I so envied these people that morning. Being immobilized was far worse than the giant centipede that crawled past my feet while doing laundry a few months earlier. I thought I could handle all the creepy crawlies on the island: snakes, lizards, spiders, and even scorpions. I am a 5th generation Texan; these things do not scare me. That was until I met the Amazonian giant centipede. That hideous creature did something to me psychologically. It was vile enough to make me doubt my status as an independent, adventurous woman. Being flat out on my back was similar, it plagued me with fear and doubt. What am I doing? How did I get here? How do I get out of here?  

Eventually, I made it out of the house into my friends jerky stick shift with no air conditioning. I was still in excruciating pain, but this is a good friend, and I felt comfortable enough around him to scream out curse words if need be or just contort my face in aguish. The hardest part was standing up. Standing up clearly delivered a jolt of pain unlike anything I had ever felt before. I could manage walking as long as I pressed both my thumbs into my lower back. These physical sensations were the things I assessed on the way out the door as we drove to find my doctor. Of course, the only indication of a doctor  we ever found was a house with a sign outside the door, Keito Medical Center. The door was open wide, but the place was empty inside, except for 12 patio chairs configured in a U shape. “Hello, is anyone here?” Our voices echoed all around. We gave up and left the building after no one answered.

We stopped at the Valero Gas Station on the way back to my house so that I could buy the pay as you go phone card. Once I was back home, I called my doctor several times but never did get an answer, just a voice mail in Dutch. Finally, I decided to call AZV, the Aruban healthcare organization that runs the socialized system of medicine here. They transferred each of my calls over and over to a never ending ring. By the third or fourth transfer, someone finally answered on the other end to tell me that my doctor wasn’t in Aruba; therefore, I would need to call my stand-in doctor, Dr. Van Ool. Dr. Van Ool never answered either. All I ever got was another harsh voice mail in Dutch. I listened to the entire recording even though I didn’t understand a word of it, and, at the end, I finally heard a few words of English – message box is full. I called AZV again, but they had all already left work for the day, 45 minutes before closing.

I’d had enough of the missing Dutch doctors and Aruban healthcare system altogether and decided to just pay money out of my own pocket with a trip to Urgent Care Aruba, the only private healthcare service on the island. When we arrived at the 24/7 emergency care center, the parking lot was empty and all the lights were out. The place was closed and no one was there. This was urgent care Aruba style. The sun hadn’t even completely set yet. There was still a little bit of daylight left in the sky. Besides that, the place clearly advertised 24/7. I pressed a button next to the front door and cringed as I heard yet another phone ring again and again. Only this time someone miraculously answered over a loud  speaker outside the building. An angel with an amplified voice told me she could be there to help me in 20 minutes for the starting price of $150 Florin.

The young doctor eventually sped up in her white Volkswagen. She was personable and funny. She asked for a recap of the events that morning, along with a few more diagnostic type questions. “I don’t even need to examine you. I already know what’s wrong with you. But jump up on the table anyway, so I can say we did this.”  She rambled off a long string of medical terms as my diagnosis. Back spasm was the plain English version for whatever she described. I’d hiked along the coast from Alto Vista to the Lighthouse the day before, so most likely that is what triggered it according to this expert. I have never felt such a sense of relief as I did when I watched her scrawl out a signature for two much needed prescriptions for pain killers and muscle relaxers. “Don’t forget to stretch and hydrate when you hike,” she reminded me on my way out the door.

Today is King’s Day, or Koningsdag, and I am feeling better. King’s Day is this national Dutch holiday where they celebrate the King’s birthday. The Dutch have an interesting way of throwing a birthday party. They wear and drink/ eat a lot of orange things. Some wear orange wigs and others may wear orange sneakers. They eat orange sprinkles on baked goods and drink orange alcoholic beverages. They also drag out junk they don’t want from inside their home and sell it on the street. Kids play musical instruments and everyone plays odd traditional games like Spijkerpoepen. This is a game where they tie a nail to a string on the back of their pants and then squat while the nail dangles over a empty beer or wine bottle. First one to get the nail in the bottle wins. I’m assuming you probably need to drink the bottle of booze first before you begin playing this game. I’ve also seen video of children hurling eggs at faces perched atop caricatures painted on wooden slabs. My friend tells me the potato sack race was a Dutch invention. I believe her and will never ever even Google to fact check. Only the Dutch could invent potato sack racing; they are truly original and my new favorite culture. I secretly wish I could be at least part Dutch.

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother always had a quote taped to her refrigerator door. “Inside every older person is a younger person wondering: What the hell happened?” I have no idea who the genius is behind these words. All I know is that it sums up exactly how I am feeling this week. I also have no idea how King’s Day plays out on the island of Aruba. I’m just thankful it is a holiday and I have one more day to recover before going back to work tomorrow. My curiosity about King’s Day may propel me into an upright walking position and outside my door to see what this holiday is all about. It’s too bad my back spasm will put me on the sidelines when it is time for a game of Spijkerpoepen.

The Island Beauty Secret

Originally published on 4/18/16 on Women who Live on Rocks

The Island Beauty Secret

WRITTEN BY: TIFFANY LEWIS

Two plumbers showed up on my porch recently to fix a problem with the shower. I was cleaning house when they unexpectedly knocked on the door, so while I tackled my to-do list, they went to work inside the tiny space that is my bathroom, clanking away.

All of a sudden, I heard a loud crash and my heart sunk, knowing immediately what it must be. I raced over and peeked inside to find hundreds of dollars in skincare products shattered to smithereens. Miracle serums and overnight salves peppered with tiny shards of glass from the jars they were once contained in were all over the tile floor amid the men’s clunky work boots. Eye cream had fallen into the trashcan, double lash mascara and hazelnut lipliner were nestled against the base of the toilet, and a bomb of beauty products had simply exploded and the remnants were lodged into cracks and crevices all over the place.

*click for image credit

Neither of the men spoke English very well and I have not yet mastered Papiamento (the native island tongue, derived from African and Portuguese with influences from Native American, English, French, and Dutch), so we were all left to communicate how this disaster came about in broken Spanish. I never did get a straight answer. “Muchas cosas todas partes,” they scornfully repeated to me over and over while emphatically waving their hands up at the now bare glass shelves my prized potions had been sitting on just moments before.

Yes, guys, there were “many things everywhere”. Sigh. Was this somehow my fault for being a woman who buys and stores cosmetics in excess? Since they made no effort to stop working and were already crushing palettes of eyeshadow beneath their boots, I went for the broom and started sweeping up all of the broken pieces, stoically fighting back the tears. The calamity of this scene can only be understood by women, and especially so by those who live on rocks. As island women, we can’t easily replace this stuff, and we most likely spent a good deal of money, time, and effort just getting all of it to our island home from stores far away in a distant land.

I have finally accepted the unfortunate loss that occurred that day and am trying to learn the graces the island has to teach me about my primping standards. These thoughts come to me mostly while I am hanging clothes on the line because this is the one chore that has the power to make me keenly aware of just how much things have changed in my life since I moved to my rock. It’s during this time that I realize how much time and money I once spent on beauty and fashion. I cringe at the dollar amount spent at the salon on hair color alone. Whisked from station to station and slumped back under hoses and hair dryers for hours at a time, I secretly longed for more time to be outdoors in nature or to just pursue a new hobby. Hadn’t I been told somewhere along the way that true beauty grows from these kinds of things?

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Although I certainly do not long for many aspects of that life again, my girlfriends and I recently lamented to one another over drinks that shopping for clothes is what we miss the most. Aruba has shopping, of course, but it is at luxury stores like Gucci – places a teacher like me can’t afford on a teacher’s salary. Every other store is stocked for tourists: flip flops, tank tops, and overpriced, synthetic summer wear and transparent caftans. And a whole lot of t-shirts that say “Aruba” on them.

It’s not just shopping for clothes we miss, it’s also shopping for seasons, which can cause us to wistfully remember a time before our entire wardrobe was made up of sandals and sundresses. Don’t get me wrong though – as much as I miss jeans, jackets, and boots, I am fully aware that nothing compares to a new life where you can designate an entire drawer of your dresser exclusively to beachwear. Sarongs, cover-ups, bikinis, floppy hats, and sunglasses all mix and mingle together in the happiest drawer ever – it’s one big beach party in there! Thankfully, it is easy to shop in Aruba for all of this kind of stuff.

Thinking back to July when I was packing a wardrobe to live and work in a tropical climate, I remember setting aside a few pairs of pants and a couple of cardigans. Maybe it will cool down a bit at night in December, I thought to myself. Meanwhile, I’ve only worn pants twice since I arrived. I put on a long sleeve wrap for the first time last Wednesday when we went to the movie theatre because it’s the only place on the island that will give you an actual chill. The truth is, I don’t need most of what I brought – including the expensive eye cream. Something about that is very liberating.

There is beauty in the simplicity of one season style. And who really needs a lot of beauty products when you spend most of your time in the Caribbean sea? All you truly need is sunscreen. The sea and sand have a way of working some kind of magic over you that can never be found inside a jar.

mermaids drone_WWLOR

climbing mountains

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I’m a bit stressed at the moment thinking about the weeks ahead because I am planning and preparing for a trip to Peru in June. We are hiking the Salkantay Trail, which I have read is one of the toughest treks to Machu Picchu. It starts in Cuzco like all the others, but climbs higher and goes farther than the rest, as in 12,500 feet high and 36 miles far. My Dutch friend chose it because her friend who lives in Buenos Aires just climbed it in February. She had nothing but great things to say about it and gave it a 5-star recommendation. Going into this whole thing somewhat blindly after spontaneously buying the ticket, we decided it was probably best to sign up with the company her friend just used. She assured us the trail wasn’t that hard, although I later found out she vertically climbs rocks, so her idea of hard may be slightly different than most.

The logistics to planning it from my speckle island in the middle of the sea are quite challenging. How do you even go about training for it here? Gym memberships are too expensive so that is out of the question. I’m slowly finding yoga studios that are a good fit and still looking for Pilates classes. There is one mountain/ hill in the middle of the island, the Hooiberg. You can climb the 600 steps to the top. But does climbing this stump of a mountain at sea level really prepare someone for the most formidable range in the Western Hemisphere? I finally found a track at Paradera Park nearby my house. I have no idea what the distance is around this track – maybe a half mile. But at least I can build up speed on a paved surface without having to worry about dogs attacking me. And I love walking at this park on weekday evenings when all the kids are flying over hills and ramps on BMX bikes and skateboards or playing basketball and soccer. What Aruba does have that helps prepare is a large nature preserve, Arikok National Park. We started a Sunday routine hiking around 5 hours over this terrain. I’m not sure how well hiking in the sweltering heat can really prepare you for hiking the Andes during the winter. I guess I will soon find out.

Then there is the whole conundrum of finding the gear you need for a trip to the mountains in the winter when you live on an island where it is always summer. I desperately need fleece layers for cold weather. Good luck finding any winter clothing on a tropical island. I also need shoes with tread for hiking. All I have here are New Balance for running and an old pair of Converse. If you look online to find stores to buy stuff you need for hiking while living in Aruba, you will find an endless collection of hiking gear designed and named after the island; the irony is that you will most likely never find any of this stuff for sale on the actual island of Aruba. There are the Keen Woman’s Alamos Hiking Shoes in Aruba Blue. Columbia makes Women’s PFG Aruba Convertible Pants, apparently they are great for hiking. Looking online will only drive you mad, especially when you once drove past an REI twice a day on your commute back and forth to work.

Shipping to an island is super expensive, so I can’t just order something on Amazon and have it delivered. I took a huge salary cut moving here, so my discretionary income is almost non existent since landing; otherwise, I might consider paying five hundred dollars to get the stuff I need to Aruba.  Most people think I am crazy to complain about any of these inconveniences since I am living in what some consider paradise. It’s hard for others to understand what it feels like to see a plane take off while thinking to yourself – there is the way to Columbia Aruba Convertible Pants. I envy the ease in which everyone back home can purchase anything in the world they want and get it delivered to their doorstep within 24 hours. If I am lucky, I may find someone who knows someone coming soon to visit the island from the U.S. Then I can have Amazon deliver whatever I need to that someone’s address in Georgia or California, and then that someone can bring it to the island when they visit. That is how we do it around here.

There are other very specific things that you can’t order on Amazon and you only realize that you need them after moving to an island. You look through everything you brought, thinking surely I remembered to bring that one thing I will eventually really need after leaving the United States and moving to a rock in the middle of nowhere. Take, for example, a pamphlet my orthopedic doctor gave me a few years back on exercises to strengthen my ankle joints, after diagnosing me with ligamentous hyper laxity resulting in chronic lateral ankle instability and perineal tendon insufficiency. What the hell does that even mean? He went on to explain that I was born with the joint flexibility of a circus performer and had essentially overstretched my ligaments in too many years of dance classes. Now they had lost their elasticity, much like a rubber band I suppose, and I would have to do a nightly routine in ankle exercises to keep them strong. Who has time for that? Apparently, I never did, or I would remember the whole routine. I’ve searched You Tube and can’t find anything that seems familiar to me, except for the draw out the alphabet with your big toe series. I would give anything for that piece of paper, but it is deep in a box somewhere in storage in Dallas, Texas.

What I am learning from the people I meet is that you have to seize any opportunity you can to travel. You can find a way to do it if you really want it. So I can’t let any of these obstacles get in the way. There aren’t any excuses for choosing not to turn the page to your next journey. There is so much to be gained from from doing so, and you can always get there, even on a budget. You just have to do it. So I will move forward with my hyper mobile joints and find a way to get what I need without the convenience of clicking here and there on Amazon. However, since I know so many talented and amazing people reading these posts, feel free to send me anything you’ve got: ideas for how to get stuff here, words of inspiration, ankle strengthening exercises, a Camelbak hydration pack, wool socks, etc..

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daily life in tanki flip

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There is definitely a daily life shift that happens after leaving America to work in another country. Somewhere around the six-month mark I eventually fell into a routine, and it seems somewhat familiar, but in this parallel reality kind of way. Shopping for groceries, doing laundry, paying bills, these are activities habitually imbedded in my mind and muscle memory, yet there is this twist to everyday life when you live in another country that feels a little bit like magic. There is nothing that can compare to moving overseas because it is like moving to another world altogether, and somedays it can feel like another planet. It wipes aways the hum drum of daily routine and makes the errands you run feel otherworldly, like something from a great adventure, or sometimes like a challenging problem to overcome. Everything is just a little bit different; somethings are vastly different. Your brain fires up synapses while problem solving household inconveniences, or converting numbers to military time and metric system, or deciphering what you owe and why when reading a utility bill in Dutch. Luckily, there is always a beach to escape to after the daily grind.

Life in every room of the house plays out differently than it did before. I watch TV sometimes, but I only watch BBC for news because it is one of three choices, the others being CNN or the local news in Miami. Then I usually tune into about 20 minutes of American movies dubbed in Spanish. When doing laundry, it is best to do it in the morning and coordinate my effort with the rising and setting of the sun so that the clothes will thoroughly dry, but I must not leave them out on the line too long because then the colors start to fade. It is better to cook anything that takes time in the morning before it gets too hot. So I routinely find myself cooking dinner after scrambling eggs for breakfast. Island living is a bit mixed up that way. I take a shower between 16:00 and 17:00 because that is when the water is kind of tepid. If I have to take a shower at any other time of day, it will only be for a few military style minutes to lather and rinse. Sometimes I just turn the nozzle and let the water trickle out on to the shower tile when shampooing or shaving. It just too cold to stand under the water like I’ve done my entire life. Some chores are gone from my life completely. I don’t iron anymore. You do not really need to iron when your entire wardrobe consists of one season. Getting dressed in the morning for work in a place that is summer all year long really simplifies things.

When it comes to buying food and household products, I can find items from home at the grocery store if I am willing to pay extra for American brands.  But sometimes I will search forever for a brand that cannot be found anywhere on the island. So I’ve had to learn to let go. I’ve said goodbye to brand loyalty and all the logos and slogans from America and am experimenting with new brands from other countries. They are considerably cheaper, and they have logos and slogans too, only I can’t understand any of it. I have no idea most of the time what I am buying because everything is in Dutch, but I trust the ingenuity of the Dutch people and am always pleasantly surprised with the high quality for such a low price. It helps that there are familiar characters from American products in disguise outside of America, like Mr. Clean who is called Mr. Proper in the Netherlands. The lesson in letting go holds true for restaurants as well. You can find a few American restaurants here, but the food will not taste like you remember, and mayonnaise is used in place of ketchup everywhere you eat. There is something about living abroad on an island that accentuates all that is missing because the only way back to any of the stuff you want is by boarding a boat or an airplane. This realization will sometimes bring about strange pregnancy style cravings for foods that were never on your shopping list before. For me it is breakfast cereal, especially sugary breakfast cereal like Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops, really anything with a cartoon character on the box will do. I never ate it before, but I now have this sudden desire to eat bowl after bowl.

Shopping for all of these items in stores is quite amusing. Unique stores are erratically placed all over the map here. In America there is this banality of shopping place that has spread like a plague throughout cities and small towns all over the country, thanks to the development of the strip mall and urban/ suburban sprawl. Everything about stores is the same in every American city it seems: the locations, the exterior, the parking lots, the inside layout, and the products for sale. The chain retailer doesn’t really exist on this island. This brings me great joy. Most of the stores are Chinese, and they all have different names and different products for sale. The Wai Fat sells Ajax, but you will have to go to the Hueng Shin for Tampax. One thing they all have in common is that the shelves are arbitrarily overstocked, teeming and towering with mismatched items. On the ground are boxes filled with cartons of eggs. On the bottom shelf above the eggs are cash rent receipts. The next shelf is overstocked with an assortment of Winnie the Poo pens and glitter glue. Above this are hundreds of Otis Spunkmeyer muffins and several large boxes of Splenda for sale in bulk. At the prized position of eye level product placement you will find baby food and Quaker oats. Just above your head there seems to be an endless supply of electric calculators. Perched at the very top, painfully out of reach for the small boy who covets it, is an Enlighten firefighter kit of Chinese Legos. How does this stuff all go together?

The locations where all these stores can be found on the island are equally incongruous. You will find stores unexpectedly around every residential corner. Also, people just seem to sell whatever they want whenever they want wherever they want in makeshift stores outside their homes all over this country. Many homes double as businesses. It can feel a bit like falling down the rabbit hole when you drive down the streets. The roads easily lead you to the next unexpected place in Aruba because there are no street signs, or apparent zoning rules. The streets loop around in a haphazard fashion alongside never-ending homes and snack stands and pet stores and party supply shops and cigar factories and chicken fighting arenas. Then all of a sudden you will see a throwaway tower of automobiles stacked on top of one another. It’s easy to get lost and equally easy to stumble across some whimsical place that reminds you just how fantastically faraway you are from the right angles and grid pattern of urban planning. We experimented with this one weekend after a trip to the Aloe Vera Factory. “Let’s do that thing where we just let the road take us wherever,” I suggested. Yes, that is a thing we do here. It’s a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.Three hours later, we’d visited 10 random places we never knew existed before we began.

The first stop we happened upon was Nos Aventura Snack, colorfully painted with a rainbow of colors pouring out of a giant sized bag of Skittles all over the side of the building. We ordered up two Pastechi, savory pastries stuffed with cheese and meat, a classic Aruban snack food. Around the corner we found a clothing boutique on a neighborhood street, L’Amethyst Boutique. The door was locked and so we rang the bell and patiently waited. We were invited inside to peruse an assortment of synthetic summer wear, all of it incredibly overpriced. I just can’t bring myself to spend 180 Florin on a polyester dress when I live on a humid, hot island. Our next stop was a smoothie stand in front of someone’s home. The lady who runs the stand is no amateur. Her equipment is high end and in mint condition. She will add wheat grass and chia seeds, or anything else that may give you that extra boost to go windsurf, or mountain bike, or whatever high-octane activity you have planned for the day. From there, we were on a search for Fantastic Gardens after seeing the sign, 1,200 Meters to the right. Our next stop was a corner bar; these are also everywhere you turn in Aruba. We stepped inside to find a bar filled mostly with old men playing dominoes, watching soccer, and drinking Balashi. We ordered up two Balashi and took a seat outside. After that, we stumbled upon a cigar factory and a new Papiamento restaurant that had just opened for business (Cos Bon So Nos Cas Crioyo) and chatted with the owners of both places. We ended the day hiking a trail and bought Aruban flags on the way back to Tanki Flip.

All of this has made me realize something I already knew about myself. I never want to live in another world with a Walgreens on every corner. Sure, I guess some people like the predictability of going into one of the 8,173 Walgreens in 50 states. They probably like that all the stores look exactly alike because it’s easier to spot one when you need it. They are always guaranteed that Walgreens will carry their brand of Vicks NyQuil Cold and Flu Relief or Cascade Dish Detergent. And they know exactly where to find the products they need when they walk through the door. I’m sure they appreciate that every other store in America operates like Walgreens. Then there are people like me. I thrive in the Aruba world of discovery shopping. There is a price to pay for it though. Walgreens is currently running a special on Frosted Flakes, $1.99 a box. It will cost me six to seven times that amount at the corner store here in Aruba, if they even sell it. The outrageous price is a grrreat deterrent since Frosted Flakes really doesn’t need to be a part of my daily life here in Tanki Flip.

aruba adventures

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Dedicated to my friends arriving soon from Texas – a short list of big adventures. It would be even better if I listed directions for each, but that is way beyond by capabilities.  Maybe this map will help. Hopefully you will get lost at some point because doing so will delightfully lead you on your own island adventure.  I certainly do not claim to be an expert on all that one can experience here. After all, I have only been here for six months. Actually, I have been in Aruba for exactly six months this weekend. I work all the time, but when I’m not at work, I’m exploring the island, albeit on a shoestring budget. Here are some things I have discovered.

Sand  – You will want to spend the majority of your time at beaches. Our favorite is Baby Beach. Drive to the southern part of the island to get to Baby Beach and stop at Charlie’s Bar in San Nicholaas. It closes early because it is in the Red Light District. Also, stop at Zeerovers for dinner on the way home, but only on the weekend, because only then will they remove all the shells, skin, bones, and eyeballs from the heaping baskets of seafood you are about to order. I have spent many a Sunday at Baby Beach followed by a delicious catch-of-the-day dinner at Zeerovers. Eagle Beach is named one of the best in the world. Its powdery white beaches and turquoise blue waters are paradise on Earth, especially during sunrise and sunset. We also frequent Arashi beach. There are more locals there and a drive up to the California Lighthouse after is a nice way to end the day. Another great place for sunset is the Alt0 Vista Chapel. One more beach worth mentioning is Andicuri Beach. We just had a barbecue there last Wednesday.

Sea – Definitely do some kind of water activity while you are here as well. Snorkeling is the simple, go-to activity if funds and experience are lacking. There are plenty of snorkel spots throughout the island and you can buy gear inexpensively at stores all over the place. There are a plethora of other water activities as well, from from kite surfing to kayaking. Also, get out on the water if at all possible. I haven’t been out on a water tour yet, but I heard the Catamaran “Dolphin” tour is the best.

Off road – There is plenty of activity on land as well. Rent some type of all terrain vehicle and explore Arikok Park. Be sure you find your way to Conchi, or natural pool. Take the plunge. Just make sure you have on your stylish water shoes.  Spelunk one of the many caves while exploring the park. Quadiriki is my favorite and the setting of an Arawakan legend. There is also a bar/ restaurant in the park called Boca Prins. It’s fun to sit and relax there while enjoying a tall tropical drink and fantastic view. If you have the time, keep driving along the coast to the California Lighthouse.

Get lost – Somewhere along the way during your time in Aruba it is essential to get off the beaten path and just get lost so that you can experience authentic island life. This will inevitably happen if you turn off any main road because street signs are nonexistent in this country. Don’t worry about it. You are on an island, so how lost can you really get? Stop any place that looks fun. Explore the aisles of a Chinese supermarket or grab a Balashi paired with a lumpia at a Chinese bar. Just be forewarned, you will want to wear ear plugs if you venture into said bar.

Animals – You will want to spend some quality time with animals and insects while you are in Aruba because there are so many sanctuaries that provide serene shelter to a large variety of species, from Howler monkeys to camels. My favorite places are the Donkey Sanctuary and the Ostrich Farm. The Butterfly Farm is also worth a visit. There is a tour guide to educate you on all of the life science moments in case you have forgotten them since 7th grade. We listened attentively as our tour guide described the transformation from caterpillar to cocoon. I was so transfixed that I watched You Tube videos of this process for at least an hour after my visit. I’ve discovered these videos will put you in the exact same meditative state as the Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting series.

Chow down – Sample Suriname food while you are here; order the roti. We like Yanti, Indo, and Swetie. Colombian food is a must as well. There are several restaurants serving authentic dishes. I have only been to Don Jacinto where my friend, who had just returned from a visit to Colombia, emphatically recommended the bandeja paisa. Savory Colombian empanadas can be found at snack stands and food trucks all over the island. Go for Dutch pancakes and order something you don’t typically have with your pancakes. Linda’s Dutch Pancakes is good. There is also a fabulous Dutch bakery in Paradera called Huchada. Sample Peruvian at El Chalan. Finally, we are always on a budget because we are poor school teachers, so if you are looking to splurge, here is a complete list of all the restaurants.

Party – Arubaville, Bugaloe, and Salt and Pepper all have excellent mojitos. All three also have delicious tapas to choose from on their menus.  Arubaville and Bugaloe are waterside. Moomba is right on the beach, as in the legs of your chair will sink into the sand. 080 and Chaos are fun Dutch bars to visit where you can strike up conversation with anyone. I was just at Chaos last night and it appears to be the party headquarters for all the Carnival parades. Order bitterballen somewhere along the way when you are out for the night. Another great location to grab a drink is Casibari Cafe and climb the Casibari Rock Formations.

City streets – Also, I haven’t done much of this because I moved here to get away from the city, but visit downtown Oranjestad. Walk around. Go shopping. Take the trolley. Talk to people. Everyone is incredibly friendly in Aruba. You will meet people from all over the world. This is the best part about living here.

62nd Carnival – Finally, Carnival is scheduled for Sunday when you arrive. I went to the lighting parade last night as a sort of run through for next weekend. I am thrilled to soon be experiencing something new here with all of you.

island logistics

 

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Travel tips for friends arriving soon…

1. Learn a few Papiamento phrases. My favorite is bon nochi drumi dushi, which means good night and sweet dreams. Learn some Dutch words as well. My favorite is the very useful Ik houd van katten, or I love cats.  Spanish is also helpful, which most of you already know as Texans. Expect everyone you meet to speak all of the above, including English.

2. One Florin equals 0.56 U.S. Dollar. You may want to use a conversion app on your phone if you are mathematically challenged because sometimes you will pay in one currency and receive change in another. You can also study ahead with this currency converter.

3. Tip the teenagers who bag your groceries at the store. One to two Florins is customary. My friends tell me that I tip too much in restaurants. They say 10% is all I need to leave because it is not like America where the tip is basically the wage. Regardless of this advice, I always tip 20%. It is ingrained in me after working as a waitress throughout my entire time in college.

4. You will pay twice the amount for American brands at the supermarket. Shop for Dutch brands instead: they are much cheaper. Everything is lekker, only you won’t really know exactly what it is you are about to eat until you take a bite. Also, pack a collapsible cooler for the beach. You will pay a fortune for one here, or anything else made to save human beings time and bring convenience. I thought I might like to buy a toaster yesterday until I looked at the price – 84 Florins. Now you can practice a bit with currency conversion to clearly see why I chose not to buy it. The toaster is a luxury I cannot afford.

5. Prepare ahead for holidays. Arubans, unlike Americans, understand the full meaning of holiday, as in businesses do not open because no one goes to work. You are home or on on the beach celebrating life with your community of people. This means places that you had in mind to eat and visit will most likely be closed, including the grocery store and even the gas station. Burnout Monday is a national holiday the day after Carnival. Maybe go to the beach on Monday.

6. Pack over the counter drugs. I don’t take any prescription medications. I don’t even take over the counter medications. But I found myself in need of something to bring relief when I was sick the weekend before last. Regardless of its classification as OTC or RX, any pill you swallow can only be bought at the Botica, and the Botica has limited hours. Most importantly, the Botica is closed on Sundays. Plan ahead!

7. Beer is sold in 8 oz bottles, which I was told at the Balashi Brewery has more to do with tradition than heat. The local beers are Balashi and Chill. Some other popular beers are Polar (Venezuela) and Amstel Bright. Don’t be alarmed when the kid bagging your groceries asks you if you want a bottle of beer opened on your way out the door. He will most likely already be prying off the cap with a bottle opener in hand by the time you tell him that you do not need one for the road.

8. Go ahead, you can park your car on the sidewalk. It is favorable to blocking traffic in the narrow street. It is best to have 4WD in Aruba because you will need to go over curbs and drive on dirt roads. Also, you will want to tour Arikok Park to Conchi, natural pool. After that, be sure to drive the coast to the California Lighthouse.

9. Everyone in my neighborhood carries a stick while walking to deter dogs. I’m not sure what they would do with it if a vicious dog were to charge forward. I hope they wouldn’t use the stick to beat the poor pup. Maybe they would just make themselves big and roar like a bear. Then, perhaps, they would swing it around until the dog hopefully ran away. You might consider something to protect yourself as well if you venture off the beaten path. You may also want a machete to lop off the head of any boa constrictor you might come across

10. Bring Sunscreen. Buy the biggest bottle. Get SPF 100 if you can find it. You are going to need it!