Saturday, January 29, 2011

No Snow!!

How do you do a Christmas tree without snow, pine branches, icicles? Like this - typically Arubian.

Conversion Factors

Pop math quiz: Arubian currency exchange is 1.75 Arubian florin = 1 U.S. dollar. Gasoline is sold by the liter. So, here's the fuel we just put in the rental car. Is the price on this pump pricey or cheap compared to the U.S.?

I can do metric system in my head. I can convert currency in my head. What I can't do, is two-step conversions like this one, in my head. Last time I tried I ended up paying $12 for a pineapple in Barbados!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Basics

Yes, we love this desert island in the southeastern Caribbean. Here’s your geography lesson for the week (winking at H. if she’s reading). The island is 19 miles long and 6 miles wide. Politically, it is part of the Netherlands but has a semi-independent status. As I understand it, the island is self-governing but Holland takes care of some things such as national defense; I think it’s somewhat analogous to the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The local language is Papiamento (more on that in a moment), but everyone is wonderfully multilingual and generally speak 3 other languages in addition – Dutch (Dutch is used for official business, and also there are many tourists from the Netherlands), English, and Spanish.
We studied a bit of Papiamento; I love the insights you get into a culture by understanding the structure of the language. In Papiamento, the pronouns for ‘he’ and ‘she’ are the same – does this imply an underlying gender equality? There are 3 different words for ‘relax’ but only one for ‘work’ – don’t you love those priorities? (We have no way in English, for example, to distinguish between ‘relaxing by resting’ and ‘relaxing by playing,’ if you get the idea). Best of all, they have no word for weather, and no jobs for weather forecasters! Why bother? It’s always 82 degrees and sunny, and south of the hurricane belt.
The trade winds blow constantly from the east. The iconic divi-divi tree, something of an island symbol, shows the effects of these winds by growing only in one direction [photo – divi tree]. The windward (northeastern) side of the island is wild – rugged, dry, and desolate, waves crash on rocky cliffs.[photo – crashers and splashers] The leeward (southwestern) side is mild, with miles of gorgeous sandy beaches and extensive development – tourism is the number one industry. [photo – palm beach] There is also a bit of oil revenue and a refinery. There’s somewhat less grinding poverty, and somewhat higher education, than many other islands we’ve been on. The total population is about 100,000 (?) mostly concentrated on the downwind side. [pink areas on the map are population centers] Most of all, the people are utterly fantastic, friendly not because you’re a tourist and they want your money, but just because that's the way they are.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Yes, We Recycle

Most of the reusable grocery bags in the States are green – the color claimed by the pro-environment movement, symbolic of the trees that are saved. Here in the Caribbean – doesn’t this make perfect sense? The reusable bags are turquoise blue – their biggest environmental resource is the crystalline ocean. The bag says, “Keep Aruba Clean,” and “Aruba Sweet Land.” (The latter phrase is also the title of their national anthem.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Blog Notes

We spent a day walking around downtown Oranjestad doing business mundanity (getting a local SIM card for our phone, and bus passes, and changing money). Got in *lots* of walking, partly because things were scattered and its almost a mile just to get to the bus stop, and partly because we kept getting lost. What we didn’t get was a dedicated internet connection. Many of the bars and cafés have free internet, so that’s where we’ll be going to update the blog. What that probably means for you, dear readers, is that our schedule will be very erratic -- we won’t be posting for days, then put up a whole slug of notes all at once. What that means for us, though, is that it will be difficult to avoid TWD (typing while drunk) since you have to be a customer of said bar or café in order to use their wifi!

What I love about Dan?

What I love about Dan? Last year for his b-day we had a $100 dinner in an upscale restaurant in the Exumas. This year, b-day was sunset on the beach followed by dinner was $5 roti at a Suriname hole-in-the-wall in Noord. He was equally delighted with both – that’s what I love about him.

It’s an Island Thing

People in the Caribbean take a pretty casual attitude toward a lot of things.

(1) This measuring cup cracked me up. If you look carefully, you will notice that the metric side doesn’t line up with the English side: you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to remember that 250 ml is approximately one cup, and 500 ml is approximately one pint. But on this cup, 250 ml lines up with 1-2/3 cups, and 350 ml lines up with one pint. The first morning we made oatmeal, this cup certainly made for a texture the Quaker Oats people never intended! Wishful thinking? But mostly I think this measuring cup should be paired with the Piet Hein grook: “Some people live in a dream of what’ll allow them to live their dream – they solemnly hold out a half-pint bottle and ask for a pint of cream.” (We later calibrated it with a bottle of water labeled 8-oz that was handed out at the parade; the metric side was closer to being correct. No problem, mon!)

(2) So, the map we got from the tourism folks was pretty skimpy. We asked for, and got, a bigger map. It was about twice the size. Opened it up … it was the same map, just printed bigger. No additional detail, which of course was what we were after. Must be an island thing.

The Grocery Store

The grocery store has a lot of American brands, and some products for the European Union markets that were printed in seven languages. In some cases, packages were printed in other languages, but the words were so similar to the English ones that it was easy to discern the parallel, and some things I had to look at the pictures and guess. It’s a safe bet that koffi is coffee, but what’s keshi? Bladerdeeg? Pindakaas? Hanepoot? Sometimes you have to accept some uncertainty in life. The eggs had come from Miami, though, and the water is delicious to drink straight from the tap. All in all, the supermarket felt like a supermarket, the vibe was generally familiar and grocery shopping was a very first-world experience. But then you’d turn a corner and get reminded that you’re not, in fact, in the States – when we saw Carnaval masks for sale in the liquor store, or baby cribs sold with mosquito netting already installed. [photos] (for those who are reading this blog as a learning experience, keshi is cheese, hanepoot is grape [juice], pindakaas is peanut butter, and bladerdeeg is a kind of frozen puff pastry dough)

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Knife (of steel and stories)

We fly … a lot. We know the frequent flyer drill – laptop out and in its bin, shoes off, liquids in their plastic bag, pockets empty of metal things. I’ve set off metal detectors with things like hair clips and underwire bras. Check, check, and check. So I was devastated when the security screener at the airport ran my purse through the X-ray machine, frowned and ran it again, then started to search it by hand. I’d already done the frequent-flyer drill … and now the screener was looking at me oddly as he pulls a pocket knife out of my purse. NO!!

In some cultures, a knife is just a tool; in others, a gift of a knife implies a promise and an invitation to a more durable relationship – with this symbol of protection, it says, “I’ve got your back and I expect you to have mine.” I have a magnificent pocket knife; Dan got it from a pawnshop and gave me when we were dating. It’s good-sized (i.e., big for a “girl”) and has an wing-spread eagle etched into its high-quality stainless steel lockback blade. And in the years I’ve owned it, it has accumulated stories that make Dan smile – the time I was holding a meeting and, disrespectfully, one guy started sharpening his knife while some others of us were talking. I pulled out The Knife and sweetly said, “Hey, Mickey, as long as you’re doing, here’s mine.” Knowing that my knife was razor sharp (Dan always kept it that way) and there was nothing for him to do to improve it; he realized it too, as well as my point that I noticed his inattention as he sheepishly handed The Knife back. Or the time I was working late and alone, and the one computer tech who everyone thought was a little creepy offered to “help” me open a carton of paper, and I thanked him but told him I could handle it, snapped open The Knife one-handed and his eyes got a bit bigger and he said, “I guess you can,” and left me alone after that. The Knife. It’s sliced mushrooms on camping trips and sliced open the packing tape on some wonderful gifts we’ve received. I’ve carried it for 28 years, except for times when I’d have to go through security. The closest call I’d had with security, until now, was for a meeting in the White House conference center, where I realized just in time I had the knife in my purse, jogged six blocks back to my car to lock it safely in the trunk, then back again to arrive at my meeting a few minutes late, out of breath, in dress clothes that were now slightly rumpled in Washington’s sticky summer heat. The right-hand back pocket of every pair of jeans I own has wear marks that correspond to the corners of The Knife’s handle. And now an airport security guard was holding it and looking at me (and so, of course, were the folks behind me in line, waiting to see the mini-drama unfold).

Dan and our backpacks had already gone through and our bags had been checked. I gave the screener my best confused grandmother imitation and asked if I could put The Knife in my checked luggage. He explained that I had to go back out through security – he escorted me out of the line. He walked with me and kept holding The Knife, and didn’t give it back to me till I was outside. I went back to the ticket counter to ask if I could retrieve one of my bags, but they had already been processed and were gone into the behind-the-scenes section of the airport. The agent said I had to go downstairs to baggage claim and reclaim my bag, put the knife in, bring the bag back to the ticket counter and resubmit it so it could be re-screened, then go back through security and the metal detector again. Good thing the lines were short and we had gotten to the airport early!

So I’m at baggage claim explaining the story, and the worker there asks me what my luggage looks like – um, sorry, mostly it looks like everyone else’s, two of the ubiquitous black wheeled carryons, and an Army duffel. He asked if it mattered which piece he brought and I said not at all, whatever’s easiest for you to locate; you’re the one doing me the favor. Turned out that the easiest one for him to find was the most distinctive -- the duffel. Ugh. It was also the heaviest of our pieces and the only one without wheels. But I smiled and thanked him – and he thanked me(!), for Dan’s military service – and I slipped The Knife into the duffel’s outer pocket. The rules couldn’t let me just give the bag back without re-screening, so I shouldered it and staggered under the weight back through half the length of the airport before circling back and dropping it off again at the starting point for checked baggage. Then just me and my oddly lightened purse and pockets, back through the metal detector again, and finally limping through to the gate; humping that weight had taken a toll.

Even after the knife adventure, we had some time to wait before our flight. We passed the time chatting with a woman waiting for her flight to Chicago, learning, among other things, that she’d retired from the auto industry, had grandchildren in Washington, had had a serious heart attack that was originally misdiagnosed, had seen the same t-shirts that were being sold at 3 for $20 for half that price in the kiosks on the Mall, and shared a January 9 birthday with Dan.

The flight was uneventful, although the layover in Miami was long. But at about 11PM we were at baggage claim in Aruba. The first bag we noticed was the duffel. As soon as it was off the carousel I ripped open the outer pocket and reclaimed The Knife and put it back into my pocket where it belonged. [photo]