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Published: August 6th 2007
We arrived to fine weather. From above we could see the turquiose waters lapping the white sand shoreline and palm trees swaying in the breeze. The passengers chattered excitedly and the air hostess welcomed us to Aruba. After reporting a damaged bag to JetBlue customer service, we exited to find Tanta Henna waiting for us. We hugged. And then, a little head appeared thru the back window of her car. Panic
was jumping up and down with excitement wagging his little stumpy tail. We hugged again and then headed home. Oom (uncle) Jean, Tashi (Shanna's 10-year old cousin) and Tanta Henna's delicious fried fish were waiting for us. Then Opa came. It's always a pleasure seeing Opa. The 92-going-on-93 spritely 'youngster', who still drives himself to bingo a few times a week, always brings good humour to every gathering. Between mouthfuls of fried fish and johnny cakes, we caught up on old times til late in the evening.
We had been to Aruba before (many times) but somehow this time felt extra special. We borrowed Tanta Henna's car and drove into town. Oranjestad, the capital, is some kind of wonderful. The main throughfare thru the city is the L.G. Smith
Boulevard. Flashy stores, upscale restaurants with great variety and funky buildings with puzzling architecture and rich colors makes it the kind of street you could just wander. And so we did; soaking up the 'ambiente'. But we were not the only ones. Scores of red-faced tourists snapped pictures, bought duty-free jewellery and were generally having a great time.
Originally part of the Netherlands Antilles - then a group of six small Caribbean Islands - Aruba broke away in 1986 claiming its 'status aparte'. Chief among the reasons for seeking its 'independence' was that its economy was growing much faster than the ancient administrative wheels in Curacao (the admin capital) were turning. Tourists had 'discovered' Aruba's perfect beaches and aqua-blue waters and brought much-needed foreign currency. Driven mainly by what had become the world's largest oil refinery, Lago Refinery, Aruba was the tiger of the Antilles and one of the most prosperous islands in the Caribbean. Some posit that in hindsight the separation was detrimental especially given the current slight economic depression. Yet others opine that it was a boon and blame the current state of affairs on a down-turn in tourism post 911 and certainly post Natalee Holloway.
We hid from the sharp early-afternoon sun under broad-brim floppy hats and as the day heated up so too did the call of the water. It was so hot above that we decided to go below and headed up north to the dive shops. In less than five minutes we found ourselves in the heart of Aruba's hotel district. There was certainly no evidence of a recession here. The world's largest hotel chains were in stiff competition with each other on a strip on land a few miles long. Hyatt, Marriott, Westin, Raddison, Grand Occidental and Divi-Divi were in the mix. Signs pointed to the 'Low Rise Hotels' and the 'High Rise Hotels' with the 'high rises' being towering slabs of concrete. Grand entrances decorated with waterfalls and elaborate gardens beckoned. Time-shares, condos and resort villages offered pre-construction prices and nightspots and casinos were ever present. The big 'Os' of 'Hooters' were front and center.
The Raddison's Red Sail dive shop had space for two afternoon boat dives and we started to assemble our gear as soon as we boarded. The Aruba coastline was fantastic: beautiful hotels, white sand and green palm trees. And although it was 96 degrees
in the shade, tourists still stretched out to tan and get their daily dose of second-degree burns. Our group of nine hit the water and immediately descended to a disappointing reef. "Reef''
was much too grand a word. We swam along the 'bottom'
and bumped into a big, cute turtle. Another diver, a fat man with an oversized underwater camera, hogged the space and blinded the poor turtle with his flash bulbs. His fins murdered a few struggling and helpless coral. Everyone crowded the startled turtle. We disentangled ourselves from the school of 'neoprene fish' and a few minutes later came up alongside a small wreck - the Debbie II. It used to be a cargo vessel but was scuttled because it became substandard. A quick swim around, a safety stop for decompression and it was over. Back on the boat we prayed that the next site was way better. 'Malmok' turned up some surprises: two sting rays, a huge sea cucumber and three turtles including a baby one (a rare sight so close to an adult). We avoided the 'underwater hog' and almost clobbered another diver who intentionally flipped the cucumber with her fin. On the way back up
we saw two propellers of what was once an intact airplane before rough seas chopped it up.
We had planned to take a bus back into town and then call Tanta Henna to pick us up. On the way to the bus stop we bought a few 'Dunkin Donuts' to quell the kind of hunger only a whole day at sea could give. We then decided to surprise Tanta Henna and buy some extra donuts to take home. While walking to the bus stop it suddenly hit us, we had a stash of donuts but no bus fare...having just spent it all. There was only one option left: walk home. Aruba is a happy, friendly island but the sun at 4pm doesn't necessarily comply with that slogan.
We walked for about 45 minutes when Vibert stuck out his thumb and a small metallic grey Suzuki Alto pulled up a quarter of a mile away. We ran towards the car both having the same thought: ' I hope they won't drive off as soon as we reach the door'. This thought became reality when Shanna tried to open the door on the passenger's side and it was locked. Luckily,
the driver, a nice big-faced lady in her early 40's, was pointing to the backdoor. Frank Sinatra-style spanish music blared from her squeaky speakers and she banged the steering wheel to the rhythm. This same lady brought us all the way home and we thanked her and wished her a blessed afternoon. Tired from the dives, the sun and the walking we kicked back, relaxed and enjoyed good food and better company with family and friends at Oom Cary's and Tanta Millie's small celebration of their 44th wedding anniversary.
The sun woke us up on the morning of our sightseeing day. A 'tropical desert' is how we describe Aruba. It is 19.6 miles (30 kilometers) long and 6 miles (9 kilometers) across, at its widest point, with an area of approximately 70 square miles (184 square kilometers). The land is flat, except for two peaks, harsh, arid, dusty and totally covered with cactus and prickle bush - not quite a hiking destination. We headed north, by car, to the very top of Aruba. There we would find the road's end, the lighthouse and the sand dunes. The dunes were blindingly white and full of symmetrical ripples artistically shaped by
the wind. We shed our slippers and walked barefeet and took photos too racy to post on such a public blog. The next stop was the Chapel at Alto Vista - a little church close to the sea and reasonably far from everywhere else. Tashi aka 'mini chicks' was the navigator and she did an outstanding job. No sightseeing trip in Aruba would be complete without a visit to the Natural Bridge. It was Aruba's signature landmark for decades. Bus loads of tourists would flock to the picturesque site of monster waves crashing below an arching rock formation. People would sit and stare for hours as mother nature displayed her beauty and awesome power. But two years ago and quite coincidently in the middle of the heat about the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, the bridge collapsed. Whatever conclusions we drew then about the timing of the collapse will remain private but what we saw when we got there really hurt us
. The coast was still spectacular but the 'wow factor' was gone. Two pictures for posterity were what we took before visiting the nearby ruins of an ancient mining camp. Then it was off to Seroe Colorado and land's end
again. We had, in about three hours with stops' , covered Aruba from end to end. We had a late but scrumptious lunch with Tanta Ellen and Oom Bert at the Marriott, their treat of course. About 10:30 pm that night we went to the Alhambra Casino to watch the PPV boxing match between Zab Judah and Miguel Cotto which turned out to be a bloody match dominated in the end by Cotto. When we got there, Opa was in the house at the roulette table with two nice piles of chips . When we left at 12:30 am, he was still there.😊
To cap the pretty laid-back Aruba leg, we left the real strenous adventure for the wee morning hours of the last day. With Panic in tow, we would attempt a non-stop ascent to the summit of Aruba's second highest peak - the Hooiberg. Experienced locals told us that few sights rivalled sunrise from the Hooiberg but there was only a precious few who had what it took to scale the peak in time. We considered ourselves challenged and made careful selection of our clothes and shoes. Panic had the pole position and Shanna set out at
Willem III toren
Museum and Cultural center
a brisk clip ever mindful that we were in a race against the sun. The first station came up fast and to our left and we stopped to catch our breath. Our lungs burned. Our heads pounded as the air got thinner and thinner with each step. Panic set a merciless pace and he seemed indefatiguable but his humans were falling apart. Halfway up, we stole a few seconds of rest under the guise of admiring the sleeping Aruba. The final push to the top was brutal and when we peaked we found the highest rock, collapsed and breathed in the fresh air. Bottles of 'Awa' soothed our flaming throats - 'Awa' being Aruba's bottled water which won the WHO's acclaim as the 'Best water in the world'.
The sun apparently didn't like being beaten and he chose to sneak up under cloud cover denying us the spectacular view we were hoping for. The last few minutes were spent gazing at the flat landscape. We could see the sea all around. Then Vibert stuck his feet back into his slippers
and we descended. HIKE SUMMARY
Name of peak: Hooiberg
Height: 168 meters/551.18 feet
Trail type: Approx. 600
Ascent time: 20 minutes (with stops) Aaaah, hahahahahaha
About 4pm we started to load our bags into the vehicle and Panic started to tremble uncontrollably. He knew we were leaving him again and, this time, for much longer. We felt guilty and fought back tears as we sandwiched his little body between us in a goodbye hug. We said difficult goodbyes to Oom Jean, Tashi (happy belated birthday), Tevin and Sacha and rode with Tanta Henna to the airport. A frog crept up into Tanta Henna's throat and some dust flew into Shanna's eyes.
Insel was on time and from the air we observed 'one happy island' with picture-perfect beaches and lobsters grilling on beach chairs. The resilience of the people is admirable as is their passion for life, living and giving. We would miss this place where cacti could make the perfect backdrop for a picture and where the north-east trades could cool a hot day. Aruba, Dushi Terra, would remain with us always.
'Masha Danki' to:
😊 Tanta Henna and Oom Jean
😊 Tanta Ellen and Oom Bert
😊 Oom Cary and Tanta Millie
😊 Sacha, Tevin
and Mini Chicks
Quick night stop in Curacao, then to Guyana via Trinidad! 😊
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