Imagine, if you will, the beige desert geography and texture of Colombia’s Guajira peninsula, the high rise hotels to rival any intermediary US city, beaches that are as if plucked from travel brochures and require no filter to photograph and you’ll start to get a sense of what it is like to travel to Aruba.
“One Happy Island” declares Aruba’s telling slogan. Welcome to an island country completely dependent on tourism. And people did seem happy here on Aruba.
Eagle beach, Palm beach, Baby beach could all easily make a top 20 list in those nonsensical travel publications spamming us continually and condemning us to winter blues as if we were left bereft of an income and with zero travel plans to look forward to. Yes, the beaches are perfect, lauded continually and this high praise is easily justified.
Of course, you come to Aruba to detach yourself of the 9-5 grind, to bare some skin and photosynthesize, eat well, feel the white sand between your toes and if you are English, read as many books as possible while piling into an open bar at your resort. My idea was that I would read at least one book, gauge the other wintry bodies about me on the beach before baring myself for a Caribbean burn and then spend as much time as possible in a relay back and forth between sleeping on a sun lounger beneath a frond umbrella and taking extended yet refreshing dips in the turquoise waters.
We did not go all-inclusive since that’s really not our style, but the hotel was a major international chain, it almost seemed as if there was nothing else. Having made the error of breakfasting chez nous on the first morning I reached the beach stressed at the whirling antics of children running though the restaurant to the gluttonously stocked buffet sections. This was not a mistake we repeated preferring to stake it out alone and search out quality dining. And it was not hard. We just avoided any restaurant with any signage declaring: “all you can eat ribs” (delete as appropriate for ribs, pizza, seafood and so on).
But, while I can extinguish my cellphone and mightily enjoy not answering emails for a few days, I was finding it difficult to become so detached here on Aruba. I wanted to learn about the island, the imported Dutch culture and the politics of the island right on Venezuela’s doorstep and only a 90 minute flight from our home in Bogota. This of course required leaving the security and homogeneity of the high rise hotel strip and taking buses past Oranjestad to other regions of the island and speaking to people.
First I approached the information desk at our hotel. Normal syrupy tourist propaganda was doled out about 4×4 sightseeing trips, still water snorkeling spots and glitzy shopping malls. In fact, the poor lady attending had probably never been asked about a “history tour of Aruba”. I left it at that rather than pushing the issue any further. This was going to be a solo venture and how far could I get in a trip of but 4 days?
With such a large immigrant population in a state of continual flux working in the all-encompassing tourism industry I directed my questions to the remarkably informative, polite and friendly bus drivers on the island. How often can you claim to be speaking to polyglot bus drivers? Most spoke Papiamento (the local language), Spanish, English and Dutch.
Had I not engaged in these conversations I would never have known that there are presidential elections on Aruba in September, I would never have learnt about the fate of the LAGO (ESSO) refinery or made it to the charming yet under-stocked two room Community Museum in San Nicolaas further to the south of the island but only 19km from Oranjestad.
Talking to the museum’s “curator” who was thrilled to be pointing out the importance of antiques and old refinery equipment used by engineers hailing from 54 countries when the refinery was at its zenith was nothing short of charming.
I started to reflect further on Aruba and her place in the world, these small adventures about the island have provided me with much food for thought and left me in a crazily if not fanatically observational state. I watched the enormous family units of Venezuelan holidaymakers conversing boisterously, Italians squeezed into impossibly tight yet fashionable swimming costumes, surgically enhanced Colombianas tiptoeing in the ripples of the shoreline and Americans blending in with various European nationalities in smearing concrete factor sun block over their incurably energetic offspring.
Who would guess that the island is gearing up for elections? There are no billboards, no posters glued onto walls and no politically motivated graffiti anywhere. And, according to all of those I spoke to on the island, regardless of the outcome, no one would dare touch the tourist industry.
Aruba is a happy island for tourists, sheltered in the long shadows thrown by both the high rise hotels on the strip and the gargantuan cruise ships anchoring in the harbor for a few hours. It was a wonderful 4 day break, but that’s all I need. Perhaps next time we’ll go to Trinidad and Tobago or Puerto Rico and further discover the Caribbean.