Street signs don’t exist on this island once you veer off the main roads.This makes it easy to get lost, which happened often to me when I first moved here two years ago. During those early weeks, any venture behind the wheel and onto the street could leave me disoriented and way off track from my target destination, usually on a narrow dirt road flanked by a prickly thicket of towering cacti and desert shrubs on either side. All at once, my heart rate would jump up and race while my mind fixated on the fact that I was lost, truly lost in the middle of nowhere – Aruba really is only a dot on a map of the world. Then I would remember that I could never really get lost on an island. Drive far enough and you reach the sea. And on the tiny island of Aruba, the sea is usually only a few miles in any direction. Somehow that thought always brought me comfort. Months later, after becoming more orientated with my new island home, that same thought would nudge me to purposely get lost. Why don’t you take a left here and see where it takes you? Can you ever really get lost when you live on an island?
Getting lost is now a recreational activity for me. These days it brings a peace of mind and wonder instead of heart palpitating panic. Getting lost brings me great joy because the island where I live truly is a magical place. There is a surprise around every corner here. A curiosity always seems to pop up while driving down the bumpy dirt road. The juxtaposition of these chance findings across the austere and windswept desert landscape make it all the more whimsical. I never imagined living in a place that I would call whimsical, but here I am, wandering about on a whimsical island every weekend.
My all time favorite surprises are the random mannequins that appear sporadically across the island. Of course there are plenty in boutique windows on every corner (the boutiques of Aruba are another story altogether), but my favorites are the mannequins that just seem to pop up along the road. A mannequin couple could be waiting for the bus standing behind a bench at a stop on the side of the road, or maybe there is a bust of a mannequin precariously placed in a tree. Regardless of where you find them, all of them are fully dressed and accessorized, a floral scarf on one, or those yellow hats that telephone repairmen wear on another. There is a house here on the way to Alto Vista Chapel where a dozen or so mannequins pose in the yard as if they are at a party. The scene changes with the season. Sometimes they are dressed to the hilt for Christmas or Carnival. Other times they are dressed more casually in the colors of the Aruban flag – yellow, blue, red, and white – for patriotic holidays. They always look like they are having so much fun.
One of the many comforts in getting lost here is knowing that there will be a Chinese store around the next corner. You can stop if need be and pop into one for a drink and a snack or to just browse the shelves. I have this secret obsession to find out just how many Chinese stores there are on the island. I also might be on a mission to plot the stores out on a map and make sure I have shopped every last one of them before I leave this place. This fascination with the Aruban corner store stems from my tendency to compare the shopping here to that in the United States. Back home, there is this banality in shopping that has spread like a plague all over the country. Everything about stores is the same in every American city. The only thing that the Chinese stores all have in common is that the shelves are jam-packed and teeming with arbitrarily placed mismatched items. On the ground there always seems to be boxes filled with cartons of eggs; above that, a stray assortment of anything is possible. As you slowly look from bottom to top: Cash rent receipts are for sale on the first shelf near your feet. The next shelf is overstocked with an assortment of Winnie the Pooh pens. Above that are dozens of Otis Spunkmeyer individually wrapped muffins and several bulk supply boxes of Splenda. On the shelf at eye level, you will find an assortment of baby food and instant Quaker oats. Looking up above baby food and oats, there seems to be an endless supply of electric calculators. Perched at the highest shelf and painfully out of reach for the small boy who covets it, is an Enlighten firefighter kit, presumably a Chinese version of American Legos. How does this stuff all go together? I have no idea, but I am transfixed and, apparently, easily amused.
Another comfort in getting lost is that there are a variety of island creatures around to keep you company. Drive around long enough and you will most definitely have a few chance encounters. The goats travel in a tribe and are skittishly on the move. I often stop to study their family dynamics. Each one seems to have a distinct role to play in the group, and they all have different personalities. Sometimes you will have to stop the car because a chicken is crossing the road. Eventually, you will swerve to miss an iguana that darts out in front of your car. Don’t be alarmed if you see an occasional dead Boa Constrictor on the side of the road. Dogs are always roaming the streets like thugs in a gang. Actually, the dogs can be quite dangerous, so if you see more than a few together, roll up the windows and speed off. They will already be chasing your car and biting at your door handles and bumper. Not all dogs travel in packs though and sometimes you will find a solitary type asleep in the middle of the road. Just drive around because that dog isn’t going to move even if you honk your horn. My all time favorite sightings are giant hogs that are too busy rooting through the trash containers to even notice you.
It happens far less frequently, but sometimes I still find myself lost for real, the way I used to get all the time during those first weeks. The other day I was driving to get a haircut. I never can find the place, even though I have been there several times. Many businesses are run out of homes here and such is the case with this one. Houses can be the hardest thing to find because driving through a neighborhood is when you enter the world without street signs. I took a wrong turn off the main road on this particular day and followed the left and right that I remembered. Once I saw the airplane, I knew it wasn’t quite right. Keep in mind that I was not on a tarmac when I saw this airplane. I had just taken a wrong turn on a random street in a quiet neighborhood. And then I looked up to see an airplane. And the airplane was not one of those four seater types that bounces around when it hits turbulence: it was a big jet plane that was as long as the road in front of me, only it was behind someone’s house, like maybe they had won it as a prize and had plans to do something with it someday.
But that is exactly what I love about living here. It’s like I’ve traveled through a portal. Life doesn’t operate in a predictable way anymore. I never want to live in another world with 8,000+ Walgreens on every corner. I like the Aruba world of discovery shopping at stores with names like Wai Fat. And after I’ve purchased my plantain chips and Coco Rico soda, I am off to see whatever is around the next corner.