Aruba – Charmingly Contradictory and Delightfully Dushi

Have you ever had one of those Yin and Yang experiences – where for every bad event, there’s something great? There was a different air of anxiety on this trip. Not the usual, but I could not place the reason. It could have been the hectic upheaval and uncertainty at work and other undesirable obstacles that had been hurled my way, by the name of life. Or was it as simple as a new journey to a region that I had not previously explored, especially without my usual travel companion. Maybe, it was the simple eagerness to escape to the glorious island life. Whatever it was, little did I know that I was in for an excursion of contradictions, in a country that takes multiculturalism and multilingual to a delightfully mind-blowing level.

The ride from the airport revealed the small, fairly flat, arid island with rocky hills in the distance and signature divi-divi trees along the beach. The divi-divi trees reminded me of large bonsai, and are a telltale sign that you are in Aruba.  Arubans speak four languages – what I soon discovered was sometimes, they spoke them all in the same sentence. This kept me mesmerized and wanting to eavesdrop on conversations with the locals. My driver said, in perfect English, that a common phrase that I might hear would be, “Hey dushi, kon bai cubo?” – hey sweetie how are you? I did hear “dushi” a lot, and it did become my favorite word. Maybe my ear was keen to it because the pronunciation was the same as another popular word in English, but with a completely opposite meaning. In Aruba, “dushi” means sweet– Yin and Yang, at its best.

Upon arrival at the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, I was greeted with a fruity cocktail, a perfect thirst quencher. They read my mind. A quick dash to my sixth-floor room to offload the suitcase and check-out the view and accommodations, proved to be a welcome surprise. Unobstructed views of the Caribbean meant drapes open, so as not to miss the colorful sunset hues, glistening water and clear morning skies. All enjoyed from my luxuriously comfortable king size bed. I was, however, lured to my private balcony by what I initially thought was a recording, but the drumming sounded live and sure enough, there was a small band with the identical stylings of the original artists. I sat and took in a few reggae and pop songs while overlooking a tropical landscape, complete with roaring waterfall.

That evening would be toes in sand, for torch-lit beachside dining. I had a front row seat to bid farewell to the sun, as schooners sailed across the magnificent sunset and moored near shore, as if watching a scene from a movie, it made me wonder if that was a similar vision experienced by the indigenous Arawaks when the explorers first ventured ashore.

I was quickly handed a menu and my server, Israel, indicated that there were several selections that featured the fruit of the season, mango.  Although I was anxious to try the smoked daiquiri, tonight, it would be a mango mojito. Not a drinker, and not wanting to offend the bartender, I requested to go easy on the rum. One sip, and I was reminded that I was in the Caribbean – home of all things rum. It seemed that light rum must have signaled to the mixologist to use a “light rum” rather than to go “light on the rum.” Or maybe this truly was their low rum version. Regardless, it was rather potent, yet delightfully delicious. I made sure though that the next round was a totally no fun, “no rum” concoction. Hats off to the bartender for his versatility and understanding.

The next day immersed me like a local beyond the resort. At the top of the hour was breakfast at Linda’s Dutch Pancakes. This was to become my newest food favorite – carb watching or not. Of course, mango pancakes featured, but not being a foodie, but a diehard chocoholic, I went with the Nutella and whipped cream. A cross between a huge pancake and a crepe, from now on, it’s Dutch all the way. Many of the other selections on the menu had the ingredients made inside the pancake. For mine, I spread the Nutella across the plate sized pancake, then rolled it, cut and savored every mouthful, until all that was left was an empty plate without evidence that a pancake 12 inches in diameter was ever there. Just recalling it makes my mouth water. It’s a good thing that a walking tour of the city was next on the agenda.

At the Museum of Industry, the complete history of the island is revealed, from the original misnomer “Isla Inutil” – useless islands –which, over the decades, has proven to be quite a contradiction. Aruba’s natural resources have ranged from gold, phosphate, oil, aloe, and now tourism and have proven to make the island quite useful throughout the centuries. Sustainability is the country’s new focus, taking full advantage of the sun and wind for alternative energy. And through it all, the resilience and adaptable nature of its people is revealed as this island’s most valuable resource.

The resort endeavors for guests to experience Aruba as a local, and the revitalization of San Nicolas is making its mark as an art space, drawing international artists to make its streets their canvas. There you will meetup with the eclectic and interact with designs that adorn buildings and benches. One such building is Cosecha, a creative center with flexible and intimate workshop space representing 35-40 artisans that will even inspire the budding artist within. Opened in December 2016 and currently a boutique and workshop space, the vibrant venue will soon incorporate a food and beverage café. Until then, down the street is the popular hangout where Count Dracula, Popeye, fine art, portraits and international license plates cover floor to ceiling at Charlie’s Bar and Restaurant. There, the fresh catch of the morning is served fried or grilled and the ribs are succulent, mouthwatering, fall-off the bone and seasoned to perfection. The local beer, Balashi – which means ocean view – adds a nice pairing with the meal. Ladies, I recommend the Balashi Chill – even a non-drinker like myself found it most pleasant. At Charlie’s, you never know who might be dropping in for a beer and a bite. That day, Armando, a local artist whose work was featured at the Aruba Marriott stopped by the table and graced us with a photo-op, while Joseph, a regular, entertained the room with his guitar playing and reminded us to take the classic souvenir snapshot behind Charlie’s bar. Every Thursday, the streets are alive with a Carubbean Feast– not a misspelling, rather a nice play on words that keeps Aruba at the focus.

Back at the Aruba Marriott, I made it my mission to find this cinematographic video wall artwork that Armando had on display at the resort. There it was behind the bar, in panels, video footage of violently crashing waves against jagged rocks. A piece that would resonate with me during my next day’s excursion.

I was about to see firsthand where the northeast trade winds bring waves crashing to the rocky shoreline of fused igneous and sedimentary boulders- quite a contrast to the delightfully calm, clear serenity of the beach by the Marriott. The destination was Arikok National Park for a swim at a natural pool. The trip would take the form of a Jeep safari and when Kevin, our driver, asked if I wanted the thrill-seeker, adventurous seat in the back, I had no idea just how adventurous it would be, for a bumpy ride it was and I clung and braced myself for the bulk of the 30-minute journey and I’d do it again, in a heartbeat. Talk about a workout and adrenaline rush. I clocked 17,000 steps, just going for the ride. Along the way, we toured the history of Aruba. The first sight was the ghost ship that rose from the sea after the hurricane of 2005, then the California Lighthouse that sits as a highpoint on the island and was built in 1916. Named after the SS Californian, the ship that sank because it did not know Aruba was there. The magnificent structure took 25 years to build, after all, the Caribbean is known for being laid back and Aruba is no exception. Now, just a high point on the island and an attraction, the lighthouse keeper’s home is said to have been converted to a fine dining Italian restaurant, La Trattoria el Faro Blanco restaurant.

The rock formations and magnitude of the waves crashing along the shoreline and desert conditions with rough terrain made it obvious why the early travelers thought the island was useless, but they were so wrong. This was a haven for geologists and naturalists. Look closely and see the incredible geological formations, the flora and fauna. And where there are rocks, there are minerals. We came upon the gold mill ruin which was built like a fort to deter pirates. Further down the road, a lone building stood in the wilderness, the Alta Vista church. It was like an oasis for the soul, in the midst of a barren, dusty expanse of land. After making a few rocky climbs and surveying the natural structures carved by wind and water, we had worked up an appetite and it was off to lunch at Zeerovers, a kind of seafood market restaurant, It was the best shrimp I have ever had, hands down!

Back at the Aruba Marriott, a session at the Mandara Spa was the perfect remedy after a day of off-roading. it was the last night and a quick and casual bite after the day’s adventure was welcome, so buffet dining it would be. However, this was quite an unexpected buffet. My eyes and appetite immediately went for the miniature crab claws. There was quite a selection of international cuisine and half an island devoted to local favorites like plantain and the best Keshi Yena I have ever tasted. Well, okay, I had tasted the local chicken dish for the first time at The West Deck the previous night. Don’t get me wrong, the West Deck serves up delicious local cuisine at the water’s edge, but hands down for me, the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino makes Keshi Yena best and that’s probably what I appreciated most about the resort. It allows guests to experience Aruba to its fullest. It’s no wonder that fellow travelers are commonly there for a couple weeks. That’s just enough time to find the balance between unwinding and exploring, to be immersed in the culture and the multifaceted complexities of the “dushi” way of life on Aruba, the country whose tagline is deservedly and undeniably, “one happy island” – my Yin to life’s Yang.

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