a journal of...

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art, words, home, people and places

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Philly, or Travels against the Wind

A few weeks ago, rounding the corner of Hurricane Matthew, I flew to Aruba with the children for their family vacation.  I'd held as my beacon for a long time a trip to Paris I've been saving up for in early spring, so at first, when they asked me, I waffled a bit, thinking about the lure of cafes and walks through elegant parks on my own time.  I'm not good with resorts ("That's a great first line for a story," Jill McCorkle joked when I told her about it). But I did want to spend relaxing time with them, and I'd never been anywhere in the Caribbean.

So off we went, and the pilot, though he'd warned us apologetically of a bumpy trip, made in fact a pretty smooth affair of it, gliding around the storm, costing us barely an hour and saving the journey from Miami to Orangestad.

 Aruba is a small island, only about 20 miles long and barely 6 miles across, nearer to Venezuela than anywhere else, but it was a Dutch possession for so long (with farther back Spanish influences and even farther back Amer-Indian) that one's impressions of it are shaped by the fantastic architecture, smooth-faced low buildings with the curled accents of European inhabitants, but in bright island colors.  At least, those are what built the original towns--the capitol's back streets, Santa Cruz, Savaneta, San Nicolas among them.  You could hear its roots tangled in its language.

On the other hand, the resort area of Palm Beach, where we stayed, is another story, pretty much indistinguishable from those photos cluttering websites and print ads of beach resorts everywhere...high white hotels with uniformed guards (the more expensive the place, the more they frowned at passing intruders), miles of blue lounge chairs facing the sea, low pools whose central gathering place is the floating bar.  And on the streets behind them, fancy shopping of the kind found anywhere from Fifth Avenue to Nice to the great mall at Tel Aviv.

Because of Matthew, the famous white sands were, when we first arrived, gray with rotting seagrass and pieces of sponge and coral, and the equally famous seas, known for their clear blue-green jewel tones, were dulled (Aruba isn't hit with hurricanes directly, but does receive the resulting ocean debris nonetheless).  Hotel staff spent all day trying to rake and cart away the mess, but it took them most of the week, and only on the last day were we able to enjoy its return to the advertised normal.  On that day, we floated and dived under the morning's bright sun, watching the fish school in and out around our legs. Ah.

What I wanted most to do every day was walk on the beach, but debris and the jutting hotels made that difficult to do for more than half a mile or so.  Instead, we built rock forts and walls with Alexander, lounged around the pool while he splashed with other children from everywhere (resorts are wonderful for the younger set), and in the hot afternoons, took drives to the outer limits of the island.

For me, those drives were the highlight of the trip to Aruba.  We saw the brochure-touted landmarks, yes--brilliant white lighthouse, tiny precious chapel, the beautifully, perfectly restored historic museum and the Fort downtown where there was an intriguing textiles exhibit, both historic and contemporary.

But we also saw the everyday island.  That's what interests me about a place.
Along the roads, there were coves that dipped protectively in and out of sparsely inhabited shores, cottages with porches where people gathered after work, larger estates, once the neighborhoods of the all-but-defunct oil industry, now barred and mostly for sale, the corner bodegas and grocers, dogs and children roaming street to street, a neighborhood fair where green-iced homemade cakes and Dutch fried breads competed for tasters and music filled each street-end.  Out even farther, in the desert that covers a good deal of the island, fields of tall cactus, thick as forests in some places, formed mileposts.

Aruba's best art is as much her artless countryside as it is her artists' native expressions.  I was inspired by both.

One afternoon, we drove out up the narrowest of roads, bumped every few feet by rocky drainage spurs, and found ourselves at the Quadirikiri caves, black and pitted from the spray of the nearby sea, storm-spurred, crashing against the bulwark of cliffs.  We walked down toward an abandoned house wide open to the elements (it could be yours for a single year's underpaid academic salary, and then two more years' overpaid salary to make it habitable again) and found there the remnants of two gardens, a flowing creek pooling under a canopy of graceful limbs, and, inside, the once beautiful floors still tiled coolly against the heat.  I imagine a life there, at the edge of the world, just the right size house, nearly self-sufficient (though supplies would be a long long trek, or helicopter delivery, each month), the bones of the desert white in the moonlight, the hardscrabble ground blinding day, and this calm outpost the shelter of the mind.

Travel, even the kind one waffles over, brings such surprises, such visions, and, eventually, such art.  Like houses, being shown the parlor isn't seeing what's really a home. I think of the stereotype of the place I imagined, and how, though some of my reasons for it turned out to be true, there is always a reality worth realizing, a life beneath the mask tourism paints on a country.

And by the way, if you are puzzling over the title of this piece, you'll have to wait until next time to realize that one.  When I started out, I meant to write my more recent trip last week to the City of Brotherly Love, using Aruba as only a short preface, but this is what writing is like, isn't it?  You never know where it's going to take you. So consider this Voyage I, and Voyage II (the Real Philly) to come walking in just after it.  And walk we did.

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