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Trip 24 -- Aruba Walk

Day 1: Airport to Oranjestad
Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Today: 6.35 km/3.95 mi/7736 steps/1h 16m

A pair of escalators brought me up to the check-in area at LaGuardia's recently renovated central terminal, a sprawling space so airy and inviting that I made the mistake of thinking it might also be organized.

My original booking had been on a late-morning nonstop JetBlue flight out of JFK, but about the time they canceled it and moved me to the 7:30 a.m. departure, a $208 business-class fare showed up on American. I had deliberated for a day or so and then decided that the extra space and comfort, plus the extra hour of sleep -- leaving LaGuardia at 7:54 meant walking out of my apartment at six instead of five -- outweighed the inconvenience (and risk) of connecting (or misconnecting) in Charlotte.

The promise of priority check-in -- an agent would need to see my "Qualified to Board" document, issued at the end of Aruba's ED-card process -- also sweetened the deal; I wouldn't be dealing with JetBlue's chaotic check-in hall. The new electronic signage directed business-class passengers to proceed to section A, where I found people waiting for the bag drop. Eventually someone directed me toward the next aisle. "Across the way," she said. "No line."

There was no line because there was no indication of where to go. Two agents at desks marked "Priority" were helping a moderate line of customers in a queue off to the side that was marked "Main." I stood directly in front of the desks and eventually a few other passengers with priority credentials joined me. One agent was helping a group of four, with bags that towered over them. None of them, bags or people, moved for several minutes.

The other agent finished and called the next person off the queue to my left. I pointed out the mismatch in signage and the agent went away for a moment. When she returned, she instructed those behind me to go to the "Main" line but offered to help me after she checked in the next party.

It can't be easy for check-in agents these days; every country has its own pandemic-related specifications for admission. She looked up Aruba and wasn't interested in my "Qualified to Board" document; instead she asked for my Covid test results and homebound itinerary, which I'd booked separately. (Aruba permits a test on arrival plus up to a day's quarantine as an alternative; I wonder what would have happened if I'd gone that route.) Then the printer that spits out boarding passes seemed to malfunction, but eventually it woke up.

"I hope you get a few days off soon," I said.

"I'm ready for a bottle of wine," the agent replied.

"You deserve a whole case."

As in so many airports these days, LaGuardia now has an annoying section of shopping to be traversed before one gets to the gates. An electronic sign invited me to relax, as my flight was not for 36 minutes, but in fact it would be boarding in one, and the same sign indicated that my gate was a seven-minute walk away. Better to get there and then relax, I thought. I hurried through the maze of narrow tunnels -- this part of the airport has yet to be redone -- and most of the passengers had boarded by the time I arrived.

As the plane ascended toward a heavy blanket of clouds, striped rays of early-morning sun radiated over Long Island, a serenity so terrifying as to make the passenger in front of me block it out with her window shade. Once we broke through, a rainbow encircled the shadow of our plane, plotting it on the giant bed that was the creased down comforter of motionless clouds under us. When they broke, briefly, into dots, they accented the pristine fields of snow beneath. A prettier white-on-white painting never existed.

The clouds dissipated for the onward flight to Aruba, and I enjoyed the view of the string of Bahamian islands and the sprawl of Haiti's major cities. With my ED card completed, I was in my room at the Hyatt Place Aruba Airport, the building immediately to the right of the airport's exit, less than 20 minutes after the plane's door was opened.

I chose the airport hotel for a few reasons. If the plane was late, I wouldn't be walking into town in the dark. If my Covid test result didn't arrive in time, I could quarantine without taking a vehicle. And it gave me a chance to explore the residential neighborhood behind the airport before properly starting the Abecedarian Walks this morning.

That neighborhood was quiet, with most of the noise the output of barking dogs and the scenery the offices of Arugas and the Parkietenbos landfill. Eventually I came to Barcadera Beach, not so much a beach as a scruffy, bushy area down the road from Payless and Avis car rentals. I watched the sun set, with the sky clear in the distance and a giant, puffy pink cloud behind me.

I walked about 20 minutes farther, to the turnoff for Marina Pirata, a seafood restaurant along the shore. A sextet of protective dogs warned me that intruders should approach by car. I started looking for a way around, but when a few drivers turned in and one got out, I decided the guarding canines were harmless, and I proceeded.

I was seated next to the water's edge. High above were a bright white dot and, immediately to its right, a pinpoint of another. Was that the Jupiter-Saturn confluence? It was farther up than I expected. "Yes, that's it!" said my waiter. Who was I to argue?

I enjoyed an Aruba Ariba cocktail, the sort of red hue and sweetness usually dumped into vats at college parties, and sliced conch in oyster sauce, before having the chef's special, mahi-mahi and shrimp with cheese. The dogs did not bother me on the walk back to the Hyatt.

If there's an airport ideally suited for walking into town, Aruba's is it. Beyond the cargo area a waterside bike path leads to Surfside Beach and then to the heart of Oranjestad, founded in the late 1700s and the capital since 1825. It's a compact city, with a pedestrianized shopping street a few blocks inland, around which are residential neighborhoods. Only near the cruise terminal are there malls and tacky souvenir stalls, and the sellers aren't pushy.

On the way I passed a house on which was written, in the sort of neon cursive better observed at night, "I always thought that every one is the same." Is it my quest, in walking 26 islands, to confirm that? I don't yet know.

At the end of Pagaistraat I found A1 Apartments, my lodging for tonight and a couple of days next week. The shirtless Stanley and his dog Yola welcomed me, and although it was before noon Stanley said my room was ready.

"That's great!" I said. "I just wanted to find the place."

"Where are you staying?" Stanley asked.

I was confused. "Here. I know I'm early."

"But you've got a hotel?"

"I was in a hotel last night. I have a booking here tonight."

Eventually he understood that I was standing there with my little backpack and ready to occupy the room. He'd expected an arriving guest to be carrying more.

Today's modest step count ends here. I did considerably more walking around town in the afternoon, but it seems sensible, though I'm not entirely sure why, to count walking distances from lodging to lodging around the island, though there will be considerable extracurricular movement.

Oranjestad's main historical museum was closed until further notice, said the sign on the door, but the Archaeological Museum filled in. Aruba's native population was fairly advanced, adept at pottery and consisting of villages ruled by caciques. "This sophisticated culture is abruptly destroyed with the arrival of Europeans," said the caption; in the early 1500s the Spanish enslaved the 700 or so natives and brought them to Hispaniola to work the mines, along with the inhabitants of today's Bonaire and Curaçao. The Spanish called the three islands "islas inútiles" -- useless islands -- and didn't bother to develop them.

The Dutch were the first to take the "ABC islands" seriously, albeit with the blemish of slavery. Aruba was mainly a trading stopover (and the museum occupies an old merchant house); for security reasons Europeans couldn't settle in Aruba until 1754 (the first permitted settler was a Portuguese Jew), and as a result the island retains more of a connection with its native past than other islands in the area. The Papiamento language incorporates elements of Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. Aruba's main industries have been aloe -- brought from Africa in 1840 -- and oil refining; the island's relative stability made it a good place to bring oil from Venezuela for processing. The main refinery operated from the 1920s to 1986 and off and on since then. Tourism is now the main economy, and Aruba is Dutch territory but operates autonomously.

The island's population is diverse -- more than 79 nationalities, according to the museum -- and among them are a fair number of Chinese. I dined at Kowloon and had a nightcap of the local Balashi beer at a raucous bar across the street. But tomorrow's walk is substantial, up to the island's northern point and down the eastern shore, so it's prudent to take it easy.

Go on to day 2