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Trip 24 -- Aruba Walk

Days 5-6: Santa Cruz to San Nicolas and airport
Sunday, December 27, 2020

Yesterday: 37020 steps/29.61 km/18.40 mi/6h 2m
Today: 42553 steps/34.47 km/21.42 mi/6h 37m
Total: 174981 steps/140.68 km/87.42 mi/28h 37m

Two nights ago I turned off the lights and closed my eyes. As often happens, visions of patterns carried me off to sleep. They were webs of thorns with the shapes and sizes of the points on the cacti I'd seen all day. While I contemplated the design, the bed seemed to be lightly rocking, reminding me of the currents back at the Conchi natural pool. It was like being in a waterbed, and I found it tremendously comforting.

I had just learned, before going to bed, that DEET, that stuff we put on our skin to ward off mosquitoes, can eat through plastic. Tiffany, the guest at Mammaloe's with whom I'd talked that night, had put some insect repellent in one of the kitchen's plastic cups so that I might use it after my shower to sit outside unbothered while she went to watch the sunset.

When I applied it, I noticed that it had left a mark at the bottom of the cup -- one that didn't come off with a vigorous scrub. Insect repellent often comes in plastic bottles, but apparently it isn't so harmless to other plastics. The owner of Mammaloe's seemed very protective of her kitchen utensils -- she had chastised Tiffany for leaving a knife and cutting board out to dry after washing them -- and I dreaded telling the owner what had happened, even though there were many such cups on the shelf and they couldn't have cost much. But when I confessed, and said that I had left money in the room as compensation, the owner wished me a merry Christmas and good luck on my walk.

The exhibits at the visitors' center at Arikok were incomplete. I most wanted to learn about the three types of cactus I'd seen the previous day. A staff member didn't know much about the science behind them, but she told me their Papiamento names and cultural significance. The prickly-pear cactus is called tuna (which reminds me to mention that the Papiamento for "garbage" happens to be "sushi"), and the little bushy cactus, resembling a small pumpkin with a crown of red thorns and sometimes a pink flower, is called bushi. The tubular cactus is called cadushi, and there are three versions: the common one found in the park, the "tail of the cat" variety, and the breba, resembling clasped hands. The nonnative "dama di anochi" or "lady of the night" is popularly found at people's homes; it blooms with sunlike white rays during the full moon, and people report their successes.

"The 'dama di anochi' Facebook group," I said.

She laughed. "Yes!"

Arikok's sprawl encompasses magnificent diversity: beaches, dunes, desert flora and fauna, caves, ruins, petroglyphs -- and the Conchi natural pool. After climbing up to the remains of a mining complex (the quartz stones in the area still contain gold traces, but they would have been impractical to carry back with me) I followed a dry riverbed, Rooi Tambu, named for the drums that slaves from Africa would play when hiding in this area. A sign at the trailhead warned me that the route was for "visitors in great shape, looking for a more adventurous experience" and, more alarmingly, would take three and a half hours -- by that time I expected to be on my way out of the park -- but fortunately I found the trail easy and completed it in 30 minutes.

It was certainly remote; I saw no one else as I gently descended to Dos Playa. As everywhere in Aruba, most of the critters in the park were the whiptail lizards (the males a radiant turquoise, the females and young a dull brown). I heard a few goats before I found them, and I almost stepped on a remarkable large snail with protruding crab-like feet. The most dangerous species along the trail was the manzanilla tree, whose little apples, bark, and leaves contain a sap that causes blisters; signs warn people not to stand under it in the rain. I would like to have seen Aruba's rattlesnake, known locally as the cascabel, but the only snakes I've come across (other than at Philip's Animal Garden) have been boa constrictors, and they were roadkill.

Dos Playa is so named because it's bisected by a giant rock, creating two beaches. I continued along the shore and found the two of Arikok's five caves that are open to the public: Quadirikiri, romantically illuminated by the sun shining through holes in the roof, and Fontein, with its ceiling full of thousand-year-old petroglyphs and its back nooks home to bats. Shamans held ceremonies here.

The clouds had kept me reasonably cool in the morning, but by now the sun was intense and persistent as I followed the road south out of the park. I was ultimately headed for San Nicolas but wanted to detour to Baby Beach, so named because the waters are so calm even a baby (or I) can enjoy them without trepidation.

However, I had a more pressing matter: I wanted to visit Charlie's Bar, a famous place opened in 1941 to cater to the refinery workers. It was due to close at five, and now it was almost three. Baby Beach would have to wait.

In preparation for this trip I read what's probably the most famous novel set in modern Aruba, Daniel Putkowski's "An Island Away." (I had intended to slip it in my bag and read it during the trip, but when I discovered it was 482 pages I rushed to finish it before I left.) The story takes place mostly in San Nicolas, part of which is known as the Zone of Tolerance: Taking a cue from Amsterdam, prostitution is legal here.

The Zone of Tolerance was set up mainly for refinery workers who wanted something to do at night. The action in "An Island Away" happens in Charlie's Bar and, more prominently, in a brothel called Minchi's, where the Colombian female protagonist takes a job for a few months to earn enough money to support her son, brother, sister, and mother at home.

The book may be fiction, but the picture of San Nicolas is real and vivid. The economic ups and downs of the San Nicolas bars and, consequently, the women working in them, are directly linked to the off-again, on-again status of the enormous oil refinery lurking in the background. I found most of the places mentioned in the book: Charlie's Bar, Minchi's, and Java, plus bars with names such as Fantasy Nights, Kiss Me, and the Honey Zone.

Whether because of the pandemic or because it was Boxing Day, all of these places were closed. I was most disappointed about Charlie's Bar; it's become a tourist trap, but it promises personality. And I could have made it to Baby Beach after all.

I also had two hours before I was due to arrive at my lodging. San Nicolas's one hotel, started in 1994, is no more completed now than it was when Daniel Putkowski published his novel in 2008. So for the first time in my solo travels, I turned to AirBnB.

I'd arranged to meet the host at 5:30, perfectly timed after a meal and drink or two at Charlie's that now were not going to happen. I wandered the neighborhood, impressed by the colorful wall murals, and then walked up to the Lourdes Grotto, where, except for Lourdes herself, all the characters were made of cheap plastic that looked to have been obtained from Wal-Mart. I'd just seen caves with millennium-old paintings. Couldn't they have done better here?

The address provided to me by AirBnB confusingly exists in two places in San Nicolas, and neither was where I was supposed to go. I arranged for the host to meet me at a supermarket a couple of buildings away from one of the matching addresses. He showed up in a car, and he understood when I explained that I preferred to walk the ten minutes to the actual location, up an unmarked driveway back near the grotto.

It was time to do laundry -- this was the halfway point of the trip -- and the AirBnB had the proper machines. It also had a refreshing pool, shared by the family in the next apartment. While I swam, they grilled and ate dinner, accompanied by a Russian folk song played over a speaker. How atmospheric, I thought. Then the next song came on, and it was abundant with foul language and short on melody and intelligible lyrics, and I decided my laundry was done.

I went across the street to see the Christmas lights -- usually a boisterous annual festival but reduced to a fenced-off display this year -- and then walked the 20 minutes back to the bar area for dinner. Only a couple places were open; across from the unfinished hotel I had a red snapper at Fan and chatted with a man downing Chill beers while his friends played pool. The scene bore little resemblance to the boisterous night promised by the book.

This morning I was out before eight. An hour's walk brought me to Sero Colorado, a hill bearing an austere metal cage of a lighthouse overlooking a natural rock bridge, and then I descended to Baby Beach for a quick dip. It was the calm water I'd been waiting for; all the eastern beaches had had rough waters. I walked back into town, with the processing stacks poking out among the cadushi cactus: nature's and man's protrusions together.

It's hard to describe the magnitude of this refinery. It has hundreds of buildings, as haphazardly arranged as the cactus that grows in the surrounding hills. It goes on for miles, with giant, round storage vats and those protruding stacks. Unsurprisingly, they don't want people walking through it, so any trip between San Nicolas and Baby Beach involves a long detour near Sero Colorado, where there's a red anchor that pays tribute to the creator of Charlie's Bar.

I collected my things from my lodging and walked an hour, through the purpose-built colony for refinery workers, to Zeerover, a popular seafood spot. The ordering system is unusual: Patrons stand in one line to order food and another for drinks, and then they find places to sit and the food is brought to them. The menu is simply whatever fish is fresh that day, quickly fried in a light batter.

It's the only restaurant where I've ever been quoted prices for different items in different currencies. Aruba commonly uses dollars for anything geared toward tourists. I hate this -- a country may peg its currency to the dollar, but it should price things in its own currency, not cater to Americans who are afraid of dealing with exchange rates. It also leads to an exchange-rate discrepancy -- the rate used by establishments is slightly inferior to the bank rate -- and some restaurants try to get away with insisting their prices are in dollars even though they're really in florins, thereby upping the prices by a factor of 1.79!

After 40 minutes in the first line -- Sundays are particularly busy at Zeerover -- I ordered small filets of wahoo and barracuda, plus a quarter-kilo of shrimp. I'm usually a sucker for sold-by-weight seafood -- I can never get out of there for under $60 -- but this came to only $21, including pan bati (Aruban cornmeal pancakes) and plantains. I let the cashier talk me into adding onions and vinegar. They ruin an oyster for me, but maybe they'd be all right on a fish.

For my bottle of Coke and my rum with piƱa colada mix they asked for 12.75 Aruban florins, around $7. I found a table: Those at the water's edge were occupied, but it was fun to sit by the frenzy of the cooking area. The wahoo was firm, like swordfish; the barracuda was a little flakier and slightly less dense. Both benefited from the vinegar, which gave them a surprising sweetness, and a spicy papaya sauce, for some zing.

Two hours later I arrived back at the Hyatt airport hotel, five days, nearly 175,000 official steps, and more than 28 walking hours after I started the circumnavigation of the island last Tuesday. After a much-needed shower, I made for the pool and talked with Eddie and Indra, who live nearby and, with travel impossible, took a few days' vacation here at the airport hotel.

I explained my route, my awe at all that Aruba has to offer, and my encounters with dogs.

"You should carry a stick," Eddie said. "Actually, they passed a law four or five years ago, that people have to keep their dogs restrained."

"They have to keep the gate closed or the dog on a leash that's at least a certain length," Indra said.

"I did see a few dogs on very short leads," I said. "I felt bad for them."

"But they don't enforce the law," Eddie said. "So it didn't change anything."

We talked about the refinery, whose future is in an uncertain state. Citgo was its most recent operator, but due to sanctions against Venezuela the U.S. company had to pull out.

"The refinery was responsible for fifteen percent of our GDP," Eddie said.

"Less than tourism?" I asked.

"Much less," Indra said "Tourism, before this year, was seventy percent."

The refinery was built to fill specific needs a century ago. "It would cost two billion dollars to update it," Eddie said.

"But it would cost so much to get rid of it," Indra said. "They'd have to remove everything and scrape it."

It's a conundrum, for sure. The refinery is an eyesore, and whatever happens with the land is going to be expensive. Most tourists never see it -- Oranjestad and the high-rise hotels are much farther north.

We talked about brighter things, such as where I can eat lionfish for dinner. It's an invasive species that they've started to cook and serve. Tiffany had found a place, but it's open only on Saturdays.

They discussed it briefly in their language. "Go to Hadicurari," Eddie said. "Near Moomba Beach."

I had heard of Moomba; it's up near the posh hotels. My walk complete, I'm planning two days in Oranjestad before finishing the trip up in the hotel area.

"Thank you for coming to Aruba," Eddie said. They need the tourism.

I laughed and said, "I did it all for me."

Go on to the epilogue