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Trip 24 -- Aruba Walk

Epilogue: 176 steps in Alto Vista
Monday, January 4, 2021

December 30: 176 steps/.12 km/.07 mi/1m
Total: 175157 steps/140.80 km/87.49 mi/28h 38m

I spent my last five days in Aruba around places I'd been before: the capital of Oranjestad and the Palm Beach area a few miles north. In the capital, Stanley welcomed me back to A1 Apartments. It was the same room as the previous week, and I enjoyed some sunset time on the terrace while the neighborhood's dogs discussed their evening plans.

There's not much to do in Oranjestad, especially with the main museum closed, but there's lots to see offshore. The 80-ton Atlantis VI submarine, powered by 264 batteries, brought me and 20 others toward the refinery and 130 feet down into the Caribbean sea, the home of coral reefs, tropical fish, and two shipwrecks. The bottom reminded me of the desert I'd walked through near Aruba's east coast: a scruffy, beige landscape with knobby growths attached to it. Instead of rock formations it was boulder-like corals; instead of cacti the fernlike corals swayed with the current. And schools of tropical fish took the place of the slithering whiptail lizards.

Some of those creatures are remarkable: the bluehead wrasse, all born female but some of which turn male after laying eggs; the parrotfish, which poops out sand ("the weight of a baby grand piano" annually, according to the Smithsonian); and the venomous orange sponge. The two small ships had been sunk on purpose to bolster the reef. The Morningstar was a cargo vessel scuttled 27 years ago, and Mi Dushi ("My Sweetheart") had been used to rescue pilots shot down over the Atlantic Ocean during World War II and then became a party boat. "See what happens when you party too much?" our guide said. But Mi Dushi was likewise sunk deliberately, about six years ago.

Just north of Oranjestad is the Aruba Aloe Factory, in business since 1890. The tour provided a cursory look at the history of aloe production -- the yellow sap was originally used as a laxative, and it wasn't until 1968 that the plant's 75 minerals, 18 amino acids, and 12 vitamins were turned into health and beauty products. The leaves are cut by hand and the gel (the slimier the better) is mixed with other ingredients in large vats to create the various products. The free tour was largely an ad for those, but I couldn't complain. Aloe has also been used to help burn victims, and in supermarkets all around Aruba I'd been buying bottles of refreshing, pulpy aloe-based beverages. I asked about them at the factory and they knew nothing about them; when I next picked one up I saw that it was made in Thailand.

At the restaurant Senses, eleven other diners and I sat in a semicircle and watched our host and chef, Kelt Hugo Maat, explain all the dishes he had taken a week to prepare for us. His seven-course, three-hour meal drew on his training in the French tradition, plus his Dutch and Indonesian roots and his 12 years in Norway.

Kelt's creations were daring and harmonious, the unity confirmed by a saxophone rendition of "Come Together" playing as we entered. Duck-leg confit was cooked for eight hours and marinated for two days, then supplemented by bitter sea buckthorn. Red snapper was heavily salted; then the salt was removed and the fish was cut into mosaic shapes, surrounded by tomatoes and black olives, and topped with sturgeon caviar. A popping quinoa and sorrel accompanied a king scallop.

Indonesian beef rendang contained cumin, coriander, palm sugar, and lemongrass; some diners and I would have preferred it spicier. Suckling pig was enhanced with a wine-and-herb gravy that had been self-enriching for five days.

Kelt's companion was the equally lively Joep, who introduced us to all the components of the beverage pairing: a white wine from Etna, a buttery viognier for the scallop, a black grenache from southeast Spain, a Dutch beer made with oranges from CuraƧao.

"I like to use a lot of vegetables in my desserts," Kelt said. The flowerpot-shaped dessert had a base of Belgian-chocolate mousse with a sugar syrup that cracked like Pop Rocks, and it also contained parsnips, celeriac, sunchokes, sweet corn, and crispy raspberries. It was as if a composer, having learned to write string quartets, had decided instead to put together a piece for tuba, harp, piccolo, and didjeridoo. And yes, it all came together -- the song played once more at the end.

Kelt and Joep continued the festivities for a full hour after the meal was over, pouring wine for those of us who wanted to stay. Becca and Nathan were visiting from Nashville and had gotten their pre-Aruba coronavirus tests in the immediate vicinity of the Christmas blast, the day before the event. When we finally said goodbye to Kelt and Joep, we continued our merriment at the outdoor bar next door, and then on the beach. It was nice to have company.

My new year, in contrast, was a bit lonelier, although there were plenty of people around. I spent the night at the Hyatt Regency, the posh place to which the richer patrons brought their prostitutes from San Nicolas in "An Island Away." The hotel didn't seem particularly luxurious to me, although it was well-appointed, with two swimming pools, several bars and restaurants, and a staff that went out of their way to please. For the last couple hours of 2020 I walked ten minutes up the beach, near the restaurant Hadicurari. This is where Eddie from the airport hotel's pool had suggested I could eat lionfish, but when I inquired here and the restaurant upstairs they had no acknowledgment of ever serving it. It'll have to wait for another time.

People of all ages, lovers, families, groups of teens, visitors, locals -- a motley group -- brought their celebratory libations and counted down the last few seconds of 2020. Fireworks abounded, few if any of which were official; fortunately the wind was blowing toward the sea, and it was easy to avoid the embers. I toasted with a guy named Domingo. He was holding a beer.

"Bon aña!" I said. The Papiamento new-year greeting came to me easily, the Dutch "Gelukkig nieuwjaar!" less so.

"Is that water?" he asked.

"Wine." I'd refilled a bottle.

And one afternoon I took 176 very important steps. My lunch at the Old Cunucu House -- named for the island's traditional elongated home built with a steeper roof atop a less-steep one -- culminated in a fantastic dessert drink, sort of like hot chocolate but with melted peanuts instead. The restaurant was within a half hour's walk of Alto Vista, that area where the dogs had prevented my passage back on day two. There was a sturdy-looking stick outside the restaurant. I took it as a sign.

The stick turned out to be rather unwieldy, as it forked out into several branches at the end, and I eventually found a more suitable one, only slightly less unwieldy. I also picked up a couple of rocks.

The dogs were there -- maybe five or six in all, although I didn't recognize the biggest antagonist from the week before. They came from several directions, but after I tossed the rocks and bewildered them with my strange-looking stick they kept their distance. I made it down the short block in about a minute; the urgent barking finally roused a resident, perhaps their owner, at the end of the street, and his presence -- late as it was -- reassured me as I turned the corner. The shortest route back to the Hyatt would have been a retracing of my steps, but to keep the peace I snaked through the rest of the neighborhood and back to the main road.

And so I can legitimately say my pedestrian circuit of Aruba is complete, without a 370-foot gap.

I've also, I realized, visited in the past year all the countries that rhyme with "tuba." Perhaps I should be content with that. But the Abecedarian Walks beckon, and it's time to plan for Zanzibar.