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Report Three from the Otter: Aruba
Section A Ė Ashore in Aruba
I arrived after a five-day sail from Nevis, a distance of 529 nautical miles. The last 30 hours of sailing I had been awake, watching for shipping and doing the more careful navigation required of landfalls.
I was tired when I pulled into the customs dock in Oranjestad. The customs dock is an endless, straight-as-an-arrow pier that the large cruise ships use. It was empty that Thursday at 8:30 a.m. Otter looked small and insignificant tied up there next to giant tires that must have been off earthmovers from the Hoover Dam.
I walked across a large plaza that welcomes up to 3,000 visitors a day, when the cruise ships are in, and into the customs office. The brown-uniformed man behind the desk has light-brown skin, just a little lighter than his shirt. He has a round face that reminds me of my motherís Uncle Oliver and that swarthy side of the Brooks family.
He is speaking on the phone in a soft, mellifluous language I'd never heard before: Papiamento. One of the more obscure languages on this planet, Papiamento is a combination of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Arawalk, and, recently, English. Most of the people on the island speak four languages: Papiamento, Spanish, Dutch, and English.
In my tired state, I watch him slowly and methodically fill in all the blanks on the endless forms he pulls from shelves and drawers. I find this small, finite world oddly reassuring after five days of tumbling waves and the sure knowledge that each moment at sea you need to be alert and on watch. Even sleeping is done with ears open.
I imagine the papers he is filling out -- never to be read again, filed away in a dusty drawer with other papers. I see an anonymous record of my passage, in a drawer, in a warehouse, in Aruba. Like the record of Otterís own wake -- swirling behind a few feet, then disappearing into the vast sea.
There are no fees or charges because, he tells me, they want to encourage people to visit. "Enjoy my stay," he says as I leave.
The Immigration officer drives up to the edge of the pier. He is a very large man in a very crisp white shirt with badges and epaulettes. He is in a tiny, dilapidated, dusty old car. It looks like it would be difficult for him to get out; we conduct business through the window. He stamps some papers and I am officially entered.
The morning has become very hot and the light has a relentless tropical harshness that burns everything. The Otter is rocking, small against the dock. Beyond is the flat, lonely, aqua-blue horizon toward Venezuela.
At the far end of the cruise-ship pier is the entrance to the little harbor. The Seaport Marina docks take up the entire right-side near the Sonesta Suites Hotel and Casino Complex. They also have a pier coming out into the harbor, straight ahead as I enter. To the left are the local inter-island produce boats, loading and unloading on a commercial pier.
The marina's slips were full because of a north wind creating surf along a stretch of hotels and beaches to the north: charter boats that are usually anchored off the beaches had taken refuge in the harbor.
After circling a few times, I was waved in by the owner of a large, black, plywood catamaran called Orowa, owned by Rene and Windie. They told me I could tie up next to them until a slip became available. Both Dutch, they had come to the island seven years ago and had started a charter business with the catamaran. They also had a dive shop and other little businesses going. The Orowa was a permanent resident of the Seaport Marina.
Oranjestad is like a mini-Las Vegas with a Dutch accent. A constant flow of tourists makes the island fairly wealthy by Caribbean standards. The largest architectural complex - about a block square - has restaurants, mall areas with dozens of shops, discotheques, banks, a post office branch, and an Internet cafť. The facades look like Amsterdam on acid -- bright tropical colors and decorative Dutch swirls everywhere. Disney would be proud. Locals call it "The Wedding Cake." Because so many of the tourists are from the States, the Dutch on Aruba feel it is a very Americanized island.
After a long sleep that first afternoon, I wound up going to dinner at Wendy's. A quarter-pounder with cheese, cold orange juice, water with ice, and a hot tea: a feast! I rarely go to fast-food places at home, but the middle-American dream of a regular, repeatable product in a clean, air-conditioned environment doesn't seem so bad now. Especially after eating in little shacks on other islands and five days of canned goods at sea. Since Otter has no refrigerator, ice is a luxury. I loved it!
For two days I cleaned and scrubbed the boat anticipating the arrival of Sandy's sister, Barbara, and her husband, Michael. They flew in from Ann Arbor, Michigan and stayed with me in my tiny accommodations for a week. Putting some stuff on deck and rearranging gave me room in the foc'sle for my bunk.
We sailed over to the anchorage area by the airport for a few days and then up to the beaches by the hotels for a few days. The water at the beaches was cleaner than in the harbor, and we swam and sunbathed a little. While I did some boat chores they did a survey of the hotel bars on the beach. A barefoot bar tour.
The weeks went by way too fast. I actually cooked some passable dinners while they were aboard - not gourmet but good - and we went out and explored a few restaurants, too. When they left, the boat felt very empty. I became depressed and lethargic for a full week afterwards. Such an odd thing, to be on a beautiful paradise island fighting depression.
Aruba was a turning point. I realized that to go on, all downwind, was a commitment to the journey. From here I could still turn and sail north to home again. But once I was through Panama it would be much more difficult.
I had been in touch by phone a lot with home and the phone bills were staggering: almost two monthsí worth of my cruising budget spent on gabbing from the islands with friends, relatives, and occasional business - tying loose ends. I became aware in Aruba that that had to end or I'd be broke by the time I got to the Marquesas!
Another door closed and I felt further away from home. I was homesick. I missed all my friends. It wasn't an extended vacation any longer. This is now my life.
The realization was sobering. I'd led a life for 22 years where I knew what I was going to do every day. I had a clearly defined role; I was needed. I had pattern and structure. I belonged to many civic, religious, social, and art groups and felt good helping contribute to each one. I now felt adrift emotionally and tied to nothing. I felt anxious even about my marriage.
I was needed nowhere.
A full week went by in its grip. The accompanying soundtrack was a tape given to me by a friend -- "After the Rain," a Windham-Hilly thing I played over and over as I withdrew further and further.
The third week in Aruba I started pulling out of the dive. I started running in the morning for 45 minutes to over an hour. Out to the airport and back. The wind always in my face on the way out, a struggle, and at my back on the way home.
I became intrigued by the statues I'd run past. Local World War II heroes. Arubian Masonic ĎGrande Hombres.í Queen Wilhelmina of Holland. Arubian liberation fighters. A magnificent equestrian statue of Simon Bolivar.
I was so impressed with Bolivarís statue that I'd visit it every day. I memorized the plaques. He was born in Caracas, Venezuela on July 24, 1783, and died in Santa Marta, Columbia on Dec. 17, 1830. The liberator of Panama, Columbia, Equador, Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela.
The stern masculine and benevolent face of the liberator, a broad gesture of freedom granted with the hat upturned in his extended right hand, his left hand holding tightly the reins of the rearing horse. A symbol of vital energy and fire. Justice and compassion as the product of strength and discipline.
I feel the darshan when I am near the statue; I realize how provincial my knowledge of both geography and history really is.
The days get brighter as I catch up on some watercolor commissions and dig into the endless list of boat chores. I prioritize the items and do those that are a must before leaving Aruba.
I see a film every night for six nights at the six-screen theater just down the street, and critique each one in my journal. Then I discover the Internet cafť, where after dinner I spend about an hour and a half opening and printing my e-mail from home and sending everyone notes. (Iím not a typist so it is all very slow, but itís cheap in comparison to the phone!) Then an ice cream at TCBYís next to Carlos Ní Charlieís Bar and back to the boat to reread Sailing Alone Around the World,by Joshua Slocum, a truly great writer and creator of sea imagery.
I have promised myself Iíd attend church services wherever I am on those Sundays when I am not at sea. In Aruba, I attended a Dutch Protestant church for two Sundays. The service is in English and Dutch, but the hymns are all in Dutch. I sing loudly, but a fraction of a step behind so I can hear the people next to me pronounce the words.
The sermon is in Dutch, so after reading the printed English translation handout, which takes five minutes, there is still 10-20 minutes left to the droning in Dutch. The pulpit is a carved mahogany shipís bow, while the minister, in his black robe and white pleated bib and shock of white hair and beard, looks straight out of a Rembrandt painting.
I watch sparrows fly in and out of the windows to a large chandelier in the center of the church. I hear the traffic outside. And it feels like when I was in grade school in the spring and the teacher would drone on while I watched the sun on the trees across the playground. I hear the teacher say, "Mr. Morgan, if youíd been paying attention, youíd know why Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana."
For the second two Sundays I find a Methodist church a block away from the Statue of Simon Bolivar. The congregation is predominantly black, English-speaking West Indians who have come here over the years to work. The hymns are familiar and the music spirited. The minister is one of those rare individuals who can put together a sermon that is clear and deeply felt and holds my attention.
Surprisingly few cruising yachts come through Aruba. The only boat on my dock that has plans to sail on is Tehani, a 37-foot Tayana that belongs to Russ and Barbara Pyros. Russ is a retired engineer/professor from Port Jefferson, Long Island with a bushy white mustache and who makes great chicken soup.
We have dinner together a few times, and tour the island with Jean-Paul, a friend of theirs who lives on the island. Jean-Paul is Italian-Dutch and was an engineer for years at the oil refinery in St. Nicholas, the town at the southeast corner of the island.
He tells us about the front page newspaper article a few years back when a stalk of bananas fell off a produce truck going over the new, little mounded bridge that had been built by the Sonesta Hotel. Being rush hour on the main road downtown, cars ran over the bananas, making a slippery mess that caused accidents and blocked traffic for hours while the fire department hosed off banana mash and pulled cars apart.
Jean-Paul claims that only in Aruba would that be front-page news. I think that the Norwalk Hour or the Milford Mirror could do it justice as well.
I finally start planning my departure. I have become very connected to Aruba: bicycling every day now, I find something else of interest and more to see and learn. The days are bittersweet as I provision and prepare and set my charts in order with courses and mileages indicated for the next leg, the voyage to Panama.
End of Section A
Section B Ė Passage to Panama
Monday, March 22 --
Tuesday, March 23 --
Wednesday, March 24 --
Thursday, March 25 --
Friday, March 26 --
Saturday, March 27 --
Sunday, March 28 --
Monday, March 29 Ė
End of "Report Three from Otter, Part I"
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