Text and photographs by Ravi Shankar
The plane was descending steadily. We were approaching an island. The sandy coastline and the hotels were now visible on the left. I was seated in the last row and luckily had the entire row to myself. The sand was white, and the waters of the Caribbean Sea were a deep turquoise blue. I was fascinated by the depth and translucence of the colours. A few boats and yachts were seen, cutting through the waters and we landed shortly.
Aruba, a small island located just off the coast of Venezuela is a part of the Netherlands. The island is a major destination for sun worshippers from North America. During the cold winter months, they do their surya namaskars (saluting the Sun exercise) in Aruba and other sunny places. The island is small at around 32 kilometres by 10 kilometres. The soil is sandy and there are no rivers. The island was considered useless by the Spaniards who termed it islas inutiles. The origin of the name Aruba is debated. The most accepted version is that the name may have been derived from Caquetio Indian, Oruba meaning well situated. The island is mostly flat and there are four main settlements. Oranjestad is the capital and the biggest city. San Nicholas is the entertainment hub, and Paradera and Santa Cruz are located more inland. Noord and Savaneta are the other settlements. The legal population is around 140, 000 though there may be several thousand undocumented immigrants.
Tourism has become a major source of revenue for the island like other islands and countries in the Caribbean. The island is well known in North America and the Netherlands and advertises itself as ‘One Happy Island’. During the pre-COVID days, the island used to receive nearly one million tourists yearly. Aruba is distant from South Asia; the most convenient connections are through Amsterdam and the United States (US). The island is well connected to the Eastern US and there is a US Immigration pre-clearance facility at the airport.
I was living in the capital, Oranjestad (orange city — named after the royal Dutch family, House of Orange),working at the Xavier University School of Medicine and my old friend from Nepal, Dr Dubey, was the Dean of Basic Sciences. I stayed near the school in a place called Paradijs.
Trade winds constantly blow across the island bringing down the temperature and keeping things tolerable. Walking in the housing colonies in Aruba can be a challenge. Most houses have aggressive dogs who seem to think their areas of influence extends right to the middle of the road. A house near mine had three dogs who always gave me a tough time.
Rains are not common in Aruba. Clouds gather but are blown away to the mainland of Latin America. Aruba is not built for rain. The streets flood and the college also used to get flooded after a downpour. I enjoyed walking along the seashore.
Once you leave the houses behind, the dogs are absent. A linear park runs from the airport to the cruise ship terminal. The path is paved with red stones and lined with divi-divi trees.
There is also exercise equipment installed at the surfside beach. The view of the sea is great and the sunsets on the island are spectacular. Divi-divi trees are common on the island and always point in a south-westerly direction due to the strong trade winds. Watching the planes land and take off at the airport is fascinating. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flies the Airbus A330 which is the largest plane flying to the island.
The carnival is a major celebration in Aruba and started as a series of street celebrations in 1954. The month of February is full of different carnival events. I attended a night parade one year and the event was spectacular. The sun can be hot and this needs to be factored in while watching the parades in the daytime.
San Nicolas has an oil refinery and is the fun side of the island. It also has a more Caribbean feel, and the cost of living is lower than Oranjestad. The oil refinery was once the largest in the Western hemisphere and was the target of German U-boats during WW II. There is a beautiful beach (Baby Beach) near the refinery.
Aruba has a Jekyll and Hyde personality. The Caribbean side facing Latin America has spectacular beaches and calm, turquoise waters. The Atlantic side is a different matter. The coast is rocky and splintered and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean crash with brute force.
There is a gold mine and a natural bridge on the north and a large windmill farm. Semi-domestic goats graze in the arid landscape. I liked going to the wild side and watching the brute force of nature. The Arikok National Park occupies nearly a third of the island and has the highest peak, Yamanota (about 250 m), and spectacular cacti. It also has a cunucu, a traditional Aruban house. A Cunucu has thick walls that are whitewashed with small windows to stay cool in the heat.
Rainwater is collected for daily use. Today the water needs are met by desalinating sea water. The plant is located near Savaneta on the highway to San Nicolas. Water and electricity supply is stable, and disruptions are rare.
Most people have cars while the blue Arubuses provide public transportation. The bus frequency is low. Hooiberg is a mountain that rises steeply from the surrounding plains and climbing to the top provides excellent views of Oranjestad, the harbour, and the surrounding countryside.
The area around Noord is the tourist heartland and the lemon-yellow California lighthouse is located here. The lighthouse is named after the steamship, California, which sank near these waters in 1891. The downtown area of Oranjestad has Wilhelmina Park, Fort Zoutman, and the Willem III tower. The fort was built in 1798 by African slaves. There is also a historical museum nearby providing an excellent overview of the island’s history and geology. The Alto Vista chapel has a spectacular view of the surroundings and was originally built in 1750 by the Spanish missionary, Domingo Antonio Silvestre.
Aruba may be the most Latinised of the Caribbean islands. There is also a strong Dutch influence. Dutch and Papiamento are widely spoken. Papiamento is a Portuguese-based creole language. English and Spanish are also widely understood.
Aruba grows high-quality aloe vera and Aruba Aloe founded in 1890 is the world’s oldest aloe factory. Aruba has plenty of beaches, Druif beach, Eagle beach, Palm beach, Malmok beach, and others. The island has invested in equipment to maintain the beaches. Turtles lay their eggs in the white sand and hatchlings clumsily move back to the ocean. The natural pool or conchi is located on the north side. Butterfly farm, Philips’s animal garden, and the Donkey sanctuary provide shelter to the fauna. You can volunteer at the donkey sanctuary. In Aruba, many families camp out on the beach during Easter. My landlord and his family used to camp on the surfside beach near the airport.
Aruba has high human development indicators. Healthcare is provided by the government through a corporation financed by taxes. Alcohol is widely consumed but I did not see drunken fights or disorderliness during my time on the island. Drivers need to be careful on Friday nights when parties get going. This arrow-shaped island with a variety of cultures and influences is geographically sheltered from the worst hurricanes with the balmy weather, caressing winds caressing, and inviting waters. The people are friendly. The moniker ‘One Happy Island’ may be well deserved!
 Translates to Islands Useless
Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles