Sunday, May 9, 2004

(Another Embarkation)

Well, another week gone, another voyage started . . . 

I decided to spend most of Friday exploring Aruba. I wanted to take a shore tour called the "Town and Country" tour. It was free and let me tell you, worth every penny. I highly recommend, if you happen to come here, that you take a different tour. However, this one was slightly informative, and at least gave me passing views of places that I'd like to go. Most people used the tour to get three hours of sleep.

I, of course, spent Friday morning uploading last weeks pages for you to read. I then came back and changed so that I could go on my shore excursion which started at 11:45. I dressed in a swim suit and brought a towel, thinking that we'd be stopping at a beach at some point. Before I talk about the tour, let me give you a bit of background.

Now, Aruba is a desert. There is only 16 - 17 inches of rain here a YEAR. At one point there was a cross set up right in the desert. It is pretty much just populated with cactus, although it has a cool tree called the Divi Divi tree. It has a kind of fruit on it that you can't eat, but is high in tannins. The original inhabitants who insanely came over in dugouts would trade this fruit for everything that they needed to live. Apparently people made tea out it. Now, why you would cross a section of ocean in a dugout canoe for the privilege of living on an island that has nothing but desert is beyond me. The picture I took of the tree was the only one that I could get, as we were going by them quickly in a bus. Almost all of them lean the same direction, and look like large twisted bonsai trees. The wind always blows the same direction. It makes it easy to get back to the ship, as they all point at the ship. Besides, it is only 17 miles long and 6 miles wide (and flat), so it would be a bit tough to get lost anyways.

Since it IS just a desert, they have absolutely nothing whatsoever to export, and 100% of everything has to be imported. This includes water, since there isn't any on the island. Two guys used to bring it in from another country, but the government of Aruba put them out of business when they started taking it right from the ocean. There are 100,000 people in Aruba, all of who use this water. It is the second-largest desalination plant in the world, they produce several millions of distilled water from the ocean every day. It doesn't, however, reach to the outer sections of the island, so they have to bring out bottled water. Some of the houses have troughs along the edges that pour the little bit of rain every year into a cistern. We were going too fast to take a picture of this, however.

As we drove along the coast, there were a ton of inlets. The island is made of half coral (which is where that picture was) and half volcanic rock. The inlets just look like gashes in the coral, and when waves come through them they funnel in and crash. If you were to walk out into one, which looks like gentle water, I think that the waves would probably kill you as they came back in. I don't know if it is safety or looks, but they don't allow jet skis anywhere around the island except right where the cruise ship docks. Everywhere else out here is just pure ocean ridged by a short cliff.

Our first actual stop was at a large pile of rock. Now it isn't that high, but since the island is pretty flat the view is good. I could see the ship from it, especially if you zoom. :) I had really thought (and hoped) that we'd get to go to the actual high point of the island, but all we did was drive by it really quickly. You could also see the biggest church on the island from here, Catholic of course. Now they had warned that it was a steep but short climb, with a spot that was hard to climb through in the center. This was correct, but if you look at the back side of the rock, you can see that there is a second stairway. All these people were waiting in line to go down the really hard one, when the other just went in a straight line right to the "garden" below. I use the term "garden" loosely, as it is pretty much rocks and cactus, some of which made a cool doorway. There were dozens of little rock rings that looked like planters, but barren. I finally figured out why they were there, as two actually still had a very pretty type of cactus in them. There were also a lot of iguanas running around. They only gave us 15 minutes, so I had to cover a lot of ground quickly. They did have a gift shop at the rock. The one cool thing that I saw in there (but not cool enough for me to buy and store it) was a selection of stained-glass bottles. They were mostly Coke bottles, which still sell here (like they do in the U.S.) in the 8 oz bottles. However, they are clear instead of green, and made for pretty cool stained-glass. I had one (my first Coke in 3 or 4 months), but the mixture was slightly off and I didn't enjoy it that much. I did enjoy the bottled (from the water plant) sea water, though.

A couple of side notes about the main cactus that I found interesting. Once one has been sufficiently watered, it holds enough water for 10 - 15 YEARS. They grow incredibly easy. There were little rock walls everywhere that people used to keep the native goats out of their land, or sometimes to keep things in. Since there isn't any cement, they just fit rocks carefully like a vertical jigsaw puzzle without anything to hold them together. I can't imagine how long it takes to do this, and of course a swift kick from a donkey knocks it right down. So, they will take a branch of the cactus that is around 4 feet long and cut it off. They then lean this against the rock wall, and after a month or so it has taken root in the dry sand. They put these all along the fence, and of course the animals won't come near them. I tried to get a good picture, but going by the walls at 50 and trying to shoot through the window of a bus just didn't produce satisfactory results. About half of the pictures in this entry were taken through the glass, though, so I'm not too unhappy with them.

Our next stop was the natural bridge. He said that the saying goes, "If you see Aruba and don't see the natural bridge, you didn't see Aruba." He isn't kidding, it is the only thing in Aruba. Even though it is called THE natural bridge, there are two, right next to each other. Now, I am standing pretty high up in this picture, but the water really rushes into the inlet very fast. I was taking pictures of the way that the water was crashing over the rock below me (I didn't quite ever capture it, and my attempts to make a small MPEG movie of it were foiled by my using the wrong setting on the camera as it was my first attempt). It was cool, the rock was about 15 feet out of the water and 15 feet below me. The waves would crash over it, and water would run in little rivulets down it (the coral is very rough and has lots of natural pockets). While I was taking pictures of it, I missed a great shot of a bit crash because I was startled by getting completely sprayed in the back with water. It was actually coming all the way up to me. If you see in the last picture, the water is filling the arch, but goes all the way to bare sand when it goes out. The second bridge was just as pretty. You can get an idea of the size in this picture, as well as the other bridge picture with the guy standing on it. There was, of course, a small gift shop, which was just below this building. Here is the actual sign, but I have a strong suspicion that the building was under "natural de-construction." The tour guide made a point, to put it in his words, that "You have to pay a quarter for a pee." Since no water comes out this far, they have to bring it all in and charge you for it. He also graciously gave us 15 minutes here. About half of the bus declined to even get out at this point.

Our third stop, and the one that I was initially most interested in, was the California Lighthouse. I love lighthouses, love going into them, and love the view from the top. We were given five minutes here, and the lighthouse is locked. Only about 10 of us got out at this stop. The view from here is actually pretty good, as it is about the highest point around other than the hill I showed you earlier. I could see a really fast powerboat in the distance. It is not, as you would think, named after the state of California. There was a ship named the California, and after it sank here the governing body decided that it was best to put up a lighthouse. There is a gorgeous golf course and subdivision right next to the golf course. I'm relatively certain that it wouldn't be quite as gorgeous if it weren't in the middle of a desert, but it is really nice. It is all rock underneath, so they had to ship in all of the dirt and grass, and they have to water it constantly. The water doesn't soak in, so what doesn't evaporate runs to the lowest spot where they just spray it right back out onto the grass again (kind of the ultimate in recycling). There is (from what I have heard) a really nice Italian restaurant just below the lighthouse.

We drove back along the water, heading back to town. Since I volunteered that I wanted to get pictures of the smelter where they processed the gold found at one point. It is odd, it looks like a building from the outside, but the inside is a hill. There wasn't any actual space, and I couldn't figure out how the heck they did anything with or without gold inside it. I climbed to the very top of it, I wish that I could have had someone take a picture of me there. I have a fleeting suspicion that there wasn't ever a gold mine, that the natives stacked up a bunch of rocks to loosely resemble an old building just to laugh at us. If so, it was worth it. It is amazing what they can put together without cement, although rocks are not in short supply. There is also a local tradition (that again, I suspect was made up just for the tourists) that your wish will come true if you stack a small pile of rocks. There were literally thousands of these stacks, I'm fairly sure because there are thousands of tourists a year. If they were smart, they would say that it was good luck to stack them in a certain way and place, and they could get the tourists to build them more rock walls and buildings. We only had 5 minutes here also, since it wasn't officially a stop on the tour. Only three of us got out anyway.

One thing that was potentially interesting was an old church with graves that we passed. Apparently there was a pulpit that took a guy 30 years to hand-carve. The area he lived in considered it bad to have a pulpit in a church, and wouldn't accept it. Aruba gladly took it, and put it in the church. It has actually won some international art awards (and was taken out and put on display in an exhibit for a while in Europe). It turns out that so many tourists that come visit are wearing bikini tops instead of full shirts that the priest stopped all tourist from seeing it now. Because (again) there is nothing but rock, the graves are built like small houses on top of the ground. There was even a couple of infant graves (again, I love graveyards). When someone else in the family dies, you would assume that they would add another layer. Once again, you would be wrong. Instead they break it open, take out what is left of the last person, pile the bones up in a neat little pile, and cram them to the back. Then they put the next body in. There are several interesting traditions on the island, and one of them has to do with the paint. Each family paints their house once a year, and then comes to the graveyard and paints the grave the same color as their house. Some of them were really colorful.

Another tradition is that for a week a year, everything shuts down and all the people go camp on the beach for a week. Aruba is owned by the Dutch, and sort of controlled by them. I say "sort of" because they technically fought to have the Dutch stop controlling them from afar. They now have their own government, however most of it gets picked by the Dutch and the Dutch still pretty much control them. I didn't get the actual impact of this. However, if there is anything I like better than a lighthouse, it is a Dutch windmill. Once again, I have to apologize for the drive-by shooting through the closed (and now dirty) window. It used to be a restaurant, but they are now turning it into something useless that the people can't go into (a government office or something). :(

A couple of odd facts for those of you who are still with me after all of this. Again, EVERYTHING has to be imported. Their only means of income is tourism, although they did process crude oil into gasoline for a while. It is only 70 square miles, has two cities, and 100,000 people. There are people from all countries, but the Chinese own every grocery store. They still have BMW and Mercedes dealerships (and others), and a lot of time shares. The property that is owned is owned by natives, and they rarely ever sell. However, you can lease property from the government VERY cheaply (around $500 a year) on a 50-year lease. You can build on it (unless you rent the farmland), and you can sell the house, but not the property. However, they pretty much always let you transfer the lease, and pretty much always let you renew it. They literally took a complete desert wasteland and cultivated a small edge of it into an island paradise. It is really an impressive amount of work, all things considered. I do have to point out here, also, that the guide was really great. He was funny, had a great voice, a great accent (but very easy to understand), was very friendly and was knowledgeable. It is too bad that he isn't on a more exciting tour.

The moral of this story is that, while I still thought the tour was crummy, I still found a lot of things that interested me enough to take a lot of pictures. I am starting to think that having unlimited free film isn't a good thing for me . . .