The Beach Boys’ 1988 song Kokomo shaped my first impressions of Aruba. I imagined beaches similar to the white, sugar-sand beaches of Florida, but with endless aquamarine seas, tropical fruit-flavored cocktails, where life is not taken too seriously and lovers make music in the sand accompanied by the sound of waves and distant steel drums. That idyllic impression lived in my consciousness for decades — until Joran van der Sloot allegedly murdered Natalee Holloway on an Aruban beach in 2005. After visiting Aruba afterwards, my impressions have changed dramatically: Wiser impressions sacrificing naïveté for knowledge of a shadowy past that includes thousands of years of lost innocence. Yes, Virginia, there is an illusory Aruba that mirrors the Kokomo version and appeals to foreign tourists year after year; but there is also another Aruba that waits behind the mirror for those who want to know it better.
Aruba is a small island, approximately 19.6 miles long and 6 miles across – about 70 square miles. It attracts approximately 1.5 million tourists per year, mostly North Americans and Europeans. There are many upscale resorts here and they take advantage of its beautiful beaches, North American-style resort zones, private coastlines, casinos, restaurants, and a thriving nightlife. Aruba is roughly the same size as the Hawaiian island of Niihau, but Aruba is comparatively densely populated with approximately 105,000 people.
Aruba is located outside the closest hurricane belt and it’s blessed with dry, sunny weather most of the year. Aruba has more cacti than palm trees and it does not have the “feel” of a tropical island except in the tourist and beach areas. It lies in the Caribbean Ocean approximately 20 miles off the northern coast of troubled Venezuela. Except for the beaches, the landscape reminds me of the American southwest. The trade winds are ever-present, and it’s the sheltered side of the island where most resorts and expensive homes are located. The water is a brilliant blue; so brilliant that it appears to be illuminated from within.
Ocean Colors, Offshore, Oranjasted
For me, Aruba’s politics are the most confusing aspect of Aruba. It’s not necessary to understand Aruba’s political standing to visit it, but I better appreciated my time here for having made the effort. In a nutshell, Aruba is both a separate country and part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Kingdom of the Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy with territory in Western Europe and the Caribbean. The Kingdom of the Netherlands is different from the country of the Netherlands; the country of the Netherlands is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands – confusion arises because they share the same name. Most of the country of the Netherlands primarily lies in Europe, except for 3 municipalities that lie in the Caribbean. Most of population and landmass of the Kingdom of the Netherlands also lies in Europe, but the majority of its countries lie in the Caribbean thousands of miles away. The country of the Netherlands is often referred to as “Holland,” but the term “Holland” properly only refers to either of 2 of 12 provinces within it: North Holland or South Holland. Use of the word “Holland” to refer to the entire country is objectionable to some citizens of the Netherlands. I read somewhere that it would be similar to using “New York” to refer to the United States. Personally, I wouldn’t hold it against anyone.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands is composed of 4 distinct countries, which are generally self-governing: The Netherlands (in Europe) and Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten (in the Caribbean). Aruba and Curaçao are each islands, and Sint Maarten comprises the southern half of a Caribbean island shared with France. Three additional islands of the Caribbean are considered cities of the country of the Netherlands even though they’re separate islands located halfway around the world from it: Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba. When the term “the Netherlands” is used by itself, it means the European country of which Aruba is not a part. When the terms “the Kingdom of Netherlands” or “the Kingdom” are used, they include Aruba. If this is not making sense to you, no worries – take another sip of your Aruba Ariba (rum drink) and in no time at all you won’t care.
Of the six islands in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Aruba is the second largest and it attracts the most tourism annually because of its beautiful beaches and North American-style resorts; only Curaçao is larger.
Roadside stand catering to tourists “off the beaten track”
As citizens of the Kingdom, Arubans are considered Dutch citizens and travel with a Dutch passport. Aruba has its own flag, which was adopted in 1976. The flag for the Kingdom of the Netherlands also flew in Aruba while I was there, which is the same flag as the country of the Netherlands. Aruba stopped using the Netherlands Antillean guider as currency in 1986 and it adopted its own currency — the Aruban florin, but it readily accepts U.S. dollars in most places.
Many websites, maps, and books about Aruba still use the term “Netherland Antilles” or “Dutch Antilles” to refer to Aruba, Curaçao, Sint Maarten, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba – even though the term is now a relic and out of date. The Netherland Antilles used to be a federation composed of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao (the “ABC” or “windward” islands) and Sint Maarten, Saba, and Sint Eustatius (the “SSS” or “leeward” islands) and that federation was part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. However, Aruba seceded from the Netherland Antilles in 1986 and the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved completely in 2010. People who continue to use the term may be talking about something that no longer exists without realizing it – or perhaps they’re simply on “island time” and will work on it later. “No worries, M’ma. Be happy.”
What this all boils down to from a practical standpoint is that Aruba is generally a self-governed country, but it is only independent to a point. Aruba’s foreign policies are set by the Netherlands. The Netherlands has ultimate responsibility for the administration, foreign policy, and defense of Aruba — – from over 4,900 miles away. This is one reason why American tourists enjoy such a friendly reception here: Relations between the Netherlands and the United States historically are friendly.
Casibari Rock Formations
I enjoyed my recent stay in Aruba, but I generally avoided the resort zone because it felt too much like resort areas in the States and I was looking for something else. I spent the majority of my time in the less developed areas of Aruba, surrounded by semi-arid landscapes, wind-sculptured trees, chapels, lighthouses, gigantic boulders, and wild, unruly coastlines. I loved it. Most of all I loved the people I met there.
Arubans are an easy-going, hard-working, and unique people who possess their own language and an inquisitive nature. Arubans usually speak the colorful language Papiamento, which they refer to as “Street” or “Talk.” Dutch and Papiamento are Aruba’s official languages. Spanish and English are also fairly well-known in Aruba, and knowledge of French is increasing. It is a diverse culture and it appears that there are opportunities for all racial groups in Aruba, except possibly in the arena of higher politics – that seems to be dominated by the Dutch.
Native Arubans possess a rich, non-European history and there is a growing movement to learn and disseminate more information about it. One such effort deals with the fate of the original people who lived here. It’s not a story with a happy ending, but it is part of Aruba’s heritage and many Arubans feel it should not be forgotten or glossed-over. Unlike most Dutch, Arubans advocate that such injustices be remembered.
Aruban history pre-dates its discovery by Europeans. The Caquetio Indians, the indigenous people living on Aruba when the Spaniards discovered it in 1500 A.D., had been living there since 1,000 A.D. or so. Aruba’s discovery by the Spaniards had disastrous consequences for Aruba’s Caquetio Indians. The Spaniards enslaved or slaughtered most of the Caquetios in Aruba around 1515 A.D. The slaves were taken to Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti) to work for the Spaniards there. The Spaniards converted most of the slaves to Roman Catholic. Some of Aruba’s Caquetio Indians are believed to have fled to Venezuela or to have hidden in the caves on Aruba to escape capture by slavers.
Historic Alto Vista Chapel
In 1526, a small number of Caquetio Indians returned to Aruba. The Netherlands, which was primarily Protestant, took control of the island about 100 years later. In the centuries that followed, the Caquetio Indian population remained Roman Catholic and mixed with other races. Aruba’s Caquetio Indians eventually died out as a race and separate culture under Dutch rule — as did their original language (Caquetio). No one who is 100% Caquetio Indian could be found living in Aruba after about 1843 and the race was determined to be extinct. However, aspects of the Caquetio Indian culture continue to influence Aruba today and some Arubans claim to trace their ancestry back to them.
Perhaps what struck me the most about Aruba – apart from its cacti, welcoming climate, and beautiful beaches –is the spirituality of people who live here and how openly they practice Christianity. Christianity has replaced ancient religions in Aruba since the Spaniards first imposed Catholicism on it, and approximately 86% of Aruba’s current population remains Roman Catholic. Although I saw some symbols of it while Arubans were decorating for Carnival, the Caribbean reputation for voodoo, magic, or witchcraft is uncommon here and I was told there is a negative stigma to practicing it — stemming from the Vatican. If black or white magic is practiced at all, it is probably done so in secret and relatively rarely.
I regret I did not have an opportunity to explore the caves of Aruba and see the ancient cave paintings of the people who lived here before the Spanish discovered it. Although the people who painted them have now disappeared, their memory lives on. The memory of the original people of Aruba honors them and the injustices inflicted upon them begs that their story not be forgotten.
And for me, so does the memory of the young American girl who disappeared in Aruba during 2005 — and whose mother has never stopped searching for her. No one has ever been tried or convicted for the disappearance of Natalee Holloway. The primary suspect in her disappearance, Dutchman Joran van der Sloot, allegedly fled Aruba with the help of his Dutch father and is now jailed somewhere in Peru for a murder of a young girl under circumstances hauntingly similar to those surrounding Holloway’s disappearance. Although newspapers and press releases may not survive the passage of time as well as the cave paintings of ancient times, for now they continue to haunt Aruba and the people who visit and live there.
Originally Published January 31, 2015
Feature Photo of Home in Aruba Countryside
Photos taken by Jazzdat