Aruba is not like the rest of the Caribbean.
One of the great things about traveling by cruise ship is that you can team up with as many people as you like to explore the ports… or you can say goodbye at the gangway and head out all by yourselves. Arriving at the beautiful harbour of Oranjestad, Aruba, we decided that it was time for a little adventure on our own. We had seen a photo of Baby Beach and wanted to know if the impossibly blue waters in the picture were real. Off to the bus station we walked, and half an hour later there we were, glued to the bus’s windows as we approached the wide, windy expanses of Aruba’s southeast shores. Excited and impatient, we convinced ourselves that we must be near our destination, rang the bell and got off… and quickly discovered we’d miscalculated. It turned out there was a giant, sprawling refinery on that part of the island, and we were decidedly on the wrong side of it. No big deal; we consulted our map and decided we could probably walk the remainder. Off we went.
Suddenly, a small car screeched to a halt at a nearby corner. A man leaned out the window of the beat-up Toyota, yelled, “Don’t move! I’ll be back in a few minutes!” and screeched away again with someone in the passenger seat holding on for dear life.
We stopped and looked at each other as if to say, “Was he talking to us?” But there was nobody else he could have been talking to. We shrugged and kept walking; we figured we had about three kilometres to cover and wanted to get it behind us before the sun got too hot.
About fifteen minutes later, we heard those tires screech. There he was again. Sans passenger. “I told you to stay put! Now get in.”
We didn’t really know what to do. We told him we were trying to get to Baby Beach. “I know you are. I’ll take you there. My name is Ron. I’m like a taxi driver. Get in.”
We got in.
Ron’s “taxi” had no meter, no license and no fares posted. It did, apparently, have a wet bar, judging from the partly-finished Heineken between his knees. He welcomed us to Aruba and told us we were going to love Baby Beach—once we picked up one of his regulars and took him to work. We didn’t object; this was the most interesting public transport we’d found in a long time. (And in fairness to the good people of Aruba, I should point out that they do have official taxis that are safe and comfy and, you know, um, legal.)
Ron spoke Dutch, Spanish, English, Portuguese and Papiamento, which is a Spanish creole that, he explained, is the language of the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.) He told us of the abandoned refinery and the downturn in Aruba’s economy in recent years, which translated into mile after mile of nearly-empty beaches for visitors like us. As we picked up his other fare and dropped him off, Ron opined about the local government, the local chamber of commerce, the local beverage purveyors… Ron was not short of opinion. We soaked up his charm and his knowledge as we careened along the sandy shoreline toward the beach.
Aruba is not like the rest of the Caribbean. Geographically and geologically closer to South America, Aruba is sunnier, drier and much more sparsely vegetated than a place like, say, Saint Lucia. It’s breezier, too, which makes it a haven for windsurfers, though it sits safely outside the hurricane belt. A Dutch territory to this day, Aruba is as clean and as orderly as its mother country, and its European environmental standards mean that the snorkelling and diving in these islands, particularly on Bonaire, is without parallel. Ron told us of the hosts of parrotfish, bannerfish and damsels waiting for us under the water’s surface, and asked if we’d brought our snorkels and fins. We told him we had. (Actually, we never carry fins. Who has that kind of room in a day pack? Besides, my feet are size 13. Fins, shmins.)
At last we screeched to a halt in a sandy parking lot. Ron scrawled down his cell phone number and handed it to us, with strict instructions to call nobody else at the end of the day. As if we would have; we were now committed devotees of Ron, Inc.
Baby Beach did not disappoint. A crescent-shaped stretch of water on Aruba’s southeast shore, it is a haven for local families with children who can play safely in its shallow, warm waters. We headed over to the far side where the brown pelicans were plunging kamikaze-style into the water. Divi-divi trees punctuated the sparse horizon, while royal terns announced their beachfront patrols with their hoarse keear.
Into the water we ventured.
There is something about tropical seas that unnerves a Canadian. Our bodies tense upon setting foot into the water; shoulders hunch and organs retract in anticipation of the primal icy plunge that has been part of our summer experience since childhood. But here, stepping into the sea is like tripping on a warm fleece blanket. Where is that gasp, that whoop of exhilaration, that primal thrill? Gone, replaced by a simple Caribbean caress, a welcome back to womb-temperature. It is exquisite.
As we swam toward the reef that separates the bay from the open Caribbean, the water began to shimmer with colour. There were tropical fish everywhere! French grunts, sargeant-majors, surgeonfish, pork fish, wrasses… I had spent months studying up for this trip, trying to memorize the diversity of Caribbean reef species, and now it was all coming to life in front of me. It’s hard to snorkel when you’re laughing with delight, I discovered, but I didn’t care. We swam and swam, until we began to feel the sun’s effects on our pallid northern backs.
We tried to find a shady spot to relax on shore, but there really aren’t many trees on the island, and we didn’t feel like heading across the bay to where the crowds were gathering under umbrellas. So we slicked ourselves up with sunscreen, lay back and watched the pelicans at work. Flock after flock coasted in with military precision, single-file, until on some unannounced cue they began to peel downward, head-first into the bay, one after the other: Bam! Bam! Bam! There have to be easier ways to make a living, I thought, but they didn’t seem any the worse for it. We watched them until our eyelids began to droop, and then it was nap time. Caribbean nap time is the best nap time of all.
After a while we got up and wandered for a bit, and discovered a ragtag group of fellow Canadians down the shore: sanderlings and ruddy turnstones, recently arrived from as far north as our Arctic. The southern climes appeared to agree with them; I couldn’t imagine why they’d ever want to make the trip back northward again.
But now the sun was well into the west and our lengthening shadows reminded us that we had an important call to make. We thought for a moment that we should have made a backup plan for getting back to the ship. What if Ron didn’t answer? What if the number he’d given us was bogus? But we should have known better than to doubt him. Ten minutes later, a cloud of dust announced his arrival and we hopped into our limousine back to Oranjestad— sunburnt, tired, and filled with stories to tell of our spectacular day at Baby Beach, Aruba.