The Allure of Aruba

As I have grown older and wiser, my travels have become less about “turning up” and having a good time and more about relaxing and cultural exploration.  I have learned to stop and smell the roses.  My trips away are a time to reflect on the things that are important in life, thank God for the blessing and opportunity to travel, and to just open my mind to cultures and lifestyles that are different from my own (whatever that is).  In keeping with that theme and continuing my quest to visit all of the islands in the caribbean, I spent some time earlier this month in Aruba.

My trip to Aruba (a.k.a One Happy Island) originated from the east coast of america and took approximately 4.5 hours for me to reach the island.  Once I touched down, I proceeded to immigration where an officer collected the immigration card that I completed on the plane and directed me to proceed to one of the four available entry lines.  Now, this was a different experience.  Usually I am used to walking up to an immigration officer in a booth, answering a few questions pertaining to my visiting, intended length of stay and details about my lodging, but that did not happen this time– initially.  When it is your time to process in, you actually enter a 1 person man-trap where you scan your passport and are supposed to have your picture taken.  Well, that is if there are no problems and your passport actually scans.  Of course, mine did not, so I had to actually retrieve the immigration card that I provided to the officer and actually go speak to a real person. No worries, she scanned my passport and a minute later I was on my way to collect my luggage and find my shuttle.

Wait, what about customs?  Um, not sure if this is normal, but I was just waved through and allowed to go outside to ground transportation.  With my luggage and transportation voucher in hand, I boarded a luxury bus that would take me to my temporary lodging in the high-rise section of the island, close to Palm Beach.  The ride took approximately 40 minutes due to traffic and the fact that there was an impatient couple on the bus who didn’t feel like that should wait for others with reservations to board.  Umm, I guess they do not know what “shared” transportation actually means.  American privilege.  What can I say?  My stop was the second on the route and once there I checked in with no problem and headed out to grab some lunch.

I started day two by traveling in town (Oranjestad) using public transportation.  The colors and vibrancy of the buildings in town is amazing.  The architecture is reminiscent of europe meets caribbean meets asia, simply spectacular.  I found a grocery store where I was able to grab a few staples to take back to my hotel and then visited a local craft market for some browsing.  It was early afternoon, so I decided to have lunch at “The West Deck” which is near the Renaissance hotel.  This is a really nice spot on the water and they have my beloved johnny cakes!!  For less than $15 I was able to dine on johnny cakes, fish cakes, and banana hasa which the a version of sweet plantains.  Belly fully, I took a moment to take a few pictures in the park next to the restaurant because they had a really beautiful sculpture dedicated to Anne Frank.  After taking a few pictures, I headed back to the hotel where I put my purchases away, changed clothing and headed to Palm Beach.  The beach is nice and the water is pretty clear, but it was bit too crowded for my taste, so I stayed for about two hours before calling it a day and going back to the hotel.

Day 3 I was all set to travel to Eagle Beach to beat the crowds, but apparently mother nature had other plans in mind as it rained– a lot!  Since this was a Sunday, the stores in Oranjestad were closed for the day.  Stores in the high-rise district do not open until 5p.m., so I had to find something to do between waiting out the rain and doing some window shopping (I already had my obligatory shot glass and magnet for my friend, so my shopping was done).  The rain finally let up around 3p.m. so I actually took a trip back to The West Deck for two more johnny cakes (yes, they were just THAT good) before going to Eagle beach.  There were quite a few people on the beach, but I did not find it to be as crowded as Palm Beach.  Nothing better than laying in the sun, listening to the birds, feeling the sand on your feet and just enjoying life.  Since my day started later than normal due to the rain, I only stayed on the beach two hours, but could have stayed there for two days.  So clean, beautiful and serene.  Oh, and there is free wi-fi as well, but who needs that when you are in paradise relaxing.

My last two days were spent just lazing out, enjoying the culture, having fun taking public transportation, visiting some of the dining establishments frequented by the locals, and alternating between english, spanish and papimento during conversations.  I purchased a few cuban cigars (not for me, they were gifts), so t-shirts for my sweet pea (if I had a little girl, she would be so spoiled), and a bottle of local rum from the grocery store.  My trip overall was nice, I enjoyed exploring the terrain, meeting the locals and just getting some rest in the sun.  So, I rate this trip 7 bottles of rum out of 10.

What to know before you go:

  1. The official language is dutch; however, english, spanish, and papimento are widely spoken as well.
  2. The local currency is the aruban florin, also known as the AWG or the guilder.  Not to be confused with the same guilder in Curaçao or St. Marteen.  $1.75 AWG is equal to $1US; US currency is widely accepted, so you do not have to exchange money, if coming from the states.
  3. Public transportation is excellent and reliable, if you are not journeying too far off the beaten path.  If you are taking the big, public bus (Arubus) the fare is $2.35 (US).  There is a smaller bus (I affectionately call it the maxi as that is the term used on other islands) and the fare is roughly $1.80US.  Public transportation runs from 5:30a.m. until 11:00p.m. everyday.
  4. Aruba participates in the US pre-clearance process for individuals traveling back to the states.  Feel free to review my post explaining pre-clearance for more information.
  5. When departing Aruba, you definitely want to give yourself between 3-4 hours to clear security, process through customs and immigration, and get through all of the many lines.  Global entry helps a bit, but not much.  Maybe buys you about 15 minutes.  But please make sure you err on the side of caution and arrive earlier than you normally would for any other departure.

 

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Don’t Be “THAT” Person – The Middle Seat Neanderthal

Warning – This post is one of the few rants that I will ever express publicly and was purely inspired by my personal experience on a two-hour flight to Dallas recently.  Everyone who knows me, and even those who do not, but follow this blog, know that travel is my passion.  I live, eat, sleep and breathe travel.  I encourage and highly endorse people to get out and explore the world.  If you are unable to explore the world, explore a geographic location outside of your local area.  However, please understand that there are some basic dos and don’t to being a good traveler.  This post will focus on the dos and don’ts of the air traveler seated in the dreaded middle seat.

So most of us have been there.  Seated in that blasted middle seat.  Maybe you didn’t have elite status, didn’t want to pay the $10, $20, or $30 dollars to select a “preferred” seat, or were flying standby and had to take what was available.  Whatever the reason, you ended up in the middle seat and had to endure the uncomfortable situation for the duration of your flight.  For those of us who are seasoned travelers and had to do that, we just accepted the situation for what it was, counted our blessings that we were able to jet set and explore, and tried to be a considerate seatmate to our window and aisle counterparts.  But alas, there is that person who doesn’t realize that the space in the airplane is very limited and you DO actually have someone seated to the left or right of you, even if your ignorant behind refuses to acknowledge it.

So board the plane, store my carry on luggage (I actually experienced team carry-on, go figure) and get settled in my seat.  The flight attendants and gate agents already mentioned that this would be a full flight, so I knew that there would be very little chance in having an empty seat between myself and the woman seated in the aisle seat. Well, ten minutes after I boarded, our third wheel arrived and settled in.  Now, a red flag went off when his travel partner bypassed his seat by about 8 row and the neanderthal in 10B (the inspiration for this post) starts shouting at the guy to come back.  Alright maybe they had “one” (or a few) before getting on the plane and the sight is not a bit blurry.  10B takes his seat and starts talking to the woman in the aisle seat about her cellular phone and he says that he only sticks to flip phones because he can’t handle that new stuff.  Interesting, but none of my business.  I then assume the position – hoodie over head and head against the wall for a little nap.

BUMP.  I open my eyes because I’ve just been hit in the arm.  Waiting for an “excuse me”, I get an “oh”.  So, I go back to my position and chalk it off as an accident.  Two more bumps and I’ve had it.  Unless you have absolutely NO damn sense of feeling, you know when you bump into someone and you would think that you would stop.  Why did he keep hitting me?  Well, this idiot kept flailing his arms while talking to the women in the aisle seat.  By this time, the snack cart comes around and I request my regular (ginger ale with no ice) and take a sip of my beverage before covering it on my tray and trying to return to sleep.  About fifteen minutes later, I am being poked in my arm asking if I finished my drink.  Damn, Damn, Damn!

I could go on and on about the neanderthal in the middle seat, but I will cut things short.  I will simply say this, the same rules of etiquette for social interaction that apply on the ground apply at 30,000 feet in the air.  If you happen to be the neanderthal in the middle seat or know someone who fits the profile, allow me to share the rules.

  1. Thou shall remember thy manners.
    – There are two people seated near you.  Look to the left– there is a person.  Look to the right– yep, you guessed it, another person.  If you happen to bump into slide into that person’s personal space and they put something up (say like that plane magazine in the seat back pocket) to help you from encroaching, say sorry and make the necessary bodily adjustments.  The word “oh” doesn’t suffice.
  2. Thou shall not be overly animated with one’s hands.
    – Unlike ground zero, the space on the plane is very limited.  Please do not use overly excessive hand gestures when speaking.  Yes, I too communicate with my hands, but I am very mindful of my surroundings.
  3. Thou shall not wake up sleeping beauty.
    – Oh, you were upset that I cut my eyes at you, raised my voice when I said “No”, and sucked my teeth?  Well, what in the heck did you think I would do when you interrupted my rest to ask if I finished my drink?  Ding dong doo-doo ball, we have another 1.5 hours left in the flight and the flight attendants will make 2 more passes before the plane lands.  Mind your dang business.

Okay, I feel better now I’ve gotten this public service announcement out-of-the-way.  Just one last piece of comic relief for you before I end.  The plane was starting to descend and Mr. Neanderthal (see I can be nice and at least call him Mr.) decided he needed to go to the restroom.  So, he returns back to the seat location, but tells the woman in the aisle that he is going to stand for a minute.  This jack off then starts shoulder surfing and looking at the display of the cellular phone of a passenger seated in the row ahead of ours and making comments.  Hopeless!  No class.

Safe travels people!

Laid Back in Bonaire

During a recent trip to the Caribbean I took the liberty of traveling to Bonaire while visiting a neighboring island, Aruba.  Bonaire?  You say you’ve never heard of it?  Well, I am quite sure that a majority of the people who do not live or travel to the Caribbean, individuals who are not familiar with dutch culture, and those who have never heard the term ABC islands are not familiar with the country.  This jewel of an island is the smallest of the ABC (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) trio of islands and is roughly 45 minutes away from Aruba by plane.  Note that when you travel from Aruba, you will transfer planes in Curaçao where you will have to clear airport security again.

After making the short flight to Bonaire, you will walk into the airport terminal to process through immigration.  Immigration for the island is a breeze as there is no paperwork required, you just present your passport, have the official stamp it, and off you go.  The first thing you notice when exiting the airport are the bright colors on the surrounding buildings.  The colors are similar to what you would see if you visited Florida.  The capitol is Kralendijk which is easily accessible by a quick 10 minute cab ride which costs no more than $10.  I actually took a cab to Kralendjik and walked back after lunch just because it was nice and hot and sunny and I just enjoy cardio on a tropical paradise.

During my journey I spent most of my time window shopping, admiring the architecture, visiting the tourist office and just gazing at the gorgeous water.  Bonaire has some of the clearest water that I have seen in a while.  It is not on the level of that in Turks and Caicos or Anguilla, but it is still very clear.  It appears that the noon hour is the time of day when people are visit the local restaurants and here is a lot of activity and bustling.  Prior to that time, it is so quiet that you can almost hear a pin drop.

Since I wanted the true local experience, I chose to dine at one of the local seaside establishments near the seaside, Julian’s Cafe and Restaurant.  There were quite a few specials featured on the menu, but I opted for the mahi mahi since I was feeling for fish.  There is nothing better than seeing cooks in the kitchen, preparing food with a ton of soul, a pound of love, and an ounce of sweat sans hairnet.  Hear me when I say this, that had to be the MOST delicious meal that I’ve had in quite a while.  The fish was grilled and include a side of rice, french fries, and a salad.  The meal also included a beverage (non-alcoholic) and a dessert; my choice was the flan.

With my belly full and a big kool-aid smile on my face, I made the trek back towards the airport to visit a nearby beach.  Prior to hitting the road for my 35 minute walk, I did a little browsing–once the gargantuan iguana allowed me to enter the store.  Never I have I ever seen an iguana so darn big.  I didn’t really find anything that I wanted and the shot glasses (my default souvenir item) were more expensive in town than at the airport store, so I set out on my journey to the beach.  Since I am a summer baby, nothing makes me happier than having the sun shine on my face, feel the sand between my toes, and listen to the ocean waves crashing.

Bonaire is a very quiet, laid back island that prides itself on having some of the best diving sites.  The local are very friendly and truly embody the sentiment “Once a visitor, always a friend” as they love to share their culture and history with you.  During the 10 minute cab ride, I actually received a full history of the island, learned about some of the challenges, got tips on the best places to eat, and where to go to enjoy true local living.  In that moment, I did not feel like a visitor at all and part of me would love to go back to experience more of island.  Maybe one day, when I just need a very quiet, low-key holiday, I will return to this small jewel of the Caribbean.

What you should know before you go:

  1. There are approximately 16,000 people residing on the island as of the recent population poll.
  2. The official language for business if dutch; however, english, spanish, and papimento are widely spoken throughout the island as well.
  3. US currency is the official tender of the island.
  4. Free wi-fi is available throughout the island.  The SSID is Surf-It!
  5. If you are purchasing alcohol from the duty-free store in the airport, please know that there is a limit of one bottle per person (boo hiss!).  So, either make friends with a passenger who does not plan to purchase alcohol or lay back and enjoy your one bottle.
  6. There is no departure tax when exiting the island.

What is Pre-Clearance

Most well-traveled individuals are familiar with TSA pre-check and global entry and its benefits, but I am willing to be that not all of those individuals are familiar with pre-clearance.  TSA pre-check is a program sponsored and managed by the Transportation and Safety Administration that vetted individuals to enjoy expedited security screening at various airports in the states.  To enroll, individuals must pay a non-refundable fee of $85 and subject themselves to a background check and investigation prior to approval.  Once approved, individuals will be issued a “known traveler number” (KTN) which the traveler will add to the profile of the airline carriers participating in the pre-check program. Travelers enjoy pre-check status for five (5) years before they have to re-apply and pay the enrollment fee again.  The benefit of using this service is that you normally are not subject to lengthy security lines (except during peak travel times and when TSA pre-check is not operating during the early morning hours at some airports) and you do not have to remove your shoes, jackets, electronics, or liquids from your bags.

Global entry is similar to TSA pre-check with a few exceptions.  The major difference is that global entry is used when individuals are re-entering the states from most foreign countries.  Enrollment in the program is initiated online at which time you pay a non-refundable fee of $100 which initiates the background investigation process.  Individuals will receive conditional approval at which time they must make an appointment to visit a Global Entry Enrollment Center to be interviewed, fingerprinted, have your identification documents verified, and complete the process.  Upon approval, you can use the KTN provided to you to update your travel profile for participating carriers and enjoy the benefits for five years.  It is important to note that enrollment in global entry automatically provides you with enrollment in TSA pre-check.

So, now what is this pre-clearance program?  How is it different from the other two programs.  Well, first of all, it isn’t a program that one enrolls in; pre-clearance is actually a service provided by the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).  This service is not widely available like pre-check and global entry.  In fact it is only offered at roughly 15 boarder entry points internationally in the following countries.  Abu Dhabi, Aruba, Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada, and Ireland.  Basically, if you are departing one of the CBP pre-clearance locations, you will actually clear US customs and immigration while still on foreign soil.  How is this possible?  It is possible because the US government has entered into special agreements with the foreign countries where the pre-clearance facilities are operated.  The benefits are that you do not have to wait in long customs and immigration lines once you re-enter the US.  You can proceed directly to your connecting flight or simply go to baggage claim and get your bags and head home.  Another benefit is that any items that you purchase from duty free can be carried on board the plane after purchase, even if you are connecting to another flight when you reach the US.  The downside of pre-clearance is that you will endure approximately 4 or more check points at some locations when processing on foreign soil.  So pack your patience and make sure you arrive at the airport at least 3 hours in advance to allow ample time for processing.

If you would like more details on the various programs, please visit the following sites:

TSA Pre-check

Global Entry

Pre-clearance

Travel Mission 2K16 Accomplished

So 4 March 2016 I shared my desire to visit 10 new islands this year.  Originally the plan in my head was to visit 6 new caribbean islands; however, I put 10 on my vision board.  Well, as of 6 September 2016, that mission has been accomplished.  I have now visited 25 out of the recognized 34 caribbean islands and can now share my updated ranking of my favorite island.  Please keep in mind that this list is VERY subjective and is based on several factors: fun, cultural enlightenment, easy to navigate (I can walk or take public transportation, do not have to take taxis everywhere), food (especially important for a picky person such as I), great scenery, good accommodations, and the glove effect (does it feel like a place I could call home).  The list will be updated again when I hit 30 out of 34.  Happy traveling!

  1. Belize
  2. St. Maarten/St. Martin
  3. Jamaica
  4. Barbados
  5. Antigua and Barbuda
  6. Guadeloupe
  7. United States Virgin Islands
  8. St. Lucia
  9. British Virgin Islands
  10. Trinidad and Tobago
  11. Dominica
  12. Martinique
  13. Anguilla
  14. Bermuda
  15. Bahamas
  16. Aruba
  17. Bonaire
  18. St. Eustatius
  19. Curaçao
  20. Cayman Islands
  21. Turks and Caicos
  22. Saba
  23. St. Barths
  24. Puerto Rico
  25. Dominican Republic