Aruba: Week 252

The blue waters of Malmok Beach: Aruba

Aruba is a very arid island. The contrast between tropical Caribbean dreams and the desert landscape couldn’t be any starker than it is on the coast, where cacti grow straight out of white beach sand.

The sheltered SW side of the island is famous for its beaches and snorkeling. Barret and I spent our first morning at Malmok Beach, which is smaller and quieter than the resort beaches further south.

A large iguana lounged against a white wall while turquoise-speckled Aruban Whiptails scurried out from the shadows. One accidentally grazed the top of my hand with its soft underbelly and scratchy nails.

Turquoise-spotted Aruban Whiptail lizard: Aruba

Along the coast pelicans swooped into schools of fish while small boats cast their anchor further out. The tour boat blasting dance music was named Putin Pleasure. I blinked twice and realized the palm tree logo in the font was meant to spell out Palm Pleasure.

View of the Boca Prins Beach: Arikok National Park, Aruba

The NE side of Aruba has pounding waves and a jagged coastline reminiscent of shards of glass. A good portion of this coastline belongs to the Arikok National Park. The relentless sun beats down year round and is the reason only stray goats cross this desert landscape on foot. A rental car is the best way to visit to Arikok.

Desert landscape at Arikok National Park, Aruba

View of the coast at Arikok National Park, Aruba

Mikayla at Arikok National Park, Aruba

Cave art at the Fontein Cave: Arikok National Park, Aruba

The coastline north of the national park is unpopulated and largely difficult to reach without 4WD. The Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins is one of the few buildings that sits along this stark coast and is accessible by a paved road.

View from the Bushiribana Ruins: Aruba

The mill was built in the late 1800s and was in use until being replaced by the Balashi Mill on the other side of the island. Balashi operated until WWI, when the imported mining materials became impossible to secure. After the war, the neglected mill was in such a state of disrepair than no further production was pursued.

Collapsed Natural Bridge: Aruba

Close to the ruins is the former location of Natural Bridge. As its name suggests, it was a strip of land that spanned across a rugged cove. Although nature eventually had its way and the bridge collapsed, tourism still prevails.

A wooden ladder has since been constructed which allows people to access a small, protected pool during low tide. My friends and I happened to be there during high tide and it was one of those moments where I could imagine the following day’s headline: Security measures to be proposed in wake of tourists being dragged out to sea.

Driftwood folk art from Aruba

Leaving the ruins, along the single paved road, was my favorite gift shop on the island. It was actually a wooden shed on private property, but it had a massive collection of driftwood painted to look like colorful fish. It was folk art at its purest and I didn’t see anything like it near the cruise ship docks.

Cacti sunset near the Alto Vista Chapel: Aruba

Cacti sunset near the Alto Vista Chapel: Aruba

The Alto Vista Chapel can also be found on the desolate NE coast. It was built upon the location of the island’s first Roman Catholic Church. While the building itself attracts tourists and Tuesday evening service-goers, the most compelling reasons to visit are the sunsets and the footpaths through the cacti-filled landscape.


Exterior view of the National Archaeological Museum Aruba - Oranjestad

Downtown Oranjestad, with its colonial architecture, is actually quite small. Aside from a spattering of museums, retail shops dominate the landscape. The National Archaeological Museum, which is free to the public, is located inside the former Ecury Complex.

Anthropomorphic ceramic jar from the National Archaeological Museum Aruba - Oranjestad

Pottery shard from the National Archaeological Museum Aruba - Oranjestad

The buildings, some of which date as far back as the 19th century, remained in the Ecury family until 1997. Today, the complex is a modern museum with a focus on Aruban Amerindian culture and the country’s colonial heritage.

Street art in Oranjestad, Aruba

Colonial building in Oranjestad, Aruba

Papiamento and Dutch are the two official languages, but Aruba is much more linguistically savvy than that. Because the island receives a significant amount of tourism from the US, English is very widely spoken.

Most of the ATMs dispense US dollars and stores usually expected me to pay in USD. I, of course, took all my money out in Florins and every time I went to the store I felt like the kind of tourist that wears a beret in Paris.

Chinese restaurant in Oranjestad, Aruba

Spanish is also understood because of the close proximity of Venezuela and it’s hard not to notice that most of the independent groceries stores reflect Chinese ownership.

Polaroid of a pink bungalow house in Aruba

Outside of Oranjestad’s historical area, the majority of homes are one-story bungalows. They come in an array of colors and would not have been out of place during the 1950s.

After a few days of driving around the island, I thought about the couple at the airport that passed through immigration before us. This was their 28th visit to Aruba and they were excited to be back.

No matter how much I’ve enjoyed a destination, I’ve never felt that strongly about one place. I liked Aruba and I loved the desert sunsets, but the One Happy Island was a little too small and commercial for me. I’d dipped my toes into Aruba and it just left me curious about all the other Caribbean islands. Good thing we’d already planned on jumping over to Curacao.

Polaroid of the road leading to the Alto Vista Chapel in Aruba

About: Alto Vista Chapel

About: Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins

About: Arikok National Park

About: National Archaeological Museum Aruba

Polaroid of a tangled cactus in Arikok National Park: Aruba

An Engagement in Hawaii: Week 221

Polaroid of a church in Lahaina: Maui, Hawaii

Lahaina is lush but also arid- red dirt and hibiscus.

Front Street, the epicenter of the town, runs parallel to the coast. It is filled with tourists, restaurants, and shops. From Front Street the land makes a parabolic rise up into the shrouded West Maui Mountains.

It was around 2:30 in the afternoon when a troop of yellow school buses honked their way through Lahaina. The kids from Kamehameha III Elementary were celebrating their last day of school by sliding out of view and waving their hands out the windows.

At the south end of town, near the school, a massive banyan tree canopied a public square. Families sat in the shade and a backpacker rubbed ointment onto his tanned foot. Barret and I strolled down the street, past a stand of parrots that squawked aloha, and had lunch overlooking the waterfront.

Boys bodyboarding at Kaanapali: Maui, Hawaii

To the south and north of Lahaina, all along Honoapiilani Highway, the coastal side of the road was filled with cars. The charcoal grills were hot and the ocean was filled with people and boards. Everyone knows Hawaii is famous for surfing, but it is still surprising to see so many people out in the water at all times of the day. It makes you wonder when and if they ever work.

Barret eating a popsicle at the Twin Falls Farmstand: Maui, Hawaii

The Twin Falls Farmstand is on the eastern end of Maui, which is the side that receives all the rain. The little stand sells smoothies, drinking coconuts, and popsicles on sugarcane sticks. Just beyond the stand is a trail that crosses a small river twice before ending at a waterfall.

Large puffy white clouds floated out of the woods and hung over the clearing. A mother of three studied the dissipating clouds with a large frown. Her husband, a man with thinning hair and an armband tattoo, enthusiastically watched stoned teenagers jump off a precipice and into the cool water below. “I’ve jumped off higher,” he mouthed in her direction. Her frown deepened.

North of the falls, Barret and I stopped at a lookout point. I bought a drinking coconut from a brightly painted van that was manned by a woman with voluminous hair, a voluminous bust, and big jewelry.

At the lookout point Barret distracted me with sea turtles while he pulled out an engagement ring. Although I had selected the ring, I was completely caught off guard.

Polaroid of the proposal in Maui, Hawaii

“Look at what I am wearing!” I exclaimed as I surveyed my wrinkled pants and Teva sandals. My arms were caked in sunblock.

“This is who we are,” Barret replied. “This is what we look like most of the time.”

I had always thought that the proposal would make me cry a lot, but looking back I just remember laughing with joy. Although if you ask Barret, I cried for five minutes behind my sunglasses.

I couldn’t wait to share the news, so before we left I returned to the coconut stand. The vendor squealed in excitement before proclaiming, “isn’t that a cute little promise ring.” Not exactly the response I was expecting, but I think our tastes were a bit different.

Polaroid of a van selling drinking coconuts: Maui, Hawaii

After living in Sydney, I knew Honolulu was a popular destination for Aussie shoppers. However, it wasn’t ’til I was there that I realized the scale of the development- it was a tropical Las Vegas minus the casinos. Older vestiges of the Waikiki beach culture remained, but massive hotels, shopping centers, and restaurant chains dwarfed those two-story bungalow apartments. The main thoroughfare was filled with people in neon green shirts advertising shooting ranges.

Flyer for a gun range in Waikiki: Honolulu, Hawaii

Pearl Harbor was just north of the airport. Barret and I showed up on empty stomachs and we laughed when we discovered that the food court only sold hotdogs and nacho chips- both covered in liquid cheese. Everywhere else in the world the food cart is a culinary treasure, in the US it is most often a form of torture.

Photo of the boat which transports visitors to the USS Arizona War Memorial: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

It cost nothing to visit the USS Arizona Memorial, which could only be accessed by boat, but we had to collect a ticket for a specific time. Because there were so many people, we had a few hours to explore the museums beforehand. One of the things that stood out most for me was how well the collection explained the events leading up to the bombing without reducing everything to: USA good, Japan evil.

However, the most interesting site at Pearl Harbor was of course the memorial for the USS Arizona. This unfortunate vessel had been scheduled to leave the day before it was attacked but had instead been docked for an overnight repair. Because of this, it was fully manned and stocked with fuel- 1.5 million gallons.

Postcard of the USS Arizona: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

After the attack, the USS Arizona burned for three days. Despite this, about 500,000 gallons of oil remained intact and have been leaking ever since. Up to nine quarts of ‘black tears’ bubble up to the surface every day and leave a rainbow-colored residue on the water.

In total, 1,177 crewmen died and of the 37 sets of brothers assigned to the USS Arizona, only one complete set made it out alive. In 1982 a repatriation program began which offered survivors of the USS Arizona the opportunity to have their ashes laid to rest inside one of the ship’s gun turrets. More than 30 crewman have chosen to have the watery grave as their final resting place.

Photo of Waikiki Beach at sunset: Honolulu, Hawaii

Hawaii is a tropical paradise, but it was also a little bit different from what I had anticipated. The number of boxy strip malls surprised me just as much as the massive size of the sea turtles I swam with in Napili Bay.

Honolulu had a thick knot of traffic and a massive highway infrastructure, but when I met a woman in the hotel lobby who had just moved there, I could understand why she was so happy. She had just found her own little slice of heaven. I was sad to be leaving.

Polaroid of swimmers at Waikiki Beach: Honolulu, Hawaii

About: Lahaina

How to get to the Twin Falls Farmstand: East on Hana Highway past the town of Paia. Around mile marker 2 is a bridge- on the right hand side is a parking lot and the farmstand.

How to get to Pearl Harbor: Take bus #20 or #42 to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center

About: Waikiki, Oahu

Caves Beach: Week 213

Caves along the beach: Caves Beach, Australia

On the way to Caves Beach, we stopped in Lake Macquarie. It was breakfast time and the sun was already strong. Two kids had set up a bike ramp at the end of a pier and were taking turns riding their BMX bikes into the lake. Across from the waterfront was a cafe and homeware shop called Common Circus. The coffee was good and the shop was stuffed with carefully selected Etsy-ish items like ‘crumpled’ ceramic cups, potted succulents, and geodesic egg holders. It wasn’t easy to leave with our wallets intact.

Common Circus business card: Lake Macquarie, Australia

After breakfast at a different café, we drove down to Caves Beach. Although it was early autumn, the sun was beating down and we couldn’t resist jumping into the ocean even in our clothes. Once we had cooled off, Barret and I walked behind a group of squealing kids that were headed towards the southern end of the beach. They were giddy about passing through a series of caves and while we inwardly felt a similar excitement, we stopped when we found a quiet-ish patch of shade.

Caves Beach, Australia

After a few snacks Barret and I fell asleep to the sound of the ocean. When we woke, the tide had risen and heavy clouds were rolling in. Our friends and I rushed to pack the gear into the car as a thick blanket of clouds raced to the edge of the cliffs. The rain began to pour down and then it began to hail. Barret parked the car under a metal awning and we could barely hear each other’s exclamations over the sound of the falling hail.

Caves Beach on a rainy day: Caves Beach, Australia

Further down the coast we stopped at The Entrance for dinner. The town is a popular coastal destination and is well known for the flocks of pelicans that congregate on the beach. Being the tail end of a four-day weekend, the town was quite and only the mechanical tunes of a small fairground hung in the air.

Barret, our friends, and I walked up and down the main street in search of a good place to eat. We passed restaurants, gift shops, ice cream shops with kangaroos painted on the walls, and old red brick vacation rentals with slender names signed across the front. My favorite, because I’m from Vegas, was Ceasar’s Palace.

The Entrance Hotel coaster: The Entance, Australia

In the end we chose The Entrance Hotel. The food was delicious and the venue was a cheery beacon of light on such an overcast evening.

How to get to Common Circus: 36 Brooks Parade, Belmont, Lake Macquarie

How to get to Caves Beach: Mawson Close, Caves Beach

How to get to The Entrance Hotel: 87 The Entrance Road, The Entrance

Sri Venkateswara Temple: Week 198

Detail from the main entrance of the Sri Venkateswara Temple: Helensburgh, Australia

The site in Helensburgh was declared divine because, “it is said the gods always play where groves are, near rivers, mountains, and springs and in towns with pleasure-gardens.” – Brihatsamhita

In the late morning light, the gleaming white surfaces of the Sri Venkateswara Temple glowed bright and stark against the surrounding forest. Barefoot worshipers and tourists scrambled across the hot marble terrace.  They posed for photos in front of the towering main entrance and retreated inside when their feet began to burn. Across the way, in the shade of eucalypts, visitors placed their shoes on tiered wooden racks. Sulphur-crested cockatoos shrieked in the highest branches overlooking the small northern gardens.

Courtyard of Sri Venkateswara Temple: Helensburgh, Australia

Barret, Shweta, Bryan and I followed the steady flow of people from the hot courtyard into the cool hallway where the dense aroma of incense hung in the air. Although Barret and I had never been in a Hindu temple before, there was something very familiar and comforting in that scent. It reminds me of cluttered Catholic churches in Dublin and the ash-covered shrines in Macau.

Inside the Sri Venkateswara Temple were shirtless priests with gold necklaces and bright cloths wrapped around their waists. They assisted worshipers with certain poojas (prayer rituals) and, when not called upon, performed their own duties or relaxed on benches scattered throughout the building.

Postcard from the Sri Venkateswara Temple shop: Helensburgh, Australia

Outside the main hall was a chart that listed the various costs of priest-assisted poojas. Depending on who one prayed to, the benefits ranged from ‘considerate improvement in education’ to ‘eventuate auspiciousness and/or to accomplish righteous things.’ Every church has their way of collecting funds from their worshipers, but there was something about this chart that reminded me of a home-improvement project and the priests flitting about the temple were helpful associates at a hardware store.

My friend Shweta wanted to perform an Archana pooja for Lord Vishnu. Archana is a shorter pooja in which the names of one’s family are recited for blessings. The four of us went up together and Shweta gave a metal bowl filled with fruit, holy basil, flowers and incense to a priest who had been seated against the wall. He asked for our names and began to chant.

At the end we cupped our hands to waft the smoke of burning incense over our face and then the priest poured a small amount of sweet water into our hands for us to drink. He pointed out two pots of sandalwood paste for us to use for the tilaka. However when Barret and I hesitated, he stepped towards us to put a tan dot on our forehead and followed it with a scarlet one.View from Stanwell Tops: Australia

It’d been awhile since the last time Shweta visited the Sri Venkateswara Temple, but she fondly remembered one of the most beautiful places to visit afterwards- Stanwell Tops. We were sitting on the grassy bank that overlooked the beautiful coastline when I noticed a family that I’d seen at the temple.

Varahamihira, the author of the Brihatsamhita, was also an astronomer and mathematician who discovered some of the trigonometric formulas I studied in school. Given his talent and numerous contributions to the court of the legendary ruler Yashodharman Vikramaditya, I think it’s safe to say that Varahamihira knew what he was talking about when he described the kind of land that gods love to play in. The Sri Venkateswara Temple could not have been built in a more heavenly environment.

Barret outside the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Helensburgh: Australia

How to get to the Sri Venkateswara Temple: Take the train from Central Station to Wollongong and get off at Helensburgh Railway Station. From there it is about 2 km to the temple. Buses leave from Helensburgh Railway Station every hour from 9.00 am till 4.00 pm.

Callala & Kiama Beach: Week 197

Walkway to Callala Beach: Jervis Bay, Australia

One of the first things I notice as we walk down the beach is the hermit crabs. They pop up from the white sand and retreat with the tide, head over heels, back into the ocean. All down Callala Beach, hundreds of crabs somersault back into the ocean.Hermit crab on Callala Beach: Jervis Bay, Australia

Close to shore, in the waters of Jervis Bay, a chartered tourist boat motors around in circles. A young couple from the UK kayaks out in front of them to get a better view. The boat maneuvers around the kayak and the tourists on board continue photographing a pod of dancing dolphins.

The sun is high and my hair is a teased pouf of sea spray and sand. Barret suggests I wrap my towel around my waist to keep from getting sunburnt. It is a good idea, but perhaps too late already. Barret and I walk back to the small sandy parking lot where a mom is loading her kids in the car.

“Mom,” her son gleefully declares. “Remember that time you said the s-word?”

Mom looks exasperated. “Yes. And every time you remind me, you lose an ice cream.”Shore of Kiama Beach, NSW: Australia

Heading back to Sydney, the drive winds north through eucalpyt forests and small towns with busy cafes. Barret and I stop in Kiama for dinner. One of the only restaurants open on a late Sunday afternoon has large, open windows to catch the sea breeze and the sounds of two pink cockatoos. There is a guy upstairs playing an acoustic guitar.

Boy cliff jumping in Kiama, NSW: Australia

After dinner we walk along the coast to the lighthouse. There is a blowhole nearby, but the tide is out and there’s nothing to see but jagged lunar rocks. Before we continue driving Barret decides to jump into the ocean one last time. I sit in the shade of the surf club building; the sunburn on my legs is starting to show.

Fishing wharf in Kiama, NSW: Australia

About: Jervis Bay

About: Kiama

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