On Christmas Eve in Aruba, we gave up our search for weapons, and went hunting for rum. Incredibly, we found both.
For the last 10 years, World Nomads & Lonely Planet have offered travel writing scholarships and mentorships to aspiring travel authors. When they announced three winners of the 2019 scholarships, I learned I was one of the 12,412 applicants who would not be traveling to Portugal for the 2-week grand prize. Nonetheless, we’re excited to share with you this story of unexpected discovery. Not to mention, where to find the best rum in Aruba. Enjoy!
How a Machete in a Rum Shop Preserved Brotherly Tradition
As a non-violent person dedicated to helping people, one wouldn’t expect my older brother’s Washington D.C. apartment to boast an armory of exotic weapons.
During my first trip to Australia, I was ecstatic to find a rare left-handed boomerang for Brett. His collection began with this simple novelty gift. Soon, it evolved into an ironic, running tradition.
The next year, I returned from Thailand with a handmade slingshot used for hunting small game (off-label use: youthful hijinks). A later trip to Australia yielded a waddy (or, nulla nulla)—a heavy, hand-carved wooden club used by the Aborigines for both hunting and self-defense. Coastal Peniche produced a customized barb that Portuguese fisherman use to catch local octopi. From Mumbai, a palm-sized blade in the shape of a Shakti. To this day, a British sword cane is awaiting pick up from Fes, after being held in Moroccan Customs.
Every time he unwraps one of these gifts, I watch his face during the big reveal. He scratches his head, we share a laugh, and inevitably segue into a dialog about the origin of these unconventional objects. Apart from their sheer artistry and craftsmanship, each weapon tells a story of cultural innovation and the people behind them.
One Happy Island
As our plane descends into Queen Beatrix International Airport, my mind fixates upon this tradition, and the unknown weapon waiting to be discovered on Aruba—a place known affectionately as One Happy Island.
The people of Aruba have reason to be happy. They reside safely outside of Hurricane Alley. They enjoy the most sun in the Caribbean. Local divi-divi trees offer shady asylum across the island’s endless beaches, and a neglectful sunburn is easily remedied with the soothing gel of the aloe cacti that flourish here.
Although, it’s not all smooth sailing around Aruba. The arid island is among the driest on the planet, averaging less than 20 inches of annual rainfall. To survive these conditions, one must be resourceful. From the indigenous Caquetío tribe that inhabited Aruba over 4000 years ago to the Spanish and Dutch explorers that arrived centuries later, resourcefulness is in their blood.
Upon arrival, I channel this resourcefulness and begin the search for something distinctly Caquetío—perhaps a hunting spear or fishing rod. However, after six days on Aruba, I’ve found nothing worthy of Brett’s collection. On our final afternoon — as most of the island prepares to close for Christmas — the outlook is grim.
The best rum in Aruba
Determined to make the most of our final hours of Aruban daylight, D and I make our way to Orange Plaza—a grungy strip mall on the western part of the island. Our destination is The Arubian Taste—a legendary rum shop known for creative mixology and owners that exude generosity of spirit.
Jerome & Marsha have turned their passion for rum into a sanctuary for tourists to beat the heat and sample the finest fermented sugarcane on the island. Jerome greets us warmly and guides us through an exotic sampling of flavored rums: coffee, banana, pistachio, and aloe. I’m floored when I see the bottle of Coconut Crab, labeled with an image of its namesake, a species that once thrived in Madagascar, where Brett lived for seven months.
Our spirited education
We discuss Jerome’s past, including his career in law enforcement which transitioned to several years as a teacher, and then ultimately, a brief stint at the Palmera Rum Factory.
Jerome teaches us about Mama Juana — the national drink of the Dominican Republic. This mixture of dark rum, red wine, honey, tree bark and herbs has several reported health benefits, and is said to double as an aphrodisiac.
We learn that soursop (guanábana) can effectively reduce blood sugar levels for diabetics.
Two hours later, we’ve lost some inhibition.
“Jerome, this is a longshot. Do you know where we could buy an Aruban weapon?”
After a long pause and intense eye contact, he responds simply:
“Come with me.”
I follow Jerome down a narrow hallway to a private room. He kneels, reaches to the back of a cabinet, and pulls out a blanket. Then, he turns to me with a telling grin, places the blanket on a desk, and carefully unwraps what’s inside.
When the last fold is pulled back to reveal the treasures within, I’m floored.
Jerome unsheathes four enormous blades, each more impressive than the next. One by one, he tells me their stories.
Twenty minutes later, we emerge from the back room. D looks down at the two-foot machete in my hand with disbelief. We make eye contact and I send some nonverbal communication her way.
“I’ll explain later.”
The final glimmer of Aruban sunlight dips beyond the horizon as we pull away from the strip mall.
This mission is accomplished, but a new challenge presents itself: figuring out how to transport six liters of rum—and a used machete—through US Customs tomorrow morning.
I picture the disbelief on my brother’s face. I envision the machete mounted on his wall between the boomerang and the nulla nulla. Then, I see our discussion unfold. This tale of unexpected discovery in the most peaceful of places cannot go untold.
Again, it’s time to channel the resourcefulness that defines One Happy Island.
The original story submitted to World Nomads can be found here.
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