Just back from a restful week in the Caribbean, on the island of Aruba. What the Spanish once ceded to the Dutch as a “useless island rock” now has among the highest standards of living in the Caribbean, as well as Latin America. I learned several big life lessons while on this tiny isle.
The population of Aruba is roughly the size of Athens, Ga., —with a smaller land mass. The 17-mile isle receives very little rainfall and is practically a desert on its entire western side. Citizens of Aruba carry Dutch passports, and although considerably closer to independence, Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao combine to form the Lesser Antilles, while remaining part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The island is protected by strong trade winds which keep away the rain, and is located just outside of the hurricane belt. This warm and perpetually arid weather is not friendly to agriculture (excluding cactus and the Yucca plant), additionally saving this post the earlier indignity of being a stop for the slave trade of centuries ago.
Economic resilience/energy independence
As late as World War II, Aruba was primarily a mining and oil refinery island. Oil refined on Aruba was a major supply source for the Allies throughout WWII, as the Middle East, as we now know it, was not yet a major source of “imported oil,” and the Latin American oil infrastructure of today was also not yet built out. Exxon left behind its huge Largo refinery on Aruba the early 1980s, removing Aruba’s top employer and livelihood overnight. With help from the Netherlands, Aruba recast its lot as a tourism destination, with American’s supplying the majority (61 percent) of the roughly 1.7 million visitors each year.
With their refinery idled, most gasoline in Aruba is imported from Latin American neighbors such as Venezuela. However, in terms of energy independence, Aruba is well ahead of its major neighbor and tourism benefactor to the north. Aruba has a series of large windmills (turning perpetually due to the aforementioned trade winds) that supply roughly a third of the island’s electrical needs.
The remaining 70 percent of electricity is generated from turbines at the island’s water desalination plant (world’s third largest), which also provides potable water for drinking, bottling, exporting and landscaping. This was my first experience with desalinated water, and I’m happy to report it was a pleasant one. No after-taste, and none of the Montezuma’s revenge many American visitors to Mexico and other Latin countries often report. This co-generation plant providing potable water and electricity was commissioned in 2000, but Arubans have been desalinating and in effect re-cycling the ocean waters surrounding them for more than 70 years now.
Race relations/population diversity
Nearly 80 percent of island natives are Mestizo which translates almost literally to “of mixed race.” The island’s original Aboriginal and Indian inhabitants, the Arawaks, are thought to have first arrived around A.D. 1,000. Europeans came onshore nearly 1,300 years later, and quickly took to sleeping with the locals. The Aruban family tree as a result includes branches of Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, African, British and Dutch. Today, in addition to the locals, visitors from Venezuela and the Americas will find a healthy percentage of relocated Heidis from Holland.
The resulting population has a café au lait blend, not without social and economic classes, but with very few instances of racial strife. And though the north end of the island remains richer and whiter, and the southern end, darker and more impoverished, the two ends literally meet comfortably in the middle around the island’s capital.
And just so you’re clear that I’m not stating that Aruba is some kind of “island paradise,” our brief visit to this happy island melting pot was also interrupted by the arrest of the man many believe took the life of Natalee Holloway of Birmingham, Ala., in 2005, there for her high school graduation trip. Netherlands native Joran Van Der Sloot was arrested in Chile, and transferred back to Peru, following the alleged murder of Stephany Flores in Lima on May 31, five years to the day that Ms. Holloway disappeared in Aruba. In this case at least, the criminal justice and judicial systems in Aruba seems a bit less than ideal.
Robinson Crusoe spent years stranded on a remote desert isle learning about himself while also ingeniously devising many skills of survival and independence. It’s good to know that in this hyper-busy, time-starved world of today one can still learn a lot on an island in just more than a week.
Bill Crane is a DeKalb County native and business owner, living in Scottdale, Georgia. He also serves as chief political analyst and commentator for 11Alive News and WSB Radio, News/Talk 750. Contact Bill Crane at Bill@dekalbchamp.com.