We’re hunting dragon fruit, Kenneth and I. Not that we knew what we were hunting when we set out that morning. It was another gorgeous day – endless sunshine with a perfect heat-calming breeze, like almost every day on the island. The local owner of the Aruban photography company Timeless-Pixx (and Menu International’s longstanding photographer) had offered to show me around Aruba.
— By Amie Watson
— Photography Kenneth Theysen
The nice thing about Aruba (besides the aforementioned phenomenal weather and friendly people) is that you can traverse it from tip to tail and back again in a single morning. And tail is an appropriate word when your morning starts with harmless geckos hiding in the flower bushes outside your hotel and ends with a giant urban street art lizard in San Nicolas, where scales of salvaged plastic and metal blend seamlessly into the neon-green spray-paint, making it hard to tell where the wall ends and where the old bottles, wheels, ropes and screens begin.
Portuguese artist Bordalo II constructed the giant 3D work for the Aruba Art Fair, just part of the island’s burgeoning art scene. It’s definitely the biggest lizard on the island and it stands out even among the other handful of murals from the Aruba Mural Projects painted on public space in the East Coast town.
It was certainly bigger than the baby lizards at the Centro di Pesca in the Spanish Lagoon. Kenneth knows I’m in search of the local seafood and has taken me to where local fisherman dock. We descend a flight of steps to the wooden quay. A board on the wall indicates where the local fisherman can moor their boats. At least, that’s what we think it means. It’s been here so long that no explanation is necessary, it seems. Every day, the men set out at different times in their one-man dories, with names like Juliette, Rosalia and Ida, in search of local wahoo and barracuda. If you time it right, one of them might be back with his catch when you arrive and you’ll be able to buy a few fish straight from the water.
If not, you’ll have to work on your dominoes skills. A lone fisherman (no fish in sight) with a large belly and sun-wrinkled skin tells Kenneth in Papiamento that each day one of the fishermen fries up a fish to share with the rest while they sit around in the afternoon playing dominoes. Yesterday’s score sheet and a pen are still lying on the red wooden table waiting for today’s update. The melodic flow of the language (itself a mix of Spanish, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, Arawakan and African languages) makes the man’s speech sound more like a parable than an explanation. “That’s life,” says Kenneth. “You can complicate it or keep it simple. As long as you have food on your plate, enjoy what you do – those are the little things that will make you happy.”
Which is probably why Kenneth offered to drive me around. It’s not as though he isn’t busy. He’ll be rushing off after lunch to take shots for the 2017 edition of Menu International at a hotel on Eagle Beach before working a sunset wedding. But when he has time off, he heads to his favorite off-the-beaten-path destinations, like Mangal Halto Beach or Frenchman’s Pass.
“Mangal Halto,” or high mangroves, means “trees that live from the water,” he explains. As we walk along the sand, workers raking the sand are the only sign that you aren’t the first person to discover this secret beach of gnarled tree trunks and weeping branches. You can snorkel here, says Kenneth, and there’s a sunken plane nearby for divers to explore. But this morning, a couple of vacationers have the water to themselves. It’s a romantic spot, hidden as they are from the workers in the warm, turquoise waters beyond the mangroves.
A beautiful drive through a canopy of trees called Frenchman’s Pass reveals the Balashi Gold Mill ruins, where the Aruba Gold Concessions Company used to melt gold up until World War One. Now the only sounds are birdsong. The nest of burrowing owls in the old stone is empty but Kenneth points out grey and black chuchubis, orange and black oriols, hummingbirds and bananakeets, which sound more like a cocktail to me than a bird.
Speaking of food, tourists should note that “No Tira Sushi” does not mean “Don’t throw sushi.” It does mean “Don’t litter,” Kenneth tells me as we climb the ruins for a panoramic view. But that bananakeet cocktail is still on my mind, so we head back towards the West Coast for a frosty drink, preferably with an umbrella (one for the drink and one for us).
While most people enjoying the beach prefer boozy versions of their cocktails, I’d had more than enough of that the night before. Karsten Gesing, an original co-owner of Madame Janette, still holds court at one of the island’s most popular restaurants. While Alan, the restaurant’s resident musician, was singing “Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya…” we dug into a feast of ceviche, crab cakes, beef carpaccio with imported Parmigiano-Reggiano, surf and turf, lobster thermidor, roasted bacon potatoes, cheesy soufflés, seared tuna tataki and firecracker shrimp, all accompanied by an exceptional bottle of Brunello del Montalcino and followed by whiskey shots.
Between bites of lamb rack, Karsten told us about his history on Aruba and his seven or eight motorcycles. His favorite is the Triumph, but then there’s his Ducati, Norton, BMW, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Café Racer. He came to Aruba from a European Michelin-star background, he explained. His current chef de cuisine, Boris Druschkowitsch is still maybe the only chef on the island who always has demi-glace sauce lying around the kitchen. But despite the hard work behind the food, he believes that a restaurant should be a little loud and debaucherous, and the food should be unpretentious. “The burgerloin is probably the most popular dish, because if you can call it a burger, it sells,” he says, referring to the enormous hunk of tenderloin sliced in half and stuffed with sautéed onions, mushrooms and cheese, and drenched in a classic and creamy Béarnaise sauce.
After a meal like that, I didn’t need any more food. But when Kenneth told me that the owner of Mi Boca Dushi Snack has a dragon fruit farm, only then did we realize that we were on a mission. We postponed our cocktail date with the beach and joined the other customers taking a number at the snack bar’s short counter.
Most order empanadas and then sit with their savory pastries at one of the small tables. The container of home-made salsa on each is pungent with vinegar, peppers and pickled onions – perfect to cut through the deep-fried meat and cheese-filled snack. But Kenneth told me a secret: you walk up to the left side of the counter and look into the bottom of the fridge, to where Jimmy, the owner, occasionally has freshly harvested dragon fruit. They sell out fast, and the amount available depends on the season, but with more than 20 kinds of dragon fruit available throughout the year (red, white, small, large, with names like Dark Star, L.A. Woman, David Bowie, Costa Rican Sunset, Natural Mystic, Purple Haze and Physical Graffiti), the incredibly fresh and delicious local fruit feels like an oasis on an island made up of desert and volcanic rock.
We bought six different kinds and sat at a table with a plastic knife. A quick incision and we cut the first in half to reveal the white flesh dotted with black, edible seeds. We scooped out spoonfuls like a kiwi and chewed the juicy, sweet-and-sour flesh. It hadn’t been in the fridge long because it was still warm from the sun. When there was nothing left but the thick pink and green, dragon-like skin, we sighed. We’d gone from gecko to lizard to dragon in the span of a morning. Just then, I realized that Kenneth and the wise fisherman at the Spanish Lagoon had it all figured out. We had dragon fruit on our plates and smiles on our faces.
We couldn’t be happier.