Friday, January 19, 2007

Aruba 2007 - "Last words, last words... out."

I started writing this post on the flight home yesterday afternoon and finished it this morning, our first day back after another great January trip to Aruba. No real surprise not to have finished on the plane, sitting in a block of seats with Gwen, Madison and Ava. Business travel – which can be a miserable experience – is decadent and almost sinfully luxurious compared to flying with small children.

Managing kids on a plane would actually be terrific training for aspiring dictators, because even as the supposed authority figure (or figures), the power very much rests with the people, and the focal point quickly becomes trying to actively manage the misery to prevent a revolution. The instruments of power include the novelty of the drink cart ("It's tomato juice, no we don't usually have it at home, would you like to try a sip?"), the in-flight magazine (with the pages that have inexplicably been stuck together by the gum of a helpful and courteous previous passenger), the portable DVD player, carry-on snacks, Play-Doh, crayons, coloring books, gum (critical during take-off and landing – periods of peak political unrest) and assorted other diversions that keep the little people occupied, distracted and relatively content, with the exception of mini-revolts that are quickly put down if handled with appropriate firepower – like a new cartridge for the Leapster.

This year’s trip was the best one yet from the standpoint of the girls being able to enjoy the various aspects of the experience – the pool, beach, dinners and transporting themselves to many of our destinations under their own power.

I’ve said this before, but it really is amazing how much this vacation changes and how much better it gets with each passing year. First two years were all kiddie pool, Ava wasn’t even walking on the first trip and had to be carried everywhere, was still on Similac and obviously in diapers – that year we had an entire large and heavy suitcase devoted to the ingress and egress of her digestive system, in addition to the stroller and other necessary accessories. Even last year the kiddie pool dominated and the girls showed almost no interest in the beach. Aruba 2007 will be remembered as all big people pools, playing in the man-made waterfalls and water slides, and a lot of time spent rolling around on the sand in the gentle surf.

[Over the course of the trip, the girls probably spent two full days doing this. "Sand in the bathing suit," doesn't begin to cover it.]

The accommodations were a little challenging this year – we typically stay with my parents in their two-bedroom timeshare apartment at one of the island’s resorts, this time around for a variety of reasons we spent the trip in two hotels, one for the first three nights, the second for the last five. Madison noticed the difference roughly upon check-in, when she observed aloud that our “little room” was so much smaller and less comfortable than “staying with Grandma.” This offered a rare and organic opportunity to teach our 5-year-old the distinction between a “hotel room” and a “timeshare apartment,” and I have to admit our little girl warmed my heart with her retentive abilities a few short days later when she entered our room in the second hotel and immediately proclaimed, “little room, another little room, not a timeshare!”

In our second hotel we had to walk by the glass doors of the casino to get to the elevators, and Ava never passed on the opportunity to stop the group, however large, point at the doors and say, “that’s where the Mommies and Daddies go to play poker!” The other fun part about the elevators on the trip was the constant battle between the girls over who got to “push the buttons,” every time we left or returned to the room. I lamented the fact that I didn’t have a bathing suit with black-and-white referee’s stripes, and a whistle, because both would have been enormously helpful and appropriate for my role. Note to self for next year.

Madison articulated three different career choices on this trip. Struggling to find something kid-friendly and in English on television one night before we all went to bed, I stumbled upon the hotel’s “casino” channel, which featured a pleasant-sounding woman’s voice offering brief tutorials on the various games of chance, no profanity or visually apparent adult themes, as counter intuitive as that sounds. Madison was captivated, particularly by the pretty chips on the green felt tables, and declared that when she grew up she wanted to get a job making chips for casinos. We were supportive of this decision, but she soured on the idea when we explained under intense and extended questioning that it wouldn’t really be OK for her to make chips for a casino and give some to us, they’d have to go to the casino, since it’s like money, and even if she made them she couldn’t give a few away without getting into trouble.

Then, after getting a stuffed animal toy – an interesting little bear with paws and ears that reacted to the sun by changing colors, made by a company called Del Sol – she decided that she would devote the better years of her life to making stuffed animals. We were fine with that choice as well, but it was short-lived and was replaced by the end of the trip with a decision to make Play-Doh instead, after she confirmed that it would be OK for her to give some to us, unlike the casino chips, because “it’s not like money.” We spent much of the flight home discussing how her Play-Doh factory might work, what kind of machines she would need to buy, how she would learn the various processes and whether or not it would be OK to do all of this in our home. I hadn't planned on discussing the realities of assembly-line manufacturing and zoning laws in kid-friendly language on the flight back from Aruba, but believe me we got there.

We returned last night to a frigid house (we’d turned all the thermostats down to 50 degrees before leaving) and bundled into our own beds under several layers of blankets. When we woke up this morning our various rooms had come up to temperature and when we looked outside we saw this:

Which prompted Ava to declare, “It’s Christmas!” We gently brought her down off that notion as we settled back into our regular morning routine. Sippy cups filled with warm milk (a challenge we were not able to successfully navigate in our “small” and microwave-deprived hotel room), favorite shows, toys, and, for the adults in the group, freshly brewed Peet’s Coffee that was so good compared to the weak and bitter brown-colored broth we’d become used to down there that it felt illegal.

We’re in the basement as I write this on my MacBook. Ava, who turns 4 this week, just pushed the button to play “Oops!... I Did It Again” on her Barbie electric guitar and, as the song kicked in, said “Dad, this is the bratty girl you don’t like who shows her belly button, but it’s just the music, so it’s OK.” I assured her it was fine with me. (For helpful background on this exchange, scroll down and read the post “Oops!”)

This is not in any way a travel blog, but just a few specific thoughts and observations for anyone reading this who may be considering a trip to Aruba, with or without children. The highlight for us again this year was the half-day trip we always take at least once to a spot at the southern tip of the island known as Baby Beach. It's a good 45-minute drive from the "high-rise" hotel area, and requires a rental car, but this little man-made cove just south of the oil refinery and a short distance from the prison (I know, I know, I'm building it up, just trust me on this) is a really special place to visit, especially with children. One side of the cove, the one that features an inlet to the Caribbean Sea, offers some of the best snorkeling on the island, the rest of the area is essentially an enormous sand bar with very calm water that extends for what feels like a few hundred yards without ever exceeding three feet of depth. Beyond kid-friendly. There's a little food stand that sells waters, snacks and beer, and for $30 you can rent a cloth clamshell shelter that comfortably accommodates the two included lounge chairs and offers occasional welcome and necessary breaks from the sun.

The best meal of the week, as it is every year (I'm not counting the Subway and Taco Bell lunches in that) was our dinner at El Gaucho, featuring the restaurant's signature Gaucho Steak, which is always the same and always tremendous. We had a great meal at a seafood place that has become one of our favorites, Aqua Grill, and some very respectable Italian food at Hosteria da Vittorio - both are located in the area across from the Hyatt and Radisson.

It has only taken a year of operation for the "lazy river pool" at the Marriott Surf Club to feel zooey, overcrowded and Six Flags-esque. That sure didn't take long, and the place isn't even completed or fully occupied. As we approached the pool, I noticed a worker loading a box of hari-kari knives and swords into a maintenance shed, he said they were on reserve and waiting to be issued to suicidal parents and seniors during the always-busy President's Week. They had considered small revolvers for this purpose, he said, but rejected that option over concerns that guests and "owners" on nearby lounges would be adversely impacted by flying blood and brain tissue.

On the day we were there the "river" itself seemed to barely be moving, certainly not the strong and fun flow of water we experienced last year, and while I was essentially running around the winding circle pushing Ava's floaty to simulate a current, some little orb-like creature started swimming in our general direction, which was a bit unsettling. Madison was also reduced to tears while trying to use the water slide in the pool complex when she was instructed by an overbearing and obviously unhappy-with-her-life Marriott employee at the top of the slide that she had her noodle positioned incorrectly and could not proceed before making necessary adjustments. Madison follows rules, maybe to a fault, so the idea that she was using the water slide wrong or unsafely really got to her. I walked up to the top of the slide with her on the next trip and the warnings mysteriously ceased, but the damage was done and unfortunately this woman succeeded in sufficiently souring the experience for one excited little girl. Luckily that was the only notable downer across eight nights and nine days, which isn't too bad. The kids' favorite pool was the one at the Playa Linda resort, which was the least tricked-out of the several we visited. The Hyatt pool was also great, and featured an actual water slide, built partially on stilts, that was about five times the length and ten times the fun of the one at the Marriott. Sorry, Marriott witch.

So that was Aruba 2007. I’m happy we built in an extra weekday following our return for banking, food shopping and other necessary activities, and also a full weekend to reconnect with our home and daily routines. “Real” life will kick back in on Monday morning, with work and school and other required endeavors, I think I can safely say we are all looking forward to it, the experiences of the last several days fresh in our minds and about 400 photos available at the click of a mouse whenever we want to go back or need help remembering. Here are a couple more to end this post, both taken on the last day of the trip, one in its final few moments...


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