Signing up for a half-day jeep tour of Aruba didn't seem like a particularly risky thing to do. It had been raining for days, thanks to a hurricane hundreds of miles offshore. When it was finally nice enough to go to the beach, the strong waves knocked me off my feet. My friend, Diane, and I had exhausted shopping. So a jeep tour of the island seemed like a nice diversion. Who knew it would turn out to be the ride of my life?
Fourteen of us climbed into four jeeps. Diane and I rode with the tour leader, Raymond, a native Aruban who had completed his required military service and his university education in Amsterdam. Aruba is an autonomous region within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Raymond was knowledgeable about Aruba's history, culture and points of interest. He also had a demented sense of humor and a wicked glint in his eye. He started us off easy with the California Lighthouse and the Alto Vista Chapel, two of the main tourist attractions.
Along the way, we saw air-conditioned tour buses taking the safe, paved roads and thought - "wimps." We were going for the really authentic experience, a choice we would question when Raymond went off-road.
It started out tame enough, on dry, deeply rutted country roads. Then the trail started to ascend. We jolted up non-roads at scary degrees of vertical. Raymond jumped out to have a look at a huge snake in the road. When he left the jeep door open, Diane and I looked at each other. We didn't know how fast snakes (it turned out to be a python) could move, and we had no interest in finding out.
As the road continued spiraling upward, I was glad Raymond was behind the wheel. How did the other people in the group drive unfamiliar cars up these crazy hills? Those "wimps" in the air-conditioned buses started looking pretty smart.
Raymond seemed to be making up our route as he went along. He was very impressed that the woman driving the jeep behind us was keeping up. I kept praying that the other jeeps held their traction and wouldn't smash into us. The ride up took my breath away. The ride down was worse.
In the end, we got our diversion and then some. Most travelers to Aruba take away memories of a sun-drenched island surrounded by turquoise water, divi-divi trees bent over from the constant breeze, and the casinos. My memory is of a thrilling off-road adventure.
There were moments I thought we might end up in an Aruban emergency room. But we experienced the wild heart of the island and the savage crashing waves along a part of the coast that many tourists never see. The "wimps" really missed the ride of a lifetime.