Aruba: Doing The Heimlich At The Hilton

4 min read

Aruba is One Happy Island – it says so on their license plates. 

The first happy inhabitants were the Caquetio Indians who came from nearby Venezuela to escape persecution.  Then came the Spanish who enslaved the Indians, ending their happiness.

In 1637 the Dutch arrived and made everyone speak Dutch.  Then came the most blood-thirsty intruders of all: the Tourists.  Their invasion has been relentless and unforgiving.     

It is they who insist upon Mojitos at the pool bar, at the beach… and delivered directly to them as they stand in the warm surf.

It is they who are now the guardians of Aruba’s happiness.  Plus the nearby wait staff.  

We were also happy to be in Aruba, at the behest of their tourism board.  The guys and I were here to collect video of their beautiful national park, fabulous beaches, dramatic rocky coast, ancient cave drawings and thumping discos.  

Me & Steve working up an appetite

Me & Steve working up an appetite

There is lots of indigenous and colonial history throughout the island. There’s also a pretty severe party culture here.  Lots of clubbing, bar hopping and then there’s the Kukoo Kunuku Bus.

How do I describe the Kukoo Kunuku….

It’s a brightly painted safari party school bus.  When the crew and I boarded, it was already brimming with half-drunk tourists… actually they were more like 7/8th drunk.   The on-board social director encouraged everyone to be happier still by constantly shouting.

So we rode around the island for a while as the crew photographed the Tourists drinking and yelling out the windows.  I’ve heard that travel broadens one.  This may not be true. 


Later that evening we checked out the club scene. We went to one rockin’ bar perched over the water. The kids on the dance floor were crazy and the place shook with island energy.

It was said that tragedy had struck here.

A few years before some American kids had come to Aruba to celebrate their high school graduation.  One of the girls was partying at this bar before she forever disappeared.  

Peering at the dark water below I thought about her stepping from the bar down to the beach and then…  It was such a sad contrast to the happy cavorting and “woo-wooing!” all around me in the bar.  

One moment you’re a partying high school graduate enjoying first sips of freedom and then moments later, somehow the angels blink and you slip suddenly into the wrong future… 

Hooked On A Feeling

Aruba has the feeling of a mad rush about it. It seems that people come here for that over-ripe juice of stimulation. 

One can take Harley choppers around the island, race over the North Coast on ATVs and off-road in Jeeps.  Plus, there’s kite surfing, parasailing and all the other stuff we enjoy watching on beer commercials.      

And that’s not even counting the Kukoo Kunuku Bus. 

We got to do it all – 4-wheelers, Harleys, Heli’s and speedboats.

We were ushered about by a tourist rep, an island local with the impossibly cool name of Rayon Koolman.  Yes, that’s his real name.  That’s how cool this place is.

After long, crazy days trying to keep up with the tourists, we’d kick back somewhere nice – like a local, fish place out on a pier.  We’d eat and watch the dreamy sunset.  And try to figure out which way Venezuela was.

Island Life Is Sweet

On our last evening, we ended up in our hotel restaurant.   This was a little pricier than we were used to, but we had seen beautiful people dining here and felt we were beautiful too.

So me and the guys washed off the sand and put on our best duds. Which meant putting on our last clean shirts.

At this restaurant, there was even a little wait for a table.  So fancy. Everywhere else we had gone, we would just grab plastic menus and find someone to take our order.  

Now we had multiple forks, spoons and even a tablecloth. 

We got our drinks and food, and eased into our post mortem of the past few days.  This was a ritual we enjoyed at dinner – a summation of all the crazy shit that happened on these shoots.

We would hash over and laugh about which one of us said the dumbest thing to a tourist or to our client.  Or, during the shoot, who had narrowly escaped injury with an animal – dog, fish, lion, monkey.  Or, who almost fell off the truck, the jeep, the helicopter… that sort of thing.  

We were going on like this when I turned and saw my cameraman, Steve, kind of quiet and looking down at his plate.  Steve was usually the most ebullient of the gang so something seemed off.

He coughed a little and his shoulders shook.  

I offered,

“Steve, You OK?”

He didn’t immediately respond and leaning into him I saw he was sort of drooling and his eyes were glazed.  He was also turning a strange color.  I had never seen a color so frightening.

He was choking.

I jumped to my feet and Gary, our editor/2nd cameraman/sometimes soundman - well does it really matter what his job was at a moment like this?!! – also jumped up.  He instinctively seemed to know where I was going and the two of us dragged Steve, in his chair, away from the table.

I reached in and lifted Steve straight up as Gary yanked the chair away. Grabbing Steve from behind,  I wrapped my arms around his gut.  Then I jerked my hands into his abdomen in what I hoped would be something close to the Heimlich maneuver.

I didn’t even know how I knew what the Heimlich maneuver was.  Maybe it was on a poster or perhaps on a TV cop show… Hell, I could have seen it as part of some stand-up routine at the Laff Factory.    

But there I was holding up Steve, who is a big guy and giving him abdominal thrusts…. in Aruba.

My mind raced… what was supposed to happen now?  Steve was heavy; it was hard to keep squeezing his gut.  I looked over at the waiters.

They just stared back.  No expression on their faces.  No offer of help.  They just stood there -  Island Style.

So I kept squeezing Steve.  Gary and now JR – who was our actual soundman – came over to help me hold up Steve.  But it was my job to keep jerking my arms tight around him again and again.

I tried to see his face.  What was going on?  Shouldn’t a piece of steak go shooting from his mouth?  

Maybe He Was Already Dead…

… and I was just playing with a corpse.   

I told myself not to stop, no matter how tired I got, no matter what.  This was my shoot; I hired this guy; he was a friend; I cared about him.  I would not let him go.  

I did the maneuver again and again. Where was that f**king piece of steak?

“Errrrrr…”,  Steve suddenly growled. 

“He’s talking!”, I panted.

Then Steve shuddered, coughed a few times and something unrecognizable rolled out of his mouth and dropped into his plate with a splat. 

We all stared at the formless alien mass, half expecting it to quiver and replicate there on the plate. 

But then Steve's gasps for air brought our attention back to his wobbling body and we quickly seated him.  Like magic, the color came back to his face. It was as if he was rejoining us from some distant place.     

I slumped back into my chair and caught my breath.   We all caught our breath.  

We looked at each other for a still moment… and laughed.  Just another moment on a shoot.

Most of our meal was still in front of us… and it was pretty good.  We just had to remember to chew thoroughly.  So we picked up where we left off… now with a new story to tell. 

“All good, Steve?”, I asked.

“Yeah, thanks.”  He looked a little confused, but also a little hungry.  He pushed aside the alien life form on his plate and went back to his steak.

As I got reacquainted with my fish, I glanced over at the waiters and shot them a dirty look.  They didn’t even blink. .

“Hey Jon… thanks for saving Steve’s life.”, JR matter-of-factly offered from across the table.

“Sure JR, happy to do it.”, I replied. 

I looked around the table at my crew, enjoying themselves after a hectic week. 

I was relieved, hungry and ready for our next adventure. We were lucky.

For us, Aruba was indeed one happy island.