It was another sunny, breezy afternoon in Aruba, when I heard a light knocking on the door of my hotel room.
A shy vacationer named Cindy appeared, and held out a small soft-cover book. "Can you get this to Beth?" she asked, referring to Beth Holloway Twitty, by her first name only, as most people here have come to do.
Holloway Twitty's daughter, Natalee Holloway, 18, disappeared May 30, at the end of her high school graduation trip to this Dutch Caribbean island. Extensive searches by Dutch marines, Aruban police, and some 2,000 volunteers have found no trace of her.
The self-help book was called "Why?" and Cindy said it had helped her, and she hoped it would help Holloway Twitty cope with the search for her daughter. I told her she could come back later that evening and present it in person. She did.
Holloway Twitty is more than used to this. She has learned that there is no anonymity on this small island, and certainly none when you're at the center of a frustrating mystery that's been in the public eye for almost three months.
One might think that the added attention of having strangers recognize her virtually everywhere she goes, and constantly approach her, would only add to the pressure, the feeling of vulnerability. For Holloway Twitty, it helps her.
She hugged the tourist with the book and thanked her. "I'm just so grateful to all of them," she said.
Sometimes, after completing a round of nighttime live television appearances, it's hard for her to walk through the lobby of the hotel without people approaching her every few feet.
Occasionally, they want to help with the case. A young woman and her mother approached Holloway Twitty one night, and told her that the main suspect in Natalee's disappearance, Joran van der Sloot, also had tried to get her into his car after a night at Carlos and Charlie's, a local bar. That young woman later told the FBI about the same incident.
Again, Holloway Twitty was grateful.
She knows well that staying in the public consciousness keeps her daughter’s disappearance on people's minds.
Tourists can’t escape news of disappearance
And keeps their eyes open. Tourists talk about it. When they go shopping, they see posters offering a reward for information regarding the young woman’s disappearance in store windows. They watch the latest news on the investigation on the satellite televisions in their hotels. They go out and see the landmarks that figure into the case. They constantly ask cab drivers for the latest developments. They go hiking or diving and find themselves looking for clues.
Three weeks ago, a tourist from North Carolina called me to ask me how to get in touch with police. She and her husband had been out exploring the island, and they came across a sneaker.
They knew investigators were looking for a pair of sneakers that belonged to van der Sloot. And, they knew the sneaker they spotted probablywas just something someone left behind, but they couldn't let it go. She wanted to let police know about it.
Vacations continue, with alert radars up
Not that vacations on Aruba are all about the Holloway case. After nearly three months, life does go on here.
People still have fun. They still go out and laugh, dance and party.
But things have changed here in many ways, for both tourists and locals.
The tourism industry is Aruba's lifeblood; surprisingly, it has not suffered much. Most days, hotels are full or close to it.
But industry insiders are watching warily. The Prime Minister's office is concerned about the image of the island, as presented to the world now on a daily basis by the international press.
"We thought about it on our way here," said Nicole Salvatore, 17. "We just watch out for ourselves. I think people need to know that stuff like this can happen, and they need to be careful."
She and her sister, Amber Salvatore, 19, both from the Northeast, recently spent some time soaking up sun outside the Marriott hotel — within sight of the place where the suspects say they left Natalee the morning she disappeared.
"It's on everyone's mind," said Amber Salvatore. "You look around and she could have been right here, and you think about that kind of stuff. But also, you just watch out for yourself and you learn from things like this."
Still, neither young woman thought about not coming to Aruba. “It's so beautiful here," Nicole Salvatore added. "You don't want to stop people from coming down here."
Still, there are moments when tourism and the case collide. A few weeks ago, on a particularly active beach day, tourists were jolted from their frozen pina coladas by the sight of a dive team — with shovels — heading purposefully into the water about 60 yards out.
Then they started digging. Tourists in swimsuits watched, grimly. Children suddenly weren't laughing anymore. Holloway’s father arrived, and people gave him his space.
Soon the searchers dug out and pulled up an old rusted barrel — an old buoy weight with no connection to Holloway’s disappearance.
In fact, it was a tourist who had tipped off the searchers about it sticking out of the water. And so the tips come in. Everyone, it seems, would like to help, and see this case solved. It hurts them to be on vacation, while another family — not so unlike their own — is suffering.
"Sometimes you forget what's going on in Aruba while you're having fun with your family. You forget that they're searching for their daughter,” said tourist Kelsey Ciccarelli.
Some of the others traveling in Ciccarelli’s group, with their own bashful teenage daughters in the background, added that their girls were not going to be out of their sight for the length of their stay. The girls didn't seem to mind.
"It's very upsetting and unsettling, and my heartfelt thoughts go out to the mother and father of that child,” said George Librizzi.
Unfortunate jolt of reality
Locals, of course, would love to have some resolution to this case. They, too, feel for Holloway’s family, and they want to go back to knowing that their island is a very safe place to live. For many, it has proved to be an unfortunate dose of reality.
"It has burst the bubble, and opened those innocent eyes to what the real worlds really like,” said Julia Renfro, editor of a local English-language daily newspaper.
“This happens all around the world, every day, people go missing. But it doesn't happen here in Aruba. And now, it has,” continued Renfro. “There's nothing more in the world that the Aruban people want, than to give Natalee back to her parents."