Seaside Livin’

DSCN3167Another Island Note

It is unusually gray this morning. I’m moving a bit slow after a late night beach party. But the dog doesn’t care. “Feed me and let’s walk!” commands super-hound, Sparky. We are out the door at 7am.

DSC01406It is Tuesday, pick up day, so the roar of garbage trucks fills the neighborhood air. So does the noise of the diesel from the Molly M, just returned after a night on the water. The crew looks tired as the wind has been blowing a constant 25-30 knots with accompanying heavy seas. I look to the dock and see about thirty black-fin tuna lined up on the deck. Oh my. Sashimi tonight. You know, it’s that delectable Japanese way of preparing raw fish.

Gerry, a local fisherman, comes toward his truck where an opened, coffin-sized cooler awaits.  Sparky’s eyes are locked on him as he approaches with four tuna in each hand. “Bon dia. Do you have a small one for me?” I ask. “Ami pensando asina. Mi ta wòrdu drechi bèk,” responds Gerry in Papiamentu. (I think so. I will be right back.).

The fisherman returns with another two fistfuls of fish and pulls out the smallest. It is a bit more than a kilo. Ten dollars gets me to sashimi heaven. Sparky looks at me and then to the fish.  Yes, I better keep this catch high. The hound is ready for her second breakfast.

Now, I am not a master of filet, but then again, cutting the fish is not brain surgery. A slice near the pectoral fin and then one at the tail. Follow the backbone along one side and then another cut along the bottom. Pull the skin off-easier said then done. Cut two filets out of one side and repeat on the starboard. Thirty minutes later, I have the goods for a feast. StarKist has nothing on me this morning. Sorry, Charlie.DSC01387

DSC01389Now I slice paper-thin pieces off of two filets. And then there is the obligatory wasabi—that strong Japanese horseradish paste that clears sinuses in a Tokyo heartbeat, and Saitaku ginger marinated in vinegar and sugar. This stuff is naturally pink and oh, so good. I add a bit of arugula to complete the deal. It is sashimi with sunset tonight.

The other two filets await the grill for a beach party on another day . I’m thinking that a ginger/tamari/garlic marinade may be just the ticket for the fish at grill time. The cats and dogs get the bits and pieces boiled off the head and bone. Everybody is happy. Ah, seaside living, where the grocery store starts at the dock.DSC01407


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Crystal Gold The solar salt works of Bonaire. Part 3

The environment and beyond…salt & conveyor belt

While Cargill’s salt operations can be viewed as a rare center of industry on Bonaire, beyond the pink water lays island nature in its best. Along the southern boundary of the flamingoes-Pekelmeersalt works is Pekelmeer, which means ‘salty lake’ in Dutch. The saline water, along with its abundant pink crustaceans and brine flies, makes it an ideal place for Caribbean flamingoes to thrive and nest. This is a breeding hotspot for the birds, one of the four largest in the entire Caribbean basin. The sanctuary is also a designated Ramsar site, a wetland of significant international importance. Cargill has a lease on this land from the island government and with that comes custodial responsibilities.

11JulyAru 67“Part of our contract with the island is that we maintain the Flamingo Sanctuary for the birds,” says Gary Rimmey, Cargill’s plant manager. “We do monthly bird counts and share that data with STINAPA (the island’s national park) and DROB (the regional planning and management department). At any given time there are between 700-1200 flamingoes on the property. We also maintain the water level so that the birds have the mud for the nesting and also so they have a food source.”

Additionally Cargill reports any disturbances in the Pekelmeer to the authorities. “As the lease owner, it’s our job to protect the Flamingo Sanctuary. Believe it or not, we’ve had kite surfers in Pekelmeer waters. And pet owners sometimes let their dogs wander unleashed. The public may not realize it but one kite surfer or one unleashed dog can ruin an entire breeding season for the flamingoes. Our workers take great pride in these birds. They are part of Bonaire’s national identity.”

But beyond lease agreements, Cargill appears to be proactive in other areas of conservation. They plot and monitor all the sabal palms on the property. Sabal palms are a rare sub species endemic to Bonaire. Occasionally they assist Sea Turtle Conservation 11JulyAru 67 (1)Bonaire with managing the turtle nesting beaches located on Cargill’s leased land. They are also currently working with STINAPA and DROB to develop a tern island where these skittish water birds can nest undisturbed. “The problem is that we have terns nesting on our harvest roads,” explains Rimmey. “There was some concern that we were interrupting the nesting cycle at times with our operations. So we are currently working with the conservation groups to build a tern island. We’re going to put tern decoys out there, some vegetation and a rock landscape that will attract the terns. It will be completed by April in time for the nesting season. Once the birds are on the island they will be safe from feral cats well as Cargill traffic. Our hope is that if STINAPA’s study shows that this first island is successful, we will build one a year. Our goal is to co-exist with the terns.”

Tern Island

Tern Island

In addition to conservation, Cargill opens their leased land, which runs the entire coast from Trans World Radio to the Willemstoren lighthouse, to recreation. They have a formal agreement with kite surfer groups to use the beach at Atlantis for kite surfing. Cargill allows shore diving along these shores that sport some of the best reefs on Bonaire. That includes the Salt Pier when ships are not present. Plus, the public is allowed access to Pink Beach, a lovely stretch of coastline that Cargill owns outright.

For Gary Rimmey, Cargill’s position on this land use is pragmatic and straightforward. “Part of our lease with the government dictates that we manage the Flamingo Sanctuary. But with concerns to our other conservation work we view the wildlife on the southern end of the island—the fauna and flora—as a treasure. We want to help preserve it. It’s as simple as that.”

*   *   *

Michael A-1The Michael A, a 288-foot cargo vessel, is docked and slowly moving up and down with the surge of the sea. I look below to the ship while standing next to a chute where 3500 metric tons of Bonaire salt are about to fall into the vessel’s holds (compartments). It is shipment day. “This ship will be taking our salt to the Dominican Republic,” say cargo dock master, Rudy ­­­­Sint Jago.   “The Michael A has five holds. I just spoke with the ship’s captain and we worked out this plan.”Rudy with loading plan

shiploading2Sint Jago show me a diagram that indicates how many tons will be delivered to each of the holds. Numbers 5 & 4 toward the front of the ship will be filled first. Then the ship will move forward to fill numbers 3 and 2. The vessel will move forward one final time to fill the last hold.  The crew maintains the balance of the ship during loading by releasing water held inside as ballast. “It should take about six hours to fill all five holds,” say Rudy. “This is a small ship for us. Some of the larger freighters take up to five days to fill.”

When I spoke with Sint Jago in his office I asked him about a crown that sat on his desk. “Yeah, last November we loaded 150,000 metric tons of salt in 40 days. It was a new record for Bonaire.” Rudy laughs. “They gave me this crown and called me the ‘vessel king’. A big part of that salt went in the bulk carrier, GENCO Languedoc. She sailed away with over 52,000 metric tons.”loading crew L-R. Bradley Wanga, Ferdinand Saragoza, Win de Windt, and Clifford Coffie

Ships are loaded throughout the year and Bonaire salt is transported to many Caribbean islands and countries that border the Caribbean Sea. Other ports are located in the USA, Europe and Africa. Less than one percent of the island’s salt is used to de-ice roads. Most is purchased for industrial use in the production of textiles, petroleum or for water softening. A portion is used as table salt after additional processing.

As the Michael A casts off and steams north to the Dominican Republic, I ask Sint Jago how he feels watching a filled freighter leave port. “I have mixed emotions,” says the veteran dock master. “On one hand, it is good. Every time a ship leaves we make money that pays for our operation. That is what we are here for. On the other hand, it is like watching a good friend leave. We work hard to make that salt. I have a kind of sentimental attachment to it. It is part of our island.”

 Patrick Holian is a freelance writer living on the island since 2008. He proudly uses Bonaire salt when cooking at home.shiploading2

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Crystal Gold-The solar salt works of Bonaire, Part 2.

saltThe Cultural & Economic Impact

Drive south on the E.G.G. Boulevard on any given day and it is easy to see evidence of salt in the making. It is a simple, time-tested process that mixes seawater, wind and sun to produce mounds of pure white NaCl. But more than that, this iniquitous compound is a cultural thread, an inexplicable link that weaves back in island history for more than 350 years.

It was in 1636 when Holland rousted Bonaire away from the Spain after the Spaniards had cut off the supply of this essential mineral to the Lowlands. Once a Dutch fleet captured the ABC Islands, they gained control of Bonaire’s coveted salt deposits. Enter the Dutch West Indies Company, an aggressive, Amsterdam-based merchant monopoly that thrived in the slave trade and reaped the Caribbean’s natural resource wealth. These were the days before refrigeration, and salt was vital for preserving meat and fish. It was a fundamental commodity that allowed Mother Holland to safely feed the sailors of her enormous worldwide fleet.

Red Slave

Red Slave

During the 1600s the Dutch enslaved Africans and shipped them to Bonaire where they worked alongside Indians and convicts harvesting salt. Today, abandoned slave quarters along the coastal road are testament this oppressive time in the island’s history. Up to six workers would sleep in one of these rock huts after a grueling day of hard labor under the blazing sun. Gaze through a slave hut window to the tranquil blue sea and it is hard to imagine the agony these people endured for centuries.slave hutjpg

Over the next two hundred years Bonaire’s salt industry prospered, first under the Dutch West Indies Company, and later under direct governmental control.   Trading ships would moor outside the reef, and small boats were sent ashore to pick up the goods. Fires were burned to guide the sailors to one of four loading sites – Rode Pan (Red Pond), Witte Pan (White Pond), Blauwe Pan (Blue Pond), and Oranje Pan (Orange Pond). These names represented the colors of the Dutch flag and the Royal House of Orange.

Blue Pan

Blue Pan

Slide02Legend has it that women were the ones who transferred the salt to the boats. Two men would lift a heavy basket of salt and place it on top of a woman’s head. She would then balance the load while walking a plank to the end of a makeshift pier and place the salt in a small boat. Once full, four men would pull the boat on a long rope stretched between the pier and the trading ship waiting beyond the reef, and deliver the salt. Some captains of these ships described the women as ‘mermaids from the sea’. A working song, Man pa makutu di Maria or Give a hand to the basket of Maria documented their noble story of strength and labor. It was later sung as a lullaby to children of the island.  Slide01


By the 1830s, Bonaire’s production had grown so large that obelisk towers were built near each of four salt ponds, thus replacing the need for shore fires. Flags were hoisted to the tops of these pointed pillars when a load was ready for pickup. Each obelisk took the symbolic color of its respective pond, but it also denoted where a specific grade of salt could be loaded. The coastal road is still dotted with these colorful, stone structures.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the salt industry fell on hard times. Slavery was finally abolished and international competition sharply reduced profits. In 1870, E.B.F. Hellmund purchased the island’s nine salt ponds from the government. Afterwards, the salt industry languished for nearly a century.

“You must remember, the original salt ponds were very primitive,” says Paulina “Popi’ Rodriguez, an administrative secretary at Cargill. “They were salt flats where the water simply dried up and then the salt was harvested. In our modern era, it is about guiding the flow of the water and getting a high quality salt. To get high purity, you must manage the water.”

In 1963 the Antilles International Salt Company, a subsidiary of the International Salt Company, bought the salt ponds. By 1972 they shipped their first load of Bonaire salt. Rodriguez, who has work at the salt works for nearly 35 years, remembers the first loading. “I was just a young girl, but everyone came down from Playa to watch. It was very exciting.”

The modern era experienced several setbacks in salt production. In 1988 Hurricane Joan brought excessive amounts of rain that washed out dikes, damaged pond floors and killed many flamingos. Eleven years later Hurricane Lenny roared toward Bonaire. “Lenny was scary for me because of the surge,” remembers Popi Rodriguez. “It was strange. There was no wind or rain like Joan, but the sea came all the way to the piles and collapsed them. It was devastating.”

Maintenance Crew

Maintenance Crew

Ownership of the salt works changed through the decades from the Antilles International Salt Company to Akzo, which eventually merged into Akzo Nobel. US-based Cargill Corporation bought the operation in 1997 and currently employs 46 people. That makes it one of the major employers on Bonaire and it contributes over $5 million annually to the local economy. “Roughly 60% of our employees are mechanics,” says plant manager Gary Rimmey. “These guys are gifted. They can rebuild anything, and I mean anything, without many resources. They are who allow us to produce the salt.”

DSC_1901After spending a couple of days at Cargill, I soon found out that there is only one four-letter word beyond salt that is on everyone’s mind, rust. The corrosive nature of salt invades everything at the solar salt works—machinery, electronics, and cars, even people. Rust even dictates what kind of machinery is purchased to survive this brutal environment. “We rarely buy new equipment,” adds Rimmey. “We can bring a new piece here and it will rust out in 4 years. Or we can bring in cheaper used equipment and it will rust out in 3 years.   But with our maintenance staff, we keep the machinery going. We often look for old style engines that don’t have electronic ignitions and other bells and whistles because our climate just destroys those kinds of electronics.”

Most other workers at Cargill are involved in the production of salt. While the operation on Bonaire is not large compared to salt operations worldwide, the salt produced here is has an international reputation for its high quality and purity. “In my opinion, we make the best solar salt in the world so that gives us a bit of a competitive edge in the world marketplace,” claims Rimmey. “But we’re also competitive because of our workers here on Bonaire. We have a mature staff with a lot of experience. It’s a pleasure to work with these people. They are real professionals.”DSC_1941

In the next issue of the Bonaire Reporter, Part 3 of Crystal Gold examines the environmental importance of the salt works and concludes with the recent loading of the cargo ship, the Michael A, bound for the Dominican Republic with Bonaire salt.



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