Island Notes 39
A Gecko Behind the Canvas
In January 2008, we moved to the island. It wasn’t long before I noticed that we were not alone in our new Playa Lechi home. Strange creatures of the night came out after the red rubber ball of a sun slowly melted below the horizon. Like a fleeting Green Flash, I would often see a gecko peek from behind a painting on the wall, and then make quick tracks for the darkness. Until then, I was unaware of its presence. This act of something appearing to be one way and then turning out to be another reminded me that not everything is what it initially appears to be on the dushi island of Bonaire. There are times one needs to look behind the canvas.
Take resort developments, for instance. You hear stories. “The Hilton is going to build its next hotel here.” “The Divi Resort chain is starting construction down by Sunset Beach.” The rumors are numerous and humorous, but few ever materialize or live up to the hype. The Hilton didn’t. They pulled out of their promises before even breaking ground. The Divi built a massive, Quonset-shaped tent to house spec apartments so prospective buyers could view them under comfortable shade. At their public unveiling of future dreams, Divi pledged an all-inclusive resort, specialty restaurants & bars, 300 meters of prime beach front, and for those who wanted a piece of their own paradise, 75 luxury condos with “lush landscaping, pools, and astonishing views”. A 2009 delivery date was promised. Today, the tent is the only thing standing, and it is becoming taken over by weeds. So it goes on the island of Bonaire, and the gecko just grins.
This chameleonesque concept holds true for legal matters on island as well. I am still in awe of the disproportionate time it takes to secure documents with little regard to their actual importance. I remember the 3-inch stack of papers we assembled in order to secure legal resident status on Bonaire. There were bank statements, passports, birth certificates, statements from American police departments declaring we were crime free, health documents from medical doctors proving we were HIV-free, even papers proving that the legal documents submitted were legal. You would think the originals would be enough. But, no. I had to get an apostle; a legal document declaring that the legal document I was submitting was indeed that legal document. Whaaaaa? By the time I walked into the immigration office, I expected to see Radar, that red tape guru of M*A*S*H, grinning wildly behind the counter in eager anticipation of something I had failed to gather. This was deep kimchi, a bureaucratic bruja, a tropical punch without the rum. I felt like I was sailing between a ship-eating reef and a submerged sandbar. One slip-up, and I was going under.
Fair winds prevailed, however, and we were graciously accepted as permanent residents of the island. Still, months later when the freighter Doña Luisa had safely delivered my 14-foot catboat to the dock, I braced myself for another eminent paper chase. Don’t get me wrong. The effort to get a sailboat into the country was much less than getting our permanent residency approved. And that’s the way it should be. But there were certainly hoops to hop through. I went to Rocargo, my shipping company, to get a pile of importation papers with a rather impressive “release” stamp on the front. I went to the tax office and purchased two, five-guilder stamps (about $2.82 each). I put one on my papers to the National Marine Park to secure a mooring in the harbor. The other went on the front of my importation papers that I took to the customs man where my boat had been transferred. Upon showing the stamp, I received my “Eilandgebied Bonaire Vergunning”, my boat permit. Almost done.
Next, I was steered toward the harbormaster—one last stop in this maritime madness. I was sure a gecko would be hiding behind the door. Rob Santiago, the harbormaster, proved to be a nice guy. We talked about boats. We talked about weather. Then he asked me how I was going to use my boat. “Well,” I hesitantly began thinking this might be the trick question that would sink my ship, “I was going to sail it.” “Ah,” Rob responded, “You MUST go fishing!” Rob then went on to tell me how great the fishing is right here in front of his office door and insisted that I would get bored just sitting there sailing. I believe Bonairians feel that the simple act of moving through the water is not enough. You must have a purpose. You can’t just sail. You must fish too! I nodded meekly in agreement even knowing I would never cast a line over the rail. My registration paper received an official “thump” equal to any stamping noise taking place in former Soviet Union satellite nations’ customhouses. “And by the way,” interjected Harbormaster Santiago as I headed to the door, “there is no charge. Just come back in six months and we will renew it for free.”
I discovered that even the trees on Bonaire have the ability to masquerade as something else. Take the Kibrahacha tree for instance. As my friend Fernando Simal told me, “Kibrahacha means ax breaker. The wood is so hard that it earned this name from those who tried to cut it down.” The trees in this picture certainly belie the fact that they are so tough. Delicate, yellow blooms mask their rugged resilience. But wait, there is more. Three days before I took this photo, there were no flowers to be seen on this hillside. Then, we got a soaking rain in the night. If I return in three more days, all the yellow will be gone. The flowers only last a few days before they fall off and start growing leaves. Geckos must live among these trees too.
I have learned that even sailing has its share of unexpected secrets. Actually, it is not the sailing itself, but what happens before and after. My sailboat, Kontentu, is a simple and humble craft, fourteen feet long. I keep it hooked to a mooring in front of my home. It takes less than a minute to swim to the boat. It would take less that that if I did not drag a dry bag along full with dry clothes, keys, flip flops, water and beer.
Once on Kontentu, ‘getting her ready’ begins. I remove the sail cover, tiller cover, and motor cover. Yes, the sun is intense at 12 degrees latitude and all those covers are necessary to preserve the boat. Then I lower the rudder, the centerboard, and the outboard motor and remove my five-foot long Kryptonite New York Chain & EV Disc Lock. This big city device keeps my Tohatsu outboard where it belongs. Things do walk away easily in the night here. Finally, I raise the motor back up. After all, we are sailing.
I release the primary mooring line. When all things are stowed and the deck is clear, I remove the sail ties, hoist the main, put on the sail gloves, and release the second mooring line. Now, it’s small boat sailing—sound of waves lapping the hull, a burst of wind whistles through the rigging. Kontentu leans to starboard and dashes toward Klein Bonaire, our offshore island.
Upon return, all of the preparatory activities for sailing are reversed. I have never clocked it—no watch bands my wrist these daze—but ‘putting her away’ probably takes me twenty minutes. I enjoy the process and just take my time. If I have water left over, I wash off the outboard shaft, freeing it of salt spray. I then pop a Heineken and watch the sun go down.
By the time I swim to shore, it is usually dark. I watch electric-green phosphorescence–that magical, aquatic stew of molecules and energy–flow off my fingers and toes with each stroke and kick. It makes me want to swim forever. But the shore abruptly interrupts those thoughts. I am back on land and walk home, hungry. It is time for food.
It is also time to see the gecko peek from behind the canvas, just one more time. I wonder what surprise he has for me this evening.