Gentle Night

Gentle Night

Island Notes 52

The day wanes with the coming of darkness on the last day of April.  Here on island, it is a double holiday. Koninginnedag or Queen’s Day is celebrated since we are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  My hat is off to Queen Beatrix, an elegant woman who has dedicated herself to making the world a better place her entire life.  And it is Rincon Day, a traditional island celebration of our harvest and all things that are good in the tiny village of Rincon.

Rincon is the cultural heartbeat of Bonaire located in the hills and everyone goes there on April 30th to enjoy the parades, the street music, the dance, the food and the cheap beer. Many people come from the neighboring islands of Aruba and Curacao by boat and plane for this day.  Some are former Bonairians.  Others come because nothing compares to Rincon Day on their islands.  It is a cultural link to their Antillean past, a heritage that is waning on the more developed islands.

And as the last float of blazing musicians rolls by with dance groups pulsating to the beat behind, I look up to a sky streaked with pink and soft blue, the end of another sunset in my life.  While the party revelers line the Rincon streets for more, we make our way to the car, taking back dirt roads since the main thoroughfares are blocked with dance, smiles and merriment.

We know the back way, the dirt track through the tiny hilltop neighborhood of Subi (above) Rincon and then along the high spine of the island. We are southbound.  After a bouncy ride and a lot of dust, we pull into town.

It is eight and late for the black dog that awaits in the shadows of Playa Lechi.  I immediately feed Sparky to stop the “how could you leave me alone again?” look.  She inhales the bowl and all is forgotten.  We hit the seaside street for a walk.  Out to the dock, we sit underneath the stars.  Next to us, visiting boats from Curacao bob up and down —Elizabeth, Mi Dushi (my darling) and El-ton.  All came across the water two days ago for the Rincon Day celebrations and the crews are still there dancing in the streets.  The boats lay quiet.  Sparky smells fish on the sun-bleached boards of the dock, someone’s catch of the day that is probably now in the skillet.

I gaze to the heavens and spot the Southern Cross.  It is directly above Punt Vierkant, a stretch of low land.  The signature constellation dips lazily at a forty-five degree angle in the ink black sky.  Small, white clouds drift through the suspended kite of stars that shows me where south is.  I think of the ancient mariners that followed its guidance.  The air is delicious tonight, smooth like a cool glass of Sangsters Jamaica rum cream.  I close my eyes and listen to waves gently lap the coast.  I feel the used muscles in my shoulders and arms from a hardy morning of sailing alone in 17-knot winds—pulling lines, heeling starboard, smiling under the sun.  It has been another day in paradise.


X Marks the Spot

X Marks the Spot

Islands Notes 51

I don’t often look at my license plates.  But the other morning while lashing down the kayak to the car roof rack for a day on the water at Lac Bay, I noticed that I was suddenly out of date.  The annual registration sticker that I had just applied to the rear plate in January now said 2008.  I went to the front plate—the same.  Was I in a Twilight Zone flashback?  No. After looking at the scrape marks by the now outdated sticker, it was apparent that I got ripped off.  The thief had taken the new 2010 sticker, and in the process, the 2009 one as well.  Welcome to 2008.

How, you may ask, could this criminal act happen on dushi Bonaire?  It is all about money.  Minimum wage here is just over $4/hour while costs like groceries rival what we paid when we were living in metro DC.  Gasoline here is 50% more than stateside.   Electricity is also costly, although once our windmill power comes on line, prices are expected to drop by 30%.  Add a high unemployment rate to the mix and it is of little wonder that someone in need of 2010 registration stickers promptly removed mine in the dead of night.

I went immediately to the Island Landsontvanger, the office where I had bought the 2010 stickers only two months ago.  I was told that I needed to file a police report first and then return to this office to pay 19 florins and get my new registration stickers.

After a half hour wait at the police station, I was ushered into a small, sparse room by Inspector Rosales.  It had the impersonal florescent glow of a holding tank.  Along one wall was a long table complete with chairs, a computer, and a printer.  A two-foot long billy club lay on the tabletop next to the Hewlett Packard.  Charming.

It took another half hour for Inspector Rosales to fill out the electronic form.  During the process, I quizzed the policeman about his past.  Rosales was born on Curacao in 1960.  When he was 18, he moved to the Netherlands for school, a journey that a number of young people from the islands do to advance themselves.  After graduation, he stayed on, joined the Rotterdam police department, and eventually attained the rank of inspector.  A dozen years later, he longed to return to his home, Curacao.  At that time, the Curacao Police Department was flush with inspectors and there were no openings for Rosales’s skills.  He moved to Bonaire instead and has been an inspector here for seven years.

Bonaire Police Headquarters

By the time Inspector Rosales completed his personal story, the report was ready to print.  He sent it three times to the Hewlett Packard with no response.  Rosales sent the form to other printers outside the room, but still no success.  The inspector began to fondle the billy club on the table, contemplating his next move.  I offered my limited computer troubleshooting advice as an alternative. We checked cable connections on the HP printer.  We rebooted the PC.  Finally, the four-page report dealing with my two stolen registration stickers came spewing out in duplicate.  We both signed each form and I was nearly on my way.

“I hope you catch the bastards that stole my stickers,” I said smiling.

“If we stop the car that has them, a computer cross-check will reveal the thieves,” responded Inspector Rosales optimistically.

“I plan to put the new stickers on with Super Glue and a clamp this time.”

“I have a better idea”, suggested Rosales.  “What we locals do is just put the sticker on normally.  Than we take a razor blade and cut the sticker diagonally twice, corner to corner making the shape of an “X”.  This makes it much more difficult for the thief to steal the sticker since he has to remove and reassemble four pieces.  They usually just go on to an easier target.”

After a trip back to the island’s DMV to purchase new stickers, I finally got home.  I followed Inspector Rosales’s advice and cut an “X” through each sticker.  For good measure, I added a horizontal and vertical slice to each as well.  Pieces of eight.  Ho, ho, ho and a bottle of rum.

Breno & the Deep

Breno & the Deep

Island Notes 49

Over 40 years ago, I was spending a steamy summer in Columbus, Ohio, taking an intensified Portuguese course for my language requirement at the Ohio State University.  It was three courses packed into one that spanned a ten-week period.  At the end, I would complete three-fourths of my language requirement for a Bachelors degree in Arts & Sciences.

The routine was grueling.  We started at 8AM.  Class ended at noon.  Afternoon demanded three more hours in the language lab, listening and responding to the beautiful romantic language of Portuguese.  Then in the evening, another two to three hours of written assignments completed the day.  This repeated itself five days a week. Our Brazilian instructor, Ricardo, the best teacher I ever had, stated, “If you miss one day, don’t come back.  You will never catch up.”

It was an amazing experience.  After the second day, no English was spoken.  Well, perhaps, only in dire straits. We learned about Ricardo’s country of Brazil—about the food like feijoada, a stew of beans, beef and pork; the various provinces with exotic names like Minas Gerais, Parenà, and Bahia; and the people gumbo made up of Africans, Portuguese and jungle Indians.  I was overwhelmed with the far-south-of-our-border land of rhythm, samba and Rio.

These were the days of Sergio Mendes & Brazil 66; a Brazilian-American group that brought that smooth Bosa Nova beat to us Yankees up north.  I hung on their every word, textured instrumentals, and the voices of the two lead singer babes that sang the language like angels of the Amazon.  It was also the days of Vietnam, Martin Luther King, and civil unrest.  I was clinging on to a meager grade-point average, trying to avoid an all expenses paid trip to the rice paddies of Vietnam.  I studied like hell to get a good grade in my Portuguese course.  Anything below a “C” would send me to Southeast Asia in a heartbeat. I was in Year Two of academic probation.

One Thursday afternoon, I was sitting in the grass studying the day’s Portuguese vocabulary list, 100 new words, when a friend pulled up in his car.  Six beagle puppies were playing at my feet.  I was taking care of the k-nines for a buddy who had left the steam of Columbus for the aquatic wonders of Lake Erie.  The newly arrived friend offered me a ride to a music concert that was taking place in upstate New York that weekend.  It would be splendid—two days of music from some of the best musicians of the day—Santana, the Who, Jimmy Hendrix, etc.  I said ‘no’ due to puppy duty and pending Portuguese responsibilities.  My friends went ahead without me and experienced the seminal event of muh-my generation, Woodstock.

Flash ahead forty-one years and I am sitting on a turtle research boat off the southern coast of Bonaire telling my new Brazilian friend, Breno, about my Portuguese class experience.  I bumble out the few words I still can repeat and he smiles.  Not many Americanos know even that much Portuguese.  We are heading to the waters off of Red Slave to begin two, one-hour snorkel session in search of sea turtles.  It turns out that Breno left his thriving advertising agency back in Brazil for a year to travel the world and as he says, “get as far away from the desk as I can”.

And so he has.  As we enter the gin-clear waters off a ridge that drops fathoms, we spot a large hawksbill turtle perhaps sixty feet below.  Funchi, the Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire’s field expert, starts the dive down fueled by a mini-oxygen tank.  Breno, clad only in surfer shorts, mask and extraordinarily long fins, also dives below to capture the turtle’s attention.  While the hawksbill intently watches Breno in front of him, Funchi snatches the turtle from behind.

A rope harness is used to weigh the hawksbill

Back on the boat, it has been a good morning.  We hauled in two other hawksbills and a tiny green turtle.  We get busy measuring, weighing and tagging the turtles—recording all the vital data for the long-term study.  The big hawksbill weighs in at 65 kilos, 143 pounds.  I ask Breno about his tattoos that cover much of his upper torso.  “These on my chest I got when I visited Polynesia.  They represent the sea and the land.  The one that covers my back is a samurai warrior.  The fish are koi.  They are symbols of love and friendship.”

Breno can freedive to 100-feet depths.  Freediving is deep diving by breath alone.  At the top of the freediving heap is Karoline Meyer, also from Brazil, who holds the Guinness world record for holding her breath underwater, an astonishing 18 minutes 32.59 seconds. Karoline is returning to Bonaire in a few weeks for an attempt to break that record and also teach a course on freediving.  I am tempted to sign up.

Breno has even though he is already quite an accomplished freediver. I saw him go after a green turtle during our day in the water.  With a rapid dolphin kick, he descended into the indigo blue coming within inches of grabbing the turtle.  Breno was under nearly two minutes.  I am amazed by the different people I meet on this tiny speck of land in the vast Caribbean Sea.

By the way, my four friends who did leave for Woodstock that weekend long ago had promised to deliver me back in time for my Monday morning Portuguese class.  Three of them returned two weeks later with stories that made me envious.  The fourth?  He never returned to Ohio State.  He remained at Woodstock and, to my knowledge, still lives there today.  By August of 1969, I had completed my Portuguese course with a ‘B’.  The rice paddies of Vietnam were avoided once again.

The turtle is released to freedom

Bon Voyage

Bon Voyage

Island Notes 48

Before our home lays the blue Caribbean Sea dotted with a string of yachts from around the world.  The crews of these boats are on extended cruises that often last years.  Some settle simply for the beauty of the West Indies.  Others plan to circumnavigate the globe.  They become our temporary neighbors for days, weeks—sometimes months by those who are smitten by Bonaire’s charms.  On occasion, we get to know some of them.

Such was the case with the crew of Willow, a handsome 44-foot sloop that was on a mooring in front of Kaya Playa Lechi for nearly a half-year.  During that time, we became friends with the boat’s owners, Brenda Free and John MacGruder.  The couple hails from Boston where, eight years ago, they closed their thriving advertising agency, bought Willow, and began a voyage of discovery.  It was our good fortune to have them as neighbors for the past six months.

I would often pick Brenda and John up at the dock outside our home at 7:30am for an expedition into the mondi, Bonaire’s outback.  My dog, Sparky, would lead the way along a ridge trail or down a seaside path.  The humans would follow and talk about grown children, aging parents, boats and dogs.

The four of us would also treat each other to dinners on our terrace or the cozy cockpit of Willow.  Hettie would expose Brenda and John to delicious Dutch products that we buy on island or treat them to meals laced with her homegrown herbs.  They, in turn, created tasty dishes of curried chicken or garlic-butter shrimp.  It proved to be a healthy, gastronomic exchange peppered with a lot of laughter and good times.

John and Brenda became good, temporary citizens while on Bonaire.  They joined other divers in helping the national sea park capture the newly invasive lionfish, a voracious foreigner that threatens to decimate our reef fish populations.  They also volunteered for Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire, helping with the annual turtle surveys and data collection.  Brenda especially liked doing this.  I often accuse her of growing gills due to the fact of how much time she spends in Bonaire’s stunning waters.  Brenda and Hettie rival each other for hours spent each day in the sea.

So I hang out with the sailors…

One evening, the ladies of the visiting yachts decided to have cocktails downtown and discuss books that they recently read.  Their mates decided this would be an opportune time to swap lies, talk boats and drink rum.  John asked me if I would like to join them.  Does a bull have horns?

I was escorted to Willow by dingy and didn’t even get wet.  This was going to be a good night.  Five of us sailors sat in the cockpit and watched the sun go down in its typical, spectacular fashion—three Americans and two Brits.  I heard stories of Grenada, the Spice Island.  I learned that everything on a yacht with working parts will eventually break down (at least once!) and how to fix it.  We discussed the worth of various bottom paints, lubricants, and winch handles.  This was too much fun.

I asked Mike, the captain of Casa del Mar moored next door to Willow, how he got to fulltime cruising so young.  He is in his early fifties and has been voyaging for nearly five years.  Mike explained that he had battled cancer and had, to date, won the fight.  His doctor advised him after an aggressive chemo campaign to live out the rest of his life in a manner best fitting him.  Within a year he had quit his job, sold the house and bought the yacht.  He and his wife, Linda, were having the time of their lives, living each day to its fullest.  I looked at this happy, fit, middle aged, former San Diego State tight end.  Mike was living life on his terms the best he could                          …. plowing strait ahead and come what may.

But all good things come to an end.  Willow’s time of stay had expired.  Customs man said it was time to go.  John and Brenda needed to get the boat to Panama by June.  Willow will be dry docked for a half year while them return to the States to see family.  In between, our friends are Columbia-bound with a stop planned in the historic Spanish Main port of Cartagena.

We waved goodbye to our sailor friends this week as they let the mooring loose.  John raised the sails and Willow slipped silently away.  No motor needed.  I followed their course with binoculars on and off for nearly and hour.  The last time I looked out, Willow had vanished over the horizon, westbound for South America.  Bon voyage, good friends.  We will miss you.