Coconuts Fall On Fridays

Island Notes 58

A personal quest for calendar closure and a sense of time.

Another week passes by.  I lie on my hammock and reminisce how Fridays used to mean something.  Without a “real job” anymore, days drift easily into daze on the island with no apparent direction home. Wait a minute.  This is home.

But back in the day when I worked all week like many people still do, Fridays were celebratory times.  They marked the beginning of weekends, those cherished, two-day stretches of time with little or no career responsibilities.  In celebration of these fleeting bursts of individual freedom, TGIF-Thank God It’s Friday- was invented by the American bar industry in the 1960s.  The concept was to promote early weekend partying and sell a lot of firewater.  It was and still is going strong.  I also remember the famous,

Mr. Lou Rawls

quintessentially American philosophical lyric, “The eagle flies on Fridays”.  It was a line from the song, Stormy Monday, made popular by Lou Rawls and others who crooned in celebration of that end-of-the-week payday in US dollars.

Here down island, Fridays don’t have that same sense of importance to me as they once did back in America.  Resorts on Bonaire celebrate every sunset with daily happy hours much to the delight of thirsty tourists jamming their tropical dreams into weeklong vacation packages.  Plus, these days my pay comes sporadically at best, pegged on arbitrary month days like the 1st., the 15th and the 20th. rather than on the holy grail of weekdays, Friday.

But I am a traditional romantic, or perhaps, a romantic traditionalist.  I still have a need for calendar closure, the segmentation of time, the division of days in digits.  Fridays still need to mean something more than just another swing in the hammock.  So I’ve come up with a theory that compliments my surroundings while honoring the blessed end of the week.  It is simple.  Coconuts fall on Fridays.  Why not?  If true, this would return some sense of constancy back to the ends of my weeks.  It was time for some serious data collection, or in the very least, a nice drive around the island.

Bonaire in the 1840s

But before departing, I must explain something. Some here complain that palm trees are not native to the island and should not be part of the modern day botanical landscape.  I disagree.  Not only are they too beautiful to dispose of, but I have empirical evidence to the contrary.  In my living room hangs a replica painting of Kralendijk harbor in 1842.  A handsome, three-mast Dutch trade ship is moored offshore.  It the background, the land is graced by coco palms shading the colonial buildings.  This proof is only 170 years old.  But if one looks at the ages-old ocean currents of the area, there is a dominant one that sweeps along the palm-studded coasts of northern Brazil, Guyana, and Surinam.  It squeezes through the gap between Trinidad and Venezuela called The Dragons Mouths.  It then scoots west over the Caribbean Sea to Bonaire and the other islands of the ABCs.  Coconuts float easily on water.  I find their rotted husks all the time washed up on our beaches along with Made-In-Brazil flip flops.  Yeah, palm trees are native on Bonaire.  They have been floating in here for eons.  Game on.

Dos Pos

There are specific places on the island where coco palms congregate.  I choose three spots with a preponderance of palms to survey: Dos Pos, Pink Beach and Sunset Beach.  It is Friday.  I start the drive listening to Bob Marley on the CD player and head first to Dos Pos (Two Wells).  This is an inland site down in a lush valley north of the town of Rincon.  There is a sizable mango tree grove here.  It’s a good place to watch parrots eat the fruit. It also has a good stand of coco palms.  The coconuts cling high around the trunks, weighing down these sturdy trees.  The trade winds are blowing heavy today, maybe 20 knots or more.  Something is going to drop soon.  I sit down and wait.  Ten minutes.  Twenty minutes.  A half hour passes.  It is still Friday, but no coconuts drop.  I get in the car and head toward Pink Beach.

Pink Beach

Pink Beach was the nicest beach around until Hurricane Lenny blew by in 1999.  Locals tell me that the sand was thick, pink in color and the beach was the best place on island to lime away a day.  But bad boy Lenny took most of that pink sand and dropped it off into the depths right off shore.  One hundred yards out the sea bottom disappears quickly into indigo emptiness.  So did that all brilliant, ruddy sand.  Out of sight.  After Lenny, coco palms were planted along the beach to bring back some of the beauty.  There is still some pink sand to be seen, but mostly the beach consists of broken pieces of dead white coral.  When I arrive to scope the palms, the wind has cranked up to maybe 25 knots.  Plenty of ripe coconuts sway in the breeze.  I sit to watch.  Nothing falls expect the setting sun.  I don’t have much time left.  I leave for the final destination.

Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach also has some hearty palms flanking the coastline.  Sailboats cruise by here all the time.  Locals flock here during the Golden Hours to walk their dogs, have a barbeque or slam down a cold Polar beer.  I come to watch the coconuts fall.  The winds are still gusting.  The cocos look like they will fall any moment.  They should.  It’s still Friday.  But the sun sinks fast in the tropics.  I am rewarded with a split-second Green Flash, that cosmic convergence of sun, horizon and color verde.  Soon the stars come out and the sky turns deep purple. No one is left on the beach.  I finally turn and head toward the car.  Thud!

Was that the sound of a coconut hitting the ground?  I peer into the darkness for signs of freshly fallen evidence, but can’t see a thing.  I must come tomorrow early and look.  I know I heard one fall.  Hell, yes.  Coconuts do fall on Fridays. I think.

Home From The Tropics

This is an article I just submitted to the Bonaire Reporter…

It was not too long ago that the VD 17 with its blood red sails was a familiar site cruising the leeward coast of Bonaire.  This large wooden vessel, called a kwak, is one of only four that still exist.  These stout workboats hail from the North Holland town of Volendam, thus the “VD” designation.

Volendam harbor

In its heyday, Volendam was a fishing capital hauling in enormous amounts of eel for the Dutch dinner table.  To accomplish that task, the Volendammer kwak was born.  These sail-powered fishing boats were built to withstand the rigors of the challenging Zuiderzee, now called the Ijsselmeer.  Fishermen hauled in a ton of eel at a time, storing the valuable catch in bins below deck until delivered ashore.  The crews were small, typically one or two sailors and perhaps a young boy on board as an apprentice.  The eel were brought in with a kwakkuil, a large net hung from two poles.  The net was dragged from the stern of the boat, and when filled with eel, pulled on board by hand.  It was arduous work.  The prowess of these hardy Dutch sailors assured the economic success of North Holland fishing villages like Volendam.

The VD 17, built in 1919, is one of 243 kwakken from this golden era.  The boat is immense.  It weighs 30 tons, has a beam of 17 feet and an overall length of 52 feet.  Two sails, a gaff-rigged main and a large jib, comprise over 450 square feet of sail.  The boat was used until 1958 when it, like the rest of the kwak fleet, could no longer compete with modern fishing boats.  This proud, powerful sailboat went through years of neglect until Fred Ros, currently a resident of Bonaire, found it rotting in a field. He and a number of volunteers began restoring the boat in Spakenburg, the Netherlands.

By 1999, the VD 17 returned to the water as a charter boat where it took tourists on day trips on the Ijsselmeer.  The money earned from this endeavor and other donations funded a total restoration of the kwak.  Once complete, Ros shipped the boat to Curacao in 2005 and then sailed it to Kralendijk.

For the next five years, the VD 17 graced the Bonaire coastline, working again as a day charter boat.  Early this year the Stichting Zuyderzee Cultuur Volendam purchased the boat. The SZCV is a non-profit, cultural organization dedicated to preserving the rich fishing heritage of Volendam.  The organization was offered a generous interest-free loan from a group of local business owners eager to return the VD 17 to its homeport.

The kwak now joins three others in the Volendam harbor– the VD5, VD 84 and VD172.  These floating monuments, all belonging to the SZCV, are sailed by the organization’s members on Wednesday nights. The boats are also used for charters, which helps pay for the fleet’s maintenance.

“I’ve already got an idea how much work it is to keep such a boat in sailing shape,” says Harry Miller, a kwak helmsman and SZCV member.  “Commercially speaking, it is virtually impossible. It requires so much maintenance. You ask yourself sometimes and wonder how the old fishermen were able to do it.”

While the VD 17 will be missed here on Bonaire, it is in need of further restoration after years in the harsh, tropical sun.  In addition, the SZCV is preparing for the construction and operation of a historic shipyard called the Krommer, comprising of two slipways and carpentry workshop.  It is fitting that the old kwak now returns home and joins its sister ships in Volendam for the next chapter in its long life.

VD 17's fore deck

Back To The Mondi

Island Notes 57

It was just ten hours before that the KLM jet set down on the island.  After nearly spending a half day on the airplane, it was easy to find the bed.  But the first rays of morning sun bring me out early and soon I am behind the leash of Sparky.  We are headed to the mondi for our first walk in nearly a month.

Edam, the Netherlands

Hettie and I had just returned from a busy trip in Europe.  We saw our dear friends and family.  Our son flew in from London and joined us for four days in Amsterdam.  We took day trips on the train to Leiden and Maastricht.  We joined friends on their 38-foot cruiser for a three-day trip on Holland’s waterways, the Markerzee and the River Vecht.

The Summum was our home for three days.

The Middle Ages castle at Muiden.

Windmills along the River Vecht.

We joined other friends and brother Otto for a raucous, 3-day road trip to Belgium with the express goal of sampling Belgium beers.  Geuze and Lambic in Brussels.

The Cantillon Brewery, the only Lambic brewery left in Brussels. They do it the old fashion way.

There were Trappist ales to be had in the Ardenne and near the Dutch border.

Trappist beer at Achel.

It was a packed, fun-filled Euro adventure that lasted three weeks.

Kayaking in the Ardenne.

What? Where? Too much Belgium beer.

But now I am back on the slopes of the island, trekking a steep ridge trail with my loyal dog.  We are both hot and panting.  At the top of the ridge, we stop to drink water and take a look around. Swift darts of brilliant yellow and crimson flash by.  Saffron finches. A dozen parrots fly overhead, squawking loudly.  A blooming century plant moves ever so slowly back and forth in the trade winds.

This is the first time I’ve had a chance to reflect in nearly a month.  The stillness of the ridge takes over.  Sparky stops panting and lays down.  I close my eyes and feel the warm sun on my face.  I review the loud sounds of Amsterdam where I mostly stayed during the trip—trilling tram bells, high heels on hard streets, happy chimes of the carillon coming from the Munttoren, the blast of a canal boat making a sharp turn into the Prinsengracht.

It all fades away now.  I hear the wind on the shrubs, the buzz of a hummingbird’s wings, the waves along the coast, the rattle of palm fronds colliding against each other.  I succumb to these gentle, familiar sounds.  Home.  Home again.  I am back on island.

Back on Bonaire

The Endangered Ones

Island Notes 61

Below is the second feature article that I have written for Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire this year.  These are distributed to our local papers, Extra (Papiamentu) and The Bonaire Reporter (English).  And now it is here for my loyal blog readers.

The Endangered Ones

Residents of Bonaire’s unique natural world face challenges.

What does it actually mean to be an endangered species? There are many definitions but basically it is a population of organisms that is at risk of becoming extinct due to diminishing numbers, environmental changes or increased predation.  Unfortunately, Bonaire has a number plants and animals that fall into this category in the sea, in the air and on the land.  Here are three examples.

In the sea…

Bonaire is known for its sea turtles—the hawksbill, the green and the loggerhead.  These aquatic animals come to here to feed and lay eggs.  Regrettably, they face dangers while living along our coastal waters.  Take, for instance, what happened in April this year when Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire’s (STCB) Mabel Nava and Robert Van Dam were diving near Lac Cai.

“We saw a green turtle with fishing line coming out of its mouth.  We also saw that it was missing its right front flipper. Robert and I captured the turtle and when we surfaced, a fisherman helped us get it to shore.”

another turtle killed by a fishing hook

Upon further inspection, it was obvious the fishing line had cut off the animal’s flipper and a hook was deeply embedded in its intestines. Nava called veterinarian Fulco de Vries for help. After a thorough examination it was determined that the turtle was severely emaciated and would not recover. A sedative was administered and the turtle was euthanized to put it out of its misery.  STCB has noticed an increase of turtles in distress in past years.

“We need to educate people that fishing line and hooks left behind are real threats to sea turtles,” explains Nava.  “They are killers.  So are plastic bags and cups tossed carelessly in the sea.  Turtles see these objects as jellyfish, which they love to eat.  Once ingested, the plastic can kill the animal.  It is everyone’s responsibility to keep these harmful items out of the water, and help these endangered animals.”

In the air…

Recently, parrot scientist Rhian Evans spotted an unusual aerial battle in progress near Playa Frans.  “I was doing nesting observations along100 meters of cliffs.  Five pairs of loras were fighting over two nest sights.  They were showing a lot of aggression.”

Evans and her colleague Sam Williams believe that this behavior is indicative of a serious problem for Bonaire’s endangered parrot, nest site limitation.  Loras do not make their own nest cavities.  Rather, they are dependent on the local environment to provide sites.  But Bonaire has been heavily deforested during the centuries.

“You just don’t see those big old trees like wayaká any more,” explains Williams.   “These parrots nest in wayaká, watapana and palu de seu.  There are fewer of these trees around.  It’s probably why the loras now nest in cliffs as well.  That’s not normal for this genus of parrot.”

But even the cliff nest sites are vulnerable due to increased housing development on the island.  “Loras don’t put up with much disturbance near their nests,” explains Evans.  “Even after construction, the parrots won’t return to the cliff sites if people living in the homes create too much noise.”

A Lora cliff nest

For Bonaire, this has become a numbers problem. Fewer nests mean fewer parrots, a smaller genetic pool.  That, in turn, can make the lora population extremely vulnerable to disease or natural disasters like a severe tropical storm.  A sizable population is key to avoiding catastrophe.

The Parrotwatch Project, headed by Williams and Evans, is tackling the problem of decreasing nest sites. The team is constructing nest boxes out of natural materials to give the parrots alternative nesting sites.  But according to Williams, until development is better regulated and the goat overgrazing problem is solved, limited nesting for the parrots will continue. “You can’t increase population growth without dealing with social issues as well. You need to ensure that people are sympathetic to the loras increasing their numbers.”

On the land…

Some call it “the wood of life”.  It is three times as hard as oak and is often referred to as ironwood.  The wood is so dense that when thrown in water, it sinks.  Here on Bonaire, we call this splendid tree wayaká, pokhout or Lignum vitae.

But since 2007, wayaká is listed as an endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).  Historically, the tree was harvested here to make durable pulleys for sailing ships, ideal since the wood lubricates itself with resin from within.  But overgrazing, excessive harvesting and indiscriminate land clearing has allowed secondary plant cover to take over much of Bonaire’s landscape, a significant challenge to this slow growing tree.

“Uncontrolled land clearing and goats are the major threats,” states STINAPA’s Elsmarie Beukenboom, director of Bonaire’s national parks foundation. “A nature ordinance, a framework of laws, has passed, but the island resolutions that include beschermingsmaatregels (protection measures) have not.”

One of the few large wayaká trees left on the island.

Until this legislation is enacted, trees like the wayaká will have no protection.  They offer shade and shelter for a variety of plants and animals. Plus, the wayaká provides critical nesting sites for many birds including loras.  As a stopgap measure, STINAPA and Salba Nos Lora have done some reforestation work planting wayaká and other tree species on Klein Bonaire and at Pos Nobo in protected plots. Unfortunately wayaká is a poor candidate for reforestation due to its slow growth.   It takes 20 years for it to mature.  Therefore, the fate of this tree and others is in the hands of the Bonaire government.  “The government just needs to put its signature on the island resolutions,” continues Beukenboom. “But for that hand to grab the pen, it’s a very long process.”

*   *   *

These are but three examples of plants and animals that are facing challenges as Bonaire’s development moves forward.  What can you do to help preserve these living wonders?  Volunteer at Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire.  Join Salba Nos Loras.  Volunteer for a STINAPA tree-planting event.  Most importantly, contact the Bonaire government and inform them of the importance of protecting these endangered species in the sea, in the air and on the land.