the final Aruba Adventure–Part 4

Island Notes 90 Rambling Among The Boas

As I trek over a craggy limestone terrain pitted with ankle-breaking holes, spiked bushes and wind-bent trees, I have to laugh.  Indiana Jones (“I hate snakes!”) would be shaking in his boots right now for I am walking through the Boa Forest.  “We call it that because this is a gathering place for boa constrictors on Aruba,” says my guide for the morning, Diego Marquez.  He should know.  Marquez is the biologist for Arikok National Park located on Aruba’s wild north coast where wind and wave rule the day.

“Even though this area is extremely arid, humidity hangs under the bushes and trees,” continues Marquez.  “Much of it is produced from sea spray blown in by the trade winds.  The boas thrive in this place.  Let’s go find one.”

With snake hook in hand, we take off across this treacherous, trail-less moonscape of a land.  Forget about the snakes.  I’m just trying to avoid the barbs, needles and thorns that seemingly poke out from every plant I encounter.  “Watch out for the thistles, too,” warns Marquez.  “If you brush up against one of those, you will get a bad chemical burn.”  And then there is the unforgiving terrain.  Any misstep here and chances are good for a twisted ankle in the very least.  I want to view this hauntingly beautiful place while walking, but that is out of the question.  I only can focus on the next step and where to place my feet.  After a tedious, five-minute walk, we stop in front of a huliba tree.

“Can you find the snake?” asks Diego, pointing to the tree.

I scan the branches and leaves for at least a minute. Try as I might, I see no reptile.  “OK.  I give up.”

Marquez points to the base of the trunk with his snake hook and I instantly see a 4-foot boa constrictor.  “This one is head down in ambush mode waiting for a lizard.  Welcome to the Boa Forest.”

I am a bit miffed.  I stand no more than three feet away from the snake, and yet, was unable to find it.  Their natural camouflage and color are a perfect fit for this brown and beige, arid island.  Diego tells me that even trained rangers have a difficult time spotting these phantom reptiles.  “If a ranger finds one snake an hour, that’s about average.”

A boa climbs a kadushi cactus. photo-Greg Peterson

That holds true for our ramble through the Boa Forest today.  We walk another fifty minutes and don’t see another snake.  Finally, we stop next to a divi divi tree for water and talk.  I learn that the boas are not restricted to the park, but are found all over Aruba—from residents’ back yards to tourists’ hotel rooms, from car interiors to the island’s Parliament.  Experts estimate that there are 5000 boas on the loose.  The first recorded snake in the wild was in 1999, believed to have been someone’s pet.  In 2008, over 800 were captured.

“We have started a Boa Task Force to control the population,” explains Marquez.  “We conduct annual hunts, train citizens in how to identify and catch boas, and offer a 10 florin bounty for each one returned live to the island’s veterinary center.”

About this time, I look over the biologist’s shoulder.  I instinctively leap backwards, nearly falling into a limestone hole.  “Damn, Diego.  There’s a boa right behind you!”  Sure enough, a six-foot long snake is curled around a branch with the upper third of his body paralleling the lines of the tree.

“People think that the boas go out and grab prey,” says Marquez as he calmly seizes the snake by the head, “but actually they lie in waiting to ambush.  They tend to locate themselves where a good food source will pass by.  After striking, they squeeze the animal dead and then eat it.  This boa here was obviously waiting for a bird to perch.  One third of their diet is from wild birds.”

photo-Greg Peterson.

That’s a big problem for Aruba’s natural world according to Greg Peterson, president of the Aruba Birdlife Conservation Foundation.  He and Marquez did some data crunching with what they consider conservative numbers and estimate that over 17,000 birds are devoured each year by boas.  One bird hit hard is the Shoko, a subspecies of the burrowing owl found only

Peterson after a boa hunt. Photo courtesy of Greg Peterson.

on Aruba.  Peterson recently dissected a killed boa one day and found four shokos, an entire family, in the belly of the snake. World-renowned avian biologist, Adrian Del Nevo, pegs Aruba’s Shoko population at around 200 pairs.  The owl-eating boa that Peterson dissected, therefore, ate 1% of the population at one ‘sitting’.  Aruba has a Minister of Environment but no department dedicated to handling a bio-invasion like this.  That is a bit like having a steering wheel but no car.  Until a Department of Environment with trained staff is established, the island’s wild birds will continue to be impacted by boa constrictors.  Hopefully, change will come soon.

If it does, part of the credit will need to be given to Greg Peterson.  He has spent countless hours in the field photographing boas and their attacks on wild birds.  The power of his stunning photos is making people take notice.

A boa squeezes a bird to death. photo-Greg Peterson.

A boa putting the bite on a troupial, or tropical oriole. photo-Greg Peterson.

Marquez returns the boa to the tree branch precisely where I first spotted it for the Boa Forest is an area of scientific study.  Herpetologists like Andrew Odum from the Toledo Zoological Society are now conducting long-term research on the species to see if and how it is affecting the cascabel, Aruba’s endangered rattlesnake found nowhere else in the world.  Odum has been coming to Aruba for 25 years to study the rare rattler.  He first heard of wild boas on the island in the 1980s, at least ten years before the first official sighting.

We head out of the Boa Forest and back to the jeep.  Diego leaves me with these parting thoughts about the boa invasion.  “We need daily patrols in high density areas, places like roois (arroyos) in the city.  They are perfect places for the snakes since they hold plenty of water and birds.  But until the government of Aruba gets that in place, we can’t effectively control the boa.”

photo-Greg Peterson.

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Aruba Adventures-Part 3

Island Notes 89The Incident at the Museum

During my time on “one happy island”—that’s what Aruba’s license plates proclaim—I had the good fortune to meet Vivi, an attractive 30-something who happens to be the director of the Archaeological Museum of Aruba.  We meet for drinks at an ostentatious, upper crust, golf course bar.  We are in the company of Vivi’s husband, Facundo Franken; their friend Herman who works at some obscure position for the Department of Justice, one that I still can’t understand even after his repeated explanations; and, of course, my sidekick and world-renowned avian biologist, Englishman-recently-turned-American, Adrian Del Nevo.

Adrian and I both despise the game of golf so the green links surrounding the bar do nothing for us.  But the rum drinks are good as is the conversation.  We talk about Zambia—Vivi and Facundo travel there in a few months.  We ponder further Herman’s confusing job, something to do with mediation for citizens who want to sue the government.  And Adrian and I hear about old Aruba—these kids all grew up on the island in the 1980s just at the start of the tourism boom, and they tell all.  Then Vivi asks us, “Are you doing anything tomorrow night?  We are having a private premiere of an art exhibit at the museum.  It will be mostly Arubans there, and, of course, the artists.  Interested?”  We both immediately nod ‘yes’.

The next day Adrian and I paddle through 30-knot winds and white-capped waves on our return back to shore from the San Nicolas Bay Islands after a day with the terns.  On the drive home, we round the curve of the Koolbaaibergstraat only to again see the closed sign in front of the Aruba Model Train Museum.  Yes, all is right with the world.  Then, it is a speedy trip back to the hotel for a quick shower to take off the salt.  I don my Hawaiian shirt adorned with flamboyant parrots and bamboo buttons.  After all, an art opening is a special event.  In a half hour, we are off to the Archaeological Museum of Aruba.

What happens next is one of those events that I would rather suppress deep in the dark crevices of my cerebrum.  But perhaps writing is therapy and I can purge the guilt of a rather unfortunate incident.  As we enter the main hall, nothing seems out of order.  There is a fresh buzz of conversation in the air.  People mill about in small groups, chatting with the four or five artists who have pieces in the show.  The attire of most is a step above the normal haute couture found in Aruba.  I fondle one of my bamboo buttons for reassurance.

Then Vivi comes rushing up to us, “Oh, I’m so glad you made it.  The show features artists’ impressions of Aruba’s landscape.  There are drinks downstairs afterwards.  See you then.”  She rushes off in an instant.

Adrian and I split from each other to view the art solo.  After all, we’ve been together all day in the presence of thousands of sea birds.  It is time for some private contemplation.  I check out a traditional sea/land painting being discussed by two older Arubans in Papiamentu.  I try to eavesdrop, but my limited skills with the language remain just that—limited.  I have no clue to what they are saying.  I drift over to an abstract painting of the sea.  It has shells mysteriously floating in space.  I really like this one.  I then cross the hall to see more art on the opposite side.  On the way, I pass by a sculpture on a pedestal positioned in the middle of the room, but it doesn’t really catch my eye.  I simply pass by, and then it happens.  I hear a Crunch!  The sound seems far away, but it is still strangely loud.  I turn after a few steps to see broken bits of Styrofoam lying at the foot of the pedestal.  I feel detached from what is happening, like an out of body experience.  Then I realize that all eyes are on me and it is still as a church.  That’s a bad feeling, especially if you’re an atheist.

The unnerving quiet reminds me of when my buddy, Pate, and I entered a bar in Muscogee, Oklahoma in the Summer of ’69.  We were the only ones in the place with long hair and an IQ over 70.  As we walked in the run-down honky tonk, the jukebox just suddenly stopped after playing a predictable “tears-in-yer-beer” country song, and all eyes went on us.  It was deadly silent.

But that’s another story from another galaxy.  At this particular moment I’m dealing with a major faux pas, a serious social blunder, a colossal misstep so to speak.  Hell, this could erupt into a full-blown international incident if I’m not careful.  I put 2+2 together and realize it was I, actually my flip-flopped foot, that took off a corner of the foamed centerpiece sculpture.  This is not good.  The young artist, who appears to be Japanese Aruban, stares with her mouth wide open in disbelief.  Her friend, in an attempt to make the horrible moment vanish, quickly bends down and gathers all the broken pieces of foam in her hands.  I simply stand there like a dolt, really not comprehending this surreal scene.

I walk over to Adrian to get his support.  Pairs of daggered eyes track me as I walk across the ever-lengthening span of the hall.

“Adrian, you won’t believe what just happened,” I mumble, still somewhat in shock.  Perhaps, denial is a better word.

The world-renowned avian biologist does not utter a word to me.  Rather, he looks back at the staring crowd of angry artists and patrons and simply points two fingers in my direction.  Yes, I am the guilty one.

“Et tu, Brute?” I whisper in my best Shakespearean resonance.  Perhaps Adrian took offense to all the jokes I made the other day about the British getting their collective colonial asses kicked during the Revolutionary War.  After all, it was the Fourth of July when I made those comments.  Apparently, he didn’t find them humorous.  Talk about a sore loser.

Time of this moment passes excruciatingly slow, but it does pass.  The chitchat returns, albeit somewhat less enthusiastic than earlier.  New exhibit gawkers begin to drift in, unaware of the demolition incident.  I finally get my head together enough and walk over to apologize to the artist.  She is actually quite gracious, but the conversation is short.  There is actually not a whole lot to say.

The crowd eventually begins to migrate to the patio below for refreshments.  Adrian asks me if I want to join him for an adult beverage.  “I think I’ll pass.  You have a dinner date later.  I’m just going to head back to the hotel.”

As I leave the museum alone, a security guard bids me good-bye at the door.  Apparently, the sculpture destruction story hasn’t hit street level yet.  I head down an alley to my car where two small children are playing.  They wave to me while their mom just smiles.  I drive home along the seaside watching the day’s sun drip into the water with an explosion of color.  I smile, too.  It is difficult to stay bummed out for long on Aruba.  After all, this is one happy island.

Aruba Adventures-Part 2

Island Notes 88The Choo Choo Man

We had passed the closed sign now for four days in a row.  The only thing that had changed was the coconut we had left on a rock by the front gate on Sunday.  It had been removed.  “That’s nothing,” commented my friend and world-renowned avian biologist Adrian Del Nevo.  “I have been driving past this place for over a decade and have never seen it open.”

The facility in question was the Aruba Model Trains Museum located on an obscure back road. It is far from the bustle of the J.E. Irasquin Boulevard where under-clothed tourists flock to the endless white sand beaches and high rise hotels that rival Miami.  Rather, the museum is on the Koolbaaibergstraat.  Dutch translation?  The Cabbage Bay Mountain Street.  It can be found in the quiet neighborhood of Lago Heights, just outside of San Nicolas best known for its refinery, savory Columbian restaurants and ladies of the night.

The reason we passed by here so often is that it is the road to Rodgers Beach, our kayak launch point to reach the San Nicolas Bay Islands.  They are home to thousands of terns this time of year, and I was on assignment to get their story and take pictures.  Not a bad gig.

This was on my last full day on island, and as we round the curve of the Koolbaaibergstraat for the last time, we spot a man changing the sign in front of the Aruba Model Trains Museum from open to closed.

“Damn! We’re just seconds too late,” yells out Adrian.

“No, pull over,” I plead.  “Let me talk to this guy.”

Before I go further, please be assured that neither Adrian nor I have much interest as adults in model trains.  For me, that all ended in the 1950s when my beat up Lionel train set finally smoked off into the sunset.  It finally succumbed to too many kid-inspired derailments.  After all, what better than to run the train off a bridge after having watched the damn thing circle the track endlessly for an entire afternoon.  If we weren’t all crazy we would all go insane.  No, it was the challenge of getting inside the Aruba Model Trains Museum that appealed to Adrian and I.

“I see you are just closing,” I call out as the man determinedly shoves the closed sign into its frame.  “Is there any chance we can get inside for just a quick look?”

Jaap de Vries just smiles back at me with a bright twinkle in his eye.  “Sure!  Just park your car over there.”

Adrian and I looked at each other.  This was too easy.  Maybe we should just pull away now while we have a chance.  But after a decade of waiting and disappointment, the draw is too strong for Adrian, “Let’s get inside before he changes his mind.”

We enter the air-conditioned cool of the Aruba Model Trains Museum.  Jaap flips a switch and a large model train jumps to life on the upper track.  Below is a village full of lights.  The town scene even includes a mini Aruban flag.  Jaap flips another switch and grins wider.  A second train on the lower track begins its journey, albeit at a slower pace than the one above.  These are serious, Model O series trains—one of the biggest.  The two trains make so much noise with metal wheels on track that we cannot converse.  Jaap reluctantly kills the switch.  But his smile quickly returns.  I am soon to find out that Jaap’s next favorite activity after model railroading is shooting the breeze.

We, of course, talk first about model trains.  Each of us shares our childhood favorites with the maestro.  Then I start to see another side of Adrian I didn’t previously know about.  The more he talks to Jaap, it is apparent that he is a latent train nerd.  Model railroading factoids come spewing out of his mouth.  He uses terms like Bassett-Lowke, the GWR 111 Great Bear and Graham Farish.  I am somewhat taken back and slightly frightened as these two adult men look at each other with slightly-crazed juvenile eyes.  I quickly change the subject.

“Jaap, how long have you lived on Aruba?”

“I came here in the 1980s from Holland.  I worked for a Dutch insurance company here for years, but they finally decided to fold their Caribbean operations.  That was OK.  It gave me more time for my trains.”

“And you worked for them in Holland too?”

“Oh, yeah.  But previous to that, I worked 13 years for Pan American World Airways in Amsterdam and Germany.  Those were great years.  In fact, I have some Pan Am airplane models in this back room.”

Fortunately, we leave the trains behind.  Jaap leads us into an even larger room, complete with airplane models hanging from the ceiling.  This is where the nerd in me takes over.  “A ME-262!  Why that was the only jet ever used in WWII!  The Nazis could have won the war if they had this plane from the beginning.”

We discuss the B-17 Flying Fortress, the resilient Ford Tri Motor, and Howard Hughes’s behemoth seaplane, The Spruce Goose.  Jaap has plastic replicas of all these aviation icons hanging from above.  I stare upwards as I did decades ago in my boyhood bedroom.  It is now nearly five o’clock somewhere and Adrian starts to give me the evil eye.  I see that he is becoming slightly uncomfortable, perhaps even concerned over the exchange between Jaap and I.  The tables have turned.  I take the cue and begin to move toward the door while Jaap continues talking.  We are nearly out of the second train room when I spot a map of the US criss-crossed by a web of lines.  I know I should ride with the momentum of the exit, but curiosity overpowers me.   “And what is this, Jaap?”“Glad you asked.  In July 1963, I took my first trip to America.  Greyhound had a promotion—99 days for $99.  I took them up on it.  Saw the whole country.  Even traveled a bit down into Mexico and Canada. I love buses too, along with trains and planes.  That’s why I have so many Greyhound bus models in the museum.  I had a great time.  I even have my old ticket up there, posted on the map.”

With Jaap busy with old memories of his bus trip of a lifetime, we again edge closer to the door.  Outside, I start to think about having a margarita on the beach when we get back to hotel.  Then Adrian stops suddenly in his tracks.  Oh, no.  The world-renowned avian biologist points to a rather enormous glass and metal structure sitting in the middle of the yard and eloquently asks the obvious, “Jaap, what is that?”

Jaap explains that the object in question is the Fresnel lens of the California Lighthouse that still graces the far west point of Aruba.  The device was replaced by modern electronics and Jaap found the lens carelessly discarded in the local garbage dump.  Adrian is astonished claiming that the Fresnel with its thick brass mounting is easily worth thousands dollars.  Jaap just smiles as we make our way to the car.

“Come back anytime when you return to Aruba,” says Jaap.

“But you always have the closed sign out,” reminds Adrian.

“Here is my business card.  Just call or e-mail me and we can set up a time to meet.”We bid adieu. As we drive away I look back at the Aruba Model Trains Museum. Jaap waves goodbye from the gate. The choo choo man stands there smiling with a faraway twinkle in his eyes.  If I ever return, I am sure the gleam will still be there.

Aruba Adventures – Part One

Island Notes 87

Surrounded by Terns

Over forty years ago, I had a friend named Harvey Schlessel.  He was an entrepreneur and hustler from Cleveland who would whisk large groups of northern Ohioans away from the frozen shores of icy Lake Erie in mid-winter and deposit them on Aruba’s sandy beaches for sun, fun and excessive casino gambling.  In some ways, Harvey was a pioneer.  North American tourism to Aruba was in its infancy in the early 1970s.  Now, a constant stream of American and Canadian sun worshippers flock to “one happy island” in droves, and yes, the cha-ching from the casinos still rings loudly.

Freezing in February in long underwear back then, I thought often about Aruba during those long, gray Ohio winters.  Life took me to many tropical paradises in my travels since those bleak days, but never to the “A” of the ABC islands of the Dutch Caribbean.  In early July, I finally got my chance.  The trip was not exactly a beach vacation for me.  Rather, I was sent on a writing assignment by DCNA, the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, a great conservation organization that is safeguarding the natural environments of the six Dutch islands in the Caribbean.  I was also on a mission to write a couple of freelance articles for American magazines.

Adrian & a one-week old Cayenne tern chick

As luck would have it, I got to team up with Adrian Del Nevo, a world-renowned expert on terns.  For those of you unfamiliar with these elegant birds, terns are know as ‘the swallows of the sea”.  Aruba has five offshore islets that attract nearly 25% of the tern species on earth.  No other place attracts more then the tiny spits of sand, rock coral and buttonwood called the San Nicolas Bay Reef Islands.  They are light years away from the glitz, glamour and gaudiness of Aruba’s hotel row.

One of the five San Nicolas Bay reef islands

I had the privilege of accompanying Del Nevo for three days to witness the terns.  I was literally surrounded by thousands.  It is an experienced that is now deeply etched in my soul.  I will take those images, sounds and memories to the grave.  In the meantime, here are a few frozen slices of time from a remarkable place on earth.