Talking Story

Island Notes 94

Just a few years ago, I was shooting a film on the Big Island of Hawaii.  We were heading down a narrow, dirt road that winded through a banana plantation.  Up ahead were two pickup trucks haphazardly stopped along the roadside and two big Hawaiian guys were in serious dialog with each other.  I asked my driver what the problem was.  “No problem.  Just two local boys talkin’ story.”

“Talkin’ story?”

“Yeah.  It’s important here on the islands.  We take time to stop and talk to each other.  We just don’t rush through the day like the howlies (Hawaiian slang for foreigners or white people).”

I have not yet discovered the Bonairean phrase yet for “talking story”, but the communicative act is just as prevalent here.  Whenever I walk or bike somewhere and need to arrive at a specific time, I always leave early.  I leave time for talking story.  Just the other day I was walking with my dog, Sparky, along my favorite seaside street, Kaya Playa Lechi.  Within a couple of hundred yards, we stopped three times.

The first person we encountered was Yellow Man.

“Hey Yellow, how did the fishing go yesterday on Klein?” I asked.

“Got some red snapper, a small wahoo, and a ….”, Yellow Man was searching for the English word.  “Rainbow Runner!  Catch of the Day!”  Yellow Man flashed a big smile and a glint of sun bounced off his gold, front tooth.  We discuss fish for the next half hour.

A few steps later, we met Ismael Soliana.  Ismael is deep in his 80s and has spent most of those years at sea, first sailing multi-masted schooners, and later freighters.  He goes down to Kaya Playa Lechi early each morning to check on his traditional sailboat, Etienne.  It is a single-masted, wooden fishing boat, the last of its kind on Bonaire.

Ismael Soliana aboard Etienne. photo-Nathalie Meyfarth


“Haaaaaaa!” greets Ismael.

“Bon dia, Ismael.  How is Etienne today?  I inquire.

“She’s good.  I come down to look at her.  She’s OK.”

Ismael is sporting his billed sailor hat today complete with gold anchor and circular life preserver.  He still has a twinkle in his eyes and loves every day of life.  Our conversation goes on and on and we finally bid each other adieu.

I must interject here that talking story is different from bull shitting, shooting the breeze or chewing the fat.  Those all have a connotation of simply filling time with all the trappings of continental drift and large societies. Rather, talking story is intimate and socially important, even expected.  It would be rude of me to just idly chat.  Its roots are deeply based in island time, that wonderful concept where space and the clock blend into a fluid concoction of tropical bliss and friendship. We’re talking story.

And that is what I do one more time on this fine August morning of blue sky, waving palm trees, and melodic tropical orioles.  I run into Asko Tabasko at the Yellow Submarine dive shop.  We exchange our usual pleasantries.

“Good morning, Governor! I exclaim.

“Bon dia, Capitán!”

Asko and I then drift into talking story of Bonaire’s underwater world.  When we arrive back at the surface, a boatload of sweating, wet-suited tourists await him, and for me, it is another cup of coffee at home.

So Sparky and I return.  The hammock awaits.  I relish mentally playing back the conversations I have just enjoyed.  There is nothing better than talking story.


The Last Tango

Island Notes 93

I had watched the battle.  While she still had the sparkle fight in her eyes, that lust for life that defined who she was, I could see that the disease would ultimately win. We actually both knew it, but did not discuss the grim matter.  Her deep look back to me told all.  That was the last time we met.  And the cancer did eventually conquer.  Last spring, Marlis died.

I had met Marlis when I first moved to the island.  After all, her sail repair shop was right across the street from where I live.  The shop was in a vibrant pink Antillean house with blue shuttered windows and squared-off parapets.  This was also her home where she lived with cats, dogs, parrots and a monkey.  Marlis loved all animals and the store served as an unofficial M*A*S*H unit for injured flamingos that people brought to her for cure.

Marlis was also a sailor who never left.  She was one of the people who initially inspired me to start writing the local newspaper series, The Sailors Who Never Left. Unfortunately for many readers and me, I procrastinated starting the series and by the time I did begin to write, Marlis was too weak from the cancer and chemo to be interviewed.  She was in a fight for her life.  I do know that she arrived on island from Germany by sailboat some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and then made Bonaire her home.

In the time before her sickness, I would occasionally wander across Boulevard Gobernador Debrot just to shoot the breeze with Marlis.  She always had a big smile and a grand, husky laugh nurtured by cigarettes and late-night libations.  She liked to party, to dance, to engage people.  At times, Marlis dabbled in the outrageous.  I heard that while visiting a politically unstable banana republic a few years back, she yelled out ¡Viva la revolución! during a pause in a speech given by the local, two-bit dictator.  She, of course, was never arrested much to the surprise of the surrounding crowd.  Marlis was simply intolerant of injustice, but she always helped the needy whether they be human or another type of animal.

Her sail repair shop was more than just a place to mend an old jib.  She sold beautifully reverse appliquéd molas from Panama, offered dive bags that she crafted from recycled sail material (I still use mine), and was a vendor of stunning South American folk art and clothing.  This commercial endeavor required Marlis to visit various countries on frequent buying trips.  It also fed her insatiable passion for travel.  On repeated journeys to Colombia, Marlis befriended a family there, and upon her death, willed funds to cover the educational costs of the family’s children.  She had no children of her own.  Well, perhaps she actually did.

Another stipulation in her will was that after she died, a festive birthday party was to be held in her honor.  This was no memoriam.  Rather, Marlis paid for all the expenses—copious amounts of beer and wine plus a delicious dinner catered by Restaurant Bravo right on the beach.  She gave instructions that the event be held at Red Slave at sunset, a gorgeous site on the south of the island where Marlis had spent countless hours photographing her favorite bird, the Greater Flamingo.  But that was not all.  Set on a pickup tailgate were piles of molas and boxes of her photographic prints.  About forty of us had gathered for the party, and each person was asked to choose a mola and several photos as gifts from Marlis.  The photos you see on this page are my special gifts from her.

As the sun began to set, the crowd gathered on the beach.  Marlis’s ashes were gently spread upon the waves.  Guests tossed island flowers into the sea in a farewell tribute.  Someone in the group played a guitar.  Tide and wind slowly escorted the flowers away from shore.  We all stared at the water, watching the day end.  About the time the gold ball of a sun kissed the horizon, a line of a ten flamingos flew in front of us, just yards above the sea.  Thank you, Marlis.  This was one hell of a last tango.  I will miss you.

Signature Coconuts

Island Notes 92

I have passed the coconut palm in front of my home hundreds of times.  It was just another plant in a tropical mosaic that dots the west coast of Bonaire here, and mostly there.  But one day last month I stopped dead in my tracks.  I spotted writing on the coconuts of this splendid tree in front of my home.  Yes, they were now ‘signature coconuts’.

The first two entries were feeble down-island declarations.  One coconut had the word, blody etched into its soft, sun-soaked, yellow skin.  The other, micky.  Perhaps it was a woozy, late-night attempt of a staggering drunk to spell out Bloody Mary or Mickey Finn.  High tide or cross currents must have short circuited the tipsy scribbler’s motor drive, leaving two misspelled words.

Days went by with no explanation.  Then two other inscriptions suddenly appeared on the coco palm.  One was James Rast was hier.  The other proclaimed Papi- the baas (the boss, in Dutch).  This was an easy mystery to solve.  The BSC painting crew of rasta man, James and Papi had returned, as they do each summer, to paint the exterior of the Playa Lechi Residence.  When I asked them about the inscriptions, they proudly smiled and laughed.  That is just good community.  These guys were taking ownership of their workplace.  Hopi bon! A week passed and another name appeared, Sander Boy.  This six year-old Dutch kid, who resides in Apartment 2 when on vacation, had made his contribution.  Sander is very together.  He sails, wind surfs, snorkels, swims like a fool.  He is water boy.  It is pity for him that he doesn’t live full time on Bonaire. Sander is truly a child of the island, embracing it all with joy.

Daze pass.  The wind drops to nothing.  It has been sucked away by some bad weather forming up north that threatens to terrorize the people of Haiti, poor souls.  Fortunately, it never becomes a hurricane.  Here at 12 Lat., my coco palm barely moves in the breeze.  I pack diving gear and go with friends to the east coast more commonly known as the Wild Side due to churning surf, full-blown trade winds and treacherous rock. Just last week a Dutch sailboat mistakenly grounded itself on the reef of Lac Bay.*  This is no place to fool around.  But on this day, there is no wind and small surf thanks to Tropical Storm Emily trying to form near Hispaniola.  We go to Baby Beach and dive.  At dive’s end, we spot ancient cannons and three ship’s anchors, two of which are the size of Mazda pickup trucks.  These artifacts from the pirate days lie in 20 feet of water on a bed of soft white sand.

By the time we arrive home, I notice another mark on a coconut.  This one is creepy and cryptic.  It is more of a down-island design, a lush logo, a sweltering symbol of selfdom.  I stare at the intersection of strange lines.  It looks a bit Tongan in design.  Perhaps it was etched by a runaway Scientologist.  After all, the Freewinds cruise ship is in town.  It is the tourist barge of choice by those souls who follow in this commercial religion that proclaims people are immortal beings who have forgotten their true nature.  Just ask Tom Cruse, Kirstie Alley, John Travolta or Edgar Winter, all members of the clan.  Only the other day, we saw lifeboats full of Scientologists; oars held high, practicing rescue drills in Kralendijk harbor.  Perhaps one of the disgruntled slipped overboard, ran away, and carved their freedom mark into one of the coconuts.

Could be.  Then again, I live near the equator.  The sun is now overhead and bloody hot.  It’s time to get inside, swing away in the hammock with a cool glass of lemonade and contemplate the mysteries of signature coconuts.

Another Cryptic Coconut

*The sailboat was pulled off the reef three days later by a tugboat.  In the process, a hole had ripped open her hull.  The rescue crew buoyed the boat with air bags for flotation, and the tug began to tow the boat back to Kralendijk.  The sea tore away the air bags during the voyage.  She sunk off of Bonaire’s southern point near the Willemstoren lighthouse.

Wheels of Love

Island Notes 91The Party Bus

It has been a couple of years now that I have looked on with envy.  Often, I would simply be walking down the street, and from behind, heard the pulsating beat, the cries of joy and see some serious movin’ & shakin’ goin’ on.  I would turn and witness 40-plus people jumping up and down inside a vintage US school bus painted in vibrant colors.  No, this was not a flashback to the 60s.  This was the Pahr-Tay Bus truckin’ on down the street.

But last month, I finally got my chance to ride the good times machine. Monique from the Animal Shelter had quit her job and was returning to Holland for good.  The group decided to rent the Party Bus for a send-off party and Hettie, being an Animal Shelter volunteer, was invited.  I tagged along by the power of association.  Yeah, baby. Pedal to the metal.

We show up at the post office parking lot in downtown Kralendijk on a late Saturday afternoon.  Our group, too, is about 40 people—mostly adults but also a couple of kids.  Marco, our bus driver for the next hour or so, opens the emergency back door and two coffin-sized coolers full of adult beverages are loaded on.  With a blast from Marco’s cucaracha horn, we are off.

Booming speakers hanging in all four corners of the bus pump out some serious Bob Marley to get us moving.  Then 70s disco follows.  People begin dancing in the aisle and hanging out the windows.  Saturday Night Fever moves are everywhere, enough to make John Travolta blush.  I get up to shake when the soul music begins.  I’ve never heard these tunes before.  It’s not Motown, but the numbers have that raw, Wilson Pickett kind of vibe that I just find irresistible.  Everybody is out of their seats, shakin’ down.

I’ve never been a dancer, but with limited room and added motion from the road sway, I’m not doing too badly.  Don’t fall down though.  Marco jostles the party bus enough to make cups tip.  Our volunteer bartender at the back of the bus is spilling wine during the pour.  Cast-aside beer bottles are toppling over at a serious pace.  Soon the floor is wet and the aroma of suds blends with the warm tropical air.  Marco looks back in the rear-view and simply smiles.  No problem for him.  The cleaning crew will take care of the mess.

Is the Paparazzi stil there?

Jóke has another Polar

Monique in yellow for her party day.

Jane Disko

The departing Monique is having a fine time and is in constant dance mode.  There’s Jane Disko doing the Bugaloo.  Jane’s a Cleveland girl via Houston and Key West.  It was in Cleve-town where she served long ago as a WHK-radio DJ.  And yes, that is her real name.  You might remember reading it on the credits of The Deer Hunter where she played a bit role across from Di Niro back in the 70s.  Hettie and my hair cutter, Barbelle, are dancing together.  Here comes Laura De Salvo, co-owner of the Bonaire Reporter newspaper, groovin’ down the aisle with camera

Crusin' on de bus.

and beer in hand.  She’s my ideal of what I want to be when I grow up to be 70.  Everybody is now on their feet except two stodgy Dutch guys who look extremely irritated by the excessive decibels and drinking.  Between tiny sips of white wine, both wear the when will this ever be over look.  Apparently, they are “Friends of the Shelter” and also friends of Monique.  Oops.  Someone just spilled a beer on their heads.  There goes next year’s donation.

The best thing I like about the Party Bus is how it spreads the love.  As we cruise the waterfront, people stop in their tracks to see the commotion.  Some wave. Others start dancing to the music that we bring. Old people smile, unlike the two “Friends of the Shelter” guys, still wet from the spilled suds.

The crowd at City Cafe waves.

At open-air restaurants, diners toast us with frosted glasses. The wait staff grins.  Most of us aboard are local and we get to greet acquaintances along the way.  There is Yellowman flashing his gold front tooth. As we pass the Kanti’ Awa (Waterfront) Bar, Ernst from Basil and Noel from Dublin raise their Polar beer bottles in good cheer.  At Yellow Submarine my dive instructor buddy, Marvelous, gives up his signature smile. I spot my fisherman friend, Tino, just back from a day on the water.  “Hey, Tino,” I shout. “Konta bai?” (How’s it going).  Tino holds up a string of freshly-caught red snapper in response.

Annemieke partyin' down!

Bonaire countryside

Hettie & Barbelle

Marco homeward bound.

It has been a very rewarding day, not only for Tino, but also for nearly all on the Party Bus.  After an hour of cruisin’ and boozin’, the party is over.  Marco promptly drives off in the Party Bus with Bob Marley and the Wailers fading in the distance.  We are back to earth again, so to speak, and bodily functions are demanding full attention.  Now where is that public restroom?