A Writer’s Life

On assignment in the Peruvian Amazon 2011.

On assignment in the Peruvian Amazon 2011.

Another Island Note…

It was five years ago that I stopped working.  Those first months living down island were grand—a start of a new life, away from cold winter weather, an abundance of time after 08AugBon 199nearly a 40 year career.  I became quickly involved in hammocking, the fine art of swinging or snoozing away the balmy tropical afternoons.  Several months later I was still enjoying this sweet indulgence, but began to ponder a Plan B.  After so many years of making films, I realized I still had a burning desire to tell a story.  However, I did not want to make documentaries anymore.  That process is all encompassing and, like having a baby, takes about nine months.  Rather, I wanted a shorter endeavor, one that would be equally rewarding but still allow me ample time for sailing, snorkeling and yes, extensive dreamtime in the hammock.  I turned to the pen.

Kashyap driving in Singapore 2012.

Kashyap & I driving in Singapore 2012.

At the urging of my good friend, Kashyap Choksi, I began this blog.  (Congrats to Kashyap.  He just landed a prestigious job at Harvard doing international environmental work.)  I also resurrected my freelance magazine writing career.  It had been put on hold during four busy years due to my demanding video producer job at the National Institute for Food & Agriculture in Washington DC.  On Bonaire, I began writing again for Sailing Magazine, a top-notch publication that I had contributed to since 2002.  But by then, many of my other publishers had disappeared–gone broke due to tough economic times, new technologies and fragmented readership.  I had to nurture and develop new sources, no easy task in the über competitive world of freelance writing.  But along the way, I got my articles published by a diverse group of outlets including Caribbean Travel & Life, Earth Island Journal, BirdWatching, and Islands magazines.  Regionally, I had success writing for the Caribbean Compass, All At Sea, Caribbean Beach News and the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance.

Painting by Henk Roozendaal

Painting by Henk Roozendaal

Lastly, I also began writing for the island’s bi-weekly English newspaper, The Bonaire Reporter.  George and Laura DeSalvo began the venture in the early 1990s when they arrived on island aboard their Choey Lee yacht, Oscarina with their parrot, Oscar, firmly perched on Laura’s shoulder.  They started a sailor-centric, one-pager called Port Call and delivered it once a week by dinghy to visiting cruisers who anchored along Kralendijk harbor for extended stays.  Later when George and Laura moved to land, the paper took on a broader scope and became the Bonaire Reporter covering all news about the island.  But the DeSalvos are still deeply tied to sailing and the sea and that’s where I come in.

Since I live at water’s edge, I get to watch the comings and goings of all things maritime on the island. When I find an interesting story, I pitch it to George and he almost always accepts it.  The Reporter doesn’t pay much, but I don’t do it for the pesos.  I get to write about sailing and sailors, and contribute to a fine local paper.  It is cool to know that these still exist in times when the LA Times is threatened and Newsweek is no longer published in print but reduced to an electronic, on-line version of its former self.

08AugBon 135Now, on occasion, I have the pleasure of returning to the hammock with the freshly inked Bonaire Reporter in hand and  leisurely leaf through its pages.  I delight in reading one of my just released stories, and have the sweet pleasure of a balanced life.  Not bad for a kid who struggled with English composition classes his entire academic career.  Without further adieu, here is my latest contribution…

A Life Changing Voyage

Shelley solo sailing before the wind, wing-and-wing, across the Atlantic Ocean

Shelley solo sailing before the wind, wing-and-wing, across the Atlantic Ocean

Unlike many young Dutch people, Shelley Burggraaff learned how to sail far away from the water-centric Netherlands.  She had just finished school, and while visiting New Zeeland, was looking for a way to extend her trip down under.  That is when Burggraaff read an ad from a sailor looking for someone to look after his boat in Fiji while he returned home for a month in the United States.  “At the marina I met many sailors on voyage,” explains Shelley.  “During that time I realized that there were people actually traveling around the world on boats.  I hadn’t a clue that that even happened.”

Soon Burggraaff met a Norwegian who was looking for crew. “I told him I can hold a wheel and go the right way.”  Apparently that was enough.  The couple sailed Fiji, some French islands and New Caledonia.  But by then, the new Dutch sailor was out of money and returned to Holland.  She got her university degree in media and entertainment management and then began working for a sailing events company.  “I started doing that just because I really liked the sailing so much.  I promised myself that I would return to Fiji with my own boat when I have all the time in the world and the freedom to go to any island that I want to.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne year later Burggraaff bought North Wind, a Trintella 29 built in 1974.  The prolific Dutch sailboat designer, E. G. Van de Stadt, designed these sloops.  While not a race boat, the Trintella 29 is a fast cruiser with a hull design speed of about 7 knots.  The boat was stoutly constructed by the Tyler Boat Company in Kent, England back in the early days of fiberglass production.  Its deep, heavy keel affords stability and good tracking when sailing into the wind.  These are characteristics that Shelley soon came to appreciate.

For a year and a half, Burggraaff prepared North Wind for her world cruise.  When people asked about her destination, which was often, she simply replied “Fiji” as a way to satisfy their curiosity.  The novice sailor knew this was the best time for her to embark on a voyage before husband and family came into her life, but that decision was not without trepidation.  ““I decided I really had to do this now. I was scared to go alone, of course. But I wanted it so much.  It was the only way to do it.  If you really want something, you get over the scary moments.”

On July 2010, North Wind departed the Dutch port of Naarden.  It was a big sendoff with family and friends attending.  Even the local Search & Rescue boats got into the act by spraying water from hoses as the sloop departed the harbor.  Shelley’s father joined her for the first few hours as a sendoff for his daughter.  Once she dropped him off in nearby Ijmuiden, she was alone.

North Wind - voor de wind 5The young woman sailed to the UK, France, Spain, and finally the Canary Islands where she began her 33-day trans Atlantic sail.  About midway across the wind vane, which steers the boat when not helmed, broke and a large section sank into the sea.  Undeterred, Shelley attached an electronic auto pilot device to the tiller, but that too failed after 300 miles.  Fortunately, her boyfriend who was also crossing the Atlantic made radio contact with Burggraaff and came to her rescue in blustery winds.  He strapped his autopilot to a raft and transferred the device to North Wind.  “It was really good that he was there,” says Shelley.  “I spent quite some time soldering in 30 knot winds, but I finally got the auto pilot hooked up and it lasted the next 1000 miles.”

North Wind made landfall on the lovely Grenadine island of Bequia in May 2011.  Since then the sloop has cruised throughout the Caribbean, eventually landing in Bonaire for Christmas 2012.  “I love this place”, explains Shelley.  “It’s so easy going and layed back.  We call that gemoedelijk in Dutch.  The island has a nice town center.  The people are so friendly.  The saltpans are great.  Up north is great.  Even the donkeys are great.”

Burggraaff now works for Dive Friends at the Yellow Submarine shop on Kaya Playa Lechi.  She is unsure how long she will stay on Bonaire and even less so about sailing to her original destination of Fiji.  The voyage has been life-changing for the young Dutch skipper.  “The drive to go to Fiji is less now.  If you’re not really motivated that long journey is not desirable.  I’m thinking maybe another time on another boat and maybe sail with someone.”

When asked about her most amazing moment on the water Burggraaff lists three, but probably her most poignant experience was off the coast of Saba, another Dutch Caribbean island.  “I was sailing west of Saba and saw this big mountain rising out of the sea.  Then a big leatherback turtle just popped up.  The scene was so wild, so rough with waves crashing on the coast.  It was like Jurassic Park, like it was a millions years ago. And there was me on my little boat.”  Moments like that can be life changing and sailors throughout the ages have often had difficulty returning to life on land.  Shelley in BoanireShelley is now facing that personal dilemma.  “I probably won’t fit back easily into Dutch society.  On one hand, I don’t want to be a wanderer that does this for another 40 years getting by on low budget.  I don’t think I want to do that.  But I also don’t think I can have the same job forever, and have the house and the fancy car.  I just don’t want to be that person.”  Burggraaff looks out at the Caribbean blue and adds one more thought.  “There will be a lot of longing to go back to sea and traveling and freedom. And I’ve experienced so much freedom on this voyage.  I enjoy this life so much.”

Strange Down Under

Another Island Note…title

I should have known right away that things would be different.  I entered the channel at the dive start to Tori’s reef wearing sunglasses.  I noticed my error immediately when I went to put my mask on.  Not advisable.  I stuffed the sunglasses in my dive vest and pressed on.  Shore diving on Bonaire is straightforward and often quite easy.  You enter the reef off shore, check the direction of the current, and if there is one, swim into it so your return is easier.  If no current exists, dealer’s choice.  That is what it was this day for Hettie & me as we dropped down to 60 feet.  But after that, everything about this dive was not normal.

Five minutes north, I looked ahead.  The water was fluid, dense like clear syrup.  That is usually indicative of a temperature change.  It was this time too, warm water flowing.  I looked at the reef and all the soft coral, reliable indicators of current, were bent downwards.  After 160 dives, I had never seen this and was immediately apprehensive.  A current like that could not only take a diver away from shore but also downward.  Not a good thing.

Plus, our usual stellar visibility was gone.  Clouds of white sand were suspended above the reef.  It was hard to see more than twenty feet ahead.  I looked down at the coral and saw white sand cascading downward.  It was an underwater sandstorm and avalanche combined.  I saw schools of fish above the reef. They were seemingly unconcerned by the downward movement.  Crowded groups were suspended in space above the fray hanging with no apparent effort.  I relaxed.  It seemed that the only speeding, downward force was in the first foot or so above the surface.  We were safe.

After cruising through the sand cloud for ten minutes, normal visibility returned, but not normalcy.  I saw four large cubera snappers, the largest about a yard long, on the hunt.  I had only seen these fish patrolling solo before.  Later I spotted a lionfish, an invasive species from the Indo-Pacific, leisurely drifting above the reef.  This was another case of the strange.  Lionfish usually hover deep in the recesses, protected and stalking smaller fish among the rock.

By the time we turned around 30 minutes later, I could not imagine that I would see more unusual events down under.  But on the way back, Hettie pointed out two southern stingrays.  I had not seen any in a year so deep.  Later, the quartet of cubera snappers made an encore.  The impressive sand storm had abated, but now a southerly current pressed against us.  Even in the shallows of 15 feet returning to shore I had a surprise.  I witnessed a ménage a trios of four-eye butterflyfish.  These are normally seen in pairs.  Ten yards later I ran into another trio of them.

By now the unusual was expected.  With air running low, we returned to the land of gravity.  I immediately yearned for the strange, down under.

**Apologies for the lack of photography.  No underwater camera was available for me to record the wonder I encountered down below.  I guess you just had to be there.

Passing by the Mango Tree

10JulyBON 6Another Island Note

If you take Kaya Nikiboko Sud out past the Jesus Christ shrine that is down aways from town and turn right, you pass by one of the sweetest-smelling mango trees this side of Trinidad.  It is a mature tree that has passed the years gracefully sporting a massive trunk, gangly branches and lush, robust leaves.  When the red-yellow globes of mango appear so do flocks of squawking loras, our local yellow-shouldered Amazon parrots.  It is but a slice of a moment and it reminds me of why I live on an island.

08DecBON 12There are many others.  Some days I cruise Kralendijk by bike and turn a corner only to suddenly see a nine-story structure towering above the town.  Ah yes, the Boat-els.  If it is a two cruise ship arrival 4000+ day trippers, 25% of our population, pour down the gangplanks and into the streets.  Good thing I’m on the bicycle.  There is no parking to be found as taxis, tour buses and tourists on quads jockey around the town.  But those days are not forever, nor every day.  The last boat departs in May and we will not see another until November.

10AprilBON 3Then there are times when I am underwater, 40 feet down.  No mangos here, but the forest of soft coral that I drift through is as impressive as any terrestrial timberland.  There are undulating sea fans of purple and green, lacey sea plumes that reveal the direction of the current and sometimes turtles, and black sea rods, branchy gorgonians that are also appropriately called the Caribbean sea whip.  Down under delivers an experience that spurred the local government to place “Divers Paradise” on Bonaire’s license plates.

bonairelodging_smI just spent a night out at the kunuku of my friend, Hans.  He and his Cuban wife, Jenny, own the Auriga Ecolodge.  It is near sunset and Hans is asked to change the tire of a neighbor plagued with a bad back.  In his absence, I scale the stargazer platform of the B&B to watch the sun go down and have a dram of rum.  The platform rises above the surrounding canopy of kadushi cacti, acacia and divi divi trees.  From this high perch I am treated to raucous parrots and parakeets, colorful tropical orioles and strange, nocturnal nightjars.   These are the low riders of the nocturnal bird world with long wings, short legs and stubby bills.  To the east, I see a slice of Caribbean blue.  The rest of the vista is rolling farmland covered with arid vegetation and small fields of sorghum.  Windmills reminiscent of the Oklahoma plains punctuate the skyline.  It’s another island sunset.

I guess that is one of the many reasons I like this island where I live.  For such a small place, its diversity is extreme.  If I’m in need of psychedelia, I only have to travel south to the wind-swept saltpans of pink, lime green and sapphire blue waters.  downloadThrow in some Don Quixote-esque driftwood sculptures that appear and vanish on a whim and you have a landscape that would make Salvador Dali’s mustache twitch with envy.  08AugBon 370802BON 26And if I’m in the mood to get high, I only need to trek Mount Brandaris, the tallest peak on the island.  At a mere 241 meters (784 feet), it is a tiny foothill compared to my tech climbing landscapes of New Mexico years back.  But the diminutive Brandaris delivers big time with grand vistas of Bonaire, glimpses of neighboring Curaçao 40 miles to the west, and splendid panoramas of the indigo blue Caribbean flecked with white-capped waves.  It makes me want to stay forever.

Rock fever, anyone?  You know, that hemmed-in, claustrophobic, trapped feeling mainlanders get when spending too much time down island?  Not me.  There is simply too much beauty to see and things to do.  And if I ever run out of ideas, I can always just chill out in the fragrant shade of a mango tree.DSC_0089