Talking Parrots

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Another Island Note…

I am fortunate to live at a place on the island where I get a heavy dose of parrots most of the year.  For a tropical troubadour, nothing could be better.  Most evenings huge numbers of yellow-shouldered Amazon parrots fly through the ravine behind my house.  They come in twos or threes or groups up to twenty depending on the season.  The birds are headed for their nightly roost, a tranquil place away from people high on the ridge above my home.

Right before sunrise, the flight back out into the world is definitely not orderly.  Rather, it is a chaotic explosion of feather and squawk, sometime approaching one hundred birds doing wild aerial acrobatics. The sound is deafening.  Often I am woken by the all the bluster and just smile. It is a pleasant reminder that I am where I want to be on this big, blue marble; down island on dushiBonaire where the trade winds blow free, dolphins and mantas frolic in the blue sea, and the rum is cold and good.

But yellow-shouldered Amazon parrots are not an enigma for me nor a distant avian concept that simply flutters by my home twice a day.  Rather, I am one of the few lucky islanders fortunate to have a personal relationship with a member this exotic species called Amazona barbadensisor by the local name of lora.

That is all possible thanks to my good friends George and Laura.  By the late 1980s, they had had enough of conventional stateside life and set sail south from Chesapeake Bay for an extended cruise.  Years later aboard their yacht Oscarina the couple landed on Isla de Margarita, one of Venezuela’s Caribbean island gems.

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Isla de Margarita

A man there offered to sell them a parrot, a yellow-shouldered Amazon parrot in fact. Life for George and Laura has never been the same.

The bird was named Oscar, who quickly adapted to life on board their sloop.  And on land, he became quite an asset too.  “I don’t think we ever bought a drink after we got Oscar,” explains George.  “Laura would walk into an island beach bar with the parrot on her shoulder.  From then on the rum would flow free and freely for us.”

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Oscar still delights sitting on Laura’s shoulder.

Fast forward several decades and Oscar is still part of the family. Parrots are known for their longevity often living well into their 70s. The crew of three eventually left Oscarinafor life on land and now live deep in the mondi(outback) of Bonaire.  The bird has quite a setup with an elegant cage for sleeping and a daytime perch where he lords over the estate, looking down on the household’s cat and two dogs.  I’ve observed Oscar watching other loras from his lookout.  He seems to express a bit of disdain and superiority toward his wild kin. Perhaps being talisman of a sailboat and head of a manor has gone to his lovely yellow-colored head.

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Oscar reading the local paper, a very smart bird.

And maybe that is understandable for an island celebrity with wings.  Oscar has become the “face” of the Bonaire lora.  He starred in the music video “Let Them Fly Free”.  When National Geographic came to film part of a documentary on parrots, Oscar refused to sit on a cactus like the rest of his Bonairean brethren. The NG cameraman gave in to the local star’s demand, building a smooth perch off of his tripod so that the famous bird would be framed in the shot.  Who said TV was real anyway?  And then there was the time that the local parrot foundation rented a bus to take its well-healed patrons around the island in search of parrots. Who was at the front of the bus leading the charge?  Oscar, of course.

But just when we thought we knew everything about this lora, a parrot scientist appeared one day.  He offered to run a DNA test on the bird.  With a saliva sample in hand, the scientist hurried off to the lab.  Two weeks later we found out that Oscar was actually a female. The lora seemed totally unphased by this sudden transgender result.  After all, this bird has seen it all.  She has been in enough rum bars to keep Jack Sparrow happy.  She’s sailed to some of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. And now in her terrestrial years, Oscar reigns from her roost.IMG_1627

Come another sunset, I watch once more the parade of yellow-shouldered Amazons past my home.  Some stop to eat cactus fruit before heading up to the ridge for the night. Eventually all are settled in branches above the mondi.  It is about this time that Laura gently places a blanket over her parrot’s cage.  It is the passing of another island day.  I expect Oscar will see many more.  Hopefully, I will again get to share a few of them with him.  Uh, I mean her.  Having a parrot as a buddy is simply the best, especially when one lives on an island. Arrrgh.

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Down Island Gold Rush

Another Island Note…IMG_1645

Colorado may have its quaking aspens and Japan its delicate cherry blossoms, but down here at 12-latitude we’ve got the ax breaker.  That is what Kibrahacha means in our local language of Papiamentu.  It was given that name due to the dense hardness of the tree’s wood. It is also known as Yellow Poui or Golden Trumpet Tree in English.  What makes the kibrahacha a top contender for arboreal eye candy is its ability to produce copious amounts of brilliant yellow flowers if the weather conditions are just right.

Our present explosion of color was due to a nearly all-day rain last weekend.  It was one of those lay-in-the-hammock-and-pour-another-daiquiri kind of rains: soft, gentle and nourishing.  It was a day for whiling away until the sun goes down. This welcomed tropical shower was preceded by three months of no precipitation-perfect conditions for triggering the kibrahachas.  Normally, the trees are bare of blooms and leaves.

We have four small kibrahachas on our land.  By Thursday they began sprouting their modest blooms.  But by day’s end, the hillsides were painted with splashes of yellow.  It looked like Jackson Pollack had had a dripping extravaganza from his studio high in the heavens.  It brought back memories of childhood autumns.  It was chroma enhancement for the soul.  Soon our home was surrounded by gold.

I have written about this amazing display before in Island Notes. But this outburst of yellow is one for the ages due to dry/wet conditions aligning perfectly.  But I must stop writing now to go back and gaze upon the flowering ax breakers.  This gold rush will only last a few days before the winds blow petals and seeds away. And then the trees return to their somber state of bark, twig and branch.DSC00091

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Aqua therapy made easier with blooming kibrahacha in the distance.

Brazilwood Chillin’

 

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Another Island Note…

I guess it is not surprising that I picked this spot.  It is a triangulation of wild trees—staunch, wily trunks stretching toward the blue, tropical sky.  Once I had bought the land, this arboreal convergence immediately caught my eye.  But thoughts of making this a delightful place to chill simmered as more pressing issues of the new home beckoned my attention.

Months later, I took a bad fall.  Fifteen feet, seven fractures and one year later, I find myself doing four, half-hour session per day to make my hand and fingers work again—to grab a fork, to scratch my nose, to pull a line while sailing.  The process is methodical, boring, but necessary to get mobility back again.  Eight exercises in thirty minutes.  But where do I do this?  Sometimes I sit on the terrace couch staring out on the Caribbean Sea.  That’s not a bad place for a reoccurring duty. Or I laugh at hilarious Robin Williams clips on You Tube to pass the time and ignore the pain while doing the PT.

Then one day I looked up while walking the cat (yes, Sweet Pea demands two walks around the property per day.  And yes, without a leash he would be gone forever with no direction home),IMG_1548 I saw the Brazilwood triangle again.   Actually, the third tree is a watakeli (chinkswood in English), but the pair of Brazilwoods dominate the trinity.  Together they form an erogenous zone of oddball symmetry, natural un-balance and raw beauty.  I set a chair in the middle of the patchy, shady confluence and added a worn-out boat cushion, now retired from the decks of Kontentu, for comfort.  I began to my half hour of physical therapy protected from the blazing midday sun.  Time flew by.  Pain was minimal.  I was on to something.

I returned the next day and set the chair down.  This time while doing the required exercises, I pondered how to make this special place mine.  While the trees spread out their meager leaves in defiance of this hot climate, the sun beating down was bearable but still intense.  I knew a sun shade would complete the deal.  I measured the distance between the three trees and discovered that the canvas shape would need to be an obtuse triangle to fill the space.  Friends Suus & Eunan have a sail loft/canvas shop in town and made the unique-shaped shade in a couple of weeks.  Then Peruvian painters came to paint our house blue.  They used the chill spot for their lunch break and cleverly folded a sheet into triangular form to get even move shade.  The light bulb went on.  I bought a stock triangular shade to replace the painters’ sheet and had that customized at Pakus di Tela in less than 24 hours. Chillin’ in the shadows is a tropical requirement.  Add those constant trade winds blowing under the fabric and the azimuth of my life suddenly improved big time.IMG_1551

Duly shaded, I felt a need to separate myself from the ground.  We live on top of the second fossil terrace of Bonaire, an uplifted ancient coral formation made by glacio-isostatic adjustment (geologist-speak for the ongoing land movement and rising seas due to glaciers)and the clashing of the Caribbean and South American tectonic plates millennia ago (in fact, those plates are still battling it out today).  That resulted in an undulating, blade-sharp surface of black coral rock. DSC00053 In short, it’s not the best place to tumble out of a hammock.  So I chose to make a deck above the rock from treated wood that would ward off termites.  That involved pouring ten concrete posts for fitting the joists and getting above the rock.  Then a deck of 2 x 8 lumber was fastened to the horizontals.  I installed a 4 x 4 vertical beam to string up a hammock anchored to one of the trees.  I also added a couple of gargoyles for good measure, just to keep away any negativity.  After all, this place is all about chill.DSC00056

Suddenly, I am Brazilwood Chillin’.  This special space delivers a laidback vibe in which to while away another island day.  I watch puffy, white clouds blowing by above.  I get visits from birds in the branches— squawking yellow-shouldered Amazon parrots, multi-colored tropical orioles and non-nonsense pearly-eyed thrashers.  I get through another PT session with little boredom and reduced pain.  This wonderful spot takes the gnarly edge off all that.DSC00055

I admire the tenacity of these trees to withstand the rigors of our climate of salt and sun.  Plus, Brazilwood survived immense overharvesting by the Dutch in the 1600s.  The trees were prized for their red dye and Bonaire was full of them.   In fact, the ‘rock’ back then was known as Isla de Palu de Brazil (the island of Brazilwood trees).  The industrious Dutch West Indies Company with its abundant blind ambition cashed in on the island’s botanical wealth sending ships full of Brazilwood back to mother Holland.  There, the red dye was extracted from the wood and used to color textiles and for ship sails due to its resistance to mold and rot.  For me, that imagery conjures up the sappy lyrics to the 1930s song, Red Sails in the Sunset, popularized years later by Nat King Cole.  Red sails in the sunset, way out on the sea.  I’m far from my loved one, who’s waiting for me…

@Pieter Molenaar

@Pieter Molenaar

The schmaltzy music swamps my head while I sway in the hammock.  I glance out to sea and watch the white caps foam on the surface.  A sailboat drifts by, full sail and listing to starboard on a run down the coast.  A ruby-topaz hummingbird buzzes momentarily inches from my nose and then vanishes in a hurried heartbeat.  This is Brazilwood Chillin’ and I don’t want it to end.

Brazilian Bliss

Another Island Note…

In 1969 I spent a long, hot summer in Columbus, Ohio and I was busy.  I was caretaker of five beagle puppies while my roommate wandered away in search of his latest muse.  I turned down an offer to go to a distant, unnamed music festival (yes, it turned out to be Woodstock). And I was in deep academic kimchi so to speak as I was taking 15 hours of intensified Portuguese to fulfill my language requirement for a college degree.

My instructor, Ricardo, from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais told us two summer-changing facts on the opening day of class.  The first was that this would be the last time that English would be spoken during the course.  There was a collective gulp among us dozen students.  The second was if you miss just one class, don’t even bother returning.  The lessons were given at such blistering speed (3 days of normal class in one) that you would never be able to recover the loss.  This explains why that sultry summer I did not see Santana, the Who, Mr. Jimmy or Joe Cocker strut their stuff at Woodstock.

This language course was all encompassing as we had been warned.  From eight until noon it was non-stop oral exercises, grammar explanations, written exercises and tests in the classroom.   Ricardo lived up to his pledge of no English other than the few times we resisted in mass and forced him to explain a complicated grammatic problem.  Other than that, it was Fala en Português!  After lunch there were 2-3 hours of language lab work.  My ears throbbed each day after a half hour due to the clunky headphones that made us look like crew members of a B-52.  Then it was home to feed the puppies, followed by 2-3 hours of written exercises and reading.  Take all that five times per week, and this course was downright grueling.

But I never missed a class and by the time we were freed in August, I could actually speak Portuguese, probably at the level of a five-year old.  I duly impressed myself, but those results were only possible because of a dedicated teacher like Ricardo.  He was the best I ever had.  The man not only taught us the language, but the Brazilian culture. It was there that I learned about feijoada, the national dish of Brazil—that south-of-the-border concoction of black beans, pork, sausage, vegetables and herbs. When Ricardo passionately described its taste, the class salivated in unison.  I knew right then I would have to try this stew.  Little did I know that I would have to wait for nearly a half century.
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There are only a handful of Brazilians that live on Bonaire.  I am fortunate to know Valmor and Angelica Zimmermann.  Valmor’s nickname is Junior.  I find that ironic for the man is an avid weightlifter and diver and not physically small.  Nor is his larger-than-life personality.  Junior is a passionate person that loves a good time, a cold beer and a fast boat—all three of which I have shared with him in the past.  When I told him the story from above he said, “Patrick, we must make feijoada for you.  It is the national dish of Brazil.  You have to try it!”

That was about three years ago.  I discovered that neither Angelica nor Junior had ever made the stew.  Rather they rely on family or restaurants to supply their feijoada fix.  But that changed this year.  When Angelica and Junior arrived in March, they brought along Araci to take care of Theo, their two-year old son.  This was quite a trip for the middle-aged au pair.  It was her first time out of Brazil.  She flew on an airplane, her maiden voyage in the air.  And most importantly she brought decades of feijoada cooking experience to Bonaire.

“Why don’t Hettie and you come to our home on Saturday afternoon,” suggested Junior.  “That is when feijoada is traditionally served. We will have a few caipirinahs and then we will eat!”  My Portuguese instructor, Ricardo, had taught me well.  I remember him explaining caipirinahs to the class.  It is Brazil’s national cocktail consisting of cachaça (sugarcane hard liquor), sugar and lime.  When we arrived at one, we began sipping on these cool, potent cocktails.

I was eager with anticipation.  After having waited nearly a half century, I was about to taste the elusive feijoada.  “Araci could not find all the ingredients here that we use in Brazil,” explained Junior.  “She had to substitute bread crumbs for cassava, the kale (which comes from Holland) here is sweeter than ours and a couple of the meats are different, but this comes pretty close to the real thing.”  The four of us flocked to the kitchen with plates in hand.  “You can pick out what meats you want on your dish,” urged Angelica.  “Everybody does that in Brazil. I always get the sausage, but you will find pieces of beef, smoked pork and pork ribs in the pot.” We all filled our plates and sat to dine on their terrace overlooking the sapphire blue Caribbean.

The feijoada was splendid.  It has a hefty texture and the flavors of the meats and black beans mix seamlessly with the white rice and the dark green kale laced with garlic and onions.  The Brazilians and I returned for seconds while Sergio Mendes played in the background. That was followed by cool coconut flan with stewed prunes. With bellies full, I pulled out my contribution to the feast, a bottle of El Dorado rum aged for 21 years in wooden casks in Guyana.  With eyes half-closed, I stared out to the sea.  I thought of Ricardo, the generosity of the Brazilians I have known, the five beagle puppies and the beautiful language of Portuguese, now just a fading memory on my stumbling tongue.  But I did manage this, “Obrigado.  Muito obrigado pela comida maravilhosa. (Thank you.  Thank you for the wonderful food)The four of us spent the rest of the mellow afternoon making plans to visit Brazil together.  And as Junior reminded me time and again, “There are many restaurants there that served fantastic feijoada.  We must try them all!”

Rainbow Season

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Another Island Note…

Another rainy season is upon us.  Yes, on Bonaire we receive most of our rain this time of year culminating in a spring harvest of sorghum in April.  But what happens in this tropical clime is not a constant deluge of rain like in the Amazon or other jungle-scapes. Rather, rains here are repeated short bursts often coming from one large black cloud. But soon the skies open up and pour golden sunshine onto our rock in the Caribbean Sea.  And that is when the magic begins.  Mix mid-air droplets with brilliant rays and that incredible, invisible cosmic bending of light occurs, sending rainbows to the opposite horizon from the sun.  Where I live that means morning rainbows are over the sea with the elusive pot o’ gold ending up fathoms deep off the coast.  Evening displays hover above the ridge of hills to the north where squawking parrots frolic and begin their  nighttime roost.  Yes, it is rainbow season and I don’t have to wait for spring harvest. “Where does the rainbow end, in your soul or on the horizon?” Chilean writer Pablo Neruda once asked.  For me, I gather the color now, soothing chromatic collections in my mind.

Back On The Water

23157988_10208468374186201_1745039841_oAnother Island Note

When something is taken away from you that you yearn for, that you breath with passion, that because you do it so much you just might take it a bit for granted… well that can be a mess.

After seven months of not being on the water, I was not right.  After all, I live on an island.  And I am a sailor.  I usually go once or twice a week sailing solo or with friends.  Many times more than that. But life got in the way this year with a 15-foot fall causing six broken bones.  I wish I could say I fell from the mast.  But no, it was a pedestrian, domestic prat fall with no redeeming qualities.

But I got a message from my sailing buddy, Patrick Hulsker, saying he was returning to Bonaire for a two-week vacation a few weeks back.  Pat and I sailed numerous times together on my boat Kontentu and on a four day voyage on a 43-foot sloop to the uninhabited Venezuelan islands of Las Aves (the Birds) where we stuffed ourselves with fresh-caught fish turned into delectable ceviche and washed down with rum.  Ah, the island life of a sailor.

But I digress.  Pat offered to take me out on my own boat when he came to visit since my bones are still on the mend.  What a friend.  I called Luti who was working on Kontentu-land bound and due for new bottom paint-4 weeks ago.  “Luti, I need Kontentu in the water by October 21st.  I have a friend that will take me sailing.  It would mean a lot to me.”  “No problem, Patrick.  We’ll have the boat in the water soon.”

The word “soon” in the Caribbean as in “soon come” means you better be ready to wait for a long time.  My boat is still on the hard and not in the marina.  But my buddy Patrick not only rented a house for his family’s vacation, but also his old fishing boat which he sold before moving back to Holland.  So today I was back on the water with Pat and his son Tico.  They rigged a comfortable captain’s chair for me midship and we went to sea, fishing.  23134690_10208468373266178_1399454383_oActually, only Tico was fishing and he caught enough for lunch.  Patrick and I talked about boats, the island and travel. 23134947_10208468372186151_1684510554_o In between chats I smelled the water, heard the water lap against the hull and watch a flying fish soar for 20 yards.  A turtle popped his head up for a look.  A few new boats passed by and many familiar ones that in know so well.  Ah, yes.  I was back on the water.  No place that I would rather be.23131380_10208468374586211_1924775274_o