Brazilwood Chillin’



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.
                                                                          *     *     *
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


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

Poolside Reflections…



Another Island Note…

It’s hot, humid, windless. The two tempests, Irma and Maria, are not only threatening our dear friends who live on islands to the north, but the double trouble is sucking up all the trade winds here on Bonaire.  That’s what enormous Cat 5 hurricanes do in our neighborhood.  So while I sweat away the day and worry about my amigos, I feel a need for more than a cooling rum drink.  Yes, it is time for poolside reflections.  I stare into the clear water, slightly rippled by a ghost of a breeze. Five feet down I see my nemesis, the pool robot.  There was a time that I held the prestigious position of pool boy at our household on the hill.  I relished the job.  Early morning shirtless, I would rhythmically move a 16-foot aluminum pole back and forth vacuuming the bottom.  The sun was soothing.  The early birds of tropical oriole, parakeet and parrot cheered me on.  It was bliss.

Thoughts ran back to my teenage years when I tried to score a summer job as a lifeguard at a posh Cleveland suburb country club.  I was foiled by more mature, buff dudes that impressed the management.  Undeterred, I applied to be a pool boy.  What better than to get a tan, watch bikini-clad girls frolic poolside and make minimum wage?  But again, I was rejected.  I resorted to washing cars and mowing lawns.  It was an endless summer, but not in the good let’s-surf-around-the-world kind of way.

A half century later, I own the damn pool.  I immediately proclaim myself pool boy.  I don the surfer shorts and cool sunglasses, Ray Bans of course.  I quickly absorb the intricacies of the pump system, conquer the chemistry of sequestered water and scrub the opalescent tiles with vigor.  Then the accident happened.

After a fifteen foot fall and five fractures I could barely stir my cup of coffee let alone maintain a pool.  My sidekick didn’t fancy doing the vacuuming so with a rapid keystroke on the Amazon dot com site, I was replaced by The Pool Cleaner, a robot vacuum system that proved to do a more thorough cleaning than even yours truly, the overachieving pool boy.IMG_1220

So I sit here today in my wheelchair staring at the machine that replaced me.  I watch the four-wheeled gadget crisscross the pool in its arrogant, haphazard manner.  I’m steaming, not so much from the sultry weather, but out of indignant rage.  How could this clump of plastic, gears and hose take away one of life’s pleasures?  Pool boy was now obsolete.

As rocker Stevie “Guitar” Miller once sang, “Some things are better left alone. Like that bulldog in the bathroom. Like that wombat on the phone.”  Perhaps this applies to The Pool Cleaner too.  It is sometimes better to first understand your enemies before aggressively confronting them.  So I sit and watch the contraption with slight contempt.

After a few minutes I realize the mechanical beast and I have some commonality.  I watch it spin in circles incessantly in the middle of the pool.  I flashback to doing donuts with the family’s red 1964 Chevy Impala Super Sport in the snowy parking lot of my high school, abandoned on a winter weekend.

The Pool Cleaner then abruptly changes direction and heads for a wall.  It collides with the side, spinning its wheels, dead in its tracks.  This reminds me of too many times in my life I was in a similar stalemate.  The most recent was when I was in my 50s, trying to score on the last job of my career.  Nobody wants an old dog anymore in spite of the fact that you have decades of experience to draw upon.  Paying your dues has become obsolete.  Silly.  I applied for jobs nearly every month for two years.  The rejections piled up.  I felt much like The Pool Cleaner might, grinding against the wall, if only the thing had feelings.  Finally, after nearly fifty applications I got a job of a lifetime, which ended up being a joyous capstone to my career.

Suddenly the robot breaks away from the wall, scurries ten feet and deflects off the side to only head in another direction.  I recall another time from the past when I did the exact same maneuver. Friends and I were sailing south in Chesapeake Bay for most of the day.  As the late summer afternoon sun burned into a golden haze, the crew’s thoughts turned to pistachio-crusted crab cakes and cold beer that could be had at our destination port.  We arrived there in fading light and I was at the helm.  My mate had no chart but read how to enter the harbor from a cruising guide.  Not an ideal situation. We saw the town ahead, its lights twinkling to starboard and decided it was time to turn.  Wrong.  Our sailboat hit a shoal.  I immediately turned to port, gunned the engine and the boat bounced off the mud bottom, just like the robot glancing the wall.  We continued south for another hundred yards in deeper water and finally found a channel marker that led us to those cherished pistachio-crusted crab cakes and cold beer.

As The Pool Cleaner grinds on, a soft, tropical rain begins to fall.  The drizzle turns the surface of the placid pool into an obscure aquatic mosaic.  I can no longer see the gizmo below and I’m getting pleasantly wet.  Gone is the opportunity to witness more mechanical metaphors that strangely mirror my life.  I end my poolside reflections remembering the wise words of Ernest Hemingway as he sloshed down an endless procession of rum daiquiris at La Floridita Bar in Havana, “A man can be destroyed, but not defeated.”  Pool boy will rise again some day.

Banana Grove Revisted

IMG_0885Another Island Note…

It was 11 months ago that I became ‘tropical farmer’ and planted a small banana grove with a lime tree (posted May 25, 2016).  Picture big straw hat & flip flops–that kind of farmer.  Then I thought I would never address this topic again on this blog for my talent with plants has never been a strong point.  I wasn’t very confident.

But hold the boat!  Yesterday, friends visiting pointed out a cluster of baby bananas hanging above a huge bulbous flower.  I didn’t even know they were hanging there.  Oh yeah.  Banana daiquiris on the horizon.IMG_0889







Island Notes-The Coconut Grove


I always wanted to have a coconut grove.  You know.  One of those botanical erogenous zones that provide sweet shade from the tropical sun, coconuts begging to be made into that afternoon elixer-a coco loco* and a place for hammocks to gently sway by the warm trade winds.

Now that I have a bit of island land I decided to plant a mini coconut grove.  I bought three Suriname coco palm plants from a lady in Hato, a neighborhood just down the hill.  Throughout the ages, these plants have traveled from Suriname via  the Guiana Current (#8)… f1-large-a massive ocean stream that sweeps between Trinidad and the northeast corner of South America, bends west entering the Caribbean Sea, and then steams toward Panama.  Coconuts that end up being beached have the potential of sprouting and, beyond those palms transplanted by people, that is how the ABC Islands received coconut palms. I was informed that my particular plants were offspring from a half dozen, towering Suriname palms that were planted on Hato’s shore in the 1940s.

My plan was to plant a triangle of palms equidistant from each other allowing for three hammocks to be hung simultaneously.  Easier said then done on my moonscape land formed by uplifted coral terrace that looks more like a Mauna Loa lava flow than anything else.  The trick was to find spots between the klip where some soil existed.  I found three such spots, but my triangle quickly went from equilateral to obtuse in a Havana heartbeat. No matter.  The differences in distance will be solved by longer or shorter hammock lines.


Natural hole in the klip (right of the palm)


The walls of the hole are built up with extra klip and soil put in.


Palm in ground.

I had to sledgehammer off some pieces of klip to form a circle in two locations.  Then I dumped in a base of soil, set the palm in the hole, put in more soil around the plant and formed a dish to capture water.  Next I’ll put in some drip irrigation that is fed by my gray water system.  On Bonaire we can get days or weeks without rain so the drip will help the trees during the dry times.dsc05608

Two hours and a quart bottle of water later, the trifecta was complete. My humble coconut grove has begun.  I have no idea how long it will take the trees to grow big enough to hold hammocks, but it will be fun watching the race.  And who knows, I may be drinking coconut milk before you know it.dsc05607

*coco loco  Cut off the top of a coconut without spilling the water inside.  Put in a shot of Mount Gay Eclipse rum, a squeeze of lime and a bit of ice.  Go find a hammock and enjoy.