Independence Day

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Another note from dah island, mon…

It all started when the green light clicked on. For two days Pieter and Benjamin from Solar Solutions had been busy installing 10 solar panels on our roof. Next came the Sunny Boy inverter that converts 12-volt electricity produced by the sun activating the panels’ photo voltaics.  Then the final step, install a cable to feed our electric system and a breaker. Pieter activated the inverter for the first time.  “You see that shining green light on the Sunny Boy?  You are now making electricity.  Congratulations!  Yes, this was Independence Day.DSC00737

Electricity prices in the Caribbean are among the highest in the world and Bonaire is no exception.  I’ve been told that 60% of our power comes from the wind generators on the  east coast.  The remainder is from diesel-fueled generators.  But the monopoly, WEB (Water-Electric-Bonaire) charges a hook-up fee, not one time but monthly.  On top of that, they bill a whopping 28.7-cents per kilowatt hours.  Those heavy charges all add it all up making me feel like I better sit in the dark at night.  Or better yet, get pro-active and install a solar system.DSC00770

DSC00768Ours is a day-only system, which means that no battery storage is needed.  We generate electricity when the sun hits the solar panels (actually, I’ve seen light from the full moon activate it). That power goes directly into our home’s electric grid. Whatever we don’t use is sent back to WEB for a paltry 5-cent charge instead of the 28.7-cents they charge us.  So our mantra is run everything during the daylight hours that we can-swimming pool pump, washing machine, dish washer, whatever.

The first few sunny days we would go out to our street-side electric meter and take a look.  The dial was always stationary-no power was being used.  How much we sold back to WEB will be discovered at a later date. Even on cloudy days, and we’ve had a few lately due to passing tropical depressions, the solar is producing 75% of our daytime electric use.  What is really boss is that the Sunny Boy inverter feeds the info to a web site and shows us all the details-kilowatt production, how much per hour, etc.  But the coolest data shows how many pounds of carbon emissions were not put into the environment because of our solar system. That makes me feel really good. DSC00763

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Solar hot water heater hiding behind the banana trees.

This has been a long time coming.  When we bought our house on the hill it already had a solar hot water heater.  It’s a big box that runs water through black pipes.  The builder had installed an electric backup boiler, but we have never used it.  We have warm water even after two days of clouds, and that is unusual Bonaire weather. But the solar hot water planted the seed and showed us the potential of having a photo voltaic system to produce electricity.  We were ready to do that two years ago, but life unexpectedly got in the way.  Plans were shelved until this month.  Now every September 19thwe will have a celebration because for us, it’s Independence Day.DSC00749

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The Last Laugh

dsc_0021Another Island Note…

I have just returned from the Arctic, back to my tropical island.  It’s a sizzling September this year as hurricanes and tropical storms blow by to the north. In the process, these tempests take away most of our cooling trade winds.  When you are living at 12° latitude, that calls for a hot day.  But there is no use in complaining.  You can’t reason with hurricane season.

dsc_0015Besides the heat, I have noticed some changes among the feathery residents of the island.  Swallows have appeared, cutting sharp aerial patterns in the red sunset sky.  A few laughing gulls still remain.  Gone are the days when hundreds squawked and laughed seaside on their way through the breeding season.  The birds that stayed behind are now uncommonly still and it will be months before they will have sex again.  I believe this may be the last laugh for the gulls.  At least until next spring.DSC00708

As night descends, I take to the streets of my neighborhood for a cooling walk.  Venus, Jupiter and Mars brighten up the south western sky.  The moon is nearly full and bathes the way in a soft, mellow light. I hear “click” ahead.  Yes, it is another hermit crab deciding to hunker down on the asphalt.  As I approach, the terrestrial crustacean retreats within its shell, a refined defensive technique far superior to that of the ostrich burying its head in the sand.

But it is the nightjars that I find most fascinating. I’ll encounter at least a dozen during an evening half-hour stroll.  These nocturnal birds have ghostly, erratic flights that lift them only a few feet above the ground, often just inches over my head.  Engoulevent coré Hydropsalis cayennensis White-tailed NightjarWhite striped wings reveal their flight path, but only for a moment. With a quick turn, the birds disappear into the inky dark.  Then suddenly they mysteriously reappear moments later, usually behind me with a resounding ‘plop’.  No wonder the locals regard the elusive nightjars with superstition.  For me, I find them fascinating friends of the night.

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Nightjar in the middle of the street.

In my neighborhood, nightjars often station themselves on the street, directly facing a lamp pole.  They look like guardians of the light.  I try to approach slowly and often stop for as long as a minute to see which of us will move first.  It is usually me and within that first step forward, the nightjar will take to the air. I try repeatedly in vain to make contact.  It’s my quest to learn more about these strange creatures.  But the birds are aloof, steadfastly preserving their island myth. On evenings such as this, it is really the nightjars who have the last laugh.DSC00719

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.

Hammock Contemplations

HammockAnother Island Note

Just the other day my good friend, Captain John, asked me for shortcut directions to get to the ridge road when leaving Rincon. “Go to the building where the Polar Beer wall advertisement used to be and turn right,” I expertly instructed.

The captain stared back at me incredulously. “How do you expect me to find that land mark if it doesn’t exist anymore? You’ve been on the island too long!” He had a point. Not about my longevity on Bonaire, but certainly about how the island, in perhaps subtle, imperceptible ways, has changed me. I decided that it was time for some serious hammock contemplation to explore this in depth.

I have a near daily ritual of retreating to my hammock in the heat of the afternoon. It hangs in the shade of the porch where the breezes blow through my home and out to sea.   The hammock is a great place to chill, contemplate the cosmos or simply snooze. I tend to do all three. But on this particular afternoon I began thinking about what Captain John had pointed out. How has this island changed me?

There are a number of small things. For instance, I used make a bee-line to the receptionist upon entering a dentist or doctor office to let them know I was present. No longer. I have learned to first say ‘Bon Dia’ or ‘Bon Tardi’ upon arrival, acknowledging everyone in the waiting room. Only after the greeting is complete do I make my way to the desk.

Another example happened last week. I pulled my station wagon over to say hello to Yellow Man who was walking along Kaya Playa Lechi. I didn’t do a very good job of that since the back end of the car was still on the road. Karen in the pickup truck behind gave me a short honk and yelled out, “Look at you, Patrick. You’re driving just like a local.” She was right. And the people in the three vehicles behind her appeared to nod in agreement as well.

Then there are the celebrations of new things on the island.   When the Bonaire Mall on Kaya Grandi finally got their new escalator working, the first one ever here, I went over and rode the machine to the top—twice. It was great. Then someone critically pointed out that it is only one-way, that once on top you have to walk back down. I never thought about that. I guess I am from the ‘glass-half-full’ school of life philosophy.  09OctBON 4Or how about when the new rotonda opened up at the intersection of Kaya Industria and Kaya International a few years back. I remember that grand day clearly. Approaching the traffic circle everything screamed, “I AM NEW!” in the blazing afternoon sun.  Bold, white lines commanded where to stop.  The new asphalt was deep black from being poured just the day before.  Letters painted on the yellow, circular centerpiece greeted those just released from the Flamingo Airport, ‘Bon Bini Na Bonaire’-welcome to Bonaire.  09OctBON 7It was overwhelming.  I was euphoric.  I sped about the circle once-twice-three times, laughing madly all the way.  My equilibrium-challenged spouse was duly unimpressed and as I approached the fourth orbit, I was sternly urged to abort the mission and begin re-entry. “Oh, ok,” I mumbled and obediently steered my earth orbiter Subaru on to Kaya Industria.

You can imagine with these changes in attitudes what it is like for me to change latitudes when I leave the island. Each year, I dutifully return to the States to see family. But increasingly I feel out of place in the country where I was born. For one, I have to wear real shoes there. Plus the traffic is horrendous. People are in hyper-warp—talking, texting and driving all at the same time. There is little room for poco poco here. When I visit a supermarket I get lost among the four, 20-meter long aisles of frozen foods. All I want is a bag of frozen peas! At a cocktail party hosted by my lovely sister, an urban-elegant girlfriend of hers inquires, “What is it that you exactly do every day on your tiny island?” I begin to answer, but stop. How can I express my excitement about orbiting our new rotunda to this lady? I take a sip of chardonnay instead and safely reply, “Not much.”

Coming back on the United flight from Newark, I await touchdown. Exiting the plane, I get that first blast of warm, tropical air. Yes, back on the island. The next morning, I awake early. First light reveals the silhouette of a palm swaying in slow motion outside my window.   First wind delivers the soft whirling noise from the wind generators mounted on the visiting yachts in the bay. First sounds come from a backyard rooster in the neighborhood as he crows his morning salute. A troupial responds with a multicolored melody. The question from the cocktail party lady comes to mind and I simply smile. What will I do today? Ahhh, let me count the ways…08AugBon 135 (1)

Post Script

Days after my return, Captain John confessed to me that my oblique directions to the ridge road out of Rincon were not the worst that he received down island. One time while anchored on the eastern Caribbean island of Antigua, he asked the best way to get from Falmouth Harbor to Shirley Heights, a lookout notorious for its Sunday parties of rum and reggae. A local told him to follow the road out of town and turn right where the cow was. The captain was skeptical, but made his way up the hill. After a while he saw a man ahead leading a cow by rope along the road. “I asked him if he could show me where he had his cow staked for the day and the farmer complied,” says John. Once there, the thirsty sailor then went right as earlier instructed from and made his way to the best party on Antigua.

 

Seaside Livin’

DSCN3167Another Island Note

It is unusually gray this morning. I’m moving a bit slow after a late night beach party. But the dog doesn’t care. “Feed me and let’s walk!” commands super-hound, Sparky. We are out the door at 7am.

DSC01406It is Tuesday, pick up day, so the roar of garbage trucks fills the neighborhood air. So does the noise of the diesel from the Molly M, just returned after a night on the water. The crew looks tired as the wind has been blowing a constant 25-30 knots with accompanying heavy seas. I look to the dock and see about thirty black-fin tuna lined up on the deck. Oh my. Sashimi tonight. You know, it’s that delectable Japanese way of preparing raw fish.

Gerry, a local fisherman, comes toward his truck where an opened, coffin-sized cooler awaits.  Sparky’s eyes are locked on him as he approaches with four tuna in each hand. “Bon dia. Do you have a small one for me?” I ask. “Ami pensando asina. Mi ta wòrdu drechi bèk,” responds Gerry in Papiamentu. (I think so. I will be right back.).

The fisherman returns with another two fistfuls of fish and pulls out the smallest. It is a bit more than a kilo. Ten dollars gets me to sashimi heaven. Sparky looks at me and then to the fish.  Yes, I better keep this catch high. The hound is ready for her second breakfast.

Now, I am not a master of filet, but then again, cutting the fish is not brain surgery. A slice near the pectoral fin and then one at the tail. Follow the backbone along one side and then another cut along the bottom. Pull the skin off-easier said then done. Cut two filets out of one side and repeat on the starboard. Thirty minutes later, I have the goods for a feast. StarKist has nothing on me this morning. Sorry, Charlie.DSC01387

DSC01389Now I slice paper-thin pieces off of two filets. And then there is the obligatory wasabi—that strong Japanese horseradish paste that clears sinuses in a Tokyo heartbeat, and Saitaku ginger marinated in vinegar and sugar. This stuff is naturally pink and oh, so good. I add a bit of arugula to complete the deal. It is sashimi with sunset tonight.

The other two filets await the grill for a beach party on another day . I’m thinking that a ginger/tamari/garlic marinade may be just the ticket for the fish at grill time. The cats and dogs get the bits and pieces boiled off the head and bone. Everybody is happy. Ah, seaside living, where the grocery store starts at the dock.DSC01407

 

Crystal Gold The solar salt works of Bonaire. Part 3

The environment and beyond…salt & conveyor belt

While Cargill’s salt operations can be viewed as a rare center of industry on Bonaire, beyond the pink water lays island nature in its best. Along the southern boundary of the flamingoes-Pekelmeersalt works is Pekelmeer, which means ‘salty lake’ in Dutch. The saline water, along with its abundant pink crustaceans and brine flies, makes it an ideal place for Caribbean flamingoes to thrive and nest. This is a breeding hotspot for the birds, one of the four largest in the entire Caribbean basin. The sanctuary is also a designated Ramsar site, a wetland of significant international importance. Cargill has a lease on this land from the island government and with that comes custodial responsibilities.

11JulyAru 67“Part of our contract with the island is that we maintain the Flamingo Sanctuary for the birds,” says Gary Rimmey, Cargill’s plant manager. “We do monthly bird counts and share that data with STINAPA (the island’s national park) and DROB (the regional planning and management department). At any given time there are between 700-1200 flamingoes on the property. We also maintain the water level so that the birds have the mud for the nesting and also so they have a food source.”

Additionally Cargill reports any disturbances in the Pekelmeer to the authorities. “As the lease owner, it’s our job to protect the Flamingo Sanctuary. Believe it or not, we’ve had kite surfers in Pekelmeer waters. And pet owners sometimes let their dogs wander unleashed. The public may not realize it but one kite surfer or one unleashed dog can ruin an entire breeding season for the flamingoes. Our workers take great pride in these birds. They are part of Bonaire’s national identity.”

But beyond lease agreements, Cargill appears to be proactive in other areas of conservation. They plot and monitor all the sabal palms on the property. Sabal palms are a rare sub species endemic to Bonaire. Occasionally they assist Sea Turtle Conservation 11JulyAru 67 (1)Bonaire with managing the turtle nesting beaches located on Cargill’s leased land. They are also currently working with STINAPA and DROB to develop a tern island where these skittish water birds can nest undisturbed. “The problem is that we have terns nesting on our harvest roads,” explains Rimmey. “There was some concern that we were interrupting the nesting cycle at times with our operations. So we are currently working with the conservation groups to build a tern island. We’re going to put tern decoys out there, some vegetation and a rock landscape that will attract the terns. It will be completed by April in time for the nesting season. Once the birds are on the island they will be safe from feral cats well as Cargill traffic. Our hope is that if STINAPA’s study shows that this first island is successful, we will build one a year. Our goal is to co-exist with the terns.”

Tern Island

Tern Island

In addition to conservation, Cargill opens their leased land, which runs the entire coast from Trans World Radio to the Willemstoren lighthouse, to recreation. They have a formal agreement with kite surfer groups to use the beach at Atlantis for kite surfing. Cargill allows shore diving along these shores that sport some of the best reefs on Bonaire. That includes the Salt Pier when ships are not present. Plus, the public is allowed access to Pink Beach, a lovely stretch of coastline that Cargill owns outright.

For Gary Rimmey, Cargill’s position on this land use is pragmatic and straightforward. “Part of our lease with the government dictates that we manage the Flamingo Sanctuary. But with concerns to our other conservation work we view the wildlife on the southern end of the island—the fauna and flora—as a treasure. We want to help preserve it. It’s as simple as that.”

*   *   *

Michael A-1The Michael A, a 288-foot cargo vessel, is docked and slowly moving up and down with the surge of the sea. I look below to the ship while standing next to a chute where 3500 metric tons of Bonaire salt are about to fall into the vessel’s holds (compartments). It is shipment day. “This ship will be taking our salt to the Dominican Republic,” say cargo dock master, Rudy ­­­­Sint Jago.   “The Michael A has five holds. I just spoke with the ship’s captain and we worked out this plan.”Rudy with loading plan

shiploading2Sint Jago show me a diagram that indicates how many tons will be delivered to each of the holds. Numbers 5 & 4 toward the front of the ship will be filled first. Then the ship will move forward to fill numbers 3 and 2. The vessel will move forward one final time to fill the last hold.  The crew maintains the balance of the ship during loading by releasing water held inside as ballast. “It should take about six hours to fill all five holds,” say Rudy. “This is a small ship for us. Some of the larger freighters take up to five days to fill.”

When I spoke with Sint Jago in his office I asked him about a crown that sat on his desk. “Yeah, last November we loaded 150,000 metric tons of salt in 40 days. It was a new record for Bonaire.” Rudy laughs. “They gave me this crown and called me the ‘vessel king’. A big part of that salt went in the bulk carrier, GENCO Languedoc. She sailed away with over 52,000 metric tons.”loading crew L-R. Bradley Wanga, Ferdinand Saragoza, Win de Windt, and Clifford Coffie

Ships are loaded throughout the year and Bonaire salt is transported to many Caribbean islands and countries that border the Caribbean Sea. Other ports are located in the USA, Europe and Africa. Less than one percent of the island’s salt is used to de-ice roads. Most is purchased for industrial use in the production of textiles, petroleum or for water softening. A portion is used as table salt after additional processing.

As the Michael A casts off and steams north to the Dominican Republic, I ask Sint Jago how he feels watching a filled freighter leave port. “I have mixed emotions,” says the veteran dock master. “On one hand, it is good. Every time a ship leaves we make money that pays for our operation. That is what we are here for. On the other hand, it is like watching a good friend leave. We work hard to make that salt. I have a kind of sentimental attachment to it. It is part of our island.”

 Patrick Holian is a freelance writer living on the island since 2008. He proudly uses Bonaire salt when cooking at home.shiploading2

Crystal Gold-The solar salt works of Bonaire, Part 2.

saltThe Cultural & Economic Impact

Drive south on the E.G.G. Boulevard on any given day and it is easy to see evidence of salt in the making. It is a simple, time-tested process that mixes seawater, wind and sun to produce mounds of pure white NaCl. But more than that, this iniquitous compound is a cultural thread, an inexplicable link that weaves back in island history for more than 350 years.

It was in 1636 when Holland rousted Bonaire away from the Spain after the Spaniards had cut off the supply of this essential mineral to the Lowlands. Once a Dutch fleet captured the ABC Islands, they gained control of Bonaire’s coveted salt deposits. Enter the Dutch West Indies Company, an aggressive, Amsterdam-based merchant monopoly that thrived in the slave trade and reaped the Caribbean’s natural resource wealth. These were the days before refrigeration, and salt was vital for preserving meat and fish. It was a fundamental commodity that allowed Mother Holland to safely feed the sailors of her enormous worldwide fleet.

Red Slave

Red Slave

During the 1600s the Dutch enslaved Africans and shipped them to Bonaire where they worked alongside Indians and convicts harvesting salt. Today, abandoned slave quarters along the coastal road are testament this oppressive time in the island’s history. Up to six workers would sleep in one of these rock huts after a grueling day of hard labor under the blazing sun. Gaze through a slave hut window to the tranquil blue sea and it is hard to imagine the agony these people endured for centuries.slave hutjpg

Over the next two hundred years Bonaire’s salt industry prospered, first under the Dutch West Indies Company, and later under direct governmental control.   Trading ships would moor outside the reef, and small boats were sent ashore to pick up the goods. Fires were burned to guide the sailors to one of four loading sites – Rode Pan (Red Pond), Witte Pan (White Pond), Blauwe Pan (Blue Pond), and Oranje Pan (Orange Pond). These names represented the colors of the Dutch flag and the Royal House of Orange.

Blue Pan

Blue Pan

Slide02Legend has it that women were the ones who transferred the salt to the boats. Two men would lift a heavy basket of salt and place it on top of a woman’s head. She would then balance the load while walking a plank to the end of a makeshift pier and place the salt in a small boat. Once full, four men would pull the boat on a long rope stretched between the pier and the trading ship waiting beyond the reef, and deliver the salt. Some captains of these ships described the women as ‘mermaids from the sea’. A working song, Man pa makutu di Maria or Give a hand to the basket of Maria documented their noble story of strength and labor. It was later sung as a lullaby to children of the island.  Slide01

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By the 1830s, Bonaire’s production had grown so large that obelisk towers were built near each of four salt ponds, thus replacing the need for shore fires. Flags were hoisted to the tops of these pointed pillars when a load was ready for pickup. Each obelisk took the symbolic color of its respective pond, but it also denoted where a specific grade of salt could be loaded. The coastal road is still dotted with these colorful, stone structures.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the salt industry fell on hard times. Slavery was finally abolished and international competition sharply reduced profits. In 1870, E.B.F. Hellmund purchased the island’s nine salt ponds from the government. Afterwards, the salt industry languished for nearly a century.

“You must remember, the original salt ponds were very primitive,” says Paulina “Popi’ Rodriguez, an administrative secretary at Cargill. “They were salt flats where the water simply dried up and then the salt was harvested. In our modern era, it is about guiding the flow of the water and getting a high quality salt. To get high purity, you must manage the water.”

In 1963 the Antilles International Salt Company, a subsidiary of the International Salt Company, bought the salt ponds. By 1972 they shipped their first load of Bonaire salt. Rodriguez, who has work at the salt works for nearly 35 years, remembers the first loading. “I was just a young girl, but everyone came down from Playa to watch. It was very exciting.”

The modern era experienced several setbacks in salt production. In 1988 Hurricane Joan brought excessive amounts of rain that washed out dikes, damaged pond floors and killed many flamingos. Eleven years later Hurricane Lenny roared toward Bonaire. “Lenny was scary for me because of the surge,” remembers Popi Rodriguez. “It was strange. There was no wind or rain like Joan, but the sea came all the way to the piles and collapsed them. It was devastating.”

Maintenance Crew

Maintenance Crew

Ownership of the salt works changed through the decades from the Antilles International Salt Company to Akzo, which eventually merged into Akzo Nobel. US-based Cargill Corporation bought the operation in 1997 and currently employs 46 people. That makes it one of the major employers on Bonaire and it contributes over $5 million annually to the local economy. “Roughly 60% of our employees are mechanics,” says plant manager Gary Rimmey. “These guys are gifted. They can rebuild anything, and I mean anything, without many resources. They are who allow us to produce the salt.”

DSC_1901After spending a couple of days at Cargill, I soon found out that there is only one four-letter word beyond salt that is on everyone’s mind, rust. The corrosive nature of salt invades everything at the solar salt works—machinery, electronics, and cars, even people. Rust even dictates what kind of machinery is purchased to survive this brutal environment. “We rarely buy new equipment,” adds Rimmey. “We can bring a new piece here and it will rust out in 4 years. Or we can bring in cheaper used equipment and it will rust out in 3 years.   But with our maintenance staff, we keep the machinery going. We often look for old style engines that don’t have electronic ignitions and other bells and whistles because our climate just destroys those kinds of electronics.”

Most other workers at Cargill are involved in the production of salt. While the operation on Bonaire is not large compared to salt operations worldwide, the salt produced here is has an international reputation for its high quality and purity. “In my opinion, we make the best solar salt in the world so that gives us a bit of a competitive edge in the world marketplace,” claims Rimmey. “But we’re also competitive because of our workers here on Bonaire. We have a mature staff with a lot of experience. It’s a pleasure to work with these people. They are real professionals.”DSC_1941

In the next issue of the Bonaire Reporter, Part 3 of Crystal Gold examines the environmental importance of the salt works and concludes with the recent loading of the cargo ship, the Michael A, bound for the Dominican Republic with Bonaire salt.