Home in Bonaire
Bonaire seemed the most charm-challenged island we’d yet sailed to: a dry, brown, squat old fogey of an island, a Birkenstock among Blahniks. Had some soothsayer predicted we’d spend nine contented months in this tiny backwater I’d have said, “You’re reading someone else’s tea leaves.”
At first glance – and even after seconds and thirds – any long-term relationship seemed unlikely. But Bonaire turned out to be ugly in an endearing, hard-to-explain sort of way, like that homely girl whose innate sweetness, whose quirky personality makes you take a second look and – just as we did- -- even fall in love.
A Dutch territory, part of the Netherlands Antilles -- think nearby Curacao and Aruba -- few people besides fervent scuba divers have ever even heard of this island, much less know where it is. For us Bonaire was a short, 100-mile sail from Los Aves of Venezuela.
The island is only 21 miles long and 5 miles wide, 112 square miles, virtually barren of flowers, palm trees, or, for that matter, much greenery at all. Outperforming the pale lighthouse at the southern approach to the island are five or six enormous, glaringly white crystalline cones; in actuality, massive pillars of salt. Salt production, aside from scuba tourism, is pretty much it for Bonaire industry. Those sun-bleached salt mountains are about the only patches of white in all of Bonaire. The island is dry, reddish and rubble-strewn – basically, just a smallish mound of eroding coral.
We arrived in late February and picked up one of the 30-odd moorings strung like beads along the waterfront of Kralendijk, the miniscule main city. A good part of Bonaires underwater reef system was wiped out by the huge surges of our old pal, Hurricane Lenny. Anchoring is forbidden, since regeneration and preservation of the reef have become a major island preoccupation. All of the surrounding reef has been designated a marine park.
Kralendijk (crawl-in-dyke) itself is like a façade-only movie set – little more than a row of ziggurat-roofed, pastel buildings along the waterfront, with virtually nothing of visual interest behind. Within the two or three commercial blocks are some severely inventory-deprived facsimiles of stationery, housewares and hardware stores, an array of charm-challenged gift stores, a dozen or so restaurants and a video-rental store that’s open only from 4 to 8 PM.
We soon discovered that on every day a pervasive mist of coral powder from the island’s decaying hills bonds with a red Saharan dust arriving unobstructed from faraway Africa. Strong local winds churn the mixture and deposit it as a gauzy coral glaze, everywhere. Over the months we spent there, the rusty sienna grit infiltrated our every interior cushion and curtain fiber. And every night it mixed with any available moisture, creating a grungy airborne stew that landed as nasty, semi-permanent blotches on our the pesky granules commingled with whatever moisture they might coax from the dry air, creating a grungy airborne stew that landed on our once-pristine gelcoat.
No, it sure didn’t look hopeful for us and Bonaire.
Most of the 14,000 residents speak English, plus Dutch, some Spanish and a dialect called Papiamento, a blend of Dutch and Spanish. Dutch ex-pats and a working class of largely Venezuelan and Colombian immigrants comprise most of the population. There’s also a fair amount of six-month/six-month retirees, mainly Dutch, a smaller group of Canadian and US émigrés, and a fair number of former cruisers who have found the island a fortuitous spot to hang up their Docksiders. For a good while we couldn't figure out exactly why.
Ah, but what happened to them happened to us. In the realm of day-to-day existence, we quite unexpectedly found a home away from home. We grew some roots for the first time. Looking back at this phenomenon, over the first almost three years it seems we breezed down the island chain -- waterbound tourists, citizens of nowhere – rarely stopping more than a few weeks in any one place. While we found Martinique and Guadeloupe stunning and civilized, they presented language barriers. Moreover, the French seem disposed to make themselves less than endearing. As marina-bound cruisers in Trinidad, we joined a tight, closed circle, insulated educationally, financially and culturally from the locals. In friendly Venezuela, where we whiled away almost a year, our Spanish didn’t approach good enough to become involved in people’s daily, family or social lives, nor to enter into the community structure in any meaningful way. Crime rates in both Trinidad and Venezuela further isolated us.
That in Bonaire we suddenly encountered no crime to speak of, no language barrier, that the population with which we interacted was, regardless of nationality, well educated, similarly aged and, yes, similarly middle-class, made it easy for us to become immersed socially.
I joined an ongoing intermediate-level Spanish class three hours a week. Our instructor, Juan Pablo, a good-looking, gregarious Venezuelan about 30-years-old, was a man of few inhibitions, with a Play-Dough face. Banning English in the classroom, he play-acted every confounding adjective, noun or verb, making every class a theater event as well as a learning experience. My seatmate Barbara turned out to also be a soul mate; we shared similar passions for words, literature and a good laugh. She invited us to lunch at her home, an isolated waterfront spread up in the wild, remote northern part of the island -- from Kralendijk, a 45-minute drive jouncing along a series of elaborately potholed dirt roads.
On such a small island, where the social calendar is not exactly studded with events, just about everybody comes to everything, so we continually ran into my other classmates and various senior residents we’d met, plus store owners, taxi drivers, dive instructors, waiters and restaurateurs. Eventually almost everybody began looking -- then actually being -- familiar.
After I wrote a newspaper story about our encounter with “Don Juan” we socialized some with the American publishers of the local weekly, also former cruisers. We befriended Elizabeta, an engaging, self-sufficient Dutch/Italian restaurateurs who’d married, divorced, remarried and re-divorced the same good-looking Italian Lothario. Still conjoined by history, friendship, economics and a mutual commitment to family, their very grown-up arrangement allows them to share ongoing life experiences as well as apartments and villas in both Italy and Bonaire. Elizabeta runs the restaurant in Kralendijk, Norberto the Italian real estate. Elizabeta also heads Bonaire’s Special Olympics swimming program. Every week she teaches eight varyingly-disabled young adults in a local pool; every year she squires a small group to the Olympics themselves. I helped her several Saturday mornings -- in the process getting to see the local battered women’s shelter and how another strata of Bonaire society manages.
On any given day, Bonaire could lift her plain brown skirt to show us a bit of petticoat beneath. Once a whole school of pilot whales invaded the harbor, not a quarter-mile from the boat; we raced over with the dinghy to observe them close up. On another day a pod of dolphins dropped in. Tucked away in odd corners of Bonaire, we found, on forays into the countryside, her marvelous flamingoes and parrots; her wild and spectacular surfing beach.
In June, during a pedicure I met Desirée, who runs a combination beauty salon and spiritual- maintenance center. I noted from a spanking-new framed certificate that she had just become a certified Ashtanga yoga instructor.
“Ashtanga -- what’s that?” I asked. Yoga was an old love, from my old land-based life.
Ashtanga, not unlike Bonaire, sounded unappealing as hell. (Ashtanga’s AKA is Sweat Yoga.) But somehow, before I knew it, I’d signed up. Barely awake, from 8 to 9:30 on Wednesday and Friday mornings, I found myself contorting unwilling extremities into complicated asanas (positions); breathing hoarse, raspy “ocean” breaths; trying to hold, without quite tensing, my “bongas,” (actual spelling is “bandhas” but bongas tells the story better.) Bongas were muscle groups I didn’t know I had, but which Gary was happy to discover I’d located. All the while sweating…sweating…sweating inside a close, dark, stucco inferno that held doggedly onto all the previous day’s tropical heat.
For some inexplicable reason, Ashtanga turned out to be the only exercise practice I have actually loved, even looked forward to. Plus, it’s got its spiritual and relaxation components.
It also had its hilarity. In this class I bonded with Tracey Barton -- the cruiser next door. Tracey and I were the only cruiser-Yogists, in addition to being the only Americans. And for a while, it seemed, the only ones with senses of humor. We needed them sorely because Tracey (42ish and not much more than 5 feet) and I (topping both 60 and the scale at 10 pounds more than I’d’ve preferred) found ourselves amid a bevy of tall, disgustingly lithe Dutch gymnast types
-- the unpored, unwrinkled thong and bikini set.
We took on the mission of making them laugh; the Dutch are a dour people, Scroogy with their smiles, at least until they relax a bit. Tracey and I oiled the class’s creaky humor hinges. We laughed at our plight, our pain, until they joined in. We screwed up as many of Desirée’s asana tallies as we could, and we cackled through her every ardent effort to pronounce the unpronounceable: SuptaPadangusthasana; DwiPadaSirasana; BaddhaHastaSirsasana; and especially, UrdhvaMukhaPaschimottanasana.
Leaving that class – and leaving Bonaire -- was truly hard.
During those nine months, life assumed a small-town normalcy. We got to read a newspaper every day – well almost every day, if the international Miami Herald arrived. We found some somewhat-better-than-minimal survival facilities to sustain us: a small movie theater playing current Hollywood films – mostly second-string, but at least they changed weekly. A few decent, if under-stocked, supermarkets. We discovered if we swept them all, relatively constantly, we could pretty much keep ourselves in Tropicana OJ, Axelrod’s Sour Cream, the occasional Brussels Sprout and -- tucked among continents of Gouda cheese -- some passable, if gauze-thin sliced deli meats.
We learned that the runty shipments of produce arrived late Thursday and if you wanted a lettuce or a melon or a mushroom, you’d better be there Friday. It was a Christmas grab-bag kind of shopping, since we (and it seemed they too) never knew exactly what might turn up. Mostly Dutch staples with unpronounceable names and indecipherable cooking directions lined the aisles, but every six or seven weeks a batch of Heinz or Nabisco arrived and – manna from heaven -- an actual, though dwarf, stack of Thomas’s English Muffins. And, critical to our most significant daily ritual – sunset -- was the wine wholesaler who delivered, right to our dinghy, from a fine selection of Italian Pinot Grigios and Chianti Classicos.
We found a few acceptable Italian restaurants, the best hamburger since St Thomas, plus decent pizza with real mozzarella cheese and pretty passable fajitas. I’m always on the prowl for new entries to the Best Ribs Ever category and found them at Bobbijan’s, a wonderful, and cheap, barbecue spot, open only on weekends. It was owned – and almost comedically unprofessionally run -- by a Dutch/Indonesian couple who’d bopped into Bonaire a few years ago and, not long after, ran out of money.
With the Dutch husband’s rave-review barbecue sauce and the Indonesian wife’s peanut sauce as foundation, they nailed up a shingle and began selling takeout chicken and ribs. Wisely, they put out two tables in the garage as a sop to various gourmands who simply couldn’t wait – namely, us cruisers. Before you could say BBQ, they were packed and had to spill out into the backyard with more tables.
You came later than 6:30 at considerable risk, really at the peril of drowning in your own saliva, because an anorectic approach to food flow resulted in there never, ever being enough ribs on the grill at any given time. (Besides being dour the Dutch are, let’s say, a careful, frugal people.) This meant that either you were consigned to twiddle your thumbs at your table -- if you were lucky enough to get a table -- watching rapaciously as people 18” away chomped happily on their dinners. Or, you came too late to get one of the 8 or 9 tables, in which case you waited…and waited… a drooling, fidgeting hostage to the luscious aromas of barbecuing meat wafting past you.
They habitually ran out of most everything else on the limited menu – sometimes they had Diet Coke, sometimes not; you couldn’t count on cole slaw past 8; the Gadi-Gadi salad was always an iffy menu item and if they still had some of Maggie’s magnificent homemade sambal – a fiery hot sauce – it was measured out with the kind of parsimony usually afforded the finest of white truffles.
The magic of Bobbijan’s ribs was twofold. First the marinade, which recipe was shrouded in the secrecy usually reserved for say, a nuclear detonation code sequence. And second, the fact that the whole racks were brushed continually with the ambrosial marinade, then cut apart into individual ribs, whose every available surface was then basted and submitted to the coals, over and over again. All this labor intensiveness for – like, $4 a portion.
Unfortunately, and inexplicably, instead of doling the cooked ribs instantly from the grill onto serving plates, they got detoured to a makeshift warming-cum-serving station – minimalist piles in aluminum-foil trays set over frail sternos. From that dead-end their sizzling, crusty flavor peak began dribbling inexorably away. I chalked it up to that regrettable thriftiness in the Netherlander gene pool.
Thus, I became fixated (monomania surfaces everywhere in my particular gene pool) on getting a plate of right-off-the-coals ribs – and believe me I’d settle quietly for really hot. Sadly, begging was the best strategy I came up with and it didn’t always succeed. It just came down to dumb luck.
A secondary preoccupation: the yawning gaps in the rib production line made timing my second (or third) order a logistical nightmare. Since a single portion numbers only 4 medium-sized or 5 smaller ribs, if I went for a double order, the warm to lukewarm ribs I’d likely get would be almost stone-cold by the last two. But if I opted for only one, I could easily wait another half hour despising my table partners who, maintaining more perfunctory approaches to the attainment of perfection, were eating contentedly.
Nonetheless, Bobbijan’s, with its absurd timing; its madcap pace; its friendly, if utterly frazzled waitresses; its smiling, welcoming owners, was an oasis of conviviality and developed into a bi-weekend event. We’d dinghy in, walk up the hill, usually Fridays and Sundays, to join a small gaggle of cruiser friends, a cast that changed only minimally, but often enough to be refreshing.
We felt part of a floating trailer camp. Bonaire is a cruiser way station during hurricane season, so people we’ve met along our way passed through going up north or further west. The familiarity factor added to our sense of home.
We frequented weekly happy hours and played dominoes most every Sunday. Jackie and Mel were just down the "mooring road" from us and made several trips back to New York. We found that a certain enforced distance works well as we continue exploring, testing and redefining the limits of our group marriage.
A few new couples became very close friends: Tracey and her husband Jack who are, sadly, returning to land-life and work. We will miss them pretty much forever. Denise, on KINSEACAY, a Mack Truck of a person with a huge heart, a fast tongue, a refreshing directness, a few thousand opinions and a million stories. Her husband and diametric opposite, John: quiet, sensitive, group-phobic but fun whenever he jumps in. Donna and Tom, on BANJO, a handsome pair of sequoias: handsome, upright and lovable as they are tall. Carol and Bill on HUCKLEBERRY FRIEND, simpatico San Franciscans who passed through all too quickly but have already turned up again, in Cartagena, and, we suspect, will remain part of our cruising karass.
We also spent a lot of time with the INNER VOICES, a Canadian family from the Caribbean 1500. Their two towhead sons, Matthew and Patrick, were adorable 6- and 7-year-old monkeys -- rambunctious as they come -- in 1999, when we met them. We’ve bumped into them again in different places; they always remind me of my own boys growing up. In Bonaire the kids turned 10 and 11, became certified scuba divers and we all dove together. The boys especially loved driving our dinghy, with its console, wheel and big engine -- a Ferrari to their Ford jalopy.
Fish and fowl
The final ingredient in the Krazy Glue that cemented us to Bonaire was the scuba diving. The island actually doubled our visual world, adding an entire new physical plane. As homely as she might be above the waterline, that’s how resplendent and sensual Bonaire is below. Call it the Spinster Schoolmarm Syndrome.
Arriving with only seven dives to my credit, initially, I found myself mostly terrified or hyperventilating; or overweighted or underweighted; zooming dangerously to the surface or trying to thrash my way back down. I’d been certified by the grace of kindly gods or, more precisely, instructors willing to tweak the rules. Consumed with such logistics, it took a bunch of dives for me to relax and notice the magnificence all around. By the time we left, I’d done almost 90 dives and felt more confident than I have ever in any other sport.
The visibility within Bonaires clear verdigris water is extraordinary. The living reefs and walls are towering and they teem with an extravagant variety of coral, sponge, creature and fish species a huge percentage of whats pictured in all the dive books. We didnt need a dive guide and we were never constrained to the schedules and hubbub of dive boats -- we took our dinghy wherever, hooked onto any one of 100-plus dive moorings and jumped overboard. Somersaulting off LULU was about as good as most dives anywhere.
Plunging beneath the waters surface is like boarding a space shuttle and arriving, minutes later, weightless, at a strange and serene planet where none of the old rules apply, where there’s nothing to do but hang around, observing a Crayola range of color and a Star-Wars array of strange creatures. While this below-the-surface universe looks humdrum and fish-eat-fish to a Quillfin Blenny or a Glasseye Snapper, to us hovering divers, it’s exquisitely unique, while at the same time utterly relaxing and entirely pacific.
We swam behind 500-pound turtle lummoxes that moved through the water as graceful as birds in flight. We watched trumpetfish ambushes, damselfish smooches, plus the endless pairing, unpairing and final vertical explosion to the surface that is the Bluehead Wrasse mating dance.
Fish behavior wowed us. We hung, transfixed, as cute little shrimp and minute gobys no bigger than a fingernail – the Electroluxes of the deep -- crawled over humongous groupers, cleaned their bodies, then ventured intrepidly into their cavernous mouths – to become tiny sentient toothbrushes scouring potentially lethal teeth. We combed the reefs searching out frogfish and seahorses, which look uncannily like their namesakes and are possessed of Vietcong camouflage skills. We learned that while a leopard can’t change his spots, parrotfishes and peacock flounders do so all day long, and the common snook can change sex from male to female or female to male – willy nilly as it were.
Still, none of my raving quite suffices to describe Bonaire’s unique pull. A woman named Alda did it best. Alda is Aruban-born, with the dark curly-hair and deep molasses skin of Indian/Spanish/African descent. She spent most of her adult life in Holland and eventually emigrated to Bonaire, where she operates one of the hotel beauty salons.
As we chatted about our mutual affection for Bonaire, I asked, “What is it about this island?”c
With not a pause to think, she answered, “You can be yourself. No one is judging you on anything else. You can wear what you want; you can look a fright and it doesn’t matter. My kids now go to school barefoot. When I came here I had so much stuff. Things were so important to me — my makeup, my car, what I wore, what I owned.
“Christmas is a big deal to us: Starting with December 5 -- Santa Claus Day -- we give presents every day. The first year I actually flew to Puerto Rico – because you know how there’s nothing to buy here – and I bought all the things I couldn’t possibly do without, for me and for my kids. By the next year I realized, who needs it? Now, when I go back to Holland and look around me I can’t believe what people go through…”
And that’s it about Bonaire: it’s homely but wholesome, it’s unassuming and grounded in all the right assumptions.