The instant we landed it was clear my husband and I weren’t in the United States any longer. We flew into the tiny Flamingo International Airport in Bonaire, Netherlands around mid-day in May and although it was the “off” season, we were surprised at the number of travelers returning from numerous other countries. Repeat visitors are always a good sign.
As we waited in line outside the airport to pass through customs, the trade winds jostled our hair and clothes every which way, yet offered no relief from the dry, hot sun. Born and raised in the Northeastern, Adirondack region of the United States, I had never seen an unpotted cactus and they spread out over the landscape as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t help but be both nervous and excited for the week ahead.
Since this was our first international trip, we decided against renting a vehicle, so we could focus on getting a “feel” for the island. This turned out to be a good call, since traffic signs were in Dutch (as were the washing machines and dishwashers), and there seemed to be no standard for which side of the vehicle the steering wheel is located. What I found particularly interesting was that seatbelts are not mandatory, nor car-seats and helmets for that matter. Open containers were prevalent, and it was common to see a pickup truck loaded on the inside and out with passengers of all ages, and even toddlers being carried in the laps of passengers. There are no signs up and down the roads telling folks not to litter, yet the streets are quite clean. The island’s use of biodegradable straws and utensils certainly helps, but there is a real sense of personal responsibility; this was obvious at an individual level and for the community as a whole.
Having been to Oahu several times, there were similar expectations on certain levels. Snorkeling was definitely one, and Bonaire blew my expectations out of the proverbial water. As soon as we got to our apartment directly facing the Caribbean, we stepped out onto the glass-encased balcony and were amazed to see masses of large parrot fish munching on the coral below. Bonaire is a huge diving destination and the numerous dive shops,and tours attested to that, but we were content to explore the clear aqua-blue shores with a mask and snorkel. We went out twice during our time on the island, and the second time was even better than the first. Because we went to two different locations, we were able to see a nice variety of fish and coral overall, but the parrot fish was one of my favorites. My encounters with them in the water made me chuckle because they look like they are smiling toothy grins. You can actually hear them chomping on the coral before defecating a stream of sand back into the surrounding area. Both gross and cool simultaneously.
Returning from our first snorkeling adventure, the older taxi driver we had been using to get around had started to warm up to us and got chatty. He informed us that the parrot fish we saw were actually very good to eat, but they don’t fish them anymore because the tourists enjoy them. I was relieved to hear that. As he drove on, there was an influx of iguanas dodging our van, and we asked if some aren’t quite so fortunate. He said they are common roadkill, but they don’t harm the vehicles. It’s the donkeys that roam the island that you have to look out for- they cause the most damage and are considered the biggest hazard. We explained to him that for us, it was deer.
As far as the iguanas are concerned, our driver laughed as he told us how good they are to eat. “Tastes like chicken,” he sniggered. Later in the week, we encountered a restaurant where iguana soup was the special of the day and decided we had to at least give it a taste. Overall, not too bad. It didhave a chicken taste and texture but was a bit bony (sort of like eating a poorly filleted fish) and chewy. Next time I might opt for the pumpkin soup that seemed to be so popular, although this too seemed strange for a desert island.
Then there was our experience with the locals of Bonaire. This was one more contrast to our travels in Hawaii, and the commercialism that abounds there. Everywhere we went in Bonaire, our encounter with locals was the friendliest we had ever experienced. It didn’t matter where you were from, the color of your skin, whether male or female, or the status of your clothes. When passign someone on the street, some variation of hello was said. Not once did a person go by without a verbal greeting, and I tested it numerous times only to receive a hello in every instance. Doesn’t seem so extraordinary? I pose the following challenge to you: the next time you go out in public, make a mental note of how many people acknowledge your presence, or you theirs.
One of the more memorable highlights of our trip was exploring Bonaire’s Washington Slagbaai National Park. Our gracious apartment manager, Nadia, offered to drive us since only trucks or jeeps are allowed there, and two young ladies in their teens joined us for the ride. Their parents work for a cruise line, and they had been living on Bonaire for the past seven months. Before moving, they lived in Australia, and both are home schooled. The oldest, who is now a senior, even brought her laptop to work on homework while we made a stop to snorkel! During this particular outing, we learned about life and education outside the U.S. from the perspective of a young adult, and as we made our way through the park it was refreshing to have such vibrant, intelligent and inquisitive young women with us.
We made our way around the park in the company pickup truck, and Nadia was a pro with a stick-shift. This was important, since most all the roads outside the capital city are not paved and the terrain is dry and rocky in places. On the road, both in the park and out, the iguanas zipped this way and that to outrun the truck. We even had to stop for a couple of them engaged in what we couldn’t decide was an act of fighting, or love-making. Then there were the donkeys that roamed freely, and we had to stop a few times to give one the right of way. A dark cowlick runs down their backs and across their shoulders, making a cross. Local legend says that this is the species that carried Mary as she followed the star, and Jesus before his death.
In addition to the local lore, Nadia shared various aspects of her life on the island, and even drove by her grandmother’s house where she grew up. We made a detour through a run-down area just outside of Slagbaai, where she stopped and beeped the horn a couple times, explaining that this family makes the best sea salt ice cream on the island. Unfortunately, they were open on random days, and that wasn’t one of them. The next stop was the Cadushy Distillery, where we were given a brief demonstration on the process of making liqueur from the candlestick cactus, complete with generous samples of the various flavors (each flavor named after a different Caribbean island). As we stood shaded by the shack, catching a bit of a buzz from trying samples, the parrots flitted around on the nearby cacti, creating a scene in which Jack Sparrow himself would approve. We couldn’t have ended the day on a better note.
I would be remiss if I didn’t make mention of the cuisine. There were only two American chains on the island, KFC and Subway. We try to avoid such chains but did grab a quick sandwich from Subway a few times out of convenience. They hadn’t gotten a shipment of lettuce or tomatoes that week, and we were reminded of the limitations of living on a desert island. But travelling abroad isn’t about frequenting the same old restaurants and eating the same old food. From the mouth-watering specialty ribs at a restaurant open only three days a week for five hours, to the freshly caught snapper and mahi-mahi at one of the local restaurant/bars, the food was well above average in both taste and price. On Nadia’s recommendation, we took a taxi to Sorobon to taste a fish soup only made and available on Sundays. The local fisherman bring them their catch, and this is what constitutes the soup. Quite an experience overall. Even at the high-end restaurants, the main entrees rarely exceeded $30, the food was top-notch, and the service was the friendliest we’ve experienced.
As our week ended, we wondered where the time went. There were still so many things we didn’t get to see and do, and we realized we would be joining the ranks of return visitors one day. It wasn’t any one particular thing, really. It’s the feel of the forceful trade winds buffering the heat of the sun, and not caring what your hair looks like. It’s the attention locals pay when you speak, so they can communicate effectively. It’s the carefree manner in which business is conducted, where schedules are only loose suggestions. It’s the freedom to move about with minimal regulations, while still conducting oneself with integrity and human decency.
This trip exposed me to freedoms we no longer have in the “land of the free.” Some are sentimental in nature, like the memory of riding in the back of a pickup truck on a dirt road as a kid. Some freedoms come with personal responsibility, like picking up after yourself because it’s the right thing to do, not because the sign says there is a fine for littering. Most importantly, I learned the power of human decency that transcends all the things that divide us here in America. My husband and I started the summer off with this trip as the beginning of a celebration of 30 years of marriage. While our actual anniversary is in a few weeks, and we will be in Anchorage to commemorate, we enter into the next adventure with a new appreciation of life, culture, and the world around us. I am excited to report that Bonaire was only the beginning. Happy travels.