Freedom Abroad: Bonaire

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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.

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Priorities of Growing Old

This summer, August 20thto be exact, my husband and I celebrate our 30thwedding anniversary. We began young, with an instant family and responsibilities from the start. It was a time before the internet made travelling so efficient, and on our tight budget we didn’t bother to make a reservation before joyfully hitting the road in our tiny, powder blue Subaru to seek out the beauty of Niagara Falls. From the Vaseline on the windshield wipers, to the pebbles in the hubcaps, our friends and family took pride in the decorating of our humble hatchback.

My new husband had laundry to finish before we took to the road that evening, and in retrospect we should have just left the next morning bright and early. But that isn’t the material in which memories are made.

Leaving the Adirondacks just before dusk, we pointed ourselves north. After several hours of driving, with “No Vacancy” signs from here to Canada, the rain began. We could barely see 10 feet in front of the car, and finally called it a night in a random parking lot just before the Canadian border. We tried to make the best of our wedding night, but even with the back seat folded down, my new 6’3” groom struggled to fit in our water-logged hatchback with his bride andour luggage. In my defense, I’ve learned to pack more efficiently these days.

At dawn’s first light, we looked more closely at the map and realized that we had gotten slightly off track. We shifted direction and wasted no time finding a room within commuting distance to the falls. No passport was required to cross the border back then, so we rented a room on the American side and drove to Canada during the day. The novelty of the falls wore off quickly, as did my palate for soy-burger joints that lined it on the Canadian side, and by Wednesday we were ready to return home 3 days early. The money we saved came in handy to set up our first apartment downstairs at my in-laws. But our economizing didn’t last long, because by the time we celebrated our first anniversary I was pregnant.

In the years that followed we worked 40-60 hour shifts, purchased and sold our first home, relocated to the Lake George area, rebuilt our home from the ground up without the assistance of contractors, raised our sons, then with my husband’s full support I returned to school to earn a master’s degree and change careers. In essence, we were the responsible adults we were supposed to be.

It wasn’t until our 18thanniversary that we finally flew on a plane together. I confess it was worth the wait, since this was to be the first of 4 trips to Oahu in the years that followed. Yet nothing I said could convince him we should get our passports to expand our options.

Two summers ago, we lost my mother-in-law to dementia and the problems brought on by this horrible condition. Last summer we mourned the untimely death of a close family friend who went to high school with my husband. A few days after the funeral, we gathered with family and friends to celebrate his life and after a long silence my husband spoke up. To no-one and everyone he said, “I figure we have another good 20 years left, if we’re lucky, and we better make it good.” The very next week we were at the post office getting our passport photo taken.

We celebrated our 25thwith a drama-filled cookout in the back yard that took weeks to plan and are in agreement that our 30thbe between the two of us. After years of being responsible, paying bills, raising children, and working hard, we have outgrown the hatchback and are embarking on what we have come to affectionately refer to as the summer of Mike and Lisa.

As with all adventures, it’s about the details and the details are what keep me inspired to write. In the next few days we begin the first leg of our summer travels- destination Bonaire. Even now I am reminded that the clock is ticking, and every day is precious. How will you spend your next 20 years?

In the Day

Today I watched my grandson, and aside from having caught the cold that kept his nose bunked up all week, it was just another day. The challenge was trying to keep the boogies at bay considering his inability to blow his nose. Leo was on the upswing and getting a little energy back, while I was coming to terms with the fact I too had caught it.

I do that. I try to use psychology when I think I might be sick. I’m not sick if I don’t admit it. Today my optimism succumbed to reality.

Even my husband caught it. We watch him together, so it only stands to reason.

The living room is right outside my bedroom, so the transition between rooms is simply a sneeze across the thresh-hold. Wrapped in my fuzzy robe to stave off the chills, I sit down on a stool in front of the wood stove and continued surveillance over my seventeen-month-old charge.

Like any self-respecting grandparent, I like to brag a little on Facebook. The flip-side of this is that social networking likes to remind you of a year ago. A year ago it was easy. We just shifted Leo around the house in his carrier throughout the day, fed him, and changed diapers. Our routine went along like that for a while, but inevitably he became a little person with needs and wants.

* * * * * * * * * * *

So here I sit a year later. I watch him maneuver about on the hardwood floor of the living room, and I see he is truly figuring out the nuances of being upright. I watch him curve his steps around a toy on the floor. He shifts to the left to avoid an end table, then backs up to survey where to turn next. He walks down the length of the living room, and turns around to flop down face-first into his oversized floor pillow.

I try not to remember, but I can’t help it. I’ve seen this before. Watched the first steps transition to a full run out the proverbial door. I didn’t know what I was seeing then. No-one does until the next generation shows us that it is human nature.

I watch Leo’s face, full of pride. With each successful turn and stride, I know what’s going on before he does. Today he discovered that his body can do more than he thought. Tomorrow he will realize that he is the master of his destination. The irony is that he won’t figure out what that destination is until he is my age.

I smile, because in my age and wisdom I know the secret. I’m not running off to the next big opportunity, or squeezing in overtime.

I’ve finally learned to sit and do today.