"How's your fish?"
I was having dinner at a waterfront restaurant, my first evening in Bonaire, and the question from the man at the next table didn't surprise me. The island has been attracting people interested in fish ever since the rakish Don Stewart first saw its colorful coral in 1962.
Captain Don soon set up a dive operation and, in 1976, after working diligently to protect the reefs, he opened a lodge for divers. Three years later, the government established the Bonaire Marine Park. My guesthouse down the road was equipped with a dive shop and, walking into Kralendijk a few hours earlier, I had seen five people in wet suits disappear beneath the waters near the Customs Building.
"You know what makes this place so great?" the man asked me. "It's the only place where most of the dive sites are accessible on foot. You can drive to a dive site and walk in the water and it's there. You don't have to take a boat."
"Every fish you see on a chart of fish of the Caribbean is here," said his wife. They were from Connecticut, and had been coming every other year for the past 20 years.
"And there's 150 feet of visibility," said her husband. "Sometimes 200."
He took a picture of a fish out of his wallet. The fish was spotted and equipped with what resembled horns. "I ask people all the time if they've ever seen one. I saw four today."
"There are no traffic lights," his wife added. "No crime. Though there's more stuff coming over from Curaçao."
Leaving, I handed them my business card.
"Now don't ruin it for us," said the wife. "I don't want to come back here and see traffic lights."
Kralendijk, the next morning, had the slightly vacated feel of the island center of an active island. There were a few pretty houses and government buildings in Dutch Antillean style — white-washed walls and orange tile roofs; there was a City Cafe along the waterfront with green Heineken banners flapping in the breeze; there were open-air restaurants and souvenir shops. "Got air? Bonaire," read the T-shirts on the racks. "When I've had it up to here I go down there." Indeed, many of the people looked as if they'd rather be underwater.
"It's always like this," said the man with a rum punch at Karel's Beach Bar. He was from Maine, and referring to the weather, which was sticky and hot, even here, at the end of a pier at the end of a day in the second half of autumn. He had bought some land — "It was easy" — but it took two years for his house to be built. "Hey," he said, "it's the Caribbean."
Aruba he dismissed as too built-up, with big hotels and casinos. Curaçao had crime; Bonaire hardly any. "Sometimes guys will go up on the hill and see divers head out, and then go down and break into their cars. But if you don't take valuables and you leave your windows open, you'll be OK."
Nearby, a man took a picture of his wife backlit by dusk. "What do you want to do after dinner?" he asked her.
"Not go home," she said dreamily. "Buy a house."
Leaving the pier, I passed a mariachi band setting up. The trumpeter stood head and shoulders above the others.
"Where are you from?" I asked him.
"Holland," he said, as if the most natural thing in the world was a Dutch mariachi.
The Mona Lisa sat not far away, on a street one block back from the waterfront. It had a lively bar and a dark, cozy interior; except for the caps hanging from the ceiling, it resembled one of Amsterdam's brown cafes. My aged gouda salad came with delicious bread.
"It's homemade," the bartender said. "We try to make everything ourselves. Cakes, ice cream, cookies."
"You have cookies?" I asked.
He gave me one for dessert; it had a subtle taste of anise.
"It's called Friese Thumb," he said. "Our chef is from Friesland, so if you make cookies you make Friese Thumbs."
"I'm a recovering Minnesotan," Mark introduced himself.
We were on a boat of the Divi Flamingo Beach Resort; I was the lone snorkeler among 10 divers. We raced across the water and anchored at a site called Barkadera. It didn't look promising. The wind pushed waves into a solid rock shoreline 50 feet away. Mark smeared the lens of my mask with anti-fogging gunk and I jumped into another world. Coral spread beneath me in lurid shapes and vivid colors. Fish with garish designs swam by oblivious. So this was what — or at least a part of what — had so enchanted Captain Don.
But I was like a peasant in the Louvre: I was awed by the majesty, but I hadn't a clue what I was seeing.
After about an hour, we zoomed south to another site. I found the divers as interesting as the fish. They were a congenial bunch, who seemed to combine the hearty camaraderie (and cumbersome equipment) of skiers with a little of the compulsiveness of bird watchers. Some people, I'd been told, did five dives a day, starting in the north of the island and making their way south. Some of the sites, I had also heard, were named for girlfriends of Captain Don.
On the way back to the resort, I talked to a couple from Kansas City. They spent half the year in Bonaire and couldn't have been happier. Well, they would have been happier without the cruise ships.
"A few weeks ago, a diver almost got blown away by the thrusters on one," the man said. "He had to hold on to a coral head. I hope people here soon realize that they don't really help a place."
The woman in the office at Captain Don's Habitat wore a "We Are The Champions" T-shirt. It referred, she said, to her softball team. I remembered that a few years ago Curaçao had won the Little League World Series.
"That had a big influence here," Claire said.
"So kids grow up playing baseball?" I asked.
"Yeah, they all look up to Andruw Jones."
I asked if Captain Don ever came around. "On Monday evenings," she said. "He comes to the bar."
I drove inland to the town of Rincon and parked outside the Rose Inn. Parents in shorts with tow-headed children sat at tables under sea grape trees. Women carried dishes from a kind of roadside stand. I asked for iced tea and got a bottle of AriZona, which seemed strange for a place that sold iguana soup (though not today). My grilled wahoo luxuriated (briefly) under a delicious Creole sauce, accompanied by moros and an exquisite cake of polenta, red beans and spices.
Mariachis appeared for an afternoon concert. "¿Como esta?" bellowed the Dutchman, before going to play with the tow-headed children.
The landscape south of town was pricked by cactus and brightened, at one point, by a junkyard museum. Sherman Gibbs proudly gave me a tour, which led into his house, including his bedroom. "Here's my wife," he said, walking to the closer bed, "drunk again." He pulled back the covers to reveal a mannequin.
I refound the coast, passing mountains of salt and old slave quarters that looked like glorified dog houses. The road looped around condenser basins, one of them flecked with pink flamingos, and pushed up through a rock-strewn, wind-whipped wasteland. Every mile or so rose a pile of stones holding upright sticks.
"What are these?" I asked a blonde walking to her car.
"Divers put them up so they can see where they are," she told me. I had heard that people did "rough entry" dives here on the east coast, about the only place where you could find sharks. "But," she said after further reflection, "they're really a joke."
A dirt road led to a spit on Lac Bay, where the locals gather on Sunday afternoons. Hefty men drank Heinekens outside a bar; a topless little girl climbed a mound of conch shells.
"We usually have music on Sundays," the owner's daughter told me. "But somebody in our family died. We were going to have mariachis."
"There were mariachis up at Rose Inn," I told her.
"They're the ones we were going to have here."
On my way back into town, I came upon a softball game. La Sonrisa was playing Less Indians on an all-dirt field, while music blared behind the grandstand.
"There used to be Indians on the island," he said somewhat cryptically.
"So now there are less Indians?" I suggested ungrammatically.
He gave me a what-do-you-want-from-me look. Then he offered me a Heineken.
That evening I returned to fish — blackened barracuda at Salsa, a two-story tiki hut on the waterfront in Kralendijk.
"Why do you use South African salt?" I asked the waitress.
"It's from here," she assured me in that accent which is unmistakably Dutch. "We just use those shakers. You can go down and buy it, if you call ahead. We take a bucket and fill it."
Back at my guesthouse, a light by the pool silhouetted three headless bodies. Looking again, I saw that they were wet suits hung out to dry.
The front room of The Reef was open to the sea. A chibi chibi bird landed on the chair next to me and eyed my eggs. A man walked to the buffet in a T-shirt that read: "The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea — Isak Dinesen."
The classroom sat a few feet away. Jerry Ligon brought up a picture of a fish on his laptop. He had been a biology teacher in Boulder, and a ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park; then in 1994 he was lecturing on a cruise ship that stopped at Bonaire. He said goodbye to Colorado.
"We are the fish capital of the entire Atlantic," Jerry said. Key Largo, he noted, also ranked high in diversity of species. The Keys, like the Dutch Antilles, sit just off a large land mass (in both cases, a continent) and benefit, subsequently, from fish-carrying currents.
A damselfish appeared on his screen. "Their job is to eat the algae," Jerry said. "Coral reproduces once a year. Algae reproduce all the time. It's a battle between coral and algae, and algae will win if you take away the grazers.
"Some islands set fish traps. These fish get caught in them, and they sell the fish to restaurants. The tourists don't know they're helping with the destruction of the coral."
Bonaire has long been protective of its reefs. "We were the first island in the world to have permanent mooring sites," Jerry said. Fishing was also restricted, though that wasn't easy.
"The only way to convince fishermen is to drink more than they do and have more girlfriends than they do." He was referring, of course, to Captain Don.
More fish swam across his screen. The small ones especially excited the couple sitting with me. Their size had nothing to do with their age. "You will not see fry on the reef," Jerry explained. "The reef is no place for the young."
He seemed to take delight in the popular names: sergeant major, schoolmaster, harlequin bass, queen parrotfish, ("You wouldn't expect a queen to have a mustache.") Sometimes he took the nomenclature one step further: there was a damselfish he often ran into whom he called George.
"Do you eat fish?" I asked him.
"I don't eat fish I survey. Red grouper, red snapper — they're OK. They're down around 700 feet."
On the dock after lunch I passed the couple that had been in my class.
"We saw three frogfish!" enthused the woman. "And a starfish!"
The boat was more basic than the one from the resort, but it came with a naturalist. German swam along next to me, and wrote names underwater on a magnetic erasable slate. French grunt. Rock beauty. Stoplight parrotfish. We saw a few less-common parrotfish, too: rainbow, blue, midnight. German also identified coral: elkhorn, staghorn, brain. Sometimes he'd just point, assuming I knew what a turtle looked like. Every once in a while we'd lift our heads out of the water for a consultation. Like when I saw coming toward me a large pair of breasts.
"There's a nudist resort in the south part of the island," German explained. A catamaran bobbed 20 yards away, its birthday-suited passengers now engrossed in the sea. They looked a little funny in flippers. "It's OK," he said, like the biologist he was. "It's Bonaire."
We returned to the dock. I looked for the couple from my morning class ("We saw six breasts!"), but they were long gone.
Out by the roundabout, the seascape mural of the Trans World Radio Station glowed in the sun. "See the works of the Lord," read the text, "and his wonders in the deep — Psalm 107:24."
Captain Don was emerging from a van in the Habitat driveway. A handful of people stood expectantly, cameras at the ready. He wore a white goatee and a blue Hawaiian shirt. White hair stuck out from the back of his cap, and a peg leg poked out from the hem of his trousers. A young woman with a tattoo held his crutch.
The outdoor bar sat under an African neem tree overlooking the sea. It was a setting of near tropical perfection that had an even greater appeal for seeming more evolved than planned. Two staff members poured free rum punch. Claire stood behind me.
"Monday's his happiest day," she said of Captain Don. Someone had told me that he no longer drank, and had taken up landscaping. (And that his leg had been lost not to a shark, but to a more mundane stroke of bad luck.)
"Does he live here at the resort?" I asked.
"No, he lives inland."
"You'd think he'd want a view of the water."
"He's probably seen enough water."
Finally the guest of honor arrived. "Thank you for what you did," one woman told him. Another woman approached, in a bikini top and green sarong.
"My husband and I came here 18 years ago on our honeymoon," she said. "We met you then. This is our son." She introduced a boy of about 12. "He just got certified, and did his first dive today." Captain Don made a fist, touched it to the boy's, and then put it against his heart.
More people gathered. They told him stories, requested autographs, took keepsake photos. And he obliged, always with a smile. You could still see a bit of the handsome Lothario. A woman started dancing in front of him, and he took her in his arms. He was surprisingly spry on his wooden leg.
When the dance ended, he returned to his stool and, leaning against it, said to no one in particular: "Oh God, what a wonderful night."
ONLINE: Take a tour of Bonaire's junkyard museum, and meet its colorful creator at Sun-Sentinel.com/bonaire