"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.
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.