Sunday, December 1, 2013

A "What a Small World" Encounter on Bonaire

So he hangs out with the sailors
Night and day they're raisin' hell
           And his original destination's just another
        Story that he loves to
tell.. Jimmy Buffett

There was considerable debate among travelers to Aruba who had made side trips to Bonaire regarding which airline flying between the two islands was worse.  Sentiments were strongest that Dutch Caribbean couldn’t find itself in a room with only one airline.  Dutch Caribbean’s problem was that it ran late if it ran at all.  It got its start after the demise of ALM Antillean Airlines, an airline with its own set of problems. Dutch Caribbean, however, was even worse.  Horror stories were legion about cancelled flights and stranded passengers and missing luggage and nobody at the airline seemed to care.  The stories reminded me more and more of Bahamasair or LIAT each time I heard a new one.

The other nemesis of flying in the ABC islands was Bonairexcel. It was an upstart that flew only between Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire.  The chances of being stranded in Port-au-Prince or Miami didn’t exist with Bonairexcel; still they had a huge problem with not understanding the concept of an on time departure or what it meant to arrive on time.  It was, after all, an island airline so travelers had to expect there to be “no plane on Sunday” even in the middle of the week.

I was in the Netherlands Antilles to spend a few days on Aruba. I went there primarily to get the airport and also because I could add a few species to my South America list by being there. Things like North American nesting warblers that winter in the Caribbean but not so often on the South American continent. Plus there was the draw of this being a nation of islands and I have an incurable addiction to islands.  There was also the draw of the frequent flier miles I could accumulate by going there. 

Travel to ABC islands in winter is not for the faint of heart because airfares are outrageous and hotel rates are similar.  Winter is the best time to travel there however because of the abundance of wintering birds.  Once the migrants have departed, the outrageous airfares and hotel rates leave with them.  The “shoulder” season, after the winter crunch and before the summer break period, is regularly a good time to travel because of the relatively cheaper costs of everything.  I chose to come to the ABC islands in late March for that very reason.

A travel agent in downtown Oranjestad finally convinced me to go with Bonairexcel and not chance it on Dutch Caribbean. “Yes,” she said,” you can fly on the jet to Bonaire in 20 minutes on Dutch Caribbean, but you’ll wonder if you’ll actually get there.”  Bonairexcel is not a reliable airline but at least you have a better chance of getting to Bonaire on the day you wanted to go, and in your case returning the same day.”  I booked a roundtrip on Bonairexcel.

Bonairexcel’s flight had all of its 42 seats occupied for our 9:00 a.m. departure to Curacao and then on to Bonaire.  I noticed in the departure lounge that Dutch Caribbean Airlines had a nonstop to Bonaire departing at 8:30. Based on what everyone said earlier I expected the flight to show that it was severely delayed or even canceled but the status never changed.  Sitting in our departure lounge, I heard the gate agent for Dutch Caribbean say “This is the last call for Dutch Caribbean flight 280, the 8:30 nonstop to Bonaire.” They were leaving early. 

My flight left on time for the 20 minute hop to Curacao where we sat on the ground maybe 10 minutes and then made another short hop to beautiful incomparable Bonaire.

As we descended for our landing at Flamingo Airport on Bonaire the first impression I had was that I was returning back home to Grand Turk.  My first indication was the cobalt blue waters from a wall at the edge of the island. This is what so many divers come to experience.  Once over the wall and its ringing reef and then over dry land, all that was apparent in any direction was harshly dry desert scrub. Then, looking to the south there was the huge Solar Salt Works and its many salinas. There were apparently feral donkeys nibbling on salt tolerant grasses along the airport border fence. It was Grand Turk on a much grander scale..

Although the ABC islands are all part of the Netherlands Antilles, each has its own immigration and customs formalities that must be followed. Aruba has its own currency (the Florin) while Bonaire and Curacao use the Netherlands Antilles Guilder. It’s a strange arrangement.  Because I was making just a day trip I only had with me my day pack and enough water to last a life time.  Customs took an interest in my lack of luggage and assumed something was up and the questioning began.  When I took out my binoculars and told them I was here to look for the flamingos they understood and waved me along.  They should have.  The passport stamp for Bonaire is a huge flamingo.  Avis gave me the option of one of two vehicles. I could have a Ford Taurus that “has a little problem with the air conditioning,” or I could take a beat up truck with no air conditioning at all and pay $20 a day less. The decision was self-evident.

Leaving the airport I followed the very obvious asphalt road (that would be “sealed road” in British) that hugged the coast going south from the airport toward the massive salt works. 
Bonaire is one of the top dive destinations in the world  It has a lot to do with the Bonaire Marine Park that was established in the 1970s specifically to protect the spectacular reef habitats that ring the island. In 1961, while most places were still nailing turtle shells to the wall and slurping turtle soup, Bonaire was enacting legislation to protect sea turtle eggs and nests. In 1971, at a time when divers carried spear guns in much the same way that divers today tote underwater cameras, Bonaire banned spearfishing from its reefs. In 1975, the island made it illegal to break coral, take it from the water, or sell it--activities that are still practiced today in the Indo-Pacific. It was no wonder, then, that the government of Bonaire decided to create the Bonaire Marine Park, the next logical step in the island's conservation efforts. With the financial support of the World Wildlife Fund of Holland, the Marine Park was established in 1979. The park's purpose is to ensure that Bonaire's marine resources-its magnificent coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves-remain intact so that everyone can enjoy the coral reefs for years to come. The Marine Park encompasses about 2700 hectares and extends around Bonaire from the high water mark to the 60m depth contour. Bonaire's narrow, fringing coral reefs encircle both Bonaire and Klein Bonaire. The reefs are very well preserved, very diverse, and support an amazing array of reef fish.

Brown pelicans were quite numerous offshore and the occasional osprey flew over on a morning lap around the island reminding any and all fish who really was in charge.  Despite the bleak habitats my most favorite Caribbean songbird, gray kingbird, was present and vociferous no matter where I went on the island. This was a welcomed addition to my South America list.  I worked my way south along the west side of the island until I came to the first of many salinas maintained for the production of salt.

Caribbean flamingoes are the main ornithological attraction on Bonaire

As with salt pans (as salinas are called in the Turks and Caicos) almost everywhere, these on Bonaire were dripping with herons and shorebirds.  Here among all the fairy shrimp that grow so abundantly in these wetlands were typical herons.  An abundance of shorebirds, no doubt many coming back north from wintering habitats in south and central coastal South America, were feverishly feeding along the salinas edges.  The real treat on Bonaire, and one of the principal reasons for coming here was the Caribbean flamingos that occur here. Bonaire is home to a small breeding ground enough for about 2000 flamingos to nest, one of only a handful of such breeding grounds worldwide. The population of flamingos island wide ranges from 7,000 to 15,000 depending on the season. The Flamingo Sanctuary is located in the salt pans on the southern end of Bonaire and it is strictly forbidden to enter there. However, flamingos can be seen meandering about the salt ponds, and are generally quite visible.

By early afternoon I was starting to get massively hungry and as luck would have it I found the Sorobon Beach Resort and their funky little restaurant called the Sugarbird (a colloquial name for Bananaquit). When I pulled into the parking lot of the Sugarbird I saw a car with a Minnesota license plate on it. My first thought was “those bastards are everywhere.”  Despite Minnesota bragging about their 10,000 lakes, they regularly are allowed across the border into Wisconsin where they defile our 8,000 lakes.  And then there’s the issue of their purple-clad “football” team, and between the two it’s enough to drive a native born Wisconsin boy to drink.  And that’s exactly what I needed at this point because the gallon of water I’d sucked down since leaving the airport was not quenching my thirst.

I walked into the Sugarbird wearing shorts, flip flops and a University of Wisconsin t shirt. I was, as Freddy Neal says in his song Everybody’s Talkin, in a land where “the weather suits my clothes.” Finding an empty table I plopped down and ordered an ice cold Cerveza Polar, the best beer in Venezuela.  I then opened the menu and scanned.  From where I sat I could clearly see the ocean not 100 feet away so, by Buffett’s rule, it was safe and acceptable to eat seafood and they had blackened grouper on the menu and everything else is history.

Everything that is except for the white-skinned woman sitting at the table next to mine. She was a tad older than me (that would be the age of dirt) and was talking to a Bonaire resident. When my beer arrived she noticed my Wisconsin t shirt and asked if I was from there.  Heartily acknowledging that I was she said “Oh, I’m from Minnesota.”  I asked if she was the culprit driving the car with Minnesota plates I saw in the parking lot and she acknowledged that she was.

She had first visited Bonaire 12 years ago and instantly fell in love with it.  Since then each year she and her husband would vacation on the island and that continued until hubby died and now she wisely escaped Minnesota’s winters and like a Cape May Warbler that nests in Minnesota, she wintered on the island. 

I asked where in Minnesota she was from and was told “White Bear Lake.”

“And where in Wisconsin are you from?” 

“Rice Lake”

“Rice Lake?  My brother lived in Rice Lake until he died.”

“What was his name?”

“John Irgens”

“John Irgens? So you were Bea Irgens’ sister in law?”

“Yes I was.”

“Bea Irgens was my mom’s best friend.”

“Is your name Faanes?”

“Yes it is”

“I knew your mother through my trips to Rice Lake to see my brother”

Talk about a small freaking world!

She asked me, “Are you the biologist who helped Bea stop that freeway they were building around Rice Lake?” 

“Yup, that was me.”

“You certainly created a stir when you helped Bea stop that road.”

I said “that was my intent.”

In the early 1970s the Wisconsin Department of Transportation concocted a plan to build a wider, better, Highway 53 extending from Eau Claire to Superior.  Where they wanted to build the freeway, on the west side of Rice Lake, was probably the most poorly thought out alternative location for the road. However these are highway engineers we were dealing with and of course they know what’s right and they wouldn’t listen to a fired up middle aged woman like Bea. Yet Bea wouldn’t back down and among other things enlisted my help in getting the freeway stopped.

I was a first year graduate student when Bea and I attended a public hearing on building the freeway.  Of course all of the pro-development city fathers were there at this hearing to talk about environmental impacts, and they were talking about how wonderful the freeway would be and the economic bonanza’s that would follow its completion.  This was the first time (of what would turn out to be many times) that I went up against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation on a highway construction project.

At the hearing I laid it on thick with information about how the geology of the proposed route was not conducive to supporting the increased stresses from the weight of the freeway and the cars that would travel it. I talked about the rampant development that would occur at the intersections of surface roads and the freeway and how much that development would hose the earth. I talked from prepared notes and at the end of my fifteen minute presentation almost everyone in the audience at the Community College auditorium booed me. I had never felt so good knowing that simply by being there and telling the truth I was pissing off these people.  It was a tradition that has continued ever since.

Less than a day later, Dick Kaner, news director of local radio station WJMC, and obvious Republican, was on the air railing about me and my testimony and about how I didn’t care about Rice Lake and its development because I opposed this foolish freeway. Then there were the threats against me. Dick was so wrapped around the axle by my truthful testimony that he threatened my life. It was reported back to me that Kaner was saying that “He’s sick. I hope I see that son of a bitch in the woods during deer hunting season. He won’t be coming back alive.”
My uncle Buck (yes I really had one) heard about this threat and wasn’t at all impressed. In fact one Friday night after a fish fry my uncle Buck called Dick Kaner at his home and told him “Dick, I hear you’re practicing psychiatry without a license?”

Kaner asked what he meant and Buck said “I hear you’re telling people that my nephew is sick because he opposes that new freeway.”

Dick replied, “That’s right. The son of a bitch doesn’t care about this city or its future.  He just cares about his birds.”

My uncle, who flunked “subtle” in school, took a deep breath and quietly told Dick that “if I ever hear you say another disparaging thing about my nephew, Dick, I’m going to shove my fist down your throat and pull your balls out through your nose. Did you hear that, Dick?”  The threats stopped.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation eventually built the which is how things usually work with environmental issues.  We put off the destruction for a few years each time we stop them but eventually they win. My only vindication was the fact that everything I had warned about happening environmentally if they freeway was built wound up happening after the freeway was built. Serves them right. I’ve only driven on that road one time doing a round trip from Rice Lake to Superior. Every other time I’m there I drive on the back roads. I won’t contribute to its environmental damage.

This lady in the restaurant on Bonaire had heard the story as I recounted it to her.

“That’s the way Bea told the story,” she said. 

“That’s because that’s exactly how it happened.”

With a belly full of Cerveza Polar and blackened grouper, I worked my way up around the east side of the island into some more substantial desert habitats.  I checked out many side roads as I circumnavigated the southern end of the island finding much the same for birds in the fantastic desert vegetation of this largely unscathed island.  It was refreshing to be on an island where protecting the environment is such an important task for everyone there, mainly because people realize that if their reef is screwed up there goes the dive industry.  And protecting the reef starts on the land.

In 1980, Costa Rica was the quintessential banana republic. Bananas were by far the most important force in the economy of that little peace loving nation.  In the early 1980s the Costa Rican government set aside 24 percent of the land area of the country as national parks. This included an awful lot of tropical rainforest. Today, not surprisingly, ecotourism is the number one industry in Costa Rica.  The same holds for fantastic little Dominica in the Lesser Antilles. Seventy percent of that island is preserved as a national park and now the number one industry is environmental tourism.  Bonaire saw the light and protected mother earth and immediately began to reap the benefits. The earth is secure. Money flows in from all over the world, and none of the dire predictions of negative thinking people have ever come to fruition. 

After enjoying the heat and humidity of Bonaire for a much-too-short period of time I slid back to the airport to catch my 5:30 departure to Aruba.  It left on time. The Dutch Caribbean nonstop back to Aruba at 5:30 also left exactly on time.  The airport was the typical laid back Caribbean experience where Type A’s from New York were freaking out and the rest of us who knew that all things work out didn’t much care. Granted my time on the island was limited but from what I saw and experienced and felt I know that the woman from that state west of Wisconsin had the right idea. She picked up and moved south and didn’t want to go back. After being on Bonaire, who in their right mind could blame her?


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