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Trip 30 -- Bonaire Walk

Day 1: Airport to Kralendijk
Thursday, February 3, 2022

Yesterday: 1411 steps/1.18 km/0.73 mi/11m

I made the connection at Newark Penn the same roundabout way I always do. I did find the sign for the Raymond Boulevard bus lanes, and I may have even followed it correctly, depending on the meaning of the little hook attached to the arrow. But I was soon summoned away by a station worker who advised me, and a few others, that that direction was closed, and we needed to follow everyone else.

"I just need the sixty-two bus," I said.

"That way!" he said, pointing to where the others were headed.

And that is how, once again, I ended up by the Market Street bus lanes, this time having walked through a lobby of people sleeping on the floor of the station (it is humane that they were allowed to stay there) and finding more of them outside. I did not, of course, see any further signage for the Raymond Boulevard lanes.

I walked around most of the building's perimeter before finding them. Then I accessed them the way I always seem to, by entering via the roadway as if I were a bus myself, picking one of the lanes, and then crossing past all the "Do not enter! Active roadway! Unparalleled danger! Do not enter! Yes, we said that already!" signs until I found, just beyond such a sign, the other 28 of us who would board the 3 a.m. vehicle bound for the airport.

I did not expect such a crowd, and we picked up three more on the way. Some of them worked at the airport, and we all disembarked and walked along the interminable fence that keeps people like me from darting across the inner roadway to terminal B. Finally I found a signaled crosswalk, where I made sure the signal wasn't in my favor so I could cross in protest against the pedestrian-unfriendly routing.

It was now 3:17; Delta wouldn't open its check-in area for another hour. None of the counters seemed to have anything to do with what I needed, which was to have my Covid test results checked so I could obtain a boarding pass. There were "Sky Priority," "Special Services," and "Bag Drop" and nothing labeled simply "Check in." I picked Special Services and was the only one there, until the agent finally appeared and told me that I was supposed to be at Bag Drop, which I would have guessed was the least likely of the three. This put me at the back of a long line. It moved quickly, but I would have been in exactly the same place at the same time if I'd left my apartment an hour later.

If it's Delta, this must be Atlanta, I thought to myself four hours later. The airport was better than I remembered, whizzing people around via a cheery "Plane Train" with speeds and dwell times to make a New York AirTrain rider jealous. Not many of us were Bonaire-bound, and I finally slept, in poor man's business class: a whole row to myself in economy.

We arrived a half-hour early, just in time to descend the stairs from the plane, walk maybe 20 paces, and have our documents checked behind everyone from a previous flight.

"Come on, I've got a sidewalk waiting," I muttered.

But it's hard to get too antsy when the airport is called Flamingo International and the terminal building is pink. And they processed people at a rapid rate that made me want to fly them all to Heathrow to educate London's immigration officers in efficiency.

As I left the airport grounds I passed the pink control tower and could see, not too far away, a neighborhood of pretty cottages pointing up in colors of light green, lavender, salmon, canary, and light blue. Those turned out to be my hotel, just an 11-minute walk from the airport's exit. My room faced an inlet and the control tower.

The hotel was on the fringes of Kralendijk, a capital so laid-back and subtle that I was never sure I had reached the center. Socially, at least, it must be the stretch of waterfront restaurants and the parallel road behind them. I had a sundowner (called Sex with an Alligator) and conch fritters at Karel's, a favorite place of Andrew Jalbert, the author of "Back on Bonaire." Karel's juts out into the water and was a lovely and lively place to linger.

The snack made me realize that I hadn't had a proper meal in more than 24 hours, and it fueled my appetite. I wandered and came to El Pescado, where I tried to order both specials: fish soup and lekkerbekje, the Dutch equivalent of fish and chips.

"I think that will be too much," the server said. "They're both main courses."

"I'm pretty hungry."

"Maybe start with the soup, and then you can order the lekkerbekje if you still want it."

"Good idea!"

The soup was tasty but it most certainly was not a main-course portion. I realized, however, that what I really wanted was something called Devils Ribs ("Too hot to handle! Or not?"), advertised next door at an open-air quasi-nightclub called Trocadero.

"Thank you. That's exactly what I wanted," I told the server at El Pescado.

"I thought it would be enough!"

I just had to hope she didn't see me go in next door.

"I can seat you as long as you're not in a hurry," the hostess told me at Trocadero. "The kitchen is backed up, with people out."

"I'm happy to sit and wait."

The ribs didn't take long to come out. I could definitely handle them; it was the mashed potatoes I needed to be wary of, as their temperature was too high for my palate when served. I enjoyed the meal leisurely, surprised at seeing people smoking in a restaurant, and sometimes glancing with a chuckle at the DJ, who juxtaposed startling combinations of old favorites. Among the oddest segues was "A, B, C, it's easy as one, two, three" -- fitting for the Abecedarian Walks and the ABC islands -- into "MMMBop," which I notably heard in 1998 in the living room of a Jakarta souvenir seller who had seen me on the street, taken me to the marine museum, and invited me to spend the night with his family.

It was during yesterday's taxiing out of our gate at Atlanta's airport when I realized that today would be the best day for a snorkeling expedition and I'd better book one. It was during the takeoff roll when I was hastily punching credit-card digits into my phone to secure a space on today's morning excursion with Seacow Bonaire. The payment went through just as the wheels left the ground.

Gea, our leader, and Henk, our captain, founded Seacow in 2013. They led about 25 of us to the reef system off Klein Bonaire, the smaller island opposite Kralendijk. Klein Bonaire, Gea told us, was originally purchased by a private owner for $5,000 in 1869. Since then it's changed hands numerous times, and it was slated for development as a resort, which would have destroyed its scruffy beauty and wiped out a nesting ground for sea turtles. Thankfully the development was canceled, and the government bought the land back for $5 million and incorporated it into the Bonaire National Marine Park.

Every diver or snorkeler in Bonaire, and every visitor to Washington Slagbaai National Park -- which I'll visit on Saturday -- has to pay a fee, good for the whole calendar year, for the preservation of Bonaire's waters and parkland. My snorkeling and entry into Washington Slagbaai made me liable for the maximum fee of $45, which is also what all divers pay. That's almost double what it was a few years ago, but considering that it will cover two snorkeling trips and the land park, I didn't find it excessive.

In her calm, reassuring voice, and always smiling, Gea explained the use of the snorkeling equipment, the safety guidelines, and the two voyages we'd be making into the water. The first was a place called Jerry's Reef. The water was a bit choppy, and I had trouble securing a tight fit of my provided mask, with the result that water often trickled in through the goggles.

When I did find a good fit, I ventured into another world of shape, color, and motion normally achieved only through the viewing of Disney films or the consumption of psychedelics. Brain corals with veinlike patterns, pipe-shaped corals like characters from Sesame Street, corals like cabbages, swaying branches of coral. The fast-growing staghorn and elkhorn coral, the former of which grows eight to ten centimeters a year. And while it was vital never to touch any of the fragile coral, it was especially important to avoid the fire coral, which can result in pain or a month-long itch.

Back on the boat, they found me a better-fitting mask, and that, combined with the calmer water, made my experience at Just a Nice Dive -- the area formed by Sample Reef, Knife Reef, and Leonora's Reef -- more enjoyable. In addition to the corals and sponges were colorful fish, such as the parrotfish, notorious for scraping algae from the coral with its parrot-like beak, pooping sand, enjoying group sex, and changing from female to male during their lives. They had bright green or teal bodies or white and yellow spots with red fins.

Also in this area were young corals attached to stakes, part of a coral-renewal effort. And some very strange black creatures with tanks strapped to their bodies. I realized I was swimming above a group of divers; their bubbles floated to the surface like reverse waterfalls.

My usual acuity for space disappeared along the reef. I can generally estimate distance, but I had no idea how far away I was from anything underwater. The command to stay away from the coral -- an arm's length or two at least -- made no sense when I couldn't judge the distance. At times I thought I was much too close, only to see someone swim between me and the coral.

I also found it difficult to swim with the snorkeling fins, even when keeping my legs straight out as directed. I'm already not a fast swimmer, and the strain on my feet by the weight of the fins didn't do me any favors. Usually I kept up with the group, but the guide came to collect me at the end. I may also have gotten distracted watching the parrotfish have their lunch. It wasn't bad for my humility to be in a place where I was moving slowly, the opposite of my usual walking pace. There would be no ten minutes per kilometer under the sea.

Gea talked to a couple of us as we approached the marina. She moved from Bonaire 11 years ago, but she's nervous about overdevelopment. Back then there were 13,000 residents on the island. The population has grown by more than 50 percent, and she doesn't believe she'll stay forever. She's not itching to get back to those Dutch winters, though.

A similar concern was discussed during my evening with Todd and Mimi. To say that we were connected through a mutual friend is a bit of a stretch. Their longtime friend Rita is someone I met briefly at a tree-trimming party one December about 12 years ago. We'd talked travel and music, and she'd joined my mailing list. We haven't had any communication since, and we still haven't. But she passed along my Bonaire introduction to Todd. Bonaire is the kind of place where the most tenuous of connections can result in an invitation for a drink, and Todd and Mimi are the kind of generous people who are eager to welcome visitors.

They're based in New Jersey, but in 2018 they bought a home on Bonaire, which is where they finished their scuba certification 600 dives and 37 years ago. They suggested we meet for the sunset at the Rum Runners bar at Captain Don's Habitat.

Bonaire would not be what it is today if it hadn't been for Captain Don Stewart. Neither would scuba diving. In 1962, almost broke, sailing a leaky ship, and on the run from pirates, he happened to land on Bonaire. The following year he ran a spearfishing contest that was enormously successful in the eyes of everyone except himself, who was immediately ashamed at the sacrifice of so many fish for sport. He embarked on a crusade to promote marine conservation. And as an instructor of scuba diving in its early days, he established diving schools with an emphasis on protecting the reef. Andrew Jalbert's discussion of Captain Don is particularly colorful, including Don's lashing out against irresponsible divers and the caption "Guaranteed 85% True" on Don's memoir.

Mimi and Todd have seen changes to their beloved island that make them uneasy as well. The recent docking of cruise ships, especially with the construction of a second pier, is damaging the reefs, and the new 600-room resort down the road from their home puts a strain on Bonaire's utilities. In their recent dives they've noticed the bleaching of more and more coral. And Andrew's afterword is a poignant chapter of urgency as Bonaire's coral and other marine life suffer the effects of climate change.

Mimi and Todd invited me to dinner at their place, the upper floor of a two-story building in a gated neighborhood a few seconds' drive from Captain Don's for them and a few minutes' walk for me. I had explained my rule about taking no cars, including the two times I'd relaxed the rule: Juan's tour around the banana plantations in northwest Tenerife and the incident with the dogs on Aruba.

"I had problems with dogs in Aruba and CuraƧao, but I haven't here," I told them.

Mimi looked worried. "Avoid Lagoen Hill."

"What happened?"

"There's a dog hoarder."

"Pit bulls," Todd said.

"In December they attacked an eighty-year-old man," she continued, "and the police did nothing. Then they attacked someone again two days ago."

"Two days?"

"Yes. This time they killed two of the dogs. But you won't be going there. You'd have to turn off the road and go into the neighborhood."

I looked up the place on Google Maps. It's almost smack in the middle of Bonaire. I won't near it on this perimeter walk. Still, I'll continue to be wary of dogs on the ABC islands.

Todd and Mimi's friend Elizabeth came by with meatloaf for a future meal and explained how she had snapped her snorkeling fin this morning. And Todd and Mimi had enjoyed two dives today. Bonaire's pulse really is in the water.

Dinner was spaghetti with meat sauce; somehow Mimi knew I'd had an unfulfilled craving for red pasta since last month in Puerto de la Cruz. We discussed other travels, and they gave me a new place to visit: the Tana Toraja region of Sulawesi island in Indonesia, where funerals can last five days and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And Todd showed me his videos from this morning's dive. Maybe it really is time for me to consider that scuba certification.

I walked back the almost-hour to my hotel. The current mandated closing time for restaurants is ten ("It changes every five minutes," Todd said), and at that hour the waterfront was alive with someone gutting a fish, whizzing motorcyclists disturbing the peace, people congregated by the water and playing recorded music, and youths leaving restaurants with open beers and wondering what to do next.

Tomorrow I'll walk that same stretch once more, past Kralendijk, Seacow, Mimi and Todd's place, and Captain Don's, before heading inland to Bonaire's other town and the island's first settlement, Rincón.

Go on to day 2