When I was in High School and College – back in the last millennium – I could never have dreamed I would end up on a Dutch Island in the middle of the Caribbean. So that is probably why I never took Dutch as a language. Russian, heck yes, we were in the middle of the cold war and I have always wanted to go to those dangerous and exotic places that chilled my parents’ blood, not to mention scared the living daylights out of my grandparents who lived through WWII and saw the atrocities enacted on our family still in the old country of Finland. Spanish, gee that was a no brainer. My college offered an exchange program with the University of Guanajuato, Mexico and those dark latino men held such an allure for a nineteen year old majoring in languages and psychology (you are probably asking yourself how those relate… they don’t – it’s just the way my brain and personality fight each other…). Chinese? Of course, I was going to live there at one point and teach English. I got there, but only as a tourist, which made me think twice, or five or nine times, about actually living there. But Dutch? Really? No, not really. I don’t think it was even offered at any college in Oregon in the seventies.
So now I find myself on this lovely Dutch island of Bonaire with a total area of 111 square miles of land, trying to buy groceries in a Dutch Supermarket where everything is mostly in Dutch, thinking I should have taken Dutch! Take for example the name Kralendijk (the capital). It is pronounced crawl-en-dick. Any name with the word dick in it should have been reconsidered as the capital’s name! Of course, that’s a romance writer’s opinion (we tend to zero in on “dick” words), and I am sure it is a venerated name from Bonaire’s long and colorful past.
Who knew VDT Speklappen would turn out to be some of the best pork belly I’ve eaten (and possibly the only pork belly I’ve eaten). It’s like a cross between bacon without salt and a very thin pork chop. We got hooked after thinking it was bacon and buying some. Wow – pork with no preservatives and a huge amount of real taste. It makes you forget all about American pork. We still think koelkast smeerbaar is butter and it sure tastes like it. We have Dutch pastry every morning with our smeerbaar on it. Schoulder-ham we got right off and the packaging was a dead give away. Thank heaven for growing up with Oscar Meyer in the plastic wrap!
Well, I never learned Dutch, but I am not starving either. What we are learning here is how several diverse cultures live quite amicably on this tiny island and how after years of political strife and ecological stress, this island’s waters are coming back alive and flourishing. And so is the tourist trade. The politics, I’m told, are still a bit dicey. Hey… I’m from Alaska. Dicey is the norm.
So here’s a little Bonaire history lesson for all of you curious people who think America’s beginnings were difficult! The earliest inhabitants of Bonaire were Indians who came from Venezuela about 1000 AD. They left notes in the rocks. You can still see the petroglyphs today. Can you imagine being an author back then?
They were happy, tall Indians, the tallest of the South American Indians. That was probably their problem – when you stick out in a crowd you always get in trouble! I learned that in the 4th grade when I was taller than the teacher. Anything happened, she pointed at me because I stuck out about a foot above everyone else. Tall did not bode well for the Caquetio.
The good old Europeans arrived in 1499 and proceeded to screw everything up. They were probably short people. Eventually deciding the island was useless, they forced the natives into slavery and removed them to the copper mines on Hispaniola. That left Bonaire without cheap labor and, God forbid, the Europeans work hard themselves! That’s what conqueror means – the conqueror forces the conquered to do the hard stuff. Well, a dozen or so years later, Juan de Ampies, the Spanish Commander of the island brought some of the Caquetio Indians back to work the plantations on their own island. After all, they were tall and easy to see! Nice. Gotta love those Spaniards.
Around 1623 the Dutch started visiting the island to buy groceries (just like us) and dump their prisoners (not like us at all). I’m told the Dutch are some of the tallest people in the world. Well, the Dutch and the Spaniards didn’t get along, so says history, and eventually the Dutch conquered the ABC Islands and Bonaire became a plantation of the Dutch West India Company. They brought slaves from Africa to work alongside the enslaved Caquetio Indians and the convicts - a great combination; working away in eighty to one hundred degree heat in huge solar saltpans. But they had low-income housing provided; cement block houses about the size of a king sized bed with a crawl hole in the front and a small hole for a window in the back. Entire families lived in the huts. Reminds me of inner city Detroit, but smaller and hotter!
In the early eighteen hundreds Bonaire bounced back and forth between Britain and the Netherlands. The British tried out the “possession is nine tenths of the law” idea building and settling most of Kralendijk. It generally worked for them in most of the world, right? Eventually they lost to the Dutch in 1812. Bonaire remained a Dutch government plantation until 1862 when 607 government slaves and 151 private slaves were freed by proclamation. Unfortunately the Netherlands sold most of the island to two private owners – we know all about privatization don’t we? It caused a great deal of hardship and many people had to leave. Sounds like the FAA. Gee, they freed the slaves who then had to leave their own island because they had nowhere to live. Ya gotta love politics.
During WWII, Germany occupied the Netherlands so Bonaire became a British protectorate. The British, no doubt, were smiling cause they got it back without a fight. We jumped in as well because we were fast friends back then, and as usual, built a big airport as a military base. We also built an internment camp for the tall Dutch and German citizens who lived on Bonaire during that time. Turn about is fair play, right? I wonder how they felt about being locked up on their own land? Hummmmmm… Come on… we let them out after the war, right?
They got us back though, by turning the camp into the first big hotel on the island and painting the airport pink! That was then. This is now.
The Flamingo International Airport is still pink. The hotel is much bigger and much more expensive. Today, Bonaire is one of the world’s best scuba diving locations. Which is why we are here. Most of the surrounding ocean waters are protected as a marine sanctuary and respected by the diving community. Bonaire is known for its shore diving and the island is ringed with large yellow rocks marking dive sites. You just park and dive. Well sometimes there’s a hike involved. Or a bit of a climb!
Sorobonne, on the southeast side of the island, is a wind surfer’s paradise on huge Lac Bay, only a few feet deep inside a breaker reef. Atlantis Beach on the south west side is a growing and very popular kite surfing locale.
The descendants of Bonaire’s tumultuous history live here in peace, most of the time. There are no more slaves. There is no more war for ownership, only political jostling. And Dutch words on the supermarket packaging. And I still have a bit of a time saying the capital’s name out loud. It’s such a small problem and we’re not starving! Life is good. The water is warm and the sun shines every day. However, I still feel bad for those tall Caquetio Indians!
--- Miriam Matthews… a very tall, scuba diving author
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