Jetlagged and sweating profusely, I anxiously wait for my luggage to show up on the single snake-like conveyor belt of the Flamingo Airport. Usual hordes of smiling family members at the gate are non-existent here, yet there is a strong sense of community among those disembarking from the plane – everyone is a diver. The dry humidity makes for an uncomfortable arrival but less than an hour later, as I’m peering at a school of fish swimming along the edge of the Buddy Dive dock, I barely register the heat anymore. While being briefed on proper Nitrox tank checkout procedures, I jokingly (but seriously) turn to my dive instructor and promptly state, “We’re here for a week. If I don’t see a sea turtle by Thursday, Friday morning I’m going on a diving marathon and I may miss my flight home.” With only two flights in and out of this remote island, this is a serious threat. I smile inwardly as my instructor tries to read my poker face, knowing that I have just been pegged the “troublemaker” of the group. Swimming with sea turtles has always been a childhood dream; though the decision to come to Bonaire was rather impulsive.
I live in the noisy city of Los Angeles where perspective is one of the hardest things to grasp. Where I had found inspiration before, I was now left feeling incredibly nervous about the future. I spent my 20’s playing hot potato with my career, working a variety of jobs from drafting to legal consulting before finally settling on writing. A restless person by nature, I am always looking for something better and rarely ever commit to something long enough to make it a profession, but my 20’s were over and it was time to buckle down and make some difficult decisions. With this immense pressure bearing down on me and people constantly asking me, “What are you going to do next?” I did what any normal, rational person would do: I grabbed my passport and fled the country.
Bonaire – so famously known for its optimal diving that the license plates even boast the slogan “Diver’s Paradise” – is located 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela. A part of the Netherlands Antilles, Bonaire, together with Aruba and Curacao, are commonly referred to as the ABC islands. Containing a tiny population of just 14,000, the small island (only 24 miles long and 3-5 miles wide) is more urban than metropolitan.The center of town is rich in colors, with buildings painted sunshine yellow, neon blue and cactus green. Covered in artwork reminiscent of a kindergarten playground, the neighborhood atmosphere lends itself to a kind of childhood nostalgia. A vibrant mural on one wall of the local supermarket pays homage to the man considered to be the founding father of Bonaire, Captain Don.
Revered for his work preserving the natural habitat, stories about Captain Don and his conquests, be it islands or women, have become a sort of verbal folklore. With dive site names such as “Leonora’s Reef,” “Joanne’s Sunchi” (Joanne’s Kiss) and “Helma Hooker,” it is no wonder Captain Don stories are always told with a devious smirk. Famed for his work in preserving the natural habitat and known to give stern lectures to anyone who dared break off a piece of coral as a souvenir, Captain Don has dedicated his life to protecting the wonders below.
On a lazy Tuesday morning, I bike across the island along Bonaire’s paved roads, passing large cacti that thrive in the warm climate and a wild donkey that shows little interest in me. I am no different than his neighbor, and so unlike the wildlife in the city that scatter at the sight of humans he looks at me only for a moment before returning to his meal. Peddle further and the fields of cacti suddenly clear, leaving the landscape completely flat. To my right is the ocean and to my left are giant mounds of a pure white mineral. Salt City – developed by the Dutch in the 1600’s, is comprised of large mounds of sodium chloride cultivated from the sea water flowing into the salt pans – and to this day has proven to be a lucrative source of income for the islanders. For me, the discovery of natural salt pans had a different meaning. When I was young my mother used to massage salt mixed with mashed up garlic into my skin as a method of healing bruises. She claimed the salt helped defuse the clotted blood making the wound heal quickly (I have yet to find a doctor who endorses this). Not wanting to regret leaving Bonaire without any salt, should a scientific discovery be made regarding its healing properties, I pour out the contents of my water bottle and begin filling it with salt. I would later come to find that Buddy Dive actually sells this very salt (albeit nicely bottled with a proper label and pretty ribbon) as a bath salt promising smooth skin. Not quite the cure for cancer, but useful nonetheless – Thanks Mom!
Salt in hand, in trek back across the road, past my bike, towards the clear, blue, fresh water on the other side. As the sun beats down on me and a blue-green iguana scurries past towards the shade I am made aware of my close proximity to the equator. Up above, the beams of light push through to the clouds, wrapping their arms around me in a warm embrace. Below me, fragmented coral, drained of its color and tumbled smooth by the ocean water and sand, blankets the pristine shoreline. As I look around, it dawns on me that these long stretches of beach lack any of the garbage or debris that would be expected on unguarded shores. Bonairians respect for oceanic preservation clearly permeates to land as well and visiting divers dare not get caught littering. There is balance here, with humans and wildlife seeming to coexist in harmony. Enough with the beauty on land though; I came to Bonaire to dive!
Descend anywhere along the coast of Bonaire and the marine life speaks loud and clear to Captain Don’s preservation efforts. The water is crisp and clear with visibility at an optimal 80-100ft. I move at an incredibly slow pace, completing only 17 kick cycles every 50ft. but this deliberate crawl pays off as I watch an octopus change from a sandy white to deep green. A baby trunkfish explores his new environment, peeking out a few inches from behind his coral shelter to look around a bit before quickly darting back to safety. I gaze intimately at the intricate detail and color of banded coral shrimp, squint to make out a perfectly camouflaged sea horse and barely breathe as a giant squid ventures toward my mask with the grace of a ballerina. And as if the natural wonders are not enough, Bonaire is also home to a 300-foot cargo shipwreck – the Helma Hooker. Legend has it that the cargo ship, carrying marijuana, docked in bad condition and was abandoned by the owner, leaving the drugs to be confiscated by the authorities and burned on the island. That day, fishermen didn’t fish and smoke covered the island, with a westerly wind carrying the smoke all the way to Aruba, garnishing the island with the slogan, “a very happy island.” Being careful not to scrape myself on the rusted edges I poke my head into a window with a flashlight and am delighted to see that coral anemones have formed. Smaller fish stay close to the coral as large tarpon hover around the exterior like guards making sure their home is not disturbed. As I dove past the large propellers I couldn’t help but be in awe of how the aquatic life could take something foreign and turn it onto a beautiful place for life to thrive.
Happiness for me seems to be intertwined with love. A love of heritage brought me to Vietnam where I learned about my family; a love of history had me climbing thousands of steps to reach the glorious ruins at Machu Picchu; and a love of food steered me towards the decadence that is Paris. It was a lack of romantic love though, that brought me to Bonaire. My friends and colleagues hoped that I might find Prince Charming on this flight to an exotic country and for a minute I indulged in this marvelous fantasy. But truth be told, I chose the solitude of Bonaire and the forced silence that is the nature of diving on purpose. More than finding someone new to love, I needed to discover myself, because somewhere in my last relationship, I had gotten lost. So lost, in fact, that when asked what my favorite music was, I drew a blank. How can I know where I want to go in life if I don’t even know what I like? It’s classical, I love classical music.
It is early morning (before sunrise early) as I grab my iPod and walk to the edge of a nearby cliff to listen to Christopher O’Reilly’s “Tribute to Radiohead” compilation. I don’t know if it’s the beauty in the darkness, the thick warm air or the soothing cadence of classical piano but I can feel a rhythm. I am acutely aware of the gentle waves brushing up against the cliff beneath me, but more than that I sense an uncomfortable beating of uncertainty. My consciousness was kind enough to let me marvel at the beauty of Bonaire uninterrupted, but it was time to at least acknowledge that big decisions lay ahead. Looking at woman in the water beneath me, I wonder if I’ll ever see more than uncertainty stricken across her face. What mediocre job would she take that will stamp her with an ill-fitting societal identity? Hi, my name is Jamie and I’m a…retail associate? Home decorator? Accountant? Nothing fits. I am exhausted. Closing my eyes I try to meditate (not as easy as it looks) only to find myself begging God for some divine intervention. Stop. Quiet the mind, breathe in…breathe out, and let your feelings go. What does that mean anyway? “Let your feelings go?” I give up. Uncrossing my legs, I let them dangle over the edge of the cliff, and lie back. Surprisingly, my body begins to relax, still as a rock, I lay, as the color in the sky slowly changes and the sun peaks above the horizon to gently kiss my skin.
Now late afternoon on Thursday, I realize I have yet to spot my sea turtle. Peaceful meditative state of mind gone, I am feeling antsy. For fear that I may refuse to leave the island (I made sure to inject the playful threat every now and again), Will (Dive Instructor) and Chris (Dive Master) load tanks into the van and the three of us head out to the 1,000 Steps site on a private dive excursion. At 50 feet, Will spots a giant lobster and motions me over for my introduction to underwater photography. The first rule in underwater photography is to “get really close to your subject,” but underwater, depth is deceptive and things appear much closer than they actually are. Camera in hand, I stretch my arms out as far as they can reach before I feel the guiding touch of both Will and Chris positioning me for the perfect shot. As my index finger snaps a picture, my inner monologue can’t help but shout, “Bam! And that, folks, is how you take a picture of a lobster,” but Will isn’t satisfied and I am guided closer, so close actually that I feel guilty for crossing what must be an aquatic boundary regarding personal space. But my buddy Sebastian doesn’t seem to mind as he crawls forward posing nicely for the camera. Above water, the photos seem to tell a different story, most are either blurry or so far away it’s hard to tell what one should be squinting at. No matter, I had enough photographs to keep people asking me “How was the trip?” instead of “What are you going to do?” – and in the interim this was good enough for me.
Photo class complete, I float upwards toward the shallow coral, glad to be looking beyond the scope of my lens. I take in the color and the warmth, flipping upwards towards the shining sun to pay homage to whatever force or being created such beauty. As a school of blue angel fish swim above me, every worry I’ve ever had seems irrelevant and for the first time in my life, I understand what it means to live in the moment. I live my life rarely ever being fully present. My body sits at the desk of my 10th floor office while my mind is elsewhere, worrying. Not right now though. Now, I am thinking of nothing but the cascade of colors filling my underwater experience. Heavy tank and gear aside, I feel a part of something so marvelous that it is downright magical.
A light tap on my tank snaps me out of my trance and when I look up, there he is, the Holy Grail – my elusive sea turtle. Young but bold and free-wheeling, he glides through the water at a leisurely pace, stopping to chomp on some coral before quickly rising to the surface for air and to my delight, coming back down to play. Perhaps it is the colorfully animated atmosphere of Bonaire or maybe just my own juvenile tendencies, but I feel like Marlin when he encounters Squirt in “Finding Nemo,” complete with the urge to high-five the little guy. We swim side by side for 50 meters across a landscape of blue, orange, yellow and purple coral until my pressure gage shows that I am low on air and I am forced to say goodbye.
When I set out on this journey, I was hoping that I would have some sort of “Ah Ha!” moment whereby the clouds would part and Grandma Willow would whisper a predestined prophecy of unending happiness. That didn’t happen. Society dictates the sequence of events that our lives are supposed to follow: Finish high school by the age of 18, college by 22, marriage by 27 (for girls) and 35 (for men) and careers in full swing around that same age. I passed the first two markers with flying colors, graduating high school with honors and finishing college a year early at the age of 21. But even with a full year head start, I’ve fallen behind society’s expectations. As I look around me at a world I might never have seen had I found a comfortable place to be complacent, I know that whatever choices I made in the past were the right ones. Life is not supposed to be so linear and the tick marks of age should be self-defined. If this year is the year I accomplish nothing else beyond this trip then next year can be the year that I find love or the perfect career. Today, I am happy and this moment, right now, is all that matters.
Click here for a link to some amazing photos from my trip to Bonaire.
Note: This article was written in August of 2011 but kept private until now, so it’s a new “old” posting.