I had been kidnapped, I thought, as the old truck bounced along the deserted road. My captors, or my newfound friends (depending on how you looked at it), gave furtive smiles at each other, communicating in some kind of Dutch-Creole, of which I understood nothing. It wasn’t the foreign language that made me uneasy, it was the bursts of laughter in between their bantering gibberish combined with their sidelong glances down at my lower legs. The joke, it seemed, was at my expense. How do I get myself into these things?
Thirty minutes before I had been sitting in the Mona Lisa bar on the main promenade of a tiny Dutch island called Bonaire, situated about fifty miles off the coast of Venezuela. It is a desolate jewel of a sleepy South Caribbean seaport ringed with coral reef in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by electric blue waters. I had stepped out that afternoon after about a week of non-stop scuba diving in order to sample some of the local culture, which, because I am only interested in a certain, very specific type of culture, namely the kind that gets me drunk, consisted of Amstel beer and a harsh Venezuelan rum called Cacique (pronounced ka-CEE-kay). The only other people sitting around me were Dutch natives, as was the barkeep, a thin, ruddy-faced chainsmoker named Hans who probably had to flee the Netherlands after his underground slave chamber was discovered in his otherwise unassuming cottage outside of Rotterdam. I don’t know for sure. Something about Hans suggested he had plenty of secrets. That’s okay. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “We are all killers on land and on sea, man and shark alike.”
And anyway I appreciated the fresh air. I had been underwater for twenty hours, and, contrary to what most people might think, it is very boring underwater. Not much happens. The sea creatures have developed complex camouflaging techniques because, like most humans, they don’t particularly care for humans. On top of that a marine predator can eat a foolish diver in under forty-five seconds, which means you really have to be paying attention to see some carnage. By the time the blood clears, and you are wondering what happened to your dive buddy as a tooth-marked snorkel and a half-eaten mask float by, the engorged Makos and White Tips will be miles away. Being a hundred feet underwater is a lot like war. Long stretches of nothing punctuated by moments of sheer, fascinating terror.
At the Mona Lisa bar the Dutch folks warmed up to me, dumb American, and told me they were on their way to the greatest bar ever, the bar at the edge of the world, they called it. They suggested I tag along. I said, “Sure.”
But then things got weird. The driver was careening like a torpedo down a street about as wide as a sidewalk and there was nothing to see except for a gaggle of pink flamingoes and a range of fifty-foot piles of salt next to an old processing pier. As we hooked around to the windward side of the island, I noticed some rather primitive rock piles at the edge of the shore, man-made, and beyond that a vast and unforgiving blue sea, and not a person or building in sight. Certainly no saloon. Then it dawned on me. This part of the world was the same murderous stomping ground of Joran Van Der Sloot for many years, and although he was rotting in some South American prison, it didn’t mean there weren’t others from his crew carrying on his tradition of killing tourists. Like Natalee Holloway I believed in the inherent decency of people, and this could’ve been both our undoing. As we cruised along my fellow passengers had been telling me, in broken English, about the legend of Captain Don Stewart, a feisty swashbuckler who had come to the island of Bonaire and had risen to prominence as a reef expert and diamond-eyed Lothario. He was highly revered, Captain Don was, even after losing his foot after it had become pinned under an old wooden boat wreck. They had amputated his dead foot and buried it in the Kralendijk Cemetery with all the pomp and circumstance of a National Hero. Old Don himself went to his glory a few years later, and my new Dutch friends insisted, while eyeing my own two feet, that his ghost still haunted these coral landscapes in search of his missing foot. Beware of praising famous men, I cautioned, as my right foot started to tingle. It would be entirely customary for these ruddy Europeans to drag me out of the truck, weak as I was from a bellyful of Cacique, to a stone altar where these wild acolytes would cut my foot off in deference to Captain Don, their messiah, and then toss my body into the boundless blue ocean for the moray eels and whatever else. Resistance was out of the question. I awaited my fate.
Out of nowhere a little oasis materialized. Our driver parked the truck and we went walking (I suddenly appreciated my feet more than I had in a while) into a little row of cabanas shrouded by palm trees. At the end of the path we stepped through a tiny garden and emerged at a wooden bar called Sorobon at the edge of an immaculate, baby blue beach shelf that ran five hundred feet out to the darker cobalt of the first reef drop.
The bartender was Edwin, a gray-haired and bronzed sage who spent most of his time staring out at the horizon, cracking a knowing smile.
“This is always this,” he said, motioning toward the sun and the sky and the sea. “It never grows up.”
I knew what he meant. Most of us who are cramped on the continent feel the years passing because of all the change. Days, weeks, months, lines in the face. Hot, hotter, cold, colder, rain, snow, clouds, bad news, traffic, other people’s business, the same succession of holidays, tragedies both minor and major, the struggle for whatever it is we are fighting for—no grand epic battles but trivial, almost meaningless ones. Existential malaise piled up high, the failure of the system to deliver what it has promised, and all of that everything so far away and here is Edwin, surrounded by his old wooden bar, with the sun overhead and 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round and the simple understanding that this was it, and it was no secret. If you couldn’t figure it out you didn’t belong there and if you did there wasn’t any reason to explain it. I told Edwin and my Dutch friends I’d be back. They shrugged. If they saw me when I returned they’d know that I had. And that was it.
More Alembics to come.