I was one of the lucky ones. I discovered Bonaire when it was still a quiet, relatively unknown rock in the Caribbean. Before the Dutch officially took over. Before things really started to change.
I say this slightly tongue-in-cheek, because I fully recognize that those who arrived years or decades before me are laughing at the presumptuousness of my claim. After all, they discovered this rock long before me, and probably cringed a tiny bit when I arrived and stayed. Not me personally (I hope), but just another new arrival generally. I mean, it is human nature to want to keep your great finds to yourself and not share. Or is that just my only child status showing?
Either way, the island I met and fell in love with ten years ago is not quite the same island I see today. To the contrary. Some days I look around and barely recognize this little oasis in the sun.
Cruise ships in port near daily (sometimes two looming over tiny downtown Kralendijk), bringing with them a total traffic nightmare. The small and few island roads clogged with golf carts obstructing traffic – shirtless male cruisers (for the love of all that is holy, cover up that protruding beer belly) commandeering the wheel with their frazzled wives in the passenger seat clutching an opened island map in her nervous, pale hands, floral print mumu fluttering in the wind.
And let’s not forget the taxi drivers bearing down like novice Formula 1 drivers, scaring the bejesus out of anyone else on the road in order to squeeze in one more fare between the beach and cruise pier for the day. Then there are the Segway and bicycle tours clogging up the entire southwest coastal road of the island. Some days it is safer to stay home.
New construction gobbling up every bit of available and empty land. Charming vintage Bonairean-style homes being torn down to make way for some rich person’s dream villa. Whole swathes of vacant oceanfront shoreline giving way to the next developer’s dream resort, complete with 9-hole golf course. Oh my, how fancy! Let’s hope this developer doesn’t churn and burn all the money then disappear, like the last five or six have done.
Investors arriving without knowing or caring about what makes the island special. Instead, they smell the opportunity to make a profit. They don’t dive. Or windsurf. Or kiteboard. Or snorkel. Hell, they might not even care about the ocean at all, other than to understand its proximity makes their investment all the more valuable. These folks are here to make the quick buck, and don’t seem to care so much (at all?) about Bonaire’s natural beauty. Or its longevity.
Oh, but wait…our own island government, tourism bureau, and related organizations don’t seem all that concerned with the longevity of Bonaire’s natural beauty, either. See cruise ship proliferation, above. So I guess the investors and developers are just following suit. I guess I can’t really blame them.
Then there’s the arrival of expats fully funded by the Dutch government for a 2-3 year stint working for the island government. They bring with them fat expense and housing accounts that drive up prices for the rest of the island’s population. The housing market here has exploded, making buying or even renting a nice property out of reach for most people earning an average island salary. Add to it very restrictive mortgage rules in place by the local banks, and it is unlikely that most of the island’s population will ever be able to purchase even a starter home. It wasn’t always this way.
And don’t get me started on the new rules. Rules? Come on, this is the Caribbean. A lack of rules governing behavior is part of the appeal of moving here. After all, if one wanted every element of one’s existence governed by some third-party, one would likely stay in their homeland. Well, except for those annoying expats who want this place to be exactly like their other place, just with better weather. Ugh.
Of course, not all changes are bad.
Our social health care is improving, as I discovered recently. Reportedly, the schools are better, too. Although I have zero first-hand knowledge of that topic. And on a really personal note, my immigration as an American was a piece of cake, thanks to Dutch changes in the rules here.
The shopping is light years ahead of where it was when I first arrived. Nowadays, pretty much whatever I want or need makes its way to the stores and shelves here. No more traipsing to six grocery stores in vain to find ingredients to make spaghetti. And if you can’t find something you need? Just set up a US- or European-based parcel forwarding account and order away on Amazon. Voila! Your every wish fulfilled.
So there are good changes to counteract the bad.
Yet, people who move here seeking a quieter, laid-back approach to island life that is different from their homeland (or even other Caribbean islands) find that dream slowly disappearing, even as amenities abound. Likewise, if they hoped to surround themselves with like-minded people – you know, the ones who don’t care about status or bother with the need to show off – finding those folks gets harder and harder with each planeload of new arrivals.
And sometimes all these changes make me sad. Selfishly, I want this place I fell in love with to stay exactly as it was when I fell for it. Second-world chic, as I lovingly called it when I first arrived. Or, as my 20-something son observed the other day when I mentioned we now have Black Friday sales here (ugh) – “Damn you American consumerism for poisoning Bonaire!!”
Ridiculous, I know. Everything changes. People, places, and things evolve. It is just part of the natural cycle. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Accept it? Yes. Like it? Nope.
Yet it is in those moments of despair, when I’m frustratingly stuck behind a twenty vehicle parade being led by yet another lost cruise ship guest in a golf cart or I am staring at a backhoe demolishing another historic home, that I need to remember something.
At least parts of dushi Bonaire I fell in love with still exist, even if they are getting harder and harder to find. There are still some secret spots on this little island that remain untouched by development. Where one can still take a walk along the coast and not see another living soul or worry about one’s safety. Where the reefs remain relatively pristine. Where the essence of the island remains intact, even if that essence is ever-so-slightly muted.
And it is to those places and spaces I retreat to renew my spirit and love for this rock. To escape the bustle, stress, and chaos of the rest of the island’s ever-changing personality. I’ve discovered that making the effort to visit those secret spots reminds me that there is still a lot about this place to love. Even as it becomes ever more unrecognizable.
I know I am not the first Caribbean transplant to feel this way. I won’t be the last, either. For decades, expats have arrived on sunny shores all along the Caribbean basin and discovered paradise lost, only to see it rapidly become found then morph into something totally different. Whether and how long they hang on to their tropical dreams depends on their circumstances. For some, it will be a lifetime commitment. Others may decide it eventually isn’t worth the hassle.
And for those in between, like me? I think the answer is continuing to seek out those special places that call to your soul and spend as much time as possible enjoying them. After all, they might not be there forever.
Got questions? Comments? Want to know more about island life? Thinking about making a big life change? I’d love to hear from you.