Well, it’s 85 and sunny every day here in Bonaire: even when it rains the sun is still out.
“Bonwhere?” you might ask. Bonaire is a tropical island, north of Venezuela. It is part of the ABC islands, made up of Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire, legally a part of the Netherlands.
I am attending school with CIEE, an organization that has study abroad programs all over the world. The program is busy; our day is scheduled from 7am to 8pm. We go snorkeling in the water in front of the house at 7:15, and then have breakfast. We have a bit of class in the morning and then a little more after lunch, but some days we just skip the class part and scuba dive, snorkel, hike, or swim as part of class. And then other days we go on day trips: so far I have toured Cargill Salt Company, the slave huts, and Lac Bay – the home of windsurfing on Bonaire.
I’ve probably seen more wildlife here than I’ve seen in any zoo or aquarium. There is every color of angelfish, jellyfish, shrimp, parrotfish, puffer fish, barracuda, large tarpons, frog fish, seahorses, octopi and flounder. My favorite sea creatures are feather dusters that look like little palm trees, and when you go to touch them they suck themselves into a hole! Bonaire also has native flamingos here; it’s one of the only places in the world where they naturally breed.
My classes this semester include advanced scuba, where I will become a certified advanced and rescue diver, and could also become a master diver; coral reef ecology; cultural and environmental history of Bonaire, where I am learning Papiamentu, a creole language that is widely spoken on the island; marine ecology field research methods; tropical marine conservation biology; and an independent research project on a topic of my choice.
The people here complete the experience. My nine classmates are from all over the United States, and we all get along very well. The instructors are from Columbia, England, Belgium and Holland, and all somehow ended up living here to scuba dive and study ecology. The locals are also friendly; everyone has that islander attitude where they’re all laid back and drive their cars without mufflers and play loud reggae.
The goals of my program make this all worthwhile. It focuses on saving the planet and making a difference. We mostly collect data from the reef, and see how humans are impacting the wildlife here. The work is very rewarding, because it is a completely different satisfaction that comes from helping something like coral that simply has no control over whether it will die or not. There’s no politics in it; you just save the coral because you know it’s a living thing, not because it will pay you or owe you a favor.
My favorite experience took place last week on my first night dive. Night diving is scuba diving after the sun has set. It is hard to describe the feeling of excitement and wonder I had during that dive, but picture this… 19:27 (7:27 pm): You strap on all of your scuba gear just as the last rays of sun are gleaming across the ocean. 19:48 (8:48 pm): You wade into the water and begin your descent. Be sure to turn on your flashlight as you walk in, because if you drop it, you will not be able to find it until the next morning. As you descend, you can shine your beam of light where you would like (just not in your buddy diver’s eyes!) The only things you can see are those at the end of that tunnel of light. You can look up and see the delicate motion of waves reflecting against the dim light of the moon, but as you get down to thirty or forty feet, you lose sight of the waves. You are dependent on your handheld light; you can’t even see your hand if you hold it out to the side of you without your light. You can shine it downwards onto the reef and see nocturnal creatures creeping out of their crevices, entranced by the beam of light. Other diurnal animals can be seen sleeping in groups or in a nest, and the majestic Trumpetfish sleep hanging upside down. Basically, this experience feels like you are floating amidst a vast expanse of darkness. It is uncertain, because you can only see about 10% of what is surrounding you, but it is exhilarating at the same time.
I think that is an accurate observation about my abroad experience so far, actually. I am enjoying every moment, yet I am clearly a foreigner here, immersed in a culture I know plenty about from textbooks – but that knowledge will only inform you about 10% of what it is like to actually live here. And that uncertainty might just be what makes this experience so memorable.