2000s Archive

An Island in Bloom

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The tiny fishing village of Esperanza has a whiff of Hemingway’s Key West about it, or maybe Provincetown before the revolution. A narrow two-lane road separates the boardwalk, or malecón, from the three-block stretch of guest­houses and cafés. Sailboats bob in the bay while a goat grazes in the front yard of a pale blue two-room house and wizened men drink rum in the shade. “This would be a great place to come if you wanted to be a dissipated drunk,” said Willy. “Let’s move here.”

One day we wandered into Tropical Baby, a bright blue hole-in-the-wall with a sign made of driftwood. Inside, in an 8- by 12-foot kitchen, was Baby Llenza, a blue-eyed, blonde Puerto Rican who studied at La Varenne in Paris, worked in New York, Miami, and Bali for years, and finally settled here to practice her “global” cuisine. We quickly fell into the habit of getting lunch from Tropical Baby—red snapper escabeche with tamarind sauce, say, or chicken breast and feta with Kalamata vinaigrette in a whole-wheat wrap—and taking it to the beach to eat with a nice chilled bottle of wine.

A few doors down, Dotti, who relocated here from Provincetown 29 years ago, waits tables at Bananas. She’s a classic weather-beaten old gal in a floral-print sleeveless dress and Birkenstocks, her reading glasses dangling on a chain around her neck. When she first came here, she told us as we ate our fish sandwiches one day, stray dogs would roam around in packs. She adopted a few, and since then, the local humane society has taught the Viequenses a lot about spaying and neutering. Days later, we found Dotti tending bar at the Inn on the Blue Horizon, and the next afternoon, on our way back from the beach, she whizzed by in her car, singing to herself, with all the windows open and two mutts in the back.

For a few days, we set ourselves up at the Hix Island House, a stunning modernist concrete compound built by the Toronto-based architect John Hix. It hides high up in the heavy vegetation of the interior of the island, and from the widow’s walk above our loft, the view was nearly 360 degrees. From that perch, we really had a sense of the wild nature of the island, and it put us in an adventurous mood.

We piled into the Jeep to explore some of the map’s tiny, unidentified squiggles on the western end of the island. We drove for miles on scraggly dirt roads with ospreys flying overhead, until we turned off onto a smaller path in what used to be the Navy’s stomping ground. There are hundreds and hundreds of old concrete munitions bunkers, some built into the hillside, some set back, some with big loading docks, all of them “Certified Empty” with their giant steel doors fixed open and numbers stenciled above. As we drove past them, there was something eerie and mysterious, even romantic, about the evidence of a bygone era out in the middle of nowhere. It was like happening upon dinosaur bones.

For our last day, we’d arranged a sail with Captain Bill, whom we’d met one evening when we stopped in at Al’s Mar Azul, a real drinker’s bar overlooking the water in Isabel Segunda. Captain Bill seems to use it as his office and struck up a conversation with me as I snapped a sunset photo. “Why take a picture of the boats when you can take a sail on one?” he asked. He wasn’t chatting me up; he was making his sales pitch. Captain Bill quit the high-tech business outside Boston after 29 years, has now sailed the whole Caribbean three times, and settled down here three years ago. “I’m fully legal,” he said. “I pay my taxes.”

He met us at eight o’clock on Sunday morning by the fishing docks. Tanned and gray haired, he wore black jeans, Top-Siders with holes in the toes, and an old black T-shirt with a crude map of another Caribbean island, so faded you couldn’t quite tell which. We climbed down into a rickety old dinghy and he rowed us out to Willo, his 34-foot Pearson, built in 1977.

Once we were aboard, Captain Bill went down below to check the weather forecast and stow our gear. It was a real mess down there, with charts everywhere and what looked like all his possessions strewn about. A Navy captain would have been appalled. As we left the harbor, the wind was strong, but trepidation gave way to confidence as we watched Captain Bill work the sheets and winches as if they were a part of him. We sailed east, parallel to the coast, where we could see a cluster of grand houses at the water’s edge that you’d otherwise have no idea were there.

We anchored by a reef, Captain Bill fetched us flippers, masks, and snorkels, and we followed him into the sea. It was sublime to be floating around in the middle of the ocean, one of those nice reminders of your tiny place in the world and, of course, the entire universe that lives underneath it. We’d been to the bioluminescent bay in Mosquito Lagoon a couple of days before for a real special-effects kind of evening. There you can swim among the dinoflagellates, the single-celled organisms that create a neon glow when agitated. We literally shone underwater and watched alien-green pellets roll down our bodies as we popped up through the surface. Neomythologists could get a few ideas in that bay.

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