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Foreigners

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The hand-lettered sign on the stall door advised "TOTAL DERELICT."

Scrawled in ballpoint on a piece of scrap paper, the words came into my brain through my eyes and then rattled around for a few seconds, seeking some familiar association. Aha. The toilet must be out of order.

Here on Bonaire, English is most people's fourth language. A desert island in the southern Caribbean claimed by Holland back when snagging islands was a trendy European frenzy, conversations in Bonaire are a crazy quilt of vocabulary. Dutch is predominant and official. Most residents grow up speaking Dutch and Papiamento, the native language, while Spanish has hopped over from the nearest mainland, Venezuela.

But American scuba divers are a key target of the island's tourism industry, so English is attempted in most public settings--with varying degrees of success.

A brochure explaining the dangerous currents at one of the beaches pleads with visitors not to be macho and brave swimming there, admonishing "No sturdiness, please!"

After a while, decoding sentences that at first sound nonsensical becomes a habit, just like swerving to avoid the wild donkeys and goats that roam freely all over the roads, along with iguanas much bigger than you'd imagine.

Though the beaches are gorgeous and the northern end of the island is a rugged, mountainous park with amazing flamingo-watching, my husband and I don't come here to enjoy the landscape: We spend most of our days underwater.

At 60 or 100 feet below sea level, we watch eagle rays fly gracefully by, find amusement in the antics of a hawksbill turtle cracking mollusk shells for breakfast, hang quietly weightless while barracudas and lobsters satisfy their curiosity about these goofy-looking creatures in neoprene and strap-on flippers.

Down there, we often feel like aliens on our own planet. We breathe air from tanks on our backs, communicate with hand signals, navigate with a compass.

Back on land, we are strangers of a different sort. We stand on the curb watching a parade at a rollicking street fair in Rincon, the smaller of the island's two towns (which is saying a lot). We eat meat grilled on the street by local families. Around us, the Bonaireans are singing a Papiamento song they all know, playing handmade drums and blowing giant conch shells like French horns. The visitors take pictures and fruitlessly try to blend in.

We must look either brave or stupid, because several other sun-pinked white people approach us, asking cautiously what we're eating, which food stand it came from and how do we know it isn't wild donkey?

We laugh and say whatever it is, it tastes really good. The parade ends, and we wander down the street to a little outdoor cafe for a drink.

A chalkboard out front promises "the coldiest beer."

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