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1990, Curacao


The butchered notes of a Steinway in the hands of Richard Clayderman stumbled across the hotel restaurant. Something akin to romance was in the air as the man at Table 15 made a play for the woman on Table Three. The waiter acted as go-between. The woman sat tight. Table 15 smiled foolishly, then looked at his lap and began to flick breadcrumbs from his napkin.

On another table a woman in a salmon-pink sleeveless top with matching, slightly undercooked but already flaking arms, played with her pink, perfectly cooked lobster. She was a big woman with firm ankles; Dutch, like the other Europeans, she probably answered to Hildegard.

The waiter brought a second planter's punch to Table Three, who was dark skinned, dark haired, attractive. Table 15, who looked like Ernest Borgenine, stared fixedly at the macaw cage. The macaws were asleep. They had heard Richard Clayderman before. It was just another Caribbean night.

A shooting star illuminated the sky. Out on the beach a worried fiddler crab, its eyes on stalks, stared, apparently aghast, when I put my foot over its hole. When I lifted my foot it took off on what seemed like a drug-assisted dash for safety. A lot of things are drug-assisted in the Caribbean. Here on Curacao they have their share of problems.

Bert Knubben, the diver who risks nitrogen poisoning almost every day to reach 150 feet down the side of the reef, where he harvests black coral and makes it into jewellery, was sitting in his small wooden hut, fashioning a tiny twiglike piece into one of a pair of ear-rings. The hut overlooks the beach within the complex of rooms which form the Princess Beach Hotel, just a few miles along the coast from Willemstad, Curacao's port. The beach of white sand was transported here from another part of the island.

'They found a Colombian woman dead in the hotel a year or two back,' said Knubben. 'She had been dead two days when they found her in her room. A condom full of cocaine had burst open inside her stomach. She was a messenger. The Colombians call them gallianos, Spanish for chicken - they lay an egg of white gold. We're just two hours from Colombia by fast patrol boat. You're bound to get drugs here.'

Knubben likes the place. The Calvanistic Dutch society in this, the largest island of the five that comprise the Netherlands Antilles, does its best to keep the cocaine at bay. So the smugglers go to St Maarten, the half French, half Dutch island 500 miles to the north which is duty free and customs free. St Maarten, or St Martin if you are on the French side, has a reputation of being a gateway to Europe for cocaine.

It also has a reputation for nude sunbathing and draws America's rich and famous. Diana Ross, Robert Redford, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon . . . they all come to St Maarten. Only Venezuelans used to go to Curacao in any number, but that is beginning to change. It has been discovered by the Dutch, who are arriving in greater numbers.

They do not go for the palm trees. There are palm trees about, but most of the vegetation is scrubland peppered with divi divi and machineel trees. The guide books, which appear to take great delight in stoking the neuroses of American tourists, warn about the sap of the machineels.
Willemstad, with its pastel Dutch facades, must present one of the most welcoming sights in the Caribbean for the cruise ships. The tourists come for the shopping, but they also come for the diving. Curacao's greatest wonders are under the waves. Its sister island, Bonaire, is the favourite of diving aficionados who seem able to rate coral and fish like gourmets rate restaurants. But Curacao, all the same, rates pretty highly.

I am a diving Philistine. To me, one piece of coral looks very much like another. The fish look very like those I have seen in aquariums in bad-taste living rooms. Still, since diving is the thing to do in Curacao, I went to see Rudi at Princess Water Sports and Diving.

For $65, Rudi taught me what to do with an aqualung. Basically, he said, all you need to remember is to breathe. Then, he said, you have to know what to do when you cannot breathe. Rudi was a great help. I never let him out of my sight.

This was not one of those places where you need to be certified in every sense of the word and sit around, tanks on backs, in swimming pools with other Americans, all rigid with fear. Rudi lied about diving being safe, about never having seen a shark, sharks not being vicious anyway, and about barracudas being scared.

We entered the water to run through the drills. 'We don't go more than 30 ft deep on this first dive,' said Rudi. From then on it was all hand signals. He made the hand signal for 'Look, there's a lobster.' The lobster had seen too many of its fellow lobsters snatched away. It retreated into the piece of builder's pipe it had made into a home.

At the point where the breakwater parted for us to descend on to the reef lurked a shoal of barracudas flashing their razored jaws. They did not look scared. Later I learnt that they sometimes go for shiny medallions around divers' necks. I checked the depth gauge. It read 30 ft.

I began to concentrate on my breathing. I never realised one breath took so long. I also concentrated on the depth gauge, which now said 40 ft. Rudi was going deeper. I followed at a fin's distance.

The reef side is a jungle of different corals - staghorn, yellow pencil, brain and sponges. The purple tube sponge looks like an exhaust pipe from a dragster. All the fish are little coloured things. There were no guppies. The depth gauge now read 50 ft.

The wonders of the reef became subordinate to constant checks on the depth gauge, the air gauge, clearing the mask, feeling for the spare mouthpiece and keeping Rudi's flipper in vision. We had reached 60 ft before Rudi turned around and began flippering back with the current.

Later, as he adjusted my gauge so that the proprietor would not notice, he explained: 'You did the drills so well I thought we'd be OK to go a little deeper.' The $65 included a boat dive the next day. It was more of the same, though this time deeper still. But divers are tough.

© Financial Times

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved