I walked into Gillie’s restaurant in the Providenciales airport and ordered a cold red Gatorade. CNN was on the television, and the rolling script announced that Obama’s healthcare law had been upheld by the Supreme Court by a narrow margin. Sanjay Gupta came on and began describing the verdict and its implications for health care in the States. As I sipped my drink in this Caribbean cafe, the US seemed very far away.
I was waiting for a flight to South Caicos, an arid island in the Turks and Caicos archipelago with a population of less than 1500 people. The motto of the Turks and Caicos Islands is “Beautiful by Nature,” which I found to be a rather a clever hook for the tourists. Indeed, this chain of islands has no shortage of stunning natural landscapes: azure and turquoise striped waters meets sun-drenched rock meets white sand beaches. And under the water, the natural beauty really struts its stuff. These islands boast pristine coral reefs and healthy marine habitats where eagle ray and turtle sightings are common, as are myriad colorful reef fish, eels, lobster, flounder, and octopus.
With so much paradise to offer, it is no surprise that these islands host 200,000 tourists per year. By comparison, the local resident population is just 30,000. But I skipped the resort-laden isle of Providenciales (or Provo, as it is usually called) to hop a puddle-jumper to South Caicos, a place that tourism forgot.
I was staying at a remote scientific field station in the fishing community of Cockburn Harbor. I work in international education, and very occasionally, I travel to our locations around the world to further familiarize myself with our programs (hard job, I know, but somebody has to do it). This particular program was run out of an old hotel, perched up high on a cliff with a panoramic view of the ocean. A staff member pulled me aside and let me know that, once upon a time, this hotel was a key stop along the cocaine smuggling route of George Jung, the real life dealer played by Johnny Depp in Blow. Myth or reality? Hard to know for sure. Now it hosts around 30 undergraduate diving and snorkeling enthusiasts, who are learning how to identify all the passing fish and marine animals by their scientific names and how to make fishing practices more sustainable for the conch and lobster populations.
Next to the field station, there are remains of a salt raking and storage operation. From about 1850-1960, salt was produced on South Caicos through an evaporation process in its salinas. Production occurred in the Turks islands for a longer period of time at a larger scale, and much of it was stored on South before being loaded on ships and exported internationally.
In my wanderings around South, I saw ruins everywhere. Wild horses and stray dogs meander through crumbling concrete structures and trees root in ancient pillars. An abandoned, dilapidated white mansion that once belonged to a Governor sits high on a hill overlooking the shell of a dock where Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II landed her yacht in 1966. Hurricane Ike, which whipped through the Islands in 2008, did not help matters, and many islanders have struggled to rebuild. The amphitheater built to welcome HRM has been renovated, however, and can now serve as a site for community festivals.
I said that South Caicos is a place that tourism forgot, but new investors and developers may bring change to the island. To be successful, these developers need to invest heavily in the island; South Caicos does not provide the atmosphere or basic amenities that tourists would expect. Increased visitors could bring about more jobs and fuel economic prosperity. It is difficult to make a living in a town with no dirt to grow crops, very little artisan tradition, and no real commercial manufacturing. Fishing is a good option, but jobs in tourism, presuming they pay a decent wage, would add much needed diversity to the labor market. Increased tourism could also fund better historic preservation, add new locally owned restaurants and shops, and provide a tax base for schools and social services. Of course, if not done with great care and foresight, development efforts could turn this unique island into just another resort town.
On my first night, I had a chance to visit the future site of an eco-friendly vacation community when I tagged along with the students on a camping trip. Our destination was a wide beach adjacent to property owned by an American company based in Chicago. We traversed the grassy dunes and pitched our tents on sand as white as sugar. Then, we gathered around a bonfire for marshmallows and charades. As the fire burned down to coals, I crawled into the tent and slept like a rock.
The next morning we piled in the van to head to an abandoned Coast Guard lookout. We hiked down to the water and snorkeled with the current along the mangroves. At one point, I turned and saw a giant barracuda lurking behind me. The students stirred up the sandy bottom and rustled out a flounder that skittered across the ocean floor. I felt a sense of peace as I floated and bobbed along, taking it all in.
That night, back at the field station, an islander demonstrated how to crack upon a conch shell and extract the delicious muscle. You tap the top part with the hammer to loosen its grip, then, you use a long, sharp knife to remove the animal and clean away the organs. That night, we dined on delicious conch fritters! I tried to get the recipe, but exact quantities were hard to come by! “Add a little ground up conch, put in a little flour and some red peppers and onions, then deep fry in hot oil.” Conch is one of the main fisheries on the island, along with spiny lobster. I wasn’t able to taste the lobster since it is not in season, but I saw many of them tucked in coral-covered crevices while snorkeling.
The next morning at 7am, I was woken early by blaring music from the local Haitian church. The preacher interspersed sermons in French and English with pop music by Celine Dion and Brittany Spears. With “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” now stuck in my head, I wandered into the dining room for breakfast. That morning, after site cleanup, students were either diving or snorkeling, and I joined the snorkeling group for a trip out the Long Cay. I spied spiny lobster, French grunts, flamingo tongues, an eel, and a school of barracuda. Somehow, I missed the eagle rays that the students spotted!
Later that afternoon, local island children were invited to the field station for swimming lessons, games, and art projects. The Swimmers Choice store in Syosset, New York donated stacks of children’s swimsuits so there were plenty to go around. The local kids may live surrounded by water, but many of them do not know how to swim and don’t always know the names of the creatures that are living in the ocean. I manned the coloring station and invited children to color transparent pages of tropical fish. We hung them in the rafters and they flitted in the breeze.
After dinner, I headed out on a night snorkel, where my flashlight illuminated the nooks and crannies of the rocks and coral. My diving buddy dove down to scoop up a sea cucumber and an anemone, and she tried to point out a puffer fish. Unfortunately, it was too fast for me; it darted under a rock before I had time to catch a glimpse.
Before I knew it, my short visit had come to an end, and it was time to board the plane and head home. I hope to return someday, but I don’t expect to find the same island. I have a feeling that a wave of tourism will bring about some very real changes. I can only hope for the very best: to find the same natural, untouched beauty under the water and a new vibrancy in the town above it.
Here’s an interesting link (from a pro-development point of view) about South Caicos: http://www.timespub.tc/2011/03/a-fighting-chance/