If you fancy going to the Caribbean and you want to get a sense of how the islands used to be, here’s a name for you: Grand Turk. It’s the capital of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), south of the Bahamas.
The TCI is a peculiar group of islands. It’s a low tax zone, so it attracts money, and you get a feeling of that in the biggest island, Providenciales, where the international flights drop you. Provo, as it’s known, is all hotels, restaurants and fancy houses, with frighteningly expensive shops in palatial single-storey malls. It’s where the nightlife is, and if that’s what you’re into, then fine. You get one of the world’s most celebrated beaches, Grace Bay, thrown in: a long, unblemished stretch of white sand lapped by turquoise sea. It’s the stuff of movies. You can’t believe the colour of the water; it doesn’t look real.
If that sounds like a millionaire’s playground, that’s because it is. And there is another island that’s even more full of money: Parrot Cay, where the super-rich live. A friend of mine tells the story of a friend of his, an electrician, who was summoned to a house on Parrot Cay to fix the air conditioning. He rang the bell and the door was opened by the owner: Keith Richards.
The electrician had to get a part for the a/c unit, so he left and returned a day or two later. Rang the doorbell. The Rolling Stones guitarist was busy, so he asked a friend to answer it. Paul McCartney.
So the tax situation, the weather and the beaches attract people who can afford to live anywhere, but you and I couldn’t remain in Parrot Cay.
In any case, for those of us who like a bit of desert island with our turquoise sea, rather than marinas full of luxury yachts, the answer is the name I mentioned earlier: Grand Turk. This is nominally the capital, in that the government is based there, but it is nowhere near as developed as Provo, and the population is dwindling because there is no industry there. No jobs. It’s a sleepy place, as a Caribbean island should be, but it’s in danger of sleeping itself to death. It has beautiful beaches just like Grace Bay, but smaller. And precious little nightlife. Three or four restaurants to choose from and the same number of bars.
When I was there, four years ago, there was an extra expat contingent of 50 or so, brought in by the UK Government, because the TCI is a British Overseas Territory which had been running its own affairs but was rotten with corruption. That is hardly unique in the Caribbean, but the UK felt compelled to step in and stop the rot with an interim government and ancillary workers. Our friends included women who worked in HR and a salt-of-the-earth Geordie (that’s from Newcastle, England) whose job was making the best use of the government buildings. There was the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Executive and, left over from colonial days, the Governor.
There were also people whose roles I never fully understood, such as an adviser on government structure, whatever that means. I didn’t even really get what the Geordie actually did with himself all day.
A nice bunch of people, anyway, and they had adopted the Sandbar as their base in the evenings. That is a little open-sided wooden building on stilts over the slope of the beach. They served food: nothing fancy, but decently cooked. The conch, that big shellfish that people hold to their ear to “hear the sea” is found around there, and at the sandbar we ate conch fritters and conch bites along with the local fish, such as grouper. The drinks were not expensive and the service was good and friendly. It is owned and run by two Canadian sisters, Katya and Tonya, whose mother is well established as a realtor (estate agent to my fellow Brits). The waitress and the cook were Haitian girls.
Grand Turk is hot and it hardly ever rains, but that is not the good thing it might sound. There is a chronic water shortage and on the rare occasions when the sky gives the island a bit of a shower, you don’t run for shelter; you put every container you can find outside to collect the wet stuff and pour it into the underground tank, if you’re lucky enough to have one.
We lived right next to the beach: open our back gate and you were on sand. Occasionally a woman would come to our part of the beach and just sit down in the sea, fully clothed, presumably for the sheer pleasure of being wet.
Others who suffer are the island’s roaming animals, a legacy from a time when horses and donkeys worked in the salt industry. Now their descendants wander the streets and beaches, along with the cow on this blog’s home page, and hundreds of dogs. Some say the government does nothing about it because visitors find the sight of horses and donkeys cute.
Contact with the locals, who call themselves Belongers, was minimal. The expats drank in the Sandbar and ate in the restaurants, but by and large the Belongers didn’t. They had their own bars and kept themselves to themselves.
The centre of the action in Cockburn Town, the capital, was, as far as I was concerned, the street where the Sandbar was: Duke Street. At one end is The Osprey, a hotel with a restaurant overlooking the beach. There are dive shops, because scuba diving is one of the principal attractions, and opposite the Sandbar, next to the Canadian girls’ Manta House holiday apartments, is the Saltraker Inn, another expat hangout.
Blue Water Divers is owned and run by an American, known simply as Mitch, who came to Grand Turk as a young man, aiming to polish his guitar technique, and ended up staying, becoming a fixture, buying the diving business and playing and singing in the Saltraker, the Osprey and other places. Everyone in Grand Turk has seen Mitch play 100 times, so there are few surprises, but he doesn’t mind and nor do they.
Mitch is living a dream a long way from rural Iowa. And yet, of course, it’s not dreamlike. He has a business to run and money to earn. A hurricane devastated Grand Turk in 2008 and took Mitch’s seafront house with it. He’s now built another one, bigger and stronger, half a mile down the road.
The word that crops up automatically ehen people refer to Caribbean islands is “paradise”. In this case it is merited. Grand Turk is a Caribbean paradise, but it’s a real one populated by working people.
Next Tuesday: sea, sun, sand, music and smaller islands