Friday, September 28, 2012

Remembering Grand Turk

Grand Turk - I lived on this island during 1985-1986
Before they closed the front door of the Jet Blue Airlines flight to San Juan I asked the first officer if we would be passing anywhere near the Grand Turk VOR. The omnidirectional radio beacon on the island is used by airplanes navigating their way to and from the Caribbean, and especially flights from the south Florida to Puerto Rico. "Yes," the pilot said, "we should pass about 10 miles south of the VOR." He then added, "I've never had anyone ask me about Grand Turk. How do you know about it?"
A Bahamas Air flight from Nassau deposited us on South Caicos Island only 20 hours later than our scheduled arrival. Experience with this airline would teach me that 20 hours late is almost on time and as the Jamaicans always say, "no problem, mon." However at the time it was a problem. I was supposed to arrive on South Caicos where I was supposed to make a connection to Turks and Caicos National Airlines to fly a short 20 minute flight over to Grand Turk island, the administrative capital of the Turks and Caicos Islands. About the only reason anyone would have for knowing about Grand Turk is that when John Glenn made his historic orbiting flight of the earth on February 20 1962, his space capsule landed offshore from Grand Turk where he was scooped out of the water, debriefed at a former US Air Force facility on the island, and then flown back to the United States. Nobody had much thought about the island ever since.
I was supposed to land on Grand Turk on February 20, 1985, exactly 23 years to the day after I sat in Mrs Hubbard's fifth grade classroom and listened to this historic flight on public radio. Now, however, because of a broken plane and general ineptness, Bahamas Air made me arrive a day late.
My concern about being so late arriving on Grand Turk was that I had an appointment on February 20 at 4:00 p.m. with the honorable Norman Saunders, the Prime Minister of the country. I had met governor's before and US Senators and a few members of the US House of Representatives but never before had I met the President of a nation. And now, thanks to Bahamas Air, I was going to be late. On arrival at Grand Turk I went immediately to the President's office in a rickety old building in "downtown" Cockburn Town. There I apologized profusely for my tardiness and asked if there was any other time the Prime Minister might be available. I knew that he was extremely busy so I would appreciate any time he could spare. His secretary confirmed that the Prime Minister was extremely busy and then said "why don't you just walk in and have a chat with him now, mon."
Although a British overseas territory, the Turks and Caicos Islands had their own government and their own leadership and the leader was the Prime Minister. I walked into his office and found him with his feet up on his desk smoking a cigar and looking out the window. So much for his extremely busy schedule. Introducing myself he asked me to be seated and it was then that I told him the story of why I was on the island (doing research on an endangered species of bird that likely spent the winter on the island) and could we count on him and his administration to help us out as needed while conducting the research. The Prime Minister confirmed that he would do everything possible to help us. Of course less than a month later the Prime Minister was arrested in Miami after accepting money from Colombians who were actually undercover DEA agents with whom the Prime Minister made a deal for the safe passage and refueling of drug planes passing through the Turks and Caicos Islands. Mr Saunders wasn't much help after all.
We traveled to Grand Turk searching for Kirtland's Warbler an endangered species of bird that had become my passion and the focus of my research efforts in those post-North Dakota days. My assistant Paul Sievert, now Assistant Unit Leader at the University of Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, found four different Kirtland's warblers in the four days we were on the island. Given Paul's success we planned to return the following winter and focus our efforts there.
A Kirtland's Warbler
At this stage of my exploration of everything with which I was not familiar I was mesmerized by Grant Turk. At the time it was the furthest south I had ever been and the furthest east. Just ninety miles south of me was the massive island of Hispaniola and all the excitement exploration of it could offer. The remoteness of the island was also a big draw. I remember once calling my colleague Mike DeCapita in our office in East Lansing Michigan from the old US Air Force Base (South Base) on the island. Looking out my window at the Atlantic I remember gloating as I told Mike that the next land east of where I sat was Africa. I knew I had to spend more time on this island.
Returning the next winter with Grand Turk as my home I was eager to find lots of Kirtland's Warblers and learn lots of cool things about it and its winter habitat and do what we could to keep the animal from going extinct. Despite having three people working with me we found only one Kirtland's Warbler all winter and that was a fleeting glimpse of one bird one afternoon. That was it. Our rotten luck demoralized me and the people working with me and as the winter wore on that demoralization boiled over until things on the island came crashing down.
We lived in a house on the beach just a stone's throw from the ocean. From that beach you could swim out 50 meters to "The Wall", a 700 foot abyss that divers loved. At least three nights a week I would snorkel and spear fish on the reef in front of my house where I would bring in grouper or snapper or conch which I would prepare fresh caught out of the ocean not 5 minutes after the creature took its last breath. This was an idyllic place to live.
The view from my front steps during the winter of 1985-1986
As the winter wore on I met Gerry Benny, a crazed Canadian from Toronto who had been hired by the likes of Gordon Lightfoot and others to watch over a condo development on the island. It was Gerry's stated purpose to show visitors to the condo development a good time. Gerry had a PhD in showing people a good time. I thought that I was a fanatic Parrothead until I met Gerry who taught me what it really meant to love Buffett music. He had made a pact with himself to listen to nothing but Jimmy Buffett music the entire time he lived on the island. He ate mainly foods that were mentioned in Buffett songs and only drank drinks that were mentioned in Jimmy's songs. He also threw parties like Buffett would throw. Who could ever forget the night Gerry threw a massive party for three oversexed and estrogen-soaked Canadian doctors from British Columbia? The script for the party followed a verse in Buffett's song "Gypsies in the Palace" where Jimmy sings "Lets all take our clothes off and form a conga line." At 3:00 in the morning one toasty morning in February thats exactly what we did as about fourteen of us danced and carried on drunk and naked in the pool of Gerry's condo development.
Gypsies In The Palace by Jimmy Buffett
I woke up the next morning and found one of the Canadian doctors laying naked in bed next to me. I wasn't sure how she got there but I had a hunch what may have happened while she was there.  Rolling out of bed later that morning (or was it noon) I sat down with a pen and one of the cute little post cards I had purchased on the island and decided to send a note back to my former wife, now, hopefully, freezing her ass off in northern Wisconsin while I was under a palm tree on a beach in a more hospitable climate. Thinking of what to say to her in this situation I simply relied on a the title of a Jimmy Buffett song and said "Dear Ruth. The weather is here. Wish you were beautiful." I signed it, put it in the mail box and never heard back from her. I often wondered why.
The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Jimmy Buffett
Pan Am Airlines used to fly twice weekly to the island from Miami on a usually half-full 727 aircraft. The planes always took off on runway 9 facing directly into the persistent east winds. To line up for the flight the pilot had to take the plane to the far west end of the runway where the plane and all the occupants of the starboard side would turn and momentarily face south before taking the runway and pointing east. When Gerry and I figured out this process we turned this simple airplane departure into a cat and mouse game of "Lets Moon Pan Am". We would wait at the airport for the last passenger to walk out on the tarmac and climb up the rear steps of the plane. As soon as that person was there Gerry and I would dash off to the west end of the runway and wait. We would climb up on the hood of my car and as the plane approached and began its turn south, two large white asses would appear to the probable horror of the pilots and all the passengers watching us. Eventually the Royal Turks and Caicos Police Force got wind of this and would try to stop us but they never did. I think they enjoyed the cat and mouse game. At least it gave them something to do.
A Pan Am Airlines 727 - probably one that Gerry and I mooned at some stage that winter.
There were tons of other stories of things that happened on the island and maybe some day I will write a book just about this place. However suffice it to say it all came crashing down one April morning because of a phone call using a credit card and we all were ordered to leave the island. I returned the following summer with my friend Chris Haney and we hung out with Gerry Benny at his house on the beach. Our flight back to Miami was on one of the last flights that Pan Am ever made to the island. It was a fitting way to depart.
My only other contact with the island was in 1990 when the wife of the Queen's appointed Governor on the island called me for some help. Not long after our departure from the island in April 1986 the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands basically dissolved and it did so out of complete and total incompetence. Now instead of having an elected government the Queen in London and her appointed Governor on the island run the government. It turned out that the Governor was quite a conservationist and he had a sense for what was about to happen to many of the resources on the island so he wanted to establish a preserve to protect Kirtland's Warbler habitat. Although I wasn't allowed to travel there on Government time to help them with the establishment of this refuge I did so by phone and mail and now a large chunk of habitat just south of the airport runway is forever protected from development by a winter refuge for Kirtland's Warbler. Some good came out of all our time there after all.
I was thinking about all of this as the pilot came on the intercom and said "for the passenger in seat 3A we are about to come up on the Grand Turk VOR. I hope you enjoy your view after all these years."
Since my departure long ago there have been many changes on the island. Most obvious and expected is that the size of the human population on the island has grown while the size of the island itself has not. That can mean only one thing - more pressures on fewer natural resources. Its the story soon to be heard around the world. Most exciting for me is the presence, now for several years, of a Margaritaville Cafe on Grand Turk! In my quest to have a beer in all of his Cafe's I will have to go there. Margaritaville is now located on the grounds of the old South Base where John Glenn was debriefed. Its about 300 yards down the beach from where I used to live. Its right where the cruise ships come into port.
Margaritaville Grand Turk
As I scanned my old home from 30, 000 feet I felt a wisp of nostalgia just like I did a few minutes earlier as we passed over so many of the Bahamas that I came to know so well so very long ago. The last time I was on this island was in the summer of 1986, more than 26 years ago. I still think about Grand Turk almost daily. I think I need to go back there. And maybe rather than think about it I should just get on a plane or a cruise ship and do it. And when I do I'm sure I'll be singing this verse from that same song whose title I sent to my former wife:
Hes going back to New York, pack it up and let everyone know, It was something that he should have done such a long time ago. Still time to start a new life in the palm trees, Ah, Billy Clyde wasn't insane. And if it doesn't work out there'll never be any doubt, That the pleasure was worth all the pain.

Homesick for the Bahamas

Two weeks ago I flew from Tampa to San Juan Puerto Rico solely to visit the San Juan National Historic Site in Old San Juan, and to drink a Landshark Lager at what turned out to be each of the three Margaritaville Cafes in the San Juan Airport.
I traveled to San Juan on Jet Blue Airlines, an air carrier that I am quickly beginning to like more than any of the few that remain. Previous experiences with Jet Blue have all been positive and I've flown them to Cancun (twice), Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, Ponce, Puerto, Rico, San Juan Puerto Rico, Bogota, Colombia and in a couple weeks to Montego Bay, Jamaica. Each trip on Jet Blue has been enjoyable I think because Jet Blue's philosophy of customer service is to actually provide customer service.
As we lifted off from Tampa that Thursday afternoon I was seated near the front of the nearly packed Airbus A320 jet in my now-standard window seat. Ever since getting over my irrational fear of flying 30 years ago I have always sought out window seats if for no other reason than the geography lesson a window seat provides.
Because of some nasty thunderstorms over near Ratworld we were routed south from Tampa over Sarasota and on to Fort Myers where we were vectored east and passed over the Miami International Airport. Ever since my first time in the Miami airport in July 1984 I have loved that place. It used to be that if you wanted to travel anywhere south you did so by connecting in Miami. When I lived on Grand Turk Island in 1985-1986, the only way to reach the island (other than internal flights on Turks and Caicos National Airlines) was to fly on Cayman Airways or venerable Pan Am from the Miami airport. Although its no longer necessary to fly from Miami to get somewhere warm, I still look at MIA with the same excited child-like eyes with which I viewed it the first time I landed there.
From the edge of Miami we passed over the coastline and out over the open ocean. Doing so I was taken back to the many times I have flown to the Bahamas from the United States and especially all the times I flew "home" to Nassau from the Miami Airport. A check of my travel records shows that I have landed in the Bahamas on 51 international flights (all from the United States). Most of those landings have been in Nassau and almost all of the Nassau flights originated from the Miami Airport.
A few minutes after passing over the Gulf Stream I could see the extensive salt flats on the west shore of Andros Island the largest, and to me the most mysterious of the 2,000 or so islands in the Bahamas. When I was working in the Bahamas and had an office in the US Embassy in Nassau, I came to know several Drug Enforcement Agency agents posted there. Although it was not our purpose while there, we did some surveillance for the DEA while out on some of the "Family Islands" and always dutifully reported that information back to the DEA in the Embassy. Because of that relationship the DEA in Nassau took a special interest in our safety and they specifically forbade us from traveling on official government duty to Andros Island. The reason was simple. Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. Lots of drugs and Colombianns who were hell bent on bringing them into the United States. As one agent (who shall forever remain nameless) told me one day in Nassau, "You guys are going to be running around with binoculars over your necks, and carrying radio telemetry antennaes in your hands. Do you think of for a minute that Raul or Jose are going to buy your story that you're just looking for birds? Fuck no! You try that trick and we'll find you on the bottom of the harbor at Congo Town some day."
I guess it was prophetic that about a month later a Federal Aviation Administration technician landed on nearby North Bimini to fix some aircraft tracking radar. In the village on North Bimini he told everyone that he was FAA and they heard it as DEA and he was later found at the bottom of Bimini harbor with his hands tied behind his back and his legs weighted down with cement blocks.
Passing over the north end of Andros I could see New Providence island, the home of Nassau, off to port. My first view of the West Indies came from a Delta Airlines L-1011 as we were on approach to the Nassau airport on June 4 1984. My friend Chris Haney had told me about "green water" in the West Indies and I didn't believe him until we were on final approach to the Nassau airport which is bounded by green water. Whenever I have seen green water since then I have known that I was back where I belong in the West Indies.
It was to the Bahamas that I ran after my divorce long ago. It was the Bahamas that provided me with a safe haven hundreds of miles away from the heat and the passion and the dying fire that was once my marriage back in North Dakota. It was the Bahamas that provided me with palm trees and sandy beaches and warm January morning's and lots of drinks to keep me numb and pretty postcards on which I wrote goofy notes to friends back in the reality of United States. It was the Bahamas that provided me all of that and it all began in Nassau.
It was in the Nassau airport where my contact, the Cultural Attache, took out a map of the city and drew a circle around one part of it and said, matter of factly, "Do not under ANY circumstances go here. If you wind up here and you have a flat tire you drive until you are out of here. Do not stop to change your tire. Do not under any circumstances roll down your window. Do nothing other than get the hell out of there." This "there" that he talked about was a particularly nasty part of Nassau, the part that the Bahamas Tourism Authority fails to tell tourists about when they sling their marketing slogan "Its Better in the Bahamas." My Embassy contact made it abundantly clear that the better "It" was not in this part of Nassau. When I asked about the issues I was told, simply, "drugs. Lots of drugs." He then explained to me that at the time Nassau had the second highest per capita crime rate in the world. When I asked what was number one he told me "Kingston, Jamaica, and you better not go there either."
All of those flights that we took around the islands, each on Bahamas Air (the worlds largest unscheduled airline) originated at the Nassau airport. After all the times on that miserable airline I tallied up the record and found that we were late arriving or departing on every flight by at least 90 minutes. Every flight for those three years! I soon accepted the fact that any flight less than 90 minutes late on Bahamas Air was "on time." At least on island time.
A Bahamas Air Hawker-Sidley 748. Looking at the registration letters on the tail this is the exact same plane that broke while we were in mid-flight traveling from Nassau to Mayaguana island on February 20, 1985. The propeller on the right engine died while we were in flight 10,000 feet above the ocean surface. The pilot came on a calmly said in his Bahamian accent, "Ladies and gentlemen we have a slight problem, but there's nothing to worry about."
Leaving Nassau we traveled down the Exuma Keys toward Georgetown Exuma. The Exuma's have been variously described as a "sting of pearls" laying on the ocean's surface. The bar in the Hotel Peace and Plenty in Georgetown Exuma sits directly on the Tropic of Cancer where, if you position your arm just right, you can drink in the Tropics and the Subtropics at the same time.
Some of the Exumas
Now off to our left was Cat Island and just beyond it was San Salvador.It was on the latter that Columbus allegedly landed at the conclusion of his first voyage to the new world. I say allegedly landed because the lay out of San Salvador and the lay out of Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands is very similar and a debate continues to rage about which island was the real island where Columbus first landed. Nobody will ever know because the only person who knows for certain, Columbus, has been dead for 500 years and he's not saying much. San Salvador has three monuments to the "exact" spot where Columbus allegedly first stepped foot on the island. Even San Salvador residents aren't sure of the story. It was on San Salvador island where I completely lost it with Bahamas Air the first time (of many of times) because of their ineptness. It was on San Salvador that I watched a fully-loaded DC-3 land in the middle of the night, with only flashlights illuminating the edge of the runway, and then when safely parked, watched people unloading sack after sack of a valuable white substance. A week later, armed with this information, the DEA and the Royal Bahamas Police Force made a huge drug bust at the San Salvador airport - possibly when the next shipment arrived.
The San Salvador airport is today served by weekly flights on Spirit Airlines from Fort Lauderdale. The important question being - do you really want to fly on Spirit?
We continued our nostalgic run through the islands passing over the north tip of Long Island. It was here after a typical Bahamas Air flight that my assistant Paul Sievert deplaned and kneeled on the tarmac and kissed the ground because he was so elated to be off that miserable airline - at least for that day. Next we were vectored over Crooked Island which I have never visited. Its where Jimmy Buffett goes for bone fishing so I have to go there some day. Off in the distance to the east was remote and largely unexplored Samana Cay. There are no human residents on Samana but there are lots of birds and more importantly there are lots of hutia a bizarre mammal that reminds me of an island-dwelling agouti.
An adult Hutia. In the Bahamas they are found almost exclusively on Samana Cay. The only ones I've ever seen were at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where they are quite common.
My last view of the Bahamas was of huge and largely uninhabited Mayaguana island near the southern end of the Bahamas archipelago. It was on this island that we landed the day the Bahamas Air flight broke in mid air. At the time of that flight Bahamas Air flew four Hawker-Sidley 748 aircraft. They also had 3 repair crews ready to fly out to repair their planes if needed. On the day of our fateful flight the pilot radioed back to Nassau to inform Bahamas Air maintenance that we were broken down and could someone come fix the plane. He was informed by Nassau that the three fix it crews were out on three other islands fixing the three other planes. We were put up in the Mayaquana "Sheraton" a weather beaten guest house where we were fed stale corned beef for dinner. Later while walking around the town (only 800 people lived on Mayaguana back then) I came onto a bar (disco as it was called) and went inside. It was there that I had an epiphany. I was sitting among some of the poorest people I had known in my life (up until then) and they were all seemingly very happy. They worked catching fish and conchs and lived hand to mouth but they were happy. They didn't as the Buffett song says "live in a hurry." They just made the best of their situation and I didn't hear one of them complain. I never bought a beer that night because these dirt poor Bahamaians went out of their way to make this stranded visitor feel like he was home.
Mayaguana and its wonderful undisturbed scrub forest that drips with birds in winter. I hope it always stays that way
As we continued south we passed over the line separating the Bahamas from the Turks and Caicos Islands and as we did I found myself cranking my head around looking back to the north. As much as I used to complain about the Bahamas they actually became my surrogate home. People like the economically distressed fishermen on Mayaguana made it home and so did the Royal Bahamas Police Force guy on Nassau who once slammed me against the side of my car while I was doing a bird survey because he thought I was scoping out homes to rob later in the day. The crazed Bahamians on Great Abaco made me feel more welcome than I have on most places in the United States. Then there was the airport manager for Bahamas Air on Eleuthera who had fewer good things to say about his airline than I did but at least he said it with a smile. And there was the lady on Grand Bahama who saw me stumble out of a forest suffering from heat exhaustion who promptly stopped, poured water all over me and against my protestations darted off to the hospital in Freeport because she wanted to make sure I was ok.
When I first arrived in the Bahamas long ago I was a raw nerve. I demanded (in my mind) that they conform to what I thought was correct and in so doing the Bahamians showed me that I was the one out of step, not them. A lecture I received from a Bahamas Air pilot on Inagua island who once said to me "Sir, you are now in the land where time stands still" (with emphasis on the last three words) went a long way in converting me from a "I have to have it done yesterday" American to someone who learned that things will get done eventually. It might not be on my terms or on my schedule but they will get done. So just learn to chill out.
Through all of this the Bahamas have become my surrogate home and if it wasn't so expensive there I'd live on one of the islands - probably Grand Bahama or Eleuthera. However because I can't live there I will just live there vicariously through trips to the islands or by flying over them on my way to somewhere else. Now I'm getting homesick to return home and I'm thinking I need to go back again. Maybe I'll do that after Jamaica? As my Bahamian friends would say, "Yah, mon, I tink that a good idea mon."