Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Grand Turk Island - My Home Break

“The universe was his home break,
and we’re still all paddling out.”…Jimmy Buffett

Surfers use the term “home break” to describe the place where they learned how to surf.  It’s a familiar place where they moved from baby steps to giant steps and taught themselves how to successfully stand erect on a surfboard.  Funny as it may seem, non-surfers can also have a home break, a place where they can learn to stand alone and strong and not be afraid and for me my home break is Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Paul Sievert and I first landed on Grand Turk one February morning in 1985 on a Turks and Caicos National Airlines flight from South Caicos.  This was at the end of a marathon collection of mistakes and late flights brought to us by Bahamasair, the world’s largest unscheduled airline.  We didn’t know it at the time but our 20 hour late arrival on Grand Turk, caused by a Bahamasair engine that quit working at 10,000 feet above the ocean, was the first of many less-than-enjoyable experiences we would have on that miserable airline.  However TCNA deposited us on Grand Turk on time at 6:30 in the morning and allowed our adventure to begin.

A Britten-Norman Islander like the ones formerly flown by Turks and Caicos National Airlines

My first trip to Grand Turk was part of an effort to find Kirtland’s Warblers during the winter months.  At the time of our research effort there were perhaps 500 individuals of this endangered species left on earth.  We were not sure if issues on the nesting area in northern Michigan were to blame for the population not increasing or if the issues were on its winter range in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands (and later Dominican Republic as we found out) so we set out on a two-pronged effort to discover the cause.  Kirtland’s Warbler had been recorded previously on one of the Caicos Islands and we traveled to Grand Turk to meet government officials and clear the way for our efforts to study the bird in this country.
 A Kirtland's Warbler 

Unknown to me at the time this was also an effort to learn about myself.  I was freshly divorced, massively hurt and emotionally damaged that morning when the TCNA Britten Norman Islander plunked down on the tarmac in Grand Turk.  Eventually my time there the first winter and living on the island the second winter taught me that I was okay, that I would survive, and that the pain I felt was merely weakness leaving me.  It might be cliché to say it but I think Grand Turk was the reason I learned that I would eventually survive.

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 Ministerwas 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.

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.

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.

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.

The airport terminal on the island when I lived there was ripped to shreds by Hurricane Ike.  It has been replaced by a new terminal building on the south side of the airport - this one even has air conditioning!

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 had very little contact with the island until October 2, 2013, when for the first time in 26 years I stepped on to Grand Turk soil once again.  Even from the cruise ship as I watched dawn consume the island I had an immediate feeling of coming home again.  Grand Turk was my first real home after my long-ago divorce and to this day it still feels like home.  The Jimmy Buffett song “One Particular Harbour” contains a verse that goes:

“But now I think about the good times
Down in the Caribbean sunshine
In my younger days I was so bad
Laughin' about all the fun we've had

For as long as I can remember I have always sung this song changing the phrase “Caribbean sunshine” to “Grand Turk sunshine” and  the song has meant even more to me.

Stepping from the deck of the Carnival Victory onto the new wharf on Grand Turk it was readily apparent that things have changed since my last visit home.  What used to be known as South Base, part of an abandoned US Air Force base where John Glenn was debriefed after his three trips around the earth, has now been largely refurbished and turned into a high-quality cruise ship center where duty free shopping and t-shirt shopping are the mode of the day.  Outside the center are rows of taxi’s and some rental cars and some rental scooters and a lot of the unemployment that hobbled Grand Turk 26 years ago seems to have disappeared.

Our objective was to get a visa stamped into our passports providing irrefutable proof of having been back in the Turks and Caicos Islands.  An immigration official onboard the ship told us that he didn’t have a passport stamp with him but he would meet us at the airport and stamp us into the country there.  Dutifully we walked to the airport where we learned that the immigration official was nowhere to be found.  “Didn’t you see him at the ship, mon?” we were asked.  A security officer in the airport suggested that we go to the main immigration office closer to downtown where she was sure we would get a stamp. 

The only passport stamp more difficult to obtain than this one was Lesotho where I climbed the side of a mountain to reach the country!

We hoofed it over to the main immigration office where we were told “I have the stamp but I’m not authorized to stamp your passport.  You need to go to the airport to get your stamp.”

In another classic Buffett song called “No Plane on Sunday” which is directly applicable to travel in the West Indies, Jimmy says,

You can throw your luggage down,
Lose your cool and stomp around,
But there’s nothing, nothing you can do.”

We quickly found ourselves in a No Plane on Sunday situation and there was little we could do.  Instead of throwing our luggage down we walked back to the airport passing the exact spot where 26 years ago Gerry Benny and I used to moon Pan Am flights.  I asked two different people I met if Gerry was still on the island.  Each very cautiously confirmed that Gerry is still there and from the sounds of things Gerry is still exercising his Ph D in having a good time.  Luckily for my liver I did not run onto him.

Returning to the airport we received the assistance of someone who was in charge who felt embarrassed that we had walked all over hell and gone trying to get a passport stamp!  He called the main immigration office demanding that someone stamp our passports and then put us in a truck with a TCI Department of Agriculture employee (who will remain nameless so he doesn’t get in trouble for the forthcoming comments about the former Prime Minister) who drove us back to the immigration office where we finally got the cherished stamp in our passport!

Former Turks and Caicos Islands Prime Minister Norman Saunders. Surprisingly there are no numbers on a board hanging from his neck in this picture.

As we drove around the island in the Department of Agriculture truck I asked our friend if he remembered an American who once ran over a chicken on Duke Street killing it in front of several children.  He remembered the incident! "Yah, mon, we called him the Chicken Killer!"  I then confessed that I was the person everyone called “Chicken Killer, Chicken Killer!” for two weeks afterward.  “Yah, mon” he exclaimed, “You’re the Chicken Killer?  I remember when you did that when I was six years old.”

That simple story established me as a “belonger” not a tourist, and our guide opened up with lots of stories.  I asked if Norman Saunders the former Prime Minister was still in prison.  He wasn’t.  In fact when he was released from prison he was immediately put back in power by the people on his home island of South Caicos. “That man has so much arrogance,” we were told.  We learned that Norman “thinks he is Jesus Christ reincarnated,” that he “rides around South Caicos in a cowboy hat and cowboy shirt,” and that “the arrogant prick bought a Harley Davidson and drives around South Caicos on a Harley.  Can you believe the arrogance of that asshole?”

Having met him I can!

My home beach as seen from the Carnival Victory

Our guide remembered the house I lived in on Governor’s Beach and drove us by it.  The property has been allowed to disintegrate.  Its overgrown, filled with graffiti and is no longer habitable.  It used to be such a beautiful house when I rented it for $500 a month. Now you wouldn’t let a dog live in it.  However the beach is still gorgeous and the property is for sale and if I can hurry up and win the lottery I will buy it.

As we drove to my old home I explained that the four Kirtland's Warblers that Paul Sievert and I found on the island were part of the justification Patricia Bradley used for the establishment of the Columbus Landfall National Park on Grand Turk.  This was met with a toothy grin and a handshake and the comment that "Its an honor to be with someone who helped bring us our National Park!"

I guess all the time and energy and sweat and toil we put into working on Grand Turk turned out to be positive not only for Kirtland's Warbler in winter but also for people living on the island.  

Our guide returned us to the cruise port and bid us farewell but not after giving me the stern command that “You must NOT wait 26 more years to return to your home island, mon.” 

It had been 26 years since I last saw a sunrise over Grand Turk. I'm not going to wait 26 more years to see the next one

When he said that, I realized that Grand Turk really is my home island.  Its my home break just like in the Buffett song about Einstein being a surfer, and among the 72 islands I have been on in the West Indies its where I feel most at peace.  Our conversations on the island confirmed that 26 years after the fact there are no wanted posters with my picture on them but people still remember me.  I’m considered a “belonger” on the island and accepted just the way I am.  Grand Turk taught me how to heal and move on and to feel secure and safe no matter where I am.  
Our reluctant departure from Grand Turk came way too soon

After a way-too-short seven hours on the island we reluctantly pulled out of this One Particular Harbour and took off on a course of 26 degrees bound for Little San Salvador Island in the Bahamas.  Like a little kid would do I stood on the deck of the Carnival Victory and watched my home island slip away until there was nothing in sight but the lighthouse on the north point.  It made me sad to see Grand Turk slipping away but before it was out of sight I began making plans for my return. It wont be soon; might have to wait until next summer but I'm going back and when I do I might not leave.  After all isn't that the point of having a home?