What I'm currently reading is Simon Winchester's Outposts, a book that describes visits to the last vestiges of the British Empire. Winchester pops in on places such as Tristan de Cunha, Gibraltar and Ascension Island to view both the pretty and ugly remains of empire. I brought it along because there's a chapter on the Turks and Caicos Islands, which I've not yet reached.
However, a phrase in his chapter on St. Helena, Napoleon's place of exile, has already made a connection: one-crop island. He is referring to that old British habit of turning a colony's interest toward one commodity: flax in St. Helena, sugar in Barbados. The results, he notes, are always ruinous.
So I'm reading this while sitting in an island chain that includes Salt Cay, once a major salt producer and now the kind of place where children leave as soon as they are of age; South Caicos, still a conch producer but barely holding on; and Providenciales, developed as a high-end tourist destination without regard to the flightiness of high-end tourists. ("Oh, don't go there. It's not cool anymore. The new hot island is --.")
Yup, Mr. Winchester, yup.
The odd thing is, until recently the islanders themsleves always understood the need for diversification. When Tom and I first came here in 1990, we laughed at the store that sold "plumbing and beauty supplies," but we quickly learned that such a juxtaposition was the norm. Our hotel cook also taught school. The hotel owner also ran an air taxi. Life here was a little of this and a little of that.
Then came the go-go "oughts," when everyone pushed for development and tourism. Foreign companies putting up resorts brought in foreign workers to build them, and those people needed places to live. I don't remember who was the first local to build a small apartment complex, but soon everyone was building apartments. The island went from having two people who rented cars, both hard to track down, to the current eight car rental businesses. More restaurants opened.
And that was only North Caicos! On Provo, there were casinos, golf courses, a movie theatre and even miniature golf.
I admit that I was a skeptic. I read the prospectus for one condo development and laughed to learn they were planning a delicatessen. "Yeah, right. Fresh pastrami on North," I snorted. This was when Susie was still calling and asking me to bring all my eggs to the hotel so that her guests could have breakfast.
I learned that it's horrible to be right. The whole thing did collapse with the U.S. economy in 2007-08.
People hereon North are still complaining of no jobs, but the island is slowly coming back and returning to its roots. People are growing food again, tourism is small-scale and the businesses that endure are those that serve all: locals, white expatriates, Haitian and Dominican immigrants. I think it's going to be all right.
OK, so the general title of my blog is "An island life/a writing life." I hear my followers (all five or so of you) wondering, "And how does this relate to writing?"
Easy. It's the simplest and oldest advice ever, still valid and still so oft-ignored: Don't quit your day job.