At this time last year, I was living on the Internet, tracking hurricanes and trying to get information from North Caicos to friends and relatives in the U.S. Today I am seeing hurricane cone maps in the Sunday papers and reading about evacuation plans in Virginia.
Hurricane season. It can affect you nearly everywhere, though some of us are more tuned in to it than others. Both fascinating and frightening, hurricanes bring out our realization that we are not in control; nature is.
I am in the camp of those fascinated by hurricanes, but I’m not chase-the-cane crazy. I’ve fully experienced only one. Others have affected me with drenching rains that start in the islands; worry about one home when I’m at another home; and mostly worry about friends in the TCI and Bahamas who are in the direct line of a hurricane. We’ve had property damage from hurricanes, but all that is minimal compared to the anxiety about the safety of other people.
Right now, with three storms blowing their way across the Atlantic, I am finding the various reactions to and knowledge about storms the fascinating thing, revealing differences in culture, experience and perspective.
I have talked with a number of older people on North Caicos who remember Hurricane Donna in 1960 (some of those folks are now deceased). It was, of course, pre-Internet and before North was much developed and had good communications with even other islands. From what I gather, there were no plans of preparedness or evacuation. People behaved much as other island fauna did, sheltering in the bush rather than in man-made structures, which were considered less trustworthy. Afterwards, they re-built homes with government assistance. These are those one-room limestone ruins that many mistake for older housing. As time went on and people could afford to build better, their hurricane homes were abandoned (or now, taken over by squatters and immigrants).
Today, with everyone connected and more aware of the storm season, there aren’t surprises. We can check the maps on the National Hurricane Center website daily and see disturbances forming off Africa and the various models of the meteorologists tracking them. “Can” and “do,” however, are two different things. Many rely on their local television stations instead of doing their own homework, and it is here that the differences in perspective really show up. A storm may have been building for weeks out across the sea, and it may have already caused problems for many other people, but if you wait until your station goes into “hurricane mode” (more like panic-mode), it seems like something that just sprang up.
Even The Weather Channel is prone to discounting storms until they threaten the continental U.S. I have so often wanted to shout at the TV, “What about the islands?!” as the meteorologist stands there, blocking a view of 22 North/72 West. Unless a hurricane is coming directly to them, the Turks and Caicos are rarely shown on a map, and references to them have to be gleaned from phrases like “the southern Bahamas” or “the north coast of Hispaniola.”
That’s why I rely on the NHC website for my hurricane news, and why I am often so out of sync with my American neighbors on the weather. “Goodbye, watch out for Florence,” said a friend on Friday. It took me a while to “remember” Florence, focused as I am now on Helene and Isaac. Oh, yeah. Florence, coming to Virginia if they are correct. But what’s going on with Helene? And how are those people in the Windward Islands coping with Isaac coming their way?
That’s the toggle of hurricane season. One island’s “Whew!” is another island’s “Help!” So we watch, and wait, and prepare when we need to, and help others when we can. I’m all in, and I’m prepared to use my Facebook page again to try to connect people and information … even if I still can’t type the word “meteorologist” without making a spelling error!
I think we all must admit it: Jimmy Buffett is at least a part of why we live in the islands.
By “we” I mean myself and others who have either moved permanently to the Caribbean, or who have frequently-visited homes there. And by “Jimmy Buffett,” I mean those early songs that touted a simple, lazy, slightly degenerate life of margaritas, dominoes, “land sharks” and changes in latitude/attitude.
The connection for Tom and me came after a couple of Windjammer cruises, an Earthwatch expedition in the Virgin Islands and a couple of visits to Nevis and North Caicos. It helped that Clifford Gardiner, who encouraged us to stay and keep staying on North, was already a Buffett fan. Back home, the music became a dream and the dream became a reality. So yes, we have Jimmy to thank, somewhat, for Aloe House.
But we also have him to blame for screwing things up. What began as an alternative lifestyle for the adventurous became an industry sending 9-to-5-‘ers on an endless bachelor/bachelorette party. (Some people claim that there’s a singer to blame!)
The original fans understood that the island lifestyle, while invitingly louche, required a few sacrifices. Reliable phone service, attentive service, insect-free rooms and tidied-up beaches were less important than the freedom of being there. Over time, though, this changed. Visitors began to demand American-style comforts such as air conditioning, television and (gasp!) wi-fi. The way most people on the island live was ignored for the way we all “should” live. A strong smell of colonialism made its second waft over the Caribbean.
As a result, today it’s difficult for a traveler to determine any island’s real culture. All the islanders want to make a buck from you (of course!), so they are certainly going to provide what’s expected. Angus beef in a place that doesn’t raise cattle? Of course! Flounder? Sure! Pineapple? Why not!
And, hey, if you’re from America and thinking of retiring here, let’s make it easy! Instead of making you understand trade winds and energy conservation and beach erosion and hurricanes, let’s just build an American-style condo on the beach, with electronic appliances that will break in two years and metal furniture that will rust. But at least you’ll have a frozen concoction machine.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on Margaritaville. They’re just trying to make money, after all (as if they need it).
But so are the local people on your chosen island, who can build you a hurricane-strong house, tell you the best places to get conch or lobster, and become friends and resources for the future. Your call.
I used to tell people that there are expatriates on North Caicos, but that’s not largely true. Traditionally, expatriates live abroad full-time because of their work, and there are only a few of those on North. We have, instead, a mixture of foreign residents.
There are people on work permits, usually brought in not through multinational corporations but by local employers. This large group includes workers from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guyana and other island nations as well as Europeans, Canadians and Americans. People from the latter three also come in as either temporary or permanent residents, often establishing businesses or building homes in the TCI. Other homeowners are snowbirds, enjoying about six months of nice weather in the winter before returning to their native countries for the summer.
North Caicos used to have a solid community of these snowbirds, but the group more recently has morphed into what I call shuttlers, and I’m one of them. We are homeowners who spend chunks of time on the island in whatever months are convenient for us. Winter still sees the arrival of most of us, but we also come and go in all other seasons as well, spending a few weeks to a couple of months.
There appear to be many reasons this has happened. Some retirees who started as snowbirds have felt the pull of grandchildren and become shuttlers. Some new homeowners are still working and can’t get away for a six-month period. Others just prefer the arrangement, balancing in-season activities and socializing with the lazy, off-season “It’s my own beach” vibe.
Either way, there are tradeoffs. True snowbirds spend their first week opening up their homes and getting things back into order, then their last weeks prepping to leave again. Shuttlers are more likely to spread out house projects or hire help, but they face challenges at each end of their trips. Empty refrigerators and dirty domiciles in two countries are only the beginning of it.
There are, for example, constant cultural adjustments. After a month on North Caicos, I find myself re-learning how to live in the U.S. Driving on the right, using point-of-purchase or self-service gizmos and elevator etiquette (i.e, ignoring people) need mental refresher courses. On North, I must remember to plan meals while shopping instead of before (so I can see what’s available), and the etiquette while doing errands is the opposite: It’s rude to just launch into your hardware, grocery and liquor needs without first exchanging pleasantries. I sometimes get confused. Once, in Virginia, Tom caught me waving at the driver of a Land Rover because I thought he was someone I knew … on North.
Shuttlers who have animals also go through lots of guilt, whether they decide to fly the dog or cat with them or leave them with a sitter or at a boarding kennel. Tom and I choose to shield Daisy from the stress of flying (all that noise, all those people), but others schlep the animals with them, deciding that familiar people are more important than familiar surroundings.
And then there’s the packing! One thinks that, with a house in the islands, it should be easy to travel light, but the opposite is the case. Given the unavailability of many things on North, and the high prices and hassles of Provo, we bring all kind of weird things with us, pushing baggage weight and customs limits to … well, their limits. I have traveled with drills, car parts, faucets, shower curtains, printers, water filters, reams of paper and endless sets of bed linens and batteries. TSA always opens my checked bags to inspect them.
Okay, I can hear you now. “Oh, you poor thing, complaining about having a place in the islands. Let me get out my violin.” But I did not intend to complain, just explain. We shuttle; we don’t vacation. There are lives to be lived on both sides of that flight, and it’s different from being on vacation. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.
I have, I realize, been writing a lot about things that go bad, don't last or just don't work in the TCI. It's time to be more positive and make a list of things that have lasted and do work, and I'll start with what's still here at Aloe House after 17 years.
*Most of our IKEA furniture. Say what you will about flat-box furniture, it has served us well. The "Billy" book shelves last forever until they get wet in a hurricane, and then they continue to last as garage/tool closet shelves. Our farmhouse-style kitchen table was a bitch to assemble, but it may be my favorite piece of furniture here.
*Our downstairs porch furniture. This was a high-end set purchased in South Carolina, coated aluminum and heavy plastic straps for the chairs, tempered glass for the table. The coating has chipped, but so far no rust. Amazing!
*The front-yard patio, made from local stone by Willis Taylor (now deceased). Excellent work, and for a fraction of what he charged Donna Karan on Parrot Cay! It pays to be a non-celebrity.
*Our Crock Pot! Rusty, yes, and we've replaced the lid, but still reliable.
*The bread machine. Now and then some moving parts require WD-40, but otherwise it remains a great way to impress island women with my assimilation skills.
*The refrigerators, "Richmond" and "Kennedy." I bullied a salesman at Lakeside Appliances in Virginia to sell us a very basic model that now makes plenty of noise and has acne issues, but damn, it still works. Pilot Mike Kennedy, who lived here for a while, bought what is now our beer fridge. And yes, I am knocking wood and doing whatever juju I can to ensure their continued longevity.
*The ceiling fans, especially the ones downstairs. I happened upon them at Lowe's on sale for $35 each, I guess because they were unfashionable. "I'll take all four," I said. No regrets.
Any lessons here? Well, I guess it's to be willing to pay for quality when there are no moving parts, and to keep things basic when there ARE moving parts. And to appreciate the things that endure while you replace the stuff that doesn't.
I don't have a very good relationship with washing machines. We were okay when they stayed in dormitory basements or laundromats, where I would feed them quarters and they would simply wash my clothes. It was like dating.
But then there was commitment. I actually cried when Tom and I went out to buy a washing machine for the townhouse that was our first home together. The refrigerator had been no problem, because they're necessary at all stages of life, but a WASHING MACHINE ... well, that meant we were real adults. The next step would be putting stuff in my toilet to make the water blue and keep it clean!
I made my peace with it, and for a while all was well. We went back to renting apartments that included washer-dryer units, so I didn't have to think too much about laundry or adulting. Until Aloe House.
It turns out that washing machines don't much like island life. They rust in the salty air, get cistern sludge or well sand in their lines and sometimes decide that moving their parts that need to move is just too exhausting.
We are currently trying to work through a relationship with our fourth washer, and she's proving to be rather high-maintenance. We sent Amana down from the U.S. because A) even with shipping and customs, it was less expensive than buying one on North Caicos, and B) on the website, it seemed that she wasn't a fussy, flamboyant thing ... just a few dials and one button.
If I had ever done any online dating, I would have known: Websites are deceiving. Amana has electronic sensors to adjust the water level, insists on having the hot water knob on even for a cold wash, and throws a fit if you try to toss in an errant sock after she starts her cycle. Interrupt her, and you have to give her some time before starting all over. And woe if you try too hard ... you may have to give her a full day to cool down, and then candy and flowers are expected. (Okay, the gifts are an exaggeration.)
I share all these intimate details because they bring me back to my recurring advice about island living: Keep it simple. Fancy-schmancy appliances with bells, whistles and lots of moving parts are more likely to give you grief than something basic that does only one job. Consider your own fix-it skills when making any purchase. Think about cleaning and maintenance, and the fact that you'll be doing more of both, in every aspect of life. Choose floss over the Water-Pik, a charcoal grill over gas, wind-down over power windows.
If you think you can do without some luxuries from your American, Canadian or British life, go for it! That's how we feel about a dryer, ice maker, dishwasher and air conditioning. Others disagree, and that's okay. Just set your priorities. Having a working printer is important to me, so I have put up with frequent replacements and packing my baggage with ink cartridges. I'm sure some people think that's crazy, but my version of the simple life includes a printer instead of, say, track lighting.
Still, there are clothes to wash. So to follow my own advice, I guess if I can't working things out with Amana I should start looking at one of those little foot-powered washers or a suggestion from Provo friend Beryl Nelson: a new, clean toilet plunger and a five-gallon bucket.
Rex, one of the dogs who aren’t our dogs, made me mad the other day. He jumped on me in doggy enthusiasm and caught the bodice of my dress in his claw, ripping open the dress. I don’t like “bodice-rippers” in my reading, and I like them even less in real life. Also, that was one of my “best” clothing items, now ruined.
Dogs are only one of the many hazards for clothing here. Island life is hard on the things we wear. I don’t know about others, but when I’m on island I carry lots of things. Things that have corners and rough edges that rub and catch: baskets of laundry, ladders, cases of beer, rocks. I use glue, bleach, paints and other products that mar and stain. I dry things on a clothesline that whips in the wind. And so my clothes are in a constant cycle. Today’s “nice” dress, suitable for grocery shopping or Ribs Night, is tomorrow’s “everyday” dress for housework, and next month’s cleaning rags. Not much lasts very long.
I keep a supply of clothing at Aloe House, yet I always need to replenish what’s here. But it’s not as if it’s a constant stream of fashion. No, I buy my basics—swimsuits from L.L. Bean, dresses from El Cheapo East Coast beach shops with names like Waves, Sands, and Surf, and flip-flops from the Crocs outlet—and use them to wrap and cushion the important things like brake pads, printer cartridges and coffee beans.
Since clothing is both necessary and perishable, it’s important to establish one’s personal uniform. Guys find this super-easy: T-shirts and shorts, plus maybe a new nicer shirts with buttons and a pair of long pants for what passes as an island formal occasion. Women’s uniforms vary more. Mine tends toward dresses and skirts with swimwear as underwear, but others go with shorts and sports tops or T-shirts. Jeans for both sexes are seen around the islands, but they are hot (and I don’t mean sexy)! Skinny jeans? Well, that’s just stupid.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t any fashionable people on North Caicos. There’s just a separation between Real Life and The Fashionable Life. Looking pretty or handsome is practically its own event. Go to church, a funeral or graduation to see what I mean.
No, daily wear is different. So for those of you who are new to this, I share a few of the lessons I’ve learned:
Recent news that Outback Steakhouse plans to open a restaurant Aug. 21 at Regent Village East has me at turns amused, annoyed and skeptical, but not surprised. Development, particularly in Provo, steamrolls on, so we knew all along that sooner or later one of the many American chain restaurants would want to make a go of it.
But what seems to be a “first” certainly isn’t. The late 1990s in Provo saw the arrival and brief run of Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC has been successful in The Bahamas, but it was a different story in TCI. I’ve tried to sort out why, and have settled on the make-the-story-short comment of a friend on Provo: “They never had any chicken.”
Although I do know one person who actually ate chicken there, online commentators back up my friend’s terse explanation. Hearsay has it that the lack of chicken was due to high customs taxes on the foods imported by the franchise, and that the frustrated management started doing their own sourcing. When a franchise rep visited, he found, instead of chicken, “Kentucky Fried Conch” and rice & peas.
Since then, chains haven’t touched Provo (except in the hotel business, with the came-and-gone Ramada and Comfort Suites and the enduring Club Med). Until now.
While I’m not personally a fan of Outback, I think it’s going to work. Provo has changed, and now a chain restaurant can afford to target tourists alone, instead of needing tourists plus locals for success. The character of the tourists has also changed. An adventurous group of mostly adults who sought to experience island life has made way for families, seekers of “pamper me” vacations and destination wedding parties. These people are more likely to a) want a steak dinner, b) be interested in a kid-friendly place, c) balk a bit at the prices of steak in the resorts’ posh restaurants and d) prefer a canned corporate style of service (“Hello, I’m Jim and I’ll be your waiter”) over quirkiness and unpredictability. Also, those locals who can afford Outback will likely find the menu appealing.
And yet … we shall see. The managing partner of the Provo venture, Stephen Garland, comes from a Salt Cay family and grew up in The Bahamas, where he has much experience in the hospitality industry. Sure, the Bahamas vibe is different from that in the TCI, but the island cultures are close. Perhaps, with both his background and his experience with American tourism, he will be able to bridge the gaps successfully.
The photo accompanying this post shows my husband at a brief and rare time for us: We owned a boat. “Lillie G” was a 16-foot Boston Whaler that we had from 2002 to 2007 (I think). We had her in the water maybe three times before we decided that We Are Not Boat People.
We never were, really. The only reason we bought a boat was because, back then, it was necessary for schlepping things between Provo and North Caicos. The daily air service was on six- or nine-seat planes. You could bring over some groceries, but larger items, like a wall mirror or mini-fridge, could try the patience of the pilots and owners.
Anticipating the need, Tom and I took a U.S. Coast Guard boating safety course in the early 1990s. We were the only people in the class who didn’t have a boat. Got some interesting looks!
As the reality of our North Caicos home drew closer, we went to a boat show in Richmond, picked up all the brochures, and made a decision. We bought the Whaler and trailer from a local marine dealer and arranged to hire someone to take them down to Port Everglades, Fla., for shipping to the islands. The whole thing felt a bit illicit, as if we were in a major drug transaction … or maybe that was because we met and paid the guy in the parking lot of a Rite-Aid in Chester, Va.
For a couple of years, Lillie G sat first in our garage, then alongside the house. I had moved to the island, but didn’t have the confidence to launch her without Tom. When we finally did and took her out a couple of times, we were terrified. What if we hit a sand bar (or something worse)? What if it stalled and we couldn’t restart? It was becoming clear that we were not really boat people. I didn’t even have the confidence to snap back when, after many tries, we anchored offshore near our house for a break, and a neighbor who thought she owned the ocean gave me hell for “parking” too close to her place. Those who know my willingness to call an a-hole an a-hole will realize how much the stress of that boat affected me!
We did take Lillie G to Provo once, with the help and guidance of our friend Mark McLean. After that, we sold her to two guys who were more willing to play around with the waters and the gear. It was a huge relief. By that time, ferry service had made it easier to carry things from Provo and more merchants on North had reduced the need to do so. Our boat chapter was closed.
Looking back, though, I see that we were pretty much doomed from the start. I believe true boat people are either born into it or start learning early. They grow up near water and are introduced to watersports, sailing or fishing. They view boats merely as cars without wheels. We, on the other hand, grew up inland with relatives whose occupations and pastimes were land-based. I learned how to climb trees, navigate a sled past oncoming traffic, catch fireflies and now a lawn. I skated on top of water instead of operating a boat through it.
I now know I am not a boat person, but at least I can handle myself in the water without a boat and I wouldn’t be totally helpless if required to run a boat in an emergency. I am always surprised when I meet an islander who can neither run a boat nor swim. It’s one thing for someone like me to have to struggle with the “surrounded by water” bit of island living. But it should be a part of the upbringing, and clear-eyed knowledge, of those planning on living there. You don’t have to be boat people, but a minimum of comfort and survival knowledge is required.