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Travel: Turks and Caicos

I never knew that donkeys actually make the sound “hee-haw”, but they do, and not just once, but over and over again. It's like a horse yelling at you through a trombone. It's the soundtrack to Salt Cay, the southernmost island in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

To get to Salt Cay, one must pass through what I recently heard writer Gully Wells describe as the “hellhole of Providenciales” in Conde Nast Traveler. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a hellhole, but I do see her point. My husband, Karsten, and I had spent the previous week at Grace Bay Beach on that hellhole, which widely cited as the best beach in the world. It is a twelve mile long white sandy beach with Tiffany's blue waters, calm and warm. Think of the beach screensaver that comes programmed on your laptop, the one that comes on when you're trying to write and you've been staring, motionless, at the screen for too long. The one that makes you want to say “Hey, fuck this. I want to chuck it all and go live on an island that looks like that.” That's what it looks like. Except it's also lined with giant resorts belching white tourists ready to fry themselves to a fatty, bacon-y crisp in the noonday sun.

This was not my first trip to the Caribbean, and I have seen the explosive development there hiccup when the economy does . My husband, Karsten, and I spent afternoons strolling along Grace Bay beach and sneaking into the different resorts. I think that's what living in a highly populated urban area does to you; you're in a suspended state of real estate jealousy, convinced that your neighbor has a better apartment than you do. One bathing-suited tourist looks just like another, so no one noticed us. Beaches, the gaudy epicenter of family fun with its waterpark and kiddie pool swim-up bar (serving juice, soda, and milk only), was buzzing with the frenzied energy of a thousand toddlers. It had faux Italiante, French, and Greek villages (out of concern for prudish parents, all of the Greek statues around the pool were tastefully clothed.)

We also found a rather appalling sign at the French village pool that said “Please observe the TAG system. If a child has an accident in the pool, a “TAG!” announcement will be made and for sanitary reasons, everyone must vacate the pool until it can be cleaned. We appreciate your cooperation. Swim diapers are available for purchase at the front desk.” This obviously happened often enough that they needed a system and a special sign to deal with it. My husband pointed out that it was more germane than yelling “Somebody shit in the pool! Everybody out!” several times a day. That could really put a damper on the otherwise relaxing environment.

But besides Beaches, most of the resorts seemed half-empty. Pristine pools with glassy surfaces, not a ripple our of place, not a cushioned pool chair sullied. And punctuating the stream of half-deserted resorts were half-finished resorts, the rebar topping the second or third cinderblock floor like a buzz cut, showing just where the developer ran out of money.

One can see why these islands were, at one time, deserted: there's nothing indigenous here. The Turks and Caicos have no resources. No water, no oil, no farming. Everything must be imported. Except for conch, which is being eaten more quickly by tourists than it can reproduce. Oh, and the endangered Rock Iguana, a few hundred of whom live on Little Water Cay, just off the coast of Provo. They look like miniature dinosaurs, and on a visit there, my father was delirious with joy at pretending we were in “Jurassic Park.” What open land remains is rocky and dry with scrubby vegetation and a stray dog problem.

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