My employer’s semi-occasional trip to the Caribbean was this past weekend when we whisked off to Turks and Caicos for four days. This year, Harper had aged out of the “kids under 2 get to go” rule and so we had our first trip in two and a half years sans Wobbles. This was exciting and terrifying, lonesome and relieving all in one. We left on Thursday from DFW. When we got to the airport, we learned that there had been scheduling problems with the 767 we were supposed to fly on and that it was still in Italy. For a replacement, Atlas Air had decided to send us on one of their 747s which was big news. The plane sat 460+ people and since we only had around half that, there was plenty of room to go around. Alas, it wasn’t as James Bond-ish as I had hoped. There was an upper deck but it was just seats, no disco ball, no gold lame wallpaper. It was mostly just flying on a REALLY big plane. As a plane junky, I’m glad I got to do it but it wasn’t overly different than a 767.
Upon arrival to the T&C airport, we disembarked in a rain shower and proceeded through customs and immigration which for a Caribbean country went pretty smoothly. However, waiting for taxis to the resort was less so. There, the natural tendency towards inefficiency kicked in. It’s always shocking to first time travelers to these countries how different attitudes are towards getting anything done. As we stood in the taxi line for 30-45 minutes in the fall Caribbean heat, I was reminded of David Foster Wallace’s essay on cruise ship travel, highly recommended. Travelers, largely (and large, sometimes extra) American and European stagger off planes into the humidity of the tropics and expect to be whisked away to the lovely all-inclusive air conditioned resort enclave, the brochures of which they have been staring at longingly for weeks. Instead, they are met with the “taxi line” where four empty vans sit across the parking lot while a bunch of people with no apparent logic try to figure out what nine people out of the line of a thousand should get on the next van.
My first inclination is to attribute this to an intention to manage the experience whereupon the workers mean to keep people in the heat and misery so that when one gets to the resort, one is struck by the wonderful contrast and therefore thinks the resort actually is paradise. However, this would require coordination amongst multiple entities and frankly, coordinating multiple entities in the Caribbean is an impossibility. So I have to assume the taxi-line phenomenon is just an artifact of “island time” writ into employment. Nothing seems to happen with alacrity on an island there. In fact, alacrity is an oxymoron of sorts. Things can happen quickly or things can happen cheerfully but nothing can happen briskly and cheerfully. Return travelers know this going in yet still, the American tendency towards “things must be done NOW” is so ingrained that after 15 minutes of standing watching nothing happen, it becomes almost impossible not to take over the process.
Thankfully, the interminable wait eventually ended and we did arrive at Beaches Turks & Caicos which is a semi-walled resort on the north side of the main island. Here we checked in, were handed rum drinks and sent off to various rooms throughout the compound, all of which had the AC set on the Ice Age setting. Driving from the airport, it is fairly apparent to anyone with a sliver of observational skills (which is about a quarter of the van as everyone else is staring at their phones) that air conditioning is not a universal luxury on the island and in fact, almost no buildings seem to have it. Yet here, every room of the sixteen thousand or so rooms all have their thermometers set on “Turn the sweat dripping off the Americans into icicles”. Self awareness kicks in (I assume) and I am struck by this juxtaposition. The people of the island, who I might remind readers lived through a category 5 hurricane just the year before that devastated the island, have none of the luxuries we are affording ourselves of. Compounding the contrast is the fact that almost all of the tourists are white in shades ranging from Scandinavian Pale to New Jersey Mafia Gold to Italian Bronze, sponsored by Glidden while almost all of the workers are black. Knowing that many of the workers go back to homes at night with exactly none of the amenities we are enjoying makes clear that the majority of the money ends up in the coffers of some monolithic development company in one of the aforementioned very white countries. it raises a certain amount of touristic guilt. Making things worse, Turks doesn’t seem to be the kind of place you leave the resort much (though some intrepid people did) and so most money spent is not shared with the islanders.
So just as DFW noted in Shipping Out, there is something unbearably sad about the place, a place where rooms go for upwards of $2000 a night in the high season which is about 1/15th of the per capita GDP. While the experience is not nearly as structured for pleasure as it might be on a cruise ship, it is still quite controlled. Which is not to say it isn’t a very relaxing place to be especially if you are into having all the food and drink you want at pretty much any time you might want it. We ate 3, sometimes 4, meals a day. Occasionally, we had multiple entrees at the same meal because, well, it’s included. Diving was included which is the best part of the trip. Regardless of the rest of the experience, time spent in the water on a pristine, protected reef, is amazing. The dive boats were crowded this time but not overly so. We saw several large sharks, a big ray, turtles, barracuda, lobsters and a whole host of Caribbean fish. Grace Bay is a protected area and it shows. Just snorkeling off the beach resulted in seeing four sea turtles and tons of fish. It’s a marine paradise.
While on the trip, I read Goldeneye: Where Bond was Born. It’s the story of Ian Fleming’s time in Jamaica, a similar island paradise with similar political and cultural history (they were both British colonies, Jamaica achieved their independence in the 60s while T&C remains a British dependency). Jamaica was a rich creative source for Fleming but he lived there in drastically different circumstances than the ones under which we visited T&C. He bought a few acres on the north coast with a beach that had been only reachable by boat. He built a very spartan, masculine house where the ideas for Bond would be embellished and worked on in an ascetic atmosphere (though he still had a staff of 3 or 4 and plenty of fancy parties to go to. He wasn’t much of a party goer though).
During that time period, the rich of the Western world were discovering the Caribbean in general and Jamaica in particular. The country was undergoing many of the issues that I discussed earlier in becoming a resort destination. American hotels were being built frequently and the charms of colonial Jamaica were being lost. Many of those charms may seem nostalgic under close examination but there is no doubt that visitors at that time were forced to interact with the people of the country in ways that visitors to T&C are not. When one is whisked directly from the airport to a walled resort, it is easy to ignore any thorny cultural or political problems. I do recommend the book if you are a Bond fan or if you are interested in the history of the end of the British Empire. It struck me as being not dissimilar to what America may very well be going through today. Our exercise of empiric powers was never quite as overt as the British but there can be no doubt we have had our fingers in places throughout the world. When the British Empire began to crumble after WWII, many people such as Fleming (and Noel Coward, heavily discussed in this book) longed for the old times of the Empire, times when relations between races and peoples were more clear cut, less ambiguous and the native peoples didn’t make so much noise about independence and self governance. It is fascinating to read about Fleming’s experiences during this time period.
If you have the opportunity to visit Beaches Turks & Caicos, I do recommend it if you have a taste for extravagance and pampering. It is not a real experience in any meaningful way but for a brief time, you can experience what it is like to be rich and waited on for everything. Many of the guests are what one might consider nouveau riche. They bring entire families to a destination by plane where upon arrival, everything is handled. Dinners are all the same, regardless of location, not because the food is the same but because there are no real choices involved. Activities are structured and there is no real danger of having a terrible time. If you don’t like the food, order something else. There are no consequences, no searching, which I suppose is appealing to some people. But consequences are often the spice of life, the genesis of stories you tell as a family for years to come. In 12 months, I will remember nothing of the food or drinks I had this weekend. But six years later, I still remember the muffuletta from Frank’s after walking through the French Quarter in the late August heat of New Orleans in search of the restaurant. There was nothing pleasant about trying to find it, sweating in the New Orleans tropical weather, making wrong turns, etc. But then the cold beer, the attitude from the waitress, the sandwich itself, the time spent with a new found love of my life. All of those things are what make experiences memorable. Getting served two entrees because I couldn’t decide what I wanted while the staff probably went home to eat things they had to? Only memorable in its American ostentatiousness and gluttony.
It was odd to me this year to come back from the trip so unrelaxed. Much of that is due to other circumstances like owning two houses and the ongoing insanity at work. But I believe it’s also because I want real experiences now, not manufactured, all you can eat extravaganzas. Our daily life is “all you can eat” in many ways. Everything is already out our finger tips and visiting a place that provides that same thing in spades is boring in many ways, maybe all ways. I terribly enjoyed the ability to read for hours on end without too much interruption but that could have happened anywhere, in a campsite in the East Texas woods or at a small VRBO place on the Texas coast. I love the salt life, the diving, the beach and incredible blue waters of the eastern Caribbean but there are probably other ways to experience all of that.
As always, we wonder if this is the last trip for OT and there are plenty of signs it might be. It will be the last one for many of my coworkers who will move on to other places of employment. It is wonderful to work for an employer to provides this amazing perk but much like my ongoing ambivalence and confusion about my continued usages of Amazon, the trip causes me some level of anxiety, a certain amount of wallowing in American style guilt and a regular examination of the consequences of traveling to these locations without once venturing into the town to experience something less tourista and more local. I think our next family trip will likely be a trip to the coast but a coast that requires us to deal with consequences and contingencies and I am looking forward to it.