We have just arrived in Cockburn Town on the island of Grand Turk, the capital of Turks & Caicos, an archipelago of 40 low-lying islands in the Atlantic Ocean near the Bahamas. Our plane, the size of a tube of toothpaste, is so small that the pilot can reach out from his seat to pull me in. Seen from the air the island floats in a ring of coral reefs, once treacherous to seafaring men. The water is a pure turquoise, clear and teeming with sea life so abundant that divers from all over the world come here to dive.
The whiz-bang vending machineA little earlier, in the Caicos Xpress Airlines departure lounge, we sit next to an intriguing vending machine filled with sodas and bottles of water. Clink, plunk-plunk, the quarters drop into the slot and then tumble out the bottom where the drinks are supposed to land. A cluster of airport workers, some pilots and travelers stand in front of the machine – no one gets a thing except a lucky few who get whatever the machine decides to grant them. Want a fizzy orange drink? You get a bottle of water. Want a bottle of water?
Hmmmm, the sorting hat that lives inside the vending machine thinks for a moment, and out careens a grape soda that tumbles end over end onto the floor. One man hits the jackpot. He puts in four quarters, and we watch in curious anticipation as the machine shudders. Fifty or 60 quarters shoot out in a silver cascade, spilling onto the floor, along with a bottle of grape soda. He leaves smiling. Some uniformed officials come and kick at the machine, but it stands silently, the master of the airport departure lounge.
The Turks and Caicos National Museum in Cockburn Town is a small gem. Located inside the oldest house in Grand Turk, it is built from limestone and old ship’s timbers. Inside are artifacts from the Molasses Reef shipwreck, believed by some to be from Columbus’ ship, the Pinta. Scientists know from analyzing the timbers that they date from the right era and they are of Spanish origin. Other scientists are more skeptical. Columbus did record, however, that when he arrived in 1492, the native Lucayans “fed them generously.” Within one generation of Columbus’ arrival the Lucayans were gone, either dead of diseases brought by Columbus, or sold into slavery.
I ask Fred, the museum guide, “What was it like here in the 1960s when U.S. sailors were based here?” He smiles, reminiscing. “It was a lot of fun back then with lots of young sailors and girls. The bars were busy.” In 1962 those sailors plucked astronaut John Glenn and his Mercury space capsule from the sea just off Cockburn Town after he was the first man to orbit the earth.
Dog talesA joyful group of dogs, all pups of different colors, runs by on the beach barking. One has no collar and only one eye, clearly a “potcake,” which is what the islanders call the stray dogs that are everywhere. I am distressed and get a warm washcloth to wash her face; there is so much sand around her missing eye.
A few days later we learn she is Peaches, mother of Plum, mate to Paws. She is a beloved “island dog”, well cared for by many people, and so independent that she’s turned down two chances to be adopted under the island’s Potcake Adoption Program. Peaches lost her eye four months ago when one of the island’s wild donkeys kicked her. Most mornings we find her asleep outside our door, but sometimes when the tireless cleaning ladies are not around we let her sleep with us.
HHHI go across the road from the hotel to visit Nikki, artist and owner of Island Creations. While we are talking her dog, Tookie, sneaks into the shop and takes one of Nikki’s hand-made cloth creations. We look down in horror at the purple fibers still stuck to Tookie’s muzzle, the remains of five days’ of work for Nikki. Tookie looks everywhere but at us. Clearly miserable, she lowers her head. and slides her eyes to the right at a sleeping dog near us as if to say “HE did it! I didn’t do it!”
HHHA white muzzled dog named Paws joins me to walk down the high tide line towards English Point searching for elusive opalescent sea washed glass. He walks slowly, with great dignity, stopping to wait when I stoop to examine the treasures the sea has flung up in its storm-tossed way. A tiny round pink pebble catches my eye, some sort of rosy orb. Pale green and amber bits of glass, never blue ones. Paws is joined by one of his many offspring and we watch as the pup enthusiastically digs a very fine hole, sand flying everywhere. Intrigued, Paws and I inspect the hole but find nothing of interest in it. We sit on a jetty and feel the rising sun on our backs, then cross through some beach scrub to return home by way of Close Haul Road. Why is there an old trolley parked there? It has wooden slat seats with curved wrought iron arm rests, and cords to pull, presumably when Judy Garland wants to get off.
HHHPaws, who never moves at anything but a stately pace, trots out of the sea grape bushes growing along the wildest part of the beach with something in his mouth. It is the toothy head of a large barracuda. I inspect it and Paws watches me warily, clenching the fish a little tighter before lowering himself painfully down into the sand for a good chew. Crunch. Crunch. It’s disgusting so I go back to searching the tidepools. Today the sea has tossed up more pieces of old rum bottles and an odd shell called a sea biscuit. Paws, still with his barracuda, comes over to inspect the bottles and then, together, we bury his barracuda in the sand for another time. He uses his nose like a shovel to dig the hole. While he carefully covers the barracuda, I look around again for whales on the horizon with no luck.
HHHI need my reef walkers, where are they? Oh, those pups. I’m sure Paws and Plum, sleeping nearby in the sand, have taken them. Plum awakens and scampers around, giving me looks that draw my attention to the beach. There’s one, half buried under a beach chair, and the other is near our chewed up beach pillow. A pair of red Keen sandals belonging to a guest who left days ago, is also in the sand, destroyed. They’ve had a fun and busy night.
HHHWalking home after dinner at the Turks Head Inn down an unlit Duke Street, a clanking rusted car comes towards us, its headlights momentarily blinding us. Sitting up in the passenger seat, with no seat belt, is a happy, smiling dog. In the back seat are three more dogs, sitting up and facing forward. Farther back are four more dogs, their faces and wagging tails just visible in the moonlight reflected off the sea. The car turns a corner and disappears, swallowed up in the darkness.
HHHThe happy go lucky three-legged pup we see every day barks at the wild donkeys who arrive at the beach each morning to nibble on the sea grape leaves. The annoyed donkeys bray and buck, kicking at them with their hind legs, before running across the road to a car wash where four more donkeys are lined up behind some cars, presumably waiting their turn to go through.
We realize we know more about the history of these brave, happy pups than we do about some of the people we know.
Fish talesClassified ad: “MERMAID wanted. Must be willing to entertain guests above and below the water. Must be able to hold breath and swim underwater while wearing a costume. Monday-Saturday and bank holidays, $6.50 per hour.”
HHHPaws and I watch small reef fish trapped by the tide in the tide pools near the beach. I find a perfect shell and carry it in my pocket, not knowing a hermit crab was inside until he peeked disorientedly out of the shell. I put him on a dish and carry him back to the sea.
HHHCaptain J.J. Smith of Grand Turk Divers hauls in the anchor and we head out for a snorkel adventure. There are vibrant coral forests at our first stop. A school of yellow tailed Horse- eye Jacks follows us, attracted by our bubbles. We swim with a flashing escort of dozens of them towards some Neon Gobys hiding in the swaying sea plumes. Gentian blue Parrot fish flash by past tiny silver fish with narrow sword-like noses like miniature sword fish. A spotted Trunkfish has a heavy brow ridge, giving him a faintly Neanderthal look. Hundreds of Schoolmaster fish sway together on a large brain coral in a gentle motion with the waves. J.J. takes us to another snorkel site, the Library, along the famous “Wall,” a blue abyss with a 7,000-foot drop. It’s so named because it is opposite the ruins of the library in Cockburn Town which burned recently along with all of its precious books. Here at the edge of the Wall, the immense depth turns the normally turquoise water deep blue. In this intense blueness the fish seem suspended in an otherworldly space.
HHHI am in the water following a Trunk fish when I see J.J. standing silhouetted against the sun pointing to the water just in front of the boat. “A whale! I saw his tail!” he cries.
Fins and mask in hand, I climb dripping up the ladder. J.J. hauls me over the side into the boat like a fish. We sit quietly watching when….there it is! Only fifty feet away… a mammoth black shape arching gracefully in slow motion over the water. He rises, it’s called “breeching,” again and again. In a spectacular show, he blows a glittering golden shower of spray through his blow hole. Wait! A second whale rises, twice the length of our 24-foot boat. He dives, slapping his tail on the water. I can hear the slap and feel the spray on my face. For nearly 30 minutes the whales played near us. Then two tourist boats, somehow catching the excitement crackling in the air, race over from other dive sites, their captains standing like rodeo trick riders on the prows of their boats, calling to J.J., “Where are they??” On their boats are pink, sunburned tourists from the Carnival Fun Ship who look a bit like the island’s famous pink flamingos, startled and ready to fly off. Then, the whales disappear and we sit on the bobbing boat thinking “Wow, we were there, alone with those whales.” Seasick by this time, I lie down on the bottom of the boat and J.J. asks: “Are you OK, Momma?” “I am very OK,” I reply, smiling.
What we have seen are humpback whales on their annual migration from the Arctic. Once here, the males escort the pregnant females to the warm waters at nearby Silver Shoals to give birth.
Shipwreck talesThe story of Silver Shoals is a tragic one. In 1641, the 40-gun Concepcion, flagship of a 21 vessel Spanish flotilla, left Cuba with 500 passengers and crew. In the hold were 100 tons of silver dug by slaves from mines in Colombia and Mexico. From survivors’ accounts, the flotilla sailed into a hurricane and all the ships except the Concepcion were lost. With no mast or rudder, she drifted into a reef near Grand Turk and became trapped. The captain and his officers deserted, taking the only longboat as the Concepcion began breaking up. The desperate passengers pulled bars of silver from the hold and stacked them on top of the reef to build a silver platform, worth a fortune, to stand on above the water. Many drowned, starved or were eaten by sharks; only 200 survived. There have been many salvage attempts to retrieve the silver and in the 1980s treasure hunters found the remaining silver, by now encrusted with coral, in the still intact stern.
HHHAnother shipwreck treasure washes up near me – a piece of amber glass with
“IX” inscribed on it, part of a handblown rum bottle, at least 150 years old. In the sand is a pottery shard, part of an English teapot dating to the 1600s. I imagine it on a cherry- wood table in a sea captain’s quarters, filled with tea being poured by a man who doesn’t know he’ll soon go down to the bottom of the sea.
Esther Greenfield is the author of “Tough Men in Hard Places,” about the electrification of Southwest Colorado, and “Reading the Trees: A Curious Hiker’s Field Journal of Hidden Woodland Messages,” about arborglyphs in the region.