Monday, December 14, 2009

Grand Turk by Cab

by Pa Rock
Experienced Road Warrior

(This posting is dedicated to Tanya, a happy cabbie who provided an interesting tour of Grand Turk, and her small son, Travez, who was out of school today and helping Mom.)

Not being quick enough getting off of the Eurodam to snag a decent seat on a tour bus, I opted instead to visit with some of the tour coordinators and decide what I wanted to see, and then hopped in a cab and took off. Turned out I got to see more than many of my fellow travelers (pun intended - it is The Nation, after all!), and at less cost.

The cab that I snagged at the port took me to Cockburn, the old town and historic district of Grand Turk. If you are thinking something on the order of Hamilton, Bermuda, disabuse yourself of that notion right now. The main drag of Cockburn has never amounted to much, and after last fall's force four hurricane, there is even less to attract tourists today. There is a museum, several very small tourist shops selling handmade local wares, a post office, two churches, and a couple of stores.

While strolling down Front Street, I stopped to pet the scrawniest dog that I have ever encountered. The dog, of course, immediately took up with me. I walked back to a grocery store that I had just passed that had a hand printed sign on the door announcing that they had a fresh shipment of Friskies and Alpo. I walked in and asked the old man working there (he actually looked to be about my age) if I bought a can of dog food and fed the dog, would I be arrested. He replied that their new shipment was already sold out. (Turns out that everything on Grand Turk has to be imported.)

The old fellow followed me to the front door and wanted to talk. He told me about John Glenn's space capsule landing close to the island in 1962. I asked if he got to see the famous astronaut, and he said, proudly, "Yes. I shook his hand!" He then told me about the U.S. warship that was anchored off of Grand Turk inspecting Russian ships that were headed to Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis. The next topic was his service in World War II. My father, who served in that war as a very young man, is eighty-five now, so I new that this fellow was older than he looked. I asked, and he again replied in a proud tone, "I am ninety-three years old."

Grand Turk is a very laid back place, so perhaps the aging process is slower here.

My second cabbie, Tanya, picked me up in Cockburn, took me to the lighthouse on the end of the island, and eventually back to the port. Tanya had much to say about her home island. One of the questions I asked was about the recent hurricane whose effects are still very evident across Grand Turk. She said Hurricane Ike had ravaged the island from the evening of September 6, 2008 through the next morning, leaving the inhabitants without electricity or running water for three or four months. She said she had headaches because of the constant noise of the generators, and that she had to bathe with bottled water.

When Tanya mentioned Hurricane Ike, she was quick to add the rejoinder, "Like Ike Turner. But we survived and grew stronger, like Tina!"

Grand Turk has an airfield, but there are currently no international flights due to the lack of hotel rooms. Tanya told me that there are less than 100 rooms for rent on the entire island. Much of the island's income is derived from the cruise ships, and she said that it is also one of the world's ten best destinations for divers. There is a reef surrounding much of the island, and just beyond the reef the water drops to a depth of over 7,000 feet!

The island of Grand Turk is building a new hospital that should be completed next April. Currently persons requiring serious surgery and some medical procedures have to fly to Miami or other locations.

One of the more interesting things about the island is that there are horses and donkeys roaming freely. Jumping on a donkey to get someplace is probably a practical option because gas is over five dollars a gallon!

Traffic is sparse, and it is not unusual to see people walking along the main road, or even in the main road! The island's primary thoroughfare was paved in the 1950's and has been poorly maintained. I learned from Tanya that there are no taxes on property or income, which probably explains the conditions of the road. (Are you listening, Arizona?)

I asked how public services, like roads, are funded. Revenue comes from duties on imports (Republicans would love this system!) and fees for work permits. About 17,000of the island chain's 30,000 people have work permits. There are approximately 5,000 individuals on Grand Turk, and probably half that many dogs, horses, and donkeys!

According to one sign that I read at the lighthouse, much of the island's income used to be derived from salvaging ship wrecks. The light in the lighthouse would occasionally dim mysteriously, causing ships to crash onto the reef, and the locals would rush out to retrieve the cargo. If memory serves, I think that Key West had a similar racket going at one time!

Part of the island's historic lore is an assertion that it was actually the place where Columbus first landed on October 12, 1492. There is even a marker on the beach where that purportedly happened. The resident's of San Salvador, of course, would beg to differ with that claim!

At one time the U.S. Navy had two bases on Grand Turk, but both have closed. One is now a junior college.

There is not much going on in Grand Turk today, but it has the potential to develop. I mentioned one business idea to Tanya that I felt would be successful, and she told me not to repeat it because that was an idea that she was working on. God speed on that, Tanya. I hope you become rich beyond your wildest dreams!

I fervently hope that the island of Grand Turk develops wisely and much of the benefit goes directly to the locals.

When visiting Grand Turk, take a cab - they are very reasonable - and ask for Tanya. She will give you a delightful tour! And don't forget to tell her that Pa Rock sent you!

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