Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Turkey in Turks and Caicos

For Thanksgiving 2011, my family decided to buck tradition and head to Turks and Caicos for the long weekend. We all met in Miami Airport, my parents and brother looking like suave, well-dressed professional people as I approached them in the vaguely named and forgettable airport restaurant where they were waiting for me. I, on the other hand, carried my belongs and clothes rolled into tight sausage rolls, jammed one on top of the other into a backpacker's pack, and was wearing unflattering Bermuda shorts and two messy French braids carelessly tossed between me and the top of my backpack. I could see my parents and brother felt concern for my disheveled appearance as they all gave me the pursed-lip once over upon my arrival. Luckily I was not wearing my Vibram Fivefingers, otherwise my parents' consternation would be particularly pronounced.

They seemed to let it go though and we boarded our plane to Turks and Caicos. My brother and I sat together, as at 21 and 23, we can now be trusted to sit together and not try to slap each other silly. My parents sat in the other side and we four took up the bulkhead seats on the flight. I happen to be the smallest member of an unusually tall family, and when we travel together for the sake of my 6'5" brother and 6'4" father and 5'10" mother, we usually travel in the bulkhead seats or the emergency exit row seats for the extra leg room. I on the other hand, have become used to travelling in very small, some might say offensively small spaces (see Qingdao trip post), and I am often comfortable with the middle row seats as much as I am with the aisle or window.

We arrived at the airport and went through customs, and my parents and brother collected their checked baggage (I came with carry-ons for our trip). We took a minibus to the hotel, and our driver informed us that the hotels over seven floors high in Turks and Caicos were all built illegally, and that the landowners who built those tall hotels were now being pursued for crimes against the Turks and Caicos people. Because Turks and Caicos is a very low lying set of islands, building such tall hotels and resorts keeps people who live inland, mostly locals, from seeing the ocean. This is why hotel builders can not build above seven floors for hotels in the country.

Our hotel was amazing. We had a full kitchen and a balcony, and we were only a short walk away from a pool, and more importantly, the beach.
After changing into swim suits we headed out for some late afternoon sunshine before dinner. The water was turquoise blue, and the ocean seemed very calm. The nice thing about visiting this country during Thanksgiving is that it is just at the end of tourist season, and we never had trouble finding beach chairs, towels, or a place to jump in the water without worrying about surfers, boogie boarders, or my favorite, jet skiers.

We had dinner at the hotel, and my brother and i were brave and tried fried conch fritters. Conch is actually pronounced "Conk" and while you may scoff at having to pronounce those big shells that you hold up to your ear to hear the ocean as anything other than what you've been calling it, people really do mock you if you do not say it
properly in countries where these large crustaceans are found. So work on changing your habits! My first experience with conch was more fried batter than anything else, so I couldn't really say that I had had a true conch experience.

The next day I got up to run around the island, my brother and my mom worked out at the smelly gym at our hotel, and my dad went golfing, which he did three times over the course of our trip. He actually set some kind of course record, making it through 18 holes, three times in a row, in only a couple hours.
Apparently, though I didn't see it myself, the golf course at Turks and Caicos is nothing to write home about. This makes golfing here about the same as many of the other activities that can be done here - unnecessary. People come for the sun and the beach, and water sports. Things like golfing, running, eating healthy, and rock climbing are not quite as memorable. My run quickly became interesting as I ran past the island's only casino and then abruptly came to a dead end. Turks and Caicos has mostly ground shrubs for vegetation, and from those shrubs emerged a pack of feral dogs. While I love

puppies like nobody's business, these were not dogs I could pet. And since there were eight of them, I slowly backtracked and started making my way back to the hotel. Dogs in Turks and Caicos are really their own breed, called potcakes. My brother an
d I saw some of the puppies available for adoption in animal shelters near our hotel, and immediately wanted one of our very own. They are a very cute and friendly breed, and many U.S. tourists end up taking the puppies home with them after falling in love with them in the animal shelters and pet shops nearby. The dogs have overrun the island, so islanders try to adopt out as many new puppies as possible to control the dog population.

One of our most exciting adventures was a day of snorkeling. It was a family affair, and we set out on a boat to swim over the barrier reef that surrounds the country. The captains of the boat started the ball rolling by serving rum punch. Here the punch is

more rum than punch, but it is SO delicious. I had a couple cups of it before I dove into the water, but a good number of the people on our boat really started their day with a bang, slurping down four cups of it or more. They must have had a much more thrilling snorkeling experience than I did. The boat stopped over the reef, we were given goggles, fins, and an inflatable life jacket should we need it. I couldn't imagine needing it, though, because the water is very salty and mineral rich. Because of this, you find yourself unusually buoyant in the water. I found that I was perfectly comfortable about a foot deep in the water - the perfect depth for snorkeling. My brother, dad, and I naturally dove in, recklessly diving down to see what lies beneath, while my mom stayed above and took pictures. We finally got her to jump in too after extolling the fish and the beautiful colors of the reef. I was hoping I would get to see a sea turtle, my favorite animal, but no such luck for me. I loved seeing the fish though, and snorkeling was a great way to spend the afternoon.

Our next stop was in shallower waters, where we were told we needed to hunt for a conch. We were given one conch per family, and my brother and I decided to compete for the best conch. I totally won our competition, but when the captain saw my conch shell, he said it was too small and threw it back. What a bummer! But he let us choose one of the bigger ones another family had found as a replacement.

We then docked on Iguana Island, where a number of endangered iguanas live and are
protected from poachers and from being eaten. One of our captains took that time to "murder" the conchs, punching holes in the shells with a hammer and then pulling out the slimy pink and black and grey colored creature that lives inside of the shell. It kind of looks like a sinus infection, but that is just my opinion.

Each Conch has a reproductive organ, and it is considered an aphrodisiac among many different cultures. The organ, when separated from the conch, is a clear almost plastic looking tube and it looks fairly tame, but it is the thought that the clear tube came from the
inside of the sinus infection animal that turns many people off, literally and figuratively. I am always game for a challenge though, and held out my hand to try one of the conchs' reproductive organs. The captain raised his eyebrow and handed me the organ, and I ate it. Slurped it right down. It, like every thing else, tasted like chicken. I was the only female among a bunch of middle aged males to try the "aphrodisiac". I wonder why they were so interested in it....

We later explored the beach,
my brother proving to be adept at finding iguanas, and returned to the boat for some conch salad, which consisted of raw conch flesh chopped up into small strips, and mixed in with salsa. It was...interesting, but nothing to write home about. Of course I washed it down with some more of that rum punch. My parents abstained from the salad and the reproductive organs, claiming they didn't eat raw fish or they were just grossed out. They were pretty grossed out by me too, but I'm not sure I can shock them with my menu choices at this point in our relationship.

The rest of the trip was filled with golf playing, and suntanning, and I pretended to study for my law school exams in the sunshine. We actually still had Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving, as the hotel provided a beautiful spread complete with turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie.

The last great thing I had the chance to do was go para-sailing with my mom. She was terrified, and is generally afraid of heights, so it was nice to get to calm her down and convince her to do something daring on the trip. We got on a speed boat with a bossy captain and his first mate, and a couple other families. The water was really choppy that day, so it took a lot of arm strength to haul ourselves up on the boat from the water. My brother tagged along to take pictures and hang out in the sun.
My mom and I were strapped into the harness after my mom got a detailed pep talk from the captain about not grabbing the carabiner that keeps her attached to the para sail, and we were ready to go. We went up 600 feet, high enough to see both the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and the sliver of islands that make up Turks and Caicos. It was so beautiful. We had a blast, and i think my mom had a better time than I did.

Unfortunately, the little boy who went after us with his dad did not have such a good time. They were only up in the air a few minutes when the boy signaled to come down. They looked pretty miserable as the captain was reeling them in, and when he gave them a thorough dunking in the ocean, I couldn't understand why. Then the boy was unharnessed first, came on to the boat, and informed us that his father had thrown up ALL over him while they were up in the air. The dad was obviously embarrassed and still very sick, but I really felt bad for the kid. I mean, really, you are up in the air, with air beneath you and above you and all around you, and you choose to turn to your child to throw up? It was not THAT windy. He definitely could have turned the other way. All I can say is that my mom, bless her soul, did not throw up on me, and that that Dad is definitely not going to live that incident down.

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