As I filled out my immigration form, I realized that I didn’t have the address. Crap. I remembered my passport, snorkel gear, bathing suit, AAA batteries for the site manager, espresso roast coffee for the environmental policy professor, but I forgot to get the address for the Center. I scribbled down “South Caicos” and hoped that the agent would not ask too many questions.
When it was my turn, I walked up to the counter and presented my papers. “You are going to South Caicos?” the uniformed border agent asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“With The School for Field Studies?” he asked.
“Okay, go ahead,” he said, waiving me through.
Whew! I was glad they know us at the airport. I walked through Provo’s small airport and into Gillie’s restaurant. I ordered a cold red Gatorade and watched CNN on the television. Obama’s healthcare law had been upheld by the Supreme Court by a narrow margin. Sitting in this Caribbean café, The US seemed very far away.
Sanjay Gupta was describing the verdict and its implications for health care in the states, but I hurried along to catch my flight on TCI Air. It was a small propeller jet with only eight seats, but we cruised along with few bumps over the azure water.
At the South Caicos airport, Center Director Heidi Hertler picked me up in the passenger van. It was bigger than my airplane. Heidi not only runs our Marine Resource Studies program in the Turks and Caicos Islands, but she is also an alumna herself, having participated in an SFS program in the Virgin Islands in 1987.
“It changed my life,” she said. Before her SFS experience, Heidi was pre-med at Bates College. After diving and studying marine life for a summer session, she made a swift shift in her career path to oceanography and environmental studies.
I arrived at the field station, and my mouth dropped open. It is perched up on a cliff with a truly spectacular, panoramic view of the ocean. I was dazzled, and a bit disoriented, by its beauty, but I managed to pull myself together for a site tour with the Student Affairs Manager and SFS alumna Kimbrough Mauney (TCI Summer ’00).
The field station, formerly a hotel called the “Admiral’s Arms Inn,” has been our home in the Caribbean since 1990. There is an outdoor dining area, kitchen, pool, dormitory, and classroom. Down the steps, past the scuba dive shed and the remains of an old sea salt storage facility, there is a dock where we keep three boats.
According to Kimbrough, not much has changed at the Center or in the community of South Caicos since she was a student here in the summer of 2000. There are a number of new tourism developments being built, however, so change looms on the horizon.
That night, I had a chance to visit the future site of one of these developments when I tagged along with the students on a camping trip. The wide sandy beach is adjacent to property owned by Sailrock, an American company building eco-friendly residences. We pitched our tents on sand as white as sugar, then gathered around a bonfire for marshmallows and charades. As the fire burned down to coals, I crawled into the tent and slept like a rock.
The next morning we piled in the van to head to the old Coast Guard lookout. Alumna and waterfront assistant Chrissy Lamendola (TCI Spring ’10), led us on a “lazy river” snorkel, floating with the current around mangroves. I saw a giant barracuda and a flounder, along with many smaller tropical fish.
That night, back at the Center, we had a demonstration on how to crack upon a conch shell and clean it. You tap the top part with the hammer to loosen its grip, then use a long, sharp knife to extract the animal and clean away the organs. That night, we dined on delicious conch fritters! I tried to get the recipe, but exact quantities were hard to come by! “Add a little ground up conch, put in a little flour and some red peppers and onions, then deep fry in hot oil.” Conch is one of the main fisheries on the island, alongside spiny lobster. I wasn’t able to taste the lobster since it is not in season, but I saw many of them tucked in coral-covered crevices while snorkeling!
An excursion to another soon-to-be operating tourist development on the island, East Bay, was postponed, so the students had extra time to prepare for their upcoming exam on resource management and marine protected areas. Since I work in alumni relations at SFS, I gave a quick talk about the SFS alumni community and the amazing feats our students go on to accomplish. I have a feeling that we will be hearing great things from this group in the future.
The next morning at 7am, I was awoken early by blaring music from the local Haitian church. It must have been quite the party! The preacher interspersed sermons in French and English with pop music by Celine Dion and Brittany Spears. With “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” now stuck in my head, I wandered into the dining room for breakfast. That morning, after site cleanup, students were either diving or snorkeling, and I joined the snorkeling group for a trip out the Long Cay. Kimbrough was my “buddy” and she pointed out spiny lobster, French grunts, flamingo tongues, an eel, and a school of barracuda. Somehow, I missed the octopus and eagle rays that the students spotted!
Later that afternoon, we invited the local island children to the field station for swimming lessons, games, and art projects. Lena Weiss, an alumna from TCI summer 2011, helped arrange a donation of numerous children’s swimsuits from the Swimmers Choice store in Syosset, New York, so there were plenty of suits to go around. I manned the coloring station and invited children to color transparent pages of tropical fish. We hung them on the rafter and they flitted in the breeze.
Sunday, my last day on the island, is a free day for staff and students. I took a long walk around town, snapping photos of the dilapidated former Governor’s mansion, the regatta where Queen Elizabeth once landed her royal yacht, the elementary school decorated with a beautiful mural painted by SFS students, and the local shops, bars, and churches. After dinner, Kimbrough was kind enough to take me on a night snorkel, where our flashlights illuminated the nooks and crannies of the rocks and coral. She dove down to scoop up a sea cucumber and pointed out a puffer fish. Unfortunately, the puffer fish was too fast for me; it darted under a rock before I had time to set my eyes upon it!
Before I knew it, it was time to head home! It was incredible to be able to spend some time with this amazing group of students and this dedicated, talented staff. I hope to be able to return someday, and maybe next time, I will see an eagle ray!