Living the Dream
Could a life in the Islands be in your future?
By Ben Stubenberg ~ Photos By Marta Morton, www.harbourclubvillas.com
It’s your last day of vacation in the Turks & Caicos, and you don’t want to leave. Maybe you’re gazing out over that brilliant turquoise ocean with a cold drink in hand and thinking to yourself, “Wow, could I live the dream?” Countless visitors have asked themselves and their partners that same question. And why not? Gorgeous beaches, lovely people, cool vibe, tasty cafés, sports galore, warm sunshine and an aura of peace and tranquility spark the imagination and create a sense of possibilities.
Morning comes too soon, though. The taxi’s waiting and ready to go. You stand in line at the airport, wait, check in, wait some more, climb the stairway into that gleaming airplane, and buckle up. Your mind gears shift from the relaxed island vibe to the familiar world of efficient processing of people and paper and things. The plane takes off and banks out over gorgeous Grace Bay and the surf-fringed reef. You crane your neck and press your forehead against the window so you can get one last glance. Then it all vanishes below the clouds. And the dream, along with the vacation, starts to slip away.
Now home, you slide back into the comfortable routine of the life you have built—and it’s not bad. In fact, it’s pretty darn good. It got you a vacation on the best beach in the world!
But maybe the dream lingers a little longer. You remind yourself that you have entered “middle age” and now is the time to take a turn in life. (Or at least explore the options so you don’t have any regrets later.)
Is it really possible to open that door in the far corner of your mind and walk down the unlit corridor towards a new beginning? To swap out the routine of reasonable certainty and expectations for the impetuous soul of a dreamer who gave it all up to walk on a beach in paradise?
It’s freezing outside, but you still feel the warm sand under your toes. You still see that big orange sun sink over the sea and every hue of pink and red paint the clouds of a darkening sky. You still anticipate the quiet arrival of another tropical night, strewn with a billion stars, bright and sharp in the absence of ambient light. And you still remember the small act of genuine kindness from someone who made you feel welcome. If that’s you, keep reading.
Before you take the leap
First, ask this essential question: “Can I appreciate the fact that I will be a guest in someone else’s country with a culture and way of doing things different from me?” Think hard because it requires essential qualities of tolerance, empathy, patience, humility, and respect. If your answer is “No,” don’t come. Period. For all the easy-going goodwill among locals and “expats” (expatriate foreigners who live here), acceptance goes out the window for those who come down with the wrong attitude or prove untrustworthy.
Know this: The Turks & Caicos is not a place to escape from problems and bring baggage filled with unresolved issues. The Islands are too small, and whatever bad qualities you have will be magnified. You won’t last. And even if you do, you won’t be happy.
But if you’re someone who sees these sunny isles as a destination where you can open your heart and touch the lives of others who hail from every corner of the world, you have passed the first test. Living in the TCI is just as much about being an agreeable, simpatico human being as it is about relishing the exquisite natural environment.
Next, are you married, have kids, or are in a tight relationship with someone? If so, you need to sit down and have that frank talk to see if he or she shares that tropical dream with the same passion. Often, one partner will enjoy the vacation but for any number of quite legitimate reasons— financial security, career, family—doesn’t want to make the leap. Then you may have to compromise and just take more vacations here, possibly buying a house or condo that anchors you to the Turks & Caicos without full-time commitment. That’s OK too.
Got kids? There are many excellent schools, and youngsters who grow up here tend to be smart, secure, open-minded, and well-adjusted. Still, uprooting them is a hard call. So, you may have to delay the dream for a few years for their sake, but that just gives you more time to lay the groundwork for a future move.
Next comes the fun part where you take the time to really get a feel for the place to see if it’s for you. Read all you can about the history of the Islands and current events. Local magazines (including this one) and newspapers— hard copy and online—abound and provide a plethora of valuable information. Watch local TV shows and listen to radio stations for insightful local coverage.
Go to the Thursday Fish Fry in The Bight, but also plan a visit around Maskanoo, the Caribbean Food Festival, the Conch Festival, Valentine’s Day Cup and New Year’s at Rickie’s Flamingo Café. Attend fundraisers for the Edward Gartland Youth Centre, Provo Children’s Home, Turks & Caicos Reef Fund, and curing breast cancer (In the Pink). If you are sporty, consider taking part in one of many well-organized events such as a run or swim race, triathlon, sailing regatta, or a golf or tennis tournament. Soccer for both children and adults is another popular sport.
Whether or not you are religious, visit one of numerous churches of just about every denomination and hear the exuberance of faith, often expressed in song.
Rent a car and hire a taxi for a couple of hours and go all over the island. Use a guide to fill you in and share their local knowledge. Stop in at a variety of bars and cafés.
Meet and talk to lots of people, but don’t wear them down with your hopes and dreams. Instead, ask what they like best about being here. And if they are from somewhere else, ask them what brought them here. Everyone has a story. Now ask yourself, “Do I like the people around me? Do I share the spirit?”
Most expats who move here had to navigate the maze of requirements to make their dream come true, no matter where they came from. That creates a sort of self-selecting part of the population imbued with a strong dose of adventuresome confidence—seekers who let something go back home on the gamble it would work out here. Make no mistake, they took risks and made tradeoffs, and so will you. Just be clear-headed: While the lifestyle is unrivaled, having some money behind you makes it so much easier. This is hard place to be if you are hurting for cash.
Keep in mind you’ll likely get valuable snippets of knowledge, but not the full story because it’s not their job to prepare you, even if you buy the drinks. For that you should look into hiring someone to get you oriented. At least one new service, Turks & Caicos Living, has sprung up to give potential transplants a briefing tour that covers the bases of living here from other expats who’ve made the jump.
Most North Americans and Europeans move here looking for a less hectic, slower pace of life. That’s the allure of living on a small island in the West Indies. And small islands these are, but very well connected to the world. Still, you need to be comfortable with limited roaming space and what you can do without.
Providenciales has most of the essentials with supermarkets and office supply and building material stores. We have a fine bookstore, several boutiques, a couple of yummy bakeries, and an excellent coffee roaster, brewer, and rum distiller. There’s a modern hospital, well-stocked pharmacies, and several very good private doctors (including naturopathic and osteopathic), optometrists, physical therapists, and even an acupuncturist. But it’s not the vast shopping center of North America, and never will be.
Take that as an opportunity to roll back and re-evaluate. After all, whether you buy a luxurious beachfront villa or choose less upscale quarters, isn’t entering this little Eden about changing course, living life a bit untethered? This is not where you come to replicate “home” with palm trees and sand.
To really appreciate what untethered means, take a day or two to explore the “Out Islands” and see how the old Caribbean ways are very much alive. For those who want a complete break and yearn for an even slower pace, consider settling in North Caicos, Middle Caicos, South Caicos or Salt Cay. These rural gems with spectacular beaches and vast stretches of wilderness have only a fraction of the population of Provo’s 25,000+ and few of the conveniences. But the expats that live here love it and rely on what is already in place—fresh fish and conch and healthy local produce. More importantly, they rely on each other as they integrate into a more traditional Turks & Caicos community of relationships.
On North Caicos, this might mean sharing drinks and grilled snapper with Clifford and friends at the thatched Barracuda Bar on the beach while listening to a “rake and scrape” band. On tiny Salt Cay, it could be kicking back at the Coral Reef Bar and Grille watching for whales to breach in the winter months. Of course, the expats bring in whatever else they need, but over time those needs become less important. The demands of a busy metropolis fade, replaced by the gift of serenity.
Grand Turk falls somewhere in the middle, with a few more conveniences and a pleasant quietude. There are cruise ship passengers during the day, but most hang out in Margaritaville by the dock and depart by late afternoon. Cockburn Town, the country’s capital, exudes charm. Here you can wander down tree-shaded lanes with 100+ year-old houses, storefronts and quirky cafés. The settlement meanders along a low bluff facing west for spectacular sunsets framed by perfect beaches on either side. Also, the town hosts the headquarters for the TCI National Museum, a treasure for any lover of history.
Chloe Zimmermann, long-time Provo resident, owner of Marco Travel, and agent with Forbes Realty, puts the question of moving here this way, “Be alert and open to emotions that both elate and trouble you about the Islands. If it doesn’t feel right for you to live here, then it doesn’t. No worries. At least you found out before making one of the biggest commitments of your life. Just visit for vacations. And if it does click, count yourself among the fortunate.”
Finding a home—rent, buy or build?
Renting allows you to dip your toe without a major investment, but be aware that rents can be high and good places are limited on Provo. The short term rental market serving visitors is hot right now, which is exacerbating the scarcity of long term rentals.
Buying naturally ties you more to the community. You are invested in the island and have a stake in its future. Property on the beach or on a canal in Provo is in scarce and expensive, particularly anything on Grace Bay or in the Leeward area. But you only need go back from the beach a few blocks and the price drops noticeably. Houses with magnificent views on Long Bay or on a bluff or hilltop in Long Bay Hills, Flamingo Pond, South Shore or Thompson’s Cove can often be more reasonable.
One very attractive feature of buying is that there are no restrictions on foreign individuals buying property (but there are restrictions on foreign companies). And there are no real estate taxes beyond a one-time stamp duty. Stamp duty is calculated on a sliding percentage of the sale price up to a maximum of 10% on Provo and up to 6.5% on some of the other islands.
Another advantage of a house purchase of at least $300,000 is that you can be eligible for a non-work residency permit (with $1,500 fee every five years as explained below). And still another bonus is that, subject to certain qualifying criteria, you can bring down a full container of household goods and pay a processing fee at Customs of 7.5% on the value.
Building a house offers many advantages and, although more intimidating, can actually be an incredibly exciting and fulfilling experience. Immediate benefits are that you get to choose the ideal location, design the house exactly the way you want it (within budget, of course) and you get a house without having to pay the 10% stamp duty on its value (you only pay stamp duty on the value of the land).
If you decide that building is the way to go, there is no better advice we can give than to first contact a locally based, fully qualified professional architect. They will be able to assist you in setting realistic budgets, advise you on appropriate land purchases to suit your needs and steer you all the way through the process, including financing the build, choosing a contractor and completing construction. They will also be able to help you select legal assistance, furniture suppliers, landscapers and all other aspects of designing and building a home. Be aware that neither the building nor design industry is regulated and therefore it is critical that you find someone properly qualified and with a proven record of service in the Islands.
Note that construction costs are higher than the US, driven largely by import duty on many building supplies and increased cost of doing business generally.
Residency—the legal aspects
If it still feels right, it’s time to talk to an attorney who can guide you through the nuances of residency, working, banking, and investing. That’s when the dream can come up against reality. Learn exactly what hurdles you have to clear to make it happen. Here’s what to ask and what you need to know:
1. Do you need to work? If yes, (meaning you have to earn a living to survive,) you need a work permit that falls into two basic categories:
• You can seek out an employer who needs your skills but cannot find them among those with full citizen “Belonger” status. That means your prospective employer has to apply for a work permit for you, which includes advertising the position. If no one qualified applies, you may be hired, typically for a year or two at a time before you have to renew. The employer must pay a work permit fee that can amount to many thousands of dollars depending on the skill level. That tends to dampen salaries. After 10 consecutive years you can apply for Permanent Residency status (PRC) and the work permit fees no longer have to be paid. The current fee for a PRC is $10,000.
• You can open your own business. For that you must apply for a business license, which is reviewed for approval depending on the nature of the business. While not automatic, businesses that benefit the country with investment and services are generally approved, as long as they do not fall into restricted categories reserved for Belongers. Some of these restricted categories include taxi services, small to medium construction services, and certain boat businesses. You can engage in these restricted category businesses if you have a Belonger business partner who owns a majority of the interest in the business. Be advised that while you will not need labour clearance to manage the business, you will have to pay the maximum work permit fees that are currently $9,500 per year. As with employee work permits, you can apply for a PRC after 10 consecutive years and then not have to pay the work permit fees.
2. Do you not have to work or will your work be performed off-island? If so, you have three basic non-work residency options.
• You can apply for a non-working residency permit. It costs $1,500 a year and can generally be obtained for three year periods before you have to renew again. This is definitely the low risk option and may appeal to retirees with a good pension or investment income, as you must show you can support yourself. You may also qualify if you can do your work remotely off-island so you are not affecting local employment. This might be a consulting business where the services are performed outside the country or a stock day-trader. If you live here in this status for 10 consecutive years, you can apply for a PRC without the right to work.
• You can invest in a house for a minimum of $300,000 and get a homeowner’s residency permit. You will have to pay $1,500 every five years, but you can generally live here as long as you own the house. This type of residency permit does not give you eligibility for a PRC after 10 years.
• You can request visitor status for between 30 to 90 days at a time. For this you must leave the country when the 90 days are up. But you can return a day later and request another 90 days. This can be a good option if you are spending part of your time back in your home country and don’t really intend to live in the TCI full time. Constant renewals every 30 to 90 days, however, can invite close scrutiny of your purpose here. So, this is not usually recommended as a long-term option.
3. Do you have serious medical issues or a criminal record?
• If you are planning to work, and thus be part of the national medical and insurance system, you will need a medical clearance done here with in-depth screening. You may be rejected if you have serious medical conditions that risk infecting others and/or will require the health system to incur great expense. You will also need a medical clearance if you are seeking a general non-work residency permit for $1,500 a year, but the screening is not as in-depth. Those using the homeowner residency permit need not have a medical clearance.
• All categories of residency require that you provide a police record from your home country showing you have no criminal past, along with reference letters proving good character.
Erica Krygsman, attorney at Provo law firm Twa, Marcelin, and Wolf, advises, “Whatever your situation, you would do best to understand and appreciate the rationale behind the current immigration policies, which is first and foremost to protect the livelihood and well-being of the people of the Turks & Caicos Islands.”
The reception you’ll get
What can you expect when you get here? This really depends on your demeanor and mindset. It’s like any small town—you develop a web of friends and contacts and a reputation. Most expats give everyone a chance to fit in and share their story because they’ve been there too. Don’t blow it with inflated self-importance.
Equally welcoming are locals. But again, it depends on the way you come across. Show arrogance, and you’re done. Most of the time, things work fine. And when they don’t, chill out and remember: Folks are not here to make sure your Big City expectations are promptly met. Show a little sensitivity and you will get along just fine.
Sure, expats are easier to get to know because you come from a common background and experience. So it’s easy to drift into exclusive circles. But cut yourself off from the local population, and you’ll miss some of the most precious moments of living here.
Once when emerging from the water on the far end of Grace Bay after a swim, a group of locals preparing a BBQ on the beach called out, “Hey, you want to have a beer with us? How about some food? Got some good stuff cookin’ up.” Heck, they didn’t owe me anything, but there they were sharing what they had with a stranger who came out of nowhere. How cool is that?
Another time I heard loud calypso and reggae music coming from the beach in the Leeward area. I slipped on my sandals and ambled toward the sound a few blocks away. When I got there, about 30 locals were dancing on the sand to the sounds played by a DJ. On seeing me, their first words were a very concerned, “Are we too loud? We can turn it down.” I assured them it was just fine. “Well, then have a drink and hang out for a while.” Once again, a stranger just shows up and is made to feel welcome. There is a soul to the way of life of Turks & Caicos Islanders, as well as the amazing diversity of humanity woven into the tapestry of this micro-universe. When you come across it, embrace with gusto!
When it comes to service, consider how Caicos Express Airlines handled a customer who had just missed a flight to Salt Cay. She had hoped to make the connection after flying down from Toronto in mid-February, but the Canadian plane had been delayed. The eight-seater Caicos Express flies to Salt Cay only four days a week, so she would have to wait a couple more days in Provo. But the customer was so understanding that the quick-thinking ticket counter agent decided to help her out. She called the captain of the aircraft, who was taxiing to the runway, and asked if he could return to the gate to pick up one more passenger. He did. The little door at the back of the plane opened and the steps dropped down. She scurried up and flew away. Where else is that going to happen?
Finally, there’s another kind of reception that may be waiting for you, but it’s not from people. Rather, it’s a sense of well-being that derives from proximity to water. According to Wallace J. Nichols, author of Blue Mind, neurological studies show that just looking at blue water affects your brain positively by reducing stress. Grace Bay Medical Centre has taken this a step further and developed a broad-based Wellness Program that integrates the natural positive aspects of sun and sea to enhance and promote healing. Island Naturopath Dr. Meghan O’Reilly explains, “Research clearly shows that the natural environment has a direct impact on health. So we make sure that everyone going through the program takes full advantage of the exceptional conditions in the Turks & Caicos, including ocean water therapy.”
Indeed, the evidence is building that being visually close to and possibly immersed in pleasant watery environments makes people healthier and happer. Certainly, few living on this 100 mile-long archipelago surrounded by clear, warm ocean would argue with that.
Visitors often ask residents if they ever get bored or tired of island life. It’s a fair question, but one that is likely answered with a smile, “No, never. Watching the sunrise bring in a new day moves me as much now as when I first arrived.” Feel that, and you can live the dream.
Ben Stubenberg is a contributing writer to Times of the Islands with a passion for the Turks & Caicos. Ben is co-founder of the vacation adventure company Caicu Naniki Adventures and the annual swim race “Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim. An avid ocean man and frequent guide for dreamers, he can be reached at email@example.com.
Twa, Marcelin, Wolf/Attorneys at Law
Chloe Zimmermann/Forbes Realty & Marco Travel
Grace Bay Medical Centre/Health & Wellness
Turks & Caicos Reservations/Bookings & Island Living
Visit Turks & Caicos Islands/Website
Caicu Naniki/Island Living & Vacation Adventures
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On the Cover
Marta Morton, owner of Harbour Club Villas, shot this photo on the magical island of Salt Cay. The foreground is filled with the endemic National Flower Turks & Caicos Heather in full bloom. St. John's Anglican Church, built in the early 1800s, is in the background. To see more of her work, visit www.myturksandcaicosblog.com