Back to the Basics

Finding wellness in TCI.

By Ben Stubenberg

This lovely sunrise above the salinas of Salt Cay reflects the slow, peaceful way of life prevalent there.

A tropical Shangri-La hides in our midst. Islands where the ills of modern society—hypertension, diabetes, cancer, obesity—rarely appear, and people often live well into their 90s and sometimes over 100. A trip to the outer, rural islands of North, Middle or South Caicos and Salt Cay tells you why: These folks, the older generation, do everything right. They eat fresh fruits and vegetables from their gardens along with fresh-caught snapper, lobster and conch, and use almost no sugar. They walk or cycle everywhere they need to go, sleep deeply in darkness and quiet and go about their affairs with little stress. Above all, they visit and talk and laugh with each other from early in the morning through the day to evening.

The Turks & Caicos Islanders who engage these simple yet vital practices for health and longevity don’t call it anything. For them, it is just a way of life. As it turns out, the very lifestyle routines they have been carrying on without much fanfare for some two centuries have been “discovered” and embraced as an antidote to the illnesses of modernity. Broadly known as “wellness,” this holistic approach to living represents a growing segment of the upper end of the tourist industry—people worldwide seeking to re-wire and re-centre prosperous but hectic lives. These “Wellness Travellers” have spawned a burgeoning demand for personalised, health-centred vacations that engage, teach, heal, and in some cases transform them.
The irony of the financially secure exploring and pursuing a simpler, healthier lifestyle long cultivated by people here with little economic wealth is not lost. Nor is the paradox of the latest generation of Islanders (along with many TCI immigrants) brought up in a modern lifestyle far different from their ancestors, and who now face their own crisis of health and well-being. That still unbridged social divide necessarily raises a provocative question: Can you experience true wellness if the benefits of a holistic approach to health and well-being do not extend to all, especially those on the lower economic rungs of society?
Catering to wellness on the basic level is nothing new, as spas, medical professionals, fitness centres and upscale food purveyors have long tapped into a desire to live healthier lives and feel better about themselves.According to the Global Wellness Institute, the wellness economy worldwide generated $3.7 trillion as far back at 2013, and the Wellness Tourism industry alone comprised $563 billion.
What is new is that wellness vacationers today seek out destinations that offer long term, life changing answers that include science-based medical approaches to finding and enjoying healthier, spiritually connected lives. This mirrors the overall trend of more choice as the tourism industry fragments into smaller, specialised niches and active vacations replace passive ones.According to Travel Market Report (TMR), a leading on-line news service for travel agents in North America, the industry will see more demand for alternative treatments and therapies beyond the standard massage. This includes advances in medicine combined with holistic practices that focus on “prevention, precision, and personalisation.” TMR predicts that the number one driver of wellness will continue to be stress management and sleep. These tie in directly with diet, exercise and meditation.
The intense interest in wellness programs coincides with studies of “Blue Zones,” pockets of humanity worldwide where people live far longer than the rest of us. These Blue Zones include Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Ikaria (Greece), Loma Linda (California) and Nicoya (Costa Rica) that, not surprisingly, have much in common with rural pockets of TCI.
The Turks & Caicos Islands are well poised to be a major destination for the new wellness traveler. Naturally, we already have spectacular, world renowned beaches and gorgeous turquoise water that mesmerise and relax discerning tourists who come on vacation here. Indeed, mounting scientific evidence as presented in Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols, indicates that just looking out over blue water has a calming effect on specific parts of the brain that govern stress. So, TCI is already one big step ahead. Fortuitously, we also possess a vibrant health and wellness infrastructure well-suited to meet the heightened interest in lifestyle change—and one that can draw on the rich living history of TCI people who lived wellness long before it became popular.

Life in the outer, rural islands (shown here is the path to Wade’s Green in North Caicos) is like a tropical Shangri-La, where the older generation has a naturally healthy lifestyle.

The advent of greater wellness tourism in TCI also presents an extraordinary opportunity to take on a larger social mission to address the problem of young Islanders drifting farther from the healthy, stress-free ways of their forebears. The transformative benefits from advances in medicine together with changes in lifestyle to achieve peak health can just as well apply to everyone in TCI—resort workers, schoolchildren, government employees, labourers. In other words, wellness amenities for visitors can be leveraged to create a healthier TCI society, as well as generate additional tourism revenue. A progressive idea to be sure, since luxuries enjoyed by visitors seldom reach the people who serve them. But forward-thinking TCI “Wellness Pioneers” have already established a beachhead for reaching a broader base of people in the Islands.

Wellness pioneers
David Bowen, former TCI Director of Culture and current Wellness and Entertainment Director at Grace Bay Club Resort, states plainly: “We cannot sell wellness unless we connect with the rest of society because true wellness is not just a good workout. It impacts our higher consciousness. It’s all about the ‘inner’ expanding ‘outward.’ Fix yourself first and practice social wellness by relating to others.” Taking wellness to the spiritual level, Mr. Bowen continues, “When we breathe, we need to remind ourselves that we are just one exhalation from death. Then we really live in the moment. We can have emotional control and balance and be non-judgmental, even for ourselves.”
Mr. Bowen practices what he preaches. Not only does he conduct yoga and lifestyle classes to guests at the Grace Bay Club Resort, but he teaches the same healthy living lessons to all new members of the staff. “They should be able to benefit from wellness practices the same as resort guests.” Mr. Bowen also teaches wellness to young Islanders when he speaks at the Edward C. Gartland Youth Centre and TCI public schools. He tells young people how their grandparents and great-grandparents used to live. “Back in the day,” he notes, quite mindful of the sharp decline in healthy diet, “Turks & Caicos Islanders ate small portions and indulged in special foods, macaroni and cheese and ribs, for example, only during celebratory events like Christmas. Now, we eat those rich, fatty foods all the time—made worse by the ready availability of sugar-filled drinks.” The Grand Turk native knows full well the challenge of reversing the prevalence of an unhealthy lifestyle, but also recognises the power of a wellness trend that can be harnessed for good.
Providenciales-born nutritionist Tamika Handfield, a frequent contributor to Times of the Islands on nutrition, drives home the link between diet, exercise and wellness:
“Convenience is killing us!” she states emphatically. “Not only do we go for the easy, convenient foods, often filled with sugar and fat, but we fail to move around. TCI people used to dive for conch and lobster, work the small farm or garden and build boats. Now we drive everywhere and sit all day.” Unhappily, that has resulted in far more cases of diabetes, hypertension and obesity, not unlike what is taking place in North America and Europe for the same reasons. Distressingly, as Ms. Handfield points out, “These diseases once found only in older adults are now seen in children.”
To combat the unhealthy lifestyle and change directions, Ms. Handfield has developed an extensive media and education wellness outreach initiative called Nutrition-in-Demand. One of the programs, Kidfit, introduces children ages 8–12 to healthy habits from a young age. To make a point visually to these youngsters, Ms. Handfield will measure out in a cup the amount of sugar in a soda and ask if anyone wants to dig in for a spoonful. Of course, no one takes her up on the offer.
Ms. Handfield’s non-profit also organises the premier running/walking/cycling event on Provo as a fundraiser and to raise awareness. The Move-a-Thon has grown quickly by offering something for everyone from a 5 km run/walk to a full marathon. As a result, far more island residents are getting fit, becoming more wellness-aware and taking charge of their health future. Not incidentally, the Move-a-Thon events have received international exposure and now draw in visitors from abroad seeking to enhance their own wellness in TCI while enjoying an athletic challenge.
At Carolina Medical Centre on Provo, primary care physician Dr. Marcela Malcolm brings wellness practices to the people who need it most and can least afford it. She sees dozens of patients every day who suffer the same diseases—high blood pressure, high cholesterol, thyroid, gout, hypertension—to name a few. In almost all cases, these ailments are lifestyle-related and remedied by applying wellness concepts and making simple changes. Of course, it’s never that easy, since the underlying socio-economic causes that lead to high stress levels and contribute to auto-immune diseases are less amenable to a solution.
Dr. Malcolm notes that young Haitian men in particular, some just 30 years old, suffer abnormally high rates of stress and depression because of the pressure on them to send remittances back to Haiti. Although they try to send most of what they make back home, they often fall short. And that means families in Haiti suffer by foregoing basics ranging from regular meals to medical treatment to high school education. That, in turn, makes the men, and sometimes women, feel like failures, especially given the perception back in the home country that TCI abounds with opportunity for making money.
Undaunted, Dr. Malcolm focuses on diagnosing exactly the nature of the medical problem through basic, less-expensive tests and then provides guidance to at least mitigate the impact of their socio-economic hardship. This starts with standard counselling for better diets, like eating less animal fats to reduce free radicals, and exercising more, especially if one’s job involves sitting. She also takes an imaginative approach in advice to her patients who are stressed out: Talk to someone who makes you laugh, watch a comedy video, have more sex with your spouse!
For at-risk children, Dr. Malcolm goes straight to the parents and tells them to ditch the unhealthy, high calorie snacks and corn syrup-filled candy their kids are eating. She encourages them to get children to put down the iPads and move their bodies by laying out a plan. Monday ballet, Tuesday football, Wednesday dance, Thursday tennis. If that’s not possible, just play outdoors.

Grace Bay Medical Centre’s recent wellness retreat at the Coral Pavilion helps clients incorporate wellness elements into their daily lives.

The Grace Bay Medical Centre has for several years combined an established general practice primary care with an expanding wellness program that includes naturopathic and osteopathic doctors, an acupuncturist and a psychologist. Putting all these medical professionals under one roof allows patients to get the full spectrum of standard and holistic healing. Dr. Sam Slattery, the founder of Grace Bay Medical Centre, explains, “Wellness is not just about absence of disease but rather about improving overall quality of the human experience. Wellness is about reaching the pinnacle of health given an individual’s circumstances.”
For many years, Dr. Slattery and other TCI health care deliverers have promoted increased consumption of plant based foods, or what is colloquially known as “bush food.” Indeed, bush food is what practically all Islanders ate two or more generations ago. They supplemented plant-based diets with fresh seafood and maintained impressive health despite limited standard medical attention. With an MSc advanced degree in gastroenterology and nutrition, Dr. Slattery touts the importance of the “gut” whose complex nervous system is called the “second brain” with its huge colony of essential bacteria. Dr. Slattery points out that the gut together with the liver are home to 85–90% of the body’s immune system, and thus the most influential organs in the body. A good, predominantly plant-based diet keeps that immune system operating at peak performance and reduces the chances of disease. Not incidentally, Dr. Slattery notes that he is seeing more of his patients heeding the message by eating better, reducing sugar and alcohol consumption, and getting into sport or some form of exercise.
Dr. Meghan O’Reilly, Grace Bay Medical Centre’s naturopathic physician, has looked closely at the TCI bush diet and daily lives of the elders of North and Middle Caicos. “The key to their healthy living was the absence of refined foods and sugars, Dr. O’Reilly says, confirming the observations of others. “That and consumption of ‘ground food’ like sweet potato, cassava and plantain, along with greens like callaloo. She continues, “Along with walking everywhere and physical work, people felt they belonged to their communities and thus connected. Meet someone from North or Middle Caicos now living in Provo. They long to get back to their friends and family, away from the hustle and bustle of the ‘Big City.’”
Grace Bay Medical Centre has now taken this base of medical knowledge to develop wellness retreats. Clients get a highly personalised diagnosis and a detailed plan of how to incorporate wellness elements—diet, sleep, exercise, stress reduction, meditation, “me time”—into their daily lives long after they return home. Not surprisingly, many of these elements correlate with the lifestyles of older generations of Turks & Caicos Islanders.

Entrepreneurs of wellness
Meanwhile, several cottage industries have sprung up providing products and services. These include some that uniquely draw on locally grown bush foods and plant-based diets that complement wellness tourism and enhance the health of TCI residents.
Three years ago, Donna Gardiner started the Caicos Tea Company (see Times of the Islands, Fall 2016) using the same plants from the bush that her ancestors used to
augment health and treat various ailments. A North Caicos native, Ms. Gardiner says, “I wanted to produce a truly authentic TCI product that had its roots here—steeped in history and brewed in culture! My grandmother and others taught me a lot about the local bush, and so making teas is a way to honour them. TCI has a ‘tea history,’ and I want to preserve and share that. The fact that the teas have medicinal qualities makes it that much more important.”
Harvested from the North Caicos bush and packaged there as well, the Tea Company produces six flavours of tea—mint, fever grass, moringa, Caicos Sunshine, soursop and soursop/fever grass blend. Each of them has one or more medicinal purposes, Ms. Gardiner notes. Moringa, for example, helps with anemia and flus, while soursop and fever grass promote relaxation and sleep, as well as reduce fever. Peppermint enhances digestion. All of these remedies from bush tea were applied long before modern medicine arrived in the Islands and developed from observations over decades of experience. While the teas have their own curative qualities, they go hand in hand with the simple lifestyle and self-reliant culture that fosters general wellness in these rural outer islands.
Two years ago, sisters Laura and Lindsey Mensen opened TCI’s first all-vegan café, Retreat Kitchen. Located next to their yoga studio in the Ports of Call plaza, the café has become quite popular with vegans, as well as non-vegans wanting to reduce meat consumption and increase plant food in the diet. Retreat isn’t just about serving one class of people, however. When Hurricane Irma struck last year, Retreat, like many restaurants in TCI, provided hundreds of free vegan meals to people in need throughout the Islands—a wellness diet in a time of crisis.
Regina Radisic recently opened a vegan take-out café kitchen, Island Raw, next to her Pilates Studio 90 Degrees in Grace Bay. As a sideline, she started brewing and bottling locally made kombucha. As sometimes happens, the sideline product got discovered and quickly became a major segment of the business.
Kombucha, essentially a fermented green or black tea together with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (“SCOBY”) creating a probiotic food, has proven to be an effective digestive aid and often recommended as part of a wellness diet. Ms. Radisic’s now popular kombuchas come in a variety of flavours that uniquely contain local bush, as well as other medicinal plants, including mulberry, North Caicos plum, moringa, lemon grass, noni fruit, turmeric and ginger. Some come from Misick’s Organic Farm on North Caicos, others from her own garden on Providenciales.
For the past six years, the skin care company and spa Rejouvenance, located at Grace Bay Court Plaza, has created and locally manufactured a range of coconut-based products. (See Times of the Islands, Spring 2013.) Coconuts have many healing properties that people living on tropical islands all over the world have used for centuries for healthy hair and skin and as a natural protector against the sun. Notably, Rejouvenance produces effective reef-safe sunscreens by combining locally derived coconut oils with clear sun-blocking minerals like zinc oxide. These natural sunscreens not only minimise risk of sunburn but don’t contain the oxybenzone chemical typically found in popular sunscreens that has proven to be harmful to reefs. In this way, Rejouvenance’s wellness products take care of people, as well as TCI’s critical marine resource, living coral.

Benefits for all

Janderlyn Forbes of North Caicos, shown above in 2008, continues to grow what she can for her own consumption. She is a repository for the “old ways” that have kept many of her generation healthy.

Despite the undeniable positive health and wellness impact of island self-reliance in the past, we must acknowledge that life back then was also hard. Nobody, not even the older generation, wants to go back to that existence. Modern conveniences, for all their unhealthy baggage, have made life much less strenuous. That, of course, underscores the overshadowing dilemma of modernity, brought into sharp focus in TCI: How best to employ and enjoy the benefits of technological advancements and mass consumer convenience without succumbing to the toxic by-products that are killing us slowly?
With a confluence of resources in TCI—a legacy of living well, enlightened medical and lifestyle professionals, and a budding class of creative wellness entrepreneurs, together with magical scenery—these Islands could be a model for how to get it right.
Imagine for a moment the Turks & Caicos Islands as an international centre for wellness, a tropical island destination where visitors come to learn and experience what it is for mind and body to be at its human zenith. Not only could TCI be at the forefront of wellness tourism as it emerges from niche to mainstream, but shape the course of how to live well. At the same time, envision a society where the tenants of wellness become the adopted norms—a society physically healthier but also one where each individual realises their capacity to control their lives and circumstances.
As David Bowen observed, we cannot sell wellness unless we connect with the rest of society. Indeed, the benefits can and should flow both ways: Just as advances in medical knowledge and wellness practices around the world have much to offer TCI, so too does TCI have remarkable treasures to share with others. Linking the lifestyle and discoveries of TCI people to present wellness needs generates compelling cross-pollination opportunities that serve visitors and residents alike.
Luckily, positive signs loom for a more wellness-conscious TCI in its holistic approach to elevating the human experience—starting with the grassroots work done by TCI healers—the primary care doctors, naturopaths, dieticians and spiritual guides. We also see a strong growth in participatory sports. Run/walks, swim competitions, sailing regattas, cycling ride-alongs, rugby tournaments and mini-triathlons have noticeably spurred more people, young and old, to incorporate exercise into their daily routines. Mainstream sports like football (soccer), basketball and track and field also continue to attract more players, as have the secondary sports. Give due credit to steadfast TCI government policy and the Department of Sports for prioritising sport, not just for competition, but for the positive values of health and well-being that it instills.
Some top athletes have become role models who make living well a “cool” thing and influence how people think and act. Who doesn’t want to be like elite TCI track star Delano Williams? We can’t run like him, but we can emulate his healthy lifestyle. Musicians, actors, dancers, designers, models, painters and video personalities—homegrown and from abroad—also have the power to change perceptions because of their high profile visibility and engaging talents. Once they adopt a wellness lifestyle, others follow.
The word is getting out about the foods and drinks that harm our bodies and those of our children, even if the implementation might be lagging. Often small, simple actions can yield big dividends—like taking out the Coke machine and putting in vending machines that dispense coconut waters and other healthy drinks. Substitute one convenience for another and build on that. Implementation of wellness is not just for professionals in the field. We still have a way to go, even as TCI makes positive gains.
In the end, the goal must be to close the gap between those who are barely hanging on and those who have comfortably made it. Wellness offers real hope as an agent of change that breaks the cycle of poverty and allows people to rise with a new sense of possibilities for themselves and their children. Small countries like TCI can be as bold as big ones and much nimbler. Look to those already transforming one life at a time with an approach as holistic as the practice of wellness itself. And draw on the wisdom of older generations of Islanders to show us the way.

Ben Stubenberg is a contributing writer to Times of the Islands with a passion for Turks & Caicos Islands history. An avid ocean man, he is the co-founder of the sports and adventure tour company Caicu Naniki and the annual Turks & Caicos “Race for the Conch” Eco-Seaswim. Ben can be reached at ben@caicunaniki.com.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography (myparadisephoto.com) created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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