Features

Lessons from Lockdown

Times of the Islands contributors share their experiences.

The TCI’s natural beauty provided solace from the anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether ending up on- or off-island, regular Times of the Islands contributors faced “shelter at home” requirements due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. We asked them to share their thoughts and experiences during this major disruption to our usual way of life. 

Life and freedom are precious

By Kelly Currington

I am sitting on the sofa at my best friend’s house, looking out the window at a view I have seen hundreds of times before, but it now looks and feels very different. Along with the rest of the planet, I am trying to make sense of and navigate through this new world we are now faced with . . .

I was on a liveaboard dive boat where I work as a videographer, 100 miles north of the Dominican Republic in the Silver Bank, swimming with North Atlantic humpback whales when everything changed in a matter of hours. We were told the port was going to close and we needed to return or be shut out, so halfway through our week we headed back in. As I sat with my sister, we stared out at the sea and talked about the amazing encounters we had and the prospects we might have had if the charter had not been cancelled. We wondered what was waiting for us back on land. What I was sure of was that the holiday my sister and I had waited a year for had now been cut short.

Kelly Currington “doing her thing” on the live aboard dive boat, pre-pandemic.

She and the rest of the guests boarded flights home the next day and I caught the last flight back to the United States from Santiago, Dominican Republic the day before the United States closed its borders. To say I was anxious doesn’t even begin to describe what I was feeling. Never before had I even thought about not being able to get back to the US if I wanted or needed to, but it was now a matter of urgency or I would not be able to return for an unforeseen length of time. The sea is my happy place and where I long to be, but being “stranded” away from my family was something I could not comprehend. 

Once I made it back, the reality of what was happening started to sink in. Being confined inside and unable to see family and friends was inconceivable, but here it was our “new normal.” At first it wasn’t too bad, almost like being on vacation without being able to go anywhere or do anything. Then, with the constant news coverage of the fear and increased reports of deaths every day, I started feeling very uneasy and scared—something I rarely feel. Scared of the virus; scared of my future.

I was very aware of the trickle-down effect of this sudden and complete lockdown. With no one traveling and all non-essential businesses shut down, borders closed and an unemployment rate that was skyrocketing daily, tourism was going to take a huge hit. I kept asking myself, “Will I have a job to go back to?” “If not, will I be able to find a good job in the States?”

Within a couple of weeks the world had changed and I did not know how to deal with it. No one knew how much I was struggling because I didn’t show it. Instead I decided to keep a journal about everything that was happening in my life during this pandemic. Writing gave me an outlet for my thoughts. It allowed me to visually see anything good that happened in a time of sadness and fear. It would be a documented account of this unprecedented season in our world that my children and grandchildren could read in the future, and understand how I coped. 

Not working or having a purpose each day left me feeling very useless and nonproductive, with too much time to think. I decided to try to find temporary work, doing whatever I could to make enough money to pay the my few bills and help with food. While ordering groceries online, which had now become the norm, I realized this was a viable market. In a world where millions of people had lost their jobs, I was able to get temporary work helping others stay safe in their homes by filling those online grocery orders—a multifaceted blessing.

As divers, my mates and I stayed in touch and shared our fears about our future. We knew we would be out of work for a while, some possibly permanently, and the stress of that was something we all handled differently. Many of us decided to use this down time to work on ourselves. I signed up for some online courses and seminars to keep me connected to the diving realm, which I desperately needed. 

I spent a lot of time in my own head, mostly trying to sort out the stress, fear and anxiety of the uncertainty. I knew I had to change this or it would get the best of me, so I made a decision to deliberately direct my thought process and focus on the good, positive and happy aspects in my life, and I am aware I have plenty.

I thought about the amazing journey my life has taken me on and the experiences I have been so blessed to have had. I thought back to the time before diving, when I was so phobicly afraid of sharks that I would not even consider putting my feet in the ocean, and most certainly would not have gotten on a boat. That’s when the three “E’s” entered my world. A decision to take a Discover Scuba course (Exposure) set me on a path that changed my life forever. I became a scuba instructor and spent thousands of hours in the water with sharks (Experience), changing that unrealistic and media-fed fear into true love and respect for these creatures. This inspired a determination to protect them (Education). Focusing on that journey and all the amazing people who guided and supported me helped when the anxiety of not knowing when I will be able to get back to the sea set in. It helped me stay tuned-in to the blessings in my life.

I thought about how lucky I am that most of my family are safe and healthy and able to continue life with the only disruption being social distancing—a small sacrifice. I thought about how fortunate I am to have family and friends who are taking care of me during this uncertain time of waiting. They have given me a safe place to shelter and they support my goal of returning to the life I love. They accepted my occasional emotional meltdowns as I sat with my camera case open, staring at the images, tears streaming down my face, aching for the day I would be back underwater shooting again. My soul may hurt, but I am safe.

What I will forever take from this unexpected change in our world is how precious life and freedom are, and how quickly they can be taken away. I have cherished the time this has given me with my family and I treasure the little things more than ever, holding on to them tightly. The sound of my granddaughter saying my name is etched in the recorder of my heart and I listen to it when I start to feel the stress creeping back in—her precious voice can calm even the strongest storm.

There is beauty in every storm and this pandemic is no different. Some good has come with humans being on lockdown. Wildlife has started to reclaim or revisit places they have been absent from for decades. With the lack of human interference and the damaging footprints we leave behind, nature flourished, the air we breathe is cleaner, and we realize that it is not the material things we miss the most, but instead it is the time with loved ones we long for. This gives hope for a better future, but only if we learn from this situation and make changes to the way we interact with this planet. Mother Earth needs balance to survive and I hope we as a species learn to give back, at the very least, as much as we take. The reality is that we need the planet—”she” does not need us!

I’m looking forward . . .

Resplendent silence

By B Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist

On a high traffic day on Bellefield Landing Road in Kew Settlement, North Caicos, we might see a dozen cars roll by. Dogs lying side-down on the narrow strip of asphalt are barely bothered to move and aside from the breeze and the birds, my landlord’s firm “Yo!” to the drivers is all that’s heard. It’s difficult to conceptualise an inhabited place quieter than North and Middle Caicos.

The COVID-19 quarantine period of 2020 showed us a new—ah, old—side of the Turks & Caicos Islands. The country did indeed wind down. The ferries toting day-trippers ceased. Flocks of rental cars were corralled into inactivity. Daily commuters to the docks vanished. Fume-billowing school buses and dump trucks desisted from their roars and rumbles. The frequency of the “Yo!” declined to barely one a week—usually to Her Majesty’s Royal Police. 

As streets around the world emptied and bustling urban centres fell into an eerie, post-apocalyptic stupor, documentation of peculiar natural events—both factual and fallacious—began appearing on social media. The first I remember seeing was a poorly edited photo of Venice, captioned with a claim that following the dearth of anthropogenic disturbance and pollution, dolphins had reinstated themselves in the waterways, frolicking Flipper-esque along the Canal Grando. A similar meme appeared with equally image-doctored swans swarming over the same aquatic routes, then another appeared with hundreds of photo-replicated pink flamingos.

Eventually the memes began lampooning themselves; one celebrated the return of blue whales flying through the now-clear skies of at least three Eastern European megapolises. Ridiculousness manifested itself into the claims, and I was asked if the slightly more credible claims were true. There being no solid evidence, I told my associates to get-a-hold-of-themselves and brushed off the memes as products of boredom. But then, the deer showed up downtown. 

A friend of mine shared a video made from a police dashcam in an urban neighbourhood of Pittsburgh. A family of deer a dozen strong placidly allowed themselves to be herded along by the squad car’s gentle advance. They moved forward, ignoring a direct route of escape into wooded hillsides and made a sharp left onto the main drag of the town. Looking less like typical deer gripped in fight-or-flight response and more like a blasé meander of window-shopping stags, they occasionally glared at the car with an anthromorphised accusatory scowl. They would not be hurried. As humans no longer had the ability to execute their myriad daily things-to-do, the does and bucks opted to see what it was all about. “Surely there must be something to it if they like doing it so much,” I imagine the deer queried, and “Now that they’re out of the way let’s go see what it’s all about.” Tragically, they will have missed some of the better points of the tour, with things like soft pretzel stands and upmarket confectionary shoppes being shuttered; most likely they’ll have returned to the oak-hickory forests with an apathetic aftertaste for whatever so obsesses the naked apes. 

Meditating on the downtown deer on an afternoon stroll through my garden, I noticed the first gray kingbirds of the season had arrived from their winter in Hispaniola, their sharp trills notably more audible against the silent backdrop. The return of the Antillean nighthawks a day later was revealed by their distinct staccato buzz as they swooped after the season’s first mosquitoes. The scratches of a land crab’s legs on a rock and a curly-tail lizard’s telltale dead-leaf-scattering were clear, but not unusual, sonorities.

But a week later, in the midst of complete lockdown, an evening promenade around the garden led to a startling encounter. There, right on the lawn in the open, was a Key West quail-dove, one of Turks & Caicos Islands’ rarer birds. Inhabiting only the shadowy floor of the tallest dry tropical forest in southwestern North Caicos, these mahogany red pigeons are notoriously shy and retiring. To date none of my colleagues has been able to get a meaningful photograph of the species, and yet there one was, its iridescent green and purple neck glossing the low sunbeams back to me, its distinctive eye stripe concealing its otherwise obvious focus on looking for insects and seeds in the grass.

Key West quail-doves in North Caicos unequivocally object to people and our preposterous noise—their tolerance is so low that I’ve met people who have lived in Kew Settlement their entire lives and have never seen one. But since that day, this bird has made its presence in the yard a habit. Without cars rumbling by and with considerably less noise, it exposed itself from its clandestine life on the dark forest floor each late afternoon. Then it brought a friend. The pair struts about the now all-but-abandoned back road throughout the day. They’re still difficult to photograph, but I’ve at least captured one on my camera that is identifiable.

But I’m not the only one with photographic proof of this natural takeover. In late May, photos and videos appeared on social media of one of my familiar haunts with a nostalgic twist. Twenty years ago, I lived in Bambarra Settlement, before the causeway linked the islands of North and Middle Caicos and before the roads were paved. Day trippers were so rare there was only one occasionally-functional rental car on the island.

Bambarra Beach, with its expansive sandbar jutting half a mile towards Pelican Cay, was only ever peopled by the rare fisherman or rarer winter villa visitor. My peanut-butter-coloured potcake usually accompanied me, and unfortunately that’s why I never got to see the flamingos up close.

Flamingos have tolerance toward humans but no time for canines, and on several occasions, I only arrived in time to see a flock of roseate Caribbean flamingos wheel around the sandbar in post-take-off surveillance swoop before their group’s line undulated over the Casuarina trees back inland toward the protected ponds. Since Bambarra Beach has become such a popular stop on the regular tourist route, the flamingos retired the location from their usual circulation.

But this May some truly impressive flocks of flamingos, hundreds strong, appeared on the sandbar at Bambarra Beach. Taking advantage of the unpeopled beach and low tide smorgasbord, they’ve settled in daily to reclaim their former habitat. A flock 194 strong, including 196 recently-fledged first year birds, was enjoying the sandbar the day I carefully, respectfully (and dog-lessly) visited. While flamingos may not be festooning the Grand Canal in Venice, they certainly are reinforcing their prerogative on one of our most picturesque beaches.

Let me not run from my identity as a cynical curmudgeonly misanthrope—I indeed hope somehow things don’t go back where flamingos would be expunged from Bambarra Beach—yet I recognise and honour the unprecedented difficulty this collapsed-coal-kiln of a year has thrown at so many people. But the fact that wildlife is showing us that they need space that we use, and they only avoid it because we really are nature’s most obnoxious production, should give us a second-guess of how we comport ourselves going forward.

One of my favourite literary works notes that after careful restoration of nature, “Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.” I’ll do what I can to maintain the silence, but I’ll also enjoy its zenith while I can. I’ll go out this evening to greet the not-quite-anatopic Key West quail-dove, and who knows? Perhaps along the empty streets I’ll catch a glimpse of a Lucayan family.

Here or there?

By Jody Rathgeb

Over the years, hurricanes have taught Turks & Caicos Islanders a thing or two about crisis. As someone who divides time between North Caicos and Richmond, Virginia in the U.S., I’ve also learned this: With a hurricane imminent, I’d rather be at my island home than worrying about my friends and property from afar. But the COVID-19 crisis was something new, and as I stayed at home I kept wondering: Would I rather be here or there?

There’s no doubt that my restrictions in the U.S. were lighter than those of the Islands, and even before phased openings, our “rules” were suggestions rather than punishable requirements. Events were canceled and many businesses closed, but we had no curfew and could go outside to exercise at any time of day. We couldn’t visit restaurants, but they were allowed to provide takeout and delivery. Our liquor stores stayed open, I could have wine delivered, and the Internet gave us entertainment, communication and plenty of laughs.

Jody Rathgeb’s mosaic art kept her occupied during the lockdown.

Most importantly for me, I was able to continue my passion for making mosaic art. The galleries/studios building where I work was closed to the public, but those of us with studios were still able to use them. I could get my exercise walking there, then make art while isolated.

Yet my mind kept drifting to North Caicos. In Whitby, I’d be doing mosaics on my front porch in consistent sunshine instead of slogging across a bridge in rain and wind. And, oh, how I missed the ocean! I knew that those on island, forbidden to go to the beach, also missed it, but would at least the sight of it provide compensation?

What a useless question to ask! Here or there wasn’t a choice, so instead of pondering it I put my yearning into mosaic. I designed a large reef scene and brought it to life in glass and glass tile. It took more than a month of steady work, but “Reef Scene” brought here and there together for me.

My COVID-19 onus has been light. I didn’t lose income (I’m retired) and I had a satisfying activity to carry me through. But my heart was often in the Islands, and I followed the lockdown trials of my friends and neighbours daily. I tend to dislike clichés and trendy sayings, but this time one has been true: We’re in this together, here and there. Even and especially across international borders.

Camera to the rescue

Story & Photos By Marta Morton, Harbour Club Villas

We are grateful and luckier than most as our rental villas are tucked away on the south side of Providenciales and already somewhat isolated. Our last guests left early in mid-March, and so we have the whole of Harbour Club Villas to ourselves. This meant a larger area that is not as confined and restricted as some for our self isolation during these horrific and anxiety filled months.

I’ve had some good days, but all too many where panic would escalate as the anxiety threatened to overwhelm me.

For Marta Morton, photographing the wildlife around Harbour Club Villas was a welcome respite.

Thankfully, my camera comes to the rescue. I disappear for a few hours to the pool or marina with my camera in hand to photograph the flowers and birds. There’s nothing better than to just sit and wait for the many birds and lizards to drop by the water bowl.

Our entertainment during the current dry spell and quarantine is to take the hose and spray water on all the foliage and plants. It doesn’t take long for the birds to fly in for a cooling bath, and of course I just snap away.  

I love sitting on the hill overlooking the marina to see the changing moods and colours of the ocean as well as wandering down to the lake out front.

I wonder about tight living quarters confined on a small sailboat in the marina while self isolating, as some are doing now. Ports remained closed so even if you leave, where would you go, and hurricane season is just around the corner.

There’s nothing more calming and soothing than spending hours enjoying these simple pleasures and photographing nature’s wonders.

My “norm” is found in all the beauty that surrounds us, but the “new norm” is yet to be determined as we watch and wait to see how this will impact our lives and the future of our tourism-based livelihood.

No matter what happens and as the saying goes, “Beautiful by Nature TCI” will always hold true.

Quiet without students

Story & Photos By Dr. Heidi Hertler, SFS Center Director

The School for Field Studies is a US-based study abroad program. We operate field research stations around the world and each semester welcome students to study local environmental issues.

The SFS Centre on South Caicos is quiet without students.

On South Caicos, our program focuses on marine resource management. Students come to study the coral reefs and their local and global value. The field is our classroom and we use tools like SCUBA and snorkel and underwater photos and videos to collect data.

In early March of this year, our program started to change quickly! In a matter of days, field trips were canceled and students recalled to home institutions. By March 18, all our students had returned home, and courses moved to an on-line format.

That can be tricky when your program is based on hands-on learning. Eight staff remained on campus to deliver the remaining program. This small group formed a unique household. Although our vehicles and vessels were quiet, we were not. Our team was able to complete 12 academic credits and a new 3 credit course that explored and analyzed some of our larger data sets. On site, we also continue to share sunsets with our students.   

South Caicos became a quiet place to live and work.Inside the center, we shared responsibilities of cooking and cleaning and completing small projects around the property. We discovered new ways to exercise and interact with nature. For me, reconnecting with the environment was spiritual. When students are here, we focus on them and research. From our oceanside perch, we spend hours watching eagle rays swim gracefully, schools of fish jumping and Frigate birds soaring.

As the Turks & Caicos starts to reopen, we are again able to dip our feet into the ocean. We look forward to restarting our research, including a project with the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund to slow the spread of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease.     

What we have learned from this experience is how flexible and resilient we really are. We are grateful for the support from our local and global family. We look forward to our students’ return, but similar to the time after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, this will be a new normal for all of us.  We wish all our students, colleagues, and visitors a safe and healthy summer!

 



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Photographer/videographer Gary James, owner/director of Provo Pictures (provopictures.com), originally shot this image for Wymara Resorts and Villas. It perfectly captures the natural “social distancing” available on the Turks & Caicos Islands’ beautiful—and uncrowded—beaches.

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