After a long summer of marketing my book, arranging my book tour in the fall, publishing five new eBooks, and a million and a half other things, and my Turkish boyfriend Ahmed working long hours six days a week, we decided we could use a little getaway.
We found a reasonably-priced four-day off-season package deal to the Turks & Caicos Islands, south and east of the Bahamas and north of the Dominican Republic. Neither of us had been to the Caribbean or experienced a carefree resort-and-beach vacation, so we decided to go for it. No adventures, we thought, just a few days pure thoughtless laziness on a white sand beach.
Well… Our first indication that things wouldn’t go exactly like we thought came when we arrived at the airport an hour and five minutes before our flight was scheduled to depart. I’m the type who shows up two and a half hours before departure just in case my Subway train derails or something. But since the flight was at 7am, and it takes an hour and a half to get to the airport, I decided to go along with Ahmed’s idea that it’d be totally fine to get there only an hour early.
But when we got there and asked a sales rep where to check in for our flight, she tsked like we were idiot delinquent students and said the ticket office closed an hour before takeoff. No one had bothered to warn us about that when we bought the tickets.
Long story short, after sweating bullets for more than half an hour and trying to get someone to help us, a kind woman finally decided to sympathize with us, and after some intense wrangling, she got us our boarding passes about twenty minutes before take-off.
I ran to the security check line, intending to ask a kind soul to let us cut in front because we were about to miss our plane. Before I could open my mouth, a TSA official started yelling at me. I couldn’t figure out what she was so upset about, but finally I realized I had run straight past the station where they check IDs and boarding passes.
After another TSA agent took her sweet time examining our passports and boarding passes and rolling her eyes and waving us through, a very kind family in their sock feet immediately recognized our desperation and let us go ahead of them through the x-ray and metal detector biz. Thank God for kind people. Our gate was the last one in the last corridor of the gigantic terminal, and we ran to it in a full sprint. My throat and legs were burning by the time we got there.
And guess what? The plane hadn’t even finished boarding yet. They were just then calling for “All passengers, all rows.” There had been absolutely no reason to d*ck us around for forty minutes instead of just printing our boarding passes and letting us go.
But whatever. We took our seats gratefully, and I quoted from Pulp Fiction, which we had just watched: “L’aventure commence.”
The adventure begins.
We landed on Saturday afternoon, August 20, on the island of Providenciales, the most touristy and developed of the Turks & Caicos Islands. (“Turks” because they have an indigenous cactus that looks like it’s wearing a fez hat, “Caicos” after the Spanish word for “cays.”) It’s still not very developed except along the northern stretch of white sugar sand beaches called Grace Bay, and our resort, the Alexandra, was just steps away from the calm, clear turquoise waters.
As we were walking back from our first foray to the idyllic and not-at-all crowded beach (August is the off-season because it’s 90 degrees with a refreshing trade wind breeze instead of 75 degrees), we met our hotel’s concierge, Al, who suggested a “Caicos Dream Tour” the following day. There’d be a boat tour of some small cays (pronounced “keys”), some snorkeling on the barrier reef a few hundred meters off shore, and a conch hunt in some shallow waters, followed by the freshest conch ceviche ever, plus all the rum punch we could drink.
Sounded good to us, so we signed up. The snorkeling was sweet, but not as good as Dahab in the Sinai, and I made the amateur mistake of using mere sunscreen instead of wearing a shirt while I snorkeled. My back got scorched. (In a few days I looked like Neopolitan ice cream, all brown and pink and white.) Then we explored a tiny uninhabited island ruled by foot-long iguanas, and we walked from one side to the other and all the way around it from the Atlantic side to the Caribbean side and back again.
Best of all was hunting for fresh conch (pronounced “konk”) in warm waters with a sandy bottom about five feet deep. The smaller ones were easy to spot, but we were only allowed to take larger ones. The larger ones were usually covered in sea plants, which camouflaged them, and surprisingly heavy, like stones. We swam around and gathered about twenty, then motored to a beach where our guides prepared them, first knocking and slicing them out of their shells, cutting off and throwing away the guts, then dicing them up and mixing them with tomatoes, peppers, lemon, and oil. Delicious.
Back at the hotel the next morning, I found Al and asked about other activities I was thinking about — scuba diving, parasailing, getting a massage, touring other nearby islands, etc.
He said matter-of-factly, “Well, the hurricane will be here tomorrow, so…”
Hold the phone. “Uh, wait, sorry, did you say hurricane?”
I’m no devotee of the weather channel, and I was in full-on thoughtless lazy vacation mode. It hadn’t occurred to me to pro-actively check to make sure no hurricanes happened to be coming in the four short days we would be there. What are the odds, right?
“Yeah, the hurricane will be here tomorrow, so today everyone’s taking off work to prepare their houses. The party tonight at the hotel is canceled, and there’s too much wind to parasail, and our masseuses have left already.” Seeing my expression, he quickly added, “Don’t worry, the hurricane will probably go over the Dominican Republic before it gets here, so it will only be category one or so.”
“But everyone’s taking the day off to prepare?”
“Sure. You can’t be too careful.”
So everything was shut down today, the hurricane was coming on Tuesday, and Wednesday we were leaving. Some four-day vacation.
But oh well, Ahmed and I had plenty of books, and each other, and the novel experience of watching a hurricane go by. How bad could it be?
The hurricane was actually quite cool. As predicted, it was only a category one, but let’s just say that after seeing a category one, I have little interest in seeing a category two or above. Sustained 95 mph winds are something to see (and hear) for hours and hours and hours. When it was just getting started, we went to the beach, but we didn’t last long because the sand stung us like millions of tiny bullets in the fierce winds.
We stayed in our hotel room for the rest of the evening and night as the wind howled and the palm trees thrashed like sea anemones helplessly flailing in a strong sea current. Impressively, not a single palm tree, and only a few branches, went down — natural selection built them well. But two non-native-looking trees were knocked over.
We lost power for a while, and internet for a much longer while, but we still had phone connection as we frantically called Jet Blue to see if our flight was cancelled on Wednesday (it was — in fact, the whole airport was shut down) and if so, when we could get a new flight. It was nearly impossible to get in touch with them. By the time we finally did, the next flight they had available was on Sunday — four days later, doubling our vacation.
Having no choice, we took it, and booked another four days at our resort. At least we’d have time to do some of the things we’d wanted to do on our first four days, and we did some of them and had a great time.
But every time we came back to our room, we flipped between CNN and the weather channel to see what the hell was going on with Hurricane Irene. Soon it was clear the hurricane would be in New York on Sunday and most likely cancel that flight as well. Since everyone was trying to get in touch with them at once, we had little chance to get through in a timely fashion. By the time Ahmed went to the airport physically to try to get us a new flight, the only flight we could get was on the next Friday! So now our four-day vacation would be thirteen days…
I also had a flight to Jordan that had long since taken off, and I’d changed it once, incurring a hefty fee, and now I had to change it again, plus the difference in ticket price.
Then, by the grace of Ramadan, Ahmed called Jet Blue again on Monday and must have called just as another couple canceled their Tuesday flight. We snapped it up. So now our thirteen-day vacation was only a ten-day vacation. And we had one more day to enjoy it.
After an afternoon of sitting under umbrellas on the beach reading novels, Ahmed suggested we take the resort’s two kayaks out to the reef waaaaay off shore. The waters were clear, warm, and calm, and I’m a good swimmer, so I thought nothing of it.
It was an effort to paddle all the way out there, where the sandy bottom gives way to shallow, rocky reefs that break up the waves before they get anywhere near the shore. (The little wavelets on the sugar sand beach are barely enough to challenge a three-year-old.) But it was a good way to work up an appetite for the free cocktail party the resort puts on Monday evenings.
As we turned around to paddle home, I noticed a little headwind blowing offshore. It wasn’t too strong, but it would make it a slightly bigger challenge to paddle back to shore. No worries. We decided to race to make it more interesting. After ten minutes of hard paddling, I suggested we take a breather and just enjoy bobbing around under the soft white clouds for a few minutes.
“How deep is it here?” Ahmed asked idly.
“I’ll find out,” I said, and slipped over the side of my kayak and plunged feet-first toward the bottom.
“Only about fifteen feet,” I said in surprise as I surfaced and threw my goggles into my boat. That was my first mistake.
My second mistake was capsizing my little craft as I was trying to get back in. There’s an art to keeping a dynamic balance while boarding a small boat in softly rolling seas, and I should have practiced in shallower waters instead of assuming I’d be able to do it so far off shore. All my things — my shirt, my hat, my goggles, my paddle, my mojito — dumped out, and I grabbed what I could — my hat, shirt, and paddle.
I really liked my goggles, though, and didn’t want to lose them. I handed my upside-down kayak to Ahmed and asked for his goggles so I could search for mine. That was my third mistake.
After literally 90 seconds of searching, I looked around to see where Ahmed was, and to my horror, I saw that the headwinds had picked up and were blowing Ahmed’s and my kayak out to sea like leaves on the surface of a lake. They were already 50 yards away from me. There was no way I could reach them before they were back over the jagged reefs, and possibly even past them into the deep blue Atlantic Ocean. And Ahmed couldn’t paddle toward me without letting go of the other kayak, and we had no rope to lash the kayaks together.
So he did the only safe and sensible thing he could do: He let the other kayak go and paddled toward me. By the time he got to me, the other kayak was 100 yards away and beyond recovery. We paddled back to shore together, without my goggles and without the other kayak, struggling all the while against the offshore wind. It felt like it took hours, though it probably only took about 45 minutes.
The sun was about to set by now, and the resort groundskeeper was waiting for us on the beach, arms crossed.
“You come back with only one kayak,” he said once we were in earshot. “You take two kayak, you bring back only one kayak.”
“Yes, we know,” I said. “We lost the other one.”
“You take two kayak, you bring back only one,” he insisted.
“Yes, we know. The other one was lost.”
“This only one,” he said. “You take out two kayak, you bring back only one kayak.”
This went on for a while. I assume he didn’t speak English very well and wanted to make sure we understood that this was our fault, and that it wouldn’t end up coming out of his paycheck. We assured him he could take us directly to the front desk, where we would take full responsibility for the loss.
The next morning there was a bill for $620 on our tab for a new kayak, in addition to the six extra days of lodging and incidentals. We could only shake our heads. From a humble budget long-weekend package deal, this had turned into something else entirely.
The good news is, we did have a great time, and we came back refreshed and rejuvenated and with a new outlook on life. I feel entirely different than I did two weeks ago. And I have now officially been to the Caribbean after a lifetime of wanting to see those crystal-clear waters and Corona-commercial-grade white sand beaches for myself. Ahmed remained wonderfully calm through what could have been bucketloads of stress, and we really enjoyed each other and our time.
I’m really excited about the book tour as well, and even though I’m having to pay for a huge number of books up front to send to bookstores, campuses, and events around the country, and my travel, I shouldn’t have too many problems piecing it together.
But there’d be a whole lot more breathing space if I wasn’t sending Rania $300 per month to help her family get through some very tough times with less and less help. The donations have tapered off to one or two every couple of months, and by now I’m $1500 in the hole, not counting the $400 I put in initially and the $12 per month I pay in Western Union fees.
I know how many emails and requests and appeals everyone gets all the time, and I hate to add to the burden. But if a few dozen people could pledge just one month’s worth of Western Union fees — $12 — it would go an enormously long way.
If you’re uncomfortable giving straight-up charity to a family in immediate need (rather than something more long-term or sustainable), think of it as a Kickstarter campaign to help fund my book tour (which is part of a long-term project to change American public opinion on Palestine and our policies in the Middle East in general).
Like a Kickstarter campaign, I’ll offer incentives to people who donate. Anyone who gives $6 or more will get a free copy of my new eBook, Siberian Travels: An Oklahoma Girl’s Journey from Moscow to the Sea of Japan, an account of my Trans-Siberian adventure in December 2000:
Anyone who donates $12 or more will also get a copy of Camp Golden Shaft, a series of letters and stories about my summer teaching at a ridiculous and often hilarious Russian summer camp and then backpacking from Cairo to Istanbul. (These events take place during the time covered in Chapter 1 of Fast Times in Palestine, but they were either summarized or passed over completely in my haste to get to the point.)
If you donate $24 or more, you’ll also get Tribute for Ronan, a true story that spans three years and three continents and explains how I ended up on the front page of an Irish tabloid at age 24:
I can send these in any format you like — Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Kobo, PC, etc. My Paypal address is email@example.com
Thank you so much.
It’s shaping up to be an exciting September, not least because of the UN vote on Palestinian statehood coming up in a couple of weeks. The debate is fierce on whether it’s a good thing or not. Either way, I expect it to be looked back upon as a major turning point. Inshallah khair (hopefully for the better).