A year ago, the people who run the Tourism Board in Turks and Caicos had a good idea. On a Thursday evening, they invited local restaurants to set up booths in the parking area of an oceanside park on Providenciales, the most populous of the country's 40 or so islands. (The park has a sign at the entrance that says its name is Bight Park, but seems to be known locally only as Kids' Park.) They invited a local band to play. They invited tourists and locals to come. The event was called the Island Fish Fry, and it was such a success that it immediately became a weekly fixture.
Last night's fish fry marked the first anniversary, and, as such, featured a few too many speeches given when people could have been dancing. But you'd have to be churlish to complain about the Island Fish Fry. It's a sweet, mellow event.
I like to get there early, before the sun sets. Not only is there beautiful, golden light to use for photography. It's imperative to get there early if you want a spot at one of the picnic tables. Later arrivals have to eat on their feet. It's nice to grab a couple of Presidentes from one of the smiling Dominican ladies at the first booth on the right, make a few pictures, and watch the crowds file in. You smell the aroma of fish being grilled and fried as it wafts over the park, carried by the gentle westerly breeze. Or, maybe there's someone circulating with a tray full of little rum punch samples, and you try one of those.
When it's time to eat, you could go to one of the booths offering jerk chicken or pork, but there's a reason they call it a fish fry. The three seafood staples on Turks and Caicos are grouper, lobster and conch. The lobster and the conch are creatures of the many reefs around the islands. When you go snorkeling, you can see them. (Conch, for those who are uninitiated, is a big sea snail. It builds itself a beautiful spired shell, which the locals break open with a little hammer. Then they use a knife to slice the snail out of its home. Brutal, yes. But then they make conch fritters, or conch ceviche, either of which will justify the process for any but the staunchest vegans.) So you get your fish of choice, maybe garnishing it with a little rice and peas, another local staple.
All this time, the band is warming up. It's a local band, of course, which means that it features a guy playing the rip saw. By the time the amplified sounds of the guitars and the drums are accounted for, I really couldn't say what the rip saw adds to the band's sound. But it looks cool. And as it gets dark, the band starts to play in earnest.
The first dancers are generally little kids. Turks and Caicos is a very kid-friendly place, particularly in January. This is partly because most of the island's accommodations are condo units; they have kitchens and extra bedrooms, so they're good for families. At this time of the year, a major sub-set of the island's visitors are couples with kids who are young enough that they don't need to be in school. And then there are the local kids. Sometimes the children hold hands and dance in circles that form and unform. A lot of times, the kids just respond to the music by themselves, twirling and swaying. Then, perhaps as the rum punch kicks in, the adults start to dance, too.
I have heard that there's an island dance style that involves simulated marching, accented by a loose twitching of the tucchus. But if that's the case, I can't say I have seen it. Most of the adult dancers at the Island Fish Fry just let the sounds and the smells and the breeze flow over them, swaying, their flip-flops making little circles in the sand.
I have the feeling that the Island Fish Fry is a little fragile, just like the reefs that support the conch and the lobster. At this moment, it seems like just the right sort of event for an island that still has a lot of empty land and unpaved roads. But how long that will last is hard to say.
Providenciales was only sparsely inhabited until 1985, when someone built a water desalinization plant and Club Med opened a hotel on the broad beach of Grace Bay. It's a lot bigger now. There's an international airport and several dozen hotel and condo developments line Grace Bay. But either economic forces or the powers that be on the island have not let development run amok. There are no chain hotels and no chain restaurants on Providenciales--no Hilton, no McDonald's, no Walgreen's. There isn't a cruise ship dock, and there are no buses. The tallest buildings on the island may be eight stories. So it's not Cancun. But I think it would be foolish to think it can resist Cancunization forever.
And if Cancunization comes, that will probably be the end of the conch and the lobster, if not the grouper. It will probably be the end of the Island Fish Fry. The event seems a perfect match with the island at this stage of its development. You have to have a certain number of tourists to make it work. But I don't think tourists in buses and free rum punch samples could long coexist. So I'm glad I was there to see the first anniversary last night.