Arts & Entertainment, etc. and International Travel and Recession and Miscellaneous and Economy and Tourism & Hospitality and Notions

All of us Belongers, building castles in the sand

February 23, 2009

A year ago this week, my wife Cheri­ and I celebrated our first anniversary with the honeymoon we were too busy to take after our wedding. We told some friends we wanted a place that was warm, romantic and unpretentious. We wanted to wear shorts and T-shirts, not cruise-ship chic.

They recommended Turks and Caicos, a small group of islands in the British West Indies at the southeast end of the Bahamas.

We searched the Internet, found a one-bedroom cottage for rent, and made ourselves a Valentine's-week home at the tip of Grace Bay on the island of Providenciales—affectionately known as Provo.

By day, we walked the white-sand beach, read books in the hammock by the ocean and soaked up whatever rays could work their way through our mega-SPF sunscreen.

By night, we cooked meals on the grill, ordered carry out or sampled the local bistros (refreshingly, there's not a single chain restaurant on the island).

There was only one problem: By the time we came down from the tension of the always-stressful prepare-for-vacation week, we were suffering from the anticipatory anxiety of our impending return to reality.

So as soon as we got back to Hoosierland last February, we emailed our Turks and Caicos landlords and reserved the same cozy cottage for our second anniversary—this time for two weeks.

Thus, I write to you from our back porch on Provo, overlooking the aquamarine waters of Grace Bay, Cheri­ in a lounge chair a few feet away, engrossed in a paperback novel.

For the past 10 days, we've walked for miles along the beach, read lots of books, gone snorkeling, watched the geckos race around the deck and dined out in our little gazebo under the stars.

There's been enough time to relax, to recreate, to rejuvenate.

There's only one problem: Had we known when we booked this place what we know now about the sagging economy, our dwindling 401(k) plans and my self-imposed pay cut, we likely wouldn't be here, and we likely wouldn't dream of returning for our third anniversary.

And therein lies the self-defeating ripple effect of this global recession.

From our beach-side walks, we can see the decline from just a year ago—fewer families at play, fewer retirees strolling arm and arm, fewer young couples slathering one another with sunscreen.

Each day, we pass a high-rise resort development halted in mid-construction, its rusting rebar jutting up from unfinished concrete pillars. Along the beach and side roads, there are many "for rent" and "for sale" signs.

All that, of course, manifests itself most among the "Belongers"—the apt term for the native people whose lives depend so much on tourism. Driving around Provo in our aging Nissan Sunny rental car, we've been struck by the contrast between upscale visitor villas and the veritable shacks that serve as homes for many Belongers.

If we and our ilk don't visit, spend our tourism dollars or even retire here, will conditions grow worse? Most certainly. In fact, the local paper last weekend suggested that the new recessionary economy, with its far lower levels of tourism, may not be a cyclical aberration. It may be the new Caribbean reality.

And so, I walk along the beach wondering, hand in hand with the woman I love. The waves crash against the melted-butter sand. The trade wind roars in ours ears. And in the gaps of conversation, I contemplate.

We pass a young woman Belonger. She wears a light blue blouse, a dark blue skirt and a floppy straw hat. She's picture-perfect against the turquoise water. Will she have a shot at college, as my sons do? Would she ever leave here, or want to? Does she live in one of the shacks? Survive on tips from a local restaurant? Support kids of her own?

We pass young lovers, frolicking in the waves. I imagine they were just married—perhaps on Valentine's Day, as we were. I wonder if their generation will do as well as ours, or whether we've too heavily mortgaged their future. I wonder if they'll still be in love at 40-something and 50-something as we are?

We pass an old couple, still in great shape near 80, walking hand-in-hand, laughing. I wonder if we'll still be here at that age. Still healthy. Still smiling. Still in love. Still able to afford this kind of life. God, I hope so.

And mostly, we pass sand castles in various stages of construction and demise. Often, they're family affairs—dads and moms pitching in to help. The castles are simple or elaborate. Made by hands or with special buckets. Sometimes with moats, or tunnels or turrets.

And always, the tide turns, and the waves rush in, and the towers tumble into buttery sand for another family's castle on another day in paradise.
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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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