Rhapsody of Blues

Like Rick in Casablanca, I kept telling people I had come to the Turks and Caicos Islands for the waters. The turquoise waters, to be exact. Unlike Rick, however, I was not misinformed, because the waters of the shallow sea that surround these 40 or so islands are, indeed, turquoise. And for divers, at least, I have come to suspect that those waters even have miraculous qualities.

Take, for example, Archie Morley, a retired conch fisherman on Providenciales (Provo for short). Archie is 77, but his teeth are perfect, and his smiles still pop like flashbulbs as he talks about diving for conch, then sailing his catch 125 miles south to Haiti. One time his boat sank 15 miles offshore, so he simply swam all night.

"I could dive 60 feet with just mask and fins, yes," he said. As usual, Archie is barefoot ("my feet are afraid of shoes"), and he looks as if he could still free dive to 60 feet.

In anticipation of coming to these islands, I'd taken scuba lessons. But I hadn't really adjusted easily to the claustrophobic feeling of being tethered to a tank. And my certifying dive in a murky Pennsylvania quarry had resulted in a mask squeeze that had done little for my confidence. So I arrived with blood- red eyes and wavering intentions, and was trying to decide whether I really wanted to go diving, turquoise waters or not, even before I heard about the barracuda.

"A barracuda attacked a woman diver this morning..." Well, that was the word at lunchtime in the bar of the Oceanview Hotel on Grand Turk island. But the dive master in the tangerine shirt knew better. He had been there; the woman was his client, here from Germany for a week of diving, and the barracuda was named George. The island dive masters fed George so he would hang around for divers. The German woman had grabbed the bait fish and mistakenly held it by its middle instead of its tail. George's lack of manners had resulted in cuts on her hand worth 11 stitches. The dive master knew the story would grow wildly, that by nightfall George would be Jaws reincarnated. Resigned to that fact, he ordered another beer.

Still, even knowing the true story about George's dining habits didn't exactly whet my own appetite for underwater adventure. I listened to the ceiling fans paddle the air, then headed out into the noonday sun of Cockburn Town.

I drove down a narrow, shady lane enclosed by white stone walls and trees blooming with orange flowers. The luxuriant foliage sheltered white, steep-roofed cottages with shuttered windows and shaded doorways. If the scene seemed reminiscent of Bermuda, it was no coincidence, because it was Bermudians who first colonized this bean-shaped island in the 1600s. They were after the salt that lay as deep as two feet in the salt ponds, and they carried it in their swift sloops to the cod fishery of Grand Bank and beyond.

The lane emerged on Front Street. One side was lined with pastel buildings, some of them old salt warehouses. The other side was a white beach that curved toward the horizon. Along the shore derelict salt piers jutted out toward the reef, a quarter mile distant, across the turquoise water.

A plaque downtown proclaims that here at the edge of the Caribbean, nearly 600 miles southeast of Miami, Columbus made his first landfall in 1492. However it is more likely that these islands were discovered in 1512 by Ponce de Le¿n, who also came for the waters, although he was destined to be disappointed: The waters he had in mind were the Fountain of Youth.

Early explorers found these islands had other shortcomings, too. Lying to windward of the main sailing routes, the islands had no decent anchorages, possessed no gold, and even lacked ample rain for the growing of sugar.Nothing but salt, and that resource helped change the face of the landscape: Trees were cut down by the Bermudian salt rakers, who shaped the salt ponds and gave Grand Turk its barren look.

Even now, on the inland side of town, a latticework of sparkling salt ponds, separated by stone walls, runs the length of the downtown. On my way to the Turks and Caicos National Museum, I noticed two donkeys under some casuarina trees next to the pink Victoria Public Library. Donkeys had once carried the salt in 25-pound burlap bags from the ponds to the warehouses and docks, and it seemed to me that, on this island at least, the donkeys had earned their rest.

On the shaded veranda of the museum, waiting for Brian Riggs to finish piecing together an old vase, I gazed out at the Turks Island Passage that divides this British Dependent Territory, separating the Turks group from the larger and more populated Caicos group to the west. Manager of the museum, Riggs had once been a self-described "hippie silversmith" in Illinois who followed his passion for archaeology to pre-Columbian caves on Middle Caicos, where he slept in a tent "with the biggest mosquitoes in the West Indies." In the winter he would go home to the Midwest and dream about mosquitoes, but he would also remember the beaches and the diving.

So, Riggs moved to Grand Turk permanently in 1981 and founded the museum nearly ten years later. He lives next door in an old Bermuda-style cottage when he's not riding around the island on his rusting motorcycle.

I'd come to see Riggs because I had been told that he knew everything there was to know about the Turks and Caicos, and after he'd given me a brief history lesson on the islands, I asked him if he still dived these waters.

"We have dive sites ten minutes from town that look the way they did a hundred years ago," he said. "There's a wall that's among the best in the world. We dive shallow, and we dive long. It's lovely." He smiled beatifically, then disappeared to greet a class of beaming schoolchildren.

Looking out once again at the water, I thought back to some of my earlier excursions on this trip.

On Provo (the most developed of the island chain), the semi-arid climate seemed to sprout strip developments and unfinished buildings abandoned during the last recession. Provo's charm lay in its hills and ridges. Carpeted with scrub trees, bush, and prickly pear cacti, the hills unrolled to the edge of the sea. From those hills I could see beyond the reefs, where the turquoise sea changed abruptly to the cobalt blue of old medicine bottles.

At Grace Bay, a gorgeous beach that draped along the north coast for 12 miles, I walked the beach under a crescent moon and felt the trade winds hum in my face. From down the strand I could hear a talky disk jockey at the Club Med. The lights of a hotel illuminated the night sky, as well as the surrounding acre of now empty deck chairs and imported palms. I remembered what a local developer had told me earlier in the day, noting that Provo has the only golf course in the islands. "People here are not looking for glitz," he said. "They come to escape the stress of success. That's our motto."

I hired a boat to go from Provo to North Caicos and sat back, watching the water rush by. It was exquisite, too inviting, and so off Pine Cay, an islet with a two-mile-long beach, I stopped to do some snorkeling. I was in the water for all of two minutes when a shark spotted me and swam straight at me. It came within ten feet before it shook its head, made a glorious right turn, and disappeared. Not exactly a confidence booster.

So, when I reached North Caicos I stayed on land.

I launched my exploration of the island by scooter, dodging dark butterflies as big as bats as I bounced over a long rocky, overgrown pathway between two white stone walls.

I was heading toward the ruins of Wade's Green, a plantation granted to a British loyalist by King George III at the end of the 18th century. It was hot, and I kept thinking about English colonists in their waistcoats, periwigs, hats. I periodically checked the sea grape leaf under my hat. My landlady had picked it for me to wear, velvet side down, as further protection from the sun. I hoped it was working.

Slaves had built these walls, bearded now by fervent bush. With more rainfall than the other islands, North Caicos had been the center of efforts to start a plantation economy. Stubbs and others had struggled to grow sea island cotton and sisal, but hurricanes, drought, and pernicious bugs did them in. After 25 years they abandoned their slaves and left.

When I came across Farmer John near Kew, one of the island's four villages, he was kneeling in a field, sawing a plastic pipe. It was early afternoon. His shirtless body glistened, and his turquoise eyes had a glint all their own. He refused to reveal much about himself, except to say he had come from Canada, and the islanders had nicknamed him Farmer.

In his view, the economic woes of North Caicos, as well as the other neighboring islands, began with the fact that the islanders had to import food. He planned to change that. Okra and canteloupe grew in his one cleared field, fertilized with seaweed he had raked from the shore. Tomorrow, he said, he would begin erecting a windmill to power his irrigation. His half-finished house had no electricity, no plumbing.

His wife had gone to her parents for a month so, late in the afternoon, he invited me along on his pub run. The bar was a Kew cottage called The Shoal. Though it was Sunday and, strictly speaking, the bars weren't serving, its customers included a legislator, a taxi driver, a songwriter, a bush doctor, a Provo chef, and the best hand-line fisherman on the island.

Farmer John bought a beer. Green turtle and fish silhouettes swam along the walls.

"We might be drinking," the legislator told me, "but we are conscious of our religion." North Caicos, the others agreed, was the "post and pillar" of the country. They cited several national leaders born here, as if the island's 1,275 residents grew statesmen along with melons, bananas, papayas, and cassavas.

The next morning, I joined Tiger in search of crabs. Tiger was a half-husky that belonged to my landlady, JoAnne, a Michigan expatriate who had come here with the Peace Corps and simply stayed. Her bed-and-breakfast was just off Whitby Beach, which was Tiger's stomping grounds. From the way he attacked every crab hole, you would think that Tiger was the island's champion crab hunter. He would thrust his nose down, pause to get the scent, then dig furiously until sand covered his nose and eyes. But he never caught a crab.

I soon turned my attention to the conch shells that littered sections of the beach. They'd all been "knocked" and the conch meat removed. I began to search for one or two to take home, but every time I would find one with gleaming pink lips and hide it to pick up on my return, I'd find another even more perfect specimen. There were also sea fans and coral, and after an hour a veritable trail of treasure stretched behind me.

Suddenly it occurred to me I didn't need to hide any of it. I hadn't seen anyone else, not even a boat or a plane. I felt like Robinson Crusoe. When Tiger signaled he was ready to head home, I selected one pluperfect shell and left the rest for the sea.

"Carnel, you can't pull a boat on dry land! all I learned you, you don't keep nothing." The sharp rebuke came from Julius Jennings to his eight-year-old grandson, who was pulling our wooden dinghy through shallow water off South Caicos with one hand while, with the other, he kept hitching up his shorts. We were searching for bonefish on Caicos Bank outside Cockburn Harbour, and Julius had cut the motor. Now he started poling the boat, which kept scraping along the bottom.

For a while I sat like Cleopatra being barged down the Nile, but when it became obvious this wasn't a short interlude, I jumped out and helped Carnel. The ankle-deep water was the color of funky, white-and-green-striped toothpaste. It was midafternoon, and we were alone on a vast savanna of glare.

"Low tide not good for bonefish," Julius had told me that morning at the hotel. He suggested barracuda instead, but I had set my sights on bonefish and Julius finally consented. Now, without sunglasses or hat, he stared at the water, looking from side to side for bonefish. A sand shark wiggled by.

Two hours passed. Julius still searched the water, prepared to hunt all night if need be. Carnel sat in the boat with his head on his knees. His dark brush flattop showed flecks of amber. We had yet to cast a line, and my arm and legs were aching. Julius reluctantly agreed to call it a day.

On the way back we were speeding along on the incoming tide toward Cockburn Harbour when the motor stopped. Julius removed the housing to wind the starter rope and pulled. The motor sprang back to life. He replaced the housing, and the motor died. He went through this routine several times, the engine dying every time he replaced the housing. The water was too deep to pole and there were no paddles or oars. Finally he left the housing off and with the throttle wide open, hydroplaned us back to the dock. I paid him generously and walked around the harbor, relishing the nonliquid terrain.

Now, on Grand Turk, I was waiting until the last possible minute to make my decision about diving. I listened to a balding school administrator on vacation from Texas talk about diving 210 feet to a ferryboat wreck in the Philippines. He also said he liked to stroke moray eels. "Under the head or on top," in case I wanted to try. He added, "If the eel is jittery or tense, you don't do it again."

At dinner at the Oceanview, a school principal from California, with more than 100 dives to her credit, made diving sound like a garden tour: "This morning, I saw queen angels, with bright yellow wing fins, and blue tangs, and stingrays. And this beautiful lobster; he was doing one of these..." She arched her hand and walked her thumb and fingers along the table.

Finally I made up my mind. I wanted to dive.

I flipped backward into the sea and guided myself down the anchor line. The dive master shadowed me, making no perceptible motions, his muscular arms crossed over his chest. Fish of all colors floated by, candy pieces in an exotic landscape. I could see 150 feet, maybe 200.

We moved deeper down the sandy slope, and then suddenly there was nothing beyond except bands of different colored water - blue, bluer, blue turning to darkness and mystery, the limitless blue of unfathomable nothingness. Below me a sheer wall plunged 7,000 feet. Looking down, I couldn't see anything turquoise, nothing that looked comforting. I was starting up when a long, silver shape suddenly caught my eye. It was George. But either he was well-fed or bored with divers for the moment, because he went his own way. And I went mine, content, slowly drifting up again through that magical turquoise water.