stranger in paradise

As I entered the lobby of Pine Cay’s Meridian Club, I noticed a cartoon pinned to the wall. It showed a rather bedraggled-looking couple seated…

As I entered the lobby of Pine Cay’s Meridian Club, I noticed a cartoon pinned to the wall. It showed a rather bedraggled-looking couple seated in the office of a travel agent. The caption read: Anywhere out of cellphone range.

An 340-hectare chunk of oolitic limestone in the Caribbean’s Turks and Caicos Island, Pine Cay is itself a cell-free zone. I got the distinct impression that anyone caught here with a cellphone would be, if not summarily deported, at least given a stern reprimand.  For if islands are by definition insular, this one prides itself on being more insular than most. Consider the Cay’s only pay phone. Strategically located in a mosquito-infested copse, it makes you think twice about contacting the outside world.

No one who fetches up here would want it otherwise. For on Pine Cay you pay for what you don’t get. And you don’t get the bam-bam of CNN, crowds, shopping arcades, nightlife, Jet Skis, swimming with dolphins, and faux primitive eateries called The Gecko Grille. What you do get is a lot of nothing.…

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. I should begin with my 10-minute flight from Provodenciales, where I was outnumbered by the pilots, two to one. Or I should mention that, before the trip, I’d gone out and bought an entire wardrobe of upscale leisure garb, including shirts with alligators and penguins emblazoned on them. (Shackleton, I’m convinced, spent less time outfitting his Antarctic expeditions than I did outfitting this one.) Thus clad, I hoped to avoid looking like the impecunious scribe that I am.

I needn’t have bothered. Shortly after my arrival, another guest frowned at me and uttered this criticism: “You’re not barefoot.”

From then on, I not only remained unshod, I also dispensed with the alligators and penguins.

On my first day, I set out to explore the island. There wasn’t much to explore. Pine Cay seemed to consist mostly of sand, scrub, and exposed limestone, with the occasional Caribbean pine and hibiscus thrown in for good measure. At 10 metres, the highest point gave me a commanding view of a patch of dense scrub. I decided that the Cay’s most interesting feature was its so-called Porcelain Garden — a group of old toilet fixtures arranged in a circle at the end of the airstrip.

Over dinner, I met a couple from New York City who’d already been here for a week. How had they been occupying themselves? I wondered. Certainly not in looking at the scenery.…

“I don’t remember,” smiled the wife.

“Me, I’m practising an advanced form of idleness,” the husband remarked.

And as one day blurred into the next, I, too, emancipated myself from the constraints of temporal reality. The hours would dawdle heedlessly by, and I wouldn’t have the slightest recollection of what I’d done.

I’d sit on the beach and read, or for variety’s sake sit on the beach and not read. One evening I spent a satisfying hour — or was it just a few minutes? — watching a night heron unsuccessfully try to fish the Meridian Club’s swimming pool.

One day I found myself strolling down the beach. On most beaches I know, you can’t see the shimmering sand for bodies so anointed with sunscreen that they’re shimmering themselves. This beach, however, was different — a five-kilometre expanse of sand empty, gloriously empty of people. If I had in fact seen another person, I think I would have felt bruised.

So there I was, wandering about in desultory fashion when all of a sudden I saw a footprint. Then another. And then another. I felt no less surprised than Robinson Crusoe when, on a supposedly uninhabited South Pacific island, he encountered Friday’s footprint in the sand. I also felt a sense of outrage. For I had come to think of this beach as my personal property, my own private Nirvana, and I couldn’t remember giving anyone permission to use it.

Now I began following the intruder’s footprints. They seemed to be moving in a peculiarly aimless way, as if the person in question was either drunk or stupefied — perhaps some sort of beachcomber down on his luck, I thought. Funny, though, that the prints seemed to bear a close resemblance to my own. Then it dawned on me: they were my own.

I wasn’t stupefied so much as, well, stupefied.

The Meridian Club is Pine Cay’s only facility, and thus the island’s centre of inactivity. Each evening we guests would gather at the bar for libations and discuss the non-events of the day. Once, when a woman admitted to having gone to Provodenciales to visit a friend, it took me a while to process the information; for I’d completely forgotten that there were other places on the planet besides Pine Cay.

Occasionally, one of the Cay’s 20 or so homeowners would show up at the bar. I asked one of them, a retired architect from my native Boston, what changes he’d seen in the 20 years he’d been wintering here.

“Some people brought in a television last year,” he told me. “Surreptitiously, of course.”

I thought: Any place where TVs are more or less prohibited is a place of rare virtue. And then I went to sleep. Or maybe I just watched the night heron try to find fish in the swimming pool.

Travel writer and adventurer Lawrence Millman lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and makes increasingly frequent trips to the Yukon.

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