Sunday, November 25, 2007

Conch Festival

Yesterday we went to the 4th Annual Turks and Caicos Conch Festival in Blue Hills here on Providenciales. The Conch Festival is becoming one of the major events of the year here. We missed it the first year we were here.  We had just moved down to the islands in September of 2005, and the Conch Festivals are traditionally in November.  We just didn't quite have it together those first few months so we missed out on the '05 festival entirely. but caught it last year and had a great time.   We made some new friends at the '06 festival, and we could see a lot of changes in the year since 2006. We got there earlier this year, and many people were still setting up. The DJ's were setting up the sound system right next to the beach:

and once they got everything hooked up, between the recorded music and live bands we had plenty of decibels for everyone. I know this is going to surprise a few people, but there was a fair amount of reggae music played.   Bob Marley lives on in the hearts of many.

Last year we waited until late afternoon to head over to the festival.  We had a bad case of procrastination, but finally decided to check it out.  We had a hard time parking anywhere near the Blue Hills festival site.  So we knew it was likely to become a mob scene later in the day this year.   We must have made a decision to go earlier, and being there before the mob thickened  let us spend some time talking to the conch cooking contestants in a relaxed atmosphere.   It got much less relaxed as the afternoon progressed.  We got to try all the conch dishes before the place got jammed.  Fresh off the stove.  Or out of the pot, or steamer, or crock pot, as the case may be.  It also was a clever ruse on our part, for our $ 15 conch tasting fee we got both lunch AND dinner. We also ate enough conch to knock down any serious craving for more. For a few days, at least. Of course La Gringa immediately made friends with the bartenders.   She's good at getting people to pose for her.   I'm terrible at it.  Here are the bartenders while they were setting up the bar, before things got busy:

I don't drink, but they let me hold the tickets.    Made me feel like I was participating, in a way.

Looking at those toes, it occurs to me that running around this place barefooted all the time isn't doing my nails much good.  I seem to be kicking a lot of rocks and boat cleats.

I knew that if we were going to get any good people photos it was going to have to be Polly taking them.  She's definitely the "people person" of the two of us.    I'm  the mechanical person.  Good at still life photos and macros of little bitty bits of shiny gears and such.  I get bashful and standoffish around other humans.  She, on the other hand,  has no trouble going up to perfect strangers and getting them to smile and pose. There were a dozen or more local restaurants competing with various recipes for conch dishes. It also helped that we were early in getting these photos. A few hours later and there would have been twenty people between her and the bar. That photo would not have been possible.

There were piles of live conch on the beach ready for the conch cleaning contest and as fresh meat for the cooks.  Conch can live a long time out of the ocean. Especially if you keep them wet with a seawater washdown from time to time:

The Caicos sloop anchored in the background is one of the Turks and Caicos Maritime Heritage Federation boats, was there for the races.   The organizer of the race portion of the program, Ross, told us at 2:15 that the races were scheduled for 2:00. I think they finally got them going around 3:30 after rounding up the rest of the sailors from the bar at Smokeys on the Beach.

We saw our old friend Omar, formerly of Gilley's Restaurant in Leeward. He was here with the team of Iguana's restaurant. He started us off with samples of conch chowder and conch fricasse. These were the first samples of the day. I lost count of how many different things we tried. I do know that there wasn't a bad dish in the group.

Omar is the one in the shades and white shirt. He is originally from Cayman, but prefers it here. He says Grand Cayman is too built up, too much like Cancun. I hope we have a few years left before the TCI gets to that point.

(La Gringa: but he says the golf courses are better on Cayman!)

One of the newer restaurants in Blue Hills, Horse Eye Jacks, had a team there this year. This is a nice restaurant right on the beach in Blue Hills, just a few hundred yards from the Conch Shack. We have only been there once, but I can say that they served me the best cheeseburger that I have had in a restaurant since we moved here in '05.

The Horse-Eye Jack chef had his daughter with him for the competition.There were kids everywhere, of course. This is a real family event, with conch horn blowing contests, sack races, all that fun kid stuff while everybody wandered around sampling conch dishes, drinking, watching the contests, dancing, watching the boat races, and just enjoying a perfect late November day.

The Somerset on Grace Bay sent a whole team of chefs:

The Aqua Grill's conch wontons were excellent, and I think those were actually my personal favorites out of the couple dozen dishes I sampled. Went back for s seconds. And thirds.

I think I might have gone back for fourths, but by then the crowd in general had discovered the wontons and that was quickly the end of that.

Several groups had conch salad, and they were all good as well. I think you really have to have a fine set of taste buds to tell the difference between one conch salad and another. But my taste buds were fried by jalapenos years ago. They all tasted great to me.

Hemingway's on the Beach had another of our favorite recipes at the Festival. Their conch and sweet potato quiche would have probably tied the conch wontons as my favorite:

There was a professional film crew setting up to get some pro-quality video of the events, and of one of the locals actually cleaning conch.    The film crew are all the serious looking guys with expensive video cameras squatting down looking at that pile of conch. You can also see that the crowd on the beach was growing, and that the sloop crews were getting their boats ready for the races.

After the crew got set up, this very nervous TCIslander got to stand there in front of several hundred spectators demonstrating the fine art of conch knocking. I think the poor guy took something like three tries to get the first one out. Here is a video clip of him. Now, keep in mind that what you can't see is all the people watching him, that film crew focusing on him with a big serious looking camera, and his boss ( Bugaloo) yelling instructions at him from the sideline. There were probably fifty cameras pointed at him. I have seen some of these guys crack and clean a conch in 25 seconds, if that gives you any idea how nervous this young man was:

That little video should also give you an idea of the wind. It was close to a perfect day. The wind was great for the sailors, it kept the bugs away at dusk, and it kept things cool and comfortable all afternoon.

As the day moved on, there were boat races and a couple go-fast boats coming completely out of the water back and forth in front of the beach. I didn't have the right camera with me to get the long shots, but here's one of the sloops hauling butt   by the beach:

These guys were having fun with the inflatable trampoline thing, until someone pulled the plug on the inflation fan. It didn't stop them. They kept jumping on it even as it collapsed:

When the sun went down, the music got louder, the crowd got bigger, and it was a people watching day for sure. A lot of people brought their kids. This young man knows it's never too early to start working on your moves:

He had a pretty good set of moves going, too.   In retrospect I wish I had thought to shoot some  video of him.   I suspect that when the drums start drumming and that bass line starts thumping, some people just can't help themselves.  They just gotta dance.   Know what I mean?

By dark the street was crowded, the beach was crowded, and the music was really getting cranked up. My little pocket digital is no good for the night shots, so things started going downhill right about sunset ( with the camera, I mean)

We had been there for five or six hours at this point, and we left early to go visit with some new friends we met for the first time at the Conch Festival the previous year. That was totally by chance. They were seated next to us, watching the boat race, and we were all laughing at the guy with the microphone talking about various ways to blow a conch horn. ( I won't elaborate on that here). We discovered that they are expats, too, and building a home on Provo. THEN we discovered that they are building a home on the same road that we are, and we know the house. We have been driving by it each time we run out to check on the progress of our own. SO, it just made perfect sense to buy more drink tickets and get to know our new neighbors-to-be. Funny way to meet. Their names are Michelle and Malcolm, and they moved here from England. We found we have a lot in common. But then we have found a lot of that here. Basically, the kind of expats we meet in these islands are the kind of people who decided to pack up and try life on a tropical island. So we know we have some attitudes in common immediately. Michelle and Malcolm are not 'boat people' yet, but I suspect we can help them change that.

It was time to get out of the wind and noise. My ears were ringing from an afternoon of full tilt reggae. Before we left, we watched a Junkanoo group working it's way through the crowd, with drums and these other percussion thingums I don't even know the name for.

This is a close up of the clanging, rattling thingamabobs that these guys were shaking to beat the band:

I'm a little bit embarassed to admit I don't know what these are, other than a modified cowbell.    I did notice that all the junkanooers shaking them were wearing work gloves, though.  A night of this must be tough on the hands.

The junkanoo wove it's cacophonic way back and forth amongst the increasingly lubricated crowd.   I noticed that the drum players didn't need gloves.   I guess the trade-off there is that some of these drums must weigh a lot more during a long evening than those little cowbell clangers.

The beat was very contagious, and it was still building when we made our way out. We tried to take a brief video, but of course the low-light conditions meant the quality was not the best. But the audio might give you an idea of what this all was sounding like at that point:

And this is still early for many. I am sure La Gringa wasn't the only hangover on the island Sunday morning. The gentleman with the cigar was only a couple beers away from joining the Junkanoo I believe:

He  actually IS a musician. We bought a local band CD from him earlier in the day.  It's what's called Ripsaw music.  This is traditional TCI music.  This is a variant of Rake and Scrape music of the Bahamas to the north.   (Don't you just love the names of these genre's?) We'll give the CD a listen and maybe post some audio of it later in the blog.

I should point out that La Gringa took these photos, so she wasn't too far behind the gentleman with a cigar when it came to getting into the music and spirit of the whole thing.

By the time we left, I think there must have been at least a couple thousand people there with a steady stream of new arrivals we passed on the way out. I know that doesn't sound like a lot, but to put it in perspective, just 2,000 would be 10% of the entire population of the island. I know the crowd grew later as the party animals started showing up. We were talking with an elderly local gentleman about it all (after he told me I looked like Castro! I am not sure who should be offended there, me or Fidel) and one of the things about this little country that he and I agreed on, it's one of the most racially harmonious places either of us has ever been. Black, white, Hispanic, just doesn't seem to matter here. It's a shame the rest of the world couldn't be more like the TCI in that regard. I can honestly say we have not seen nor even heard of any racially oriented problems since we got here, and we are going into our third year now.


Anonymous said...

Very nice article, and I am glad you and La Gringa had fun at the festival! Looks like fun to me!

Can you imagine how many folks would show up at a festival if 10% of the population of the USA showed up? I don'think it could be done!

I enjoyed the pictures, but several of them you posted aren't visable, but thats ok, it happens!

I am very glad you have racial harmony in the TCI, and you are right, its not that way in many areas of our world, and its sad!

Thanks for the article and photographs, looking forward to your next post on here! They are always interesting and informative!

Take care--

La Gringa said...


I've noticed sometimes the photos don't fully load if there are a lot of them. Refreshing the web page will sometimes work. Or you can try closing and reopening the web page.

I've been trying to convince Gringo to use Picasa Web since that is also a Google hosting service. But you know, old dog - new tricks and all that! :-)

Glad you enjoyed the post!

Anonymous said...

Hey Gringo, they are spelled Mojito, but after a few they can be spelled many different ways....Mojitos and conch cant get much better, I'm jealous, as always

Anonymous said...

Terrific stuff, that festival looks like a whole heap of fun. cheers, (BenderNZ)

Anonymous said...

I've spent a good bit of time in the Lesser Antilles, and found it to be as harmonious as you have found the TCI. No where I'd rather be.
I think I need to learn how to be an expat.
I would relish the opportunity to meet you, as I have thoroughly enjoyed your input on THT.
I have a good friend that spends alot of time in the TCI, perhaps that may happen yet.
Best regards.

Anonymous said...

Glad you liked it. As for being an expat, I wish there was another convenient term for US Citizens living abroad because we very much consider ourselves Americans. And we are a minority of a minority of the total expat community here. In fact I can only think of two other full time American residents here that we personally have met, at the moment. I think I read there are something like 300. We DO know a few Europeans and Canadians.

I wish that we had been able to tap into someone else's experiences and advice when we were considering the move. It was basically a lot of unknowns and we stumbled along until we started making some local friends. But that was well after we were already here for the most part. It could have been a lot easier than it was. Now we laugh about it.
The hardest part is getting it together and making the physical and financial move. The rest is paperwork and learning the ropes.

So, what I am saying I guess, is that if you are considering trying something like this please ask any questions you like. If our perspective or experiences (now that we are into our third year of it) can help someone else, we would be happy to tell you our take on it all.

I will say we love it here, we love the people, and we've never regretted giving this a shot for a single minute. It's definitely not for everybody. It's still a developing country. You give up a lot of things you take for granted in the USA. Living among the native population on a month-to-month basis bears little resemblance to a week at Club Med.
Its better, if you're wired the right way.

It takes a sense of humor, patience, and an innate flexibility in many things to integrate happily into another culture. I have read somewhere that the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is just attitude. That about sums it up.