Perched on a broken stool in the paint-peeled beach bar, I sipped a warmish beer and brushed a lock of greasy hair off my forehead. I was wearing the only clean clothes I had left: a stretched out cotton dress and a threadbare pair of underwear. Reaching down to scratch a bug bite on my prickly leg, I remembered that it had been five or six days since my last shower, and gave my armpit a surreptitious sniff.
We had been rationing water since we’d sailed into the Turks and Caicos eight days earlier, and that morning Trav and I had made a list of the meager food stock we had left: four cans of kidney beans, one can of diced tomatoes, three oranges, one bag of rice, one box of almond milk, half a box of corn flakes, and a few odds and ends. A police car drove by on the potholed street, and all four of us practically ducked our heads. My 6-year-old daughter tugged at my arm and whispered, “Are they going to put us in jail if they catch us, Mom?”
“No sweetie,” I assured her with a phony smile. Honestly, I wasn’t so sure.
Bad weather had forced us to sail into the Turks and Caicos on our way to the Dominican Republic. We had never planned to stop there because we had a dog, Sadie, who lived aboard Moxie with us and was a beloved member of our crew. The wrench in the spokes was that the Turks and Caicos maintains extremely strict dog laws and requires a rabies titers test that is nearly impossible to obtain, even in the U.S. Sadie had not had this test. In the Turks, not only are you not allowed to bring your dog ashore without the right papers, but the owners of the dog aren't allowed on shore either. You can anchor off the islands, but if you’ve got a dog without the test, not one single member of your crew is supposed to set foot on land. We'd heard rumors about sailors who had broken this law and gotten caught, who’d been detained, had their dogs euthanized and their boats confiscated for entering illegally. This was our impossibly sticky situation. We couldn’t sail away from the Turks because there was bad weather for the next 10 days. We were floating beside a country that didn’t want us and wouldn’t allow us to enter. So we remained anchored in that one spot, and with the exception of swimming, our family did not leave the confines of our 43-foot boat for eight whole days.
During those eight days, as we floated in a thousand shades of cerulean, emerald and turquoise, we filled our time. We read, played ukuleles, homeschooled, snorkeled, made art and baked cakes. There was no phone service or internet, and we missed neither. As it turned out, this unplanned period of quarantine ended up being one of our favorite weeks of our three years at sea.
Eventually, the dwindling water and food situation forced us to take a risk. Clean shaven and wearing a shirt with only a few stains, Trav dinghied to shore, planning to explain our situation and plead our case. We were a family with kids; surely they’d allow us to buy some water and a few vegetables as we waited for the cold fronts to pass. Trav walked up a dusty hill through flocks of chickens to the immigration office, found it empty and waited. And waited. A lady in the shop across the street thought the immigration folks had maybe gone to lunch. After over an hour, Trav radioed that he was coming back for us, we were all going to shore.
The first 30 minutes or so in that beach bar, we were wracked with nerves and paranoia. It quickly became apparent, however, that not a soul in that little town gave two hoots about who we were, whether or not we had a dog, or whether or not we had illegally entered their country. The islanders were happy to sell us conch salad and let us use their laundromat. A fisherman shared bait and trade secrets with Hud. Viv gleefully jumped rope on the pier.
While we prefer to be the kind of visitors who uphold a nation’s laws, this was one instance in which Mother Nature and basic human need trumped regulation. This awarded us with a unique and powerful insight, that of an illegal immigrant. These days, as we hear countless stories of families risking everything to come to the U.S., families seeking asylum from danger, we feel a slight pang of recognition. Although the stakes were in no way as high for us as they are for citizens fleeing violent homelands, we do know what it feels like to be worried and scared in a foreign place. We know what it feels like to need help, and to break a nation’s laws in order to get that help and to provide for our children. As Americans, we take for granted that we are welcome just about anywhere, at any time, for any reason. Remembering the warmth and humanity of the Turks and Caicos islanders, the ease in which we could safeguard our family there, casts our own nation’s savage, inhumane treatment of immigrants in an even harsher light. We can’t help but burn with shame.