November 5, 2014

The day that East met West in Hatteras village


This is a story -- a very funny story -- with a happy ending about the day that a delegation of Chinese investors and government officials came to visit Hatteras village on a whirlwind tour of Dare County.

The story was told to me by Allen Burrus of Hatteras village, vice-chairman of the county Board of Commissioners.

I sure can't spin a tale the way Burrus can, especially with his wonderful island accent. However, I am going to give it a try.

There were 13 men and women in the group from Chengdu, China, a city of 14-plus million. Their sojourn here was part of a longer, several week visit to North Carolina where they were looking at economic, recreational, and cultural opportunities in the state.  They had been to Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Wilmington before coming to the Outer Banks.

Their visit was arranged by N.C. House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam's office, and Stam's legislative assistant, Anne Murtha, was traveling with them.  In Dare County, their hosts were county government and the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. The Visitors Bureau worked with the Outer Banks Home Builders Association, the Outer Banks Association of Realtors, and the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce to arrange their tour.

The itinerary included meetings with county government officials and local representatives from the real estate and tourism industry.  They also participated in such activities as a history and sightseeing tour by bus, an air tour of the Outer Banks, and hang gliding, a speed networking session, and some good seafood dinners.

You can imagine that after a few days of this kind of activity, our visitors were getting just a bit worn out.

Their last stop on a Hatteras Island tour late last Thursday afternoon, Oct. 30, was in Hatteras village.

There Burrus and some other local folks met with them at the Hatteras Village Volunteer Fire Department since other community meeting spaces were in use.

As Burrus tells the story, the Chinese men and women were dragging a little bit by the end of the day as they were escorted into an impromptu meeting room.

Burrus talked to them about history, the waterfront, marinas, and fish houses, and Anthony Fletcher of Midgett Realty gave an overview of the rental market and retail shops.

"They were bored to death," Burrus says with a laugh.

On the way down the stairs in the firehouse after the meeting, there's a glass window that overlooks the trucks and other equipment.

One of the older gentlemen spied the vintage 1960 fire truck, refurbished by the volunteers.

"He really wanted to go for a ride in that truck," says Burrus.  The hosts called fire chief Todd Ballance, who said he's be right up to the station to fire up the truck.

The excited Chinese visitors piled into the back of the truck, along with Burrus and Aaron Tuell from the Visitors Bureau, armed with his camera.

With Ballance at the wheel and Richie Midgett riding shotgun, the old fire truck headed down Highway 12 through the heart of the village, with Midgett intermittently sounding the siren.

The visitors were whooping and hollering and raising their hands up in the air as the truck made its way south for a gas stop at Teach's Lair Marina. What a sight that must have been to locals and tourists who were out and about that afternoon!

At the marina, they hopped off the truck to admire it and talk with folks coming in from the beach at Ramp 55.

"Their enthusiasm was catching," said Burrus, and soon the local hosts were airing down the tires and driving the fire truck full of Chinese visitors down the sandy, rutted inside road and out to the Hatteras beach.

The fishing on the island has been good, and, as you might expect, there were fishermen on the beach.

The fire truck stopped at the first group over the ramp, where a group of anglers from Matthews, N.C., was fishing for drum but had hooked a sting ray.

You can just imagine what the fishermen thought when they saw a truck full of excited Chinese folks in the back of the old fire truck. The visitors hopped out of the truck and started headed for the fishermen.  They were still pretty worked up, so Richie Midgett had to explain that there was nothing to be concerned about -- just a load of excited visitors.

They hung around on the beach for 30 minutes watching the angler land the ray, a huge one, on the beach. The Chinese were pointing at the fish and hooting and hollering.

Now, at this point, Burrus mentions that the Chinese folks spoke pretty good English and were impeccably dressed -- the men in "$1,000 suits" and the women in high heels.

Next, the Chinese visitors started offering the angler money.  They wanted to buy the sting ray.  One offered $50 and another upped it.  When the angler realized that they were serious, he laughed and told them they could have the fish.

They were amazed, Burrus said, that the Americans didn't want the sting ray and were going to throw it back into the ocean.  They couldn't imagine that the fish would not be sold.

So the ray was thrown into the back of the fire truck, and the happy group headed back to the fire station, where Danny Couch of Hatteras Tours was waiting to take them back up the beach in his tour bus.

Now, you can imagine what Couch thought when he saw the ray and it became clear to him that the next thing the Chinese folks wanted to do was put it in his bus.

Couch had a tour group to take from Corolla to Ocracoke the next day, and he figured they wouldn't want to ride in a bus that smelled like dead fish.

He balked, so Burrus said the Chinese asked, "How much for the bus?"

When it became clear to Couch that the Chinese were so determined to take their prized fish back with them that they were willing to buy his bus, the Hatteras hosts began looking for other options.

"They weren't going to take 'no' for an answer," Couch remembered. "That ray was coming in the bus."

Todd Ballance, a commercial fisherman, cleaned the ray for them with the Chinese supervising the messy job in their dress clothes with their sleeves rolled up.  The fish was double-bagged in big plastic sacks and put in the bus. Ballance was about to toss the carcass when the visitors objected and took that also.

"They hugged us and said goodbye and that they would be back," Burrus said.

"Their enthusiasm was very catching," Burrus said again at the end of the tale. "Sometimes we just take things here for granted...And here were these folks who couldn't believe we would throw away a fish that could feed a family -- several families."

Couch said that one member of the group was quite a cook and that the visitors invited their hosts of what amounted to a Chinese version of a fish fry -- perhaps a stir fry -- over the weekend.

The Hatteras hosts couldn't make it, but the Chinese entertained some Visitors Bureau folks and others for dinner before they left the Outer Banks.

"They were like teens at a rock concert," said Couch about much of the Outer Banks touring, and the highlight was the afternoon in Hatteras village.

"We really rolled out the red carpet for them," he added.


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