"If you haven't been to Cayman Brac, then you haven't experienced the Cayman Islands!" --www.TheBrac.com
It's 2:45 a.m. and the dog knows something is up. We never get us this early unless someone is sick or suffering from insomnia. Instead of reading on the sofa, however, I am showering, drying my hair and applying make-up. Joe is making the bed and piling suitcases by the door. The dog knows that suitcases mean she will be going to the kennel, a horrible experience, or maybe she'll just have to stay alone for a long, long time with strangers showing up to feed her. She trots nervously from the bedroom to the front door and back again. I give her a rawhide chew strip, which she politely takes and then drops to the floor. She is not accepting bribes today.
Dave and Lori, our traveling partners, arrive at 3:45 on the dot. They are astonished at the amount of luggage we have and David can't resist making snide comments as he loads our many suitcases into the Bronco. Then he gets a look at me in my tan pantsuit. "Whoa," he says. "Where do you think we're going, New York City?" I feel defensive but try not to show it. I know that my tan pantsuit looks a little dressy, but we're going to be on airplanes or in airports all day long and this is the most comfortable thing I own. I just smile and tell him that someone in our group has to look good and why shouldn't it be me? This earns a sharp retort from him in return. "Here we go again," sighs Joe. "Are you two going to argue the whole trip?"
David and Lori were Joe's friends before they were mine, but we instantly clicked when I came along and have enjoyed many barbecues, swimming parties and shared birthdays among us. David, the Old Man at 56, is opinionated, materialistic, energetic and intelligent. We often enjoy a hearty and sometimes heated argument. We also tend to bicker, which must annoy our spouses. On the other hand, David and I have had some pretty witty and stimulating discussions, which have provided the only form of entertainment for many a get-together. Starting the trip off with an insulting exchange is a good sign, and I'm looking forward to many more.
Day One is a travel day. We have spent a year researching and planning this trip, making plane reservations, canceling plane reservations, emailing the owners of our house on Cayman Brac, making lists and shopping for snorkels, swimsuits, sunscreen and even a portable CD player. After a year of preparation, we are so giddy with anticipation that even the long layovers in Dallas and Miami can't dissuade us from our joy at finally being on our way. It helps that each flight is uneventful and boring. We spend the time chatting with each other, sleeping when we can, eating and drinking whatever is available. I finish one book, leave it on the American Airlines flight from Dallas to Miami, and start another. Then, when we board our second-to-last flight, Miami to Grand Cayman, we are so excited that the hoards of people trying to jam themselves onto the airplane don't even bother us, despite their boxes and bags of stuff. It seems that all the locals are going home to the islands and bringing needed supplies with them.
While Joe looks out the window, I get caught up in a minor drama occurring behind me. It seems that the airline seated a young child and her parents in three different seats, none of which were together. Since the young child could not sit by herself, the flight attendant told them to all sit together and she would find a spot for the original seat holders when they arrived. Only the original seat holder is having none of it.
"That's my seat," says a low, dangerous voice. I look over to see a young man with lots of gold jewelry around his neck addressing the couple behind me. The mother starts explaining what happened.
He interrupts her. "That's my seat," he says again. "I would advise you to move."
The family all moves to the back of the airplane, but the drama continues. Since my favorite activities usually involve people watching and eavesdropping on strangers' conversations, I am quite happily occupied. The necklace-wearing Caymanian pushes the button to summon the flight attendant and when she arrives, he tells her to empty out the overhead compartment above his seat so he can put his items there.
"The overhead compartments are not reserved, sir," she tells him.
"I need that emptied," he says, loud and angry.
"The overhead compartments are not reserved, sir," she says again. "But you are welcome to find another compartment for your belongings."
"Okay, I'll play your f****** game," he says in a rush. He gets out of his seat and starts opening up compartments, shoving things this way and that. Most of us suddenly find something important to do, like reading the in-flight magazine that we had already scrutinized at 6:57 that morning. Joe must sense trouble because he is the only one openly watching. Joe is a big guy and not afraid of much. I scrunch over a little his way for added protection. Gold Necklaces must not want to get kicked off the plane, however, because he angrily stows his stuff and sits back down in his seat without further incident. I switch my attention to the couple in front of me. They are quietly arguing about something, but I am quite hopeful that their voices will get loud enough for me to eventually hear what's going on.
We arrive at Grand Cayman, pronounced "Grand Cay-MAN" by the locals, about 7 pm. After collecting our luggage, going through customs, and finding our ground transportation, we are checking in at Sammy's Place. Sammy's Place is a typical airport motel, with a small restaurant and a bar. We are very interested in this bar and hurriedly dump our suitcases in our rooms. I am dying for a cold, relaxing, and preferably mood-altering beverage. I decide I need this beverage even more than I need food, although a good meal is certainly on the agenda. The bar is dark and quiet, a big screen TV showing two sports events: a basketball game and a hockey game on split screens. When I drink my first cold swallow of beer, I feel all the day's tension leave my body and I can finally relax.
We mosey on into the little restaurant that's attached to the bar. There are several large covered pans on a table, which hold the remnants of the buffet meal that's listed on the menu for $12.95, Cayman dollars (C.I.). The waitress comes over to take our order. She speaks a lyrical Pidgin English that sounds very poetic, even though I can't understand much of what she is saying. We order garlic shrimp for an appetizer, which is absolutely delicious and perfectly accompanies my second bottle of beer. Joe and Dave order the buffet and I ask for conch (pronounced "konk") chowder.
"Konk no more," she says (I think).
"What?" I ask.
"Konk chowder is all gone. No more."
"Oh, darn," I look at the menu. "Okay, I'll have the soup of the day."
"No soup," she says.
Hmm. I peruse the menu again. "How about the grilled chicken salad?"
"No salad," she says.
"What do you have?" I ask, thinking this might be an easier way.
She smiles sweetly. "What you want?" she asks.
"I want whatever you have," I say. "What do you have left tonight?"
"What you want?" she asks again.
"Well, what I want is soup, but you don't have any," I say, slightly exasperated. "So now I don't know what I want."
"I ask chef, be back," she says.
"What did she say?" I ask Lori.
"She said she's going to ask the chef and be right back," Lori tells me.
The waitress returns. "Chef say onion soup."
Onion soup it is then.
Three beers prove to be an effective sleep aid and before I know it, it's 4 am and time to be at the Grand Cayman airport. The amount of time it takes to check in is longer than the actual flight, which is done via one of those itty, bitty airplanes that looks like it belongs in a child's toy box and not something people should actually sit in. When we land at Cayman Brac, the tiniest airport I have ever seen, we collect our multiple pieces of luggage and stagger outside. We had rented a car and now expect to see some kind of car rental place around outside somewhere. Since this airport is about the size of your local gas station, there are not many places to hide a car rental place. As we stand on the curb, no doubt looking like confused tourists, a person comes walking up to us and asks us if we rented a car. It's parked right over there, she says, and if we load up our stuff, we can follow her out to the rented house. Oh, we say, blinking a little. Sure thing.
Cayman Brac is a small island: 12 miles long and 2 miles wide. While Grand Cayman is comparatively huge at 76 square miles and 40,000 people, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman have about 1000 people living on each island and are located 70 miles away from the big island. It is easy to think in an abstract way about being on a small island; it is actually quite different being on a small island. David is the only one of us, in our sleep-deprived states, willing to attempt driving on the left side of the road, so he is elected driver. This means we are free to get our first look at Cayman Brac. At first, our attention is focused on helping David remember which side of the road to stay on, mostly by frightened screams and loud guffaws of laughter whenever he forgets and turns into the wrong lane, but soon he is getting used to it and we realize that not only are there no cars on the road for him to run into, there is not much else here, either.
"Oh, there's a little restaurant," I point out. "Or an ice cream parlor. It has ice cream cones in the window."
"And there's a little grocery store. I think," says Joe.
"Where?" asks Lori.
"Back there, at that little intersection with the stop sign. Or it could be a liquor store. It has pictures of beer bottles on the front."
The thought of a liquor store perks us all up until Joe says it had a closed sign in the window. Darn. Unfortunately, this will prove to be a recurring problem with all the liquor stores on the island. Fortunately, the bars usually open at 11.
We all see a sign that says "Reduce Speed Now" and point it out to David, who informs us that the speedometer is in kilometers and he has no idea what he's doing anyway. He illustrates this by promptly turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal. We make sure to point this error out, loudly and repeatedly, as though David couldn't see for himself that the wipers are scraping a dry windshield. He tells us that any one of us is free to take over the driving and he can pull over right now, in fact, if anybody thinks they can do it better. We assure him that he is the best left-sided driver we have ever seen and furthermore, we say, we won't tease him anymore, a promise we forget as soon as he turns left and almost hits a truck. "Reduce Speed Now!" we yell in unison. We are surprised to see this truck, the first vehicle we've encountered thus far. No matter, we have turned to face the ocean and its beauty is astounding. We all sit up a little straighter and gaze seaward longingly until we arrive at our destination, the rented house.
Our house is small, cute and looks new. It has two bedrooms and two baths, a tiny kitchen and a general area that holds two couches and a dining table. The owner's housekeeper lets us all in and the car rental agent sits down with Lori to go over the terms of the rental agreement and give us some tips on driving and sightseeing. "Tighty Lefty, Widey Righty," Lori repeats. She is taking driving notes while the rest of us explore the house, choose rooms and start unpacking. David and I want to go swimming, but since Lori is hungry, we have to satisfy ourselves with a little walk down to our private beach to look at the water. There are four beach chairs, two hammocks, and a gazebo, all for us. The shore is very rocky, but it looks like there is a boat launch close by. The Old Man and I are in agreement for once: we both want to take off all our clothes and dive in, but our stomachs are empty and Lori is standing on the porch yelling for us to hurry up and get in the car.
There are two main roads that traverse the length of the island and two roads that cross the width. It doesn't take long to get the lay of the land on our first day of exploring, in which we find two grocery stores, three liquor stores, eight restaurants, and one hardware store. We also discover that the locals are extremely friendly. Every time we pass another driver on the road, he or she waves at us. Soon we are waving at everyone we pass on the road, too. The first restaurant we come to, Edd's Place, is closed even though people are sitting on the outside patio. David gets out of the car to get a restaurant recommendation and learns that Edd's is open at 4 for dinner, and they have karaoke on the weekends, which astounds us. There are no fast food restaurants here but they have karaoke on the weekends. Edd recommends a restaurant just down the street, and David makes a beeline for the Tropical De-Lite, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day but Sunday.
The Tropical De-Lite is cooking ribs. We can smell the barbecue sauce and see the plumes of smoke rising from the patio. Lucky for everyone else, unlucky for me. I don't like ribs, even those that come with potato salad, coleslaw and French fries on the side. There is a man at the counter who has a big smile when we come in.
"Hello!" he says to us.
"Hello!" we answer.
"What you want today?" he asks. He is so happy to see us. We are the only customers there.
David leans on the counter. "Are those ribs I smell?" he asks.
"Oh, yes, sir. Those good ribs we cooking now," the man says. A woman comes out of the back room, goes up to the man and smacks him on the shoulder. Since he didn't see her coming, he jumps about a mile and then looks sheepish.
"Get away," she tells him. "This my job. Go cook."
He slinks away and she turns to us. She is not smiling like the man was. In fact, she doesn't look quite as happy to see us, even though we are still the only customers there.
"What you want?" she asks.
David, Lori and Joe opt for the ribs. I look at the menu, which is handwritten on a big board above us.
"Could I have a sandwich?" I ask cautiously.
"Sure," she says. "What kind of sandwich?"
"No, no roast beef."
Oh, no, not again. I start to panic.
"Anything?" I say. "I'll take any kind of sandwich."
The woman shakes her head. "No, no, what kind sandwich you want? See menu? What you want there?"
"No, out of turkey."
Oh, for heaven's sake. I desperately search the menu for anything besides ribs. Chicken? Yes, I can do chicken.
"Chicken curry?" I await her reply anxiously. She is nodding and almost smiling. Yes? Chicken curry? Yes! Chicken curry! We are all nodding, happy that I have survived the dreaded menu challenge.
After a pretty decent meal that leaves us full if not satisfied, David and Joe settle the bill and come out to the car shaking their heads. Although most places on Cayman Brac accept American money, the exchange rate is not in our favor: eighty U.S. cents to each Cayman dollar. Which means we just spent about fifty bucks for lunch.
We decide to stock up on groceries before heading back to the house. Kirkconnell's is close by, so we stop there. Later we learn that Kirkconnell is an old island family that owns most of Grand Cayman and a good portion of Cayman Brac as well. It's hard to tell this from the grocery store. It's resembles a large convenience store, except that many of the shelves are bare and selection is minimal. Prices are ridiculous:
2 pack paper towels -- $5.00 (U.S.)
shrimp -- $12.50/lb
refried beans -- $2.00
gallon water -- $2.00
½ gallon ice cream -- $8.00
potato chips -- $5.50
cookies -- $6.00
carton cigarettes -- $43.00 (none of us smoke but I overhead someone buying some)
pasta -- $1.75
There is no fresh meat or chicken; everything is frozen. The fresh produce is either nonexistent or old and should have been discarded yesterday. The bread shelves are bare and there are large empty areas down each aisle. We try to plan a few meals with the available supplies, but it is disappointing to realize our cuisine is going to suffer for the lack of quality ingredients. Lori and I compensate by buying chocolate, chips and ice cream. At least there's plenty of junk food, even if it does cost more than a good steak back home. But then, a pack of gum costs more than a good steak back home.
Back at the house, we unpack groceries and decide to have a little nap. Even though it's only about two in the afternoon, it's already been a long day. We sleep until four, and then David and I get our suits on and gather our snorkel gear to try out the water. It's not a good day for snorkeling; the wind is up and the waves are rough, but it's so hot and sticky outside that we can't wait to cool off. The sea is clear and there is much to see under the water: blue tangs, which are a bright blue, flat fish about the size of a salad plate; small yellow and black striped fish that are feeling frisky and chasing each other; tiny blue fish with a black stripe on the tail; and lots of coral and rocks. We have to fight the waves and my mask is leaking water, so we give up after about an hour and go back to shore to enjoy the view from our private beach. Soon, Lori and Joe appear with a bottle of wine for us to share as we watch our first sunset on Cayman Brac. It is a perfect moment: the oranges and reds of the sun draping everything in a golden hue, the crashing of the waves on the rocks, the sharp bite of cold white wine, and the warm company of good friends. We raise our glasses in a toast and agree that life is good. Cayman Brac may not be nature's paradise, but it's close enough for us.
Next: We encounter a grumpy dive-master and invent a new drink.