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November 21, 2022
"Mes de los Muertos"

Nature's Paradise: a Cayman Brac Travelogue, Part II

By Kellie Gillespie

"Tourism is also a mainstay, accounting for about 70% of GDB and caters mainly to visitors from North America. Total tourist arrivals exceeded 1.2 million in 1997, with 600,000 from the U.S." -- CIA World Factbook

By nine a.m. the next morning, I am reclining in a beach chair fully equipped for a day of relaxation. I have applied sunscreen from my economy size Coppertone, SPF 45, to every exposed inch of my Irish-American white skin and have enlisted my husband's help for those hard-to-reach places. I have my straw hat and sunglasses. I have my mask, snorkel and swim fins. I have a book with plenty of unread pages left. I survey my ocean view and sigh with pleasure. The only thing missing is something cold to drink, but I am hoping that Joe will pick up the mental messages I am sending him and bring me a diet Coke. We have yet to find an open liquor store but we did stock up on soda and juice yesterday, so there are plenty of cold options in the fridge.

I sit back in my chair, soaking up the sun. It is hot and breezy. I try to read but find myself distracted by the ocean waves hitting the iron shore. Although our beach is sandy, it was created by trucking in loads of sand and dumping it within a low rock wall. The shore is made up of iron rock that has been worn away by the elements, creating holes and crevices that gets filled up with rocks, crabs, snails and shells. The waves are small but effective, making swooshing noises each time they hit the shore. As I look out on the ocean, I notice there are four distinct colors of blue. Closest to shore the blue is a lighter, grayer color. A little further out, it takes on a more turquoise color. Further out still it is a deep blue, almost a royal blue. And from there to the horizon the blue is more of a medium blue, or ocean blue, as far as the eye can see.

*********

.The Cayman Islands were discovered in 1503 by Columbus, who named them Las Tortugas, the Turtles, after the many turtles that surrounded his ship as they sailed by. They were never occupied by the Spanish, however, and remained largely uninhabited until the 17th century. In 1670, the Treaty of Madrid transferred ownership of both the Cayman Islands and Jamaica to England, but it wasn't until 1863 that London passed an act of Parliament that made Cayman a dependency of Jamaica. A variety of people settled on the islands in the early 1700s, including Spanish Inquisition refugees, pirates, Jamaican army deserters, shipwrecked sailors, and slaves. Because of this mix, the majority of Caymanians are of African and British descent with considerable interracial mixing.

The Royal Navy completed the first survey map of the Caymans in 1793. The population was 400, half of which were slaves, but it wasn't until 1834 that the Jamaican government declared all slaves to be free in accordance with the Emancipation Act of 1833. This caused a widespread emigration from the 1830s to 1850s to the Bay Islands and Belize, because many feared that freeing the slaves would result in a loss of political power and agricultural production. It was during this time period that the first missionaries from Anglican and Wesleyan churches arrive, with positive results. Presently, there are 14 active churches on Cayman Brac alone.

The Education Act of 1920 provided for public schools in all districts. The first cruise ship visited Grand Cayman in 1937, which effectively began the tourist business on the islands. The first airfield, which opened in 1953, made access more widespread and common since previously the only air service on Grand Cayman was via seaplane. It wasn't until the 1950s, however, that tourism began to flourish, and a number of hotels opened during this time. In 1959, the Cayman Islands received its first written constitution, which granted women the right to vote and ceased the dependency of Jamaica rule. When Jamaica became independent from Great Britain in 1962, the islands chose to remain a crown colony, officially known as a self-governing British Overseas Territory. The population in 2002 was 40,000.

*********

Lori appears next to me, similarly equipped with book, sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, snorkeling gear and towels. Even though we just finished an enormous breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and hash browns, she is carrying a box of 'Nilla Wafers. Yum. I am not hungry but reach over for a handful and ask her what Joe is doing, since he is obviously not picking up on my mental bring-Kellie-a-drink messages. "He's getting his snorkeling stuff ready," she tells me. "We want to walk down to that other boat launch and see what it's like down there. Wanna go?"

Sure, I do. I gather up my equipment and we walk about four or five blocks down the road to the big boat launch area. Although there is a smaller boat launch right by our beach, this will be easier access. It takes us about 15 minutes to take off our water shoes, put on the fins, remove hat and sunglasses, clumsily flop to the stairs with the convenient handrail, slip in the algae and laugh at each other, apply fog-resisting-goop to our masks and smear it around, put on same masks and take them off about ten times to get them adjusted correctly, and then belly-flop onto the water. After about five minutes, my mask fogs up and water gets inside and only after I complain about a zillion times does anyone listen to me. David inspects my mask, pronounces it cheap and crappy, and bossily helps me adjust it again. "Thanks, Dad," I say, then we head out to deeper water.

Once again, it is gorgeous under the sea. We aimlessly float around, just in awe of the undersea life and its colors. We see coral formations with many kinds of fish swimming through, around and over them, sometimes with little black fishes popping out of holes to scare the others away. We see beautiful coral fans, waving gently in the current. I am oblivious to anything else except a whole undersea city below me, with at least five different fish nibbling and rubbing against each other, when I hear a shout. I pop my head up and see Lori beckoning me. "What?" I ask. "Merph ha pour scada bayou!" she yells. "What?" I say. "Merph ha pour scada bayou!!" she yells again. I swim over closer. "There's a barracuda right by you," she says. I look underwater but don't see anything until I turn my head and see a large grey mean-looking fish close to the surface, about three feet away, looking hungry. "Oh, my god!" I say. Lori nods her head. "He was swimming about a foot away from you," she tells me. I look at him again and he is looking right at me, no doubt planning his next meal. I decide to stick close to Lori.

After lunch, Dave, Lori and I head over to the dive shop to make reservations for a snorkel/dive trip the next day. On our way back we see a liquor store in the swampy part of the island, where the bird preserve is. Much to our disappointment, however, the liquor store is closed, even though it is about two o'clock in the afternoon. Darn. We make a mental note to try again tomorrow. We also stop at a different grocery store and are pleasantly surprised to see they have a much bigger selection than the store we went to yesterday. We meet the manager, who's name is Joe, and he informs us that after the barge makes its weekly shipment, there will be much more variety on the shelves, including produce. And, Grocer Joe says, the barge is due to arrive that night. That explains the empty shelves, withered produce and my menu problems at lunch the day before. With that cheerful news, we buy some pineapple and orange juice (Lori has an idea for a new drink), and more ice. Then we check the liquor store that was closed yesterday, and, hallelujah, it's open. We buy beer and rum, about $50 C.I. worth, and head back to the house.

We christen Lori's drink Sea Dreams Punch, named for our little house on Cayman Brac. To make your own at home, pour about two shots of dark rum into a tall glass of ice. Fill it about two thirds full with pineapple juice, then the rest of the way with orange juice. Garnish with lime, if desired. We all go sit on the beach wall to drink our punch, watching the waves and sometimes jumping down to the shore to hunt for shells and rocks. After a time, we discover we are all starving, so Joe goes up to the house to make a delicious dinner of chicken enchiladas and rice, which we all attack as if we had just completed a 20-mile marathon. The sunset is not as dramatic as the night before, but as the sky darkens, we notice some strange birds swooping around and flying erratically, making odd beeping noises. "Those aren't birds," David tells us, "they're bats!" and sure enough, we can see by the rapid wing action and quick dives that these aren't ordinary birds. Thank goodness they are far away, because the very thought of bats creep me out. When the mosquitoes start biting us, we decide it's time to go in and play 31.

31 is a card game designed to be played by any number of people who have freely imbibed a ghastly amount of alcohol while lying in the sun all day. In other words, it is both disgustingly easy and deceptively strategic at the same time. If a person is careful, sober and observant, he or she can win the money every time. If a person is drunk, sloppy and forgetful, he or she won't win but can usually stay in the game for a reasonable amount of time, as long as he or she can read the numbers on the cards. Each person puts in a dollar and is given four poker chips, or other similar marker. The cards are shuffled and each is dealt three cards. The object of the game is to get as many high cards in the same suit as possible. The lowest score each hand loses a chip. Each player takes a card from the pick-up pile or the discard pile, discarding in turn, until someone who thinks they won't lose knocks. The knock indicates that this player thinks they are hot stuff and enables the other players to loudly groan, whine and/or hit the table in frustration. Each of the other players then gets one more turn before everyone turns over their cards and the lowest score loses. The person with a chip at the end of the game wins the money.

There are several rules to the game. One: if anyone gets 31 points, which is two cards worth ten points (all face cards are ten points) and an ace in the same suit, the player automatically wins, the hand is over, and everyone else has to throw in a chip. Two: if someone knocks and then has the lowest score, that person has to throw in two chips. Three: if there is a tie for low score, each person who tied has to throw in a chip. Four: spouses cannot sit next to each other. Five: no peeking at other people's cards, no matter how intoxicated they may be.

We play two games before heads start nodding. It is eight o'clock and time for old people to go to bed. We don't want to make David feel too bad, so we go to bed, too.

********

We are up early the next morning for our diving expedition. Actually, Dave and Lori are up early to dive; I am up early to snorkel and ride in the boat. Have you ever seen a big shaggy dog riding in the car with his head hanging out the window? His mouth is open, tongue flopping from side to side, nose sniffing all the new and fascinating smells, happy as can be? That's me on a boat. Snorkeling, to me, is just another excuse to get to ride on a boat, but I'm looking forward to watching the divers and seeing what kinds of big fishes are on the other side of the island.

It takes the divers quite a while to prepare. Since Lori has never properly dived before, she is a little nervous and takes her time picking out her weights. I occupy myself with people watching while I wait. There are a variety of divers going out with us, most of them in couples. One younger girl, about college age, is hanging about one of the dive masters in an obvious bid for his attention. One man is very talkative. He has just been certified, like Lori, and has gone out a few times this week. He is giving Lori advice. Everyone is giving Lori advice, no doubt making her even more nervous than she already is. When all the weights, tanks, cameras and people are finally loaded, we set off. I feel odd and then realize why: I am the only nondiver of the group. People notice I am lacking a wetsuit and a BC and they are looking at me funny. "I'm snorkeling," I find myself saying, but this is like admitting I voted for Ralph Nader in the last election. After the brief orientation, during which we are instructed in the correct ways to hose oneself off, pee in a wetsuit, and climb the boat ladders, I find a seat in a quiet corner and watch the others adjust each other's weights and chatter excitedly among themselves.

The first dive is a wall dive. From what I understand in my little corner of the boat, this is a drop-off of about 100 feet. Since that is way too deep for me to see anything, I'm to stay topside. The divers are shown a quick sketch of the area, given strict time limits, then loaded with tanks on the boat platform. As each one jumps into the water, I see bunches of little bubbles on the surface, and then they are gone. Lori has been hanging back to be one of the last ones. I ask her if she's nervous and she nods her head. I ask her if she wants to stay on board with me and she says no. Of course not. Only dweebs who snorkel stay on the boat. She sits down on the platform and without a backward glance, jumps into the ocean. I close my eyes to send her good thoughts, and then look out over the ocean.

It's very quiet now that the divers are gone. The boat is rocking gently and it is very peaceful. I get up from my corner and go sit on one of the platforms, letting my feet dip in the water. The dive master comes to sit next to me.

"Hiya," he says. He is a big dude, and has a British accent.

"Hi," I say. I kick my feet around in the water and lean back on my arms. "Beautiful, isn't it?"

"Yes."

I search for an interesting subject and can only think to ask him something he's probably heard a million times: "So, how'd you become a dive master?"

He sighs and then recounts his story for me in a practiced monotone. Grew up in England, dive school in Florida, vacation in Cayman Brac, and the rest is history. I express my surprise in learning that dive masters have to go to school and am immediately ashamed of myself, since I am frequently annoyed when people tell me the same thing about going to library school to become a librarian. Then we chat for a few minutes, which mainly consists of me asking dumb questions and him providing monosyllabic responses, mostly yes or no or yup or nope, until he says he has to go up on the bridge and watch for things. I guess he's not impressed with my witty repartee.

I'm not sure what kinds of things the dive master is looking for, because he sure doesn't notice when a diver's head pops out of the water about halfway down the mooring line. The mooring line is a long rope, attached to a buoy that helps divers find their way back to the boat. I watch this bobbing head grab the line and use it to pull him or herself, hand over hand, slowly towards me. I briefly debate doing something like yell, "Hey, Mr. Dive Master, someone's here!" but after my unsuccessful Q&A earlier, I decide not to. It's not like I'm in charge or getting paid to be the dive master or anything, now am I?

I am startled out of my observations by the dive master, who must have suddenly noticed the surfaced diver. "God damn it!" he says. I look back to see him jump from the bridge onto the deck. "What's this? What's the problem?"

"I don't know," I answer, but Captain Bly doesn't seem to care what I think. He stands next to me, watching the diver approach the boat.

"What is it?" he asks the diver. The diver turns out to be the other newbie on the boat, the one who was talking to Lori earlier. I remember hearing that his wife gave him diving lessons for his birthday.

"I can't get down," the diver sputters. "I need more weight."

The dive master goes to the back and brings more weight. When the diver attempts to attach it to his other weight, Captain Bly gives a little chuckle. "Just put it in your pocket, eh, mate?" he says, but I notice he's not smiling.

The man nods and puts the weight in his pocket, disappears under a flow of bubbles.

"I guess that worked," I remark, not really expecting a response.

"He didn't need any more bloody weight," says the dive master as he goes back to his perch.

I put my feet back in the water, lean back on my hands and contemplate the various colors of the ocean again. I am wondering how hard it would be to move to the island and whether I could get a job at the local library, (is there a local library?) when I hear the dive master swear again. He jumps down to the main deck and stands next to me.

"God damn it!" he repeats.

"What is it?" I ask, wondering what I had missed.

"Over there," he nods. "See those two? How stupid."

The two divers were just beyond the mooring line. The dive master went to the back, got another buoy and length of rope and fastened it to the existing rope so that it extended further and they could reach it. Instead of using the rope, however, the two divers swam against the current on either side of the mooring line.

"Okay, stupid people, use the rope," he says under his breath. Then he yells, "Use the rope!" but they either don't hear him or don't understand, because they continue to struggle against the current, using up their air and their energy. I'm beginning to get the idea that our Captain Bly here doesn't like tourists very much, which is unfortunate, considering his line of work. As the divers come nearer, I watch him help them aboard and unstrap their tanks. The divers are one of the couples I noticed earlier. They explain that the woman had trouble breathing so they came back early. Soon other heads begin popping up and the dive master is kept quite busy helping them with their underwater cameras and equipment. I notice one diver in the water holding a very large video camera up in the air. I reach down to grab it and he holds it out of my reach. "Not you," he says. Hurt, I go back to my corner and watch him give it to the grumpy dive master instead, who takes it back to a table and hoses it off with fresh water. I decide that divers and dive masters are rich, spoiled babies and won't be getting any help from me, no matter how much they beg for it.

Lori is excited and talkative when she joins me. According to her, diving is the coolest thing ever and she wants to go again and again. They saw lots of things, including a turtle, an eel, a cowfish, and a "flying gannard," which was some kind of fish that sits on the bottom of the ocean and puffs out its wings when threatened. Everyone is combing out their hair, shaking water out of their ears, pulling down their wetsuit and hosing off with fresh water. I sit in my corner and listen to their stories until the boat starts up. Then I go to sit on the outside stairs so I can let my hair blow and hang my tongue out in the wind.

The next stop is a shallow dive. I wait until all the divers are in the water, then I jump in, too. It doesn't take me long to realize that the snorkeling is not impressive here. Although I see fish, they are too deep for me to fully experience. It doesn't take long for me to give up on the fish and start watching the divers instead. They are just a few feet below me, moving in slow motion and hypnotizing me with their graceful movements. Some of them are off in pairs doing their own thing, and a whole group is following the dive master as he points out various creatures to them. I just float along and follow them as they circle the boat, but after a while I become bored enough to abandon the snorkeling and just climb go back on board.

After the divers get back on the boat, we head back. I go up top to sit. The dive master, seems much more cheerful now that the morning is almost done. He puts on some reggae music and cranks it up loud. Since we are on the other side of the island, he puts the boat on high speed and we are zooming past all the houses on shore. "Hey, there's our house!" says Lori, and we look for Joe on the beach. I am loving this boat ride: the wind whipping my hair all around, the whitecaps surrounding us, the birds soaring above us, the boat rocking up and down as it hits a wave. All too soon, we are back at the dock. I wait for Dave and Lori to rinse off their suits and store their gear, and then we are on our way home.

We decide to check on the perpetually closed liquor store as we drive by and it's still closed. After debating the various reasons a liquor store owner would keep his store closed, repentant alcoholic being our first choice, we arrive at the house to discover a lovely lunch being prepared by Joe, who has also done all the laundry. David, Lori and I eat like we just completed swimming the English Channel, then I take a nap while Dave and Lori go explore the island. After an uneventful afternoon, we meet up again for dinner and a rousing game of 31. Bedtime is at eight again. David was really tired.

Next: We encounter various dangers including miniature jellyfish, argumentative housemates, and heat exhaustion while hiking the bluff.

Article © Kellie Gillespie. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-07-17
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