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November 21, 2022
"Mes de los Muertos"

Nature's Paradise: A Cayman Brac Travelogue, Part III

By Kellie Gillespie

National Tree: Silver Thatch Palm
National Bird: Grand Cayman Parrot
National Flower: Wild Banana Orchid
--From a Cayman Islands guidebook

It's on the fourth day that disaster strikes. One of us is attacked and temporarily disabled by marine life.

The morning starts innocently enough. We have our usual hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, hash browns, toast and tea, then discuss the day's activities. We have two options: snorkeling and not snorkeling. We quickly agree to snorkel in the morning and then head down to the dive shop bar for happy hour and cards in the afternoon. We assemble our equipment and walk down to the big boat launch, about four blocks down the road. After the usual slipping and sliding around the algae covered stairs, we all flop into the water and head out to the buoy, a spot the dive master had recommended the day before.

Only a few minutes have passed before David calls us. He has discovered a lobster in a shallow area under some rocks. The lobster doesn't resemble the kind we've seen in cases at our local supermarket, though. (We later learn that this was a slipper lobster.) After a brief debate on the merits of catching and eating it (David is for it, the rest against), we head out further. The fish are very active this morning and the colors even more vibrant than before. The water is crystal clear and visibility is perfect. Too bad that I have to pee really badly. I try to ignore the feeling, hoping it will go away, but it doesn't. In fact, the more I think about it, the more uncomfortable I feel. I try to concentrate on the school of fish I have found, but a shout from David makes me lift my head.

"Hey," he yells. "Come here!"

"No," I yell back. I am quite happy to stay here and watch my underwater city. There is a big chunk or coral with about a hundred fish swimming around it right underneath me.

David leaves Lori and Joe and swims closer. "We found a flying gannard," he tells me.

Oh. I really want to see a flying gannard. I gently swim over to Joe and Lori and look. At first I can't see it because it is the same color as the sandy bottom. I follow Joe's finger as it points to a big fish sitting on the ocean floor. He is bigger than the other fish, but long and slender with wings extending the length of his body. David swims down closer and suddenly the fish's wings extend out, like a bird, making him look big and scary. It's a very impressive sight and I watch for a while to see if any other predators come by to make him show his fierce wings, but none do. We decide to float alongside the shore for a while to see what else we can find.

After a few minutes I ask the others if they are feeling little pinpricks, like little stings, all over their bodies. David tells me that these are from miniature jellyfish floating on the surface of the water, and they must be stinging us as we swim by them. When I look carefully, I see small bubbles, no bigger than a dime, bobbing all around me. They don't hurt very much so we decide to continue our snorkeling, but by now, I am coming to the realization that I really have to go to the bathroom. Joe laughs at me when I confide this to him, and he advises me in a loud voice to just go in the water. David and Lori hear him and then they are laughing at me, also. I swim away from them and try to pee, but many years of being conditioned to NOT pee in various watery places, like bathtubs and swimming pools, have taken their toll and I just can't make myself go. Mission unsuccessful, I join the others. They have found another school of fish, so we watch until jellyfish stings and my full bladder mean it's time to quit for the day.

After showering and dressing, we are ready for happy hour and bar food. Lori is wearing a tank top and shorts that reveal the hives that have broken out all over her body. When I express my concern, she shrugs it off. "Just jellyfish stings," she says dismissively. I run to get the first aid kit I carefully packed and brought with me despite objections from Joe and the fact that I had to leave four books behind to make room for it. I offer her Benadryl, hydrocortisone, bandages, ibuprofen, but she will accept nothing, insisting that the hives will go away. I am doubtful they will go away. Since I can't hogtie her and force antihistamines down her throat, we head to the bar and hope that vast quantities of alcohol will heal her wounds.

The dive shop has an outside bar, and it is hot there. Really hot. So hot that we are tempted to violate the posted rules and jump in the hotel swimming pool fully dressed even though we are not hotel guests. The Happy Hour Special, five bottles of Corona for $10 (C.I.), helps lower our internal temperature a bit, but not enough. We order masses of bar food at exorbitant prices, wings, French fries, fried zucchini, but this only serves to make us full, hot, and sweaty. We have a little chat with the bartender, an ex-pat named Mike, who came to Cayman Brac from California for a vacation and met a girl from Guatemala. He says it's very expensive to live here, but his wife receives care packages from her family and they get a break on their rent. He is quite friendly and brings us shots of tequila on a regular basis.

After a couple rounds of 31, we are too hot and tired for any more outside activities. Even though we had intended to drink and play cards until the dinner buffet was served, we decide to drive back home and have a little nap before returning at six. After a brief intoxication check, Lori deemed the only one sober enough to drive on the wrong side of the road and we head back to the house, chanting, "Tighty Lefty, Widey Righty," every time she makes a turn. David wants to check out the perpetually closed liquor store, so Lori makes an illegal U-turn, making me scream even though there are no other cars on the road, and we pull up to the store. It is still closed. Lori swings the car around and heads home while we discuss how locals can make any money owning businesses on this island, speculating that the liquor store owner must only work 11 to noon every day and that's why we keep missing him. We pass a road sign and everyone yells, "Reduce Speed Now," including Lori. It's a good thing there is no traffic on this road.

The rest of the day passes uneventfully. The dinner buffet is expensive at $30 each (C.I..) and rather mediocre. We enjoy watching people and pointing out the divers from the previous day's trip to Joe, but the day has taken a toll and we are tired even after our naps. The sunset is full of orange and indigo as we drive home. The liquor store is still closed.

*************

Underwater Life We've Seen; or, The Snorkeling Poem

Foureye butterfish
Spoffin butterflyfish
Blue tang
Stoplight parrotfish
Fairy basslet
Cowfish
Squirrelfish
Southern stingray
Bluehead wrasse
Flying gannard
Long-spined urchin
Conch
Slipper lobster
Elkhorn coral
Common sea fan
Nurse shark
Great barracuda

********

Lori wakes up the next morning still covered in welts. Although the rest of us were also stung, we have no residual marks from the jellyfish. Lori is obviously experiencing an allergic reaction. Dr. Kellie prescribes Benadryl and hydrocortisone, but the patient is not cooperative. She hates taking Benadryl, says it makes her sleepy, and she has applied a different ointment to her angry blisters. Now they are itching her as well, so she opts out of snorkeling this morning. Indeed, after seeing Lori's condition, the rest of us opt out of snorkeling this morning as well, so instead we spend a lazy morning on the beach reading our books and drinking Sea Dreams Punch. Lori claims alcohol stops the itching, so we make sure to bring her plenty of refills. I am quite happy to walk along the iron shore and collect shells and rocks. Sometimes I find a perfect piece of beach glass, rolled smooth by the waves, and add it to my collection. When I return with my arms full, Joe asks me if I plan to carry my own rocks home. "Of course not, silly," I answer. "That's your job." And I give him a big smile.

George, the owner of our house, stops by to chat. We have had several interesting chats with George, who loves to talk. His family has been on Cayman Brac since the 1800s, and he owns several pieces of property in addition to this one. We have learned that George met his wife, Lynne, when he was in the U.S. armed forces. She is a U.S. citizen. They married and attended school in the states, then came back to the islands when George retired from the service. They have one son who lives in Canada. Lynne works on Grand Cayman and comes home on the weekends. This morning, George has come by to warn us about Sundays on Cayman Brac. Everything shuts down, he tells us, so don't try to go anywhere or do anything. Like we needed any excuse, we snort. We assure George that we have plenty of food, lots of beer, and only lack some kind medical device to attach to Lori so she will quit scratching. George takes one look at her and knows what to do.

"Urine," he says.

"Urine?" Lori repeats.

"That's what de locals do," George tells her. "Put urine on da sores and they go away."

David perks up at this. "Want me to pee on you?" he asks hopefully.

"NO!" Lori and I say. I am horrified by the thought. Joe is of the opinion that it can't hurt. David just wants to pee on someone.

George changes the subject by asking if anyone wants to look at his temple. Behind our house is a small synagogue that George built as an anniversary present to Lynne. I look at David and he has a guilty expression on his face. The other night, when George and Lynne and another couple visited the temple, David wanted to see what they were doing in there. He waited until they went inside, then tiptoed around to the back and peeked in a window. He rushed back to report that all he saw was someone's leg. Music was playing, he said. And what's more, he thinks that someone inside noticed him trying to peer in, so he ran back and took up a lounging position on the couch as if he had been there all along. He and I took George up on his offer.

As we made our way to the temple, George explains that he mostly uses it as a meditation place. There are a few Jews on the island who meet periodically for a Friday night service, but usually the temple serves as an informal place of worship. It is very quiet and peaceful inside. Italian tile is on the floor and about six padded benches inside. George carefully takes the Ark of the Covenant out of its special place and explains what it is. He also shows us his multi-volume set of the Talmud. Since it is very hot in the temple, we don't stay long, but I can tell it makes George happy to show it to us.

After a rather large dinner, we play cards again, but a spirited disagreement puts a damper on the evening. Dave and I are enjoying our usual banter when he makes a statement that rubs me the wrong way. This statement is, in my opinion, ignorant, racist and hateful, and I gently remind him that the minority group he is disparaging has a long history of being persecuted in this country and maybe he should be a little more tolerant. To which he answers that he is much older and wiser than I am and perhaps I should bow to his superior knowledge and intelligence in this matter. To which I tell him to go join a white supremacy group if he feels that way and, furthermore, I am quite surprised to discover he is such a racist pig. As the discussion deteriorates from this point on, I will refrain from any further documentation except to say that I behaved perfectly and never allowed myself to lose my temper or say anything I later regretted. Even if he was totally wrong.

********

By the next morning, Lori is one big red itchy welt. She looks miserable but does not complain until David offers to help her out by peeing on her. Our plan for the morning is to explore the island, but we delay our trip by first stopping at the grocery store for some chamomile lotion. By the time Lori has it applied to her stings, which multiply every time I look at her, she looks like a giant pink itchy welt. She insists that we keep our exploring plans, so David gets behind the wheel and we head towards the other side of the island.

According to the map, the only way to get to the famous island lighthouse is by hiking a trail that starts at Peter's Cave and continues on top of the island, where the bluff is. It is easy enough to find Peter's Cave; a sign on the main road directs us to follow a side street that dead-ends behind some houses surrounded with apricot and peach trees. There is a path with a sign, pointing up, so we grab hold of the handrails and start climbing. Just as I am getting ready for a good workout, we reach the open mouth of the cave and cautiously enter.

I am worried about bats. Needlessly, it turns out, because I don't see any trace of bat habitation anywhere. No hanging bundles from the ceiling, no guano on the ground, nothing swooping at me. I breathe a sigh of relief and look around. It is quite a large cave, used by the locals in years past as a shelter from hurricanes. We take a few pictures and then go back outside. The path extends higher and Lori thinks this is the way to the lighthouse. We start climbing and reach the summit after a few minutes. The view is spectacular from up here. We take advantage of the photo opportunity, then see a sign with an arrow: Lighthouse, Thataway.

"Just how far is this lighthouse?" I ask after we've been walking for about twenty minutes. After going uphill a few feet, the path has widened into a road of sorts, mostly grassy with some rocks scattered around.

"I don't know," answers Joe, "but I kinda wish we hadn't left the water in the car. I'm getting thirsty."

"Yeah, me, too," I say.

Lori turns around. "It's about two and a half miles to the lighthouse," she says.

Joe and I look at each other in alarm. Two and a half miles? The temperature is way above hot, we are both red in the face and sweating, and we have no water. This could get tricky.

About thirty minutes later we are on top of the bluff. The path has widened even more and is very rocky. We have had to slow down our pace to pick our way carefully through the rocks so that we don't turn an ankle. There is no longer any shade; the sun is hotter than ever. It looks like a deserted island up here. There are palm trees and lots of foliage to the right of the path and a shear drop off on our left. We have seen a sign that identifies the big white birds to be boobies. The small brown ones are baby boobies. Being the mature world travelers we are, we have to say "baby booby" over and over while laughing idiotically. The heat is probably affecting our brain.

Walking, walking, walking. I can't wait to see this spectacular island lighthouse. I can't wait to see this magnificent lighthouse that served the island people so well these past hundred years or so, this beacon of light that guided many a vessel past the dangerous reefs and rocky shores. I love lighthouses and have made it a point to visit them whenever and wherever I could. I have seen the lighthouses at Cape May, New Jersey, and Point Loma, California. I have even made a wall hanging with a lighthouse on it, so I consider myself a true lighthouse aficionado. Words cannot describe how eager I am to discover this glorious local treasure, to gaze upward at its historic beauty, to breathe deeply its moldy aroma. I have read the literature. I know that the lighthouse isn't in service any more and, furthermore, has not been in service for several years, yet I am so tired and weary of walking that I'd better see that damn lighthouse around the next bend in the road.

Lori and I reach it first. Dave and Joe are taking pictures of each other pretending to jump off the bluff so they miss the climactic moment when we turn the corner and see... a wimpy tower-like thing about 20 feet high. We look at each other. This is a lighthouse? It's not even a building! It's smaller than a radio tower, dinkier than a telecommunications post, shorter than the roof of my house. Dave and Joe come around the corner and stop in surprise.

"This is the lighthouse?" asks Joe.

I am feeling hot, tired and grumpy. "Well, I don't see anything else around here, do you?"

He reaches up and grabs onto one of the bars. "We could maybe climb it."

Lori tells him that he could climb up but it's a long drop to come down, so Joe gives up that idea. Then he tries to get me to stand by it for a picture. I refuse. I am so disappointed and angry that I cannot smile for the camera. I feel deceived. And tired.

We sit on a decrepit picnic bench to rest and gripe. Joe proposes we return via a different route. He was looking at the map (which we left in the car with the water) and noticed a road that went up to the "lighthouse." We decide to try it in the hope it might be a shorter way. By now the sun is almost straight above us and it is hotter than ever, so we need to get going. Lori and I set a fast pace and soon we are all breathing hard as we trudge along the paved road. At least we are bypassing the rocky path that was so difficult on the way up to the bluff.

It is very lush with vegetation on the bluff but most of the trees provide little shade. It doesn't take long for me to start feeling the beginning effects of heat exhaustion and dehydration. I am disoriented, lethargic and dizzy. We stop at each bit of shade we find to rest, but after walking just a few steps in the sun, I am feeling weak and shaky again. After what seems like hours but was probably only forty minutes, we come to the narrow path and follow it down to the cave entrance. The trail is very steep here and I pick my steps carefully. I am normally very klutzy, but in this condition I am even more vulnerable to falling.

We sit on the bottom step, totally exhausted, and rest until David manages to get to the car and bring us some water. I can't get over the fact that we are all experienced desert hikers and yet we forgot to bring the proper supplies for a long hike. Joe starts the car and turns the air conditioner on full blast. We pile in, and since none of us feels like fixing lunch, we drive straight to our favorite grocery store where a little deli has set up shop. We all order huge sandwiches and giant sodas, sit at one of the little tables, and devour them. Lori takes advantage of our stop to browse the shelves and buy every product she can find to relieve itching. Then we head home for showers and a well-deserved nap.

Next: I am attacked by a killer bat, we discover the local library, and we meet the owner of the Perpetually Closed Liquor Store.

Article © Kellie Gillespie. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-07-24
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