Cayman Islands

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It’s the final afternoon in paradise, and I head for Hell.

Hell, it turns out, is a flash in the road near West Bay, named for a swatch of spiky, tortured, black, ironshore that looks like midday in the garden of evil. There are just a few structures in Hell: a bar named Club Infernal; the Devil’s Den novelty shop, a post office where one can send a postcard from Hell; and the fire-red barn called The Devil’s Hangout, sporting Beelzebub on the side, and the devil on a sheet of plywood in front with a circular hole where the face should be.

After I park on the brimstone pavement, a man wearing a red cape, pointed horns, a sharply trimmed goatee, and carrying a three-pronged pitchfork, bounds over with an arsenal of greetings:

“How the hell are you?” “Hell of a nice day.” and “Where the hell you from?”

From Los Angeles, City of Angels. How do you like living here?” I ask.

It’s a hell of a place.”

How’s the weather?”

Hot as Hell. But living Hell is the best revenge”

Who the hell are you?”

Turns out Satan is septuagenarian Ivan Farrington, who makes a living dishing out every hellish pun on earth. He bought the shop in 1987 when it was called, like so many other affairs in these islands, “Paradise.” But, he says, “My business went straight to Hell, so I renamed it the Devil’s Hangout.” Now he does brisk commerce selling satanic souvenirs– t-shirts with slogans such as “I took your advice and came here in a hand basket,” as well as coffee mugs, spoons, bumper stickers, whelk shells, and postcards with every mal mot conceivable.

As I pay for a bottle of Scotch bonnet-based Hell sauce Ivan pulls out his calculator and says, “I was born on July 17, 1934.” He taps the numbers ’17, 7, and 34′ into the calculator, turns it upside-down. It reads: “HELL!”

When he hands me change he snorts, “Thank you. Now get the hell out of here.”

As I depart, I realize I’m made a wrong turn, ending up on Church road. So, I make the U-Turn, and once again pass through Ivan’s infernal town, so at least I can say, with all honesty, I’ve been to Hell and back.

See video of Hell here:

So, what makes the Cayman Islands different? My undergraduate degree is in Sociology from Northwestern University, and I still pal around with sociologists, and some fret about constant e-mailers and texters losing the everyday connections to casual acquaintances or inconnus who may be sitting a touch away in the café or on the bus. That is the current dynamic in the continental U.S., in Europe, Asia and beyond; but not yet here. It could be said that we in the US are now, more than ever before, building barricades with our devices, employing screens that screen out strangers. Yes, they reinforce family and friends—we can chat and text and twitter with them more than ever—yet we are blocking the chance encounters, the random meetings, and with them the brushes against novel and unfamiliar perspectives, and the shivery flashes of insights. Cayman is different, and it disarms all who visit.

The Caymans Islands achieves a kind of correspondence between belief and place, between inner and outer landscapes, between travelers and locals, as all trace to somewhere else.

Caymanians talk to everyone. They look up at the clear sky. There is a dance to their tread. Adults become children as they swim with stingrays. Businesspeople walk to their appointments, greeting the people they see. Caymanians are connected to the sky and water and land, and, most of all, connected to one another, and to those who visit.

Wandering through the blades of sunlight along the paths of Cayman, witnessing the mastery of environmentalists and entrepreneurs, delving into the music, food, nature and culture, and basking in the welcomes of new acquaintances, I am knocked over with a feeling of being part of something deeply human and universal.

The paradox of the Cayman Islands is that it was a bleak, unwelcoming place that kept people away for much of its history; yet it became a place of gathering for modern questers, and as such, a locus for the exchange of fresh ideas, of fusions of food, song and the arts. It was once considered a Hell on earth, but it became Paradise. And it is today a milieu that transports identity and tolerance, romance and preservation; it unnerves habits and perceptions, unwinds the mind, sheds shells, and along the way leads to the loss of items not usually missed….pins and needles, taxing thoughts, and disquietude.

This is the treasure of the Cayman Islands.

 

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The hours melt away as I snorkel the brilliant reefs, hike the filigreed interior, draw figures in the sand, collect lovely shells, even paddle around the island in a leaky plastic kayak. I finish reading my one book, Explorers of the Nile, and then stare at a palm tree. I come to admit I’m bored. All these studies about how continued connectedness leads to attention deficit disorder may be true. I’m restless, and anxious. I need a fix. It’s time to get back to civilization. So, I pull out my cell, and push the on-button. But nada. It’s out of juice. I panic. But then reach deeper into my pack, pull out an Energizer portable charger, plug it into the phone, and make the call. But it goes to a robot voice saying the mailbox is full; call again later. I’m castaway on a desert island.

So, I decide to swim for it. I stash my pack and sandals, towel, hat and sunglasses, and head into shark and jellyfish waters towards the shore of Little Cayman.

I make it, and after arranging for a pick-up of my left-behind gear and electronics, head to the Edward Bodden Airfield, and catch the first flight back to Grand Cayman, and then straight to Camana Bay, the new cosmopolitan development packed with so many high-end restaurants, glam shops and luxury labels some call it Brand Cayman.

I first stop at Books & Books, carrying the kind of collections the best Borders used to offer, and pick up several new titles, in case I’m stranded on a desert island again, or a hurricane hits. I step by the sports stadium, where the Rugby team “No Woman No Try” is practicing. I stop for a delightful meal at Ortanique, a Nuevo Latina Carib-Asian eatery. And I run into Kenneth Hydes, the VP of Product and Experiences, who tells me the billion dollar development is the brain child of Kenneth Dart, heir to the Dart Container Corporation of Michigan, world’s largest manufacturer of foam cups. Kenneth gave up US Citizenship in 1994, moved to Cayman, becoming an investor, and a champion of recycling initiatives. His refined taste is represented in Camana Bay, which is more Rodeo Boulevard than Caribbean sugar shack, more Waterford and Cartier than watermelon and giclée, and it gives Cayman, already the most sophisticated stop in the region, an extra lift.

The perfumed tropic air is Sunday’s, and at the crack of noon I head out for the contrast to Camana Bay, the Grape Tree Café on the beach in Bodden Town with its locally-famous Sunday Fish Fry. This is where the islanders come, and bask in deep-fried bliss. “It humbles the stomach,” says Alex Bodden, related to the first settler on Cayman back in 1700, and who owns, with his family, the adjacent Texaco gas station and liquor store. The perfect combination platter.

The café itself is the size of breadfruit basket, and sizzling away inside are chunks of snapper, mahi, wahoo, swai, chicharrón, as well as conch fritters, plantains, cassava, and sweet potatoes, all for a fraction the price of the fusion appetizers at the resort hotels and trendier west end eateries. And outside, around thatch-roofed tables, an array of well-nourished Caymanians sit and nosh, swap stories and jokes, and generally enjoy the island life and food.

See video here:

After lunch I’m hungering for some island music, so head over to Hopscotch Studios, where the Swanky Kitchen Band is in full practice mode for an upcoming wedding performance.

It’s an incredibly energized jam—it’s music that softens rock, and could bend the ironwood tree. Between takes I chat with the electric violinist Samuel Rose, the leader. He explains that “swanky” is a Cayman word for lemonade (made with brown cane sugar), and that Cayman kitchen music represents the melting pot that is Cayman, tracing influences back to Irish fiddling and Scottish jig traditions, mixed with African slave rhythms. Then it blends in ostinatos of calypso, reggae and jazz.

In the old days the kitchen, or caboose as we call it, was the center of Caymanian homes, a detached room in the back where everyone gathered, and so it became a natural place to socialize, celebrate, dance and create music, using cassava graters and other kitchen utensils. We’ve picked up on that tradition, and are carrying it forward with our own signature.” But Samuel doesn’t want to jab too long; he wants to skank, and I’m not suffering from an overabundance of good sensations, so I step to the back of the room, pick up my feet in terpsichorean splendor, and surrender to the swank.

See video here:

A photobomb went viral recently, three women in midst of a vacation photo pose being hugged from behind by a pin-eyed stingray:

 

So, this final soft-blue morning I catch a fishing boat named Heavenly Hooker and head out to find the scene of the slime. We cruise out to a shallow bank in the North Sound, drop anchor, and beneath crystalline waters see a dozen gray-hued underwater bats, the size of pterodactyls, gracefully circulating at our stern. Captain Stacy leaps into the waist-deep brine with a bucket of smelly squid. Immediately the rays lap him, coddle him; cats to catnip. The captain motions me to join, but I’m a bit hesitant, remembering too well Steve Irwin’s untimely death by stingray barb in the Great Barrier Reef.

But what good is travel without a little fear? So, I take the leap, and though my mind is trembling on the edge of danger, the soft Portobello mushroom skin of the rays against my own is rather silky and sensuous. It is an agreeable kind of horror.

This interspecies dynamic came about some years ago when fishermen, to avoid the once mosquito infested coastlines (so bad it was, they say, the mosquitos could suck a cow to bloodless death), started cleaning their catch in this calm off-shore channel, and the Atlantic Southern stingrays gathered to nibble at the gut scraps. Soon the stingrays began to associate the sound of a boat motor with food. Now, it’s a daily ritual, and the wild rays have gone gentle, gliding about torsos, through splayed legs, planting hickies on exposed human skin while suckling for food, and wrapping wings around their guests in puppy-like hugs, all in symbiotic exchange for morsels of sea meat. “Oh, it feels good to be touched by a stingray,” beams Captain Stacey. It is undeniably, ahem, a raydiant experience.

See video here:

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From here I wind back to the western side of the island, to Lighthouse Point, to meet Nancy Easterbrook, the fire behind a critical ecological initiative in the Caribbean: Eat a fish; Save the fish.

Nancy, who is managing partner of Divetech, says in recent years the beautiful Indo-Pacific lionfish, studded with toxin-tipped spines, has found its way to the Caribbean, and is not only rapidly pro-creating (one female can produce 2 million eggs a year), but vigorously reducing the populations of native fish, insatiably gobbling up juveniles and hurting the reef habitat. It is an abundance that produces scarcity. Besides the threat of species elimination, there is a looming fiscal threat as well. Since diving the clear waters of the Cayman Islands, so vivid with their extraordinary array of marine life, is a key tourism draw, the loss of native tropical fish could send divers elsewhere, an economically devastating scenario.

How did this scourge get here? Some guess from ballast water released by freighters after passing through the Panama Canal; others believe from home aquariums in Florida, perhaps emptied during a hurricane. However they got here, they’re multiplying and devouring like zombies.

Throughout the world overfishing is a critical issue. But not here, at least when it comes to lionfish. In response to the invasion the Department of Environment offers culling courses and licenses special slings to capture and kill lionfish. Several dive companies set aside a day a week for hunting lionfish. And restaurants are buying the fish

Nassau groupers have the big mouths needed to devour lionfish. They routinely follow divers and consume lionfish speared by divers. If the grouper can learn to attack and consume lionfish without the aid of divers, then natural controls will take effect. After all, in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean lionfish populations are maintained at equilibrium by local predators, such as large groupers and reef sharks.

Nancy hands me a flier called “Cayman Sea Sense,” which outlines restaurants that are certified ocean friendly, and says I should boycott eateries that serve grouper, and instead look for places offering up lionfish, such as The Greenhouse, a new café in the neighborhood. The cook and co-owner, Jennifer Skrinska, fries up, in coconut oil, some lightly-floured lionfish, a flash in the pan we hope not…and concocts a lionfish ceviche served with homemade flatbread, which, though small in portions, is terribly tasty….and, if enough folks eat lionfish, encouraging more fishermen to clip the weed fish of the Caribbean, then the other, native fish will remain in healthy numbers. So, eat a fish, save the fish.

See video here:

After lunch I catch a Cayman Airways Express Twin Otter to Cayman Brac, 90 miles to the northeast. At 12-miles long and a mile wide, it is the second largest of the trine that make up the the Cayman Islands. I check into the Alexander Hotel, have a cold Caybrew at the bar, and head out to explore with local guide Keino Daley.

There are no inclusive resorts in Cayman Brac; no casinos; golf courses; little in the way of shopping, and just a few restaurants. But it has birds, trails, cliffs, reefs, and caves. Brac and its sister island, Little Cayman, move to the rhythms of the natural world, relics of what the Caribbean used to be.

As we slope uphill Keino says the island is named for the limestone bluff, or Brac in Scottish Gaelic, that looms at its peak at 141 feet above the sea, where sits a solar-powered lighthouse, highest structure throughout the islands.

Then we climb down a cliff overlooking Spot Bay, Keino’s hometown, and crawl into Peter’s Cave, one of 170 littoral caves on the island. Rumors persist this, and other grottoes, were used as lairs by pirates, even perhaps Captain Morgan and Blackbeard, using the dark recesses to hide their booty.

I was an active spelunker in college, and back then used a carbide lamp attached to a helmet to negotiate the stygian passages. Other times throughout the years I’ve used flashlights, headlamps, even candles and torches. But none of these illuminating accessories are with me now, so instead I tap the flashlight app on my iPhone (which is in turn attached to an Energizer charger so as not to lose juice while deep in some defile), and the dark world is alight.

Though not a deep cave, Peter’s has its share of fairy tale beauty and spelean riches. The flowstones look like melting cake icing; the cave coral like popcorn; the draperies like strips of bacon; and the Aragonite crystals like frostwork, or frozen flowers. Though no treasure be found, the long-winged bat of imagination soars here.

Back at the Alexander Hotel the manager Karen Gascoigne wants to show off her latest toy, a two-seater Wheego LiFe, the first electric car on the island, and the first offered to hotel guests in the Caribbean, she says. As we tool to a vanilla-hued beach for sundown she says the car can travel about 100 miles on a single charge (more distance than all Brac roads combined), and can reach 80 miles per hour, though she has yet to test that claim.

Karen says it is the right kind of vehicle for an eco-destination such as Brac. And it is quiet, to match the mood of the place.

Not so that night. It’s Friday, but crawling around caves is exhausting, and so after a rum cocktail and some jerk chicken at the Captain’s Table, and I take to bed early. But down by the bar it’s Cowboy karaoke open mic, and even with earplugs, the party seems to be at the end of my bed. When I was president of Outward Bound I realized, after reading countless accounts of sunsets and rainbows in the journals submitted by participants, that the organization might just be responsible for more bad poetry than any other on earth. And about 2:00 this morning I realize that the Alexander Hotel could be responsible for more bad singing than any other, at least in the Caribbean.

A blue dawn at last swallows the ink of night. I take the twin otter on a 10-minute hop to Little Cayman, the smallest of the archipelago, shaped like a 10-mile-long coral cigar. Only about 160 folks live here year round, so it’s more like a family picnic than a municipality. Nobody locks their homes, and they keep the keys in their cars.

The first sign upon walking into the closet-sized airport: “Terminal A, Gate 1,” painted by the chortling baggage boy. The next sign is on the road, “Iguanas have the right of way.” There are more iguanas than people here. More hermit crabs on the roads than people. More of almost any living native creature than people. This elongated spit hosts the largest bird sanctuary in the Caribbean, full of red-footed boobies, whistling ducks and frigates. Electricity didn’t make it here until 1990, and phone service until 1991. This is my kind of place.

I’ve decided to come here for a digital detox; to surrender to a sanctuary unplugged. But even Little Cayman seems too crowded and connected. There is even Wi-Fi.

So, I hire a little outboard boat to take me to Owen Island, a true desert island off the southern coast of Little Cayman. The isle has no lights; no electricity; no man-made structures; no men or women. Just talcum-soft white sand, driftwood, scrub and a lagoon.

But as the little boat is pulling away after dropping me off I yell to Jeremy, the driver, “When will you come back to pick me up?”

Call me when you’re ready,” he shouts over the din.

But I’m on a digital detox.” I protest as he disappears over the blue waves.

I dig into my pack, exhume my buried cell phone, and turn it on, against the self-imposed rules. There is, to my amazement, a signal. But the battery is low, so I turn the phone off and entomb it again.

See video here:

 

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Over the years I’ve caressed many of the Caribbean gems, but never a set like the Cayman Islands. An accident of geography and geology, the three coral islands, cursed with terrible soil, minimal terrestrial relief, no rivers or lakes, but a bask of crocodiles, was not settled by the Caribs, Arawaks, Tainos, or any other autochthons, by the time Christopher Columbus sailed by in 1503. The sharp, black dolomite outcroppings in some places evoked Hades rather than any sort of haven. The first recorded English visitor was Sir Francis Drake in 1586, who reported that the crocs, or caymanas, were edible, as well as the many turtles, but that note didn’t persuade immigration until around 1700, when the first recorded permanent inhabitant of the Cayman Islands, Isaac Bodden, of Welsh descent, was born on Grand Cayman. After him came pirates, refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, shipwrecked sailors, and slaves, but not many as the barren land couldn’t really support plantations or communities of consequence, as nearby Jamaica and Cuba could.

So, it grew up a place with few people. Instead the world came to Cayman, into its coves, sounds, channels, runs and bays. And that diversity of settlers may have saved it from the worn-out, overtaxed fate other islands have suffered. It became a place where everyone was from somewhere else—over 100 different nationalities are represented today— and that ripened into an ethos that invites strangers into the conversation.

The Caymans Islands float at a magical inflection point influenced by three continents, and a radiance of nearby islands. Buccaneers prowled about in search of provisions, safe harbors, and remote spots to bury doubloons. The anchored ships were in a way like bees pollinating flowers in gardens far from where they started, spreading ideas, arts and cultures over this trinity of islands. They brought different music, dance, foods, customs, crafts, beliefs, and new human constructs….the travelers and adventures found shelter and social interaction, and the seeds of multiculturalism were sown.

I take the Bird of Paradise, Cayman Airways, from Miami, a Boeing 737-300, and am delighted to find the carrier allows two free checked bags, the exception these days. It is also the only carrier I’ve ever flown that offers rum punch on the service tray. Turns out the punch is supplied by the Tortuga Rum Cake factory, started by a former pilot, Robert Hamaty, whose son, Basil, is our captain.

As we pull to the gate at Owen Roberts Airport there is a giant green iguana on the tarmac. No ordinary airport, this. No ordinary airline. There have been dozens of airlines in the Caribbean that launched and then fell into the ocean of bankruptcies. But Cayman Airways has been around since 1968, and now serves half a dozen cities in the U.S., as well as Cuba, Jamaica, Panama and Honduras.

See video here:

On the taxi ride to the Westin Casuarina, the driver, almost to the point of overprize, crows about how safe Cayman is…. “You can walk anywhere, anytime, mon. The beaches have no litter, no vendors, no hassles, no homeless, just pure sugar sand.” I live in Venice Beach, near the Google offices, and despite the home prices and wealth, there is a large indigent population, and a crime rate not to be envied. How do they do it here?

In 1966 legislation passed enabling the banking industry in the Cayman Islands, and that changed everything. The British Overseas Territory went from a sleepy backwater with scarce resources to the fifth-largest banking center in the world with trillions on deposit. Today it has branches of 40 of the world’s 50 largest banks. One five-story building in the capital George Town, The Ugland House, no bigger than a boutique hotel, houses over 18,000 corporations. Business and financial services contribute 30% of the GDP, and employ more than 20% of the labor force. The Cayman Islands has the highest per capital income in the Caribbean, no taxes, and almost no unemployment. And it has evolved into a matchlessly clean, pristine and pleasing destination for travelers.

At the northern end of Seven-Mile Beach (it clocks in at five miles and a few minutes long, but that’s the nature of Cayman….everything is a little bigger than reality), I check into the hotel and take a room where I can see the powdery sweep of sand, the tufted tops of palms soughing in the breeze, and the tourmaline waters that will somewhere to the west brush the shores of Central America.

The tumbling sun bathes the remnants of the day in gold, the norm here I’m told, and radiates romance. Barefoot couples stroll the seam between sand and water, hand-in-hand, while others sip champagne on lounge chairs as the tropic air seduces. By the reckonings of a number of sand experts, this is the most romantic beach in the Caribbean. It’s as close to living brochureware, or a set for a diamond commercial, as I’ve seen in real life. Later I chat with Joanne Brown, CEO & Creative Director of a company called Celebrations, a wedding planning company, and she says business is booming. Many folks come here, she says, and are bewitched by the beaches, the diving, the sunsets, the food and wine, and decide to return to tie the knot.

See video here:

Shuttles of birdsong nudge me awake the morning next. After a tropical fruit breakfast I drive east to Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park to see first-hand one of the most remarkable species comeback stories in modern history: the back-from-the-brink saga of the blue iguana.

Just a decade ago, the Grand Cayman blue iguana teetered on the cliff of oblivion, with only 10 to 25 left in the wild, all on this one island. Unaccustomed to predation, it fell victim to an invasion of stray dogs, feral cats and rats. Many ended up as road kill as they sunbathed on increasingly busy streets.

But as of my visit the turquoise-colored reptile has returned to promising numbers, and is no longer listed as a critically endangered species. It dodged the bullet of extinction.

With a switchblade strut that telegraphs sense of purpose, John Marotta, head warden of the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, shows me around the captive breeding facility. He says the blue iguana now has a population of about 750, and is on the path to achieving the goal of restoring 1,000 blue iguanas to Grand Cayman’s shrub lands. “If I’m successful, I’ll work myself out of a job,” John volunteers. “And I’m happy with that.”

The blue iguana is the largest native species on Grand Cayman, up to five feet in length and weighing in at more than 25 pounds (the native crocodiles were bigger, but they are all gone.) The Blue Iguana once ranged over most of the island’s coastal areas and interior dry lands, but without anyone paying attention, they almost vanished.

Blue Iguana

Blue Iguanas are beautiful, with a pimpy fashion sense, but they also have that red-eyed Godzilla look that evokes menace, and they are in fact dangerous. John has 37 stitches from various bites over the seven years he’s worked to help the coldblooded critters, as well as a dislocated thumb. But one friendly fella, Methuselah, 27-years-young, lets John hold and pet him, and even allows me to rub his spikes and scratch the back of his head. John says the charismatic nature of the blue iguanas has helped raise the monies needed to bring them back, but also has helped habitat protection, as the unglamorous scrubland that few value, but which is important from an ecological standpoint, is now being set aside and protected.

John explains the program helps give juvenile iguanas a head start by protecting them for their first two vulnerable years of life, when they are still small enough to be easy snack food. Then, with radio monitors attached, they are released into the wild.

After an hour of barely containing his feral enthusiasm for saving the blue iguanas, John excuses himself, as a school group is approaching, and he wants to direct energies to them. A dozen years ago I did a stint as president of Outward Bound, and one initiative under my watch was “expeditionary learning,” in which students participate in outdoor, hands-on education, rather than from books or lectures. “This is the way to get them involved in life-long conservation,” John echoes, and bolts off to his outdoor classroom, where the future is being written with lightning.

See Video Here: