Hey man, it’s Cayman!

This is a place that has long been on my bucket list, and I finally went. I went with my wife not as a fat-cat tourist to soak up the artificial and luxurious world of Seven-Mile beach north of George Town, but to rent an apartment in the more modest settlement of Bodden Town (formerly the capital), drive a small rental car to get us around, and eat in local restaurants, even cook food purchased from a supermarket occasionally, and occasionally – yes, occasionally – splurge on a meal in a tourist restaurant that set us back many meals in Canada.

Is this an expensive place? Yes! With a currency that gobbles up US$1.22 to each CI$, my Canadian$ was chump change. Add to that the high import taxes that makes food, drink and gas expensive, and you are looking at twice (or thrice) the price compared to an all-inclusive Cuban vacation. What do you get in return? A relatively quiet holiday devoid of mass tourism (except when the mega cruise ships dump their passengers by the tender-load in the narrow streets of George Town for the day), high quality accommodation, great snorkeling and dive facilities, good food, clean streets, the absence of poverty and crime, and a country that has hit the jackpot with its open financial services offering to the world. There are more registered companies here than people: 100,000 companies vs. 60,000 residents plus 20,000 expatriates. Tracks of land outside George Town are being sold for luxury villas and condominiums, and plenty of beachfront property is still available. The development is now spreading inward from the coast as subdivisions are opening up to cater to every type of pocket book, and one wonders when the fragile ecosystems of these islands would be adversely affected.

The island of Grand Cayman, where all the action seems to be taking place, along with sister islands Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are low lying (highest point 72 feet above sea level) limestone outcrops along the Cayman Ridge that falls off into the deep Cayman Trench (which at 25,000 feet is second only to the Mariana Trench in the Pacific), the dividing line between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. As ocean levels have fallen and risen with each expanding and contracting ice age, the Caymans have either had more land than at present or been completely submerged for several years. The islands are protected by coral reefs all around them that provide calm beaches and the opportunity for snorkeling and underwater sightseeing to observe the bountiful marine life feeding off the reefs. A tip: wear protective beach footwear if you are swimming in shallow water, for the ocean bottom is covered in corral, seaweed and shells and can be a bit rough on bare feet. For the less adventurous who prefer not to snorkel or scuba dive, there is the Atlantis Submarine ride that takes you down 100 feet below sea level to inspect the marine world hugging the wall of the Cayman Ridge.

Inland, the Mastic Trail takes you on a two-mile trek through wetlands and dry lands to observe the myriad of birds that have made Grand Cayman their domicile (50 species), or like us tourists, make it a stopover on their annual migrations between North and South America (400 species). The flora is equally interesting. I counted 30 varieties of trees, some also found in my native Sri Lanka: Indian Almond, Mango, Guava, Mahogany, Tamborine, Royal Palm and Calabash. Some plants have funny names like Headache Bush and Fever Grass (a.k.a. Lemongrass). The national tree is the Mastic Tree, after which the trail is named, and comes in two varieties: yellow and black. My guide politely advised me not to get too close to a majestic tree full of tiny apple-like fruit; it was a Manchanilla, an extremely toxic tree where even the raindrops falling off its leaves can burn one’s flesh. I looked up Manchinilla (also known as Manchineel) in Wikipedia and found that literature has used this tree quite liberally in the past, with references in Swiss Family Robinson and Madam Bovary among other classics. Given the various periods the islands have been underwater, the ground is covered in rugged and eroded limestone, with patches of red sand reputed to have blown over from volcanic eruptions in Africa. If you are uncomfortable or unfit to make the three-hour trek along the rugged Mastic Trail, then the Royal Botanical Gardens provides a similar overview, along with some large, endangered Blue Iguanas housed in captivity.

The Cayman’s share a history with Jamaica when for a long period they were an appendage of the larger Island. But when Jamaica decided to go independent in 1962, the Caymans chose to remain a protectorate of Britain. That decision to stay has proven to be a wise one, for the Cayman economy has grown since, and Jamaicans form the largest expatriate community, migrating to their smaller cousin for better job prospects. And Jerk Chicken is plentiful! Another point in common with Jamaica is the history of hurricanes that have swept the islands. Unlike Jamaica that has more land to weather the onslaught, the Cayman’s have taken harder tolls. Hurricane shelters ring the islands now and regular drills take place to prepare for the next Big One.

Despite its vulnerability to nature, from air and sea, this is a very restful place for a non-traditional break. I’m glad I did it this way without going for the packaged deal, where I got time to walk the deserted beach for miles daily, drive down to the expatriate Czech guy’s Jerk Chicken stand for a sandwich, or to the Caymanian woman’s shed on the beach for fried “catch of the day,” drink my booze bought from the local liquor store at either of those two establishments without paying corkage or having to buy drinks at inflated restaurant prices, drive off to one of many public beaches carved out from among the tourist and expatriate beachfront properties, and discover the peace to reflect and write, something that I need increasingly as I get older.

Of course, there is always an unforgettable experience on any trip. This time, it came after my wife and I stepped out of a fancy restaurant (one of those occasional splurges) that was built like a lighthouse and where the staff served you dressed in naval uniforms. I had left the lights of our rental car on (the silly things don’t knock off automatically when the engine is switched off like I am used to in Canada), and after out wining and dining, the car battery was dead. I stepped back into the restaurant for help but all the naval uniforms were busy, but a brown-skinned cook manning the pizza oven immediately smiled and said he would bring his car around with booster cables. Something in his accent made me raise my eyebrows. True to his word, he appeared in minutes in his car and got us started with one crank of the engine. I had to ask, so I boldly spoke in Sinhala and asked him whether he was from Sri Lanka. “Yes, sir!” came the beaming reply. I discovered that he was not the only Sri Lankan, there four of them in the restaurant, including the chef. “No wonder the food tasted so good, “ my wife quipped as we drove back to our apartment.

Hey man, this place may not be for every man, but it’s Cayman! And it worked for me.

Peregrinations in Gros Morne

Rocks, bogs and ponds are what come to mind when travelling the mountainous roads of this beautiful national treasure, a land that must take on desolation and danger when the winter arrives. I was in Gros Morne, partly as a writer attending a literary festival at Woody Point and partly as a tourist sampling the wares of this UNESCO World Heritage site. I’m not going to describe the geography—the tour brochures and Google do better jobs of that—but I would rather convey the impressions the land conjured for me.

For all of the jaded Newfoundlander’s claim that his Rock rightly belonged to Europe, before those conniving politicians switched it over to North America in 1949 and hitched it to a mainland he could not afford to travel to because of the atrocious cost, I immediately felt the presence of being in Canada while I was over there, more than when I was home in Ontario. The overt signs of federalism stood out: the RCMP providing policing, Parks Canada offering excellent conservation and tourism facilities, and the Trans Canada Highway stringing remote communities together. Even Air Canada flew into Deer Lake, the gateway to Gros Morne (there are no deer in Newfoundland, only caribou, but who cares!) Back in Ontario, federalism hides in a remote city called Ottawa and my view of Canada is obscured by provincial, municipal and…ahem..American flags. I explained that to my despondent Newfie chum, but he couldn’t see my point, even over a pint, or two. Proof of his patriotism came when the literary festival closed with the singing of “Ode to Newfoundland,” while “O Canada” was forgotten.

Fishing brought Europeans to this rocky island, and little communities still box on in the coves that ring the coastline, communities that surprisingly voted to join Canada (perhaps they saw the bigger picture) while the fat-cats in St. Johns opposed the move 2-1. Logging followed in the sailors’ wake to give birth to pulp and paper centres (correct that to “city”) like Corner Brook, Newfoundland’s second largest city—population 19,000. Music is very much a part of life here with guitars, accordions, banjos and fiddles providing accompaniment to strident voices that unabashedly slip in the f-word for effect. Literature is also important—poetry and memoir, in particular. I guess the creative arts provide solace and make sense of those long cold months of isolation when icy roads between towns like Trout Lake and Woody Point shut down. Ghosts and goblins are part of the scene, and every family has a tragic tale of someone lost, at sea, in an accident, or in childbirth. The sense of community is strong and I found it hard to break into the local gossip as I was the outsider from the mainland with a funny accent that didn’t trip easily off local ears. People were polite but not curious. I must have sounded like that ambitious relative who had gone “away” to earn his fortune on the distant mainland and who had now become “different.”

And so I amused myself doing the following: eating moose burgers, an animal that had been imported into Newfoundland in the 19th century and now outnumbered the native caribou—I guess caribou burgers are no longer on the menu; walking over the earth’s mantle in the Tablelands and inspecting its unique arctic alpine vegetation, while across the road a huge boreal forest grew on the earth’s proper crust; walking over a four-metre deep bog and taking a boat ride on Western Brook Pond, a former fjord turned into a fresh water lake due to the sinking of the ocean; drinking Icebergs and Black Horses—that’s Newfoundland beer, by the way; smelling manure and fish in the cove settlements, which reminded me of the rankness of life rather than of decay; listening to an overabundance of performing artists—musicians, singers, poets, playwrights and prose writers— and hoping that the cod fishing would return to similar abundance again.

And what were the images? Courage, Isolation, Loss, Endeavour, Humour, Art – the usual human smorgasbord of emotions captured in one place. Gros Morne is an acquired taste, and one I was getting quite used to by the time I came to the end of my visit, prompting the question: “Will I return?” I’ll let that question hang in the air for now.

Home – where is it?

Having lived at various times of my life in different places, I’ve often wondered where home really is. Is it where I live right now as a suburban transplant in a small town by a large lake? Is it back in Toronto or in some large city where everything is more or less the same: same stores, same entertainment, same shopping malls, same pace same anonymity? Or stretching back into the past, is it the Spartan home of an expatriate in an oil•drenched oasis, the home of a hired gun who could be sent back at any time when services are no longer required? Or even further back where it all began, in an island by the sea whose gentle waves and peaceful people later turned into killing machines? (And weren’t those gentle people fighting over whose home the island really was?)

As occupations become more temporary and transferable, as the world shrinks with globalization, as civil and climatic unrest displace populations, the concept of home is becoming a preoccupation for more people than just myself. I tried writing a novel about a man discovering home. The models I drew from were Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in which the hero, Ulysses, leaves the island of Ithaca, has many adventures abroad, and returns to drive out the usurpers of his wife and throne, and builds his nest again. But this homecoming is contrary to my personal experiences. When I returned to my old island after a 21•year absence, I drove past the old family home without recognizing it – the place had become a jumble of over•construction. So too was my former transient expat building in the Middle East: I couldn’t see the oil flares in the open desert and the planes coming into land at the airport – instead I stared at the glaring neon sign of a night club in a tall skyscraper that had landed across the street obliterating the once panoramic view. I wasn’t inspired to tarry long in these old haunts for they did not remind me of home any more, and there were no usurpers to throw out or nests to re•build either.

Then I read the old novel, Captain from Castile, and it hit me that Shellabarger’s hero, after finding that his old home in Spain has changed, heads back to the New World, where he had earlier made a fortune and forged his adult identity, to establish his new home. He has no sense of what he will find when he gets there but he pursues the dream, nevertheless. His home is in the present. This premise made more sense to me.

So, where is home? Is it a geographical place, a place in time, or a state of mind? Whatever it is, it is a human dilemma which consumes large quantities of emotion and contemplation. Wars have been waged over homelands, security forces have arisen to protect The Home Land, real•estate and mortgage industries have been formed over our desire to own a home even if we cannot afford it, and families draw battle lines when it comes to divvying up the family home due to a death or a divorce. And transplants like me float around seeking this elusive refuge, leaving a trail of blogs, novels and stories in my wake.

Christians adhere to that Gospel saying “the Kingdom of God is within you.” Could I apply that statement to the concept of home as well and say that the “Home of Man is within himself?” Therefore, there is no need for battle in the name of defending or conquering a home because it cannot be physically damaged or taken away. Like our DNA, home is a unique and personal space. I’d like to say that and end this perennial quest.

Looking Beyond

The waters are calm when looking over the ocean from the battlements of the Fort that guards the entrance of the harbour at Santiago de Cuba. Off to the right over the horizon lies Jamaica in the sun, and to the left is Haiti in its destruction, while down below, in 1898, the Spanish galleons had come out in single file, like innocent sheep, only to be sunk by American warships lying in wait outside the mouth of the harbour. This fort is a vantage point of history, recent and past, representing the beauty and horrors of life. I could not see any of this at street level. “Look beyond,” my wise teachers and mentors had told me, “and you will find vistas never seen before.” I was reminded of their words while sitting up there in those battlements.

I wrote the paragraph above while touring Santiago de Cuba with a group of Canadian writers recently. There were many such set pieces that I captured on paper in this land that seems to be frozen in time, reminding me of what life was like when I was growing up in a tropical island somewhere else in the world, where scarcities had been a fact of life, where the developed world was out there somewhere, a place impossible for us forgotten ones to get to. I remember climbing the giant Jam tree in the front yard of our family home, perching myself in its highest branches and looking out over the paddy fields, watching the planes fly overhead and wondering when it would be my turn to fly away.

Over the years, by a combination of looking beyond, being dissatisfied with the status quo, striving, and luck (isn’t luck the product of hard work?) I seemed to have swapped places with those fat•cat tourists who used to come to my island home and dole out money as if there was no end to the flow. In Cuba, this time around, it was my turn to dish out the pesos, while the locals looked on in anticipation. I wanted to tell them not to be fooled, that there was a finite end to this supply of money; that even in rich countries like Canada, bounty came from hard work, and that jobs could end with a small downslide of the stock market ticker. But what did they know about stock market tickers? All they knew was that they worked hard too, but did not have the money to show for it, so according to them, we must have some other unknown secret. It’s because of freedom and private enterprise, I wanted to say, but being a man following the Middle Way, I did not want to be a poster boy for Capitalism.

I did not know what to tell these islanders, and returned from my trip somewhat frustrated. In retrospect, I should have told them to go to a Fort•like place and look beyond, look to the sunshine and destruction in lands beyond, look at the world with all its possibilities, good and bad, and pick a spot to play, beyond one’s comfort zone. Perhaps that was the only way out beyond scarcity and insularity, the path towards growth, and towards finding breakthrough solutions beyond the “tried and true” that provide only marginal returns and keeps one like the unenlightened frog, forever circling in the slow•boiling cauldron.