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.

A South African Journey

I recently travelled to South Africa to research a novel. This was a journey taken 225 years earlier by a European ancestor of mine who sailed via the Cape of Good Hope for the East Indies. This ancestor never returned from the East—in those days journeys of that nature, lasting several months, were undertaken once in a lifetime, and usually performed one-way only. Today, one-way was a 16 hour non-stop flight from New York.

The first thing that struck me was that this was a developed country, if development could be measured in materially progressive signs like transportation, commerce and communications infrastructure. But on closer inspection, the country’s social fabric, a mere 20 years after the dismantling of Apartheid, is still mired in dysfunction. “Townships” remain on the outskirts of residential suburbs, and are run-down shanties in the most appalling conditions, while the “white suburbs” are opulent, sprawling and gated. Coloured communities straddle the middle ground. The new South Africa, post Mandela and de Klerk, is not going to copy its neighbour Zimbabwe and steal from the rich to give the poor, I was told; there has to be a willing buyer and a willing seller when it comes to land transfers. But with buyers without the means to buy and sellers unwilling to part with hereditary land, the impasse of inequality continues.

Political awareness is high among the locals, and no conversation ends without some reference to race. I was quite surprised when terms like “black,” “white” and “coloured” were thrown about so casually. Street protests and demonstrations were rife, be it breakaway factions of the monolithic ANC or students protesting the raising of tuition fees.

And yet, when you leave the messy people issues behind, the land is ruggedly beautiful and ever contrasting. From the stunningly scenic Cape Town and its cloudy sentinel Table Mountain, where everything began (at least for the white colonists), to the Cape Flats and its crumbling townships, to the fertile wine country in Paarl and Stellenbosch, to Hugenot country in Franschoek, to the dry Karoo with its scrub vegetation, acacia and agave, and then down and across the Eastern Cape with its giant pine and imported gum trees, the land is ridged with progressive mountain ranges, creating micro-climates within their valleys. Finally, one comes across the tallest range, the Drakensburg, that straddles two other environments: the grassy high veldt and the dry low veldt, the latter being home to the country’s famed Big Five and a myriad of lesser quadrupeds—a must-see for the avid tourist.

The complexity of South Africa came home to me in Johannesburg, the City of Gold, built on abandoned mine shafts, with splotches of gold from abandoned mines still adorning its landscape. The city’s history is littered with the carcasses of those who died from poor mine conditions, arsenic poisoning being the main killer; it’s labour history bears many travesties, among them: how mine owners reduced migrant worker wages by 50% in 1902 and kept them frozen for 60 years! The city’s core is virtually abandoned to hordes of immigrants (mostly illegal) who have forcibly occupied areas like Hillbrow, while new business districts like Sandton spring up on the periphery of this sprawling metropolis of 10 million. And yet enclaves like Houghton, covered in a blanket of purple jacaranda flowers, are islands of opulence and calm. I felt at home in Soweto, Jo-burg’s own township, a city unto itself of 3million where shanties jostled with modern haciendas replete with BMWs in their garages. Life was on display in Soweto, from street performers to open air restaurants, to “buy your own shanty” sales, to the bullet-riddled house of Nelson and Winnie Mandela that opponents used to drive by and take pot-shots at while Winnie and the children were still indoors. And there were some overlooked marks of embarrassment too: forgotten street signs of a bygone era, reading “Whites Only,” or “Coloureds Only”.

As I left South Africa with a book full of notes, I realized that Apartheid was still alive, even if only as a socio-economic reality, blighting this otherwise energetic, rich and beautiful country. I also realized that it would take many generations before that legacy is finally eradicated, if ever. It certainly will not be in my lifetime.

Standing on the Edge, Again

I recently bought a small place back in the Big Smoke. A bold move for a guy with indeterminate income who had started to get comfortable in semi•retirement, writing books and playing guitar in his small town by the lake. I will have to work again – I mean, really work – to afford it all, with a hovering recession and high unemployment that refuses to go away as my travelling companions. In exchange, I would be opened to the attractions and distractions that the city would offer: theatre, art, literary events, traffic, rent•a•bike, smog and crime. And I would stand once more at a window on the larger world of diverse and displaced people struggling to make it in their new home, just like I did, oh so many years ago.

I remember when I first “retired” from writing and moved abroad, in my early twenties, because at that time all the stories of my tender life experience had been written and I needed new fodder. I never thought that I would ever write again. I wanted to “do” not “dream.” The next 20 years of “doing” and screwing up gave me enough for a truckload of books and stories, but now that conduit too has slowed to a trickle. The time to hunt has begun again; the new harvest, or gathering, will have to follow at a later date. Life, it seems, full of new beginnings. What is the alternative? An ending? The END?

But now there are those reports of the “throwaway glass condos” springing up all over Toronto, buildings that are energy efficient yet not durable in the long term. Have I picked myself one of these lemons? Should I have stayed put in my cottage by the lake and buried my money under a mattress to escape the stock market’s never ending case of the hiccups? Am I suffering from buyer’s remorse? Am I scared of change, of the unknown? Isn’t life all about surprises? Couldn’t just the next medical check•up spring a surprise?

They say that growth happens on the edge, not in the comfort zone, and I am deliberately placing myself on the edge again I realize, hoping that it would bring me raw material for the next round of stories, whether that even includes personal loss. Unlike my last “retirement”, my life span is a lot shorter now, so I can’t afford another 20 years of “doing” before the next harvest of experiences. I am going to have to gather as I do and hope that the finished material falls into a coherent whole. Writing on the go will also help me deal with the fear of taking the plunge again.

Stepping off edges doesn’t get easier with age; on the contrary, it’s bloody scary, but exhilarating! What will I attempt next? Russian Roulette? Or bungee jumping off the CN Tower?